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We are three weeks (well, 20 days) away from the thing that each year, no matter what I do, I can’t take my attention away from – The Academy Awards. Each year in early January (used to be February), I hoot and howl about how the Academy has gotten it wrong with who they’ve chosen for the nominees for the best film has to offer for the previous year. “How can this happen year-in and and year-out?”, I ask myself. Well, I sometimes need a gentle reminder that Hollywood is a self-perpetuating machine whose vanity knows no bounds and that the studios need to raise the profile of their films in order to make even more money so the whole their whole operations stays afloat to offset the 987,368 teenagers, college students and tech savvy webheads who just illegally pirated versions of all of the Oscar fare as I wrote this.  Also, what would all of those MBAs with no idea what creativity and art are do without being responsible for and ruining some of the major pieces of our culture, right? Puh-leese.

I am routinely reamed by those in my circle of friends and family for passing judgement on movies I haven’t seen or books I haven’t read. However, I don’t think it takes Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the Twilight series of books are pure shit and that the film adaptations are just a condensed, distilled version of the same shit. So convict me in the highest court of that crime. That many of the Academy voters have expressed themselves that they rarely see most of the movies nominated for the awards each year, how are we to take what their votes say as anything other than biased or even bought (Harvey Weinstein, what say you?). I recall watching the Oscars in 2001 when Lynn Redgrave was interviewed going into the ceremony and she said that the only film she had seen of those nominated for that year was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonthe fabulous Ang Lee martial-arts epic, so she voted for it. Great taste, as it was undoubtedly my favorite film of the year next to Jonathan Glazer’s insane Sexy Beast; however, it pretty much sums up the Academy Awards in a nutshell. They are mostly a vanity project and by no means an accurate representation of what is the best in filmmaking. If that were the case, Dances with Wolves would never have beaten Goodfellas for anything at the 1991 Awards.

I could go on and on and on about this, so I will spare anyone reading this that diatribe. Now, mind you – I did not see every film released this year and as of yet, I still have not seen three films nominated for Best Picture (Amour, Life of Pi and Les Misérables), so this list will only cover the films that I HAVE seen. So, after careful review, here are what I think the major category nominees should have been this year with whom I perceive should be the winners:

Best Picture

masterBeasts of the Southern Wild
Cosmopolis
Holy Motors
How to Survive a Plague
Looper
Moonrise Kingdom
Searching for Sugar Man
The Master* (winner)
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Zero Dark Thirty

In all, 2012 had some very interesting films. I think it continued the rise of the documentary, which as a storytelling platform gets stronger in content and creativity each year. Two, How to Survive a Plague and Searching for Sugar Man, even made it into my top ten films of the year and there could have easily been one or two more sneak in. Unfortunately, I have not been able to see Amour. Something tells me it would have made this list as well. Beasts of the Southern Wild was simply amazing. With this as a first effort, I expect to see great things from director Benh Zeitlin in the future. His collaboration with cinematographer Ben Richardson is one I hope continues on for years. Without a doubt this was the best photographed film I saw all year. David Cronenberg‘s adaptation of Don DeLillo‘s novel Cosmopolis was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the year. DeLillo is my favorite novelist and his works seemdifficult to translate to the big screen, so I was very skeptical. Cronenberg‘s script captured the DeLillian dialogue very well and dare I say this, Robert Pattinson was adequate in delivering the cadences of DeLillo’s words. I need a shower after that. Holy Motors is the year’s most insane trip and you can read my synopsis of it here. Director Rian Johnson brought Looper (his first film since 2008’s The Brothers Bloom), a futuristic time-travel noir, to the big screen and didn’t disappoint. Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s prosthetic nose and smirk made him a dead ringer for a younger Bruce Willis. I finally got to see Zero Dark Thirty and was mesmerized. Jessica Chastain is exceedingly good and ZDT proves to be another fabulous Kathryn Bigelow/Mark Boal collaboration. As always, Wes Anderson packs on the quirk in the tale of young love in his Moonrise Kingdom. Never disappointing, Anderson delivers another fun romp with the help of his ensemble cast of Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jared Gilman, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Kara Heyward. The Master is the film I believe is the best of the year. Its portrayal of the tumultuous (let the cliches roll…) relationship between eternal fuck-up Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and religious (cult) leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is grand in scale and chronicled exquisitely by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Performances from the three major players – Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams – are as good as any you’ll see.

Best Director

PTA master on setPaul Thomas Anderson –  The Master * (winner)
Kathryn BigelowZero Dark Thirty
Leos CaraxHoly Motors
Lynne RamseyWe Need to Talk About Kevin
Benh ZeitlinBeasts of the Southern Wild

This category is always difficult for me to say who’s best. One thing I can say for sure is that Steven Spielberg is wholly undeserving of this award and I firmly believe he will take home his third Oscar for Lincoln, one of the most overblown films in recent memory. Anderson gets better with every movie and The Master is no exception. His ability to frame the relationship between the film’s two main characters in such a compelling way earns him this award. He probably deserved the Oscar for There Will Be Blood and he certainly deserved it for Magnolia, which I think was the best film of the first decade of the 2000s. The other four directors in this category are all deserving and created amazing films. Lynne Ramsey has made three of the most dark, original, and incredibly visceral films I’ve ever seen. Morvern Callar may be my favorite of them, but this year’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is one to be reckoned with, and is especially pertinent since the Newtown shootings this past December and the onging talk of gun control since Columbine.

Best Actor

denis lavant - hmDenis LevantHoly Motors* (winner)
Daniel Day-LewisLincoln
Tom HardyLawless
Joaquin PhoenixThe Master
Brad PittKilling Them Softly

As much as I love Daniel Day-Lewis and his performance in the uneven at best LincolnDenis Lavant‘s virtuosic performance in Holy Motors moved me the most this year. In what covers nine different scenarios in the film, Lavant literally transforms himself from beggar to deviant troll, from a dying man to a motion-capture artist among other roles. Rare is a performance that sticks with me for days after watching it. This one did. I doubt you’ll ever see anything else like it. Tom Hardy continues to amaze me in each new role in which I see him. His performance in Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Bronson is one to study for all you up-and-coming actors. His most notable role of the year as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises was certainly enjoyable as well. Brad Pitt reunited with The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik for a talky hitman pic reminiscent of Stephen FrearsThe Hit delivering a gritty performace as Jackie Cogan. Phoenix returns to the form of his pre-I’m Still Here days matching Philip Seymour Hoffman scene-for-scene in The Master.

Best Actress

qw - beasts-southern-wildJessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer LawrenceSilver Linings Playbook
Tilda Swinton
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Quvenzhané Wallis –
Beasts of the Southern Wild* (winner)
Rachel WeiszThe Deep Blue Sea

This may have been the most difficult choice of all of them. Swinton and Weisz both deliver haunting performances in their respective roles. Chastain is amazing as well. I think she is the most watchable actress working today because she can even make her role in something as bad as The Help enjoyable. Jennifer Lawrence has a quality that makes me always want to see more of what she can do. I really liked her in this role. But, for my money, Quvenzhané Wallis was undoubtedly the best of the bunch. Not even 9-years old when Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed, she explodes on the screen from the outset of the film. Her portrayal of Hushpuppy is nuanced and has a depth one might never imagine an 8-year is capable of displaying. I was completely entranced by her. I sincerely hope that if she continues acting that she is able to maintain the power that she put into this film. If so – watch out, Meryl Streep. Without a doubt, the best performance by a child that I’ve ever seen.

Best Supporting Actor

7p_09436_rGarrett Hedlund On the Road
Dwight HenryBeasts of the Southern Wild
Philip Seymour HoffmanThe Master
Christoph Waltz Django Unchained
Sam Rockwell Seven Psychopaths* (winner)

I think this was the strongest category in terms of great performances for the year. Obviously, only two of mine match up with the Academy’s choices, the three excluded – Alan Arkin in Argo, Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, and Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook – were relatively safe choices for the actors who had similar performances in prior roles that I just don’t think stood out. Garrett Hedlund delivered the most surprising performance as Dean Moriarty in the screen version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. A firecracker, he really captured the energy of Dean from the novel. I was very impressed. Christoph Waltz was great again for Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained. They obviously work well together as Waltz took home the Oscar for their last collaboration in Inglourious Basterds. Dwight Henry was just phenomenal as the sick father to Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I’m curious to see if he’ll get any more juicy roles like this one in the future. Hoffman is steady and measured in The Master, the perfect counterpoint to Phoenix‘s forceful mood swings. However, I think Sam Rockwell, one of the most underrated actors working, stole the show in Seven Psychopaths. He’s funny, frustrating, and crazy all while driving the action of the film. Just top-notch. Rockwell‘s been doing it this way ever since 1998’s Safe Men. He might be the most fun actor to watch.

Best Supporting Actress

adams-masterAmy AdamsThe Master* (winner)
Kara HaywardMoonrise Kingdom
Ann Dowd Compliance
Edith ScobHoly Motors
Juno TempleKiller Joe

These performances really run the gamut of roles and are no less interesting than many of the lead actress roles. Kara Heyward is so delightfully rebellious in Moonrise Kingdommaking me wish I was as cool as Suzy Bishop at any part of my life. Ann Dowd brings in the most frustrating performance of the year in Compliance as the fast food manager who allowed a female employee to be strip- and body-cavity searched as well as sexually assaulted by her fiancee because of someone prank calling acting a police officer. Edith Scob‘s angelic counterpart to Denis Lavant‘s many incarnations in Holy Motors was a true pleasure to watch. Juno Temple‘s turn as Dottie in the deliciously perverse Killer Joe nearly won me over. I have loved her in everything I’ve seen her in, from Kaboom to Cracks. But, alas, Amy Adams‘ performance as the hard-as-nails wife of Lancaster Dodd in The Master won out. No matter what the role, Ms. Adams brings a fire that is unparalleled. Her exchanges with Freddie throughout the film are extremely tense and delivered flawlessly. You might not think the woman who played the lead in The Muppets and Enchanted would be capable of such ferocity…unless you saw The Fighter.

Best Documentary Feature

ht surviveAi Weiwei: Never Sorry
Chasing Ice
How to Survive a Plague* (winner)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Searching for Sugar Man
The Imposter

As I said above, documentaries just keep getting better and more interesting. There were so many good ones this year, I couldn’t narrow it to five, and had trouble limiting it to six. Those listed above explore the following subjects: a Chinese dissident artist at odds with the Communist government (see review here), a nature photographer chronicling the effects of climate change/global warming on the glaciers of Greenland, Iceland and the US, the fight for AIDS activists to get access to proper medication to stave off the epidemic that rages so rampant in the 80s and 90s, the tale of Japan’s finest sushi chef, two South Africans’ search for a lost American musician who despite being a star of Elvis proportion in their home country was never known here in the US and the story of a young French man who assumed the identity of a missing Texas 13-year old.  Whew! Each of these films have far reaching cultural or social implications, but none of them in their scope, importance or depth measured what David France‘s How to Survive a Plague captured. Chronicling one of the most important chapters in the US’s recent history, France shows us the group of courageous activists who fought for AIDS rights, especially to essential medical care, and saved thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. I can’t speak highly enough of this film.

Best Original Screenplay

THE-MASTER-POSTERHoly Motors – Leos Carax
Looper Rian Johnson
The MasterPaul Thomas Anderson* (winner)
Moonrise KingdomWes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty– Mark Boal

What’s original? What makes a script good? This is an argument movie execs and filmgoers squabble over all the time. Who’s right? Eye of the beholder, I guess. These five films represent the best of what little that’s original that gets made in Hollywood. As I’ve said, The Master, in my eyes is the best film from top to bottom. I could hardly not say it has the best script and I believe it does. PT Anderson has written the scripts to all of his films and he has gotten better with each one. Subjects and characters vary widely in his films and that’s why I think he’s so successful – he concentrates in no one particular area and he fleshes out beautiful characters (even if their beauty lies in their evil) and places those characters in scenarios that fit them. He is at the top of his form in all disciplines of the game. That’s not to say the other scripts are any less good. I connected well with The Master and it stuck with me ever since. I think Holy Motors is just as challenging of a film as The Master, but it didn’t hit me on the same level. I’m such a fan of Rian Johnson‘s work and Looper is a worthy addition to his oeuvre. Brick remains one of my favorite films. Johnson just brings extra to the table when he writes. He should have a long, interesting career ahead of him.

Best Adapted Screenplay

botsw - posterArgoChris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern WildLucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin* (winner)
CosmopolisDavid Cronenberg
FrankenweenieJohn August
Silver Linings PlaybookDavid O. Russell

One thing most people might notice here is that Tony Kushner is absent from this list for his script for Lincoln. Two reasons why that is, even though it is an evocative, colorful script – first, the pontificating speeches made by every character in the film no matter what the situation bored me. Was everything that folks said at that time really worthy of being in the speech Hall of Fame? Secondly, if you write an ending that bad, you are disqualified. If Spielberg or a studio exec are responsible for either, let me know and I will gladly add you to the list. Even though I know the Oscar will go to Kushner or Terrio, I just don’t see how anyone could watch Beasts of the Southern Wild (see my review here) and not shout out in amazement at what they had just seen when compared to any of the other films nominated by Oscar or even by me. The arc of Hushpuppy, her father and the residents of the Bathtub is crisp with pertinent deviations that add layers to the story. It is an amazing film worthy of any award. David O. Russell continues to surprise me as he makes more and more conventional films as he gets older. His last two, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook are a far cry from his earlier fare like the subversive Spanking the Monkey and the existential I Heart Huckabees.

Best Cinematography

botswCaroline ChampetierHoly Motors
Mihai Malamaire, Jr.The Master
Jeff OrlowskiChasing Ice
Ben RichardsonBeasts of the Southern Wild* (winner)
Gökhan TiryakiOnce Upon a Time in Anatolia

There were some really gorgeous films this year and each of the above had cinematography that didn’t just capture what was happening on camera, but played a vital role in the story being told. None did so more than Ben Richardson‘s work on Beasts of the Southern Wild, although Gökhan Tiryaki‘s work on Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was mesmerizing and haunting. I was blown away by both. I know documentary films never get a nod in this category, but how can one watch Chasing Ice and not applaud the effort by Jeff Orlowski? What Caroline Champetier was able to achieve in the shifting tones and scenes of Holy Motors was nothing short of Herculean. PT Anderson‘s films are such visual feasts, full of camera moves and interesting angle, Mihai Malamaire‘s efforts on The Master are as commendable as any above. I will say this: never in a million years did I think two of my top ten films of the year would have Bruce Willis in them. That’s why I love film – you never expect what you’re going to get.

As I said before, 2012 was a great year for film, especially if you stepped outside the wide releases each week and poked around for something a little different. It’s out there people. Challenge yourself. You might just enjoy it.

2013 looks to be an amazing year as we have the following new films coming: Errol Morris’ documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, the Coen Brothers’ folk rock film Inside Llewyn Davis, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, Chan Wook Park‘s english-language debut StokerRidley Scott‘s The Counselor – a realization of a Cormac McCarthy original script, Jim Jarmusch‘s vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive, the new Ryan Gosling/Nicolas Winding Refn collaboration Only God Forgives and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder among many others.