Emory experts pick best films of 2012

By Beverly Clark | Emory Report | Dec. 20, 2012

Emory's experts talk about the year's best films.

The cinephiles in Emory's Department of Film and Media Studies have singled out their picks for the best movies of 2012, including blockbusters and overlooked gems. Picks are mainly based on films available to Atlanta moviegoers as of Dec. 19. Many of these flicks are still in theaters, and some will be available soon for streaming online or DVD. 

Matthew H. Bernstein, chairman of film and media studies, says many film critics, such as the New Yorker's David Denby (who published "Do the Movies Have a Future" this year), lament the growing divide between mainstream commercial fare and compelling cinematic art. 

"Critics like Denby may be proven prophetic that movies as we know them will die, at least as far as movies shown in movie theaters go," says Bernstein. "But, people are always going to want to watch movies even if the platform is a small screen. Plus, the evidence of the films on offer this year, and especially since the summer, show that great films are still being made in Hollywood and elsewhere. We've tried to highlight a few that people should definitely make the effort to see."

The expert faculty members and movie raters include professors Tanine Allison, Matthew H. Bernstein, William Brown, Eddy Von Mueller, Karla Oeler, Daniel Reynolds, Michele Schreiber and James Steffen.

Argo

Ben Affleck's directorial career began to eclipse his acting with his critically acclaimed film "The Town" (2010).  With "Argo," however, Affleck steps into the big leagues with a smart, tense film based on real, so-crazy-it-must-be-true events from the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

Argo follows the attempts of CIA operative Tony Mendez (also played by Affleck) to extract six American embassy employees hiding out in Iran by masquerading as the producer of a fanciful science-fiction epic titled "Argo." The film includes plenty of cracks not only at the CIA but also Hollywood, particularly as it is personified in two film industry insiders (Alan Arkin and John Goodman) who moonlight as CIA collaborators.

The real brilliance of the film is to keep you on the edge of your seat as you watch the group try to elude mobs of protestors in images reminiscent of current events in the Middle East.  While it does sacrifice historical accuracy for this well-plotted pacing, Argo does provide a very satisfying piece of Hollywood entertainment.

-- Tanine Allison

The Avengers

Disney may have stepped on a $160-million rake with "John Carter," but they knew what they were doing when they acquired Marvel Productions.  The comic-book giant turned film franchise factory hit pay dirt with their long-anticipated ensemble adventure.

"The Avengers" raked in over $1.5 billion worldwide, the biggest box-office haul ever, and it earns every nickel. Unencumbered by the overwrought gravitas and droning self-importance that so shackled "The Dark Knight Rises," "Avengers" is witty, fast and dishes out in abundance what has become a scarce commodity in many tent-pole pictures: fun.

True, The Avengers may not be art, and it certainly isn’t perfect – Joss Whedon, bless his chatty, fan-boy heart, can't put together a coherent fight scene, character development is largely absent, and there are pinball machines with tighter plots - but like it or not, the comic-book superhero film is a significant part of contemporary commercial cinema, and this is hands down the best of its kind that Hollywood has produced since Superman II.  Maybe the best ever.

-- Eddy Von Mueller

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild, with its oddly optimistic tone, both complicates and re-affirms Tolstoy's famous observation that all happy families resemble each other and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Hushpuppy is a Shirley Temple in hell who lives with a barely functioning father on the wrong side of a Louisiana levee. First-time director Benh Zeitlin shows us this life of joy and hurt through the eyes of a 6-year-old.

It is a world of zydeco music and fireworks, beasts freed by the melting ice caps, and rising tides and fierce storms. This film manages to be mythic, poetic, Southern gothic, apocalyptic and surreal simultaneously. All bad films, unlike unhappy families, are bad in the same way, but transcendent films are great in their own way. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" finds its own way to be what is all too rare in filmmaking -- a genuine work of cinematic poetry. 

-- William Brown

Lincoln

The other amendments must all be jealous of "Lincoln," an epic constitutional bio-pic, that tells the story of the 16th president’s push for the 13th-amendment, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, in early 1865.

Spielberg's direction gives us legislative action that is more redolent of Hollywood than history, but Kushner's scenario is a brilliant, provoking way to frame the story and Daniel Day-Lewis's performance is so convincing that we can't quite remember, as we leave the theater, which great man we're in awe of – the president or the actor. 

-- Karla Oeler

Margaret

Kenneth Lonergan's almost-unreleased, rarely-seen follow-up to "You Can Count On Me" has a plot structure similar to Gus van Sant’s "Paranoid Park" (2007): a teenager (here, Anna Paquin) must come to terms with a horrific event in which she’s morally implicated. Lonergan’s film is also about so much more – 9/11, encountering and acknowledging difference, our uneasy interaction with art.

With an all-too-unusual mother-daughter relationship at its dramatic center, this film tells a new kind of New York story, and rewards its talented actors with a screenplay worthy of Tolstoy. Other cast members include Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick (who takes one of the most expressive sips of orange juice ever caught on film).

The two-disc DVD offers the 150-minute theatrical cut and a 186-minute extended version, both of which are absorbing because of Lonergan's particular, memorable tempo and his lyrical, droll, realist style. 

-- Karla Oeler

The Master

"The Master" is a saturated movie, in many senses of the word. Hollywood's first feature to be shot in the 65-millimeter format since 1996, it offers a saturation of color and visual detail that may never again be seen from photographic cinema. It is also saturated by a dramatic potency we've come to expect from director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Like Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" (2007), "The Master" depicts a face-off between a headstrong misfit and a corrupt religious authority in which the personal conflict becomes an existential struggle. Based on the founding of Scientology, "The Master" is both the loosest and the most intense of Anderson's recent films.

The director's increasingly sure hand allows the central performances, by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, room to breathe and the film becomes a study in acting styles, with Phoenix focusing inward while Hoffman flirts with hamminess. Although the narrative stakes are in fact quite low, the film is saturated by an intensity of tone that – amazingly – never feels forced.

-- Daniel Reynolds

Zero Dark Thirty

This hard hitting docudrama about the effort to locate and assassinate Osama Bin Laden in the wake of 9/11 shows screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow—who brought us "The Hurt Locker" in 2008 – at the top of their form.

This is the rare action thriller that registers unflinchingly and immediately the nature of torture – in this case as used in CIA interrogations (an aspect of the film that has aroused claims of inaccuracy and political incorrectness) and provides its audience with a sense of the seemingly unending search down blind alleys for connections to the target.

While the entire film, and especially its final 25-minute sequence, will quicken your pulse, "Zero Dark Thirty," not unlike Steven Spielberg’s 2005 MUNICH, carefully registers the costs of an unrelenting thirst for vengeance.

-- Matthew H. Bernstein

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This movie has appeal for anyone who is, or was once, a teenager. Directed with impressive skill by first-timer Stephen Chbosky, who also adapted the screenplay from his own novel, Perks travels on familiar teen film terrain in its endearing portrait of the solace that odd-ball and misunderstood teenagers find in each other.

What makes this film special are the nuanced and understated performances of the three main actors – Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller. It also has an irresistible aura of nostalgia for a time­ – here the early 1990s – before one could easily Google or Shazam a song name (the David Bowie song "Heroes" serves as the group’s anthem, but they can’t identify it), when one had to call someone on a land line instead of texting them, and when mix-tapes were a coveted item.

For anyone who shares that nostalgia, and happens to have enjoyed a Smiths song now and again, this film is an absolute gem.

-- Michele Schreiber

Prometheus

With the highly anticipated "Prometheus," director Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise he began in 1979. Earlier, a slew of sequels (and the unfortunate Alien vs. Predator films) all but exhausted the xenomorph-on-the-loose formula.  Here, Scott dramatically expands the Alien universe, re-injecting the franchise with a sense of wonder, awe, and dread worthy (if not equal) to the original film.

"Prometheus" follows a group of scientists and crew members on a quest to meet their extraterrestrial makers; their optimism turns to horror, however, as they discover that their gods may not be happy to see them. A rare philosophical blockbuster, the film has been criticized for plot holes and inconsistencies – probably to be blamed on screenwriter Damon Lindelof, co-writer of Lost.

But it features fantastic performances by Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba  and especially Michael Fassbinder as the android David. Most importantly, it is absolutely visually dazzling, with hauntingly beautiful landscapes, sweeping cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, and stunning special and visual effects, much of which was done without CGI.

-- Tanine Allison

The Turin Horse

Everything else released this year looks puny in comparison to Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse": It is the end of the world. A Hungarian farmer with a paralyzed arm, his daughter and his one horse struggle against the constant wind. The film's vision of human existence, stripped down to the barest essentials, brings to mind Samuel Beckett.

Tarr once again demonstrates his usual stylistic mastery, using only 30 shots in a mesmerizing film that runs almost two and a half hours. He has claimed that this will be his last film. The film unfortunately did not play theatrically in Atlanta, but Cinema Guild's Blu-ray does a marvelous job conveying the textures of Fred Kelemen's extraordinary black-and-white cinematography.

-- James Steffen