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Film Feature: The 10 Best Films of 2012, Part Two

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CHICAGO – Hot on the heels of the wondrous 10 Most Overlooked Films of 2012 and the illustrious first look at The 10 Best Films of 2012 comes “The 10 Best Films of 2012, Part Two,” as rendered by Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com.

The best films of 2012 are a mixed bag, but there was incredible experiences in all of them, brought forth from a mix of old veterans, new voices and even debut filmmakers. There is less of the end-of-the-world theme of 2011 as if the end is near, let’s have a celebration. It continues to amaze me, now in my fifth year as a professional film critic, that the creative landscape continues to astound the senses and deliver the goods.

Of course there are several films that could have occupied the 10th spot on the list. They include the 2011 stragglers – “We Have a Pope” and “Footnote.” The notable documentaries – “The Central Park Five,” “Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry” and “Samsara.” The provocative independent films – “Smashed,” “Lola Versus,” “Being Flynn,” “Compliance” and “Sleepwalk with Me.” And the more mainstream projects featuring name actors – “Gone,” “The Late Quartet,” “End of Watch,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Arbitrage,” “Bernie,” “Argo” and “Flight.” It was a very good year.

Sometimes, even after five years, plus years before that doing a film blog, I feel as I’m still an amateur in this business. It has to do with the aspect of opinion, as in which ones carry the weigh and which are more valuable than the other. As I tell all my fellow travelers on the Chicago Film Tour bus, everyone’s opinion is valid when it comes to film, the most democratic and accessible of the arts. With that in mind, I give you “The 10 Best Films of 2012,” as opined by Patrick McDonald…

Star10. “This Must Be the Place”

This Must Be the Place
This Must Be the Place
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Initially, I gave this the middling recommendation of 3-1/2 out of 5 stars, but afterward I couldn’t shake the film for weeks. Sean Penn plays an annoying rock star named Cheyenne, supposedly patterned after Robert Smith of “The Cure,” but also with elements of Boy George and Michael Jackson in the portrayal, intended to be off-putting. It is the journey that Cheyenne takes which becomes important and unforgettable, forging a trail to search for an ex-Nazi that tortured his recently dead father in a concentration camp during WWII. The combination of bizarre rocker and Nazis pretty much symbolizes the second half of the 20th century, and director Paolo Sorrentino adds stunning visuals in Cheyenne’s path, which is a reminder of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger.” The ending is perplexing, but also brings the curtain down, and allows the player to bow in front.

HIGHLIGHT: Great use of unexpected casting including Judd Hirsch as a saucy Nazi hunter for hire, and TV character actress Joyce Van Patten as a history teacher who can’t remember history (thus doomed to repeat it).

Star9. “The Sessions”

The Sessions
The Sessions
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

What sounds like a cheap, exploitative TV Movie of the Week – handicapped man hires sex surrogate to experience carnal knowledge – becomes something so much more under the guidance of writer/director Ben Lewin and lead actors John Hawkes (as the handicapped man), Helen Hunt (the sex surrogate) and William H. Macy (a befuddled priest). This film uses humor and a delicate sensibility to communicate the often difficult co-mingling of the two souls. Another bonus is that it highlights the nature of human sexuality, how we as a species have the tricky balancing act between our emotions and our biology. Those two distinct traits come into play at different levels of importance, depending on experience, circumstance and partner. Tremendous portrayals are the icing on this cake, with John Hawkes intricately playing a polio victim with nothing but his acting and Helen Hunt going full exposure in both a physical and emotional sense.

HIGHLIGHT: What seems like sappy poetry from the John Hawkes character becomes deep and abiding fulfillment by the end. And Helen Hunt’s brother Mike makes a surprising cameo.

Star8. “Not Fade Away”

Not Fade Away
Not Fade Away
Photo credit: Paramount Vantage

If there’s a rock ‘n roll heaven, they’ll be showing this movie at the the multiplex. The stalwart David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” wrote and directed this homage to his youth, at a time of explosive evolution in rock ‘n roll. The setting is the mid-1960s in New Jersey, and the music is the British invasion, particularly the Rolling Stones. Douglas (John Magaro) is going through the motions of participation in the era, which includes starting a band, much to the chagrin of his angry Dad (James Gandolfini). The film is episodic, as we see Douglas grow from an awkward 18 year old to a Bob Dylan-esque young adult. The film is actually narrated by Douglas’s sister (Meg Guzulescu), who portrays a detached observer that becomes tantamount to expressing the spirit of the music. For those who lived the 1960s, or those who simply love the music that spawned a revolution, this cinematic valentine from David Chase awaits you.

HIGHLIGHT: As the weird and wonderful sound of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” comes from a tinny AM radio in 1964, a mesmerized character in the film walks toward the sonic receiver and simply asks, “What’s that?”

Star7. “Liberal Arts”

Liberal Arts
Liberal Arts
Photo credit: IFC Films

The smaller, independent film was written and directed by sitcom star Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) and it highlights the deep reflection of his own spirit and an ability to have his characters suffer the consequences of their decisions. It is a story of endings, and the beginnings that come after those endings, symbolized through a retiring college professor named Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), his lost-in-New-York protegé Jesse (Radnor) – who returns to his Ohio college to honor Holberg – and a young co-ed on the campus (Elizabeth Olsen) who falls for Jesse. Part you-can’t-go-home-again and part Lolita, the laughs and the passionate dialogue all flow naturally from the narrative. The mature reflections that generate the comedy is a reminder of Woody Allen, but Radnor is a 21st century man, presumably coddled by helicopter parents and academia, and wearied by a world that doesn’t cue up to his favorite literature. It’s an fresh new voice in film, and a filmmaker to look forward to.

HIGHLIGHT: Proving there is no such thing as small parts, only small actors, Zac Efron and Allison Janney make the most of their screen time.

Star6. “The Master”

The Master
The Master
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Another film I couldn’t shake for weeks after experiencing, despite a glacial pacing and soft narrative. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson really goes to the dark side of the American Dream in this one, or most likely the American Dream of “there’s a sucker born every minute.” This veiled origin of Scientology in the postwar 1940s in America features Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd (Frank Capra would be proud of that moniker), the leader of a cultish society that implies to possess the meaning of life – through absurd hypnotic techniques. Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quill, an aimless, sexually immature WWII veteran who is a perfect candidate to be under Dodd’s spell. The key to the proceedings is the era in America, with post war wealth and susceptibility all collapsing into the new movement. Amy Adams, as Dodd’s wife, does less with a potential nuanced character than Laura Dern does in the only five minutes she has in the film.

HIGHLIGHT: Even though Phoenix overplays Quill to an exasperating level, there is something spellbinding and unsettling about his long touch-the-window-and-the-wall sequence.

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