Best movies of 2012: Halftime report

July 5, 2012

What’s the best picture of 2012? So far?

It is, after all, the year’s halfway point. I’ve been posting a 10-best list for the first half of each year for about a decade now.

The idea was based on the 1981 Major League Baseball Strike, when a shortened season led to the decision to pit the winner of the season’s first half against the victor of the season’s second half in various playoffs.

It occurred to me: Conventional wisdom has it that, in terms of Oscars and 10-best lists, the bulk of any year’s best offerings don’t reach theaters until post-Labor Day – many of them not until post-Halloween. But the first half of the year inevitably has worthy entries that get overlooked because of the magpie syndrome (fascination with the most recent shiny object they’ve seen) inherent among Academy voters.

In fact, 2012 already has thrown up a host of solid films that have nothing to do with super-heroes, comic books or massive computer-generated special effects. Hopefully, a few of them will stick in memories – or get year-end publicity pushes – when awards season rolls around.

Here, in brief, is my list of the year’s 10 best films at the halftime break:

1. “Moonrise Kingdom”: Funny, weird and surprisingly heartfelt, this Wes Anderson film was at once formal and whimsical, a blend of a strong artistic vision with a story built on the unpredictability of human emotion. It’s one of the strongest evocations I can remember of the intensity with which one felt feelings at the tender age of pubescence. It features two strong central performances by newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, as well as delicious turns by Bruce Willis, Bill Murray and Edward Norton.

2. “Footnote”: The only film that might have eclipsed Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” for the best-foreign-film Oscar, Joseph Cedar’s family tale is wickedly funny. The father-son dynamic is fascinatingly complex, as the son of an ungiving father tries to engineer a late-life victory for the paternal sourpuss. The best movie ever made about Talmudic philologists – but you don’t have to know what philology is to appreciate the film.

3. “Miss Bala”: Here’s a movie that has you holding your breath from start to finish. It’s a gritty, bitter tale of a Mexican teen whose only dream is to compete in the beauty pageant to be Miss Baja. Instead, she gets pulled into the ongoing battle between the police and a Mexican drug cartel, which are often indistinguishable from each other. Model Stephanie Sigman offers a notable acting turn as the scared, determined girl.

4. “Jeff Who Lives at Home”: Bringing together Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon, Jay and Mark Duplass crafted a comedy filled with heart and wit about the curses and blessings of family. Segel gives an open, slightly stoned performance as a guy who is looking for the unified theory of his whole life – and winds up reuniting with his prickly brother, played by a bristly Helms.

5. “Bernie”: Just as Jack Black seems to have worn out his welcome as a mainstream comedy star, he comes back in Richard Linklater’s oddly humorous tale of murder and cover-up in the Lone Star State. And he holds his own against Shirley MacLaine, a veteran scene-stealer, who has her hands full with Black’s sweet, sympathetic funeral-home director – until he shoots her in the back.

6. “The Cabin in the Woods”: I have a hard time getting worked up about horror movies – but this one was like a shot of the good stuff straight to the brain. Drew Goddard was the director but the name that caused thrills was Joss Whedon, who cowrote and produced. This movie managed to be witty, scary, meta and gruesomely over the top, all at the very same time. Whee!

7. “Turn Me On, Dammit”: Hollywood is preoccupied with sex comedies about horny teen-age boys. But it took this wry Norwegian import to find the humor in horny adolescent girls. Jannicke Systad Jacobsen adapted a popular novel into the funny, bittersweet tale of a teen girl in a small town who just wants the guy she likes to want her back.

8. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”: The year’s biggest arthouse hit featured a killer’s row of aging British stars, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy. They swatted this story (about seniors outsourcing old age to India) out of the park in charming fashion. Noteworthy fact: This movie may wind up with a bigger gross than Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy.”

9. “The Intouchables”: As life-affirming as a serious comedy can get, this French import was unfairly tarred as a movie about race. Instead, it’s about the bond between two societal outcasts – one an immigrant street hustler, the other a quadraplegic millionaire – who discover ways to complete themselves in their friendship with the other.

10. “God Bless America”: When was the last time you walked out of a movie pumping your fist and saying, “Right on”? It was hard not to, after watching Bobcat Goldthwait’s viciously funny takedown of American pop culture – and his wild story about a man who goes on a shooting spree in order to make it all a little nicer.

Other movies that I considered worthwhile in the first half of 2012, if not good enough for my First Half Top Ten, in no particular order: “The Grey,” “Haywire,” “Undefeated,” “Bully,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Friends with Kids,” “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “Men in Black 3,” “Hysteria,” “Polisse,” “Brave,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Dark Horse,” “Neil Young Journeys.”

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