Maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe it had something to do with that whole “the-world’s-gonna-end-soon-so-YOLO” thing, but for whatever reason, 2012 was an especially strong year in film. Maybe that’s why I’m especially frustrated this year with how America ranks and promotes movies. Just like my eighth-grade yearbook, our system is built on superlatives. Best this. Best that. Even worst this, worst that, thanks to the Razzie awards, which honor the worst performances of the year (by the way, Razzies, lay off my boy Nic Cage — he’s just doing his own thing).
When it comes to the Academy’s best picture of the year, there can only be one, so there’s always going to be controversy. However, given that we’re in the midst of awards season, I think it’s important to avoid the temptation to evaluate holistically. Alternatively, we can learn to appreciate certain aspects of films which make them memorable, even if we don’t love many of these films overall.
There’s a lot to admire this year. Take writing, for example. “The Dictator” will not make news at the Oscars, but thanks to the talents of Sacha Baron Cohen, it has some brilliant moments. At one point in the film, dictator Gen. Aladeen has narcissistically changed the words in his country for both “positive” and “negative” to “Aladeen.” A doctor tells a patient, “You are HIV … Aladeen,” masterfully portraying the ridiculousness of the dictatorship. Looking at “Django Unchained,” one scene features Klansmen obsessively debating the craftsmanship of the bags on their heads, with eyeholes cut by one of their wives. This is a staple of Tarantino’s style: He highlights mundane aspects of everyday life within extraordinary historical circumstances.
Take acting. Tom Hardy dominates as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” He doesn’t give one of the year’s best performances, but he conveys an impressive emotional range through the use of his physicality and his eyes, even with most of his face obscured. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jessica Chastain uses her blank stares to communicate everything from despondency to unparalleled confidence. In “The Sessions,” playing a paralyzed virgin, John Hawkes displays strong desires and passions through only his voice and facial expressions.
Take technical advancements. Rhythm & Hues Studios injects into “Life of Pi” a remarkable, dreamy, underwater sequence through which we become submerged in Pi’s most private thoughts. With his collaborators on the set of “Les Misérables,” director Tom Hooper succeeded in shooting most singing parts live on set. With “The Hobbit,” Peter Jackson has sparked a new debate about frame-rate standards in cinema. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” cinematographer Greig Fraser achieves a new level of realism during the night raid by shooting in near-complete darkness and utilizing night-vision camera technologies.
Finally, take new talent. Every year, some Academy Awards categories are considered less important and are disregarded by viewers. My advice: Pay attention to these categories! Some of the most honest, memorable and entertaining films come out of the best animated short film and best live action short film categories. These categories make the Academy Awards accessible to younger filmmakers who are creating shorts as opposed to features. It’s a fantastic way to provide talented rising filmmakers with the opportunity for recognition and, more importantly, the opportunity to share their original work with a much wider audience. “Logorama,” the 2009 best animated short, is a powerful reflection on commercialism, and it features director David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Fight Club”) voicing the Pringles Original. “God of Love,” the 2010 best animated live action short, is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. Both of these shorts are under 20 minutes long.
There are a lot of great things happening in the world of cinema, and calling a few movies “the best” should not diminish the advancements that filmmakers have achieved all over the world. Movies are not created with the intention of being ranked, but with the hope of giving viewers something fresh to experience, whether that be a single interesting shot or a start-to-finish masterpiece.