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The Top 15 Movies of 2012 — Part Three!

In Part One of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, I listed numbers 15 through 11, and in Part Two I listed numbers 10 through 6.  Let’s bring it home with the final installment of my Best Movies of 2012 list!

5. Django Unchained Quentin Tarantino’s fierce, fiery, take-no-prisoners assault on the institution of slavery in America is at once a very serious attempt to look this great evil of American history straight in the eye, while also being a phenomenally entertaining, funny, exciting, action-packed and blood-soaked Spaghetti Western adventure.  That Mr. Tarantino’s film succeeds so wildly on both counts is a testament to his enormous skills as a filmmaker.  Django Unchained is unquestionably the product of Mr. Tarantino’s wonderfully distinct cinematic vision.  The film is filled with astoundingly beautiful dialogue, incredible tension, various (very funny) anachronistic touches, spectacular (and very bloody) action, and a glorious musical score — all of which are Mr. Tarantino’s specialties.  Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are both absolute perfection as the twin anchors of the film, totally commanding in their roles, with each creating iconic, memorable cinematic characters.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson are both equally spectacular as the film’s abhorrent villains.  Django Unchained feels transgressive, it feels dangerous.  It is without question fiercely alive and engaging from the very first frame to the very last, and I found it to be one of the most fun, visceral, intense experiences I had in a movie theatre this year.  (Click here for my original review.)

4. Zero Dark Thirty Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have together created an astonishing cinematic document that powerfully brings to life not only the complex, often seemingly hopeless decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, but also the vast human cost (on all sides) of that pursuit.  For almost three full hours, I sat riveted by the drama on-screen as CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), assigned to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, worked — together with other operatives, interrogators, and analysts — for year after long year, trying to piece together a chain of evidence that would lead U.S. forces to discover the hiding place of Osama bin Laden.  This film revels in the details, in the minutia of Maya’s world, without dumbing anything down or over-explaining anything to audiences.  This is a film that assumes a lot of its audience: that we are decently well-versed in the historical background, and that we are capable of paying close attention to the film as it unfolds.  Jessica Chastain does magnificent, star-making work as the driven but haunted Maya.  The action sequences are phenomenal, particularly the climactic assault on bin Landen’s compound in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow has directed some terrific films.  I’m a sucker for Strange Days (the futuristic sci-film from 1995, written by James Cameron and starring Ralph Fiennes) and The Hurt Locker (click here for my review) was terrific, but I’d say with Zero Dark Thirty she has made her masterpiece.

Based on true events (though to what extent the film is completely factually accurate seems to be a subject of much debate — more on that in just a minute), the film begins on September 11th, 2001. Over a black screen, we hear intercut bits of dialogue — mostly phone calls — of panicked people on that terrible day.  The film takes us through the long hunt for Osama bin Laden until May 2, 2011 — almost a full decade later — when he was shot and killed in a Pakistani compound by US forces.  The focus of the film is on a woman named Maya (we never learn her last name), played by Jessica Chastain.  A CIA operative, when we first meet her in 2003, she has been assigned to the US embassy in Pakistan, with her focus being the hunt for bin Laden.  In several difficult-t0-watch early sequences in the film, Maya observes a fellow operative, Dan (Jason Clarke), torturing a detainee with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.  One tidbit of information that he mentions turns into the breadcrumb that Maya spends years following, trying in many different ways to turn a potential hint of a lead into something concrete.

The film is an incredibly complex piece of work.  For almost three full hours, we live with Maya through the myriad twists and turns of the CIA’s investigations during their hunt for bin Laden.  The film piles on the details, not in a confusing way but rather in a way that illuminates the insanely daunting needle-in-a-haystack nature of the search.  Kathryn Bigelow’s patient, taut direction works in perfect concert with Mark Boal’s dense, sophisticated script to bring all these details to life and to make them sing.  It is in the accumulation of details, in the way the film thrusts us into the head-spinningly complex web of secrets and doubts in which Maya and her fellow CIA investigators must live as they push forward their work, that the film weaves its magic and the story gains its power.

This is not a film for someone not willing to pay attention.  The movie does not spell everything out for the audience.  (I was reminded of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the way the film throws around names and terminology without bothering to explain things, immersing the audience in the jargon of this world.)  There are many characters in … [continued]