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Roger Ebert on the best films that he saw in 2012

Susan SarandRichard Gere 'Arbitrage'

Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage"

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To see all of the Sun-Times’ recaps of 2012, please go to suntm.es/2012lists.

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Updated: December 28, 2012 7:26PM



A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars. Not to the Oscars. To me.

Earlier this month, I sustained a hairline fracture of my left hip. I didn’t fall. I didn’t break it. It just sort of ... happened to itself. Most of the time, it causes me no pain. But my left leg won’t bear any weight, nor can I walk on it. It has nothing to do with cancer. It’s plain bad luck.

I haven’t seen a few films that are widely considered as leading best picture contenders, including “Django Unchained” and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” That disappoints me.

The good news is that this has been one of the best recent years in cinema. I wrote more than 300 reviews in 2012 — a record — and it was unusually difficult to leave out many of the quote-unquote films in 11th place.

Here then, in alphabetical order, are the Best 10 Films I Saw in 2012:

‘Arbitrage’

We tend to identify with the leading character of a film, even if he is a heartless bastard. Few films illustrate this curiosity better than Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage,” and few actors might have been better at making it work than Richard Gere. Here is man involved in a multimillion-dollar fraud who cheats on his wife, tries to cover up the death of his mistress and would throw his own daughter under a bus. Yet we are tense with suspense while watching him try to get away with it.

Gere has always been an actor good at suggesting secrets under the surface. Improbably handsome, he has aged here into the embodiment of a Wall Street lion, worth billions, charming, generous, honored and a fraud right down to his bones.

‘Argo’

Above all else. this film is a movie — pure, strong and sound. It has the classic values of a Hollywood thriller. Ben Affleck directed and stars in this film “based on a true story.” Countless movies are “inspired on real events,” but this incident truly took place. The rescue of six Americans during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis remained top secret for 18 years. They all returned safely to America. “Argo,” the title of the fake film that provided a cover for the operation, needless to say was never filmed. Affleck’s film, which contains comedy and tension, proposes to reveal surprises about a story we all lived through.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Cut off from the mainland, surrounded by rising waters, the Bathtub is a desolate wilderness of poverty where a small community struggles to survive. Hushpuppy considers it “the prettiest place on Earth.” She is a fierce and unbreakable 6-year-old who lives here with her father Wink and other survivors who exist so close to the earth that it might as well be them.

A fearsome storm is said to be on the way, but existence here is already post-apocalyptic, the people cobbling together discarded items of civilization. Their ramshackle houses perch on bits of high ground, and some are rebuilding them into arks they hope will float through the flood. Hushpuppy is on intimate terms with the natural world, with the pigs she feeds and the fish she captures with her bare hands, and sometimes she believes animals speak to her in codes.

‘End of Watch’

Here is one of the best police movies of recent years, a virtuoso joining of performances and often startling action. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as Taylor and Zavala, two Los Angeles street cops who bend a few rules but must be acknowledged as heroes. After too many police movies about officers who essentially use their badges as licenses to run wild, it’s inspiring to realize these men take their mission — to serve and protect — with such seriousness they’re willing to risk their lives. Taylor and Zavala fit the template of the “cop buddy movie,” but “End of Watch” goes so much deeper than that.

‘Flight’

After depicting one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve witnessed, in which a jet is saved by being flown upside down, Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” segues into a brave and tortured performance by Denzel Washington — one of his very best. Not often does a movie character make such a harrowing personal journey that keeps us in deep sympathy all of the way.

Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a veteran commercial airline pilot who over the years has built up a shaky tolerance for quantities of alcohol and cocaine that would be lethal for most people. As the film opens, he is piloting a jet that takes off in an alarming rainstorm and encounters the kind of turbulence that has the co-pilot crying out, “Oh, Lord!”

But Whip powers them into an area of clear sky before a mechanical malfunction sends the aircraft into a nosedive. Acting on instinct, seeming cool as ice, the veteran pilot inverts the plane to halt its descent. The way that Zemeckis and his team portray the terror in the cabin is stomach-churning.

‘Life of Pi’

Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery. Inspired by a worldwide best-seller that many readers must have assumed could not be filmed, it is a triumph over its difficulties. It is also a spiritual achievement, a movie whose title could have been shortened to “Life.”

The story involves the 227 days that its teenage hero spends drifting across the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. It expands into a parable of survival, acceptance and adaptation.

‘Lincoln’

I’ve rarely been more aware than during Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” that Abraham Lincoln was a plain-spoken, practical, down-to-earth man from the farmlands of the Midwest. He had less than a year of formal education and taught himself through his hungry reading of great books. I still recall from a childhood book the image of him taking a piece of charcoal and working out mathematics by writing on the back of a shovel.

Though Lincoln lacked social polish, he had great intelligence and knowledge of human nature. The hallmark of the man, performed so powerfully by Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” is calm self-confidence, patience, and a willingness to play politics in a realistic way.

‘Oslo, August 31’

A quietly profound film about a day, a city and a 34-year-old man named Anders, who is on release from a drug rehab center so he can go to a job interview. The film opens with his memories of growing up in Oslo, described in snatches of dialogue and shown in glimpses of film. Here he was happy. Almost every street and turning is familiar.

Are we seeing a dream as it unwinds? Anders awakens in a hotel room next to a woman we never meet, walks nearby to a wooded stream, fills his pockets with rocks and walks into the water. After an uneasy time, he pops up sputtering and climbs back on the shore. He changes his clothes and goes for his interview.

‘The Sessions’

You can tell from Mark’s reedy voice that speaking is an effort. He’s 38 years old and has spent most of those years in an iron lung. He believes his time is running out and so he would like to experience sexual intercourse with a woman once before he dies. His need requires an awesome dedication. Mark is played by John Hawkes, who has emerged as an actor of amazing versatility. What he does in “The Sessions” is not only physically challenging, but requires timing and emotion to elevate the story into realms of deep feeling and even comedy.

More than most movies,“The Sessions” depends on two actors if it is to work at all — and Helen Hunt as his sex surrogate provides a performance of tact and delicacy.

‘A Simple Life’

This film, made in Hong Kong, paints portraits of two good people in gentle, humanist terms. Here is a film with the clarity of fresh stream water, flowing without turmoil to shared destiny. No plot gimmicks. Just a simple life.

The life is that of Ah Tao, who was orphaned during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, spent her entire life in the service of four generations of a Chinese family, and is now the servant of the only family member still living in China. He is Roger, a movie producer. They have a settled routine: During a meal he puts out his hand, knowing she will be standing behind him with a bowl of rice. No words.

Grand jury prizes

At many film festivals, the juries come up with a cockamamie category named the Grand Jury Prizes. It designates titles that are as good, in one way or another, than the others. Here are my 10 Grand Jury Prizes, arranged alphabetically:

“Central Park Five,” “The Impossible,” “In the Family,” “Last Ride,” “A Late Quartet,” “The Master,” “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” “Rampart,” “Searching for Sugar Man” and “West of Memphis.”



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