It feels like only yesterday that we were talking about the best films of 2011, and yet here we are, nearly at the end of June, and we've seen pretty much everything that the first half of the year has to offer. So with the mid-point of 2012 nearly upon us, we thought we'd look over the best films we've seen in theaters over the last six months.
And it's not been a terrible year so far. There have been a few real stinkers and some disappointments, but there's also been some decent blockbuster fare and a bevy of foreign language and independent films that have been serious treats for filmgoers. How many of these will still be on our year-end lists come December remains to be seen; there's some tough competition on the way. But all in all, the first part of this year at the movies could have been a lot worse. For the sake of simplicity, we've kept it to films with a theatrical release in the U.S. between January 1st and June 30th, but you'll find a round-up of some festival favorites and other such things towards the end. So, in no particular order, you can find our fifteen highlights of the year so far below. And let us know your own picks in the comments section.
Hailed as a triumph at two major film festivals so far this year (Sundance and Cannes), newcomer director Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” arrives in theaters this summer with a loaded firecracker of hype and expectations under its arm. But buzz and managed expectations aside, ‘Beasts’ is the real deal, a genuinely idiosyncratic, expressive and invigorating father/daughter tale that touches on survival, resilience, community and the capacity to endure on your own terms on the fringes of society. Featuring two breakthrough performances by newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been called a New Orleans/Katrina allegory, and while that disaster is certainly an influence -- the themes of perseverance against a cantankerous, retributive forces of nature are certainly there -- to claim that ‘Beasts’ is Zeitlin’s riff on that calamity only sells this exhilarating picture far too short. Tactile in its atmospheres and aesthetics (an unholy blend of rust, rot, decay and beauty), the picture’s take on dilapidation is both gorgeous and affectionate, avoiding an existence as one sorrowful pejorative. Anthemic, deeply moving and awe-inspiring (with a stirring musical score that embodies all those moods in what is easily one of the best soundtracks of the year), “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is part corroded neo-neo realism and magical fantasy, but moreover an exciting blend of ideas, characters and concepts thrown together in a stunningly unique and vibrant bouillabaisse. While it's about a young child facing her father's fading health and an impending environmental disaster (not to mention a herd of prehistoric monsters migrating ominously towards them) in a fictional part of the U.S. called “The Bathtub,” the emotionally rousing “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is simply an inspiring and celebratory look at love, loss and life that’s moving and passionate in the way few films are these days (read our review).
Exhilarating, depressing, melancholy and frustrating, Sarah Polley’s sophomore directorial effort, “Take This Waltz,” attempts to say much about the meaning of love, lust, relationships, marriage, and the complicated choices often made therein. Often times, the well-shot and well-constructed picture (which features some of the best cinematography of any film so far this year; the soundtrack and score is equally ace) just tries to say it all at once, posing questions about whether that grass is actually greener, or whether it grows verdant only after we’ve shat all over it. And as unwieldy and imperfect as Polley’s film can be, well, maybe that’s the point, as the ungainly narrative is a lot like love and life, with few easy answers. Mature, painful and wistful in a manner that reminds you of mistakes you’d rather not relive, and ultimately pretty tragic, “Take This Waltz” is a striking and emotionally bruising look at our desires and the selfish paths we often take to achieve them versus our needs, responsibilities and oaths we’ve pledged to one another. Anchored by truly great performances by Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman, the deeply flawed characters in “Take This Waltz” can be ugly and irredeemable, but as blemished as the picture is at times -- questionable cinematic choices are made on top of morally questionable ones -- it’s boldly real, achingly raw and intimate in a way that’s rarely seen onscreen. There’s likely not going to be a picture as emotionally exasperating and yet indelible as this one in 2012 (read our review).
While some critics complained that the latest from the famed Dardennes was more of the same, all we can say is...so? While “The Kid with a Bike” didn’t rock the boat of their established narrative and visual aesthetic, it’s hard to quibble with the results when they are this consistently strong. Perhaps some of the grumbling came from the fact that this effort is somewhat “lighter” (relatively speaking) than some of their previous efforts, but it’s no less affecting. The story essentially deals with two lonely people: Cyril, an orphaned boy, seething and wounded by anger and pain, and Samantha, a single hairdresser who takes him under her wing. While it’s a sunnier movie than you'd expect from the Dardennes (indeed, it’s the first time they shot in the summer), the organic performances from Thomas Doret and Cecile De France -- who share a tremendous chemistry -- maneuver the complex terrain their relationship takes them through. Having been let down for so much of his life, Cyril essentially tests Samantha to see if she too will give up on him, but as she continues to stick by his side, we get a better understanding how this wayward child enriches her life. Using a recurring musical cue to effectively mark the passage of time, “The Kid with a Bike” plumbs some rich, complicated emotional territory in its less than 90-minute runtime. But by the film’s end, the Dardennes deliver a multi-toned, minor symphony on how devotion and love -- hard-earned and unquestioning -- can be life-changing salvation to those who need it (read our review).