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Now and Then: The Best of the Year So Far

Now and Then: The Best of the Year So Far

The dog days of summer are here, and for moviegoers that usually means an August lull between tentpole extravaganzas and festival fodder, a chance to reflect on the year so far. Soon enough, the Academy will forget all of the great movie moments of the spring and summer in the rush to coronate a new Oscar champ. Tide yourself over with the Now and Then Mid-Year Awards:

Best Picture: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
This tone poem to the Delta of southern Louisiana is alive to the natural and supernatural, the anarchic and the bureaucratic, the dreamlike and the real. In other words, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a film as true to place as any I know, pinning down the aural and visual rhythms of a world slipping into nonexistence with inventive camerawork and passionate performances. It may not be quite polished, but it is honest and full of verve, attuned to wavelengths of the heart as no other film this year.

Best Actor: Jack Black, “Bernie”
Director Richard Linklater’s razor-sharp black comedy about the murder of a despised millionaire inhabits the same psychic territory as “Fargo” and “A Simple Plan”: a violent middle-America that is merciless and mercifully funny at once, an atmosphere that’s two parts laughter and three parts dread. And, like its forebears, the delicate balance that holds “Bernie” afloat resides in its protagonist, played by Jack Black with impressive restraint. In a return to the glorious form that made “The School of Rock” such a pleasure, Black skillfully embodies a warm-hearted, cold-blooded killer, and that’s no mean feat.    

Best Actress: Rachel Weisz, “The Deep Blue Sea”
I was tempted to give this to the extraordinary Quvenzhané Wallis, the seismic force at the heart of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but watching Olympic gymnastics and diving reminded me that difficulty matters. While Wallis’ perfect, fierce naturalism powers “Beasts,” Weisz faces the more challenging task of animating a still, cool, sometimes stage-bound work about a woman’s ambivalence, hardly a recipe for scenery chewing. Moving confidently in and out of passionate abandon, like someone peering over the edge of a cliff and pulling back, Weisz makes her buttoned-up English wife a subtle, powerful emblem of disappointment and doubt.

Best Sequence: “The Dark Knight Rises”
Amid its morass of ideas and ideologies, “The Dark Knight Rises” manages some propulsive action, a modicum of character development, and a lot of untidy politicking. Hidden within its disappointing muddle, however, is the best short film I’ve seen in years, a prison-escape subplot so tightly constructed and sharply rendered that its relationship to the larger narrative arc is almost immaterial. Better yet, the drama is more emotional than physical, providing key characters with motives and histories that had gone missing after “Batman Begins.” This is Christopher Nolan at his best: stripped down, direct, and ruthless.

Biggest Surprise: Channing Tatum, “Haywire,”  “21 Jump Street,” and “Magic Mike”
Square-jawed, muscular, maybe even somewhat doltish, Channing Tatum has always seemed a good-natured Frankenstein’s monster of Hollywood stardom, so happy to have each role that he crushed it between his fingertips. But in three films this year he’s proven himself a more capable and graceful performer, ranging from the more delicately choreographed fisticuffs of “Haywire” to his brilliant comic turn in “21 Jump Street.” Stealing a movie from Jonah Hill and inspiring Steven Soderbergh to make another would constitute a strong year for anyone. I’ve scarcely been happier to eat my words.

Biggest Disappointment:  “Prometheus”
Ridley Scott, stylistic ancestor of contemporary action auteur Christopher Nolan, returned to the frightening mythos of his masterful 1979 film “Alien” and sprung the same trap that caught “The Dark Knight Rises”: in trying to build an entire world, he forgot to make an entire movie. In a film where narrative motion is key (the characters, for the most part, being one-dimensional), Scott’s emphasis on thematic quantity rather than quality starts off disconcerting and winds up just being frustrating. The film’s penchant for introducing information only to ignore it negates the eerily beautiful, baleful design; set against the spare chill of the original, “Prometheus” feels bloated and loose. Ambition, it turns out, can only take you so far.

The Top Ten Films of 2012 (So Far)

1.    “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
2.    “Moonrise Kingdom”
3.    “Bernie”
4.    “Take This Waltz”
5.    “Your Sister’s Sister”
6.    “Celeste and Jesse Forever”
7.    “The Deep Blue Sea”
8.    “The Cabin in the Woods”
9.    Tie: “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”
Trailers below:

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