Kathryn Bigelow’s "Zero Dark Thirty."
Admittedly, I still haven’t caught up with all 800 or so movies released in 2012, but I’ve seen enough to say it’s been a robust year. That’s especially true for films with local ties; in retrospect these five—among them several probable Oscar nominees—remain particularly recommendable.
A hundred years after his pulp-fiction debut, and long after he’d influenced countless other films, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ interplanetary swashbuckler finally got a movie of his own, in Pixar mainstay Andrew Stanton’s live-action directorial debut. It flopped, hard, but not for any lack of panache or visual splendor. As for being a bit of a muddle, well, that case could be made for several other films on this list. Anyone holding Pixar people to account may even allow that John Carter offered more bang for its buck than the merely pretty good Brave. So, consider its reputation defended.
Local ties: Andrew Stanton directing; Telegraph Avenue’s Michael Chabon co-scripting
Gleaming new cinematic monument, or murky slab of storytelling-impaired pretension? Up to you, but in any case, a must-see. Paul Thomas Anderson takes on Scientology, sort of, with a richly textured actors’ funhouse for Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman to romp around in. The consequent grappling match—a sort of Dianetics by way of Stanislavski’s Method—says something disturbing about midcentury masculinity and about how personality cults tend to catalyze tortured souls.
Local ties: a few familiar Bay Area locations; a budget covered by Oracle heiress Megan Ellison; a lively pre-release benefit screening, in luscious 70mm, at the Castro Theatre
For all its old familiar style, Wes Anderson’s wistfully pastoral view of puppy love in 1960s New England seems like an artistic step forward. Exquisitely designed and soundtracked, it’s every bit as meticulous as we’d expect from Anderson, but finally, crucially, more breathtaking than suffocating. That’s thanks to a superb ensemble cast full of old souls and young vitality, and a director staying true to his own drolly and deeply romantic vision.
Local ties: a script co-written by American Zoetrope president Roman Coppola
The Waiting Room
Without all the bells and whistles so bothersomely common in other social-issues films, Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks’s discreet vérité-style documentary manages to humanize, and localize, the crisis of American health care. Having hung around for a while inside Oakland’s Highland Hospital, with its persistent abundance of mostly uninsured patients, Nicks bears tactful witness not just to pain and suffering, but also to compassion in action.
Local ties: Set in one of the largest public hospitals in the Bay Area
Zero Dark Thirty
Unavoidably the movie of the year, Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial quasi-journalistic thriller, dramatized from original reporting by screenwriter Mark Boal, surveys the decade-long quest to bring down Osama bin Laden. A taut procedural, spun from the point of view of Jessica Chastain’s lone wolf CIA analyst, it seems temperamentally more tenacious than triumphalist, and maybe therefore also as lucid an elaboration of the “war on terror” as we can ever hope to get from Hollywood.
Local ties: San Carlos native Bigelow directing; Sonoma native Chastain starring; another budget covered by Oracle heiress Ellison