Throughout the year, I watch many films. Not only do I enjoy cinema and have a degree in Film/Video, but I find films provide me a way to refresh my insights and keep from getting too burned out from covering an issue or topic as a writer.

The Dissenter may be a civil liberties/national security blog, but here I like to highlight the importance of art in culture and society. If time is available and there isn’t a story I need to be covering, I have sometimes posted a review of films I’ve seen. (This year I reviewed Rampart and Savages.)

Last year, on December 31, I posted a list of ten top films from 2011. I like to think what I am doing here is something routine that readers may come to expect each year.

Now, here’s the list of films I enjoyed and appreciated in 2012.

*

Arbitrage:

Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a hedge fund executive in New York City struggling to complete a deal. He has engaged in fraud to cover up the fact that he suffered a major investment loss. His wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Brit Marling) have no idea he is anything but a family man. Simultaneously, Julie Côte (Laetitia Casta), who Miller is helping to become a successful art entrepreneur and also having an affair with, decide to take a trip to upstate New York. In a car crash, Côte is killed. Miller must slip out and find a way to conceal the death so that he can complete a deal he is trying to make with his hedge fund.

It is an appropriate story for the times. The fraud, which should land him jail time, is unlikely to sink him. However, involuntary manslaughter would definitely lead to jail time. Like a true businessman who puts people before profit and prestige and social status before ethics, he is willing to keep concealed what really happened. Unfortunately, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a young African-American man who rescued him after the car crash and is indebted to Miller, becomes the subject of a police inquiry led by a police detective (Tim Roth). This story line takes the film from being one simply about white collar crime going unpunished to a representation of the justice system in America, as police show the lengths they are willing to go to push Grant to snitch on Miller because they know how difficult it would be to get him for other crimes like fraud.

Argo:

In 1979, a covert CIA operation was mounted to rescue six staff members who escaped from the US embassy and sought refuge at the home of a Canadian ambassador. They escaped the same day that fifty other staff members of the embassy were taken hostage in a crisis that lasted until they were released on January 20, 1981. Argo is the story of this operation led by CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), who develops a cover story to get the escaped staff out of revolutionary Iran by convincing Iranian officials he is there to scout locations for a science fiction movie.

The film makes the list because it is like some of the more classic political or espionage thrillers made in the 1970s. Paced well, it builds to its climax appropriately, though one knows historically the six managed to escape. In the film world it never looks like there are any guarantees the staff will make it. On top of that, the film does not omit the role the CIA played in orchestrating a coup that removed Mohammed Mossadegh from power and replaced him with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This is proper context for why Iran was so wary of outsiders trying to meddle in their country’s affairs.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: 

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an African-American girl, lives in a bayou community called the “Bathtub” with her sick father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Her home is essentially a trailer with scraps of metal and wood to keep her sheltered at night. One night, there’s a dangerous incoming storm, but Hushpuppy and her father stay in their home. The storm leads to flooding. Hushpuppy and her father set off on a makeshift boat to look for survivors. As her father begins to realize the salt water could damage his paradise on the bayou, he comes up with a plan to blow up a levee that can stop the flooding.

This is the story stripped of fantasy, devoid of the spirit and imagination of Hushpuppy, which makes this depiction of some of the poorest people in Louisiana an incredible tale. Hushpuppy says in the film, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.” She is learning in school about ruthless prehistoric creatures called “Auruchs” from the melting ice caps. It is essentially a myth that explains climate change. In her world, the Auruchs are responsible for flooding her home and she must be a beast and fight back. Finally, it was made on a low budget by a collective of young filmmakers who value telling stories over fixating on what sells at the box office and that comes through in the film.

Django Unchained:

Quentin Tarantino’s ode to spaghetti westerns tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is freed by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in the southern United States in 1858. Dr. Schultz needs Django to help him locate some men that he must kill so he can collect a reward from the courts. After helping Dr. Schultz, Django is offered a chance to not only be free but also help Dr. Schultz kill criminal white people throughout the winter and, since he was married and would like to reunite with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Dr. Schultz promises to help him find her.

What Tarantino does with this film is take the vigilante character, who typically is white in Western films, and make him a black hero in a world where African-Americans are oppressed and give him a way to rise above it and triumph in the end. Though he uses the word “nigger” quite a bit in the film, it is Tarantino’s representation of how he believes conversations in the South would have been. History is the box in which he creates the freedom to do what he wants artistically. He somehow does something that one might find to be taboo and simultaneously entertains viewers while at the same time giving viewers a glimpse into the grotesque world of American slavery circa mid-1800s.

Headhunters:

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a top headhunter, is an art thief. When he encounters Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), he begins to consider him for a position as the CEO of Pathfinder, a surveillance company. Clas, however, starts to take an interest in his wife, Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). He finds out Clas has a very rare painting and also learns Clas once trained with an elite unit that tracked criminals using sophisticated techniques. He goes to steal the painting and finds he is being tracked by Clas, who has applied some kind of microscopic trackers making it possible for him to tell where he is going no matter what he does to cover up his tracks and conceal his location.

This Norwegian film is the kind of exceptional thriller one hopes to see when they go to the movies. It is has the feel of one of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy stories. Also, as Clas is working for a rival company that wants to steal Pathfinder’s technology, the film shows the lengths private contractors are willing to go to in order to maintain profits, even if that means using technology that law enforcement in the Surveillance State would love to be able to use to track people.

How to Survive a Plague:

This is the story of two groups, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Treatment Action Group (TAG), which helped ignite the struggle to force the government to invest in funding for research and development of drugs that could effectively treat AIDS. As the epidemic was killing off people in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these groups mobilized people, many of them gay and also infected. They identified what solutions government could offer and then applied pressure through direct action to create a situation where AIDS was not something the political class could simply write off as a homosexual disease.

With incredible archive footage, this exceptional documentary shows how the groups organized and produced plans to recommend specific drugs that the government needed to put through trials quickly so they could be made available to people with AIDS and save them from death. It recounts how a group of people afflicted went from being a group that was wholly ignored to one that government had to offer concessions. The groups were not without their problems. There was conflict between the two groups. Yet, overall, they succeeded tremendously and for anyone trying to create real and lasting change today, their victory should be an inspiration.

Life of Pi:

Pi (Suraj Sharma) grows up in India. He becomes interested in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam and also develops an interest in a Bengal tiger, as his father owns a zoo. His father chooses to close the zoo and move to Canada. His family and the zoo animals travel on a freighter. The freighter becomes caught up in a tsunami, where only Pi, zebra, hyena, orangutan and the Bengal tiger are able to make it onto a lifeboat and survive.

Through remarkable cinematography and visual effects, Pi’s effort to survive on the ocean and train the Bengal tiger to respect and submit to him is spell-binding fantasy. There’s also the possibility that some of what happened to Pi could be “story truth,” Pi’s own tale constructed to effectively communicate the emotions he experienced while trying to survive because what really happened is not as interesting and fantastic. The viewer is left to decide whether they believe Pi’s story of survival or not. His spirituality certainly leads one to believe he would have the faith to survive.

Looper:

Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a Looper in 2044, who works as an assassin tasked by the mob with killing people the mob in 2074 send back in time thirty years to be eliminated because the mob wants them assassinated. The mob can choose to “close the loop” and kill Loopers they no longer want helping them. A Looper typically does not know he is “closing the loop” because targets appear from the future on their knees with a bag over their head. One day, Joe is faced with himself, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), sent back thirty years to be killed by him and, when he discovers the mob is trying to “close the loop,” that sets in motion the chain of events that drive this film.

The film, written and directed by Rian Johnson, employs the concept of time travel quite well. The world around Loopers in 2044 appears to be degenerating and mercenary jobs of this kind seem to be one of the few jobs a person can come by.  The moments where Joe and Old Joe are talking to one another do not make time travel in the film less believable but actually enhances it. Plus, the concept never overtakes the film entirely, giving the characters opportunities to show what it is like to live in this future.

Marley:

There’s an unforgettable moment in this film when reggae legend Bob Marley and his band in 1978 are playing a peace concert in Jamaica organized to call for an end to political violence tearing up the country. Marley brings the two leaders of the factions that are warring—Michael Manley (leader of then-ruling People’s National Party) and Edward Seaga (leader of the opposing Jamaica Labor Party)—up on stage and they touch each other’s hands. It is a fearless and humanitarian act that demonstrates to tens of thousands of people present those who have told them to fight each other can be peaceful.

The documentary is the definitive account of Marley’s life told through the friends, family and fellow musicians, who best remember who Marley was when he was alive. It tracks how he became a massive figure in music, someone transformative in Jamaica, while also presenting the final years of Marley’s life when he was dying of cancer. There also are interviews with some people in Jamaica that show how ubiquitous Marley’s music is because they are able to sing his songs when asked about them on camera

Silver Linings Playbook:

The characters in this film are genuine people. Pat (Bradley Cooper) is released from a mental institution. He is ready to get back to his life with his ex-wife, who he caught cheating on him. His family does not particularly want him to try to reconcile with his ex-wife because they are convinced it will further complicate his condition, which leaves him prone to outbursts. When he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), he’s met with someone who has problems just like him and has found herself feeling isolated and unwanted.

It is about finding that “silver lining” in life that can make you stable as a person. The screenplay by David O. Russell, who also directed the film, is exquisite. Each of the characters is honest and makes their own choices, which at any moment could wreck everything or make it all right. Russell has the courage to push each of his characters to the limit and then sometimes even over that line. Pat’s father (Robert DeNiro) is compelling as someone with a gambling habit, who is obsessively superstitious to the point of being a hazard to his family. Lawrence plays a strong female character and gives a memorable performance worthy of an Oscar.

Honorable Mentions

“Bernie,” “Brooklyn Castle,” “Kid with a Bike,” “Killer Joe,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Rampart,” “Savages,” “Skyfall” and “We Are Legion”