Another year half-way through, another pause to reflect on the best films of the first half. Last year by this time, The Tree of Life topped my list, followed by Meek's Cutoff. Below are my picks for the five best films I've seen in theaters in the first six months of 2012:
1) The Kid With a Bike: The latest from Belgian brother filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is perhaps their most masterful yet. No other film this year affected me as much as this, a deeply humane portrait about a father, his son, a bike, and a search. Riffing on Vittorio De Sica's Italian neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves, the Dardennes offer up a characteristically nuanced, minimalist, jarring look inside a world both foreign and intensely familiar. The little bursts of Beethoven are just icing on the cake. (my review)
2) Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson's beautiful film is one of the best films about childhood I've ever seen. It captures--in characteristically colorful, deadpan, boxed-in form--the magical spaces in which children dwell: playing, exploring, flirting with danger and adulthood, taking in the world with wonder and curiosity. More than just a stylistic exercise (Anderson's films can sometimes fall in this trap), Moonrise is a somber, poetic "coming of age" story with profound things to observe about how children experience the world. (my review)
3) The Grey: I didn't expect much more from Joe Carnahan's film than a typical “angry Liam Neeson” action flick. But man is it more than that. It's a tough-as-nails film; gritty and masculine to the core. And yet it's also deeply poetic, existential and surprisingly emotionally jarring. Especially in the last 30 minutes of so, The Grey really punches you in the gut. (my review)
4) Bernie: Richard Linklater's true crime tragicomedy is one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Not only does it feature a remarkable performance from Jack Black as the title character (by far Black's best acting to date), but it also tackles pretty weighty questions about morality and justice. Linklater's affection for the particularities of small-town Texas (his home state) also lends Bernie a special personality that makes it stand out as a truly fresh and original, rather uncategorizable film.
5) Undefeated: Essentially a documentary version of the latter seasons of Friday Night Lights, this Oscar-nominated film follows the 2009 football season of Manassas High School in North Memphis, a school more familiar with metal detectors and juvenile detention than with winning football games. The narratives of Coach Bill Courtney and a handful of players he shapes and mentors are utterly compelling and emotionally wrenching. It's a hard film to watch with dry eyes. (my review)
Honorable Mention: Damsels in Distress, Prometheus, The Avengers, Haywire, Cabin in the Woods