Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Best Films of 2012: #1

I'm delighted to note that all of my top six films are both artistically meritorious and a lot of fun, each with a great deal of humor. That's certainly true of my choice for the best film of 2012.

It's William Friedkin's "Killer Joe," a loaded gun of a movie that fires itself straight into the collective American conscious, with a final sequence so iconic and indelible it instantly enters the pantheon of great moments in cinema. It's the kind of picture that - had its NC-17 rating not kept it from a wider audience - all of America might have been talking about (the kind Time used to run cover stories on).

Working from a screenplay by Tony-winning playwright Tracy Letts ("August: Osage County"), Friedkin - who also topped my 1985 list with the all-time great "To Live and Die in L.A." - constructs his picture primarily as a series of elaborate set pieces, each of which lasts 20 to 30 minutes. By the end of the first, I knew I was on "Killer Joe's" wavelength. This establishing sequence introduces Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-time Texas coke dealer who's into some bad men for 6 G's and whose mom, with whom he's been living, just found and stole all his blow.

His cute little ass on the line, Chris hightails it to the trailer park where his laconic, resigned, dim-bulb dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and va-va-voom stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) maintain custody of his younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Dottie's ethereal and otherworldly and not quite right in the head - she sees everything, including visions - but understands more than you might think. Chris gets nowhere with Ansel ("I've never had a thousand dollars in my whole life"), and, desperate for quick cash, hits on a murder-for-hire plot aimed at the $50,000 insurance policy on his mom's life.

In one of the first signs the movie is seriously fucked up, Ansel and Sharla quickly agree to the plan and turn their attention to divvying up the booty. They intend to keep it from Dottie, but needn't bother. "I heard you talking about killing Momma," she walks out of her room and intones. "I think it's a good idea." With that, they make the call to "Killer" Joe Cooper, a Dallas police detective who "does a little business on the side."

Killer Joe is one of the great, mythic characters in recent film, a man of menace both overt and under-the-surface, who in his tight blue shirt, black cowboy hat, and leather cop paraphernalia insists on gentlemanly conduct and language even while effecting acts of inhuman brutality. As Joe, Matthew McConaughey gives the defining performance of his career, the capstone of a marvelous movie year that also included good work in "Bernie" and "Magic Mike."

Letts' screenplay surely deserves the Academy Award. At times it's almost painfully witty. Even the insults exchanged among Chris, Ansel, Sharla and Joe - tossed off matter-of-factly rather than with evident malice - had me sitting up in bed at night laughing. (Think how simple and elegant a put-down it is when Chris tells Ansel, "Dad, you can't tell time.") Hirsch makes a highly likable lead, often bug-eyed at what's happening around him. Gershon and especially Church richly deserve Oscar nominations. Church's Ansel is a weak-willed man to begin with, happy - almost relieved - to concede his husbandly duties to Joe.

I walked out of the theater so juiced I wanted to walk right back in and see it again. Alive with the thrilling sensation of the new, "Killer Joe" - along with "Django Unchained" (and at this level we're truly splitting hairs) - is one that film lovers will still be talking about a decade from now.

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