For many years, prior to the Oscar nominations, the boy from Mattoon and his friend Tim put on their Ebert t-shirts and run down their personal best movies of the year. It's cute. Sometimes I chime in. My list is below.
10. The Third Rail, directed by Jackson Rake-Bartholmew.
2012 was a big year for films determined to spark public discourse about controversial topics, with somewhat mixed results. We started the year with Danish filmmaker Acthon Guntz's startling look at Germany's occupation of Budapest (Te Egy Zsidó?), which featured that now-famous bathtub scissor fight. It did big numbers at the box office, but critics were turned off by its length (323 minutes!) and its garish 3-D effects. Then there was outlaw director Miko Toklikis' bold documentary about bestiality at a remote Oklahoma ostrich farm (Yes, I Humped The Ostrich), which garnered much more critical acclaim but only made $523 in limited release. Then in early October, along came The Third Rail, Jackson Rake-Bartholmew's gorgeous, bone-chilling epic about Zeke Talbot, the diabolical and racist Pennsylvania oil baron who used his power and wealth to slaughter half of the country's African-American dwarf population by 1917. Talbot funded an elaborate kidnapping ring across several states for almost 13 years before anyone caught on, but by then, as you know, he'd systematically killed close to 1,456 dwarves, most of whom were doused in honey and then tied to railroad tracks he'd had set up in the backyard of his sprawling 600-acre compound. The graphic violence is sometimes mindless but it's defused by Bartholmew's elegant camera work and the terrific performance chipped in by the ageless Peter Ericson, who plays Samuel Boathead, one of the first men hired by Talbot to be part of his "Choo-Choo Crew." Some historians suggest CCCers were paid $1,000 for every dwarf they ran over with a train. But not Boathead, who famously walked away from the deal by telling Talbot that "No man shall be squished by this conductor today, sir!" a line Ericson delivers with his usual drollness. He's a shoo-in to get an Oscar nod, but the Academy doesn't reward actors with eyepatches anymore, for some reason.
9. Now It's Time To Conga 'Til Dawn, Fatso Sally, directed by Blake Milhewski.
Look, if you go see this movie and expect director Blake Milhewski's signature clarinet-scored chase scenes you're probably going to hate Now It's Time To Conga 'Til Dawn, Fatso Sally. No clarinets, no chases, just one plump lady who loves to dance like no one's watching. Milhewski inserted former plus-sized model Janie Lee Singersbock as his Fatso Sally, even though she'd never taken a conga lesson in her life. "She just filled the room with plus-sized radiance," Milhewski told Variety back when he announced the cast. "I just knew she'd find a way to learn the conga—or the conga would find a way to learn her." Milhewski even constructed a special camera he calls the "Cankle Cam" which zooms in and stays with Singersbock's rhythmic movements throughout the extended dance sequences. Here's a professional tip: Don't wear sweatpants if you see this movie in the theater. 20 minutes in, you'll know why.
8. The Boy Who Smelled Like Stale Birthday Cake, directed by Hans Finginss.
To make an effective, gripping epistemological family drama about a child's bizarre odor problem you need two crucial elements: brave actors and a patient director. The Boy Who Smelled Like Stale Birthday Cake has both, plus the added bonus of famed cinematographer Franz "Frank" Smith, who passed away at age 59, right after the movie was completed, due to complications from a fractured sternum. It's only fitting that this is Smith's finest work, as his generous use of mirrors and natural light help enhance the psychological impact the audience needs to feel while transfixed on the broken piece of coconut cake that rests on the boy's head. Former British sitcom star Aubrey Denson (Shakin' Not Stirrin') is sublimely graceful in his performance as the 12-year-old protagonist neglected by his WASP-y Rochester family just because he always reeks of stale cake. But any parent out there knows that's the dreary reality of raising a child in this economy. Of course, director Hans Finginss shows off the same formidable talents that made him a Sundance darling with 2009's raucous teenage sledding comedy That's What I Call A Snow Jump, Douchebro. Thankfully Finginss never got too caught up in his own hype, passed on directing Douchebro 2 and instead decided to make Birthday Cake his next passion project.
7. That's What I Call A Snow Jump, Douchebro 2, directed by Duffy Frojen.
So after Hans Finginss made the surprising choice to pass up another trek to the top of Big Drop Mountain, he handed over the reigns to Duffy Frojen, his key grip and protégé on the original Douchebro. Fans were skeptical about the change and lowered their expectations, but Frojen's directorial debut turned out to be a comedic masterpiece. (Guess we should give credit to Finginss for his mentorship, too. What a breakout year for him.) Granted, Frojen's job was made much easier once the original cast agreed to return for the sequel. Yes, all the lovable goons of Hoo-Ha Haus Sled Palace are up to their old winter tomfoolery— even Charlie Appleton makes a surprise cameo as Binks, the squirrelly snow patrol commander with all those perfect "Samurai breakfast, pronto!" lines. This time around, the gang faces even more obstacles than winning the annual international Sled Zeppelin competition and outrunning Binks from the co-ed hot tub parties. (Spoiler alert: it's a mountain lion) And to those out there who thought screenwriter Bo Mackleroy could never duplicate his original brilliance will be pleased to find out that he's managed to outdo himself with the catchphrases this time around. Yep, even better than "Goooooter!" and "NOW who has the flagpole huh, there, Driggsy?" Promise.
6. Zang-Zu's Choices By The River One Year After His Father Was Killed By Bald Pirates, directed by Hiru Hiru Ho-Si.
Most filmmakers would never attempt to shoot a big budget feature-length movie in total darkness, but Hiru Hiru Ho-Si is all about taking risks. His choice to film only at night by a secluded swamp without the use of natural or artificial light was the most puzzling of his career, yet he still managed to create a beautiful, haunting film without being pretentious. Quick backstory on this movie if you don't know it: The scrappy independent production company Paralenium won the rights to make the film version of Megan Baranski's famous Manchurian war novella way back in 1989. It took them nearly another decade to pick a director, finally settling on Ho-Si after he publicly campaigned for the job by taking out ads in most of the Hollywood trade pubs. Then it took 8 more years to get a script nailed down. Finally, preliminary production began in the summer of 2009 in a small fishing village near Hanoi. Fate intervened during the first day of shooting while Ho-Si was filming one of his patented underwater slowmotion sequences when a frisky eel swam up and bit him in the face. He lost his vision for two days, and during that time he had an epiphany and decided to make a movie using only sounds found in nature or when he banged a rusty pot against a hollow tree. Oh, and the actors' dialogue, of course. This wasn't a popular decision with the cast and crew, especially John Van Vieswick, who spent months putting on 30 pounds of muscle and even paid for expensive plastic surgery in order to win the part of Zang-Zu. But the end result is the most captivating work of his career and will probably earn him some major hardware this awards season.
5. I'm Just Perky Like This Thing That God Gave Me, directed by Eli Brossberg.
When I heard that legendary Broadway star Georgia Lynn Flemming was cast as Fanny McElroy in the film adaptation of Cory Montgomery's popular young adult novel, I, like most people, thought this project was doomed. But weren't we all pleasantly surprised when we saw what director Eli Brossberg must have known all along? It turns out Flemming, like the bratty but endearing Fanny, also only has one nipple. Despite being 40 years older than the tween-aged Fanny in the book, Flemming inhabits the character, flouncing across the screen with ease and never over-sassing a scene. And Brossberg, best known for his foodie-inspired noir shlock films like Blood Tastes Like Sriracha, never gets in the way of the narrative arc. So, as a longtime admirer of Flemming's under-appreciated body of work, maybe this is a sentimental pick, but like Fanny always says, "Everyone deserves to be a princess and sparkle like a diamond raindrop for just one day." Even those diamond raindrops with only one nipple.
4. Yours, Mine, And Pedro's (But Not Stan's), directed by Michael L. Shays.
I know most audiences assumed that after 2003's disastrous turn as low-level 1940s gin-runner Mo Blatstein in the failed biopic Mo Blatstein Ran Gin Quite Poorly that we'd never see Barret Lawsone's name on top of a movie marquee again. I did too. But Lawsone made fools of us all and proved that he can chew up the screen if given the right material. Lawsone's portrayal of deadbeat insurance appraiser Stan was so heartbreaking that director Michael L. Shays said he would start to sob in the middle of a take so they'd have to reshoot constantly. Lucky for him, Lawsone was freakishly locked-in. He kept up his performance despite the fact that his director was so distracting. (It turned out that Shays was suffering from depression throughout the shoot because his wife left him for an insurance appraiser named Stan right before they started filming. Ah, life.) The end result is a brilliant homage to the American helicopter industry that will stick with you forever, no matter what you think about Jimmy Calfa's cross-dressing.
3. Bring The Thunder, Sing The Rain, Rock The Boat Or Die, Mi Tio, directed by Hector De La Louncho.
I always wondered why no one was ever daring enough to make a musical based on Harry Palermo's oustanding Tiempo, Tiempo, Tiempo, Hatchet (still my favorite Mexican heist film of all time) but this year my silent prayer was answered. There's a moment during the cadenza of Ronaldo's final song, "Caballos Muertos, No, No!", when he realizes all the horses he just bought have been poisoned by the evil lion-tamer (played with surreal twitchiness by the always brilliant Sergio Pompei) that's surprisingly uplifting even though it's supposed to be bleak. But just as Palermo forces us to confront some of our most debilitating fears (death, spiderbites, the coldness of old, barren women) De La Louncho achieves the same effect by using a pile of broken mannequins thrown onto the sidewalk with, dare I say, even more cutting impact: Alonzo... Qui.
2. There Is A Dog Here, directed by Kara Pomerantz.
This was an outstanding year for female directors across all genres. Sure, everyone praised Dina Von Lamont's sweeping ode to office romance, Dollhouse Diaryland At The Watercooler. And you can't swing a dead cat around an elevator without hitting a person who ranks Linda Toot's Eggs Over Easy Or Else in their top five movies of the 2000s. But where is the love for Pomerantz? This is a gift of a movie that took five years of hard work to bring Janie Lynn Gundersloof's winsome sea journey to the big screen, and it's been shamefully left off most top ten lists this year. Well, not mine, because even if you think the movie's stark political undertones feel overly precious you have to respect a director willing to push the envelope this far over the edge while she's battling shingles.
1. Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg.
Great, great film.