The year’s best films so far: “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “21 Jump Street,” and more

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The 2012 film calendar has already passed the halfway point of the year and there have been quite a number of films that I have seen and would highly recommend you catch at some point. One problem, though, is that many of the year’s best films will not open until closer to the fall due to the annual quest for potential Oscar gold. The good news is that many are either out in theaters now or coming soon, or are already out on DVD/Blu-Ray.

The biggest film of the summer (or perhaps, this year), The Dark Knight Rises, opens Friday, July 20; considering that 2008’s The Dark Knight ended up making my top ten list at the end of the year, I would not be surprised if the newest one makes my end of the year list for 2012 too. There are only a few more days until it opens, but there is still plenty I have seen that makes clear it has a good chance of making my end-of-the-year list.

Two films that could be given the highest honors at the current moment could be Craig Zobel’s Compliance and Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both I saw at Sundance and are riveting in different ways. Zobel’s suffocating drama never lets up and manages to be darkly sinister and morbidly fascinating, pinning us to our seats and the screen wanting to reach out to help young Becky (Dreama Walker) in a dire situation that can only be described as one that needs to be seen to be believed. Compliance opens at Landmark’s Lagoon on August 31 and there will be a forthcoming interview I did with stars Walker, Ann Dowd, and Pat Healy as well as writer/director Zobel.

Beasts on the other hand features a visually stunning portrait of amazement and bewilderment. The poetic film by Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar starts out as a survival film only to turn into a film about life, beauty, and independence, showcasing a great eye for detail, story, and creativity. It has two breakout performances from young Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, who plays dad to Wallis’s Hushpuppy. It’s an extraordinary depiction of a loving bond of father and daughter, but also the harsh realities we are faced with in doing what is best for one another and moving on. Beasts of the Southern Wild is currently screening at Landmark’s Lagoon Theater and deserves all the attention it has been getting since mid-January.

Another film that caught my attention earlier this year and deserves some overdue praise is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia by Turkish master director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which opened at the Film Society of Mpls/St. Paul at St. Anthony Main in March and then left the big screen. It hits DVD and Blu-Ray this Wednesday, July 18, and is worth seeing as either a rental or better yet, as a purchase to be viewed multiple times. Leading us into the unknown from the get-go, Ceylan, using majestic cinematography, slow development, and a lingering atmosphere of film noir throughout, transforms a usual storyline into an unusual police drama that still has not left my mind and still leaves me baffled with questions that perhaps are better not answered until the time is right. Only in the last fifteen minutes do we begin to separate fact from fiction in this compelling if exhausting two-and-a-half hour journey into the abyss.

For whatever reason, comedies might be the hardest genre for me to appreciate these days. I know there are plenty of decent ones out there, but believe me, there are more awful, terribly unfunny comedy films then there are good ones. I recently caught up with one that exceeded my expectations and actually made me hope for a sequel. The movie is Phil Lord’s and Chris Miller’s terrific adaptation of a mediocre 80s T.V. show, brought up a notch in 21 Jump Street. The pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum might have had something to do with the success of the film, and having cameos by original Streeters Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise in the film helped, as did a funny and believable script by up-and-coming screenwriter Michael Bacall (Project X, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and a script for a feature on Tom Cruise’s Tropic Thunder character Les Grossman). I don’t know why seeing a knife getting ripped out of Hill’s back at a raging high school party at Hill’s parents’ house made me laugh non-stop, but the funniest moment was seeing comedian Rob Riggle’s eyebrows slide down from above his eyes down to above his lips. If you do not know what I am talking about, you need to rent the movie now for yourself and find out why 21 Jump Street might be the funniest film of the year so far.

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom—now playing at theaters across the Twin Cities—did not disappoint either. Taking the viewers on an adventure like few American directors can these days, Anderson depicts an engaging first-love story that many can relate to. With outstanding performances from newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman and a wonderful cast of supporting actors such as Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Frances McDormand, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola find beauty in nearly every scene as the two young lovers escape their New England town wanting to be alone. There is something precious in Moonrise Kingdom that very film films explore; it’s a chance for young actors to shine above the marquee names and come award season, I hope to hear Hayward’s and Gilman’s names amongst the heavy hitters in the film industry. I also hope that Anderson continues to make his idiosyncratic and distinct films for many years to come.