I will always remember 2012 as the year that my movie-going habits changed. Up until August of this year I was going to the movie theatre at least once a week and sometimes lining up several movies in a row to make day of it. However, after becoming a father my ability to make a quick trip to the local megaplex has been significantly limited. With my increasingly busy schedule I find that even when I have a couple of hours free I would rather spend them at home with my son than out seeing a movie that I might not even enjoy. I have come to accept the fact that seeing the newest big release the weekend it opens is just not something I do anymore.
However, that does not mean that I’m not seeing movies at all. I still managed to squeeze in 72 new releases this year, which is only about 20 fewer than my normal count, and I saw most of the movies I wanted to see. It’s just that my method of watching movies that has changed. Instead of going to the cinema to watch a movie from start to finish I’m watching a lot more movies on my laptop in one-hour increments. It’s not the ideal setting, but it definitely separates the great films from the bad films more easily and saves me from sitting through movies that aren’t worth my time.
Despite the 72 movies I have seen, I do feel slightly inadequate in making this list. I will be catching up with many of the Fall/Winter prestige movies that I missed in the coming months and my list might change as a result. However, these are my favorite movies of the year right now and this is the only list I can provide.
Movies I Missed:
Amour, Anna Karenina, Cloud Atlas, Compliance, Cosmopolis, Holy Motors, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly, Life of Pi, The Loneliest Planet, Rust and Bone, Silver Linings Playbook, Tabu, This is Not a Film, Wuthering Heights, Zero Dark Thirty
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical):
21 Jump Street – One of the funniest comedies of the year brings us a long-awaited update to the cinematic portrayal of modern high school students where the popular kids are the ones who promote equality and the jocks are outcasts.
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin establishes himself as the biggest new name to watch with this energetic directorial debut. The film is packed with ideas and more visual magic than just about anywhere else this year.
Bernie – Pity that Jack Black did not receive more awards attention for his career-defining portrayal of a nice guy brought to murder. Director Richard Linklater combines actors with real people and makes the two indecipherable because they all feel like people we know.
Damsels in Distress – It’s wonderful that despite a 13 year break from filmmaking Whit Stillman has not lost any of his charm as he bounces back into the spotlight with this hilarious anarchic comedy.
Footnote – Joseph Cedar’s film has an incredibly simple premise, but he takes it to incredible deep and meaningful places. Every moment of slapstick hilarity is matched with an equal moment of lasting poignancy.
Haywire – It was a great year for Steven Soderbergh and this star infused anti-action movie was my favorite of his two 2012 releases (just barely). All action movie directors should take note on how to hold a camera during chase scenes.
Looper – A magnificent genre film with perfectly timed tonal shifts. The montage that depicts how Joe became Old Joe is one of my favorite movie moments of the year.
Magic Mike – Steven Soderbergh did not make my top ten, which I feel sort of bad about. Magic Mike is one of the smartest, most well-observed comedies of the year and proves the man behind the camera is a master.
Oslo, August 31st – At first glance this movie felt a but like typical European miserablism, but director Joachim Trier gives us enough light on the edges of the frame to bring humanity and empathy out in his audience.
Safety Not Guaranteed – Another strong entry into the great year for comedies that was 2012, Safety Not Guarantee has completely charming performances and one of the most unpredictable endings this year.
The Top Ten
10) The Kid with a Bike
This poetic film from the Dardennes brothers offers one of the most honest performances from a child actor in years. Thomas Doret plays Cyril, a young boy who is abandoned by his father and splits his time between an orphanage and the apartment of a kind woman from his father’s former building. Despite everything going bad for Cyril, he ultimately ends up a good character and none of his bad choices are worse than the actions of a seemingly noble father and son at the end of the movie. In a message that resonates strongly in 2012, the Dardennes brothers reveal that it’s not our circumstances that defines us, but the choices we make when the situation is at its most dire.
9) Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino’s movies exist in a universe that is so deeply cinematic that everything that occurs within his films must be viewed within that context (which is probably why he is so off-put when people ask him about violence). Along with layers of references to films within the genre he is sending up, his movies also contain a thoughtful analysis and response to the cinematic depiction of certain tropes. The finale in Django Unchained features our title character systematically killing archetypes of slavery movies and then literally blowing up a plantation that, by no coincidence, resembles Tara from Gone with the Wind. It’s simultaneously a celebration and a condemnation of cinema history that only a director like Tarantino can pull off. The film also features the director’s excellent dialogue that trips so marvelously off the tongue of actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, and particularly Christoph Waltz. This may not be the ultimate examination of cinematic violence, like Inglourious Basterds, but it’s another dynamic entry into the Tarantino canon.
8) The Dark Knight Rises
No film have I defended more this year than Christopher Nolan’s third installment in his excellent Batman trilogy (and I am not the only passionate one, my review of the film was the most commented article on Film Misery this year). The biggest criticism that has been lobbed at The Dark Knight Rises is that it seems to get bogged down with moral fuzziness, offering sympathy and disdain for people on both sides of the law. I happen to believe that moral fuzziness was the point of the movie. Throughout history there have been few conflicts when there is a clearly identifiable hero and villain and The Dark Knight Rises further establishes that every individual or movement, given some perspective, has equal moments of justice and villainy. Christopher Nolan is a master action movie structuralist and the beautiful IMAX projection of this film had me clinging to my arm rests right up until the final moments. Criticize the minor flaws all you want (and I’ll be the first to admit, there ARE flaws), but I loved this movie and will defend it to the end of days.
The unintended consequence of being nominated for 12 Oscars is that critics unfairly declare a film “Oscar bait” and dismiss it as something that panders to the Academy, and lacks artistic ambition or subtlety. Every time I hear another critic dismiss Lincoln, I can’t help but think they’re reviewing the film based on the trailer (or maybe they’re actually reviewing War Horse). Lincoln is Steven Spielberg’s best movie since Minority Report, a surprisingly cynical and deeply affecting glimpse into the American political system through the lens of Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to abolish slavery. Honest Abe is conniving, but sincere in this well-written film about back room politics and the sacrifices that must be made in order to secure social justice through the U.S. democracy. A scene that works as an excellent microcosm is the one wherein a group of African Americans is ushered into Congress to watch the white senators vote. A lesser Spielberg film would have allowed the John Williams score to swell and cut to one of the African American’s tearing up when one of the congressman declares “welcome to your house.” Instead we see the sly smile of James Spader and a cut to one of the on-the-fence Congressman and realize that these nameless African Americans were only brought in as a guilt tactic. It’s a revealing moment in a film that is so much more than Oscar bait.
6) The Iran Job
2012 was a fantastic year for documentaries and there were none I appreciated more than Till Schauder’s fly-on-the-wall examination of Kevin Sheppard’s year playing basketball in Iran. What appears at first to be a superficial sports film about an American turning a rag-tag team of foreign basketball players into winners, becomes so much more. Sheppard becomes friends with different Iranians and has candid conversations with each of them, revealing their stories and ultimately the reason behind the country’s conflicts. Where movies like Argo gloss over the foreign perspective to show only how Americans are affected by international crisis, The Iran Job puts a human perspective on the people in an oppressed country. As one woman says when asked why she doesn’t just leave to find a country that offers less oppression: “that would be enjoying the freedom that somebody else fought for. Iran is my country and I want to make it better.”
5) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
I mentioned on the podcast that ambiguity is something that I really appreciate in a good film. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has plenty of ambiguity as it slowly unfolds the mystery at its center. A police detective, a coroner, a criminal prosecutor, a confessed murderer, and several other police officers are on a hunt to find a body buried somewhere under the Anatolian landscape. As the search becomes more desperate, we are gradually given more insight into each character and their motivations for being out in the first place. Ceylan masterfully uses the camera to shift tones within a single shot: in one scene police officers joke about yogurt as the camera slowly zooms in to the murderer in the back seat until all the police are cut off from the frame, bringing the scene from lightly comic to deeply solemn with one gradual shift of focus. Ultimately the movie is about differing perspectives on truth with each character making a decision that has profound effects by the end of the film.
4) The Deep Blue Sea
Rachel Weisz gets my vote for performance of the year for her role as the abandoned and desperate Hester in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea. Davies brings us the best depiction of pure isolation since Antonioni with shots of Hester alone in an apartment with her reflection subtly creeping into the frame, as if she’s haunting her own home. One of my favorite shots of the year comes in a flashback when a long tracking shot reveals a crowd of people huddled in a London tube station during a WWII bombing raid. This cuts immediately to Hester in the present nearly taking her own life in the very same station, with a contrast that has a beautiful impact. Most of the film is set within a single London apartment, for which Davies and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister deserve immense credit. They prove that a dialogue-heavy play in a single location can be just as cinematic as any other film put out this year.
At the beginning of last year I would have believed that a found footage superhero movie making my end of the year top ten list was as likely as Todd Phillips making a movie that wasn’t a misogynistic bore. I am glad to see director Josh Trank was able to blow away my expectations and prove that found footage does have its uses. More than any movie, Chronicle felt like it represented the year that was 2012 both thematically and stylistically. The film was assembled with footage that was made to look like it was shot on smart phones and the directors manage to motivate every shot while keeping it realistic. There were so many themes and stylistic choices that reflect 2012: one of the main characters’ arc is dependent on a lack of available healthcare, people’s reaction to violence and tragedy is to take out their phones, the high school aged protagonists use their powers for pranks instead of public good. Ultimately the movie really sold me during the finale when a character uses his powers to reach in to a building and pull out all the phones, cameras, and other devices of the people within, demanding that they see what he is with their own eyes, not through the filter of their technology. It’s a powerful shot, and the one that defines 2012 for me.
2) Moonrise Kingdom
I was very glad to revisit the entire Wes Anderson oeuvre during our marathon earlier this year because it made me appreciate Anderson’s latest effort all the more. Moonrise Kingdom may be the most Anderson-y of all of Anderson’s films yet with a central love story that fits the director’s unique and quirky style perfectly. Anderson’s usual stylistic tricks are at play with fantastic parallel tracking shots and an omnipotent narrator (brilliantly personified by Bob Balaban) with some of the greatest ensemble work of the year. Sam and Suzy have instantly become the quintessential cinematic youth romance with their journey to escape from childhood brilliantly contrasted by the adults in the film acting like children. What really elevates the film to greatness, however, are the moments of comedy that have subtle human truths weaved within.
1) The Master
If I would have been asked immediately after seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master if it was my favorite film of the year, I probably would have said “no,” or “I need to think about it.” However, “thinking about it” is exactly what made me realize that Anderson had once again achieved something monumental. The Master expertly balances a myriad of themes while revealing a fascinating character and offering up the finest performances of the year. It’s a movie about faith, with each person in the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd taking a different approach to The Cause. It’s a movie about duality with Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell representing the body and Dodd representing the mind, brilliantly exhibited in the contrasting masturbation scenes. It’s a movie about acting with Hoffman and Phoenix acting like they’re from two different eras of film and depicting exercises that look a lot like the Meisner technique. It really is a movie that does everything, which is precisely why it is the best of 2012.
Best Quote of the Year:
“Have you ever heard the expression ‘prevention is nine tenths the cure?’ Well in the case of suicide, it’s ten tenths the cure.” — Greta Gerwig as Violet in Damsels in Distress
Best Exchange of the Year:
Pete: “For instance, Tracy, if you decide you want to side with Emma and you never want to see me again after she and I divorce, I will understand.”
Tracy: “Oh, Pete, I would never do that.”
Pete: “Well…think about it.” — Blaise Miller as Pete and Julia Stiles as Tracy in It’s a Disaster