2012 IN REVIEW: Duncan’s Top Ten Films

Tabu (FEATURED)Everyone is entitled to their own little bubble of perception, and nobody is more aware of that than I. So for as much reason as I can understand cynical reactions to this year, highlighted by a list of debate-inspiring films I published recently, I cannot empathize with them. Perhaps that’s me living in a bubble of my own, but I honestly tried being cynical for a while. It was an intellectually rewarding exercise, but at the end of the day, I’d rather focus on all the reasons 2012 was such a great year in film.

To get my personal affinity for this year out of the way, it’s the year I realized I wanted to make a career out of film criticism, found a wonderful new site to make my towards that end under, writing alongside four of the most talented young writers working free! I went to New York for their 50th annual film festival, an experience I hope to have again for many years to come. Before writing about film, I’d usually see thirty films a year. Last year I bumped that up to 65. In 2012, I saw 109 films in theaters, and with luck I’ll see even more in 2013. So you can see why I’ve been so chipper in my shoes about this year.

Pitch PerfectThat’s not to say the year wasn’t without its unfavorable detours. The summer in general was a cynical time I’d rather forget, with the multiple controversies ignited by The Dark Knight Rises informing a morally, emotionally, sexually, and intellectually inert film from Christopher Nolan. Universal’s senseless and perfunctory continuation of the Bourne franchise, too, was a slap in the face of a series that already reached its energizing climax. If I were merely going off of the mainstream release calendar, I might also mark this year as a disgraceful one.

Even that, though, would be a disservice to the vim and enthusiasm simple comedic fare. Rock of Ages, 21 Jump Street, and Wanderlust all provided good-natured and unashamed anecdotes worth indulging for quality time with friends and family. It may be a sentimentalist move, but I remain proud of my mom for choosing Pitch Perfect as her favorite film of the year. As much as high-browed critics may scoff at the unabashed air-headed eccentricity of such cliche efforts, this year made a case for them not as avoidance of cinematic progression, but as an joyous ode to.. well, joy, in all its derivative pleasures.

SnowtownNot that the chaotic moments of the year weren’t given gripping treatment as well. In a year where everyone felt the incessant need to declare the end of days, filmmakers like Bela Tarr, Pablo Larrain, and Justin Kurzel announced a more intimate reckoning of desolation. It was a year we couldn’t turn our back to the horrors of the world, and had to look them dead on in order to decide the best way to move forward. Even Django Unchained (which continues to diminish for me in the short time since I saw it) made an effort to draw awareness to the shameful horrors of our not-as-distant-as-we’d-hope past.

As you can tell, my loves were wide and varied, ballooning the longlist of contenders beyond thirty titles, giving pause as to whether or not a Top 20 would be more applicable and rewarding. This year, though, I felt the dire need for exclusivity, making the ten I ended up choosing all the more significant. This omitted a cheating mention of last year’s underseen-until-2012 masterpiece Margaret, and forestalls mention of films not releasing until 2013 or beyond, particularly NYFF standouts No (Releasing in February; Review Here) and Our Children (Undistributed; Review Here). I thus reserve the right to a Top 20 for that occasion, assuming 2013 is as dynamite a year as it’s already promising to be.

But even after burning the list down to ten pieces of pure cinematic brilliance, I’m still left with an engorged list of honorable mentions that deserve a top ten list all their own. Note that all of these are films that have spots reserved in my DVD collection, each that I’d happily revisit one day or another.

Honorable Mentions
(In Alphabetical Order)

BarbaraArgo – Essentially and fondly Hollywoodized adaptation of absurd but dire consequences. Personal prioritized over political, building towards excelsior emotional high. (Further Thoughts)

Amour – Emotional and ashamed portraits physical and social deconstruction, rendered effortlessly from Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, shown through the appreciative and uncharacteristically kind eyes of Haneke. (Full Review)

Barbara -Matters of the heart noirishly tint 80s Germany in need of emotional vitality. Characters let down their barriers before Berlin does. Boldly collected performance from electric Nina Hoss.

Damsels in Distress – Infectiously written comedy of articulate dim-wit deconstructs the vapid core of college fraternity, featuring intelligently daffy turns from tightly aware ensemble. (Longer Review)

Damsels in DistressFrankenweenie – Fashioned by hand and heart, Burton’s giddily macabre stop-action love letter to monster movies begs joy-swept tears at the sheer weight and honest affinity of its craft. (Full Review)

Holy Motors – Leos Carax’s lunatic odyssey through the overPOPulated streets of Paris pleads the case that we’re merely repetitious imprints of the movies we watch, that human identity is becoming obsolete, and likely a thousand other different things under its wholly invigorating craziness. (Full Review)

The Imposter – Fascinating construction of terrifying mystery through unreliable testimony. As each character mixes truth and lies in defense of their morally repugnant selves, the boy who went missing becomes sickeningly irrelevant.

I Wish – Apocalyptic notions condensed to youthful familial stakes, child adventures balance dire and personal tension with memorial fondness. Fools us with sweet devotion to its impossible fantasy. (Longer Review)

Miss BalaThe Loneliest Planet – Human companionship made first loving by gorgeous sense of scope before midway misunderstanding moors us and them both in gripping isolation and co-dependency. Bernal, Furstenberg, and Gujabidze a better trifecta than Your Sister’s Sister.

Miss Bala – Inescapable flesh-grinder of revolting physical and moral exploitation. Naranjo’s direction brutally abuses lead character’s increasingly faint identity as cruelly as the unsparing world she inhabits. (Longer Review)

Oslo, August 31st – A bright spark of appreciation towards life, even as it considers itself unworthy. Inspirational craft over propulsive characterization. Nonetheless, “I love you Anders. I forgive you.” (Full Review)

Pitch Perfect – A Joybomb of pop-culture mashups, quirky lingo, passionate musical performances, and simply compelling character arcs for its bright and snappy ensemble, far beyond any half-assed episode Glee. (Full Review)

Post MortemPost Mortem Revenge of the Sith to No‘s Return of the Jedi, Larrain’s black-witted descent into Chilean darkness deconstructs… okay, demolishes social niceties to rebuild cold and splintered civic prison.

Rust and Bone – Audiard’s self-defined B-movie with a star, and Cotillard does provoke beneath-the-skin fireworks, but propulsive, over-juiced Schoenaerts a visceral revelation. Sentimentality beats you down under the waves, but it’s a tranquil, sun-soaked place to be. (Full Review)

The Secret World of Arrietty – Inelegantly botched by numb U.S. redubbing, Studio Ghibli’s gorgeous still life adventure expands scope by refining details of slight and subtly expansive spaces. (Longer Review)

17 Girls – Emotionally and sexually assured story of obstinate youth companionship, sensitively plumbs the loneliness and trepidations of intelligent but inexperienced teenage girls (Longer Review)

Holy MotorsSilver Linings Playbook – An awkward and derivative mess by honest intention, dysfunction and naive optimism is rooted endearingly into its DNA, as the core family’s. Goes out of its way to justify its woozy schmaltz, and damn does it work like no other! (Longer Review)

The Snowtown Murders – Waking nightmare of abused & abusive masculinity, its characters swallowed whole by the ensuing delirium of painfully inclusive violence. Like Miss Bala, a cold and rusty meat-grinder. (Full Review)

The Turin Horse – Admittedly indulgent reckoning creates stark desolation via merciless sound design and immense economy. Trapped in a melancholic moment with no hope (let alone desire) of escape.

Duncan’s Top 10 Films of 2012

Zero Dark Thirty10. Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

It’s too easy for late season droppings to overpopulate Top 10 lists, but Zero Dark Thirty merits the consideration for raw impact. Deceptively touted as a procedural manhunt, an aspect it depicts with grueling frustration and discipline, Bigelow’s film carries with it a heavy personal, and in fact interpersonal calling. The ensemble cast from Jennifer Ehle’s astonishing warmth, Clarke’s vigor followed by human trepidation, and Edgar Ramirez’s trademark snark, pushes the community retribution this maddening search began with on 9/11. It doesn’t glorify the torture or secondhand butchery used to capture the man, and in fact quite the opposite. These are people in the business of killing; an evil, even if it is a necessary one. At the very end, there’s no reward for our sacrifice. Like Chastain’s character, we’re the only ones left on the manifest, and we can’t fill those seats back up.

Mirror Mirror9. Mirror Mirror
Directed by Tarsem Singh

Rush as people may to consider Tarsem a hack alongside Zack Snyder and Matthew Vaughn, there is an infectious and simple-minded heart present in his work above theirs. Singh’s stylistic sensibilities are bare on skin, no more so than in Mirror Mirror, his loopy retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. Giving itself whole-heartedly to the ridiculousness inherent to the genre, its porcelain skinned characters live in a music box world akin to the one the film opens with. From there, Singh is left to go off the wall with his lunacy, repeatedly stripping Armie Hammer down for sexual kicks. Rather unexpectedly, however, he imbues a political snark to the Queen’s fussy and vapid taxation of the villagers, letting the pale tones chill enthusiasm just enough for its colourful bursts to scream with unadulterated joy. Few films this year are so alive as Mirror Mirror, and sappy as it is to say, I believe (x11) in love (x5). It’s the kind of math that doesn’t make sense, so you can’t argue it. (Full Review)

Wuthering Heights8. Wuthering Heights
Directed by Andrea Arnold

Another piece of classic revisionism, though Andrea Arnold’s trademark style is markedly bleaker than Tarsem’s. Recontextualizing Emily Bronte’s classic not only with a culturally provocative black Heathcliffe, but also with a fierce natural aesthetic, these heights are certainly wuthering. Robbie Ryan’s sensually delicate visuals hang on the screen like a landscape portrait, but also make fine use of light, dust, and the wind that entwines the two. So brutally entwined are the lovers at the film’s core, brought to life with extraordinary chemistry and progression by Solomon Glave, James Howson, Shannon Beers, and Kaya Scoledario, whose silver tongue threatens to slash her own throat. It’s a desolate romance built on the foundation of each others’ capacity to inflict pain, and it’s devastating how Arnold navigates that towards their shocking over-dependency on one another. If love is a force of nature, it’s also a nasty bitch. (Full Review)

Take This Waltz7. Take This Waltz
Directed by Sarah Polley

The year’s most poignant Anna Karenina tale that isn’t Anna Karenina (The Deep Blue Sea is another member of that sub-category), Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz is this year’s Drive in some ways. It’s a moody tone vehicle with gorgeous stylistic compositions, partially due to Polley’s imposed summery delirium, but with much aid from DP Luc Montpellier bubbly primary colour palette. As Michelle Williams’ Margot, another tragically incomplete lover played gorgeously by the still-young actress, fusses over an inadvertent passion for her next door neighbor, which his rich magneticism does nothing to dull, one worries Polley will shy away at the last second. Luckily she brings down the rabbit hole with all the bitter consequences Margot’s irreversible decisions have wrought, both for the herself and Seth Rogen’s painfully endearing sweet husband. It’s quite literally an emotional rollercoaster. You get on for the rush, but you’re left sick at the end. (Full Review)

Alps6. Alps
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

As oxymoronic (not a real word) as the term delicate indelicacy sounds, it’s perhaps entirely fitting to describe Yorgos Lanthimos’ deranged cinematic language. Turning his gaze to a different kind of familial study, Alps follows a group of dead-loved-one impersonators for the grieving families of the recently dead, and as dicey emotional territory as that sounds, Lanthimos is never the sentimentalist. As absurdly comic as he approaches these deranged characters, such as a suicidal gymnast who wants more than anything to dance to a pop tune, their desires don’t come across as silly or unbelievable. Aggeliki Papoulia proves Lanthimos’ most flexible muse, juggling identities with a daffy psychological gameness. It’s tempting to discount Lanthimos as all crazy and no care, but he says more about identity and grief through warped goggles than most do with clear eyes.

Elena5. Elena
Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev

Often as wit applies to the comedic, Andrei Zvyagintsev applies it coldly and ironically to his Russian character study with subtly apocalyptic undertones. The backdrop of nuclear power plants on the horizon isn’t there for nothing, nor is Elena Lyadova’s sassy mention of the world ending. Nadezhda Markina’s titular character is the cutting board for these cruel impositions, as the world seems to taunt Elena with impending doom as recompense for an act she commits halfway through the film. Alternatively despicable and tragically understandable, her decisions seem almost out of her control as part of a societal norm. Zvyagintsev’s oppressive bleakness threatens to null its bite, but repeatedly finds kinetic and piercing ways of compounding that cruel irony. It’s an economic portrait of the inglorious future as it takes a dark turn while we’re too busy watching TV. (Longer Review)

Sister4. Sister
Directed by Ursula Meier

Foreign films about the economic trials of odd family units in stark environments were an odd subgenre this year, but none with the ambiguous sensitivity of Ursula Meier’s sophomore feature. Though many have pushed comparison to the Dardennes brothers, their relationships were never as complexly compelling as the one at Sister‘s heart. That titular deception aids two astonishing intelligent performances from Lea Seydoux and particularly Kacey Mottet Klein, a young thief on the Swiss ski slopes assuming adult responsibilities in the absence of paternal love. Klein and Seydoux grapple with each other with love and hate, not dissimilar to the couple of Wuthering Heights, but their chaotic emotional tumbles amount to the most astonishing ending note of the year. With DP Agnes Godard beautifully lighting the way, Ursula Meier may be more comparable to Claire Denis than anyone else, and that’s a thought to cherish. (Full Review)

The Master3. The Master
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Though it’s a regular mark on nearly every Best of 2012 list, The Master remains one of the year’s most divisive films. No one doubts that Anderson’s film resonates, but precisely how is debatable. In the two times I’ve seen it, my opinions have run the gamut of satirizing organized religion, an abusive romance between Hoffman and Phoenix’s two leads, and a science-fiction prequel to There Will Be Blood. Perhaps this lack of cohesion is to Anderson’s credit, as its elliptical editing and revelation-induced cinematography place it possibly in any genre. Like his characters, Anderson experiments in extreme search for a deep revelation, and the film is all the more masterful and mystifying for its frustrated moments of meandering that otherwise would weigh it down. As I boil it down now, the film is a criticism of the search for the cinematic ideal, set in a time when people cared only about what others saw in the picture.

Tabu

2. Tabu
Directed by Miguel Gomes

In a year of astonishing two-act structures (Wuthering Heights, Argo, The Loneliest Planet), none was as radically divergent in style and sympathy as Tabu‘s. Some have even gone so far as to say the film’s slow-paced ironic first act following a middle-aged catholic with a heart of gold pales dully in comparison to the Africa-set second half. That may indeed be true, as the near-silent adventures of the chapter titled “Paradise” build an astonishingly impossible romance with a deep sense of longing, transcending words and best told through the way characters look at one another. Even as the characters are materialistic scoundrels, that was no setback for Gone with the Wind (Another masterpiece I caught while I was in New York). For me, neither act should be discounted for its individual pleasures, impact, or romantically celluloid achievements. Each moment leans on the next and the prior, like a beauteous quilt adorning the wall. (Full Review)

Magic Mike1. Magic Mike
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

No referential description of Steven Soderbergh’s latest does it justice, with any mention of a Channing Tatum stripper movie only garnering skepticism. It was a shock, then, that this year’s career revelations for both Tatum and Matthew McConaughey met a high note with this sweat-soaked buddy comedy, but even that does little to plumb the depths of Soderbergh’s generational achievement. The film is a blast of juiced up pleasure-seeking on the surface, but below the bronzed exterior writer Reid Carolin plumbs the economic and physical insecurities that plague contemporary youth in vain search of an escape route. McConaughey’s metrosexual symbol of America is an omen of inaction, but Tatum really shines as his personal journey leads him to a salvation that’s bleaker than it seems exiting the theater. The film itself is a revelation, that the only roadblock in achieving something deeply impassioned is the will to risk losing everything. And… yeah, the skin’s hot too. (Full Review)

What films are you shocked or delighted to see on my list? Comment below!

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  • Happy to see movies like Tabu, Take This Waltz and Wuthering Heights making your top 10. I wont say shocked as i remember going through your 2011 list from your blog so i was kind of expecting some “surprises”.. Magic Mike at #1 is what i would say is a surprise for me.

    As far as your Honorable Mentions goes, Amour, Holy Motors, Turin Horse, Oslo to Silver Linings, Argo, Frankenweenie. All of these are in my top 20 as well. Your list has to be one of the most interesting ones i have seen so far and i really like it.

    P.S: Your #10 is my #1 movies of the year.

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