This list stressed me out, man.
A chronic worrier and an anxious writer, I recoil from such assignments as the comparison and ranking of films across 365 days. “These apples and oranges do not a YEAR IN REVIEW article make!” I cry, my tears falling cinematically onto the crusty keys of my MacBook Pro as I weep some more about what a hard life I have.
My rubric for the best films of the year is a messy, intuitive, and limited affair that involves what films I actually saw (far too few for this list to have any shot at comprehensiveness), what each film seemed to be attempting and the degree to which it was successful in that attempt, the vague and amorphous quality of how I “feel” about them, and something I’ll call the Sincerity Quotient. I don’t know what that is, but I think it has to do with a bullshit meter and the instinct that the filmmakers are being genuine.
Then again I could be wrong.
…Also, I didn’t see The Master. Do I have to give back my Critic’s License now?
To make my top ten list more interesting, I’ve made recommendations for further non-2012 viewing after each film according to my whims and fancies. Please add your own suggestions in the comments!
Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry – Alison Klayman’s documentary about the Chinese artist and activist is an astounding reminder of how the fight for free speech and personal liberty is still frighteningly relevant. The film traces Wei Wei’s search for the true death toll following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, his involvement in the Beijing Olympics, several large art installations, and confrontations with the police, much of which is chronicled on Wei Wei’s blog and twitter account. It’s a study in communication and art in the digital age as well as a galvanizing call for transparency in government.
- ALSO SEE: Exit Through the Gift Shop, for another vantage point on “artistic transgression” and what art is and should be.
Holy Motors – A madcap ride that never leaves you comfortable or confident that you know what you’re watching, featuring a magnificently varied performance by Denis Lavant and imagery to fill a swimming pool. Cinema as a form of reincarnation, the inextricable links between decay and being alive, the digitalization of machines…its subjects are as enigmatic as they are revelatory. Never have I heard so many frustrated sighs as the credits rolled.
- ALSO SEE: David Lynch and Mark Frost’s surreal and melodramatic TV series Twin Peaks. Just because.
The Invisible War – No other film has me more excited for its Oscar nomination than this heart-breaking documentary about rape in the U.S. military, which has already begun to affect policy and should be seen by anyone with a stake in the American armed forces (and that’s everybody). The shocking truth: over 20% of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. army. Kirby Dick’s investigation into the rampant violence and complicity of military institutions is truly difficult but required viewing.
- ALSO SEE: Kirby’s invaluable guide to the hypocrisies of the ratings system, This Film is Not Yet Rated.
The Loneliest Planet – Julia Loktev’s gorgeous film is populated more by silent mountains than by words, as a young couple traveling with a guide through the Georgian wilderness experience an event that challenges their conception of themselves and their relationship. The three actors are a superb ensemble that easily carry a film without much in the way of plot, and the cinematography is a feast for the eyes.
- ALSO SEE: A film from this year of equally stunning cinematography that might likewise try the patience of impatient viewers, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
Looper – An inventive new take on a well-trod genre, Rian Johnson’s film surprised me with its thoughtfulness amid some great action sequences and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s awe-inspiring Bruce Willis impression.
- ALSO SEE: Another imaginative take on time-travel, the inspiringly low-budget Primer.
Photographic Memory – While not one of the year’s best documentaries (if you can call it that…filmic memoir might be a better description), Ross McElwee’s work always leaves me in a fond, reflective mood that increases my thirst for new experiences and the creative process.
- ALSO SEE: Time Indefinite, one of McElwee’s best.
The Queen of Versailles – A film that literally made my jaw drop. Lauren Greenfield’s homage to schadenfreude about the largest private home in America is also about the never-ending quest for more, the top-to-bottom effects of the recession, and the simple truth that money can’t buy you happiness (although it helps).
- ALSO SEE: 2010’s Oscar-winning look at the financial meltdown Inside Job.
Hilary’s Top 10 Films of 2012
10) Take This Waltz
Writer/Director Sarah Polley’s sophomore feature grows on me the more I consider it, and could easily rise in my rankings with further thought. I first took note of the Canadian filmmaker and actress when she starred on the exceptional television series Slings and Arrows (a hilarious send-up of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival I cannot recommend highly enough), and I strongly believe she will be a filmmaker to watch in the years to come. Take This Waltz is a deliciously unsettling portrait of familiar and unfamiliar love, lust, and inevitable change. Polley’s characters are lovingly drawn and the dialogue and camera alike are awash with lyrical turns – a virtuosic 360-degree shot waltzes around a ballroom-turned-lovenest, for instance. The cast is high on chemistry and inner life, featuring a standout performance from Sarah Silverman and a well-matched coupling of Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, who are equally adept at the silly tussles and somber refusals that define their relationship.
- ALSO SEE: Polley’s directorial debut feature Away From Her, which earned her Canada’s Genie Award for Best Achievement in Directing and and Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
What appears on the surface to be a somewhat dry retelling of events, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s portrait of a manhunt is a chameleon that shifts in the eye of the beholder. What struck me as most significant about the film was that none of the characters are given a motivating backstory. Apart from a deeply affecting opening sequence, in which audio of September 11th phone calls to loved ones and 911 operators plays over a black screen, the context of the search for Bin Laden is pretty much stripped away, and what is left is a compelling narrative that leaves one feeling sort of empty and uncertain about the meaning of the whole thing.
I am equally uncertain about the film’s own intentions and impact, and what may have been revisionist history concerning the use of torture. The old depiction versus endorsement conversation is layered and valuable as it pertains to this film, raising questions that perhaps no one can definitively answer. Does the film deliberately resist drawing conclusions in order make a crucial point about the loss of meaning and clarity in the war on terror? Or does it exploit the U.S. torture program for drama while avoiding accountability, simultaneously claiming quasi-journalistic fidelity as well as artistic license? It likely does both. I feel that the failures of the film are of the “having their cake and eating it too” variety rather than an intentional promotion of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but perhaps I’ll feel differently about it after another viewing. For now, I think it’s a film worthy of consideration and debate, and hopefully a catalyst for more conversation about what our country expects and desires from those who wield power, both at home and abroad.
- ALSO SEE: A far different, lighter take on the U.S. Army’s operations, The Men Who Stare at Goats. The book on which it is loosely based examined the Army’s exploration of New Age concepts and their military applications in the War on Terror.
Justin and G Clark have already stumped for this film with passion and eloquence, while Duncan named it his most overrated film of the year with equal persuasion. I find myself in agreement with all of them: the film was both very compelling and very flawed. While I enjoyed yet another of Daniel Day-Lewis’s carefully studied, fervently human and idiosyncratic characterizations, the figure of Lincoln and his legacy got in the way of what could have been a less tempered and more audacious cinematic achievement – a boiled down, politically wonky procedural of the dysfunctional American process that exists (with a few distractions) in the middle of the film. Kushner’s script is at its best when it dramatizes the nitty-gritty of Team of Rivals, the Doris Kearns Goodwin book for which Spielberg bought the rights before it was even written, and it is the unnecessary attempts at putting the events in context (I mean really?) that reduces Lincoln from its potential sublimity.
Spielberg should also let his camera rest – enough with the jib-work, Steve! – and John Williams, well, that score was simply awful and not at all suited to the spirit of the best parts of the film. But those best parts are pretty good, although I may have been so pleasantly surprised by the restraint and charisma of the second act after such a stilted and stale beginning that I excused much in the light of its earnestness. I so hoped that the film would end before wading into the assassination, which was inevitably handled with too much schmaltz. Perhaps the Lincoln that is in my top ten list is the film that I wish it was, that I felt lurking beneath the fat, which felt sensational for its own disharmony. Despite its faults, its dual celebration and indictment of our imperfect, sometimes wonderful and often terrible democracy was a meaningful addition to a year fascinated with the workings of government.
- ALSO SEE: A film that set the standard in portrayals of the slow grind of consensus building (and 93 of its 96 riveting minutes take place in one room), 12 Angry Men.
As you might already be able to tell, I am usually not of one mind about anything. I’m the kind of person who overuses the word “problematic,” and hesitates to offer opinions for fear that I will need to revise them, to do more research, to unearth every piece of supporting evidence and alternate perspective through exhaustive Googling. It makes film criticism very daunting indeed, and yet I so enjoy the reflective process and slow uncoiling of my response to art. Django Unchained is still uncoiling within me, and despite certain revulsions and dilemmas, I truly believe it aims for the cathartic, subversive reinvention of a genre form, even if it’s an overly-slapstick, violence-desensitizing blaxploitation flick in actuality. It can seem like Tarantino’s able to defend himself behind the veil of his previous work, which established him as a blood-and-guts guy with a pop culture lens, but these comparisons break down, as Jermaine Spradley argues far better than I could (it’s a great article, read the whole thing).
The film is focused on inverting the tropes of fare like Birth of a Nation or Gone With The Wind, but also (according to interviews with Tarantino) with making sure that the depicted abuses of slavery are horrifying enough. And indeed, it seems that the over-the-top gore, which has always favored stylism over realism in his films, is largely reserved for the feel-good deaths of evil white stooges. Unfortunately, the volume of violence nevertheless seems to undercut the impact of a lot of the truly brutal scenes. Noticeably, though, the most terrifying of events are often conducted off screen or in brief flashes or reverse shots, a restraint that indicated to me that the film was doing two things at once: serving up a thrillingly cleansing revenge replete with upended stock characters (the slave sharpshooter as a hero, the sinister and complicit house negro, the not-so-gentlemanly southern gentleman), and reminding a country of the truly bloody cotton fields that are its heritage.
- ALSO SEE: Black Dynamite, the quintessential blaxploitation spoof.
Ava DuVernay’s film about a young woman whose husband is serving time went sadly unnoticed in the mainstream this year, which is really too bad. DuVernay crafts a simple story with complex realities for its characters, letting the performances of her actors (especially star Emayatzi Corinealdi) take focus. The slow awakenings, and turbulent passages of a marriage strained by forces within and beyond its partners’ control, are rendered patiently and beautifully, with an attentive care and lyrical softness that invite you to live inside its characters’ lives.
- ALSO SEE: Pariah, Dee Rees’s coming-of-age story also featuring the work of cinematographer Bradford Young.
This rough and yet tender film may seem slight, but bursts with feeling like a pacing fighter exploding into the ring. Director Jacques Audiard makes skillful use of a sometimes mosaic script, which was based on a short story collection and sings with interior reverberations and mirrored imagery. The two stars crackle on screen – Marion Cotillard’s physicality and emotional splendor as a whale trainer who has lost her legs are both measured and exuberant, and Matthias Schoenaerts, as a struggling single father who tends to damage things, exudes a hardness that earns its climactic breakdown in the fight of his life. Rust and Bone is about the pain that formed us, and the odd joy in recovering our flesh from its scars.
- ALSO SEE: La Vie En Rose for Cotillard’s inspired portrayal of the world’s most renowned chanteuse Edith Piaf.
Corny, sentimental, a second half that neglects its premise of a character struggling with mental illness… David O. Russell’s ensemble showcase certainly has its flaws. Perhaps it’s because I’m nostalgic for Philadelphia, perhaps my love of the “dance like no one’s watching” climax has gotten the better of me, or maybe it’s the combined energies of a cast having fun that have helped this film to worm its way into my heart. A gentle story that hits the right notes without feeling like it’s trying too hard and a sense of sincerity combined to make me smile like a goofball through the entire thing, although I didn’t share many of the guffaws of the packed audience with whom I viewed it. I sometimes had the sense that folks were laughing off their discomfort with Cooper’s mania, but I was pleased to see a narrative engage with bipolar disorder without invoking the sensationalism it so often engenders in storytellers. While some have criticized SLP with writing off mental illness as a cute quirk, I found its normalization to be pretty refreshing, if a bit undercooked and ultimately abandoned. While it is anything but a challenging film, it was the film I needed at the end of a long and trying year – entertaining without provoking my ire, sweet without trying my patience, and building nicely to a satisfying and truly joyous payoff which was probably my happiest moment in a movie theatre all year.
- ALSO SEE: This film’s spiritual cousin, the sublimely joyful Little Miss Sunshine.
Many of my top picks for the years top films come down to the feeling I had upon watching them. Beasts may suffer from the ease with which it can be read as populated by the so-called film trope of “magical negroes,” an archetype that cute-ifies a quaint brand of poverty (as Justin mentioned in his own list, the condescension of the bon sauvage), but I think it’s striving for far more than that. The scene that convinced me of its beauty and ambition featured the four young girls on their quest, striding with purpose, the four beasts mirrored behind them. Benh Zeitlin might be dealing in imagery blunted on the stone of naivete, but the whimsical force of its imagery and the fierceness of those girls reminded me of stories I loved as a child, focused on a child and a community that are not often given a voice in Hollywood. Now, whether Beasts really gives a voice to anyone but Zeitlin is up for debate, but its raw, tactile sensibility and gritty charm won me over to an appreciation of its fantastical and heartfelt poetry.
- ALSO SEE: Tarsem Singh’s adventure fantasy The Fall.
I was prepared for an unrelenting grimness when I finally caught up with Michael Haneke’s highly praised new film, but Amour is a juxtaposition of hard and soft, grief and tenderness, and it sustained me even as it broke my heart. Emmanuelle Riva is just as good as everyone says she is, giving the year’s best performance as a woman who withers in front of our eyes, yet carries a fire inside to her final moments. Jean-Louis Trintignant is also exceptional, playing his devoted and crumpling husband with palpable, tangible love. This is amour at the end of life, and though I initially wondered if Haneke might be making a statement with his title (an ironic layer the likes of Funny Games), it is as genuine and direct as they come. Seeing one’s love out of this world and into the next, no more and no less. It is a staggering, honest, and difficult film, but not without its own embrace, a gentle hand to lead you out of the theatre.
- ALSO SEE: Honestly, I can’t even draw a comparison. See Amour twice, so that you can spend less time reading subtitles and witness the performances more fully.
While it may be a controversial number one pick (especially considering documentaries are criminally under-valued – no docs have ever been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar), David France’s masterpiece of AIDS activism stunned me like no other film this year. Any reservations I initially had about selecting a film mostly composed of footage not shot by the director have faded after considering the intense labor of love How to Survive demanded, a feat of excavation and reconstruction that is on par with any other narrative of 2012. Beyond the intensity of its content and the incredible impact of its featured subjects on medicine, government, culture, and direct action strategies, the film is taut in its storytelling and bravely nuanced in its depiction of the internal politics and conflict of a group working for change. How to Survive a Plague is the most important history-centered movie in a season enamored with yesteryear, and its history is all too recent not to live vividly in the American mind.
- ALSO SEE: another triumph in archival research and the documentation of a social movement, The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975.