Until I finally settled on ten picks for my 2012 in Review submission, I actually was not so sure it was a great year for movies. Particularly in comparison to 2011, a year where movies like Certified Copy and Tree of Life restored my faith in the movies, this year’s selection, as the months progressed, was feeling rather dismal.
Perhaps unfairly, I found myself characterizing the past twelve months as a period of high expectations met with disappointing results, and relatively few surprises along the way. What were thought to be unimpeachable franchises released installments that, while solid, didn’t excite me like they should have (The Hobbit, The Dark Knight Rises). Others came from artists of whom I practically expect greatness, and I couldn’t help but feel they left themselves on autopilot (Django Unchained, Brave). And efforts to create new franchises, while ultimately successful, felt homogenous and flavorless to me (The Hunger Games, The Avengers). And then there were some movies that just decided they just weren’t quite ready for 2012 (Gravity, Grandmasters)
But as I whittled down my list, one containing few films I could ever have anticipated would make my top ten list, I ultimately couldn’t help but feel satisfied. Of my ten favorite movies of the year, each one challenged me in a unique or interesting way, whether it was within the text of the film itself, or the ferocious debates they inspired… and boy oh boy, do you remember a time when non-franchise cinema generated this much heated, fascinating discussion? I sure don’t.
What’s more, I am pleased (?) to say that narrowing my list to ten was indeed a difficult chore this year, as my heart broke over having to omit a title or two. For a movie fan, it’s a good problem to have. It was almost as difficult as having to choose my #1 pick for the year. For reasons I’ll explain, I sort of agonized over my pick for my favorite film of the year in a way I never have before. But in the end, I’m confident with my ultimate choice, as it forced me to think about the films I loved (and why I loved them) in ways I so rarely do. Again, a good problem to have.
So let’s get into it, shall we?
Films I Did Not See
- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
- Anna Karenina
- The Impossible
- Killing Them Softly
- Middle of Nowhere
- Miss Bala
- Not Fade Away
- Robot & Frank
- The Snowtown Murders
- This is 40
- This is Not a Film
Chronicle – The year’s great superhero movie is one that didn’t involve chiseled men gallivanting in rubber suits, nine-figure budgets or Anne Hathaway; it was in fact Josh Trank and Max Landis’ debut feature, a found-footage movie that actually uses the sub-genre to convey the joys and tolls of suddenly realizing you have a superpower. As a bullied teen who gets his chance to wreak vengeance, Dane DeHaan gives one of the year’s most notable breakout performances.
Holy Motors – A vexing odyssey whose most naked objective is to celebrate the language and titillation induced by the cinematographic apparatus, Leos Carax’s comeback feature flaunts its love for cinema with an almost lyrical dissonance. It is difficult to extrapolate from the film a sweeping point and yet, that itself seems to be the point entirely. Denis Levant and Edith Scob give some of the years’ most transfixing character moments.
How to Survive a Plague – An angry and reverent social documentary inspired by the sinners and saints whom I’m proud to call my heroes, as their work has indubitably led to a better life both for me and my chosen family. David France is additionally unflinching in depicting the internal political struggles from within the righteous yet increasingly homogenous ACT-UP, thereby making a more complex film about social change than he needed to.
The Imposter – Bart Layton’s Morris-like reconstruction of a young French man posing as a missing Texas boy is a riveting tale of truth and self-delusion that eventually also reveals itself as a fascinating whodunit. Few films this year – nonfiction or otherwise – so prompted my butt to move so closely to seat’s edge.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi – Don’t let the year’s best documentary trick you into thinking it is a work of slightness. David Gelb’s Tokyo Story of a sushi-perfecting octogenarian is a tale of vocation, aging, fatherhood and sacrifice – disguised as food porn and artfully concealed by the most likeable real-life subject of a film this year.
The Kid With a Bike – One of the few films of late starring a child protagonist that doesn’t feel the need to suffocate his personality with countless cringe-inducing affectations, the Dardenne brothers’ gently moving film about chosen family – propelled by great performances from Cécile De France and Thomas Doret – affirms that sometimes it is in fact water that is thicker than blood.
The Loneliest Planet – Yet another installment in the series of “nothing happens” works, I don’t deny Julia Loktev’s relationship drama will test the patience for many viewers, and adversely so. But for those willing to meet her halfway (or more accurately, three-quarters of the way), Loneliest Planet will prove a compelling exploration of just how tenuously our convictions of a loved one can be tested. And destroyed.
ParaNorman – The film I am most sorry to see slip off my top ten, the second feature from Laika is a mournful and idiosyncratically unkempt work, despite the polished feel of its veneer. It promotes an invaluable, constructive dialogue about tolerance (far more successfully than the documentary Bully), all while rooting its filmmaking quite delightfully in the trashy lore of 70’s low-fi horror.
The Queen of Versailles – A work of gleeful schadenfreude that should make Von Trier himself writhe in bemused, jaundiced agony, Lauren Greenfield’s revealing film about a ludicrously privileged family’s financial struggles invites you to laugh at the misfortunes of the vacuous ultra-wealthy. Yet Greenfield also finds a relatable humanity within her subjects, and she reveals delusions about the tenuousness of American dream that are as revealing of the viewer as it is her subjects.
Safety Not Guaranteed – Colin Trevorrow’s debut feature about a magazine writer/intern investigating a man intending to travel back in time is a funny and sweet-natured romance, while at the same time being a rather melancholy movie about life’s regrets and the ways we try either to mitigate them or undo them. Aubrey Plaza is the year’s unsung leading lady, while the prolific Mark Duplass is this year’s less chiseled, shaggier Matthew McConaughey.
Justin’s Top 10 Films of 2012
10) The Cabin in the Woods
I am hardly a champion of the horror genre, nor am I a seasoned Whedonite. Yet that did not stop me from completely falling for Drew Goddard’s giddily affectionate yet lightly cynical takedown of the genre’s tropes, its assumptions and its arbitrary hypocrisies. Woods seems almost uniquely intended to speak to my desires for the genre film – a collective of works consigned to dated rules and social hierarchies – to be broken down swiftly and permanently. While the heavily meta film-within-a-film conceit may seem like old-hat or navel-gazingly insufferable to some (though not to me), and while others may bemoan the fact that this slasher movie isn’t even remotely scary, it is still a raucously funny and refreshingly intelligent exercise in delight, featuring stellar performances from Kristen Connelly, Fran Kranz, and especially Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Most critically, Cabin in the Woods is an exciting, violent and deeply hilarious affirmation of the only rule pertinent to the world of cinema: that rules, when reinforced for their own sake, are bullshit.
One of two films in my top ten I would define as a “procedural,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s quiet and methodical tale of a crew of police officers escorting an accused murderer to help find his crime scene will test the patience only of those who (falsely) believe the cinema’s principal means of conveying information is through the contrived illusion of consequence known more commonly as “plot.” Ceylan, aided by Gökhan Tiryaki’s truly stunning cinematography, asks that every image be studied carefully and completely, that each character – even the vilest – be treated wit empathy if not sympathy, and that each of the story’s conclusions be as well-earned by the viewer as they are by the characters occupying it.
The conclusions I came to with Anatolia are not really “conclusions” in and of themselves, but rather inquisitiveness toward the dialogues inspired between a coroner and a prosecutor by so grisly a crime, and how those in turn inspire the film’s chilling final scene. While the urge to understand everything that we see is largely considered our social (and professional) responsibility, is it possible that such methodical curiosity will ultimately only serve to inflict more personal torment? If so, is universal understanding entirely worth the added personal torment? Perhaps it is, but that doesn’t exactly dilute the pain it incites.
Craig Zobel’s deeply controversial film is easily the most excruciating experience I had at the movies this year, but it is an excruciation for which I am unequivocally grateful. A work inspired both by actual events and the theory that our willful acquiescence to authority can lead us to do unconscionable deeds, this film about a fast food restaurant manager submitting to a prank caller’s requests, thereby leading to the accosting and eventual rape of a young woman, is mercilessly disciplined in how it showcases the abuse. Expertly, the movie ensures that our visceral reactions never be conflated with sensationalism. Credit is in part owed to D.P. Adam Stone for knowing what (and what not) to show, and particularly to Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker, who manage to find humanity and identification in a scenario clearly encumbered by the characters’ unfortunate breakdown in critical thinking skills. While many have chastised the movie for its wrenching depiction of emotional and bodily disenfranchisement, I would gently argue that such critiques fail to distinguish between depiction and endorsement (an all-too-common misunderstanding lately, it seems). Compliance, horrifying as it is, is perhaps the most fundamentally honest and moral film about power and exploitation since Gaspar Noé’s similarly excruciating Irréversible ten years prior.
“Originality” is a quality chronically overpraised in the evaluation of art – if only because it occurs so rarely – and so much of art is inspired quite transparently by the work that precedes it. And while I hesitate to call Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance smash a work of true “originality” – it invites comparisons at to Spielberg and Malick, and the politics inherent to its universe reference everything from “salad-bowl” liberal utopias to bastions of libertarianism to arrogant isolationism and even alluding to the condescending portrait of the bon sauvage – I still can’t say I’ve seen so many pre-established elements rallied together to quite so joyous an effect. Beasts is a sweaty work of visual and tonal poetry, sensationally unfettered and energetic, its heart bleeding for the insulated occupants within its beloved “Bathtub.” Surely, those looking for coherence meaning within the movie will either not find it, or be met with divisive jeers from somebody who came to vastly different conclusions about it, to the point where I have come to accept its placement as the year’s most staunchly hated and loved movie. My allegiances, obviously, lie with the latter camp.
Beasts also features my favorite performances of the year in Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis, whose Wink and Hushpuppy bear an idiosyncratic bond and problematically twisted family life that turn it into one of the most soulful daddy-daughter relationships I can remember. And the screen presence of young Wallis is as palpable as any I’ve seen this year. When I grow up, I want to be a Hushpuppy.
Count me in as one of the sheeple who’s bought into the hype of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s episodic, efficient chronicle of the hunt for the most reviled man in a generation. I genuinely believe the hype is warranted, even if the controversy may be slightly overblown. Filmed with a taut, streamlined narrative and characters with just enough ostensible weight to encourage the viewer’s thoughtful reflection, Bigelow adroitly reconstructs this tale of political revenge not as a 24-style love letter to American imperialism, nor as a fist-pumping and jingoistic military/CIA commercial, nor even as a sentimental, Munich-like indictment of the soul-killing process of revenge. Instead, she opts to depict everything through the lens of “The Real,” thereby impressing upon us the value of reflecting on our own deemed value of bringing “justice” to the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks.
The key for me to Zero Dark Thirty is in the juxtaposition of the film’s first and final shot: the former using actual audio from the day of the attacks, and the latter one impressing just how far removed we now find ourselves from that day. Led through with the cryptic zeal of Jessica Chastain’s hardened (and hardening) CIA agent, we are left to answer the question “where do you want to go,” not realizing that simple question brings with it over a decade of astounding complications.
How refreshing is it in Oslo, August 31 to see the journey of addiction and recovery not trivialized by popular psychology (Flight) or glamorized via depictions of tawdry self-destruction (like 2008’s Rachel Getting Married and the admittedly great The Lost Weekend), and for once to see one’s teetering over the edge of the proverbial bandwagon as the product of a gentler, perhaps even banal, nudge? Director/co-writer Joachim Trier’s success in this respect is largely thanks to the fact that he has written, along with co-scribe Eskil Vogt, a flawed protagonist for whom you have complete sympathy, and whose acts make the viewer recognize the difference between disliking a character, and being disappointed in them. In one of the year’s finest performances, Anders Danielsen Lie is heartbreaking as a man struggling with his own urges – a pressure compounded with the not insignificant stressor of having to learn how to re-incorporate himself after an entire youth squandered by an overpowering and literally intoxicating force. Lie is a magnetic presence in a film of deft, deeply felt existential consequence. Even if you personally have never struggled with addiction, it is hard not to relate to this man’s struggle, and to hope for him. Against hope.
Belà Tarr’s final film, one that quizzically incorporates an obscure Nietzsche anecdote into the apocalypse, will never be accused of its lack of grimness (read G Clark’s superb breakdown of the movie’s dark descent here). Yet I would posit that, for all its mournful portents, The Turin Horse is not entirely without a sense of humor as it allows existence to unspool in front of us. While it is easy to say that the movie tells of the world ending, the question you are left to ask, of course, is “why?” Why would the world end, and why would it do so over a century before our own time? And why would we witness this all through the eyes of a secluded father and daughter (János Derzsi and Erika Bók giving the Southern Wild duo a run for their money) whose quotidian drudgeries scarcely involve anything more elaborate than collecting well water? Turin’s tedium, filmed almost hypnotically by Fred Kelemen and complemented with Mihály Vig’s droning, repetitive musical cue – and punctuated only occasionally with oblique hints at meaning – suggests that Tarr is not merely interested in a literal cataclysm, but in the way our world views decry the inevitable change of what once was as the human product of villainy and degradation.
Finally – and I do think comically – The Turin Horse is about one’s stubborn refusal to acquiesce to inevitable change, even as the world we know fades into darkness around us, as the warmth of fire escapes us, and as uncooked, unpalatable spuds slide bitterly down our gullets. And yet, we eat still. “We have to eat…”
…and isn’t that just hilarious?
High-concept movies, the interesting ones at least, are seldom actually about those high concepts. Often, they are instead about characters in the world being explored, how those characters react and interact with their circumstances, and how that all speaks to some kind of grander thematic element. But sometimes filmmakers and viewers alike miss (as a friend of mine once said) the forest for the trees, and so concerned we become over the logical (im)permeability of a given universe that we forget to explore the meaning beneath all the mechanics (sorry, Inception fans). Rian Johnson’s Looper is a high-concept movie with no real interest in its own mechanics. It’s time travel movie, but it’s not interested in making sure the mental logistics of his universe are universally sound. As a result, the plot to his movie is messy. And Johnson doesn’t care.
And you know something? I don’t care. Time travel and telekinesis are fantasy, but what Looper explores within this conceptual vessel feels surprisingly grounded in a truthful perception of what it means to be citizen of humanity. Looper is about the contrivance of a new economy that exploits the poor and the ignorant for (short-term) financial betterment. It is about regrets we face, and the lengths we would go to, were the chance to undo them simply afforded us. Most beautifully, Looper is a film about redemption. It is about why we choose to sacrifice and alter our very selves for the good of our own souls. It is about how an act of kindness over cruelty can bode greatly divergent tidings in the generation to come, and how that difference can be made without the 20/20 hindsight that a silly thing like “time travel” might furnish us. We merely need a little bit of foresight.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Looper is also about being a stylishly bad-ass sci-fi movie. Forgetting that would be a mistake.
Yes, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is Oscar bait; with 12 nominations, that’s been proven empirically. Yes, it’s a stirring, patriotic tribute to our democracy whose lessons apply very conveniently to our current times. And yes, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as our sixteenth president is characteristically legendary. But let’s talk briefly about what the movie isn’t. It is not the hagiographic daguerreotype those dreadful trailers suggested it might have been. It is not a sprawling war epic aiming to meticulously recreate a time long passed. And it most certainly is not a treacly Spielberg production comparable to War Horse or Amistad.
The success of Lincoln, for me at least, was initially one of diminished expectations. Though my admiration deepened upon revisiting the movie. Little of what characterizes the pejorative “Spielbergian” is to be seen here. The movie is sentimental and indulgent only in small doses (and mostly in the form of those unfortunate bookends). It works with an uncommonly restrained visual and aural palette – restrained for the director, for his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and even for his fanfare-prone composer John Williams. There is a surprising amount of humor and levity to buoy all the serious political grandstanding. And its screenplay depicts an Honest Abe operating with a kind of intellectual and moral complexity not seen in a Spielberg movie since, well, when he last collaborated with screenwriter Tony Kushner on 2005’s Munich.
Because of this complexity, I want so dearly for Lincoln to be a movie taught in civics classes someday (note that I didn’t say History classes). It is a film in love with democracy, and one that is in love with justice. But it is one, I feel at least, that implicitly recognizes the fundamental imperfections of that process, and – as is subversively showcased when a group of black citizens enter House Chambers to witness the climactic Amendment vote – a republic’s inherent power for the tyrannical few to squabble righteously and uncritically over the rights of many. It recognizes that, for our ideals to be budged forward, even by an inch, your efforts cannot go unmuddied. It’s an ironic thesis for the great earnest filmmaker of our time, and for that reason Lincoln is the first Oscar front-runner in ages that truly deserves to win.
Identity is one of the most fundamental concepts in the art of socialization, but it is also the most frustratingly complicated and, depending on who you ask, it’s one of the most elusive. To be something, or to be somebody, is not merely to make a vocal declaration but to implicitly accept and contend with the rules and assumptions made – by others and by oneself – surrounding that identity. Identity is fluid, and it is fixed. It is intersecting and it is hermetic. It is burden and it is convenience. It is conviction and it is doubt.
Freddie Quell’s journey in The Master, to bastardize it considerably, is a journey to “be.” A hedonistic post-war drifter, his wandering ways lead him directly to “The Cause” and its towering patriarch Lancaster Dodd. He is drawn to the Cause because it entices him…maybe. Or maybe it’s the charismatic “Master” who is drawn to Freddie, and it is he who clutches the lost man to his breast…maybe. Either way, Freddie goes along with Dodd, and the two forge a friendship predicated both on a mutual attraction…sexual, perhaps, but perhaps not. For Freddie, we gather he is in a state of perpetual ambivalence, and so he reacts violently. Dodd himself seems unconvinced by the near-lascivious allure of his own prose, outbursting violently when his own convictions are challenged. And then, we have Dodd’s wife: soft-spoken, yet observant, and able to wield her husband’s orgasms on-demand. Is she the woman behind the curtain? Who could she be?
If it seems I am expressing ambivalence of my own toward Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, then perhaps that is fitting. I’ve seen The Master twice, and I so dearly wished to see it again before finalizing this list. Discordant and fragmented, deliberately coy about its visual cues, and lyrically specious about its own themes, this is the one film of 2012 I am most certain I will be wrestling with years from now, and the P.T. Anderson movie I can most likely anticipate one day calling his masterpiece (and yes, I’ve seen There Will Be Blood…several times, and even recently). Tantamount to a great literary work or a haunting musical composition, Anderson has planted in me a thematic seed. It’s a seed I anticipate will sprout as I reflect in the months and years to come, even as my own personal sense of identity reshapes itself, upon Freddie’s own journey to “be.” What The Master is, vexes me. But it vexes in a way that I think only a true masterpiece of the medium is capable of doing. And “masterpiece” is a word I’ve no qualms using to identify this movie.