For most of the year, like Justin, I seriously wondered if I’d have enough films to put together onto a top ten. Naturally, a Top Ten List could simply consist of the least awful releases in a year, which would then, comparatively speaking and by definition, be the ‘best.’ But if I’m going to add a film to my personal Top Ten List, I prefer that it have a quality beyond that of simply ‘not bad.’ It’s not that I’m saying 2012’s releases were uniformly substandard, but most of them never made it past mediocre. During the summer, I endured a long string of disappointments from The Dark Knight Rises and Beasts of the Southern Wild to Magic Mike and The Avengers, and settled into a bit of a funk. These movies are critically-acclaimed? How depressing! Should I relax my standards, I wondered, so I wouldn’t be seen as a pessimistic Mister Grumpus? But luckily, I didn’t have to, and gems cropped up towards the end of the year, as gems are wont to do. It still turned out to be a pretty lean year; I saw no four-star (or A+) films, but still managed to find ten that were well worth my time, and yours.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
The Day He Arrives – Hong Sang-soo’s disarming take on Waiting for Godot follows Seongjun wandering around the sleepy urban areas of Seoul, waiting for a close friend. Fans of Samuel Becket can guess what happens day in, day out, as Seongiun waits for the day his friend arrives. What Hong captures so perfectly in this film is that very specific nocturnal feeling you get when the bars close late, and you’re left walking back to your apartment in the cold, silent snow. In The Day He Arrives, it is always that day, or never that day, but either way, you are waiting.
From Up on Poppy Hill – A Studio Ghibli effort directed not by Hayao Miyazaki, but by his son, Gorō. I started From Up on Poppy Hill with some trepidation, but needn’t have worried; from the most famous movie studio in Japan, you’d expect beautiful artwork, poignant nostalgia, and young characters more complex than the adult ones populating American movie screens. This film has all of that in spades, plus a beautiful score by Satoshi Takabe, dripping nostalgia all the way.
Killer Joe – Matthew McConaughey was seriously starting to annoy me with his seemingly endless streak of playing affable losers, but Killer Joe completely reset his image in my mind. A trashy bit of Southern Gothic, William Friedkin accomplishes handily what Lee Daniels desperately failed to achieve in The Paperboy. Also, Killer Joe has the best last reel of any film in 2012, except for maybe my #10 pick.
The Imposter – The year’s second-best documentary tells just the strangest damn story, about a French man somehow successfully impersonating a young Texas boy who had disappeared years earlier. As it develops, Bart Layton’s film grows more and more riveting, and your perception of all the players morphs and reverses. What an ending!
I Wish – A quietly earnest film about two brothers living in separate villages, who long to be reunited. I have no idea how Hirokazu Koreeda gets such pure and emotional performances from his young actors, but hey are a wonder to behold. I’ll stack any of these youthful performances up against Quvenzhané Wallis any day.
Life of Pi – I tried not to like this film, I really did, but I may have been drawn in because I read Yann Martel’s deeply flawed novel upon which Ang Lee has based his film. Lee has kept all the strengths of the book while hacking away bad bits. Some people still can’t stand the ending (which I won’t spoil for anyone here) calling it a cheat or a cop-out. But I think it presents an enormously sophisticated theme: that believing in the supernatural or non-physical is not necessarily a harmful, destructive, or self-deluding act, as long as you’re consciously aware that you’re doing it and why. This is the kind of movie that the word ‘enchanting’ was invented for.
“The Other Woman” – A while back I tweeted that this episode of Mad Men was better than the majority of cinematic releases I saw in 2012. That was not tongue-in-cheek; this is a television show that excels in craft and sophistication with every episode. “The Other Woman” might be my favorite, and it deserves a mention here for how impeccably it is written, how delicately it is acted, how riveting it is plotted, and how passive my voice is right now. “Aspiring” directors should start here if they require inspiration.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – I read Stephen Chosky’s novel about ten years ago, and worried that I may have outgrown its twee story about young social outcasts dealing with the pressures and anxiety that follow them out of adolescence and into adulthood. I had not.
The Rabbi’s Cat – A philosophical film about a rabbinical talking cat and his adventures with an Algerian rabbi, his voluptuous daughter, an artistic Russian, bellicose Muslims in the desert, and Moses, maybe. If you can resist a movie with that description, I think I could probably drink you under a table.
The Secret World of Arrietty – A Studio Ghibli film based upon the much-filmed children’s story “The Borrowers,” Arrietty is not quite to the level of the best Miyazaki, but features top-notch production design, music, character animation, and direction. It is beautiful to look at, listen to, and talk about.
Ted – If my mother hadn’t thrown away my Teddy Ruxpin so unceremoniously twenty years ago, my life may have resembled Ted quite a bit more. Ted is a raunchy, very R-rated affair that ended up making me laugh more than any other single film this year. I knew there was more to Seth MacFarlane than Family Guy.
This Is Not A Film – In case you hadn’t heard, Jafar Panahi’s latest effort was smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival via a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake. Such surreptitiousness was vital, as Panahi has been barred from making any more movies by Iran’s Ministry of Culture. In this, the Best Documentary of the Year, we see the horrible psychic impact of such state-sactioned stifling of the creative spirit, and how a man who is an artist to his core deals with such a situation.
Other Films That Were Okay:
The Kid With a Bike
Rust and Bone
A Simple Life
The Top Ten:
10. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
The best animated film of the year follows a stick figure’s descent into madness. That last sentence might sound a bit glib, but I in no way mean to impugn Don Hertzfeldt’s remarkable achievement: that he makes such simple, deliberately childish sketches into one of the most involving, emotional, and gob-smacking films of the year. It does more to showcase and empathize with mental illness than a dozen Silver Linings Playbooks. Hertzfeld’s collage style might sometimes recall the denser passages of The Tree of Life or 2001, but the experience is quite uncannily like being in someone else’s head. At the very least, I can describe It’s Such a Beautiful Day as a Vulcan mind meld with a very disturbed individual. But in a good way.
9. Oslo 31 August
Addiction is a cruel, cruel disease. Some people don’t even recognize it as one, and even today think of it all as the addict’s fault: a lack of will or character. Oslo 31 August follows young Anders, given a day’s leave from a recovery clinic to attend a job interview. This day provides a perfect examination of how someone can fall through society’s cracks, and the tragedy of rock bottom. Exquisite, with a truly great performance from Anders Danielson Lie.
A sitcom premise—an important award is accidentally given to an elderly scholar instead of the true recipient, his son—turns into a powerful examination of religion, academia, and the buried familial fault lines that disrupt our lives. How Joseph Cedar navigates his film from broad comedy to personal tragedy is remarkable.
7. Moonrise Kingdom
If you could bottle up the Halcyon Days of Youth—or, better yet, put them in diorama form—you’d get this, Wes Anderson’s most enchanting film. It’s good to know that Anderson is never going to grow up. He keeps his twee tendencies and archness in check so that genuine emotion shines through. Every part is well cast, and Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, and the film’s two young leads all deliver charming performances that put a great big smile on my face. “No. What kind of bird are you?”
6. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
A friend asked me what the plot of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s remarkable film was. “Well, a group of Turkish policemen go searching about the Anatolian steppe for a buried body.” “That’s it?” he replied. “That takes two-and-a-half hours?” Such an abridged synopsis obscures the depth the film contains; much more happens over the long night during which this police procedural takes place. This is a film of quiet revelations, hushed profundities, silent epiphanies. The plot doesn’t matter. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an experience.
Argo is simply a great example of cinematic storytelling. Period. So much so that it should be taught in film schools, so the emerging generation of filmmakers understand how to handle suspense properly, see how to shift the tone of a film multiple times without making it uneven or jarring, learn how to let actors fill in characters that a screenplay may not have completely shaded, grasp how important editing is to a film’s pace and structure… I could go on. Say whatever you will about Ben Affleck’s acing or career choices (reminder: Gigli is not the worst film ever made), but there’s no denying that he has proven himself over three films to be one of the most intelligent and canny directors currently working. That the Academy shut him out of the Best Direction race at this year’s Oscars makes me wonder if they even know what a director does. Which, you’d think, they should.
Argo has no deep or hidden themes, is not destined to become a cult classic, and lacks all indie cred. It is simply what I said it was in my opening sentence: a great example of cinematic storytelling. It’s sad how few of those there are nowadays.
Lincoln is the movie I’d been hoping Steven Spielberg would make for years: a low-key, character-based drama, light on the special effects bombast and heavy on actors and dialogue. I knew he had it in him, and Lincoln proves me right. What amuses me most about Lincoln however, is the critical reaction to it. So many critics are dismissing it as typical Oscar bait, filled with picture-postcard images, stuffy and stolid speeches, awkward writing. (To be fair, that is what the film’s trailer led me to expect.) But every criticism I’ve read about Spielberg’s latest betrays a profound misreading of the film—it’s not meant as an educational biopic of the kind Hollywood has been making since Alfre Green’s Disraeli in 1929. No, no, no. Spielberg’s scenarist, Tony Kushner, would never settle for that. Lincoln is a dramatization of a very important American theme: that profound and necessary change does not always occur simply because society demands it, rather as a result of purely legal wranglings and semantic stratagems in our dysfunctional United States Congress. (Those wishing to see parallels with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are free to do so, I suppose.) That’s why we don’t see slavery depicted in the film: it would be an utterly worthless thematic choice.
Tony Kushner’s words are not naturalistic. This is not a failing on his part, and anyone familiar with his theatrical works will know to expect his characters to represent ideas and themes more than people. Spielberg balances this nicely by directing his actors to perform realistically, to prevent the film from becoming too stylized. This is epitomized in Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives us his third-best ever performance here. He is by turns deep, empathetic, intellectual, fierce, and weary, and always intensely aware of his place in the world and history.
Okay, I could write an entire essay on this film, because it is so complex thematically, visually, and structurally. Maybe I will write an essay on it soon, but until I find time to get around to it, let me just link to Justin’s Review and Jim Emerson’s wonderful essay.
There are no funny games here. Michael Haneke shows us the world of an elderly couple, one of whom is very much near the end of her life. No theatrics, no pandering sentimentality, just a straightforward and shattering experience, with a pair of performances that evoke the heaviest feeling of gratitude within you.
2. The Turin Horse
Béla Tarr’s haunting film takes two unformed archetypes (think Vladimir and Estragon, or Rosencrantz and Gildenstern) and places them in a universe of infinite void. Then, it slowly removes from that universe all comfort, all safety, all life. It was one of the most wrenching and heart-stopping experiences I had all year.
The Turin Horse is the kind of film that critics love and audiences point to as evidence that critics are pretentious assholes. Just so you know what you’re getting into: Tarr is famous for the glacial pace of his films, and his use of very long takes to achieve this effect. In a 150 minute film, there are only thirty shots. So, do the math. What appeals to me about this is the level of care so obviously taken with regard to what is on the screen. This is not some hastily shot, rapidly cobbled together movie like (insert any of 2012’s highest-grossing pictures). Tarr earns every shot, not because they’re lengthy, but because every frame is carefully crafted to further the film’s metaphor and theme. Many of cinematographer Fred Keleman’s images have already etched themselves onto my brain; when I called The Turin Horse “haunting” in the beginning, I couldn’t have picked a word more apt.
In the end, you may think of Tarr’s final masterpiece as a cinematic representation of T.S. Eliot: “This is the way the world ends…”
1. The Master
A movie destined to be misunderstood. I misunderstood it at first, as well. I was bored during my first viewing of The Master, because I expected to see a scathing evisceration of Scientology, something hard and confrontational. But Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterpiece is something much more delicate than that. It is, first and foremost, a penetrating study of power: how the hollow and weak are attracted to the confident and dominant, and how the latter feed off the former.
If Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, gave us one of cinema’s great characters in Daniel Plainview, here, he gives us two: Joaquin Phoenix’s vacant, vaguely desperate Freddie Quell, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s equally vacant, equally desperate Lancaster Dodd. The difference between them is that Dodd has friends, money, and resources, and Freddie has nothing. Nothing at all. The two orbit around each other in a spellbinding symbiotic relationship that forms the real crux of the movie. Indeed, by comparing PTA’s screenplay with the finished product, it’s obvious that he edited out of the movie anything that wasn’t somehow related to the wicked magic binding the two men together.
Using the past tense in saying I ‘misunderstood’ The Master shouldn’t imply that I completely understand it now. This is a film that may take dozens of viewings to get to the bottom of—or, more likely, a film whose bottom we may never discover. Its fascination lies in its many ellipses, red herrings, inconsistencies, and puzzling surreality. It is not disposable; it is a film to be savored, relished, lived in. Its importance cannot be denied—even the film’s numerous detractors cannot shake it. More than any other film from 2012, it will live on, in essays, festivals, criticism, and Sight & Sound polls, for decades to come.