Every year my top ten list assumes a different character. I can’t decide if it’s a clever actor or just trying to shock my boredom by stripping off layers like a tart on stage. In any case, this turned out to be a rather artsy, foreign type of year for me overall, despite liking some of the standard popcorn flicks that reared up as well—although it seems that for every Prometheus there were two or three Dark Shadows or Les Misérables…es. I got to most of the movies I wanted to see though, so overall I count 2012 as a success.
10. Jeff, Who Lives at Home – What I so loved about this low-budge effort is that, like a screwball comedy, it raised the stakes throughout the film while maintaining a kind of rooted, real-life feel. Written and directed by the Duplass brothers, who hail from last decade’s mumblecore movement, this kind of ratcheting intensity is a welcome change to the slack, improvised feel of the early movement. Not that there’s anything wrong with those progenitor films, but it’s still nice to see something new. The movie also features some very strong performances of some very flawed characters living in a Middle America that actually feels more like Middle America than Hollywood’s usual idea of the place. Finally, it is a comedy, after all that, and it just made me laugh.
9. Django Unchained – While Django Unchained retains Tarantino’s usual stagey sets and showy characters (see the opening scene), I found that Django, also as usual, still found enough real unbelievable human circumstances to ponder to make it a very worthwhile experience. I also loved seeing the depictions of day-to-day southern plantation life, where black slaves typically outnumbered their white masters. Yet it was also a time when slavery was such an unshakable institution that a free black bounty hunter could indeed be considered more of a curiosity than a true threat. Even the love story that on this outing drives Tarantino’s old revenge tale works. On top of so much heavy material, we also get the one-time-wunderkind’s usual coating of ridiculous violence and shock, a great ‘60s Spaghetti Western-ish and Blaxploitation soundtrack (that I will say got to be a bit too much at times), and Tarantino doing some kind of god-awful seizing kangaroo accent. The thing that really makes his films stand out though, after all this time, is that every scene plays like its own short movie. That’s not to say they are disconnected or that they don’t build together, but that each one has that something extra—tension and release—that make them memorable. Howard Hawks used to say a good movie was three great scenes and no bad ones. I count about twice that many great ones in Django.
8. This is Not a Film – Slightly boring? Yes. We watch filmmaker Jafar Panahi tool about his luxurious apartment in Tehran and then talk to the garbage man. That’s it. I’m almost always a formalist critic in that I see a film as an island and ask myself how it works as self-contained art. I don’t need to know anything about lawyering to get into Michael Clayton; and despite the reams that have been written on it since, Star Wars employs its own logic that people understood just fine in 1977. However, This is Not a Film is all about context. You need to know that Panahi has been banned by the Iranian government from filmmaking or public interviews for 20 years and sentenced to jail for six years for propaganda against the regime. Fortunately, all of this information is revealed in the course of the narrative here, and it elevates everything Panahi does in the film by emphasizing everything he’s not doing. The story is that the film was smuggled into Cannes on a flash drive inside a cake. It feels like flouting the law just to watch this movie (and it indeed it would be in Iran). What’s it about though? Art, of course; why it is made, what it means to its creators, and ultimately, by viewing this film, what it means to the rest of the world.
7. Holy Motors – There is a movie somewhere in Holy Motors. Or maybe several movies. Whatever they were originally though, they have been shattered and left in writhing pieces fondly across a timeless 115 minutes. Mr. Oscar twists across a mo-cap stage. Mr. Oscar picks up his “daughter” from a party. Mr. Oscar takes part in a musical number and he turns into a savage beast. None of it, of course, comes with much explanation (it is French, after all). It’s a deconstructionist absurdist look at the individual components of a film, without context, and most of them work. Though it’s about acting for the screen, of course, it also says something about the roles we play in our lives and, through Céline, the limo driver, the real connections we might manage or miss. It’s also a comment on the evolution of surveillance and connectivity to the point where Mr. Oscar is never really sure when he is or is not on.
6. Skyfall – Returns to the quality of Casino Royale after the lackluster Quantum of Solace. Of course, they did have an absurdly long time to work on this entry to the franchise with the Bond name tangled in the legal red tape of MGM’s bankruptcy. Maybe that gave the script extra time to marinate. In any case, the Bond we get in Skyfall is a slight return to the jaded, wise-cracking hero of the early films. Thankfully, the filmmakers don’t overplay that card to as others have in the past, but we do get to see 007 washed up and cold, banging beautiful foreign women with all the passion of a dildo and slamming scorpion shots until he passes out. As if we could possibly want his life more. Skyfall manages to be globetrotting and classic (villain’s private abandoned island city, Istanbul, Shanghai, etc.) without turning into parody or the ridiculous action of the latter Brosnan movies by getting the pacing right. I’ve always said the best Bond films have a more deliberate pacing than a typical action movie. While it does clip along with chases and explosions, they are spread between equally entertaining conversations, investigation scenes, and private perils. Speaking of action, that aspect worried me the most going in, but Sam Mendes has proven those worries unfounded. Finally, this movie goes deeper into the Bond mythos and history than any of the previous films, and his relationship with Judy Dench’s M takes center stage, all to great effect. Unfortunately, it’s all kind a one-time trick, so while I am once again worried about the next movie in the unending chain, I will gladly watch this one again any time I can catch it.
5. Looper – Good time travel movies are so few and far between that I was going to enjoy this as long as it didn’t totally suck. Fortunately, it does even better than that. With dastardly villains, future drugs, geeky time travel details, superhuman powers, dark violence, and peppered-in moral philosophy, the whole thing plays like it was adapted from some heralded graphic novel. Jeff Daniels is great in the unlikely role of a crime boss, and both Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon add grounding and depth to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe. The “alternative timeline” sequence where we see Bruce Willis’ origins not only becomes essential to the story, it is exquisitely crafted. I love the future vision we get here, where parts of future Kansas City don’t look futuristic at all, they look just run down. It’s a nice change, considering most of the stuff you see every day was probably not created in the last year, especially in poorer neighborhoods. I’m not totally sure how everyone’s memories would be affected after the ending of the film, but whatever, it’s a time travel movie. One explanation is as good as the next as long as there is an internal logic.
4. Amour – Yep, it’s as depressing as you might expect, given the subject matter. In fact, it seems like easy material for a manipulative tearjerker, but Michael Haneke brings his trademark austere bleakness, sapping it of oversentimentality. That’s not to say that Amour is a cold movie. In fact, the constant awareness of death saturate each scene with plenty of drama. Even better is the realistic appraisal of people—that they are not good or evil, especially under the microscope of rotten circumstances.
3. Zero Dark Thirty – Perhaps no movie was more written about this year. I honestly just fell for the procedural aspects of the film. It’s hard to imagine how the controversial torture scenes could have been handled with pissing someone off. As it stands, I think they settled on a pretty good spot. The fact that none of the characters involved seem to have any moral doubts or objections to torturing is fine with me because I don’t think the movie needs to call extra attention to something that will be going through everyone’s mind while watching anyway. Spielberg this is not. Furthermore it means the characters don’t get an easy out or get to score easy points for moral doubts. I will say that the lack of dead-end torture could be interpreted as a pro-torture stance, but as I mentioned, this is a procedural. There are a lot of dead ends over a ten year period that it doesn’t track. It’s all a difficult nut to balance. Maybe someone else should make a movie all about the horrors of torture, but I do think there’s enough of it in here that if you already have an adverse opinion of the practice, your feelings will be justified. Finally, after all that thread-chasing, we get the best action sequence of the year in the harrowing final raid. It’s difficult, given the subject, for this not to be a little jingoistic, but Zero Dark Thirty tries not to play that note too hard.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild – Wonderfully sweet story of life and its flipside set in the poorest reaches of the Louisiana bayou with touches of magical realism that are more symbolic than plot-essential. The music, the narration of Quvenzhané Wallis, and the gritty, pretty apolypscape combine for an absolutely unique, lyrical experience. I felt nothing like it at the movies this year, or perhaps in any other. Such discoveries are the highs that keep me optimistically plopping down my money at the box office for another year.
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – I really, really regret that I didn’t see this movie in the cinema. The gorgeous, slow shots of the central Turkish landscape are just one reason to soak in this film though. It’s very talky and philosophy filled, though not in an overt Matrix/Waking Life kind of a way. A bunch of guys from different walks of life come together to search for a dead body over a night. While not much happens for most of the film, for the kind of person who is willing to ignore that and fall into the hands of a capable filmmaker, a great tale of the tragedies in opportunities arises out of the silences between its characters. I’ve only seen it once, but I can tell that subsequent viewings will reveal a little more to me each time. I can’t wait.
The Amazing Spiderman – I know every film should be judged on its own merits, but I couldn’t help thinking about the absurdity of restarting a franchise after just one decade. Give it a rest for a while first. Also, I liked the high school romance, but the movie overall was pretty mediocre, which further begged the question: why?
Argo – I actually liked Argo quite a bit. It’s probably in my top 15 or 20. The ratcheting tension toward the climax rang a little hollow. It was a fun time, but it was hard to take it too seriously.
The Avengers – I liked it more on the second viewing, actually, though there’s a huge plot sink in the very long and stupid flying fortress part. Pretty enjoyable though.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Pretty nice little movie that your mom will like. Feeds my wanderlust and made me think of the retirees here in Mexico.
The Bourne Legacy – Some cool action setpieces, and manages to not totally mangle the already twisted plot of the other films, but nothing to write the internet about.
Brave – Pixar strikes again. Minor though.
The Cabin in the Woods – Clever writing and some good gags. Batshit third act is what really makes it though.
The Campaign – Only really funny at the very end.
Chernobyl Diaries – As one of two horror movies I have seen from 2012, I have to say this is the worst. The climax wasn’t interesting enough.
Compliance – This is one of those stories that only works because it is true. If it had been invented, no one would believe it, and in fact, because the protagonists seem so dim, audiences found it frustrating and difficult to root for anyone. What can one do? It actually happened. Pretty much just like this. In Kentucky. Those unfamiliar with Milgram’s famous psychology experiments would do well to read up before watching.
Cosmopolis – Feels very much like a play, even though it never was. I think that’s not a good thing. It’s the kind of quirkiness that tries to come off as clever, but it gets more interesting as it goes along.
The Dark Knight Rises – Better than The Dark Knight, but I’m on record as really disliking that film, so that doesn’t say much. I actually LIKED the much derided over-the-top score that pushes this movie along, and we got the Bane voice, so it’s not all bad. Once again, devoid of surprises though.
Dark Shadows – Dear Tim Burton, have you seen any of your good movies—the ones from, like 20 years ago? Please, give it a rest. Dear Eva Green, call me. I’m seriously.
The Deep Blue Sea – Oh god, just do it already. I liked the period setting though. Reminded me, for obvious reasons, of the far, far better Brief Encounter that I had just watched.
Dredd 3D – Everything it was cracked up to be. Great 3D, for once—the novelty was back seeing 3D splattering blood and broken glass and druggy slo-mo. Also, it makes no bones about what it is, which is great. Spoiler: AND Dredd never takes off his helmet, even once. Awesome.
Flight – Really entertaining movie. Best opening scene of the year. Denzel is great as usual. Wish they had removed the penultimate scene though and reworked the falling action to be less preachy and obvious.
The Grey – Liam Neeson fucks up some wolves. It’s also a pretty in-your-face meditation on death with a very powerful scene in that regard. Good movie.
Haywire – Very entertaining action film from Soderbergh. Gina Carano does a pretty good job for her first starring role.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney – Too much Radagast the Brown on his CG rabbit sled. Also, everyone in the world has seen the other trilogy, so it would have been nice if we had gotten a different take on Middle Earth this time instead of following the exact same vision as last time. Case in point: spoiler: we go to Rivendell at one point. We get almost the same epic, sweeping view of the city and some conversations in Elrond’s spacious palace. Why couldn’t we have emerged from the sewer in a busy market instead? Too bad we didn’t get Guillermo del Toro’s Hobbit. This is not The Lord of the Rings, it’s a story with a much different scope that requires a different feel and a much shorter running time. The only really good part was the conversation with Gollum, which came straight from the book.
The Hunger Games – I liked it. I wish the actual hunger games part had been more violent, like Battle Royale, but oh well. I also didn’t get a good feel for the world, it’s size and scope, how there is just one giant city and what daily life is like there … would have liked more of that kind of stuff.
John Carter – Perhaps because I caught up with this film well after it had been so lambasted and my expectations were lowered, or perhaps because I was just in the mood for a PG-13 type of light adventure that night, I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. Really didn't see what was so wrong with it.
The Kid with a Bike – Slow movie about the difficulty and helplessness of being a kid. Above average.
Killer Joe – This movie just missed my top ten. It’s a bloody and entertaining tale of ignorance, and immorality. The most interesting part is that I can’t tell which the bigger offense is.
Les Misérables – Blah. I thought I was over my childhood distaste for musicals. Guess not. Or this was just really boring.
Life of Pi – I didn’t care too much for the magical tale at the heart of this movie, or rather, I found it kind of meh, despite being very beautifully filmed. I really liked the ending climactic conversation though (although I thought the writer’s answer was WRONG).
Lincoln – I enjoyed watching the political machinations of the era, and of course D-Day Louie is superb as Ol’ Abe. Very self-important, though not humorless.
The Master – I am still thinking about this movie more than probably any other I saw last year. It has stayed lodged in my brain—as ponderous, lost, and indigestible a morsel as its main character, Freddie Quell. Loved the period setting and the obvious Scientology-inspired history that gets at the nature of belief. It seems to be saying something about how Dodd can’t turn off the faucet, the act, the ridiculously transparent lie even among those closest to him; about how he needs to prove himself to absolutely everyone he crosses, even the completely irredeemable Quell. I really need to watch it again though. Perhaps on subsequent viewings, as with previous P.T. Anderson films, it will raise in my estimation.
Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson’s best live action movie in a long time. Really captures a young summer romance.
Prometheus – I liked this latest entry in the Aliens franchise, even though it was a bit ridiculous. Michael Fassbender is interesting as the android this time around. Also, we don’t get enough dark, rated-R sci-fi movies with a slowly crumbling ensemble cast.
Searching for Sugar Man – Very good documentary about music and art and the bizarre nature of fame.
The Secret World of Arrietty – In my top 20. Wonderful children’s movie adaptation of The Borrowers. Beautiful animation. Unfortunately I could only find it dubbed in English L.
Seven Psychopaths – I found it very enjoyable, and I absolutely loved In Bruges (same writer-director). Usually I like a bit of self-awareness and referential filmmaking, but this leaned too heavily that way.
Silver Linings Playbook – Am I the only one that keeps hearing this film title as a possessive? I know, it isn’t. Anyway, I wanted to run away from these people the whole time, but I guess that means it did a pretty good job of depicting the claustrophobia of mental illness. A little silly and predictable toward the end, but enjoyable.
Sleepwalk With Me – Had all the makings of a great comedy with a lackluster climax. Still, fairly funny and worth watching.
Snow White and the Huntsman – Not offensively bad, but not good either.
Take This Waltz – Wasn’t too fun watching these crunchy granola wholesome people and their love problems. Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman were good though.
Ted – I’m not tired of Seth MacFarlane’s humor yet, and sans the interruptive flashbacks of Family Guy, the narrative moves along nicely. Hilarious party scene.
To Rome with Love – Lesser Woody Allen, probably, but I still laughed a lot. The opera scenes were ludicrous, and the contrast between the American and Italian families was pretty spot on.
Wanderlust – I didn’t laugh that much.
Wuthering Heights – This was perhaps the best any faithful adaptation could do with the original material. That said, I wanted every character to kill himself all the time. I was thinking maybe I just hated the book because I read it in high school and I was immature. It turns out it was because it sucks.
There you have it. Happy filmgoing in 2013! See you next year.