I’ll spare you my rambling thoughts about why I love/hate end-of-year (or even 13-days-after-the-end-of-the-year) lists, and I’ll spare you flowery prose about what a rich/poor/weak/strong/fascinating/frustrating/encouraging/discouraging/“insert-cinematic-trend-here” year 2012 was at the theater.
Instead, a few bookkeeping matters:
- I draw a fuzzy, idiosyncratic distinction between a “great” film and a “favorite” film. In short, the former makes me think, makes me work at it, shows me something about life and humanity, and restores my belief in the power of cinema as an art form. A “favorite” film is one that may not do all if any of that, probably isn’t perfect, but that I know I’ll be watching again and again over the years. The best films fill both categories, but they are rare indeed. Don’t get all bunched up about it, but the list below contains some of both kinds.
- No documentaries! I could tell you it’s because I feel non-fiction films operate on different criteria and serve different purposes in different ways than fictional ones do, but the simple fact is, as with every year, I never catch all the documentaries I want to by January. I’ve seen a lot of good ones, but there are still a half dozen docs that are getting high end-of-year marks from others that I really want to catch before I make a 2013 doc list. Look for it later this month. Or in February. Before June, for sure…
- You’re going to see some glaring omissions–for example, a couple Oscar-nominated films that have been smothered in critical praise all year. Some of them I appreciated (Lincoln), others I loathed (Life of Pi), others I’m just not sure about yet and need to see again (Django Unchained). There will another list in a week called “Films I Liked Fine, but not Nearly as Much as Everyone Else.” Also, one of the only reasons I like doing an end-of-year list is to highlight less-seen, sometimes less-praised films I thought were great and deserve your attention. So while I liked it (with some major caveats), do you really need me to tell you Lincoln is worth seeing?
- Where the hell are my full reviews of most of these films? Um… the dog ate them? I dropped them in the Hellmouth? No, for a number of reasons, I was horrible about writing reviews or film pieces last year. But I promise to turn that around—not only will I work to stay more up to date with the most interesting new films of 2013, but I’m going to do my best in the coming weeks to catch up with pieces about many of the films listed below, as well as most of the Oscar nominated titles. Pinky swear.
- Rankings… don’t hold me to the details. After a couple weeks of fiddling around with this list while I re-watched a number of the films, the order below feels kinda sorta close to right-ish, but everything is flexible–other than the fact that number one is far and away, without a doubt my number one.
First-time writer-director Nicholas Jarecki comes from a family of strong film makers (older brother Andrew made the documentary Capturing the Friedmans and the drama All Good Things and other older brother Eugene directed the docs Why We Fight and last year’s The House We Live In), but also from a family steeped in east-coast wealth (father Henry Jarecki was an academic-turned-financial entrepreneur). So when Nicholas takes on the moral complexity of the privileged rich—perfectly personified here by a smoothly aging, still-seductive Richard Gere at the height of his powers—he knows his way around both the crime drama (Gere is involved in an accidental death) and the money (and he’s also cooking his hedge fund company’s books to facilitate its sale).
Sorry, Denzel and Flight, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character in Smashed may not fly a jet plane upside down while hungover (she tackles the much tougher task of trying to teach elementary kids), but her performance and this film–about a bright, young, fun-loving school teacher coming to grips with her alcoholism–is 2012’s more honest and realistic portrayal of problem drinking: not as a showy, melodramatic affair involving death and legal investigations, but as the much more common story of someone who slowly realizes they can’t keep on living as an off-hours drunk. Winstead is tremendous, especially when coping with the fact that her getting sober, not her drinking, is the bigger threat to her very loving relationship with her still-drinking husband (Breaking Bad’s excellent Aaron Paul).
I’m pretty much Pixar/Dreamwork’ed out these days, but thankfully 2012 saw the continued post-CGI resurgence of stop-motion animation from smaller studios. ParaNorman, from the Laika studio that created Coraline, is a stunning tour-de-force of stop-animation artistry, as well as a nicely-told young horror-geek tale. However, for this Anglophile with a love of sailing ships, science, and dry British wit, my personal fave for the year is Aardman Animations’ Pirates! Originally subtitled “An Adventure with Scientists!” in the U.K., Pirates! had to be re-titled for release here because ‘Mericans don’t like us none of that there cy-en-tist malarkey. Sadly, it seems we’re all also understandably tired of pirate movies after a decade of Capt. Jack Sparrow, so Pirates! didn’t make much of a splash in the States. Still, it’s a jolly, rollicking, often hilarious yarn featuring the voices of Hugh Grant and Martin Freeman and lots of post-punk Brit rock/pop/ska, that revolves around Darwin and evolution and other bad words, and is spiced with the sort of dingbat cleverness you’d expect from the Wallace & Gromit studio.
As an unabashed Soderbergh fan boy, I can’t declare either of his 2012 films completely “great” (though Mike is the stronger of the two), but both are still entertaining and fascinating continuations of Soderbergh’s ongoing genre explorations. Soderbergh has almost single-handedly snuck a creeping naturalism into mainstream films (he did second-unit shooting on The Hunger Games), and I love how Haywire and Magic Mike subvert but still embrace the entertainment value of genre films (the spy thriller and the backstage aspirational fame-and-fortune melodrama), while giving them interesting twists.
I’m gonna wear out my “naturalism” key in this list, but the aesthetic—the attempt to create stronger cinematic emotional experiences through more realistic filming, acting, and scripting (and less “here’s how to feel” musical overkill)—is an important trend for me. Director J.A. Bayona’s true-life tale of a family trying to survive the 2004 tsunami builds incredible, devastating verisimilitude in its first half, earning the right to lay on some big dollops of hope, grace, and joy in the second.
Yup. It stars Seann William Scott. Was written by geeky actor Jay Baruchel. Didn’t get much of a theatrical release. And yes, it’s a movie about hockey fighting that of course isn’t as great as Slapshot. But damned if this punchy, crude, befuddled little comedy doesn’t have a weird, lovable, outcast heart—just like its main character, a professional ice brawler. And yup, this is one on the list I suspect I’ll be watching over and over in coming years when I need a lopsided, ugly smile.
Most people may not know it yet, but 2012 was Mark Duplass’ year—we were just watching movies in it. Most of them involving Duplass in front or behind the camera. In this charming, incisive low-budget dramedy, writer-director Lynn Shelton sticks Duplass in a cabin with the equally terrific Emily Blunt (not having a bad 2012 herself) and Rosemarie DeWitt and lets the interpersonal hang ups and sexual confusion roll. “Mumblecore” has become an over-used and rightly shunned term, but this is a fine example of what the genre, whatever we want to call it, can do at its best.
Maybe it’s too wacky-cute-goofy by half, too earnest-clever-precious by the other half, but this magic-realism story of a stalled, neurotic writer who accidentally writes his ideal woman into existence ends up irrepressibly winning thanks to fun, sincere performances by Paul Dano and the film’s screenwriter Zoe Kazan (also Dano’s real-life girlfriend). It’s also touchingly honest and accurate for anyone who has a) struggled to write, b) struggled to find love, or c) both (perhaps because of each other). (Just don’t ever call Kazan, the grand-daughter of legendary Hollywood writer Elia Kazan, or her character of Ruby a “manic pixie dream girl” to her face. It’s not pretty.)
Several years ago actress and writer Brit Marling moved in with two young film makers—Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij– who she met at Georgetown. Together, the three ended up making 2011’s Another Earth, directed by Cahill, and last year’s Sound of My Voice, directed by Batmanglij, both of them written by and starring Marling (who also appeared in Arbitrage). Both films are impressive micro-budget Twilight Zone-style stories that focus more on realistic human behavior and failings than aliens and spaceships. Voice follows two investigative film makers (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) infiltrating a cult centered on a mysterious young woman (Marling) who says she’s from the future. Though tensely riveting, the film is not a harrowing cautionary tale like last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Instead, alongside Another Earth, Voice shows the power of character and story and hopefully heralds a science-fiction film renaissance where ideas matter more than special effects.
More Duplasses… er, Duplassi… Mark and his brother Jay wrote and co-directed this sweetly baffling, charmingly irregular follow-up to 2010’s Cyrus. I like Jason Segal, but a little bit of the big lug goes a long way these days. Luckily here his Jeff—a Mom’s-basement-dwelling stoner looking for signs of his destiny—is perfectly counterbalanced by his older, more douchey brother (The Office’s Ed Helms playing wonderfully out of type), who thinks he’s being cuckolded by his wife (Judy Greer). Like its title character, Jeff Who Lives at Home might feel like it’s sometimes wandering lost and aimless (always dopily, amusingly so) but the Duplass Brothers really do have sometime important and surprisingly uplifting to say about humans, fate, and life purposes.
Well hey, lookie here, whattya know… still more Mark Duplass! This time he’s playing Kenneth, a socially damaged loner who says he’s building a for-real time machine. Duplass is once again tops, playing Kenneth hilariously, but never as an easy joke. Just as good, as magazine reporters checking into Kenneth’s story, are Aubrey Plaza, showing much more range and vulnerability then the deadpan comic actress lets slip on Parks and Recreation, and the absolutely wonderful Jake M. Johnson (New Girl). Director Colin Trevorrow keeps the film—one of this year’s most pleasant small surprises—charmingly, amusingly, and touchingly balanced between goofball satire and honest human foibles. (Trevorrow is a film maker to watch—especially if, as rumors suggest, he’s in the running to direct a new Star Wars sequel.)
I’ve always been a big fan of Ben Affleck both as a director and an actor (even in the Hollywood punchline years), so no, I’m not surprised that his films keep getting better, or that Argo is a sharp, gripping geo-political thriller that deftly blends not just humor and terror, but also straight-forward story telling with subtextual nods to the power of making up tales. That Argo isn’t higher on my list is because it’s “just” a perfectly-executed old-school picture. Still, I’d love for Affleck to hold a Hollywood clinic for most genre directors under 50 on how to make “just” a plain-old suspense flick that crackles with such solid storytelling craftsmanship.
By mid-summer last year at least two films seemed clearly destined for my end-of-year list–Wes Anderson’s delicately tweaked melan-comic ode to bittersweet first-love nostalgia was one of them. However, a second viewing of Moonrise Kingdom a few weeks ago proved that while it is still a delight, the balance between Anderson’s use of archly honed artifice and his desire to use those same dollhouse-twee aesthetics to explore the fabulist nature of childhood memories (and their souring into adulthood) was tipping somewhat away from the sincere and into the show-offy. Don’t get me wrong—I still like the film very much. It and Fantastic Mr. Fox have renewed my faith in Anderson as someone who not only has something more to say than just “look how carefully I’ve centered the focal point in every shot” but who is saying something with the meticulous, fussy stylism he’s become known for.
Whether you’re a Tolstoy fan upset over the usual condensing liberties taken in a film adaptation; a period-film lover who wants your costume dramas to stick to long, yearning looks across the dining table; a film cynic ready to pounce on director Joe Wright’s efforts to enrich the proceedings by setting much of Tom Stoppard’s smart script in the imaginary, physics-defying space of a theater; or if you just don’t like Kiera Knightley for myriad reasons; I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. This is a living, dazzling, invigorating version of the novel in which the artistic conceits (like the use of the ever-morphing stage area) are not spastic Baz Lurhman distractions (and I say that as someone who loves Moulin Rouge), but instead carefully thought out choices that work as storytelling devices, thematic underscoring, and cinematic wonder. (Plus, there’s a lot more Levin than in most other Anna adaptations!)
I have issues. And no, they aren’t just with the whole “does the film support torture?” and “did the CIA feed the film makers false, pro-torture background intelligence?” In a full, upcoming review next week, I’ll delve into the deeper questions Zero Dark Thirty raised for me (how’s that for a tease?), but suffice to say, this is an incredibly well-made, morally complex, and dauntingly intelligent film—which is why I want to see it again before writing about it at length. Zero Dark Thirty is that good, and it’s a testimony to director Katheryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal that their film (filled with brilliant performances, including of course Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke, but also—yes!—for a few scenes, Mark Duplass) is both powerful and often subtle enough to raise a lot of issues that viewers will have to work through when they get past the film’s obvious blood-vengeance, heart-pumping visceral “Kill Bin Laden!” thrills. A month from now, I could see ZD30 moving higher up on this list. Or just as likely, further down.
For long-time Whedonites, 2012 was a banner year, no hulking pun intended. That’s right, Joss Whedon, perpetual also-ran TV creator, overly-literate champion of the underdog, patron saint of nerdy outcasts and marginalized oddballs, had the number-one box-office film of the year (third on the all-time earnings list after Cameron’s Titanic and Avatar). Best of all, both Whedon’s 2012 releases were a whole bunch of geeky fun. First he co-wrote and produced the long-delayed Cabin with Drew Goddard, whose dark, twisted story contributions and deft direction mixed nicely with Whedon’s cynical wit. The result is not so much a horror film, but a razor-sharp meta-satire on how in today’s society, young people’s love of horror films has become a de-facto form of cultural sacrifice. And at the very opposite end of budget and scope, the Whedon-scripted and –directed The Avengers succeeded on the largest stage imaginable not because it had the coolest toys and effects and biggest battles (though all those were top-notch), but because Whedon used his long-time expertise at crafting dynamically dysfunctional teams of misfits and his dead-pan smart sense of humor. Neither Cabin nor Avengers is perfect, but I know of all the films on this list, these are the two I’ll most likely be watching over and over on rainy days for years to come.
German writer-director Michael Haneke has a deserved rep for unblinkingly, perhaps even sadistically embracing the darkest sides of human nature in films like Funny Games and The White Ribbon. But in this story of an aging husband and wife (the fantastic Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) dealing with the wife’s debilitating and deteriorating physical and mental state, Haneke uses that fearless cinematic honesty not to wallow in misanthropy, but—sometimes painfully, always powerfully— to examine the reality of growing old and dying. You’ll hear a lot of folks tell you how “depressing” or “devastating” Amour is, but it’s not. Our American culture, with its emphasis on youth and life, prefers not to think about death from natural causes. (The movies we embrace about death are usually about younger characters who–wrapped in gauzy sunsets and orchestral uplift–either bravely face illness or gloriously sacrifice themselves in a moment of heroism.) But with continuing advances in medicine, more and more of us will grow old and slowly die at increasingly advanced ages. For all Amour’s stark, unflinching, sometimes bracing honesty, anyone who has ever cared for an ailing, fading elderly relative will recognize the film not as “depressing” but rather as a welcome study of a life stage many of us would prefer to turn away from. Haneke reminds us that true “life affirming” art speaks to all of life, not just the “fun,” “good” parts.
I didn’t plan it this way or even notice it until now, but you’d be hard-pressed to find two more thematically opposite films than Amour and writer-director-author Stephen Chbosky’s tale of outcast high-school teens struggling to sort out their fledgling identities. Those coming-of-age struggles (depression, being a gay teen in the early ‘90s, dealing with your past and facing your future) may be familiar, as will be the high-school currents and eddies (and even parts of the film’s wonderfully earnest post-wave soundtrack). But Chbosky, who adapted the film from his own novel, writes and directs with such an infectious love not just for his young characters and their issues (both trivial and tragic), but for the seemingly infinite, hopeful, joyful possibilities of life even as you face some of your most difficult emotional challenges. Meanwhile, Ezra Miller (City Island, We Need to Talk About Kevin) once again reminds us that he’s is becoming one of our best, most exciting young actors.
It’s not a perfect film (oh dear, poor Russell Crowe… he’s trying so darn hard…)—to the disappointment of Les Miz fans like myself, there are moments from the stage that simply cannot be translated to the screen with their theatrical power intact. And the film version inherits many of the stage production’s sluggish narrative pitfalls in the second half. But as a long-time lover of the original big, bombastic musical, I welcomed most of director Tom Hooper’s cinematic and stylistic approaches: the unbroken extreme close ups, the brilliant decision to have the actors “live sing” their roles on the set, and then the stripping of many of those vocal performances down to their raw, sometimes whispered, sometimes choking emotional core. The result is a musical that is as daring and risk-taking as it is over-sized and spectacular. I’ve had a screener DVD of it for a month, and I’ve probably watched Anne Hathaway’s shattering performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” a couple dozen times; for better or worse, however you may feel about her super-emoting, I can’t think of another time in a film where you could see the exact minute where someone completely and totally won their Oscar outright.
David Cronenberg’s nearly word-for-word, scene-for-scene adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel about 21st-century financial decadence and moral numbness is exactly the kind of film I dig: one that on first viewing you may find off-putting, annoying, perhaps even a bit dull, but that sticks with you, hanging around the back of your mind like a shady, sleazy stranger following you at a distance. Cronenberg spends a day in a limo with Robert Pattinson (turning in a coldly brilliant performance) as a filthy rich money speculator quietly, stoically entering a self-destructive, self-loathing downward spiral, and the result feels like a cinematic master in full control of his powers–not out to shock but to slowly, relentlessly unsettle. Drawing both on DeLillo’s obsessions about the dehumanizing effects of unfettered capitalism and our post-Recession, post-Occupy socio-economic realities, this is a film onion-layered with ideas, including the notion that film itself as an art form can still be used to peel away at our post-post-modern society.
There are films on this list more technically dazzling, more cinematically adept, but there aren’t many here that so completely grabbed me from the start and pulled me in. Writer-director Craig Zubel, with help from his fantastic cast (including Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, and Bill Camp) tells the story (based on a real event) of a devious prank caller who poses as a cop in order to manipulate the workers at a fast-food restaurant. Compliance is one of those films that captivates, infuriates, and mesmerizes by showing us, with an unblinking rawness, who we are and how we behave—not according to the heroic TV-, movie-, and video-game-fueled fantasies we tell ourselves, but according to our all-too-flawed and fearful human nature. More than its deeply disturbing moments, it is that overall moral “mirror, mirror” effect that makes Zobel’s film both difficult to watch and impossible to turn away from.
In 2007 writer-director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt teamed up to make one of my favorite films of the last decade: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Though it picked up a couple well-deserved Oscar nominations for Casey Affleck and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the lengthy, often-dreamlike film didn’t leave much of a mark at the box office or on the general public. Sadly, the same fate seems to have befallen Dominik and Pitt’s second effort: this stylishly gritty crime film based on George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade and pointedly set at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. It’s too bad, because once again they’ve made a film that seems to drift purposefully and powerfully above its hit-man genre roots in order to engage more existential questions. And in addition to Pitt, Killing Them Softly is beautifully populated with excellent performances by character actors like Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola, and Ray Liotta.
No, I can’t say I understand entirely what this French fantasia from writer-director Leos Carax is about, but that’s part of its powerful appeal. In following a metaphysical actor of sorts (the unbelievably great Denis Lavant) around all day as he goes from one “life performance” appointment to the next (inside a limousine chauffeured by Edith Scob, hence the film’s title), Carax seems to be making a heady, intoxicating point, as someone once said, about all of the world being a stage (and a cinema screen) and all the men and women merely actors on it, each playing a part, and that life is just a cosmically scripted dream. The film, which is divided into short dramatic (and comedic, and erotic, and tragic) scenarios, is also a rich and nimble riff on the nature of film and cinematic storytelling, which is no doubt why it’s ended up on so many year-end lists—us film lovers go nuts for this sort of hallucinatory meta-thing.
Believe the hype and the Oscar nominations—this sometimes raw, sometimes ethereal film from first-time director Benh Zeitlin deserves all the praise and accolades it’s receiving. One thing not being mentioned as often is that Beasts is technically a science-fiction film—even though The Bathtub, the washed-out bayou world Hushpuppy (the wonderful Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (the equally good Dwight Henry) inhabit, is relentlessly naturalistic, their story does take place in a near-future slowly, steadily ravaged by environmental and economic imbalance and divided into the dry-land haves and the flooded-out have-nots. Still, for all the hardship Hushpuppy faces (including the metaphorical title creatures), the film is a homegrown tale not just of strength and survival but triumph and celebration.
Paul Thomas Anderson has continually let both his obsession with the art of cinema and his explorations into the (often dark) hearts of humans lead him further away from straight-forward, entertaining, song-and-dance, “spell it out for the viewers” movies and deeper into what I consider to be some of the most effective, thought-provoking, daring and enlightening film making today. This is not a film about Scientology. It’s not a film about an incorrigible drunk. Or a charismatic, megalomaniac charlatan. It’s a film about the ways humans try to make their broken, egotistical selves function—maybe prosperously, maybe hopelessly. In watching the grappling dance between two damaged men—Philip Seymour Hoffman’s gloriously self-deluded Leader and Joaquin Phoenix’ bitterly self-destructive Follower—The Master becomes not about the dangers of a metaphysical, self-aggrandizing hoax spun by religion, but instead a study of why humans need and create it in the first place. Hoffman and Phoenix are unrelentingly good, and Anderson uncompromisingly, un-panderingly tackles all this on a grand, sure-footed cinematic scale worth of his idols Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. The best film of the year–hands-down, no argument–The Master absolutely crackles and hums with artistic energy.