Here’s my best-of-2012 list that I have finally made myself post. I saw a record low number of films from this year (barely over 100). So, if you think I’m reaching a bit with some choices, I might be. Also a note upfront that English, French, and a bit of Korean are, sadly, the only languages represented here. Don’t ask me why they continue to dominate (I did see others). As always, each ten is listed in alphabetical order because numerically ranking movies is impossible. I reserve the right to change this list until the Academy Awards (if it’s past then, I obviously haven’t changed it because this sentence is still here). Don’t ask why you should care about such an arbitrary extension of time to see other movies. As always, there’s still plenty I haven’t seen….
Michael Haneke gives us a story about the strength of Love wrapped in the slow, helpless, eventualness of Death. His usual lack of sentimentality adds weight to a film that, by nearly any other fillmmaker, would be wrought with melodrama. Comparisons to Bergman here are apt, though I hesitate to wonder what that means for Haneke in the future. It’s worth pointing out that the two lead actors stand in for a life of Cinema, as they have been on screen for over 50 years each. Also, if you feel like killing yourself after this (or any Haneke) movie, try checking out the fake Twitter in his name…
Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA)
An enchanting film set in a world that is both our own and nowhere close; it’s a kind of ethnographic mythology of the Southern bayou. I am grateful for having seen this the theatre, since it is such an immersive experience. I am better off for being one of the people who knows that there once was a Hushpuppy who lived with her daddy in the bathtub. The lead actress (Quvenzhané Wallis) was 8 years old in this movie. Just making sure you knew that.
Cloud Atlas (USA/Germany/Hong Kong)
I have a hard time understanding why this film is so disappointing to some. It is overly ambitious, but that’s the point. A truly epic undertaking that is both experimental and utterly conventional. You may not care for a particular story, or actor, or choice of makeup prosthetic, but taken as a whole experience, what’s not to like? It is your fault if you didn’t know that the running time is close to three hours long. The ensemble is put to a uniquely great use, but, for me, Doona Bae is simply amazing.
Holy Motors (France/Germany)
Leos Carax awakens from a literal and figurative Cinema slumber to bring a tale without any context outside its own creation. Denis Lavant gets to play the fool (and the monster, assassin, father, lover, etc.) and Edith Scob gets to revisit her Franju mask. Leave any expectation of a conventional narrative behind; each performance segment is its own internal movie. The Intermission is perhaps the most joyous scene I saw all year.
The Innkeepers (USA)
A throwback to the slow-boil of the 1980s supernatural horror film that doesn’t need blood or guts to draw you in. This is Ti West‘s strongest film yet. I hope to see more. Some thought this movie was too slow. Those of us that have sat through the first hour of many a 90 minute horror movie to just see it all get started know better.
Time travel is a favorite conceit of mine. There’s not much screen time given to its construction here (the science part of the fiction is jokingly swept aside). Rian Johnson continues his skewing of the genre picture and gives us a nice story about weighing one’s own individuality with that of another (which, in this case, could be one’s other self). And, of course, it’s fun to watch JGL ‘s intentionally weird looking face.
The Master (USA)
I was among the initial impressions that this is not a Paul Thomas Anderson “masterwork” (that being said I also feel like I was holding it to such high comparative scrutiny), yet it was intriguing enough throughout to still be one of the most interesting movie-going experiences of the year. Joaquin Phoenix gives a performance of such physicality that really hasn’t been seen since the time period the film covers (from the likes of Dean or Brando. Seriously). Whatever you might think of the actual character (and his interplay with Hoffman and Adams‘s also less-than-likeable characters), it really is that good.
Moonrise Kingdom (USA)
Wes Anderson finally figures out that his sensibility works best with child actors as the leads. While not as nearly well directed as Rushmore, I do think it might be the best of his films after this. While I have my issues with parts of it, it does try for a less jarringly obvious musical palette this time. While it may, in ways, seem like a yellow and green version of The Royal Tenenbaums, I think it is a worthy revision of his past attempts at whatever you think he has been doing so far. I think he is a meticulously good director, but I wish he would try an adaptation of something outside his own mind for once. If you couldn’t tell, I am ambivalent about Wes Anderson. The rhetorical question that follows this statement is: Why is this film on this list, then? See above, I guess.
De rouille et d’os/Rust and Bone (France/Belgium)
This was at the top of my to-see list as soon as I heard of its existence. Maybe I had high expectations. Maybe I loved this movie anyway. Matthias Schoenaerts is, to me, simply one of the most interesting actors out there right now. Marion Cotillard is stunningly unique here. It’s a bit more pulpy than some might expect, but it doesn’t pull punches. It just throws them at you. It’s best to not try to figure out where they’re coming from ahead of time and just let the film knock you out.
Your Sister’s Sister (USA)
Lynn Shelton reconfigures the chamber drama, with a low budget, by just letting us see three great performances. Mark Duplass is everywhere now, but I am on the bandwagon. Emily Blunt (who I could normally take or leave, has never been better) and Rosemarie DeWitt give us sisters I feel like we can believe. I want to say that it’s like a ‘fractional Big Chill‘, but I’m not sure if I really know what that means exactly.
And here are another ten that stand out from the rest:
Berberian Sound System (UK)
Toby Jones plays an English sound ‘genius’ flown in to work in an Italian film studio on some sort of giallo-like “horror” movie. He doesn’t speak the language, so we don’t get subtitles. He is isolated, so we are isolated. He goes a little crazy, so…. This is one of those movies where people complain that “nothing happens in the entire film”, but its all about sound, see, so you have to listen and feel and, well, it’s slow and not very conventional. I thought it was interesting, because its not like anything I’ve seen before while also having seen little bits of all of it in other places. If anything, it has the year’s best opening title sequence for a movie that is not the movie you are watching.
Jennifer Chambers Lynch does the serial killer thing again. I was not expecting much from this film with the (intentional?) tonal mess that her previous two features were. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a performance perhaps above (perhaps even slightly outside) the construction of this film, but I found some of the scenes between him and the younger (and especially the even younger) male riveting to watch. While the suggested explanations for their motivations is a bit psychologically lacking, check this out if you like this type of depraved genre pic.
Craig Zobel takes the ‘based on a true story’ and makes it about more than the sum of its parts. It’s about ‘merica, people; a metaphor for our an ageless time. Uncomfortable without fault. Maybe that’s why it’s the only picture on the list here that I bothered posting about previously (I tried for some others, but didn’t bother posting).
Killer Joe (USA)
Trash theatre to the extreme. Exploitation at its core. Freidkin takes on Tracy Letts again and builds an NC-17 worthy (though recut for an R-rating) farce. Lots of stupidity. Lots of uncomfortable situations. Matthew McConaughey had year full of crazy good roles and this one might be the best of them. Don’t plan on eating fried chicken afterwards…
Les Miserables (UK)
Some parts fall flat (literally), but it has enough accomplished grandiosity to be worth listing here. Hugh Jackman takes on the role like very few could do as well and Anne Hathaway‘s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is a glory to behold in its single take of on-set singing. Yes, there are better singers, and for some roles, even better actors, but I was pleasantly suprised at how well it turned out for such an ‘intentionally big’ movie.
Not Fade Away (USA)
David Chase (the creator of The Sopranos) captures the essence of early rock n’ roll in this anti-bio-pic of the 1960s. A story about the band that never made it. Recollections of time not so perfect. Nostalgia done right. And the soundtrack ain’t bad either.
Ruby Sparks (USA)
Zoe Kazdan (yes, grand-daughter of Elia) co-stars as the title character of her debut screenplay about a young male writer who writes himself a girlfriend out of thin air. Of course, it ain’t that easy. The film has its problems, but the conceit is such a good one, and played well enough by Paul Dano and Kazan, that it deserves a mention here.
Seven Psychopaths (UK)
I’d like to think Martin McDonagh had some problems writing a script and this was the result. Or maybe he just took a page from Charlie Kaufman and was going to end up getting this meta-crime farce out of the process anyway. Either way he manages to send up every cliche proposed while making it both funny and functional at the same time. I would guess the great ensemble of actors agreed. Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken in the same movie. How could you pass this up?
Sleepwalk with Me (USA)
Mike Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, who, surprise, happens to be based on himself (and based on the book he wrote before the movie); a stand-up comic with a sleeping disorder who is also dealing with life/relationship problems. It’s one of the best movies about road comics out there. Well, there aren’t that many. But it’s still one of the best so far. Helped along this year by the ingenious idea of having Joss Whedon challenge it in box office gross, and then appear to actually take that challenge on.
Sound of My Voice (USA)
Brit Marling gives us an intriguing little mental sci-fi drama akin to last year’s Another Earth that deals with the cult of personality and what an individual can bring to it. Though one may see where it’s going, it still seems like a great riff on the genre. Looking forward to more from her and her collaborators.
Zero Dark Thirty (USA)
There’s a lot of controversy about this movie, apparently (find your own links for that). More importantly, there’s also a lot of very good film criticism about it. I have refrained from putting it in my list proper, because I’m not really sure what to think about it yet. I think this is one of those films that you can gain more from the discussion than the actual film. It is constructed in such a way as to be a springboard for whatever one wants to perceive it as. The film shows torture. The film shows negotiation. Are we to infer that the torture brings about a state amenable to negotiation, or that negotiation succeeds where torture fails? Like the film, reality does not always present a logical answer. As the links above point out, this film is about the puzzle of knowledge-building in the face of (mis)perception. I agree that the refrain: “Partial information is treated like a lie” is key. The film is nothing but partial information. Cinema is nothing but partial information (where Reality is the under-perception of all information?). Whatever one believes, (the) film, masterpiece or not, can therefore be nothing but a lie.