Saturday, January 12, 2013

Best Films of 2012: The Top 10

Was 2012 a great year for film? Perhaps not. But, like 2011, 2012 stands out as an uncommonly diverse year in terms of settings, time periods, and subject matter. While the year provided fewer films that I can easily call brilliant, it still contained a wide range of stories across myriad genres, which at least makes for an interesting year. If anything, the word that defines cinema in 2012 is "divisive." Mixed opinions were everywhere, especially with ambitious studio films like Prometheus, Cloud Atlas, and Les Miserables. Even films that received overwhelmingly positive critical reception (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions) eventually developed strong detractors. 2012 also saw studios taking chances on adult-driven dramas. Some of the films were problematic (I'm looking at you, Flight), yet there were clear  home runs (Lincoln, Life of Pi, Argo). And now that we're over a week into the new year, I figured that it was about time to run down my list of favorites, before moving on to my hypothetical Oscar Ballot.  But before we get to the top 10, here's a look at a handful of other noteworthy films.

Perfect Sense
A brief disclaimer: this is easily the most flawed of this handful of Runners Up, without question. David Mackenzie's romantic-sci-fi-disease drama spends its first two thirds oscillating among moments that are gripping, romantic, and absolutely tone deaf. Then, in the last half hour, the bumps diminish as the stakes raise and the nature of the narrative becomes less repetitive. And finally, in the final sequence, Perfect Sense abruptly soars with tragic, tender beauty. Eva Green and Ewan McGregor are wonderful as the central duo, and make their characters worth caring about, even as they start the film seeming like nothing more than selfish jerks. Yet as the film, aided significantly by Max Richter's stunning score, finds its footing more and more, Perfect Sense comes together and ends with its best foot forward in the most effective way.

Life of Pi
Unfortunate framing device aside, Ang Lee's vision of Yann Martel's difficult-to-adapt novel could not have been a more endearing success. Its spiritual overtones are sometimes vague and pandering, but as a work of visual storytelling, this is Mr. Lee at the height of his powers. From the moment that massive ship is toppled by brutal waves, Life of Pi provides moments of effortless tenderness, shock, and wonder. This is, no doubt, helped by the absolutely immaculate visual effects work. In the form of the tiger Richard Parker, the film creates one of the most detailed and convincing VFX creations since Gollum first appeared on screens a decade ago.

I don't legitimately consider the latest Bond film to be a mind-blowing achievement, but I can't deny how excited I was when it snagged a nomination from the Producer's Guild. Building on the good will established in Casino Royale (and muddled by Quantum of Solace), Sam Mendes' entry in the Bond canon is quite easily one of the franchise's finest (if not THE finest). The more personal story, the gorgeous photography, and the unusually thrilling action sequences might add up to a film that is more Bourne than classic Bond, but Skyfall stands as a nice middle ground between the iconic spy's past and present. 

Chicken With Plums
Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud's follow-up to Persepolis sputtered and died in American theaters, which is truly a shame. In a year of major technical achievements, Chicken is worthy of its own special mention, as it boasts some of the most seamless and charming mixes of animation and live action in years. The key narrative is a tad sappy, but the direction, through some lovely performances and even lovelier visuals brings it home to create a charming fairy tale, albeit one with heavy shades of death and regret.

Seven Psychopaths
As shamelessly meta as Martin McDonagh's latest film is, the director manages to keep his follow-up to In Bruges from succumbing to cheap cop-outs. Lively, funny, and unexpectedly touching, Psychopaths may be shallower than In Bruges, but it is also such a thoroughly entertaining ride that it remains satisfying. Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson are absolute delights, and have a blast taking their relatively simple characters and running with them. It's not an exercise in character development, but the roles are big and entertaining, and the story's reflexive progression is a thrilling ride from start to finish.


Whatever failures Ben Affleck has been involved with as an actor have been quickly redeemed in the past five years. The actor and former tabloid sensation found his true calling behind the camera, and his third film has cemented his standing as one of the most exciting mainstream directors working today. Argo's general outcome is known, yet it generates more intensity in its final act that many fictional thrillers can ever dream of. The film really only has one Achilles Heel, although it's a big one: it never goes even remotely below the surface. The film is hugely entertaining and well-made, but despite the dire situations on screen, the ensemble is made up of total blank slates who we feel for strictly out of their situation. Still, those last 40 minutes are pretty damn exhilarating.

Anna Karenina
Joe Wright's bold take on Tolstoy's novel may veer more towards aesthetics than deeply-felt emotion, but what glorious aesthetics they are. As much as Wright's conceit calls attention to the artifice of the settings, the film couldn't feel more cinematic. It's a visually and aurally  ravishing work that adds a modern sense of verve to a story that could have been stiff and tiring in less adventurous hands. Most of the performances are quite game too, although it's the supporting cast (Law, Gleeson, MacFadyen, Vikander) who leave a greater impact than the leads (Knightley and Taylor-Johnson). Wright's flashy take on the novel certainly isn't for everyone, but for those with whom it connects, it will prove to be a bold and sensual work.

And now, here's to the films that made it all the way to the top:

10. A Royal Affair
Essentially the exact opposite of Anna Karenina in terms of style, Nikolaj Arcel's Danish period drama distinguishes itself with muted naturalism rather than lush artifice. Based on truly incredible true events, the film refuses to indulge in the titular affair. Instead, it incorporates them into a much larger (and more interesting) narrative about class, nationality, government, and gender politics. The trio of performances (including Anna's Alicia Vikander) are strong, if not quite brilliant, and help propel the narrative through its sobering conclusion. There may be period gowns and horse-drawn carriages, but A Royal Affair is more of a political drama than another romantic melodrama, which is just one more reason why it's worth a look.

09. Killer Joe
There are dumb movies about dumb people, and then there are searing, brutally funny, vicious movies about dumb people. William Friedkin's Killer Joe falls into the latter camp. Featuring a small ensemble of big, juicy, outstanding performances (namely Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple), this NC-17 rated look at Texas trailer trash is a marvelously entertaining look at how one man's simple plan goes horribly, horribly wrong. The story, adapted from Tracy Letts' play, takes its time to build its characters, with only smatterings of violence. That is, until the final act. It's violent and brutal (though hardly gory), and packs the intensity of an electric shock. It will also ensure that you never, ever look at a chicken drumstick the same way ever again.

08. Tabu
Essentially The Artist as directed by a less flamboyant Pedro Almodovar, Miguel Gomes' strange story is a marvel of old fashioned charm. Split into two distinct sections (the first in the present, the second in the middle of the last century), this quietly enchanting look at romance effectively blends old and new cinematic techniques. The mostly silent second half is a particularly beautiful work of classical film making, even as it contains a few odd asides and some vaguely allegorical shots of crocodiles.

07. Bullhead
It's really a shame that Michael Roskam's Bullhead fell victim to a split release. Nominated last year as Belgium's entry for Foreign Language Film, the film didn't open in American theaters until 2012. Yet, because of the previous nomination, it is ruled ineligible for all other categories. It's truly a shame, because despite the occasionally convoluted plot, this slow-building thriller is one of last year's best European imports. Matthias Schoenaerts (Marion Cotillard's Rust and Bone co-star) carries the bulk of the narrative, and delivers a physical and emotional tour de force as a man with a past marked by horrific trauma. Roskam's film delves into struggles of masculinity from several fronts, all of which feel organic and allow the film to build to a tremendous finish that cements its status as one of 2012's finest.

06. Les Miserables
Possibly the most divisive of 2012's major Oscar contenders, Les Miserables managed, somewhat to my surprise, to turn me into a convert (and not just as an admirer of the music). Hooper's directing has received plenty of divisive attention, and while I think certain claims (some overly fussy editing, the sometimes overly shaky camera) are perfectly valid, the overall emotion of the piece trumps the technical quibbles. The singing may not be perfect, especially among the older cast members, but it has a raw, human quality that makes it more powerful in a cinematic context. Jackman, Hathaway, Crowe (yes, I'm a defender), and Eddie Redmayne all have knockout moments, and the bigger ensemble scenes provide truly rousing emotion. These same scenes, if done as an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, could come off as jarringly rushed and underdeveloped. Yet the guidance of the stage show's incredible music, whether sung or in recitative, allows the story to truly soar. All things combined, Les Miserables may not be the directing achievement of the year, but as an overall work, it stands as a remarkable mix of old-fashioned Hollywood pageantry captured through an unabashedly modern lens. 

05. Holy Motors
The strangest film to hit American soil in 2012 may also be last year's most satisfying (and only?) work of cinematic lunacy. Leos Carax's story of a man (an incredible Denis Lavant) who goes through a series of bizarre transformations has great fun by taking the notion of performance to the extreme. The episodes range from grotesque, to touching, to joyous (that instrumental performance), yet they all have their merits. However, the strangeness of the whole enterprise, which avoids a direct statement of purpose and meaning, can sometimes be more tiresome than engaging. But as far as nutty, unconventional odysseys go, Holy Motors succeeds as an epic performance piece, even as it vaguely questions where modern performance is currently headed.

04. Moonrise Kingdom
Ah, the Wes Anderson universe. Where the children act like adults, the adults act like children, and everyone goes about their lives in a constant state of hyper-deadpanning. Yet Moonrise Kingdom marks the first time in years that Anderson's niche vision has felt so effortless and so effective. The story is pure oddball charm, even down to the striking visuals, and the cast is filled with winning turns from actors of every age. Additional viewings only make it better, as bits of humor previously covered up by the straight delivery are revealed. It may not be rich with substance, but this strange little love story is so beautifully balanced when it comes to wit and whimsy that it remains a wholly satisfying work, through and through.

03. The Master
Though not quite the cinematic second coming it was hyped as, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus is still a commanding exploration of powerful human dynamics. The performers give it their all, though among the main three Phoenix and Adams fare better under Anderson's cold and distant execution. The real star of The Master is Mr. Anderson, without question. In perhaps his most heavily Kubrickian work to date, Anderson holds his characters at arm's length, allowing them to be part of the narrative tapestry, rather than truly pop out of the frame. It may keep the performances from feeling as passionate as in previous Anderson films, but the technique pays off in terms of atmosphere. The large bulk of The Master is shapeless middle, full of developments but without any sense of where those developments are headed. Yet the developments deliver fascinating results, regardless of their immediate clarity.

02. Zero Dark Thirty

Appropriately meticulous, intense, unpleasant, and exhausting, Kathryn Bigelow's take on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is a marvel of reserved execution. It is best defined by how it evolves from mere procedural, to one person's immense attachment to seeing one duty through. Zero Dark Thirty operates in a different mode than The Hurt Locker, but Bigelow's techniques remain ideally suited. To paraphrase a line that has almost become a parody of itself, it's not the Bin Laden movie some wanted, but it's the one we deserve. There's no feeling of rah-rah-rah patriotism over the credits, nor is there the sense that Bin Laden's death is the nail in the coffin for those who want to blow us up. Zero Dark Thirty, with astounding precision, shows us what happened to us, and what we did, and then boils it down to what it meant for one tireless individual, without ever indulging in one-sided sentimentality. Now that is extraordinary craftsmanship 

01. Amour

You can't exactly call Michael Haneke's latest a sentimental film, even though it stands as the director's most accessible (and "warmest") work to date. The subject matter certainly isn't entertaining, but what Haneke and his actors deliver is so rich and authentic that it proves rewarding, even as it hurts. Though set almost entirely in an apartment in Paris, Amour never feels cramped thanks to Haneke's masterful sense of place. The emotions are painful and intimate, yet the surroundings have enough space so that those emotions never become oppressive, even as the story becomes more dire. Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert all deliver masterful performances, and the relationships among the lot feel strikingly authentic. And, despite the painful subject matter, Amour hardly jerks at your heartstrings to earn blubbery tears, nor does it ever sink to the level of overwrought "misery porn." It works more in the vein of Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants, and comes from such a level-headed place that it registers deep within. This is love at is most difficult and unromantic, and because of Haneke's brilliant execution, and his cast's beautiful performances, Amour is a painful and powerful look at old age and death that resonates down to the bone.

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