TTTT: An American Film Geek's Top 10 for 2012
To date, I've viewed and considered 136 releases from 2012. Not all are anxiety-driven incidental commentaries on the precarious states of either the world, film culture, or both, but in keeping with last years crop of Movies That Mattered, those considerations are still certainly in play.
For the first time, I've pretty much managed to see all the end of year prestige films and major releases. As a voting member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association, this is particularly important. I see the films, I review them if possible, and then, at the end of the year, as the dust is finally settling, I step back and try to evaluate just what I'm seeing in the crème de la crème, and others that moved me one way or another.
Good old fashioned escapism is still alive and well and valid, and in 2012, there ended up being a lot of worthwhile movies. Glancing at my own ranked list, I find that the top sixty are all films that I wouldn't want to do without. This was not the case in 2011, a year that yielded more long-term powerhouses, but lesser - and certainly scattered - in overall quality. In order to make my 2012 top ten, the entries couldn't just be great, they had to transcend.
Looking at my picks for the Best Films of 2012, one could speculate that filmmakers seem to feel, on varying levels, that perhaps if we have faith and pull together, we can better navigate these uncertain waters.
Wherever possible, I link to my ScreenAnarchy review or article dealing with the film in question. Many of the descriptions below are cherry picked from my previous writings posted either here or at my own site, ZekeFilm.org.
Movies I've yet to see: End of Watch, Rampart, The Turin Horse, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ted, Coriolanus, The Well-Diggers Daughter, This Must be the Place, My Sister's Sister.
1. Life of Pi - A universalized tale of adventure, based upon a best selling novel, and featuring a lead character of strong faith, but no one's specifically, is it any wonder that Hollywood has been tripping over itself to get the once-deemed "unfilmable" Life of Pi to the screen? Where the whole would-be precarious endeavor went astonishingly right was with director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain). Lee, both a daredevil master visualist and a tremendously sensitive humanitarian, is perfect for this unlikely internalized big-budget nail-biter.
Life of Pi is the story of a young man whose family opts to move their family zoo, stocked with all manner of exotic animals, from India to the U.S. But when their ship sinks, the young man is the only survivor. Make that, the only human survivor.
He's forced to share his lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger. The heart of the film is these two and their precarious dance of life and death. That alone is enough raw fuel for a nail-biting story, but Life of Pi, even with its fair share of overwroughtness, offers so much more.
What, in the wrong hands, would've easily become a ham-fisted, water-logged yarn about the value of terminally generalized "faith" in the face of desperate survival is, in instead a meticulously constructed wonder of a film that challenges and fulfills on nearly every level a motion picture can operate on. The 3D technology is put to its most artistically flamboyant use to date, trading in hypnotically beautiful images that go beyond both photographed reality and computer generated expectations.
There is no false hope, no shoehorned optimism for the sake of hollow "inspirational" storytelling. Some cry foul at the film's last act, but I savor it as a gateway for further consideration of the major topics Life of Pi offers about humanity, nature, and God. Life of Pi puts all of this out there. It in fact is what it's all about.
2. Moonrise Kingdom - Moonrise Kingdom, set in 1965, has the distinction of being quirk auteur Wes Anderson's first distinct period piece, although all of his films have a strangely retro feel. It's also the filmmaker's most salutary and cohesive utilization of his now-familiar tropes and themes, particularly the way beat-down, passionless and even depressed adults rigidly maintain control over the world of children, resulting in passionless youngsters, essentially born into bland routine and over-structure. And yet their youthful zeal cannot be fully suppressed, messily breaking out like toothpaste in a crinkle-cracked tube.
Moonrise Kingdom is, on the surface, a fully functional story of pure love trying to make a go of it in a world that wants to keep a lid on it. Two tween lovebirds, a renegade Khaki scout and a disaffected privileged girl, run away together, and everyone spends the rest of the movie trying to find them. It is a lighter film than Anderson's immediate live action predecessors, but all the more poignant for it, with unexpected moments of exhilarating comedy fused with coming-of-age-too-soon melancholy. Anderson is clearly intoxicated by his love of cinema here, paying small tributes to everything from Sergio Leone to Peckinpah to German Expressionism. But it's still trademark Wes Anderson, and better than ever.
3. Looper - Resolute in its own confident world building and spot-on craftsmanship, the rewardingly heady and violent Looper boasts nary a false move. The plot, one which should be as convoluted as all get out, but miraculously plays almost effortlessly, involves a corrupt underworld justice system in which undesirable individuals are hurled back in time from the far future to the near future for immediate execution. Worthy rising talent Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the executioner, living high on the hog even as his soul rots away. That is, until his future self (Bruce Willis) arrives as his next victim.
The sci-fi chase that ensues offers not just the requisite thrilling action and brain-bending time travel mumbo jumbo, but deeply layered characters that make sense, even amid their life of punishable wrongdoings. Looper is a keeper - a rare writer/director (Brick's Rian Johnson) driven film of scope and ideas that is satisfying in its uneasiness.
4. The Kid with a Bike - Celebrated Belgium filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have, with The Kid with a Bike, made what's being called their sunniest picture. That said, this highly effective and unassumingly precise story of pained childhood rides into some pretty spiritually dark territory.
Cyril is the titular kid, who has a bike but not a dad. When he finally connects with the man he so desperately longs for, only to be shut out, it may be the single most heart-wrenching moment in recent cinema.
The town hairdresser's selfless decision to care for Cyril proves to be no tossed off commitment, however, as the kid wanders deeper and deeper down the pathways of troubled youth. The Kid with a Bike is searingly sparse in both its aesthetic and its honesty. It mourns for what can't be had even as it guides us to savoring the blessings we've been given.
5. The Impossible - This harrowing account of the true-life plight of a vacationing family that suddenly gets swept away with everything and everyone else during a horrific tsunami is one of the most astonishing films in years. The visual effects of the storm and flood are marvels unto themselves. I don't know how they did it.
But more astonishing is how the film washes away famous movie stars and young child actors in a miles-long blast of mud water and debris. Of course what's seen isn't real, but it certainly feels that way, which is of course the point. Everything that follows is emotionally and physically informed by this unforgettable sequence.
Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts brave conditions and physicality that few actors of their caliber would consider. But the bigger story is young Tom Holland, who plays their oldest son, and completely carries this heavy, heavy film. The Impossible falls into the category of "just tragic enough" for most audiences to take; an attribute to its credit considering its more important messages of survivor's guilt and the deep value of helping wherever and whomever we can.
6. Amour - Considering its status as the most effectively touching end of life drama maybe ever, director Michael Haneke's Amour certainly has boasted plenty of life on the 2012 festival circuit, where it won numerous Best Picture awards, including the coveted Cannes Palme d'Or.
Amour is "deliberate pacing" done right, putting viewers right into the skin and tempo of this aging couple faced with their final days together. In one sense, it's all about how these people occupy their established space, the carefully composed frames on the screen in which they reside. We are, without error, seeing the final act of a life together, fully lived.
In another sense, Amour is deeply unpleasant on a gut, human level. Haneke is no stranger to confrontational filmmaking, and although this has been called his most "hopeful" work, that may just be another way of saying least assaulting. Amour is all about love - difficult, messy, physically withering, in-it-for-the-long-haul love. It's not always pretty, but somehow, even amid a tough ending, it is beautiful.
7. Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill) continues to cement his reputation as cinema's greatest appropriator, cobbling together bits and pieces of previous films, television shows, music and books to form stunningly lively new wholes. He now turns his attention to the American Deep South, shortly before the Civil War.
Django Unchained, historical revenge fantasy through and through, comes out blasting, swearing, and bandying more now-shocking but era-appropriate racial slurs than a lot of folks are going to be comfortable with. Tarantino never even begins to apologize for it, nor should he feel the need. By now most film buffs will know if Tarantino is right for them or not. For those of us who do anticipate his new work, and continue to be impressed by it, it's up to us to navigate the boundaries of when wallowing in brutal, albeit stylized subversion is morally worth it - even as it touts itself within a modernly moral viewpoint, if not a similar reckoning.
In this epic, mythical subversive Western, things must get messy before they get better (even if a larger betterment is the result of a personal mission). And since they happen to be movie characters occupying a movie, these things will go down in movie fashion. And our box office is one fueled by aggression. But perhaps, just maybe, violent revisionist fantasies such as this one can serve as deliberate gaze, forcing sidesteps in our own internal grappling with our national past sins, as well as our own troubled hearts that make for such a situation in the first place. And such consideration is indeed a healthy thing... in between the gunfire.
8. Holy Motors - Far more statement than story, the challenging French language provocation Holy Motors isn't just one of the most thought provoking films of the year, it may just be film's pending and un-decoded epitaph... But do not mistake this for just another sky-is-falling lament from within about the quickly dying state of tangible film - Holy Motors seeks to question our part of the altogether greater cinematic process. Why do we like to watch what we watch, and what does it mean that we so haphazardly shift the mechanisms by which we watch? (Zoetropes gave way to movie palaces which gave way to multiplexes which gave way to YouTube - Have we really risen and fallen, or just spun full circle?) What - or who - are the motors in question, and (dare we ask) why are they holy?
Holy Motors may leave you fuming, it may leave you floored. With its deep, European foundation of influences and references semi-obscured, many will only grasp a fraction of it outright. Thus, it invites perplexity, multiple viewings, homework, and discussions to follow. Not all will be happy with where they end up. ("The place where limousines go at night.") But for the adventurous cinephile, it is a ride that must be taken.
9. Marvel's The Avengers - The box office domination of the big budget super hero film has been unfairly linked by many naysayers to the supposed pending downfall of cinema itself. While it's true that the digital revolution has altered not only the way movies are made, but the way they are watched, the comic book marvels are not to blame. The truth is, more care, consideration, and devoted vision tends to go into one of these well-crafted franchise offerings than so many other types of multiplex flicks.
Case in point, Joss Whedon's The Avengers. A film like no other, in that it successfully brings together the headliners of several other established super hero franchises into one movie, united against a common foe. But in true Marvel Comics form, the unification of these diverse personalities is something that must be worked through before they can function as needed for the greater good. By the end, this team of Earth's Greatest Heroes is an unlikely, if temporary, community unto itself.
An engaging blockbuster worthy of the big screen in every way, and refreshingly appropriate for filmgoers of most ages, it will do that thing that we're otherwise poised to loose in movieland - forge community. That's a tall order for one film, but The Avengers is no ordinary film.
10. Compliance - A fellow local critic warned the rest of us about the "deepy troubling" nature of filmmaker Craig Zobel's Compliance even as he encouraged us to look at it. He wasn't wrong, on any front. This moral tale takes us to its conclusion the hard way, a middle American mundane re-asking of "why did the good German go bad?", leaving room for only outrage and discomfort, even as we must confront the question of had we found ourselves in the same circumstance, would the story have gone any differently?
Ann Dowd plays the manager of a fast food restaurant. It's a busy Friday night when a perverted individual posing as a cop calls, and quite convincingly coerces Dowd's character to strip search a young female employee (Dreama Walker) in the back room. From there, it only gets worse. Dowd's performance is a risky and subtle one, unglamorous and unflattering as could be. I'm thrilled that my organization voted to grant her the St. Louis Film Critics Association 2012 Award for Best Supporting Actress.
But beyond the great, gutsy performances and the re-framing of the classical ethical conundrum of why people blindly follow authority, Compliance speaks to our own deeper, darker cinematic obsessions, forcing our gaze upon them. The young pretty girl does in fact undress, but in this context, it's the goreless equivalent of morally probing torture horror.
2012 was most certainly a rewarding movie year, with even "popcorn" movies like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises (#49) offering considerable food for thought while heady splendors such as Life of Pi and Holy Motors proved quite enjoyable. As we looked, and continue to look, we see that the reflective surface of the screen is like a calm yet threatening sea, holding up a mirror that we can stare into ourselves with, even as we'd best try not to altogether sink into it.
My Honorable Mentions, #11-20:
11. This Is Not A Film (d. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi. Iran)
12. Beasts of the Southern Wild (d. Benh Zeitlin. USA)
13. Lincoln (d. Steven Spielberg. USA)
14. Zero Dark Thirty (d. Kathryn Bigelow. USA)
15. Wreck-It Ralph (d. Rich Moore. USA)
16. Declaration of War (d. Valérie Donzelli. France)
17. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (d. Stephen Chbosky. USA)
18. Argo (d. Ben Affleck. USA)
19. The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson. USA)
20. Seven Psychopaths (d. Martin McDonagh. UK)