Now is the time when critics opine about the “best” films of the year. Leaving aside the insanity of ranking aesthetic experiences (as I am about to do just that), the problem for serious amateur film nuts like myself is that we rarely have access to many great films, especially foreign titles, for months after their world debuts, usually at some faraway festival or non-US market. But nobody will want to read about great 2012 movies in the middle of the year. So, here I go again with a somewhat premature summation.
Somehow I have managed to catch most of the marquee titles, thanks to screening series and a posse of movie-obsessed friends. My year-end viewing frenzy is greatly aided by Netflix, where I power my way through queues of hundreds of obscure titles culled from quirky critics’ lists and the flotsam of the web. (I'll never view all those movies!)
Excuses aside, I offer this collection of 2012 movies that brought me pleasure, it’s as simple as that – no empyrean claims of “best” nor assertions that other films are not equally deserving of attention. Simply my own personal and arbitrary way of sharing why I love the movies, and why I thought 2012 was a pretty good year for movie geeks. (Ranked by intensity of pleasure, as it were.)
Beasts of the Southern Wild – I stumbled from the theatre dazed and amazed by a cinematic experience unlike any I’d ever seen: not just dreamlike, which it was; not just astonishly empathetic, which it certainly was; no, here we have the most original and singular use of the filmic arts in years, with which the director manages to convey intensity of feeling and personal events related to Hurricane Katrina from the perspective of a child adrift in a sea of yearning and hope, loved by damaged people seemingly left behind by God and nature. Truffaut meets Maya Deren.
Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell steps into the pantheon of really great directors with this masterful drama with comic edges and heart-breaking performances. When it ended, I wanted to watch it all over again, and believe me, that doesn’t happen often. I loved these crazy fucked-up people, and I’m not sure why, except that Russell places us inside their world with his always moving camera, his wall-to-wall music, his balls-to-the-wall emotional intensity. I gasped and laughed and loved the whole messy thing. And the experience made me feel that I was in the hands of a master: at first I thought Billy Wilder, but maybe more Preston Sturges. A romantic comedy for those of us in the loony bin of life.
The Master – I love movies that don’t figure everything out for me, force me to find the puzzle pieces, and maybe some are missing. The Master delivers such an experience as it sweeps us into a tale of predatory cult religion and the broken people to whom such certainties appeal. Phoenix’s twisted performance (literally) is one of the oddest and most compelling on-screen portrayals in years, almost matched by the blazing command of Hoffman’s guru and the smiling horror of his wife, portrayed by Amy Adams. Of course this is about Scientology, whether or not the facts match up historically, and by extension, all of the other cheap ass spiritual hucksters that seem to keep springing up from the fetid soil of American self-hatred and fear. But it’s also about helping an audience understand why the fraud works.
Rust and Bone – Audiard is becoming one of my favorite directors, delivering one knockout punch of a movie after another. Now Rust and Bone joins 2009’s “A Prophet” and 2005’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” as truly contemporary master works of the cinema, with so much going on at so many levels, conveyed through brilliant performances and an almost perfect sense of rhythm and tone. Rust and Bone offers a gallery of ordinary working class French people struggling to make a living at or on the margins of polite life, always just a moment away from crime and violence. When they tip over that edge, usually as the result of their own poor choices, extraordinary things happen, and we get to watch. I especially love the tiny moments of beauty that always find their way into an Audiard movie: as Marion Cotillard’s character struggles back from a terrible accident in the aqua park where she worked with orca whales, she finds herself for the first time, replicating the graceful gestures she once used to direct the whales. The music (Katy Perry’s Fireworks) returns and she’s moving through space, despite her wheelchair, and we know she is turning a corner from darkness into joy. That, and many other amazing moments, just knocked me out.
Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow is one of the best action directors in the history of cinema, and damn good at suspense, as well. Ever since she hooked up with screenwriter Mark Boal, she has harnessed this muscular and economical method to stories that really matter, unlike the typical action film. By the time we get to the gunfire, we’re nearly falling off our seats with suspense, even though we know how the story will end! I wasn’t thinking about historical accuracy of the torture scenes while they were happening, because I believed the Jason Clarke character and was totally gripped with the story. Jessica Chastain deserves the Oscar the creation of a character who, with very little dialog, creates an understanding of how determination and focus and brilliant analytic skills can win out against the forces of politics and bureaucracy.
The Invisible War – Some critics make a separate list with their favorite documentaries, but why silo brilliant filmmaking? Certainly Kirby Dick is an absolutely slam-dunk brilliant filmmaker. This is the story of rape in the U.S. military services and the ongoing and criminal cover-up by the institution and those in charge of it. The Defense establishment has not only failed to prosecute sexual predators, they refuse to accept their very existence. The filmmakers have found brave women and men who are willing to share their stories with us. Regrettably, the tragedy of the initial crimes is trumped by the humiliation of their treatment at the hands of the military powers-that-be. Kirby Dick delivers an airtight case, which has already seen some response, though evidently there is a long way to go.
Lincoln – There are so many great things about this movie: playwright Tony Kushner has rescued director Steven Spielberg from his tendencies toward sentimentality, maudlin reverence, and audience manipulation. Some very, very great actors are provided with lines of singular beauty and importance that match the historical moment. And the story is focused upon one, not all of Lincoln’s greatest accomplishments: the 14th Amendment, primarily a political story, and all of the messy and contradictory moves needed to bring opposing sides together. Day-Lewis is remarkable, and changes forever how we see this great President, his humor, his wisdom, his heart.
Argo – Director Ben Affleck has pulled off quite a trick, bolting together a tense period espionage drama and a goofy Hollywood satire. You’d think it wouldn’t work, but it does, in part because it’s essentially a true story, but mostly because he understands his story and delivers it with such mastery and conviction. The goofy Hollywood stuff really did happen, when a fake film was set up as a cover to rescue U.S. diplomats stranded after the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and the question of whether the insane scheme will work or not provides a lot of the suspense as the plot drives up the tension. This film reminded me of “All the President’s Men” with its beautifully paced storytelling technique and a lot of well-crafted portraits of people under pressure.
Take This Waltz is a little movie, the kind one sees at Sundance, a love triangle among the little people with no overarching themes or Big Ideas, except maybe that we are all human beings and there is no accounting for love when it happens. Directed by another former actor, Sarah Polley (whose “Away From Her” was wonderful too), the film gives us Michelle Williams who is radiant, youthful, funny, and tortured. She doesn’t WANT to fall in love with quirky neighbor Luke Kirby, but she can’t help herself. Ordinarily I’m not a rom-com kinda movie fan, but something about these people, stumbling through their very ordinary lives in Toronto, touched my heart. Great supporting cast includes Sarah Silverman and Josh Rogan.
The Sessions – John Hawkes is a polio victim with a sense of humor and a frequent hard-on, so he decides that he should no longer be a virgin. Helen Hunt is his sex surrogate and William Macy his priest. In its frankness and humor about sexuality and disability, this movie felt more European than American (a compliment), a deeper and more intensely felt US version of The Intouchables. I must be getting soft in my old age, but I really liked a lot of love stories this year.
Also could have made the top list if it were longer: Footnote, Cloud Atlas, Bernie, Central Park Five, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Amour, Moonrise Kingdom, Looper, Monsieur Lazhar and a trio of documentaries about the digital revolution in film, music and games: Side by Side, PressPausePlay, & Indie Game: The Movie.
I’m still waiting to see a few other films that might jumble up my list, including: Searching for Sugar Man, The Grey, Holy Motors, This is Not a Film, Tabu, The Turin Horse.
Here is an almost complete list of other films I’ve watched (in theatres and on my home screen) in 2012:
Queen of Versailles
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Life of Pi
Out of the Clear Blue Sky
Ricky on Leacock
Dark Knight Rises
To Rome with Love
Black White & Gray
Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie
We Need to Talk about Kevin
Under African Skies