Insofar as there’s no such thing as a “bad year” for movies, the process of whittling down dozens of films (in my case, in this year, 139) to a mere ten “best” features is sort of an impossibility, but as impossible activities go, one of the more fun ones.
A word about eligibility - if I can make a case for it being a 2012 film, it gets considered. Feel free to inquire about specifics.
And to think I nearly eschewed my beloved "honorable mentions" this year. I usually reserve these slots for flawed films which I nevertheless feel merit consideration beyond that which they've yet received, but all of my favorites were easily justifiable this time out. Then an extended discussion on Twitter reminded me how much I really, really like Ridley Scott's Prometheus and how totally...well, I suppose it does deserve some haranguing, but not to the extent it has received, especially as much of it (not all, easy now) seems to stem from arrogant dissatisfaction that some measure of expectations were not met. Anyway, I've already written at length about the film, acknowledging its many, many flaws, but feeling it had it where it counts. Even if that area was, in all likelihood, completely unintentional.
Runners-Up (in no particular order)
All I can say is this one had me firmly in its clutches, and I wanted to jump for joy as the climax hit. It's got some pacing issues in the first half, but as soon as Affleck tells Cranston that the mission is a go, and Cranston goes tearing down the hall with the camera just a half-second behind him, this thing is just the best.
About as much fun as the movies can offer, but when the drama hits, it hits. The greatest trick Soderbergh ever pulled was turning this into a hit.
Electric and thrilling, this is what modern film noir should feel like - not a lot of referential throwbacks to deep-shadowed cinematography, but a pitch-black dive into greed, lust, sin, and desire that leaves a mark.
Dance that leaves scars.
No, I don't totally "get" it, but I feel like I get it.
Love every weird second, can't say I figured out a damn thing without some help, but boy what a joy this film has been to live in.
Declaration of War
The year's most overlooked film - heartbreaking, pulse-pounding, and often soaring beautiful.
Après Mai (retitled Something in the Air for U.S. release)
Olivier Assayas exercising his nostalgia muscle, but not without some deep self-criticism. As much an admiration of youthful passion as a biting look at how much that can be little more than a fashion choice.
Somebody Up There Likes Me
The most I laughed all year, and deeply insightful.
One to revisit, knowing the heights to which the second half would soar.
The Deep Blue Sea
The story of Anna Karenina made somehow even more stagebound than Joe Wright's adaptation. Contains some of the finest shots of the year.
The Top Ten
As mystifying, terrifying, affecting, and purely wrought as they come, Carlos Reygadas’ follow-up to his landmark Silent Light is perhaps not as Great, but at least as galvanizing. Ostensibly the story of a well-off family situated in a poor region of Mexico, Reygadas traverses this country and several others, emerging with a film I could not explain, but which I feel I understand on an almost chemical level. His audacious imagery speaks for itself, insofar as words never could communicate his artistic purpose, but the totality of the experience is so singular, so resolute, and so unwavering that to ignore it is an act of futility. It’s haunted me for months. It’s also the only film I’ve ever seen that almost started a fistfight in front of me, so there’s that.
9. Girl Walk // All Day
On the total opposite end of the spectrum is a pure blast of 70-some-minute joy. A dance film set to the Girl Talk album All Day, Jacob Krupnick’s debut film defies classification. Anne Marsen (in one of the finest performances of the year) plays The Girl, who breaks free of a stodgy ballet class, taking to the streets (and subways and boats and shops and motorcycles) of New York to find a home and purpose for the unbridled joy she feels in her freedom. Shot entirely on location, and mostly without the cooperation of various passers-by, it quickly transforms into a celebration of the power of art and live performance, the use for, and respect and celebration of the public space, the unshackling of consumerist allure, and more than anything, the true joy of communal creation. The perfect synthesis of several imperfect mediums, Girl Walk // All Day emerges as pure cinema, through and through.
8. Anna Karenina
Speaking of synthesizing several art forms into pure cinema, Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina brings together dance, theatre, and Technicolor movies to craft the most potent modern melodrama I’ve seen in I don’t even know how long. Its unashamed artifice (the film is set mostly in a rundown theater) reveals not only the performative aspects of public life central to the themes inherent in the text - Anna’s punishment for straying from her marriage is not a legal one, but societal - but also the blatant fake-ness of such films as these, which utilize British performers to play Russian characters. That it manages these playful aspects without subverting or narrowing the drama at hand is merely one of its many fine attributes, though perhaps the most important. Unafraid of her selfish character, Keira Knightley goes all-in as Anna, rendering a portrait not entirely sympathetic, but deeply moving in its excess. The same, I suppose, could be said of the film.
I’ve yet to find Michael Haneke’s intellectual approach distancing, insofar as he always matches it with a purity to his direction and an honesty in the performances that reveal the emotional undercurrents of his philosophies. Here, the two reach the kind of synthesis one can only dream of, in the story of an elderly man, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), caring for his dying wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). Both testing and fulfilling the promise of the title, the events that transpire - limited almost entirely to their apartment - are at times shocking or heartbreaking or even scary, but the quietly stated emotional undercurrent, which occasionally blossom into warm affection, are what makes this the resonant film that it is. Love stories are abundant in cinema, and it’s one of the things the medium does best, and this is the sort of total encapsulation of the concept that few filmmakers are given the license to explore.
This is my kind of Americana. From its opening scenes, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln makes no bones about it - this is folklore, through and through. Abraham Lincoln may be a flawed man, unable to reconcile his passion for politics with his rather removed stance on his home life, but when he’s in his element, he is the master of the house. The particular house he must master is that of the Representatives, and the particular maneuverings required to secure the number of votes necessary to pass an amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery provides the film no small measure of entertainment value, wrought so beautifully in the banter that screenwriter Tony Kushner revels crafts, and the so-precise-it’s-scarcely-being-noticed camerawork on behalf of Spielberg and longtime cinematography Janusz Kaminski. But it is Lincoln’s longer monologues, those about Euclid and past cases and British bathrooms and recognizing one’s moment in history when it has arrived for which I most dearly love the film. In these passages, Kushner’s superb dialect is unleashing into the kind of flowering, effervescent speech sorely missing not only in our day-to-day conversation, but in the cinema which seeks to represent us at our best. Day-Lewis’ performance isn’t just engrossing for the totality of his transformation, but for his character’s much-needed magnetism - Spielberg’s camera can scarcely look away, satisfying our own optic instincts.
5. Killing Them Softly
SO. AWESOME. Killing Them Softly is Samuel Fuller for the modern era, ripped from the headlines, pulsating with rage, and aesthetically adventurous at every turn. It’s an open wound that refuses to be mended until justice is done or revenge is exacted, whichever seems right at the time. The parallels between mob crime and the American economy are boldly stated and clearly underlined - lest anyone think writer/director Andrew Dominik is being too emphatic, I’m fairly certain that’s the point - but it’s the degree to which the American Dream in infused in these characters that I find most damning. We’re all told to find success doing what we do best, with those who turn out the best profit margin going the furthest; Killing Them Softly takes that edict to its natural conclusion. And miserable they are, seemingly pulled out from the sewers (in the case of Ben Mendelsohn’s character, perhaps literally) and put up in hotel rooms, these aren’t the charming gangsters that populate the cinema. These are scumbags, the lowest of the low, and their connection to the engineers, proprietors, and executors of our financial system is no mere talk, for neither is terribly concerned with the fallout of their quest for more greed. As scathing as they come, Killing Them Softly is the sound of the gates of Hell opening before you.
4. In Another Country
If Reygadas used his imagery to terrify, Krupnick to inspire, and Wright to move, Hong Sang-soo uses his to tell a joke. The opening shot contains a very simple camera adjustment that nevertheless inspired uproarious laughter in my theater, hooking us immediately while quietly seducing us to its charms. Consisting of three insanely simple stories about three French women (all played, superbly, by Isabelle Huppert) who visit a seaside town in South Korea, have common interactions with the locals of the area (most notably a lifeguard played by Yoo Jun-sang, who made me laugh out loud merely by walking), and in some way work out the struggles in their lives that brought them there, the film may not prove terribly deep, but its simplicity is somewhat deceptive as well. Provocative, light on its feet, and unabashedly charming, In Another Country doesn’t precisely fit the classical definition of a “crowd-pleaser,” but I’m unable to see it any other way.
3. Moonrise Kingdom
Yada yada, Wes Anderson sure is a specific artist, yada, if you don’t like the films he’s made before, you won’t like this one, yada yada. I don’t know at what point having a singular, specific style was declared to be a bad thing, but let me know when that one makes sense. Until then, Wes Anderson will continue to delight me, even if it would be unreasonable to expect them all to be this grand. This is about as stripped-down a film as he’s made, telling a simple story over a very short period of time that nonetheless builds towards the most spectacular climax of the year, one as boldly expressive as the whole of most other films. The building blocks are assembled so specifically and deliberately that one may miss a few details along the way, yet the film never leaves you behind.
Beginning with a series of careful pans around young Suzy’s house, then introducing us to the love of her pen-palling life, Sam, through the environment he has just escaped, Anderson seems almost to be answering his critics who say he builds dioramas first, characters second. By the time we settle in with Sam and Suzy, they turn out not terribly different from any other pre-teen kids, yet so distinct in their specific building and pairing that I was won over instantly. Their interactions are at turns endearing and terribly uncomfortable, as they negotiate the way people don’t always turn out exactly like you want them to be, but are somehow better for it. Anderson’s cast is filled with actors doing their best work in years, but it is Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward on whom the film rests, and with whom it so resoundingly succeeds.
I was familiar only with the name, and not the work, of animator Don Hertzfeldt before seeing It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Shortly afterwards, I ordered as much of it as my wallet could bear. Actually a trilogy of short films that Hertzfeldt retroactively turned into a feature (the final third shares its title with the whole, lest one is confused), the film is more or less about a very simply-drawn character named Bill, who we understand fairly quickly is in some degree of medical trouble, the severity of which is not immediately clear. But his various musings and specific modes of thinking are not common to someone with a healthy, engaged brain, to say the least. The film’s emotional tenor is at once removed and intensely engaged, expressing how something can be both hilarious and deeply tragic all at once, creating an uneasy tension not only in our engagement with the film, but in the very way we engage with our lives. That’s a pretty high calling for any piece of art to aspire to, one which I see the cinema only scarcely touch upon, and if I declare this to be anything less than the finest film of the year, let it only be the result of some personal preferences and modes of engagement. It is an astounding achievement, so full of the kind of warmth that will eventually destroy you.
1. The Master
The Master is almost overflowing with thematic concerns of varying weight, so much so that it’s tough to know where to begin, or in what manner to condense my appreciation and affection for it. More than anything, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson wrangles the vulnerability he displayed in his earlier films into a form at once more manageable and more unwieldy. This is not the carefully-arranged, multifaceted breakdown of Magnolia, nor the perfectly-formed disintegration of There Will Be Blood - this is messy, and purposefully so. Even a scene as finely-crafted as that initial “processing” encounter between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leaves room for the wild, the inexplicable, and the unexpected, leaving us unable to possibly grasp its outcome even as its eventuality seems inevitable. “Pick a point,” Dodd challenges Freddie late in the film, belying the emptiness of not just the cult he’s founded, but the whole of American life in the postwar years during which this film takes place - Anderson matches his own challenge by speeding towards the wild blue yonder.
What I return to most is the final encounter between Dodd and Freddie, wherein Anderson wrings the most potent emotion he’s yet found in a discussion of dreams and balloons sent across nations and, somehow, not the first time a character sings to express something outside of his capacity for verbalization. This scene is so tender, so raw, so unblinking in its sideways depiction of longing and regret that to ascribe either emotion to any one element of either character is hopelessly reductive. It is the very essence of art, moving past that which is being depicted, past the act of depiction, and into an emotional stratosphere of its own creation. And for all its many attributes, it is for this that I love The Master. I can’t imagine the cinema will remain unchanged for it.