Friday, January 25, 2013

Best Films of 2012: Better Late Than Never

Yeah yeah, I know, it’s awfully late for a best of 2012 list. Lateness comes with being a college student struggling to balance classes, grad school applications, and daily stresses with a need to see all of the year’s most prestigious films. As with any year, there will be some notable omissions of films that just aren’t widely available yet,
but I’m happy enough with this list of the year’s best to publish it at this point. I’ll publish a list of the year’s best performances later this week, followed by a list of various bests (directing, writing, etc.).  But first, here’s the best of the best:

Honorable Mentions: Argo, The Bay, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, Casa de mi Padre, Chronicle, The Grey, How to Survive a Plague, The Innkeepers, The Invisible War, Magic Mike, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Prometheus, Silver Linings Playbook, This is 40

25. Haywire- Steven Soderbergh has spent his whole career not only as a highly adventurous and intellectually curious director, but as a man interested in subverting gender roles- think James Spader’s curious, impotent hipster in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, or Jennifer Lopez’s pragmatic DEA agent in Out of Sight. Soderbergh’s two films this year, Haywire and Magic Mike, played with gender roles, but the elliptical feminist action-thriller Haywire was a real standout. Fueled by Gina Carano’s terse performance as secret agent Mallory Knox, Haywire didn’t have much in the way of coherent plot, but it was hard to mind when we got a chance to see UFC fighter Carano beat up the likes of Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Ewan McGregor in some of the year’s most exciting action sequences.

24. Killer Joe- 2012 was the year of Matthew McConaughey’s resurrection from slumming rom-com star to the quirky character actor he promised to become in the 1990s. The height of McConaughey’s comeback came with Killer Joe, the second collaboration between playwright Tracy Letts and Exorcist-director William Friedkin after 2007’s similarly nasty Bug. Killer Joe shared Bug’s claustrophobic intensity and wicked, pitch-black humor while adding one of the better subversions of a famous screen persona in recent memory. McConaughey’s charming Southern exterior showed predatory signs in his career-making role in Dazed and Confused, but Friedkin takes McConaughey one step further into a cold-hearted killer whose depths of depravity and sadism are barely hidden beneath his calm control.

23. The Perks of Being a Wallflower- Stephen Cbosky’s adaptation of his beloved YA-novel is one of the warmest teen movies in recent memory. The film hits the sweet spot as a movie that plays to teens going through hard times while also bringing older viewers back to the feeling of depending on close friends through at a confusing age. Props to Cbosky for highlighting the talents of his young cast, particularly Ezra Miller as the alternatingly sensitive and theatrical Patrick.

22. Wreck-it Ralph- Former Simpsons director Rich Moore (he directed my all-time favorite episode “Cape Feare”) certainly borrows from animation classics Toy Story and The Iron Giant, but it’s hard to complain when it works so well. Moore packs Wreck-it Ralph with great videogame in-jokes and a winning cast (particularly John C. Reilly as the big-hearted Ralph and Sarah Silverman as the troublemaker Vannellope Von Sweet) while expertly weaving together subplots for a sweet and surprising finale.

21. Goon- One of the year’s best surprises came from this Jay Baruchel-penned hockey comedy, a terrific blend of the sweet and the profane. Few performances this year were as winning as Sean William Scott’s turn as a bouncer turned hockey player so nice he apologizes for beating people up. Scott anchored a film that celebrated its sport without falling into the cornball self-importance that too often plagues sports movies.

20. The Avengers- Joss Whedon’s team-up of superhero titans followed a series of Marvel Studios films that lacked a distinct flavor, too often feeling like assembly-line product than popular art. Whedon’s The Avengers, on the other hand, bears the stamp of its creator as a film about self-sacrifice, clashing personalities forced to work together, and the meaning of heroism in a superhero age.

19. Flight- Calling Flight Robert Zemeckis’ best film in years would be damning it with faint praise. Instead, let’s praise what’s truly one of the strangest and most exciting studio films of the year, one that combined the disaster movie, the social problem film, and the conspiracy movie all while centering on a flawed but all too relatable hero in Denzel Washington’s Whip Whitaker, a man whose inner demons are only amplified when it a brush with death (in one of Zemeckis’ very best set-pieces) makes him seem almost invulnerable.

18. The Queen of Versailles- On paper, a film about a family of former billionaires struggling with being only millionaires sounds almost stunning in its lack of perspective. But director Lauren Greenfield’s empathetic touch makes the Siegels’ problems far more relatable than one would think. They’re not altogether different from the rest of us, a family who, after the recession, struggled to learn how to live with far less than they thought they’d ever have.

17. The Turin Horse- Bela Tarr’s final film is an unrelentingly bleak experience, a deliberately paced exploration of the heaviness of life. But while The Turin Horse certainly isn’t an easy sit, it’s also one of the most vividly realized worlds put on film this year, from its bravura, hope destroying opening shot to an ending that’s like a lower-key version of Melancholia’s apocalypse. It may not be the end of the world by the film’s close, but it’s certainly the end of hope.

16. The Kid with a Bike- The latest film from naturalistic filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne features just as many heart-stopping moments of pain and bad decisions as their previous films, with Thomas Doret’s Cyril constantly pushing back against Cecile de France’s kind-hearted hairdresser, the warm-hearted parental figure he’s so desperate for. But there’s also a sense of warmth and sweetness to de France and Doret’s relationship, with the Dardennes mixing in a hard-won optimism to all the lower-class troubles of their world.

15. Goodbye First Love- Can we please get more coming-of-age love stories like this? Mia Hanson-Love’s tender and elegant film captures all the awkwardness and insecurity of young love, with Lola Creton’s central character going from self-absorbed teenager to a woman still suffering from past mistakes but on her way to moving on. If only half of the teen-romance films made today were as honest and good-natured as this one.

14. Damsels in Distress- Whit Stillman’s first film in 14 years alienated some fans with its loopy style, but the film retains Stillman’s brand of dry wit and affection towards groups too often smugly dismissed in films (in this case fraternity members and preppy girls). Driven by yet another vivacious performance from mumblecore-darling Greta Gerwig, the film fits perfectly into Stillman’s tales of young people struggling to define themselves in a world that deems their world pretentious or snobby…and slowly realizing that it might be true.

13. Life of Pi- The film version of Yann Martel’s best-seller went through three A-list directors before Ang Lee took over, but here’s a case of a troubled production resulting in a triumph. Lee’s film is his deftest blend of spectacle and humanity since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and his most moving work next to his masterpiece Brokeback Mountain. Lee combines a thrilling adventure tale with a moving parable about faith into a film that’s ultimately about the joy of storytelling.

12. Lincoln- The last time Spielberg worked on a film this talky and politics-driven, it resulted in the interesting but uneven Amistad. But he’s on much surer ground here, aided by Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting, Tony Kushner’s complex script, a murderer’s row of great thespians, and the damn-near incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis. Lincoln fits alongside Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan as one of Spielberg’s richest explorations of the difficulty of doing the right thing.

11. The Dark Knight Rises- Christopher Nolan’s ambitious Dark Knight trilogy came to a stunning close with The Dark Knight Rises. The film was likely more flawed that its predecessors, but it’s also filled with the series’ most stunning moments, taking the series’ exploration of 21st century fears (terrorism, destruction of major cities, powerlessness, and the idea that our heroes are imperfect and doomed to fail) to a powder-keg of a conclusion. Godspeed to whoever has to follow this.

10. Looper- Rian Johnson made his name with the twisty-turny high school noir Brick, so it’s no surprise that his first sci-fi film is a time travel movie. As with any time travel movie, one could easily nitpick the logical hiccups that plague damn near every film of its kind. But it would be a shame to get lost in the murk when Johnson so ably explores how we change as we age, how we promise not to make the same mistakes, and yet how we manage to be blind to how closely our present situation mirrors our past.

9. Skyfall- The year’s most exciting blockbuster was also its most gorgeous, with born image-maker Sam Mendes and master cinematographer Roger Deakins staging some of the most beautiful action sequences in recent memory. But Skyfall wouldn’t be worth much if it were just a bunch of pretty pictures. The film is the Bond series’ most successful in terms of grappling with 21st century fears, but also its most reflective, exploring the connection between Daniel Craig’s Bond and Judi Dench’s M as a complicated relationship between surrogate mother and son.

8. The Deep Blue Sea- Terence Davies’ gorgeous melodrama is the best film of its kind since Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, another film that understands the genre’s emphasis on all-powerful isolation and life-changing emotional connections. Anchored by a career-best performance by Rachel Weisz, the film’s combination of wistfulness and bitterness fits a movie that shows how moments of passion punctuate lives of disappointment and desperation.

7. The Loneliest Planet- Julia Loktev’s deceptively simple exploration of gender expectations has only one major event (which should not be spoiled under any circumstances), but that event shapes the second half’s dynamic in a wildly divergent way from the first half’s easy charm and humor. Loktev’s depiction of two people madly in love turns into a simmering story of barely restrained emotion and pain, all set against the gorgeous environment of the Caucasus Mountains.

6. Django Unchained- Quentin Tarantino’s latest film isn’t the best film of the year, but it’s almost undoubtedly the most fun. Django Unchained doesn’t have Death Proof or Inglourious Basterds’ thematic depth, but it makes up for it with pure, unfiltered emotional power. Rather than succumbing to self-importance and soberness, Tarantino expresses his belief that a rip-roaring exploitation film might be more successful at communicating the weight of slavery than its more “respectful” antecedents. Mission accomplished.

5. Moonrise Kingdom- Wes Anderson’s best film in ten years plays like a combination of his two most celebrated features, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, in its look at how loneliness affects children and adults. Anderson’s brilliant blend of whimsy and melancholy looks at how childhood is marked with pain, loneliness, and a desire to escape the pain and loneliness that affects adults. But the film isn’t a dirge- it’s gorgeous, hilarious, and full of life, two parts Francois Truffaut and one part Charlie Brown.

4. Amour- Contrary to popular belief, Michael Haneke’s chilly austerity betrays a certain amount of empathy even in his most assaultive works (see: Funny Games). But that empathy branches out into full-fledged compassion in Amour, his heartbreaking but hardly heartless film about how love is less about romance and flowers and more about pushing oneself to the absolute limit to make someone’s final days more bearable. It’s an emotionally devastating film at once visceral and delicate.

3. Zero Dark Thirty- Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker plays like an expansion in ambition on the earlier film, another taut, nerve-wracking thriller. But here Bigelow also takes on the decade-defining, soul-destroying revenge hunt that plagues Jessica Chastain’s steely, obsessed protagonist. That it doubles as a feminist portrait of a woman struggling under a male-dominated intelligence agency is only a bonus.

2. Holy Motors- Leos Carax’s  first film in thirteen years communicates the director’s sadness that celluloid is being phased out by digital cinema, but it also works against its own arguments in the best way possible. Carax’s batshit insane masterpiece is proof of the power and vitality of cinema, with Denis’ Lavant’s incredible performance (or, rather, performances) connecting each strange vignette into a defiant “FUCK NO” to anyone who thinks cinema is a dying art form.

1. The Master- Paul Thomas Anderson’s rough-edged masterpiece went from a critical favorite to a polarizing conversation piece for understandable reasons. Few films this year asked more questions and provided fewer answers. But that fits in a film that’s largely about looking for answers to life’s greatest questions- why are we here? Where did we come from? Why are our lives plagued with loneliness and pain? Anderson takes the year’s two most complicated and fully-formed characters, Joaquin Phoenix’s animalistic Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s controlling Lancaster Dodd, and forms a fascinating push-pull relationship between two men looking for answers, one for a place to belong, the other to make sense of a world that doesn’t. The two believe to find the answers in the other only to realize that neither can provide everything the other wants. It’s another portrait of loneliness and alienation from Anderson, a film about men who wander forever, searching for answers and a place to belong, never to be fulfilled. 

Note: links only provided to films I gave full reviews to. If you want to see the snapshot reviews I gave to the rest, feel free to search for them.

Additional note: Because no one ever sees every important movie of every year, I keep a running, always ready to be edited list of top ten films per year. I've had certain friends ask me if I'd ever share the rest of them. Enter Letterboxd, an awfully helpful site for reviewing and ranking movies. I've put up my top ten lists from 1987 onward, and I'll be adding more as I find the time. One disclaimer: I go by original premiere dates (festivals and whatnot) for my top ten lists, so don't be confused if my top ten of 2012 list looks different than the one I've published here. It's only because I'm anal and sick in the head and feel the need to put The Loneliest Planet as a 2011 film because it premiered at Toronto 2011. Anyway, feel free to delve.

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