With the Oscars right around the corner, I’d like to take the opportunity to post my twenty favorite films of 2012. Enjoy.
- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, Ceylan): As is often the case in the best films, writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan does remarkable things with a simple story, effectively combining his penchant for glorious cinematography with a masterfully written screenplay. The film tracks a group of police officers taking a confessed murderer around the countryside trying to find the exact place he buried the body (he was drunk when he killed). The visuals give the film something of an ethereal quality, which works well for the “fairy tale” aspect of the narrative. The layers to the narrative seem endless, touching on life, death, the nature of truth, the role of science/logic in the world, and compassion. The final act at the hospital takes the film to a level of complexity and beauty unmatched by most anything I’ve seen.
- The Kid with a Bike (2011, Dardenne): A masterpiece from the Dardenne brothers, the film follows 11 year-old Cyril as he seeks connection upon being sent to an orphanage by his father. A Bressonian meditation on the mystery of grace, the film benefits from a strong lead performance, an empathetic camera, and a refusal to sentimentalize a story about a child. The use of music seems a direct reference to Bresson’s A Man Escaped, while the use of red brings Lamorisse’s beautiful The Red Balloon to mind. And yet, the final product is all their own.
- Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson): Sam abandons his summer camp to meet Suzy. These twelve year-olds are seeking to start something of their own, apart from the failures of the world they have known. Anderson’s wide-angeled world is on full display here, as characters wander at frame’s edge searching for connection. With Christian and native American imagery, Anderson’s direct interaction with the spiritual realm expands the film to a more mythic scale. The “once upon a time” nature of the story, and a sometimes fairy tale score also point in this direction. Combined with the typical eccentricities of Anderson’s films, these elements create one of the director’s most significant films.
- The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2012, Freidrichs): This wonderfully complex portrait of a St. Louis housing project offers no easy answers about the failure of the government initiative, alternately implicating the idea, the maintenance, and the criminal element that made the projects their home. While examining the ins and outs of public policy and sociology, the film enters into territory few have entered–it adds real heart and humanity to the discussion, reminding us that public policy is always ultimately about people.
- The Turin Horse (2011, Tarr): Horse. Father. Daughter. Home. Wind. Gypsies. That about sums up the elements of this apocalyptic film. Béla Tarr’s “final” film transitions from movement to stasis, from open to closed, and from light to darkness–a true de-creation. And yet, it ends with a pause, one that seems more question than statement, “Now what?” The film’s intense focus on action over statement is its strength, as it includes only a single scene of extended dialogue. As the light flickers out near the end of the film, one wonders about the future of the dad/daughter, the future of our world, and the future of cinema. Will the light return?
- Elena (2011, Zvyagintsev): Exquisite visual style imbues this thriller with frustration, dread, and a set of questions that linger long after its conclusion. Zvyagintsev seems to have a knack for composition, tracking shots, and editing to a certain rhythm, as the film quietly and formally gains momentum during its run time. Also, the director is once again drawn to material dealing with family strife—a mother seeking to provide for her grown son, a father’s tendentious relationship with his daughter, and a married couple’s disagreements about how to spend their money—though this time the family shares the space with a hard and incisive look at blended families and social class in the new Russia.
- Damsels in Distress (2011, Stillman): Four collegiate women run a suicide prevention center as a way to serve their campus. The damsels of Stillman’s film spend most of their time trying to help others in their strange, off-kilter way. And yet, their distress arises because of their commitment to a kind of life in the world which their peers seem to have given up on. That Stillman makes his heroines so strange serves to underline the way the modern world has given up on their values. Stillman’s comedy is typically droll, and Gerwig’s line readings are especially effective. Great comedy.
- Looper (2012, Johnson): So Levitt’s face make-up doesn’t really work, but otherwise this is a largely satisfying time travel adventure about breaking generational cycles of violence and wrong-doing. The story involves Joe, a “looper” who has been hired to execute people sent from thirty years in the future. When Joe encounters his older self, everything changes. Johnson manages to keep the audience guessing on where the film will ultimately go, and the noirish sensibility offers plenty of intriguing visuals. The conclusion presents a somewhat troubling solution to the problem, but I can partly forgive that because the ending actually inspires further thought about how to break the cycle.
- Bernie (2012, Linklater): Bernie is based on the true story of an East Texas funeral parlor worker/worship leader who befriends the meanest (and richest) woman in town. When she turns up dead, suspicion—and sympathy—falls on Bernie. The comedy here, much of which is very effective (the division of Texas was right on), serves as a counterpoint to the more dramatic, even horrific elements of the film. The inclusion of real townspeople among the “interviewees” underscores the horror as they illustrate, with their own words, the power of mass delusion. Through the use of laughter and local color, the film’s darker sensibility sneaks up on us, and those final real-life photos and footage slam home cold facts of the case.
- The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Davies): Beautifully rendered by Davies and his cast, this tragic tale of misdirected love succeeds especially because of its exquisite writing and direction. The best scenes involve Weisz and Beale, whose cautious, (re)strained relationship elicits an aching beauty. The film is a bit uneven when it involves Hiddleston, but still largely succeeds due to the careful observation and humanistic perspective that characterizes the direction. There are no easy answers or villains here–just the difficulties of life and love.
- I Wish (2011, Koreeda): Two brothers separate to live with their separated parents. The children eventually hatch a plan to get mom and dad back together, one that involves making a wish at a special spot. Gentle and light for most of its run time, the film shifts to something weightier during its final quarter. I Wish effectively captures the innocence and the straightforward (albeit often profound) hopes of children. A sequence when the children meet an elderly couple might be my single favorite bit in a film all year. While some sense of resolution occurs, Koreeda rightly keeps a major loose end dangling, bringing a sense of the real loss these kids have experienced.
- The Queen of Versailles (2012, Greenfield): This documentary tells the story of the couple who set out to build the largest home in America. However, when the economy drops out, everything changes. The film reveals the void in these people’s lives, utilizing the unfinished home as a poignant symbol of the lives they’ve created for themselves. Further, and maybe more importantly, the film reveals the often predatory nature of the US economy, where consumers, business leaders, and banks are all trying to get the best of each other. In the end, everyone loses. The absence of cooperation in the lives of these people both personally and professionally is a story with genuine relevance today.
- Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, Trevorrow): Sent on a trip to investigate a mysterious want-ad for a time travel companion, a young reporter (Aubrey Plaza) ends up increasingly intertwined with Kenneth—a man who seems to walk a fine line between passion and insanity. There’s no reason why this science-fiction/romantic comedy mash up should be good—obvious plotting, cheap effects, and a general goofiness to the whole thing. However, in light of its impossible-to-guess conclusion as the end point in a sequence of relationship stories, the critique of common sexual practice outside of committed relationships resonates. That, and Aubrey Plaza’s excellent turn in a pretty difficult role: having to convince an audience that she really did fall for Duplass’ committed nonconformist.
- The Master (2012, P. T. Anderson): Two men (master and student) become acquainted through a religious cult similar to Scientology. Anderson’s bold visual language is unparalleled in American cinema today. His use of space, his attentiveness to the physicality of his subjects, and his desire to make the personal epic are all on display here. Phoenix’s excellent performance (esp. the use of his body and face) stands out in a film full of them. However, the emotional and moral distance of the film is off-putting, particularly since the solution to deep-seated problems amounts to: ‘___ ___.’ (Don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it)
- A Burning Hot Summer (2011, Garrel): A quietly remarkable film from Garrel, A Burning Hot Summer revels in the beauty of true love by way of illustrating the lack thereof. The younger Garrel and Bellucci are appropriately beautiful and passionate, and the film plays against these qualities quite nicely, turning in the last quarter of the run time to examine a tenderness borne out of commitment that the lead couple could never approach. The editing is often inspired, creating fascinating conjunctions between scenes.
- The Grey (2012, Carnahan): Liam Neeson leads a group of plane-crash survivors through the Alaskan wilderness, trying to reach safety before the wolves track them down. Visually, the film exudes the essence of its title. The men walk through a world with limited vision. Overcast skies, forest trees, blizzard conditions, and darkness all manage to keep them only in the moment of their experience. That leaves the focus of the film on staying alive and especially on dealing with the prospect of death. Neeson seems made for the role, and Carnahan’s choice to make the wolves barely visible effectively ratchets up the tension.
- Haywire (2012, Soderbergh): The plot is simple: a covert operative seeks revenge after a former colleague makes an attempt on her life. The film ends up as an amazingly good piece of entertaining fun. The real treats here are the formal choices Soderbergh makes, elevating a mildly interesting script to something much more engaging. I could watch the chase in Barcelona or the escape in Dublin over and over again–great visual film-making, with an inventive camera and editing that matches the pace of the moment. And the ending is just right, punctuating the conviction of the movie that Kane is more than a handful to deal with.
- Marley (2012, Macdonald): Solid documentary that underscores the most positive aspects of Bob Marley’s short life. The film walks a fine line between honest depiction and hagiography, crossing over into the latter on occasion. That said, there is some fantastic performance footage here, as well as interviews with the key figures in Bob’s life. While the film may not get too far into the darker side of Bob, it clearly portrays his hope and work for a better world, a place where everything’s gonna be all right.
- Searching for Sugar Man (2012, Bendjelloul): This film tells its “so-strange-it-must-be-true” story in two distinct halves: the first explores the South African myth that grew up around a mysterious folk singer from the 70s. The second offers a striking contrast–the story of a man in touch with both the harshness and the beauty of reality. These two halves together form a fascinating film that manages to be both thought-provoking and inspiring.
- The Forgiveness of Blood (2012, Marston): While the languid pacing certainly elicits something akin to the stir-crazy feeling of the main character on a formal level, I’m not sure Marston’s imagery is strong enough on its own to carry the film. The overarching story is simple but substantive, as the film seems to be asking significant questions about the practice of Albanian blood feuds and its effects on, especially, the next generation. I appreciate Marston’s willingness to shoot in foreign languages as he tells his international stories (see also, Maria Full of Grace).
Need to see: This is Not a Film, The Loneliest Planet, How to Survive a Plague, Lincoln, The Hobbit, Argo
Favorite First-Time Films Shown Theatrically Before 2012: Love Affair (1939); Equinox Flower (1958); The Crimson Kimono (1959); The Devil, Probably (1977); Lourdes (2009); The Trip (2010); Le Havre (2011); Hugo (2011); Margaret (2011); The Swell Season (2011)