Didn’t anyone get the memo that cinema is dead? 2012 came into greatness notoriously late in the year (if not trickling into next year), but the amount of quality that came out of big budget blockbusters, prestigious Oscar bait and critical darlings is too convincing to say that TV continued to dominate the cultural conversation this year. I can be cynical, but I’d rather just celebrate the movies with a generous round up of everything I hope you’re talking about and just waiting to discover.
1. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson has me in his control. “The Master” is elegant, ambiguous, malleable and powerful. With Scientology as only the setting, it’s a difficult, dream-like film open to interpretation, but its strongest themes are the power and reach of the human mind and the capabilities of man. Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the two best performances of the year are titans at war, one filled with unpredictable rage, repressed sexuality and energy, the other a deafening force of eloquence and conviction. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s 70mm photography ripples with color and fantasy. Jonny Greenwood’s score pulses with animalistic alacrity. Watching “The Master” and assigning it meaning is a testament to the richness and complexity of mankind.
2. Life of Pi
If “Life of Pi” cannot make you believe in God, it at the very least can provide the faith that there is beauty and excitement in the world. Ang Lee’s innovative use of 3-D places us on an infinite plain of existence, one that has stunning natural beauty, visceral thrills, comedic charms, emotional poignancy and none of the Disney-fied cuteness. Pi’s sea voyage is pure visual poetry that resonates with you on a deeply spiritual level.
Perhaps no director today has a more distinct visual and tonal style than Wes Anderson, but “Moonrise Kingdom” is his most personal and close to the heart by far. Anderson funnels his love of classical music, the French New Wave and low rent spectacle into a magical film about kids living beyond their age. It finds the beauty of young love in a joyous, colorful and hilarious art house movie that anyone can relate to.
“Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a wondrous, poetic, beautiful film about all the things humans can do when we stop acting like people afraid of nature and start living like brave beasts that become one with the world. It’s about color, light and discovery. It’s about being loved by the world, loving it back and understanding how to truly live. It’s about facing the other beasts of the world, and doing it head on.” (Excerpt from my review)
When a boy is abandoned by his father at an orphanage, he spends months blindly fighting to get back to him while rejecting the love and affection of others. The French film “The Kid With a Bike” is about the attachments we place on the things we love and the unexpected consequences that come of them. The Dardenne brothers’ simple and rugged film digs deep in its grainy and grizzled surface to find the sentimentality within.
At 50 years old, James Bond has never looked better. “Skyfall” marks the first time we’ve asked about Bond’s past and questioned his future, but we do so in by far the most exciting and stylish action movie of the year. Roger Deakins’s digital cinematography turns Bond’s fist fights into elegant shadow ballets, and Javier Bardem’s snake-like sexuality and compulsions make for some of the finest screen villainy this century.
Nearly 20 percent of all women who have served in the armed forces are sexually assaulted during their line of duty. That’s the horrifying truth at the heart of “The Invisible War,” a documentary that for that statistic alone is essential viewing for anyone in the military. But more so, Kirby Dick’s film is moving in its unification of women (and men!) who once all considered themselves an army of one. What sacrifices are we really asking our soldiers to make for our country?
Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is the stirring American vision we deserve. A remarkably authentic account of the effort to abolish slavery, the story of “Lincoln” is a war of words, not worlds, yet remains as intense and rousing as any action movie this year. Daniel Day-Lewis melts into the visage of our 16th President while making the role all his own, and the monumental performances of Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field anchor the best screen ensemble of the year.
Destined to be an action sci-fi classic, “Looper” accomplishes the impossible by being cool and accessible while staying dark and emotional. Director Rian Johnson makes the time travel conceit something other than an exercise in futility, devoting more attention to the film’s cocky, narcissistic heroes (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, his best dramatic work since “The Sixth Sense”), who are really both the same person. “Looper” is even a powerful forewarning of our civilization’s decline into more and more crime and violence, a nuance that along with its lens flares, canted angles and impressive visual effects, make it refreshingly modern.
10. Rust and Bone
“Rust and Bone” is a powerful and aggressively emotional film about people who are incomplete. A French romance of imperfect characters who are mending physically but damaged emotionally, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts give tough, often unsentimental performances that are not without humor and heart. Director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) finds a mix between moments and visuals that feel stark and lonely, such as a lengthy wide shot of Cotillard lying in a hospital bed, and those between Cotillard and a whale, that are elegant statements of forming a bond.
Honorable Mention – The Turin Horse
Looking and feeling the way “The Turin Horse” does, one would believe it is a tortured, yet essential classic belonging to another time. But it came out in 2012 and may be the last film from the elderly Hungarian master Bela Tarr. It is bleak and draining beyond belief. In black and white and with only 30 shots, it is an excruciating sit. It is almost completely empty of activity, plot or dialogue. It will make you sick at the sight of baked potatoes. And by the end of it, you will feel as if the world is ending. Yet to call it anything other than spellbinding is a gross understatement.
“Argo” works as a gripping thriller not only because it knows it’s a movie but because it celebrates the power of the moving image. Ben Affleck’s achievement is in taking this period-piece CIA story and turning it into an exciting zeitgeist film about our media centric society.
“Bernie” is a darkly hilarious but also compassionate mix of comedy and documentary. It’s the story of a wonderfully nice man in Texas who seems too good to be true but is really just as advertised. Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey give their most offbeat and nuanced performances in years that help Richard Linklater’s film go the extra mile.
“The Central Park Five” does more than exonerate five boys convicted of the brutal rape of a white woman back in 1989; it’s a documentary that shines a light on a broken judicial system and a society that viciously calls for blood.
“Chronicle” does away with clichés and reinvents the found footage genre, dynamic cinematography and all. Gifted with telekinetic powers, it ignores a potential alien invasion or government conspiracy and explores the real problems and desires of teenagers, be they looking up girls skirts or going on an angst filled rampage.
Taking the Wachowski’s “Cloud Atlas” seriously as a parable about the mutual bonds of our lives would be like using “The Matrix” as a legitimate tutorial for kung fu. But it remains a jaw-dropping thriller that thrives on ingenious cross cutting and goofy performances by Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving as a woman in drag and a demonic Mad Hatter.
It must be tough always being the jackass. The not so funny movie “The Comedy” is at times a tough sit thanks to its repellent lead character (a wonderfully nuanced performance by Tim Heidecker), but is heartbreaking and understanding in its look at a man so in pain he can’t turn his bad side off.
Robert Zemeckis’s first live action film in over a decade is rare studio filmmaking that is fun, exciting and painful. Denzel Washington is great as an alcoholic in control, but not without his vulnerabilities.
More so than just a “Liam Neeson fights wolves” movie, Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” uses intense sound mixing and grizzly atmosphere to capture the unshakeable feeling of dread that comes with being surrounded.
“The Impossible” is an epic tearjerker that concerns itself less with the horror of a tragedy and more with the uncertainty that comes after. Although an arguably white-washed account of the 2004 Thailand tsunami, this is a deeply human film.
“The Imposter” takes the unbelievable story of a 23-year-old Frenchman who convinced a Texas family he was their 16-year-old son and stages it as a gripping noir thriller. The film’s real gift is in the way it plays us for saps too.
A “documentary” about the fishing industry might be pushing the definition, as “Leviathan” has no speaking, no facts and looks like it was shot on Mars. Miniature Go Pro cameras in the wildest of places captured the film’s innovative aesthetic, and it creates an indulgently gruesome, yet hypnotic film.
Stylish and cinematic first, sexy and fun second, “Magic Mike” does an unexpected number by putting characters who are more than skin (or leather chaps) deep center stage.
A day in the life of a recovering drug addict, this quietly expressive Norwegian art film lets us know who we are by exploring the pain and hardship of adapting to normalcy.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” takes the themes from every high school coming-of-age story and says everything just right. Stephen Chbosky’s film, adapted from his own cult novel, is the rare movie that can help us grow. It’s destined to become a teenage classic.
In the perfectly silly Hollywood rom-com “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell captures the awkwardly hilarious and insightful mood of having bi-polar disorder and the mood of living with an equally animated family.
Best Documentaries of 2012
I plan on writing an article about all these titles shortly, and I even intend to catch up on a few others in the mean time if I can. So consider this just a teaser.
- The Invisible War
- The Central Park Five
- (tie) “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” and “Saving Face”
- The Imposter
- Side by Side
- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
- Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi
- The Queen of Versailles
The Best Movies of 2012 I Haven’t Seen Yet
These are the 20 reasons I’m yet to be convinced this is a great year for movies.
- Zero Dark Thirty
- Searching for Sugarman
- This is Not a Film
- The Loneliest Planet
- Les Miserables
- How to Survive a Plague
- The House I Live In
- West of Memphis
- Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
- The Gatekeepers
- Killer Joe
- Not Fade Away
- On the Road
- Promised Land
- And many more
The Best Movies of 2012 that came out in 2011
I think it really sucks that movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour” are topping critics’ lists left and right but no one has any chance to see them until long after they are out of the critical conversation. Well, the truth is, this happens every year, and last year had movies that would’ve made my Top 10 list, if not topped it in 2011, that didn’t come to the Midwest until at least January. I can’t ignore them on a technicality.
1. A Separation
“A Separation” may be an Iranian film, but it contains universal emotions. Rarely are films this trying and complex while focusing on characters so intelligent and noble.
“Margaret” is a messy, Post 9/11 masterpiece. The movie’s mishmash of vignettes and arguments get at the heart of modern New York and America, places filled with grief, regrets and anxieties but no less hope and love.
Tilda Swinton is amazing in this harrowing art house horror story that so effortlessly reaches our twisted psyches.
A stylish yet heartbreaking story about a man who no longer takes any pleasure from his addiction, “Shame” is a movie of dependencies both tangible and personal, ones we either act on or choose to neglect.
A sweet foreign film between a teacher and students, “Monsieur Lazhar” strengthens and warms us by encouraging us to talk about what we’ve been told to ignore.
Best Song I couldn’t stop whistling after seeing the movie: (tie) “This Must Be the Place” by Talking Heads from “This Must Be the Place” and “Skyfall” by Adele from “Skyfall” (Runner Up: “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles from “Take This Waltz”)
Best Book I still haven’t read after seeing the movie: “Life of Pi” (Runner Up: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”)
Best Actor who is an uncertified nut job: Michael Shannon, “Premium Rush”
Best Actor who is a certified nut job: Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master”
Best Technically Non-Actor who is a certified nut job: Frederic Bourdin, “The Imposter”
Best New Crush: Lola Creton, “Something in the Air,” “Goodbye First Love” (Runner Up: Gina Carano, “Haywire”)
Movie to drop most in my estimation after seeing it a second time: “Prometheus” (Runner Up: “The Dark Knight Rises”)
Biggest Surprise: “Chronicle” (Runner Up: “The Grey”)
Biggest Disappointment: “Lay the Favorite” (Runner Up: “The Bourne Legacy”)
Best, “That actually wasn’t bad” Movie: “The Hunger Games” (Runner Up: “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”)
Worst, “Yeah, I guess that was okay” Movie: “The Avengers” (Runner Up: “Hitchcock”)
The Worst Interesting Films of 2012
I didn’t care for these movies, but if you’re a lover of film, they’re not intrinsically not worth your time. They have cinematic merits from talented filmmakers with impressive performances. Heck, one of them is considered the new consensus title for Best of the Year. I present them to start a discussion about these films, not to diminish them.
Whit Stillman’s film is too self-aware, smart, whimsical and loaded with insufferable characters to even pretend it’s actually about anything.
Some critics have called it a visual tone poem, but Terence Davies is too in love with his imagery. “The Deep Blue Sea” is garishly operatic and always trying to be more so. It drowns us in a sea of colors and violins and then asks us to accept this simple melodrama of adultery.
Leos Carax’s surrealist epic has been called wildly anarchic and fun in its exploration of cinema itself, but I imagine the film will be a fleeting novelty. With so many references and lame jokes, the film doesn’t even seem to take itself seriously, and it lacks the clear vision found in Lynch’s or Bunuel’s films.
Short of portraying dull gangsters in a mafia that doesn’t have any baring on the real world, Andrew Dominik’s film lays a thick political analogy over the top that’s too cynical and blunt to be taken seriously.
“We Have a Pope” is a broad comedy about the election of a new pope. It might’ve been interesting if it remained in the voting room for the entirety of the movie, but it would rather watch Cardinals play cards or volleyball, making it hardly about religion, humanity or anything.
The Worst Uninteresting Films of 2012
This is not a comprehensive list.
Rarely are action movies this tedious. “The Bourne Legacy” copycats the franchise’s style, but not the characters or purpose. The film plays like two hours of deleted footage indirectly tied to the story we actually care about, but it’s mostly bogged down by pseudo-science jargon and endless talking.
Peter Jackson has made a movie out of blind necessity. Mercilessly long and padded, the first part of this Hobbit trilogy traverses familiar, but never as spectacular ground as its precursor. It’s a cheesy, juvenile fantasy adventure that plays like a cartoon and even looks like one because of Jackson’s unnecessary fiddling with 48 frames per second cinematography.
“Lay the Favorite” remains the most disappointed I’ve been watching a movie, thanks to it being the secret screening at the Chicago Film Festival. Directed by the occasionally wonderful Stephen Frears and with familiar faces like Bruce Willis, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Zeta Jones and Rebecca Hall, I waited patiently for this movie to become interesting, funny or edgy, and it never did.
A disgusting, misogynistic and obnoxious exploitation film posing as a high school sex comedy, “Project X” plays like an 85-minute music video with its ugly found footage cinematography and clumsy editing. Rarely have I seen a movie with more faceless boobs and butts than here.
A thickheaded storybook romance that knows nothing about literature, “The Words” is predictably melodramatic and cloyingly photographed as though it was shot on Instagram. When told with such a bland vocabulary, the stories within stories are exhausting.
Honorary Worst Movie of the Year: The Avengers
I’m probably just trolling here, but the real awful thing about “The Avengers” is its mediocrity. No, it’s not terrible, but people keep applauding Joss Whedon for managing to get all the Avengers in a movie without making it horribly bloated. Shouldn’t we really be wondering why he did very little to make the film memorable, original or surprising? I have no trouble if this is the popcorn movie you want to kill a few hours with, but a kind of fun movie has no right being alongside “Star Wars,” “Titanic,” “Avatar” and “Gone With the Wind” as one of the most successful movies of all time.