For a movie blogger, this is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s those magical weeks at the end of the calendar year when you get to sum it all up, break it all down and check your own list a few times. Because why should Santa get to have all the fun?
Here at Film School Rejects, we do this in the grandest of fashions, as part of our annual Year in Review. For a full week following Christmas, we run down the best and worst of the year. You may have noticed our 2012 Year in Review edition, which just so happens to be in full-force. While we’re not quite finished with lists and editorials, we have reached what is, at least for me, the most fun part of the Year in Review: the annual Staff Picks article.
It’s a tradition that began with our 2009 Staff Picks, which at that time included only 7 writers and a very mysterious not-pictured performance from Rob Hunter. It continued with the 2010 Staff Picks, an article that became evidence of the diverse group of writers we’d brought together that year. Including the part where Robert Fure named that film about internet porn one of the best. Last year, our 2011 Staff Picks article featured the largest and most diverse group of writers yet.
This year’s group further’s that notion of diversity and quality. Each member of our team was asked to choose and write about their five best films of the year. No two lists are the same from the list of hand-picked staffers below. We welcome newcomers such as Weekend Editor Christopher Campbell, columnists Caitlin Hughes and Daniel Walber and essayist Alex Huls to the fray. This is also the first year that yours truly has participated in the Staff Picks article. Instead of taking on my own full list, I handed the torch of naming the Best Movies of 2012 to our associate editor and most prolific critic Rob Hunter (now pictured). As ever, it’s a collection of picks that make me proud to be this site’s Publisher.
So without further ado, here is our favorite tradition: The Best Movies of 2012, according to the staff of Film School Rejects.
Zero Dark Thirty
As is evident from my own list, 2012 saw a number of great directors put their best foot forward. Chief among them is Kathryn Bigelow, who followed The Hurt Locker with a trip back to the Middle East and the obsessive chase that led to the War on Terror’s most prolific moment. But this fierce CIA procedural isn’t just about killing Osama bin Laden. It’s another intricately drawn, intensely focused character study of obsession and the special kind of person who refuses to let go of the task at hand, no matter the consequences. In this regard, Bigelow goes down the rabbit hole with another deeply engaging character study. And once again, we’ll follow her no matter how deep it goes.
The Raid: Redemption
Though it seems to have been pushed back due to its early year release, Gareth Evans’ hyper-intense actioner is still absolutely one of the most memorable in-theater experiences I had in 2012. From hallway brawls to several successive fight sequences that were nothing short of epic, The Raid delivers blood and brutality in spades, with style, in tight spaces.
Quentin Tarantino, like Katheryn Bigelow and Wes Anderson (see below), delivered one of his most entertaining works this year in the telling of his “spaghetti southern,” the love story/revenge fantasy of a freed slave trying to reconnect with his lost love. It doesn’t hurt that he’s flanked by two of 2012′s best supporting performances from Christoph Waltz and Leo DiCaprio. It doesn’t hurt one bit.
He’s just as quirky as he’s always been, but with this tale of two kids who run away together and find love in the wilderness, Wes Anderson sure seems happier than he’s ever been. His most optimistic, heart-warming film is also his most lively. And that’s saying a lot following Fantastic Mr. Fox.
The clear king of 2012 is the ultimate superhero team-up. Joss Whedon took the reigns of Marvel’s ambitious project and delivered something that was surprisingly fun on a massive scale. At every turn, The Avengers found new ways to be interesting and vibrant. And when it kicks into gear in the third act, the best you can hope to do is hold on for the ride.
Living abroad has made my movie-going light on the usual Awards Season fare, but that offers me a chance to highlight some incredible movies that will probably get knocked off of other lists by the likes of The Master and Zero Dark Thirty. Aujord’hui — the thoughtful contemplation on death in the context of a rich, colorful life — is definitely in that category. Writer/director Alain Gomis uses the last day of one man (Saul Williams) as a backdrop for every station we walk through, and the sequence where the man set to bury Satche performs the ceremony for him while he’s alive is one of the most poignant scenes of the whole year.
Piling on to our slow-but-steady flow of smart science fiction, Rian Johnson’s time-bending action noir turned Joseph Gordon-Levitt into Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis into a baby killer. It was the kind of genre goodness that delivered even more as a character study in dark heroism. Plus, it introduced the world to Kid Blue and a middle-aged man with disappearing limbs.
As if I need to add to the mountain of praise it’s getting. Sure, a profound drama is worth all the statue-form gold in the world, but it takes something really special to 1) reinvigorate the superhero world 2) juggle an ensemble made up of massive characters and massive egos and 3) provide the most entertainment of any flick this year.
The Cabin in the Woods
A Joss Whedon double-feature on the list this year. It’s been a big one for him, and even though Avengers was the moneymaker, the horror playground he co-wrote with director Drew Goddard earns some big twisty respect. It was a gift to slasher fans, and if anyone can make my wife enjoy a horror movie this much, they deserve a crappy gas station’s worth of exaltation.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Without much time to re-watch movies, especially new ones, it’s rare that I’ll check out a current release more than once. I’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi three times. Few movies were as poetic in their shots, few were as dedicated to showcasing dedication, and few told one family’s story quite so endearingly. Quiet in its tone, contemplative in its execution, it was a movie befitting a man who has traded well more than half a century of life for expertise beyond expertise. It’s rare to be able to call yourself the best in the world at something, but Jiro Dreams of Sushi reverently and fascinatingly covered a true master all the while earning itself a masterful amount of respect. It’s also a testament to the immeasurable service that streaming provides. Jiro got a limited release in New York City, and it toured around some festivals, but it was out of reach for a ton of people (including me). That is, until it hit Netflix and spread like wildfire. Without a streaming service, this movie might have never found its audience, and fans like me might have never seen it. Thanks, technology, for introducing us to the greatest sushi chef on the planet. Now only if I could afford a reservation.
Zero Dark Thirty
In a year riddled with tremendous disappointments (still reeling from Prometheus), Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s latest project not only met expectations, it actually far exceeded them. Pumped full of equal parts adrenaline, intelligence, action, and finely drawn character work, Zero Dark Thirty is not only the best film of the year, it was the one most worth waiting for, and by a mile.
All of things that make up Zero Dark Thirty – the action, the adrenaline, the intelligence – are also what make up Argo. With bonus ’70s facial hair.
Do you not like charming things? Do you not like Wes Anderson charting the first great romance of pint-sized protagonists? Do you not like Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, or Bruce Willis? Do you not like impeccable and whimsical production design, kittens in baskets, and a slew of pitch perfect one-liners? Congrats, you hate the best things in life. Stay away from my precious Moonrise Kingdom.
Truth time: I had zero interest in seeing Lincoln for at least six months leading up to its November release, to the point that I would blow raspberries at the television screen like a petulant teenager whenever a trailer for the Steven Spielberg project appeared. I was, so obviously and so clearly, wrong about Lincoln, a film that not only features some of the best performances of the year, but that is also infused with the type of humor, levity, and raw story-telling power that we so rarely see.
Unofficial winner of this year’s Craziest and Most Misunderstood Sundance Film, Compliance broke out of the gate early, basically locking a spot on my personal top ten list within the first three weeks of January (no small feat). Craig Zobel’s feature was the jaw-dropper of the year, and not always in the best of ways. “How stupid can you possibly be?,” we all moaned at the screen, and yet, just try to look away.
This is Not a Film
The title is correct. This is not just “a” film, it is “the” film. Part personal video diary, part political statement, part making-of documentary on a film that doesn’t exist and ultimately a movie that’s far more entertaining than you’d expect. With help from co-director Mojtaba Mirthahmasb, an iPhone and a pet iguana, Jafar Panahi, who is under house arrest and technically barred from making movies, defies a government and film conventions in this reflexive look at what artistic persecution means for the artist.
An enthralling and bewildering true crime film about a con man who posed as a missing boy and the family who was too blinded by hope to see the truth. Or, is it that simple? Director Bart Layton compiles a puzzling and twisting narrative out of a bunch of unreliable narrators for the greatest nonfiction Rashomon type film since The Thin Blue Line.
Only the Young
The greatest teen movie in years is a documentary about a trio of friends in Southern California. It’s both timeless and very much of its time, relevant and relatable. It’s sweet and smart and soulful and free of cliché, a movie I can watch over and over again.
The House I Live In
No one unravels a systemic problem like Eugene Jarecki. Here he does for the war on drugs and prison industrial complex what he did for the war in Iraq and military industrial complex in Why We Fight. But this time he takes a more subjective approach to what turns out to be a personal issue for the filmmaker. It’s an engaging and effective mix of both style and discourse.
The most spectacular film of the year, the one most necessitating a theatrical viewing. Ron Fricke’s not-quite-sequel to Baraka brings another enchanting non-narrative look at the world, this time loosely focusing on the theme of the circle of life. It’s filled with visual splendor unlike any you’ve seen or will see elsewhere in cinema. To avoid it is to ignore the reason motion pictures exist.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Nuri Belge Ceylan’s methodically paced depiction of a nearly inept crime scene investigation in the Turkish outlands is a wonderful surprise for the patient film fan. While on the surface, the film is about the search for and maintenance of a murdered corpse, through the prolonged conversations between an autopsy doctor and a prosecutor, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia shrewdly reveals itself to be (despite the implicit grandiosity of the title) a unique examination of cultivating a life made up of non-events: lawyers and doctors similarly devote their lives to deconstructing and reassembling lived moments rather than witnessing such moments in the present. An unpretentiously insightful and gorgeously photographed film about life on the margins of experience, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a profoundly honest work of cinematic poetry.
Take This Waltz
Another year, another great performance from Michelle Williams. Perhaps more than any other film in 2012, Sarah Polley’s sophomore directing effort has stuck in my mind; not only because it’s a well-acted, poignantly straightforward depiction of falling in love while committed to someone else, but because it does so without resorting to pessimistic good guy/bad guy patterns that films about infidelity almost always reduce such a complex topic to. Take This Waltz is a bit shaggy here and there, but I can’t think of another film about emotional infidelity that’s this good since David Lean’s Brief Encounter (and yes, that includes this year’s The Deep Blue Sea).
Oslo, August 31st
When Joachim Trier’s second feature-length film won several top awards at the 2011 Stockholm Film Festival, Whit Stillman called the film “a perfectly painted portrait of a generation.” While I can’t say for certain whether or not this quiet, unassuming, heartbreaking little masterpiece captures an era, this story of a heroin addict trying to get his life back together certainly moved me like no other film this year. At several points tragic, incisively comic, emotionally wrenching, and aesthetically perfect, Oslo, August 31st is a triumph that balances masterful storytelling, complex and relevant social themes, an intense array of emotions, and some of the most beautiful and wrenching images you’ll see in a film this year.
This Is Not a Film & Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
I know it’s cheating a bit to credit these two films as one, but this pair of documentaries about provocative media artists in disparate corners of the globe speaks to the enduring potential of personal expression to speak truth to intimidating regimes of power. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s urgent work of self-documentation during house arrest captures the insatiable urge of a filmmaker to tell stories despite incredible limitations better than any film about filmmaking in recent memory, and Alison Klayman’s documentary about famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei paints an inspiring, maddening, and thorough portrait of art as social activism in the age of surveillance and social media. While the offerings of the multiplex are more repetitive than ever, these films serve as an important reminder that cinema can still shock, subvert, and act as a vessel for social change.
Whatever writer/director Leos Carax has been up to in the thirteen-year interim since his last feature film, the images and ideas he’s accumulated during the wait have been well worth it. Simultaneously a barely legible Dada-anarchist ode to cinema, a showcase for veteran actor and Carax-muse Denis Lavant’s incredible talents, and a joyously self-destructive amalgamation of ideas about technology, everyday human performance, music, and 21st century sexuality, Holy Motors resists coherence just as it bursts at the seams with an overflow of sometimes-conflicting meanings and visions. It also has some of the most effective visual gags in any film this year. Holy Motors is a vision of brash, irreverent originality all too appropriate for the apocalyptic year of 2012.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The best thing about cinema is the way it can take so many different art forms, like photography, writing, music, and acting, and smash them all together into a rich experience that’s even greater than the sum of its parts. Most movies do one or two things well, but Beasts of the Southern Wild is the sort of rare experience that combines beautiful imagery with harrowing human drama, music that sweeps you away, and affecting performances that put you in someone else’s shoes. It’s able to make all of these things work in concert with one another, which elevates them and creates an almost overwhelming sensory and emotional experience. It’s the kind of art that gets inside of you and fiddles with the way you feel, which makes it one of the best movies of the year.
The Silver Linings Playbook
The handful of standard formulas that are utilized by modern movies were first developed and continue to be used, quite simply, because they work. We usually think of movies being “formulaic” as being a bad thing, but that’s because filmmakers too often rely solely on the benefits of a standard formula and allow craftsmanship to fall by the wayside. With The Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell has proven that as long as you create characters people care about, stick to the fundamentals of good movie-making, and inject the proceedings with enough personality, following the patterns of a proven formula can be one of the most effective ways to create an emotional response in your audience. The Silver Linings Playbook is a pretty straight romantic comedy, but it’s one of the best romantic comedies there is. And, in addition to the way it builds to a big payoff and then delivers, this one features a couple of attention-worthy performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as well.
Not all great movies rely so heavily on storytelling. Some of them are more focused on meditating on a moment and being an emotional experience the viewer processes right alongside the characters. Michael Haneke’s Amour is that sort of movie, and it’s a doozie. While the subject matter here lends the material a little more sentimentality than you usually get in Haneke’s work, this tale of an elderly man taking care of his dying wife could still be described by using words like “clear headed” and “unflinching.” The director’s camera sits you right next to this woman’s suffering, his conservative editing forces you to linger in the moment, and the experience is one you won’t be able to shake for quite a while. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, also, give two of the very best performances of the year.
The Avengers takes The Silver Linings Playbook’s adherence to formula and Amour’s commitment to emotional experience and combines them to create the sort of film that’s a summer blockbuster in all the best ways. This movie follows a very standard alien invasion plot, but it does it competently enough to build to an action climax that feels like a big moment. And once the big battle at the end takes place, it’s such a thrilling experience that injects so much adrenaline into your system that it’s not hard to imagine why describing big summer movies as being “roller coaster rides” has become such an oft-used cliche. Also, it can’t be stated enough how much writer/director Joss Whedon’s wit and ability to give his characters unique voices works to elevate this one above being just another superhero movie.
Your Sister’s Sister
Your Sister’s Sister is the small sort of story that rarely makes enough impact to show up on year-end lists. It’s basically just a movie where three people spend a weekend together in one location and talk, about their relationships, their hangups, etc… But the three-way chemistry that its stars, Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt are able to conjure together, and the way writer/director Lynn Shelton is able to make sure that a casually paced, improvisation-heavy movie always remains funny and always keeps moving its modest story forward without straying too far to the side or lingering too long on any one moment proves to be enough to make it greater than the sum of its parts, head and shoulders above most of the features that get labeled “mumblecore” movies, and one of the best films I saw all year.
Life of Pi
You see colors in this movie you never knew existed. Filmmaker extraordinaire Ang Lee adapted the “unfilmable” novel into a beautiful, moving, and entertaining cinematic experience which has more going for it than its pretty color palette. The movie may dip too heavily into all the silly “What does it all mean?” questions towards the end, but before all those cloying segments appeared, Lee had made a near-perfect movie.
Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik is the real deal. After The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik had a big achievement to live up to. Wisely, he made a full-on genre picture, a complete left turn from his meditative epic. Killing Them Softly may have gone overboard with its political text, but going overboard is what Dominik’s movie does best.
Sam Mendes brought pure class and style to the series. Martin Campbell nailed Bond with 2007′s Casino Royale, but there was certainly room for improvement. With Skyfall, Mendes delivered on all those possibilities of a dangerous, cool 21st Century Bond that Campbell set up. The movie may skimp on logic every now and then, but Mendes always makes up for it with A-level popcorn thrills.
By far the best anti-hero(s) movie of the year. Writer/Director Rian Johnson’s voice has never felt sharper than this. Johnson gave us a unique concept, and then he lived up to it by providing high-minded themes, character-driven action, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s best performance yet.
Wes Anderon’s least cynical and most heartful movie since…well, maybe ever. I saw Moonrise Kingdom three times in theaters, and it progressively became better. Each joke, character, and clever background detail became more lovable with every new viewing. It was the first time in a while where Anderson felt fully in love with his characters, and it paid off beautifully.
For me, looking back on a year of film I often just ask “Where did I have the most fun?” as opposed to “What was the best film of the year?” Too many people get caught up in wrapping their minds around “best,” something I don’t have to worry about when Guy Pearce channels Han Solo on a Snake Plissken adventure. Aside from one horrendous CGI scene, Lockout is a ton of fun and keeps moving via violence and laughs. With inventive action bits and an aces performance from Pearce, this was one of the best times I had watching a movie this year.
21 Jump Street
It’s unlikely you’ll find this film on many Best Of… lists, and after seeing it in theaters, I wouldn’t have thought it’d be on mine. Much like Anchorman though, 21 Jump Street has staying power and gets funnier and funnier every time you watch it. Channing Tatum is great in the role he was born to play – dumb jock – and Jonah Hill gets a bunch of laughs too. With tons of great comedy, an over the top Rob Riggle, fantastic cameos, and moments of awesome violence, this film keeps on giving.
The Cabin in the Woods
A lot of times when a movie tries to really wink at the audience and play inside baseball, the result ranges from decent to lackluster to utter crap. The Cabin in the Woods is perhaps the best of these films, managing to pay homage to many of the great horror tropes of all time while still being a very fresh take on a very old tale. The classic elements are done well and the films final payoff is among the most rewarding of any horror movie in recent memory.
No stranger to “top whatever” lists, Disney & Marvel went for the gold on The Avengers and pulled off a film many of us thought was impossible to do. Bringing together that many superheroes? Finding a credible threat to them? Managing screen time? The task in front of them was a huge one and they put Joss Whedon at the helm, a fan favorite but one who had never seen this kind of budget or this kind of success before – and it all worked. The characterizations continue to be excellent with Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark being the glue that pulls them all together. The Hulk smashed the spotlight, with his best portrayal on screen yet and his dual friendships: The Hulk + Thor and Bruce Banner + Tony Stark. A terrific action film and a great comic book movie, The Avengers was fun as hell.
With exception to my own rule about having fun, The Grey is not a fun film, but rather a heartbreakingly serious one that hits all the quintessential notes of a versus film. Man versus man. Man versus beast. Man versus nature. The trailers did not do the film justice as they made it appear to be Liam Neeson boxing wolves, when what was actually happening was a tremendous man versus nature film, one of hopelessness and fighting against the inevitable. With great performances all around, tension throughout, and a dramatic punch straight to the kidneys, The Grey was a fantastic bit of filmmaking, CGI wolves and all.
Arbitrage quickly draws you in to the sexy, sleek, and powerful world of the New York financial world, but before you can envy the select few who get to live this life of privilege, director Nicholas Jarecki turns the tables as we learn the higher the rise, the further the fall. Richard Gere plays the man at the center of it all and straddles that line between good and evil to make you question the real worth of money and power. Driven by a fresh new score from Cliff Martinez, his music electrifies this usually stuffy world and gives Arbitrage a necessary pulse as the film goes from picturesque to panicked.
Zero Dark Thirty
A sensitive and difficult subject, Zero Dark Thirty paints a raw picture of the events that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden through the eyes of the woman whose singular focus helped make it possible. Jessica Chastain turns in a powerful performance as Maya, a CIA operative who grows from a newbie in the field to an integral part to ending this decade-long manhunt. Chastain’s passion and determination radiate off the screen as much as her quieter moments do and director Kathryn Bigelow proves, yet again, her ability to take audiences into dire situations, but still leave them with a sense of hope.
At first glance, Lincoln may seem like the type of film one would watch during history class and while it does bring to life important historical moments, it does so in a surprisingly moving and captivating way. Daniel Day-Lewis completely transforms himself into our 16th President, not simply by looking the part, but by bringing palpable passion and heart to this otherwise political figure. Lincoln’s constituents, played by an equally impressive cast, also rise to the occasion and events that were once just read about in history books suddenly spring to life and become all the more meaningful.
Ben Affleck has become a director to watch with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but Argo stands out from its predecessors because it proves Affleck can truly tell a story (even when it is not set in his home town of Boston) and do so with style and skill. A near master class in acting, Affleck is joined by an equally impressive cast and each performance is woven together by a beautiful score from Alexandre Desplat making Argo a moving and memorable film from beginning to end.
An original script, fantastic actors, and an inventive score took us into a new world and made Looper the definition of escapism. But Looper is not just escapist fun, it also presented questions with no easy answers and the timeline jumping script made this a film that should not only stand the test of time, but also multiple viewings. Looper successfully takes you out of your own world, but gives you real questions to take back with you when you return to it.
Ben Affleck completes the crossover hat trick with his third outstanding directorial effort. Argo proves Affleck’s artful grasp of compelling storytelling and reserved, earned tension and suspense. He has also proven that his face can artfully grasp a luxuriant mane of chin fur. The supporting cast here is superb; featuring the likes of John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Bryan Cranston who all offer a measure of comedic relief to this unnerving tale.
Quentin Tarantino is part director, part cinematic Cuisinart. His ability to hone his eclectic and reverent film passion into unique filmic experiences is what makes him both a highly respected auteur and a movie geek icon. With Django Unchained, he blends his love for spaghetti westerns with his affinity for blaxploitation; delivering a Franco Nero hero by way of Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. Referential genuflection aside, the movie is alive with imaginative editing, gorgeous cinematography, and yet another brilliant performance by Christoph Waltz.
The Cabin in the Woods
One of the worst parts of being a horrorphile is that often the most terrifying thing you encounter while sitting in the theater is redundancy and/or cliché. Enter the dynamic duo of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. The Cabin in the Woods isn’t content with merely shedding light on our favorite genre conventions, it actually offers inspired new context for each trope’s very existence. After watching Cabin, I defy you to not grimace every time you hear an elevator bell.
Time travel sci-fi is a difficult landscape to traverse. Multiple timelines present inescapable paradoxes, and your audience may spend more time ripping open the plot holes than sinking their teeth into the story or characters. Rian Johnson’s Looper manages to skirt this issue with a fascinating film noir twist. A hitman whose target is his older self is intriguing enough, but when the two ends of that character continuum are Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, and when they are working within an intelligently constructed plot, all concerns about narrative hiccups fade.
Zero Dark Thirty
One of the more landmark events of 2011 was the discovery and assassination of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. It was inevitable that a film would be made about the event. But with so many emotional and moral complexities to juggle, it was going to take a truly exceptional director to prevent that film from descending into cheap affective manipulation or, worse, exploitation. Kathryn Bigelow was the perfect choice. ZDT does not bask obscenely in the slaying of an enemy, but rather offers insight into the day-to-day grunt work of a CIA operative dedicating her life to one cause. Zero Dark Thirty’s direction, photography, and story construction are even more intriguing then its inevitable conclusion.
This pick might make me sound like a populace ass-hat, but I can’t remember the last time I had as much fun in the movie theater with my pants on. I’ve had my criticisms of Joss Whedon’s work in the past, but he did a brilliant job balancing all the characters from Marvel’s recent movie arsenal. Powerful, fun, and full of comic relief, this was one of those movies that made it a blast to go to the theaters this year.
I had the rare opportunity to see this movie the day after the 2012 Presidential election, which the media had called one of the most mean-spirited campaigns ever. Spielberg’s Lincoln reminds us that politics has always been cutthroat and dubious. The movie features nothing but men with facial hair talking to other men with facial hair, but the political squirming was fascinating to watch.
Sadly, this film was buried in August, presumably to not compete with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie in October. While Frankenweenie was good, ParaNorman was superior, delivering a smarter and sharper script, but also having a sweetness to it. The brilliant team behind Coraline is keeping gorgeous stop-motion animation alive, and I wish more people would have seen it.
I’ll confess that I am a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and his last several films have ended up on my best-of-the-year lists. (Yes, even The Darjeeling Limited.) His latest film captures the essence of innocence that children have, but it also demonstrates how dangerous this can be as we move from childhood to adolescence, and how that innocence is lost.
How many more movies are we going to have to see before we are all convinced that Ben Affleck is a damn good director? Argo is his finest flick that mixes history (with some liberties), humor, and suspense. It’s still relevant to our international world today, and even though we should all know the outcome, that doesn’t stop the film from being a first-rate nail-biter.
William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (based on the play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay) was far and away my favorite film of 2012. I loved everything about it, from the sweaty, pulpy Southern trailer trash landscape, to Friedkin’s unabashed use of raw violence. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the near-perfect film is Matthew McConaughey’s nomination-worthy performance as the title character, a dirty police officer who is also a killer-for-hire. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) reaches out to Joe to kill his mother so that he can collect her insurance. Though when he doesn’t he expects and can’t pay Joe, Joe looks for retribution in the form of taking Chris’ childlike sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) as his bride. With amazing supporting performances from Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon, Killer Joe strikes a brilliantly unnerving balance of dark humor and brutality. This is best evidenced in the best scene of 2012, in which Joe punches Gershon’s character, Sharla, in the nose and subsequently forces her to perform fellatio on a piece of “K Fry C” positioned on his crotch. Joe is charismatic, he is sadistic, he is so manipulative of this moronic, trashy family. The film as a whole creates such a palpable vision of the nightmarish, underbelly of the American south, and it’s at once frightening and hilarious – you can’t peel your eyes away from the screen. Oh yeah, and Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’” plays the film out. Perfection.
Recipient of this year’s Robert Altman award at the Independent Spirit Awards, Sean Baker’s Starlet came as quite the pleasant surprise to me when I saw it in theaters without reading very much about it beforehand. It’s the story of a young, fresh-faced internet porn star Jane (Dree Hemingway) who buys a bunch of stuff from snippy old lady Sadie (Besedka Johnson) at a yard sale. When Jane brings the bounty home, she discovers $10,000 in cash hidden in an old thermos. She tries to return the thermos, and is subsequently turned away rather harshly by Sadie… so after a few impulse buys with the cash, Jane decides to lavish the old woman with kindness (driving her to the grocery store and to bingo games, etc) to repay her for the cash and to ease her own conscience. Baker films in an easy, unaffected style that echoes the naturalistic performances from the principle actors. Hemingway, an actress of obvious lineage, is refreshingly honest in her performance and creates a character that doesn’t take any shit and yet is very sympathetic. Johnson, who never acted before and was discovered at a local YMCA, is perfect as Sadie. Both characters form a very believable bond, and the film never once veers into cliche – no one is judged for their actions. This one is worth seeking out and is a unexpected gem.
I very seldom cry in movies. In fact, I think I can count the movies on one hand. But I had no idea how much the floodgates would open during and NYFF screening of Michael Haneke’s Amour, which just goes to emotional places that are very seldom explored in cinema. The understated story of elderly music teacher couple Anne and Georges (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose idyllic existence is disturbed by Anne’s completely debilitating series of strokes. Haneke’s work is inspired in this film, which allows him to shine without the more obvious provocations evident in his earlier work, such as Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. Here, the intensity of Anne’s decline elicits such raw, visceral emotions, which produce similar provocations, but ones routed firmly in reality, harkening to everyone’s utter fear of their loved ones growing old and dying. The camera captures Anne being bathed, being tended to in the bathroom, having her diaper changed – she is a proud, independent-minded woman and this is difficult to watch at times because her humiliation is absolutely shattering. Riva is a likely Oscar contender and it is completely deserved – nary an actress is capable of surrendering herself completely to the physicality of her performance as Riva is in this film.
Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha, is largely inspired by the French New Wave and when it first started, I was overcome with a mild fear that the film would be overly twee for my consumption – it is shot in black and white, it features some whimsical dancing, etc. Though twee it is certainly not. Co-written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who plays the title character, Frances Ha is a masterfully drawn portrait of Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and how they grow apart. Frances remains a struggling dance company apprentice while those around her, including Sophie, seem to grow up and leave her behind. The film also features another of 2012′s best scenes, in which Frances exuberantly runs though the streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” (in a scene inspired by Leos Carax’s Mauvais sang). Admittedly, perhaps a lot of the reason why this film struck such a chord was that I identify very closely with Frances’ “plight,” as do probably a lot of women in their mid-twenties, but it nevertheless very refreshing to see an honest depiction of a young woman living in New York that doesn’t revolve solely around sex. Frances is more concerned with carving out her own place in the world and maintaining her friendships, which is arguably a lot more valuable in the long run (and a lot more realistic).
Was I excited about Magic Mike? Yes. Did I pollute social media sites with crazy postings about said excitement for Magic Mike? Yes. Did I see Magic Mike at midnight in Chelsea and proclaim the evening “Magic Mike Eve?” Yes. Thankfully, however, my high anticipation index was not for nothing, as Magic Mike is indeed an excellent film. Complete with the typical yellow-tinged Steven Soderbergh cinematography and inventive inverted camera angles. Bookending this list with two McConaughey movies… yes, McConaughey is mindblowingly amazing as Xquisite club owner Dallas and is completely Oscar-worthy as he creates a character that is simultaneously smarmy and alluring, somewhat of a Fagin-like figure to the younger dancers. With the exception of Cody Horn, the cast is very strong here and they all deliver very believable performances in a film that could have easily skirted by purely on the “titillation factor” of male stripping, but really transcends. That doesn’t mean I’m above enjoying real-life inspiration/Soderbergh muse Channing Tatum from busting the moves to Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Because I enjoyed that QUITE a bit. Alright alright alright!
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest darts in and out of your grip – one moment you’ve captured it, the next it’s escaped you. Its elusiveness is precisely what makes The Master such a hypnotic film. It enthralls you without you ever fully knowing what it is you’re witnessing. At least until you see it again. And again. The great joy of Anderson’s film is that the more you see it, the more you are able to probe the pockets of meaning scattered within the film. In doing so, The Master’s meanings expand and it begins to reveal itself – through a variety of thematic avenues – as the richest film of the year. It’s a rewarding reminder that cinema that achieves the level of art can be most profound when it challenges the viewer to seek meaning – not be handed it.
Leos Carax’s film is a wondrous cinematic fever dream that shifts between the intimately familiar and the hallucinatory surreal. It’s a joyous present to film lovers and film itself – a celebration of cinema and its range, history, power, life (and possible death). But Holy Motors above all else provokes with its effective genre-hopping (anchored by the stupefyingly great performance from Denis Lavant) a kind of dizzying cinematic euphoria that ensures one never becomes the comatose, emotionless viewer that Carax fears in his prologue. The accordion Entr’acte alone should jolt just about any complacent moviegoer into remembering the power a movie moment can hold.
Oslo August, 31st
Thanks to the wave of “man-child” comedies and general society harrumphing, existentially and aspirationally stunted twenty/thirty-somethings have seen their anxieties become an easy source of ridicule and scornful dismissal. Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st admirably avoids punchlines and patronization to instead give quarter-life angst the serious artistic treatment such a prevalent societal phenomenon deserves. Trier honors Anders’ crisis and fear of maturity with empathy and consideration. Though that’s not to say there aren’t moments of nuanced criticism of Anders’ privileged indulgence and avoidance. But that’s what makes Oslo, August 31st stand out. It’s a great and fair representation of young men’s fear of growing up and how not doing so (or doing so) can lead to life ending before it ever really began.
The Kid with a Bike
It’s curiously difficult to describe why I loved The Kid with a Bike so much, which perhaps speaks to its subtle power and resonant emotional thrum. You feel the movie more than you think it. Its understated story telling and sympathetic realism make you care so deeply about its characters, everything they do (or might do) takes on all the tension of a thriller because you’re invested in what happens to them. Rob Hunter said it best: The Kid with a Bike is “the most untraditionally suspenseful movie I’ve seen in years.” It’s also one of the movies I’ve most cared about.
I’m Wes Anderson indifferent. The appeal of the films of The Maestro of Oddball Misfits eludes me, and considering his modus operandi never changes, I’ve long operated under the assumption he’d never make a movie I would love. I was wrong. Moonrise Kingdom is a nostalgia seeped, French New Wave spotted, hazy pastel colored delight. It proved to be a movie impossible not to fall in love with. That’s largely because of its refreshing and firm belief that the love of Sam and Suzy isn’t of the “Aw, isn’t it cute?” variety. Instead Moonrise Kingdom affectionately believes that their love – in all its acceptance, understanding and devotion – is one all adults should aspire to.
This Is Not a Film
It’s hard for me to even conceive of any other film as the best of the year. Nothing else is on the same level because nothing else is comparable. Jafar Panahi’s subversive and charismatic non-film is the sort of trailblazing work that can only come from the fortuitous coincidence of brilliant cinematic vision and repressive, yet artistically liberating circumstance. It, and its iguana, are unforgettable.
I continue to be haunted by this film, even months and months after seeing it the first time. And, like This Is Not a Film, I love it because there’s almost nothing like it. It’s like an animated ghost story from “Prairie Home Companion,” yet more enigmatic and with a deeper, Mid-Western sadness. It is about the immediate and mundane problems of alcoholism, but also about history and the magic that lies hidden in our quiet, forest-bound towns.
How do you even begin to adapt a massive, classic Russian novel? Some have gone big, like the Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk in his 7-hour War and Peace from 1967 that broke the bank (one of my all-time favorites). Joe Wright, on the other hand, decided to whip Anna Karenina into cinematic shape by enclosing it in a theater. The results are enchanting, blending Fellini and Tchaikovsky into a ballet that lifts you up into a waltz on the ceiling and doesn’t put you down until Anna finally meets her famous end.
Zero Dark Thirty
What is there to say about Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? Jessica Chastain is, of course, a force of nature as a CIA agent perpetually on the case. The construction of the film, especially the final sequence, raises the bar so high that 2012’s many other procedural films just look like silly, extended episodes of “Law and Order.” The only over 150-minute film of the year that doesn’t feel too long even for a second, Zero Dark Thirty is a feat of strength.
Oslo, August 31st
The best character studies are the ones that take place in a single day, or even a few hours. At least, those are the ones that feel the most cinematic. We’ve gotten a number of beautiful examples of this recently, from Certified Copy to the revelation that is Oslo, August 31st. Their power lies in the details. The short time frame takes every individual event and raises it from the level of simple character development to a universal human moment. Anders Danielsen Lie is also terrific, giving perhaps the best performance of the year.