The 10 Best Films of 2012:
10. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
A grand, weird, bold effort even by Cronenberg’s standards, this film is an absolutely mesmerizing adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel. I could speak here about how timely the film is with its unsparing critique of capitalist society. Or how Robert Pattinson delivers an astonishingly assured performance that hopefully portends a career full of them. Or how the score - a collaboration between Howard Shore and the band Metric - sustains and enhances the general mood of dread hanging over the entire film.
But really, perhaps the best thing about this film is how it feels like the work of a completely vibrant, reinvigorated filmmaker. I was not at all expecting a film this vital and meticulously crafted on the heels of his most recent effort - 2010’s A Dangerous Method - but here we are with what might be Cronenberg’s strongest and most unique effort since 1996’s Crash. I want to shout it from the rooftops. This film is a treasure.
9. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
An elegantly staged and eloquently scripted exploration of the passing of the 13th amendment. It may seem like an understatement and it feels like a foregone conclusion almost, but Daniel Day-Lewis completely disappears into the role. And the film around him - with its commitment to period-accurate dialogue and vernacular - matches the level of his performance step by step.
What seemed like an obvious match on paper of director and material proves to be something far trickier when filtered through Tony Kushner’s marvel of a script. Spielberg, the great populist that he is, executes a tricky balance with this film. On the one hand, it’s the story of the passing of the 13th amendment and that’s a fairly straightforward bit of business. It also gives us lines like “You, sir, are more reptile than man!” which would sound great coming out of anyone’s mouth but sounds best coming out of Tommy Lee Jones’s.
On the other hand, the parallels between this film’s divided country mired in the midst of the Civil War and our current nation divided by myriad ideologies are impossible to overlook. This is an important work. One that asks difficult questions and explores the agonies of leadership in a thoughtful and uncompromising manner.
8. Cloud Atlas (The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer)
Easily the most absurdly ambitious film of the year. That even one of the narratives contained within this beautiful 3-hour beast of a film is cohesive would be an accomplishment. That each of them is not only cohesive but emotionally resonant and thematically related every other narrative thread is nothing short of a miracle.
I’m not saying it’s not a little goofy. There are a few moments where the themes of the film are emphasized to an almost unconscionable degree. There are also moments of impossible beauty that are unique to this film, resulting as they do from the inter-cutting of its multiple narratives. And the finale of the film is so damn hopeful. Lost love between two characters in one timeline is preserved in another. Humanity falls and humanity rises again. The earth becomes a wasteland but we ascend to the stars. No other film this year dared to dream so big. No other film embraced sentiment so unabashedly. And no other film made me cry like five separate times.
Can we just take a second here to think about how good this year was for film? I can’t believe that this film is #8 on my list. That’s absurd. If anything I’m underrating it. Even though this is a three hour film, there’s a good chance I’ll watch this more in the future than any other film on this list. I have no doubt this is a film with untold depths to explore and new things to discover with every viewing. And of course now all I want to do is watch it again.
7. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
If nothing else this film’s placement at #7 on my end of the year list only serves to illustrate my weird hypocrisy regarding horror films. While I loathe and will condemn to my dying day films and filmmakers (and TV shows while I’m here) that seem to hold the horror genre at a distance as something lacking in legitimacy, I rarely if ever have a horror film in my annual top 10 list. And this year, on the rare occasion that a horror film both subverts traditional horror tropes and displays that its makers have nothing short of SCADS of affection for the genre - I mean, basically someone made one of the best horror films ever made and all they got was this lousy #7 spot.
I’ve seen this movie at least 5 times by now. Once with audio commentary on top of that. I’ve explored all of the bonus features. I’ve read the ‘official visual companion’ which is mostly just the screenplay. And I’ve complained about the ending only to change my mind and like it again only to complain about it again only to settle into a kind of resigned acceptance for a brief period of time before realizing that the ending actually does work. Because I’m not so smart all the time.
The ending works thematically and not narratively because - as the characters subvert their (t)heretofore-impending demise - so also do they subvert the narrative structure of the film, and so also does the film result in a strange anticlimax that is secretly a satisfying climax.
It’s like 8 1/2 or Adaptation but with more Angry Molesting Trees.
6. Looper (Rian Johnson)
This is a film that gets better with every viewing. Everything in this film is a puzzle piece fit into its proper place. Let’s talk about a couple of moments in this film that are two of the most satisfying pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen in two very different ways. Oh, um. Spoilers for Looper.
1) Garrett Dillahunt’s gat man comes back to the farm and is holding Emily Blunt’s character (Sara) at gun point. Joe puts his gun down. We cut from this to Piper Perabo’s character’s apartment. We know from earlier that Kid Blue has discovered Old Joe’s whereabouts by procuring security cam footage of him outside of this apartment. Old Joe is going to kill her son because he could potentially be the Rainmaker. Cut back to the farm. Cid comes down the stairs. He trips. Dillahunt freezes. Joe runs to help Cid. Sara grabs him before he can, drags him outside. Joe watches as Cid goes TK on everything and rips the gat man apart. Old Joe opens the door in Perabo’s apartment, as the memory forms in his head. He knows who the Rainmaker is. He doesn’t have to kill this kid. He gets hit with a taser. Kid Blue was waiting for him. The house EXPLODES. Joe and Sara hit the ground.
Now that’s an astonishing bit of narrative storytelling right there. That’s just one example from this film, and here’s the second (hopefully shorter) one.
2) Old Joe is taken back to the club - La Belle Aurore - by Kid Blue, who’s looking to get back in good with the boss played by Jeff Daniels. Old Joe escapes by grabbing Blue’s gun, shooting him in the foot (something that also ties in to the themes of the film as Blue is infamous for having done this to himself by accident before). Old Joe then goes crazy, shooting everybody in the place except for one person. This person we hear running down a hallway in spite of a neon arrow clearly pointing in the opposite direction (a wonderful sight gag that is ALSO thematically purposeful as here, at the end, everything is coming full circle). Old Joe shoots him and then we get a virtuoso shot where the camera pushes in to a video screen in Jeff Daniels’s office. It shows Old Joe walking away from the security camera towards a door. The camera pushes in past the security monitor towards the door Old Joe is about to enter, and when it opens he’ll be facing the camera (we cut before the action happens).
So, basically, every single choice in this film - from cinematography even down to brief sight gags - is informed by and serves to further enhance the “everything comes back around/the path is a circle” themes of the film.
I’ll be honest, I was looking forward to Looper a great deal, but I wasn’t expecting the master class in filmmaking that we got. Whatever Rian Johnson does next is going to be astonishing. Especially now that, with a $166 million gross on a $30 million budget, the world is his oyster.
5. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
A film of bracing violence, bizarre comedy and four of the best performances of the year, this is a unique and challenging one to write about. On the one hand, it’s fun. Oh man, is this film one of the most exhilarating pieces of cinema you’ll ever see. From the opening with Dr. Schultz and Django riding around collecting bounties to the gradual descent further and further into the hell that is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie-land plantation, this film is kind of a theme park ride. The film has more than its fair share of tonal shifts - from the broad comedy of the Klan complaining about the size of the eyeholes in their hoods before a raid, to the bitter realities of mandingo fights and slaves being ripped apart by dogs, Tarantino nimbly navigates this potential minefield without breaking a sweat.
I saw this twice in theaters, and what struck me the 2nd time was how clearly the plot of the film is a metaphor for Reconstruction. White guy doesn’t want to rock the boat, wants there to be a more gradual shift of power (i.e. the elaborate scheme to purchase Broomhilda instead of simply offering the outrageous amount of money for her that they eventually end up paying), when what the film advocates - and what Django does - is burning the entire institution of slavery to the ground (he, um, burns the plantation to the ground).
And, more radically, it posits Samuel L. Jackson’s character - Steven - as the true villain of the piece as opposed to DiCaprio’s deranged and possibly incestuous plantation owner/Francophile. The person who, when faced with a system such as slavery, figures out how to use it to his advantage and selfishly benefit from it rather than maintaining his pride and a code of morality. It’s a fascinating piece of work, and yet another masterpiece from a man who’s no stranger to them.
4. Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
I am as surprised as anyone that this film is this high on my end of the year list. Seeing this film while I was in Los Angeles and had a few days off at the beginning of December felt like an obligatory thing for me, a lifelong film fan/maker of lists, to do. I went to a matinee, in 3D, at the Arclight. I got some popcorn because sometimes I like to lead a life of absurd luxury and pay seven dollars for things like that, and then this beautiful and astonishing film unfolded in front of me.
Now, here’s where things get tricky for me. Because I know most of the people reading this likely haven’t seen the film yet, I don’t want to discuss in great detail why exactly the film is so special to me. I guess I could be vague about it and discuss in the most generic sense I possibly can how the film explores and illustrates the notion of religion, and how the finale of the film caused me to sit up straighter in my seat wondering if Ang Lee was actually going to pull off this…I hesitate to say ‘twist’ but sort of…well, yeah.
As a 3D experience, as a survival film, and as a surprisingly well-rendered CGI spectacle, the film is very good and worth seeing. But it isn’t until the last maybe 15-20 minutes of the film that we arrive at the truly transcendent purpose behind the entire film. This film becomes not just an exploration of the nature of religion, but also the nature of storytelling in general. What at first seemed like it would be some weird, technically proficient, feel-good survival story turns into a strange, dark, and kind of upsetting inquiry into the purpose of religion. It’s one of the few films I’ve ever seen that’s questioned religion in an honest, searching way without inherently decrying it as a foolish thing for foolish people.
3. Amour (Michael Haneke)
An unexpectedly sweet yet also unremittingly heartbreaking effort from that great punisher of audiences everywhere, Michael Haneke. This is a film that takes place almost entirely inside of this couple’s apartment as a man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) takes care of his wife (Emanuelle Riva) after a stroke robs her of the use of her legs.
Where the film goes from here both is and isn’t surprising. Knowing Haneke, of course things go to a darker place than they would in the hands of a less confident filmmaker. What Haneke is able to get out of his two leads in this film is incredible. Both actors give remarkable performances, and in a perfect world Trintignant would be nominated alongside Riva at the Oscars this year. The world’s perfect enough, though, since Haneke’s up for Best Director and he’s got my vote.
There is a sequence towards the end of the film that is both astonishing in concept and astonishingly simple in execution. After Trintignant tends to a by-this-point-bedridden Riva, and we are shown a painting. One of the paintings hanging in their apartment. There is no music, no voice over, no nothing. And then another painting. And another. It recalls the sequence in Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven, where he shows us tombstone after tombstone in the pet cemetery. In this film, the paintings - I believe we cut to about four or five of them - seem to almost be there for us to question what purpose they have. In a world where permanence is an illusion, what ultimate use do we have for art? The film itself serves as a handy enough answer to this question.
It’s no mistake that every time Trintignant carries his Riva from her wheelchair to an easy chair, or to her bed, they hold each other close and they almost seem to be waltzing.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
From the opening moments of this film to its haunting conclusion, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal condense roughly a decade of recent history into a riveting two and a half hour procedural thriller that doubles as an inquiry into the pursuit of revenge. This film is an incredible achievement, and yet another masterpiece in a year full of them. This is a film that features as its breathless climax a 30+ minute staging of the raid on Abottabad that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Not since the heist in Rififi or the bridge scene in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer have I seen such a sustained sequence of white knuckle suspense.
That much of the conversation about the film in the weeks leading up to its wide release has centered on whether or not the film advocates the use of torture or not has been beyond unfortunate. It’s a shame that this controversy will likely cause some to avoid the movie entirely, and may or may not have contributed to Bigelow losing out on her richly-deserved Best Director nomination.
And while I’ve already praised the film’s bravura climax, there are two other scenes in the film that illustrate Bigelow’s growth as a storyteller and are better proof than anything else in the film that she’s one of only a small handful of filmmakers that is in full command of her craft right now. The first scene is simple enough, Jason Clarke’s character feeds some monkeys in a cage at the CIA base where they’re interrogating terrorists/Al Qaeda members. A sign on the cage says Do Not Feed the Monkeys.
Later in the film, just before Clarke’s character leaves to go back to Washington, D.C., he and Maya are outside near the cage which is now empty. He just says “they killed my monkeys. Some bullshit about escaping, I dunno.” And it’s just a really simple thing - almost a non sequitur - but there’s just something about those two small scenes that sums up his character and, in microcosm, serves as a metaphor for our country’s entire history with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
I mean, that’s just great storytelling.
1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
This hasn’t happened before, so I’m not really sure how to proceed. I’m not a firm believer in having one absolute ‘favorite’ movie of all time. If you’ve asked me at any point in the past five or six years, I’ve probably said Nashville. I live here, so that’s fun too. But now I’m not so sure. If nothing else, I’ve found a worthy competitor for that top spot.
It isn’t just that The Master is the best film of the year. It’s that, even in a year as rich with instantly recognizable masterpieces as this past one, it’s not even close.
I can throw every adjective I’ve thrown at each of the films listed above at this one and it will stick. The ‘informal processing’ scene between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is handily the best scene of the year. Rich with tension and emotion, Anderson’s camera captures both of them in close up and it’s impossible to look away. It’s hard, in fact, even to blink.
I’ve seen this film twice in theaters - once in September when it came out, and a second time when it came back to the Los Feliz 3 in December and I had some time to kill the afternoon before I was due to fly home for Christmas. It’s coming back to the Belcourt in Nashville at the end of the month and I’ll most likely be seeing it again, because I still haven’t seen it projected on film.
And really, I’m having a hard time figuring out the best way to express why this film means so much to me. Maybe I relate a little too closely to the sex-obsessed Freddie Quell, with his constant need for attention and approval. The misguided ways in which he stubbornly clings to the past. Past loves that have only been blown out of proportion in his memory. A willingness to drink anything and a stubborn refusal to develop beyond a particular, largely self-serving, skill set.
Or maybe it’s because I relate a little too closely to Lancaster Dodd. A man who’s recreated his world to suit him. Built a myth from whole cloth and largely surrounded himself only with people he feels superior to. A man drawn to the outsider, the rebel, the - in Dodd’s own words - ‘scoundrel’ spirit that Freddie Quell embodies. The man who feels trapped in the role he’s cast himself in. Trapped by the perceptions of the very same people he tells himself he feels superior to.
There’s something ineffable, something inexpressible about how or why this film has grown to mean so much to me. The growth it illustrates in Anderson as a storyteller is impossible to quantify. After my initial viewing, I still held the film at arm’s length. I wasn’t comfortable thinking that it was a step up from There Will Be Blood. Both films have these larger than life characters and epic, lyrical sequences that stand head and shoulders above anything produced by other filmmakers in recent memory (I’m thinking of the bowling alley finale, or the oil well catching fire).
On the other hand, this is the first of Anderson’s films that feels beholden to no one other than himself. No Altman or Scorsese or Leone influences that are readily apparent (other than Altman’s rakish sense of humor). And in that sense it’s not just the best film of the year but also the most promising. There Will Be Blood was incredible, but I don’t think any of us expected he’d be capable of something like this.
This is a film of contradictions. Abstract notions and illusory sensations. Delusion and melancholy, beauty and misery. This film contains multitudes, and is not a riddle to be solved but a vessel for contemplation. And it reminds me that cinema can be anything, and over 100 years into it, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.