|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy the only complely accurate list of the ten best films of 2012.
Whether 2012 was a good or bad year for movies depends to a great extent on where you were looking for your cinematic entertainment. If you were hanging around the multiplexes exclusively, then you might assume that the year was simply one never-ending slog of inane sequels, pointless remakes, idiotic high-concept ideas (seriously, a movie based on "Battleship" that didn't even include the line "You sank my battleship"--what the what?) and other assorted crap, much of which one was obliged to pay a premium in order to see it in the increasingly tedious "miracle" of 3-D. Throw in the continual phasing-out of celluloid for digital projection (taken to its off-putting extreme with the ultra-high-resolution 48fps process used on "The Hobbit") and many of you may have come home from the latest dud wondering why you didn't just stay home and watch "Whitney" instead. On the other hand, those who looked beyond the most heavily-hyped items could usually find something worth seeing--although that might have been a little more difficult for those outside of the major cities, though thhe increasing dominance of Video-on-Demand is helping on that front--and indeed, it was there that many of the year's very best films could be found.
Below, please find my list of what I consider to be the 10 best films (and more) that I saw during the past year--the ones that astounded me, entertained me and reminded me how much fun this job can be at times. Some of these titles are ones that you may be familiar with while others may be a complete mystery to you. Nevertheless, all of them are more than worth your time and energy and even if you don't care for some of them as much as I obviously do, I can promise you one thing--each and every one of them is incalculably better than the likes of "Parental Guidance." Trust me on this.
1. THE MASTER (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson): Thanks to such instant classics as "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood," Anderson has become one of those rare filmmakers for whom each new project is considered to be a major event in the world of cinema and he certainly didn't disappoint with this masterpiece. Although initial reports suggested that the was going to be centered around a look at the development of a Scientology-like cult in post-war America, its true focus turned out to be the odd and unlikely relationship that develops between an emotionally volatile veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) at loose ends after the end of WW II and the charismatic leader of a new spiritual movement (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who takes him under his wing out of equal parts pity and fascination. Beautifully crafted and brilliantly acted by Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams as the unexpected power behind the latter's throne, this is the kind of wildly ambitious, go-for-broke filmmaking that has become increasingly rare over the years and while I know that I cannot exactly sum up what it all means in a pat sentence or two, I also know that this is the kind of film in which the mysteries will only deepen and become more complex with each subsequent viewing.
2. DJANGO UNCHAINED (directed by Quentin Tarantino): Part spaghetti western, part romance, part blaxploitation homage, part delicious comedy, part over-the-top gorefest and part crackpot history lesson of a subject too often ignored or glossed over by Hollywood, it is doubtful that there is any other filmmaker, past or present, other than Tarantino who would have even attempted to pull together such a weird and potentially volatile mix of ingredients into the same film and if there was, it is even more doubtful that they could have pulled off such an audacious feat as well as he has. As the freed slave-turned-bounty hunter doggedly trying to track down his still-enslaved wife and his wily mentor, Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz make for a wonderful duo (with the latter contributing a performance every bit the equal of his award-winning work as the chief Nazi in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds") while Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson are alternately hilarious and horrifying as the chief villains, a theoretically genteel plantation owner and the house Negro willing to sell out his fellow slaves in an instant. Throw in a complex and nervy examination of the horrors of slavery (which has inevitably inspired all sorts of criticism from observers, though not all of them apparently bothered to see the film before griping about it), nimbly executed action scenes and plenty of chances for Tarantino to display his flair for colorful and memorable dialogue (with the opening scene with Waltz confronting Foxx's current owners in the middle of the night and a group of Klansmen critiquing their malfunctioning wardrobe being among the best of his career) and you have a film that is both outrageous and outrageously entertaining.
3. HOLY MOTORS (directed by Leos Carax): Perennial enfant terrible Carax doesn't work very often--this marks only his fifth feature film to date since making his debut in 1984--so when he does get around to putting out a new project, you can pretty much guarantee that it is something that comes directly from his heart and not just something he slapped together for a quick paycheck and that is certainly the case here. The film stars longtime Carax stand-in Denis Levant as a mysterious man named Mr. Oscar who, one fine morning, enters his limousine--a behemoth that makes the car in "Cosmopolis" seem like a hatchback and which has French film icon Edith Scob behind the wheel--and sets off to complete nine assignments for his mysterious employer that find him adopting a number of elaborate disguises and enacting different bizarre scenarios. In one, he embodies an ogre-like creature who busts up a fashion shoot at the famed Pere Lachaise cemetery and drags the ever-silent model (Eva Mendes) back underground with him for surprising reasons. In another, he unexpectedly meets up with another performer and old flame (Kylie Minogue) and their reunion takes on an unexpected musical form that generates more real emotion in just a few minutes of screen time than the whole of "Les Miserables" could manage. Alternately stylish and surreal and featuring an astonishing performance by Levant at its center, this may likely prove to be far too much for those looking for a simple night of entertainment at the movies but for those in the mood for something way off the beaten path, this is the kind of cinematic experience that you will never forget.
4. ZERO DARK THIRTY (directed by Kathryn Bigelow): I will be reviewing this already-controversial film at length in the next few days, so a full litany of my thoughts regarding Bigelow's chronicle of the decade-long CIA manhunt for Osama bin Laden will have to wait until then. What I can tell you is that for the first two hours, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (whose previous collaboration was a little thing called "The Hurt Locker") have crafted a masterful procedural in the vein of "All the President's Men" and "Zodiac" that follows one dedicated analyst (another great performance from the increasingly invaluable Jessica Chastain) sifting through mountains of data and potential leads, not to mention doubt from her superiors, in pursuit of her quarry. For the final half-hour, they then recreate the raid on bin Laden's Pakistan compound in a manner that manages to be incredibly nerve-wracking even though the outcome is obviously a given. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, this is a must-see of the highest order.
5. MOONRISE KINGDOM (directed by Wes Anderson): In the latest effort from cult favorite Anderson, a couple of 12-year-old kids living off the coast of New England circa 1965 fall in love and run away to a nearby island with parents, a Scout troop, a Social Services representative and a beleaguered local cop in hot pursuit. Filled with weird humor, mannered performances and plenty of stylistic quirks, the film comes perilously close to feeling like a parody of Anderson's distinctive cinematic style and the only thing that keeps it from slipping over the edge is that it is flat-out brilliant--a touching and hilarious tale of young love that contain big laughs, convincing sentiment and wonderful turns fro a cast including the likes of Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and young newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is Anderson's best work since the 1998 masterpiece "Rushmore" and since that was one of the true masterpieces of the Nineties, that is high praise indeed.
6. ARGO (directed by Ben Affleck): After the critical and commercial success of his previous turns behind the camera, "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," the notion of Ben Affleck carving out a second career for himself as a filmmaker of note should no longer come as a surprise to anyone. That said, even the supporters of those films may be surprised with just how good his latest stint in the director's chair really is. The film tells the little-known story (one only officially declassified in 1997) about the rescue of six Americans in Iran who managed to escape from the U.S. Embassy as it was being seized by protestors and holed up in secret in the home of the Canadian ambassador who would be celebrated as the man who spirited them to freedom. In fact, their escape was engineered by a CIA agent (Affleck) who teamed up with a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and legendary makeup designer John Chambers (John Goodman) to create a fake film production that would serve as a cover to get the Americans out under the guise of being a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a cheesy sci-fi epic. Eschewing flash for a more low-key, Seventies-style approach, Affleck gives us a film filled with great performances (with Arkin stealing every single moment in which he is on-screen) and manages to generate plenty of genuine tension despite the outcome being a forgone conclusion. The result is a great thriller and officially launches Affleck into the realm of great American filmmakers.
7. BERNIE (directed by Richard Linklater): One of the strangest and funniest filmsof the year, this true-life dark comedy from Richard Linklater tells the story of the unusual friendship between a beloved small-town mortician (Jack Black) and the miserly and much-hated heiress (Shirley MacLaine) that ends with her being killed with a bullet in the back, him standing on trial for her murder and virtually the entire town taking the side of the accused to such a degree that it is the prosecution that demanded a change of venue on the grounds that they couldn't get a fair trial. It sounds batty and borderline unpleasant--it is, after all, a comedy inspired by a real woman's murder--but Linklater finds just the right tone for the material throughout and the film is further blessed with wonderful performances from Black (in what may be the best work of his entire career), MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, who is so convincing as the D.A. charged with the exceedingly peculiar case that I actually did not recognize him during his first couple of scenes even though I knew he was in the film. By happenstance, I found myself watching this again just the other day just to see if it was as good as I remembered and as it turns out, it was even better.
8. RUST AND BONE (directed by Jacques Audriad): On paper, the premise of this film--a chronicle of the tempestuous romance that develops between a self-centered and emotionless lunk who all but ignores his young son while trying to make it as a professional kickboxer and a sexy killer whale trainer forced to reevaluate her entire life after she loses both her legs in a terrible accident at work--makes it sound like either an exceptionally hideous Nicolas Sparks epic or a parody of an exceptionally hideous Nicolas Sparks epic. There is no way that a movie like this should work but this one does beautifully thanks to the powerful, irony-free manner in which Audriad (who previously helmed the acclaimed "The Beat My Heart Skipped" and "A Prophet") handles the material, the strong and risky performance by Matthias Schoenaerts as the bruiser antihero and, most notably, the astounding work from Marion Cotillard, the best of her not-too-shabby career to date, as his legless lover--she is so firmly committed to the character that even though we instinctively know that we are watching special effects at work in the scenes involving her missing limbs, she makes the illusion come across as completely convincing. This may well be the most polarizing title on this list--many viewers may simply find it impossible to get around the basic concept and those that do may still have problems with some of the melodramatic twists in store, particularly one involving the kid--but for those people who happen to be on its wavelength, it is the kind of gorgeous cinematic rhapsody that reminds you of why you fell in love with the movies in the first place.
9. COSMOPOLIS (directed by David Cronenberg): Cronenberg has made some of the more unusual films of our time but even many of his most devoted fans were perplexed with this admittedly outré adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel chronicling a young Wall Street hotshot (Robert Pattinson) as he embarks on a day-long trip across town for a haircut in a specially appointed limousine large enough to allow him to conduct business, affairs and even a prostate exam while hardly acknowledging the chaos erupting in the streets around him. This is definitely a challenging movie and those roped into watching it merely by the presence of Pattinson are going to come away from it enormously disappointed (though it should be noted that his performance is quite good and is the best evidence yet that he may indeed have a post-"Twilight" career of note). Those up to the challenge, however, are likely to find this to be one of the most darkly funny and conceptually fascinating films of Cronenberg's entire career.
10. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (directed by Benh Zeitlin): Every year, a bunch of movies emerge from the Sundance Film Festival riding a wave of rave reviews from people convinced that they have seen the Next Big Thing, only to meet with total indifferences from viewers watching them at proper altitude levels. One significant exception to that rule was this mesmerizing debut from director Zeitlin about a startlingly resourceful 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) living in a remote Louisiana floodplain with her father (Dwight Henry) and a few others who have deliberately cut themselves off from civilization. Following a massive storm and her father's subsequent illness, Hushpuppy takes it upon herself to set off in search of her long-lost mother and along the way finds herself confronting some hard truths about her father, the forces of nature and, logically enough, a group of giant prehistoric creatures freed by the melting ice caps. It sounds unbearably precious, I realize, but this film works astoundingly well that to the combination of Zeitlin's bold visual style and the amazing lead performance from Wallis--with the movie told entirely from her perspective, it more or less rests on her tiny shoulders and her work is so graceful and natural that there may be a riot in Hollywood if her name is not listed among the nominees for the Best Actress Oscar.
Here are my ten runner-up titles, a collection of equally impressive titles that probably would have made the main list in another year.
11. PROMETHEUS (directed by Ridley Scott)
12. LOOPER (directed by Rian Johnson)
14: AMOUR (directed by Michael Haneke)
15. KILLER JOE (directed by William Friedkin)
16. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (directed by Drew Goddard)
17. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (directed by David O. Russell:
18. NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS (directed by Jonathan Demme)
19. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (directed by Christopher Nolan)
20: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (directed by Whit Stillman)
Throughout the year, I also enjoyed (in roughly the order of their commercial release):
"Haywire," "Crazy Horse," "The Grey," "The Innkeepers," "The Woman in Black," "The Secret World of Arietty," "Undefeated," "Wanderlust," "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," "Casa de mi Padre," "Jeff, Who Lives At Home," "Natural Selection," "This Is Not A Movie," "4:44 Last Day On Earth," "The Turin Horse," "The Hunger Games," "Mirror Mirror," "Keyhole," "Lockout," "Marley," "The Pirates: Band of Misfits," "Safe," "The Sound of My Voice," "The Avengers," "Dark Shadows," "The Loved One," "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Patang," "Your Sister's Sister," "The Invisible War," "To Rome With Love," "Seeing a Friend for the End of the World," "Magic Mike," "Savages," "The Imposter," "Searching for Sugar Man," "Compliance," "Premium Rush," "Samsara," "Resident Evil: Retribution," "The Hole," "Frankenweenie," "Taken 2," "Smashed," "Flight," "Skyfall," "Anna Karenina," "The Central Park Five," "Room 237," "The Impossible," "West of Memphis" and "Not Fade Away." which, fittingly for the movie concluding this list, contained the year's most memorable closing image.
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originally posted: 12/31/12 18:23:00
last updated: 12/31/12 18:56:42