A strong year, this 2012. Every genre had its share of riches, and we were spoiled by new films from Andersons Wes and Paul Thomas, further mythmaking from Quentin Tarantino and an inquisition into our currency from David Cronenberg. We saw the continued evolution of the careers of Jacques Audiard, Rian Johnson, Craig Zobel and Ira Sachs, while William Friedkin was revitalized, and, as if by accident, two more great films tumbled out of Steven Soderbergh’s pocket. By the time Steven Spielberg cranked out his finest film in almost two decades, we were awash in riches.
It was also a year about illusions, lies and deception – most of the best films of this year dealt with artifice, the understanding that it’s not about what we want so much as how we disguise it, the truth buttressed and justified by either elaborate hoax or cheap parlor trick. In a year when the nine top-grossing films were all franchise pictures, there was a considerable surplus of surprises. Here are some of them.
HONORABLE MENTION: My ears are still buzzing months later from the year’s best conventional action picture, the hallucinogenic “Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning.” Brit Marling established herself as a major writer and leading lady with “Sound Of My Voice,” while the year’s most audacious science fiction picture had to be the delightfully deranged “Beyond The Black Rainbow.” And very few films were as perceptive about disintegrating relationships as “Oslo August 31” and “The Loneliest Planet.”
10. Zero Dark Thirty
The moral discussion that’s been keeping politicians and oblivious bloggers awake at night amusingly reveals that those who believe movies “endorse” something seem to put them on a higher plane than people who actually understand films. Certainly there are serious questions of morality to be addressed, though they should receive their time in the spotlight away from the film, with the hope that the picture spurs on even more of these questions, instead of confirming the worst prejudices of the uninformed. But “Zero Dark Thirty” is an experience of suffocating intensity, a victory as unhappy and disorienting to viewers with nuance and human concern as it is enthralling for rah-rah morons. Credit Kathryn Bigelow for allowing the film to work on two levels; for the rest of us, it’s the year’s most tense and upsetting thriller, and for those without vision, let it be the broken beacon that guides them down the incorrect road.
9. Magic Mike
Quick, what’s the exchange rate on a pair of great abs? The recession got sexed up in Steven Soderbergh’s zeitgeist-baiting workplace comedy/drama, where Channing Tatum plied his trade for willing ladies, hustling to the banks to fulfill his dreams just as suavely as he hustles potential female customers. By a second viewing, it almost feels as if every shot of a bare behind should be accompanied by a *cha-ching*. And dim actors like Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn, bless them: they’ll never be as interesting as they are absentmindedly bathing in the stage lights at Xquisite.
Nobody dies quite like they do in a Michael Haneke film, and to prove that point, “Amour.” As upsetting as it is seeing this elderly couple (Jean-Louis Tritignant, Emmanuelle Riva, both fantastic) suffer through a decaying relationship through the horrors of Alzheimer’s, there’s also something quite beautiful about what happens not when we stay together, but when, and how, we break apart. Equally heartbreaking is Isabelle Huppert’s concerned daughter, through no fault of her own slowly disappearing as if isolated on her own iceberg, slowly gliding away.
7. Killing Them Softly
The perfect punctuation mark on how countries react to recession, Andrew Dominik’s slyly hilarious tale of the sea of misanthropes feuding from within a broken caste system boasts a brute force honesty. In certain moments, it perfectly addresses the cult of “order” that allows systems to go corrupt when unchecked. In others, it’s providing two of the year’s scuzziest, most diseased supporting performances from James Gandolfini and Ben Mendelsohn.
6. The Master
Upon a first viewing, an ugly, bleak, utterly hopeless film about a man and the human he trains to be his dog. On a second, a twisted laugh riot about a maladjusted “scoundrel” and his blowhard jerk of a friend. By the third, absolutely mesmerizing. Perhaps it’s wrong to go back and re-watch so recent a film when there’s so much still unseen. If I am a cheat because I find myself compelled to surrender to Paul Thomas Anderson’s peculiar mastery of the form, in display in a strange metaphor for post-war rise and fall, then call me Barry Bonds.
Almost an upsetting semi-sequel to “Amour,” the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos peers behind the curtain of grief to find the oddly humanist ways in which we cope, and how those who provide compassion can easily reach a breaking point as well. Like his earlier feature “Dogtooth,” “Alps” is hilariously absurd while maintaining a poker face, a deeply twisted “Simpsons” premise taken to its logical, peculiar extreme. Lanthimos is easily becoming one of the world’s least compromising comedic voices.
4. This Is Not A Film
To watch in a bubble is not to watch at all: “This Is Not A Film” cannot be separated from the context of which it occurs, capturing the idle moments of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi as he awaits sentencing on his indecency charges. Trapped within his own head as much as he is under house arrest, he can’t help but plot movies in his living room, movies that eventually torture him, for he cannot realize those stories legally. The great subversion of “This Is Not A Film” should be taught in every school, the meaning of what it is to find yourself behind a camera, fighting edicts from the government while slyly adhering to them at the same time.
3. Wuthering Heights
He stumbles, head forward like an angered bull, head tilted to the side. His forehead smashes into the wall, several times, leaving a bloody stain. His body collapses to the ground. SMASH CUT to the dreamiest logo of the year: nostalgic, block-lettered “Wuthering Heights” standing still in a quiet sea of small white spots, as if it burns brightly, confidently, in the night. Few films can capture the sting of unrealized, demoralized true love, the unfocused hate that boils in your heart as a result, the callous thoughts one develops when their passions are unrealized. Andrea Arnold’s contemporary retelling of the tale is more than just an adaptation, but a powerful show of compassion towards Emily Bronte’s source material.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
How cruel it seems to lambast Wes Anderson for making “the same movie over and over again,” when he’s one of our last great humanist filmmakers. Anderson’s juvenile runaway romance boasts a swelling heart, not just between the young star-crossed lovers, but also within the tragically broken adults. As the children escape, the members of this small town reach out to take ownership of these discarded orphan outcasts to avoid allowing the cracks in their relationships to show. Though still fascinated with elaborate mise en scene and on-point soundtrack selections, Anderson’s cinematic ingenuity still has room for John McClane to make a particularly moviestar-ish last-minute save.
1. Holy Motors
Passion shoots through “Holy Motors” like steel through the barrel of a Magnum. It’s not a movie, it’s every movie, filtered through the malleable licorice that is Denis Lavant. Leos Carax’s peculiar, demented, deeply unforgettable funhouse ride never takes you to that expected place of insight, every scene alive with a thousand ideas, none of them settling on the thesis you’d expect. Like the limo that houses the multiple disguises of Mr. Oscar, “Holy Motors” is consistently turning in multiple directions, lawless and reckless. It is the year’s best movie, it is the year’s most movie movie. I didn’t have a better time during any two hour block this year.
The Standout Fare Of 2013: Noah Bambauch’s “Frances Ha,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone In Love” and Olivier Assayas’ “Something In The Air” likely would have been top five finishers had they been released this year.
Worst Movie Of The Year
There is never a shortage of junk every year, from big budget offal like “Battleship” to low brow crap like [insert this year’s Adam Sandler film] to embarrassingly narcissistic avant guard indie projects like “American Animal.” But it’s hard to ignore that, despite the apathetic passes given by most critics, not a single moment worked in Gary Ross’ numbskulled “The Hunger Games.” Each moment of this film, with its loaded kid vs. kid premise, showed promise. And scene by excruciating, poorly-directed scene, that promise was squandered by an ultra-literal capturing of the stilted prose of Suzanne Collins, one designed to nuke any opportunity for satire or humor in favor of the bloodlust of an audience that craves the hook of children murdering each other, but not to the point where it goes beyond bloodless PG-13 shaky-cam. It’s a movie for cowards, by cowards, mistaken as kid’s fodder, family entertainment for people who hate their families and, lucky for us, the first in a now-successful film franchise. The fact that we as a culture didn’t reject this garbage on principle makes me want to wretch.
Most Audacious Performance
Credit to Mads Brugger for doing Sacha Baron Cohen one more and playing his dandy blood diamond trader through scenarios that surely would have him killed, buried in an anonymous ditch, and fully disappeared. In “The Ambassador,” the mad Brugger reinvented himself as a Tom Wolfe-dressed ponce seeking to open a match factory in Africa, but secretly attempting to become an official consulate to better take advantage of his impoverished surroundings. “The Ambassador” is sickening, morally questionable cinema, never exactly clearing up exactly what’s at stake (one can guess that on-camera participants have just returned from a mid-afternoon murder), and Brugger’s attempts to reveal the cultural sickness on display is almost obscured by the fact that he’s literally tap-dancing inside a death trap.
Future Cult Classic
In thirty years, when some go-for-broke company is searching for bizarre, forgotten contemporary films to show as a gag in some film festival, they’ll come upon a print of the sweat-soaked oddity “The Paperboy” and call it a day. Overheated to the point where smoke might as well be coming off the screen, this camp disaster student-directed by Lee Daniels is powered by a preposterous out-of-time sense of chaos that suggests a train constantly flying off a series of rails. Without any cohesion or sense of reason, “The Paperboy” unspools not unlike the way Klaus Kinski yelled. I cannot wait to purchase the DVD.
It’s true that while films have ceased to be a monoculture, the work of one person sometimes feel like it’s all that’s holding Hollywood together. Dame Megan Ellison put any movie-loving billionaire to shame this year by lending her resources and her Annapurna Pictures to “Lawless,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Killing Them Softly” and “The Master.” All four were idiosyncratic visions of a corrupt, dark America beset by enemies and bleeding money like a geyser, and all four were fascinating, personal statements from exceptionally skilled filmmakers. As a body of work, it makes the argument that the auteur theory could be extended to the role of certain producers. In swooping in like a guardian angel, Ellison made sure that these films could be made, allowing these topflight filmmakers the grace and dignity that goes with not having to beg the exec who greenlighted “Transformers 4: Hateyou” for a little extra cash to make something interesting. There are hundreds of movies that are released each year, but only a few brave souls have the power to lead us out of a bleak future of endless sequels, reboots and cartoons. Ms. Ellison is one of them.