In spite of doomsday proclamations from the Mayans and David Denby, it was hard to be cynical about the state of cinema this year. You could gripe in the abstract about formats or frame rates or film culture, but the movies themselves were so goddamn good. Comparing one year of films to another is an utterly arbitrary pursuit; that said, from that utterly arbitrary perspective, 2012 was an amazing year at the movies. Maybe one of the best of my lifetime.
I've certainly never had such a hard time putting together a top ten list. Throughout the year, I keep a running tally of all the films I consider 'best-of' contenders. In 2012, that shortlist ran an overwhelming fifty titles. Winnowing down to just ten final favorites was agonizing work, and a lot of great movies got excluded. At times, I nearly resorted to coin flips to decide what was in or out, and what went where. If Bruce Willis traveled back in time and got into a fight with his past self, and their conflict butterfly effected all ten films on my best-of list out of existence, I could still draft a totally respectable top ten out of my runners-up. It was that kind of year.
Finally, I decided on these ten movies. If you disagree, I don't blame you. There were so many incredible films this year, I kind of disagree with myself. How did I not find room for the haunting "Oslo, August 31st?" Where the hell is the endlessly charming "Jeff, Who Lives at Home?" Why couldn't I squeeze in the wildly ambitious "Cloud Atlas?" Shouldn't "Not Fade Away" be in there somewhere?
It should. They all should. If the Mayans and David Denby are proved right in a few days, at least we went out on a cinematic high note. It would be tough for anything to top this year at the movies, particularly these ten outstanding films:
Half viral video, half dance film, 100% pure joy. An anonymous girl (Anne Marsen) walks out of her ballet class and spins, twirls, shakes, twists, and boogies through the streets of New York City. This celebration of the Big Apple and of communities everywhere coming together to create great art was funded on Kickstarter and presented online absolutely free (you can watch it here). It's the sort of movie that makes you excited about the future of independent cinema.
Some films engage us emotionally; others speak to us intellectually. The very best, like Rian Johnson's "Looper," do both. On the surface, it's a crackling time travel adventure about a man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hunting for his future self (Bruce Willis) after he journeys back in time to settle a gruesome score. Beneath, it's a powerful meditation on the battle that rages inside all of us, with our pasts deeds and our darkest impulses.
Ben Affleck's Iran hostage flick was the best pure thriller of the year. It was based on a true story, one whose facts it fudged and manipulated shamelessly for maximum audience impact. In this context, though, that made perfect sense. "Argo" is about the magic of Hollywood — "the bullshit business," one character calls it — and here you see one of the finest streams of bullshit captured on film in a very long time.
Directed by Craig Zobel
Criticwire Grade: A-
This disturbing but intensely powerful account of a real-life case of horrific sexual abuse offers a sad and terrifying window into the dark side of human nature. Director Craig Zobel has an uncanny knack for casting; all the employees of his "ChickWhich" feel like people with rich lives outside the world of this fast food restaurant, which is precisely what makes the story so chilling when it all goes south. Some critics insisted that the actual events that inspired this extremely divisive movie couldn't be "as simplistic or deterministic as they are here." Guess what? They were! Viva humanity!
When I saw this Danish comedy about a couple of buddies on a canoe trip at Fantastic Fest 2011, I had two thoughts: 1) This is the funniest movie I have seen in a very long time and 2) There's no way something this filthy could ever get a theatrical release in the United States. Fourteen months and three additional viewings later, I'm happy to report I was absolutely right on the first point and dead wrong on the second. Ironically, the film passed through the MPAA with just a single cut (or, technically, a single blur) — and it's not of the shot that I thought could get the filmmakers arrested. That one made it through the censors with no problems whatsoever, maybe the most hysterical part of the whole process.
After the Iranian government banned Jafar Panahi from writing or directing any more films, he responded by "not" making this one — in which he hangs out in his apartment (under house arrest) and reads excerpts from a script (about a woman trapped in an apartment) that was rejected by Iranian censors (his court ruling didn't explicitly mention a prohibition on performing screenplays). The result is not just a great act of civil disobedience but a brilliant work of art.
Social strictures about spoilers kept writers from talking about the full cleverness of this meta horror flick. It worked as a classical tale of horny teens getting ripped apart by vicious zombie rednecks (The Buckners!), and as a canny examination of the psychological underpinnings beneath our desire to watch scary movies. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins aren't just two dudes trapped inside a tedious corporate bureaucracy. They're stand-ins for co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, serving bloodthirsty masters while trading Whedonesque quips.
Pundits boiling down this film's depiction of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden to a simple on/off, yes/no, glorification/rejection of torture miss the point of its deliberate ambiguity and complexity. In the short term, I'm sure many journalists will continue to accuse "Zero Dark Thirty" of inaccuracy and immorality. In the long run, I suspect Kathryn Bigelow's portrait of ten world-changing years will come to be seen as an exceedingly faithful representation of the terrible price our nation paid for peace of mind.
Photographed by Mihai Malaimare Jr. in gorgeous 70mm, the near-extinct celluloid format traditionally reserved for only the most expansive of widescreen epics, "The Master" was the unlikeliest of intimate character dramas. It offered much more than a tawdry tell-all about the origins of Scientology — although "tawdry tell-all" is actually a pretty accurate description of the "processing" technique practiced by cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he fires questions at the animalistic Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in an attempt to unlock his full psychic potential. For viewers, the processing continued long after "The Master" ended; few movies in 2012 left so much tantalizing food for thought.
The best film of the year, and the best encapsulation of the year in film. For better and for worse, this is cinema circa 2012, from the sad end of celluloid to the endless possibilities of digital. Denis Lavant gives the best eleven performances of the year as Oscar, a man who travels through Paris adopting the roles of nearly all of its inhabitants. Back in September, I called "Holy Motors" the best dream you'll ever have without falling asleep. Three months later, I still don't want to wake up.