Anne Thompson and TOH! writers Sophia Savage, Beth Hanna, Matt Mueller, Matt Brennan, Meredith Brody and more share their Top Ten Films of 2012. While there are such shared likes as “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Amour,” “Lincoln” and “Flight,” we also hail “The Grey,” “Wuthering Heights,” “End of Watch,” “The House I Live In,” “The Hunger Games,” “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Rust and Bone.”
1. “Life of Pi”
Taiwan-born Ang Lee, more than any director working today, is a filmmaker for the world. His three great love stories — martial arts romance “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” gay tragedy “Brokeback Mountain” and Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”– were accessible to multiple cultures. With “Life of Pi” Lee has fashioned, with screenwriter David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) adapting Yann Martel’s global bestseller, another love story that transcends borders. In this case, it’s between a 17-year-old young man (non-pro Suraj Sharma) from India and a Bengal tiger. But it is also a stunning technological triumph, as the VFX required were impossible until now. Conceived four years ago before the arrival of the 3-D “Avatar,” this movie is a live-action/animation hybrid, as major characters like the threatening tiger and sublime phosphorescent Pacific seascapes could only be created by artists in the digital realm.
2. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
When he won the grand jury and cinematography prizes at Sundance, director Benh Zeitlin, who shot “Beasts” with his ragtag film collective on a constantly flooding delta island below the New Orleans levees with a cast of non-actors, said: “We had more freedom to make this film than any filmmakers in America ever.” Zeitlin was able to control the chaos: the end result is a constantly surprising and deeply moving fantastical portrait of where we are, right now.
3. “Zero Dark Thirty”
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s incredibly timely movie about the CIA’s ten-year pursuit of Osama bin Laden is as relentless as its heroine (Jessica Chastain), laying out the hard facts and details without flinching from its purpose, which is to make real the daily headlines. Bigelow deploys 120 speaking parts from all over the world and three to four roving cameras to catch the unfolding action in wide-ranging locations from India, Egypt and Jordan to London and Washington, D.C. As Bigelow avoids Hollywood narrative conventions, she also gives us the toughest motherfuckin’ woman lead since Ripley.
4. “Silver Linings Playbook”
This delicately edited family relationship comedy is both funny and moving. The film’s two romantic leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, are two lost, emotionally damaged yet attractive people who draw comfort and kinship from each other. Writer-director David O. Russell has, dare I say it, Billy Wilder’s tough unsentimental approach to romance. Even in this cynical age, we root for these two characters in pain to heal each other, make their families happy, win their dance contest and find true love.
The thing that hits you on first viewing “Lincoln” is how unconventional it is. It’s organic, grown from the seeds in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 800-page Lincoln tome “Team of Rivals,” nurtured over five years by playwright Tony Kushner, and shaped by Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis into something we’ve never seen before. This alchemy of a torrent of words, well-researched history, and the powerful personality of the world’s most popular American president has yielded a magical biopic that is the current front-runner in the Oscar race.
6. “End of Watch”
David Ayer celebrates the work ethic and bravery of two cops, partners on the beat in East Los Angeles, who face an unforgiving world with humor and verbal acuity. Shot on the run, the movie was choreographed with no room for waste or error: Ayer shot 135 hours of footage in 22 days. Jack Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena were primed and ready and give the best performances of their respective careers.
Ben Affleck directs this taut and commercial thriller, his third behind the camera, with screw-tightening efficiency that would make Michael Mann proud. Think “The Insider” on steroids. Affleck gives a solid, naturalistic performance as Tony Mendez, a smart and experienced CIA operative who specializes in pulling people out of tight situations. Affleck, like other actor-directors Clooney and Clint Eastwood, sees the value of staying hands-on with a modest budget. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Oscar-nominated for “Brokeback Mountain”) does outstanding work on location in Turkey, Los Angeles and the Ontario airport, while composer Alexandre Desplat (“The King’s Speech”) could land a fifth Oscar nomination–unless his “Zero Dark Thirty” score cancels himself out.
8. “The Sessions”
“The Sessions” starts with a script from Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin, who suffered polio as a youth and still limps with a cane. Helen Hunt and John Hawkes saw rich material in this story about the late great intellectual Mark O’Brien who wanted more from life than lying immobile in an iron lung. He found a sex surrogate to help him find love in his life. The surrogate came to care deeply for O’Brien–within the confines of a professional relationship–and was able to teach him how to make another woman happy. Audiences are often uncomfortable with sex in cinema, and this movie embraces moments that are awkward and embarrassing, even humiliating. This intimate sexual souffle is so delicate and sensitive–both actors are literally naked– that it could easily have gone flat. Instead it is uplifting.
9. “Moonrise Kingdom”
This coming-of-age romance takes place inside an artificial fantasy based on the children’s books writer-director Wes Anderson still loves. He builds the movie on the shoulders of two young kids in love. “I love artifice and very emotional movies,” he told me in Cannes. The art direction, tone, and acting–one standout is Bruce Willis’s sweet buffoonish cop–are all perfectly in tune with Anderson’s precise imagination.
10. “Anna Karenina”
The decision not to shoot “Anna Karenina” on location in Russia liberated director Joe Wright. Without changing the Tom Stoppard adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic, Wright used an old London theater as a way to completely free himself from the constrictions of period costume drama. “Anna Karenina” is a swirling, mad, exuberant, joyful, passionate celebration of the novel. Anna (Keira Knightley of Wright’s “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice”) is far from your ordinary romantic heroine. She’s doomed to meet that train. But there’s more to this story than adultery. Tolstoy’s counterpart, Levin (Domhall Gleeson), balances out the drama. And Jude Law gives one of his best performances as Anna’s cuckolded husband.
BEST FOREIGN FILM
“Barbara,” Germany’s Oscar entry, is Christian Petzold’s fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss. She plays an intrepid East Berlin doctor in 1980 who has been sent to the boonies as punishment for wanting to leave the country. Like everyone around her, she lies to survive; she sneaks around in the night to meet her West German lover in the woods. But she cares for her patients; that bonds her with her fellow doctor (up-and-comer Ronald Zehrfeld). Even though she’s surrounded by fear and suspicion and paranoia, she comes to trust him.
Eugene Jarecki’s incisive and incendiary “The House I Live In,” which won the U.S. documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and is shortlisted for next year’s doc Oscar, will blow your mind. That’s because it tackles a subject that you think you know a little about–America’s war on drugs–and in excruciating detail shows you how the whole system is broken and dysfunctional.
BEST ANIMATED FILM
“Frankenweenie,” Tim Burton filmed his most personal movie since “Edward Scissorhands” in black and white and stop motion. He returns to the Burbank suburbs he has loved to show us ever since the 1984 Disney short on which the movie is based. Not a box office success, this feature serves an inspiring reminder of what an artist can do when he’s not playing to the marketplace.
Top ten lists from Sophia Savage, Beth Hanna and TOH contributors below:
Choosing a top ten was hard enough, so I am listing my films alphabetically. Some of these are imperfect and leave a lot of responsibility with the audience; they also assert a kind of creative audacity that is increasingly hard to find. With each of the films listed below, the director’s voice is clear and uncompromising, the craft is impeccable and there is (in most cases) little regard for commercial obligation. They take risks, ask questions, cause arguments and present stories that truly made me feel something.
BEST FILMS (Listed alphabetically)
“Amour” – Michael Haneke
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” – Benh Zeitlin
“The Master” – Paul Thomas Anderson
“No” – Pablo Larrain
“Oslo, August 31st” – Joachim Trier
“Rust and Bone” – Jacques Audiard
“Silver Linings Playbook” – David O. Russell
“Sister” – Ursula Meier
“Wuthering Heights” – Andrea Arnold
“Zero Dark Thirty” – Kathryn Bigelow
“The Hunt” – Thomas Vinterberg
“The Loneliest Planet” – Julia Loktev
“Our Children” – Joachim Lafosse
“Polisse” – Maïwenn
“The Snowtown Murders” – Justin Kurzel
BEST FILM I MISSED IN 2011:
“L’Apollonide” (“House of Pleasures”), Bertrand Bonello
“The Hunger Games,” “Magic Mike”
1. “Beyond the Hills” – Cristian Mungiu
Cristian Mungiu’s autumnal epic of an orthodox nunnery in rural Romania, and the outsider who intrudes it, is damning and gorgeous. An uncompromising critique of superstition as institutional malevolence.
2. “The Grey” – Joe Carnahan
Joe Carnahan’s millennial “Deliverance” floored me, not least because it’s a mainstream movie unafraid to be relentlessly bleak. Liam Neeson’s performance is dedicated and hard-as nails to the bitter end, and the CGI wolves who stalk the film are viscerally terrifying.
3. “Perfect Sense” – David Mackenzie
This poetic, sexy and very sad apocalypse film played for a week at the Santa Monica 4-Plex before disappearing from theaters. A brilliantly matched Ewan McGregor and Eva Green play prickly cynics who fall in love as an epidemic of sensory loss sweeps the globe.
4. “Sister” – Ursula Meier
Ursula Meier’s fairytale of a sparkling ski resort at the top of a mountain and the forgotten young woman and child who live in unromanticized poverty at its base. The film’s resonant last shot of two souls passing on a ski lift communicates the complex, wretched yet inextricable bonds of family.
5. “Django Unchained” – Quentin Tarantino
I sometimes find Tarantino’s films overly clever and referential, but this Spaghetti Southern has the genuine feel of Sergio Leone lifted from the grave. Christoph Waltz’ hilarious, charismatic turn as Dr. King Schultz is a revelation in an already very strong ensemble cast.
6. “Amour” – Michael Haneke
Immaculate direction and stunning, energetic performances from octogenarian French legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Haneke’s unsentimental, clinical style is a perfect match for a story that in other hands could turn sappy.
7. “Ginger & Rosa” – Sally Potter
A beautiful, intensely personal portrait of two British teen girls coming of age as the Cuban Missile Crisis looms like the Grim Reaper over the world. 14-year-old Elle Fanning’s turn as a budding artist and revolutionary is superb.
8. “In the Shadow” – David Ondricek
The Czech Oscar entry is a gorgeously rendered neo-noir and policier, which at once recalls the aesthetic of “Miller’s Crossing” and the shot-to-shot elegance of a fine graphic novel.
9. “Zero Dark Thirty” – Kathryn Bigelow
An investigative epic, a ghost hunt, and a steady trek through the dark that, at 157 minutes, never loses its momentum. I admire Jessica Chastain’s unwieldy performance, and Bigelow’s refusal to give us a pat sense of resolution.
10. “Stories We Tell” – Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley’s documentary unearthing family secrets and lies is melancholic, funny and even suspenseful. She shows a knack for the form, and for playing with it in a way that questions the dubiousness of memory, bias and loyalty.
A first-place tie is a cop out, I know. But these two films — deeply felt, thematically resonant, drop-dead gorgeous — fit together as two halves of the same whole, impossible to pry apart. At the heart of each is a young castaway beset by beasts, storms, and spirits. Stumbling but brave, their return from exile registers as the rebirth of the world, nothing short of miraculous.
It isn’t the perfect tale of slavery’s end, but Steven Spielberg’s historical drama, aided by Daniel-Day Lewis’ extraordinary performance in the title role, moves beyond heroism to highlight Lincoln’s tenacious pragmatism. Powerful, controlled, and murkily beautiful, it is attuned to our troubled politics in the way of few movies, past or present.
Almost wordless, Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s bleak, finely observed independent stars the amazing Melissa Leo as an ex-convict trembling back into society. Walking the line between American Dream and American nightmare, it is not only the story of a woman tasting life anew — it’s an oblique, pained portrait of the real lives of “the 47 percent.”
5. “The Master”
If Paul Thomas Anderson’s deeply misanthropic epic is about the life of a cult, the cult isn’t Scientology — it’s unthinking patriotism. As perhaps the strangest entry in his four-film revisionist history of the twentieth century, “The Master” may meander and wobble, but it is an ambitious, beautifully wrought rejection of the master narrative of postwar America. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams comprise the best ensemble of the year.
Tense and timely, an electric blend of “The Parallax View” and “Day for Night,” Ben Affleck’s tale of Hollywood magic during the Iran hostage crisis (from Chris Terrio’s Oscar-worthy script) builds to a brilliant climax. It’s a compelling reminder that the fantasy of the movies knows no borders.
Funny, good-natured, and unassuming, Lynn Shelton’s story of an unexpected love triangle finds its rhythm between the beats; its pauses are more important than its punchlines. With Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt prove once again that they’re the most charming, versatile performers in the business.
Jack Black, never better, stars as the eponymous undertaker and small-town Texas hero in Richard Linklater’s genre-blurring black comedy/confidence game, but it’s the hilarious interviews with Carthage’s coarse real-life citizens that make it so distinctive. They’re a macabre, rollicking Greek chorus, and the film a gleefully unsettling surprise.
9. “Silver Linings Playbook”
It isn’t the most innovative romantic comedy you’ll ever see, but “Playbook” is a bighearted, winsome beauty, and it had me at hello. Jennifer Lawrence, turning her unstable young widow into a vivacious heroine, gives a good, old-fashioned star turn.
10. “Moonrise Kingdom”
Two kids in love’s first blush, running away from storms literal and familial, are at the center of Wes Anderson’s most recent piece of American Gothic. If the film’s symbolism is a bit too on-the-nose, its blissful, bucolic aesthetic is still a dreamlike rendering of youth’s possibilities.
This is Steven Spielberg’s “Citizen Kane,” with its reliance on dialogue and performance and theatrical mise en scene. It explores Lincoln from the inside out and Daniel Day-Lewis gives a performance for the ages.
2. “Zero Dark Thirty”
Kathryn Bigelow never lets up on the intensity in which pre and post 9/11 rules of espionage come into conflict in the hunt for bin Laden. And Jessica Chastain’s unrelenting CIA analyst fittingly represents our need for retribution and catharsis.
James Bond loses his mojo and gains an extended family at MI6 in this rite of passage. And Daniel Craig adds some of the mystique back to 007 after demystifying him. What a lovely 50th anniversary present from Sam Mendes.
4. “Life of Pi”
Ang Lee presents the “2001: A Space Odyssey” of 3-D movies: spiritually uplifting with the most creative use of dimensional space yet. And the CG Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, holds his own with Suraj Sharma’s indefatigable Pi.
Michael Haneke dispenses with the usual visceral game playing to give us a great end-of-life, classical love story. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva are divine, bringing back memories of their earlier roles in “A Man and A Woman” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”
6. “Silver Linings Playbook”
Leave it to David O. Russell to deliver a brilliant rom-com that combines “Goodfellas with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence finding the primal route to love.
7. “Anna Karenina”
What’s old is new again in Joe Wright’s inspired theatrical adaptation of the Tolstoy classic. The Russian aristocracy crumbles in a derelict theater, with Keira Knightley as enchanting as ever and Jude Law surprisingly sympathetic.
8. “The Master”
A post-World War II allegory from Paul Thomas Anderson about power, manipulation, and human nature that’s tailor-made for our times. The volatile master/servant relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix is spellbinding and the 70mm film presentation brings clarity to every texture.
9. “Cloud Atlas”
The ultimate time travel movie spanning 500 years of connecting and reconnecting with the acting ensemble changing roles became the most polarizing movie of the year. Yet the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer are to be commended for aiming for the stars with such passion and beauty.
10. “Les Miserables”
Tom Hooper delivers the celebrated Victor Hugo-adapted musical at a fever pitch and like the long-suffering Jean Valjean, we, too, feel as though we’ve gone to hell and back. It’s intimate and gritty and digs deeper into Hugo. And Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway find transcendence in their roles.
1. “Amour” – So moved by Michael Haneke’s unexpected (com)passion display; Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva deserve every acting award out there
2. “The Imposter” – Incredible true story with jaw-dropping twists and turns
3. “Zero Dark Thirty” – Bigelow & Boal become a force to be reckoned with
4. “Lincoln” – More muted than expected but the Spielberg/Day-Lewis pairing still a potent one
5. “Life Of Pi” – 2012’s most ravishing film; reinvigorates the case for 3D
6. “The Master”– Loses its way a bit but Phoenix phenomenal… and long live Paul Thomas Anderson
7. “Rust And Bone” – Audiard twists melodramatic convention to marvellous effect; Cotillard is out of this world
8. “Hunt” – modern-day Danish Crucible with best-ever performance from Mads Mikkelsen
9. “Django Unchained” – Tarantino+slavery+spaghetti western=superb entertainment
10. “Holy Motors” – Leos Carax exhilarates with an all-kinds-of-crazy chauffeur-driven fantasia
1. “Zero Dark Thirty” (Kathryn Bigelow)
20-plus years after “Blue Steel” Kathryn Bigelow returns to a similar young female character working in a man’s world and struggling to establish herself. This personal involvement along with a staggering mastery of multiple craft elements elevate this to perhaps her best film yet.
2. “The Kid With a Bike” (Dardenne Brothers)
The Dardennes make their most thematically complex yet at the same time narratively dense film yet in this moving story of redemption.
3. “Amour” (Michael Haneke)
Though at times as shocking as his previous films, this time the focus is on human relationships less cynical than usual, with the two central performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva the best of this year.
4. “Flight” (Robert Zemeckis)
A big comeback for this great and underrated director, a film that Howard Hawks at his best would have been proud to make – dense, thematically rich, terrifically acted, entertaining with a precariously achieved balance of drama, humor and thrills. This has numerous great scenes and no bad ones – still the best definition of a good film.
5. “The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
PTA’s least accessible film, and one that failed to satisfy audiences, but as unsettling as any he has made. Once again, he focuses on a mentor/student pairing at the story’s core, with a fascinating but unsettling dynamic at work that makes one question of who really is the master unanswered by the end.
6. “Holy Motors” (Leos Carax)
Only Carax’ second feature in two decades, this exhilarating dream-like film is centered by Denis Lavant, a Carax regular, who plays multiple characters of stunning diversity. Though inspired by a lifetime of movie watching obsession, it is as original as any film around.
7. “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Visually stunning, with (as too rarely happens) the wide screen images given time to be examined while a murder investigation in a remote part of Turkey transpires over the course of a day, this is a tough but incredibly rewarding film.
8. “Barbara” (Christian Petzold)
Two doctors exiled to a backwater East German town in the early 1980s warily deal with each other, with their instincts of trust struggling against the oppressiveness of their country. With a great lead performance by Nina Hoss, it has the force of a thriller combined with a core drama that is both moving and satisfying.
9. “The Deep Blue Sea” (Terence Davies)
Terence Ratigan’s play of post-war English adultery is transferred into a film that makes 1950s London as oppressive and unappealing as one could imagine. But even though the story includes tragedy, it still ultimately maintains some optimism against all odds. Rachel Weisz’ acclaimed performance in no small part helps achieve this.
10. “Killer Joe” (William Friedkin)
In a year with many previous Oscar winning directors having new films, the most veteran of them all returned with a violent, idiosyncratic and inventive adaptation of Tracy Lett’s lurid play about a hit man hired by some family members who want a relative’s life insurance. Though it uses strong New Orleans-area location,, Friedkin keeps the basic play structure intact, allowing a versatile cast – led by Matthew McConaughey in his best performance in a great year for him – to become a wonderful ensemble, making what might have in lesser hands an over-the-top potboiler far more compelling.
(in no particular order)
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Behn Zeitlin creatively pulled off a fantastical dreamscape with elegant metaphors and floating imagery grounded by big ideas. A strange and natural story-telling, sparkling and lush imagery, and an astonishing perspective from the imaginative eyes of an extraordinary child.
“Silver Lining’s Playbook”
David O. Russell’s “Silver Lining’s Playbook” was the most disarming and winsome movie I saw this year. It had a delightfully unexpected arc, fascinating characters, a rocking soundtrack, and was filled with heart-capturing, cliche-inverting moments.
The imagery in P. T. Anderson’s “The Master” is indelible; I think I could recount every scene moment for moment after only seeing it once. Anderson’s an expert at allowing his films to countervail, and he found a brilliantly detached and threatening eagerness in Joaquin Phoenix’s character. While it didn’t quite string together for me, on looks and power alone, it left for a heady and overwhelming impression.
In “Anna Karenina,” director Joe Wright pulled off impressive, beautifully choreographed ensemble sequences, that never got campy (another favorite of the year, Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” played into this campyness with a softly ironic nostalgia that kept it from being too twee). Also worth noting is Terrence Davis’ “Karenina”/”Scarlet Letter”-inspired “Deep Blue Sea,” but Wright’s take on Tolstoy’s opus is a risky, evocative, and upends the expected period drama.
“Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry”
As the documentary rep on my list, Alison Klayman’s “Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry” is a relevant, important and even portrait of the Chinese dissident and radical artist. The incorporation of technology was fluid, the stakes were established strongly and biography presented carefully. While it was clear that both Klayman and her subject had a strong point of view, there was no sacrifice of nuance.
“Take This Waltz”
Sarah Polley’s second film, “Take This Waltz,” is well-plotted, sensitive, and amazingly captures not only the glimmering beginnings of love, but hard and sad truths regarding a slow dissent of a relationship. While William’s character was a little too ‘quirky,’ she played it gently and willfully. The carnival scene was spectacular.
“Cabin the Woods”
This was my favorite over-thinker of the year from reliable over-thinking producer Joss Whedon. As a movie that is an extensive practical joke, it nonetheless continued to find more to explode out of the genre that “Scream” started to rip apart. It’s not as pretentious or mind-bending as it could have been, and makes a good choice by lettings itself be bantamweight and adopting the tone of a super-smart thriller.
“Premium Rush” was the most fun I had as a moviegoer this year, but I do have a soft spot for both commuter cycling culture and compact thrillers. Zippingly cool imagery, and a great villain in Michael Shannon, the film buzzed with an undercurrent about modern urban rage.
The characterization of addiction in Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” is amazing; every beer bottle becomes a trap, a vodka handle becomes a villain, a mini-fridge becomes a hellscape. The film engages as we are caught in a slow-dive, tense every moment even though the airplane crash was over several minutes into the film. While occasionally heavy-handed regarding religion vs. personal agency, every actor was a powerhouse in their own way – standouts aside from Washington, in Cheadle and Goodman.
“The Kid with a Bike”
Belgian brother Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne paired gentle story-telling with Cecile de France’s subtle acting in “The Kid with a Bike.” Perfect, distanced filming. Though this was up for awards this past year, I saw it when it came out in the states in March. Just beak out Charles Petzold’s “Barbara” – a similar story about a woman left on her own to care for other people’s children – also brilliantly acted and gorgeously directed.
(in no particular order)
“Silver Linings Playbook”
Unexpectedly, David O. Russell’s quirky but affecting slice of Philadelphia life was the most enjoyable movie of the year in my book. Jennifer Lawrence is a knockout, Bradley Cooper does his best work, and the genre shifts from psychological drama to screwball family weirdness to straight-up romcom are handled with an admirable deftness.
With “Lincoln,” Spielberg reminds us why he’s a totem in American film: his direction has a light, subtle touch, Tony Kushner’s script makes political wonk-talk into poetry, and the big-name cast turns in exquisite performances. This film will be a classic–and one we look back to in order to examine how we envisioned ourselves (and our shared history) during our own time of great political divide.
Yes, “Brave” is B-level material for Pixar–but if anyone other than the premiere American animation studio had made this movie, we would have said it was the best animated movie of the year. The scenery is breathtaking, Merida’s hair is a technological triumph, and the characters mess up and sometimes treat each other badly, just like we do.
“The Dark Knight Rises”
To some extent, this is a nod to Nolan’s entire Batman trilogy. Was “The Dark Knight Rises” the best of the new Batman movies? No. But it’s a fitting conclusion to a series that asked us questions few recent movies–let alone superhero movies–have, and nobody makes big-screen blockbusters like Nolan right now.
Ben Affleck excels in this movie–behind the camera, that is. His Tony Mendez was perhaps my least favorite part of “Argo,” but his direction is sharp and perceptive. The scene in the airport was perfect I-know-this-will-end-fine-but-I’m-so-stressed moviegoing. And for some reason, I love the period awful-but-great glasses, hair and clothing.
As a Bond movie, “Skyfall” wouldn’t top my list of the Daniel Craig films (that would be “Casino Royale”) but as a Bond movie, it’s tops. The visuals are great, the action is crisp, and I’m not too proud to say I love the idea that Bond might have tussled in the sheets with another guy at some point in his storied career.
OK, I admit it: I’m a sucker for animated movies. But seriously–I loved every minute I spent watching this film, and as someone who almost never cries at movies, I teared up twice. After “Tangled” (and “Bolt,” which I enjoyed), I’m excited to see more of this new direction Disney’s heading in.
Whoa. “Flight” is a surprisingly and refreshingly dark film, which makes it exciting that it even made it to the big screen (apparently Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington waived their fees to make it happen). Filled with deft, nimble camerawork–especially during its thrilling, disturbing and remarkable plane crash sequence–this film turns addiction into a high-stakes battle where the protagonist and antagonist are one and the same. Washington is great; Don Cheadle does wonders with a supporting part.
“The Hunger Games”
I’ll probably be the only TOHer to put this on my list, but “The Hunger Games” was one of the very few times I’ve ever liked a movie more than the book it was adapted from. Gary Ross, Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins (who wrote the original novel) open up the world of Panem, making it more grounded and nuanced in the process, and get us out of Katiss’s head and into the games themselves. And, of course, Lawrence does great, great work, as does a supporting cast of (literally) colorful characters.
“Life of Pi”
It’s one thing to read a book about a boy stuck in a boat with a tiger–it’s another thing entirely to go through two-hour immersive 3D experience on that boat, with that tiger. “Life of Pi” dragged a bit for me, but Ang Lee’s visuals are stunning (the scene of Pi’s boat drifting through a sea of stars still lingers for me), his use of 3D is story-based and not gimmicky, and the animation/effects that went into this movie deserve ample recognition
I find myself having to start this list with exactly the same caveat as last year’s: there are a number of movies, big and small, that can’t or won’t find their way onto this list because I haven’t yet seen them: everything from big year-end blockbusters, such as “Flight,” “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Killing Them Softly,” and “Django Unchained,” to smaller independent and foreign movies that I haven’t yet caught up with, including “The Imposter,” “Middle of Nowhere,” “The Loneliest Planet,” and “Monsieur Lazhar.”
In idiosyncratic order (i.e., neither hierarchical nor alphabetical):
1.“Anna Karenina”: I thought I’d grasp the nettle by putting what I saw as an unfashionable choice right up at the top, and then I saw it listed on a couple of other TOH contributors’ lists, including the titular Thompson herself. The combination of Joe Wright’s dizzyingly theatrical style and Tom Stoppard’s literate script – not to mention the lush sets and costumes – suited me right down to the ground, and I watched it with a smile on my face.
2. “Holy Motors”: I go up and down and back and forth with Carax. This time I was amazed, delighted, and enthralled – as well as occasionally irritated and perplexed. Love the way it looks, though I hate the way it makes Paris look. Seen it twice, will see it again.
3. “Cosmopolis”: I guess I’m in David Cronenberg’s pocket, as I am with Woody Allen, in the sense that I look forward to each new installment in his filmography and am never less than intrigued. Claustrophic, strange, compelling. Seen it once, want to see it again.
4. “The Deep Blue Sea”: Though I prefer several of Terence Davies’ other remarkably special and idiosyncratic movies, this one seemed small and perfect to me, in a lovely repressed “there’ll always be a England” mood.
5. “Parade’s End”: Not a movie, but a 5-hour miniseries caught on a smaller-than-TV-sized screen on a 16-hour flight that enthralled me from start to finish, based on a tetralogy of novels by Ford Madox Ford, and brilliantly enacted by Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, and Adelaide Clemens, as well as a number of excellent English actors in support. To be seen on HBO in 2013, and not to be missed.
6. “Haywire” and “Magic Mike”: One a kinetic action film that reminded me of the first time I saw “Enter the Dragon,” i.e. the mythmaking filmmaking around a charismatic martial arts figure, and the other an almost-completely-satisfactory new take on the movie musical – with a little sex in it.. I did wish for more completely choreographed dance routines, apparently available on the DVD – only Michael McCoughnahey seemed to get a number with a beginning, middle, and an end, cleverly placed at the very end of the film. I was hoping for something more the “The Bandwagon,” but I still liked what I got. Please, PLEASE, Mr.Soderbergh, do not retire from the movies. We love you.
7. “Stories We Tell”: by Sarah Polley, an amazing, moving, enthralling, true family saga, idiosyncratically told. I wouldn’t have known she had it in her from her fiction films.
8. “Multiple Visions: The Crazy Machine”: The worst title for the best movie about the brilliant cinematography of Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, with thrilling montages of his best work interspersed with articulate and emotional testimonials about Figueroa’s influence on other world-famous cinematographers. I adored this movie even though I saw it in a version with Spanish subtitles, meaning that I only got the full impact of the English and French-speaking cinematographers. But Figueroa’s images, as brilliantly assembled by director Emilio Maille, can bring one to tears.
9. “The Clock” and “Final Cut, Ladies and Gentlemen”: two takes on the art of film assemblage, one 24 hours long, in which every clip is occurring in real time (i.e., if it’s 6 a.m. while you’re watching it, it’s 6 a.m. on screen), watched in one delirious gulp in Toronto; and a 78-minute-long witty assemblage of clips from 650 films and TV shows, made as an editing exercise in a Budapest film school, in which boy meets girl, dates girl, fights with girl, etc. A bravura sequence in which Rita Hayworth sings “Put the blame on Mame,” intercut with Dietrich, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, cut in such a way that all these women appear to be singing the same song, demands to be seen again, and I did: once on a smallish screen in Telluride, once on the largish screen in Morelia. Rights issues preclude me owning either of these essential filmic works of art for the moment. Alas. Here’s for fair use!
10. Raoul Walsh’s sun-dappled 1932 “Wild Girl,” set in Yosemite and shot with astonishing 3-D-like depth of field, and Manuel Mur Oti’s 1955 “Orgullo,” a European Western avant la letttre: A tip of the hat for the revivals and restorations that remind one just why we are in thrall to the second art – and that there are many more masterpieces out there, waiting to be rediscovered.
11. Can’t resist one more. “Miss Lovely,” by Ashim Ahluwalia, a grimy, tense, compelling look at the Grade-C horror-pornography Indian films of the 80s, with witty, believable locations, sets, costumes – a glimpse into a fascinating underbelly, and a reminder that great movies can pop up from anywhere and everywhere. I hear good things about his earlier documentary, “John and Jane.” Now to track it down.
For this top 10, my favorite top 10 in years, for my favorite movie year since maybe 2007, I went with my gut. Rather than try and convince myself that I loved all the obscure, esoteric offerings out there, I chose films that moved me and made me feel something. With the except of a few arthouse giants, most of the filmmakers I’ve mentioned are young, burgeoning, intrepid risk-takers who may pratfall here and there, but whom are the future of our cinema.
1. “Take This Waltz,” Sarah Polley
A sumptuous, dizzying jaunt through love and all its warts, Sarah Polley’s delicate, deceptively small film charmed me with the winsome performances of its romantically challenged leads, its lush visual treatment of Toronto, and a script that — however on-the-nose — is funny and feel-good but not afraid to dip into the lower depths of learning how to be alone.
2. “Amour,” Michael Haneke
Michael Haneke’s “Amour” is the sort of imposing arthouse monolith you may feel you must love but actually don’t. But I did. All this talk of the brilliance of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva is true. It’s like walking through a gallery of dying French cinema titans. Haneke sets his penchant for castigation aside — but thankfully, not his spartan style and brutal unsentimentality — in the best film he’s ever done.
3. “The Color Wheel,” Alex Ross Perry
Director and star Alex Ross Perry co-wrote the film opposite Carlen Altman, our year’s manic pixie dream girl par excellence, in one summer. And in that time, they were miraculously able to craft the snappiest, squirmiest, and most chatty indie of lost souls of the year — all while playing the leads, a brother and sister pair with bundles of neuroses and baggage. Rarely has the plight of the adrift late-twentysomething been captured so exuberantly — and in the grainy glory of 16mm — with so much psychosexual dysfunction. Perry out-mumblecores mumblecore.
4. “The Loneliest Planet,” Julia Loktev
Loktev’s spare yet visually fecund adaptation of a little-known short story is the perfect example of Manny Farber’s idea of “termite art.” That a film as small as this one, with a revelatory lead performance by Hani Furstenberg as the female half of a wayward young couple mired in betrayal, manages to be as revolutionary as — if not more than — some of the big elephants of the year puts a song in my heart.
5. “In Another Country,” Hong Sang-soo
Two Hong films reached our shores this year — “In Another Country” and “The Day He Arrives.” While the former is not so much a radical departure for Hong and his trademark affinity for the meta-antics of long sozzled, chain-smoked conversations amid filmmakers, it is the South Korean director’s first film that feels high on the possibilities of cinema, as if (re-)discovering it for the first time.
6. “Paradise: Love,” Ulrich Seidl
Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl is some kind of latter-day Pasolini in his unflinching use of brute symmetry and highly constructed set piece as a means to suffuse the banal with a colorful sense of wonderment. All the boos and jeers at Cannes should be long forgotten by the time, if ever, this other film called “Love” comes stateside — this is a funny, tragic piece with an amazing lead performance by Margarete Tiesel as a dowdy sex tourist at its center.
7. “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell
Levy any criticism of this unabashedly heartwarming charmer upon me and I will likely concede. I cannot explain away some of the faults and contrivances of David O. Russell’s cracked, whacko romantic comedy but I can forgive them. In a year of chilly, arthouse dirges, no film kept a smile on my face as consistently as this one. For once, a feel-good movie that earns its foolish feel-goodery. Jennifer Lawrence > Jessica Chastain.
8. “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson
Like “Amour,” “The Master” is another one of those skyscraper movies that feels imposing and large, at once out of your reach but made specifically for you, that you may feel you have to love even if you don’t “get” it. I don’t love all of it. I think Phoenix overdid it, and even, at times, Hoffman. But unlike many of the film’s detractors, I adore “The Master” for its ambiguity and fearlessness in terms of storytelling. Anderson does leaps and hurdles over his own “There Will Be Blood,” forsaking tight, rigorous style for filmmaking that is looser, more open and potentially more dangerous.
9. “Kill List,” Ben Wheatley
Holy hell, this is a fucked up movie. It is the occult movie sent caterwauling, the Lynchian art film crossbred with the One Last Job crime movie. With impeccably creepy sound design, a looming sense of dread and a balls-to-the-walls willingness toward batshit insanity, “Kill List” is the best horror movie in years. And it’s unfair to call it a horror movie, because that kind of genre-pigeonholing doesn’t do this film justice, nor do any adjectives or alliterations I could possible conjure.
10. “Shit Year,” Cam Archer
Does this count as a 2012 release? I don’t know, but let’s run with it. It debuted at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2010 and floated around in the ether until reaching San Francisco this past summer, which is when I caught it. Archer’s disturbing, cinematic fluxus box of jagged, jangled images is one of the most criminally forgotten films of this or any year. Clad in a fur coat and fiery wit, Ellen Barkin plays the kind of iconic diva only a gay man who’s seen “Opening Night” a thousand times could have dreamed up.
Honorable Mentions, which I loved as much as the rest: Antonio Mendez Esparza’s “Here and There” (I love quiet, subtle movies that eschew obscurity); Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” (inventive but kind of soulless); Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (this is the year of “messy,” “sprawling” filmmaking, isn’t it?); Xavier Dolan’s “Laurence Anyways” (see this in the Spring).