Experiencing art and watching film is such a deeply subjective experience that it seems a fool’s errand to rank and list “the best” of anything. How I reacted to the films I saw in 2012 can be completely personal and different than any of my colleagues on this site, but that’s what makes it interesting. Where we come together and where we disagree is the fun of it all, really, and has made for many a lively Twitter debate among us. What else would we talk about if we weren’t passionately arguing about a film? As for the status of 2012 as a film year, there were so many that inspired such heated talk, taking bold and original paths and made the conversation that much better. And in my mind, that’s a success.
If there’s one word or phrase that describes my Top 10 of the year, it would be “life-affirming.” The through line for what spoke to me this year seems to be films about humanity and the struggles that people go through to be in touch with their environment, themselves, and the people around them. Which may be why I didn’t connect with the glorious, messy and very problematic “Django Unchained.” Or why I came away cold from the technically perfect yet unsatisfying “The Master.” Of course, I haven’t been able to see everything, but that’s just the nature of the beast. It was actually rather difficult to put this list together (for the first time), because I didn’t see many films this year that I loved completely without reservation. But that shouldn’t be the barometer of ranking the best films of the year, and after much internal debate, I feel completely satisfied with putting these ten forth as my favorite films that I’ve seen this year. Two of these films caused me to weep before the title card came up (“Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “How To Survive a Plague”). Two of them feature scenes of cane-related violence (“Beware of Mr. Baker” and “Rust & Bone”). And yeah, one features the naked torsos of Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello. I’m only human, ok?
There’s a delightfully analog quality to “Argo,” not just that it’s warmly shot on film, capturing the grit and grime of 1970s Tehran, and those authentic-to-a-fault mustaches cultivated by the outstanding cast. In the day and age of technological festishism, that the nail-biter climax of “Argo” is built around the obstacles of passed messages on paper, locked doors, and someone keeping a straight face under pressure is refreshingly honest. While some films this year showed Hollywood at its worst, “Argo” is Hollywood at its best: well-crafted, suspenseful storytelling and just plain entertaining. And how suspenseful it was. The theater spontaneously burst into applause in relief from the tension that was expertly built throughout. Director Ben Affleck did give himself the lead role, but it’s an understated and restrained performance, allowing the character actors around him to shine in the showier roles. “Argo” proves there’s hope for original, authentic, serious filmmaking for Hollywood yet.
Seeing the latest film from “Baraka” filmmaker Ron Fricke during its U.S. premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in the Arlington Theater was more of a meditative experience than a movie-going one. The huge screen, the 4K projection of the 70mm-shot film crisp and clear, like you could fall right into the imagery. But even in a smaller theater, the film was just as compelling and spiritual an experience. The thing about “Samsara” and “Baraka” is that they are such rare, precious artifacts. With the amount of work and time and technology that goes into these films, it makes sense that they only come around once every 20 years. The gorgeously rendered footage is one of a kind, something that does not or could not exist again. The sequence from Mecca might be the most memorable movie moment for me this year, but to pick only one sequence from “Samsara” is impossible. It’s a gift of a film, and even just calling it “cinema” seems inadequate at that. A true example of the possibilities of the form.
8. “Holy Motors”
I was honestly baffled and befuddled by “Holy Motors,” and heck, I still am. But in a good way? I don’t know. I don’t know what to think about “Holy Motors,” or if I even liked it or enjoyed myself while I was watching it (that may have been because I was alone in the deserted Chinese 6 theater in Hollywood on a Friday night…). But pure entertainment and “fun” doesn’t have to be the only reaction to a film, and, in fact, it shouldn’t be. I think that “Holy Motors” is important in this way, and that befuddlement is sometimes a good thing to shoot for. Leos Carax has made a film about film, a theoretical, philosophical exploration into the human condition, performed by one-man-show Denis Lavant. But aside from its reference-heavy, abstract and metaphysical nature, each moment is propelled and inspired from a place of humanity and love. And for whatever reason, I remain utterly tickled by Monsieur Merde. I’m still processing “Holy Motors,” but expect to see it on my syllabus if I ever teach Film Theory.
7. “Magic Mike”
There was no reason for this movie to be this good. The male stripper biopic of Channing Tatum didn’t need to be anything more than just a few hot dudes and dance numbers and that unique Tatum charm. But then again, most male stripper biopics (there are none) aren’t directed by Stephen Soderbergh. It’s clear this crew was just having a ball making this movie, Tatum relaxed and funny, Matthew McConaughey out-McConaughey-ing himself, a slowed down equitorial ease to Soderbergh’s camera movements. But it’s not just man thongs and booty shaking, it’s about the dolla dolla bills ya’ll. Who would have thought one of our best movies dealing with the recession would have been “Magic Mike”?! But it was an astute commentary on work, identity, and business, and when Tatum and McConaughey turned those smiles down, it was all about the money, honey. Soderbergh captured the blurry sleaze of central Florida, fluorescent lights bleeding red and blue and gold across the frame, all Ecstasy fueled hurricane parties and sand bar blowouts. An entertaining romp, yes, but with something relevant to say.
6. “Ruby Sparks”
This reimagined rom com was a shockingly pleasant surprise for me when it screened at the Super Secret Screening of L.A. Film Festival this year. For some reason, I wasn’t so sure about this movie that looked like a parody of the manic pixie dream girl stereotype. In fact it was a brilliant deconstruction of that trope from screenwriter Zoe Kazan, and also an extremely honest and authentic exploration into love and relationships. With two outstanding performances from Kazan and real-life boyfriend Paul Dano, shepherded by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, this film hits that bitter sweet spot that “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” did. It’s lovely to see a young female screenwriter expressing an alternative perspective on these matters, laying down some of those truths in such a bare and honest way, while also delicately taking those stereotypes to task. What a gem.5. “Rust & Bone”
Jacques Audiard’s latest stuck with me for days after seeing it, and I wasn’t sure why. Every time I try to tell someone about the film (“Marion Cotillard loses her legs in a whale training accident, so then she starts managing illegal street fighting, and Katy Perry‘s “Firework” is in it, twice, but no, it’s really really good!”), invariably they look at me askance and say “that sounds horrible/depressing.” Actually, it’s quite life-affirming. Of course, Cotillard is fantastic, but it’s nice to see another side to her; here she’s at times depressed, angry, confused, not so sure of herself, but utterly fearless in a way. Matthias Schoenaerts goes toe to toe with her as the feral, unbridled beast of a man out of touch with his own emotions. Her essence, her profession is managing huge killer beasts with the capacity for violence and destruction who find themselves able to nuzzle up to her love, her touch. The scene where she reconnects with her whale after the accident is not so different from when she allows him to kiss her for the first time. It’s a film about bodies, physicality and environment, emotions and connections with another human being, and Audiard works that into this unlikely love story. It also feels like it couldn’t have been directed in any other way, the dappled sunlight dancing on the back of Cotillard’s neck, the close up of a bloody tooth rattling across pavement. And even with that desperation and violence, “Rust & Bone” is possibly the most romantic movie of the year.
4. “Beware of Mr. Baker”
I’ve sounded the call for this documentary ever since I saw it at SXSW this year, and have been surprised that it hasn’t received more attention. I love rockumentaries, and this one knocks it out of park in terms of subject, content, storytelling and style. Not to mention the music itself. First-time director (yet another one on this list!) Jay Bulger goes on an epic odyssey into the life and times of forgotten genius Ginger Baker, bringing the audience on this wild and rollicking ride, a tough but satisfying tangle with the dangerous Mr. Baker. The film opened this fall at the IFC in New York, and continues to roll out, and here’s hoping it will get more exposure soon, as it’s one of the most creative treatments of the rock biopic seen in a long time. The film itself hums with the beat of Baker’s drum, throbbing with its own unique heartbeat. Beware of Mr. Baker, but don’t stay away.
3. “Anna Karenina”
The experience of watching the sweeping, gorgeous “Anna Karenina” is basically like having goosebumps for two and a half hours. It’s simply delicious, and one of the most cinematic pieces of film this year. The stage-set conceit that Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright brought to the classic novel was, of course, brilliant in its conception and execution, and it also managed to boil the tome down to its most basic themes and ideas. What really made it work for me was the slightly campy tone all the players involved brought to the proceedings. Keira Knightley is over the top as the doomed Anna, with all of her gasping and whirling and swooning, Matthew Macfadyen (so criminally underrated) bursting with ebullience, Aaron Taylor-Johnson so beautiful and so vacant as Vronsky. And yet, in contrast, we have the earthy and sensual Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), bringing the proceedings back down to earth. It perfectly captures the themes of the artifice of aristocracy battling against the simple country life. That all of these things are expressed visually and so beautifully is a testament to Mr. Wright.
2. “How To Survive a Plague”
Another first feature from a debut filmmaker, journalist David France culled an extensive library of video archives to create the document of the influential historical moment that was ACT UP and the AIDS crisis. This documentary plays like Activism 101, watching these young artists, intellectuals and bohemians of New York City try to understand and combat this mysterious illness that felled so many of them without seeming rhyme or reason. But it’s not just the blueprint for how these fierce individuals educated themselves and took on AIDS without any outside support, it’s also a tender and touching tribute to those who were lost. The most important thing these activists did was assert their own human rights and demand the full attention of those who might deny it, thereby creating themselves as citizens in a world where they were not fully recognized. The film is masterful in its storytelling — there’s a moment about three quarters of the way through the movie so brilliant that you realize that France isn’t just telling the story of these people, he’s recreating that experience for the audience. At one point during the film, I stepped out of the theater, sobbing, and France was standing outside. He just wrapped me in a big hug. A truly remarkable artist, and I can’t wait to see what he does next, but if this were to be his only film, it would be more than enough.
1. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
I’ve known and followed the work of Benh Zeitlin and Court 13 for years, and was eagerly anticipating his feature debut. However, I didn’t quite expect the reaction I continue to have to this diamond in the rough of a film. ‘Beasts’ is a delight because of its context: made on a micro-budget by a wild band of novice filmmakers who lived inside of this film in order to get it made, but also in its content. There’s an overwhelming sense of the strength of human spirit communicated in the determined jaw of a tiny Hushpuppy, the wild abandon of her warrior shriek, the rough, tender relationship between her and father Wink. When the score opens up and the restless camera alights on the wondrous face of Quvenzhané Wallis, it’s almost too much to bear. Strikingly original, gloriously human, it’s no wonder “Beasts of the Southern WIld” took the world by storm in 2012.
Honorable mentions: “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Take This Waltz,“ “Cloud Atlas,” “Cabin in the Woods,” “Starlet,” “Teddy Bear,” “The Iran Job,” “Beauty is Embarrassing,” “Paul Williams: Still Alive.”