2012 is so two weeks ago, right? Well, forgive my tardiness, but I was doing my best to catch up with as much as possible before putting this list together, but even then some films missed out. “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia,” “Compliance,” “Sleepwalk With Me,” “Nobody Walks,” “No” and a handful more…I wish I could have seen them, but it just didn’t happen.
And to be honest, I wish I had another month or two or three to reflect before writing this up. Not just to catch up on movies, but to simply allow a bit more time to digest the ones I’ve already seen. I know that when I look back on this list a year from now, my feelings on every movie will have adjusted, shifted and changed. Time plays a tremendously important role in one’s relationship to a movie, and so many factors affect how a film will resonate with a viewer. Personal experienes, life changes and more can draw a movie closer to your heart, while in other cases, the in-the-moment enjoyment or even the positive feelings that linger a month or two later can dissipate.
So, it’s tricky (and a bit silly) to rank movies, and the distinction that these are my “favorite” films of 2012 rather than the “best” is important. While these are numbered, it’s not to say that one is particularly “better” than another, but they just feel right in this order. And after you read my list, be sure to check out the rist of The Playlist Best Movie Of 2012 lists. So with that preamble out of the way, let’s get to it….
10. “Silver Linings Playbook” (dir. David O. Russell)
To be certain, I backflipped for this one when I saw it at TIFF. But for whatever reason, as the awards season heated up, my attention went elsewhere, and David O. Russell‘s film seemed to become an underdog. But earning eight Oscar nominations last week has reminded me just how well-crafted this movie really is. On a surface level, it can deceptively look like an your standard rom-com, with a helping of indie movie quirk on the side. But the material isn’t easy. How do you take the story of a mentally unstable man and an emotionally damanged woman, and not only make it relatable, but a crowd-pleaser? Leave it in the hands of Russell, who with “The Fighter” and this film has really shown a deft ability to confront the hard difficulties that life can sometimes throw in your path, and make the journey to overcome them not just entertaining, but honest too. And never does he show himself contemptuous or above his characters, allowing both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to wholly embrace every rough, raw and real part of their roles, and deliver some great performances that rely on a highwire blend of pathos, humor and humanism.
9. “Killing Them Softly” (dir. Andrew Dominik)
Following the lyrical and pastoral “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” director Andrew Dominik and star Brad Pitt did a complete one-eighty for “Killing Them Softly.” Nothing short of a cinematic polemic, the pair turned the source material — George V. Higgins‘ novel — into a furious, cynical critique of a morally degraded America. The story of a hitman tracking down the two thugs who knock off a mob protected poker game is merely the framework around which Dominik uses the 2008 election and financial crisis to paint a picture of a nation that has lost its sense of community. From the filthy, desperate criminals at the bottom of the food chain (with Ben Mendelsohn at his scuzzy finest) to the pragmatic middle man played by Richard Jenkins to the unseen forces at the top calling the shots, “Killing Them Softly” drives a knife right to the bone of everyone who has failed this country….and then twists it.
8. “Laurence Anyways” (dir. Xavier Dolan)
The conversation around filmmaker Xavier Dolan has mostly centered on his age (he turns 24 in March), the fact that his first three features have all been honored with premieres in Cannes and his boldy stylized approach. And living in Montreal as I do (where “Laurence Anyways” was released in 2012), there is an extra layer of media attention to the homegrown filmmaker that adds to the noise and hype, and making it easy for many to shrug off his work. And for all those who scoff at Dolan for his age and confidence, I suggest they move along and stick to the oats and vegetables cinema the rest of the industry provides. For me, this is nothing more exciting than a young director who takes a big swing for the fences. Can you tell me another other contemporary filmmaker who has put together a nearly three hour long, decade spanning movie about a transgender relationship? And not only that, but one as deeply moving and gorgeously realized as this? It’s mind boggling to me that it took as long as it did for “Laurence Anyways” to land U.S. distribution, and even then, with the tiny indie Breaking Glass (and kudos to them for rolling the dice on this one). But I hope people put aside pre-conceived notions and go experience the film for themselves when it arrives next year, because since seeing it at the Cannes Film Festival the movie has continued percolate and stick with me in the way that few have.
7. “Zero Dark Thirty” (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
The best procedurals in recent years — including David Fincher‘s “Zodiac” and “The Social Network” — have been tales of obsession, and that’s no different with Kathryn Bigelow‘s “Zero Dark Thirty.” But of course, her picture takes on a greater weight because it’s bookmarked by two of the most significant historical moments of the last decade: the attacks of 9/11 and killing of Osama Bin Laden. It’s a whirlwind journey from CIA black sites to the halls of the White House, that condenses ten years of intelligence gathering into a breathless manhunt, that is as captivating and mesmerizing as any mystery, even though for every second of the movie, you know the outcome. While some have dogged the movie being a bit cold — we never really get to know Jessica Chastain‘s Maya — that is also half the point, as her determination coupled with the around-the-clock, classified nature of her work, forces her into a surreal, isolated existence. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal deliver unflinching dramatic reportage, one that forces viewers to confront the nation’s uneasy relationship with torture — oh sorry, “enchanced interrogration.” The cries that the film is “pro-torture” are silly, and perhaps a result of those disappointed that “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t a flag waving act of patriotism, but a mature drama about the constant and complex moral and personal compromise that come with the kind of job that anyone on the sidelines can barely imagine undertaking.
6. “The Master” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
A movie that doesn’t necessarily unpack easily, and certainly doesn’t play by any conventions, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “The Master” is at its core, an odd couple story. There’s Freddie Quell, who’s all animal, lunging at life, never ignoring the call of instinct, hunger or desire, and yet always coming up emotionally damaged or unsatisfied. And then there’s Lancaster Dodd, who has taken all those cravings that make us human, and tries to contain them in The Cause, a way of life that becomes his own search for meaning. Essentially we’re looking at what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, and the union between Freddie and Lancaster will heartbreakingly leave them as alone and empty as they were when they first met. Anderson is asking more questions than providing answers, which may have left many unsatisified, but watching Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix put each other through the paces (the auditing session is probably one of the best acting scenes of the year), you wonder how the rest of us manage to make it through each day so easily.
5. “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” (dir. Benh Zeitlin)
Few films in 2012 — or even in the past few years — arrived with the kind of wide-eyed, pure, unfiltered emotion as Benh Zeitlin‘s “Beasts Of The Southern Wild.” It’s a magical realist, fairy tale look at the post-Katrina South, pitched through the eyes of the pint-sized Hushpuppy who watches her entire world shift and change around her, trying to understand it all as best she can. Death is never too far away, and revolt is a reflex for survival in a movie that still remains hard to describe to those who haven’t seen it. Indeed, most reactions from those I’ve talked to about the movie have been about how they felt, rather than the particulars of what they saw. Striking a deep and resonant chord, Zeitlin’s film may be small, but its heart is big.
4. “Anna Karenina” (dir. Joe Wright)
When the budget for his Leo Tolstoy adaptation started spiralling beyond reach, director Joe Wright turned lemons into the most dazzling lemonade of the year. The single location, interchangeable setting conceit of “Anna Karenina” wound up breathing new life in the literary adaptation genre as a whole, heightening the already roiling emotions of the story. Featuring setpieces and sequences (the opening introduction, the dance, the horse race) as breathtaking in dimension as anything in a summer blockbuster, and executed with tremendous skill, the film marries its visuals to the powder keg story it tells. And hidden within are two of the most underssung performances of the year: Jude Law as the cuckolded husband, who struggles to save face while protecting the honor of his wife and Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky, who faces any situation with a tender zest for life. Does the film overcook its own concept? Perhaps, but it’s a cinematic dish I’d happily have again.
3. “Take This Waltz“/”Stories We Tell” (dir. Sarah Polley)
No other filmmaker in 2012 understood the messiness that life sometimes brings with it than director Sarah Polley, who had two movies hit screens in the last twelve months. In “Take This Waltz,” Polley matches the unwieldyness of the story, with a core that is so raw, mature, observant and reflective, that you can easily overlook its “flaws.” Because that’s sort of the point. Margot, played perfectly by Michelle Williams, is all rough edges herself, perhaps uneasy to wholly embrace as a character, but one who you intimately understand. Margot is a character driven by the fear that life is passing her by, that a better opportunity lies elsewhere and she’s desperate to capture feelings — intense, dizzying love among them — that she has perhaps built up in her own mind. Margot has a nagging feeling that the grass is always greener, without realizing how good it’s always been on her side of the fence. Meanwhile, Polley explores the unbelievable and riveting true story of her own family life in “Stories We Tell,” a tremendous documentary that also plays with the very idea of storytelling itself, and the fictions that sometimes sustain relationships.
2. “Rust & Bone” (dir. Jacques Audiard)
Physical and emotional survival are two persistent themes in Jacques Audiard‘s nearly operatic “Rust & Bone,” another movie that like Polley’s “Take This Waltz” may not be perfectly formed, but delivers such powerful emotional tides, that it’s easy to roll with it. Central to the film are the performances of Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard, the former as Alain, a single dad drifter and the latter as Stephanie, a disfigured whale trainer. Both are rootless, and uneasy to trust and yet in the most unlikely ways, they find a support system in each other. Stephanie finds in Alain a tough, but very real love, someone who’ll challenge her in all the right ways and bring her out into a life that, following a horrific accident, seemed unliveable. And in Stephanie, Alain experiences the kind of steadfast loyalty — her unflinching look as he’s battered, bare knuckle boxing is one of the most powerful shots of the year — he’s never had anywhere else. Their journey is fraught, but Audiard goes from tragedy to triumph with the skill of a master storyteller, in one of the most satisfying moviegoing experiences this year.
1. “Tabu” (dir. Miguel Gomes)
A movie that I had heard some good things about throughout the festival season, it was also one of the last few I saw in 2012 and yes, also the best. A swooning love story, a tribute to classic cinema and at the same time one of the most unique pictures of the year, “Tabu” truly embodies the overused adjective “magical.” Divided into two sections, the first part of the film, set in modern day Lisbon, austerely centers on a middle aged woman, who looks in on her elderly neighbor, who reveals the name of a man upon her deathbed. Tracking him down, the movie moves into the second section as he narrates an otherwise silent, but gorgeous expressive, retelling of his youthful affair with the woman in colonial Africa. Tackling memory, love, loss and the indescribable pull of lust, “Tabu” finds a place for Phil Spector covers and silent cinema homage all in the same place. Some have scoffed that the first half of the movie is inconsquential or even inessential, but they’re missing the point: the halves are called “A Lost Paradise” and “Paradise” for a reason. Each half deeply informs the other, and there was no movie that captivated me more with its brilliance, emotion and creativity in 2012 than “Tabu.”
Special Mention: “The Clock” (dir. Christian Marclay)
Okay, this art installation is technically not a movie, but this cinematic feat is nonetheless something that anyone even remotely interested in the medium needs to see. The project is an assemblage of film clips, that plays in a continuous, 24-hour real time loop, that presents a cut of a clock or timepiece from a movie each minute (see it different times of the day and you’ll get a new experience each time). But Marclay’s brilliant work goes far beyond a simple stunt of editing (which alone is massively impressive). “The Clock” is a tribute to movie history that entertainingly forces viewers to consider the hours we spend in darkened rooms, while also revealing the thousands and thousands of lives we’ve witnessed play out on the big screen. The piece is probably the most accomplished mashup ever compiled, taking a format that’s generally associated with YouTube, putting it into a high art context, yet remaining completely accessible all at the same time. Both celebration and study, “The Clock” is witty and whipsmart, a meta-movie that will suck you in until you lose your own sense of time.
Other movies of note from 2012 (in no particular order): “The Forgiveness Of Blood,” “Sound Of My Voice,” “Ruby Sparks,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Perks Of Being A Wallflower,” “Amour,” “Barbara,” “Sister,” “Looper,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Jeff Who Lives At Home,” “The Invisible War,” “Bernie” and probably a few others I’m forgetting.