Cinema. Our cathedral in the dark for watching the lives of others flashing on a screen in hopes of a resonant echo, self-recognition, escape, catharsis, trying to make sense of this crazy world. One sometimes has to question the beings who would rather spend their time with fictional people in an unreal story instead of the real flesh and blood thing. But in the dark, sometimes, together we transcend our stations, and for a fleeting two hours, if we’re lucky, can be transported to a place that’s moving, poignant, and maybe even magical.
My top 10 lists from 2011, 2010 and beyond, may not hold up under my own scrutiny. But the top 10 is relative; it rises and falls as our relationship to art constantly evolves, and as we (hopefully) evolve as people. Katie eloquently said that ranking the best of any kind of art is a fool’s errand for myriad reasons, and she is correct. Judging art based on the arbitrary nature of release dates within a calendar year always feels self-important, silly. And yet here we are again.
Cinema felt particularly healthy in this calendar year for reasons already articulated in The Playlist contributors’ top 10s. As per usual, these are not necessarily “the best” films of the year, but my favorites. A top 13 (or 21), written in the most erratic, inconsistent, piecemeal fashion ever.
Pablo Larrain’s “No” starring Gael García Bernal won’t hit U.S. theaters until February 2013, but it was a big part of my 2012 New York Film Festival experience. Beyond the fact that I have a personal connection to the film (like many other Chileans, my family had to flee the country in 1973 as political refugees thanks to the Pinochet dictatorship that overthrew a democratically elected government), “No” is probably Larrain’s greatest work thus far, and adds a much-needed dose of humor and levity to his Chile/Pinochet era trilogy (the first two films were “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” and became increasingly grim) while never shortchanging the stakes and gravity of the situation. His first two films were set in the heart of the oppressive regime, and “No” is set near the very end — during the referendum the regime held politely asking Chileans whether they liked things as they were (Chile, while a dictatorship, had prospered economically), or whether they would like the freedom to vote democratically again (what an offer, huh?). What transpired was the Chilean national plebiscite in 1988, which boiled down into a “Yes” or “No” campaign waged on national television in the weeks leading up to the referendum voting day. “No” centers on the advertising hot shots (Gael García Bernal being the main one) brought in to launch this televised campaign, the paid-for-by-Pinochet side urging the nation to vote Yes (keep things as they are), and the oppressed socialists on the No side (let’s have the choice to vote for who we want in power). “No” is moving, funny, dark, well-observed and a fantastic snapshot of history, going so far as to shoot on crappy low-definition ¾ magnetic tape, (which was widely used by television news in Chile in the ‘80s) to blend in with the copious amounts of archival footage from the time. Fiction and documentary merge to create a kind of hybrid doc-fiction, something full of humanity that ultimately poignantly expresses the deep need, and desire for a voice in the most inspiring way.
12. “Anna Karenina”
I don’t know why “Anna Karenina” is not in further up on my list. It was technically and visually dazzling and the story was also so moving; that sense of haunting desire and lust was palpably crushing. And yet because resonance is such a part of my criteria, it fell a little in my mind — meaning, while the experience was tremendous, it didn’t linger in my mind like some other of the films on my list. Maybe it’s just that there were so many damn good movies in 2012. This one was criminally overlooked during awards season. It was not only ambitious with visual spectacle, like “Life of Pi,” it also it had a heart and soul that could leave you breathless. A wonderful achievement by Joe Wright, taking a conceit and really blowing it out to its majestic full potential.
11. “Ginger & Rosa”
In the crossfire of the radical politics and social restlessness of post-War London about to enter the swinging ‘60s is a teenage girl also awakening to the world. Gorgeously shot (Robby Mueller), expressively and compassionately realized (Sally Potter’s best film in over a decade, a comeback if there ever was one), and superbly acted by a terrific ensemble cast lead by an outstandingly skilled, raw and precocious Elle Fanning, “Ginger & Rosa” is a deliberately paced, engrossing look at adolescent awakenings and the betrayals committed by the untested philosophies of the would-be hippie generation.
10. “Girl Walk//All Day”
Jacob Krupnick’s exhilarating and exuberant experiment, “Girl Walk//All Day” came to me late in the year, but boy did it leave me utterly elated. Krupnick’s piece is essentially a feature-length music video (75 minutes long) set to Girl Talk’s entire, intended-to-be-listened-to-as-a-whole genre hopscotching album All Day. It’s a mash-up, for lack of a better term (though that term seems antiquated for the artistry that Girl Talk pulls off), mixing Rihanna, General Public, Beyonce, The Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath, Ludacris, Lady Gaga, Aphex Twin, Cyndi Lauper, Nicki Minaj and about a zillion other samples into one heady and entire deliciously danceable sonic brew. So that’s just the album (which you can download for free here). Krupnick’s feature (which you can see for free here) features a carefree and blissful ballet dancer (Anne Marsen) who dances her way through New York City. Along the way she meets the Gentleman (Daisuke Omiya) and The Creep (John Doyle), and a little fairtytale is born. But “Girl Walk//All Day” is essentially one long, beautiful, funny, sparkling and vivacious dance through the Big Apple and some of its boroughs. I hate to use the term “love letter to the city,” but this “urban-fantasia” is such an affirming celebration of life, you’ll want to go outside, dial up the iPod and bust many unabashed dorky moves all day long like you just don’t care.
09. “Sleepwalk With Me”
The male arrested development genre seems to know no end, but as tired as that genre can be, Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” is a sublimely charming and self-effacing entry within these confines. Based on Birbiglia’s one-man stand-up comedy routine of the same name (which I now wish I had seen live), “Sleepwalk With Me” is directed by Birbiglia and co-written by “This American Life” ‘s Ira Glass, and it’s kinda of a hell of a debut for someone who’s never directed a film before. That’s not to say it’s especially cinematic. It’s not particularly, but it knows the power and humor of simplicity and breaking the fourth wall when necessary. Thoughtful, hilarious and also low-key and melancholy, the stunted growth and rite of passage from adultlescense to actual adulthood is quickly becoming its own subgenre, but Birbiglia’s wry and self-deprecating semi-autobiographical tale of his commitment-phobic lost years is just so damn appealing, heartbreaking and also laugh-out-loud funny with all its spectacular moments of failure. Brilliantly mixing the comedian’s REM Sleep Behavior Disorder anxieties with his sinking relationship and his ailing career, Birbiglia may be the next Louis C.K. in the way that he leverages the painful truth to be painfully funny.
08. “The Hunt”
Set in a small Danish village around Christmas, and chronicling a nursery school teacher who is wrongly accused of sexual abuse by a child, Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” is sometimes a brutal and maddening film. In a scorching internalized performance that rightfully won him the Best Actor Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, the school teacher in question who, for whatever reason — pride, embarrassment, cultural differences and responses to innocence and guilt — does not really deign to defend himself against what are ridiculous accusations. A well-liked and sociable member of his small town community, we helplessly watch as Lucas goes from beloved teacher to ostracized pariah by the witch-hunt hysteria that surrounds him. Ultimately, as we watch Lucas suffer humiliation and torment (not to mention getting beat to a pulp and having his dog killed) in this grueling experience of film, we grow to feel a deeper compassion for him and even for the misguided mob that is calling for his blood. A harrowing cautionary tale about the incapacity with which people can forgive and forget, Vinterberg puts audiences through the paces in this excruciatingly emotional and brutal film, but it’s almost unforgettable, and ultimately one of the most strikingly humanistic films I’ve ever seen even though its view of humanity is ultimately bleak.
07. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
“Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.” A fairy tale set in a decayed swamp, a father and daughter story, a soaring and imaginative movie about love, death, resolve, resistance and the freedom to fly your own freak flag, a lot of ink has been spilled over Benh Zeitlin’s magical and muddy “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Much of the response has been cynical, backlash opposition unfortunately, but such is the case when the zeitgeist of cinema is captured in a little phenomenon that captivates audiences. I wish sometimes expectations could be wiped from memory and people could just experience this joyful and celebratory movie without baggage, but that’s just not to be. I personally think this pure, almost-naive little film, with its charming characters and anthemic score, melts away every cynical bone in my body, and I’ll always be on the side of something that can transport and transform the individual in that manner. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is wildly optimistic, hopeful and almost painfully sincere. I’m very thankful that such a film exists.
A lover looks back in a bifurcated mystical tale of memory, loss, lust and POV perception that has no care for the tyranny of the conventional three-act structure. In chapter one, she is old, senile, dying; distrustful of her African maid named Santa. She recalls an illicit lover on her deathbed and then passes away. In chapter two, a ghostly disembodied voice (the man in question) narrates their fateful, star-crossed love and lustful adultery in what amounts to a charcoal black-and-white silent-era movie set in colonial Africa. Dream-like, potently passionate, ephemeral and desperately melancholic. Swooning with a romance that can never be.
05. “Zero Dark Thirty”
This movie is not pro-torture,
you stupid shithead. This movie is not pro-torture, you stupid shithead. This movie is not pro-torture, you stupid shithead. One woman’s grueling and unwavering obsession with one thread of a clue leads to the capture and death of one of the world’s most notorious terrorists. Punishing, relentless and unflinching. Jessica Chastain for Wife of The United States. Kathryn Bigelow can be the First Lady.
04. “The Comedy”
Recreational cruelty and inert boredom is a strong and often hilarious facade for the lonely, lost and unfulfilled. Rick Alverson’s provocative meditation of the white American male at his worst is a twistedly funny and disturbing generational cry for help — stunted assholes desperately in search of something that makes them feel alive. So inured to comfort and numbed by lack of responsibility, these aging hipsters have become indifferent, reckless and callous jerks without purpose. They mask their lack of direction with drunken heartless pranks on innocent people, but simmering underneath their misguided rage is a particularly forsaken soul (Tim Heidecker) truly unable to connect. Oft misunderstood as an examination of the hipster elite by people with low self-esteem who use hipster as a catch-all derogatory term for what they don’t understand, “The Comedy” is the year’s best American-made movie. Deeply infantile, intensely stupid, offensive and just plain wrong, these characters are an ugly challenge that’s far more than meets the eye. I only wish I could have seen this brilliant picture at Sundance instead of in November so I could have been screaming about it all year long. Apologies Mr. Alverson, Heidecker, Wareheim and Murphy.
03. “Holy Motors”
A mysterious fever dream segmented into nine passages channeled from a strange chameleon man — the CEO of the absurd and nonsensical in what is just a typically atypical day at the office. A Chaplin-esque monster movie with a gorgeous broad, a 3D-like sex dance between two latex creatures, a thrilling French accordion musical interlude, a quaint monkey family moment of peace, and a tragically romantic musical (with Divine Comedy help) that ends by suicide and sounds as if it was plucked out of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” None of this hilarious, curious, maddening madness makes a lick of sense. Thank goodness. And you hadn’t let Leos Carax make a film in thirteen years? Monsters.
02. “Take This Waltz”/”Stories We Tell”
A wanderlusting magpie is eternally, unceasingly unhappy and distracted. Her chicken-loving husband a soft, likable teddy bear with perhaps too few dynamic and shiny parts. She crosses paths with a fox that lives in her sensuously photographed and sweltering little corner of Toronto. They flirt, they wander, and soon give themselves over to a carnality that becomes everyone’s undoing. Margot (another terrific Michelle Williams performance), the magpie, endlessly restless, ends up, once more, tragically and heartbreaking unfulfilled at everyone’s expense. It’s a devastating film about the desperation in trying to fill the emptiness inside. Marked by its sumptuous lens of melancholy, regret and illusory mutual attraction, its wistful music and its forlorn tone, “Take This Waltz” is bold, lush, sublime, and never takes the easy route. It’s full of risks filmmakers would rather not take. Nudity is shown as unremarkable and bromidic. A blissful romantic ride is abruptly stopped by the reality of the garish lights coming on. Maddening, irrational characters make monstrously selfish decisions in the name of a deluded happiness. Time spans in a swinging-for-the-fences montage. A despondent husband’s final monologue is dumped in favor of his reactions; sobbing tears and laughs of resignation. Sarah Polley’s drama is a woozy, painfully honest fairy tale that’s often unpleasant and never gives viewers the safe resolutions they crave, but goddamn is its uncompromising, messy tough love something worth celebrating. No time to get into Polley’s stupendous family documentary “Stories We Tell,” which blurs the lines between fact and fiction so well, the evocative nature of “truth” is realized as subjective, relative, fleeting as memory you half-remembered. It’s wonderful.
01. “Rust & Bone”
Beauty and the Beast meet in seaside, southern France. She, a killer whale trainer, loses her legs in a freak accident. He, a brute of a fighter, grunts in monosyllables, steals, and fucks what he can while poorly raising a child as a mostly absent single father. Together, the two characters’ polar opposite magneticism attracts. He, an emotionally cut-off animal, learns to love. She, a shell of a person, regains the will to live. In between the beatings, the lies, the betrayals and the sex, there’s evocative and poetic bruises, scars, tears, blood and wounds that take a psychic, emotional and physical toll on the characters and viewer. It’s grim, punishing and utterly romantic. In the hands of Jacques Audiard, a Katy Perry song becomes the most transformative moment of the year.
The rest of the list 14-22/Other films I loved that didn’t quite make the above list/are part of the above list/I lost the energy to write about in full because the list would become too long
“Life of Pi” (dazzling 3D from a visual master, deeply soulful and spiritual), “Ruby Sparks” (moving, poignant, inventive, comical), “Silver Linings Playbook” (intoxicating, yawn at the backlash), “The Dark Knight Rises” (gripping, epic, awe-inspiring ending), “Nobody Walks” (moody, dream-like, difficult in a good way), “Magic Mike” (funny, entertaining and soulful), “Killer Joe” (deliciously wicked), “Dark Horse” (funny and enigmatic with a curiously burrowing ending), and “Starlet” (promising debut).
Freed from the shackles of WWII, a drunken navy miscreant loses his sense of purpose when no longer at sea. Directionless and perpetually inebriated, the rascally degenerate crosses paths with a Master curious enough to tame the savage beast. Attempting to use him for his cause he sees… Self-recognition? Or have they met somewhere before? Briefly housetrained, the restless creature soon reverts to his feral ways. Years later in a dream, he asks for forgiveness. But the Master is no longer interested in owning the leash. PTA’s most mysterious film.
Also Worthy and Worthwhile
“Keep The Lights On,” “Neighboring Sounds,” “A Royal Affair” (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard guy should have also been in our Breakout Performances of 2012 piece), “The Forgiveness Of Blood” (already Criterion approved with good reason), “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” “Compliance” (captivatingly ugly),“2 Days In New York” (hilariously neurotic, Julie Delpy is clearly the heir apparent to Woody Allen), “Cosmopolis,” “Side By Side,” “Argo,” “The Turin Horse” (Goodnight, Mr. Tarr you sweet prince of the bleak and wretched), “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia” (in many ways mesmerizing and beautiful, but for me, ultimately more in a cerebral way than in a moving, emotional one), “Goodbye Love” (Mia Hansen-Love clearly watches the films of her husband Olivier Assayas; a spiritual cousin to his last 3-4 pictures), “Elena,” “Francine” (great non-judgemental direction; Melissa Leo is terrific), “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” “Alps,” “The Loneliest Planet,” “The Kid With The Bike” and pretty much every film in our 11 Films You May Not Have Seen list.
More To Keep An Eye On in 2013
“Una Noche” (Tribeca highlight, what happened with a release date?), “Frances Ha” (Noah Baumbach’s enchanting New York fairy tale), “At Any Price” (Ramin Bahrani’s uneven, but nevertheless completely engaging “Crimes & Misdemeanors” in the American heartland).
Movies I admired more than actively loved
“The Master,” “This Is Not A Film” (strong civil disobedience), “Killing Them Softly” (too heavy handed, with incongruent, inconsistent stylization, terrific performances though; what if Richard Jenkins had starred?), “Amour” (punishing and poignant, but not as moving as I had hoped).
Best Scores and Soundtracks of the Year (some of them talked about in depth here)
Michael Andrews’ “Jeff Who Lives At Home” (he’s criminally underrated), Nick Urata’s score for “Ruby Sparks” (beautiful and heartrending, maybe my fave of the year), “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (anthemic, celebratory, overwhelmingly burst-into-tear inducing), Hans Zimmer’s “The Dark Knight Rises” (typically thrilling and towering), Howard Shore and Metric – “Cosmopolis” (sinisterly futuristic; we overlooked by accident), the soundtrack to “The Comedy” (poignantly wistful soul), the soundtrack to “Take This Waltz,” “Rust & Bone,” “Nobody Walks” and “Keep The Lights On” (an excellent soundtrack of forlorn Arthur Russell songs that we regrettably failed to mention at length in our music piece).
Worst Films of the Year (more discussed here)
“Battleship,” “Hick” (loathsome indie), “Bachelorette,” “Friends With Kids” (brutally shallow and counterfeit rom-coms pretending to have an edge).
Song Moments (lots of them written about here with context too)
“Rust & Bone” — “Firework” – Katy Perry (stunning)
“Frances Ha” – “Modern Love” – David Bowie (effervescent and intoxicating)
“The Master” — “Slow Boat To China” (heartbreaking)
“Wuthering Heights” (big Andrea Arnold fan, but so much excruciating wind, mud and rain and wind, mud and rain, wind, mud and rain. Punishing with little reprieve), “Looper” (the second half, or last 30 minutes is terrific, but the true heart of the story enters far too late into the story for me), “Prometheus” (great cast, mostly a dud of a movie and a lot of it in the writing).
“Smashed” (OK, I mean, I liked some of it a lot, including the music, the score, and the performances, but it ended so abruptly and so soon, I was expecting half of another movie)
Actively Disliked/Underwhelmed By
“Django Unchained” (ugh)
“Friends With Kids”
“Save The Date”
Final Parting Shot
I’m not sure I quite relate to “best” anymore since it’s all just so subjective. One could state that “Zero Dark Thirty” is the best film of the year and I may not argue, but it’s not my favorite, do you know what I mean? My favorites tend to move me and resonate with me long after the film experience is over, after also having me in the moment. They tend to be, at least this year, somewhat, uneven, imperfect and scrappy. “Lincoln” and “The Master” are considered “the best” by many, but both of those films while interesting and admirable (though more so the latter), neither of them moved me much. That’s a big part of my criteria. Something that’s soulful always really resonates with me too, even if it’s a bit messy. I can’t expect you to feel the same about these movies because you’re not me. But maybe some of you will recognize something in each of them that moved you too. And yeah, I broke my cardinal rule and wrote about some films coming out 2013; I can’t help it, they were such a major part of my 2012 experience. Such is life. Thanks for reading in 2012. Hope to find you here again next year.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.