Jessica Kiang’s Favorite Films Of 2012

Step into my limousine and let’s drive around in the dead of night trying to find the corpses of 2012’s best films, shall we? Our journey will take us to the cornfields of Kansas, to tiny New England islands and to an explosion in a restaurant in Tel Aviv. We will talk to murderers and movie directors, we will celebrate friendship in Barcelona and suffer despair in the Phillippine jungle; we will get punched in the supermarket and mourn Phil Coulson. And then, just as we are sipping Fernet Branca in an Italian café, mercifully the apocalypse will arrive from below and that will be that.

Yes, that was my Best of 2012 list in a single paragraph specially designed for the time-pressed or those of you sick of reading Best of 2012 lists. Everyone else, read on… 

First, a few notes: due to the vagaries of international release dates, there are quite a few films that I haven’t had the chance to see — “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Master” are not on release in my territory yet, so those titles not being on my list should not be seen as pointed omissions. Also, and more just because of laziness and/or bad timing, I’ve yet to see Haneke’s “Amour,” Jafar Panahi’s “This is not a Film,” Terence Davies’ “Deep Blue Sea” and John Hillcoat’s “Lawless.”

Conversely, a lot of the great stuff I did see was at film festivals and so some of the below will be 2013 U.S. releases, if they get U.S. releases at all. It all makes for a slightly uneven playing field if you’re the type to compare list against list (and seriously, I hope you’re not), but there’s really no other way to properly convey my personal 2012 highlights.  

13. “Looper
I honestly am not sure “Looper” (review here) belongs on this list at all, but in the absence of some sort “film that improved the most while I was watching it” category, here it is. The truth is, I love me some Rian Johnson, and I love me some time travel bunkum, grandfather paradox and all, so I was really looking forward to “Looper.” Which then led to me feeling very disappointed in the first half, which was just as silly as the premise suggested (really, the only use for time travel in the lawless future dystopia is for the mafia to get rid of bodies? Whatever happened to bathtubs of lye?). So by the halfway point I kind of hated it, and then it just… got really good. The second half of the film was suddenly pure philosophy, like the best sci-fi, and I found myself completely absorbed by its humanism, and totally sold on the emotional stakes. Now my quandary here is, did I only like the second half because of the work that had been done in the first? Or could the film have been much better if Johnson had shorn out some of the unnecessary extra genre flourishes from the beginning? I really don’t know, but I can say that at least half of “Looper” was one of my favorite films of 2012.

12. “The Cabin in the Woods
Was any film last year more gonzo and oddly shaped than Drew Goddard’s Joss Whedon-co-written horror-comedy (review here)? I mean that in the best way possible — the film starts as one thing, morphs into another and ends up a completely different animal (possibly a Merman), but at no point is it ever less than great fun. Basically a series of increasingly eccentric and bizarre rug-pulls, the film careens along from one gotcha to the next, powered purely by giddy inventiveness and a delight in its dark, dark mean streak. In its colliding genres and general balls-out loopiness it does sometimes lose its footing, but perhaps most impressive is that it does generally follow some kind of insane high-concept chain of cause and effect to its logical, ludicrous conclusion — with plenty of quotable Whedonisms along the way. Special mention has to go to Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford who turned in my absolute favorite double-act of the year, and to that stupid/genius, funny/awful audacious/cop out wtf/are you serious? ending.

11. “Side by Side
A terrifically enjoyable documentary presented by Keanu Reeves on the subject of the conversion of all aspects of the film industry from celluloid to digital? Yes, I know how unlikely that sounds. But it really is a great film for cinephiles, featuring top-name interviewees dissecting the pros and cons of the most revolutionary change in cinema since the introduction of sound. It’s a great primer in the subject but also pulls off the neat trick of giving us flashes of insight into the characters and personalities of some of our favourite directors, zipping along at a pacy clip, but still doing a thorough job of educating as it entertains. Of course the newer technologies mentioned were probably obsolete before filming even wrapped, but already you can feel the film’s value as something other than an up-to-the-minute look at the digital vs. celluloid debate: in fact it’s a lovely sort of caesura moment, a brief press-pause where the biggest American filmmakers of their day talk for a moment about the medium they have helped make us love.

10. “The Avengers”/”The Dark Knight Rises”
Can’t believe I got beaten to the punch of having these two films share a joint position (damn you, Lyttelton!) but yes, I too want to build bridges across the great DC/Marvel divide and show that it is perfectly possibly to enjoy both of these films equally, if differently.

I’m a Whedon fan anyway, and thought that in ‘Avengers‘ he delivered the funnest, brashest, popcorniest, comic book confection we’ve had in years. Retrospectively it’s easy to think ‘Avengers’ was always going to be a home run, but whatever about Marvel’s ambitions and the built-in box-office, delivering on the sky-high expectations of fans and against the pre-sharpened critical knives of detractors while uniting a bunch of different franchises and narratives and egos into a coherent whole was never going to be easy, but Whedon made it look like falling off a log with a log-related quip. Oh, and as an extra flourish he decided to make the best Hulk movie we’d never seen and incorporate that in there too.

And as for “The Dark Knight Rises,” for me it played as a hugely satisfying conclusion to Nolan’s massive achievement with his Batman trilogy, and if, in Bane, it didn’t have a villain quite as memorable as Ledger’s Joker, well, not very many films do, now do they? As a film, in fact, I preferred it to “The Dark Knight” (I’m aware I’m in a tiny minority here), because it felt like all of the pieces were in a more harmonious whole, almost like a choral finale in which everyone gets their moment, and all of their moments feel earned. A graceful farewell to a defining period in Nolan’s career, we’re excited to see him move on to new things. ‘TDKR’ ensures he can do that without looking back. 

But having said all that, the other purpose of the shared spot is also to lend a little perspective to my list, because as different as these films are, they also share a great deal of DNA. So it gets kind of depressing (in a “the marketing guys have won” kind of way) to have so much of the discourse around the big movies of the year be given over to whether the bright colours and quips of ‘Avengers’ are inherently better or worse than the grey realism and grit of ‘TDKR’. After all, the rival fanbases of these two comic book movies represent only a tiny sliver of the spectrum of contrasting opinion and disagreement that cinema affords us. Vive la difference — let’s argue about something more fundamental next year. 

8. “Captive
I saw Brillante Mendoza’s Isabelle Huppert-starring film at the 2012 Berlinale (review) and have to say I think it’s been as unfairly overlooked as some of his films (I’m looking at you “Kinatay” or rather, I’m not, ever again) have been overpraised. It’s the taut, contained story of a kidnapping in the Philippines, which follows in unflinching, merciless detail the ordeal of a group of holidaymakers abducted and ransomed by Islamist separatists, which goes on for over a year. Some have their ransoms paid and are released, some die or are killed, some form tenuous friendships amongst themselves and with their captors, but what sets the film apart is the rigor of its unsentimentality. There is a deliberate eschewing of characterisation, no backstories, no cutting away to worried relatives at home or anything so manipulative. It’s not high-octane by any means, but I found it completely compelling over its 2-hour running time, and in its strict formal severity found it a more interesting film than the similarly themed but more classically arranged Danish film “A Hijacking,” which won a lot of plaudits. “Captive” is less a film to enjoy than to experience and the dispassionate objectivity of its approach will turn off many viewers, but I found it urgent and bruising, with a typically honest, unadorned central contribution from Huppert.

7. “A Gun in Each Hand”
Cesc Gay’s brilliantly acted, brilliantly scripted, funny, sad and insightful look at modern masculinity was one of the standout films of my Rome Film Festival (review here). The cast is a virtual who’s-who of contemporary Spanish acting talent, and they fire on all cylinders, working off a script that rings true to both the specificity of these characters and their idiosyncracies and to the universality of the film’s themes: ageing, trying to connect with old friends and lovers, realising that there is a difference between who you think you are and how the world sees you. It’s really a very wise and compassionate film, but it hides its good heart well under witty, sometimes acid dialogue, and the kind of conversations in which one person is making out a shopping list while the other person’s heart is breaking. As ever with a segmented film like this, some parts work better than others, and they are only loosely connected in a not-terribly-enlightening way, but here the journey is joy, not the destination, and what it may lack in startling, unifying third-act reveals it more than makes up for in tiny, enormous revelations along the way.

6. “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Certainly the most dialogue-rich film yet from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, ‘Anatolia’ is for me by far his most compelling (full review here). His trademark languid pacing, long takes and beautiful compositions are given added dimension by the dialogue, with allusion and symbolism now having other points of reference in the stories, jokes, chit chat and recounted memories of his characters. In fact, Ceylan’s talent for dialogue here (he’s a co-writer) seems equal to his facility with images (high praise indeed), with the exchanges perfectly modulated to color in, deepen or dance around his themes, while never feeling anything but real. Perhaps it’s a slight move away from the ultra-enigmatic nature of some of his other films, and perhaps he reveals himself and his intent a little more than he has done to date. But it is done with so much truth and compassionate insight that the effect of the film’s slo-motion revelations is deeper, and resounds for longer. And it means that the silences, when they do come at strategic points during the film, become almost holy in the weight of their import. A beautiful film shot through with empathy for the kind of ordinary, day-to-day heartbreak that has few better observers than Ceylan, with ‘Anatolia’ never has the ‘slow and boring’ movement felt so dense and interesting. 

5. “Death Row
Werner Herzog’s 4-part miniseries of interviews with death row inmates is simply gripping documentary filmmaking on every level, that reminds us over again of Herzog’s native intelligence and unerring instincts as a filmmaker (here’s the Berlin review). Perhaps my appreciation of his skills had become somewhat dulled of late. I was mildly interested in, but didn’t love “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” and there is something so seductive in the parody version of Herzog’s gloomy death-obsessed Teutonic voiceovers, and of the man himself as the lunatic who gets shot at during interviews and makes “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans,” that it’s easy to think of him as a guy who gets cast as the baddie in Tom Cruise action pics and not as an artist of singular intelligence and sensitivity (any more). These death row portraits explode any those slowly forming misconceptions and show Herzog at his most restrained and even-handed, with an uncanny knack for eliciting the most devastating of stories and reminiscences from his chilling subjects, and then getting swiftly out of the way. 

4. “Moonrise Kingdom
I’m not sure which backlash, or backlash-against-the-backlash (frontlash?) we’re up to on this one yet, because trying to keep up was threatening to give me whiplash. All I can say is that Wes Anderson’s latest (review here) was one of the most truly gorgeous, lovable times I had at the cinema this year, and when I left it wasn’t so much that the film stayed with me as that it felt like it had always been there. There is a formal precision to Anderson’s aesthetic that of course can become twee if it is not underpinned by real emotions, but here, as fetishized as the art direction is throughout, what you really come away with is the warmth of the film’s heart, and the odd accuracy of the memory of childhood’s glories and mortifications. Holding Anderson accountable for the slew of second-rate imitators of his style is wrongheaded anyway, but if you allow the copycats to put you off the original, then you’re denying yourself a real, heartfelt treat.

3. “The Attack
A formally thrilling and thematically daring film detailing the terrible personal toll that a Tel Aviv suicide bombing takes on one good man, with “The Attack” (reviewed here), Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri pulls off the task of taking an utterly poisonous political subject and making a brilliantly compelling film that doesn’t feel like it panders to any particular notions of political correctness, but never feels like propaganda either. Based on the novel of the same name by Yasmina Khadra, “The Attack” is ultimately a personal story but it never trivializes the dreadfulness of the act at its centre, nor the injustices that fuelled it. And if it doesn’t offer any answers, perhaps, in bringing us, so skilfully, deep into the belly of the beast, it makes us understand the questions just a little bit better. 

2. “The Hunt
Anchored by Mads Mikkelsen’s Cannes Best Actor-winning central performance, Thomas Vinterberg’s brilliant but harrowing “The Hunt,” is a scorchingly tense return to form (and to early themes) for the “Festen” director (reviewed here). An account of the witchhunt that ensues after a false accusation of paedophilia among a tight-knit group of friends, some critics have complained about the central, innocent man’s passivity in the face of his increasing pariah status within the community. To them I say, respectfully, whaaa? He is not passive, he’s paralysed with incredulity, the knowledge of his innocence, and the belief that his friends must come to their senses. So while he is victimised physically and emotionally by others, the real drama of the film is internal — it is not about proving his innocence, it is about not believing for a second that anyone could actually need proof. And finally it is him, simply having to say the words, that ends the misery but it’s also a defeat — an acknowledgement that the friendships he believed in were not what he had thought. For me, that the protagonist’s terrible predicament is partly the result of this trapped, circular thinking is the film’s greatest strength, and it makes the man’s situation almost unbearably relatable: if this were to happen to me I would simply be waiting for the madness to end too. Terrifying, chilly and ruthlessly logical, I’m not sure the film needed its final slightly gimmicky twist, but otherwise nothing had me as far on the edge of my seat all year as this did.

1. “Rock of Ages”
Kidding! Just kidding! My number one is “Holy Motors,” like nearly every other critic’s, sorry. You’re probably as sick as I am of seeing Leos Carax’s rollercoaster mindfuck tour de force on the top of year-end lists, but though every contrarian impulse in my body is screaming against it, it deserves its spot here for me too, and by quite some distance. A lot’s been said about 2012 being a great year for movies and I’d tentatively agree in that I think there have been a lot of generally pretty decent films, and the base level has seemed, to generalise wildly, slightly higher — perhaps as a result of having some of our better-performing blockbusters also be the sort of films that don’t make your brain cry. But at the same time there were very few total standouts for me personally, except for “Holy Motors,” which truly towered head and shoulders above anything else I saw in terms of verve and nerve and scope and audacity. It is also the best value film I saw all year comprising pretty much ten or eleven films rolled into one that run from horror to drama to comedy to thriller, and in almost all cases, are absorbing, sometimes lovely, sometimes spooky, sometimes sad stories in their own right. And that’s before we even start talking about the meta-story, which is the biggest puzzle of them all.

I was not a fan of Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge” at all, in fact I loathed it and remember it as pretentious and really very dull. So what surprised me here was just how entertained I was by “Holy Motors” which did everything that every other film on this list did, in one glorious jumbly messy brilliant soup, and also gave me my longest, heartiest, least expected laugh of the year (chimps). And really that’s the crux of it. A riddle wrapped in a drama wrapped in a comedy wrapped in a thriller wrapped in an enigma, “Holy Motors” isn’t just my favorite film of the year — it’s all of my favorite films of the year, and quite a few other films besides.

Honorable mentions:
“Anna Karenina” was the first film from Joe Wright that I’ve been really impressed by, though many of my esteemed colleagues are long-time fans (our review is here). It’s a beautiful, imaginative movie, particularly in its first third, where I almost got tired of having my breath taken away. Still, while Keira Knightly didn’t jaw-act this time, which I have accused her of previously (it was all about the clavicles here), her characterisation of the petulant Anna might have been brave in its unlikability, but it did make her ultimate tragic fate kind of not-so-tragic. Nonetheless, had it been about 15 minutes shorter, it probably would have made my list proper, just for the conviction Wright brought to doing something truly new and different with the fustiest of genres. 

Another literary adaptation, Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” (review) was the most incredible evocation of mood I saw all year — the dripping muddy moors, the mists and rains and scabs and whipping hair all made for some of the most seemingly unaestheticized and yet beautiful shots I’d seen. But I just didn’t get caught up in the human story of Cathy and Heathcliff, as good as all the actors (particualrly the younger set, I thought) were. It’s a story about ungovernable, passionate love, but it felt like the dampness stifled the fire. 

And finally “Killing Them Softly” (reviewed here) boasted some terrific performances, especially from Scoot McNairy and the appalling duo of Ben Mendelsohn and James Gandolfini, and I wanted to love the film as much as I loved “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (which is probably in my top ten of the decade). But the elegiac sadness of ‘Assassination’ is absent here and replaced by nothing but what felt to me like easy cynicism. Plus I started to think about how much more interesting it would have been had Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins switched roles, and then I couldn’t get that out my head. 

Worst Films:
Runner up: “The Cold Light of Day” is remarkable only (and I mean only) for having Sigourney Weaver turn up in exactly the same role she played in 2011 Worst Film candidate “Abduction,” wearing what I’m pretty sure is the exact same ill-fitting trouser suit. 

The absolute pits: “This Means War” gets special dishonour for taking three principals I actively like and making all three mince around like idiots serving a plot that isn’t just silly, it’s patently offensive on every level.

Don’t See What The Fuss Is About:
Argo” was fine, but a little flat, and ultimately a bit forgettable, except for Scoot McNairy’s glasses which I liked a lot. I just like saying Scoot McNairy. Scoot McNairy. 

Silver Linings Playbook” was a nicely played romantic comedy that was billed as something transgressive or progressive or whatever, but was actually hugely conventional, right down to the “the dance finals are on the same day as the Big Game” trope which I’m almost certain is the climax of at least three “Step Up” movies. 

And “Beasts of the Southern Wild” made me generally uncomfortable, but I’m not sure if that’s because of my ancient wariness of magic realism as a genre, or because there really was something exploitative about the “wonder in squalor” aspect of it. For magic realism to work at all for me (and I stress it rarely does), the realism has to earn the magic, and vice versa — a really difficult, symbiotic balance has to be struck if it’s not going to end up simply a fantasy that borrows relevance and interest from real events, or a ‘real’ story that escapes into unrelated fantasy when it can’t think of exactly what it’s trying to say. And when you feel alienated from this kind of narrative, that’s when empathy crosses over into condescension. So while I believe the intentions of all concerned were good, and Quvenzhane Wallis is endearing to watch, ultimately I feel the film takes more from the discourse around Katrina, and general disenfranchisement, than it gives back to it. Hence: discomfort.

Biggest Disappointment:
Prometheus” crushed my hopes for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe as surely as Charlize Theron was crushed beneath that big rolling thing that she didn’t think to simply move out of the way of.  A mess of unresolved subplots, baffling character 180s and Dramatic Things That Happen and then are Never Mentioned Again, I may have seen worse films this year, but none hurt quite so much.

Let’s never speak of it again.

Happy New Year, everybody, thanks for reading. 

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