Sunday, January 6, 2013

Top 20 Films of 2012

2012 in Review: Who Will Survive in America?

“About the whole ‘no guns’ thing...I’m not sure I feel as strongly as you do.”

“America’s not a country, it’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”

“I am the President of the United States, clothed in immense power!”

“This is a protest against the future. They won’t hold off the future.”

These quotes and others dangle in my mind as I reflect on the movies that meant something to me this year, partially because they sound like a particularly chilling merger of the films we experienced and the culture surrounding them. As someone who loves studying and writing about these intersections, there were some key and wonderful texts that provoked lots of great discussions among friends and colleagues, even as the world around us seemed dreadfully precarious the entire year.

2012 was a strange year for American cinema. Just as the cultural landscape grappled with the Occupy Movement, a presidential election, and mass shootings in movie theaters and elementary schools, the movies presented alternately rousing (The Avengers) and anxiety-laden (The Dark Knight Rises) representations of that very landscape.

It was a year of long run-times (Django Unchained, Lincoln, Les Miserables, The Hobbit, everything), a year of filmmakers with big ideas overextending their reach (Cloud Atlas), a year of gorgeously-shot movies that managed to feel utterly empty (Prometheus). If anything, 2012 was full of films that tried to push the medium/their material in some way, but often felt deeply unsatisfactory.

My lists are always more the story of myself in 2012 than they are an attempt to calculate the objective “best.” I connect more with films that feel in some way attached to my own writing, my own teaching, what have you. That’s why I’m so thrilled to see so many varied films about “America” this year, and why I embrace so many films that even I might see as deeply flawed: I nevertheless want to explore them again and again, and that means more to me. These films also connect in some way to my own experiences, my own revelations throughout the year.

If anything, living in Los Angeles has afforded me the chance to see too many movies, to the point that narrowing this list down is almost an impossible task. Even singling out 20 seems sad, for it forces me leave out movies like Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh’s gleefully overstuffed second feature; ParaNorman, a fantastic animated film that, despite a tad redundant third act, really does deserve love; Take This Waltz, which cements Sarah Polley and continues my love affair with Michelle Williams; The Cabin in the Woods, which may go too far off the rails but I still love watching; and The Grey, which I think will only climb in estimation in the ensuing years.

Then there are movies like Cloud Atlas, where I still don’t know how I feel about them. I actually think my estimation of Atlas will grow in years to come, and I look forward to seeing it again. 

As always, opinions constantly change, and that’s both the beauty and the reductive nature of list-making. I look forward to revisiting all these films in years to come.

20 Favorite 2012 Movies (+1 2011 Holdover)

21. Arbitrage (dir. Nicholas Jarecki)
The talking point for Jarecki’s debut film has been Richard Gere’s performance, but in the growing trend of “Great Recession Cinema,” it’s a vital little financial thriller. Much like (but then also completely unlike) last year’s Margin Call, it affords an intimate window into economic/personal meltdown, relying on strong writing to make its allegorical point.  It’s a film about concealment: of both violent acts and of murky financial decisions. The complex links between violence, money, and personal action form its tightly wound backbone.

19. Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino) // Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Two movies about taking on and taking down slavery, about America in and around the Civil War. They’re both very talky. They’re both very long, overstuffed, and both flawed through their respective directors’ quirks and egos. They’re both intense dissections of mythic figures and social structures. But whereas Spielberg is about political process as a form of mythologization, Tarantino is about subversion and anger and violence. Spielberg is veiled restraint, Tarantino is bloody excess. I’m not even sure if I wholly like either of these films, but they stick in my mind as important and complex and necessary texts.

18. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (dir. Peter Jackson)
From its stories and songs to its glossy compositions and swirling overhead shots, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth is a study in pure, unbridled excess. The real strength of the film (surprisingly, most of all to me) is its length -- this is a “fan’s film.” It caters to that demographic by assuming a vast familiarity with Middle Earth that is (depending on your perspective) fresh and exciting or off-putting and dumbfounding. But I am a fan. A huge, gushing, nerdy fan of Middle Earth and all its stories. By embracing so many tangents, Jackson deepens and enriches this world through drawing on so much of its mythology and folklore.

17. Haywire (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
I’m still shocked at Haywire’s relatively tepid reception, even among general moviegoers. Unlike most 2012 movies, it knows exactly what it wants to be and executes its concepts so precisely, edit by edit and kick by kick. It’s one of Soderbergh’s “cooler” offerings in some time, and he plays it close to the spy genre vest. Each scene takes on the tone of a movement, a mood, and they all connect in such pulsating rhythms. There were few movies I simply enjoyed more this year.

16. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)
I still can’t fully get into the second hour of Looper, which is one of the biggest tonal shifts I’ve seen in a long time, but it encapsulates what the film is about: the tensions between binaries. Urban vs. rural, present vs. future (vs. past), business vs. pleasure, violence vs. passivity, sacrifice vs. destruction, love vs. cruelty -- they are all bound up in an immaculately designed film. Rian Johnson emerges as a fully-formed visualist with more creative verve breathlessly stuffed into that first hour than a dozen other movies might have.

15. Oslo, 31 August (dir. Joachim Trier)
Being a huge fan of Trier’s first film, Reprise, I was exhilarated to see what he would do next. If anything, Oslo suggests Trier might be the best director of opening sequences working today. The first seven minutes of the film are a magnificent theoretical treatise on memory and place, while the subsequent plot rambles through a day in that place as a recovering addict searches for some semblance of redemption. It’s haunting, but borders so frequently on poetry, rendering one soul’s desperation in captivating precision.

14. Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin)
Alright, alright, alright. Matthew McConaughey has had a renaissance year, and he doesn’t shine brighter than in Friedkin’s deeply demented adaptation of Tracy Letts’s play. As a sheriff-for-hire, McConaughey struts, menaces, and lashes out at a family whose harebrained scheme blows up in their faces. There’s brutal violence, sadistic sexuality, and an all-out command of space. Friedkin pushes his material to the point of eruption by winding this toy as tight as his self-imposed limitations allow. The performances work impeccably with the tone and atmosphere; chronically foreboding, but always undercut by a freakish sense of humor.

13. Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold)
Literary adaptations are often so stuffy, so insistent on the source material. Arnold uses Emily Bronte’s story as structure, but she seems much less interested in translation and much more in using the moods and interactions as opportunities. Her bobbing camera stays close to the two lovers and their world, revealing something deeply sensual and heartbreaking. Be it the cold sting of wind, riding on the back of a horse, or yearning glances, Arnold has used literature to capture life, and you couldn’t quite ask for more from an adaptation.

12. Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)
The critical community may be abuzz with LincolnThe Master, and Zero Dark Thirty at this point, but you could make a strong case for Beasts being 2012’s “Darling Movie.” In a summer overstuffed with effects tentpoles, it was an epic of phenomenology, of a small sliver of Americana thrusting itself through catastrophe to catharsis. Zeitlin’s film blends the mythological and the all-too-real, the cosmic and the literal in a (dare I compare?) Malick-ian sort of way. And with its 16mm camera and rousing score, it really felt like nothing else, all stacked on the shoulders of a beautiful child actress whose relationship with the camera is unreal.

11. Rust and Bone (dir. Jacques Audiard)
Oh, so you don’t like Katy Perry? Watch this and get back to me; you’d never realize “Firework” could actually take on such deep meaning. Following A Prophet was going to be tough work, but Audiard’s careful attention to character mannerisms shines here. His world is contrived, overt, deterministic. His plot is far less important than the people moving throughout it, and his gritty camera catches sunbeams and other miniscule details almost as if by magic. Yet Rust and Bone would be nothing without Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard, who so deeply and so astonishingly embody these characters. Audiard’s style serves characters caught in ideological and spatial traps, but there’s innate beauty here: It’s like watching souls converge.

10. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)
It’s tiring how often Hollywood tells stories about itself. Look no further than Hitchcock for the most wretched kind of self-industrial history. The beauty of Argo is in how it meets its dangerous blend of fact and fiction through Hollywood formula: it’s a chase thriller and a spy movie as much as it is political commentary and snarky love letter. It’s a historical film that is keenly aware of how and why Hollywood has a vested interest in transforming history for its ideological concerns. And still, it has something significant to say about U.S.-Middle East relations without pandering to contemporary fault lines.

9. Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright)
A lot of people didn’t care for Wright and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the Tolstoy novel, where the world literally becomes a stage of changing sets and theatrical acting. But what better way to do melodrama than to flaunt excess? The film shifts manner throughout, from playfully stagey to seriously cinematic, popping with overstuffed and overcolored costumes one minute and drained to two intimate close-ups the next. It’s a dizzying pinwheel of a production with magnificent detail and purpose. Best part is: this beautiful excess only heightens the complexity of the work. Joe Wright and Keira Knightley bring out the best in each other; their partnership yields such striking beauty.

8. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Yeah, I know, it’s not The Dark Knight. Yeah, I know, it tries to do too much, and may reach the point of diminishing returns. But for all the boldly flawed, “ambitious” films that came out of Hollywood’s studios this year, Dark Knight Rises stands tall as a continued dissection of 21st century problems: urban rot, political (in)difference, economic turmoil, empty ideologies, and our nation’s intricate relationship to mythologies and “the truth.” It is both about the turn to the second decade of this century as much as it represents the Hollywood ideology that breeds it. But unlike most tentpoles, it’s an absolute anxiety test of a movie, preying on social weaknesses and using disturbingly resonant images for perverted spectacle. While the actual action may be messy, the ideas are ablaze.

7. Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg)
Superficial comparisons to James Joyce aside, Cronenberg’s film was unfairly maligned when it came out (probably because it’s designed to provoke a violent reaction). With little “plot,” the intricate wordplay and the Canadian filmmaker’s penchant blend of hardcore violence and sexuality takes center stage. Fortuitously, the Occupy Movement provides a serendipitous sort of backdrop about the literal divides between percentiles, the faltering ideologies of both sides, socio-political discourse’s growing incomprehension, and the disappearance of the self. While maybe not the “first film about our new millennium,” as the ads proclaim, it nevertheless feels like one of the most important.

6. Bernie (dir. Richard Linklater)
What a surprise Bernie was this summer; then again, should I have expected less from Linklater?  He is always a deceptive filmmaker who rarely overstates (nor understates; it’s amazing how precise the tones and beats of his films are). He does more interesting things with the docudrama format than just about any “found footage” or “true story” movie I can recall in recent years, turning the people and geography of Texas into a veritable chorus. It’s an absurdist sort of comedy, and a bizarre comedy of manners. Its heart is far from dark, bolstered by Jack Black proving his partnership with Linklater brings out his best and most dynamic qualities. Social commentary rarely goes down this smooth.

5. Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Okay, so this was technically a 2011 release, but it was very difficult to see this film before 2012, and I have to include it. I feel beyond compelled. Lonergan’s multi-year post-production hell may garble the fluidity of the film, but its structural imperfections only enhance its emotional intensity. Truly, it’s a film that can never feel finished, as it is a film about “becoming.” A portrait of adolescence and urban anxiety as much as our culture’s frustrated dissonance to violence and ideological ruptures, Margaret is one of the most purely emotional experiences I’ve had in a long time from a film. It’s a laborious and staggering diagnosis of our collective grief and anger over events that don’t quite make sense and a world whose relationships feel frayed at best.

4. Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax)
Look upon it and weep. Holy Motors bursted forth with such exuberance after Cannes it was likely to disappoint by the time it actually reached Stateside. Like Cosmopolis, it’s about the disintegration (or plurality?) of the self as told over a small period of time through a stretch limo. But it’s far more David Lynch than Cronenberg, swirling through seemingly unconnected episodes about our fantasies and fears, rendering society and self as performative and melancholic. In a way, that Lynch comparison feels reductive though, as Carax and his chameleon star Denis Lavant have crafted a piece of cinema that does what all great “art pieces” perhaps try: create space for our meanings, and render its abstraction in powerfully personal means. It dazzles, bewilders, and swoons to its own beat. Also, Kylie Minogue and the accordion intermission.

3. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
What a fountain of riches Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent work is. Headed by a trio of volcanic, towering performances -- Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged animal is the best acting of the year, but Amy Adams hasn’t gotten close to enough ink for her masterful work -- Anderson dissects post-WW2 anxiety and social friction. “America” becomes a land of wayward souls, where gorgeous 70mm film exposes not just spectacular landscapes of Southern California and elsewhere, but the many fault lines of the human face as it struggles to find meaning (the close-ups in this film are, excuse the pun, masterful. You haven’t seen complex faces quite like this in some time). Anderson’s film, likewise, claws for meaning (I would argue purposefully), circling away from any kind of narrative answer as it becomes increasingly elliptical, just as the lives of those in its spotlight start to crack and lose any semblance of their facade.

2. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
The first thing you hear are panicked 9/11 phone calls. The last thing you see is a tear roll down Jessica Chastain’s face. In between, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal pull off the unthinkable. They render the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden in astonishing complexity while leaving it up to us to ascribe meaning. It’s a procedural thriller that incessantly seems to dialogue with its audience, trusting them to bring their own experience and their own ideology into the film. It doesn’t try to create opinions or arguments about the worth of hunting bin Laden, but presents a vision of it that manifests a cultural image. Bigelow and Boal’s greatest strength is the intimacy of the film: it is not comprehensive, shrouded in discussions of ideologies and histories; that would feel detrimental to this vision. By being more about information than politics, Zero Dark Thirty transcends all its traps to become the towering epic of post-9/11 movies. It’s daring, complex, and challenging in all the ways I wish American cinema could be.

1. Killing Them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik)
Like a punch to the gut, Killing Them Softly operates on a dialectical axis that bludgeons with its ideas much in the same way its petty gangsters beat each other to a pulp. The gangster film has always been a genre of continuous reinvention, propelled in large part by shifting conceptions of “the American Dream.” Against the backdrop of the 2008 economic meltdown and presidential election, televisions and radios provide counterpoint and commentary to the financially-driven actions of the principal characters. Shrouded in their own soft-focus world, distanced from each other by way of back rooms and cars, Killing Them Softly is a tough sell -- it’s aggressive to the point of almost wearing the viewer down, but I don’t think that makes it a lesser film. If anything, it makes it richer, begging you to look deeper at how it sees society as fundamentally corporate and violent.

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