There are few traditions more established in the movie-related blogosphere (not to mention among film fans in conversation) than the annual, venerated, mocked, always-debatable “Top 10 of the Year” list. While they are as ubiquitous as New Year’s resolutions, some people actually find it difficult to name 10 new movies they liked in any given year. For any number of reasons, some find it difficult to see 10 new movies in a given year. As for me, I am usually able to easily put together a respectable list based on what I catch by way of trips to the multiplex, art house, and film festival, plus whatever I can manage at home via home video release or pre-release screeners.
An important qualifier—one that my “civilian” friends know well already from years of slogging through my annual appraisals: I’m not saying these are the 10 “best” movies released in 2012. I’ve really only seen about maybe ¼ of the movies released (which would be officially designated as eligible for awards consideration) by the time this obligation rolls around every year, so I’m more than aware I may well have missed a classic you loved or that I might rank highly.
Those who do film criticism for a living have the time and luxury to see more. I hate to miss so much, but that’s life. At any rate, I want to be certain that you note my list is comprised of my personal 10 favorites of the films I saw in 2012.
You can probably judge even from this list what kind of tastes I possess, and whether or not you’d agree with my choices if you haven’t seen a particular movie; and you can always refer back to many of my past posts here. But, as Rob Reiner said so memorably in This Is Spinal Tap—enough of my yakkin’: Let’s boogie!
Going in reverse, from the #10 spot to the #1:
I think this may be the first year I felt I couldn’t choose between two movies competing for a spot in my rankings, and thus I award this tie. Both small-scale indie romantic dramedies that rely on charm and quirk, these two films provide welcome relief from all the effects-heavy behemoths Hollywood now belches out with increasing frequency. Writer/director Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz not only represents another reliably solid performance from Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn), it also contains the pleasures of a nuanced performance by funnyman Seth Rogen. While Polley’s film offers us an intimate character study from the female perspective, writer/director/star Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts takes the thirtysomething man’s point-of-view, also delivering a knowing look at the “going to college” vibe few other movies have matched.
Also, I want to make a special mention of Elizabeth Olsen’s wonderfully authentic work in the Radnor picture. Olsen made a stunning debut in the unsettling psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene, and has since popped up in a few other films that received not quite as much attention. After I saw Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, one of her earliest works, I predicted she’d go on to win the Academy Award. I made a similar observation after seeing Kate Winslet in one of her first pictures. Here, I’m going to make the same guess about Olsen. It won’t be for this movie (which got very little attention beyond its tiny release), but mark my words. With the right choices, her day at the podium will come.
9. The Paperboy
Honestly—we live in the land of Honey Boo Boo; nobody should be begrudging me an appreciation of “trashy” material in the movies. And director Lee Daniels’ film wallows in gutter appeal to its great advantage. This is a pulpy, steamy, outrageous, and deliberately offensive Southern Gothic crime drama that boasts not only eye-poppingly outrageous performances from Nicole Kidman and Matthew McConaughey (more on him in my next selection), but solid work from Zac Efron and a deliciously weird turn from John Cusack, maybe his finest role since Being John Malkovich. I’m an unapologetic Daniels fan; I loved both Shadowboxer and Precious: From the Novel Push by Sapphire; this is his third wonderfully subversive film.
8. Killer Joe
If there were any justice, Matthew McConaughey would get some kind of special award for his work this year. He is putting it all on the table. Between The Paperboy and this–“Exorcist” director William Friedkin’s second adaptation of a Tracy Letts play (after the marvelously demented Bug)–McConaughey clearly has a jones to bust open his reputation as a lightweight by taking on some risky and rewarding material. Here, he plays a Texas sheriff moonlighting as a hit man, agreeing to a job he’s hired for by people who aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. His dim-witted employers are well-played by Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church; Juno Temple and Gina Gershon are also part of this brilliant ensemble, daring to shock us by baring skin or shrieking vulgarities. This is one nasty film noir with a grim sense of humor.
7. Holy Motors
Yes, writer/director Leos Carax’ wildly unpredictable movie is a surreal tribute to the cinema and to the character actor (as another fan of the film remarked to me), but it is also something of a movie Rorschach test—fitted with a solid narrative concept but left simultaneously so loosey-goosey that viewers can read practically any meaning they would like into it. Denis Lavant (literally the “character actor” in question) delivers a spellbinding performance (in various degrees of physical disguise) as a man of unclear purposes being chauffeured around Paris, meeting appointment after unusual appointment to act out his assigned role in touching, weirdly sexual, violent, or just plain bizarre situations. Packed with stunning images and daring flourishes, it’s the arthouse rollercoaster ride of the year. There were two self-consciously arty movies this year about men riding around in limos all day; Cosmopolis is the other one. This is one of the best movies of 2012.
Hurricane Katrina rather perversely renewed film and TV producers’ interest in Louisiana (and particularly New Orleans) as a colorful backdrop for storytelling. This drama, mixing fairy tale magic and harsh realism, is one of the best products of that “new wave” of cinematic material. Showcasing what seems like an effortlessly natural performance by first-time child actor Quvenzhané Wallis (who was five years old when she auditioned) as a resourceful bayou girl known as Hushpuppy, the film wastes no time in situating the viewer in an otherworldly realm called “the Bathtub,” the community where she resides in a dilapidated house with her father (Dwight Henry, also making an impressive film debut). As a fable about life, love, and loss, it’s mesmerizing; if the film is guilty of becoming a mite heavy-handed towards the second half, I found it easy to forgive since there’s so much to admire in director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s adventurous style and Ben Richardson’s scrappy cinematography.
Just before the release of this documentary, there was a mini-stink over its inclusion of profanity, and whether or not the film would receive a rating that would technically restrict it from the young people who would be among the audiences to most benefit from its candor. Thankfully, the MPAA saw fit to apply the PG-13 rating to (yes, a slightly adjusted version of) this eye-opening profile of bullying— of its victims, its perpetrators, and its witnesses. The movie is valuable because it requires viewers to rethink where they draw the boundaries between helicopter parenting and a “boys will be boys” indifference that allows a Lord of the Flies-style mentality of unrestricted cruelty to take root; because it’s called “Bully” and not “Bullied,” you might expect the film to include a little more insight into those who do the attacking (which would certainly be worthwhile, I suppose, in the same way that it’s helpful at some level to understand the psyche of the criminal mind), but locating the heart of the study in the point-of-view of those who suffer the abuse allows us to more accurately feel their frustration while adults surrounding them address their plight with misunderstanding or helplessness—or, worse, rejection.
4. The Master
Joaquin Phoenix returns from his odd, self-imposed, perhaps Borat-inspired sabbatical (theoretically in pursuit of the quasi-documentary I’m Still Here) to top the cast of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s challenging religious drama. On the surface, it’s a thinly-disguised critique of Scientology, with co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman taking on the Kane-like substitute character referred to as the “Master” of the title. Phoenix becomes Hoffman’s newest pupil by chance—or destiny, depending on your beliefs—only to find that adherence to any dogma rubs him the wrong way and fails to stanch his social anxieties or sexual dysfunctions. I wrote at length about the movie here; my feeling is that Phoenix’s eccentric off-camera remarks and unusual behavior might injure the film’s awards chances. That’s too bad; the performances in the film are uniformly excellent, Anderson’s direction is as bold as ever, and The Master eclipses whatever parallels it might be making with L. Rob Hubbard’s life and work much in the same way (if not necessarily to equal impact) as Welles’ Citizen Kane reaches well beyond its observations on Hearst.
James Bond movies have both the benefit and curse of being judged not just by how well they meet, exceed, or set the standards of contemporary action pictures, but also by the benchmarks of every other film in the series coming before and (then) after; by fidelity to the books of Ian Fleming; and finally, by special attention paid to the quality of each individual ingredient of the films that have been recognized now as de rigueur elements of 007 thrillers. How’s the actor playing Bond? How beautiful are the women? Is the spy story strong? Good stunts? Great villain? Exotic locations? Memorable title song? Enough of the “James Bond Theme” in the music score? And yes, even the trademark “gunbarrel” sequence—where it’s placed, how Bond fires the gun, what variation of the Bond theme plays during it—comes in for inspection by hardcore fans. In most if not exactly all of these aspects, the 23rd Bond picture ranks especially high. For me, the standout in Skyfall, in addition to Daniel Craig’s third hard-as-nails take on the role, is the magnificent cinematography by Roger Deakins, who is well, well past due for an Academy Award win. What I now really, really want to see in “Bond 24” is 007 having some fun. Craig’s Bond has earned it.
I’m probably now forced to rethink my very early prediction that director/star Ben Affleck’s movie about exfiltrating Americans from Tehran after the 1979 attack on the U.S. Embassy is the lock for a Best Picture win; it may have been released too early in the year to maintain the proper momentum. However, don’t let that keep you away from this movie if you missed it in the theaters—this is old-fashioned adult drama at its very best, and you’re left wondering just how much of this stranger-than-fiction story (declassified during the presidency of Bill Clinton) is actually 100% true. The 1970s period details are immaculate but not showy or tacky; the cast, led by Affleck, performs with the kind of no-nonsense efficiency we associate with the classic films of that era. That’s excepting the colorful supporting turns by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who rate chewing the scenery a bit more since they’re playing Hollywood bigshots. Arkin coins the hysterical recurring line in the movie I’ll probably be shouting out loud when some “less deserving” film takes the top prize.
1. Life of Pi
I entered Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 bestseller quite skeptically; I wasn’t familiar with the book, but cynicism got just enough the best of me to prejudge that the film would turn out to be full of treacly bombast and Hallmark Card sentimentality. Was I ever wrong. Not only is Lee’s film the finest achievement in 3D filmmaking to date, the story on which it’s based (or should I say “stories”?) turns out to be the perfect movie about God for believers and agnostics alike.
Irrfan Khan plays the older version of the title character, played by Suraj Sharma for most of the film in the flashbacks that detail his harrowing, sometimes mystical journey of survival at sea with the prickly Bengal tiger named Richard Parker; Khan promises us (by way of promising the man interviewing him) that we will “believe in God” by the end of his tale. The movie didn’t get me there; no movie could. What I will say is that it gave me a beautiful reflection of my own attitude about belief, which is that we all pursue the same riddles about the existence of the divine through different avenues, and it’s the common pursuit of those mysteries that should unite us, rather than allowing variations in the stories that define those faiths—or even the lack of faith entirely—to divide us.
Honorable Mention: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
I mean, just look at that. This is one of those shot-in-Europe-to-save-money monstrosities that drinks a heaping jug of the crazy juice. I proudly admit: I loved it. Nicolas Cage, my personal thanks.