THE BEST FILMS OF 2012
Every year, it is any critic’s “duty” to put together a list of the “ten best” films of the year. I find year after year that this is a time-consuming and difficult task. How is one who truly loves film supposed to narrow down a list to a mere “top 10″? I’ve tried every way I know how to list, number, and/or categorize my favorite films of the year – a lengthy list, indeed – and it never feels as though I’m doing true justice to those films that don’t fit in a list of ten. To further complicate matters, I won’t see everything that would’ve made this list in 2012 as some things open in my hometown in early 2013.
So: I have listed my “top 10″ alphabetically below, preceded only by my two favorite films of the year, then my “Eleventh Place tie” for the films every bit as good that don’t quite fit in those 10 slots. There are categories after that. Still, this is all pretty arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. However, as a top ten is some kind of sacred thing for critics, here goes…
1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower: This film just gets me. No film moved me more this year than debut writer-director Stephen Chobsky’s adaptation of his own 1999 novel about high school malaise and the struggle to fit in. Its hero, Charlie (Logan Lerman), traumatized at a young age by a violent car accident which killed his favorite kooky aunt (Melanie Lynskey, shattering in mere flashback and insinuation), is set adrift in a suburban Pittsburgh high school only to find his niche among the outcasts and “freaks” (including a terrific Ezra Miller as flamboyantly gay Patrick; Emma Watson as his violent but fragile half-sister Sam, aka Charlie’s first crush; and Mae Whitman as even more violent and fragile Buddhist Mary Elizabeth). Perhaps no film has captured the humor and the heartache of young love and the growing pangs of adolescence quite so vividly. Chobsky is a talent to watch.
2. Detachment: Tony Kaye might be a name you don’t recognize, but it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. After having his career all but buried by the post-production fiasco that was 1998′s American History X (still young star Edward Norton locked Kaye out of editing and recut the film and the studio released it as he saw fit, only for Kaye to take out an ad ripping the star and the film a new one in Hollywood trade papers), Kaye all but disappeared. Now, he’s back with one of the very best films of the year…which nobody saw. Released in February on Video on Demand and in extremely limited runs in New York and LA, Kaye’s latest stars Adrien Brody, in what might be his best performance to date (yes, better even than The Pianist or Summer of Sam) as a depressed substitute teacher who is determined to avoid getting attached to the students in his charge, the faculty around him, or anyone else as he takes on an assignment at a Long Island high school. However, he soon finds out how hard that is. Further, the faculty (including Marcia Gay Harden, Tim Blake Nelson, Lucy Liu, William Petersen, James Caan, Blythe Danner, Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks of Mad Men) all have their own issues, as do the students (including the director’s daughter, debuting actress Betty Kaye as a depressed artistic soul) and hangers-on (including Sami Gayle as a young prostitute he takes off the street) he encounters. The subject matter could scarcely be more fraught or more timely, but the treatment shakes you to your very core. Seek this out.
The Rest of the Best, alphabetically:
3. Argo: Ben Affleck has been the laughing-stock of Hollywood actors the past decade or so, but in 2007 with Gone Baby Gone and again in 2010′s The Town, he proved that he had a real filmmaker’s vision. His latest, a real thriller, is also his best. The astonishing but true story of a CIA-sanctioned operation to retrieve a group of Americans holed up in the Tehran home of the Canadian ambassador during the Iran hostage crisis, the film stars Affleck as a CIA operative who comes up with a crude but effective plan to get the Americans out of Iran alive: he’ll fly in as part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a B-grade science fiction film production and they’ll all fly out together. The ludicrous yet ingenious plan involves a foul-mouthed Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin, terrific), a fat but famous makeup artist (John Goodman) and a bit of finagling on the part of a CIA ally (Bryan Cranston). The results are wonderfully-made, tense, gripping and often hilarious.
4. Beasts of the Southern Wild: Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut is a powerfully-moving, imaginative and hand-crafted modern fairy tale from the perspective of the bravest New Orleans denizen ever captured on film. Six-year-old newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis stars (!) as Hushpuppy, an androgynous young girl in post-Katrina Louisiana who resides in a shack with her alcoholic, violently frustrated father (fellow newcomer Dwight Henry) perched in a rural area dubbed “the Bathtub.” When young Hushpuppy finds that her father is dying, realizing she has no mother to raise her, she must learn to survive on her own. This crushing reality is intermixed beautifully with stunning imagination on the part of Zeitlin, whose young heroine believes that when Global Warming destroys the ice caps once and for all, her world and everything inside will be ravaged by giant prehistoric buffalo. The results are a powerful concoction of American neo-realism and magical fantasy – one film I won’t soon forget.
5. Killer Joe: Matthew McConaughey had a pretty amazing year, from his strip club owner in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (the Burt Reynolds to Channing Tatum’s Mark Wahlberg if you will) to a small-town Texas prosecutor in Linklater’s Bernie, as well as a closeted gay reporter in the 1960s Florida swamps of The Paperboy. Yet nothing could’ve prepared you for his shocking, darkly charming and ghoulishly funny turn as the title character in this latest stage play adaptation from William Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts (Bug). As a sleazy, corrupt Texas detective, McConaughey is astonishing as “Killer Joe” Cooper, a hired gun brought in to cash in on an insurance policy by murdering the former matriarch of a deeply dysfunctional family of trailer park trash (including Emile Hirsch as a scuzzy drug dealer son in debt to the wrong people, Thomas Hayden Church as the beer-swilling patriarch, and Gina Gershon as his slutty wife). When the family can’t pay the retainer, Killer Joe takes their child-like sexpot daughter (Juno Temple, striking notes reminiscent of Patricia Arquette in True Romance, which goes back to the notes struck by a young Sissy Spacek in Badlands) as collateral. The film is scuzzy, sleazy, taboo-shattering, shocking, unsettling and darkly hilarious. You kinda have to see it to believe it.
6. Killing Them Softly: Andrew Dominik’s existential low-life gangster film transplants a George V. Higgins novel from 1974 Boston to 2008 post-Katrina/pre-Obama New Orleans with fascinating results. Set in the heart of the economic crisis amongst mid and low-level gangsters who suffer the foolish bureaucracy of their higher-ups, the film stars Brad Pitt as a mid-level enforcer brought in by a lawyer (Richard Jenkins) to get to the bottom of who robbed a card game at the establishment of a local mobster (Ray Liotta). It turns out it’s the handy work of a couple of hired guns (Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) put up to it by “the Squirrel” (The Sopranos‘ Vincent Curatola). The process of discovery involves a good deal of beatings (you’ll never look at Vinnie from Doogie Howser, M.D. the same way again!), as well as assassinations and talk of assassinations (including a lengthy pow-wow with an out-of-time hitman on probation, played wonderfully by James Gandolfini). As we sit precariously on the edge of the fiscal cliff, this is the gangster film we deserve.
7. Les Miserables: After working years in television (including the epic and well-loved mini-series John Adams), Tom Hooper won the Oscar for Best Director and his film won Best Picture for The King’s Speech in 2010. He may strike Oscar gold again with this newfangled yet old fashioned take on the stage musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tragic novel about the wretched souls on both sides of the French Revolution. Hugh Jackman is Jean Valjean, a man who served 20 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and running from the law. Rebuilding his life on a lie, he becomes the mayor and factory owner of a small town. Faced with his suspicious former captor, the persistent Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean must atone for his sins while attempting to evade justice. Such redemption comes in the form of a former employee turned prostitute, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is trying to raise a young daughter by sending her all her money. Valjean adopts Fantine’s daughter Cosette (played as an adolescent by Amanda Seyfried) from a vile innkeeper and con artist and his wife (the hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), only to find himself pursued by Javert. Meanwhile, Cosette falls for a young man (Eddie Redmayne) about to fight in the French Revolution, who in turn has attracted the attention of the repentant con artist and innkeeper’s daughter (Samantha Barks). It’s all very complicated and melodramatic you see, but Hooper maintains a gripping hold on the audience even when the music is questionable at best – some of these lyrics are…confounding. Still: the craftsmanship and the performances (all the more impressive because they sung live on camera without dubbing or pre-recording) carry the day, namely Hathaway (whose performance of I Dreamed a Dream, shown largely in one astonishing take, is heartbreaking and tearjerking), Cohen and Carter (whose performance of Master of the House will be stuck in your head for days afterward), and Barks (whose performance of I Loved Him is almost as heartbreaking as Hathaway’s). This is a powerful testament to how much and how little about cinema has changed and why it will remain an indelible medium for centuries more.
8. Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell has made a number of films about a number of taboo subjects, from incest (Spanking the Monkey) to adoption and infidelity (Flirting with Disaster) to war profiteering (Three Kings) to existentialism, environmental conservation and land development (I <3 Huckabee’s) and finally drug addiction in the face of brotherly achievement (The Fighter). Now comes a taboo subject with which I personally identified. An adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel, Russell’s film concerns a Baltimore mental patient who is allowed to live with his parents in Philadelphia while suffering from undiagnosed bi-p0lar disorder, a marital betrayal and a possible delusion that a positive outlook and no medication is the way to solve his problems. His life gets further complicated by his attraction to a neighbor (Jennifer Lawrence, terrific), an almost-as-unstable young widow who dealt with grief by sleeping with everyone (yes, everyone!) in her office. The results are manically-shot, somewhat elliptically edited, blackly comic, bittersweet and startlingly moving.
9. The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson has never been big on making films which require too much thought or interpretation. Whether dealing with gamblers in Reno (Hard Eight), a surrogate family of porn actors and a star on the rise (Boogie Nights), the seemingly random intersection of precarious lives in the San Fernando Valley (Magnolia), a volcanic, angry man in love (Punch-Drunk Love), or a misanthropic oil tycoon’s epic showdown with Big Religion (There Will Be Blood), Anderson has always been a go-for-broke type filmmaker who nevertheless knows how to synthesize Big Ideas into relatively simple, more or less digestible free-flowing narratives. That said, his latest is perhaps the most divisive (and that’s a competitive field) and certainly among the most challenging films of the year. Shot in 70mm, Anderson’s intimate epic concerns a troubled WWII veteran (Joaquin Phoenix in a triumphant return to form after his disastrous performance art documentary I’m Still Here, a hoax in which he attempted to sell himself as an actor melting down and taking on an ill-advised rap career) who returns from the war aimless, alcoholic, heartbroken and (perhaps) murderous. He soon falls in with a cult-leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose “the Cause” is a Scientology/Dyanetics-esque racket in the 1950s which attempts to sell the notion of past lives, soul transference and time travel wormholes to its patrons. Phoenix’s lost soul is so enraptured by Hoffman’s, they become virtually inseparable. Although the film is enigmatic, frustrating, deliberate and provides no clear-cut answers about anything, it is never boring. Seeing it the first time, I knew it was a great film, but I didn’t feel it. Seeing it a second time, it burrowed its way beyond my defenses, both involving me and moving me – which was what I expected from Anderson in the first place.
10. This Must Be the Place: Speaking of enigmatic work, this was a good year for it. Paolo Sorrentino’s first English-language film (he previously made Il Divo) proves the Italian director to be just as capable (or more so) in something other than his native language. Sean Penn gives a stunning, near-unrecognizable performance as Cheyenne, a Cure-esque former pop star retired to Dublin. Crippled by arthritis in both knees, wheeling a suitcase behind him wherever he goes, stuck in a marriage with a masculine female firefighter (Frances McDormand) and adoptive mentor to an Irish groupie, his life is aimless and drifting. Then he gets word his father is dead and his last will and testament requires Cheyenne to take up the cause of searching for the Nazi who tortured and humiliated him at Auschwitz. This leads to a vaguely surreal, existential American road movie, with run-ins with single mom waitresses, Harry Dean Stanton as a Utah private investigator, David Byrne of Talking Heads as an old colleague and friend (himself), a former school teacher with a pet ostrich, and others. The trip is, as with most road movies, about the journey and not the destination. The results are continually confounding, fascinating, funny and oddly moving – and never boring.
Tie for 11th:
Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, the year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, the powerful story of the societal and religious complications which arise from a nurse’s accident in an Iranian household; Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage is another economically-tinged thriller, this time from the perspective of a high-powered businessman (Richard Gere, in one of his best performances); Roman Polanski’s Carnage, is a squirmily uncomfortable, bruisingly funny and deeply twisted psychological X-ray of four of the most miserable yuppie parents you may ever meet; Cloud Atlas, by the Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer, is a nearly 3-hour film made up, audaciously enough, of six thematically-interweaving and intercut tales spanning time and space – indeed the first story chronologically is set in the 1800s on a slave ship and the last is set in Korea, circa 2144; Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, with the delightful Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton, is the writer-director’s first film in 13 years (since 1998′s The Last Days of Disco) and the first film he’s made outside of his WASPs in Love trilogy (this film is kinda like those films’ kid sister); Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, is perhaps the writer-director’s most easily accessible work, eschewing his seeming penchant for taboo material and taking up a dreamy slipstream narrative in its wake; Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, is an epic larger-than-life ode to both Spaghetti Westerns (think Sergio Leone in tone and Sam Peckinpah in sudden blood-gushing and slow-motion violence) and 70s blaxploitation thrillers is a mythic tale set during the pre-Civil War South’s slavery hayday; Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, is a return to live-action for the director of Forrest Gump after a nearly decade-long sojourn into animation and features possibly the best performance Denzel Washington has given since Malcolm X as an airline pilot suffering from an addiction to alcohol; Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, a dreamy, existential travelogue about the nature of filmmaking and performance artists; by turns, beguiling, frustrating, ugly, disturbing, hypnotic and beautiful, this is on some level the most enigmatic and one of the most engaging film(s) of the year; Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, is an epic which acts not so much as a biopic on the beloved American President, but rather as an intimate epic look at his political wheeling and dealing, his craftiness and his cut-throat need to get the Emancipation Proclamation passed through into law. Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, is another of the director’s quirky, tweed-tinged flights of whimsy, this time into the powerful memories of youth and forbidden love. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, was marketed and perceived as a prequel to his sci-fi classic Alien (1979), which set the standard for sci-fi/horror films. Well, yes and no. Oren Moverman’s Rampart, with Woody Harrelson’s searing performance as the corruptest of the corrupt among the LAPD’s Rampart division (dramatized on TV in the modern classic The Shield) circa 1999. Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, by Spike Lee, is yet another maverick filmmaker pushing the bounds of good taste, restraint and convention to the limit to make an interesting point. Oliver Stone’s Savages, a modern Western on the drug trade, with its sex, blood and humor take on the subject matter, is Stone’s most accessible film in years (perhaps his most frivolous since 1997′s U Turn). Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, is the apocalyptic romantic-comedy road movie we deserve for a year in which the world was supposed to end and (I’m guessing since I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve) didn’t. Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, by Drew Goddard, is by far the best, wittiest horror film of this year (and nearly any in memory). Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, was the superhero movie our distressed economy deserved; and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, with Tilda Swinton in a riveting performance as a mother who never wanted to be a mother, with a far-too understanding husband (John C. Reilly) and a monstrous child (played chillingly as an adolescent by The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Ezra Miller no less in a 180 degree turn from his bullied gay kid).
Runners-Up: Josh Trank’s Chronicle; Craig Zobel’s Compliance; David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis; David Ayer’s End of Watch; Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie; Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America; Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire; the Duplass Brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home; Glendyn Ivin’s Last Ride; John Hillcoat’s Lawless; Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts; Rian Johnson’s Looper; Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed; Ron Fricke’s Samsara; Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths; Sam Mendes’ Skyfall; Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz; Joe Carnahan’s The Grey; Ti West’s The Innkeepers; Robert Lorenz’s Trouble with the Curve; T.J. Martin and David Linday’s Undefeated; and Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister.
Honorable Mentions: 21 Jump Street; 360; A Cat in Paris; A Late Quartet; A Royal Affair; Albert Nobbs; Bernie; Beyond the Black Rainbow; Brave; Bully; Celeste and Jesse Forever; Chico & Rita; Coriolanus; Footnote; Friends with Kids; Hello I Must Be Going; Hit and Run; Hitchcock; Life of Pi; Magic Mike; Mighty Fine; ParaNorman; Pariah; Perfect Sense; Pina; Pitch Perfect; Premium Rush; Promised Land; Robot and Frank; Ruby Sparks; Sleepwalk with Me; Smashed; Sound of My Voice; Surviving Progress; Ted; The Amazing Spider-Man; The Avengers; The Dictator; The Five-Year Engagement; The Lady; The Odd Life of Timothy Green; The Possession; The Sessions; Thin Ice; This Is 40; To Rome with Love; Why Stop Now; and Wreck-It Ralph.
Note: I am always seeing films that qualify, and will add them as necessary. Otherwise, see you next year!