Some years, you're on-consensus. 2011 was one of those for me; by and large, all the films I loved were great big films that everybody had heard of and seen, and I got to feel like a real person when I published my top ten that year.
But sometimes you're off-consensus, and 2012 has been, for me, one of the most singularly mild film years in recent memory: a truly dismal summer bled into a prestige picture season notable mostly for the fact that there were a whole lot of genuinely good movies in a marketing sector that typically produces the most obnoxious kind of middlebrow mediocrity. But nothing eye-popping, nothing game-changing, nothing revelatory at all; as far as mainstream cinema goes, the whole twelve months felt like a long, steady sigh, and the fact that digital finally won out over analogue (which has already made films look significantly less interesting, I think, to say nothing of the unbridled hell that shall be archiving and repertory programming in the future) just sealed the deal: 2012 is, officially, my least favorite year in cinema, ever.
Oh, nonsense, that's hyperbole; surely that title belongs somewhere in the '80s. Let's say it's my least favorite year since I started paying attention, in 1998.
Anyway, that's not to say it wasn't a salvageable year, just that it required going a bit off book (and spending a lot of time dredging up 2011 releases making their U.S. debuts). If the results err on the side of inscrutably pretentious and show-offy, I apologise; but since I am myself a pretentious show-off, it seems only right to reflect that. And I genuinely do love every single film on the list to follow; maybe not with the fiery adoration that I feel for my top three from last year, but every single one of them is an example of talented filmmakers doing really great work that says in bold voice: this is what our medium is capable of, here and now.
(We work here with good ol' Oscar eligibility rules: played for a week, starting between 1/1 and 12/31, in New York and Los Angeles).
The 10 Best Films of 2012
1.Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
2. Holy Motors
3. This Is Not a Film
4. It's Such a Beautiful Day
6. The Turin Horse
9. Oslo, August 31
10. Magic Mike
(titles below link to my original reviews)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey / Bosnia and Herzegovina)
From one angle, it's a straightforward police procedural: somewhere in the Turkish countryside, there's a body buried near a tree, and the cops are trying to find it. But that's not hardly all of it, and from that basic premise, the filmmakers tease out the year's greatest cinematic philosophical tract, a consideration of moral behavior that bubbles up through the bifurcated narrative structure, dances before our eyes in the form of astonishing night-time cinematography, and is spoken overtly by the characters themselves in well-earned, world-weary dialogue. It's a luminous, shattering contemplation of how and why humans do what we do.
(Leos Carax, France / Germany)
There's a narrative in there, even a suitable devastating and movie and cryptically spiritual narrative. But what sets the film so far apart is how enthusiastically it is All About Cinema, dispensing with plot linearity or psychological consistency to chase down an idea of how imagining, making, and watching movies combine into one single act. Satirising the very same digital filmmaking techniques it employs, mixing tones and genres willfully, and giving actor Denis Lavant a chance to show off in the most brazen chameleonoid showcase ever lensed, it's a heady intellectual exercise that also happens to be nonstop giddy fun.
This Is Not a Film
(Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran)
Politically brave in a way that most Western filmmakers aren't even aware exists; and while it certainly wins points for the way the creators put their very safety on the line in order to tell their story, it's just warming up at that point. It is, in fact, one of the most impressive autobiographies of an artist ever created, documenting Panahi's creative drive while implicitly, mercilessly condemning the system that has put his - and others' -creativity under lock and key. Not just a great film about filmmaking, but a great film about how the human imagination rebels against captivity.
It's Such a Beautiful Day
(Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
Minimalism at its absolute best: the protagonist of this 62-minute epic is just a stick figure in a hat, but his suffering and confusion in a capricious universe resonate far beyond what we've been told animation is supposed to be good for. A dissection of our emotional response to mortality expressed through marvelously precise hand-made frames (this was, largely, a one-man production) that express themselves through implication and subtlety rather than grandstanding, it is a dour film but a beautiful one, laying out one man's frailties with unblinking intensity, and just enough compassion to make it touching, instead of nihilistic.
(Miguel Gomes, Portugal / Germany / Brazil / France)
You can't even describe it without making it sound like a dull, artsy slog, but this film's effortless blending of classic and modern cinematic technique, along with a surprising thread of absurd humor, is anything but: easily the most forward-looking, challenging movie I saw in 2012, which is saying something for a silent romantic drama. Better still, it's not at all a dry exercise in formal language, but a roiling story of people struggling desperately towards an emotional release, the kind where all its formalism is in service to its rich depth of feeling, and not a replacement for it.
The Turin Horse
(Tarr Béla, Hungary / France / Germany / Switzerland / USA)
Tarr's last film, supposedly, and while world cinema will suffer incalculably for the loss of such a unique, powerful voice, it's hard to imagine a better swan song than a film that, despite its extremely limited scope (virtually the entire thing takes place in a one-room farmhouse or just outside the front door), depicts the end of humanity with a scorched-earth intensity that the most excessive genre film director couldn't touch. In perfect black-and-white images and the year's most haunting soundscape of hellish winds, Tarr portrays both apocalypse and the tiny acts of life that serve as desperate psychological anchor.
(Steven Soderbergh, USA / Ireland)
Undoubtedly the most contentious entry on this list; but I have known a weak spot for anti-genre exercises, and those are something Soderbergh does best. His anti-action film is the "one for me" half of what I am tempted to call his best single year ever, a film that isolates and breaks down our expectations of what "action movies" look like, gives many famous people very little to do, presents an empty void in place of a protagonist, and then dares us to let him get away with it by presenting extraordinarily kinetic, counter-intuitively edited setpieces at a dazzling clip.
(Steven Spielberg, USA)
Straight-up Hollywood classicism, a movie made according to the rules and quite obvious in pursuing its goals and demanding our respect: except that, unexpectedly for an awards season tentpole and impossibly for a Spielberg film, it's so handsomely cynical. It's a sardonic, dragged-out process story about history being made as out of political necessity and people doing the right things for the wrong reasons: sharply written by Tony Kushner and directed by one of the most talented crowdpleasers who ever drew breath to be endlessly captivating despite being hilariously wonky and centered around an outcome we already knew going in.
Oslo, August 31
(Joachim Trier, Norway)
It could be taken as stock European miserabilism: a man finds that he's wasted his life, has run out of chances at redemption, and wants to commit suicide. But with a gorgeously lived-in and deeply felt performance by Anders Danielsen Lie, and unhurried direction, with spiky dark humor that isn't exactly forgiving but certainly lacks the godlike clinical detachment of so much art cinema, it proves to be more about the human experience than the suffering. It doesn't make things easy on the protagonist or on us, but the film is far more observant than punitive, its conclusions weirdly affirming.
(Steven Soderbergh, USA)
Soderbergh's "one for the studio" film in his aforementioned strongest year ever; though it says a lot about how much the director has committed his career to attempting to break and reshape cinema into some completely different beast that his more "mainstream" project uses the promise of naked celebrity flesh as an inlet to talk about commodification and the selling of one's most private self in an economy where even that level of sacrifice isn't good enough to please Mammon. A shockingly deep Channing Tatum and a spectacularly vulgar Matthew McConaughey anchor this most intimate, human-sized tale of economic suffering.
The Deep Blue Sea
How to Survive a Plague
The Raid: Redemption
Zero Dark Thirty
Best Unreleased, and Likely to Remain That Way
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
Messy and indulgent, but Terence Nance's impassioned personal diary/fiction hybrid finds new insights and cutting truths in the seemingly exhausted subject matter of, "why do I have such a hard time meeting women?", and the film with which he communicates his ideas is a triumph of shifting formal language and tonal registers.
Films I Wish I Had Seen Before Compiling This List
A number of documentaries, like most years; among features, the most galling omissions are Take This Waltz and The Loneliest Planet, films by directors I'm primed to enjoy, and worst yet, films I currently have access to; some years you just run out of time, and a nasty mother of a cold between Christmas and New Year's didn't help matters.
5. Act of Valor (Scott Waugh & "Mouse" McCoy)
A film that starts from the dubious idea that the right way to pay tribute to the bravery of Navy SEALs is to make them functionally identical to video game characters, and the compounds its sins by having actual SEALs play the characters, with all the stiffness and uncertainty that a cast of amateurs will get you. Top it off with viciously ugly cinematography, and you have a film as unenjoyable as it is tasteless.
4. Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell)
An insult to Oscarbait: aimless performances (including Laura Linney's career low) and hopelessly incompetent blocking already leave it feeling more like a series of dioramas about Franklin Roosevelt than an actual movie, but the real villain here is a screenplay with a massive sense of self-importance and no concept at all of tone; so we spin from one hushed, achingly earnest discussion about hot dogs to the next, begging for sweet death to release us.
3. Paranormal Activity 4 (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman)
Ugly, aggressive proof that no gimmick can survive for long without something propping it up: the "cameras everywhere!" conceit of the franchise just keeps wearing thinner, but PA4 makes it even worse by containing not a single legitimate scary moment, instead trying with all its power to keep expanding a series mythology that had already started losing its way the second it moved beyond "there are noisy ghosts". Horror at its most empty and commercial.
2. Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike (John Putch)
A complete cast and crew transfusion succeed only in sucking away the incompetent, kitschy charm of the first Atlas Shrugged: Part I, leaving behind something that's just as complete a failure of dramatic storytelling, character creation, and emotionally engaging cinema, but not as much fun to mock. Worse still, without a protective layer of silliness, the rancid philosophy muscles out in front and squats there, grotesque and self-satisfied, like a horrid little gnome of selfishness.
1. The Devil Inside (William Brent Bell)
At least the found-footage subgenre of horror has reached its basement, so we never again have to worry about just how damn bad these things can get. A complete disaster of concept, in which seemingly every new scene introduces a new and bigger hole in the movie's asserted reality, and even if we somehow managed the Herculean task of overlooking that, we'd still have a film with the mustiest, lowest-stakes demonic possessions in recent memory.
Not at all the kind of movie that masses of people were ever going love; but even so, the amount of energy people haven't spent in exploring the why of Lee Daniels's hypnotically garish Southern gothic is dispiriting. It might be tasteless, exploitative, completely divorced from human experience as it is lived, and just plain sleazy, but oh my God, it is so much fun that I can barely stand it.
Likable, sure; but the year's best animated movie? Even if we take post-Cars 2, "oh Pixar, naughty naughty" disillusionment with Brave into account, there are still plenty of better candidates for that title than a well-cast and brightly colored family adventure that has such a loose story structure with an arbitrary third act and damnably unclear central conflict.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
There is no conceivable reason to go into the fourth movie in a Jean-Claude Van Damme franchise started by Roland Emmerich with anything resembling high expectations, but morbid curiosity got the better of me (I had to see why Magnolia spent the money on mailing out just the one solitary screener). Lo and behold, Day of Reckoning has both a genuinely thoughtful storyline and several of the most innovative action setpieces in an age, and though not without rocky patches in the story, was as exciting as any other action movie I saw all year.
The Dark Knight Rises
Even if you weren't part of the Chris Nolan Is the New God brigade, anticipating TDKR like the birth of your own child, it still didn't seem out of line to expect, I don't know, something more than the overlong, dramatically wandering thing that we got, with its thematic floppiness and arbitrary characters, right? At least Anne Hathaway's Catwoman was pretty terrific.
Best Popcorn Movie
No, it is not the best Bond movie, but it is a hell of a good Bond movie, and when that franchise is doing well, nobody can touch it for stupid, delightfully over-the-top action sequences and broad characters used intelligently. Just exactly the right mix of escapist action fantasy and physically plausible action grit.
The story, the characters, they're just not there at all: but the surly attitude absolutely is, and that's what we pay for. Besides, it has, beyond question, my favorite 3-D of any 2012 film, adding just that much more "I shouldn't be enjoying such tawdry bloodletting, but it's so cool" fun to what is already some of the year's most consistently grand action choreography.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Positive Review a Decade Hence
I cannot, to save my life, remember what it is that I thought worked about this. Obviously, that's not true: I can look right there at my review and see it. But I do not believe that I could have possibly meant it. Best excuse: after The Dark Knight Rises, I was just giddy for a movie that had some sense of what to do with Tom Hardy.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Negative Review a Decade Hence
The Amazing Spider-Man
Not because I expect the movie itself to have significantly improved, or anything, but at the rate comic book movies are going, ten years from now this will look like a sterling classic, probably just about in time for them to reboot the franchise yet again, and to even more diminished results. Anyway, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are the damn cutest.
Film I'm Most Eager to Re-Visit
It came on a wave of exactly the wrong sort of hype, and that made it more befuddling than anything; if nothing else, it will be a pleasure to watch it just without constantly playing "Spot the Alien Reference". I have my doubts that there's all that much there, but a friend whose taste in popcorn movies I hold in high regard considers this the best movie of the summer, so that counts for something. Anyway, it looks gorgeous as hell, and that must count for something.
In The Grey, Liam Neeson's Ottway comforts a victim of the plane crash that kicks off the movie's plot by whispering gently to him that death, as it comes, will be a comfort and release. It is a grim but moving scene that establishes both the character's warm pragmatism and the movie's overarching fatalism.
In The Dark Knight Rises, when we discover who the real villain has been all along, and the actor in question suddenly goes completely insane and starts playing a previously quite normal person like the bad guy in a Saturday morning cartoon.
Sigourney Weaver as the CEO of Evil, or whatever she's doing to such awesome effect at the end of The Cabin in the Woods.
The wax museum replica of Ian Holm playing old Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
“Have you ever heard the expression, ‘prevention is nine-tenths the cure?’ Well in the case of suicide, it's ten-tenths the cure.”
-Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), Damsels in Distress
“Find the White House Chief of Staff.”
“How would I find him?”
“We’re a fucking spy agency, find him!”
-Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) & CIA functionary, Argo
“I had orgasms. He had wargasms”.
-O (Blake Lively), Savages
Most Pandering Exchange
During a battle in The Expendables 2:
Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back!”
Bruce Willis: “You’ve been back enough, I’ll be back!”
Schwarzenegger [sullen]: “Yippee-ki-yay.”
Best Teaser Poster
Reader: I gasped. Literally caught my breath, and raised my hand up to my chest, when I first saw this unspeakably elegant, perfectly clean black-and-white masterpiece. Marrying Japanese graphic arts with American comic books without coming off as fanboyish in the least, it's almost certainly going to be more than the movie can live up to, but I eagerly await the months of waiting with this thing hanging in theaters and poking around the internet.
John Carter - IMAX midnight screenings
Even a stopped clock, etc: the absolute, no-doubt-about-it worst ad campaign of the year still managed to scrape up this one extraordinary image at the last minute, a glorious pulp fiction dreamscape that captures the whiz-bang sense of joyful wonder of the source material with unimaginable lushness and grace.
One for the Money
This is about the point that my eyes are watering too much to keep looking at it.
Prometheus - Final Trailer
The production design! The general sense of mysterious foreboding! Michael Fassbender! The last 30 seconds, where the music starts to get especially noisy, and there are klaxons! Clearly, no movie could live up to that, but oh how much fun it was imagining the Prometheus that was nothing but that for two solid hours.
John Carter - Teaser
I get that the movie, and its ad campaign in particular, have been beat up on enough in the last year, but Christ, really: did they actually want to drive the audience away? Because selling a frolicsome sci-fi adventure with "My Body Is a Cage" was a great way to do that.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Most Deliciously Vague Title
Zero Dark Thirty
Most Awkward Half-Pun in a Title
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
The Hugo Award for Worst Slow Death of a Title
First there was the ebulliently pulpy A Princess of Mars, the title of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s source novel. This was changed, blandly but probably inevitably, to the more masculine, active John Carter of Mars. Then, because apparently Andrew Stanton was gripped with fear that somebody, anywhere in the world, might actually want to watch his sci-fi epic, it was released under the punishingly meaningless name of John Carter.
The "No Shit" Award for Most Unnecessary Exposition
“The Vatican did not endorse this film, nor aid in its completion.”
-Title card at the beginning of the tacky anti-Catholic horror film The Devil Inside
Best Film I Saw for the First Time in 2012
The Wind, Victor Sjöström's 1928 psychological horror Western that, clumsy studio-mandated ending and all, is absolutely every inch the visual masterpiece and equal to any of the movie's I've seen from silent cinema's greatest single year.