Despite a lackluster crop of summer blockbusters—“The Dark Knight Rises,” in particular, was a colossal disappointment—2012 turned out to be a very good year at the movies. Two weeks ago, with several key films left to see, I began actively wishing that I would be disappointed by my remaining viewings because I didn’t want to drop any more films off my best list. But disappointment was not in the cards, so I’ve had to make sacrifices. I would have been happy to see any one of my honorable mentions make the top 10.
The big cinema-related trend in 2012, however, did not concern the movies themselves, but how we consume them. After several years of growth, Netflix streaming finally became the leading way that film buffs (at least in my circles) watched content. On seemingly every film-related forum, the question was not “What should I go see?” or “What should I rent?” but “What would you recommend on Netflix streaming?”
As a firm believer in the theatrical experience—or at least pristine Blu-Ray transfers on a large plasma—a part of me still cringes when I observe this trend, but over the past year, I’ve grown to accept (and even celebrate) the explosion of streaming as a viewing method, for two reasons. Firstly, in 2012, the number of movie tickets sold rose for the first time in three years, suggesting that increased streaming does not threaten the sustenance of traditional moviegoing, as many theatrical purists argue. Secondly, following 1,000 people on the screening log-based social media site Letterboxd, I’ve witnessed many become much more cinematically adventurous thanks to streaming. With unlimited viewing included in Netflix’s low monthly fee, there is no monetary risk to trying something new. Any invention that expands the viewing public’s filmic horizons is a positive one, by my standards.
Back to the reason you’re all here. Without further ado, the best films of 2012…
Honorable Mentions: “Django Unchained,” “End of Watch,” “Lincoln,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Savages.”
10) “Not Fade Away” – There have been a lot of films about 1960s youth culture over the years, but few have felt as human as this debut feature from David Chase (“The Sopranos”). Chase’s success rests in two key choices: 1) he checks his nostalgia for the era at the door (no small feat given that the film is semi-autobiographical and filled with rock ‘n roll), ensuing that the film never becomes destructively sentimental and 2) his subject is always the protagonist, not the time and place in which the young man lives. Yes, “Not Fade Away” reflects what it was like to be young in the culturally volatile environment of ‘60s America, but it also reflects what it’s like to be young, period. Lead John Magro was born to play his role and James Gandolfini offers a memorably complex take on the stern nuclear father, but the true miracle is Bella Heathcote, who steals the picture as Magro’s girlfriend.
9) “Magic Mike” – While Warner Brothers’ bait-and-switch ad campaign earned larger audiences for Steven Soderbergh’s indie than the filmmaker could have ever imagined when he agreed to direct, one can’t help but wonder whether he regrets that the sexual exploitation-heavy promotion repelled many serious-minded viewers who would have enjoyed the film for what it really is. You would never guess from the Rihanna scored, ab-dominated trailer that “Magic Mike” is less about the act of male stripping than it is about the body’s role as a capitalist commodity. The first film to truly understand recessionary American society, it depicts a generation of young men who, believing they are entitled to upward mobility despite the flagging economy, sell their only possession that the market values. While “Magic Mike” may share certain superficial qualities with the splashy entertainment that was advertised, it’s a lot deeper than that: Soderbergh’s encapsulation of the instant gratification-driven zeitgeist.
8) “The Impossible” – Great films generally engage both one’s mind and one’s heart, but opting exclusively for one or the other does not preclude a film from greatness. Case-in-point: J.A. Bayona’s based-on-a-true-story tearjerker about a family separated by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami while vacationing in Thailand achieves transcendence solely by tapping the viewer’s compassion for the characters through relatable emotions. Bayona sets the stage by evoking primal fear, as the expertly computer-generated wave of water submerges the focal family — a horrifying sight. The director then allows Naomi Watts’ wrenching performance to do the talking, as she fights for her life alongside eldest son Lucas (teenage Tom Holland, also terrific). Watts’ maternal energy, expressed through her character’s realization that she must live on so that her son doesn’t end up alone—she doesn’t know her husband and other sons survived—will bring tears to even the most cynical viewer’s eyes. “The Impossible” may be manipulative, but its affirmation of humanity’s core goodness is supremely powerful.
7) “The Kid with a Bike” – The Dardenne Brothers’ most accessible, commercial film to date is also their best. Don’t be deceived by the simple, parable-like structure: there is a wealth of emotion bubbling beneath the surface, stemming organically from Thomas Doret’s aching lead performance as 11-year-old orphan Cyril Catoul. When Cyril is taken in by a kind stranger (Cécile De France), we witness nothing less than a young life being saved — one of those miracles of everyday existence. Much of the film consists of Cyril biking around the city, metaphorically searching for his place in the world, but such an ornate description of the Dardennes’ symbolism does its elegance a disservice. The brothers are filmmakers who seek, through a distinct brand of naturalism built around lead performances, to understand humanity — its nuance, its fragility, its wonder.
6) “Zero Dark Thirty” – While talking heads debate whether Kathryn Bigelow’s epic procedural about the hunt for Usama bin Laden is “pro-torture”—it isn’t—they’re ignoring the extensive merits of what is, in truth, the most balanced and objective dramatization of this material imaginable. Following one C.I.A. analyst (Jessica Chastain) who functions as a composite of numerous real-life counterparts, Bigelow zig-zags through nearly a decade of intelligence work at a breakneck pace. This is a triumph of concise editing and directorial control. Then, “Zero Dark Thirty” seamlessly transitions into an adrenaline-filled action film, incredibly tense even though we know the ending. All the while, Chastain crafts a complex character arc almost entirely through through facial nuance in reaction shots — a real feat given her Maya was conceived to move the story along, not to impart humanity. “Zero Dark Thirty” is the best popular entertainment of the year.
5) “The Master” – Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest doesn’t work in a traditional narrative sense—the filmmaker has no apparent message to impart and neither main character deserves the viewer’s sympathy—but taken as an avant-garde “guided tour” through topics for thought, the film achieves exceptional resonance. By closely examining the bond between two deranged men—Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) a mentally-ill WWII vet with no purpose in life but a quest for sexual gratification and Lancaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the leader of a Scientology-esque religion called The Cause—Anderson is able to explore male bonds, insanity, authority figures, the will to believe, religious freedom, the dark side of post-WWII America, and more. The filmmaker’s assemblage of these topics is so calculated that his influence over the viewer’s thought-process is as strong it would have been had he argued a traditional thesis. Phoenix and Hoffman are both scarily credible, and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s 70mm cinematography is a work of art in and of itself.
4) “This is Not a Film” – Jafar Panahi’s “not film,” recorded from the confines of his apartment building during his widely publicized house-arrest, then courageously smuggled out of Iran on a thumb-drive hidden inside of a cake, is a simultaneously maddening and liberating viewing experience. Maddening for the obvious reasons: one of the world’s great auteurs has been banned from writing and directing for decades at the mandate of an unjust, totalitarian Iranian government. A sequence in which Panhi acts out scenes from a movie he aspired to make before the ban, standing within a crudely taped blueprint of the set on his living room floor, is painstaking. But it’s liberating to know that, even when oppressed by the tyrannical legal system of his homeland, Panahi cannot be kept from his art. “This is Not a Film,” while not for those unfamiliar with the director’s work, is as vital as anything Panahi has ever made, with a closing shot for the ages.
3) “Holy Motors” – I needed two viewings to digest Leos Carax’s visionary response to the current state of cinema due to its lack of a conventional narrative structure and any exposition whatsoever, but once the film clicked, I instantly fell in love with it. Carax expresses his unhappiness with the demise of traditional filmmaking practices through the opening sequence, but rather than sit around and mope about said demise for the remainder of the running time, he resolves to beat the purveyors of the digital revolution at their own postmodern game with a surrealist odyssey. Through a multi-part narrative that repeatedly sees protagonist Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) change identities at the drop of a hat, “Holy Motors” both redefines the accepted view of what a film can/should be and exists as a vision that is singularly Carax’s. It’s impossible to fully describe the movie in this brief context, but think Jean Luc Godard’s “Contempt” meets Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” with some Dalí thrown in for good measure. “Holy Motors” requires some heavy lifting on the part of the viewer in order to work, but in an era when most movies insist that we do as little as possible, the exercise is a godsend.
2) “Amour” – While unmistakably a Michael Haneke picture in the end, the first two-thirds of “Amour” (save for perhaps the ominous prologue) are quite unlike anything the writer/director has ever done before. This stretch of the movie is considerably more humane and less metaphorical than we’ve come to expect of Haneke; for a filmmaker who has made a name for himself by pushing boundaries, the act of settling into a more conventional narrative seems radical. That Haneke masters the new material—a portrait of the enduring love between an elderly married couple as the woman’s health progressively worsens due to a series of strokes—is a sign of his immense gifts as an artist. He treats the central relationship with dignity and grace, and allows the leads (French legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) plenty of room to express their decades-deep bond in what may be the best performances of long careers. Then, at the moment you’d least expect it, comes the quintessential Haneke ending, which not only blends seamlessly with the new material, but will leave you utterly speechless.
1) “The Deep Blue Sea” – Just as Todd Haynes did with “Far From Heaven” a decade ago, Terence Davies proves that the classical, 1950s-set melodrama is still an engaging format for storytelling with this aching, violin-scored revelation. However, unlike Haynes’ social commentary-laden ode to Douglas Sirk, who was famous for injecting his works with nuggets of radicalism that Hays Code censors overlooked, Davies’ film is stripped of outwardly provocative messaging (including the gay subtext in the original Terence Rattigan play). Davies instead maximizes his focus on the internal emotions of protagonist Hester Collier, played by Rachel Weisz in the performance of her career, as she lives through a personal crisis of suicidal proportions, unable to choose between the man who can provide her security (Simon Russell Beale) and the man who can provide her passion (Tom Hiddleston).
The film’s visual style is as sumptuous as you’d expect of a melodrama; cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister shoots dark, smoky interiors like none other, submerging the viewer in Hester’s somber frame of mind. Hoffmeister also perfectly facilitates Davies’ rich evocation of the period London setting, with haunting views of structures ruined in The Blitz and an unforgettable tracking-shot flashback of civilians singing “Molly Malone” in a subway tunnel while seeking shelter from the bombings.
Despite the elaborate nature of the film’s aesthetic, each scene retains the immediacy of theatre, doing justice to its famous Rattigan source. At Davies’ meticulous direction, Weisz will break your heart. “The Deep Blue Sea” may plunge the viewer headfirst into depression, but anyone who appreciates the power of fine art will ultimately be uplifted by the experience. While one effects-laden picture after another crowds the megaplex, it is this old-fashioned “small movie” that stands the enduring masterpiece of the year.
For an alternate take on the best films of 2012, check out co-editor James Frazier’s Top 10 here.
Note (Jan. 27, 2013): The original version of this list had “Amour” at number 4. Upon further reflection—I composed the list just one day after seeing the film—I have decided it deserves to be placed even higher, at number 2. While I discourage readers from focusing on the numbers rather than the analysis, I figure this change is only proper, given that I’ve elected to play the top 10 game.