I already know what some of the comments to this list are going to be. I know the movies you’ll be incredulous that I left off the list. I’m incredulous too. I can’t believe these movies aren’t on the list.
This was the best year for movies since 1999. 2007 was a real contender, a truly amazing year, but the breadth of greatness in film in 2012 was staggering. There were three documentaries that had real impact on the world - West of Memphis, The Invisible War, The Central Park Five - which alone is cause for celebration. Those three movies alone would be cause for celebrating 2012.
Closer to home 2012 was a stunning year for genre film. Two of the movies I left off this list - The Raid: Redemption and Looper - gave me unequaled hope for the future of genre cinema. Both are the work of young directors whose most interesting, exciting work still lays ahead of them. They were two of my favorite movies of the year.
And they still didn’t make the list. Think on that. My favorite movie of the year, The Avengers, didn’t even come close to making the list. I’ve watched the film a half dozen times now, but it’s hard to argue it’s a ‘best’ film... especially when I left so many other masterworks on the side of the road.
This list sat at 15 for a long while, and I was forced at the last minute to narrow it down to ten. I was up against a deadline to get my list in to Drafthouse, where the myriad employee lists are being tabulated, and so I went on sheer instinct. I regret some of the choices I made, but they had to be made.
In other words, what a great problem to have.
Without further schmucking about, my top ten of 2012:
10. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson and I were done after Darjeeling Limited. His schtick had worn thin, and there was a tediously self-reflexive quality to that film which alienated me. I was not looking forward to Moonrise Kingdom.
Which makes my rapture all the more surprising. What should have been a twee, fey bit of scarfcore bullshit actually ended up being a sweet, involving story filled with deep, real emotion. More than that, it’s one of the most beautiful films of Anderson’s career. Working on 16mm brings an even more handmade feeling to his diorama-like scenes.
After so many years of chasing daddy issues and manchildren, Wes Anderson finally figured out what he was trying to do - capture the bittersweet ache of coming of age.
9. Holy Motors
I don’t fully understand this movie. I’m okay saying that, because I think it would be the height of arrogance to walk out of Leos Carax’s latest phantasmagoria with all the answers. Holy Motors is as much as experience as it is a film; those trapped in traditional narrative movie boxes will be horrified by the loose, meandering nature of ‘the story,’ such as it is.
Anyone else will be transfixed. Not only is Carax’s mastery complete - he uses all the basic tools of visual storytelling to create a powerful, overwhelming sense of emotion (of many emotions) - but Denis Levant is superhuman in the main role of a man with a thousand faces. Boiled down most simplistically he’s playing an actor who travels between scenarios and takes on new characters at each. But it’s more than that, and it’s facile to suggest the film is only paying homage to the art of acting (although it is doing that, and doing it with a profound sense of awe). It’s a movie that doesn’t just speak to us about cinema but about life, about how we are actors in every different encounter we have. But it does speak to us, so eloquently, about cinema and the places where it intersects with our lives and our dreams.
8. The Perks of Being A Wallflower
If you’re mad that Looper or The Raid: Redemption aren’t on this list, blame Perks. It almost made my Ten Most Underrated Movies of the Year list, but then I thought about it and realized I had never stopped thinking about it. This movie had stuck to me, getting its hooks into my soul.
Steven Chbosky adapted his own novel for the screen, and while I can’t say the film is perfect - it’s structurally awkward, for one thing - he has kept a certain emotional tone intact that is almost impossible to find outside of the brain of a 15 year old. The closest comparison I can make is to say that Perks is sort of like My So-Called Life: The Movie.
It’s not a film about fitting in or being a geek or finding love. It’s a film about navigating the difficult, dark waters of yourself when you’re a kid and you have some problematic thoughts rattling around in your skull. It’s about how friends can be your savior in these times, as well as being the worst possible thing for you. It’s about how transitioning from youth to adulthood isn’t always a matter of first kisses and meaningful lessons, but a matter of dealing with painful, hidden and destructive elements in your past.
Logan Lerman is great as the lead kid, and Emma Watson is a delight, but the movie’s real MVP is Ezra Miller (last year’s Kevin who we needed to talk about). He plays Patrick, a flamboyantly gay high school senior who finds that being out is no protection from real suffering. The film is honest about these kids and is loving towards them, and it so perfectly captures the feeling of the mid-90s that I wanted to wrap myself in a flannel and listen to Superchunk.
7. The Master
The biggest problem with The Master is that it came after There Will Be Blood. Many expected something similar, but in recent years Paul Thomas Anderson has shown he’s not interested in repeating himself much. The Master is a much more minor key movie than TWBB, but it’s no less powerful.
What it does have in common with TWBB is that it uses real, uniquely American history as a backdrop for an examination of men. The two men it examines are venal and holy, base and transcendent, stupid and genius. And I mean both of them are all of those things, two aspects of one being.
The entire film is anchored by an astonishing performance from Joaquin Phoenix; it’s a testament to how ungodly good 2012 cinema is that this might not be the best performance of the year. Phoenix is inhabiting, not acting, and there comes a point where you forget you’re watching someone who isn’t actually Freddie Quell.
I don’t think The Master is quite a mystery, but it’s a film with layers that are asking to be engaged and examined. It’s a film that finds the profound in the minute, which is why Paul Thomas Anderson shot such an intimate film in huge, sweeping 70mm. It’s a movie about two guys, but it’s also a movie about belief and reason, about love and about the very nature of humanity.
6. Cloud Atlas
I love this big, messy, sprawling, silly movie. I love the ambition. I love the fact that it’s not afraid to be a little bit corny. I love the fact that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer opened their chests, exposed their hearts and offered everybody a stab.
There’s something holy about that. You don’t make progress without someone leading the way, and that trailblazer is sometimes hated, sometimes mocked, often attacked and, every now and again, killed. The trio behind this film are blazing a trail for cinema, playing with editing and the very concept of auterism, but they’re also blazing a trail of decency. Are the messages of Cloud Atlas a touch obvious, a little basic? So is ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ but most of us can’t seem to get that one down. If we lived in a world where love and human connection were the order of the day, I’d roll my eyes at Cloud Atlas too, but we don’t. Sometimes it’s the most basic lessons that we still have to learn, and I’m glad we have art like Cloud Atlas to remind us of them.
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Dreamlike and gorgeous, Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature film is placed at a strange junction between the gritty and the ephemeral. It’s yet another coming of age movie - I seem to have had a thing for them this year - but it’s so unique and specific that comparing Beasts to other films is a waste of effort.
The movie got caught up in a web of politics, where people complained about the ‘noble savage’ archetypes they thought it displayed, or where people found strange libertarian fantasies hidden in the story. What they didn’t understand is that Beasts is more primal than political, and while it has echoes of New Orleans’ Katrina tribulations, it only takes that reality as a starting point for a fable. Like all the good fables there’s a kernel of reality in there, but Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t an anti-FEMA piece or a glorification of poverty. It’s a lyrical, dense and lovely examination of our place in the world, and a guide to how we can find enlightenment and comfort in that.
4. Cabin in the Woods
Did I say that The Avengers was my favorite movie of the year? It might be a Joss Whedon-y tie, with Cabin coming just behind the Marvel team-up. This movie is just about perfect, a meta celebration of horror movies that is one part West Wing, one part Buffy and one part something totally new and unique and exciting. Cabin in the Woods is a movie that just keeps going, keeps pushing and keeps getting bigger and weirder.
Drew Goddard comes out the gate strong with his feature debut; while there are plenty of Joss Whedon fingerprints all over the script, it’s the way that Goddard works with his cast (including an unknown-at-the-time Chris Hemsworth) that makes the movie more than clever. You like these kids! You feel bad when they die! But you also love every minute of it.
Cabin is a movie that was never going to be huge. Comedy-horrors don’t do well, and forget meta stuff - audiences hate that shit. Which is what makes Cabin doubly a love letter to the genre: it’s aimed squarely and almost only at those who truly live and breathe horror. Cabin in the Woods is a ‘Best’ movie because it’s not just fun and funny, it’s also smart and trenchant film criticism hidden in the body of the genre it’s discussing. As a film critic I’m in awe of that feat. I’ll never write a piece that gets to the heart of why horror is important as well as Cabin does.
Too many biopics try to be broad and inclusive, and end up coming across as episodic overviews rather than real stories. Lincoln avoids that by focusing very specifically on the few months during which Abraham Lincoln fought to pass the XIIIth Amendment and outlaw slavery in America forever.
In many ways this is the film that Spielberg has been gearing up for his whole career. There’s a lightness of tone and a playfulness of character that is informed by his pulpier works, while the weight of history is conveyed without the ham-handedness of some of his more ‘serious’ movies. Like all the great filmmakers, Spielberg relies on his collaborators; Tony Kushner’s dialogue is as engrossing and thrilling as any action sequence and Janusz Kaminski’s smoky, softly lit 35mm photography stirs. He may rely a little too much on old crutch John Williams, but it wouldn’t be a Spielberg film without a too-heavy cue or two.
What makes Lincoln so special is the maturity in it. This is a film about creating political consensus, about tackling impossible tasks in smart, responsible and effective ways. It’s a political parable that is totally of the moment, as we face a fiscal cliff over which our leaders are jonesing to send us. It’s a film about moral courage, which is boring to a Hollywood obsessed with physical courage, but which is moving to anyone with a brain living in this world.
2. Django Unchained
A second viewing of Django Unchained made it leap up this list. This is a great movie, a movie full of purpose and meaning but also fun and laughs. Quentin Tarantino is so good, so in control, that Django Unchained is both a flip, breezy lark and a wild howl of anger at injustice... sometimes in the same scene!
Once again Tarantino shows his imitators how it’s done; while Django is steeped in his love and knowledge of movies it’s never a checklist of references. Tarantino understands how exploitation movies dealt with and reflected a legacy of injustice, and he uses that in his own particular way to make a movie that only exploits our bloodthirsty desire for righteous payback. What's most amazing is that Tarantino is aiming that payback at people who look exactly like 70% of his audience.
I've read some people claim that Django Unchained isn't really about race, but that's crazy talk. This is a movie about race that could only come now, from a guy who grew up steeped in black culture and surrounded by the modern casual racism that doesn't even have the balls to be racist. Is there a self-loathing white liberalism at play here? Maybe, but if so it was earned by the continued awfulness of white people.
One thing that's not awful: anyone who appears in this movie. It's a tapestry of extraordinary performances; Samuel L Jackson, in one of his scariest, most nuanced bad guy roles yet, reminds us why we used to think he was a great actor. Jamie Foxx steps up to the plate and smashes the ball right the fuck out of the park. And Christoph Waltz - how is it possible he's created a character even more indelible than Hans Landa? I hope that he and Tarantino never, ever stop working together.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
There’s controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, and that’s a good thing. Kathryn Bigelow’s film plunges us into the moral grey area of the War on Terror and it never offers us easy answers or trite homilies. What it gives us is the cold thrill of professionals doing the best work of their lives, the intellectual thrill of the sweep of history and the personal thrill of Jessica Chastain creating a rich, badass character out of smoke. Zero Dark Thirty is a Rorschach test that will force you to examine your own ideas about right and wrong, evil and justice. And it’s damn exciting as it does that.
This is my number one movie of the year because it assumes there is intelligent life in movie audiences - and it's already been bitten badly for doing that. There are entire groups of people - some of them our most 'intellectual!' - who don't understand that showing is not the same as condoning. These are probably the same people who need every protagonist to be broadly 'likable,' and who need every moral spelled out at the end, plainly and in as few words as possible.
But that isn't the world, and Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are looking to reflect what they have seen in the world - especially in the world of people who are doing what they profoundly believe is the right thing, at any cost necessary. That's great drama, and it doesn't need to be 'even handed,' because any engaged, intelligent audience should be understanding that for themselves. Bigelow knows we're adults and treats us like such.
No movie in 2012 filled me with hope for big budget, mainstream fare like Zero Dark Thirty did. On the flip side, no film made me despair more for the state of cinematic literacy - are there really that many people out there who don't know how to watch a movie, how to parse what it is saying without being hit over the head? I guess so. But in the meantime I'm glad Kathryn Bigelow had a chance to make a smart, layered, demanding movie like this, and is getting it played in multiplexes across the country.