by Walter Chaw I wish To the Wonder had been released this year--Take Shelter, too. The one because I love Terrence Malick and I'm excited that he's working so much, the other because I fear that Take Shelter is the last time Michael Shannon will anchor a picture without being instantly Christopher Walken-ized. It's his The Dead Zone, and he's amazing in a movie that takes big risks and pays off in a meaningful way; if he were to star in it now, I think it would be mistaken for camp. I also wish I'd seen Margaret in time for my 2011 list. Alas, local publicity has never been terribly interested in my participation. Nevertheless, thanks mostly to Netflix and FYC screeners, I saw a great many great films this year.
I also saw Hitchcock. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Cloud Atlas, and Prometheus. There were technically "worse" movies this year, but why stick another fork in Alex Frost or What to Expect When You're Expecting? At the end of the day, when we measure the worst films of the year, shouldn't we focus on things we thought were going to be good that were all kinds of memorably awful? In other words, you probably shouldn't have heard of every title on best-of lists, and you probably should have heard of every title on the worst-ofs. Great films need champions, like those little hole-in-the-wall restaurants you take your friends to, whereas awful films with broad impact (like Guy Fieri's Times Square Frankenstein) need excoriation. Everything else is just wallpaper in the rec room, as it were.
You could argue that if 600 films were released this year, 20-30 were probably wonderful, while 570-580 were varying degrees of not--meaning that if you're trolling for bad, you have a lot to choose from. When we talk about terrible, we should talk about socially damaging pictures like Beasts of the Southern Wild, maybe, or the way that Cloud Atlas presumes post-racial status by using rampant yellow-face to almost no mainstream censure while Tarantino's slavery flick prompts several articles about its use of the word "nigger." Again, a slavery flick. I'm imagining a Django Unchained where every instance of the word is replaced by "African-American." ("I counted six bullets, my African-American brother." "I count two guns, my African-American brother.") Besides, can we agree by now that Tarantino is commenting as he's indulging? No?
Why not the same standard for Lincoln, which drops the "n" bomb once or twice? Because Spielberg hasn't been criticized for it in the past? Because there are really no powerful, driven black people in it? Because it has white folk helping out black folk, unlike Django Unchained, which is a black guy killing everybody? Then why not go after Spielberg for his chronic, pathological exploitation of children in showing Tad Lincoln, unforgivably, get news of daddy's death in what is essentially a bait-and-switch played dishonourable and loose to herald another of Spielberg's disastrous endings? Lincoln is this year's The King's Speech: milquetoast soaked in milk. Congratulations on your third Oscar, Daniel.
We should even take a moment to discuss what it's like to watch a film shot entirely in extreme close-up with wide-angle lenses. No, Tom Hooper is not suddenly a good director, he has simply been validated just enough to make him believe that all his decisions are good ones. Imagine the reign of terror that would have ensued had Battlefield Earth been a huge success. Still, Anne Hathaway is a revelation. She dies thirty minutes or so into the picture. Once she does, you are free to go. Or you could wait for the clip on the Oscar broadcast. Congratulations to you as well, Ms. Hathaway.
The worst films of the year were drag shows: bad makeup, vampy performances, played to the rafters, with precious little in the way of self-awareness. If we look for commonality among the worst of the worst, we identify a slippage in film-craft--enough so that the tease that maybe a few more frames of Tod Browning's London After Midnight have turned up was enough to send shivers down the spine of every practical-effects lover in the audience. And, by the way, last night I watched "Pawn Stars" in 48fps. It looked so real.
But the best: the best films of 2012 were the best critiques of the worst films of 2012. They examined the digital revolution and what it's wrought in the cinema. I had a lovely conversation one night with a projectionist friend of mine about the cost and consequences of digital projection--and my key takeaway from it was that, like how we feel about Global Warming now, we're past the point of preventative measures and well into the period where we should be hoarding water and digging out a shelter in our backyard. The best movies of the year examined how we watched movies and understood them--they flattered our ability to understand human relationships by being quiet and showing it to us. They presented moments of real nostalgia and regret for things that are gone and not coming back.
I'm drawn to pictures like that, I know. It's a predilection I'm done apologizing for; if you've stuck with me for any period of time, gentle reader, you know what to expect from me by now in any case. I look to movies for personal revelation. I'm offended when they, Skyfall-like, try to tell me the answer is, "Bitches, man." (Boy, Kate Winslet sure did a number on ol' Sam. Good for her.) I'm gratified when something like Haywire says everything there needs to be said about what's wrong with The Bourne Legacy, more eloquently than any splash of digitized column-width ever could. I like my echo chamber. I've decorated it with posters and bookshelves.
I also didn't like Moonrise Kingdom much. And I love Wes Anderson. And so it goes.
Things I didn't see that I might have liked to have seen: Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, The Imposter, This is Not a Film, Barbara
Thing I didn't see on purpose, four times: Breaking Dawn 2.2: Pedophilia and Pre-Arranged Marriage, LDS Edition
Things I saw and was glad I did: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, Keep the Lights On, Compliance, Chronicle, The Tall Man, Bad 25, I Wish, Headhunters, Elena, Killer Joe, Life Without Principle, The Grey
Things I saw and was sorry: Hyde Park on the Hudson, Promised Land, Les Misérables
The worst films of the year: Cloud Atlas, Hitchcock, Prometheus
Here's my list of the Top 20 films of 2012 followed by capsule write-ups grouped thematically:
- Holy Motors
- Oslo, August 31
- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
- The Loneliest Planet
- The Master
- Django Unchained
- Wuthering Heights
- The Turin Horse
- Killing Them Softly
- Beyond the Black Rainbow
- The Deep Blue Sea
- The Kid with a Bike
- The Snowtown Murders
- Magic Mike
- Harakiri: Death of a Samurai
- The Dark Knight Rises
Dark Knight Rises
(d. Christopher Nolan)
11. Killing Them Softly (d. Andrew Dominik)
9. Cosmopolis (d. David Cronenberg)
A mess narratively, Nolan's films work because they're emotionally coherent. They are operas, grand and melodramatic, and the finale to his troubled trilogy carries as its payload an unquiet argument for tearing it all down before siding with order, some would say fascism. Our hero takes the easy way out, our heroine just wants to escape, too, and the only people left are disenfranchised and revealed for the venal, small things they are. It's an interesting thing to suggest that the United States is in need of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after our financial collapse--even more interesting because we've yet to ever address the class war that festers at the middle of our ills. Where Bane is from, where Batman is from, and where they end up with a new hero rising from the working class...it's fascinating, and it's ours.
Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will one day headline a forgotten masterpieces festival that I program with Jonathan Glazer's Birth. His follow-up, Killing Them Softly, is a metaphor for the American financial collapse, overtly in the constant playing of speeches delivered by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, staring into the teeth of a hard decade, maybe more, of debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs, and general insolvency. It opens to blowing papers that remind instantly of the chits around the feet of Wall Street traders (who were themselves brutalized in this year's Dark Knight Rises), then focuses in on sad-sack criminals and the sad-sack organized-crime bureaucrats enlisting the sad-sack assassins to kill them. Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini anchor the production with spot-on and, in the latter's case, devastating performances, even if Gandolfini's medium-functioning lush takes a backseat this year to Denzel Washington's high-functioning pilot. Two scenes, both with Ray Liotta's low-level thug, are destined for legend, the first an unbearably tense robbery of a card game he runs, the second his inevitable exit in a fury of broken glass and traffic signals. If it's occasionally too spot-on in its attempt to draw the collapse of the United States money system before decades of graft and slackening regulation, it's also artful in its outrage, almost amused. This isn't anything new, it says, and there's always another way to get paid.
David Cronenberg's astounding adaptation of Don DeLillo's "unfilmable" Cosmopolis is likewise about the Occupy Movement (literally this time), as a billionaire mover of money attempts to negotiate sex with his chilly artist wife; early detection with his very thorough proctologist; and solvency with the man who wants to kill him on principle. It's another undead Robert Pattinson character who wants immortality, sex, and happiness, this one casting into harsh consideration what's really important to all those "team Edwardians" out there. As biomechanical as any of Cronenberg's tax-shelter bogeys, the creatures of Cosmopolis are melded with their technology, trading in lights and figures as the world burns down, in search of one authentic thing even if it's Chinese takeout, days old and cold, and a haircut from a trusted scissor. When Cronenberg gifts his parasite with stigmata, he creates one of the most disturbing satirical moments erupting from our entire mess.
Death of a Samurai
(d. Takashi Miike)
17. Magic Mike (d. Steven Soderbergh)
13. The Deep Blue Sea (d. Terrence Davies)
6. Django Unchained (d. Quentin Tarantino)
Self-respect, dignity, and the absolute corruption of the ruling class mark Takashi Miike's brilliant remake of Masaki Kobayashi's timeless Harakiri (1962). The original undergoes extensive, essential changes (what it shows, what it doesn't), and in so doing engages the entire samurai genre in a sign/signifier duality: It doesn't mean what it seems to mean; it is the Heisenberg principle as it manifests in film. It doesn't seek to be another examination of the Bushido code, but rather a canny conversation about its representation in modernity as it trails a long tradition behind it. Miike, here and in last year's 13 Samurai, demonstrates that the United States doesn't have the corner on Quentin Tarantinos. If only Tarantino were a quarter as prolific.
Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike has the spirit and smarts of John Huston's Fat City while following a similar trajectory as Miike's crucible of blood and shame. Matthew McConaughey's 2012 resurrection is captured in part here as he plays the owner of a male strip club headlined by the titular stud (Channing Tatum), who's just smart enough to know better but not smart enough to know how to get out. It's a funny, thoughtful take on the difficulty of "making it" and the peculiarity of male friendship, whether success be measured in love, finances, responsibility, or, finally, self-respect. Self-respect and dignity: major themes in a year that might offer some recognition of a need for both. It has the tough core of a Seventies flick and walks an impossible line between farce and tragedy to become, at its end, as likable as it is unerringly contemporary. It's also the sweetest love story of the year--yeah, I'm looking at you, Moonrise Kingdom.
Rachel Weisz plays Anna Karenina essentially, but a far more sympathetic one than Tolstoy's spoiled child of privilege--if only because Weisz is a singular, extraordinary talent and here gives, in Terence Davies's rapturous, drunk, Wong Kar-wai-ian adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play, the performance of a career. She's Hester, caught in a loveless marriage to a much older mama's boy of a prig, engaged in adultery with a younger man who doesn't love her like she loves him, doesn't need her in the same desperate manner. Davies shoots the story in much the same way he did his underseen Of Time and the City: obliquely, in blues, in dreamy, swaying, waltzing motions that speak at once to the rapture of this deep and to the dangers of drowning.
A love story of a slightly different shade, Tarantino's Django Unchained provides an appropriately savage, appropriately stunning look at the legacy of slavery, at black-on-black violence, at the cost of vengeance. It returns the Spaghetti Western to the United States that spawned it, providing a sophisticated indictment of Reconstruction much like Inglourious Basterds was brutally frank about the establishment of a Jewish state post-Holocaust. Tarantino's films, violent, glorious, prurient at times, self-indulgent at others, are at their heart moral exercises that have as their base a real questioning spirit. His only real rival Sergio Leone as a master of soundtrack and score, consider his use of a John Legend song followed not long after by Johnny Cash. Too easily dismissed as a revenge film, Django Unchained is instead about original sin.
(d. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo)
15. The Snowtown Murders (a.k.a. Snowtown) (d. Justin Kurzel)
12. Beyond the Black Rainbow (d. Panos Cosmatos)
When the dust settles and the smoke clears, I do wonder if guys like Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and Pascal Laugier won't finally get their due as the spearhead of a horror revolution, the two of them landing with new films in the same year that Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon received a round of applause for their genre-hating The Cabin in the Woods. Fresnadillo's is Intruders, a Clive Owen-fronted piece about parents' inability to protect their children from the disappointment of discovering that they're flawed, helpless, and as frightened as their kids are of the things in the darkness of the closet and pooling beneath the bed. Maybe they're even responsible for them. It posits a truly awful antagonist in Hollow Face--a thing that wants to steal faces to present as his own--and it seems that only Owen's father character and the daughter he's trying to protect are able to see it. It's the kind of movie Guillermo Del Toro would have made back in his Devil's Backbone days; and it certainly doesn't hurt that it knows enough about its genre to make a knowing, haunted reference to Robert Wise's Curse of the Cat People in not just a tree-knot mailbox, but also the depth of its parent/child relationship, all of disappointment and horror. Doesn't hurt that it's really scary, too.
Scary in a different way is Aussie Justin Kurzel's debut The Snowtown Murders. Based on a notorious serial killing spree in little Adelaide, the film follows the exploits of affable, chubby, bearded John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) as he seduces lost, abandoned Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) and enlists him in his cleansing expeditions. The spiritual cousin to Animal Kingdom, it owes its icy mendacity to John McNaughton's still-unequalled Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. In portraying evil as banal, charmless, and predatory, it essays without much judgment how it is that the soulless find minions and the rationales offered up for the necessary culling of imaginary flocks. Its violence plain and unglamorous, the whole of it is presented unadorned as this poison capsule of desultory, feckless malignance. Human cancer doing only what cancer ever does, terrifyingly and without malice or any hint of human emotion.
Panos Cosmatos's '70/'80s throwback/existential horror trip Beyond the Black Rainbow is a singular achievement--equal parts homage and psychotropic atrocity. It's about Elena (Eva Allan), sort of, prisoner of utopian science lab Arboria, a facility introduced in a video that reminds of David Cronenberg's intro to the futuristic condo in Shivers before becoming something what a Cronenberg film would look like in his mutations period if it were designed by Salvador Dali and, why not, a young George Lucas. Elena plots to escape her captivity past Terry Gilliam nightmares and the clutches of evil Barry (Michael Rogers) into an impossible world of Tony Scott's immortal cadavers housed in gauze and curtains. And there's something called "The Devil's Teardrop," which is more or less exactly what it sounds like. The Brood in parts and Santa Sangre in others, it is, in other words, deeply disturbing and immanently rewarding. It's madness. What's not to love?
A singular film this year and the perfect antidote to Sam Mendes's fit of pique at Kate Winslet divorcing his unpleasant ass (Skyfall), it's a spy/assassin movie broken down into its component parts and reconstructed around an absolute kickass, sexy heroine who is betrayed by every man not her father and so kills everyone. She's never the victim, never the product of a broken home or a lousy upbringing, she's just very good at what she does--yet still seen as expendable by her peers and bosses. Soderbergh re-establishes himself as one of the country's most vital filmmakers, shooting everything in a way that is completely unexpected so that it owes a greater kinship to the auto-critical, meta-gangster flicks of the French New Wave than to its more obvious antecedents. Look at a scene shot in an apartment where a character standing up and sitting down is chronicled by a fluid camera, moving up and down in tandem but through a shelving unit. It's not as arty as you might think, but it's more brilliant than you probably give it credit for being. Take it as a lovely companion piece to Anton Corbijn's The American: artisanal films about artisans.
Heights (d. Andrea Arnold)
5. The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
4. The Loneliest Planet (d. Julia Loktev)
Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights is bestial, filthy--it's the best Jane Campion film in a year without one, and it joins Django Unchained as the conversation about race and its representation that Lincoln was not. It's an eloquent explication of how Romanticism and Faulkner's Naturalism are bridged by the Brontë, as well as the best adaptation of classic literature in a year that saw a really good try in Joe Wright's fascinatingly askew Anna Karenina. I've always loved Wuthering Heights, loved its supernatural element, its lust, its hero so pitch in his rage and desire for vengeance that he destroys everything he seeks to preserve for a legacy that's not his to claim.
Then there's Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Essentially an adaptation of the first book of John Keats's Endymion, in which our hero relates his dreams and visions in preparation for his descent into deeps, his wakening of a long-imprisoned god, his pursuit of beauty and love. It is a Romanticist text through and through, telling of the slipperiness of identity and following a seeker in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who is the quintessential evocation of the modern figure lost, knowing only that he lacks. I love the moment where Freddie dreams to find that his "master," Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), based not very loosely on L. Ron Hubbard, has shared his dream--or that we're sharing their dream, or that the dream is collective and not personal; by the end of The Master, the separation between the audience and the product has become meaningless. The entire film is one of Dodd's exercises in dissociation--in accessing something collective and sublime in the beating of a man's hands against a glass window.
The biggest joke and the highest sublimity of the piece is Anderson identifying Freddie's motivation throughout as one satisfying sexual encounter. He offers Freddie a vagina made of sand, another underage and out of reach to time, a dinner party of them subvocal and mocking. Dodd gets the same treatment, a brusque handjob from his harridan wife his only release. The only natural sex in the film comes in the final scene as Freddie mocks his master's voice. He's won a sort of victory, I suppose, but I wonder if the climax isn't when Freddie rides a motorcycle on a salt flat...forever, and if that moment where Freddie and Dodd have it out in neighbouring jail cells isn't actually the most intimate in a picture striving for them. It's a film about Keats's consummation sublime; Wuthering Heights is a different evocation of the same.
Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet is disappointment of another sort. Impossibly observant, impossibly intimate, it is the second-best use of score (an existing piece by Richard Skelton) in a film this year behind only Tarantino's, and the picture, by the end, establishes itself as a de facto fourth film in Gus Van Sant's "death trilogy." Set in Soviet Georgia's Caucasus mountains (where, legend has it, Prometheus was chained for his sins against heaven), it puts its young lovers in a natural state with and against one another. It challenges notions of gender--identity, really--and does it lyrically, gracefully, and, yeah, even poetically.
Turin Horse (A torinói
ló) (d. Béla Tarr)
3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu'da) (d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Elder statesman Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse, in perhaps capturing the dead-horse-beater that anecdotally drove Nietzsche mad, proceeds to beat a dead horse over the course of increasingly deadening, though never less ferocious, cycles of hardscrabble, meaningless existence. The well runs dry, the tempest rages, frugal repasts mark the time spent fuelling for the next round of pointless subsistence. There is a mad fury to Tarr's vision of the apocalypse, of Sisyphus in his toils but focused in on the blisters, the lame arm, the filth. Universal? Certainly universal, and unabashedly grand in its occasional pronouncements that "everything is lost forever." There is nothing that matters in The Turin Horse, and the extended shots of our hero (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok) staring into the endless eddy outside their hovel's window have about them a certain entropic rage. It's a film bout inference, and a horror movie by definition. Watch it in a cycle with Melancholia and Synecdoche, New York with a Lexapro chaser.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, his astonishing follow-up to the underappreciated Three Monkeys, is set against the gorgeous Turkish "outback," where a small group of policemen and coroners and doctors accompany a confessed murderer to a dimly-remembered grave where he's interred his victim following a drunken row. That's it. Home to the most beautiful landscape cinematography of any film this year (a close second: John Hillcoat's too-conventional Lawless), it's about the smallness of individual lives against all the crushing weight of history and culture. Like The Turin Horse, but with a slower existential boil. The most spiritual film of the year, watching it is a spiritual experience, anchored by a moment in the middle where our sojourners, finding succour for a moment in a friendly village, are served a candlelit nightcap by a young woman haloed in her innocence and youth. The reactions our heroes have to her are natural: some are smitten, some are appalled that they're smitten, some recognize in her what they've bartered away in a second's misconsideration--or a lifetime of them. It's about regret, and routine. It's the year's most Kierkegaardian picture, and I can't shake it.
Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) (ds. Jean-Pierre
Dardenne & Luc Dardenne)
2. Oslo, August 31st (Oslo, 31. august) (d. Joachim Trier)
The Dardennes' best film since The Son, The Kid with a Bike channels Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films with the saga of poor little Cyril (Thomas Doret), abandoned by his asshole father (Jérémie Renier) and thrust into the foster care of hairdresser Samantha (unbelievably beautiful Cecile De France) in an unquiet period of his life. Given to uncontrollable fits of rage, Cyril falls in with the wrong people, gets into bad trouble, and then tries to make amends. Through it all is that streak of forgiveness and charity that marks the Dardennes as, ultimately, perhaps more daring than dour Michael Haneke. Shot with no affectation, the performances are likewise unaffected, while Samantha's dedication to Cyril plays as the kind of genuinely-earned salve to melancholy.
Compare it to Joachim Trier's heartbreaking Oslo, August 31st, which features a remarkable, again completely unaffected, performance by Anders Danielsen Lie as Anders, an addict pushing 30 who finds himself smart, briefly sober, and staring down the barrel of unconquerable barriers. He wanders the titular city on the titular day, haunting old friends and leaving messages for an ex-girlfriend we infer he's damaged irreparably with his penchant for self-destruction. He goes to a job interview, goes to lunch, finds a girl who wouldn't mind going skinny-dipping, and makes his way home. Along the way, there are conversations and confessions, with the film opening like a divine revelation when Anders, who we see early on trying to kill himself, asks a buddy what use are platitudes when everything has passed you by and it's too late? Everything is lost forever. There're no missteps here, only keen observations and quiet epiphanies and recognition. It all feels like a message from a bell jar. Its sense of regret, the ability to capture through script and performance and image that fleeting passage of youth and what it really means to be resigned to a bad end, is pure. It's devastating.
16. Alps (Alpeis) (d.
1. Holy Motors (d. Leos Carax)
Giorgos Lanthimos follows up his incomparable Dogtooth with another strange, narratively loose, emotionally dense picture, Alps, that presents a team of caregivers who masquerade as the recently-deceased in order to ease the suffering of the recently-bereaved. (They name themselves after the titular mountain range in the first of the film's philosophical feints and presumptions.) Superheroes of a sort, they cast themselves as emotional avengers, even when it's clear that there are not always existential wrongs to be corrected. Alps is a film about playing roles until they aren't roles anymore--a film about belief and suspension, even as it's about denial and avoidance.
Leos Carax's astonishing Holy Motors offers its own transcendence in the act of creation and consumption. In following Denis Lavant during an endless ride in the back of a limousine ferrying him from role to role as he dons and sheds myriad skins in myriad scenarios, it's the most exhilaratingly confounding mystery of the year. It would be comfortable in a double feature with Mulholland Drive. (Not many films would be comfortable there.) Too pat to say that it's a movie about movies, Holy Motors is a movie about belief and the almost sexual relationship between spectator and art object in any medium. It's the most accomplished picture I've ever seen that goes about these things in this way that wasn't directed by fellow film critic Godard. Carax's first full feature in thirteen years, Holy Motors serves a complement to the "Merde" section of Tokyo!; it's dangerous in a way that films aren't much anymore, challenging to say the least, and feral/unclassifiable. It is the most satisfying film of the year because it is the most cinematic film of the year; watch it after anything and find it commenting on what you've just seen. Magic.