Top 25 of 2012
Ursula Meier’s Sister has a seemingly simple title that somehow gives too much away yet is also perfectly misleading to the general audience member as far as it regards the relationship that will pop up over the course of the film. Two children live on the mountains near a resort, and steal things from the ski slope area that people leave behind in order to eke out a living in an area with a high cost of living for an elite few and nothing for the poor, even if they don’t seem exactly sure as to why that’s what they’re doing, especially the younger brother who desperately craves affection from Lea Seydoux’s character, his guardian. Spoiler alert: she’s actually his mother, but that winds up feeling a little irrelevant when you see just how dingy their apartment is and how much slush they have to wade through just to get by. They have no community, it’s a series of awful boyfriends who force poor Simon to struggle away as we get a good luck at the geography of the land that is harsh and foreboding, yet a treasure trove for both the camera and the children who live on it. The class divide is everywhere, right down to the ski lift being used as the morning commute to work as he desperately tries to scrape some love out of a woman (Gillian Anderson) who happens to be visiting with her own brood and is sufficiently maternal to suffice. Everything is dependent on the tourist season, and Meier remains detached anyway even when spring comes and everything melts. The Dardennes are clearly a major influence for the director, but does that really matter if she apes them so well yet feels unique? There’s some poetry in here as well no matter if the ridiculous, big in scope nature of the politics can seem next to the adventures of a boy and his sticky fingers, unnoticed after he takes expensive skis thanks to privilege making it harder to notice the loss of non-essential items. Fitting, in a way, for a thesis that suggests love can come simply in the form of being acknowledged by another. They don’t really care about their belongings, but everyone who notices the little boy can help care for him, ignoring that it is deeply inconsistent on their end and things do not look like they will ever improve.
Favorite Moment: The ending.
24. Magic Mike
Recession study and study of contemporary masculinty…in the same film? Well, they actually most definitely make a good match considering the Great Recession was just the result of a dick measuring contest, but hey, it works really well here anyway! Magic Mike’s strippers aren’t quite realistic even if I have no experience with strip clubs, for the routines in this film fall more into camp than anything genuinely sexy. I guess a Ken Doll or Matthew McConaughey’s full deranged soldier routine might be a fantasy to some, but Soderbergh is really just poking fun at gender roles by having men occupy them. Strip clubs have never looked this salaciously well lit, and all the guys but particularly Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer are utilized wonderfully simply for the purposes of both being exploited as a piece of meat and striking out on their own. It’s up to the viewer to determine which of the two is the more valuable, but props to whoever decided to market this as a girls’ night out, for it’s a brilliant lie. This is a hell of a lot of fun while also being insightful. Soderbergh’s star vehicles are built to last, and this is an even more cynical version of Erin Brockovich. Magic Mike’s thesis statement is simple: the economy is not going to get better for a very long time, if ever, and coming up with get rich quick schemes via selling one’s body is as good a way as any to get by in America. Much like that trick the dancers pull where they swing around their crotch before a thrust, this is a movie aimed right at my cinematic g-spot, complete with typecasting that is simultaneously the very definition of it and not at all what would be expected. It’s Cabaret forty years later and in a situation that’s fairly close in how edgily it confronts what’s already a very politically grim time for the country it’s taking place in. There may be dancers and flesh and sweat, but the minds of these guys are just as impressive as the bodies. If the exteriors were lit as nicely as the interiors (the latter have a very strong Peeping Tom affectation to them while the former is just monotonous yellow) then I could totally get on board with this even further than I already have. All the sexual frankness of a European arthouse film with very little of the punishment.
Favorite Moment: “Hey Mike, wanna be my best friend?”
23. Kill List
Even when he had half as many features under his belt, Ben Wheatley quickly became a wonder at creating mythologies both unexplained and nuanced, with the inherent absurdity of it all, life in the miserable modern world, skewing as dark as he ever gets right from the beginning and ratcheting up from the minute the knife slices the palm. We think nothing of minor moments from the start like the snatching of the tablecloth off the table. They are quickly forgotten once the symbol straight out of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is carved into the wall by a woman who doesn’t get another line of dialogue. And then the ending comes along after a slow boil second act and we realize that the film never meant to leave the realm of the domestic feuding and studies of the dark undercurrents within humanity, and it ties together the blind lashing out on Jay’s end so well that we’re left speechless. The ending of Wicker Man masks and shrieks as a recognizable monster was slashed at was the only way for this to wrap up, for this is as vicious a take on the corruptness of institutions as anything. First marriage is prodded at. Then religion, record keepers, and the government. All that’s left is a group so mad that they perceive a vengeful murderer who’s possibly insane as a hero icon. You can make Jay represent whatever you wish, although there’s definitely a military bent to be found somewhere in here relating to him being used simply as an instrument for various evildoers, but this is just as vicious a satire as Sightseers was, albeit with a hell of a lot less charming drollness. What Kill List does exceptionally well is setting up an unsettling mood, like something out of John Cassavetes’ social realism works blended with nightmare fuel. It taps into the creepiest parts of the psyche, and we don’t even realize it until we enter the truly bonkers territory. Heralds the entrance of a great new talent in unique ways, even if tonal shifts are commonplace nowadays. Don’t try and get out of this movie’s vice grip, for it belongs to a specific time and place of this warped world we find ourselves living in. Nothing about Kill List is particularly out of place or really, all that exaggerated. It’s a distorted United Kingdom, but not unrecognizable.
Favorite Moment: Final fight.
Now that Sean Baker has deservingly broken out as an upcoming star with his trans sex worker Christmas comedy Tangerine, let’s show some appreciation for his micro budgeted debut feature Starlet, featuring Mariel Hemingway’s daughter (Dree), who looks just like her when she was young, as a California do-nothing who spends the early runtime in a haze. It also has an 85 year old woman named Besedka Johnson in her first and sadly last film role who was recruited from the YMCA, and a Chihuahua (the titular character) that spends most of the movie taking a nap rather than doing anything particularly cute or funny. While the premise is pure boilerplate-Hemingway finds money in a thermos of Johnson’s and makes friends with the older lady. There’s several sober revelations and pleasures to be drawn from this that aren’t what you’d expect from the usual independent movie. Southern California has never looked quite so gauzy, and both of these woman have secrets. Hemingway turns out to be a porn star, which lends a certain sadness to her earlier scenes where she does nothing all day and goes to yard sales in between getting fucked on camera in the most generically sad looking office ever constructed. Johnson isn’t some sage, she’s a stubborn creature who’s totally set in her ways, is hilariously awful at first (one scene involves pepper spray) and is slowly going senile. This is probably attributable to the success of the performance, for she is as real an elderly woman as you could ask for. And yet, once we learn more about why Johnson’s Sadie persists in putting up with this strange younger person anyway, everything becomes a lot sadder. Most notable on display in this film is Baker’s caustic sense of humor, with a deliriously nasty Stella Maeve playing our lead’s drug addicted roommate who is just toxic for the sake of it (her boyfriend would reappear in the next piece of work Baker did). Nothing ever really explodes in Starlet, we just have quiet plot twists that makes a leisurely drift into new places, all culminating with a quick gut punch at the end that’s quietly poignant. This is realness, a character study of the best kind that represents a very special sort of ingenuity. Seek it out now that the director has made his mark! It has the same sugary sweetness and acidic notes sprinkled in for flavor.
Favorite Moment: The final reveal with the grave. Mends and breaks your heart.
The writing within Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena is black as night, sharp as steel, slow as fog. Despite a relatively short 109 minute runtime, it feels much longer, for the cast we focus on are masters of dragging out their unpleasantness towards each other. We’ve seen movies like this before, no doubt, but this is one of the best examples of its kind, a far more curdled version of Ozu. The titular character, played fantastically by Nadezhda Markina, is extremely lucky in using her nursehood to get her position in Russia a little bit improved by marrying a rich man named Vladimir, for the rest of her family consists of a son and grandson who are complete assholes, while her daughter-in-law is dealing with a new baby. Elena’s new husband is totally uninterested in helping out the beggars on her side, for his own child Katerina from a previous marriage (Elena Lyadova as a monstrous, borderline sociopathic spoiled brat that never ceases to be terrifically real) has her own constant demands for money that are consistently horrifying in just how venal they are. Sound like an unlikable group? Wait until you find out what Elena does upon seeing Vladimir’s will is all going to Katerina, for she ends up descending to the same level as the rest of the cast save her daughter-in-law. It’s all the sort of thing that could’ve made it even higher in my yearly ranking if it wasn’t for the damned ending, which gets its point across nicely but is far too abrupt. Zvyagintsev has a perfectly clear message, but he could have afforded to luxuriate in its nastiness a little more. Still, it’s hard to fault this movie otherwise, and on the technical side of things it’s just fabulous. Crows are always subtly cawing in the background, and the contrast between Vladimir’s gorgeous but chilly apartment and the cluttered rathole near some nuclear power plant towers that Elena’s old family has to live in is so grim as to be funny. Yes, funny-for this is just as easily interpreted as a most pitch black of comedies. It’s the sort of movie that could instantly freeze anyone’s veins, so chilly and unpleasant it is even if we’re fully aware that we absolutely need Elena to feed into the survivalist instinct. It also works superbly and I wish I had room for this in my Top 20. Damn that ending!
Favorite Moment: Elena and Katya meeting.
20. Wuthering Heights
Sure to divide its small audience, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is definitely an adaptation of the classic novel, but it is also a dissection of its innermost workings. Heathcliff is a person of color (as he was in the book) who experiences racism from Hindley in what is probably the most justified, thought provoking use of the n-word by a Caucasian ever (take notes Tarantino), the film ends at the book’s halfway point, and the dialogue is stripped away as much as possible. This is a movie that lives and dies on the success of its cinematography, and I think you can guess how successful I think that is based off the title of this post. There is no fear or timidity in the filming or direction, simply Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan taking us deep into the dirt and rain and insects and insisting that this is the most goddamn beautiful muck you’ve ever seen. And it is, for it is beautifully alive and lacking in the sterility of the past visions of foggy, dry looking fields. When Kate Bush sang about the wild windy moors, this had to be what she had in mind although I doubt she imagined the level of animal cruelty on display. While the visuals in the first half featuring younger Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and Cathy (Shannon Beer) are the stronger ones, and they set the stage for what’s to come while showcasing astonishing debut performances from children, it’s the second half that grabbed hold of me, with James Howson and Kaya Scodelario looking gorgeous and smoldering with unreleased passion, repressed emotions in every encounter while taking out their suppressed rage on each other and the few people unfortunate enough to get in their path. One only images what would be made of the latter half of the novel. Soundwise, the movie is a marvel of unceasing winds and muddy footsteps. The sounds of Wuthering Heights also continue the trend of Mumford and Sons having much better contributions to movies than the music industry (Inside Llewyn Davis), with their song “The Enemy” being exactly the sort of sparse beauty that defined the film before it for the better. This is about as postmodern as one could ask for, a bodice ripper without a single stolen kiss and nothing but glances as foreplay but containing all the grimy cynicism of a revenge thriller and the shaky handheld cinematography of the modern world.
Favorite Moment: “You killed me.”
19. Middle of Nowhere
Now that Ava DuVernay has rightfully become mainstream even with her Academy Awards snub for Selma still stinging, this is as good a time as any to look back at the breakout for the indie director turned icon for women of color in film (and best selling Barbie Doll). While her tight focus for character on display here was a bit lost with Selma (I blame the biopic factor), she hasn’t lost her eye for beautiful shot compositions at all, with the shots going for the look of the title and usually drawing our eye to Emayatzi Corinealdi. Her protagonist Ruby Dee is stuck in the titular Middle of Nowhere, riddled with anxiety at her core over her identity even when the world is changing around her, waiting for her husband to be released from the local prison (with the bus carrying a truly depressing number of women) and thus trapping herself. It’s both commendable and misguided. It takes all the forces of the elements she can’t entirely push out of her bubble to push her out of her rut of wasting her life working for his release. They range from her gaining knowledge of his affair and participation in a prison riot, to meeting a new man who might be who she actually needs even if she’s guilty and resistant to his affection for her. It all culminates with a peak display of acting from her and Lorraine Toussaint as her sharp-tongued mother (I’m convinced this got her the part of Vee on Orange is the New Black), with Toussaint playing a woman who knows full well about the specific brand of delusion the women in this bleak neighborhood have when it comes to their men and won’t tolerate it coming from her daughter, especially when it might take apart the family bonds she’s worked so hard to maintain. But Corinealdi is just as worthy of our acclaim, taking a person who appears maddening on paper, someone who is static and in denial, winning the audience over entirely with proven layers of grit and making the tiniest shifts into self-awareness about her unwinnable situation. Her role is deeply fascinating anyway, a wife playing the part of the devoted wife who’s actually entirely self-destructive. The movie ends with a scene that’s soaked in irony but totally triumphant, both for Ruby Dee and anyone who’s been lucky enough to see this small masterpiece.
Favorite Moment: The dinner.
18. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
It’s Such a Beautiful Day being one of the year’s best films feels like cheating, for it’s a combination of three shorts (Everything Will be OK, I Am So Proud of You, It’s Such a Beautiful Day) by Don Hertzfeldt from over a period of six years that have been put together to make a full film that was released in 2012. It’s arguably an anthology in the same vein as the movie’s total opposite in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but outside of something like Boyhood, there’s hardly ever been a more coherent anthology project and watching the movies in a continuous stream is too rewarding to ignore. The sparse animation mixed with live action footage that is characteristic of Hertzfeldt’s works, combined with the only voices we listen to being off the screen and usually in the form of the director himself narrating wryly, makes everything we see as opposed to what we hear so much more loaded, bringing the small collection of upsetting characters into our world. That is not to take away from what we do, in fact, hear, for the sound mixing and editing in this movie is a subjectivity nightmare, a glimpse into an unwell mind that is so layered as to be overwhelming and incoherent. It’s all made to be as deliberately artificial as possible, but we empathize anyway because it’s disturbingly real in how it touches upon questions related to mental health and mortality, particularly when our own live action world is entered (whether it’s reality or insanity is up to the viewer). The protagonist, Bill, is nothing but a stick figure in a hat, but in his vague expressions we can read anything we want. Not bad for a sixty minute collection of short animated pieces, but part of the genius in Hertzfeldt’s work has always laid in how quickly and easily we’re thrown into his universe of difficult ideas. What really takes It’s Such a Beautiful Day into uncharted territory is the ending, where the structure of the film itself begins to unravel at alarming speed as we get an ending with a shiny surface but a core that’s more like a vortex or a black hole, sucking us in and never truly letting us escape. You have an hour to spare for this movie, and it will be a far more worthwhile hour than near any other experience.
Favorite Moment: The ending.
Christian Petzold’s titular character Barbara, played superbly by Nina Hoss, starts off the movie as a cypher, a rather high-strung looking woman who keeps to herself and actively tries to make sure her coworkers at the hospital where she is a pediatric surgeon are rebuffed. It turns out that she is not just a doctor but a person who is suffering under the full weight of the Cold War in Germany, the victim of an alarmingly unnecessary number of resources used purely to keep her around as a statement. The Stasi are hounding her for wanting to escape from East Germany and are all too willing to humiliate her. The closest thing she has to a friendly face is spying on her and is either trying to make her stay in the rural village she’s stationed at because of his own mistakes or has a genuine interest, but we don’t know which it is or if it’s both. She’s getting far too attached to a patient as a surrogate daughter. She’s dependent on her bicycle to get around, a rickety skeleton of a machine. When she meets with her boyfriend in a forest and a hotel, she finds out they are growing apart. Eventually, she must make hard choices, and this is where the movie truly excels, with the years of collaboration between the director and lead actress resulting in a mind meld of their vision as the long takes and Hoss’ ever flickering reactions resulting in what feels like a fascinating exercise in claustrophobia, with every motion made by Barbara in resistance to her circumstances causing an even more extreme counter reaction. Only when she goes with the flow is there any sort of reward, making the ending a mixture of the genuinely romantic and the unsettling. The images composed in Barbara are also strong, not the sort of over the top, boundary pushing gorgeousness that I usually go for but a well-worn sort of beauty that one frequently sees in nature photographs, with foggy forests and austere, neat looking buildings. Hoss’ distinctive appearance is a strength as well. This is the sort of film that puts a director on the map, so well does it take a new side to familiar material while also adding in touches of personality and well defined character. It is precise and paced slowly, but this is the greatest asset of Barbara, for we alternate between suspense and fascination with the humans we are witnessing on screen.
Favorite Moment: The hotel meeting.
16. Deep Blue Sea
Terence Davies’ adaptation of the play The Deep Blue Sea is an unfairly good film, for any movie based off a theatrical work that lends itself this easily to becoming a cinematic work already has a bit of a leg up (and I have not read the original text but this very much strikes me as an adaptation rather than just turning the book into a script). You then factor in Davies’ career long obsession with women who are trapped in a misogynistic world, and throw in Rachel Weisz at the peak of her powers with Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale giving excellent support as different versions of a ball of lustful anger, and you have arguably the film he was born to make. Weisz’s Hester Collyer gets so much love showered on her from the direction already that it’s unfair, with most of the frames in this movie being a marvel of muted colors and soft focus that summon up a time where escaping a thankless daily routine was near impossible. Her trapping herself in Freddie’s apartment while staring out the window is a powerful visual, for it is the whole film in a few frames. But despite Hester’s stillness, this is a demanding role requiring countless registers, all of which display a certain emotional inarticulateness from an otherwise intelligent person that punches at our most base sympathies as we remember the times we struggled to express ourselves despite having smart ideas, and sympathize instantly. She plays depressed so beautifully in this misty, softly lit version of 1950s England that I was genuinely terrified during the scene where she nearly commits suicide at the train station, only to be haunted by her face as it rushed by her and she gasped for oxygen. Meanwhile, as Beale becomes increasingly sympathetic even with our knowledge that he isn’t right for Collyer if only for his monstrous mother, Hiddleston becomes more unstable and distant even as he maintains his status as a lust object worthy of deep uncontrollable passion. Hester’s situation is truly FUBAR but the dialogue her and her two lovers spit at each other is only that way in a very tenuous sense, with line readings of venom and sadness that follow us and the characters around like ghosts. Hope for the future is eventually found, but buried deep underneath rubble that many a future generation will clear off.
Favorite Moment: Museum fight.
15. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The film adaptation we needed of the truly special book with the same name, The Perks of Being a Wallflower might be one of the rare occasions when the author and the director being the same person is a good thing even with the signs of amateur directing on display, so thank goodness for Stephen Chbosky. Future generations of adolescents, even those without the heart wrenching trauma that hangs onto Charlie like a spook, should seek out and value both. An adolescent with depression whose nature is this fundamentally introverted is a character to be valued indeed, and both works are a potent balm for loneliness. Maybe the characters all feel a little younger than they actually are, but let’s just chalk it up to a little bit of arrested development, or just the 1990s being a more innocent time. Logan Lerman’s lead performance is a razor’s edge piece of acting, a tour de force of perpetual nervousness that warrants the final breakdown without ever waving a red flag in its direction. The rest of the cast is fairly sanitized, but at least Ezra Miller’s live wire work as a teenage gay channels a more soulful, smoothed out version of his performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin that gives the film some more sparks. While I wish some of the book’s acknowledgements of the truly dark side of suburbia were either acknowledged (the sister’s abusive boyfriend) or delved into further (the aunt is under examined), and “Heroes” is not the right choice of tunnel song for this Stevie Nicks obsessive, but everything else is the embodiment of the alternateen experience. It does not try to be hip or indie, because it’s not. Reading The Catcher in the Rye and falling in love with it is actually pretty basic (ditto The Smiths), but almost all of us were there at some point, so I say what the hell, let us take Perks of Being a Wallflower’s ode to being a standard high schooler seriously and enjoy how much untapped potential the kids have. You just know they’ll be way more fun to hang out with in college when they actually begin cultivating a well rounded personality. I can’t claim this film isn’t doing anything other than trodding well covered ground, but said ground in this case is probably the best conventional teenage coming of age film of the 2010s.
Favorite Moment: Tunnel song.
It might be possible that a film like Skyfall holds more weight for someone like me who is familiar with the tropes of the James Bond movies but has not watched too many of them (I always read more of the books despite not being particularly fond of most of them). Sam Mendes (as he is wont to do in his prior works like American Beauty) twists the well known traditions, in this case of the prior fifty years and 22 movies, into both a deconstruction and celebration of their well-executed stranglehold over the way we look at secret agents in the media, and all the fan service that comes with it. I could definitely see someone who likes their Bond movies to hew to the formulas taking umbrage to Skyfall but I welcome the formula being so thoroughly deconstructed. It’s burning with ideas about aging that we don’t see in action films…ever, and it works on several levels as a metaphor for the entire collection of Bond films. Just as importantly for a movie like this, the setpieces are truly amazing. From the breathtaking opening that just chucks everything you could want into an opening action scene before the best credits sequence that I’ve seen in one of these (with Adele, who I find a bit overrated, as the perfect choice for this, with a voice containing all the waves of intensity needed for an opening credits sequence like this, littered with hallucinogenic deaths as she croons about the world’s end), to the bone crunching neon glow of the skyscraper fight (this is certainly the best looking sequence in the whole franchise in my extremely limited opinion), it gives it all. While Daniel Craig comes into his own here as the most icy and thuggish version of 007, the movie really reaches its character based peaks when Javier Bardem’s Silva shows up and gives us his best politically incorrect evil queer, Ian Fleming style and with an unexpected, horrifying deformity to match and add some psychologically twisted layers to his relationship with M (who gets the goodbye befitting Judi Dench). Having a good thematic spine matters for all pieces of art but when it’s as much of a pleasure to watch as Skyfall, it’s only extra credit. For the film to be a total rejuvenation and the best work of a franchise that’s a half-century old is the most important thing.
Favorite Moment: Skyscraper fight.
13. Farewell My Queen
Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell My Queen is not your ordinary costume drama that’s all polish and sparkle, with Lea Seydoux as the protagonist falling into the dirt twice and being upbraided for it by her direct superior, and the opening scenes containing a dead rat (a loaded symbol that we ought to inflate) and some very unpleasant, swollen looking mosquito bites. It’s grimy and heartless underneath the powdered wigs, and this unsweepable dirtiness suits the grimy nature of the tale. The screenplay is something of a bodice ripper without anything more than embraces and frankly with too much misery to produce any sexual feelings for most viewers. It’s also the speediest take on the well known story of the queen who supposedly said to let them eat cake that I’ve ever seen, resulting in a very modern and much needed walk and talk style when running through the politics (the old biopic standard: “dance and talk”). Politics are dispersed by gossip and pamphlets, lending everything an uncertainty even when we know the inevitability of Marie Antoinette’s fate that’s never shown. Seydoux’s Sidonie Laborde is blindly devoted to the monarchy even when the Bastille is stormed and people commit suicide at Versailles. It’s rooted in a lesbian desire, no doubt, but whether Laborde knows this about herself is forever in question, for it could just be rooted in a bit of Stockholm Syndrome. Even underneath the glossy surface, the ways the rich exploit their servants become increasingly depraved in their casual cruelty. The final act in particular is a marvelously mean psychodrama that all takes place in the one well lit room of the palace, lent peak credibility from Seydoux and Diane Kruger. The latter’s Marie Antoinette is a fantastic take on the character, a ball of thorns and madness in a gilded cage who will savage anyone to get her true desires in the shape of an evergreen, near mute Duchess de Polignac played by Virginia Ledoyen. The green dress hasn’t looked this good since Atonement but it’s more like a mask, a pale imitation of another person’s appearance that results in emotionally loaded shifts in identity and Laborde’s blank slate desperately trying to paint herself the same color as the Duchess. Luckily for the film, green is my favorite color, and all the emotionally loaded shades of this color are like a delightful piece of cake that the movie lets me eat.
Favorite Moment: The psychologically twisted climax.
12. Sound of My Voice
Sound of My Voice’s microscopic budget just makes it all the more impressive that Zal Batmanglij is so effective at setting an ethereal mood. Or is the success of the movie’s wispy nature down to Brit Marling as Maggie, who also co-wrote the film? The sound of her voice has always been her greatest strength, a soothing draught that occasionally feels like it’s been spiked with ipecac when she’s angered. The character is also a mix of warmth and iciness, a borderline ageless looking woman who speaks softly and carries a big stick, and the contrast of her ghostly white appearance, obviously Christlike, with the oxygen tank just makes her otherworldliness more pronounced. While the movie is a very strong story about the ambiguity behind a cleanliness obsessed cult that follows a person who claims to be a time traveler from the year 2054, the film’s examinations of faith are what make it a standout. It’s ambiguous in near every respect, but with a certain nuttiness to the proceedings of people genuinely falling into the sway as their sense of themselves is calmly eroded. The sterile atmosphere is so scrubbed down that scenes of apples being vomited and even a collective Cranberries song performance feel like intrusions from an unpleasant outside world, so warm and cozy and organic is that basement. Nothing is true or false, the movie avoids having an opinion until the very last scene, which makes it thoroughly impossible to remain on the side of falseness while leaving plenty of room for the position of truth. Maggie’s flashbacks are a highlight, the one occasion the film gets into subjective territory and with an editing style that works beautifully as a way to illuminate the story Maggie is telling. Batmanglij gives us a lean meal, one that leaves us hungering for more after the ninety minutes are up, but it tastes delicious while it lasts and shouldn’t be purged, for it provokes enough questions about the way religious cults work to fuel quite a few more movies. Sound of My Voice is an incredibly intelligent case of smoke and mirrors, dragging us along for a thrill ride and throwing countless questions at us before running along to its next plotpoint, with increasing mysticism and occult layers staying far away from the expected “woah time travel is super deep” territory that something like this could have done very easily.
Favorite Moment: The Cranberries cover.
Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is a film of two distinct sets of pleasures divided by the film’s two halves (although the prologue is nothing to sneeze at and is a drolly funny little key to interpreting what comes later). The first half is strong, something that could be an interesting story on its own, a character study of an escapist nurse named Pilar who lives next door to an elderly and increasingly senile woman (Aurora) and her housekeeper from Cape Verde (Santa). While it is a fairly evocative look at European art cinema, it is also a clever parody of it, with the tale of Pilar’s emotional needs not being met by her present company being filled with the echoes of all those arthouse movies that are parodied in the opening. It’s loaded up with little surprises and Gomes’ strange sense of humor, such as Aurora’s long explanation that winds up being a recap of how she lost money gambling, but when a man from her past shows up and tells a story of her youth from colonialist Africa, everything becomes infinitely more evocative. I mean this in the most literal way possible, for the entire second half has no dialogue outside of the narration of the man, Gian-Luca, who Aurora had a love affair with. Not only is sound played with cleverly (I will not spoil), but the visuals themselves are jaw droppingly beautiful, with the film’s only sex scene in particular being a masterful few seconds of erotica. As a look at colonialism, it’s no doubt an indictment, but one tinged with a sense of gloomy regret rather than anger. As a look at the use of memory, both sides of the film are ingenious, with Pilar’s use of movies/protests/phony friends to grab onto another identity that she does not have, and Aurora/Gian-Luca’s past being more about the experience than what was actually said. Tabu owes a lot to Murnau, but isn’t totally in debt. It’s a refreshingly new vision, a twisted take on a type of movie that never really existed until now. Every new sight from this movie’s crocodile eyes is a masterful piece of visionary work, with the second half being so ingenious that it kills off the fun of the first half in comparison. It’s a lopsided movie but the second half is so full of love for the movie making process that it’s wonderfully lopsided.
Favorite Moment: A certain musical moment in the second half.
10. Rust and Bone
Rust and Bone contains all of Jacques Audiard’s gifts for the rhythms and motions of life. The material is something out of a bad romance novel, with a whale trainer who loses both her legs and an underground fighter who is trying as hard as he can to be a decent father falling in love. But the movie is more interesting than that, with the two leads (played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in two of the year’s best performances, particularly the latter) delivering takes on Ali/Stephanie that have all the gritty naturalism of Audiard’s works while also bringing in the melodrama of a more dreamy, Hollywood standard take on this script. There is a certain smugness in the early goings about the two main characters being totally closed off from the world, only letting in their son or an orca respectively, lashing out at anyone else. There’s no clinical take on this vision, for the muted palette of colors (even the electric chlorine blue of the water in the whale’s tank looks rather grimy) and slightly shaky camera make this look more like a documentary than a contrived love story. And in a way, it is a document of the most human kind of suffering, with Ali’s tortured relationships and Stephanie struggling to adjust to her new body, and the two lonely souls finally allowing each other into their lives, resulting in both the film shifting into a tale of a developing relationship, and a capturing of the power of something as simple as human relationships. Half the success of Rust and Bone lies in Schoenaerts and Cotillard, with the former being a flinty, petulant child until his final call to action in one of the last scenes, and the latter being so physically precise in her hopeful depression that she makes the worst song on a great soundtrack become genuinely great. (R&B’s final scene deserves a shoutout for its perfect closing and credits song choice.) This movie is a masterpiece of the human gesture, completely watertight in its emotional logic but never when punching through ice or dancing in front of glass, and a beautiful study of ebb and flow pacing. No idea how this was based off a collection of short stories, for it earns every minute of its runtime and feels like a full novel, one that conceives itself and grows its own heart, brain, and limbs.
Favorite Moment: Whale dance.
Rian Johnson’s Looper takes a brilliant concept for a neo-noir but doesn’t totally commit to it in some ways, and that is a high compliment, for few other directors would set the last half hour of a movie like this on a farm and take a few moments to breathe, away from the action until a final showdown with only four characters (or is it technically three?) A gleefully clever mashing up of all sorts of genres and tropes that you’d expect in a time travel film with heavy elements of film noir, mixed with a few you wouldn’t, Johnson has grand aims and hits the mark with its modernized blunderbusses (even from far away), blowing holes in our expectations that don’t even hurt. The first act is filled with exposition that is tossed off so casually that it sticks even on rewatch, with little details sprinkled into the soup of this future world, with the development of the brand new telekinetic powers and the same old massive poverty gap/rich dicking over the poor that work as characterization, satire, and as realistically blank slate characters with a few sketched in areas as needed. With the young loopers being too inexperienced and stupid to understand the weight of their loops being closed when their job freedom is up, and Bruce Willis’ older retired assassin finally understanding the consequences of the situation he put himself into by not doing anything. While thinking too hard about Looper’s ramifications in terms of time travel is the sort of thing that results in headaches, and not much is done to even attempt to clear it up because there’s no touching that with a ten foot pole without disastrous backlash from a certain type of white male Internet user, the dialogue is so pitch perfect and friendly to the ear (especially from Daniels’ world-weary mob enforcer from the future) that it isn’t worth focusing on. The noir roots of this movie are both twisted upon, with Emily Blunt’s farmer being the femme fatale yet the only decent human above the age of childhood in this universe, and maintained via Young Joe and Old Joe’s incredibly selfish desires. Looper invites all audiences, and it should continue to succeed in attracting the next generations with its kinetic forward motion and fascinating visions of a future…or several futures, each diverging in paradoxical ways until they converge and thus tear themselves apart.
Favorite Moment: The reveal of what happens to those who don’t close the loop.
8. Moonrise Kingdom
A sexual awakening set in a delicate diorama, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom may not be his best work but it is in a photo finish race with Royal Tenenbaums, and it is easily the only one of his movies in several years that actively needs the twee, deliberate styling so typical in Anderson works, for losing it in this case makes this a far less interesting movie. I watched this film for the first and so far only time while in a little theater in Maine, some comfortable couches up in the front while I was looking at a college. It was the perfect place to tuck into this romp, for it is cozy, reassuring, overstuffed, and covered in flannel. Despite the early warnings of a hurricane that is coming in three days to devastate (relatively speaking) an otherwise quaint town by the sea, Moonrise Kingdom tries to be like a reenactment of the events, and thus there is no ticking bomb with a bright red countdown timer lurking in the background, for hardly anything this depressing happens in Anderson’s world. There is only Social Services and some bad weather, the former played by a most un-severe Tilda Swinton (best in show among a great ensemble, although the two kids-Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward-come very close), and even she doesn’t do much, for it is all about the two lovers on the run while they are listening to Le Temps De L’Amour and reading the five books on the beach. And yes, I do call the two children lovers, for even if they are play acting at things like sex and romance (in the reenactment sense and possibly the real sense too), there’s no doubt that it goes as deep as that scene of Sam piercing Suzy with a fish hook. The film takes advantage of its mood with music that instantly conjures up the woods and forests of Cape Cod, but also the film’s ironic, cheeky writing tone that still has some Antoine Doinel shaped moss growing over the more modern touches. The stakes are much lower than they usually feel, and that is something to be welcomed, for the lack of tension essentially makes this a hang-out movie where sometimes, the children hate each other, and for that the movie is just a fluffy piece of cake with a lovely yellow icing decoration, all sunny pleasure and delicious to look at too.
Favorite Moment: “What kind of bird are you?”
7. Oslo, August 31st
The first time I saw Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st I felt a bit underwhelmed for reasons that seem utterly alien to me now. I can only blame some sort of distraction, or perhaps the strength of Reprise was on my mind and thus I underrated Oslo. But I gave it a second chance, and now I truly embrace this movie, for it is completely devastating. This is barely a spoiler, for the very first scene is a suicide attempt a la Virginia Woolf, with Anders Danielsen, playing a character with the same first name so to the hilt in desperation that I had to worry for the real Danielsen when the film ended on its bleakest note. He is a full vessel for a script that only occasionally dips its head above the water to become only slightly lighter on the emotionally invested viewer, with the premise of “A heroin addict (who we wind up learning very little about on a personal level) leaves the rehab center for one day to try and get a job interview and catch up with friends/family” getting the most Norwegian, miserable take on the material possible via Trier. Watching the interactions between Anders and the people from his old life is a process that only grows more discomforting as they unintentionally patronize him for the drug problem that sent him to rehabilitation, with the delusional claims that he can get his dream jobs just like that stinging even more than calling him out for his avoided responsibility. At a certain moment, the vagueness of the details surrounding Anders’ heroin addiction starts to pay off and the film becomes something incredibly painful about aging, namely that there is no turning back once you hit a certain point in your life. This could be the sort of thing that someone like Haneke could tackle, with total detachment, and make it competent but nowhere near as riveting. The knife is twisted far more harshly because of how human it all is. The movie opens with a montage of people reciting their highly personal memories in the clinic, and my favorite moment is one that is when the aging ideas really start to get kicked into high gear. We know these truths deep down but Oslo, August 31st forces us to confront them. It’s not entirely unlike looking into the Sun, dazzling and painful, except far too dark.
Favorite Moment: The bucket list.
Speaking of Michael Haneke, anyone who expected something that wasn’t going to gut the viewer in the trickiest of ways when they saw the title was no doubt ignorant of the provocateurs’ former work, and the movie opening on arguably its harshest and certainly its weakest scene (it reads too much as a quick little “fuck you, that’s all there is at the end” to get us started even if Haneke likely had ulterior motives that were much more thought out) only proves that. Amour is universal to the point of being seriously anxiety inducing, for Anne going from the more intelligent and likable of the pair after the starting piano concert, to a woman who can barely function to keep herself alive is exactly what she warns us of in the beginning when she says experience and reality are not the same. It’s a truly grim piece of foreshadowing. This is no quiet slipping from the Earth that we should all hope for. The human spirit, in its own paradoxical way, is fighting to stay alive while the body and mind are, there’s no other word for it, decaying as a result of the botched surgery post-seizure. It’s very hard to deny that this was probably incredibly difficult material to tackle for everyone involved, particularly Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trigninant as the film increases the focus on the two of them (with Isabelle Huppert getting a smaller part-one that is more quietly sad, but with the same volume as the actors playing her parents). Trigninant’s Georges is a complicated man who must play a saint despite absolutely not being one, and as the closest thing to an audience stand-in, his increasingly harassed demeanor is a marvel if we even notice the acting within Amour. But it is Emmanuelle Riva’s Anne who should have won the Oscar over Jennifer Lawrence’s over acting. Not only is the performance tremendously brave, but as her health deteriorates, we see nothing and we the audience lose our last lifeline. No spark behind the eyes, a vanishing of the entire being, a totally limp body, moans that won’t leave our conscious. By the time the apartment has become like a prison that the pigeon is somehow able to invade, we want to fly out of there ourselves, hoping for either an immortality that we will not be granted, or a quiet passing that we might.
Favorite Moment: The slap.
5. Holy Motors.
Trying to solve the mystery of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is a task akin to rolling a boulder up a hill, for this acid trip into the very heart of cinema itself refuses to let itself be cataloged, deconstructed, or otherwise analyzed in any straightforward way. All you need to know (seriously, stop reading here if you haven’t seen it yet and go watch it right now) is that it is made up of several feature film ideas that Carax had to scrap due to budgeting (although no one will ever really know what he had planned for the old beggar woman part…you could say something like that that for all of the segments, but especially this one since it’s so unlike him), with Denis Lavant giving masterfully physical, “all in” performances in each segment while occasionally getting into discussions over what exactly the movies mean now that film is dead and digital has taken over. Is it a eulogy for the frames and reels, or a celebration of crystal clear new life on computer chips? No possible answer will cover everything we see. And what sights do we see! It takes a lot for a film to stop for a musical number and feel organic to the film’s mood. For Holy Motors to do that twice is practically unthinkable but by god it’s done. The metaphors on display start out clearly enough, with the director’s cameo as a man who unlocks a movie palace door with his fingers being a fairly concrete representation of an artist, but then we start to take twists and turns, filled with confusing identity shifts and homages to classics (Eyes Without a Face!), plenty of meditations on aging that are just weird as all out get but no less touching for it. It all ends with the least likely characters in the ensemble giving the explicit comparisons that we need to feel we understand the most base levels of this movie. But in reality, we don’t. There’s so much to pick apart-quite literally nine whole films’ worth. Holy Motors is everything a movie can be, ranging from gorgeously impressionistic to grimly boring realism, filled with the nasty sex and ugly CGI of mainstream Hollywood works but with its own strange beauty mixed in too, and so much ACTING. Feigned identities abound but we love every single one despite holding our own personal favorites.
Favorite Moment: Intermission.
4. The Loneliest Planet
Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet is partially this high because I value beautiful things, and this was arguably the most gorgeous thing of them all in 2012. The shots of the Georgian landscape that our engaged couple hikes around before their plans to return stateside and get married are so inviting that I deeply desired to go there for several days after seeing this, and I know from experience that I absolutely hate everything about hiking. Not only is the cinematographer Inti Briones focused on making the film look pretty as possible, but there’s clear purpose to his shots, with fascinating examples and uses of positioning and parallelism all over the place. Color is also used as evocatively as one can use shading in a location like Georgia that is either so vibrantly green or dully brown, thanks to Hani Furstenberg’s bright red hair that contrasts with the darker shades of Gael Garcia Bernal and Bidzina Gujabidze. It’s a vibrant film that you don’t just see and hear-you can feel it and sometimes even smell or taste it too. Maybe it comes down to the lack of subtitles for the parts spoken in Georgian? However, the other reason The Loneliest Planet is my number four is because it is a wonderful blank slate, one that spends half the story (I’m being generous with that term) in the “before” state when the one and only major plot event of the movie takes place, and the other in the “after” mode. Said incident is such a shocking gut punch that only gets worse when you think about it, and the two leads clearly feel the same way, for the rest of the trip is spent emotionally withdrawn while dealing with it. Maybe they have forgiven each other, and maybe they have not. It takes some magnetically blank work on the side of our three main characters. This film is as much of a tabula rasa as you can find today, with every single shot containing microscopic little pinpricks of emotion in how the characters happen to be walking or reacting to the more minor events, like getting a rock in the shoe. The sound work is also marvelous, with a quiet trance soundtrack surrounded by the most natural noises you could find on film outside of a nature documentary. The opening sounds over black are Furstenburg jumping on a bed while waiting to be rinsed off, a strange noise that becomes more familiar. Just like Loneliest Planet itself.
Favorite Moment: The one major event, which I shall not spoil.
3. Cloud Atlas
If Holy Motors was a whole lot of short movies crammed into one, it has nothing on the polarizing masterwork Cloud Atlas, which is six practically full length movies jammed into one twisted puzzlebox. For the previously unadaptable novel was taken on by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis and made into something truly adaptable, not just in the prior sense but as whatever we the viewer wants it to be about. It needs to be stated that Cloud Atlas is, objectively, a messy film the likes of which has never been seen before. The very premise used for why I love it and why it was deemed unadaptable for so long, with the actors shifting race and gender between six different stories that have very little in common behind a theme of uprising and interconnectedness, is the sort of thing most directors wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Yet the directors have grabbed onto something by connecting the characters via actors, which the book could not do without passing out a whole slew of birthmarks (the comet birthmark ties together the six protagonists). Hugo Weaving’s soul disintegrates until he becomes evil incarnate and Hugh Grant descends into a monster. On the other side of the scale, Tom Hanks goes through a redemption arc, and Halle Berry goes from the most powerless and irrelevant cast member to humanity’s savior. Sentimental? Oh yeah, and 180 minutes of it to boot. But the cross-cutting between the stories works magnificently, ensuring that boredom will never hit us. And the ambition and scope is undeniable, with all the power of the centuries stuffed into three hours. It’s a masterpiece of editing in terms of parallels, jolting the mood when necessary, tying together narrative and emotional beats. The titular Cloud Atlas Sextet is only slightly less than the transcendent piece of music it’s portrayed as, but it works for elevating the actors when they hit their bumpier patches (mostly in the more out-there futuristic sections). However, one actress doesn’t have a single rough patch across all three time periods she’s represented in-Doona Bae, whose work as the goddess to post-nuclear humanity is uplifting, ranging from caution to boldness and everything in between as she is both interviewed and plays the part of waitress turned revolutionary. She’s the heart of the film, as it morphs from staid period piece to apocalyptic insanity, humanity enduring all the while.
Favorite Moment: The reveal of the clones’ fates.
2. Zero Dark Thirty
What will it take for Kathryn Bigelow to be recognized as one of the great directors? Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t quite hit the same heights as The Hurt Locker, an outright masterpiece among the 21st century’s best output, but she courts a blindingly controversial topic and makes it so many things at once, with each of the three acts falling into a different category of the same genre. It’s the most exciting thriller of the year, with Jessica Chastain’s titanic performance as Maya being the most fiery ball of competence imaginable, deliberately shed of all other personality traits other than killing Osama bin Laden by any means necessary and thus succeeding in a man’s world. Credit must be given to the rest of the ensemble, particularly Jennifer Ehle, all playing people who legitimately value their work but have the inner life Maya lacks, particularly when their compatriots fall and they grow weary where our lead does not. The second act is the most conventional in its logic, featuring Maya going through the motions, several steps forward and backwards over the years, to track down the compound. This makes it no less thrilling for watching our lead go through hell and high water to get what she wants-she may be always right, but no one will listen until she goes out and proves it herself. What got ZDT so much acclaim was off the back of its first and final acts, the former being a torture filled start (this dusty looking movie never has this much water in its veins ever again) that is constantly probing the audience’s comfort with what we had to go through to even get the information we needed to succeed in Operation Neptune Spear. The agony of war is present here and later on when we’re looking through countless terrorist mugshots, but never more than in the final act, with the raid on the compound being a night vision hellscape of parents being executed in front of their children by Chris Pratt. This is a police procedural, but it doesn’t censor its griminess like some do. The ugliest jobs on the planet are carried out before our eyes and we are dared to look away, and when it is all over, in the final shot (arguably the best one of the whole year), there is no satisfaction to be gained even for the most ruthless character in the film.
Favorite Moment: That final shot.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
A deeply personal film with an ever shifting nature, one thing forever present in Beasts of the Southern Wild, one of the best directorial debuts in years, is the sense of loss. It’s electric and always hovering around in Benh Zeitlin’s Louisiana swamp vision, whether it’s in Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis in a great debut) losing her home, father, mother, whatever. She never loses hope even when it’s hard to smile and she’s just getting by on things like unfrozen chicken that her father Wink (Dwight Henry, devastating) tosses onto the grill whole, or dealing with his attempts to cheer her up by shooting clouds with a shotgun. Her visions of aurochs may or may not be true, who knows? The movie is a testament to imagination too, along with the endurability of the human spirit. Despite being ninety minutes, not much happens in the movie other than Hurricane Katrina devastating the residents of the Baththub, with only the most loyal residents staying behind-and Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t play around with stereotypes, for even if the cast is naturally interesting and likable, the irresponsibility of it all is acknowledged. The Bathtub may be beautiful, and it gets shot in a very Malick inspired style to bring out the fizzing nature of every molecule, but it’s a poverty stricken life. The agony and ecstasy of the bayou is brought out in full before our eyes, in dreamlike visions where we ourselves can see the world floating around in invisible pieces. Whether Hurricane Katrina and the aurochs thawing out (the former never mentioned by name) is an allegory for the sense of loss that is forever in the life of the characters or an environmentalist manifesto is so vague that it’s almost worth discarding, with the cast simply focusing on finding little bits of joy wherever they can even when creature comforts are damn near impossible to find. Even when Zeitlin gets a little too on the nose (Elysian Fields, the score can be blatantly manipulative), Beasts of the Southern Wild lives up the original play’s title of Juicy and Delicious, yet forever haunted by the past. Throughout it all, Hushpuppy perseveres, finding a niche even with her father’s baked in misogyny, her age, and the world trying to pull her out of the place she truly wants to be in. Happily, the final shot gives us the most affirming moment of the year.
Favorite Moment: Beasting the crab.