2012 will probably go down as one of the best years in cinema of this current decade. This was the hardest year for me to make a top ten list because there were too many great films that came out, especially in the fall. In fact every film on my top ten list was a film that I considered for my number one slot. So in a way, the films that make up my top ten list are the best film of the year. The films in my 11-25 spots could have easily made it onto my lists and, in a weaker year, they could have potentially been in my top 5.
I had a sudden revelation a couple days ago when thinking about the process: it’s quite a personal process. Each of the films on my top ten list reveals a part of who I am and who I want to be as an artist. As an actor and filmmaker (if you could call it that), these films inspired me to want to create works of art. They have struck a chord with me and hit on very deep-seeded fears, passions, traumas, emotions, and dreams of mine. Each of these films are very personal to the auteurs that made them as well.
This is the first time that I have put a film in my number one slot without seeing it more than once. However I believe Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up to The Hurt Locker is the best film of the year. It’s a perfect film and one that manages to be incredibly ambitious while still remaining quite intimate. Bigelow, making her most personal film to date, details the nearly ten year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks with an incredible amount of precision, through the eyes of a young CIA agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. Like The Hurt Locker, Bigelow refuses to moralize or have a political agenda in cheap and easy way, instead, like Maya, sticking to her guns and simply telling the story. She is helped by Mark Boal’s incredibly subtle and rigorous script. I love the way Bigelow subtly reveals information and themes to the audience without ever actually drawing attention to them: a shot of Maya’s computer screen wallpaper revealing the nature of her relationship with fellow agent Jessica; the Seal Six team’s preparation for the final raid that results in the death of Bin Laden; and the effect that torture has on both the tortured and the torturer. However the biggest subtlety is Bigelow’s refusal to show the sexism that must have been going on, and it’s this that makes this her most personal film to date. Maya essentially acts as a stand in for Bigelow. Maya is a woman in what is perceived to be a boys club, just like Bigelow, being a woman who is a director of mostly male centered genre films, and the sexism that she must have faced and still faces now inspite of being the first woman to win Best Director at the Oscars for The Hurt Locker. Instead of showing the sexism with overwritten and contrived scenes, she simply allows it to be seen on Chastain’s expressive face, which becomes a frontrunner, if not the frontrunner, to win Best Actress. However, Chastain’s powerhouse performance isn’t the only one. This is the best ensemble of the year with terrific performances from Ehle, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez (so brilliant in Carlos), Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, and Chris Pratt. After 1995’s cult hit Strange Days, Bigelow laid low for a little while, making only two films until 2009 when she roared back with a vengeance and made The Hurt Locker, and now Zero Dark Thirty. This is the work of a masterful auteur working at the top of her game and it is the best film of 2012.
The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film after his 2007 milestone There Will Be Blood, was a divisive film between critics and audiences. Critics loved it and audiences, not so much. All I can say is that I found this film to be hypnotic and I think it is Anderson’s best work since 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, my pick for the best film of that decade. Don’t get me wrong, I loved There Will Be Blood, but I do feel it is closer to something like Boogie Nights, an aggregation of Anderson’s influences rather than a completely whole and original work. Punch Drunk Love felt like an completely whole and original work, something that no other director could have done. The Master feels the same and, thematically and stylistically is quite similar to PDL.
This is the damndest movie going experience I have had this year. It is just a wonderfully bizarre love letter to the power of cinema and it is something that all cinephiles should experience, especially on the big screen. The film is batshit insane and it is likely to turn off the casual moviegoer but I found it to be funny, scary, moving, heartbreaking, and mystifying, sometimes all in the same scene. Denis Lavant plays the shape-shifting lead and it is certainly one of the best performances of the year. The film spoke to me in a way few others have in terms of exploring the reason behind wanting to create art and why someone would be driven to do that. This is a film that is easy to love and impossible to explain why.
4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
I have not read the best selling young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower but Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own book is one of the best high school films I have seen in a long time and it also announces Chbosky as a director to watch out for. Reminiscent of the criminally overlooked It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Perks perfectly shows both the beauty and hardships of growing up, and how a friendship can ultimately be saving grace for a young kid in distress. The film celebrates the oddness that we all have and that sometimes it is better to stick out than be “normal”. It’s a perfect film and one, like Zero Dark Thirty, remains incredibly subtle and authentic. The film is artfully directed but it never feels like artifice. The characters feel flesh and blood, they might be eccentric but they never become caricatures. Chbosky benefits from the three exquisite central performances from Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller. Lerman’s Charlie is a quiet and shy young boy, potentially suffering from deep traumas that he sustained in the past. Lerman’s performances is a revelatory one and shows that he is one of the more interesting young actors out there. Watson completely sheds any traces of Hermoine Granger with a flawless American accent and manages to make Sam much more than just a manic pixie dream girl. However it is Ezra Miller that gives the performance of the film, and perhaps the supporting performance of the year, as Patrick, the openly gay kid who, and unlike Miller’s past introverted performances in Afterschool and We Need to Talk About Kevin, is an extravert who loves life and is probably the best friend a young freshman could have. They are ably supported by an ensemble that includes Paul Rudd, Mae Whitman, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Reece Thompson, and the incomparable Melanie Lynskey as Charlie’s aunt.
Chhristopher Nolan put the finishing touches on the greatest film trilogy of all time with The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to his Batman trilogy. Unlike The Godfather Trilogy, there are no horrifying sequels that nearly ruin what’s come before, and unlike Star Wars, it doesn’t have horrible prequals that put taint the original’s success. Is The Dark Knight Rises as good as The Dark Knight? Maybe not. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is one for the ages and The Dark Knight may have a tighter plot but does it really matter? The Dark Knight Rises stands alone as a monumental achievement and an incredibly satisfying conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy. In many ways this is the defining American film of 2012, one that speaks to our current climate the most. If TDK was the defining blockbuster of the Bush era, than TDKR is the defining blockbuster of the Obama era. Whereas TDK reflected the despair and hopelessness of the time, TDKR shows that even in the blackest corner of the night, hope and light are always achievable and there remains the possibility overcome. That is part of what makes prison hole sequence where Bruce Wayne finally escapes, one of the most moving and inspirational scenes of the year.
Having said all that, TDKR is also terrific entertainment and is still the best comic book film of the year, in spite of what people want to say about Avengers. The whole ensemble is excellent, with stalwarts Christian Bale, Michael Caine (it might be Caine’s best performance since his Oscar nominated turn in The Quiet American), and Gary Oldman doing their best work of the franchise. As Bane, Tom Hardy displays both the brute strength and the intelligence of the character from the comics. The later scenes when Bane is doing his stump speeches around Gotham are some of the most interesting and compelling scenes in the film. Joseph Gordon Levitt is terrific and in a smaller performance Aussie Ben Mendelsohn, donning a pitch perfect American accent, is wonderfully smug and repulsive as CEO John Daggett. However the film is stolen by Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (Catwoman).
6. Oslo August 31 – Joachim Trier
Joachim Trier’s quiet, moving, and deceptively simple film depicts 24 hours in the life in a day of a recovering heroin addict named Anders (Anders Danielson-Lie). This the first time he has been allowed to go out while being in a halfway home and we see him visit with old friends, go to a job interview, call an old flame up on the phone, and walk around Oslo, sometimes confronting people from his past. Trier, the cousin of Lars Von Trier, could have turned the film into misery porn, ala Requiem for a Dream, but he takes a low-key approach choosing to focus on Anders key relationships: that of his friends, his sister, his ex-girlfriend, and drugs. The key to why the film is so excellent is because Trier simply observes Anders and allows, despite some really artful filmmaking, for Danielson-Lie to do the heavy lifting. The film is suspenseful but not simply because we are waiting to see when he will relapse, like most of these films are, but its because we believe in Anders as much as the film does and we know he has a lot of potential. Through Trier and Danielson Lie’s eyes, we see the concrete consequences of the smallest choices we make, whether they be positive or negative.
Cloud Atlas is a monumental achievement. When thinking about this film, I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of Fitzcarraldo, “[It] is one of the great visions of the cinema, and one of the great follies. One would not have been possible without the other… The movie is imperfect, but transcendent; this story could not have been filmed on this location in this way and been perfect without being less of a film.” It’s funny because Mr. Ebert could have been talking about Tom Twykwer and the Wachowski Siblings film. This is a film, like Tree of Life, that will either work for you or it won’t. However, and perhaps the most impressive thing about Twyker’s and the Wachowski’s adaptation of David Mitchell’s dense book is that, inspite of the weighty themes that the film is tackling like faith, life, and death, there is a warmth and a generosity of spirit that you won’t find in a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film also knows how silly it might come off and it is willing to take the piss out of itself, particularly in the Timothy Cavendish storyline. One of the reasons why the film is so incredibly moving is that the cast members, who play multiple characters spanning time, have arcs.
Amour is perhaps Michael Haneke’s most straightforward film and it’s his easiest to sit through. Although, make no mistake, this is a Michael Haneke film. While his trademark violence is gone, still there are the long unbroken takes that force us to witness the misery on display. But unlike some of his previous films, this isn’t misery porn. Haneke’s films have already had a humane streak so this wasn’t a surprise to me but the warmth and tenderness that Haneke includes in this picture. The film is ultimately a love story, the film’s title means love in English, and how ones love is tested when old age is arriving. In the two best performances of the year, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, as the couple Georges and Anne. As Anne deteriorates from Alzheimer’s, we see the test of this relationship and this couple’s love for each other. Isabelle Huppert is wonderful as the daughter, who is starting to come to grips with the fact that her parents might soon be gone.
9. The Kid with a Bike – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
The Kid with a Bike is a beautifully wrought little film from the incomparable The Dardenne Brothers. It was their highest grossing film in the United States grossing north of $1 million. This is because it is probably their most accessible and hopeful film. The key to the film success rests in the Dardenne’s true interest in exploring these characters. The boy, Cyril, played beautifully by Thomas Doret, is a lonely orphan, and Samantha, played by the luminous Cecile de France, meet randomly. Cyril is trying to run away from the foster home and in desperation, he grabs onto Samantha while she is waiting at her GP. The next day, Samantha returns Cyril’s bike to him and they form a bond. Eventually Samantha starts caring for Cyril on the weekends. What makes the film work so well is that both of these characters need each other. Cyril, being abandoned by his father, needs a parental figure, particularly a mother figure. What Sam sees in Cyril is a chance to possibly save a wayword young boy and the opportunity to care for someone.
Smashed is the rare film about alcoholism that has the nerve not to be depressing. James Ponsoldt directed this wonderful little gem from a script that he co-wrote with Susan Burke, a comedian who based the story from her own experiences when, at 24 she became sober. It’s not a showy film but one of considerate restraint and one that resists the tropes of the typical story about alcoholism. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is incredible as Kate, an alcoholic married to her husband Charlie (an equally incredible Aaron Paul), who is also an alcoholic. Their marriage is based on a mutual love of going out and getting drunk. She makes the decision one day to try to become sober. At AA, she meets Jenny (Octavia Spencer), a former alcoholic who becomes Kate’s sponsor. Spencer, who won an Oscar for The Help, is even better here, bringing warmth and weariness to the character. Both Winstead and Paul do really brave, subtle work here and like in Oslo, the film’s suspense isn’t based on when Kate will next get drunk but on whether this couple can turn their lives around.