First check out my Honorable Mentions list and the lower half of my Top 20!
All caught up? Awesome. Let's continue.
10. Holy Motors
Holy Motors is one of the most bizarre films I have ever seen. This French art film left me with a complicated feeling of bewilderment and of excitement. Months later, its scenes are still firmly planted in my memory. The accordion interlude, Kylie Minogue’s musical number, the special effects aliens having sex, the strange sewer “leprechaun,” the talking limousines, the driver’s mask, and the infinite ability that actor Denis Lavant has to contort his body into different roles. Everything in this film feels forced, but in the best possible way. It feels passionate, and runs off the rails constantly, which is a thrilling thing to watch.
Film is an ever evolving art medium that gains and loses fans every day. Nearly everyone knows the feeling of going to the movies, but most people don’t view the cinema as church. Leos Carax appears to, given the film’s lofty ambitions and striking religious imagery. (The Madonna taming the beast, the enthralled congregation at the beginning of the film during a film-within-the-film. The title: Holy Motors. The last word: “Amen.”) And it feels true to life. Tragic, hilarious, violent, irreverent, reverent, and never boring, Holy Motors accomplishes the impossible. It makes you think and feel deeply, instead of just laugh and cry, which is paraphrased from something Ang Lee once said of Ingmr Bergman’s films. This quote sticks with me, and is entirely appropriate to Holy Motors.
Academy Award-winning Director Sam Mendes’ work (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) on James Bond 23, titled Skyfall, is an unparalleled entry into the series. It is also the best action movie of the past few years, combining impressively badass set-pieces with beautiful and thoughtful cinematography (by the great Roger Deakins). Mendes leads a team of talented filmmakers and actors to make pound-for-pound the most gorgeous action movie I’ve ever seen. Each scene is shot with care, whether it is M (Judi Dench) looking over the coffins of fallen MI6 agents/workers, or it is Bond fighting an assassin in a Shanghai high-rise, or it is the manic Silva (Javier Barden) having his face darkened by the night but lit up with an razed inferno of Bond’s childhood home. This team of filmmakers doesn’t pull any punches and never ironically tackles their action-movie/spy-movie material. They don’t have to do any such thing, because there is plenty of artistry to be had in a big budget film. Christopher Nolan proved this with his Dark Knight franchise. Mendes references Nolan’s films often, but he never plagiarizes. He takes parts of Nolan’s vision of a genre film and translates it into his own aesthetic.
Everything about this film is fresh, yet revelatory. After leaving the theater, I felt as if this movie needed to exist to restore a dwindling franchise. And I felt that way when I saw it a second time, a third. Daniel Craig might be at this game for a long time as Bond, and I’m perfectly all right with that. He’s adding a necessary amount of grit to the 21st-Century Bond. Maybe one day it will be necessary to camp things up again, like they were in the 70s, 80s, 90s, for the sake of variety, but as of this moment, the trajectory of a 50 year old franchise has never looked better.
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild
In Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, quiet introspection goes hand-in-hand with childlike energy. The heroine, the 5 year old Hushpuppy, played gloriously by Quvenzhane Wallis, swallows the film whole in her performance, aided by the patronly direction by Zeitlin. The perfect collaboration, between actor (albeit a young inexperienced firecracker like Wallis) and a director (who is also fairly inexperienced). Her every nuance, depicted by a then-five-year-old girl, is captured by Zeitlin and his crew, which is a testament to filmmaking’s power. Their world, the small island south of New Orleans, called The Bathtub, pays homage to auteurs like Terrence Malick in its attention to nature, but it is also Zeitlin’s own creation. Scratch that. Really, Zeitlin is the anti-auteur. He allows the world to speak for itself, without imposing any of his own views into it. While a vocal minority has dismissed this film as a condescending, racist depiction of a black family in the bayou (poor, uneducated, violent father, missing parents, all told by a young, inexperienced white writer-director) I found it honest and true to the environment. While the story is a fable, depicting a completely unrealistic but completely true world that could never exist in the real world, but certainly exists on camera, it maintains a certain amount of honesty about the impoverished areas struck by Hurricane Katrina.
What Beasts of the Southern Wild is ultimately about is survival and honesty to one’s chosen life path. Hushpuppy and her father live honesty, in their own way, by their own standards, and they are folk heroes for doing as much.
7. Cloud Atlas
David and Lana Wachowski have had an uneven career in their filmography. With the first Matrix film, they were met with acclaim, but every film that has succeeded that undeniable science-fiction game changer did not find the same critical (or even, at times, financial) adoration. Now with Cloud Atlas, they have their most divisive film yet, with even TIME magazine calling it the worst of the year. But they couldn’t be more wrong, because the Wachowskis, working with a third director, the talented Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame, made their best film yet. It is based off an even more impressive novel that intertwines six seemingly unrelated stories into one epic about the theme of inter-connectedness. The beauty of the whole film is that, for all of its ambitions and extremism, it never has that clichéd moment where “everything makes sense.” Instead, it trusts the audience to make the connections between the stories, some subtle, some obvious. And many people did not make the connections. And many people hated this film.
Many films this year dealt with philosophy and faith, from The Grey to Life of Pi, but Cloud Atlas dealt with it in a very unique way. Its claim is that we all affect one another, and the greatest achievement one can accomplish is a good deed. All religious indoctrination aside, the truest form of goodness does not come from piety, but from general empathy. The villains lack empathy, and the heroes contain extraordinary amounts of it. Mixing tales of nineteenth-century slavery, early twentieth-century European composers, cheesy 1970s spy thrillers, modern British farces, futuristic dystopic sci-fi adventures, and distant future post-apocalyptic adventure tales, Cloud Atlas is a film like no other and a journey I will take over and over again through my movie-viewing life. And while many people use the nasty and lazy insult “pretentious,” I reply by saying that a word like pretentious is used by the dumb to bring the ambitious and intelligent down to their level. It is one thing to question a movie’s execution, but another to lob empty criticisms because one truly does not understand the themes of a piece. That is on the audience, not the three artists who made Cloud Atlas.
Many people hate this movie, and they have the right to, but they shouldn’t use lazy labels like “pretentious.”
*Gets off soapbox*
6. Life of Pi
And then there is the best directed film of 2012. Ang Lee fascinatingly worked with a story that might have been even harder to put onto the screen than Cloud Atlas in Life of Pi. To turn a philosophical, allegorical coming-of-age story that takes place almost entirely on the open sea, in a life boat, with a live tiger, Ang Lee had his hands full. But he pulls it off beautifully. Pi is a fantastic character, fleshed out and empathetic. But Richard Parker, the tiger, is as interesting and strong of a character, and to make a realistic-looking CGI tiger that impressive of a “casting.” This isn’t a world where CGI creatures are replacing actors, but it is certainly a world where directors are more open-minded about how they make their films, and what they focus on.
Ang Lee has always been an ambitious filmmaker. He pushes himself, whether he makes a failed attempt at a comic book movie (Hulk), a true-to-life tale of suburbia (The Ice Storm), a flamboyant martial arts film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) or a tragic love story (Brokeback Mountain). Lee exists as a storyteller who shows no limitations to the types of stories that fascinate him or the scope of the stories he will tell. Small, microscopic tales of two lovers or giant treatises on God and art are both game to Lee. In Life of Pi, that ambition, and ultimate pull off, left me impressed with Lee as a filmmaker and touched by the story he was presenting.
The final question of the wonderful film, if we choose to believe in God or not, extends into a bigger idea than mere religion, and into the ultimate reason why we exist and think and act the ways we do. The battle for our souls is not fought between the devil and God, but by our own cynicism and the promise of a better life. Sometimes we have to escape reality to find the truth, and in Life of Pi, that proves very true.
Are we the survivor who lived through a terrible atrocity, or are we the tiger?
5. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson may be an acquired taste, but what a wonderful acquired taste he is. He creates diorama-like films that amp up the quirk while dialing in the over-seriousness. Peppered with the sort of sentiment that you have in your grandmother’s crocheted quilt, there is something altogether lovely about Anderson’s worlds. Whether Rushmore or A Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, he has created worlds that exist on its own terms. Like a fan of Marvel comics, fans of Wes Anderson’s films eat up their aesthetic with stocking caps and scarves.
Count me as a fan.
With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has made his best film yet. After a highly inventive, Benjamin Britten referencing opening credits sequence, I was in awe of the craftsmanship that went behind the making of his world. Taking place on a small New England island, Moonrise Kingdom follows the hero, a Khaki Scout named Sam (Jared Gilman) who defects to be with the love of his life, the young Suzy (Kara Hayward). With a supporting cast featuring the scout leader (Edward Norton), the local police captain (Bruce Willis), two lawyers who play Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), a villainess aptly named Social Services (Tilda Swinton), a fun cameo by another scout leader and all-around rapscallion (Jason Schwartzman), and of course the narrator (Bob Balaban). Not a false note lands through the love story between Sam and Suzy, as they run around the island to escape all scouts, police, and parents to be with one another. Alexandre Desplat’s lovely score, aided by a selection of great previously recorded songs, orchestral and country-western, is the MVP in creating the wonderfully produced world of Anderson’s New Penzance. And that is where the strength of the film lies; it is as unrealistic as The Avengers (and there are probably a lot of comparisons between Wes Anderson and Joss Whedon), but Moonrise Kingdom feels more true in spite of it all. I could watch this film over and over again, and never grow tired of it.
I might just do that right now. . .
My review is a part of this mass review post here.
4. Zero Dark Thirty
Much ado has been made of Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece, Zero Dark Thirty. Both a journalistic take on the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and a feminist manifesto, intertwined perfectly, Zero Dark Thirty offers the world an intense vision of the world we live in, and of which we understand so little. This earth is filled with violence and antagonism, and the groups of people at war are less defined than ever, and everyone wants to demean everyone else in the midst of it. The United States is not in war to aid its allies against an evil force, like they did with Hitler and the Nazis in the early 20th century, where our heroes returned heroes. Instead cells of terrorists scarred the United States, brainwashed its own members, and hide in the night as we look and aim to kill for the sake of vengeance. We (Americans) rightly question our purpose in such a war against the terrorists. Zero Dark Thirty asks questions, directed at our hearts and minds, as to what limits we take our revenge. Torture? Assassination of Osama Bin Laden?
The World Trade Center attacks affected everyone in a different way. Some have obsessed about the idea of getting back at the enemy. The protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty, Maya, played gloriously by the incredibly talented Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, The Help, Take Shelter, Mama, The Debt) is a hero defined by her work, engrossed in what she does, never stopping to smell the roses or explain to the audience how she has to burst through the glass ceiling in the CIA or how she misses anyone from her pre-CIA life. She is defined by her actions, the ultimate journalistic protagonist. She carries the movie from its infant stages of Bush-era torture to the final, half-hour long raid. She reminds everyone throughout that she was the “motherfucker who found this place, sir” and the men around her would be right to listen. She acts as the beacon of hard work that it took to get the murderer who killed thousands of Americans. And even as Seal Team Six lands in Bin Laden’s compound, and they assassinate him, the children living there cry and whimper, and the music played by Alexandre Desplat (Yes, who also did the music for the very different Moonrise Kingdom, and the kinda similar Argo) is completely ominous and not gung-ho. All because of Maya’s hard work.
It is impossible not to think about director Kathryn Bigelow in terms of Maya. She is an Academy Award-winning director who won for another military tale, the PTSD epic The Hurt Locker. With Zero Dark Thirty, she has faced an impressive amount of misplaced liberal outrage by those completely misinterpreting her film as some sort of right-wing propaganda. But it is ludicrous to define the movie by that pre-chosen interpretation. It is much smarter, much more powerful, much more unsettling than any limiting view that those attacking Zero Dark Thirty have described it. It is the sort of movie that requires introspection, questioning, and passionate feelings. Maybe in the end the controversy is exactly the way we should feel about this powerful movie. But to limit it to something so off-base and basic is a criticism-crime.
Zero Dark Thirty is one of four films deserving “Best Picture of the Year” status, with the rest of my Top 4. It is important. It is vital. It is woman.
Michael Haneke is one of the 21st century’s most important directors. With Amour, Haneke might have made his best film. There are arguments for Cache, and especially for The White Ribbon, but Amour sticks even more than those fantastic, important French and Austrian films. The story in Amour this: two upper-class, liberal, artistic French octogenarians who are in love, living in the twilight of their lives are met with a tragedy. The wife, Anne Laurent (played by deserved Best Actress nominee at Sunday night’s impending Oscars, Emmanuelle Riva) has a stroke and her husband, Georges (played as well by French acting legend Jean-Louis Trintignant), must take care of her. The entire film encompasses his love, pain, and passion for his wife. The movie lacks the American sentimentality, and addresses love in completely observational terms, but it still impacts the audience in a completely devastating manner. The most emotionally draining (and well-earned) film of the year, Amour is made by an older filmmaker, featuring older actors, everything feels authentic. Even as the movie becomes more ambiguous at the end of the film, featuring hallucinations and a pigeon of death, it never ceases to feel real. With Georges feeding his wife, sitting next to his wife, changing, yes, his wife’s diaper, due to the severity of her stroke(s), there isn’t a moment where I wasn’t like “Jesus. . .”
Haneke, nominated for Best Director (over more popular filmmakers like Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow), Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Film, and even Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, has created a movie that speaks to the Academy, whose members’ age is averaged at 72. This is an important movie for the world’s elderly, but the themes of love and fear of death extend to universal appeal. While not everyone you know, especially the squeamish, will not be able to finish this film, not one person in the world could deny its power. Art is powerful, and more filmmakers should take on subject matters this difficult.
2. Django Unchained
Speaking of a difficult subject matter: American slavery!
The “other” and probably “better” huge meta-movie of 2012, after the in-of-itself impressive Seven Psychopaths and The Cabin in the Woods, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is everything you want in a Tarantino film, and at times even more. A spiritual sibling to Inglourious Basterds, and as good, Django Unchained is the sort of ludicrous Tarantino movie that hits all the rights spots in comedy (and absolutely hilarious comedy), horrors (not horror), violence (as campy as it is), and even drama. The drama is led by Jamie Foxx, in his best role, playing alongside Christoph Waltz, in his best role, Leonardo DiCaprio, in his best role, and Samuel L. Jackson, in his best role. These four actors perfectly deliver Tarantino’s unique brand of dialogue, through a spaghetti western that finds a way to never demean the memory of those who suffered back during slavery. He sets his story through the standard hero arch, with a protégé of an established figure (Django played by Foxx, protégé to Dr. Schultz played by Waltz) and has to overcome all adversity to accomplish his task (saving his wife played by Kerry Washington from the villains played by DiCaprio and Jackson), which becomes seemingly impossible after he loses his mentor.
You see, Tarantino’s revenge tales (Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill) feature seemingly exploitative storylines of wronged people—whether Holocaust-era Jews or women who have gone through violence at the hands of men—who overcome all odds and win the day over those who have wronged them—whether Nazis or abusive spouses. Tarantino sets up Django Unchained to be about how the “great white hope” saves the slave, but in reality, Django saves himself, through his own ability and passion, which says something about slaves that no other Hollywood filmmaker has the balls to say. Tarantino is saying, “These people can take care of themselves.” This is not The Help, retold with its pretty bow, but instead a messy story of a black man freeing himself.
1. The Master
What more can I say about the best film of 2012? I’ve championed it since I saw it in September. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterpiece is one of the most elusive, ambiguous, difficult, and vital films of the year because of the extremely powerful craftsmanship he uses and the collaborative effort of his cast and crew. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Mihai Malaimare, Jr., Jonny Greenwood, David Crank & Jack Fisk, and everyone else who worked on The Master deserve credit for the amazing aspects they added to the film. It is too bad that this film isn’t entirely recognized for its importance, but I guess that is what time is for—to create importance. Just ask 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, and Vertigo.
What does all this work add up to, though? The film observes 1950s America through the lens of a PTSD suffering (and crazy) man in Freddie Quell (Phoenix), the weird sort of faith healing and Scientology infant stage of the time in The Master himself, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the role of a 50s wife, the Lady MacBeth-esque Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams). Each character is intensely put to screen by their respective actor. There is not a more subtle performance this year than by Amy Adams. There is not a more charismatic performance than Philip Seymour Hoffman, save possible by Christoph Waltz in Django. Both performances are equally amazing, though, in that they put the characters before the actors’ ego. But when has Hoffman ever put his ego before his character? Here, he may have a career best, rivaled only by his turn as Capote. He is not a satirized figure, nor a stereotype. He is as nuanced as the rest of the cast, to Paul Thomas Anderson and his own credit. I put Waltz as my Supporting Actor of the year in my previous list, but in reality, Hoffman is just as fantastic. And finally there is Joaquin Phoenix as the scoundrel Freddie Quell. Can anyone claim as powerful of a performance this year? The answer is no. Phoenix gives a career best turn as the most lasting character of the year. No man has stuck with me as long as Quell. He is a force, unrelenting in who or what he damages, having a twisted life before the Master, and subtly (believe it or not) altered after he meets the Master. Every crevice in his face is created by the actor himself as he contorts his face into a stranger’s appearance. His walk is different. The way he talks. Even more impressive than Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Joaquin Phoenix transforms into his character, never questioned, and always observed by us. While we don’t like him, per se, we can’t help but be fascinated by him. And when someone gives a brave performance like this, so soon after a highly publicized meltdown of his own, it deserves the attention.
I could go on, and on, but I already did in my complete thoughts here. Let me just let it alone with these parting thoughts. What is the point of art? Is it merely to entertain? Or is there a bigger goal? The answer is obvious, you pick for yourself. You get to buy your movie ticket. I have chosen to use this space, Abandoned Theater, at this blog Your Personal Opinion Is Wrong to champion what I value most, and that is ambition and complete immersion into a world created by teams of filmmakers that are attempting to elevate human art to the very heights of imaginations limitations. I enjoy genre, and I enjoy high art, and really, I enjoy them equally. As long as the filmmaker does one thing: he or she is true. He or she takes chances. And he or she doesn’t fall into the pitfalls of negotiating their art for dollar signs.
There is a reason why I think Paul Thomas Anderson is the best filmmaker of his generation. He checks all the boxes.