Monday, January 14, 2013

2012 Year End: The Top 10 Films of 2012

And finally, we arrive at the 10 best films of the year.

10. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
When I saw Casino Royale, I thought that Bond series had gotten as good as it was going to get – and the fact that Quantum of Solace was mainly a disappointment seemed to prove that to me. But then Sam Mendes came on board as the director, and he elevated the series to the highest level it has ever been (yes, I am saying Skyfall is the best Bond film ever). Daniel Craig plays the most frail, human Bond ever – a man who is driven to do what he must, even if he’s not sure he can. Javier Bardem is one of the best Bond villains ever – no plot for world domination, just a demented man with mommy issues hell-bent on revenge. Judi Dench turns M into a real character, who goes from super bitch into a truly sympathetic character. And the action sequences in the film – from the opening chase sequence to the final shootout – were easily the best of the year. What Mendes and company have done for Bond is similar to what Nolan did for Batman – bring him into the real world, make him a real character, and given the film more thematic relevance than ever before. Skyfall is Bond for the 21st Century. Now that we know how good this series can get, we have to demand it every time.

9. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Blige Ceylon)
Nuri Blige Ceylon’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a film that reminded me of many of my recent favorite crime dramas – David Fincher’s Zodiac, Bong Joon-ho`s Memories of Murder, Cornielu Porumboiu`s Police Adjective and Cristi Puiu`s Aurora (and for that matter, Zero Dark Thirty). As different as all of these films are what they share is that they all center on a crime (or crimes) where the closer you look, the less you seem to know or understand them. This is a film where a group of men head out in a car into the Turkish countryside. One of the men is a confessed murderer and he is going to lead the others – a doctor, a cop, a prosecutor and a driver – to the body of his victim. But of course, everything starts to look the same, and they are on the road all night. Throughout the night, the different characters show their different sides – they start out defined by their jobs, but become much more. There is male bonding and humor sprinkled throughout the film, but the overall tone is one of sadness and waste. There is a magnificent sequence when they stop for dinner, and the one key female character – the beautiful daughter of their host – becomes a symbol of so much more for each of the men. Eventually, the case is solved, but Ceylon takes things a scene or two longer than we expect him to – right to the autopsy table, which just serves to confuse things even more. This is a long, slow, low key crime drama – but an absolutely brilliant one.

8. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
There is always a danger in Wes Anderson films that the style is going to overwhelm the substance. His films are so meticulously crafted and designed – with his unique production and costume design, his use of music, his slow pans and deadpan humor that sometimes, he loses sight on the story and characters. But with his last two films – The Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Moonrise Kingdom – Anderson has struck the perfect balance. There is no mistaking Moonrise Kingdom for anyone else’s film – it is clear from the opening sequences – one inside an Anderson dream house, and another at the strangest boys scout camp ever put on film, Anderson’s style comes through right from the beginning. And his theme is similar to – dysfunctional families and social misfits. And yet, I’m not sure he has ever used these elements as effectively as he does in Moonrise Kingdom. For one thing, he sets the film in the 1960s, which suits his sensibilities well. For another, he tells a sweet, touching love story between two young teenagers that recall the storybooks one of them carries around with them. Anderson takes his cue from Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (it’s no mistake the film takes place in 1965, the year that film was released), and he uses a similar color palette, costume design and wonderful French music that Godard used – and of course, Godard’s film was also about young lovers on the run. The film contrasts the pure innocence of the world of the kid’s romance, to the messed up world of their parents and the rest of the adults in the film. The result is a beautiful film – and a heartfelt one. Anderson has put together perhaps the perfect Wes Anderson film.

7. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is both a love letter to, and a lament on the limitations of cinema. In the film, Denis Levant proves to be the hardest working actor in the world, as we watch him leave his large home looking like any other business man, and get into the back of a stretch limo. His driver (Edith Schob) talks to him of all the appointments he has that day – which we watch him go through one at a time. His job is an actor – he takes on many different roles during the course of the day from homeless woman to man in a motion capture suit to murderer to his victim to subterranean psychopath to an angry father to a man regretting his past love to a father of a strange family and others. But if he is an actor, who is the audience? Carax’s film has an old theme – all the world’s a stage – but from the strange beginning of the film, with Carax himself unlocking a door on a faceless audience looking up at a movie screen – it’s clear this is a movie about movies, and about their audience. On one level, the movie is a celebration of the movies, and all they can do. On another, Carax seems frustrated that they can only do so much. Holy Motors is a fascinating, funny, sad, exhilarating, one-of-a-kind movie going experience.

6. Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Compliance is a tricky moral puzzle of a movie that asks the audience to put itself in all the characters shoes at one point or another in the movie, and asks a BIG question: At what point do you start to question authority? For the people in this movie (and the real life case it is based on) the answer is not soon enough. The movie is about the impossible but true story where a man who claims to be a police officer called a fast food restaurant and told the manager they had a complaint about one of their staff members stealing from a customer, and the manager needed to take them in the back room. As the movie progresses, the man on the phone asks one horrific thing after another of the manager and the “accused” employee – from searching their pockets, locker and purse, to a strip search, and eventually going as far as sexual assault. What writer-director Craig Zobel has accomplished here is quite brilliant – he slowly ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable degree. You sit there staring at the screen, wanting it to end, wanting to look away, but completely unable to. He is aided greatly by the performances – Dreama Walker as the abused employee, who makes you believe why she would do what she does, Bill Camp as the manager’s lunk-headed boyfriend who actually commits the assault and Pat Healy as the strange voice on the other end of the phone. But no one is better than Ann Dowd, who gives one the year’s great performances as the manager, who she makes you completely, understand. She does what she does out of a mixture of jealously and a desire to feel important – and she conveys the complex series of emotions with subtle movements of her face. It is a remarkable performance at the heart of the great (mostly) unseen film of 2012.

5. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
I wasn’t expecting Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln to be the film that it is – and I mean that in the best way possible. Lincoln is perhaps Spielberg’s most intimate film – a film that takes place mostly in dark, dank back rooms, that cinematographer Janusz Kaminski brilliantly captures using natural light. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is both the larger than life President that we know from history books, but also far more human and real. This is not the epic I was expecting – full of battles and speeches – but a film about what takes to lead America, something that hasn’t really changed much since Lincoln’s time. They were right to not release the film before the election – otherwise the film could have become a political football for idiot pundits on both sides to kick around (see: Zero Dark Thirty), but coming right on the heels of Obama’s re-election, the film is a necessary reminder of what it really takes to lead. The screenplay by Tony Kushner is simply masterful – juggling the largest cast of the year and giving so many of them a great moment to shine. Spielberg is great at making huge epic films – and with Lincoln he proves he make a historical movie on a much more intimate scale – and made one of his best films in years.

4. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
The criticism of Quentin Tarantino has always been that his films, as entertaining as they are, are wholly self-contained – not about anything in the real world, but simply about movies. It never bothered me very much, but perhaps it bugged him since in his last two films, Tarantino has expanded his universe to add real world relevance to his violent, revenge driven narratives. Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino’s masterpiece – the film that where he gave his twin loves of language and cinema into real thematic resonance. Django Unchained isn’t quite at that level, but does something similar –re-writing history in bold, bloody violent strokes. This is Tarantino’s angriest film – perhaps because as an American, he can distance himself from the crimes of the Nazis in Basterds, but cannot distance himself from his own country’s national shame of slavery. Tarantino’s blood splattered spaghetti Western about a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) teaming up with a good German (Christoph Waltz) to get back his wife (Kerry Washington) from the vicious, vile, cruel slave-owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) – and kill a whole bunch of other bad white people – is the year’s most entertaining film. It still contains all of the hallmarks of Tarantino’s movies – the dialogue scenes that crackle, the expert performances, the violence, the relentless pacing, the dark humor (none darker, or funnier, than a sequence of Klan members complaining about their lack of ability to see through their masks). But it also an angry film about America’s violent past – a film that wants to rub your nose in the racism, and acts as a corrective to films like Gone with the Wind (as well as the idiots who want to “downplay the racial aspect” of slavery when it taught to school children). Spike Lee shouldn’t be complaining about a film like Django Unchained – he should be trying to make one.

3. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
On one level, Zero Dark Thirty is the most suspenseful thriller of the year. Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty is a procedural about the long, slow, years long hunt for Osama Bin Laden which finally came to an end when Seal Team 6 stormed his compound and killed him. As a thriller, Zero Dark Thirty is brilliant. But it’s more than that. It is also, with it’s portrait of Maya (Jessica Chastain) a Zodiac-like tale of obsession, as one woman sacrifices everything else in her life in order to get the answer to the question that eats away at her. But Zero Dark Thirty is more than just that as well. It is also a movie about what America did to capture Bin Laden, and win the War on Terror (which still rages on). The people who are complaining about the movie because of specifics are missing the forest for the trees. No one can deny that to win the War on Terror, America, for a time, tortured detainees. That’s in the history books folks, sorry. And no one can deny that to kill Osama Bin Laden, what America essentially did was send an assassination squad into a foreign country to take him, and everyone else around, out. That is what that brilliant final sequence on the raid on the compound shows, in ruthless, bloody detail. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t judge – which angers some who somehow need to the movie to demonize torture, because apparently they’re not smart enough to know it’s wrong without the movie telling them so – but it does present what happened. Whether the ends justified the means – as many will think – or whether the cost of winning was America losing it’s moral authority – which many will think – is up to the viewer to decide. Zero Dark Thirty is a brilliant thriller, an exciting action movie, a character study on obsession and a film that leaves the big questions about America’s guilt or innocence to be decided by the viewer. It is a great movie.

2. Amour (Michael Haneke)
Michael Haneke’s Amour may just be the hardest film to watch of 2012. It tells the story of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a long-time married (happily, we gather) couple in their 80s, whose life together unravels when Anne gets a stroke, and slowly wastes away to nothing. While I agree that this is the most sympathetic film Haneke has ever made, I don’t really think that he has become a humanist here – his film still punishes the characters, and the audiences, for their sins (like almost all of his other films), it’s just this time that sin is something far more universal – growing old. Depending on how you look at it, Georges is either a selfless man who gives up everything for Anna, or a selfish prick, who slowly shuts out the entire world outside their apartment, and wallows in self-pity and eventually lashes out. You could not ask for two better performances that those delivered by Trintignant and Riva. As someone who watched his own grandmother die slowly as a result of multiple strokes, I found Riva’s performance heartbreakingly accurate. And Trintignant has an even more difficult role, as he is the one who has to watch his wife waste away, and react – driving the more towards its inevitable conclusion. Haneke’s precise, controlled direction, and his haunting ambiguous screenplay are both masterful – and Amour is one of his very best films. A true masterpiece.

1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
When Sight & Sound released their results of the longest running Greatest Films of All Time Poll last summer, I made a list of my own 10 Greatest Films of All Time. What surprised me about my own list which I whittled down from over 100 initial candidates, was how many of my very favorite films have a dreamlike quality and logic to them (Apocalypse Now, Sherlock Jr., Taxi Driver, 2001: A Space Odyssesy, Mulholland Dr., Three Women, Vertigo were all on my list, and in some ways have the dreamlike quality I am referring to). I’m certainly not saying that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master belongs on that sort of list (it’s too early for that), but I do feel it has the same sort of dreamlike quality and logic to it. The Master is the year’s great enigma of a film – I have read so many different interpretations of the film, from those who think it’s a masterpiece to those who think it’s the Emperor Has No Clothes film of the year – and all of them make me want to see the film again and again, to parse through its mysteries. This is the most haunting movie of the year – and the one that just won’t leave me alone. The film reminded me of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut – as both films (at least in my interpretation) tell their story entirely from the point of view of its main character – even when that character is not actually a part of the scene in question. Because of the way that both Kubrick and Anderson have made their films, it is impossible to tell just what actually happens and what happens only inside the head of their main characters – but I don’t think it really matters, as both are equally real to them. Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of the year as that main character – the raging id that is Freddie Quell who responds to the world and everyone in it with the same strut and sexual arrogance. Philip Seymour Hoffman is equally great as Lancaster Dodd, the cult leader, who is just as angry as Freddie, but has channeled that anger into a controlled fury. And Amy Adams is brilliant as his quietly manipulative wife. And the brilliance of the technical aspects of the film are also tough to deny – from the beautiful colors and precise framing of the 70MM cinematography, to the meticulous art direction and costume to Jonny Greenwood’s wonderful aural assault score, Anderson is once again in complete control of his movie. For me, no film this year was as endlessly fascinating as The Master. That is why, once again, Paul Thomas Anderson has made my favorite film of the year.

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