Maybe we’re a little late to join the official chorus of critics’ picks, but here at The Best Films of Our Lives we are not privy to press screenings nor limited NY/LA releases. So, after taking the first month and a half or so of the new year to catch up with some of our most anticipated 2012 releases, Elaine and I have finally put together our Top 10 lists for the year.
Speaking for myself, anyway, I know there are still a few candidates I haven’t gotten to that could ultimately crack this list – and actually I feel pretty confident speaking for both of us when I say “Amour” tops that discussion – but inevitably some kind of time constraint is necessary. With the Oscars bearing down on us in less than two weeks now, it seems like it’s about time to at least wrap up the public discussion of The Year in Film: 2012 and move on. So here are both of our lists/rankings for your consideration – do Elaine and I agree on anything? Find out!
10. Django Unchained
It is with a heavy heart that I place Quentin Tarantino’s latest glorification of excessive violence on my list above “Les Misérables,” but the spaghetti western/revenge story achieves its intended effect much more effectively than Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the epic musical, even if the effect is one much less appetizing to yours truly. Following a freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) in his quest to save his enslaved wife, with help from a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), “Django” does engage with the darkest period of American history in a fresh way. But Tarantino’s indulgence in revenge fantasies and disturbing delight in extravagant acts of violence—even if stylized to be cartoonish—must be troubling, particularly in the year of the Aurora and Newtown shootings. That we are expected to laugh when a white woman is blown to smithereens—and many in the audience did laugh and clap—is only one of the reasons why “Django,” is worth a viewing, but one that should be interrogated and reflected upon by the viewer rather than simply absorbed and enjoyed.
Pixar’s latest entry in their quest to become the greatest animation studio that ever lived hit a bit of a snag with “Brave,” but the tale of the ancient Scottish tomboy princess Mérida coming of age was still a heartwarming story with breathtaking animation. While the plot and character development were a little rough around the edges, the curls of Mérida’s fiery hair, the vistas of Scotland, her three younger brothers, and the conflict between mother and daughter were enough to still register “Brave” a place in the pantheon of Pixar.
8. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
While some may have been disappointed that this newest foray into Middle-Earth was not as sweeping as “The Lord of the Rings,” our adventure with Bilbo Baggins and Company on the quest to defeat a dragon and reclaim an ancestral homeland was nothing if not fun. The long-anticipated scene of the Riddles in the Dark between Gollum and Bilbo alone is enough to justify seeing the movie, with Andy Serkis putting in another Oscar-worthy performance as the tortured, funny, and frightening creature driven out of his mind by the Ring. With thirteen Dwarves, each with a different twirl in his beard, to stir up trouble, an awkward, lovable Hobbit (the ever-reliable Martin Freeman), and a slew of familiar faces (names no less venerable than Ian McKellan and Hugo Weaving), “An Unexpected Journey” marks an entertaining, silly, and heart-warming return to Tolkien’s world and a promising beginning for the rest of the trilogy.
7. Anna Karenina
In the way of interestingly flawed movies, Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is a bold, artistic movie that takes many risks, some of which pay off and some don’t. That the star of the show is not Anna (Keira Knightley) but rather the sets is both the movie’s greatest strength and weakness. Wright chose to set the entire story on an actual stage, a wonderful conceit not only in its inherent artistry but also for its latent commentary on Anna’s world. However, his attention to artistic detail and the meta-narrative takes away from focus on the story itself, which suffers from a tonal imbalance and one-dimensional characters. One of the most interesting films of the year, “Anna Karenina” is a case where the director outshines the star, and his daring artistic choices are well worth a viewing.
Not being a Bond fan, I can’t weigh in on the discussion of how great a “Bond film” “Skyfall” was, but as an action film like any other, it was certainly one of the better movies of the year. This was due mostly to a series of captivating performances that added moments of levity, sympathy, and horror to the exhilarating chases through exotic locales like the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Bond himself, played with stoicism and just a hint of damage by Daniel Craig, made you constantly wonder at what lurked beneath that steely jaw and those piercing blue eyes, and the movie took a deeper look into his ties with MI-6 and M (played exquisitely by Dame Judi Dench). Throw in a chilling villain (Javier Bardem), a whimsical, young quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), and a hit theme song by Adele, and what else do you really need?
The current Oscar favorite for Best Picture, “Argo” is a tight, suspenseful dramatization of a particularly unbelievable historical episode of the Iranian hostage crisis in which a CIA agent smuggled six American diplomats out of a besieged Tehran under the guise of a film crew. With a solid cast and a story so preposterous it might be true, what impresses in “Argo” is Ben Affleck’s controlled, skillful directing (which makes the Academy’s snub in the Best Director category even more perplexing). Nothing is out of place in this film, and nothing is extraneous, and Affleck weaves real historical footage in and out of the film to add a sense of authenticity to his adaptation of true events. The harrowing opening scene, which shows us the actual seizing of the American embassy through the eyes of the embassy workers, is a particularly masterful piece of work, taut and terrifying as the experience itself must have been.
From the top hat to the log cabin to the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s life has long passed into legend, transformed from biography to stories that every schoolchild knows. Steven Spielberg’s portrayal of just a few key months of the sixteenth president’s life, however, humanizes our greatest president, roughening up the edges history has long smoothed to show us a man greater than us but also one of us. This Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is in his eloquence and his principles still the Abe we know and love, but he is also one that laughs at dirty jokes, plays with his young son, and fights with his wife. Well written and well acted, “Lincoln”’s only flaw is a dip into sentimentalism at the very end of the film, a moment of excess that blemishes an otherwise excellent piece.
As complex and clever as Nolan’s Batman (and also featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” a movie that uses a time travel premise to explore profound questions of innocence, good, evil, and sacrifice. Starring Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the same man in two different times, “Looper” hinges on the ability of the two men to maintain separate identities yet convince us that they are the same man. This duality characterizes much of the film, which not only seems divided in two halves, but pairs the thrilling violence that has defined Willis’ career with emotional complexity and a riveting plot. Part chase film, part family drama, “Looper” was, if nothing else, one of the smartest films of 2012, one that challenged viewers to stay on their toes and left them with questions long after the curtains closed.
2. The Dark Knight Rises
2012 was the year of the action movie, with the Avengers, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Spider-Man, the Men in Black, Abraham Lincoln, and our dearly beloved Governator all taking turns beating up the bad guys. (To think there are still some out there.) None of them did so with as much class or panache, however, as Batman, storming to a triumphant end of the trilogy with the highly anticipated “The Dark Knight Rises.” Christopher Nolan’s film took the standard action film and added moral ambiguity, historical overtones, political commentary, and a rich ensemble of supporting characters to provide a complex, engaging story with more thought and emotion than simple explosions and fighting.
1. The Deep Blue Sea
Seen by much fewer people than any of the other films on this list, British auteur Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea” is a tour de force in acting, a delightfully detailed depiction of post-war Britain, a collection of luminously beautiful images, and a glimpse into the power and passion of all-encompassing love. Set in the browns and greys of a bombed-out London circa 1950, the movie follows Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) on a single day where she tries to take her own life. Having left her older, well-meaning aristocratic husband, William (Simon Russell Beale) for a dashing, young ex-RAF pilot, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), Hester is still unhappy, an unhappiness that is incomprehensible to both the men in her life. Smoking and swooning with the full grandeur of a woman caught in the throes of absolute, unreasoning devotion, Hester surrenders completely to her passion and her sorrow, and Weisz strikes a delicate balance by giving into her character’s madness but grounding her with sense and ability to keep the story from melodrama. Achieving what Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” failed to, “The Deep Blue Sea” shows that there is no right or wrong kind of love, and however foolish, no way to reason with it.
Honorable mentions (unranked): “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Grey,” “Lincoln,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Zero Dark Thirty”
10. Wreck-It Ralph
In another banner year for animation, Disney earned back its legendary reputation with its best in-house effort in over a decade. Top-notch voice work, clever writing and an unexpectedly poignant ending made “Wreck-It Ralph” much more than a wildly entertaining gaming homage (though that would’ve been enough to make it great).
9. Moonrise Kingdom
I’m a staunch Wes Anderson defender (yes, I even liked “The Life Aquatic”) so it was really pretty much a given that I would be a fan of his latest work. But even from a more critically objective standpoint, “Moonrise Kingdom” was possibly Anderson’s most accessible work ever, a touching tribute to first love and childhood innocence. The director’s meticulous visual affectations meshed perfectly with the storybook material, demonstrating once again his affinity with authors like Roald Dahl or J.M. Barrie.
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Taking a step up the ladder of adolescence, we arrive at Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own YA novel, a thoroughly surprising gem that strived for realism over the self-conscious quirkiness of most other indie coming-of-age films. While it perhaps strived TOO far, overburdening its small ensemble of outcast teens with every high-school conflict in the books, exceptional work by Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller helped “Perks” strike the right balance between drama and levity.
7. The Deep Blue Sea
I can think of little to add to Elaine’s sterling summary, particularly in praise of Rachel Weisz’s exceptionally subtle performance (she would indeed have made a far superior Anna Karenina to Keira Knightley’s pouty, impudent version). So let me praise Terence Davies’ direction – with such fine actors at his disposal, it would be easy enough for the director to take a back seat and just pump out something akin to an above-average BBC production. But Davies’ camera drifts and lingers in all the right places, finding the extraordinary melancholy in both bombed-out buildings and crowded bars. The blitz scene in the London Underground alone should’ve been enough for this film to catch the eye of directors and cinematographers everywhere, but no such luck.
6. Django Unchained
Brash, over-the-top, hyper-violent, slick, witty, controversial – Quentin Tarantino’s latest serves as a succinct summary of the kind of filmmaking that the pompous writer-director has embodied over the past two decades. Too self-indulgent and unrestrained to know when to stop, “Django Unchained” tore through just about every boundary of good taste established by mainstream cinema, and by doing so revealed a lot of things about what entertains us – things we might not have liked to admit to ourselves. A severely prolonged second half prevented the film from reaching the heights it might have, but if great cinema provokes productive thought and discussion, “Django” did that better than just about anything this year.
5. Holy Motors
A wild, feverish, completely nuts exploration of the possibilities of film. Denis Lavant’s mysterious protagonist bounces from one role to the next, embodying fathers, lovers, criminals, crones, monsters, madmen, one story rushing into the next. Abandon all logic at the door – Carax’s incredible mess of a movie exists just for the pure energy and insanity of it all.
On its surface a brisk, exciting spy thriller told in true Hollywood style, Ben Affleck’s Film of Destiny has a lot of fun with its own exaggerations. The playful equation between the CIA’s covert operations and Hollywood’s attention whoring is echoed by the film’s own remarkable blend of historical detail and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Alan Arkin might’ve scored the Oscar nod, but the whole ensemble is really top-notch.
3. The Master
P.T. Anderson’s woozy masterwork wasn’t exactly what was expected, but where would the fun be in that? The creepy, uncomfortable, nightmarish fun. “The Master” was yet another in a long line of Anderson films exploring the fraught tension between fathers and sons, but this was certainly the most abstract (also the only one that made you leave the theater feeling like someone had ripped something out of your body). The tension between Freddy Quell and Lancaster Dodd spoke volumes about the way people exert power over each other, from the smallest family units to the most influential leaders in the world.
You may be surprised to see Rian Johnson’s sci-fi actioner so far up my snobby list, but there’s a special place in my heart for genre films that operate with this much economy and wit. There’s not a single wasted shot or scene in “Looper-” every scrap of dialogue or flashy shot tells us something new about its world, weaving an impressive, cyclical web of love and vengeance. If it relied on a clever twist ending, “Looper” would be an impressive but cold pastiche along the lines of Johnson’s previous films (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”); but the sharp character work (particularly the remarkable dual achievement of Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) elevates it to the heights of genuine emotion.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
“Looper” took old formulas and made them feel fresh; “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is that rare film that immediately blows you away with its utter originality. A triumphant, joyous validation of the power of family and community wrapped up in entrancing magical realism, “Beasts” tumbles naturally and recklessly from one scene to the next – much like the fierce whirlwind of youthful energy and strength at its center. Quvanzhané Wallis’ Hushpuppy is a Scout Finch for our time, guided by a far more flawed but equally caring Atticus in Dwight Henry’s Wink. Without really overtly trying to be “Inspirational” or “Uplifting,” Benh Zeitlin and his crew created the most balanced, life-affirming film of the year, simply by stuffing it with as much humanity as possible. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen and firmly my pick for best film of the year.