The 10 Best Films of 2012: An Incomplete But Annotated List
In my experience, no best-of list is ever done. No matter how diligent one is in trying to watch everything of note throughout the year, the end of the year is always a crush, always an exercise, to borrow a term from Dan Kois, in triage. There’s simply no way to see everything, particularly if you have other professional responsibilities, as I did in 2012 and in the 15 years prior. Since turning in my top 10 list to The A.V. Club, the Chicago Film Critics Association, and the polls for Village Voice and Indiewire (think I missed the deadline on the last one) I’ve already seen one film—Only The Young—that might have made my list and spent a lot of time thinking about another—Not Fade Away—that might easily creep on the list if I were to revise it in a year or so. Then there are all those movies that Scott Tobias insisted I watch, like Miss Bala and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, that I never quite got around to seeing—but which I’ll spend some time with next week in advance of another project in which I’m involved that I’ll be talking about soon. Oh, and I wasn’t in town for the preview screening of Django Unchained, which I’m finally seeing tomorrow. Tarantino’s a favorite. This list didn’t even give him a chance. If nothing else, it’s incomplete because of that, in addition to all the other reasons. Nonetheless, here’s a list.
10. Holy Motors
I’ve tried to explain the concept movie to others and it’s like trying to describe a particularly vivid dream that blurs at the edges. Then again, that’s more or less what it feels like watching Leos Carax’s comeback feature, which doubles as a grand statement on the power of movies and illusion, a collection of ideas that are brilliant on their own but pick up cumulative power as they’re gathered together here.
9. The Loneliest Planet
Nothing and everything happens in Julia Lotkev’s long trek through the Caucasus Mountains, wherein one moment upends the relationship of a young couple. The scenery is breathtaking, the moment in question shocking and troublingly plausible, and the film’s deliberate pace allows gives both the room they need.
8. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
I don’t think there were two more divisive films this year than Zero Dark Thirty and this tour through the far ends of the Louisiana bayou sometime after civilization has begun to collapse. Both worked for me, this one thanks to director Benh Zeitlin’s eye for offhand beauty and the performances of first-time actors Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis.
7. The Deep Blue Sea
Squint and it actually is a remake of the Renny Harlin shark movie—it’s desire that emerges seemingly out of nowhere to devour the unsuspecting victims.
6. The Kid With A Bike
Shocker: The Dardennes deliver a moving drama about moral choices and their consequences. Is it just that we’ve started to take them for granted that this didn’t show up on more lists?
Michael Haneke’s depiction of age ravaging an elderly couple is as unblinking and true of any of his films, even though it deals with a more everyday sort of devastation. (Or at least those I’ve seen: I’m not a timid viewer, but—true confession—I’ve bailed on Funny Games twice after 15 minutes.) That there’s no irony to makes it all the more powerful.
4. Wuthering Heights
Never mind Anna Karenina: The real breakthrough in offering a fresh take on familiar literary material this year came from Andrea Arnold, who dug into the Yorkshire soil for a raw take on Emily Bronte’s novel. Her vision perfectly captures the book’s oppressive romantic gloom and accentuates some of its key scenes by casting two black actors as Heathcliff (one as a child and the other as an adult).
3. The Master
Sure, it was inspired by Scientology, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s remarkable film is also the bigger story of a generation confronted with new freedom, deep doubt, and the maw of unknowing in the wake of World War II.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
It was a good year for Andersons. Wes Anderson’s melancholy picture book sensibility found a beautiful outlet in this coming-of-age story, in which children and grown-ups alike struggle with disappointment and receive just enough hope to make the struggle seem worthwhile.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
When the smoke clears on this one, it will be recognized not just as a stunning procedural about the hunt of Osama Bin Laden but as a psychic snapshot of a decade spent in the moral wilderness. Yes, the torture is there, and yes, the characters operate as if it’s necessary to do their jobs. (Whether it is useful or necessary remains an open question, at least in the version of the film I saw.) Would it be honest to depict the process any other way? Would it make us so uncomfortable if we didn’t feel some collective guilt for wondering if maybe, in the thick of those dark years, it was necessary? What’s also been lost in the discussion: The rest of the film, which is stunning, tense, upsetting and, in the end, offers no real sense of relief, only the possibility that the cycle will repeat itself.
Need to see again: Lincoln
I liked it and wrote as much. But this is one of those reviews I filed thinking I might have missed something and the reaction of others tells me it’s definitely time for a second look. (It’s the converse of last year when I begged everyone to give War Horse another look.)
Flight, Argo, Declaration Of War, Bernie, and Oslo, August 31st. And more, no doubt, when I revisit this even a week from now.