Was 2012 a good year for film? It was certainly a good year for hype. Last January, we were looking at a year that promised new films by Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Haneke, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Spielberg, in addition to widely anticipated entries in the Batman, James Bond, Avengers, Alien, and Lord of the Rings franchises. How much did these widely disparate films live up to the hype? By and large, extraordinarily well. While there were always going to be disappointments, 2012 was largely a year of great filmmakers reminding us why we pay so much attention every time they make a new movie. Some of them surprised, some of them fell short, and some simply managed to meet intimidating high expectations, but more than any year in recent memory, 2012 felt like a year when individual director’s voices dominated both the blockbuster and the arthouse. As much as the media would like to turn a “flop” like John Carter into a cautionary tale of too much directorial power, it’s telling that three of the hugest hits this year – The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Skyfall – are each clearly the product of a strong-willed director with a distinct voice. That said, there were also many unexpected surprises, often from first-time directors who will hopefully go on to have long and fruitful careers in movies. But for the present moment, the stars seem to have briefly aligned so that it’s possible to be an artist and still find enormous commercial success within the Hollywood system. I’m not holding my breath for how long it will last, but 2012 was a nice reminder that quality and commercialism don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Below are 10 films that – for me – stood out amidst a remarkably strong year. Motivated in part by this blog, I made an effort this year of seeing as much as possible, and as a result I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to condense my favorites into a top 10 list. The picks below are by no means perfect – in fact, many are so heavily flawed that some of you may be flabbergasted that I’ve included them. But every film below tried something ambitious, something memorable that attains greatness despite – and sometimes even because of – other perceived shortcomings. Before I begin, I should acknowledge one caveat: I still have not seen Holy Motors, Wuthering Heights, Rust and Bone, Cloud Atlas, Flight, Killer Joe, and a handful of other titles that have made a lot of other critics top ten lists. Others critical darlings like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are absent for a reasons that I will get to into in a later post. With that out of the way, here are Movie Music Musing’s …
Top 10 Films of 2012:
Remember that thing I said in the opening paragraph about some of these films being heavily flawed? I know it was a long time ago, so I can wait while you go back to re-read it if you like…. Good? Good. Well, I was mostly thinking of Prometheus when I said that. Ridley Scott’s film certainly has its weak spots, especially when it tries to be a traditional horror film and sends presumably brilliant researchers to do insanely stupid things. Yet these moments are secondary to the film’s remarkable achievement – legitimate science fiction on a massive blockbuster budget. For the first time in decades, the Ridley Scott who made thought-provoking, visually intricate films like The Duelists and Blade Runner seems to have returned. Working with a script by Damian Lindelof, whose final season of Lost covered similar ground, Scott uses the epic platform to pose a provocative question – can we assume that any creator that made us had wise benevolent intentions in mind when we take such a reckless and cavalier attitude to our own creations? The film doesn’t outright state this message so much as it allows the question to play out through various interlocking creator/creation relationships, whether from man to robot, father to daughter, or mother to an entirely new species of life. Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the film is the way it weaves its origin story of the creature from Alien in as a thematic parallel to mankind’s own obsession with its own origin story – while the humans run around desperately searching for the secret of their creation, they themselves are inadvertently creating a brand new form of life that they’d just as soon destroy as abandon. There are of course better films this year, but short of The Master, I can’t think of another film that prompted more interesting conversations.
A spin-off of Prometheus about a little-known god who runs around looking for people lighting fires, then angrily snatches the fires away and shouts “Hey – you can’t have that!” It’s a stunning use of … ok fine, there is no movie called Antimetheus – that was a goof. But if anybody’s interested in my spec script: “Antimetheus Decides He’s Fine Being Bound, Really Don’t Trouble Yourself,” please contact me.
9 (actual). Skyfall
I reviewed this a few months ago, and since that time the film seems to have attracted equal measures of intense praise and criticism (the latter mostly from fans who can’t get over the film not looking precisely like their version of a Bond film). As I stated then, it’s another flawed film, particularly clumsy during the action scenes that would normally be the Bond film’s reason for existence. The thing is, in this particular film they aren’t – Mendes invests the film with so much emotional weight for both Bond as a character and Bond as a cultural institution that all the various plot holes and awkward fight scenes just seem like trivialities. Remember that brief gasp of tragedy that closes the otherwise lighthearted On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Skyfall is that moment extended over two and half hours, resulting in installment for this franchise where the thrills come from the character relationships, not the explosions.
Part of me feels guilty for placing this so low on this list, because it’s an objectively brilliant film and I completely understand why it’s received so much widespread critical adulation. Michael Haneke is notorious for brutal portraits of human cruelty in films like Funny Games and Cache, but he’s often misunderstood as a cruel director as a result. In truth, every Haeneke film invites compassion from its audience – he just uses cruelty to make us recognize how much damage we can do to each other when we aren’t careful. Amour might be his first film that instead focuses squarely on humankind’s capacity for kindness, though Haneke being Haneke, the film does so in the most brutal fashion imaginable. Without a trace of sentimentality, he shows us the last days of an elderly married couple (played by French New Wave icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). After a botched operation and stroke leaves Riva unable to tend to even her basic body functions, Trintignant’s role gradually shifts from husband to nurse as he struggles to take care of his wife even while her brain slowly leaves her. In terms of achieving what it sets out to achieve, Haneke’s film is unimpeachable – the cold static shots, the absence of any musical score, and naturalistic performances of the actors create an approximation of reality so convincing it’s often easy to forget you aren’t in a nursing home (I know that people throw these statements around quite a bit, but it really will be an outrage if anybody but Riva wins the Best Actress Oscar). Yet that same commitment to realism can make it hard to shake the feeling that I could have the same experience with a trip to the local nursing home. That isn’t necessarily a problem with the film, but it makes for occasion where I can say a film was a masterpiece, yet I’m not entirely sure what I gained from seeing it.
7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
It’s probably not fair to call this the best representation of high school in any American film, but statements like that assume that everybody has the same memories of high school and their teenage years. But I will say that it is the only film I have seen, to date, that actually resonated with my own memories of being a teenager. The film does not exist in a reductive universe made up of broad character types (i.e. The Breakfast Club) – it’s instead a sensitive and nuanced look at the makeshift communities we form when we’re just old enough to start developing our own identities. Director Stephen Chbosky adapts the story from his novel, yet at no point does he fall to the traps of other novelist-turned-directors – he knows when to trust wordless audio-visual sequences to tell the story, and when to let the actors carry the emotions that aren’t explicitly spelled out in the dialogue. The film captures the early point in adulthood where we’re mature enough to have profound feelings but not mature enough to know how to control them – if that doesn’t seem like big praise, think of how few American can films can genuinely make the same claim.
6. Life of Pi
When word broke that Ang Lee would be adapting Yann Martel’s novel, I suspect that most expected Pi’s odyssey would be getting the somber treatment of the man who gave us The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain. What a wonderful surprise then, to see that Lee has instead turned the material into his most whimsical and visually spectacular film to date. Navigating around the problem of adapting a book that spends the bulk of its story on a lifeboat, the director turns the film’s potentially monotonous setting into a showcase for vivid, impressionistic fantasy sequences and 3D effects that put Avatar to shame. These showstopping set-piece aren’t gratuitous, but rather extensions of the protagonist’s free-flowing spiritual imagination. Granted, some of the film’s philosophical musings hit dead ends (the film stakes a lot of weight on whether or not the tiger has a soul, and its criteria for determining this question are questionable at best). But the film’s viscerally thrilling combination of dazzling imagery and soulful music makes an extremely convincing case for the spiritual ecstasy that the Pi embraces. It’s rare to see Ang Lee wearing his heart on his sleeve so shamelessly, and it’s a pleasure to discover that he’s actually very good at it.
5. Django Unchained
Django Unchained is probably Tarantino’s most straightforward “movie” since Jackie Brown, and one of the few that functions just as well as a satisfying action film as it does a metacommentary on filmmaking. Yet though it succeeds in telling a supremely satisfying story, it also doubles a sly rebuke against Hollywood’s frequently shameful history with racial representation. Much controversy was caused by the film’s premise – a Spaghetti Western/exploitation pastiche about a slave who slaughters white Southerners – and if you take Tarantino’s highly stylized vision of the Antebellum South on strictly historical grounds, I’m sure you’ll find a great deal of fault. But while the world that this film creates isn’t plausible as a real historical setting, it’s highly plausible as a slightly distorted reflection of the equally fictitious worlds we see in movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. Tarantino sets up the icons from these films – the majestic Klan, the plantation, the southern belle, and the Uncle Tom/Mammy figure, and then proceeds to reveal how dangerous despicable all of these fantasies actually are. Then Django blows them to smithereens (spoiler?). After so many films that spend their time hand-wringing and falling over themselves to make sure that white audiences don’t have to feel too bad about slavery, there’s something cathartic about a film that’s willing to declare all-out war on the sentimental tropes that have somehow allowed white American culture to get nostalgic for its darkest shame.
4. Moonrise Kingdom
Another film I’ve already reviewed, and I don’t have a lot to add other than to reiterate how moving it to see Anderson take the whimsical children’s storybook world that his disillusioned adult characters usually cling to, and firmly give that world back to the children who still have a chance to avoid their parents’ mistakes. Wes Anderson will always make “Wes Anderson” films, but when they’re this charming and deeply felt, how could that be a bad thing?
3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
I know next to nothing about director Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Turkish cinema, but part of this chillingly beautiful crime drama’s brilliance is that it could have been made anywhere. Perhaps that isn’t strictly fair – the simultaneously gorgeous and dreary rolling hills of rural Turkey have a distinct quality that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else on the planet – but the film’s mediation truth and morality extend far past its geographic and cultural setting. Two brothers confess to a murder and proceed to lead a group of policeman and law officials to the body. But because one brother is mentally handicapped and the other drunk when the murder took place, the search for the body ends up stretching long into the night. The long monotonous scavenger hunt serves as a fodder for philosophical conversations with unsettling ramifications, but the film is the most affecting when it quietly hints at a heartbreaking truth that the confession conceals. Not that truth is ever clear in this story – Ceylan keeps his central themes unresolved, resulting in a gut-wrenching film that’s all the more devastating for the closure it denies us.
2. The Master
Yet another film I’ve already reviewed, and while there are certainly many more things that I could say about it, let’s just suffice to say it’s a masterpiece, a film that we will be talking about for decades to come. Nobody else is making movies like this – nobody who can build an entire film on character relationships that are painstakingly intimate yet ambiguous in nearly every respect. I had to limit my reading to Joaquin Phoenix’s character just to keep my review from turning into a book, but I doubt that even a book-length analysis would do justice to the countless beguiling and contradictory layers that Anderson has woven together. Part of me feels that this should be in my number one spot, and really at this point, the rankings are arbitrary. But if, gun to my head, I have to pick one film from 2012, I have to go with:
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who read my earlier rave. This is a film that manages to burrow deep into squalor, yet with that filth it builds its own beautiful new universe. In some ways, the film is the polar opposite of The Master – where that film buries any affect or meaning under countless contradictory layers, Beasts gives us direct, naked passion from the first frame. Perhaps because it relies so much on its raw emotional appeal, the film does admittedly tend to either affect people enormously or not at all. But I don’t necessarily see that as a shortcoming – any film that pierces so fiercely at the heart is going to miss a few viewers in the process. Ultimately, while there may have been more intellectual or carefully crafted films released this year, none of them could claim such a startlingly unique and overwhelmingly moving vision.
Martin McDonagh’s meta-dramedy Seven Psychopaths might seem like a Tarantino riff on the surface, but it’s much closer to his own play Pillowman – like that theater piece, the film is a dark examination of storytelling and its capacity to both mirror and influence traumatic violence in the real world. The man against-wolves plot of The Grey might seem like a horror thriller on the surface, but the film itself is a surprisingly a sensitive and tender look at the different ways we face death, and it features Liam Neeson’s best performance in nearly a decade. A dramatic event takes place midway through a couple’s backpacking trip in The Loneliest Planet, and your ability to accept the film will likely hinge on whether you can swallow the idea that the couple could go for days without so much as mentioning the event. Yet it raises profoundly unsettling questions about gender roles in the 21st century, and deserves to be seen simply for the difficult conversation it prompts. The last act of Spielberg’s Lincoln caves a bit too much to celebrating the brave rich white men who talked about ending slavery, but it’s otherwise a remarkably sober reflection on the way our political process forces even a national hero like Lincoln to make ethical compromises for the greater good. Finally Looper operates on a brilliant high concept premise, and it manages to surprise even as it follows that premise to what, in retrospect, was always its natural conclusion. That it also builds to a surprisingly moving critique of our modern-day culture of selfishness almost feels like a bonus.
Five Great Popcorn Films from 2012:
These films that ultimately didn’t have the substance to merit a place in the above lists, but they proved that quality and innovation aren’t always enemies to escapist entertainment.
Clever dialogue, great character chemistry, and a sense of scope that’s as gloriously ridiculous as the comic books themselves lead to one of the few modern-day action films that kids will still be watching in their basements decades into the future. No other film this year was quite so successful at creating a giddy sense of fun, and it served as a reminder that in the right hands, a crossover can actually be thrilling.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
People expecting either the scope of the Lord of the Rings films or the quiet whimsy of the original novel are almost certain to be disappointed, but taken on its own terms, Jackson has created an enormously entertaining adventure yarn. It’s best approached if you consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings appendices as raw material for a new story, rather than as a holy text that requires the film’s total fidelity. While the frame story with Ian Holm is a bit much, in other respects Jackson and his writers actually improve on the novel – it’s clearer why Gandalf’s here and how he eventually evolves into the character we see in the later films, and the dwarfs’ quest has a meaningful justification here that never quite came across in Tolkien’s novel. No it’s not as powerful as the first trilogy, but it makes up for epic scope with a more light-hearted and inventive approach to escapism.
The Cabin in the Woods
Drew Goddard’s film probably isn’t as profound as it seems on the surface, but he deserves kudos for delivering both a clever deconstruction of horror movie tropes and the biggest monster melee since House of Frankenstein. It manages to satisfy both fans of slasher flicks and people who generally hate slasher flicks, and it closes with one of the most perversely satisfying closing sequences of any film this year.
This zippy action-comedy about a thrill-seeking bicycle messenger shows its cards from the start when it refers to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s hero as Wile E. Coyote. Truth be told though, both the film and the hero are much closer to the Road Runner. Like that cartoon bird, Levitt and the film are singular in purpose, and they make fast-paced adrenalin its own ethos. The result is a compact speed-run that’s more electrifying than any live-action Looney Tunes cartoon has right to be.
Dark Knight Rises
Nolan’s big caper to his Dark Knightt trilogy was rife with plot holes and troubling thematic implications (this is not a film that handles class or gender conflict gracefully), but it’s hard to fault Rises for its entertainment value. The film relies a lot on the audience’s built-in goodwill from the previous films, but by and large Nolan manages to draw his saga to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, even in the midst of significant shortcomings.
And that was 2012! Tune in later next week when I talk about this year’s Oscar nominations, and thanks for reading!