Saturday, February 16, 2013

Top Ten 2012.

In the same spirit of list making (yesterday I posted the A&F Top 25 Films on Marriage), I thought I should finally release the top ten films I saw in 2012. It should be immediately pointed out that I wasn't able to get to my most anticipated release from last year: Amour, Michael Haneke's latest. (Haneke is one of my all-time favorite directors.) As a matter of fact, in 2012 I saw at least three times as many American films as I did foreign films, but the few foreigns I got to were quite inspiring.

I really, really wanted to make Holy Motors my #1 film (and can understand any fellow cinephile placing it as the #1 film on their list). Holy Motors was easily the most exciting and surreal movie experience I had in 2012, and seeing it on the big screen with not one seat left in the house was pure cinematic and communal joy. But time and space have made me realize that the two picks I've placed in front of Holy Motors packed a huge emotional wallop for me personally, deserving of their #1 and #2 spots, respectively.

Also, unfortunately this list feels nowhere near as strong as my lists for 2011 or 2010. That could mean that 2012 wasn't as strong a film year. It could also mean that the bulk of films I saw this year (remember: many mainstream, and three times as many American) simply weren't the kinds of movies that resonate with me on a more personal level.

As per usual: apologies, explanations, guilty pleasures and discoveries follow this year's list. Here we go then:

10. Moonrise Kingdom. (Wes Anderson)

A heart-warming, touching, pre-coming of age story about two kids who fall in love. And by that, I do mean "kids" (pre-teen). And by that, I do mean "love" (self-sacrificial and all, the kind we can all learn from). Moonrise Kingdom has been blamed for a lot of things, but I consider it last year's most innocent film about innocence -- which has a raw, unblemished beauty to it that some older folks can't seem to latch on to... The choice of Moonrise Kingdom on this list is stunning to me, as, other than The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I am not a huge fan of Wes Anderson's other works. Moonrise Kingdom seems to be the place where we find out the loveless director of dry romantic cynicism has a hopeful heart underneath all those beat-up layers. My friend Jeffrey Overstreet talked me from liking to loving this film with his heartfelt words found here.

9. Sinister. (Scott Derrickson)

Originally chosen by Yours Truly for this year's Halloween Chiller, the horror here holds up well to repeated viewings -- in fact it gets better each time you see it. Crafted in melancholy, it stars Ethan Hawke (I always love this guy!) as a true-life crime writer obsessed with the current case/book he's working on. His heavy drinking leads to inept decisions - such as the one to move his family into the house where the crime he is studying took place. In that home he discovers a small box in the attic, and snuff films inside, and he discovers that watching those films might be the worst of all his decisions. Using suspenseful silences which segue into climactic builds of the horrific, its small budget approach reminded me of last year's awesome Insidious. The concluding moments with Bughuul ("Mr. Boogie") in full charge brought about the first horror film I've seen in years which made me actually hope for a coming sequel.

8. Zero Dark Thirty. (Kathryn Bigelow)

As with The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are on a roll, to the point of David Poland referring to them as being in "a kind of sync that is rare in the history of cinema." Nine months before making its way to theaters, the controversial film went through a Judicial Watch federal lawsuit regarding numerous disputes about its accuracy (torture scenes), and how the makers got their hands on classified information in the first place. Regardless of the political posturing and following hubbub, the striking film functions as a CIA drama regarding a determined woman stopping at no cost in tracking down "UBL" (Osama bin Laden) -- the most criminal terrorist alive. With Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain locks in as my favorite new face from the past two years (she was in two films on my Top Ten of 2011 -- Take Shelter, and my top pick, The Tree of Life). In its final chapter, Zero Dark Thirty is in pure thriller mode during the raid on UBL, displaying the means the U.S. will go to for "national security". Clocking in at 157 minutes, this one kept me on the edge of my seat, disappointed when I realized it was coming to an end.

7. Django Unchained. (Quentin Tarantino)

Quite simply put: the all-around best Tarantino since Pulp Fiction. The most enjoyable spectacle film in theaters in 2012.

6. Oslo, August 31st. (Joachim Trier)

Norwegian film Oslo, August 31st reminds me quite a bit of Simon Staho's Day and Night, a Swedish film which was in my 2004 Top Ten. These are tough, gritty, real-life stories about suffering people -- and this is reality. Oslo, August 31st is the story of a day in the life of recovering addict, Anders. Receiving a day pass from rehab, he wanders about Oslo (the town carving out its own back story in his psyche), meeting old friends, meeting his brother, searching for a job, calling an old lover. He is one second away from using again at all times, and this is the heaviness that Anders and the film both relay with a quiet ferocity. So many times we forget that the word "addict" is almost the same word as "depressed" or even "suicidal." The ending of this film is somewhat ambiguous, you might need to back it up and watch it quite a few times before deciding -- and you might come to your own conclusions, but I'm not sure that's really the point. This is a day in the life of a recovering addict. Which is always the same reality: this day could go either way.

5. The Sessions. (Ben Lewin)

This one posits sex against beauty, religion and morality, and it does so with tenderness, and mostly restraint, and a desire to explore its subject matter with integrity and honor. The main character here is handicapped -- paralyzed from the neck down -- which has no bearing on the viewer's ability to see themselves in his role. We are all of us, somehow, sexually handicapped, and struggling between the desire for selfish exploration and the desire to give ourselves fully to another for their own needs. This is based on a true story, but I think its point in general can be applied to a much wider truth in us all.

4. The Loneliest Planet. (Julia Loktev)

I sat down to watch The Loneliest Planet with a friend who disappeared within seven minutes. I can't blame him. It's understood from the get-go that this is going to be one of those slower-paced dramas shot with three minute one-takes of people traversing wilderness, and maybe a few minutes of dialogue thrown in here and there between shots of the vast terrain. But in a key scene about half-way through The Loneliest Planet, something does eventually happen -- something which in another film might not even be that big of a deal. But here, in this rich atmosphere of romance, wonder and acceptance, the "something that happens" changes everything that will be. And what we see unfold is very relational, and very true to how relationships work. It shows us first-hand how trauma leaves its effects on the heart, and how it takes time to go through the process of unraveling it. How we need to be alone sometimes, even from those we love, to work through the confusion on our own. This artsy little film is about a couple who most likely want to get back to what they had, but they find that it is a journey, and not an easy one -- and that it's going to take effort on both their parts if they want to arrive. It's not a film I'd recommend to everyone, simply due to its meditative, drawn-out nature (you need to be in a certain frame of mind when watching The Loneliest Planet, I think) -- but it hit me hard at the time I ran into it, and it made me think deeply, and relationally, more than any other film I saw last year.

3. Holy Motors. (Leos Carax)

A spectacular spectacle, a vehicle for consideration -- on acting and living and the "parts we play," and film in general -- Holy Motors takes us on tour with an actor named "Oscar," as he travels in the back of a limo to the various roles he is to play throughout the course of one day. One role has him cast as an elderly, hunched-over beggar woman in the streets; another has him cast as a crazed, flower-munching whatsit on a journey to kidnap a model on a photo shoot and do anything but exploit her. Later he is a gangster tracking down himself, and even later he is in a deathbed melodrama, and in a musical with Kylie Minogue. Several of the scenes end with the death of Oscar, but he gets up and goes about his business, carrying out his next routine until finally settling down at night with his family (a house full of orangutans). The film basically speaks to the role of acting in all our lives, but specifically the role of the actor in film, and the unbinding process that can be applied to any story, the opening of all its unlimited potential. This is Mulholland Dr., specifically geared for the movie-lover, where doppelgangers and paradoxes and talking cars are the norm. One can't initially look to Holy Motors to make sense, not in the whole understanding of "sense," anyway -- but in parts it can put you on an enlightened journey, where the tapping of the medium's full potential is as satisfying as it is surreal. This is the film that put a smile on my face for the longest period of time in 2012.

2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. (Stephen Chbosky)

That I have a teenage coming-of-age story shouldn't really be a surprise to me -- since picking the Finnish coming-of-age Forbidden Fruit for my #2 spot in 2010, there are no big surprises left. This one shows nerdy teenage life as complicated, socially awkward, experimental, intimidating, and in moments of teen transcendence, feeling infinite (and can't we all remember feeling like that?). It also zeroes in on its main character, a freshman with a hinted at troubled past, and provides insight to a situation where we can fully understand this introverted kid, and his foibles, and his head. The characters and their ties are strong enough to be fully believable, bringing the entire spectrum of the high school experience for us to remember: laughter, tears, heartache, isolation, and the secret society of clicky teenage life. This one made me blubber at a certain point. It also has my second-favorite soundtrack of the year. The first, is this:

 1. Searching for Sugar Man. (Malik Bendjelloul)

Decades ago, American music legend Rodriguez disappeared after selling millions of records. Haven't heard of him? Most Americans outside of Detroit probably have not. But his protest songs made their way into the heart of South Africans suffering under apartheid, where his status shot through the roof, and he became as popular there as The Beatles. The problem is, Rodriguez never made it to South Africa. In fact, he never even knew how well his records did. He never received any royalties and was dropped by his record label mid-way through his third album. Meanwhile rumors in South Africa spread like wildfire, stories regarding his demise: he lit himself on fire, or shot himself on stage in his final concert. No one really knew what happened to Rodriguez. Hence this documentary, and its investigation. And what the investigation finds -- true to life -- one might write off as too preposterous in some other fictional story. Suffice it to say, this is the most redemptive film of the year, in my opinion. It is also a film that contains the most surprise, and the most joy, and you want its ending to keep going on, and on, and on... The film also comes with music. Brilliant, wonderful music by Rodriguez. And if it does anything at all, it introduces you to the sounds of a poetic, broken, brilliant song-writer from the early 70s. The soundtrack is a compilation of his first two records, and is available and worth addition to any great musical library.

Near Misses: The Ides of March, the George Clooney directed political drama, and Arbitrage, a fantastic conspiracy thriller starring an excellent and aging Richard Gere. These are two well-crafted big-screen films which simply didn't make the cut..... oh!, and Looper, a wonderfully cooked, mind-fuck of a gangster / time-travel film, which takes unexpected turns in its story and has a pure bliss ending. I struggled to include all three of these films.

With Apologies To: The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Chronicle. I'm sorry, boys, you'd all be on my "best super-heroes movies" list -- but I don't put your kind on a list about film. My list is more about what makes me think, what inspires me -- and less about how much pop corn I ate last year... Also, Silver Linings Playbook. This wonderful romance functions as great entertainment, a perfect date film. Really wish I could've ranked it higher as well.

Other Apologies 2012 (the "DOCS" Column): This has been an incredible year for docs. I obviously picked the greatest as my #1 choice, but here are just a few enlightening experiences that come to mind for 2012: The Imposter, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, How To Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, EthosBurzynski, and Bully... and on a lighter note (but still very good) ---- Orgasm Inc., and Indie Game: The Movie.

#1 Guilty Pleasure of 2012: The Hunger Games. After quite a few of my friends (all middle-aged adults) read the trilogy and loved it, I finally caught up with the film in a four-dollar second-run theater. From there I went straight to Barnes and Noble. I read the trilogy over the next eight days, and then went back to the $4 theater.  I've since rented it twice -- once with my kids on DVD, and once with a friend on PAY PER VIEW (a spontaneous choice that actually came to fruition some night last summer around 2am). So, there -- I have fully admitted it. The Hunger Games was my security blanket for making it through tough times in 2012. I guess I now have a high nerd score in multiple categories, but Katniss, I promise you I'll be there opening night for Catching Fire. And I'll be happy to pay the $9.50 first-run price.

Biggest 2012 Disappointment: The Master. But even a lesser film by director Paul Thomas Anderson is a greater film than most. And with two riveting performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix), a very interesting subject matter (cults, specifically Scientology), I'm still trying to figure out why it doesn't work for me. Perhaps it is because I look forward to a new PTA so much, but unfortunately there hasn't been a Magnolia since Magnolia... Come to think of it, I feel a bit the same about last year's "minor" Dardennes -- The Kid With a Bike. There's a great moral message here that I wish I could connect with. I just don't.

The David Lynch 2012 Award:  TIE: Croenenberg's ultra-babble Cosmopolis, of which I lasted exactly twenty-five minutes before running for the bolted doors, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, the greatest film ever made about a knowledgeable culture's choice to continue living in squalor. The latter (of which I wish I would have made like Cosmopolis and given up long before its tripped out ending) I ranted about over Here. It boggles the mind that this film could even be taken seriously -- by anyone, anywhere -- as much as it boggles the mind that the Oscar nominating committee had so few films to choose from as to nominate this absurdist turd for Best Pic this year.

OK, OK, usually the Lynch Award is at least slightly positive. At this point let me just mention that Attenberg has stuck with me, in a very Lynchian way... That, and Kill List, are two strange films of dream logic which are probably a tie closer to the spirit of the actual award.

Best First Forty Minutes 2012The Impossible. Easily. If you can still catch these forty minutes on a big-screen, do so. Immediately. Greatest "Holy shit, how did they do that?" moment of the year. (But after those forty minutes, feel free to head for the door.)

#1 Cure For Insomnia 2012: Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse. Available on Netflix Instant since fall, it's the remedy for any problems in falling asleep, in fact I personally guarantee -- you won't need another trip to the doctor, you won't need any more pills. Twenty minutes of this black and white nothing-but-the-sound-of-the-wind-outside, the journey of a strained horse with old guy in buggy, the most comtemplative and meditative, ascending and descending sleepy-score music you need, and two characters dressing and undressing in preparation for their dinner: one large cooked potato each (and all this time, that lovely wind outside) -- you are off to deep zzzzzzz's like a light that's really out. I've not made it past the first twenty minutes, but I've been told I don't need to. I've been having problems falling asleep for years, but with the first twenty minutes of The Turin Horse, which I've used many many times... Thank you, Bela Tarr, for this wonderful gift to mankind.

2012 Films I Haven't Seen, which I'll strike out as I continue to see:  Amour, Tabu, Leviathan, ViolaBeyond the Hills, This is Not a Film, The Last Time I Saw Macao, autrement la MolussieThe Hunt, Twixt, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, In Another Country, Faust, Go Go Tales, Keep the Lights On, Les Miserables, Argo, Flight, The Gatekeepers, Beauty is EmbarrassingDetropia, The Other Dream TeamWest of Memphis, Marley, Tchoupitoulas, Your Sister's Sister, Life of Pi, The Color Wheel, The Deep Blue Sea, Anna Karenina, Barbara, Neighboring Sounds, Killer Joe, Damsels in Distress.

And Once Again... The Way I Love to Wrap Things Up...

Favorite Non-2012 Discoveries: Margaret, A Separation, Pop Skull, Sleep Dealer, 13 AssassinsChrystal, La femme infidele, The Thin Man.


  1. "OK, OK, usually the Lynch Award is at least slightly positive."

    Maybe this year you could entitle it "The Jennifer Lynch Award."

  2. LOL. I haven't seen CHAINED. Perhaps I should have before finalizing my Top Ten?


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