The year of our Lord twelve-and-two-thousand has meant a great deal to me. Not only did I fall in love with my soulsistah this year, I fell in love with movies. Last year at this time, I was completing Jeff Hinkelman’s Intro to Film Studies course at CMU. It was huge. I was an impeccable slacker, but I managed to catch some kind of illness — an obsession entered my blood. Just after the course ended, I asked Jeff if I could come and work for him in the video collection of our school library which he oversees. He said yes and, with an exhaustive list, opened my eyes to cinema. Before 2012, I was a casual filmgoer, vaguely passing judgment on canonical Hitchcock and It’s a Wonderful Life. But this year was different. I started watching, really watching — because that’s all we can do, isn’t it? I studied Bordwell and Hoberman, learned to live and breathe Farber, started to recognize the styles of D’Angelo and Emerson. I started hanging around on Twitter, trying to gradually nudge myself into a crew of some very experienced moviegoers, and had my first video essay published at Indiewire. In twelve months, I’ve moved from not knowing who Howard Hawks was to being able to play back Twentieth Century and Rio Bravo in my dreams. I’ve gone from The Seventh Seal to Winter Light and Virgin Spring. From A Clockwork Orange to Eyes Wide Shut. From Metropolis to Fury. I considered making a list of the best films I’ve seen for the first time this year — but the fact is that it would basically be an All-Time Top 10. I watched 522 films this year. Probably 400 of them were capital g great.
So I’m new to this business. And this blog is barely 9 months old. But I can’t help celebrating. It’s been a great year. For me and for anyone who loves to sit in the dark and stare into the light. So this list is for all of you who can’t look away. I’ll always remember 2012 as the year I got hooked — and what a year I picked!
It’s only fair for me to add the caveat that I have yet to see Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, and a few other films that have managed to make several other lists. I’m impatient and don’t want to wait until late-January to publish this, so I’ll just retroactively update it if anything changes. I’m not easily impressed by the style of either director, so I feel reasonably comfortable with what I have. Of course, every film I list has my unreserved endorsement. See them all! I’ll provide viewing information for each one.
I’ve thought long and hard about everything on this list and the order in which it comes — but I’m still not sure it actually means anything.
Honorable mentions: Lincoln (Spielberg, USA), The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, UK), Barbara (Petzold, Germany), Perks of Being a Wallflower (Chbosky, USA), This is Not a Film (Panahi, Iran), Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, Canada)
10. The Color Wheel, dir. Alex Ross Perry (USA)
I’m doubtful that another independent film made this year was as restless and vital. Alex Ross Perry’s sophomore feature is a complicated, troubled little bastard. The film is shot in black & white, but this is not John Ford’s black & white — this is the color of anxiety and discomfort. Perry plays alongside Carlen Altman, who wrote the film with him. They are brother and sister, the purveyors of infinite wit and malaise. But their sniping is never glorified — just the opposite. By casting himself, Perry creates a jarring self-examination and one of the most unforgiving critiques of millennial snarl. There may not be a likable character in The Color Wheel, but that’s the point. It’s a fantasy — or a nightmare, if you choose. And Perry proves himself as a true lover of dramatic scenario (remember the sequence at the ex-boyfriend’s house?) and the surreal nature of cinema (remember the party scene?). The Color Wheel never aspires to realism. But by embracing the exaggeration inherent to the medium, Perry and Altman are able to dramatize the contradictions and uncertainty of a generation with considerable emotional gravity, even though the characters exhibit little affect. The Color Wheel is available through Amazon.
9. The Imposter, dir. Bart Layton (USA)
Being a “documentary,” The Imposter naturally seeks to arrange sequences in a way that is exciting. Audiences have a complicated relationship with the screen — we always expect something to reflect our own reality and are stubborn to accept fiction as fiction (see the current Zero Dark Thirty debate). But even the most objective documentaries aren’t true documents. Someone decided where to put the camera, when to turn it on, and what to aim it at. By its very nature, the camera disrupts an environment.
Mr. Layton understands this and exploits the shit out of our desire to see reality in everything. He gives us the extraordinary tale of Frederic Bourdin, a professional French con man who managed to sneak into the United States impersonating a missing child. It’s a colorful story. But it’s made into a model of suspense through some of the most inspired editing I’ve ever seen. The interviewee’s speak in the present tense, as if they still only know what they knew at the time they’re describing. The Imposter is the most physical experience I’ve had with film all year. It feels like a work-out. It reveals dangerous and damning truths about the way we accept reality, putting Compliance in the trash. The final shot is dense with the cosmic energy of infinite uncertainty. I’ve heard a few critics call the movie something like a glorified TV special. I’m not sure what television they’re watching, but I wish I got whatever channel this is on. A powerful experience for anyone willing to look Truth in the eye. The Imposter is available through iTunes.
8. Looper, dir. Rian Johnson (USA)
One of my favorite discoveries of 2012 was Brick, Rian Johnson’s first feature — a wicked and intelligent high-school noir. In it, he managed to distill all the adolescent emotions — alienation, smallness, fear, obsession — into a model film, an inexpensive production full of action, suspense, and blistering wit. Johnson treasures the script. He makes car chases and explosions out of words. If you’re not excited about everything this guy might do, get with the program because he’s gonna be dropping bombs.
Looper plays the same game as Brick. It’s a grimy genre deconstruction that sweats rhetorical vitality. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same dude, divided by time travel — one’s the hero, the other’s the villain. Johnson has an inspiring faith in love. Even, in this case, willing to show that it can drive someone to evil. It’s virtue is in its pure strength as both genre-based product and vessel for human observation. Looper has a few interesting things to say about time travel, but it has more poignant insights on sacrifice, morality, and fatherhood. It’s an intensely interesting picture that will one day be recognized as a pillar of science fiction. Looper will be released later this month. I’ll update with links when the time comes.
7. Leviathan, dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel (France)
Next to The Imposter, Leviathan is the film that left me most breathless. Made aboard a commercial fishing boat with $150 GoPro cameras, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel capture some of the most arresting images in recent memory. And if we’re speaking about the possibility of True Documentary, these folks get pretty close by attaching the camera to God-Knows-What, letting it fly, and checking out the footage later. The result is nature’s answer to Brakhage. Leviathan is a horror film of sorts, flinging flashes of violent light against the screen, the only pattern being the rhythm of movement — heartbeats, swinging waves, great wings, and human labor. The film is burdened by a misguided segment where we watch a worker fall asleep watching TV, but the rest is so harrowing, so ghostly and coarse, that it hardly matters. In fact, it chastises our complacency in the midst of such an extraordinary cosmic experiment. The most thrilling passages take place off the boat as the filmmakers allow the camera to fly among the birds. We dip into the water and soar out of it. We are never really sure what we’re witnessing. Nature and life are reduced to motion and light — isn’t that the very definition of cinema? Leviathan will be difficult to find. As soon as I know where, you’ll know.
6. Neighboring Sounds, dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho (Brazil)
The greatest surprise of Neighboring Sounds isn’t in the film. It’s that this truly Great Movie is Filho’s freshman effort — a first film! Save for one scene of unnecessary climax, Neighboring Sounds is a work of Altmanesque genius. The picture features an ensemble cast, various inhabitants of a middle-class Brazilian block. Not only does it deserve recognition as Best First Feature, it also contains the two best dream sequences of the year and the best sound design of the year. These characters are varied — some vulnerable, some bored, some searching — but they are all defined by the spaces they occupy. The spatial structures relate directly to moral and emotional structures. And the sounds of the neighborhood are always amplified because volume (like space) is power. Neighboring Sounds is also tougher to come by. I’ll report back with this one as well.
5. Holy Motors, dir. Leos Carax (France)
Written about in full here (one of my favorite things I’ve written all year). When I wrote about Holy Motors, I was intoxicated by its power. It was after a first viewing. After subsequent viewings, I’m more inclined to consider its profound sadness. Indeed, Holy Motors is a very very happy funeral. It celebrates the magic potential of cinema while reading its eulogy. Holy Motors may very well be the best film of 2012, but I’ve chosen to use it as glue. It’s the safety pin that holds this list together. Holy Motors exists in two places — it exists in a place where cinema is entertainment and in a place where cinema is an intellectual exercise. I’m not convinced that it ever allows itself to exist in both at the same time — which, in my humble unlearned opinion, is what Great Movies are. This film has the most elegant and alluring wink I’ve ever seen, but it’s still just a wink, not a commitment. I find the deathbed sequence incredibly energizing. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, even after the structure of the film has been revealed and we are no longer required to invest any emotional interest in it. And then Oscar gets up to go to his next appointment and has the cheeky interaction with his co-star. It’s enchanting, but it’s avoiding the very illusion that it is eulogizing. Holy Motors is a Great Film about Great Films. But I’m convinced that there were 4 Great Movies released in 2012 that never wink at all — true testaments to the thrilling magic force of cinema. Holy Motors is in theaters. Trust me, it’s worth the travel.
4. The Master, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (USA)
Written about in full here. Being a card-carrying PTA geek, this was my most anticipated movie of the year. I saw it 4 times on opening weekend and 8 times overall. Though it was advertised as a kind of Scientology exposé, cinephiles were treated to a great surprise — a messy, feral beast of a film, an uncompromising free-association exercise for its director. The complicated, explosive ending of There Will Be Blood was transformed into comfortable uncertainty. We know so little about the future of these characters.
Somewhere, I read that The Master is PTA’s 2001, suggesting a final and decisive break with the formalities of popular cinema. He may no longer be working to please anyone but himself. Boogie Nights is dripping with desire for public appreciation. But I would even suggest that Hard Eight, his first feature, carries evidence of what’s to come. It’s austere and mysterious, using loose ends as moral verification. I tend to believe that we can’t predict where Paul will go. But it’s damn impossible to deny his status as a creator of extraordinary imagery. The shot of Dodd’s yacht sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge is my favorite shot of the year. Intensity seems to follow him around and legendary performances fall out of his nose. Apparently, he’s adapting a couple Pynchon novels as we speak. To imagine this is to imagine the abyss. The Master will be available on BR/DVD soon.
3. The Kid with a Bike, dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne (Belgium)
In my year full of discoveries, none has been more blessed than finding the work of the Dardenne brothers. Before The Kid with a Bike, there seemed to be two defining Dardenne films – La Promesse and Rosetta. We can surely add this title to those two, creating a trilogy of masterpieces on young identity.
The Kid with a Bike is probably their most straightforward fable, placing the restless spirit of a troubled boy against the grace of a surrogate mother. With the usual degree of gentleness and love, the Dardenne brothers create their most optimistic story yet. And by avoiding cynicism, they work in rare territory. Best of all, this is the closest the brothers have come to replicating Aesop. Something in the sprit of these men allows them to be so sympathetic to youthful adventure and the emotional complexity of adolescence. La Promesse and Rosetta are both stories about growing up, but The Kid with a Bike feels magical and fantastic in a way that those two are not. The Dardenne brothers are renowned for their realism and verisimilitude. They bring the same kinetic camera to this film, but also use music and arrange a climactic ending. In doing so, they create an atmosphere that is friendlier to allegory and fable. The last 15 minutes of The Kid with a Bike feels like any of the great endings in cinema history. Like Taste of Cherry, it’s an inexplicable moment of resurrection — a redemptive miracle. Samantha’s grace is manifested in Cyril’s body and soul. He’s saved. The Kid with a Bike is available on Netflix Instant.
2. Bernie, dir. Richard Linklater (USA)
Written about in full here. Last week, I revisited Bernie because it appeared on Netflix Instant. The first time I saw it, I was pleasantly surprised, but not overwhelmed. On second viewing, I realized that this is no Honorable Mention movie. It will probably appear on a few lists as a filler entry — an enjoyable picture but mostly forgettable. No. Bernie has a lot going on under the hood. It’s only masquerading as a charming black comedy.
First of all, Jack Black gives the best performance of the year. This year has featured an onslaught of charismatic performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Denis Lavant, and (in Cosmopolis) Robert Pattinson. But none of them enact the heartbreaking sincerity that Black does. He could win my Best Actor vote on the murder and confession scenes alone. His bubbly, electric personality is dismantled in the second half of the film. Instead of merely sliding into regret, Black chooses to show the war between Bernie’s amiability and the instinctual wrath of man.
And it’s fitting that Black should deliver such a convincing performance, because I believe that Bernie has big observations to make about the nature of performance. I am already working on a piece comparing Bernie and The Imposter. They both make some very interesting points about truth and façade. Bernie‘s greatest trait is the mock interviews. The townspeople form a Greek chorus and lend the film a geographical flavor that I haven’t seen on the screen in a long time. But they’re terrifying. They exhibit a believable ignorance, always contradicting their own moral clarity.
Bernie is as much about the grand performance art of life as Holy Motors is. Bernie is on a stage the first time we meet him and he continues to be depicted as a great performer. He frequently changes his personality to suit the circumstance — and don’t we all? The townspeople are our surrogate. They show us how gullible we all are and how easy it is to lap up a great performance and accept it as truth. The family in The Imposter and the townspeople in Bernie are the same thing — they bear witness to the great battleground of lies and truth. These townspeople are cinema’s greatest audience, so impressed by an enchanting performance that the fiction becomes their reality. Or was it even a fiction in the first place? Bernie asks the best questions of the year. What more can we want from cinema? I’ll take questions over answers.
1. Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson (USA)
Written about in full here. Another movie involving the redemption of children and a great understanding of youth is Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. It has a great deal in common with The Kid with a Bike and I essentially consider these two films as elements of the same expressive impulse. Of the three perfect films made this year, two of them are fables for and about children.
Anderson was wise to set this film on a New England island. It is his perfect setting. Like the boat in The Life Aquatic, it allows for the explosive collision of fantasy and reality that Anderson’s stories require. Stylistically, he is outrageous — but he aspires to great emotional truth. I tend to think that his films only read emotionally when the style is supported by a self-contained habitat — the house in The Royal Tenenbaums, the aforementioned boat, the train in Darjeeling, and so on. None of his movies have been as consistently perfect as this one.
The second time I saw Moonrise Kingdom, I had a religious experience realizing that Anderson wanted me to have a religious experience. Aside from the obvious evocation of Noah, Suzy and Sam conjure thoughts of the creation — a new Adam and Eve with “Moonrise Kingdom” as their Eden. In the end, they are miraculously saved by a father figure and both are, in a sense, redeemed. As Britten’s cuckoo chorus plays over the final few minutes, we are forced to realize that Anderson is capable of magnificent spiritual insight. He is the closest we have to an American Dardenne — sensitive to the emotions of youth, holding the key to an illuminating spiritual universe. I pray that he follows the path he’s on. Moonrise Kingdom is available on BR & DVD.
Edit: After a belated rewatch, Moonrise Kingdom has been moved from #2 to #1 — a perfect film.