Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Goodbye 2012

"I chose the world"

Every late December/early January when I really begin to sit down and tally what I found as the year's best films, I often look back with disappointment, thinking there were clearly not enough movies to fill a mere top ten list. Then shortly after, I write down every film that would at least be a contender and again look on with disappointment, this time sad that there were clearly too many films to make said list and that I would have to leave several worthy candidates out.

And so it is again with 2012, a year that gave us such a wonderful variety of films to watch and discuss.

Below are my top ten, but first some other favorites, given as awards:

The "Just One More" Award: Oslo, August 31st and Flight

The "Whose God Would Do This?" Award: Flight and Life of Pi

The "Don't Mess With Nature" Award: Life of Pi and Beasts of the Southern Wild

The "Kids Are All Right" Award: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom

The "Kids Aren't Exactly All Right" Award: The Kid with a Bike and Looper

The "Joseph Gordon-Levitt Had a Good Year" Award: Looper and Premium Rush

The "Almost a Masterpiece" Award: Django Unchained and Anna Karenina

The "Is the Grass Greener?" Award: Anna Karenina and Take This Waltz

The "Young and Horny" Award: Turn Me On, Dammit! and Goodbye First Love


It's always a stretch to apply some sort of overarching theme to a year's best films. They are conceived and executed in situations too different and separate from each other to make that sort of assessment. History may be the only one with the ability to judge what kind of year 2012 was. In making a top ten (or fifteen or twenty), we cinephiles aren't really looking at what the past year was for movies, but looking at what the movies of the past year did for us. These are my best/top/favorite movies from last year and if you asked me the same question about 2012 in ten years (or fifteen or twenty), I bet they'll be different.

Yet as I look at the films above and what will be listed below, what loosely ties them together is the specter of something hanging over the characters and the worlds they inhabit. Whether it's the specter of young love in Goodbye First Love and Wuthering Heights, the specter of infidelity in Take This WaltzAnna Karenina, and Silver Linings Playbook, or the specter of what your lifelong love used to be in Amour, sometimes it's the specter of love both fulfilled and unfulfilled. In procedurals Once Upon a Time in AnatoliaLincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, it's--respectively--the specter of an actual ghost (or, really, a missing dead body), the specter of an entire segment of the population and a debilitating war, and the specter of a seemingly uncatchable fugitive and the clue that might be the key to finding him; not to mention in each case, the specter of history--both personal and national. Personal history also acts as a specter in Oslo, August 31st and, literally, in Looper. And the specter of a broken family past as well as of an uncertain but hopeful future hovers over the children in The Kid with a Bike and I Wish.

2012 will itself be a specter in my life, a major transitional year for reasons very personal. And it is with that, I give you my top ten films of the year.

10. Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman's dialogue is rarely naturalistic in this film, a comedy about a group of girls in a small, mostly male Ivy League-like college. While the archness of the words coming out of the girls' mouths may not be realistic in the way people actually speak, they're completely realistic in the way people actually think. The mannered dialogue, especially from leader Violet (Greta Gerwig), belies how piercing and acerbic some of what they say is. And yet what results is all kinds of light and frothy and the rigidness of the movie (and characters) make way for its charms.


9. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

A movie in which a murderer and the authorities' search for a dead body in the Anatolian region of Turkey isn't really about finding the body--or at least not only finding the body, because that's merely part of what's happening here. As director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki beautifully explore the surface of the night time landscape of the rural area in which the body is thought to be buried, the story explores each of the characters' search for their own truth and their own histories. It's a slow but thoughtful film and one, like life, that doesn't even come close to easy conclusions.


8. Wuthering Heights

If you told me my top 10 would include an adaptation of a classic 19th century novel, I would've assumed it was Joe Wright's aforementioned Anna Karenina. And though I did very much like that film, Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights is the one that stays with me. Instead of turning it into a polished costumed drama, Arnold's film is hazy and impressionistic. Her camera, like her hero Heathcliff, is seemingly just out of focus, floating and struggling to stabilize itself in a world in which it doesn't belong. A truly beautiful movie.


7. Holy Motors

Like another film ranking higher on the list, it's one that almost defies description. What we do know is that Denis Levant (a regular in director Leos Carax's films) plays a man named Oscar, who is chauffeured around Paris in a limo by Céline, going from place to place and assuming different personalities and acting out specific scenarios. Why he does this is I guess hinted at, but never quite spelled out. He might be a spy or an actor for hire or something completely different. There's a major undercurrent of a lament/celebration of cinema's past and there are references abound to such things. But regardless of whether that strikes you, the viewer, as resonant or not, the film is still a striking thing to watch--beautiful and exhilarating.


6. Zero Dark Thirty

When Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal set out to follow up their Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, they originally intended to make a film about the futility and failure of the Bin Laden search. But when the events of early May 2011 occurred, their film inevitably changed. Regardless, Bigelow's rigorous visual approach matches the determined detective work done by CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain). It is both a necessary historical drama and a thrilling piece of filmmaking, capped with the masterfully made sequence detailing that fateful raid on Bin Laden's hideout.


5. Silver Linings Playbook

A movie that bursts with manic energy, this screwball comedy from writer/director David O. Russell really snuck up on me. It was maybe as much as two-thirds of the way through the film that I realized how the pieces were fitting together. And a large part of what makes everything fit are the brilliance of the two lead performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. A raucous and surprisingly moving crowd pleaser.


4. The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest confounded many viewers, but that's the source of its endless fascination. From the first "processing" scene between Joaquin Phoenix's Freddy Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd to Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) giving her husband a, ahem, pep talk in the bathroom; from the backwards tracking shot of Dodd reminiscent of Citizen Kane to the sideways tracking shot that racks focus back-and-forth between a boat party and Quell walking on a dock; from Quell running across a field to his fantasy (?) of women dancing naked to Dodd's singing at a party, the movie is full of indelible images and moments that don't easy coalesce into a convenient narrative. And that's part of its enduring allure. While most movies (even good ones) paint a very easily digestible picture, The Master is like a hallucinatory fever dream that begs retrospection and constant dissection.


3. Amour

Michael Haneke seems both a likely and unlikely candidate to make the movie that ended up being Amour, a  film that follows an aged couple, Georges and Anne (played by the iconic French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), as the latter steadily and unmercifully declines towards the end of her life. The film is unflinching in its depiction of Anne's health after she suffers a stroke and those moments, which show Georges often helpless in his aid of his lifelong partner, are like a punch in the gut. Yet as Haneke's camera forces us to look at the difficulty of the situation, it's also the most tender, and in its own way, life affirming of love stories.


2. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln could have been (and maybe most would have expected to be) an almost clinically historical biopic, the type of prestige picture whose plot could easily be described as "This person lived. This is what happened while he lived." Instead, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner adapted Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, focusing in large part on the insider politics of passing the 13th Amendment. The film lets us in the back door of the political process and, because of that, is a thrilling and vibrant look not at history, but how history becomes history.


1. I Wish

Every movie from Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda that I've seen (which is three now, along with Nobody Knows and Still Walking) has made this year-end list and he has proven to have a particular facility in working with child actors. I Wish is no exception as it tells the story of two brothers who have been separated because of their parents' divorce. The older Koichi overhears from friends an urban legend that says if you make a wish while standing at the location where the newly-built bullet trains first pass each other, it will be granted. But Koichi and his brother Ryu (played with such tenderness and affection by Koki and Ohshirô Maeda aren't the only ones with wishes to make, so they conspire to meet at the spot with each of their friends. I Wish is that rare movie where everyone is sympathetic. There are no villains. It celebrates--in a fully believable way--the warmth and inherent goodness of all its characters. Though the movie is endlessly good-natured and pleasant, there is an air of melancholy that hangs in and around all of them, like the volcanic ash that seems to cloud Koichi's hometown.

I saw I Wish for the first time early in the year at the Florida Film Festival and I knew then it would be somewhere on this list. After seeing the movie again recently, it's the one on here I feel I could most consistently return to. And as I saw other movies that were viable candidates for the top spot, it was this one I couldn't shake. If that's not a specter then I don't know what is.

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