Every year I write up a top 10 of the year list that ends up containing anywhere from 10-20 films in 10 spots. 2012 was an unusual year for film. There were quite a few films that were surprisingly great (Your Sister’s Sister, The Color Wheel, and Magic Mike) and even more that were disappointing (The Dark Knight Rises and Les Misérables). This year, I have seen 81 films. I will continue to watch more. So without further to do, here are my top 13 films in 10 spots.
Compliance (Dir. Craig Zobel) – Compliance was one of the biggest surprises of the year because I went in expecting something and ended up getting something completely different. I will not disclose anything about this movie as it is best going in knowing nothing about it. What I will say is that this film and my number one film were the two most visceral movie-going experiences of the year. Compliance was great because it was extremely effective. It used no fancy special effects, gore, or particularly disturbing images, but it nonetheless succeeded in making me feel extremely uncomfortable. When watching this movie, I was squirming in my seat and sweating. And what made this movie worse was that it is completely true.
The Master (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) – The Master was a great film largely due to its performances and strangeness. Loosely based on the start of Scientology, The Master follows a man (Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of his career) who comes back from WWII an alcoholic with PTSD. One night, he encounters a group of people who take him in and try to help him. The group is a cult-like new “religion” called The Cause and is led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This film is beautifully shot and scored, but the acting is what takes it to the next level. Hoffman and Phoenix playing against each other is a sight to behold. Sparks fly in their scenes together. Phoenix’s performance is the best performance that I have seen all year. With The Master, writer/director Anderson has crafted another thought-provoking, but cryptic film that rewards multiple viewings.
No (Dir. Pablo Larraín) – No was one of the most unique films of the year. It follows the true story of an ad agency who campaigns to convince the Chilean public to vote “no” when the dictatorship decides to let the people decide whether to keep them in power. Led by a subtle performance by the versatile Gael García Bernal, No succeeds due to its clever and often very funny script and different filming style. To make the film and the historical footage blend seamlessly, director Larraín decided to shoot the film using U-matic, the format that ‘80s TV shows were shot in.
Your Sister’s Sister (Dir. Lynn Shelton) – This was the most underrated film of the year. Lynn Shelton’s film is honest, heartfelt, and unpredictable: terms not usually applied to romantic comedies. Shot on a very small budget in just a few weeks, Your Sister’s Sister is a hidden gem with three outstanding performances from Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosmarie DeWitt.
10. Killing Them Softly (Dir. Andrew Dominik) - I absolutely loved Killing Them Softly because it was a well-acted and shot (the assassination scene!) crime drama that doubled as a brilliant political allegory. Dominik realizes that crime dramas actually can be dramas with little to no action and this works in the movie's favor as it gives it time to breathe and talk. The last line of Killing Them Softly was quite possibly the best line of the year and really brought the point home.
9. West of Memphis (Dir. Amy Berg) - This was one of the year's most moving films. It is an exhaustive documentary about the West Memphis Three trial. With the 146-minute running time, Amy Berg explores every aspect of the case and does extensive interviews from everyone involved creating a fascinating portrait of injustice. This documentary is riveting and maddening and will surely enrich just about everyone who views it.
8. Amour (Dir. Michael Haneke) - Master director Michael Haneke's meditation on old age is brutal, but is humane and honest. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant give two of the best performances of the year. Darius Khonji's shots are carefully composed and the long takes bring an extreme sense of realism to the film. This is filmmaking of the highest order. It is moving and painful, but is a beautiful view of love in old age.
7. The Queen of Versailles (Dir. Lauren Greenfield) - The Queen of Versailles is the year's best documentary. It shows the American Dream in an extreme form (the multi-billionaire Siegel family) and what happens to that Dream when the 2008 crash hits. The story of the Siegel family is fascinating. Greenfield had unprecedented access to them and showed every detail of their lives. What is most impressive of this documentary is that it does not judge. It presents the facts and shows all perspectives of the story, even the Siegel's housekeeper's. The Queen of Versailles is a thorough character study of Jackie, the oddly sympathetic matriarch, while also being a thought-provoking, smart, and entertaining film.
6. Skyfall (Dir. Sam Mendes) - After the disappointing Quantum of Solace, I was worried about the future of the long-running James Bond franchise. However, on the 50th anniversary of the franchise, Bond is back in Sam Mendes' Skyfall. Everything went right for this film. Daniel Craig was suave and complex as Bond, Javier Bardem played a certified psychopath as Raoul Silva, and Judi Dench showed a lot of depth as M. Roger Deakins' cinematography was the best of the year, best showcased in the opening sequence and the Shanghai skyscraper sequence. In all, this movie had a compelling story, a crazy villain, and heart-pounding thrills that came together to create one of the greatest action films of all time.
Looper (Dir. Rian Johnson) - Rian Johnson's time-travel film Looper is another brilliant action film. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt, Looper has everything: strong performances, suspense, and badass action sequences. In addition, the film grounds itself in a more realistic future, one where there aren't cars flying everywhere and things look very different. This sense of reality makes the film more relatable. Writer/director Johnson also gives the movie a heart, something lacking in most sci-fi films. I cared what happened to the characters, and thus was more involved in the film.
5. Chicken With Plums (Dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud) - This was the biggest surprise of the year. Satrapi and Paronnaud created a visually stunning, but emotionally lacking adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis in 2007 and this is their next film. Chicken With Plums follows a man, Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), who decides to die after his wife breaks his beloved violin. The film details his last eight days on earth. With Chicken, Satrapi and Paronnaud fused the gorgeous visuals with an engaging story with a big heart and created one of the biggest knockouts of the year. That scene in the movie theater is just beautiful.
4. Moonrise Kingdom (Dir. Wes Anderson) - Wes Anderson's beautiful and poignant Moonrise Kingdom is not only one of the best films of 2012, but Anderson's best film yet. Following two pre-teens who fall in love and run away from their New England town in the 1960s, Anderson creates a unique world and captures the period immaculately. Everything in Moonrise looks straight out of a doll house or a 1950s or 1960s children's book. The abundant references to Peter Pan drive this home. With his talented cast and smart dialogue, Anderson's film is pure magic that is funny, sweet, and sad in equal measure. This is the work of an extremely talented and visionary filmmaker who is working at the peak of his powers.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir. Benh Zeitlin) - And going off of magical films based around children, we have Sundance Dramatic Grand Prize-winner Beasts of the Southern Wild. Beasts follows a young girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a small community south of the levee in Louisiana with her ill father, Wink (Dwight Henry). When a storm hits and her dad's health starts to fail, Hushpuppy's world begins to fall apart. This film is a small miracle. Lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis is only nine years old now, but her performance shows something far beyond her years. Her performance has an innocence that only a child can deliver and has a soul and beating heart. Dwight Henry, a non-professional actor, also gives a powerhouse performance as Wink. Beasts has a gorgeous score by Dan Romer and first-time co-writer/director Benh Zeitlin, amazing hand-held 16mm cinematography by Dan Richardson, a heartfelt script by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar (author of the play from which this film is based), and a unique look and feel. This film is alive. All members of this cast and crew have bright futures ahead of them.
3. Django Unchained (Dir. Quentin Tarantino) - A second viewing was all I needed to place this masterpiece on my top 10 list. The first time, I had unreal expectations and while I thought it was brilliant, I was still sort of let down. However, the second time, I was left speechless. Django Unchained is a true Tarantino film: witty, long, gory, hilarious, dark, and twisted. Django Unchained is a throwback to spaghetti westerns of the past (it even has a new song by composer Ennio Morricone who scored many of the Leone films of the 1960s, and a cameo by the original Django, Franco Nero, from the 1966 film Django), just Tarantino-ized. Besides the typically great script from Tarantino, the performances are what make Django stand out. Jamie Foxx is suave in the title role. Christoph Waltz is well-spoken and quick as Dr. King Schultz, Django's freer and bounty hunting partner. Leonardo DiCaprio gives the performance of his career as Calvin J. Candie, the evil plantation owner who owns Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django's wife. And, Samuel L. Jackson is Jackson, Candie's suspicious, evil, right-hand man. These performers are some of the best around and that certainly is very evident here. Tarantino, who has yet to make a bad film, has a way with actors that few directors have. He somehow marries actors with roles of lifetimes. The actors always manage to mesh perfectly with his dialogue and that is a testament to his uncanny talent (he never attended film school). With Django, Tarantino does something new: he makes an emotional connection between the audience and his film with the Django and Broomhilda love element. Tarantino's previous films, while no less great, all lacked the emotional element that Django has, and because of this, I cared more for the characters. Finally, Tarantino's decision to set his western in the South during slavery makes this his bravest film yet. He gives us an unflinching portrayal of slavery that no Hollywood film has ever done before, and for this, I give him much credit. Django Unchained is another masterpiece in the canon of one of the world's greatest filmmakers of all time.
2. Silver Linings Playbook (Dir. David O. Russell) - Writer/director David O. Russell (The Fighter) has obviously hit his stride. Silver Linings Playbook is the work of a genius. It follows Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man diagnosed with bi-polar disorder who tries to get his wife back and life on track after being released from jail. Upon getting out, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman with problems of her own who helps Pat heal. I have now seen Silver Linings Playbook three times and can safely say that it gets better after every viewing. The dialogue is quick and witty, the story is engaging, and the direction is tight and electric. The performances out of the entire cast are universally excellent. As Pat, Bradley Cooper shows depth that he has never shown before. He makes Pat a real person that I cared about, not some caricature. Jennifer Lawrence gives another great performance as Tiffany. Her scenes with Cooper are fantastic, as the two have great chemistry. Robert De Niro gives his best performance in ages as Pat's dad who has OCD and Jacki Weaver plays well with him as Pat's mom. Russell's script is brilliant for many reasons, most notably because it shows these mentally ill characters as real everyday people. It doesn't pander to Hollywood stereotypes. Silver Linings Playbook epitomizes the smart romantic comedy/dramas that should be made more often. I could watch this films another three times and never tire of it.
1. Zero Dark Thirty (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow) - When Zero Dark Thirty was announced, I was worried that director Bigelow was simply trying to make another The Hurt Locker. I was wrong. With Zero Dark Thirty, she has crafted another masterwork of cinema. The film spans 10 years and follows the true story of one CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), in her obsessive hunt to track down terrorist Osama Bin Laden. At 157 minutes, Zero Dark Thirty is long, but it wastes no time and is never less than completely compelling. Jessica Chastain and cast turn in strong performances and Greig Fraser's cinematography is great. Producer/writer Mark Boal's script is sharp. His condensation of material is astonishing. His script is thorough and never takes sides. Boal and Bigelow execute this film smartly, as they never take a political or moral stance on the sometimes horrific images that they show (the first 20 or so minutes of the film are scenes or torture). They trust in the intelligence of the audience and let them make their own decisions about the material presented. Bigelow's direction is another example of a director working at her peak. She knows how to build suspense and catch the audience completely off guard. The most impressive aspect of Zero Dark Thirty is that I was riveted the entire time, was kept white knuckle on the edge of my seat, even though I already knew the ending. Argo, Ben Affleck's film about the Iranian Hostage Crisis, was another true story for which I already knew the ending. While Affleck did a fine job directing the film, I felt no suspense. I knew the ending and that worked against Argo. Where Affleck used cheap suspense-building tactics, Bigelow used silence and realism. The silence used in the raid on Bin Laden's compound was far more engaging and generated far more suspense. Zero Dark Thirty is a document of our time and will continue to stand as a historical portrait of one of America's greatest triumphs in one of its darkest hours.
Holy Motors (Dir. Leos Carax) - Holy Motors is writer/director Leos Carax's way of giving traditional cinema the finger. Breaking all traditional rules of story structure and logic, Carax created a masterpiece that was this year's most entertaining film and the best example of pure cinematic joy that I have felt all year. Holy Motors follows Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he travels around Paris attending nine "appointments". At each "appointment", he assumes a different identity. In addition, each appointment represents a different genre of cinema. One is a comedy, one is a musical, one is a drama. I don't want to give away too many of the surprises that Holy Motors has in store, so I won't divulge any more about its plot. Watching Holy Motors was exhilarating. Most films that are broken up into multiple sections tend to be uneven; some sections are much better than others. Holy Motors somehow manages to avoid all of those problems. Each section is so bizarre and so unique that I always looked forward to the next one. This film wouldn't work without the extremely talented actor Denis Lavant who shows a level of dedication to his performance as Monsieur Oscar that few actors give. With each genre/appointment change, he must mold his performance to fit that genre and does so masterfully. In a perfect world, he would get serious awards recognition. He delivers a performance so masterful, so different, and so perversely brilliant that much of the film rides on him. His work here must have been a real challenge and is something that only the best actors could do. In yet another year where sequels, prequels, and remakes dominated, Holy Motors was a breath of fresh air. I still don't know what it all means, but it doesn't matter. When viewing Holy Motors it is just best to just go with it. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.