The Best Films of 2012

 

10) Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)

We cinephiles can be a snooty lot. When the new Lincoln biopic was announced—directed by Steven Spielberg, no less—it sounded like the prestige-iest prestige picture that ever prestiged. A temporary oxygen deficit swept the globe as film snobs everywhere sniffed in unison. Oh, how daring, we thought. It's only a movie about the most beloved president of all time, directed by the most beloved American filmmaker of all time. Why not make a biopic about Mister Rogers and cast Tom Hanks in the lead, since we're apparently going the warm-fuzzies route? (Not that we were entirely wrong to be scornful. Look at the last major political-figure biopic we got.)

The fact that Lincoln turned out not to be manipulative, hagiographic, or sappy seems like a minor miracle in light of this. Savvy as always, Spielberg mostly stays out of the way and lets the screenplay, the cinematography, and the remarkable lead performance carry the film. I'm not saying anything new by praising Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal to the heavens, but it really is something to see. It's no trick to get Lincoln's folksy anecdotes and impassioned exhortations right. It's when Day-Lewis displays a crafty glint to his eyes during backroom strategizing, or allows Lincoln's frazzled anger to spill over during an ugly argument with his wife, that the man lives and breathes once again.

9) Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

One of Michael Haneke's most distinctive traits is his drive to strip away the conventions and artifice that we take for granted in movies, leaving us with something that, while not necessarily "realistic," nevertheless feels a lot closer to messy reality than what we're used to seeing on the big screen. With Amour, he pushes back against the pleasant half-truths perpetuated by so many movies, that elderly couples who reach the end of their lives together are cute, or saintlike, or adorably brassy. The slow decline of Emmanuelle Riva's Anne is incredibly painful to watch—Haneke spares her and her caretaker husband no indignity—but it must be so if Haneke is to overcome our defenses and evasions. Love requires a lot from two people—until death, when it requires everything they have. Haneke wants us to look long and very, very hard at this truth. His unsentimental direction shows us love's hard-won, agonizing marvels. As NPR's Linda Holmes so succinctly put it: "It is sad, but it is not depressing. This is the bargain [...] big love, big happy, big sad. Take it or leave it."

8) Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

Let's get two things out of the way up-front: Zero Dark Thirty is not journalistic, and it does not condone torture. Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal seek to be dispassionate in their depiction of events, not because they are presenting us with fact or because they have nothing new to add, but because they know that the events they show are already laden with emotion and complexities. The tidal forces that would be created by offering a specific perspective or thematic bent to this history would have tugged the film to pieces. It exists only to provide a context for us to grapple with the implications of our recent history. The story has a very sharp starting point (the horrific sounds of 9/11, played over a black screen) and endpoint (the man responsible for those sounds, turned into a corpse). Thus, Bigelow effectively orients us in a very specific timeframe. How many of us wanted retaliation in the months after the terrorist attack? How many of us adopted a grim, wartime "ends justify the means" mentality in the years that followed? Zero Dark Thirty plunks us right back in that period and doesn't allow its characters the hindsight or foreknowledge that we have now. When the deed is done, the movie is also done, and it leaves us alone with our consciences. In the end, our consciences, not some movie, are going to dictate what we do next.

7) The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)

In addition to being top-10 material, this film also wins the Biggest Surprise of the Year Award. All initial signs pointed to The Cabin in the Woods being yet another cutesy "Look Mom, I'm Postmoderning!" exercise, in which the filmmakers expect a pat on the head for their ability to explicitly call out genre tropes: "Ever notice how horror movies always kill off the teenagers who have sex, or did I just blow your mind?" My being mostly lukewarm about cowriter and producer Joss Whedon didn't help either. But the film is a hell of a lot smarter than its advertising made it look, managing to be scary, uproariously funny, and subversive—sometimes all three in the same moment. (I'd discuss how it manages this, but that would spoil it.) It has a lot on its mind, probing at the underpinnings of the horror genre and of popular entertainment in general. Do we watch other people endure misery and terror simply for the guilty pleasure of it, or do we do it to satisfy some darker appetite?

6) The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield)

The human race's most persistent and universal flaw is its propensity for dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, Us and Them. Once we have determined who is on our side and who is not, we are merciless in our enmity toward those who fall on the wrong side of the line. At a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots appears to be widening, some of the safest people to hate today are the ultra-wealthy. The sentiment is perfectly understandable, which is why we need a documentary like The Queen of Versailles to remind us that vapid, materialistic rich people are still human beings, as deserving of basic compassion as anyone else. This isn't to say that the people at the center of the film—a time-share magnate, his beauty-queen trophy wife, and their gaggle of children—aren't occasionally infuriating in their oblivious selfishness. But there's a pitiable hollowness to their hedonism, strikingly embodied in the half-finished husk of the obscenely opulent mansion they begin to build before the husband's business empire collapses in the 2008 economic meltdown. Suddenly obliged to worry about money for the first time, they do their best to avoid surrendering to their bottomless hunger for possessions and comfort. The problem is that years of prosperity have caused them to forget how to do anything else.

5) Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)

If nothing else, Looper deserves accolades simply for being a highly original genre film in an industry that seems increasingly ignorant of what "original" even means. It's impossible to overstate the relief of watching a science fiction story in which one has no idea what will happen next. Yet while the innovative concept (a hit man in the service of the time-traveling mafia of the future is forced to hunt down his future self) and the fully realized setting make for good entertainment, it's the melancholic undertones that make it great. The hitman protagonist isn't a nice—or even particularly good—person, and watching him gradually realize this about himself over the course of the film is surprisingly moving. As he witnesses the damage caused by himself and by the man he is destined to become, he experiences a unique personal crisis. The two versions of himself are irreconcilably in opposition to one another, yet they are also inextricably linked. As identical variables on opposite sides of an existential equation, they can only cancel each other out.

4) The Imposter (dir. Bart Layton)

The maxim "Truth is stranger than fiction" seems tailor-made for a documentary like The Imposter. The events it recounts are almost impossible to swallow: three years after 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay's disappearance from his small Texas hometown, he resurfaces in Spain, telling tales of abduction, abuse, and amnesia. He's changed a lot during those three years, though. He's taller. He sports a five o'clock shadow. He now speaks with a French accent. His eyes have changed from blue to brown. Yet despite his looking a lot like a 23-year-old European scam artist, Nicholas's family welcomes him with open arms, swearing to friends, doctors, and the FBI that this is their long-lost teenager. Director Bart Layton presents all this with the visual panache and twisty storytelling of a noir mystery, blending the investigative theatrics of The Thin Blue Line with the subtle reality-warping of Exit through the Gift Shop. Like the charismatic con man at its center, The Imposter draws you into its hall of mirrors, then sneaks away. Have you been paying attention?

3) The Turin Horse (dir. Bela Tarr)

The word apocalyptic has gotten quite a workout in critical essays about The Turin Horse, and for good reason. Spanning six days, Bela Tarr's vision of the bleak existence of an aging peasant and his daughter is the exact antithesis of the Creation. In Genesis, animal life flourishes, God hovers over the waters, and there is light. In The Turin Horse, a mangy horse languishes in the barn, the farm's well runs dry, and the entire world is eventually beset by thick, literal darkness. The world is decaying, bit by bit, but the two main characters can't summon the strength or the passion to rage against it. Every day is the same for them: they wake to the howling of the wind, choke down boiled potatoes, and stare out the window at their barren surroundings. The effect of this repetitious, steadily descending spiral—arrestingly captured in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Fred Kelemen—is utterly hypnotic. After the fade to black, I felt as if the universe had flickered out and come to an end before my very eyes—fitting for a film that takes its title from a famous anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche.

Some might say that this sounds like an ordeal, that life is too short to spend time on such a depressing piece of work. They'd be partially right: the film is challenging, and life is short. But who ever said that the highest goal of art and of life was to be comfortable?

2) Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)

Benh Zeitlin's first film is one of the most promising debut features I've seen in recent memory. It's not terribly common to encounter a first-timer with both the confidence to produce such a wild, singular vision and the chops to keep it from degenerating into an unfocused mess. It is, after all, a fable told through the eyes of the child Hushpuppy, who is played by a six-year-old with no previous acting experience. But Zeitlin evokes a child's sense of scale perfectly: the tiny wonders noticed only by a mind that has not yet become accustomed to them, living side by side with the enormous mysteries and fears felt by the very small. Everything done and witnessed by Hushpuppy, good and bad, is freighted with cosmic significance. The scrappy community she lives in is her entire universe, which makes it all the more poignant when it begins to crumble and another universe encroaches.

1) The Kid with a Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

David Foster Wallace once wrote that there is something inside all of us that longs to "give ourselves away utterly" to something. For the main character of The Kid with a Bike, a 12-year-old boy named Cyril, that something is his father. It's this deep, inarticulate desire that makes it so profoundly wounding to Cyril when his father abandons him to the care of the state, selling off all their possessions and moving to another town without leaving so much as a forwarding address. Unable to fathom why this would happen, Cyril bolts from place to place in his search for the father who rejected him. He understands nothing but his own desperate, inchoate need. Eventually a kind young woman offers him the parental love he craves, but he also finds himself drawn to the slick leader of a local gang of hoods, who seems to offer him the same thing.

The magic of this film lies in how it sketches these characters and their desires crisply and movingly, without once becoming gooey or false. Cyril is no tow-headed moppet who concocts twee little Hollywood schemes to make his daddy love him again. He's a small, destructive thundercloud of directionless anger and hurt, easier to pity than to love. The other characters' attempts to draw him back from the precipice he stands on are uncertain, and the Dardennes film it all in a mostly straightforward, unembroidered style. Their unassuming approach pays massive dividends in the final minutes, however, with an ending whose impact is so sublimely subtle that it almost passed me by. The Kid with a Bike works because we all have something in common with Cyril. We long to give ourselves utterly to something. We recognize ourselves in him: an angry, lost child who strains to hear the voice of love calling him back home.

The Best Films of 2011

 

10) The Interrupters (dir. Steve James)

One of art's primary functions, and something for which documentaries are particularly well suited, is to enrich our perspective on the world around us—to reveal it as simultaneously more complex than we'd ever dreamed yet easier to intuitively understand. The Interrupters takes the hot-button issue of inner-city violence in Chicago and divorces it from political agendas and impotent hand-wringing. Everything is boiled down to a single question: People are killing other people for no good reason; how do we make it stop? The solution of the CeaseFire organization is to personally intervene, one individual at a time. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) follows three volunteers, all former gang members with prison records, for a year as they make connections, get in people's faces, and even physically interpose themselves between would-be combatants. James's street-level footage accomplishes two things. First, it shows us the true face of those who commit shocking acts of violence, revealing them to be not the shadowy gangbangers of network news reports but simply angry, desperate human beings. Second, it's inspiring in the best sense of the word. When we watch CeaseFire's volunteers being passionate about something that matters, it reminds us how to do the same.

9) Poetry (dir. Lee Changdong)

If there's another film out there that does a better job of encapsulating the power of poetry, I haven't seen it. Plenty of films are "poetic," but when a film attempts to explore how actual written poetry works, the result is usually platitudinous fluff like Dead Poet's Society, where poetry is this romantic, mysterious, quasi-mystical pursuit that has more in common with the Force than anything else. Writer-director Lee Changdong, on the other hand, understands that most poetry's purpose is to reflect the world back at us in ways that cause us to see it all afresh, and his film finds a way to do just that. In contrast to most films that strive for lyricism, Lee's is not ostentatious about it. Like its protagonist, an aging maid who takes a poetry course for neophytes, it seems to discover the beauty in its story of Alzheimer's, tragedy, and selfishness as it goes along. Very few works of fiction could be called Poetry and make that title seem earned, but this is one of them.

8) Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

It's been a while since another film frightened me as much as Martha Marcy May Marlene. Best classified as a psychological horror movie, it centers on a young woman, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who flees the backwoods cult she's been living with for two years and seeks refuge with her estranged sister. Her experiences with the cult and its leader (a quietly menacing John Hawkes) have left her with deep emotional scars, so deep that she's unable to articulate them to herself, let alone to anyone else. All she knows is that she's terrified the cult will find her and drag her back. The film orients us so firmly in her headspace that we're terrified, too, even though it avoids most action, violence, and predictable thriller-movie scares. Sean Durkin composes his shots in such a way that we are constantly aware of Martha's surroundings and of the threat that may (or may not) be there, while Olsen projects a potent mixture of dislocation, numbness, and repressed hysteria. The expression on her face in the film's closing seconds stuck with me after I went to bed, listening to the small sounds outside my apartment and wondering what, if anything, was making them.

7) 13 Assassins (dir. Takashi Miike)

The samurai movie tends to be one of the most unvaried genres out there. That's not a criticism. Feudal Japan, unwavering codes of honor, the strong defending the weak, graceful confrontations between master swordsmen—one of the genre's chief pleasures is how effective its formula is, even as its most basic. And 13 Assassins certainly delivers in this regard. Being a Takashi Miike film, it's heightened to a fever pitch almost from the beginning. The entire second half is one continuous, immensely satisfying action sequence, pitting the titular heroes against the 300 bodyguards of the evil nobleman they've been tasked with assassinating. What elevates the film beyond its genre trappings is its ambivalence toward the attitudes that other samurai movies simply take for granted. It's stirring to watch men of action place honor above all other concerns, but isn't the obsession with those things futile in the end? When you come right down to it, personal honor is meaningless to a dead man.

6) Meek's Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Early in Meek's Cutoff, the entire plot is neatly encapsulated in a single edit. As the wagon train of the pioneer protagonists rolls past the camera in the foreground, the shot slowly dissolves into the next, with the line of the horizon staying constant. Then the same wagon train appears from the right side of the frame, traveling along that horizon line, silhouetted against the sky in the distance. Within that dissolve, Kelly Reichardt shows that these characters are literally traveling in circles, thoroughly lost in the trackless American West. The plot is simple and the pace slow, but Reichardt wrings plenty of suspense from the situation. This isn't the Oregon Trail computer game. If a wagon wheel breaks, these people will die of thirst before they can repair it and make it to the next water source. The sound design here is extremely effective—the creaking and groaning of the wagons in motion constantly reminds us of the knife's edge on which survival stands. And when the men of the expedition consult with their guide about which path they should take, their murmurs are barely audible to the women, who are obliged by social mores to stand back while their husbands decide their fates.

5) Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

These days, it's uncommon to encounter a film as unapologetically challenging as Certified Copy. Even writing a satisfactory, succinct summary of the plot is difficult. Having just written a book arguing that artistic replicas are every bit as valuable as the original paintings, an author (William Shimell) encounters an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) who immediately challenges him on the topic. They decide to take a day trip to a rural Italian village to continue their debate, and inspired by a misunderstanding, they end up feigning a married relationship with each other. The thing is, they're really, really good at pretending, right down to the complexly wounding things that only lifelong partners can say to each other. Are they actually married, or aren't they? The film slips between these two possibilities with the same fluidity that the two polyglot characters switch between French and English. The parallels with the question of whether a copy can be just as authentic as the original are obvious, but the wonder of the film is that it never fully tips its hand as to which category the characters' relationship belongs to. Fortunately, it's so gorgeously photographed that second, third, and fourth viewings are just as pleasurable as the first.

4) The Arbor (dir. Clio Barnard)

The technique used to make Clio Barnard's documentary The Arbor sounds fatally self-conscious and artsy at first. The film consists almost entirely of interviews, but instead of presenting these interviews in the straightforward talking-head manner of most documentaries, Barnard chooses to film actors lip-synching along to the audio recordings. This device has its roots in a theater movement known as "verbatim theater." It's fitting that it would be employed in service of a documentary about the British playwright Andrea Dunbar, but it still might have collapsed under the weight of its own artifice if it were not so perfectly suited to telling the heartbreaking personal stories of the troubled, alcoholic Dunbar and her children. Living in the low-income public housing communities of West Yorkshire, they were surrounded by—and participated in—all manner of horrible situations, from drugs to violence to prostitution. We almost need the slight remove created by Barnard so as not to be overcome with despair ourselves. Paradoxically, though, the lip-synching also fosters a closer connection to the stories themselves. If we were watching these individuals telling their stories on camera, we might distract ourselves with analyzing their physical demeanor or with questions of artistic exploitation. Barnard instead gives us the distance of drama, where we can engage more deeply with these people's stories of the sins of a mother being visited on the following generations.

3) Heartbeats (dir. Xavier Dolan)

One of the most frustrating things about 2009's 500 Days of Summer was how it kept interrupting its wry, sensitive portrayal of the vagaries of romance with cloying indie-quirk, as if it were contractually obligated to insert focus group–friendly clichés (Chloe-Grace Moretz's sassy prepubescent advisor is just the worst) to satisfy a meddlesome producer. Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats takes everything that's good about 500 Days and jettisons the rest, replacing it with scenes that flesh out all three of the characters involved in the love triangle at the film's center. Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) make fools of themselves vying for the affections of a self-centered Adonis (Niels Schneider), but the characters and situations are so sharply observed that we see ourselves in them even as we laugh at them. If you've ever suffered the awkwardness of trying to get a crush object to like you, you can relate to the scene of Marie quietly berating herself in the bathroom at a party, or to the faux-documentary interludes where an unnamed woman confesses her inept attempts to get a handsome stranger to notice her. Romantic infatuation has a way of turning us all into bumbling idiots, something that Dolan clearly understands. The resulting film is funny and human, and it's filmed with a visual panache that's the icing on the cake.

(A final note: Try to ignore the banal translation of the title. Why American distributors thought it was an improvement over the French Canadian Dolan's original Les Amours Imaginaires is beyond me.)

2) A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

On paper, A Separation sounds exactly like the sort of eat-your-broccoli arthouse film that mainstream American audiences avoid: a subtitled foreign film (not even from Europe!) that centers on the unsexy domestic struggles of everyday people. In practice, though, it has one of the most white-knuckle plots of the year. A married woman wants to leave Iran to attain a better life for herself and her daughter, but she can't because of the technicalities of Iranian divorce laws. Her husband, in turn, loves his family but has his hands tied by the demands of caring for his Alzheimer's-stricken father. The female caretaker he employs needs the work but must keep her employment secret from her religiously conservative spouse. When these three strands become tangled, they create a Gordian knot of conflict. Asghar Farhadi constructs the entire plot out of unstoppable forces and immovable objects, and the way he keeps turning the screws on his characters over the two-hour running time is breathlessly thrilling.

1) The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

An obvious film to compare with The Tree of Life is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in that both films are interested in the Big Questions: life, the universe, and everything. What makes The Tree of Life superior (yeah, I said it) is its ability to go small, grounding all its high-minded ambitions in human stories. In this case, the story is rooted in Terrence Malick's experiences growing up in 1950s Texas, which partly explains how he was able to capture the perspective of his young protagonists with such grace and sensitivity. An entire essay could be written on just his depictions of childhood's vicissitudes: the sense of boundless possibility, the mystery and terror that grown-ups wield, the sudden onset and equally sudden dispersal of stormy emotions.

If The Tree of Life consisted only of these sequences, it would be an enviable accomplishment. What elevates it to greatness are those other parts, which most reviews tended to gloss over because it's impossible to adequately express in words exactly why they are so good. Most people were content to describe these sections, which bookend the film, as sketching out the story of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. This is accurate, but a Christian viewer can go further: Malick is telling God's story. He begins the film with the image of a flame-like light in the darkness, accompanied by voiceover. "In the beginning was the Word." From there he launches out into a chronicle of Creation, and in the story of a childhood spent in small-town Texas he finds a microcosm of the human experience: innocence, then rebellion, and finally reconciliation. When we reach the final act, with its shots of people of all descriptions walking barefoot together along a sandy shore, it's moving because it touches something deep in us. We long for reunion.

I would hazard that one reason The Tree of Life met with such widespread praise is that it was able to make this feeling resonate across the oceans of unbelief, whispering some honest-to-God Truth in the ears of people who have long given up listening to evangelists. If this is true, then surely it's one of the most important films made in this generation. When you move an avowed atheist to write that he's "not sure if I should dance or cry from the unutterable glory of it," you know you're doing something right.