It’s that time of year again, the magical posting of my Top 10 Films of 2 years ago! I’ve actually managed to see over 40 films from 2012, which has to be my highest number in the decade. Thanks to Netflix Instant, I watched a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have, and a lot of those films made the list. This method of distribution (and the other Instant services like Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant) is amazing for film lovers. The hardest thing is actually committing to a film and not just watching the next episode of whatever TV show you are sprinting through.
I’m not sure I can speak to any themes in my list. As I grow older, I think I’m better able to embrace the things I love without hesitancy and without a fear of their worth or importance. I tend to watch films more jealously now; I want to be entertained, surprised, provoked, and challenged (and probably in that order). I probably watched more “bad” movies this last year and more throwaway things than I have for a long time, and this is probably because of having them right at my fingertips. And I’d say this is a pretty complete list. Really, the only two films I haven’t seen that I’m still going to watch are Amour and Lincoln. Other than that, I’m not aching to see any of the films on my list that I didn’t watch.
And as always, I’m planning ahead to next year. I’ve got 50 films on my 2013 list, and have seen probably 10 of them. So come back next year, and get more outdated favorites!
10. Tie: The Avengers (Joss Whedon)/Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie)
These are my genre picks. Obviously, I’m a big comic book fan, but for the most part, I’ve been disappointed with superhero movies. Either they are too serious (why so serious?!), too stupid (Green Lantern, Man of Steel), or just plain boring (Captain America, Thor: the Dark World, Iron Man 3, Batman Begins…). With The Avengers, Joss Whedon managed to mix the comedy of Iron Man with the action-adventure that a superhero film needs. The result was the best theater experience I’ve had in a long time.
Jack Reacher is probably the most surprising movie on this list. More and more, I just have a craving for the kind of action adventure movies I loved growing up, ones that weren’t able to rely on special effects to create entertainment. This is an old-fashioned action film; it’s smartly directed (with logical, comprehensible action scenes), sharply written, and well-acted. It’s funny when it needs to be funny, campy in a classic way (WERNER HERZOG IS THE BAD GUY!), and entertaining from start to finish. I wish it would have been more successful, but I don’t think the movie studios know how to promote a movie like this anymore (although, word is we are getting a sequel).
9. The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Grienfield)
I don’t know if there is a better examination of wealth in America than Lauren Grienfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles. The way it is able to highlight the huge disparity between the rich and poor, primarily in terms of mindset, while also sympathetically presenting it’s titular queen is a better critique of capitalism than a hundred essays or manifestos. And like the best documentaries, so much of what Grienfield filmed was spontaneous and unpredicatable; when the stock-market burst halfway through filming, these rich caricatures that we had been watching build the biggest house in America quickly turn into relatable human beings, all the while yearning for their disgusting past. That internal contradiction is what makes this such a fascinating documentary.
8. This is Not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi)
Shot in his home, illegally, while under house arrest by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film is part documentary, part essay, and part experiment. It certainly isn’t a film in any traditional sense, but it displays a stronger love and obsession with film and its power than anything I’ve seen in ages. The film is driven by Panahi’s intense passion for filmmaking and his complete inability to stop, even under threat of imprisonment. More than that, I think its a testament to what is possible, both politically and artistically, with our current technology. You don’t need a traditional camera to make a film; you just need a phone, a story, and a drive to make your voice heard.
7. Brooklyn Castle (Katie Dellamaggiore)
I watched a bunch of documentaries this year (thanks Netflix), but this was easily my favorite. It isn’t a daring technical achievement, structurally bold, or experimental in any way. Instead, it picks a stunning group of subjects and trusts that we will fall in love with them because of who they are. The story of Brooklyn’s IS 318 will give you hope in an increasingly depressing world. Once you meet Pobo, Justus, Rochelle, and Patrick, everything gets a little easier (seriously, for weeks after we watched this, whenever Lizz had a rough day at the office, I’d remind her of Pobo and she’d smile and perk up). And like any good documentary, it has deeper connections to all kinds of relevant issues: class, gender, race, place, etc, but it does it from the perspective of these wonderful kids. Man, writing about this is making me get all emotional!
6. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
I think Wes Anderson is caving in on himself, which isn’t a bad thing if you are a fan. I think this is a return to the Anderson of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. It is full of the idiosyncratic stuff that you either love or loathe, but it also has the bite of Rushmore, my favorite of his films. I had so much fun watching this, and really fell in love with Sam and Suzy. Edward Norton is also fantastic. I’d also say this is the most focused of his recent films. This is a tightly plotted, beautifully photographed coming-of-age story that builds wonderfully.
5. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
A nearly incomprehensible film that is completely understandable as you are watching it. Like This is Not a Film (I believe in my original post on Panahi’s film, I said they would make a perfect double-bill), Carax is only interested in pushing cinema as far as he can. It’s surreal, beautiful, gross, funny, boring, mesmerizing, and singular. Denis Lavant also gives the performance(s) of the year.
4. 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller)
I still can’t believe how much I love this movie. It takes the bromance formula that has become standard in today’s comedy world, but doesn’t get overly bogged down in itself; the obvious fault with the Apatow films is that they are too bloated, but this film just blows through its running time, packing in as many jokes as possible. And Channing Tatum is undeniably charming. I want to hate him so much, but it’s just impossible. He has serious comedic chops and timing (and he’s willing to do anything: see This is the End), and he works beautifully with Jonah Hill (who, surprisingly, never becomes annoying). Throw in amazing bit roles for Chris Parnell, Daxflame!!, Rob Riggle, and Ice Cube, and you have the best straight-up comedy since Borat. I don’t even feel like I need to write more to justify this. If you don’t like 21 Jump Street, you’re a buzzkill.
3. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
I wasn’t enamored with The Master when Lizz and I saw it in theaters, but it is one of those movies that just sticks with you. Little lines of dialogue or images just kept coming to me for months afterwards. When I first started getting obsessed with movies, I’d rewatch entire films for little sequences (John Travolta shooting heroin in Pulp Fiction, the rain of frogs in Magnolia). In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix running across the lettuce fields is so spectacularly perfect that I just want it to last forever. But the whole film left me a little cold. When I finally watched it again, it all really clicked for me, though. I love how unsympathetically adult Anderson’s films are. The Master is a movie that forces you to work and chew on big ideas; it provokes and critiques. But there’s also this undeniable love for the characters, even the despicable ones, that is quite remarkable. Anderson’s films are so out of place and time that you just have to marvel at his single-mindedness (and it isn’t that they are old-fashioned either; quite the contrary. He’s finally reached a point where he’s shed the Altman tags and truly started creating things that are his own); this doesn’t look, sound, or feel like any movie made in the recent past, except, of course, for There Will Be Blood. Joaquin Phoenix is out of this world good, too.
2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
This movie has stuck with me in fragments. The cinematography is stunning, and certain shots and sequences sneak back into my mind on a constant basis: a young girl carrying a candle, a police motorcade wandering through the Turkish countryside, a group of grown men clumped into a tiny car. This is easily the most beautiful film of the year. I’m just in love with the pacing of this film and the willingness of Ceylan to settle into his characters and setting and see what happens. It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you are willing to give yourself over to it, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is amazing.
1. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley)
This isn’t a film I wrote about on here (I watched it in the height of crazyness), but I’m not sure I even have the words to explain why it resonated with me so strongly. There is such a dearth of truly adult films about relationships, that to see one deal with them so honestly, so poignantly is a real revelation. And particularly, this film really deals with people in their late 20s in relationships, which is obviously where I’m at.
The entire film hinges on the performance of Michelle Williams as Margot, as she finds herself increasingly drawn away from her husband, played by Seth Rogen, to her charming neighbor (Luke Kirby). It sounds like a standard plot, but Polley and Williams play it so beautifully that it is never cliché. Margot clearly loves her husband (some of the small, couples-moments are my favorites and ring so true to my own marriage), and he adores her. But she can’t help her attraction. The most beautiful sequences in this film involve Margot playing with this attraction while trying to stay true to her husband: it really culminates in an amazing sequence where Williams and Kirby swim together late at night. They are almost performing a choreographed dance in the water, but the spell is broken the minute he touches her; she snaps back to reality and realizes she’s crossed the line.
The real miracle here is that Polley manages to make all three main characters sympathetic and believable. While you may disagree with Margot’s ultimate decision, it’s completely understandable why she makes it, even if it’s messy, ugly, and difficult too. And maybe it’s this presentation of relationships that I find so amazing. The Williams-Rogen relationship feels real; these are two actual human beings living actual lives.
While it isn’t necessarily a film that calls for adventurous camerawork, Polley still manages to make the cinematography beautiful, whimsical, and impressionistic. She makes some daring visual choices that don’t call attention to themselves, but really help sell the mood of the film (also, the soundtrack is pitch-perfect). It’s so refreshing to see someone actually thinking about the camera, even if it’s a film centered on relationships, which generally leads to generic, boring cinematography (unlike Anatolia, for example, which seems to really be about the visual first). There’s an undeniable style here that breathes life into her setting and characters (their house, for example, is a wonderful character in the film). While Polley does fall into some traps (she makes her themes too explicit), overall, this is my favorite film of the year and the one that continues to poke at my brain the most. I’m really anxious to see her documentary follow up, Stories We Tell. Maybe it will show up this time next year!