Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

This list comes unusually late this year because I decided to hold off making it until after I’d seen “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour”—neither of which opened in my city until mid-January. That turned out to be a good call, as the list reflects. Unfortunately, there are still quite a lot of movies I missed last year (primarily documentaries and foreign films) that I’d like to have seen. Of the ones I did see, though, here are my top ten.


It may not be the deepest, most provocative, or most artistically daring movie on this list, but it remains, minute for minute, the best executed. Riveting from start to finish, there’s not a moment that feels extraneous or out of place. Fittingly for a movie that's so much about the absurd power of Hollywood, this is Hollywood filmmaking at its best.


Easily the weirdest film I saw all year, it was also, for perhaps that reason, the most fascinating. By turns wry, poignant, hilarious, and grotesque, you could say it’s about life, or art, or acting, or the movies, or all or none of the above. And that’s what makes it so fun. It’s a cinematic Rorschach test that keeps you constantly tilting your head to get a new and different angle.


A quietly devastating portrait of the last stage of a happy marriage that’s eroded—or corroded—by one partner’s slow descent into total physical and mental debilitation. All the more heartbreaking for being utterly unsentimental (Michael Haneke is the director, after all), it puts the age-old vow of “in sickness and in health” in a merciless light. The kind of film I’m glad I saw...and never want to see again.


It doesn’t condone torture. It doesn’t glorify the larger mission of taking out Osama bin Laden. What it does do, and do very effectively, is show the depths of the obsession, both individually and collectively, that led to the fulfillment of that mission. The result is a film that makes even inertia feel unbearably tense and the thrilling denouement feel, after the fact, oddly hollow. Which, to my mind, is a testament to its power.


To borrow a quip from another website, this is basically “Inglourious Basterds: Slavery Edition”—that is, an over-the-top, excessively self-indulgent Quentin Tarantino rewrite of history as unfiltered revenge fantasy porn. And ya know what? Like “Inglourious Basterds,” against all odds, it works. For all his faults, QT has real flair as a storyteller (even if he never knows when to cut himself off) and a rare gift for creating characters and scenes that sear themselves indelibly into the viewer’s brain, and these talents are on full display in “Django.” Once you’ve seen Candieland, you’ll never forget it—and what’s really scary is you won’t want to.


Strangely, from a film about a semi-abandoned small child in a semi-abandoned part of the world, where both natural and human-made disaster always seem just around the corner, what I retain most vividly is an abiding impression of warmth. I mean tenderness and camaraderie and laughter, even feasting and merrymaking on the cusp of doom. Of course, there’s a dark side to these ties of community and affection, a counter-narrative of willfulness, neglect, even abuse, which “Beasts” certainly doesn’t gloss over or excuse. But somehow it’s the images of warmth and beauty—and tears of love rather than rage—that linger longest, and strike the deepest chord.


The Wes Anderson mannerisms are off the charts; the visual design looks even more dollhouse-like than usual for him; and the last act drags on too long. And yet, there’s a genuine innocence and bittersweet melancholy at the core of this quirkfest that charmed me and carved out its own little place in my heart.


In a year filled with movies based on amazing true stories, this one just may be the most amazing story of them all. If you’ve ever wondered about parallel existences or alternative universes, the strange life and career of Sixto Rodriguez may be as close you’ll ever get to seeing them in real life. Poses thought-provoking questions on the meaning of fame and the enduring power of good music.


A deceptively modest little comedy about a man and his robot caretaker that sneaks up on you with its perfect balance of humor and pathos, as well its delicate navigation of such thorny subjects as aging, the tenuousness of memory, and man’s increasing reliance on technology for emotional connection. Its touch is so light that the film risks being overlooked or dismissed as a mere trifle, but it really deserves better. It’s a keeper.


2012 was a red-letter year for the Hollywood blockbuster. Not only did the big-ticket franchises dominate the box office, they also produced a surprisingly solid array of well-crafted stand-alone movies. “The Hunger Games” did an excellent job creating a believable dystopia and capturing the visceral emotions roused by the games. “The Avengers” took what could have been a soulless marketing ploy (mo’ superheroes, mo’ money!) and turned it into a funny, appealing band of bros (and sisters) the audience could actually enjoy cheering on, both individually and as a team. “The Dark Knight Rises” took Batman back to his mythic roots and away from the yawning black hole of nihilism represented by the Joker, yielding the most all-around, good old-fashioned entertainment of the entire trilogy. And finally, “Wreck-It Ralph,” besides being a delightful nougat of nostalgia for gamers and Generation X-ers, also provided a clever spin on the usual hero-villain dynamic of most animated films (or, for that matter, most films). Taken together, all four serve as a happy reminder that a movie can be part of a huge franchise or targeted at a huge audience and still be genuinely, pleasurably good.


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