Holy Motors

2012 was a terrific year for film. Really, like Matt Zoller Seitz says, any year is a good year for film if you look hard enough. But this year, a cinephile didn’t have to look very hard at all to find greatness. From the art house to the indie scene to the big blockbusters, a staggering amount of quality shined on the screens. And all of this happened at the same time that more than a few critics declared that film was dead. There were missteps along the way, to be sure (big disappointments like Prometheus or The Hobbit or The Dark Knight Rises), but overall, there was much fun to be had by all.

I’ve done numbered and ranked lists of my favorite films of the year in the past, but no longer. Going forward with the new year, one of my resolutions is to completely cut the numbers out of my appreciation for cinema. I don’t see the point in putting the time and energy into arranging these films into some kind of order of preference when I’ll probably feel completely different about that order next week. There’s no use in it. I love all these movies. But I can’t think in terms of “I love precisely this much more than y, but not as much as z.” I didn’t even winnow my picks down to a rounded number – I might be the only critic on the planet to have a “Top 18” for the year. And this is still before my having seen a few quite high profile releases from 2012, such as Zero Dark Thirty, Not Fade Away, or The Silver Linings Playbook.

I expect these picks might look completely different when I reconsider 2012 in the years to come, as I catch up with what I missed and reexamine and reconsider the films. But my original point remains: this was a great year at the movies. There were plenty of films that I loved that still didn’t make this cut. Here are all the other films (the ones I’ve seen, that is) that I think made 2012 “worth it”:

Haywire, Chronicle, Goon, Damsels in Distress, The Avengers, The Raid, Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister, Extraterrestrial, Ruby Sparks, Killer Joe, Red Hook Summer, Robot & Frank, Sleepwalk With Me, Dredd (yes, really), Fat Kid Rules the World, Middle of Nowhere, Seven Psychopaths, The Other Son, Wreck-It Ralph, Rise of the Guardians

And all of this is without getting into the astonishing wealth of documentaries that came out this year. Personally, I keep nonfiction and fiction film separate in my considerations, but both sides contributed to making this a year to remember.

And here are the films that I think I’ll most remember from 2012, or at least, the ones that most stick with me at this juncture. I’ve grouped them into vague categories, just to make it a more wieldy read than simply listing out 18 different gushes on specific movies. And again, these are not what I think are the best movies of the year (although there’s overlap), but my personal favorites. Here’s to 2012, and here’s to all the goodness to come in 2013.

The Comedy and the Romance

moonrise kingdom

Thinking it over, the movie that made me laugh more than any other this year was 21 Jump Street, which I would not have believed this time last year. But it’s a pitch-perfect buddy film and actioner, and terrifically fuses the conventions of the cop and high school genres. The cleverest comedy, though, would have to be Bernie, featuring Jack Black in a career-high performance as one of the year’s most memorable characters: the lovable, homespun murderer Bernie Tiede. The movie unpacks a bizarre and dark true crime through a mixture of fiction and interviews with real people.

Jumping into the more serious realm, Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz signals that the actress-turned-director is truly a mature voice that’s here to stay. It takes a sordid, done-it-a-billion-times subject – a woman straying from her unfulfilling marriage – and makes it fresh with a well-tuned, thoughtful sensibility. And mixing the laughs and the kisses is one of my very favorites: Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which feels like the culmination of everything that the man has become known for in his career. Impeccable art design, cinematography, and musical choices complement a pitch perfect cast in a quirky, warm, and heartfelt story. You can’t ask for anything better.

The Genre Exercises

django unchained

The scariest movie of the year didn’t come from the horror genre. It was Sound of My Voicethe unnerving look inside a cult led by supposed time traveler Brit Marling, who’s hypnotic and utterly demanding of attention. The movie revels in ambiguity, and offers no easy way out. On a more traditionally sci-fi note, Looper was not at all what I expected, but in the best way. Time travel and hitmen with giant guns are really the way for Rian Johnson to tell a story about love and cycles of violence, and he does so through a perfectly-realized vision of the near-future.

Another movie I didn’t expect was Skyfallwhich proved that it’s possible to revitalize a series even after fifty years and twenty-three installments. Gorgeous imagery courtesy of Roger Deakins and a story that actually gets inside the head of superspy 007 and what makes him tick make this a success. It introduces old James Bond mainstays with a fresh perspective, giving me great hope for the series going forward.

But the two greatest genre films came as love letters from their directors/writers to their respective genres. The Cabin in the Woods mocks nearly all of the tropes of slasher and monster stories, but does so to look at why we love those stories so much in the first place. And in the process, it’s a complete and utter blast, thrilling and hilarious in equal measure. The Avengers got all of the attention, but Joss Whedon’s script for this film is his true triumph this year. And Django Unchained demonstrates that Quentin Tarantino is the unquestionable master of American cinema. I don’t know if I love it as much as some of his other work, but it’s basically perfect. Applying the conventions of the spaghetti western to the Antebellum South, Tarantino has created an anti-Birth of the Nation, a revenge fantasy against slavery that’s as funny as it is fist-pumpingly awesome and unbelievably gory.

The French

amour

This is the repository for all the films to come from the cheese-lovers. Rust and Bone is the paragon of the good story well told, featuring two great performances from Matthias Schoenearts and Marion Cotillard as two broken people who find that they make a good fit for one another. Another French flick is the 70’s period piece Something in the Air, which won’t be arriving in our theaters until sometime next year. When it does, be sure to seek it out, because it’s a spectacular, sprawling look at the feeling of a specific time and place, when a revolution of youth seemed poised to overhaul all conventions of the world.

But really, this section belongs to AmourMichael Haneke’s scalding look at age, disease, death, and, well, like the title says, love. Emanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant deliver a soulful set of performances as a husband and wife who slowly succumb to the encroaching end. It’s almost cathartic in it’s unsparing, unrestrained portrayal of how the body fails you. You can’t let it go, because it never lets you go.

The Epics

lincoln

Ambition can be dangerous. If you overreach, you run the risk of creating nothing more than a mess of a film. Two movies tried to go big this year, but stumbled, and yet in the process became hot messes. I love them both, huge warts and all. The first is Cloud Atlasthe Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer’s sprawling, strange, race-swapping, face-swapping, past-present-future exploration of love, destiny, and right and wrong. It’s so earnest and ridiculous that it practically tears open its chest and dares you to mock it. And there is much you can mock about it. But I choose to admire all that it gets right, such as some extraordinary emotional beats, or the revelatory editing. The second is Les MisérablesTom Hooper’s adaptation of the beloved musical. Despite odd shot choices and some wonky performances, I can’t help but be won over in the end. The music and the classic story of redemption and social justice forever resonate. I hope very badly that this film’s success inspires a revival of musicals on screen.

Now, when you shoot for the stars, and hit your target? You get something like LincolnThe story of the sixteenth president and the thirteenth amendment fulfills the unlikely goal of making 19th-century political debate and machinations into riveting material. And it’s all centered around a godlike performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who may in fact have gone back in time to study the real Lincoln’s mannerisms. An inspiring ode to what politics and government look like at their best, Lincoln should be looked to as an example for us to work towards.

The Artiest

the master

And now the space for the weird and the wonderful, and what might be my trinity of top faves for the year. First there’s The MasterPaul Thomas Anderson’s ambiguous, ambitious, ambling opus. Joaquin Pheonix and Philip Seymour Hoffman grapple in a metaphorical clash of religious restraint and animalistic excess. And all on jaw-dropping 70 mm. Then there’s Holy MotorsLeos Carax’s exploration of cinema as an art form. Yes, it’s a French film, but it fit better here. More individual scenes from this movie stick in my mind like thorns than from any other one I saw this year, and yet I still don’t feel like I understand it much at all. But the sheer experience of watching it is unlike anything else.

Last is The One. I’m not going to call it my singular favorite movie of the year, but if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, I’d probably choose this one. It’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. First-time director Benh Zeitlin has crafted a movie that’s incredible in countless ways. You can start with the jaw-dropping lead performance from Quvenzhané Wallis, who was six years old at the time of filming. You can continue with Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s goosebump-inducing musical score, the best of any movie this year. And then there’s the brilliant, Terrence Malick-esque photography. And the complete mastery of an otherworldly, storybook tone. I could go on and on. Out of all the movies I saw in 2012, this is the only one that made me well up, and that’s simply because of its sheer beauty.

beasts of the southern wild