Perhaps appropriately, many of the best films of 2012 dealt in some way with endings. In the year in which the world was to end, many masterpieces explored the idea of ending, finality, conclusion–whether the end of slavery (Lincoln), the end of innocence (Moonrise Kingdom), the end of life (The Grey, Amour, Les Miserables, Skyfall, Killing Them Softly, etc.), the end of an affair (The Deep Blue Sea), a manhunt (Zero Dark Thirty) or the world itself (Turin Horse). And so now, at the end of the year, I list my ten favorite films of the year, commending them all to you (including the honorable mention list: they’re all marvelous films!). If you haven’t already, you can also check out my picks for best documentaries and best performances of 2012.
10) Looper: Rian Johnson’s stylish, smart, brain-bending film was one of the most crowd-pleasing of the year. Happily, the genre hybrid (time travel meets gangster meets sci-fi) relied more on deft storytelling than CGI theatrics, doing what good cinema has always done: immersing the viewer in a world at once fanciful and foreseeable, glossy and grimy, foreign and familiar. (my review)
9) Les Miserables: Cynics beware: this film is an explosion of earnestness, popular Broadway music and sometimes ostentatious flourishes of stylistic indulgence. Yes, it’s a bit kitschy at times. It may be emotionally manipulative. But it’s also a magnificent cinematic experience. Victor Hugo’s moving story of grace and forgiveness is told with tenderness and passion by director Tom Hooper and his impressive cast. An excellent screen adaptation of a beloved masterpiece of the stage.
8) Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino’s latest pop art revisionist bloodbath is less elegant and a bit messier than his last masterpiece, Inglorious Basterds, but perhaps that’s part of its genius. Slavery and racism are not tidy, elegant things. In characteristic over-the-top fashion, Tarantino applies his singular vision to this touchy terrain and gets away with things no director should (right?). The result is offensive, brash, bold, funny, sad, disturbing, and frequently beautiful.
7) The Grey: I didn’t expect much more from Joe Carnahan’s film than a typical “angry Liam Neeson” action flick. But man is it more than that. It’s a tough-as-nails film; gritty and bloody and masculine to the core. And yet it’s also deeply poetic, existential and–in the end–quiet and contemplative. Especially in the last 30 minutes of so, The Grey really punches you in the gut. (my review)
6) Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s beautiful film is one of the best films about childhood I’ve ever seen. It captures–in characteristically colorful, deadpan, boxed-in form–the magical spaces in which children dwell: playing, exploring, flirting with danger and adulthood, taking in the world with wonder and curiosity. More than just a stylistic exercise (Anderson’s films can sometimes fall in this trap), Moonrise is a somber, poetic “coming of age” story with profound things to observe about how children experience the world. (my review)
5) The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest American epic is ostensibly a riff on the story of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. But of course it’s more than that. What exactly The Master is about is up for interpretation; which is to say that yes, it’s an ambiguous film, but not in a pretentious sort of way. Anchored by spectacular performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master is a gorgeous tale of American ambition–as vast, contemplative and occasionally ominous as the wide-open-spaces of the land it inhabits. (my review)
4) Amour: Michael Haneke shows off his sentimental (sort of) side with this intimate tale of an elderly French couple at the end of their lives. Haneke unflinchingly shows us the horrors of aging as we witness the post-stroke decline of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), while her husband Georges lovingly cares for her even as her condition worsens. The film is straightforward in its purposes but far-reaching in its emotional impact. Anyone who has ever experienced the painful final phase of a loved-one’s life will relate, as will anyone who has reflected on life and love through the lens of aging.
3) Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is every bit as taut, thrilling and realistic as that Oscar-winning film. A chronicle of the CIA’s 9-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, beginning with 9/11 and ending with the Pakistan raid that resulted in the death of “UBL,” Zero Dark Thirty is a fascinating look at the tips, clues, red herrings and missteps that characterized the arduous search. Too much has been made of the film’s depiction of torture. The film depicts torture, yes, because for better or worse it was a part of the story in the early days after 9/11; but the film does not suggest that torture produced the key evidence in finding bin Laden. More than anything the film is praiseworthy for its expert storytelling, conveying a complicated narrative in three well-paced hours.
2) Lincoln: Steven Spielberg’s excellent historical epic is not a biopic in the traditional sense. It focuses only on the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s too-short life, especially his political effort to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed. Even so, the film–and particularly Daniel Day Lewis’ impeccable performance as the man himself–manages to bring Lincoln to life in a way we haven’t seen before. Beautifully rendered with the photography, music, costumes, sets and supporting performances an old-school period piece like this requires, Lincoln is an insightful, inspiring, and concisely told story of the brilliance of a great American leader at one of America’s most pivotal points. (my review)
1) The Kid With a Bike: The latest from Belgian brother filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is perhaps their most masterful yet. No other film this year affected me as much as this, a deeply humane portrait about a father, his son, a bike, and a search. Riffing on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves, the Dardennes offer up a characteristically nuanced, minimalist, jarring look inside a world both foreign and intensely familiar. The film is ostensibly about longing for one’s father, but it’s really about God’s grace: the way it chases us even when we resist it, soothing us like a balm in our most vulnerable and self-destructive moments. (my review)
Honorable Mention: Bernie; Wuthering Heights; Killing Them Softly; On the Road; The Impossible; Turin Horse; Holy Motors; Skyfall; The Deep Blue Sea; Oslo, August 31st