Monday, December 31, 2012

Ed's Top 20 Films of 2012

"Now, is my movie going to be Number One, or am I going to have to make use of this?"

As 2012 recedes into our collective rear view mirror, now seems like as good a time as any to look back on what has been in anticipation of what is still to come. 2012 was a pretty good year for cinema, all told. Whilst there weren't too many unequivocal masterpieces - and what there were seemed to all get shoved into the last three months - there was a solid roster of second-tier films that ensured that nary a week went by without something good coming out. To use a tortured, ill-informed sports metaphor, it was a year with few superstars, but a deep bench of good all-rounders.

As such, this was one of the easiest Year End lists I've ever had to draw up since my Top 5 was very clear in my mind, and there was no shortage of good films to fill out the remaining spaces. (I could have easily drawn up a list of 20 more films that didn't make the cut, but which probably deserved to.) It was a year that offered up a varied mixture of extravagant experiments, some of which were more successful (Cloud Atlas) than others (Prometheus, John Carter), as well as one which offered plenty of opportunity to see good stories told well. Even the summer had a better caliber of blockbusters than usual, which is admittedly a very heavily qualified statement, but one that speaks to the generally decent quality of 2012 as a whole. Even its worst films weren't as numerous as in past years. Here's hoping 2013 can clear that (relatively low) bar.

On that somewhat muted note, let's get down to brass tacks and discuss the 20 best films of 2012.

20. Killer Joe

William Friedkin re-teamed with playwright Tracey Letts for this bleaker-than-bleak Southern Fried noir in which a family of idiots hire a vicious, inscrutable cop (Matthew McConaughey, on the best form of his career in what proved to be a banner year for him) to kill the matriarch for insurance purposes. It's a film that walks a fine line between being the darkest comedy of the year or the most depressing drama, and as such is not an experience most people would relish. However, if you want to wallow in misanthropy and laugh at the pointlessness of existence (HAPPY NEW YEAR!) then Killer Joe is the film for you.

19. The Kid With A Bike

Back in June, I put together a half-time Top 10 to keep track of what the first six months of the year had to offer, and the Dardennes Brothers' latest was riding pretty high then based on my first viewing. Since then, it's slid down somewhat largely due to the strength of the second half of the year, but also because their typically gritty tale of a young man trying to keep out of trouble as he forges a friendship with a young woman ultimately resonated less as the year wore on. That should not take away from the fact that it is still a remarkably moving and powerful film from two of the best film-makers in the world, even if it ultimately didn't measure up to their more substantial works.

18. 21 Jump Street

2012 was a pretty dry year for comedy in film (though, as has been the case for the last couple of years, TV comedy went from strength to strength) but the reboot that no one asked for of a TV show no one remembered easily stood out as a highlight. Thanks to the direction by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who brought the same "anything goes" approach that they used in the blisteringly funny Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, as well as terrific chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, the film rose above its questionable source and premise to deliver a high volume of weird, varied comedy set-pieces.

17. Damsels in Distress

Much like Killer Joe - and this is probably the only time anyone has ever made that comparison - Whit Stillman's return to film-making after a thirteen year gap is an experience that will either delight or completely alienate you. If you're attuned to its drier-than-sandpaper sensibilities and intentionally infuriating characters, it's hilarious. If not, then it's worse than pulling your own teeth out whilst on fire. I realize that is not the strongest recommendation in the world, but I do think it's a terrific film that everyone should seek out, if only to see what side of the fence they eventually land.

16. The Imposter

This Errol Morris-esque documentary about a Texan family who lost then "found" a missing son is a truly strange and disquieting experience. Strange because of how utterly incredible the story is, disquieting because of the way in which the film gives the figure at its center so much attention, as well as the way in which it suggests things about the people involved without actually saying them out loud. It's a remarkable film, but one that really needs to be taken with a pinch - or perhaps a whole tablespoon - of salt.

15. Lincoln

It would have been all too easy to turn the life of the Sixteenth President of the United States into a bloated hagiography, one that tried to use too much pop psychology to explain who Abraham Lincoln was with lots of flashbacks to his youth and emphasis on his most famous moments. Instead, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner focused in on the end of Lincoln's life and the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, in the process creating a film which is light, funny and loaded with pointed commentary on the current state of American politics without actually seeming to be one. Anchored by a superb performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, it's easily Spielberg's best Serious movie since Schindler's List, largely because it doesn't take itself quite so seriously.

14. Anna Karenina

Joe Wright's adaptation of Tolstoy's novel is a technical marvel, one which manages to make budgetary constraints an advantage by staging the film entirely within a theater, creating a film which is a bracing, exhilarating hybrid of both the theatrical and the cinematic. Yet it's also a cold, distant film as a result, which makes it hard to engage fully with the story of Anna (Kiera Knightley, on career-best form) as she engages in an affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who was in the film). It's most interesting from a formalist viewpoint, but that shouldn't detract from the fact that it was one of the most quietly ambitious films of 2012. (Or that Domhnall Gleeson was superb in the role of Levin.)

13. The Avengers

The culmination of four years and five film's worth of build-up, Marvel's superhero team-up could have been an ungodly mess if put in the wrong hands. Fortunately, it landed in the hands of Joss Whedon, a man who knows a thing or two about balancing powerful ensembles, and he delivered a film which, whilst creaky in the places - particularly during its first 40 minutes - delivered spectacle, action, funny dialogue and which managed to give each of its heroes a moment to shine. It was easily the best blockbuster of the year, as well as being its most profitable, which is not something that can be said of most years.

12. The Cabin in the Woods

But before he made all the money with The Avengers, Whedon finally unleashed his long-delayed meta-horror comedy on the world. Directed by Drew Goddard and co-written by Goddard and Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods delighted in picking apart the mechanics of horror films and offering a thesis on how audiences and film-makers relate to each other through the genre. As such it wasn't particularly scary, but for horror fans it was a clever and very funny examination of it (even if, as I feel honor-bound to say whenever the film comes up, it isn't quite as good as the similarly themed Tucker and Dale vs. Evil).

11. Compliance

Part thriller, part unwavering gaze at the evil that ordinary people are capable of, Craig Zobel's based-on-reality film came with an unwarranted stigma attached to it after a contentious screening at Sundance. However, the film speaks for itself, and far from being misogynist - the label that is most often applied to it - it is a very stark and pointed look at what happens when people follow orders without question, and the danger of authority. It's a difficult watch, but one that is provocative and which has to be seen to be believed.

10. Wreck-It Ralph

It was a fairly strong year for animation, even in light of Pixar's underwhelming Brave, but Disney's sweet, nostalgia-tinged take on arcade gaming was far and away the best. Whilst a lot of its ideas can be found elsewhere - most notably Toy Story and Shrek - Wreck-It Ralph delivered them with wit, heart and stunning animation that made it more than a film for gamers. At the same time, anyone well-versed in 8-bit gaming will find plenty to love in the big and little details dotted throughout the film, all of which are suggestive of the love and attention that went into it.

9. Zero Dark Thirty

Much of the conversation surrounding Kathryn Bigelow's account of the hunt for Bin Laden has centered around its stance towards torture, turning it into a Rorschach test which seems to reveal more about the people watching it than the film itself. Yet at the heart of the debate is a rigorous, absorbing film that combines Bigelow's unquestionable skills at creating tension and suspense with an almost journalistic approach to the material, one which recalls the likes of All The President's Men and Zodiac. It's great as both a tale of one woman's obsessive quest, but also as a prism through which to view America's long, dark decade of vengeance.

8. Looper

Rian Johnson finally delivered on the exceptional promise displayed in his debut, Brick, with this time-bending action film about assassins and their future selves. All the various plot threads might not quite match up - a problem with any time travel film - but that doesn't stop it being a rollicking good time, thanks largely to a surprising script and two very strong central performances from Bruce Willis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Bruce Willis).

7. The Master

I love the films of Paul Thomas Anderson very dearly - There Will Be Blood is a very, very strong contender for my favorite film - and any new film from him is a cause for celebration. His long-gestating drama that was about - but not really about (yet totally about) - the early days of Scientology did not have the same immediate impact as his best work, but had a much quieter, more insidious power to it, much like the creeping influence of the charismatic man at its heart, Lancaster Dodd. More importantly, it seems to signal yet again that PTA has passed beyond his influences - it's hard to see any of the Altman, Scorsese or Demme influence of his older works - and is now making films unlike anyone else (the estimable FilmCritHulk made the assertion on Twitter that he is the Radiohead of cinema, which I think is a pretty perfect summation of his development as an artist). That is a very, very exciting prospect since we've got another 30 to 40 years of films still to come from him.

6. Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominik has now made three great films in a row and every one of them has been kind of ignored by movie goers. Oh well, at least he's failing better, as Samuel Beckett said. Following the epic, gorgeous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Ford, Dominik created this politically charged crime thriller set amongst the lowest rungs of the New Orleans underworld. Whilst his attempts to equate the killing of an innocent man with the bank bailout sometimes felt strained, Dominik delivered on the genre elements - at one point giving us one of the most beautiful murders in cinema history - and created a superior thriller with more on its mind than just money. It also has possibly the best ending of any film this year.

5. Once Upon A Time in Anatolia

When I first watched Nuri Bilge Ceylan's crime-free crime drama back in March, I was impressed by it, but it didn't have quite the impact on me that would warrant a Top 5 placing. I actually saw it the same week that I saw The Kid With a Bike, and preferred the Dardennes' film more. Yet whilst that film has receded somewhat over time, Ceylan's has grown immeasurably with reflection. A spectral, haunting story of men looking for a body and gradually looking inwards, it's a measured and poetic film that takes Ceylan's already impressive skills to a whole other level. Easily the best "slow cinema" offering of the year.

4. Cloud Atlas

There are a lot of things that can be said against the Wachoswki siblings/Tom Tykwer adaptation of David Mitchell's novel, many of which center around the performances. The decision to have actors play multiple characters might have been asking too much for some; having them play characters of different genders might have been misguided; having them play characters of different races might have been downright offensive. Yet in spite of these issues, they created a bold, ambitious film about humanity and art that was unlike anything that came out this year, possibly ever. It may have been a folly, but by God, it was a noble folly, and one that resulted in a film that can genuinely be described as unique (on top of all the other words that might be used to describe it).

3. Moonrise Kingdom

After making a brief sojourn into animation with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson returned to live-action film-making with Moonrise Kingdom, which was as visually pristine as his other films, but under the surface was messier and sadder by far. By contrasting the free-wheeling joy of young love against the crushing disappointment of its adult characters, Anderson created a poignant work without losing his trademark sense of humor or fastidiousness. Hopefully he'll keep periodically working with stop-motion in the future, because it really seems to revitalize him.

2. Searching For Sugar Man

Easily one of the most surprising films of the year, this documentary about the forgotten '60s singer-songwriter Rodriguez came out of nowhere to deliver a story which was moving, heartbreaking and inspiring. It also introduced me to the music of Rodriguez, which is every bit as good as his cultish adoration suggests.

1. Django Unchained

I was not as big of a fan of Inglourious Basterds when it came out as a lot of people were - though I have come to like it more on repeat, I still think it suffers whenever it focuses on the Basterds themselves - but it hinted at the possibility that Quentin Tarantino could make a truly great revenge film, one which was hugely entertaining and had something to say about both film history and real history. Inglourious Basterds wasn't that film, but Django Unchained most definitely is. It manages to be both a critique of the Western as a white-washed genre and one of the best Westerns ever made, and it confronts people with the ugliness of slavery whilst working as an entertainment. It's a dizzying high-wire act that Tarantino manages with aplomb, and is easily the most daring, exciting and demented film of the year.