As we slowly recuperate from a holiday of family, friends, gifts and likely intensely busy theaters and shopping malls, the final wave of big releases have hit screens in the form of Les Miserables and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Save for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, most of 2012’s biggest players have hit audiences across this nation, and with that, comes the time we get to look back and shine our light upon the best of the absolute best. Ranging from blockbusters like Spielberg’s Lincoln to small, intimate pictures like The Loneliest Planet, 2012 has been a banner year for cinema, and this very top 10 strives to be evidence of that.
So enough of my chatter. Here are the ten best films of 2012, with a few films (at the end) that just missed the cut (click on the film’s title to head over and read my review of each film).
10. Cloud Atlas
Big, confounding, aggressively obtuse and awe-inspiring, these are all words that perfectly describe the latest film from the Wachowski siblings and fellow co-director Tom Tykwer. An adaptation of the beloved novel, the film hasn’t found much of a home in the eyes of audiences, but with two viewings under this writer’s belt, I feel comfortable in saying that this, along with one other film we’ll be chatting about soon, may be the most underrated film of this year. Visually startling, the film blends Tykwer’s side splitting sense of humor with the Wachowskis’ sense of action and visual experimentation, into what may be a dense bit of sci-fi, but also a beautifully moving meditation on the human experience.
Seen as the second best limousine-set auteur picture this year behind Leos Carax’s superb Holy Motors, Cronenberg’s opaque adaptation of the DeLillo novel is even, to this writer, more of a stunner. About as far from Croneberg’s body horror days that created such films as Videodrome, the film is as much a dystopic meditation on an issue tearing at the core of this nation as anything Croneberg has ever made. Bred out of the existential nightmares of any normal human being, the film takes a much more spiritual and thought provoking stance on the world of modern capitalism that asks for the audience to engage in a conversation with each frame, each fragment of a thought uttered from the rarely-better members of this film’s superb cast.
This has been one of, if not the very, best years for non-fiction filmmaking in as long as one could truly remember. With any number of documentaries having the chance to take a slot on this top 10, it’s a tribute to the genre/medium that it’s best film (save for this writer’s number one film) is every bit as emotionally resonant and moving as anything, fiction or non-fiction, we’ve seen in years. Plague is a fine documentary, but it’s an absolute master’s class in editing and director David France proves that he’s a documentarian to keep the keenest of eye on. Both a look at the fight against AIDS in New York as well as the impact that the rise of film and its introduction into the popular culture had upon it, Plague is a beautiful film both well crafted and starkly intimate.
Easily the most misunderstood and underrated 2012 release. An angry, pit bull of a film, subtlety does not this film have, and it’s honestly for the better. From director Andrew Dominik, the film stars Brad Pitt as a hitman brought in to clean up a rather sticky situation, and while it plays as a superb gangster thriller, it’s more so a rather blunt and aggressive meditation on the current state of American economics all with a gorgeous sense of grit and grime. Featuring fantastic performances and a director who is done talking in codes to audiences unwilling to tackle films on their level (look at how confounded people were by Cloud Atlas), Killing Them Softly is the absolute perfect title for this sledgehammer to the collective heads that are moviegoers.
More so the story of a man named Abraham Lincoln than the myth of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg’s masterful biopic, his best film since at least Minority Report, is the least Spielbergian feature film while also containing within its DNA, strands of what makes him an auteur at his most pure level. Sentiment without being sentimental, emotional without being melodramatic and weighty without being cumbersome, the film not only features a brilliant turn from Daniel Day-Lewis as the ‘purest man in America,’ but also some of the best script work and photography this year has seen. It’s just a wonder of pure American cinema.
Billed as the final film from master filmmaker Bela Tarr, The Turin Horse features about as many edits as I do fingers, but in that makes one of 2012’s most beautiful films. Using breathtaking black and white photography, the film stars Janos Derzsi and Eirka Bok, both giving two of the most subdued yet startling performances we’ve seen in quite some time. Showing us the weight with which our lives push down upon our mind, body and soul, the film is one of the harsher and heavier films to sit under for its runtime, but it’s as beautiful, as evocative and as affecting as anything this year. Also, possibly the best Blu-ray of the year.
From director Julia Loktev, The Loneliest Planet is a vital and subtle meditation on the human experience and how one’s choices effects it, all while being one of the most enthralling pictures all year. Similar in ideas as to say, L’Atalante, the film looks directly into a collection of moments within this relationship, led by actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg, both of whom give career defining performances here. Furstenberg in particular gives arguably the greatest female performance of 2012, and one of the best overall performances this calendar year. It’s a beautifully engrossing film that is at both frighteningly full of truth, and also utterly thrilling. Currently, it’s available on Netflix.
2012 was the year of many things, but it was primarily the year of film. Film, as in the stock on which films are photographed. While directors appear to be moving more and more towards digital means of filmmaking, my next two picks, from directors Miguel Gomes and Paul Thomas Anderson respectively, prove that film is still as pertinent as ever. Gomes’ film, Tabu, my third choice, is a beautiful look at love and loss, wrapped up in the visual package of inarguably the year’s most gorgeous film. Blending different kinds of film stocks and even filmmaking eras, with a silent final half, Tabu breaks rules, inspires awe from those who lay their eyes upon even one single frame and is impossible to be forgotten once the final frame roles. Unlike anything you’ve seen in quite some time, Tabu is utterly masterful and marks Gomes as one of today’s most important filmmakers.
2. The Master
And the elephant in the room. Inspiring people to seek out seeing the film on film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece may seem to be an exercise in aesthetics, but instead, it is both a tale of one man’s search for a home, as well as being a meditation on art and its creation. Truly a cinematic achievement, Anderson’s film is possibly his best to date, featuring brilliant performances down the line, most notably a Joaquin Phoenix who appears hungry once again, and is as energetic, introspective and big as he has ever been his entire year. Simply 2012’s most important film artistically, it’s only bested on this list by inarguably the most important piece of art this still very young date.
From director Jafar Panahi, this is without a doubt this year’s best film. Shot almost exclusively on an iPhone, the film is co-directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and finds the embattled Iranian auteur under house arrest. However, unable to contain his creative instincts for too long, Panahi sets up a reading of his last screenplay, the one that landed him into this mess of injustice in the first place. A meditation on creativity and an artist’s insatiable appetite for his work, the film is a portrait of injustice and is the most important film you’ll see all year. Moving and heartbreaking, the film is an absolute masterpiece of art, and will hopefully find a home on the Oscar broadcast next year in the Best Documentary category.
Five films that just missed the cut:
Girl Walk // All Day
Your Sister’s Sister