- Beasts Of The Southern Wild
- Holy Motors
- Zero Dark Thirty
- Moonrise Kingdom
- The Master
- The Cabin In The Woods
- This Is Not A Film
- Cloud Atlas
Why do we go to the movies? One oft-cited reason is “to escape.” For me, 2012 offered little need for escape. The year graced me with a new job, a new apartment, a new (old) city, and with the cherished company of a special person with whom to share it all. 2013, you’ve got a lot to live up to.
Me, I went to the movies to see something new, to feel something real, and to think, period. But not to laugh, it seems, since the only comedies to make my list this year are dark (Cabin) and minor-key (Kingdom). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take it from the top.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild comes at audiences like a stampede of aurochs, heart pounding, anthem blaring. Some resisted, I succumbed, and loved it all the more for sweeping me up and carrying me away. Director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin invited us into a world I never knew existed and let me experience its full measure of majesty and terror as seen through the eyes of its six year-old protagonist. Beasts is not only my favorite film of the year, it’s the rare film that gets both childhood and fantasy exactly right (along with Coraline, Pan’s Labyrinth and Let the Right One In).
In key ways, Holy Motors reminds me of an automotive-themed entry on my 2011 list, Rubber. Both films openly question what movies are for, showcasing scenes of audiences passively observing and of performers sliding into and out of roles like drivers changing lanes. But where Rubber uses the tropes of genre and a permeable fourth wall largely to celebrate its own cleverness, Holy Motors plays with form and style because director Leos Carax’s love of cinema is too overwhelming to be contained by things like plot or logic. What does it all add up to? Damned if I know, but each scene offers its own rewards, like the prizes inside a case full of Cracker Jack. One resolution for 2013: see more of the work of star Dennis Lavant.
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker topped my 2009 picks so it’s no surprise her even more impressive 2012 offering sits high on this list. Both films feature protagonists who are exceptionally good at one thing but not much else. Society, or at least our political system, has made these professionals what they are — but at what cost? The more you contemplate Zero Dark Thirty, the more questions it raises about its own agenda as well as the whole of American foreign policy since 9/11. Director Bigelow and her collaborator, writer Mark Boal, pull off a nifty trick: by keeping politics out of their text, they pack it like dynamite into their subtext. Zero Dark Thirty's final shot lights the fuse.
I just adored Moonrise Kingdom. Child actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward hold their own (and then some) in a film with no shortage of acting heavy hitters. Along with Beasts' Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, it was a hell of a year for first-time talent. Director Wes Anderson somehow managed to blend the excitement of youthful adventure with the wistfulness of adult disappointment — and it doesn't hurt that his meticulously crafted visuals are so well matched by a score that makes inspired use of the music of Benjamin Britten.
Speaking of visuals, The Master offered some of the most beautiful images ever captured on 70mm. Initially the plot (or lack thereof) left me as flat as the optics and the acting left me elated. With time, I’ve come to appreciate the kind of interior character story director Paul Thomas Anderson is after. I look forward to seeing this one again and may in hindsight wish I’d placed it higher on my list.
Looper and The Cabin In The Woods are the kind of smart genre films (sci-fi and horror, respectively) that come along all too rarely. Both respect their audiences enough to stay one step ahead of them, and respect their genres enough to embrace the tropes while transcending them. More like this, please. It’s hardly news, but Rian Johnson and Drew Goddard are writer/directors to watch.
Skyfall, too, respected and transcended its genre, all too aware of the weight that comes from dragging 50 years of Bond movies behind you. I admired the way that it functioned both as an end and a new beginning, delivering the familiar pleasures of the Bond movies in a defamiliarized way. Sure, it isn’t terribly kind to its leading ladies, but that too is part of Bond lore. Special mention must be made of Javier Bardem’s evil genius villain; the man is simply never not interesting.
This Is Not A Film is, in fact, a film, but don’t tell the Iranian censors. Let’s call it a documentary, though that word doesn’t do justice to the impossible slight of hand filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb pull off. Panahi, a leading voice in the Iranian New Wave and the director of films like The White Balloon and Offside, has been censored by the Iranian government with a 20-year ban on writing screenplays, directing films, talking to the media or leaving the country. Given that kind of artistic death sentence, what does a creative person do? Pick up an iPhone and turn life into art. Then smuggle that art out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake. This Is Not A Film is the ultimate found-footage film and a triumph of art over oppression.
Finally Cloud Atlas, which edged out Argo and Paranorman for the final spot thanks to its virtuoso editing, on the page and on the screen. Amazingly, the trio of Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski found a way to adapt the notoriously unadaptable novel. I usually find myself allergic to easy sentimentality, but damned if it didn’t get me - big noses, bad wigs and all. Now how can we get Halle Berry to star in a bunch more Luisa Rey Mysteries™?