Best Films of 2012: Part I

January 13, 2013

After last year’s overly indulgent Top 30 countdown, I had fully intended to cut back this year.  If I didn’t reduce it to a Top 10 and maybe an Honorable Mention list (placed alphabetically, of course), then at most a Top 20.  However, as nobody probably noticed, neither my blogging partner nor I have posted very much in the last four months. Indeed most of the films that made it on my list I never wrote about here.  So I’m keeping the thirty film format this year, but I swear, next time around I’ll keep up with the writing a bit more and that way you can see what I thought of individual films and the ranking of the End of the Year list just happens to be a fun diversion rather than me trying to express thoughts on the movies I actually liked throughout the year.

As ever, I have missed a number of films that might have made this list.  That’s a casualty of circumstance and, well, being an amateur blogger with limited means.  The usual rules apply for eligibility (Academy Award rules, i.e. films that received a theatrical release in NY or DC for at least a week during the calendar year of 2012), and in total I saw 121 eligible films.

As for the year itself, I’m not going to say it was a bad year for movies (as this list will hopefully attest), but it wasn’t a particularly great one.  I feel as though I saw more films this year than previous ones that reached for greatness but were too problematic to be called a total success.  These range from the big budget blockbusters like Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises to the little indies like Wuthering Heights and The Loneliest Planet. Still, even at 30 films I had to make some hard choices, and as ever, the lowest ten are not only fairly interchangeable by ranking but they could have been replaced by completely different films (for instance, Django Unchained was thereabout until I saw the first scene of Inglorious Basterds on TV tonight, which resulted in me chucking the latest Tarantino effort off the list).  As you get further towards the top, it starts to get more solidly defined, but there’s still an element of “how I felt when I wrote the list” to it.  Regardless, I think all of the films here are worth seeing, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

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30. How to Survive a Plague 

I don’t meant to be insensitive, but documentaries about the struggle with AIDS in the 1980s aren’t hard to come by.  Its fairly well worn territory, but where How to Survive a Plague sets itself apart is in filmcraft and immediate relevance.  Constructed like a disaster thriller, we’re given loads of archival footage with disembodied interview voice-overs to guide us through the events.  It might seem a bit ghastly, but there’s a suspense given to which of the characters we follow survive, and the release at the end is almost overwhelming as the death toll rises and rises and rises.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, comes the relevance of the topic.  Not strictly about AIDS, this film charts the ACT UP movement, perhaps the most successful direct action protest group in recent history.  By focusing on their incredible efforts to delegate education and understanding of the medical side of things, as well as the tactics and purpose of their protests, we get an amazing insight into just how this process works.  Given the crumbling of the Occupy movement into smaller, more specific groupings, it’s fascinating to watch as ACT UP tears itself apart, and when some admit they’re wrong and regroup to get what actually needs to be done accomplished.  Inspiring and tragic in turn, it’s a masterclass in documentary filmmaking.

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29. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Okay, it is a bit cornball and obvious, but it works.  The shocking thing about The Perks of Being a Wallflower is just how effective it is despite being steeped in wish-fulfillment fantasy and nostalgic daydreaming.  All credit to author and first-time director Stephen Chbosky for ably setting out this film in a way that never feels too saccharine or manipulative.  A large part of that comes from the performances of Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller, as well as Emma Watson who might be the least of the three but she acquits herself just fine.  It’s tender and sweet, and it nicely avoids setting up and outsider group versus popular kids narrative, instead focusing on the difficulties and awkwardness of finding a group of decent, like-minded individuals and navigating the tricky waters of teenage friendship.  When I saw this on a weeknight in a near-empty theatre, there was a teenager sitting close to the front dressed in what these aging eyes would consider to be “alternative” or maybe even “goth” clothes.  This spectator was howling with laughter and openly sobbing throughout the picture, and if there’s any testament to the effectiveness of this film, that’s it.  If I was 13, I imagine this would have been my favourite movie of all time.

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28. Dredd

This year, The Raid: Redemption is getting a lot of attention for it’s tight, exciting action chops and perhaps deservedly so.  For my money, I’ll take Dredd, which follows a similar story of cops making their way up a dangerous high-rise level by level, any day of the week.  Director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland keep the action tight and fast, providing us with above-average mayhem and gun battles as our fascist heroes move through a dystopian wasteland.  Abandoning the campy heroics of the deservedly reviled Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd, this version concentrates on the callous inhumanity of our supposed hero, who strictly abides by the letter of the law and metes out ultraviolent punishments as a result.  All credit for sticking with the source material and never allowing us to see anything more than star Karl Urban’s mouth.  Olivia Thirlby as his psychic rookie partner might be miscast, but it’s hardly a movie-killer, especially as Lena Headey’s turn as nemesis Mama is steeped in a seen-it-all viciousness that makes her more than believable as a match for the seemingly invulnerable hero.  Throughout the film we’re given extraordinary sequences involving the drug Slo-mo, which turns the turgid, filthy dystopian tower block into a slow-motion nightmare dreamscape of vivid colours and rippling flesh.  It deserved far more than to be a flat out bomb, and if it lacks the elegance of its blockbuster action competitors, it gives B-movies thrills like nothing else this year.

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27. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Perhaps it is far too problematic to really be included here, but honestly it’s stayed with me far more than a number of other, more objectively “better” films.  A tonally odd comedy, Seeking a Friend… is about nothing less than the title suggests.  A giant asteroid is heading towards earth, and as the classic rock radio station DJ informs us, the attempts to destroy it a la Armageddon and Deep Impact have failed and the human race has just a few weeks left to survive.  Steve Carell and Keira Knightley are certainly an odd fit, but despite the script being of little help, by the end they make it work somehow.  The odd chemistry is a fit for the material, and though not every comic moment works as they travel across the Northeast, most of them work far better then they have any right to.  The feeling of doom is never far from the surface, and though a number of the situations are sitcomy in essence, that sense of desperation colours absolutely everything.  The satire of the visit to a chain neighbourhood grill restaurant becomes almost unbearably grim just by the circumstances.  Knightley just about manages to pull her character’s ultra-quirkiness onto this side of acceptable, and Carell’s hangdog schmo routine is more effective than usual.  All credit to first time director Lorene Scafaria, who might be out of her depth at points but at times can pull off some truly spectacular small moments (the scene in the jail cell is exquisitely blocked and shot, and having Tim Orr as cinematography doesn’t hurt at all).  So yes, the lead-up to the final scene is hackneyed and dumb, but that final scene itself is shockingly effective.  An imperfect beast, but emotional and ballsy it is, and it doesn’t deserve to be left to the dustbin of history as yet another minor film flopping out of memory.

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26.  Zero Dark Thirty

To ignore Zero Dark Thirty’s sparking of the torture debate is absurd, and I don’t totally wish to do that.  However, it’s been written about from many sides so much in the past month that there’s not much for me to add, other than my particular opinion.  I think the film does indicate that torture played a role, and even though it’s an obscure one (and there’s an argument to be made that the filmmakers were trying to show that it didn’t work, they just failed), it is certainly there on a narrative level.  Of course, this is a fictional film, and the US did (and continues to) engage in heinous and often illegal behaviour to fight the nebulous “war on terror”, so to leave it out completely would have been far more morally objectionable.  Those images at the beginning never really leave, and they colour the entire viewing experience, as they should.  So sure, we can debate whether the film “advocates torture” (I don’t believe it does), but it’s significant that the characters sure as shit do.  Director Kathryn Bigelow has stated time and time again that she wanted to present the material objectively, and while that is just inherently impossible, she comes pretty close.  If you truly believe in the mission, you’ll come out thinking this was all worth it.  If you don’t, you’ll come out thinking it wasn’t.  I certainly got the sense of a moral decay throughout the process of the manhunt – reason is replaced with a single-minded drive in the character of Maya (Jessica Chastain, brilliant here at elevating her character above a blank slate cipher).  The astonishingly shot and edited final raid sequence confirmed this for me, as Bigelow skillfully avoids treating it as a rah-rah action sequence and more of a very tense day at the office for the Navy Seals, punctuated by brutal violence which is morally repulsive but also just part of the job (firing a bullet into a dead body “just to make sure” is jarring and a little sickening every time it happens).  Now we could go through shot by shot and make arguments about the morality, but no matter what you believe, Bigelow directs the hell out of this material, condensing a ten year manhunt into a 150 minute film that is never boring.  It’s an assured display of top-level craftsmanship, and I also happen to believe it reflects a nation’s state of mind, for better or worse.

 

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25.  Whores’ Glory

A triptych observing a short time in the lives of prostitutes in three cities, Michael Glawogger’s documentary Whores’ Glory does not make for a fun evening.  Still, this is no mere misery-drenched ‘issue’ picture, for Glawogger chooses a particular and often stunning aesthetic over you-are-there realism.  He’s not interested in capturing incidents – there are very few in the entire film – but he wants to interview the prostitutes and their customers to give us an idea of not only what their lives are like, but also what cultural role they serve and where they stand in the social hierarchy.  By highlighting specific areas in three countries (Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico), he manages to get very distinct impressions of the way capitalism and Western culture has moved (or not moved) through the developing world.  Thailand’s prostitutes see it as a job and in a rough economy, and some even see it as satisfying some of the time.  Mexico is much closer to the unregulated, illegal trade that pervades much of the developed world, including drug addiction.  Bangladesh is more culturally sealed, where girls are picked up and sold or even born into low-grade brothels where it’s a struggle just to survive, but they have nowhere else to go.  The most heartbreaking scene involves a fairly young woman wondering why life has to be this way.  Glawogger is smart enough never to attempt to answer that question, but through his visual style and use of music (CocoRosie and PJ Harvey tunes are pervasive and affecting), he presents us with a sympathetic eye on a difficult and troubled world.  How it relates to everything else is up for us to decide.

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24. Rust and Bone

If you saw the American trailer for Jacques Audilard’s Rust and Bone, you were confronted with a wordless montage of images soundtracked by M83’s bombastic “My Tears are Becoming a Sea”, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for.  Matthias Schoenaerts plays a down-and-out fighter father struggling to find steady employment, and Marion Cotillard plays a whale trainer who loses her legs in an accident.  No points for working out the trajectory of the plot, but knowing that is hardly an impediment when melodrama is as fine as this.  Audiard has a good command of these sweeping emotions, and the gorgeous photography plays well with both the seaside and the grotty homes of the working poor.  As these two characters struggle to reassert some kind of meaning in their lives, it’s hard not to be swept away by the performances and, well, the emotion of it all.  It does what it does expertly, and I’ll admit that my heart was in my throat for some of the best scenes.

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23. The Kid with a Bike

Sometimes I feel that people only take the relentlessly depressing as “serious” when it comes to foreign films.  Though this is clearly a generalized projection on my part, the response to the Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike (and to an extent, Haneke’s Amour) neatly fit into my near baseless broadside against critical culture.  Though it is certainly a somewhat more optimistic film than previous ventures, The Kid with a Bike is for me an emotional and satisfying experience in the way that, I felt, Lorna’s Silence wasn’t.  Just because it’s a rather stock story about a woman taking in a young boy, resulting in them working out their problems and becoming a family unit, doesn’t mean it can’t be brilliant.  The sympathy through which the story is told is important here, but the stakes that come with violent tendencies in a youth who is essentially abandoned by his father are still significant.  There’s darkness here, of course, but so much tenderness as well.  Cécile de France’s performance is desperate but kind, and Thomas Doret as the boy is the kind of young newcomer performance most American filmmakers can only dream of.  Minor Dardennes my ass.

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22. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Yes, I’m just as surprised as you.  I have absolutely no affection for this series, often thought of by yours truly as the worst of the crappy 90s action/sci-fi franchises.  Nonetheless, here we are, and director John Hyams has, of all things, made an effective action vehicle that has a brain.  Beginning with a harrowing, extended-take POV sequence where the protagonist John (Scott Adkins) watches his family brutally killed by Luc (Jean-Claude Van Damme), the visual invention rarely lets up.  As John moves through the world attempting to piece together his memory (accompanied by an effective strobing effect), he eventually moves towards an Apocalypse Now homage that is, by that point, completely earned.  The action sequences are perhaps the first to truly make video game logic work, especially a late shoot-out through the compound of the pseudo-religious cult Luc has created out of rescued UniSols that were previously brainwashed by the government.  Universal Soldier: Day of Recknoning proves that even a crappy mythology featuring Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren and a relatively small budget doesn’t mean you can’t make a truly quality genre film.

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21. Turn Me On, Dammit!

We talk a lot about how Hollywood should be as adventurous and honest as independent or foreign cinema, and we’re usually right about that.  In the case of the Norwegian Turn Me On, Dammit!, we have an excellent case of a foreign film importing a tired teen sex comedy and injecting it with a humour, sweetness, and (perhaps most importantly of all) a very simple switching of the gender to put it’s major studio forebears to shame.  It follows 15-year-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm) as she fights off incredible hormonal urges as well as the boredom of her small Norwegian town.  A simple switching of the gender from sex-obsesessed males to sex-obsessed females would be laudable just because it is so rarely done, but that’s not what makes the movie truly special.  It is a genuinely funny and observant portrait of the absurdities of teenage life – the entire plot hinges on whether or not her crush touched her leg with his penis at a party, after all.  As it moves on we get a clearer sense of her home life, her friends and their desires for social inclusion, and finally a trip to the hopeful endgame: student life in Oslo.  It’s smart, sweet, and oddly romantic at times, and it has an ending worthy of John Hughes at his best.  It would be great if Hollywood would tackle female sexuality in such a kind-hearted, anti-shaming fashion, but since it refuses to do so, we have this gem, and it certainly stands on its own outside of being merely a counterpoint to the failings of a studio.

-M

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