Back in January I published on Twitter what amounted to my almost-complete top ten list of last year’s movies but I reserved finalizing the list until seeing Amour and Holy Motors. Now that I’ve seen those, in addition to another movie I wasn’t prioritizing (but was so good it crashed the party), I figured I’d better not wait until June to tell you what 2012 movies I liked most. Luckily a lot of these titles are already out on Netflix or will otherwise be released shortly. If the Big Ten can go around calling itself by that name despite having had more than ten teams for twenty years, fuck it, I’m including eleven movies in my list. For all posterity, the best movies of 2012, from 11-1:
Silver Linings Playbook: I’m pretty sure that the entire world is already too familiar with my feelings for Jennifer Lawrence (that, again, have dated since well before 2012), so it suffices to say here that she carries this movie and deserved the Oscar. I wrote at the beginning of our live Oscars blog that I think the criticism that she was too young for the role is misguided; given how crazy these people are it’s pretty understandable that their conceptions of traditional relationships are also off-kilter. Bradley Cooper also shows strong acting chops, and while De Niro didn’t mail it in and Jacki Weaver adds some gravitas (thanks to her work in the excellent Australian crime film Animal Kingdom), I actually thought the supporting performances of Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, and John Ortiz went largely and wrongly unheralded. David O. Russell directs the movie in a way that’s practically as unhinged as all of these people, to great effect.
Rust and Bone: Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to A Prophet (one of my favorites from the first decade of the ’00s), this is the film that crashed the party unexpectedly for me, as I’d heard it’d gotten mixed reviews. In a way this movie is a strong spiritual companion to Silver Linings Playbook, featuring people living at the margins of society looking to establish some kind of control over their relationships. The concept is a little contrived and implausible, and was the source of most of the criticism directed at Rust and Bone (I wrote on Twitter that this is the best film in the “kickboxer falls in love with double-amputee whale trainer” genre that I’d ever seen), but I had little trouble getting past it. Emotionally messy (and, like SLP, directed as such) and featuring a great performance from Marion Cotillard, I’m happy to include it on the list.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: An anti-procedural (we already know who the killers are) that follows a detective, coroner, some other cops, and the killers over the course of one night as they try to locate the dead body in the Turkish countryside, I loved the stark minimalism of this film. Methodical in its spareness, it provides a fascinating glimpse into modern-day rural Turkey, and is often as visually arresting as a Terrence Malick movie.
Amour: The polar opposite of Silver Linings Playbook and Rust and Bone, as an intimate and profoundly sad study of an elderly couple coming to terms with death Amour deserved all the accolades it received last year, with special praise for Riva’s and Trintignant’s work. While it feels less emotionally distant than Michael Haneke’s other films, there’s still room for debate about whether the title is or isn’t meant to be ironic.
Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino’s latest in his run of revenge fantasies, this had everything you want from Tarantino: the best soundtracks around, dialogue so strange and quick that you can practically see the actors salivating (I’m going to a refrain from the N-word discussion), and an ability to make you feel uncomfortable and laugh simultaneously. His last effort in this mold, Inglourious Basterds, was probably my least favorite Tarantino movie; he let his instincts get the better of him, and the film went off on too many tangents. With Django, Tarantino is much more focused: he doesn’t veer at all from the main plot, which means that the film has much more momentum than Basterds did for the climactic shoot-em-up finale. It’s arguably his best since Jackie Brown.
Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson is love-him-or-hate-him at this point, and I’m in the “love him” camp. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to you once I let you in on the fact that Bill Murray is the greatest living actor. As always, Anderson efficiently taps into Murray’s detached melancholy here, but what elevates Moonrise Kingdom are the performances of the two child actors. It’s a huge risk to center the emotional thrust of a movie around one kid, let alone two, but somehow Anderson found Jared Gilman and Kara Heyward, two kids just as weird and quaint as him.
Skyfall: With some deference to Christopher Nolan, who basically turned the superhero movie landscape into a hellish dystopia, I’m glad the Bond franchise has followed this path. After the incoherent mess that was Quantum of Solace, this next installment has a strong argument for the best Bond movie ever. Javier Bardem adds a slimily sexually-charged albino to the Bond-villain canon, and this may well be the best movie Sam Mendes has ever directed. (If you are screaming “BUT WHAT ABOUT AMERICAN BEAUTY,” I am happy to inform you that American Beauty is AWFUL.) Major credit also goes to Roger Deakins for shooting the Macau scenes, which should have garnered him the cinematography Oscar.
Looper: I’d previously only known Rian Johnson’s work from two episodes of Breaking Bad (he’s directed Season 3’s “Fly” and Season 5’s “Fifty-One,” the former of which didn’t work for me, though I loved the latter), but I fell for Looper‘s inventive concept. It’s part science fiction that appeals not just to nerds and part existential philosophy that doesn’t hit you over your head to the point of stupidity. In 2032 this movie will probably be just as cool as it was in 2012, the way Blade Runner will hold up long after 2019.
Oslo, August 31st: A movie that follows around a recovering heroin addict named Anders as he’s let out of rehab for a job interview, you can probably guess that this isn’t the happiest movie you’ll ever see, but it’s a beautiful portrait of urban life and what happens when return after you’ve been away for a while. Anders probably lived hard in his twenties, but because he’s been incapacitated for a while he’s pretty much rudderless in his thirties, especially compared to his old friends, who have all moved on somehow.
The Master: Speaking of people who feel rudderless, allow me to introduce you to Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Searching desperately for something to distract him after a traumatic experience during World War II, Freddie finds his way to The Cause, headed by Hoffman’s character, who is in many ways Freddie’s other half: as wild as Freddie is, Dodd has constructed a house of cards around his own little personality cult that’s analogous to Scientology. I’d include this film on my list just for the processing scene between Phoenix and Hoffman alone, but all that P.T. Anderson brings to this picture, from the Jonny Greenwood score to the entrancing 70mm photography, only add to its mystery and meaning. Anderson’s films have grown increasingly chilly and less sprawling (just compare Boogie Nights and Magnolia to There Will Be Blood and The Master), but I enjoy the challenges his latest films present. I’d be lying if I told you I understood what the hell was going on, but unlike Holy Motors I’m eager to try and figure it out.
Zero Dark Thirty: Unfairly pilloried for its “pro-torture propaganda” (I’d argue it’s anti-torture, but that’s a blog post from December) and for not being 100% true despite its based-on-real-events nature (I won’t even bother with this), this is among the most riveting movie-going experiences I’ve ever had and the best pure procedural that’s appeared in theaters since Zodiac, at least. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal wisely avoid providing any backstories for these characters; to do so would have been pointless and detrimental, because the characters’ lives are consumed by the hunt. The goal of Zero Dark Thirty is to place you in the moment, which it does incredibly skillfully: characters come and go (except for Jessica Chastain’s Maya), but the stakes only get higher, leading up to the virtuoso raid on the Abbotabad compound, much of which was shot using night-vision filters. What’s left at the end isn’t some rah-rah jingoistic moment but a quiet and disturbing reflection on the price we’ve all paid. In the coming years, after we remove ourselves a little from the hysteria, I’m pretty sure we’ll reflect on this as the best movie of 2012.