Choosing 10 films from the exceptional list of nearly 60 films from 2012 I saw was difficult. And even when I found the 10 I wanted to include, putting them in order was even more of a challenge. It’s hard to say something is better than something else, especially when it comes to art. Like most top 10 lists, there’s a lot of personality and personal preference to be found within mine.
THE TOP 10 FILMS OF 2012
Michael Haneke’s stark picture about life and love is mostly about death. The greatest of films are able to challenge us, without looking the other way, and make us think about the existence of our own insignificant selves. Haneke, like so many great auteurs before him, does just that in the depressing and dark Amour. Functioning as a chamber play, Haneke locks us in the drab home of a loving elder couple and encloses us into their life, their problems and their sickness. With two of the best and most heartbreaking performances of the year Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are the nail in the literal coffin of Haneke’s chilling and exceptional film.
9. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino whips up a spaghetti western dish that’s very stylish, very funny and very influenced. A lot of extracurricular discussion surfaced after the release of Tarantino’s film, which channels some of the greatness left on the spaghetti western battlefield by Sergio Corbucci (Django, The Great Silence) and others years earlier. Folks want to discuss what, if anything, Tarantino brought to the table in terms of race relations, slavery and emancipation. They want to relate it all to white folk and black folk and entitlement. They, in my opinion, are trying to find things that aren’t necessarily there. For me Django Unchained is nothing more than high fantasy and exceptional violence being brought into the disbanded spaghetti western genre. Sure, Corbucci’s films, and other spaghetti westerns (like A Bullet for the General) had some political and other messages. So does this film. And while I don’t like to decide what another person’s motive was, it seems like Tarantino wanted to live one of his dreams and make a fucking awesome spaghetti western. So he did.
I first became introduced to the Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev through the heavy and grim The Return. That film’s discussion about morality and ethics, as well its ability to impart a particularly dark and existential mood on me while grabbing me by the throat with a cold mood and not letting go left me with chills. In only his third film Zvyagintsev returns with yet another discussion about the morality of simple, everyday people. The titular character, Elena, is not in a position to succeed. Elena is presented with options. This is a film about life, death and moral decisions. Emmanuelle Riva got the foreign Oscar nomination for Amour but it wouldn’t be out of line to argue how much Nadezhda Markina would deserve a similar outcome for her engaging and impressive performance as Elena. Zvyagintsev’s gorgeously bleak film has cold Russian blood running through it but not without a clear element of humanity to counteract it.
7. This Is Not a Film
The only documentary to make an appearance on my list is Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film. This Iranian film certainly isn’t going to be the most appealing or attractive film you’ll see considering it’s a few people sitting around and talking while Panahi, under house arrest, awaits his verdict from an appeals court. But there might not be a more important documentary released in the last five years. There’s certainly nothing else like this. As Panahi worries about his own status (he faces a six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban on filmmaking) what he captures as he documents his own life on a handheld camera, and sometimes iPhone, is essential. Panahi, a veteran filmmaker, begins to blur the line between his reality and his drama. What is happening outside of his secured apartment provides the perfect storm for his more intimate conflict that is about so much more than his personal outcome. It’s about his society, his culture, his family and his friends. The final moments of the film build to some of the most stunning images captured on film in 2012. So rarely is a film, through such simplicity, able to leave a mark like This Is Not a Film is able to leave on its viewers.
6. Holy Motors
It’s been easy to see how Holy Motors has become one of Leos Carax’s most successful and, strangely enough, accessible films, as far as North America’s reception is concerned. Holy Motors is a multi-faceted feast that offers a challenging and enigmatic story to keep up with combined with strong, powerful visuals. Combine all of that with Denis Lavant’s intense and morphing performance (one of the best of the year) that spans through a number of mutations and you’ve got something that, as strange as it is, would grab the attention of most who decide to watch it. Holy Motors, or any other Carax film, is no easy task to take on but this is ultimately a rewarding experience.
Leaving the theater after my first Cosmopolis viewing was confusing. I didn’t know what to think. I knew I liked what David Cronenberg, one of my favorite filmmakers, had just shown me. I knew I was captivated, I knew I was stunned and I knew I was absolutely in a sweaty trance from it all. I’ve yet to read Don DeLillo’s book, even though it’s been siting to my left for a couple of months now. After much thought, some discussion and a second viewing I know exactly what to think. Cronenberg’s film, said to be just about a word-by-word adaptation, captures DeLillo’s economical and societal commentaries with fever and terror. Robert Pattinson slips into his character, delivers a stunning performance that is very much unlike his previous endeavors. And after being mostly trapped in a limo, Cosmopolis ends as a suffocating dramatic episode and that will probably confuse and divide audiences as much as anything has in 2012.
Even if Tabu wasn’t one of the best films of the year it would get points for its clever execution. Divided into two parts, Miguel Gomes’ film is one of the most unique pieces of storytelling I’ve seen in a long time. I often appreciate well-executed narrative techniques that I’m not accustomed to. Being challenged by storytelling is refreshing and I like when a filmmaker tries to challenge himself with storytelling. Tabu does just that. It’s a classical and poetic love story full of conflicting warmth and tragedy. Instilling a feverish and dreamlike quality in total black and white, Gomes’ absolutely throws out every preconceived notion of how a story should be told by dazzling with a challenging two-part narrative of dreams and memories. It’s not an easy watch, as it slowly yet effectively builds itself into your consciousness, but Tabu is something special and the kind of film that will gain even more appreciation over time.
3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
If I were basing my top 10 films purely on technical achievement Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia might have been number one. Ceylan first grabbed my attention in 2008 with Three Monkeys. His other films, like Climates and Distant, also have an uncanny ability to leave my mouth gaping in astonishment. He’s one of the best working directors right now and Anatolia is perhaps Ceylan’s best work yet. It is certainly the grandest and greatest example of how proficient Ceylan has become at evoking emotions from the viewer through his cold approach. On the outside Anatolia is a police procedure film. But in the end, like Ceylan’s other films that stress relationships, family, heartbreak, struggle and so much more, Anatolia becomes a human story. This isn’t just about finding the guy who committed a crime, it’s about understanding why it happened. Anatolia twists and winds, both literally and figuratively, through a number of moments that are highlighted by some of the most captivating and jarring sequences of darkness that make minor explosions feel major.
2. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
It’s been called Terrence Malick with stick figures. I think it’s so much more. Getting turned onto Don Hertzfeldt’s work in 2012 has been a revelation for me. He’s done for me what no other work of animation has ever done before. Bill, our worrying, retrospective, thoughtful stick figure of a main character, is perhaps the most relatable character of 2012. Hertzfeldt’s creative and powerful execution, with a unique art direction and killer sound design, is what makes It’s Such a Beautiful Day stick with the viewer and linger in their mind. It’s both a challenging exploration of our own personal human souls (life, death, happiness and depression) and our entire giant but suffocating universe. Not many films can lay claim to successfully confronting that and Hertzfeldt does it with one hour of animation. With that upfront approach it’s the most honest film of 2012.
1. The Master
It almost seems cliche for me to choose Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master as the best film of the year. It was my most anticipated viewing going into the year. I saw it twice in theaters and that wasn’t nearly enough of an opportunity to digest all of the ideas PTA threw at me. Some stuck, some didn’t. It isn’t the perfect film, with faults much like its main characters. There’s been some divisive discussion about whether or not people can relate to PTA’s sprawling vagabond journey and its characters. Some say they can’t, while others absolutely can. On both occasions The Master launched discussions absolutely worthwhile of the best film of the year. I haven’t seen two characters with a more interesting and well-utilized dynamic than The Master‘s Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd. On camera together Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman deliver two of the best performances of the year, together, in a confrontational and evolutional fashion through both power and humor. The ideas that were presented, the characters that were developed, the performances that were delivered and the total visual and aural experience that encompassed the audience is one for the ages. It’s presented itself into a divided audience in 2012, but I think The Master will be remembered as one of the best films of its time.
And ten more great ones: Barbara, Berberian Sound Studio, The Cabin in the Woods, The Kid with a Bike, Magic Mike, Moonrise Kingdom, Oslo August 31, Rust and Bone, The Turin Horse, Zero Dark Thirty.
And five that flew under the radar: The Color Wheel, Klown, The Paperboy, Sound of my Voice, This Must Be the Place.
Best Performance (actor): Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Runners-up: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour), Denis Lavant (Holy Motors), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone)
Best Performance (actress): Nadezhda Markina, Elena
Runners-up: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Cécile De France (The Kid With a Bike), Nina Hoss (Barbara)
Best Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Runners-up: Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), Miguel Gomes (Tabu), Michael Haneke (Amour), Leos Carax (Holy Motors)
Best Screenplay (original): Miguel Gomes and Mariana Ricardo, Tabu
Runners-up: Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom)