As usual, the Academy Awards are poised to make some very wrong decisions this year. So as usual, I am prematurely correcting them by releasing my Top Ten of the year.
That year is 2012, of course — real film critics release such lists at the end of December or beginning of January, but since I have numerous other obligations, you get it in late February, once I’ve had a chance to catch up with nearly all eligible films.
It was, overall, a good year for cinema — not the best in recent memory, but better than the past couple of years, on the whole. Women facing great obstacles factored largely into my faves this year, and a surprising three of my picks are in French. (But no other languages — sorry, rest of the world.)
You can find my full-length review by clicking on the title of the movie. Bon appetit!
HardintheCity’s Top 10 Films of 2012:
My #10 slot tends to be my “I recommend this, but…” spot, and this year I’m cheating even more than usual. Girl Walk // All Day is not actually a 2012 film, nor was it given a proper theatrical release. In fact, the entire thing can (and should) be watched online. (Legally!) You have no excuse not to watch it immediately.
Jacob Krupnick’s film is essentially a lengthy music video set to Girl Talk’s album All Day, which itself “borrows” music from huge artists like Rihanna and U2 and Lady Gaga. Rights? Who needs right to anything in the age of the internet? Well, nobody, as long as you’re not making any money. Anne Marsen, Dai Omiya, and John Doyle carry the movie on the spirit of their moves alone — not so much technically polished as compulsively watchable — and you never know just what’s going to happen next. I just couldn’t turn it off.
So what makes this different than any YouTube video of a flash mob? I’ll tell you: I don’t know. I can only go with my gut, in that it feels like a film rather than some silly clip that’s been put up online. It’s full-length, for one thing, and for another there’s a lot more thought put into the craft and the execution than most things you’ll find on the internet. And yet it has the same fun “let’s put it on a show!” / do-it-yourself / handmade quality as the best of what the internet has to offer. In the future, I reckon, more films will be like this, so I may as well start putting them on my Top 10 now.
And yet, if anyone still has a problem with this pick, then I will happily substitute my #11 film of the year, Pitch Perfect, a surprisingly sharp and hilarious film that also uses mash up culture to great effect. So there.
Fun! Laughter! Dancing! Joy! Those are things you will never find in a Michael Haneke movie. (Even when it’s called Funny Games.) Amour is no exception. It is, however, a departure from his more confrontational body of work that preceded this slow and steady meditation on growing old and dying. Did I mention it’s not a comedy?
Plenty of films are about love, but few tackle this end of it. Decades after riding off into the sunset together, or however it is they met, any couple that grows old together will face some version of this story. Neither Georges nor Anne is as quick or spry as they used to be; they’ve stopped looking forward, and are looking back. Then one of them suffers a stroke and becomes greatly disabled, both mentally and physically — but not completely, because that’d be too easy. Emmanuelle Riva’s astonishing performance makes us guess how much of Anne is present in every scene, and how much of her mind has wandered far, far away. For a character who can hardly move, her performance is quite physical — even when it’s just her face doing the heavy lifting.
In Amour, Haneke gets the chance to be something he almost never is — subtle — and is a better filmmaker for it. That isn’t to say he completely loses his relish for punishing the audience, but here it feels earned, because Amour is no crueler than life is. Unlike its title, Amour is merciless and not easy to cozy up to, but its power lingers long after it’s over. Like being haunted by a loved one.
At last! 2012 was the year Joss Whedon finally emerged as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with, and yes, The Avengers was quite good — especially compared to your average superhero movie (if still not quite on par with the very best, like The Dark Knight). It had a few Whedon signature touches of banter and humor, and yet, for a full dose of what fans love about the geek auteur, there’s an even better bet — The Cabin In The Woods, which he co-wrote with former Buffy The Vampire Slayer scribe Drew Goddard. It is, of course, no straight-up slice-and-dice affair, as anyone unfamiliar with Whedon’s genre send-ups would expect from the generic title. Instead, it’s the cleverest and most meta horror movie since Kevin Williamson’s Scream. What Scream did for slasher flicks, The Cabin In The Woods does for the rest of the horror genre.
The Cabin In The Woods doesn’t work quite as well within its genre as Scream does, at functioning both as a truly scary horror piece while also making sly commentary on over-familiar tropes. The genre conventions of The Cabin In The Woods are, well, generic, but thankfully there’s a lot more going on than just that. The third act in particular is to die for, but what cuts even deeper is what the film has to say about human nature — why do we watch horror movies? What does that say about us? Why do we want to see the same types of people die, over and over and over?
This the ultimate valentine to the horror genre, which is why many critics and horror fans fell for it, but it’s to Whedon’s credit that the film doesn’t settle for just a couple of winks and nudges, but also goes for the jugular thematically. The most callous scene has a major character about to meet a gruesome end, unnoticed, as a party rages around the image on a TV monitor — a sly response to the way we, too, often feel nothing when stereotypical horror heroines meet their maker. The last scene is a winking “fuck you” to the audience, but not a mean-spirited one; to reference a very different auteur whose work is also present in this list, The Cabin In The Woods basically makes the same point Michael Haneke has made numerous times, but actually has a little fun doing so. And so do we. Is that so wrong? Well, if so, we’re likely to be punished for it…
7. HOLY MOTORS
A fitting segue from The Cabin In The Woods, Holy Motors is as much a commentary on cinema as Whedon and Goddard’s horror film — it’s just a little less blatant about what it’s trying to say. I was tempted to include the ambitious and occasionally haunting Cloud Atlas in my list, even though the film had its share of awkward misfire moments — particularly with some distracting casting choices which have actors like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Jim Sturgess playing characters of various races, genders, and ethnicities that they really have no business embodying. A much more successful endeavor on this front is Holy Motors, featuring Denis Levant inhabiting the skin of an assortment of quirky creations — a creepy and vaguely monstrous sewer-dweller, a scuzzy assassin, a harried father, and the actor who is assigned to play all these roles in various locations throughout Paris. Essentially, it’s a series of short films tied together by a loose narrative; then again, not really.
There’s no real way to take Holy Motors at face value — trying to figure out the “plot” is a worthless endeavor, like applying real-world rules to a David Lynch movie. Holy Motors follows a dream-like logic where there are sometimes life-and-death consequences to actions, sometimes not; no two segments are alike, either in tone or in how we perceive the world that’s been created for us. It’s all artificial, and Holy Motors is pretty direct about that — but every movie is artificial, after all. Holy Motors is a bizarre meditation on the way cinema has the power to move us, manipulate us, and make us marvel even if we don’t have the faintest idea what the hell is happening. Its protagonist, a kind of actor who seems to drag the emotional weight of every role he’s ever played around with him, might be an allegory for performers, or perhaps for storytellers — Holy Motors is broad enough that you can read almost anything into it.
The film is too bizarre (and French) for many mainstream filmgoers, but for serious cineastes, it’s a treat. Leos Carax has packed it with references that almost no one seems to get, and that’s fine. The nuttier the better, in this case. The final few minutes of Holy Motors go so absurdly off the rails that it’s almost like Carax just didn’t know how to top all the craziness that came before; in the future, I’ll probably watch it like I’d watch Paris Je T’aime, returning to my favorite bits more often than the film as a whole. This little wonder contains several of the most mesmerizing and memorable moments I saw all year — an ill-fated duet with Kylie Minogue, a fashion shoot that takes an oddball turn, an abrupt musical intermission, and especially a haunting “sex” scene involving motion capture suits. They’re more satisfying individually than the film is as a whole, and I can’t wait to rewatch them.
Science fiction tends to imagine brave new worlds that say something about the here and now — at least, they should. But most of Hollywood’s recent sci-fi offerings give us predictable story beats and zero food for thought. Looper is different — not because its premise is so much more original than, say, the hokey Justin Timberlake vehicle In Time, but because it was clearly made without any adherence to formula or genre conventions. Here is the rare movie that doesn’t feel like it’s on autopilot; rather, it unfolds in ways that are truly surprising and feel wholly organic to these characters and this world.
For a futuristic story, Looper spends an awful lot of time on a rustic Kansas farm. And for all its big ideas, what it really boils down to is surprisingly intimate and small-scale — a mother’s love. A lot of care was taken to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a young Bruce Willis, which I’m not sure was necessary — Gordon-Levitt’s performance alone sells it. Looper has several visual moments that catch the audience off guard, but it’s more notable for the emotional undercurrent that gives it a real pulse. It’s like a Sundance movie dressed up in Hollywood clothes; that low-budget indie that just so happens to take place in a dystopian future — more specifically, a dystopian future that doesn’t feel so far removed from our not-so-utopian present.
Time travel doesn’t often make sense in movies, and if you think about it too hard, perhaps Looper doesn’t either. But what it does have is a sense of originality and innovation absent in the works of all other filmmakers — hints of Kubrick and Tarantino, amongst others. If we could time-travel to the future, I bet we’d see that writer/director Rian Johnson is a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.
5. MAGIC MIKE
Take away the stripping — I know, no one wants that, but just go with it for a sec — and Magic Mike is a sobering look at the youth of America, the ones that don’t follow the straight-and-narrow path of a higher education followed by 9-to-5 mediocrity. You don’t need to take your clothes off for a living to relate to that.
Now put the stripping back in, and you have a rollicking good time that is also smarter than any film based on Channing Tatum’s life should be. Steven Soderbergh doesn’t shy away from the sex appeal that drove women and gays in droves to see Magic Mike opening weekend; the stripping sequences are great fun to watch, thanks in large part to the surprising skill and charisma of Channing Tatum. I’ll admit, I wrote him off long ago, but in 2012 he proved himself a talented performer, so I’m delighted to be wrong. He is, in fact, actually quite good here as the stripper with a heart of gold — a role that, with weaker writing and acting, could have been truly wince-worthy. (The whole ensemble is pretty solid, especially a standout Matthew McConaughey, who neatly parodies his real-life status as Hollywood’s resident ladykiller.)
To the surprise of many, Magic Mike is a bit of a tragedy — about creative people who are victims of an economic downturn, and about what happens to people who pay the bills with their body. It doesn’t dig as deep as Black Swan or The Wrestler on that subject, and for some, perhaps, the more dramatic elements of the story felt a bit inert. They came for a rain of men, not a storm of drama. But, fittingly for a movie about stripping, Magic Mike is all about money — the side jobs these guys perform to stay afloat, the price of living it up in your twenties. “I’m not my lifestyle!” Mike says in self-defense to his love interest, but of course, we all are — and all the sexy boys of Magic Mike become victims of their lifestyle one way or another, whether it’s drugs or debt or plain ol’ narcissism. Mike’s just the only who’s starting to realize it.
Magic Mike takes place in Tampa — what better place to explore the underbelly of the American dream? Isn’t that dream as much of a striptease as a lap dance from a guy in a G-string? Stripping might be harmless, but it’s a gateway drug to browner pastures, and respectable people don’t look on it kindly. Dallas, Mike, and the rest are ultimately disposable — one-night-only fantasies for women at bachelorette party or on their birthdays. They’re dressed up as firemen, cowboys, police… all those generic fantasies. Sex is a powerful and lucrative commodity — the good girl played by Cody Horn is both tempted and repelled by Mike, speaking to the conflicting sexual interests within us. For the audience, a night with Magic Mike is just a horny splurge, and indulgence, but for them, it’s life. Magic Mike gets us hot and bothered and all worked up, then pulls back the curtain and shows us what happens when these fantasy figures go home after a hard night’s work, or age a decade or two. What happens when the singles stop coming?
Attraction doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes you fall for a movie the same way you fall for a person — you just happen to find each other in the right time and place, and something unplanned happens. That’s what happened to me with Rust And Bone, a film I wasn’t expecting much of and saw primarily because Marion Cotillard was getting solid awards season buzz for her performance. I knew very little about what I was getting into, and that ended up being a good thing.
Rust And Bone is by far the sexiest movie about a woman whose legs get eaten off by an orca. The special effect of excising Cotillard’s lower limbs are shockingly convincing, as is her performance — it’s a shame the Oscars couldn’t make room for her, though it was a particularly strong year for Best Actress candidates. Matthias Schoenaerts is equally strong as the film’s protagonist, a rather obtuse security guard and underground fighter who never seems to foresee the consequences of his actions. If Rust And Bone is a romance at all — I wouldn’t call it one, exactly — then it’s a very adult one, with two characters who behave like flesh-and-blood 21st century people rather than cliches operating according to a script. The film has no singular plot, but meanders pleasantly as we get to know these two characters without a clear sense of where they’re going. The film’s climax was a true surprise, but then, the whole movie was.
There’s not one thing I can easily point to that’s brilliant in Rust And Bone; you either fall for it or you don’t, and I doubt any further analysis would change anyone’s mind about it. It’s about chemistry. On paper, the synopsis sounds pretty maudlin. But Jacques Audiard makes it all so plausible and lived-in that I found myself totally falling for it, which happens sometimes. Attraction doesn’t always make sense.
Speaking of movies that don’t work so well on paper… Silver Linings Playbook constantly flirts with being ordinary, and yet somehow narrowly misses it at every turn. It’s the first film to receive acting nominations in all four categories in ages, and they’re all deserved — the marvelous Jacki Weaver may be slightly underused, but even the minor characters have their own lives happening in the margins. They don’t feel merely functional.
That’s particularly true of the standout leads, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Cooper unleashes a leading man charm he must’ve been saving for the right movie, while Lawrence is a live wire who feels like she could wander into any movie and be the best thing in it. They’re both compulsively watchable, and when they come together it’s like two trains constantly threatening to wreck, consistently missing each other by inches.
Silver Linings Playbook has a wonderful energy. It’s always marching forward, never stopping on one detail long enough for us to catch up and get bored waiting for the next beat. David O. Russell’s script is sharp and nimble, his direction maybe even a little moreso, but it’s the chemistry of the ensemble that feels just right. (The original plan was to make it with Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel in the lead roles — I shudder to think.) I wouldn’t call Silver Linings Playbook a monumental film or even a must-see; it’s probably a bit too slight to take Best Picture, even with all of Harvey Weinstein’s might on its side. Yet it’s also nice to see a lighter movie made as well as all those heavy ones; if only all comedies had this much skill behind and in front of the camera.
The Impossible is not a film for the cynical. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and in a Spielbergian way, cares more about hope than it does about darkness and depravity. Yet, also like Spielberg, director Juan Antonio Bayona isn’t afraid to immerse us in chaos and confusion when need be, and it’s a visual spectacle on par with some of Spielberg’s most breathless sequences, like War Of The Worlds’ initial alien attack or the Omaha Beach opening of Saving Private Ryan.
Naomi Watts cements her status as one of Hollywood’s most fearless actresses as she is twisted and turned and slammed by a giant tsunami, an electrifying sequence that outdoes pretty much any disaster movie sequence that came before it (rivaled only by Titanic, perhaps). The fact that was done practically on a budget of $45 million or so is mind-blowing. That’s not Naomi against a green screen, and you can tell.
After a hard-hitting opening, the film follows two surviving members of the happy family literally ripped apart — we don’t know whether or not the rest have survived until much later — and it isn’t afraid to get sentimental. Nor is it afraid to get reasonably dark, as when an adolescent boy advises his mother that they leave behind a crying child because he might slow them down. It faces the stark realities of an unimaginably catastrophic situation, with excellent performances all around (Naomi, Tom Holland, and Ewan McGregor). What’s truly remarkable, though, is the way Bayona stages that fucking tsunami — definitely the most breathless sequence I’ve experienced in a movie in years. It’s a shame this film didn’t quite break out the way it should have — with a stronger marketing push, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it win Best Picture. Perhaps my #2 slot is a fitting consolation prize?
In my original review, I predicted Zero Dark Thirty for Best Picture and Kathryn Bigelow making history as the only woman to ever win Best Director twice.
Oops. Back then, I didn’t anticipate the weird backlash the film received regarding its depiction of torture, and it has taken me a long time to come to terms with why the film hasn’t been embraced as it probably should be; especially in a year that features a film so similar in many (superficial) ways as a Best Picture front-runner. Homeland, after all, has been handed just about every conceivable television award this past year, and yet it depicts far more torture than Zero Dark Thirty even hints at. (Rumor has it both edgy female protagonists are based on the same real-life CIA agent.) Why is Zero Dark Thirty held up to such a hypocritical, impossible standard of veracity, when Argo literally invents its entire third act? (Oh, don’t answer that, I already know why.)
Apparently, the film about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden is a controversial one. Who knew? Perhaps I (and Sony) should have anticipated more unease from the general public. Great and important films aren’t always recognized right away, after all, and the topics explored by Zero Dark Thirty are still fresh. (Meanwhile, everyone’s had time to get over a hostage situation from the 70’s.) Maybe I was more prepared to confront them. For me, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the few definitive films of this century so far, in large part because it deals with the most defining event of it.
Jessica Chastain’s Maya is a fascinating portrait of obsession. She’s a perfectionist. The fact that she’s a woman makes this a little more interesting, but ultimately doesn’t matter. Some have said they didn’t understand Maya’s motivation enough, but that’s ludicrous. Her motivation is 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history — and a very recent one. We didn’t need to lose someone personally in New York that day to feel the effects, despair and fear and an overwhelming vulnerability. Neither did Maya. She would have already been working for the CIA at that point (we’re told she was recruited out of high school), so it is literally her job to answer the questions all of America is asking. Why wouldn’t she do her job to the best of her ability? What could possibly be a stronger motivation than the deaths of thousands of innocent people?
Some may have wanted Osama bin Laden dead out of vengeance; others might just feel safer knowing he’s not in the world. Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty script is smart enough to to not tell us what exactly Maya wants. By keeping her backstory almost nonexistent, she becomes a stand-in for all of us, seeking answers or retribution or catharsis and some kind of closure. And does she get them? Well… did we?
Clearly I was wrong about Kathryn Bigelow’s lock on Best Director — that snub is just a shame. This is clearly her best work. It’s a near-flawless film on every level. I was also almost certainly wrong about Zero Dark Thirty winning Best Picture, but perhaps it’s just too important a film to take home such a populist prize. The fact that it’s stirred so much debate is only a testament to its quality, but controversy doesn’t win awards. At least, not Oscars.
Argo is bullshit. It’s fine if you like bullshit, just know that that’s what it is. It’s a slick thriller that, I guess, is “prestigious” enough for the Academy because it takes place in Iran? It’s really just Speed in a turban. Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, is actually about something — some of the most significant events of the past dozen years. It portrays these things not only tensely and entertainingly, but honestly and accurately. But to borrow a phrase from another movie: “You can’t handle the truth!” A lot of people can’t, apparently.