Last year offered some of the best cinema experiences I've ever had. Look for a piece on Bay Area theaters and festivals soon. I'll spare you a preamble about the state of cinema in 2012, although I did notice that many of the films listed below prominently featured dichotomies of strong ideologies. I'd like to make a special mention of A Separation, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It was released in San Francisco in late January, after my 2011 list was published, but it's a perfect film that tells a very moving story with such nuance and intelligence, capturing the complexities of the families portrayed as well as the cultural, religious, and legal realities inherent to the story. It would have ranked third on my list, behind only The Tree of Life and Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Since these types of lists are so arbitrary, I decided to include a
12. Lawless -- Based on a true story of a Depression-era family of
Virginia bootleggers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke) who battle
sinister lawmen (led by Guy Pearce) and powerful gangsters (led by Gary
Oldman). Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska play the love interests of
Hardy and LaBeouf, respectively, and their characters' differences in
demeanor and approach serve to show the differences between the two
brothers. It's a gorgeous film with a beautiful soundtrack, and it
strives to humanize its dangerous characters. Available on disc.
11. Django Unchained -- Quentin Tarantino's genre mix of a revenge tale
was not quite as effective for me as Inglourious Basterds or Kill Bill.
Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are excellent as a slave and the bounty
hunter who frees him and trains him as they partner up to take down
despicable men. There was a lot to enjoy here (including the funniest
line of the year and an impressive, eclectic soundtrack), but the
over-the-top lurid violence was just a little too much for me to rank
this higher. In theaters now.
10. Cloud Atlas -- Easily the most ambitious film of the year, this
novel adaptation by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis features multiple
narratives across multiple centuries, with many of the same actors
portraying different characters in the stories. It's the most
forward-thinking sociopolitical film -- roughly, about moving beyond
societal and systemic boundaries -- on a grand scale that I've ever
seen. It's a shame that it didn't do very well in theaters. On a
somewhat "meta" level, I appreciated that it dealt with how cinema
itself is an approximation of our own natures and struggles. A disc
release has not been announced.
9. The Avengers -- Beyond it being the most fun I had at the movies last
year, Joss Whedon's accomplishments with this film got lost in its
box-office domination. He had to do a lot of things for this to even be
remotely entertaining, and that it has much more to offer than simply
the Earth's mightiest heroes is something to revisit. Available on disc.
8. Moonrise Kingdom -- Wes Anderson's most charming film within an
oeuvre of charm. He seemed to address criticism of his tendencies and
moved forward with his assured style and character work in this love
story of young runaways, and how grief shapes the lives of them and
those responsible for them. Perhaps the best cast of the year. Available
7. The Dark Knight Rises -- You've no doubt seen this already, and I
wrote at great length about this conclusion to Christopher Nolan's
trilogy and how relevant his themes are to our society. It's Batman. Available on disc.
6. Looper -- Rian Johnson made a time-travel hitman movie, starring
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the same character, that dared
(and succeeded) to subvert expectations and make some profound
commentary about the nature of violence and aggression, and how men are
created and how they destroy themselves. Remarkable as a sci-fi movie,
tremendous as a character study. Plus it's just really cool. Available
5. The Deep Blue Sea -- Terence Davies adopted the play by Terence
Rattigan into an absolutely stunning film. Rachel Weisz gives one of the
best performances of the year, as a woman caught up in her own
assumptions of what love is and should be in this devastating "romance"
set in WWII London. Available on disc, and streaming on Netflix.
4. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia -- The less I say about this Turkish
murder drama, the better. Perhaps the most beautiful film of the year,
featuring one of the most human and humane scenes in cinema. Available
on disc, and streaming on Netflix.
3. Zero Dark Thirty -- Based on a true story of the CIA agent (Jessica
Chastain in her most substantial, complex role) who tenaciously tracked
down Osama bin Laden over a decade. The film is needlessly garnering
some controversy for its portrayal of torture; those who actually watch
the film should see that screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn
Bigelow (the team who made The Hurt Locker) have made an honest look at
the efficacy or lack thereof of the tactics used to find and kill the
notorious terrorist, and how the hunt itself destroyed many more lives
in the process. The raid on the compound is one of the most delicately
handled, tense, and effective film sequences in a long while. Also,
Chastain delivers the line of the year. Expands to theaters nationwide
2. The Master -- Another film I wrote at length about upon its initial
release, Paul Thomas Anderson's story of a Scientology-type leader
(Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the troubled live-wire he brings in to his
fold (Joaquin Phoenix) is like no other. Shot mostly in glorious 65mm,
it's something you should have seen in a proper theater but will
probably appreciate its nuances just as well at home. Available on disc
1. Amour -- I saw this at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, and
it completely wrecked me. I knew before it was over that it earned this
spot on the list, even with more films to come. Nothing has touched its
level of impact. Writer-director Michael Haneke's tendency towards
denial of expectations is essential to this tale of an old married
couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva).
When Anne starts to fall ill, Georges must deal not only with her care,
and all that entails, but must do so while he himself is not in the best
of health. If it sounds depressing and unflinchingly realistic, it is,
but in the most beautiful and tender way. Seek this film out as expands to more theaters, as it must surely do.
Notable mentions include Lincoln, Argo, The Grey, and Chronicle. I have not yet seen Rust and Bone, The Kid with a Bike, The Loneliest Planet, or any feature documentary. For the record, I did see
Holy Motors, Killing them Softly, Not Fade Away, and The Turin Horse,
but did not consider them for this article.