Inevitably, beginning around Thanksgiving of every year, “Best Of” lists start to infiltrate the pop culture consciousness. By the New Year it is nearly impossible to pull up your browser’s homepage without seeing “The 10 Best Works of Fiction in 2012” or “The 15 Best Rock Albums of the Year” or “The 5 Best Ways to Cook a Ham.” Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s our natural inclination to assign value to the things we’ve experienced, cinematically or otherwise. Or maybe it’s a need to just rank something for ranking’s sake. And yet, also inevitably, I find myself poring over these lists as if they might guide me to some democratically decided truth about the “artistic” products released from January to December. What’s intrinsically upsetting about “Best Of” lists though is that they assume we have the ability to decide which of this is better than that. (By the way, this is what is so unfortunate about all of the awards season hullabaloo.) Regardless, and hypocritical though it may seem, as a lover of and writer on film I feel some inherent compulsion to add to the noise. An important difference must be drawn here though between the adjectives best and favorite. So, here are my favorite films that achieved wide release in 2012.
10. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey // Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro, Directed by Peter Jackson
I know, I know. The criticisms of Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth are vast and well documented, and it isn’t that I necessarily disagree with them. But I didn’t have more unadulterated fun at a movie all year long, and sometimes that’s all you can ask out of a big budget genre film.
9. Rust and Bone // Written by Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, and Craig Davidson, Directed by Jacques Audiard
On paper it sounds pretty silly. An orca trainer gets her leg bitten off by one of her whales, falls for a bouncer/petty thief/underground boxer, and the two live happily ever after. But Audiard grounds this film with some combination of realism and surrealism that is completely entrancing. I don’t remember having such an overly emotional experience in the theater all year long. Marion Cotillard’s heartbreaking performance doesn’t hurt. But then again, I’m a big softy.
8. Django Unchained // Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Cinema’s undisputed nerd of a punk rocker, Quentin Tarantino, brandished the 2012 big screen with a twisted history lesson on American slavery so irreverent and bombastic that it teeters on the line of utter carelessness. I’m still not completely sure what to do with the grotesque representations and implications of Django Unchained, but Tarantino blazed into theaters this year (on Christmas day no less) and demanded attention; which is exactly what he always gets. Ironically, at least in regards to his absurdist vision, he really doesn’t care what you think. And that’s always a good time.
7. Bernie // Written by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, Directed by Richard Linklater
The slacker is back. Linklater reteams with Jack Black to create an offbeat portrait of the small town funeral director turned murderer, Bernie Tiede. Why this movie didn’t get more attention beats me. Maybe you would have to had grown up in a town similar Carthage, Texas to really get what Linklater is doing. The absurdity of Black’s performance is hilarious until you realize that there is something much darker brewing beneath the surface. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it and the laughs become less frequent.
6. Take This Waltz // Written and Directed by Sarah Polley
Who knew Seth Rogen could act? It isn’t that the story is completely groundbreaking; happily married woman falls for the tortured artist who lives across the street. But the way Polley juxtaposes a relationship built completely on friendship and fun with another a little messier and mysterious is quite refreshing. What is really great about Take This Waltz are the questions it makes us ask ourselves about our own relationships, being unfaithful, and personal vice. Polley has made good films before, but with Waltz she announces herself as a major cinematic talent. It’s in lines like “Life has a gap in it. It just does, but you don’t go around trying to fill it like some lunatic” that Polley’s cautionary tale wants us to take stock of what we do have and ask is it worth it?
5. Lincoln // Written by Tony Kushner, Directed by Steven Spielberg
Other than that laughably Hallmark opening where the black union soldier walks away from Lincoln quoting the Gettysburg Address and it’s unfortunately obvious appendix of an ending, Lincoln is decidedly un-Spielbergian. And that is a very good thing. Of course Daniel Day Lewis’s performance is impeccable and totally captivating, but what else is new. It might sound trite, but Lincoln brings together some of Hollywood’s most conventional heavy hitters to make a film so solidly crafted it really does work the heart and mind in a way that made me wish for the days when this is what the classical studio tradition consistently offered. It might be Hollywood, but it’s Hollywood at its best.
4. Moonrise Kingdom // Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Directed by Wes Anderson
Stuff white people like. Yeah, I know. But Wes Anderson’s summer release bleeds red. Anderson hasn’t produced a film so brimming with passion and life since The Royal Tennenbaums. If the greatest justice we can do in film analysis is judging the pairing of form and content appropriately, then Moonrise Kingdom fits the bill. While some might have grown tired of Anderson’s characters-suffering-from-arrested-development, unmotivated slow motion, hipster soundtracks, or symmetry-for-its-own-sake style, just give Moonrise a shot. Finally Anderson tells a story about blossoming puberty and raging hormones equally fun and sobering. What Anderson discovers, along with his leads Sam and Suzy, is that sometimes its best to run away for a while; you might just rediscover what was so refreshing about where you came from.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild // Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Forget the dissenters preaching about social and economic misrepresentation. There’s no way you can claim Zeitlin doesn’t care about his characters or the people they symbolize. Part Terrance Malick, part Jeff Nichols, all the watermarked work of a burgeoning visionary, Beasts is a southern anthem for the human spirit, community, and endurance. Perfectly scored, tenderly acted, and gushing with unashamed underdog mentality, no movie this year so completely refreshed my belief in the power of cinema.
2. Amour // Written and Directed by Michael Haneke
Just because Michael Haneke’s Amour is his most tender work to date doesn’t make it any less brutal. Built on the towering performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, Amour forces its audience to live with an ailing married couple during the dreary final months of Anne’s (Riva) life. Georges (Trintignant), through a love both unconditional and stubborn, watches as his wife slowly deteriorates under his care. Haneke rarely lets us leave their apartment, forcing his viewers to watch Anne deteriorate with Georges. The result is a portrait of old age and inevitable death so stark and unfiltered that Haneke’s trademark discomfort is almost unbearable. But there’s something beautiful and truthful at work here too, the result of which is a modern cinematic classic.
1. The Master // Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
I nominate Paul Thomas Anderson as the Ambassador of American Film to the World. If we could put only one film a year in a time capsule as a representation of the best American cinema has to offer, The Master would be my pick for 2012. From Anderson’s remarkable novelistic script to Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s gorgeous camera work to Johnny Greenwood’s skin-crawling score, nothing here is out of place. And, of course, there are the monumental performances of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Who cares if there isn’t one likable character in the lot? Since when was having a relatable character the necessary rubric for having a good film? For those who claim such, I plead for you to look deeper at Freddie (Phoenix) or Dodd (Hoffman). I guarantee that if you open yourself up to the existential experience Anderson and his team have crafted, you will see yourself reflected in the gnarled face of Freddie Quell or the prideful ignorance of Lancaster Dodd, as terrifying as that may seem.
Other Favorites: 28 Hotel Rooms // Argo // The Grey // Looper // Sleepwalk With Me
What I Missed: Cosmopolis // Holy Motors // Life of Pi // Once Upon a Time in Anatolia // Zero Dark Thirty