best of 2012

I’m starting to make a habit of publishing late lists of the year’s best. In the post-Netflix era, I could conceivably keep watching films from the last calendar year through the next several calendar years, so eventually one must decide where to stop, and I’ve drawn that always arbitrary line here.

2012 was a slow year for me; I watched 58 films released in the calendar year – yes, I keep count – including fewer foreign and documentary titles than usual. There are many I may still see, and several are likely as good as or better than the films on my list, so while I call this annual roundup “The Best Films,” it would more accurately be understood as “10 Films I Loved That I’d Most Like To Share.” But that doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily.

plague

Directed by David France – I could have listed the equally excellent documentaries Mea Maxima Culpa, about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, or The Gatekeepers, about the intractable Israeli-Palestinian crisis from the point of view of Israeli intelligence agents, but this film resonated for me on a deeper, more personal level. Assembled using remarkable stock footage, it gives a vivid portrait of the gay community in the 1980s, stricken with terror and rage over the sudden devastation of AIDS.

end of watch

Directed by David Ayer – Reminiscent of TV’s recently cancelled Southland – sorely missed – this is also a verite police drama about Los Angeles patrol officers. Its visual style lends it authenticity, but what really makes the film outstanding is how attuned it is to the characters and their relationships. In moments both dramatic and mundane, it shows us how much partners Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Pena) mean to each other, and to others in their lives they serve and protect.

paranorman

Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell – These days, animated films often contain more sophisticated themes than live action. This one – funny, sweet, and evocatively crafted by the makers of Coraline – is about how fear and persecution have shaped a community. The title character, ghost-whisperer Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is shunned for being different, but peer under the surface of the town’s age-old curse and you’ll see this could just as easily be West Memphis.

bernie

Directed by Richard Linklater – Linklater’s tragicomic true story is about how the black-and-white determinations of the legal system can’t account for the vagaries of human nature, relationships, or sympathy. It tells the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), rightly imprisoned for murdering his elderly female companion (Shirley MacLaine), and yet we understand why he still commands the admiration of his friends and neighbors. Learning about Bernie through Black’s heart-on-his-sleeve performance and funny, illuminating talking-head interviews with residents of Carthage, Texas – some played by the actual townspeople – we realize that the cherubic nice-guy everyone knows and loves isn’t a lie. Instead, we come to understand how even those with the best intentions can be driven to do very bad things.

django

Directed by Quentin Tarantino – A spaghetti western about slavery from a white director making free use of the N-word is probably the riskiest film on this list, which makes its success all the more impressive. What Tarantino is doing is not exploiting the tragedy of slavery for his own self-referencing film-geek purposes. He’s using the language of film history and the conventions of genres he loves to transform one of the great tragedies of American history into a cathartic hero’s quest, providing a visceral feeling of triumph and redemption that history doesn’t provide.

anna karenina

Directed by Joe WrightAnna Karenina was 2012’s most underrated film, and the opulent literary reimagining The Great Gatsby was trying to be. I haven’t been the biggest fan of director Wright – I wasn’t impressed by Atonement or Hanna – but this time it feels like his bold stylistic flourishes match the story he’s telling. Bringing together superb sets, costumes, and music with strong performances by a cast led by Keira Knightley, Wright amplifies the emotions of Leo Tolstoy‘s tragic romance into a rhythmic, enveloping experience you could almost dance to.

arrietty

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi – This film is simply beautiful. From Studio Ghibli, the company behind Hayao Miyazaki‘s great animated films, and directed by Yonebayashi, an animator on several Miyazaki productions, Secret World tells the story of the Borrowers, tiny creatures who live off the scraps of human households, and drops us into their pint-sized world with wonderful sensory details. The world comes alive with painterly images, rich sound, and a touching story about two lonely people looking for someone to connect to.

deep blue sea

Directed by Terence Davies Rachel Weisz‘s empathetic performance is the centerpiece of this excellent romantic drama about a woman whose unbridled passion alienates her from the rigid manners of 1950s England. The film, dreamy and tender as directed by Davies, is also beautifully photographed and boasts my single favorite scene from any film in 2012: a slow pan of an underground train station during an air raid, while Londoners huddle together singing “Molly Malone” as if to ward off fear.

zero dark thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow – No, it’s not an endorsement of torture. I won’t try to parse the factual and fictional from Bigelow’s docudrama – I suspect there’s much about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden we’ll never know for sure. I’ll only say that it’s gradual, methodical, and finally thrilling in its depiction of the agency’s obsessive hunt for the notorious terrorist. Jessica Chastain, as beleaguered operative Maya, comes to represent an entire nation’s search not only for Bin Laden but for a feeling of resolution after the devastating events of 9/11.

amour

Directed by Michael Haneke – I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Haneke in recent years – specifically, like (Cache), hate (Funny Games), and somewhere-in-between (The White Ribbon). He’s mercilessly effective, but what distinguishes this film from his others is how incredibly empathetic it is. He pulls no punches in showing the physical and emotional struggles of a dying woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and her devoted husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant), but in the midst of their suffering are small and exquisite observations of pure love and devotion, leading to a heartbreaking decision that alone earns the film its title.

others

eddie redmayne les misI wasn’t a great fan of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master, but Joaquin Phoenix‘s performance as a lonely alcoholic war vet and Amy Adams‘s as a fanatical cult leader’s wife were among the year’s most impressive.

Ditto Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne in Les Miserables, a flawed film that is at its best when it simply points a camera at these two performers as they deliver songs from the angry, despairing song score.

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard‘s screenplay for The Cabin in the Woods cleverly dissects not only the age-old cliches of the horror genre, but a culture that revels in such bloodletting.

Compliance very nearly made my list. It’s also a horror movie of sorts, but instead of zombies or axe murderers it unnerves us by showing a frightening side of human nature, which can be twisted to make otherwise good people act against their consciences.

Ira Sachs took a page from his own life to write and direct the sad romance Keep the Lights On, which shows two men so dependent on each other that they persist in a relationship that breaks both of their hearts – and ours as well.

complianceLife of Pi is held back by an awkward framing device, but when its title character is stranded at sea with his tiger companion, director Ang Lee turns the ocean into a lush palate, the terror and beauty of nature enhanced by the imagination.

Another larger-than-life spectacle, Skyfall, is a triumph of craft – music, production design, and cinematography are all outstanding – to deliver an exciting and surprisingly moving James Bond yarn that is more creatively ambitious than it needs to be, which may be why it made such an impact.

I tired of Argo winning every award in sight during Oscar season, but it’s one of the Academy’s worthier choices in recent years, an old-fashioned thriller that generates much suspense out of the true story of the rescue of hostages from Iran.

John Hawkes was sadly overlooked by the Academy for his warm performance in The Sessions as real-life poet Mark O’Brien, a polio-survivor who left his iron lung to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate.

hyde parkHyde Park on Hudson wasn’t a great film, but I actually prefer its portrait of King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) to the one that won Oscars.

Rise of the Guardians deserved a bigger audience and better reviews than it got. It’s a beautifully designed and scored fantasy adventure about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and other superheroes of our childhoods. It’s also one of the few films to fully justify its use of 3D.

Tarsem‘s Mirror Mirror isn’t an especially good film, but the late Eiko Ishioka‘s costumes were easily among the year’s most outstanding creative achievements.

And though West of Memphis covers much of the same territory as the Paradise Lost films, it is nevertheless a worthy addition to the story of how it took almost two decades to unravel a tremendous injustice in the legal system.