2012 was a magnificent year for the movies. They are more diverse, more personal, and more magical than ever. Yes, there was the onslaught of the usual blockbuster fare, sequels left and right, and the mighty flops that were John Carter and Battleship, but there was so much more to discover in theaters this year. It is quite possible that 2012 was one of the best years for the cinema, maybe not on par with 1939 or 1960, but time will tell which of these stories permeate the collective consciousness and hang around and continue to inform our experiences.
2012 also saw a great amount of cinema history as Paramount, and Universal both celebrated their 100th Anniversaries, Cinerama turned 60, and James Bond has now been with us for 50 years. A few films got some nifty 3-D retrofitting, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, which hasn’t been screened in 3-D since it was released in 1954. Both Titanic (1997) and Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace (1999) were re-released in 3-D, but not quite to the same acclaim. Among many others, the digital restoration of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) debuted at Cannes to high praise, the Film Foundation unveiled the restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was re-released in IMAX for one week. The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall both were released in IMAX and raked in the dough. Most films were in 3-D as well as 2-D, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could either be viewed in 24 or 48 frames-per-second.
Seeing a movie has become easier than ever before. You don’t even have to brave traffic or worry about getting a sitter anymore, new releases in your very home the day they are released in theaters, sometimes before: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant, YouTube, Video on Demand, iTunes, Crackle, the list goes on and on. Even though you can watch a movie in the comfort and safety of your own home, I still believe in the power and the importance of going to the cinema. Dreams are private movies, and movies are public dreams. The cinema is where they live. In the dark, I watched many: Some big-budget action films, some tent-pole comic book heroes, some smaller dramas, some magical fantasies, and some B-movies that were far better than I could have predicted. There were also a few masterpieces along the way.
Below is my collection of the best movies of 2012. They do not, by any means, signify the totality of 2012 as I only got around to 83 of the movies that saw distribution in America this year. There were many films that debuted in festivals that never made it to my screens, or I simply ran out of time to see them all. I will spend the next couple of months catching up on the ones that I missed, and I’ll spend the rest of my life revisiting the ones I love the most. Here is to a spectacular 2012 in movies, and to 2013, another year at the movies.
Arbitrage — If the devil were among us, then he would not come as a demon with a pronged tail and hoofed feet. He would come as a slick-dressed businessman with all the charm and power he could muster. Meet Robert Miller (Richard Gere, who absolutely knocks this performance out of the park). Miller is the CEO of a hedge fund company that makes a LOT of money. He’s currently in the process of selling his company to a competitor, but to make the balance sheet look a little more impressive, he cooks the books to the tune of $400 million. While this is going on, he does what he can for his family. After all, he is a family man, and everything he does, he does to protect his family, or so he tells us over and over again. One night while out driving with the mistress, he dozes off, crashes the car, killing her in the process. He panics, flees the scene, and calls in a favor from an old friend to escape detection. Now he is doing what he can to avoid a police investigation while trying to close the sale of his company. Miller builds lie upon lie and actually gathers strength from them. Robert Miller is capable of constructing the world he wishes for himself, and he does it with the power of his lies. He will continue on and on, and he will continue to garner more wealth, more people who owe him favors, and more power. It happens a lot in our society, and I give writer/director Nicholas Jarecki a lot of credit for going all the way with it. Not everyone believes his lies. His wife (Susan Sarandon) knows what’s up. The cop (performed brilliantly by Tim Roth like a dog with a bone) investigating knows he’s guilty. Miller’s own daughter, Brook (Brit Marling), may never understand her father or even like him, but that doesn’t amount too much. Nothing changes the fact that Robert Miller is rich, and free, and totally in control. That is what the last shot shows us, and I can’t think of a better visual representation of the devil that walks among us.
Bernie — Based on a true story from Carthage, Texas (population 7,000), Bernie recounts and re-enacts an article writer-director Richard Linklater came across in a Texas newspaper. Bernie (Jack Black) is a gospel-singing undertaker and the standout citizen of his community. Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) is the town’s rich bitch that none can stand, and for some reason or another, Bernie and Marjorie develop a friendship. Then one day, Bernie just can’t take one more second of her ruthless and insensitive behavior and shoots her in the back with an armadillo gun. He hides the body in the meat locker and goes about his life in the normal fashion, doing what he can to maintain the illusion that Marjorie is alive and well. In the end, truth will out, and Bernie confesses to the crime and is put on trial. Everyone in the town loves Bernie so and hates Marjorie, making a very interesting dilemma during the trial. Linklater uses actors like Black, MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey to recreate scenes and re-enact the events, but he blends it with interviews from the actual townsfolk and people involved in the case. The townsfolk provide a sort of Greek Chorus to the events unfolding, while Linklater uses his actors to interpret the motives, actions, and events. A seamless blend of documentary and fiction.
Django Unchained — Take one part German fairy tale, one part Spaghetti Western, a dash of Blaxplotation thrown for good measure, a phenomenal soundtrack, and you get a movie that comes out wholly Quentin Tarantino. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave being marched through a desolate wasteland when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees him from his captors. A fortuitous series of events leads Schultz and Django to partner as a bounty hunting team, but their end goal is to save Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the evil and sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). This is a long film, and there is a lot of plot and story to unpack. And being that it is a Tarantino film, there are times where the story comes to a halt so characters can humorously discuss the nuances of their world. One scene involves a group of plantation owners discussing the shortcomings of wearing pillowcases on their heads for a raid. Even though these scenes never move the plot forward or reveal the qualities of the main characters, they are always funny and a delight to listen to. Yes, there is violence, a lot of violence. Tarantino manages a balancing act of Looney Tunes-esque ultra-violence and violence that carries real-world consequences. Fortunately, Tarantino doesn’t step in and point out that in this scene, violence is good, and in this scene, violence is bad. He leaves that to the viewer to decide if there is some form of morality in this revenge fantasy or if an eye for an eye just leaves the world blind. There is also the fascinating aspect where Tarantino attempts to understand and explain this very brutal and sadistic form of racism. Racism stems from fear, from hate, from perceived intellectual superiority, and from cowardice. It isn’t treated as if racism as some sort of philosophy strictly among whites, among the South, or among the uneducated. Racism is so much larger than Django and Schultz that they will never be able to conquer or kill it. Everywhere Django turns, he sees more slaves treated poorly, more racists in control, more disgust. In the end, Schultz is overcome by it, but Django uses his wits and his skills to rise above it, or at the very least, exact a little revenge. This is the second time that Tarantino has used the movies to punish the guilty parties of history. It’s important that he does this in movies because movies are where our culture builds its myths from.
Life of Pi — This is the technical achievement of the year. What Ang Lee manages to capture and convey using 3-D technology is impressive and enriches the film considerably. I continue to think about the shot of Pi (Suraj Sharma), the lifeboat, and Richard Parker floating in a still ocean that perfectly reflects the crystal clear sky of stars. Are we looking up? Are we looking down? God is a circle whose center is everywhere, and circumference is nowhere. There is much I wrote about in my review, but one scene that I did not write about still haunts me. Richard Parker and Pi both look into the still water, and what they see is their reflection. On second viewing, we realize that maybe they aren’t looking at their own reflection; they are looking at their true nature. How you approach this movie is how you will receive its message. If you come with an open mind, you will be rewarded. If you are closed off to the possibility of illumination, then Pi’s second story of abject human brutality is where you will find truth. I am reminded of a passage from Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, “There is an Indian fable of three beings who drank from a river: one was a god, and he drank ambrosia; one was a man, and he drank water; and one was a demon, and he drank filth. What you get is a function of your own consciousness.” Much like Django Unchained, Life of Pi take many different fables, many different myths and presents them on a screen to become their own.
Magic Mike — As my sister called it,” The Citizen Kane of male stripper movies,” Steven Soderbergh shows us that in the right hands, any subject is a cinematic subject. Soderbergh has come a long way, and even though he is winding down his career, I have never been more enthralled with his results. He understands that the simple act of pointing a camera at a subject and asking that subject to perform for the camera is an act of exploitation, and he embraces that premise totally. In 2009, Soderbergh cast real-life porn star, Sasha Grey, to play a prostitute in The Girlfriend Experience. Earlier this year, he cast Gina Carano, herself a UFC and MMA fighter, to be a deadly secret agent in Haywire. In Magic Mike, he draws on the pre-acting career of Channing Tatum and his time as a male stripper. Magic Mike is the best-choreographed and shot film of the year. The dance numbers are impressive as Tatum blends eroticism with athleticism and reminds us that dancing vertically is always a metaphor for another act commonly performed horizontally. It’s not just the dance numbers that are excellently shot; the entire movie has a sense of choreography to it. Where Soderbergh decides to place the camera, when to move it, why move it, all add to the dance the characters play with their lives, with their relationships, with their identities. Mike doesn’t just rehearse his dance numbers; he rehearses his entire life. Everything he does is well thought out, structured, and choreographer. The performances are great, Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey knock it out of the park, and Alex Pettyfer gives a very good supporting role as he spins down the rabbit hole. It’s gonna be a shame when Soderbergh decides to hang it up and move on to something else. The cinema needs more skilled masters like him.
The Master – Poor Freddie Quell. He just wants something to believe in, something to be a part of. The war is over, and he is adrift in the sea of his own life. He floats from job to job, drinks too much, thinks about sex too often, gets into one too many fights, buys into a cult way too quickly… Poor Freddie Quell. I consider Paul Thomas Anderson to be a true American director whose films are almost entirely of American subject matter. The first time I saw The Master, I was convinced that it was just about sex, a whole lot of sex. All the imagery of water, Freddie’s body and face twisted with sexual repression and desire, his fantasies of naked women parading around him, the final scene… Everything seemed to be about repressed sexual frustration and desire. Sex is far from singular to the American experience, so there seemed to be more to the film that I just wasn’t getting. What of the scenes where Freddie wants to, really truly wants to believe in The Cause? Maybe The Master is about the frustration of faith? The want and desire to give oneself over to something greater, something more important, and not being able to. It has occurred to me that Freddie might not just represent the quintessential American. He is America. Adrift from post World War II trauma, trying desperately to censor and repress sexual natures, getting into too many wars with other countries, drinking too much, fashioning new religions and new belief systems for those desperate to belong. And above all else, the want, the desire to uphold democracy, to truly believe in it, to truly relinquish oneself to the ideals of America. Anderson writes and directs, and Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams star in this multi-layered masterpiece.
Moonrise Kingdom — Just one question, “What kind of bird are YOU?” Moonrise Kingdom isn’t just a movie; it’s a sweater for your heart. Wes Anderson takes his quirky style and translates it to the meticulous world of a bunch of children roaming an island located somewhere between fantasy and memory. The center of the film is Sam and Suzy (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), who run away from their New England community to fall in love for the first time. Surrounding them is a world of misfits who themselves are all in various states in and out of love. Laura Bishop (Francis McDormand) and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) are having their love affair with each other, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) is having a love affair with his job, and the Narrator (Bob Balaban) is having a love affair with the island of New Penzance. Each character is tender and honest, and everything they say is genuine. Just listen to the way Norton delivers his lines as Scout Master Ward. There isn’t a hint of irony to them. The scene on the bay where Sam and Suzy make camp and take their adolescent understanding of love as far as it can go is touching and simple, and far from cynical. It stirs up emotions within you, not just for the characters, but also for our own memories past. Wes Anderson has a very distinct style, and sometimes that can get in the way of his stories, but this one, possibly helped by Roman Coppola as co-screenwriter with Anderson, benefits greatly from Anderson’s sense of framing and detail. What Anderson and his team have created here is a fairy tale with plenty to unpack. Consider how the film opens, the soundtrack breaking down a musical piece by Benjamin Britten. While the soundtrack identifies different instruments within the orchestra, we see the players of the film and the rooms they operate in. By the end of the movie, we will see how a community works in the same manner.
Skyfall — A figure walks toward the camera and slowly comes into focus. It’s Bond, James Bond, and for the third time out, he is played by Daniel Craig, but never has it been this good. Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, is a celebration of Bond, a 50-year franchise, and of England, a country that has seen a lot of celebrations in 2012. This is the first Bond movie where the action takes place in England, and the villain isn’t a Cold War nation out looking for secrets. The villain is a former MI6 agent, a computer hacker, and a ruthless terrorist, Silva (played with great relish by Javier Bardem). Gone is the jingoistic fear of the other. Silva is not some unfamiliar face in some other country; he is right here, right now, right next to us. That is not to suggest that this Bond is a quiet meditation on the nature of evil. This Bond has all the trappings of the best Bond movies. Bérénice Marlohe plays the newest Bond girl (a part much too short), Ben Whishaw, the new Q, gives Bond his usual gadgets, and Judi Dench’s M finally has a role with real meat to it. Then there is Bond, an agent who is losing his accuracy, his physical fitness, his nerve… Bond is getting old and has to figure out a way to adapt before he becomes obsolete. MI6 needs to adapt before it becomes obsolete as a program, and James Bond needs to adapt as a franchise before it becomes obsolete. Thankfully, Bond and Skyfall save the day, and we are all strapped in for another 50 years of gadgets, girls, and great fun. Mendes brings a powerhouse style of directing, and cinematographer Roger Deakins uses reflections, silhouettes, and shadows to elevate the film. Bond is back, and so is the franchise.
Take This Waltz — Boy meets girl. Girl is married, and boy pursues girl. Girl throws her marriage away for… boy? Re-watch the ending: she doesn’t throw it away for him does she? Michelle Williams is Margot, the girl, Seth Rogen is Lou, the husband, and Luke Kirby plays the boy, Daniel. Sarah Silverman gives a very brave and impressive supporting performance as the recovering alcoholic sister-in-law, and Michelle Williams simply knocks it out of the park. It’s not just about becoming the character and giving us familiar ticks and nuances; it’s also about illumination and insight into why those ticks and nuances are there in the first place. The story unfolds and reveals itself in very particular ways. William’s Margot is in control, but she either tricks everyone else into thinking that she isn’t, or she tricks herself. I suppose she probably feels less guilt that way. Think of the scenes where Margot and Lou play their private games, using baby voices and very graphic and violent descriptions. They try to one-up each other. Margot seems to be making up the rules as she goes, forcing Lou to keep up. The minute Lou figures out what is going on and takes the upper hand, Margot stops the game. She approaches her relationship with Daniel in the same manner, and the ending gives us an idea of what Margot is really after and what she really wants out of life. Sarah Polley wrote and directed this sophomore piece, which took a lot of drumming from critics for being a little too precious, but they missed the forest for the trees. Yes, Daniel is a rickshaw driver, and yes, Lou is writing a cookbook on how many ways you can cook chicken, and yes, there are some very kitschy moments. I believe that these all work as MacGuffins designed to throw us off the scent of what is really happening here.
We Have a Pope/Lincoln/A Royal Affair — All three of these films address our current religious and political states in similar ways, yet all three take place at three different times in three different countries. Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope (Italy): the Pope has died, the cardinals select another to become Pope (Michel Piccoli), but he isn’t so keen on the idea. He goes AWOL, and eventually turns his back on the church. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (USA): the 16th President (Daniel Day-Lewis) seeks to end the Civil War and pass the 13th Amendment, which abolishes slavery. Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (Denmark): The royal physician, Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), has an affair with the Queen (Alicia Vikander) while befriending the King (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) and using him to enact the ideals of the Enlightenment. What connects these stories is their inside-baseball approach to the material. Whether it is the sequestered cardinals in the Vatican, or congressmen lobbying back and forth, or the King and Struensee discussing politics during a bath, they are all the same. Insight into a world we would never be deemed access to. That is what the cinema is all about, isn’t it? I gave away the ending of We Have a Pope, and history has given away the endings to both Lincoln and A Royal Affair, but movies are much more than their final moments, and I urge you to seek out all of these.
Three films that I feel should be on the list but aren’t are Amour (Michael Haneke), Holy Motors (Leos Carax) both from France, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) from Turkey. I have left them off my list for the simple reasons, that I am not sure what it is that I have to say about them, let alone how to translate that into thoughtful criticism. All three are brilliant and all three will challenge you.
A Complete List of the Current Releases I Watched in 2012:
21 Jump Street, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alps, The Amazing Spider-Man, Amour, Anna Karenina, Arbitrage, Argo, Bachlorette, Beast of the Southern Wild, Bernie, The Bourne Legacy, Brave, Bullhead, The Cabin in the Woods, Casa De Mi Padre, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Chasing Ice, Cloud Atlas, Compliance, Cosmopolis, The Dark Knight Rises, The Deep Blue Sea, The Dictator, Django Unchained, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, Elena, End of Watch, The Five-Year Engagement, Flight, Frankenweenie, God Bless America, Goon, The Grey, Haywire, Hitchcock, Holy Motors, How to Survive a Plague, The Hunger Games, The Invisible War, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly, Lawless, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Looper, The Loved Ones, The Man With Iron Fists, Magic Mike, Marvel’s The Avengers, The Master, Middle of Nowhere, Moonrise Kingdom, Newlyweds, Norwegian Wood, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Oslo, August 31st, The Paperboy, ParaNorman, Premium Rush, Prometheus, A Royal Affair, Red Hook Summer, Ruby Sparks, Rust and Bone, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Sessions, Seven Psychopaths, Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall, Sleep Walk With Me, Smashed, Sound of My Voice, Take this Waltz, Ted, This is Not a Film, To Rome With Love, We Have a Pope, Wreck-It Ralph, Your Sister’s Sister, Zero Dark Thirty
Special thanks to Lindsay Jackson for all of her support.