2012 is the first year in which I would not hesitate to call myself a cinephile. Even in 2011, acclaim wouldn’t get me into a movie theater; I tended to wait for the film to hit Netflix Instant or arrive on HBO/Starz/Encore etc. On Demand before I would catch up on recent releases, meaning most of the good stuff I wouldn’t see until the end of the calendar year. This year was definitely the year with the most trips to the movie theaters, and the year in which I was most aware of films being released. Being a student in New York finally hit me, and I realized that when I read about an independent film that was worth seeing I didn’t need to go out of my way to see it. I also had the advantage of participating in the New York Film Festival Critics Academy, which let me see many films ahead of their releases, some of which are slated for a 2013 release.
I still missed a lot of acclaimed films this year. The Grey, Tabu, The Color Wheel, Killer Joe, The Sessions, Rust In Bone, almost all of the acclaimed documentaries of the year, and several others I am forgetting at the moment slipped by. Of course, that does not mean I won’t make an effort to watch them, but it obviously means I can’t include them on this list. Still, 2012 is, by far, my most complete year, in which I was most on top of things, so for the first time, I feel comfortable rattling off my list of the best films of the year. This list will only include films that received their first theatrical release in 2012 for at least a week. That means one-off screenings and festival films are not included, so no Ginger and Rosa, no Beyond The Hills, no Something In The Air, no Like Someone In Love, no Last Time I Saw Macao, regardless of how great a couple of those titles were.
I reviewed just over half of these films. Click on the title to be re-directed to the review.
10. Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
I don’t think there is one film from 2012 that made me laugh as much as Magic Mike. That it made me do it with more than just the dancing was a pleasant surprise. But the crux of the feature is its stylization, which makes it look so much like a Soderbergh film (he shot and edited too) but also like one of the better music videos you have seen. That blend of artistry and joyfulness is what makes Magic Mike, which really shouldn’t have been more than a girls-night-out film with a story slapped on, so unique in 2012.
Starlet trusts its audience. Most great films do, but Starlet really trusts its audiences. There are tons of reasons (or maybe just one or two really obvious ones) a twenty-something might befriend an eighty-something after accidentally coming into possession of a lot of her money, but whatever the reason is here, it’s either not what you expect or it plays out very far from what you would expect. This is not just any Harold & Maude type story, this one with very, very specific characters who do not stand for anything, which, in addition to making the story that much more compelling, makes each twist and turn further support that you probably don’t know someone as well as you think you do. It’s loaded with questions in a manner that absolutely never breaks the “show, don’t tell” role, and that there are so many stories like it and yet it is so utterly unique is just the footstone for its greatness. This is probably the most obscure film on this list, so if I convince you to watch just one film, make it this one.
8. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)
The Deep Blue Sea opens largely with an extended ethereal montage set to the Second Movement of Samuel Barber’s Concerto For Violin & Orchestra. If we considered that a single scene, it would rival an accordion-driven scene from a film higher on this list as the best of the year. Of course, the rest of the movie is great, too, with Davies making fantastic use of silence, demanding that his characters think and react before they verbally respond. That’s a nuance which brings a stunning performance out of Rachel Weisz. The whole film has that unflashy beauty, full of period detail and a very particular use of light that gives each shot a particular mood that, the romance itself, will stay with you well after the closing credits.
7. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
If I had to describe The Kid With A Bike with just one phrase, I would call it a “cinematic fairytale.” Despite the Dardenne brothers’ undying dedication to long takes, which normally indicate realism, the film has such a sweet story at its core that the camera only aids to the sort of otherworldly beauty on display, in which, even at the film’s various intense moments, danger is always too surreal to fully comprehend. Like The Red Balloon before it, it’s a poetic portrayal of childhood that hints at the difficult but ultimately conquerable difficulties of adolescence. It is films like this for which the saying “A picture is worth 1,000 words” was coined, and The Kid With A Bike offers 24 pictures per second. That’s a lot of words.
6. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley)
Take This Waltz is the rare romance film, like Lost In Translation, that does not pretend to have all the answers. That kind of honesty is great to have in all movies but is absolutely necessary as soon as you start grappling with things as ambiguous and as unknown as love is. Everything in this film happens with the feeling of pre-determined coincidence that the finer points of life seem to unfold in, and so Polley, blessed with a brilliant compositional eye, brings out the beauty of the everyday environment. Take This Waltz is the type of movie in which everything matters, everything suggests another possible but uncertain result. It’s full of the cautionary skepticism that plagues its protagonist, but to call it a vice is far too simplistic, and also a denial of what makes us human.
5. Goodbye, First Love (Mia Hansen-Love)
There are not many things better than a coming-of-age story done right. So dearly does everyone hold their own childhood, seeing those feelings of nostalgia, youth, and (loss of) innocence in a work of art is a surefire way to leave you happily lost in thought. But Goodbye, First Love, takes you one-step further, bringing those initial experiences of love-and-loss, showing how they never leave and always re-shape you. Hansen-Love makes all the details work, from her characters to the seasons to her use of color and the long take, and as a result, Goodbye, First Love becomes a story that is moving because of its specificity but also far more challenging than your average coming-of-age tale. To put it simply, it’s a beautiful film, evoking strong feelings about love and youth in a unique and beautiful way.
4. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Even if you somehow aren’t impressed by the landscape on its own, Gökhan Tiryaki’s cinematography will still take your breath-away. He fills this deliberately-paced procedural with so much symbolism that it cannot help but become an existential exploration of the numerous men who don’t do much more than look for a body over the course of nearly three hours. Those three hours are filled with self-discovery and reflection as Ceylan takes you on the journey right along with the characters, and by the time you realize the whole thing is a build-up to a moral punch, it’s too late—Once Upon A Time In Anatolia will never get out of your mind.
3. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
It’s unfortunate that such a brilliant work has been hijacked by political pundits and anyone else trying to prove a point and start an argument. It’s making even the most dedicated aesthetes get involved and thus takes the spotlight away from how masterfully crafted the first masterpiece of post-9/11 cinema (if not post-9/11 art) is. In the search for Osama Bin Laden, Maya (Jessica Chastain) also comes face-to-face with America’s corrupting moral compass and a handful of men unwilling or unable to adapt to modern ideas of equality. And that’s what Zero Dark Thirty is really about: The end of traditional ideals and American Exceptionalism and the entrance into a world where we are just as liable to do wrong as any other, a world becoming enraptured by technology and the uncertainty that comes with it. And it’s a first-class Hollywood thriller, too, in which no amount of prior knowledge can stop your heart from beating faster as Bigelow masterfully controls suspense levels.
2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
There has never been a film quite like Holy Motors. Denis Levant turns in one of the century’s best performances as an identity-shifting man, whose adventures are a tribute to acting, Leos Carax’s radical vision on a new cinema, and a thought-provoking exploration of identity all at once. Each turn it takes, Holy Motors has you wondering how it could ever get more wonderfully bizarre, but each turn it takes, it somehow does. It’s easily the most addictive film of the year, boasting so many memorable scenes that it makes you wonder if any other movies are even trying. Not a minute goes by where you are not totally enraptured but also trying to quiet the myriad thoughts racing through your mind. It’s taken cinema around 100 years to give us one thing like Holy Motors, and one can’t help but wonder if the next 100 can bring anything remotely like it.
1. Amour (Michael Haneke)
This makes my top 3 one of the more boring that you have probably seen, but bear with me here. Amour is would be good just for its fantastic minimalism: Almost the entire film takes place within the confines of one apartment, which, at some point while you watch begins to resemble a prison more than a home, or the mostly unmoving shots, vigorously composed and illuminating the perils of its subjects in a moving yet understated way. But Amour, which depicts a man in his 80s (Jean-Louis Trintigent) caring for his dying wife (Emmanuelle Riva) is also among the most moving films you will ever see. It forces you to ask questions about life, death, and love that you don’t dare ask yourself if you can avoid it, and it’s handled with such honest and controlled hands that it never feels sadistic even when it’s hardest to watch. Very rarely is there a film that can make you contemplate walking out of a theater because it’s too good, but with Amour, Michael Haneke has made just that film.
There were other great films, of course. Oslo, August 31st and The Turin Horse and Argo and Bernie, and others I have reviewed positively here, such as The Loneliest Planet and Haywire. But ultimately, these 10 stand out to me as examples of great cinema in many different ways.
Lastly, a super honorable mention to Girl Walk // All Day, which would certainly be on this list if it were ever the kind of movie that would be released theatrically. It has not, and it was produced in 2011, so I can’t bring myself to count it as a 2012 film. It’s much more than just a music video set to an entire Girl Talk album. It’s a brilliant city symphony where the outcasts and the weirdos who are scoffed at on the streets of New York become its heroes, and it’s also a great observation of reaction and personality in the Big Apple. You can view the whole thing for free at http://girlwalkallday.com/watch-the-film and once you do, you will not be able to stop.
Girl Walk // All Day was released theatrically – it played for one week at ReRun.