Top Ten of 2012
2012 was either a year of disappointment or one of surprising adequacy. Many of the films I was predicted to highly anticipate (predicted by me, that is) turned out to be disappointments, the films that should have been great were not quite so, while the films I had no stock in turned out to be tolerable, and the popular fodder I saw proved even genuinely engaging, thoroughly enjoyable, and, most pleasantly, even enlightened time at the movies.
"Enlightened and forward-thinking," meaning not Ted. But let's get these out of the way, since they won't be appearing on any Top Tens of the year or anything: The Avengers (superheroes as self-sabotaging NGO), The Dark Knight Rises (superheroes deconstruct ideology and political theater), The Cabin in the Woods (the apocalypse redeems a bunch of dead teenagers), Prometheus (along with The Cabin in the Woods: mainstream esoterica).
Filmmakers showed their real chops (Dark Shadows, ParaNorman, Anna Karenina, Silver Linings Playbook, The Turin Horse) or fake chops (the preening, toadying Music Hall charm of Tom Hooper's Les Miserables; the fashionably good-intentioned, intellectually questionable Beasts of the Southern Wild), but also showed off why it's so hard to give a damn about them.
Horror tried a little harder this year, offering up a lot of ambitious, high-concept duds (V/H/S, The Woman in Black, Sinister, Intruders, Beyond the Black Rainbow) and an impressive number of high-concept winners (The Tall Man, The Innkeepers, and, of course, The Cabin in the Woods and Prometheus). Some pretty-good wayside entertainments, too: Entrance, The Pact, The Awakening.
So this being a year of disappointment, the following Top Ten films will be accompanied not with blurbs of effusive praise and rapturous circumlocution, but with lots of bitter dismissal.
Hopeful To-Sees: This is Not a Film, Tabu, Almayer's Folly, Damsels in Distress, Cosmopolis, Killer Joe, Zero Dark Thirty, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Kill List, The Kid With a Bike, The Color Wheel
WITHOUT FURTHER ADO
15. The Master
Another vapid historical Saturday Night Live sketch from Paul Thomas Anderson.
Affleck admirably makes an American studio film that essentially takes place in Iran, and is essentially about Iran's functioning society, but he dweebs it up greatly when he returns to the comforts of Hollywood.
13. Anna Karenina
Three scenes/moments of immense cinematic and moral power: Anna's premature deathbed communal-redemption with both Vronsky and Karenin; a fractured scene traversing a blue hallway as Vronsky and Anna's relationship begins to crack in the last leg of Anna's life; and her death. Otherwise, Wright has one word running through his head: visceral, visceral, visceral, visceral, as visceral as my might can make it!, visceral, visceral...
12. The Hole
Ah yes, my unpretentious genre master can hold his dramatics quite well, can't he... I'll put his creation of character dynamics against any self-important modern arthouse filmmaker any day.
What an adorable first-draft of a movie. Rian Johnson has some incredibly cool, almost Orson Welles-ish tics of stylized world-building going on, but I can only think back on Looper and laugh at it, not with it.
AND WITH NOT MORE FURTHER ADO:
The Top 10
10. Django Unchained
Tarantino has written another intricate and driving discourse on the ills of cultures and history, addressing rhetorically instead of sentimentally easily exploited topics, but "Django" is flat, flat, flat, and only picks up cinematically when we're at, inside, or in close vicinity to a plantation house.
9. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
This was actually my #7 at one point, due to my liking Ceylan's sense of shot structure and editing together of his roaming, crawling shots (a symphonic sense rather Hooperian - Tobe, that is), but I have only so much patience for such pristine and poised arthouse drudgery, especially in a film that seems so blankly carried away by its existentialist fable's utterly stolid, utterly normative, tediously masculine viewpoints.
8. Moonrise Kingdom
Best parts: whenever Tilda Swinton is on-screen, adding the real, serious dramatic stakes to Wes Anderson's standard-issue - yes, often exquisite - stylish and self-bemused, bemused and narcissistic reverie.
7. The Wicker Tree
It gets crappy, but I'll take what I can get when there's such morsels of real, honest-to-god, idiosyncratic 70's-style filmmaking wit and eccentricity. Perfectly smart satiric horror tale, too -- that is, until the soundless, dry, odorless fart of an ending stinger.
6. Holy Motors
I didn't even really fucking much enjoy this uniquely fucking enjoyable movie - restlessness set in throughout the theater pretty quickly, the accordion ensemble entr'acte made me terminally roll my eyes, and the musical number was a bad musical number - yet it's still my #6. I liked a lot of it. We can talk more about it later, as I agree, it is a film that deserves to live, to be remembered as a bracing, enlivening treatise on, not the death of cinema, but the continuance of it. Carax takes digital cinema by the balls and makes it his boisterous bitch.
What a disappointment. Haneke, reputation as a severe cinematic sadist notwithstanding (he actually seems like quite the un-puffed-up sweetheart in interviews I've read - certainly not a Lars Von Trier-ish intellectual bad boy), creates some highly affecting scenes communicating a truly empathic - not exploitative! - wish to inhabit the feelings and ordeal his elderly protagonists are going through. But this film just does not go anywhere interesting. Even the prickly social interaction Haneke excels at - here, involving Isabelle Hupert's unimaginative daughter character, the equally unimaginative piano protege, and a negligent caregiver - fail to bring anything home. I guess when he doesn't have subversive politics creating a sufficient undertow, Haneke fails to make a film soar, and now exists a Haneke film with zero surprises.
4. The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Well, it's just a good time. And I can't gregariously complain about anything, which is a first (perhaps only) on this list.
A hell of a lot better than it's being given any credit for. A Pixar film with an understated, non-action story. One completely situated in the real world and all practical dimensions of it. One with no talking animals, anthropomorphized things, extraneous comedy relief, or a roster of cute characters ready for the ancillary merchandize markets. A kid's film with less chase sequences than ruminations on historicizing myth. A Disney princess film about politics. Also: genuinely interested in luxuriating in the rustic, erstwhile land and time it takes place in.
Spielberg without action scenes. A courtly film (for the most part), with an elegiac sense of the importance of such morally and philosophically essential events. The passive women of the film allow politics to give way to looks at the human condition: Mary Lincoln's in-the-bedroom neurosis, and Elizabeth Keckley and Lincoln's candid, but fractured, only-halfway-there reciprocation on the steps.
1. The Deep Blue Sea
Not even this film totally won me over... its portrait of a woman exhibiting and espousing these ideas and feelings of love, sexual desire, and emotional reciprocity - asserting a place of outspokenness that would normally be fitted onto a man - felt rather "been there, done that - what purpose has this, then?" This seemed the inferior sister to The House of Mirth. (I got the same feeling from Django Unchained. I kept thinking of Charles Burnett's Nightjohn, and it made Django Unchained's distracted commentary feel moot and ineffectual.) But it did win me over. Exquisite. The feelings and drama is raw and candid about the messiness of it all.
* * *
I have high expectations for 2013. No Tarantino this year, so at least that monkey won't be on my back.