The very best films of 2012 accurately depicted the fragility of mankind and of its spirit. These are not new topics meant to provoke awe. Every year, cinema depicts the most inconceivable of situations and pits characters in them to fend for their lives. In 2012, the best of cinema took an intense foray into pain and suffering but with an unerring intent to discern what it was that permitted or encouraged particular characters to endure certain tragedies.
What was discovered in these elite films was the profoundest reverence for togetherness and dependability. The police, being dragged around the uninhabited fields of Anatolia searching for a dead body, still managed to cooperate with two murderers in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. If it was not for a fast-thinking scout master who gathered Camp Ivanhoe’s finest boy scouts to search for two young lovers who fled the coop in Moonrise Kingdom, they would forever be stranded on their own magical island (is that really a bad thing?). Instead of two souls aimlessly suffering existence alone in The Master, they endure together and astonishingly discover what each one so desperately needs in the other: a sense of worth. The father and daughter in Beasts of the Southern Wild would not survive the aftermath of the storm if it were not for their true, illustrious relationship. And the octogenarian couple in Amour is the only proof we need to know that it takes two people, solidified in an unbreakable relationship, to stand firm, face life and to stare the inevitable square in the eyes.
The following are my picks for the 30 best films of 2012.
30. The Imposter – Directed by Bart Layton
29. Kill List – Directed by Ben Wheatley
28. Argo – Directed by Ben Affleck
27. Looper – Directed by Rian Johnson
26. Polisse – Directed by Maiwenn
25. Lincoln – Directed by Steven Spielberg
24. Bernie – Directed by Richard Linklater
23. Arbitrage – Directed by Nicholas Jarecki
22. We Have a Pope – Directed by Nanni Moretti
21. Silver Linings Playbook – Directed by David O’ Russell
20. 5 Broken Cameras – Directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
19. Killer Joe – Directed by William Friedkin
19. Compliance – Directed by Craig Zobel
17. Killing Them Softly – Directed by Andrew Dominik
16. Magic Mike – Directed by Steven Soderbergh
15. Elena – Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
14. The Loneliest Planet – Directed by Julia Loktev
13. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai – Directed by Takashi Miike
12. The Day He Arrives – Directed by Sang-soo Hong
11. The Grey – Directed by Joe Carnahan
10. The Turin Horse
Directed by Bela Tarr
Starring Janos Derzsi, Mihaly Kormos, Erika Bok, Risc
The Turin Horse is a descent into a barren and austere abyss, but, above all else, it is an experience like no other, one that is beyond capable of leaving an indelible impact on its viewers for years to come. Supposedly the film was inspired by how Nietzsche encountered a man in Turin, Italy, in 1889, beating a disobeying horse. Nietzsche soon intervened and threw himself onto the horse, embracing it. Such an event must have persistently gnawed away at him. Auteur director Bela Tarr, renowned for his bleak and somber b&w cinema, is giving us a story of that horse’s life after the incident. It is owned by an aging father (Janos Derzsi) and his middle-aged hardworking daughter (Erika Bok). We are introduced to their smallest of habits and their troubles with persevering despite all the hardships that plague them. Tarr has almost a preternatural acuteness of perception of struggle and strife. Here is an unparalleled portrait of a father and daughter living a most rural existence in the 19th century, their relationship and their everyday habits. What can bee seen as a peculiar take on the biblical story of Job, Tarr doesn’t skimp with the overwhelming hardships suddenly altering, for the worse, the simple existence of an aging father and his hardworking daughter. The film’s first image is of a horse pulling a carriage and trudging through mud, relentlessly pursuing his destination. The two main characters will be consumed with the same resilience in their attempt to endure life. This is supposed to be Tarr’s last film, and it is a dark film. Maybe it’s an allegory of Tarr’s creative and imaginative despair.
9. Holy Motors
Directed by Leos Carax
Starring Denis Lavant, Eva Mendes, Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue
Holy Motors (Mr. Carax’s first feature film in thirteen years) ventures into the realm of the confounding. It destroys the conventions of old Hollywood, bludgeons familiarity to a pulp and, most of all, abounds in all things that are necessary to making a creative film. Think Lynch, Bunuel and Resnais all crammed together to form a whole. Once M. Oscar (Denis Lavant) steps into a white limousine that is chauffeured by the renowned French actress Edith Scob, Holy Motors begins its unrelenting discourse about film and the many personalities life has to offer. Oscar has a dressing room in the limousine, allowing him to wear many different faces (a beggar lady, acrobat, gangster, mad man, wistful lover, concerned father) as he plays that particular role. There is no doubt that it is imperative for us to savor this wholly original film.
8. Moonrise Kingdom
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis
French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, a powerful influence in cinema and pop culture from the 1960s onward thanks to his radical films, depicted in some of his films the need for the adolescent or youth to maintain their autonomy in the process of society attempting to crush it and mold it for their own purposes. This is pure literary, but in cinema the right director can demonstrate explicitly the harsh tendencies of society. In his newest film, Moonrise Kingdom, director Wes Anderson, with a script he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, is approaching that topic Godard is constantly wrestling with. It is not easy to do, but with Anderson’s whimsy and vigorous style of direction, unerring in its constant infatuation with capturing perfection, we are able to witness two adolescents restlessly in love in a perfectly concocted world endure an environment that is stifling and stunting their growth.
7. The Kid with a Bike
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring Thomas Doret, Jérémie Renier, Cécile De France, Fabrizio Rongione, Egon Di Mateo
The Dardenne Brothers are masterful French filmmakers who have such an unprecedented and profound understanding that life is difficult to cope with. What they put on screen is perpetual anguish (loss, loneliness and isolation) that incapable individuals are to somehow miraculously endure. Their films are concerned with lives that inevitably hit rock bottom and how those lives resort to desperate measures to become resuscitated. Deeply embedded in reality, the Dardennes give us a bleak representation of the world we all inhabit. The Kid with a Bike is akin to the brothers’ other masterpieces (L’Enfant and The Son). It is a film suffused with equal dosages of despair and hope. The film possesses such a simple premise. We see a boy (Thomas Doret), infatuated with his bike, who is left without hope after his father realizes he cannot nurture him any more. The boy has many paths to go down. Down one of them is a rare opportunity to encounter goodness. It is in the form of a woman (Cecile De France) who is replete with abundant kindness. What transpires is miraculous and moving. The resounding melody of Beethoven’s somber Emperor Concerto used sporadically in the film augments the film’s resonance.
6. Oslo, August 31st
Directed by Joachim Trier
Starring Anders Danielsen Lie, Ingrid Olava, Hans Olav Brenner
Here is a profoundly powerful story of a man named Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) and the terrible reality of his life and of his existence. The film, directed by Joachim Trier, depicts Anders’ dissatisfaction and depression. He is no longer capable of seamlessly integrating himself into society. Thirty-four years on this planet and it is safe to say that he has not enjoyed many of those years. Fragments of hope linger in his countenance but only for a fleeting second. Even a brief smile for his man is rare. He cannot partake in the everydayness because of his addiction to heroine. The rehab center in Norway where he is attempting recovery grants him one day leave so he can attend a job interview. Things are looking faintly bright for Anders, who so desperately wants to begin the next part of his life.
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Lowell Landes, Levy Easterly, Pamela Harper
After Hurricane Katrina pummels New Orleans, a father and his daughter determinedly attempt to navigate what is left of their once energetic neighborhood. Long gone are the all night parties consisting of celebratory sparklers, joyous laughter and friendly drinking. That was all traded in unwillingly for dilapidated homes swallowed by tons of water, diseased-ridden fish populating the river stream and cars that perform better as being turned into motorized boats. First time director Benh Zeitlin has a difficult task on his hands: How does he overcome the prevailing presence of Katrina? His answer came in an unexpected form. He instills all his trust into first time actor Quvenzhane Wallis, a nine-year-old wonder who is able to convey a vast array of emotions without ever overdoing it. Katrina is seen through her eyes and is understood by her mind, giving the film a unique vision, a vision that can only be comprehended by a curious and wandering child. With her acting and her narrative with her father (Dwight Henry), what should be generic and trite is transformed into fantasy that is stunning and every bit plausible. Zeitlin’s ambitious embraces of the cosmos and everyone in it is a jab at capturing cinema in an absolutely expressive way.
4. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel
Attempting to know the deepest self and deepest secrets of existence is perhaps the biggest undertaking a film director can ever embark on. A quest for a project that is capable of attaining truths – or even just coming into contact with truths – seems altogether impossible. But these quests usually result in films that are amazingly profound. One needs only to refer to Michelangelo Antonioni’s films that fathomed endlessly existentialism. And only last year it was Terence Malick who astonishingly conceived a vision of the beginning of time and the afterlife that awaits us. These topics aren’t for every filmgoer, but those willing to take the journey are rewarded with a unique experience. Now here comes Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan with his latest film that is disguised as a hypnotizing police procedural but is really a film devoted to exploring humanity and existence. Ceylan (Distant and Climates) scours relentlessly the desolate landscapes of Anatolia until he finally gets introduced to Truth, no matter how vague or dismaying it may be. Some form of truth derives from seven police officers, a detective, a doctor and two fugitives who are leading the group through Anatolia’s midnight hours, trying to discover the exact spot where they recently buried a body. As the film progresses, its focus shifts from the search party to the relationship and the dialectic between the detective and the doctor. What ensues is sublime. The film is full of wonderful and insightful dialogue that quickly reveals in each of the characters a sense of confusion and a yearning for imminent guidance in a blurred and vague world.
3. Django Unchained
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson
Mr. Tarantino is unabashedly blunt. It is bluntness, though, in his latest feature, that has been thoroughly thought out and the outcome is a symphony of brutality that leaves you reeling after the near three hour running time. With his infatuation with spaghetti westerns, obsolescent B movies and blaxploitation films, Tarantino corrals all sorts of different genres and styles to create a challenging and complex feature that oozes passion. The directorial techniques, violence and soundtrack are undoubtedly self-indulgent, but trying to imagine Django Unchained without intense camera zooms, blood-stained fields of cotton and music borrowed from Ennio Morricone, would be impossible to do. The purpose in Tarantino’s expedition is for him to be compelled to successfully deprecate the splendor of American myths and notions we have of the south. He elaborates mere ugliness not only to shock, or even simply to surprise his audience, but to disconnect their perception of a glorified Antebellum South. Django Unchained is meant to inspire indignation, contempt and disgust; to encourage a detachment from the ill-perceived glamour that has forever been linked to cinema-depicted slavery. Here, Tarantino brazenly flexes his director muscles by exploiting the travesties and difficult to acknowledge credulities of a remorseless humanity that was flourishing in America before Emancipation. A black slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), made free thanks to a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist (Christoph Waltz), partners up with the bounty hunter to collect bounties throughout the winter. Next the two are weaving their way through the vile and remorseless, on their way to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington), who is held captive by the depraved Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) on his plantation called ‘Candy Land.’ Taking on the topic of slavery is a daunting task. But Tarantino has morphed into a revisionist director, highlighting the atrocities of history (Nazis/Jew and Slave owners/slaves) and altering them so that the suppressed (Jews/slaves) get their revenge. Django does not preach, it simply allows its victims to finally relish and revel in revenge.
Directed by Michael Haneke
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Usually, the films of Michael Haneke concern themselves with malicious, subliminal and evil topics. Films such as Funny Games, Cache and The White Ribbon provoke an inordinate amount unfathomable dread. With Amour (the film won this year’s Palm d’Or at Cannes) it seems he is delightedly content to abandon his cold, sterile approach and embrace a heartfelt approach. His topic is still dreadful – the inevitability of death – but it is the year’s cinematic apotheosis of the love story. The film depicts an octogenarian couple (French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) struggling to preserve love and life despite the inevitability of death. When George (Trintignant) and Anne (Riva) sit down to eat breakfast the morning after they attended a pianist performance of Schubert’s works, the Anne stops moving, oblivious to what is going on. George tries getting her attention by making sounds and wetting her neck with a wet washcloth. Soon she regains consciousness, unaware as to what just transpired. She begins to pour tea, missing her cup completely. She has had a stroke. George has made a promise to her that he will never place her in a care-home. He is ready to care for her completely, despite what their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) may think. There are two films here. One is of Anne’s degeneration of her existence and the other is of George’s struggle to see his loved on endure pain, confusion and shamefulness. Haneke evokes years of love by observing a simple glance from George or by observing the two together while they listen to classical music that they can no longer play. Amour is about the fragility of life and how it can all be over in an instant. What a tender, troubling and profound meditation on life.
1. The Master
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
“Sancho alone thought that all his master said was the truth, for he was well acquainted with him.” –from “Don Quixote”
It is hard to recover thoroughly from the state of bewilderment brought about by the effort to fully digest Mr. Anderson’s disturbing and unobtrusively ferocious film that is akin to an angry dream. We are not likely to fully comprehend Mr. Andersons’ latest film, but it definitely provoked the most profound thought process any film in 2012 was capable of inspiring. The film is literally unshakable. Images, lines of dialogue and mannerisms from the film will likely pervade the many waking moments of those who happened to see it. All that the film serves up (postwar traumas that were pervasive in 1950s America, the beginnings of a cult and two odd yet powerful tales of love), its main concern is with the confused perceptions which Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), leader of the religious cult known as the Cause, and Freddy Quall (Joaquin Phoenix), who served in the Navy during the Pacific war, each harbor. The film is a plunge into the eerie shadows and depths of these two men who try to disentangle themselves from a labyrinthine chaos that is Life and Existence. These two are the most exuberant characters in recent memory. Both are practically all alone in this world, yearning for meaning and trying to escape an existential tempest that has been bombarding them for who knows how long. They each have been sustaining a will to resist their personal demons, but to little avail. Aimless, they still wander about, Dodd respectively preaching false doctrines to his rapidly growing congregation that promise to cure any past traumas, and adhering to them absentmindedly, while Freddy endeavors to drink himself into an oblivion that guarantees ceaseless agony. Their awful habits do little to alleviate their suffering. Rather, they leave them severely agitated and even hasten their catastrophe. What makes the film so appealing and powerful is that these two characters are totally oblivious to the cause of their dire, hopeless situation. Continuously do they cling on to and skulk among the contamination that is rendering their lives intolerable. Only when the two become acquainted (Dodd the master and Freddy his faithful and disillusioned disciple) their situations are scarcely less dreadful. And this little bit is all they need. A little bit of hope or a glimmer of light is what they significantly covet. Don’t we all?