Saturday, February 16, 2013

Best of 2012, Part 1: Top 20, Zen Awards

I know, I know, this is so ridiculously late this year that all "best of" lists have lost their relevance, because that's the movie culture we live in these days--we follow every insane detail of production for a full year before a movie comes out, and then after opening weekend no one talks about that movie again. Well, I say the hell with that. Let's think about some movies that are (gasp!) maybe a few months. Even older. Shoot, if I wrote this blog on a regular basis we'd spend most all of our time talking about movies from decades ago, because that's just how we roll here.
(As an aside, the less noble, more realistic version of why this is late is because I've been waiting all year to see Michael Haneke's Amour, and it only opened in town yesterday. So stay tuned to see if it was worth the wait.)

Now, I'm not going to pretend that there's really any suspense as to what is going to take #1 this year. Anyone who's talked to me about movies within the past 6 months has probably already had an earful about my pick for this year's best (and yes, it's exactly what you think it is). That doesn't mean, however, that there isn't a ridiculous amount of riches to be found in 2012's other cinematic offerings. Really, last year was a ball-crushingly fantastic year for movies. I'm settling on 20, but the order is probably somewhat arbitrary; I've been changing things around all week, and I'm still not sure I'm totally satisfied with things. So I'll rattle off my top 20, and then we'll dive into my annual silly awards.

Check them out after the jump!

In interest of transparency, here's an alphabetical list of everything I've seen this year:

5 Broken Cameras, 21 Jump Street, Alps, The Amazing Spider-Man, Amour, Anna Karenina, Arbitrage, Argo, The Avengers, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Brave, The Cabin in the Woods, Chronicle, Cloud Atlas, Compliance, Contraband, Cosmopolis, Damsels in Distress, The Dark Knight Rises, Detention Django Unchained, End of Watch, First Position, Flight, Frankenweenie, Gayby, The Grey, Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Hope Springs, How to Survive a Plague, The Hunger Games, The Impossible, The Invisible War, John Carter, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Lawless, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Looper, Magic Mike, Man on a Ledge, The Master, Mein Leben Als Apfelbaum, Men in Black III, Mirror Mirror, Moonrise Kingdom, The Paperboy, ParaNorman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Pitch Perfect, Prometheus, The Queen of Versailles, Rock of Ages, Rust and Bone, Safety Not Guaranteed, Searching for Sugar Man, The Secret World of Arrietty, The Sessions, Seven Psychopaths, Silent House, Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall, Snow White and the Huntsman, Ted, The Woman in Black, Wrath of the Titans, Zero Dark Thirty
So if something's not featured on a list this week and you wonder why, check here; if it's not included, I haven't seen it. If it is included, then the movie just isn't very good, and you should examine your movie taste. (just kidding. ...Maybe.) Generally, I've done fairly well with catching up with the big movies of the year, although, as per usual, I'm woefully behind when it comes to foreign movies. So apologies to Holy Motors, Farewell My Queen, A Royal Affair, The Turin Horse, Oslo August 31st, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Lore, Barbara, War Witch, The Intouchables, etc., etc. It really would be lovely if some of these movies opened in markets outside of New York and LA. Oh well.

Honorable Mentions: though they didn't make the cut, I appreciate the uneven but always entertaining efforts of Django Unchained, and the tragicomic downfall in The Queen of Versailles, and the gorgeous carnage of Skyfall.

The Best Films of 2012
20. End of Watch (dir. David Ayer)
Far better than it has any right to be, End of Watch revitalizes the buddy-cop drama, injecting it with humor, heart, and genuine emotion--most of which is probably due to the unbelievably good chemistry between leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena.

19. Searching for Sugar Man (dir. Malik Bendjelloul)
This documentary chronicles the story of Rodriguez, an American singer who sold maybe 20 records in the US but became a rock sensation in South Africa, and is one of the most accomplished inspirational films of the year. Following Rodriguez's story from ignominy in the 70s to politely confused South African stardom feels like an idealized version of the American Dream as it should be.

18. The Secret World of Arrietty (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Although it fails to reach the heights of the Miyazaki-helmed Studio Ghibli efforts, Arrietty remains an arresting display of hand-drawn animation, whose delicate world-building and melancholy spirit distinguish it from other, more mainstream animated efforts.

17. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)
It might have been slightly over-hyped by this year's awards season, but Argo is a fine example of classic storytelling and suspense, enlivened by sure-handed direction and a quick-headed script. It might be a little routine, but what a routine it is.

16. The Invisible War (dir. Kirby Dick)
If this documentary doesn't make you burn with righteous indignation, then you probably need to take some time to seriously re-examine your priorities as a human being. By depicting the horrendous conditions involving rape in the military, The Invisible War paints a disturbing portrait of servicewomen (and men) who give everything to their country and receive nothing in return.

15. Rust and Bone (dir. Jacques Audiard)
What a prickly, remote love story: director Audiard stages this hookup-cum-romance between an underground fight-ring boxer and a legless whale trainer just like the boxing matches encountered by the main characters: bloody, passionate, brutal, and as fascinating as a train wreck.

14. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)
Bold, beautiful, and somewhat bonkers, Moonrise Kingdom approaches the subject of adolescent romance in the way that only Wes Anderson--quirky clothes, dollhouse compositions, and understated poetry.

13. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Although The Master is undoubtedly PTA's most uneven effort, its best moments still prove that this director is one of the gods of American cinema. The structure is unsound and the film is ultimately somewhat directionless, but the self-destructive relationship at the center of the film--Joaquin Phoenix's wounded animal of a man versus Phillip Seymour Hoffman's smarmy cult leader--create some of the most memorable moments of the year. It's hard not to respect this level of ambition: points must be given for degree of difficulty, even if the end result isn't as successful as some of the other, more modest features higher on the list.

12. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
What impresses most about this film is its autistic-savant, Rain Man-style attention to detail and procedure. This film confidently takes its place with In Cold Blood in the pantheon of dramatized non-fiction narratives. Directed with single-minded intensity, written with laser specificity, and powerfully acted, Zero Dark Thirty is an exemplary exercise in film as a medium. If that means it must necessarily be a little too remote for a strong emotional impact, then that's the way it is.

11. 21 Jump Street (dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
Trust me, I'm as surprised as you are. When this was released, I expected nothing other than another stupid, useless remake. What I got instead was a whip-smart, flat-out hilarious crime romp which doubles as the year's sweetest bromance, as well as a surprisingly intelligent postmodern dissection of our sequel/remake-obsessed culture. Intelligent, emotionally interesting, and so funny my stomach hurt from laughing--this one's a keeper.

Drum roll, please: now things get real.

10. Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell)
So, ok, maybe the plot of this film is essentially the same plot as every tired romantic comedy that's been released in the last 30 years. Rarely, however, has the romantic comedy been given such a prickly, unlovable treatment as in this film. Led by bravura performances from Bradley Cooper (who knew he could act?) and Jennifer Lawrence in particular, Silver Linings Playbook manages to sing, in part due to its reluctance to sand down too many of its characters' hard edges. Yes, it might pull a punch or two (mental illness is not nearly as rosy as this film would have us believe), but for every punch it pulls, it lands another honest and gritty hit: Tiffany's meltdown outside the theater, Pat hurting his mom, Pat Sr.'s admission of his own emotional manipulation. And its ending, though manipulative and derivative, is still one hell of an ending. No line this year made me laugh harder than "why the hell are they so happy about a 5?"

9. The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)
This one gets grouped with 21 Jump Street in the "movies that shouldn't be good which turned out to be intelligent cinematic deconstructions" category. Described by its makers as a "loving hate letter" to the horror genre, Cabin in the Woods takes all the tired tropes of the slasher film and mercilessly pulls them apart. The underlying implications of the film's horror-as-ritual-sacrifice experiment imply that audiences are responsible for the current stagnation of the genre, creating a portrait of world horror which is both demoralizing and improbably hopeful--if the characters in the film can revolt against the system and upset the 'natural' order, then what's to stop horror films from reinventing themselves? The fact that it makes all these intelligent insights while managing to be both hilarious and delightfully gory is something of a minor miracle.

8. Magic Mike (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
The story this year in movies for me was movies that should have been awful but managed to be the opposite. Nowhere else was this more evident than in Magic Mike: what could have been a Showgirls-esque campy failure somehow became a piercing character study, an essay on the sexualized male form in film, and a statement about the American Dream which earns its Zeitgeist label more than any other film this year. Magic Mike is deliriously seedy, obsessed with itself, and sun-baked to hyper-real perfection. What should have been a cheap exploitation flick is instead a witty and genuinely moving treatise on the psychological effects of exploitation. To quote Rotten Tomatoes, "have your beefcake and eat it too!"

7. Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright)
Anna Karenina lives and dies by its style, and boy does it live. Wright makes the daring, probably insane decision to set the entire film inside a giant theater, resulting in the most beautiful, expressionistic cinema experiment of the year. Sets like nesting Russan dolls which bleed into each other with surreal precision are captured by exquisite camera choreography, creating a claustrophobic dreamscape against which the aristocratic melodrama plays out. This film goes for broke in every way: stylistically, thematically, emotionally, Anna Karenina practically screams its passions.

6. Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Here's a movie I ended up enjoying much more than I thought I would. All signs pointed to another overly long, overly self-important, serious-as-an-excuse-for-good biopic, but the result is something else entirely. A gorgeously penned script from Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner injects life, liberty, and happiness into the typically staid life-of-a-historical-figure genre. Lincoln eschews idealization or over-romanticizing, acknowledging that politics from any era are a rough, ugly business, even when they concern people whom we have put on a pedestal. This effort to make a man out of a myth would be impossible without Daniel Day-Lewis's virtuoso performance, which improbably finds the fallibility in a figure whose legend has grown so large that any traces of humanity should be impossible to find. Though it's not perfect (its lack of black of characters or opinions in a movie about slavery is offensive, and its ending tries for melodrama), Lincoln is a high-water mark which revitalizes its genre.

5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (dir. Steven Chbosky)
Yet again, another film which shouldn't be this good. Did we really need another high school movie? Like all the best things in life, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a movie I didn't know I needed until I had it and found out what I had been missing. As one of the most honest movies made about teenage emotions since John Hughes stopped working, Perks effortlessly conjures the heady ups and downs, the jumbled ecstasy of discovering yourself as an individual and an adult. The complicated process of growing from adolescent to grown-up is a bruising, exquisite experience, and this film captures it with subtlety and heart. Throw in Perks' unabashed, honest portrayal of non-heteronormative sexuality, mental health, and a blistering performance from next-big-thing Logan Lerman, and you've got something really special.

4. How to Survive a Plague (dir. David France)
It's been a fantastic year for documentaries, as evidenced by the fact that three of them showed up in my top 20 (4 if you count honorable mentions), which is certainly a record. David France's decades-long saga of the outbreak of AIDS and the lives that it destroyed takes the prize, though. How to Survive a Plague is difficult to watch; its depiction of a ravaged community which refuses to be silent in the face of government apathy is intense, brutal, and heart-breaking. What is even more impressive, perhaps, is that the real emotional impact of the film doesn't come from the people who were left behind; rather, from the people who are still here. From hours and hours of archival footage, How to Survive a Plague fashions a sweeping narrative of the human spirit which refuses to die, despite the odds.

3. Cloud Atlas (dir. Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer)
Cloud Atlas is easily the most ambitious film of the year, and the fact that it succeeds at all is nothing short of miraculous. That is succeeds on a grand scale, however, is simply unbelievable. On its surface, Cloud Atlas covers six storylines across 400 years involving hundreds of characters, but in reality, it only has one story: a beautiful, literalized tableau of the potential for human growth and evolution. By implying reincarnation, Cloud Atlas shows a group of souls learning, hurting, and above all loving across the centuries, proving that everything can be changed on a long-enough timeline. Tied together by incredible editing and some of the beautiful movie music you're going to hear this year, Cloud Atlas delivers what was, for me, the most uplifting, emotionally affecting narrative of the year. It may take years, decades, centuries, but we, as individuals and as a society, have the capacity to better ourselves and our world. And maybe, just maybe, love is the motivating engine beneath all of that; maybe just by loving and being loved people can alter their environments, and their actions will make ripples for centuries. Yes, I'm clearly a hopeless romantic, but so is this movie. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and it's all the better for it.

2. Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)
No gentle way to put it: this movie is torture. Pure, unadulterated, merciless torture. ...But in a good way. The story is simple: an elderly woman suffers a stroke, and for two hours we watch as a beautiful, luminous individual becomes a moaning, shivering mass of biomatter, and it's awful. I've never wished so much for a character to die--not because I was bored, or disliked her, but because what she (and, by proxy, the audience) had to go through was terrible, and I wanted to find a way to preserve her dignity. I know I'm not making this movie sound very fun, and trust me, it's not. Director Michael Haneke's films are infamously austere, brutal, and unflinching, and Amour is no exception. In direct contrast with his other films, however, Amour retains its humanity by embracing the husband's undying love and devotion. As it happens, though, the humanity in this film is what makes it so difficult. Amour wouldn't be too hard to watch if everyone on screen were cold, cruel, or apathetic, but by tethering us to an indestructible core of human emotion, Haneke makes Amour a completely devastating experience. Though it's not going to be anything anyone wants to see more than once, Amour shows us just how honest cinema can be.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)
I know, I know, everyone saw this coming. I haven't exactly been coy about my love for this movie in the past few months, nor should I be. Sure, I could write reams about Beasts of the Southern Wilds artistic achievements, but the fact of the matter is that Beasts takes the number one spot because it connected with me emotionally on such a deep, primal level that I knew from the moment I saw it that it was always going to have this spot. Maybe it is the style: Zeitlin is clearly an incredibly talented man whose bag of cinematic tricks creates easily one of the most unique directorial visions in years. Maybe it's the film's poetic sense of fantasy: I love nothing more than when movies gleefully kiss reality goodbye and embrace their own imaginations. Who would have expected that the titular animals in this movie would actually end up confronting the protagonist? Maybe it's the acting: by utilizing non-professional actors, Beasts of the Southern Wild delivers a raw honesty unseen in most films these days. Hell, maybe it's just the music; a wacky fusion of folk, bluegrass, and dizzy daydreaming. Put all these elements together, and you have on your hands one of the most unique, profoundly personal films in recent memory. I am just head-over-heels for this film, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. Seriously. Go see this. Rent it. Whatever. Just see it. Bathe in it. This movie is a lyrical tone poem, a heart-breaking coming-of-age tale, and a child-like exploration of mortality, all in one delirious, giddy package. Long after the rest of the movies this year have died in my memory, I'm still going to remember this:
"When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me lying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. And when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I'm a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they're gonna find it all. They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she live with her daddy in the Bathtub."

There's that. I'm going to take a break, because A) call me a wuss, but just writing that out and thinking about that movie makes me misty-eyed, and B) I'm hungry. So give me a few minutes and then we'll hop into the Zen awards.

Aaaaand we're back. Let the rejoicing commence, but not too loudly.

Best Scenes of the Year

10. Opening Credits-Skyfall
James Bond movies have a storied tradition of theme song/graphics combinations, but rarely has the technique been so effectively used than in Skyfall's hallucinatory, foreboding credit sequence, over-scored by Adele's lilting, vaguely menacing song. (Can't find a version of this scene on youtube that wasn't filmed in a theater, sorry)

9. Dance Competition-Silver Linings Playbook
Essentially, the whole plot ends up riding on a dance competition (don't even ask why), and, though it should be contrived, it somehow ends up being joyous, cathartic, a little bittersweet, and hilarious, all at once.

8. Opening Dance-Magic Mike
Here's another dance scene--a strangely joyless one in which the seedy artifice of the character's lives as zoo exhibits is established. In one sequence, Magic Mike assures us that yes, it's going to go all out, and even though we know we shouldn't be watching, we, like the characters, just can't help ourselves.

7. Riddles in the Dark-The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Though The Hobbit doesn't really compare with the accomplishments of the earlier Lord of the Rings movies, for one fantastic sequence Peter Jackson reminded us the kind of great cinema he can make when he puts his mind to it, using Gollum (always the franchise's biggest asset) to be creepy, pitiful, and kind of adorable, all at once. (no youtube clip again)

6. Bridge Confrontation-Beasts of the Southern Wild
Reality and fantasy collide in one giddy moment as Hushpuppy finally confronts the prehistoric monsters that have been hounding her. In one beautifully captured moment, we get to watch this little girl change from child to adult, and it's fantastic. (can't find the scene, but here's a fun featurette on how they made the Aurochs:

5. Ashes-How to Survive a Plague
In on of the year's most moving scenes, a parade of protesters marches on the White House to protest the lack of government involvement/interest in AIDS research. As part of their protest, they throw urn after urn full of the ashes of loved ones onto the White House lawn. No other moment this year so easily conveys the sense of loss, of how easily people are reduced to meaningless objects, as a shot of a pile of dust on the grass.
(no youtube clip, but this one's on netflix instant, so go watch it.)

4. I Dreamed a Dream-Les Miserables
Cliche to have this one on here, I know, but sometimes cliches are right. I don't like a whole lot else about this film, but I can't deny that this musical number is incredibly powerful, and the decision to film it all in one unbroken take is inspired.
(again, no youtube of the actual scene, but here's the song, anyway:

3. First Processing-The Master
In one long scene of being 'processed' by a new cult, Joaquin Phoenix lets loose all the brutalized insanity of his character, going from apathetic to jovial to desperate to screaming to finally, ultimately released, and he has to do it without blinking. If the whole movie were pitched at this level, it could have been the best movie of the year.

2. A Potential Script-Seven Psychopaths
I wasn't that fond of this movie in general, but this scene is something for the ages. The characters are pitching possible script ideas, and on of them gets up and delivers a scenario so ludicrous, so offensive, so over-the-top ridiculous, that you can just picture it becoming an action movie. It's an gratuitous symphony of carnage, one-liners ("remember, you can't let the animals die, just the women!"), and sheer insanity. In any other year, this would easily have taken the #1 spot. This year, however...

1. The Bathtub-Beasts of the Southern Wild
In a jaw-dropping intro/prologue/whatever, this movie establishes its world and its characters in the context of some unnamed, fireworks-riddled celebration. Simply put, it's just about the most joyful, energetic opening of a movie I've seen in a very long time. Opening with that beautiful music and ending with the already iconic shot of Hushpuppy running with the sprinklers, this movie lets you know from square one that it's captured lightning in a bottle.
(I hate fragmenting this scene, as its impact comes the buildup it creates, but whatever, here's the last minute and a half:

Single Best Shot of the Year
Skyscraper fight-Skyfall. Thanks to cinematography demigod Roger Deakins, Skyfall is easily the most visually arresting Bond film ever. That became quite apparent fairly early on, in which a night-time fight in a skyscraper is reduced to scrabbling silhouettes and one very large jellyfish.

New Image Awards-for movies that show us something completely original and unique.
-Beasts of the Southern Wild-just, all of it really. From that prologue to the aurochs to the floating community they build, this whole movie plays like a dream.
-Gallery of Monsters-The Cabin in the Woods. Ok, so maybe we have seen all these monsters before, but never in a rogue's gallery of constantly moving containers (that of course get unleashed for the best symphony of chaos this year).

Best Inanimate Object in a Movie
-Hushpuppy's Flamethrower-Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know this movie is showing up everywhere, but seriously, why the sweet hell does this child have a flamethrower?
-Anna's horse-racing fan-Anna Karenina. For being pretty, symbolic, and tempo-keeping, all at once.
-Susie's book collection-Moonrise Kingdom. For being more fantastical and wonderful that real children's fiction actually is.
-The Tooth Carriage-Django Unchained. Because it's a tooth carriage. Who needs anything else, really?
-The Conch-The Cabin in the Woods. Because it would have been better with a Merman.

The Child I'd Most Like to Punch in the Face
There was a surprising lack of obnoxious child acting in the movies I saw this year, so I guess this will have to to Joseph Kahn, the director of Detention. Because anyone who makes anything that stupid and ADD must be a seven-year old, right?

The "Not This Gay, but Dammit, You're Trying" Award for Excellence in Homoeroticism
Skyfall. Internet reactions have convinced me I'm not the only one whose head exploded when Silva started flirting with Bond, and then Bond flirted right back. "What makes you think this is my first time?" Oh. Mr. Bond. Goodness.

Best Short Film Hiding in a Mediocre Movie
Overall, The Impossible was kind of offensive and not great. One 40-minute sequence, however, which dealt only with the tsunami and surviving its aftereffects, almost convinced me I was watching great film-making. It's a pity that whenever the movie tries to establish some greater context it ends up being awful.

Movie that Perplexed Me the Most
Cosmopolis. Really, I've no idea whether this movie is a masterpiece or a total failure, but I kind of can't stop thinking about it anyway.

Most Unexpectedly Long Colonoscopy
Cosmopolis. Again. If you've ever wanted to watch Robert Pattinson get his prostate examined by an older man, now's your chance.

Most Improbably Sweet and Inspiring Storyline
Damsels in Distress. I'm not a huge fan of this movie. It's set at a college, and there's one hapless fraternity brother who, apparently, doesn't know the names of the colors. And though it should be incredibly stupid, for some reason the most engaging and moving part of the movie was watching the joy on this poor sucker's face when he realized that he could correctly identify 'blue.'

Hey, You Guys:
Zero Dark Thirty isn't pro-torture. Just throwing that one out there.

Seriously, Screw This Stupid, Stupid, Ending
Silent House. What could have been a pretty effective horror movie falls victim to the "it's horror THERE HAS TO BE A BIG TWIST" fad and completely undoes everything that has come before. I will never, ever respect this movie, even if it has some respect-worthy elements.

And finally...
The Worst Films of the Year!
5. Snow White and the Huntsman
At one point, Charlize Theron takes a milk bath. This is easily the most engaging and interesting plot point. Kristen Stewart subdues a troll by yelling at it loud enough, but let's stop talking about her personal life. She does things in the movie too.

4. The Dark Knight Rises
Come and get me, Nolan fans. Poorly written, totally insipid, featuring a villain with the voice and accompanying menace of a post-slavery Mickey Mouse, and what has to be the worst death scene since Troll 2. Extra points for writing an ending that not only undermines the events of the movie, but giddily destroys the entire point of Nolan's whole 'gritty Batman' thing he tried.

3. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
Michael Caine controls giant bees with his mind. Really that's the long and short of what you need to know about this movie.

2. Wrath of the Titans
This movie was so awful I can't even remember it. I mean, I know it's an event I experienced, but I don't want to try to bring it back, for fear of setting off my PTSD again.

1. Contraband
This is two hours of my life I will never get back. Mysogynistic, incredibly stupid, boring, generally awful in every single way. The fact that I've seen this movie statistically makes me a worse human being than 2/3 of the Earth's current population.

Well, that's another year in opinion. What'd I do wrong? Leave me a comment and let me know. Seriously, I've been working on this for way too long and I need someone to validate this effort.


  1. I suddenly realize how few films I've seen this year.... We need to have a movie night soon. You know, one where we actually *watch* a movie.

    Also, based on the way you write and the fact that you're kind of awesome, I have a project I want you to help me with.

  2. Man, a movie night in which a movie is actually watched is a really bizarre idea. I think I've had like, three of those (at most) in the past two years.

    Based on the way you write and the fact that you're kind of awesome, I'm curious/excited about whatever projects you might have!