Sunday, January 06, 2013

My favorite films of 2012

Ten years ago, I started writing down in a little notebook every movie I see on the big screen. Glancing through that notebook in preparation for writing this post, I noticed that I went to the movies a lot less this year. On the surface, that fact may seem to indicate a poor year for film, at least for a guy with my taste (i.e., me) but the opposite is true. I loved this movie year, and I was lucky enough to see at least 12 or 13 possible contenders for the all-time favorites list. So, here they are. First, my 10 favorite films of the year in the order I saw them, the honorable mentions, and the best revival and reissue screenings of older films. As usual, there were many films I missed and many others that haven't played in Austin yet, so omissions may not be matters of judgment.


The Kid with a Bike (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
The Belgian siblings Dardenne have never let me down, but this is one of their strongest pieces of work. Theirs is an ethical, humanist cinema about neglected, damaged lives discovering their own value and their connections to others, but it is also tough, free of sentiment, and formally innovative. The Kid with a Bike is one of their most propulsive and contains one of the best child performances I've seen, from Thomas Doret.

Bernie (Richard Linklater)
This dark comedy based on a true Texas murder features surprisingly excellent, against-type performances from Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey (continuing Linklater's streak of coaxing great work from actors who normally bug the shit out of me), a real sense of community, and a hilariously affectionate bull's-eye depiction of the absurdity that is Texas. Texans will probably appreciate this movie the most (East Coast critics have tended to misunderstand the film's tone, thinking Linklater is laughing at instead of with his subjects), but there's plenty here for non-Texans, too. And it's great to see underused character actor Sonny Carl Davis.

The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)
Hungarian director Tarr says this will be his last film. If he's telling the truth, which he probably is (directors have a much better track record than musicians at sticking to their proclaimed retirements), then film will have lost one of its strongest and most innovative formal stylists. A plot description makes this sound like a parody of an art film (an old man and his daughter live in rural poverty in an isolated countryside plagued by a fierce, unrelenting windstorm; the film follows several days of their lives consisting mostly of drudge work and consumption of potatoes), but Tarr's painterly images, graceful camera work, gorgeous b&w photography, and technique of filming each day's repetitive chores from a different vantage point make this possibly second only to Satantango in his impressive filmography. I couldn't shake this hypnotic movie.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
I hope the Wes Anderson backlash has finally cooled down to a low simmer. I've never seen a guy dumped on more for making personal films that look distinctively his and for beginning his career with so much goodwill. This is one of Anderson's best, shot on 16mm and combining the sweet, awkward work he did with young adolescents in Rushmore with the doll's-house/storybook visual quality of his stop-motion animation film Fantastic Mr. Fox, with the dream cast of Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bob Balaban, and Harvey Keitel, who are all upstaged by the child leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Heyward, in their first movie roles. It may be one of the best films I've seen about that ridiculous, heart-destroying time between childhood and adolescence. You might be a bad person if you don't like this. I say that with the caveat that three of my favorite people detest Anderson. But they hated him before the backlash, so I will cut them some slack. They're wrong, though.

Dark Horse (Todd Solondz)
It's a disgrace how neglected Solondz's last three films have been. He's quietly edging closer and closer to becoming a suburban New Jersey Fassbinder, and hardly anyone is taking notice. Like Fassbinder, Solondz is the only other filmmaker I can think of who is able to make me feel so much empathy and common human fellowship for people who are so selfish, monstrous, sadistic, weak, and/or cruel, and he creates this empathy by emphasizing their weaknesses instead of their strengths. It's spooky stuff. Solondz is creating a distinct body of work combining satire, dark comedy, slice-of-life realism, and a weird, stylized magical realism. I wish he'd get the attention he received when he made Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness back in the late 1990s, but this is not a fair world.

Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
This unrepentantly sleazy, amoral neo-noir made me feel dirty. I loved it. I laughed so much. In the opening scene, Emile Hirsch's character tries to get inside the locked trailer home of his father and stepmother during a rainstorm. His stepmother, played by Gina Gershon, answers the door nude from the waist down. Hirsch asks her why she answered the door without any bottoms on, and she replies, "I didn't know it was you." Something happens with fried chicken that I've definitely never seen before. On my way out of the theater, an elderly man sitting a few seats away from me told his wife, "That was the worst movie I've ever seen in my life." Unexpectedly, Matthew McConaughey gives a fantastic performance in the title role. I loved him in Dazed and Confused, but he's spent the remaining twenty years smearing his patented brand of smarm-glaze on a series of forgettable Hollywood bullshit mediocrities, running shirtless on the beach with his bestie/professional asshole Lance Armstrong, and generally wasting away in Bongoritaville. Then, he gives two great performances in the same year, and I hear great things about his work in Soderbergh's Magic Mike, unseen by me. This year, he'll be in Scorsese's new one and Jeff Nichols' followup to Take Shelter. Could one of my least favorite actors be turning into one of my favorites? Freaky-deaky.

Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
The best-looking digitally shot film I've seen, Cronenberg's latest is a hyperstylized, vaguely sci-fi adaptation of a critically polarizing Don DeLillo novel that feels like a companion piece to Cronenberg's Videodrome and eXistenZ. Cronenberg's films always make my lists, but this is an exceedingly strong work about modern capitalism, globalization, money, and language that is darkly funny and unsettling as well as a formal delight. A great stylistic marriage of his older and newer work.

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Shot on 65mm and blown up to 70mm for theaters equipped to project it in that format (the first feature shot on 65 since Branagh's Hamlet in 1996), The Master is both epic and intimate. After a fruitful boy wonder period marrying Scorsese to Altman, Anderson in his last three films has become an American original, with shades of Kubrick and Malick. I'm in awe of his visual skills. I want to mainline every frame of this gorgeous damn thing. He somehow manages to combine large-scale, self-important bigness, heavy with symbolism and archetypes, and small, strange, personal, visceral, intimate moments into a weirdly singular vision. I've heard a lot of complaints about how this film looks great and has wonderful performances but no story. To that I say, film is a visual medium, and there's usually too goddamn much story, so good on anyone who cuts loose any of that dead wood. Many of these same people complaining about the so-called lack of story here have no problem watching current Hollywood films consisting of chunks of CGI data slamming into other chunks of CGI data. Where's the story there?

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
I'm deeply in the minority in my admiration for this movie. It received tepid reviews, was a box office bomb, and has not been received cordially by audiences who did show up. Most of the criticism stems from some admittedly heavy-handed political sermonizing that added together probably consists of only 5 minutes of the running time and/or an emphasis on dialogue instead of shootouts. The non-sermonizing 90 minutes contain some of our best character actors (James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Max Casella, and Sam Shepard) and one of our most interesting movie stars (Brad Pitt) bringing to life the wonderful dialogue of crime novelist George V. Higgins, photographed by brilliant cinematographer Greig Fraser, and directed by the great, underrated Andrew Dominik. So, fuck you, America, you're mostly wrong about this one.

Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
I've never seen such an enjoyable, thrilling, invigorating, exciting film about despair, death, defeat, futility, indignity, and inevitability. Holy Motors is Carax's first feature since 1999 (he made the excellent short film Merde in 2008 as part of the anthology film Tokyo!). In the meantime, several projects fell through, collaborators died, his girlfriend died, and the film industry began its mad rush to embrace digital and let film-on-film disappear forever. Carax, using his acting surrogate Denis Lavant (who has starred in every Carax film except Pola X), writes a digital love/hate letter to cinema for an audience that he said in an interview is comprised of  "people who will soon be dead." Lavant plays an actor who rides around in a limo (the second limo-centered film on my list after Cosmopolis) driven by veteran actress Edith Scob, playing different characters at each stop. There's no way to do this film justice. It's indescribable and wonderful and you should just see it.


Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
A few pacing problems and minor quibbles kept this out of my top 10, but it hit my spaghetti western sweet spot. I usually think Leonardo DiCaprio tries too hard (I forget which comedian had the great line about thinking "I bet that guy was the best actor in his high school play" every time he sees him on screen), but I loved him, and the rest of the cast, in this thing. I also loved seeing all the great '60s, '70s, and '80s character and TV actors pop up in cameo roles. Not the masterpiece Tarantino was going for, but pretty damn entertaining.

We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
Lynne Ramsay makes a welcome return after a long absence. Some beautiful images and performances, but also some heavy-handed moments and unrelenting grimness. I still highly recommend it. 


Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
Carnage (Roman Polanski)
Neil Young Journeys (Jonathan Demme)
Lawless (John Hillcoat)


Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)/Shadows (John Cassavetes) double feature
Two of my favorite films on the same night. I've written about both before. They're inexhaustible, rough around the edges, awkward, poetic masterpieces that I'll never tire of seeing.

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
Denis uses Ozu's Late Spring as inspiration in this impressionistic story of the friendship between a father and his adult daughter. Denis leaves out what most movies overexplain and shows us what those movies leave out. I love her films and this is one of her best.

Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitchcock uses some sleight of hand to make his film look like it was shot in one take, but it's more than a gimmick in this underrated gem.

World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Most successful creative people are talented and ambitious. Fassbinder was a goddamned genius. I use that word here without hyperbole. This miniseries for German TV was almost impossible to see until its restoration a few years ago. Criterion put it out on DVD and Blu-Ray, but seeing it on film on a big screen was an amazing experience. Its four hours flew by.

Possession (Andrzej Zulawski)
This weird domestic drama/horror film/psychological thriller/European art film hybrid blew my mind. One of the most intense films I've ever seen. Skip your colonic and watch this instead.

Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff)
A masterpiece and one of the key films of the 1970s, this Australian movie was restored by Drafthouse Films last year and will finally see a DVD release in February. Another intense, indescribable film, it's set in the Australian outback, has one of my favorite Donald Pleasence performances, and is one of the toughest films I've seen about insanity, isolation, machismo, nihilism, sexuality, kangaroo hunting, and beer chugging. Director Kotcheff would later direct Weekend at Bernie's. I wish that were an urban legend, but it isn't. The same man who made this dark, twisted, beautiful gem made Weekend at Bernie's. What a world.

Nothing Lasts Forever (Tom Schiller)
Schiller's only feature film, Nothing Lasts Forever suffered a cruel fate. Schiller made short films for the first 11 seasons of Saturday Night Live, and got the chance to make a feature in 1984. He made something so unique, beautiful, and personal that the studio didn't know how to market it and never released it. It didn't even get a VHS or DVD release. This is bullshit. Schiller's film appropriates the style of classic 30s/40s Hollywood and is in black and white with a few scenes in Technicolor. A fantasy/comedy that is kindred spirits tonally with the films of Guy Maddin, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Phil Hartman's SNL characters, early Letterman, and Joe Versus the Volcano, Schiller's film is both ironically detached from its subjects and sweetly earnest. Bill Murray has a great role as an evil bus driver/tour guide who takes senior citizens (including Larry "Bud" Melman) to the moon in a spaceship that looks just like a city bus (with live entertainment from Eddie Fisher). For now, the only place you can see this movie is late-night European TV, occasional film festival showings, and the odd screening at places like the Alamo Drafthouse, which is where I saw it. Oh yeah, the whole thing is on YouTube. But if you get a chance to see it on a big screen where you can throw Schiller some money for his work, don't hesitate.

Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in the West would have made this list, but a digital print was screened. Something vital seemed to be missing. The grain, the stray hairs, the reel markers, the atmosphere. I love seeing films shot on film projected on film. Digital has come a long way and is really starting to look great, but films shot on film lose some of their vital essence when projected digitally, some of their magic voodoo ghost juice (that's a technical term). Film also decays more beautifully and can be preserved longer than some goddamn digital file. Film must be preserved. Why do we have to shortchange the old technology every time a new technology shows up?

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