After all the heavy-handed political stuff lately, I figured it would be fun to do an overview of my top 5 films from 2012. While I initially thought of doing a top 10, I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough films from this year to accurately make a list that size. There are a number of films that, once I see them, will probably be included–Amour, Django Unchained, and Holy Motors, for example. So keeping in mind that I haven’t seen everything for the past year, these are the top five of the films I did see, ranked from least best to most best.
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
dir. Benh Zeitlin
This movie has a lot of problems. There are real pacing issues–it feels like either the first two acts of a movie or like an extra couple acts tacked onto a short film. It lacks focus. It has one particular special effect that is laughable–if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m referring to. And unfortunately the trailer completely gives away the ending, although there are still plenty of surprises waiting in the middle of the plot.
With all that said, there’s also a lot going for this movie. It really is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and that’s saying something since I go out of my way to see unusual movies. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a film version of a folktale. Made on a minuscule budget, it manages to utilize the setting of rural Louisiana to create what may be the most cost-effective ‘epic’ style filming ever. Those with an ear to the ground may have noticed that epic is returning in a big way, both in the Hollywood blockbuster and as a new voice for the disenfranchised, and that’s what we have here. The film is also aided by a wonderful performance not just by young Quvenzhané Wallis but by the whole cast. Overall, while this movie may have more problems than the others on my list, it’s also much more ambitious, and charting genuinely new film territory. I really want this film to have an influence, to force directors, especially low-budget directors, to consider how to utilize their resources to make films that are very non-Hollywood but very appealing.
4. The Cabin in the Woods
dir. Drew Goddard
I’m lucky I saw this in theaters. At the time, I hadn’t heard much about it beyond that it was supposedly good, and that it had been written in part by Joss Whedon. (I’m not as big a Joss Whedon fan as most–I didn’t grow up on Buffy, and while I liked Firefly I recognize that he has some problems to his writing, patterns he tends to fall into, especially with how characters develop.) I was in the mood to see a good horror movie in theaters though, and decided to check it out. It was definitely worth it.
It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoilers, because everything that makes it so good is in the last half, but even the first half stands on its own as a parody of horror film in the fine tradition of Scream, Behind the Mask, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, etc. The whole film stands as, in the creators’ own words (paraphrased) a defense of everything good in horror and an attack of everything bad. Now, I don’t agree exactly with what is or isn’t good in horror–honestly, I thought the beginning of Scream 4 was a better attack. But this is a clear labor of love that simultaneously works as a great film and calls out every other horror film on a lot of things they’ve gotten lazy about. The only reason it’s not ranked higher on my list is that it has those same Joss Whedon problems to it–I know it was directed by Goddard, but either Whedon had a huge influence or Goddard is trying to imitate him. The main problem is that it feels too sanitized to me. Anyone who’s seen the film is probably wondering what I mean by this, given what goes down in the last act, but it’s not a matter of lacking gore or nihilism, it’s an approach to the medium of storytelling. I hesitate to say that these filmmakers are too competent, but it might be better to say that they’re too comfortable. While it’s a unique and original story, it’s told so smoothly that it lacks the kind of bite or edge that denotes genius. It takes risks, but not enough or the right kind. That said, it’s still a great film, well-crafted, and absolutely mandatory viewing for any fan of horror.
dir. Pete Travis
This is a bit of an odd one for me. When I was putting together this list, I struggled with putting it on here at all, and yet somehow it’s in my number three slot. The thing is, it’s exactly the sort of movie I don’t normally care much for, but I liked it–a lot. It’s straightforward sci-fi action, with a real emphasis on the action. The story is incredibly simple: in the near future, two Judges (cop/judge/jury/executioner) enter a housing project to solve a seemingly simple gang murder. However, something is amiss, as they find out when the leader of the gang locks them in the project and goes on the attack. That’s basically the whole thing, but it’s executed perfectly. It made the world feel real, but more importantly it made Dredd feel real, in a way that the Stallone flick didn’t.
The thing about Judge Dredd is that he’s an asshole, a pseudofascist asshole, but he is this way because of the world he’s a part of. What science fiction (or, potentially, fantasy) can do really well is to show you a fundamentally different way of being, and Dredd is just different enough to be intriguing, but just close enough to be uncomfortable. The film itself is exactly what you want from an action film–a lot of violence, a lot of explosions, pretty awful villains, but all of them believable in the context. It goes out of its way to show the tragedy of lost life that accompanies this kind of over-the-top action, but does it without undercutting the adrenaline-pumping thrill. As a side note, it does a really good job representing female characters who are actually characters, not just cliche villains or paragons of virtue. I would love to see more action movies like this, or better yet, a couple sequels. Unfortunately, this film didn’t earn its way at the box office, and as such probably won’t have any sequels, which is a damn shame. Here’s hoping for some fan support that might at least convince producers to make one more sequel, hopefully with the same cast and crew.
2. The Master
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
This was a strong competitor for the #1 slot, but it finally loses to the lack of structure, or perhaps to its own peculiar structure. I appreciate movies that buck the three-act structure, but the long pauses in this long movie were as frustrating as a Tarkovsky film. However, this is sort of a case of praising with faint damnation, if the worst thing I can say about a movie is that it’s Tarkovsky-esque in pacing. This isn’t really the story of Scientology that it was billed as; rather it’s a character study of one man who gets involved with a Scientology-esque organization. It’s an interestingly amoral film in that it asks us to sympathize with deeply flawed individuals, people who may be making the world worse for their presence, and it never disguises that this is what they are. As such, it’s also a vicious critique of everything post-war America was, even the supposed good. The final scene and the title of the film are downright chilling once one considers them in depth–personally, it seems to me a much darker film even than There Will Be Blood, albeit in a much more subtle way. Paul Thomas Anderson may be the best living filmmaker; he’s certainly in the top five. If there is any justice in the universe of aesthetics, this is a film that will be remembered and talked about for decades, maybe even centuries to come.
Before I get to my number one film, a few noteworthy films this year:
Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson): This is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most Wes-Andersony film, a straight-up trip into a nostalgic fantasy of a past that never really was. What makes it great is that it’s not sentimentalizing. Although downright theatrical in its presentation, it deals with real issues, and even talks about some things that big budget films normally stay far away from–like child sexuality. I also appreciate the effort to reclaim the notion of family values for a liberal perspective.
Your Sister’s Sister (dir. Lynn Shelton): Alright, this is apparently technically a 2011 film, but it came to my theater in summer 2012 so I’m counting it. Normally a romantic dramedy would not be on my list of interesting movies, but this is exactly how I like to see it executed. It’s a very minimalist sort of film: only three substantial characters, a lot of dialogue between them. It almost feels like a stage play. But this creates a wonderful intensity of emotion. The characters are flawed, to the point of unlikeability at times, but still relatable, and the film puts them in a very real-seeming, tightly focused dilemma.
Seven Psychopaths (dir. Martin McDonagh): Basically, Adaptation but for action movies. Full of a lot of great metafiction commentary, and great acting by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell (as well as the rest of the cast, but those two compete for the stealing of the show). Yes, it’s very violent and gory, but that’s the point, kind of, but also not, kind of. It’s an ideologically confused movie, but worth seeing.
dir. David Cronenberg
I’m surprised this ended up at number one, because when I first saw it I was left feeling a little dissatisfied, but in retrospect that dissatisfaction was just because of the odd way the film confronted me. I mentioned that I thought Paul Thomas Anderson was in the top five living directors, and I think Cronenberg is as well (for the curious, the others would possibly be Gaspar Noe and a couple others I’m not so committed to as to actually list them). This film does not feel like a movie; it doesn’t really feel like anything. The cramped, claustrophobic cinematography and eerie lighting combined with Don DeLillo’s inhuman-sounding dialogue and strange pre-Enlightenment style narrative create Brechtian levels of audience alienation, only assisted by the unpleasantness and absurdity of the subject matter. I saw this at nine in the morning on the day it came out with two friends, and there was one other person in the theater, who walked out just before the ‘climax’. It did not do well at the box office. I’m not surprised by this at all; this isn’t a movie most people would want to see. Several reviewers have compared the film as a whole to the prostate exam which forms such a key component of the plot (not kidding), and I have to agree: it’s a strangely cold, analytical, and unpleasant insight into the structure of capitalism, that bastion of meaningless action. But it’s also a necessary examination for our health. The world is headed to strange places, and while Paul Thomas Anderson may be perfect at anatomizing our past, it seems that only Cronenberg has perfected the art of anatomizing the future. Indeed, reception of his films is often hampered by an inability to understand them because they come from a place in front of us, an ideological position we may not yet have access to–this explains, for example, those who see Shivers as purely an attack on free sexuality, or Videodrome and eXistenZ as Luddite anti-technology films. Somehow, Cronenberg has tapped into the concerns of the future, and it may be that Cosmopolis will be better appreciated then. However, I submit the opinion that it is a uniquely disturbing and wonderful film, combining the best of DeLillo’s ability with the best of Cronenberg’s (not to mention great performances by, among others, Pattinson and Giamatti) to create my top pick for 2012.