by Matt Smith
I saw a lot of films in 2012, though my activity as one of the main contributors to this site wouldn’t necessarily give you that impression. I have spent quite a bit of time working on my thesis (due in a matter of weeks at this point) and have neglected many updates I still have partially written and hopefully will get back to in the near future for posting. But I did want to take a moment and get my year end list up. Not because I especially value the concept of a Top Ten or anything, but because I like to take stock of what I’ve loved and loathed in the year that just finished on a personal level. You will not love all of my choices, and some of them are even what one might say as divisive at best. Certainly most have very little consensus of opinion behind them. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that these are the films that affected me the most, and which have stuck with me months after having seen them.
There are a couple of high profile films missing from my list which I have yet to see. These include Argo, Lincoln, Amour, and Life of Pi. Some because I just haven’t had the time, and others because I have very little to no interest in them. I’m looking at you, Life of Pi. I also have some runners-up that I think are well worth your time, so check them out if you haven’t already. In no particular order: Skyfall, Wreck It Ralph, The Paperboy, The Dark Knight Rises, Magic Mike, Brave, Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, The Hunger Games, and Les Miserables.
And one last thing before getting on with it. This year saw a lot of great home video releases. I want to recommend a few of them to you. First, check out Paul Fejos’s Lonesome, put out by Criterion and well worth the money to get the Blu-ray. It looks fantastic, the film is amazing, and it’s my number one video release of the year. Then, in no particular order, add these to your collection: Black Sunday (Kino Classics), Jaws (Universal), and When Horror Came to Shinchoku (box set, Eclipse/Criterion). I will also point out that, though flawed, the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection is worth your money if you can 1) find it on sale, and 2) really really like the idea of having Hitch on Blu. Even with the discs’ flaws, the titles still look and sound better than they ever have on home video and are a must for any serious fan.
Now, without further ado – the “Best of ’12” (in ascending order):
10. Safety Not Guaranteed
I just couldn’t shake this movie. I reviewed it back when it came out, and I really liked it then, but I didn’t love it yet. Now I love it. Touching, hilarious and really inventive, Safety Not Guaranteed has it all. I think the selling point is the film’s characters and the performances of the actors playing them. If quirk isn’t your thing, you may not dig it, but if it is, these are some of the most endearing people you could ever see on screen who are not also annoying. I hope we all get to see more of Aubrey Plaza on the big screen. She’s great as the straight man to Mark Duplass’s crazy time-traveling weirdo. I wrote about this movie already, so just go read that review.
9. Killer Joe
The movie poster described this as “A Totally Twisted Deep-Fried Texas Redneck Trailer Park Murder Story,” and that is absolutely the god’s honest truth as to what we get. Matthew McConnaughey had a banner year in 2012, and William Friedkin’s Killer Joe was the icing on the cake for one of the best unsung performers of American film. McConnaughey plays Joe, a deputy hired by some white trash to knock off the paterfamilias for his life insurance pay out. And he’s one mean son-of-a-bitch.
Killer Joe is about as jaw-droppingly shocking as an American film is likely to come, filled to the brim with human ugliness and meanness and filth. It is also an absolutely riveting, thrilling descent into the hell that is family. I sat in the theater with my jaw wide open, dumbstruck by what I was seeing. The movie’s rated NC-17, mostly for a scene involving McConnaughey, Gina Gershon, and a piece of fried chicken that will forever change your relationship with finding the drumstick on your plate, but also for some really brutal violence and nudity. In short, it has it all!
In all seriousness, I was a big fan of Bug when it came out, and this is his second collaboration with Tracy Letts, who wrote both scripts based on his stage plays. I’d say that if you’re a fan of anyone involved, you probably won’t be disappointed. But if you love McConnaughey rom-coms, stay far, far, far away.
8. Django Unchained
I still don’t know quite where to begin with Django Unchained. I have seen it a few times, and it keeps getting better. A lot of people seem to have major problems with the last half of the film, saying it’s not as good as the first hour or so. But honestly, for my money, once Django and Schulz (Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz) arrive at Candyland, the film really takes off and becomes a masterpiece. The first half is exactly the movie we were promised – a Spaghetti Western slice of blaxploitation with the Tarantino trademarks of snappy dialogue, outrageous storytelling and absurdist humor. The second half is a trip right into the heart of darkness, perhaps an even better adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel’s central themes and premise than even Apocalypse Now or a Werner Herzog picture could ever hope to be.
Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is such a terrible human being that it’s amazing he made it onscreen as fully realized as he is. He wallows in the muck of Southern racism, the meanness of ignorance and the pseudo-science babble that is still used to justify bigotry and hatred in this country. Candyland, and places very similar to it in the real world, is where we got our start. But the ending is where it all comes together. Django and Brunhilda blow the main house into oblivion, and ride off together in the night, I assume happier-than-before ever after. Django Unchained isn’t going to solve the problems of the world or of the United States, especially as evidenced by some of its reception, but it does go a long way in starting a real, much needed conversation. Also, Walton Goggins. Just needed to throw that out there.
7. Searching for Sugar Man
In 1970, singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez released the album Cold Fact followed a year later by Coming From Reality. He slipped into obscurity in the United States. Unbeknownst to him, he became a platinum-selling artist in South Africa, where his songs were adopted as anthems for the anti-apartheid movement, and he gained legendary status. Problem was, most people thought he was dead. Rumors that he had killed himself during a concert some time in the 70s circulated not only in South Africa, but also in New Zealand, Australia and a few African nations.
This is the starting premise of this documentary from Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, which details the search for Rodriguez undertaken by two South African fans in the 1990s that led to his triumphant tour of the country in 1998. I don’t want to give away too much of this remarkable film’s story in a couple of paragraphs, but I do want to give a shoutout to Searching for Sugar Man’s cinematographer, Camilla Skagerström, who shoots some beautiful footage. If there were any justice in the world, she would have received the same recognition as all the “name” people who get nominated for awards year after year.
It’s stunning to me that a bunch of Aussies can get essential Americana so profoundly right, but here we are yet again with a portrait of ritualized bloodlust and vengeance from screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat. Following their 2005 collaboration on The Proposition, itself the best Western that has been produced in the 21st Century, comes this bloody tale of Prohibition-era Appalachia. The Bondurant brothers, a family of bootleggers in 1920s Virginia, come up against a corrupt politician and his government agent in what might prove to be the best gangster film of the young decade. Faced with attacks from hired men and the government itself, the Bondurants strike back with brutality and efficiency, a method of retaliation that has given the ringleader Forrest (Tom Hardy) a reputation for being immortal. As far as this film’s concerned, he may well be.
Like The Proposition, Lawless is enamored with the mythos of regular people, and Forrest’s immortality is just the beginning of it here. Each characterization and relationship in the film is infused with not just overarching types, but also a very real sense of how humans often create their own mythic statuses in every day life. Just as Forrest will never die, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) will be a great gangster like his idol Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), and their brother Howard (Jason Clarke) will be known as the fiercest enforcer of any criminal outfit. There are some nice romances between Jack and a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and Forrest falls in love with Maggie (Jessica Chastain), who he hires to run their gas station and restaurant.
Cave’s screenplay doesn’t overplay these elements, however, and nothing comes across as contrived, which would be very easy. Sure there are some moments that seem completely impossible, such as Forrest surviving having his throat cut after being found by Maggie after she has been raped, but each of those developments come out of the pulp tradition of American mythology and literature. If you haven’t given Lawless a chance, do yourself a favor and see it immediately.
5. The Master
P.T. Anderson’s loose, generous meditation on master-slave dynamics and the status of mental health and religious thought in the 1950s is the year’s second American masterpiece. There is such a perfection in the execution of everything in The Master that makes an already great movie into something you just can’t get out of your head. My head has been thinking about it ever since I saw it back in the Fall, but honestly I haven’t even figured them all out yet. But what I have figured out is that I honestly love everything about this film. It slowly coalesces into a portrait of post-WWII masculinity, mental health, ambition and power struggle, and the absurdity of human interaction on pretty much all levels.
Joaquin Phoenix gives what I think is the year’s best performance as Freddie, a sailor come home from being stationed in the Pacific struggling with some heavy emotional wreckage. His sexual drive is totally fucked, his sense of reality perhaps a bit off, and he cannot interact with anyone in a normal way. After losing a string of jobs, he befriends Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of The Cause, a Scientology-like cult bent on expelling negative emotions from the mind via mental exercises. Dodd is a thinly-veiled interpretation of Scientology’s found L. Ron Hubbard, and The Cause is depicted as a cult made up on the fly by a true zealot, though none of the followers, nor Dodd himself, come off as evil men. In fact, Freddie is as much a horrible mess of a human as Dodd, who is overseen by his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who is the real driving force behind the growth of her husband’s movement.
All of this sets up some truly masterful storytelling as we shift between moments of identification and outright disgust with each of the two men. Like the Rorschach tests in which Freddie sees only genitalia, viewers will make of it what they will. I found it moving, delicate, and beautiful.
4. Zero Dark Thirty
One of two flat-out American masterpieces this past year, Zero Dark Thirty is everything a great film should be. It has great writing, fantastic acting, and in the final half hour Kathryn Bigelow out-directs everyone else who made a movie in 2012. While the film has been at the center of much controversy, particularly in regard to the possibility it insinuates key information which led to finding bin Laden was obtained directly via torture at CIA black sites, I honestly find much of the hullabaloo more than a bit astounding. For one, on second viewing, I don’t think it necessarily comes across that the information is only obtained via torture, and in any case it’s imprecise in the implication, I think the film’s narrative structure does lend itself to such a reading. Second, though, I don’t find that the film endorses torture at all. Jessica Chastain’s Maya and Jason Clarke’s Dan are both conflicted in their actions, and though they engage in torture, the movie does not make them out to be ideologues hell-bent on doing what they do, nor does it necessarily depict what they do as all that effective. What the film does show us, and very well, is that human beings will sometimes go to monstrous lengths to get what they want. This point is especially true of the ill-conceived and poorly executed “War on Terror,” of which torture, rendition and dehumanization are certainly a part. By taking a cold objective account of this process, however, the film highlights our own complicity in it, which perhaps led to a lot of outrage and to the claims that the film is somehow morally dubious because it does not out and out condemn the use of torture. Whether or not information was obtained via torture or not is beside the point. The methods were used and are still in use, and in a film like Zero Dark Thirty, things can come off any number of ways the audience believes they are being put across to them.
But the problematic narrative structure – we follow a single character on a single-minded mission until she achieves her goal over the course of 12 years – is so focused on that mission that it makes possible most of the criticism leveled against the film. Not surprisingly to me, this structure is what I most admire about Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have constructed a stunning, meticulously detailed and researched procedural that, much like Zodiac back in 2007, is complex narratively and requires rigorous viewing on the part of the audience because of the sheer amount of information thrown out by the film with very little repetition of facts (like where that name came from in the first place). The performances are equally terrific, and aside from Chastain and Clarke, I was also struck by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as two of the Navy Seals who attack the compound in Abbatobad, both of whom do a lot with not very much. It’s a shame, actually, that the film has been mired in so much bad press and poorly constructed arguments about what it does and doesn’t do (all of which ignore several basic facts about the film itself, most egregiously the fact that when Bigelow and Boal began work on the film it was about the failure to capture bin Laden), because it truly is an absolutely perfect American movie from start to finish.
3. Six Acts
Israeli film production has really started to branch out in the new millennium. If last year’s first-ever horror film Rabies wasn’t enough proof, then I offer Six Acts as further evidence. Young star Sivan Levy plays Gili, a teen in Tel Aviv who wants desperately to fit in at school. She is willing to do any and everything to gain social acceptance. Soon she is taken advantage of and sexually exploited by a group of boys who trade her around their circle like a call girl.
Told in six vignettes over the course of a few weeks (hence the film’s title), Six Acts follows Gili through one gut-wrenching encounter after another in which she is vulnerable, exposed, and manipulated, until finally she (and we) hit rock bottom. While admittedly a rough viewing experience, this is filmmaking of the highest order and a damning indictment of global youth culture in the new millennium. It’s a counterpoint to a film like Turn Me On, Dammit! in that instead of healthy exploration of sexuality, so much in Six Acts is repressed, functioning as yet another extension of patriarchal societal structures and the way in which young girls are kept in their place when they try to branch out and be their own person. The final scene, involving the father of two of the boys driving Gili home after a disastrous birthday party is horrifying and stultifying.
Until I settled on my unabashed affection for Turn Me On, Dammit!, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus held the top spot for the year. I may be the only person alive that flat-out loved every second of the Alien-universe set Prometheus, but love it I did. Adored obsessively, one might say. Set quite a few decades before the events in Alien, the story follows a scientific expedition to a planet in the LV star system as they set out to find who or what may be responsible for life on Earth.
While only tangentially related to the saga of Ellen Ripley and the xenomorphs, Prometheus is perhaps the most similar to Scott’s original film in its thematics and big ideas. It is also the first blockbuster I remember in quite a long time that bothers to traffic in ideas at all, let alone provocative, large scope questions of life, death, the origins of the universe and why we’re here on this planet. I could go on and on, trying to convince you how amazing this movie actually is, but I wrote a rather long piece about it already, so you should just go read that.
1. Turn Me On, Dammit!
Alma, a teenage girl in the small Norwegian village of Skoddeheim is struggling with her newfound sexual impulses. She calls phone sex services, day dreams about sexual encounters with her best friends, and is openly honest in her search for identity. When she tells her friends that Artur, who she has a crush on, pulled out his erection and poked it against her thigh outside the school dance, she becomes a social outcast, her reputation ruined, and worse, ignored. Embracing her status as a pariah, she experiments with smoking pot, hanging out with odd people, and becomes brutally honest about her horniness and need to get off. And yet no one is willing to help her out in any way, even her mother.
Turn Me On, Dammit! is similar to Easy A, though I find it much more honest and heartfelt. Part of this has to do with the honesty used in approaching a coming-of-age sex comedy for a girl of fifteen years of age. I also find it hard to believe that a film this honest about sex and adolescence and focusing on a girl would ever get made in Hollywood. As thoroughly satisfying as Easy A was for a feminine perspective on the sex rom-com, I think this film is much better, and pushes the envelope in all the right ways.
It features a great performance by young Helene Bergsholm in her first screen role as Alma, a girl with confusing new impulses adrift in a sea of uncertainty. And the film is gorgeously photographed, with a dreamy, ethereal quality permeating throughout. It may be surprising to some of you that this was the movie I loved most in 2012, but it is. I loved it so much I bought it after renting it twice. HIGHLY recommended viewing. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.