We’re now 11 days into the new year, and the amount of “top 10 X of 2012” lists has been endless. I’m sure you’ve gotten sick of them. Believe me, I have too. So why am I adding to the endless noise? Why am I contributing to the dilution of an art form by way of arbitrary ranking?
I dunno. Because it’s fun, I guess.
Starting sometime in September of last year, I ranked all the films that I had seen so far that year. As I saw more films, I added to the list, and I obsessively rearranged just about every day. I was making changes right up until the last minute. Well, I’m putting an end to it now by posting my top 20 films of last year. This is an odd method of ranking, I’ll grant you, so let me explain. I ranked them by considering both how much I personally appreciated them on an artistic level and how subjectively “good” they were regardless of how entertaining I found them. I think it makes for a solid list.
#20: Indie Game: The Movie
I made a resolution last January to watch more documentaries this year. It’s an area of filmmaking that I’m not nearly as familiar with as I’d like to be, despite the fact that some of my #1 films of the last few years have been documentaries, e.g. Man On Wire and Exit Through the Gift Shop. This isn’t the only documentary on the list, but it is the one that personally connected with me the most. The Queen of Versailles, a critically lauded doc from this year, is well-crafted for sure, but it didn’t do much for me on an emotional level. Indie Game, though? I was right there with it the whole time. It sure doesn’t hurt that I’ve played and loved two of the games featured in the film, either. But this is more than just a behind-the-scenes making-of special feature of these games. It delves into the psyches of the people making them, and lays out portraits of them as artists whose work reflects their triumphs and their pains. Roger Ebert has for a long time trumpeted what he sees as an undeniable fact: that video games are not and can never be art. He should see this movie. I’m pretty sure it’ll change his mind.
#19: Seven Psychopaths
This is a relatively controversial choice, as this was a kind of “love it or hate it” film. I was firmly in the “love it” camp, however. I think it’s a brilliantly layered meta-comedy, fully of gleeful irony and hilarious payoffs. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like self-referential humor and genre deconstruction, you’ll probably get a kick out of Seven Psychopaths.
It’s certainly not the best stop-motion animated kids horror-comedy that’s a throwback to classic horror movies that was released this year (we’ll get to the other one later), but it’s still a sweet little movie. Some annoying child actors and too-slick production don’t work in the film’s favor, but the clear love of cinema on display and the film’s heart-on-its-sleeve emotion ultimately won me over.
#17: Shut Up and Play the Hits
A friend gave me LCD Soundsystem’s album Sound of Silver earlier this year, and I could’t really get into it. It wasn’t until I saw this documentary about the band’s farewell concert that I realized why the band was so beloved. The length of each song may feel self-indulgent, but I can definitely see the power that lead singer James Murphy has over his fans. On stage, he’s electric and irresistible, and offstage he’s almost unbearably mortal. It’s a great juxtaposition of real life and manufactured life that most music documentaries can’t really capture, and you’ve gotta credit Murphy for letting the filmmakers into his routine to such a degree. If you’re a fan, you’ll love this film. If you’re not, it might just make you one.
#16: Sleepwalk With Me
I’d listened to the standup routine that this film is based on before seeing it, so I knew the story and all the jokes. However, I still enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s almost unbearably sweet and refreshingly honest. It flat-out refuses to play to cliches or stereotypes, and in doing so becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. Is it too early to call it a comedy classic in the making? If so, I don’t care. It is.
#15: Sound of My Voice
This is one of those films that entranced me with the trailer but that I never thought I’d see. Well, thanks to the miracle of technology (i.e. iTunes) I did finally get to see it, and I was somewhat entranced. It’s a simple thriller to be sure, but it has you on pins and needles in quietly effective scenes. It expects you to know why you should be tense. It expects you to pay attention. It ultimately rewards you with more questions than answers, which will be frustrating to many, but thought it was true to the vague nature of the story.
#14: The Avengers
I was pretty vocal about my disappointment with this film immediately after its release, but in the months since I’ve come to love it. For what it is, for what writer/director Joss Whedon had to do, it’s pretty damn extraordinary. It was a film that should never have been as good as it is, and yet somehow it all works. Complaining and nitpicking about this film is pointless. At the end of the day, the fact that this film works at all is a miracle. The fact that it’s really entertaining too is just a bonus.
This one caught me by surprise, I’ll tell you that much. Unlike Frankenweenie, mentioned above, Paranorman is shockingly smart and fearless for a kid’s movie. It’s the sort of bold, non-patronizing storytelling that we used to get out of Pixar. It’s a film that anyone can enjoy. I found it completely charming, and I was disappointed to discover that it was a box office failure. Oh well. Hopefully it’ll have a life on home video. It certainly deserves it.
This film fell way down the list after I saw Zero Dark Thirty. Compared to that film, Argo is revealed for what it really is: self-congratulatory Hollywood fluff. But oh, what fluff it is. It’s tightly directed by Ben Affleck, who has a real passion for moviemaking that shines on the screen. The ensemble cast is stacked with tons of actors who are all game for the material, including the unflappable Bryan Cranston and the always affable John Goodman. It holds a nostalgia for the period that seems odd given how dark the story truly is, but ultimately Argo crackles across the screen. It’s the kind of mature drama for adults that we don’t see a lot of anymore.
#11: Life of Pi
I was more blown away by this film than I ever expected to be. Is it mainly the perfect special effects? That’s a fair argument. The story didn’t really hit me in the way that I’m sure it hit others. The philosophical argument about faith that the movie presents is nothing new to people interested in the subject, but I never felt that it got preachy about it. It remains firmly in metaphor and lets the audience decide what it all means to them. Some felt that the ending was a cheat, but I felt that it presents the film’s thesis, and was therefore necessary. Life of Pi is a beautiful movie as well. Every shot could be hung on the wall. The visuals may be the selling point here, but the story is no slouch.
For some reason, this film has its haters in the film critic community. I honestly can’t see why. I’m not saying that because I disagree with them, but I just don’t see anything overtly wrong with the film. It’s not revelatory, but it’s not flawed in any major way either. This will probably win a whole bunch of Oscars, maybe even Best Picture, and I’ll be okay with that. It’s a solidly made picture by a master craftsman. The people ranting and raving against it come across as deliberately contrarian to me, like they’re looking for something to hate. Well, whatever they’re seeing, I’m not. Lincoln is just plain good, nothing more, nothing less.
I can’t help but admire the sheer level of effort that went into this film. The craft on display is a joy to watch, and the complexity of both the storytelling and the moral questions at play are bold in every way. For me, it all came together, and I was engaged for the entire runtime. Is it perfect? Probably not. I’m not totally blind to the film’s flaws, but for me, the circular path of the heroes and villains of this film resonates strongly, and with an important message. Looper is an instant sci-fi classic.
Speaking of sci-fi films that knocked my socks off, let’s talk Chronicle, shall we? I expected absolutely nothing from this film, and it delivered above and beyond the call of duty with its slam-bang finale which raises hell on the streets of Seattle. My jaw was on the floor the whole time. How had a film that was so massive stayed under the radar for so long? How had I not heard a sliver of news? Well, however it happened, I’m glad that I didn’t know much going in. It made the experience of discovering Chronicle all the sweeter.
#7: Moonrise Kingdom
To be honest, I don’t have a lot to say about this one. It’s sweet and charming without becoming maudlin. The two young leads are spectacular. The rest of the cast is great fun to watch. It’s a fun little film. I recommend it.
No film this year made me happier than this film did. From its hilariously ironic opening to its mind-blowing climax, you aren’t going to find smarter entertainment this year than in this film. For a cinephile, especially a horror aficionado, it’s a dream come true. It deconstructs without criticizing, and the grand metaphor of it all comes together in glorious fashion. It never gets so high-minded as to forget its audience, however. If you can keep up with it, you’ll love it. If you can’t, it’s probably not for you.
#5: Holy Motors
Nearly a month and a half after seeing it, I still don’t know what the hell was going on in this film. I haven’t come to appreciate it any more, either, though I assumed that with time I would grow to understand it more. That doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the film, though. I may not know what it means, but it sure means something, and director Leos Carax directs the hell out of the movie to tell his story, whatever that story may actually be. For a film buff, you couldn’t ask for a more fun experience. The film’s musical intermission alone is more entertaining than most movies released in 2012. That’s gotta count for something.
#4: Safety Not Guaranteed
I was utterly under the spell of this film. Once it gets you, it absolutely does not let go. Some will dismiss it as cute or twee, but I was charmed by the simple connections between the characters. I fell in love with it very quickly, and that feeling never wore off.
#3: Django Unchained
I saw this film twice, and both times I left the theater with a big dumb grin on my face, humming the soundtrack as I went. Quentin Tarantino has been making movies for himself for the last decade or so, but he’s such a talented filmmaker that the results are rarely anything less than sublime. Django Unchained is no exception. If you don’t have fun with this film, I don’t know what to do with you. It is irresistibly, undeniably entertaining, without ever stooping to service the lowest common denominator. This is an uncommon film to be sure, but boy am I glad that it and Tarantino exist.
#2: Zero Dark Thirty
I thought that this film was nothing short of extraordinary. A mature take on the subject that refuses to take sides. It is totally straight-faced, refusing to pass judgement or make commentary on the events depicted. It simply lays out the facts of the matter, and in a very entertaining way to boot. The controversy over this film isn’t unworthy of discussion, but I don’t think that the film endorses torture in any way. It merely depicts torture, as it was undoubtedly used in discovering information about Osama bin Laden. There are people who are uncomfortable with that, but would they prefer that the film pretended that torture never happened? I certainly hope not. Anyway, the point is that Zero Dark Thirty is a rock-solid movie experience. Is it necessary right now? Maybe not. But it looks at the past in a responsible way. We may not have needed this film to exist, but we should all be thankful that this version of the story made it to the big screen, and not a worse version.
#1: Cloud Atlas
Come on, you knew this was coming. I couldn’t stop praising the film in my review, and my friends know that I haven’t been able to shut up about it for the past few months. I was hesitant to say this in the review, but I’m comfortable with the opinion now: This is a perfect movie. Everything clicks into place just right and at the right time. Every discipline of filmmaking is on full display here. What does it all mean? It means whatever you want it to mean. You can take out of it whatever you so desire. That’s what makes it so amazing, so universal. This isn’t just a film that will be re-evaluated in the future. This is a film for the ages. This is a legendary accomplishment in storytelling. Cloud Atlas is the kind of film that never gets made, not now and not ever. And yet here it is.