I refuse to bow to the convention of a top ten. Sure, there is a nice consonance to the phrase, but ten films? Please. It’s just wrong to deprive fine films their rightful recognition because a “t”-filled catch phrase has a mellifluous quality and, we as a species have, as the norm, five fingers on each hand. If we had six, no doubt I would be contesting the tyranny of the top twelve.
But I digress.
Instead I present my top films of 2012 without adding an arbitrary number as a modifier. Further, they are presented in alphabetical order. All are fine examples of filmmaking, both as art and as entertainment, that stand up to more than one viewing. In some cases, they improve with each viewing. (I’ve only seen MOONRISE KINGDOM five times on the big screen, and look forward to seeing it again in that format when the opportunity presents itself).
AMOUR – for showing the beauty and the pain of growing old together, and doing it without a trace of dewy-eyed romanticism.
ANNA KARENINA – An adaptation that not only encompassed the heart but also the intellect. Filmmaker Joe Wright tells all, including where Tolstoy went wrong, here.
ARGO – Not only a professional redemption for its director, Ben Affleck, but a superbly suspense-filled history lesson that not only proved that truth is stranger than fiction, but also refused to rely on politics to tell its story, instead making it a human drama of enormous impact.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD – The visceral tug of primal nature coalesces with the logical innocence of childhood without undercutting either in Benh Zeitlin’s fable of family, community and our place in the universe. Plus a performance by six-year-old Quavenzhane Willis that is preternatural in its intensity and its intelligence. Benh Zeitlin on myth and child actors here.
BERNIE – A tour-de-force for Jack Black as the good soul driven temporarily insane by evil incarnate in the form of a spitefully misanthropic widow, and for filmmaker Richard Linklater for the piquant way he brought to life this sweet re-telling of a true story of justice versus the law in a small Texas town. Linklater on small towns and big justice here.
CHICKEN WITH PLUMS – for being a lush and glorious evocation of star-crossed love, human eccentricity, and magical realism. Filmmaker Marjane Satrapi on adapting her graphic novel for the screen here.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES – Christopher Nolan proves once again that effect-laden, big-budget blockbusters can also be trenchant character studies with much to ponder about the trick of being human.
FLIGHT — not for being a perfect movie, but for being a film that dares to challenge its audience with complexity in story and character, not to mention for being a diabolically tantalizing philosophical exercise. Robert Zemeckis on making the film his way here.
KILLER JOE – A black comedy strictly for grown-ups, even those who may be faint of heart. William Friedkin directing from the screenplay by Tracy Letts, demonstrates the power of violence, physical and emotional, as a storytelling device that neither shies from the gory excess, nor, oddly enough, exploits it for the mere shock value. More kudos to Friedkin for allowing Matthew McConaughey to prove that he is more than just a pretty face in a potent yet quiet performance that leaves nothing to chance. Friedkin on all this and more here.
THE IMPOSSIBLE – A family overwhelmed by the Christmas Day tsunami in Thailand is heartbreaking, terrifying, horrific, and yet, by the end, leaves you exhilarated with the sheer determination people can find to survive in even the most, yes, impossible situations. A catharsis of the first order, gritty, uncompromising performances, writing and direction. Tom Holland, as the 12-year-old forced to be the man of the family makes a stunning (there is no other word but that overused one) debut that will leave you as breathless as the film itself. The film’s producer, Belen Atienza, screenwriter, Sergio Sanchez, and director, Juan Antonio Bayona, discuss going from real to reel here.
IN THE FAMILY – Patrick Wang redefines the emotional thriller in this heartrending but never strident study of civil rights versus small-town prejudice with the law on the latter’s side. Wang on sticking to his vision here.
LIFE OF PI – Not only did Ang Lee film the unfilmable, he did so without sullying what was best in the book, instead, adding some of the most beautiful images ever projected onto a screen to a story that is as thematically rich as it is unapologetically poetic. Ang Lee on doing the impossible here.
LINCOLN – Yes, Daniel Day Lewis’ masterful performance, but there’s more to this film. Few works about the Civil War truly get across how fragile the nation was at that time, that there were no guarantees about keeping the nation together, but this one does. Plus it has the delightful, and much underrated, contribution by James Spader as a political fixer who would be just as at home in modern politics as he was back then.
LOOPER – Rian Johnson, an unsung force to be reckoned with since his debut with BRICK, uses every trope of the classic thriller, as well as the science fiction genre, to produce a film that is in a class by itself, subverting the expected while never violating a fiendishly compelling internal logic. I have often said that Johnson is the next Christopher Nolan, but Johnsonhas a puckish sense of humor that Nolan, for all his genius, can’t quite muster. The difference makes for films that are not just wonderfully cerebral, but also have the spark of impish warmth and palpable emotion. Co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks here.
THE MASTER – What you find in Paul Thomas Anderson’s dreamy and harrowing film is as much about what you bring to it as what he himself has made. And this is a good thing. The permutations of the Hero’s Journey translated to American post-war malaise is troubling, infuriating, and defiantly non-linear in its approach, yet sublimely, achingly universal for its depiction of a tortured soul longing for relief.
MOONRISE KINGDOM – Quirky for a good cause, the trademark of a Wes Anderson film, this one, like the others, uses a stark and studies artificiality to throw into high relief the infinitely complex way people interact with one another. Style and substance, wit and compassion, and an ear-piercing scene that demonstrates as few things can the overwhelming power and consequences of true love.
PARANORMAN – Dynamic, inspired animation that reproduces reality without replicating it, and a story that treads into emotional territory far riskier than witch’s curse or a band of marauding zombies. And it does so while still be both funny and touching. Filmmakers Chris Butler and Sam Fell on putting it all together here. Full review here.
RUBY SPARKS – It is impossible to NOT be endlessly fascinated by Paul Dano’s performance as a writer who brings a character life, literally. His nimble scamper from delighted to bemused to apalled is one of the best of this year or any year, and one that has something new at which to marvel with each viewing. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris on Dano and filming the color white here.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED – A film both tart and astute about our capacity for self-delusion in a science-fiction story that would be ruined by special effects. From a smart script by Derek Connelly that knows exactly what to leave to the viewer’s imagination, and exactly what to explain, plus direction by Colin Trevorrow that finds the suspense in a seemingly innocuous conversation as well as the possibility of more than one kind of time travel. Trevorrow is in conversation with me here.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN – If you are lucky enough to see this documentary without knowing the twist, you are in for one of the most surprising cinematic twists this year. Even if you do know the twist, this thoughful, skillfully directed film will challenge your definitions of happiness and of success without, and here’s the tricky part, making you feel guilty about favoring the more conventional ones. Director Malik Benjallouol and Rodriguez on the ins and outs of the story here.
SOUND OF MY VOICE – Another science-fiction film that doesn’t need any special effects other than smart writing and even smarter direction. And another that ponder the nature of belief, in this case the need for belief that is so strong that it leads otherwise smart people to join cults. Co-writer Brit Marling as the cult leader with the quiet voice and cornucopia of surprises makes the unreasonable seem reasonable, and, hence, the story even more troubling. Marling and co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij interview here.
THE WAITING ROOM – A child with a life-threatening fever that could have been prevented with routine and regular access to health care puts it all in perspective, and that’s the aim of Director Peter Nicks doesn’t provide narration for his documentary that has been short-listed for Oscar(tm). Instead, he constructs a typical 24 hours in the ER waiting room of Oakland’s Highland Hospital, that is an eloquent, and deliberately non-political, plea for equality of access to health care in this country. Peter Nicks on being apolitical in his approach here.
WRECK-IT RALPH – A video-game title character with a credible existential crisis in an animated film that is wildly funny, wickedly smart, and still manages to pluck your heartstrings like a harpsichord. You don’t have to know the first thing about video games to fall under the spell of this story, but, fair warning, you will crave candy and/or pastries by the end of your sojourn in the Sugar Rush game. Director Rich Moore discusses his own struggles with sugar during the planning and shooting here.
ZERO DARK THIRTY – Forget the hysterical torture controversy. Kathryn Bigelow’s film about true believers on both sides of the War on Terror is far deeper than that. Jessica Chastain gives on of the great film performances as the the CIA agent who fights her own agency to track down and kill Bin Laden. The film, by Bigelow with profound psychological insights and a merciless tension, gets to the harrowing nature of a job that calls on people who are neither sadists nor psychopaths to do the unspeakable in the service of what they perceive to be the greater good. Full review here.
And, in a piquant juxtaposition, a special KMR citation to SKYFALL for being
THE. BEST. BOND. EVER.