Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Favorite Films of 2012

I wasn't able to see every film I wanted to this year, and with many of them still unavailable on video or on-demand, they will simply have to wait until next year for me to see them. However, I saw enough wonderful movies in 2012 that I couldn't avoid creating a "best of" or, at the least, a favorites list. These are the films that moved me, that made me laugh, that left a lasting impression, and that I would recommend. They are listed in order of preference. I've also included a list of noteworthy/honorable mention films I enjoyed but just didn't make the grade in the end, and a list of incredible performances in films that overall did not work for me.

Favorite Films of 2012

1. How to Survive a Plague (Dir: David France)
The story of ACT UP, the activist group that fought (and continues to) for research, funding, and fair medication costs for people living with HIV and AIDS, was the subject of two films this year. The other, United in Anger, suffers from a literal chronology narrative, functioning along a video generated timeline and, despite featuring stories and interview subjects that are not covered in any great depth in Plague, feels like a TV movie, slightly separated from the material. Plague is a wholly engrossing experience, drawing the audience into the personal lives of select ACT UP members. France chooses just the right archive footage to reflect the rage, fear, and triumph of the movement, transforming a potentially depressing and downbeat story into one of heroism and hope. Perhaps the most touching aspect of his work is waiting until the final act before revealing which of the many passionate activists we have seen in footage from the 1980s and 1990s have survived to speak before his cameras today. My favorite film of 2012, and one that hits close to home.

 2. Cafe de Flore (Dir: Jean-Marc Vallee)
A French-Canadian marvel for the mind, this was an unexpected surprise, and a film that challenges genre at every step. Two wildly different story lines converge in an almost unbelievable way: a single mother in the 1960s raises her young son with Down syndrome while in contemporary Quebec a successful DJ leaves his wife and daughters to marry a sensual younger woman. The key to unlocking the mystery of how these stories connect lies in the title itself, a song that also appears in two wildly different versions. A less capable director would flounder in his attempts to convince an audience of the turns the narrative takes, but those who stick with it will be justly rewarded with a quite revelatory film. To say more would rob you of the joys of discovery in watching this film for the first time.

3. Argo (Dir: Ben Affleck)
One of the few "mainstream" films that I thoroughly enjoyed this year, and from one of the most promising actor-directors working today. Based on a true story from the declassified files of the CIA, the central narrative is so astonishing that it rivals the best fiction. Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, a weary agent who concocts an outrageous plan to rescue six isolated American citizens hiding underground during the Iran hostage crisis. The plan? Fake a low-budget science-fiction movie shoot, with the hostages posing as crew members. It's a mission so crazed that it is some sort of miracle Mendez pulled it off. Affleck, having already proven himself a marvelous actor's director, packs the film with great talent, including Alan Arkin as a Corman-esque producer and John Goodman as a wise-cracking make-up man. Oscar nods for one or both of these performances seems inevitable. But Affleck also excels in his casting of the six Americans in peril, including character actors extraordinaire Tate Donovan and Clea Duvall (who is always a welcome pleasure in anything), as well as his Dazed and Confused co-star Rory Cochrane. I also enjoyed Adrienne Barbeau's cameo at a publicity casting call, and Bryan Cranston as Mendez' superior. Some critics griped about the bending of truths to accelerate tension in the final act. People, it's Hollywood, this is how it works, and the film benefits from these changes. The final 20 minutes of the film are the most intense of any film of 2012. Others accused Affleck of painting Muslims with broad strokes as violent fundamentalists, also untrue. He takes great care to give historical and political context to the history of Iranian government, and spends a good deal of time showing disturbing actual news footage of anti-Muslim violence here in the States during the hostage crisis. Neither side comes off smelling like roses. Even considering these qualms, Argo is proof Affleck is here to stay and is one of few directors whose work I can actually get excited about seeing in the future.

4. The Forgiveness of Blood (Dir: Joshua Marston)
Joshua Marston's first film since his indie success Maria Full of Grace (2004), the American-born director once again wades into international waters with this spellbinding thriller set on Albanian soil. A feud between two neighboring families reaches a breaking point when, during a scuffle over territory, a man is fatally stabbed. The family of the culprit must deal with the consequences. A simple enough story, but one enriched by local tradition and colorful characters. Albanian culture is informed by the Kanun, a code of laws and obligations developed in the 15th century and still followed to this day in contemporary Albania. Witnessing this deadly family squabble as it accelerates, without the intervention of any police or other typical law enforcement, gives the narrative a fuller sense of dread. Marston cast non-professional actors in all of the key roles, and the stand-outs are Sindi Lacej as Rudina, the teenage daughter forced to take on her absent father's bread delivery route , and Tristan Halilaj as Nik, the eldest of the children dealing with questions of identity and purpose, only accelerated by the stress of his family's anguish. It is through the children of the family that we see the effects of ancient law on modern life, and these two exceptional young actors give beautiful and perceptive performances. One of the few contemporary films Criterion has released to DVD and Blu-Ray that deserves the accolades and attention befitting a title in the collection.

5. The Sessions (Dir: Ben Lewin)
Based on the true story of disabled poet Mark O'Brien, a man afflicted by polio from an early age and who lived the majority of his life in an iron lung, this is a warm, funny, and very moving motion picture, one seemingly geared for awards season but, surprisingly, deserving of such attention. O'Brien, approaching 40 and still a virgin, enlists the aid of Cheryl, a sex surrogate, to experience physical pleasure and love. It's interesting to watch O'Brien struggle with awkwardness and embarrassment when faced with the prospect of having his first sexual experience with a woman, because these are universal emotions, not informed by one's ability to walk or move. What could have been a predictable overcoming-disability message movie instead is a deeply human story of the joys of love, which surely sounds sappy to some but director Ben Lewin doesn't go for cheap sentiment. The film opens with genuine news footage of the real O'Brien graduating from UC Berkeley, establishing our hero as someone who has already overcome the odds, now presented with a challenge that we have all had to face in our lives. What makes the film a gem are the performances by an altogether brilliant ensemble cast. John Hawkes (so good in Winter's Bone) and Helen Hunt (a brave, fully nude comeback) are simply perfect. Oscar nods are a given, I think. William H. Macy is marvelous as a Catholic priest taken into Mark's confidence, and Moon Bloodgood, never given much credit as an actress (for good reason), shows some surprising promise as Mark's dedicated and supportive assistant. One of the most emotionally rewarding films of the year.

6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Dir: Stephen Chbosky)
Based on Chbosky's successful and beloved young adult novel, this teen melodrama had the potential to be maudlin and false, as most films about high school and growing up have tended to be since the 1950s. Adults, man, they just don't get it. But Chbosky gets it. That the film received the most publicity because it was Harry Potter star Emma Watson's first major post-Hogwarts role is understandable, but surely kept away an audience that might have gone to see a film that so accurately captures the uncertainty and simultaneous beauty and ugliness of high school. Following a turbulent summer, Charlie enters his freshman year of high school, bullied and ostracized until he develops an interest in the off-the-wall humor of gay senior Patrick, who invites Charlie into his circle of friends. Among them is Sam, a girl who hides her wounds from sexual abuse in her past. As two damaged souls, Sam and Charlie are naturally drawn to each other, but this is not your standard teen romance. Throw expectations out the window. In a world bereft of adult presence and influence, the one guiding light of elder wisdom is Paul Rudd as English teacher Mr. Anderson; Rudd reminds us he can handle dramatic work as well as the comedic characters he usually plays. Color me surprised to see Tom Savini as the shop teacher! The film is more than a little reminiscent of Robert Redford's 1980 Best Picture winner Ordinary People, with its mentally unstable male lead, who even has Timothy Hutton-esque hair. And like Hutton, Logan Lerman gives a mesmerizing performance of a conflicted teen fighting inner demons only hinted at through brief flashbacks (again, like Ordinary People), which feature Melanie Lynskey in a memorable bit. This year will hopefully be the break-out year for openly queer actor Ezra Miller, who has shown impressive range through his performance here as well as a terrifying portrayal of a violent sociopath in Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin (see below). And Watson proves her mettle outside of a magical CGI realm. Hopefully she will continue to appear in interesting work. There are hiccups to be found here, namely a group of kids who know who the Smiths are but can't recognize or name David Bowie's "Heroes" on the radio. But the silliness of the film-long search for the name of that song is overcome by its use during a memorable drive through the Pittsburgh tunnel and over the end credits. Great song use in a great movie.

7. The Queen of Versailles (Dir: Lauren Greenfield)
When director Lauren Greenfield set out to make a documentary on the wealthy time share mogul David Siegel, his trophy wife Jackie, and their quest to make the most lavish and expensive single-family home in the US, it was an entirely different project. It was before the global financial crisis of 2008, which happened in the middle of production. As Greenfield's cameras rolled, she captured Siegel's financial empire crashing down around him and, most vividly, Jackie's fairy tale marriage becoming a nightmare reality she practically refuses to accept. In hilariously out-of-touch sequences, she is forced to fly commercial instead of on the family private jet, rents a car from Avis and asks the clerk "What's the name of my driver?", and buys six shopping carts worth of toys and unnecessary ephemera from Wal-Mart for Christmas. Siegel's youthful, happy persona shrivels into a tired, angry depression before our very eyes while Jackie tries to maintain some structure of family happiness. It is to Greenfield's credit that she is able to portray the Siegels as both deserving of their fortune dwindling while also eliciting audience alliance. They are, after all, a family struggling to survive in the economy as we all are...perhaps with a lot more to start with, but this means they have a lot more to lose. The mix of Schadenfreude and sympathy is tough to pull off successfully, as it is here. The most unusual and almost poetic revelation of the film: the Siegels' dream home is based on Versailles, the sprawling chateau turned palace outside of Paris which, despite its regal beauty, is technically unfinished. Today, its American counterpart stands unfinished, and it's likely it will remain that way.

8. Headhunters (Dir: Morten Tyldum)
Wow...just...wow. A neo-noir thriller so wild and unpredictable it rivals the wildest imaginations of the best pulp fiction writers! To supplement his income as Norway's most successful headhunter and to support his impossibly hot wife, Roger moonlights as a professional art thief, breaking into wealthy clients' homes with his accomplice Ove and lifting priceless artifacts. He picks the wrong mark in Clas, a former military man with a background in tracking people. Roger discovers Ove's corpse in his car and runs for his life...and that's when things get really outrageous... I cannot bring myself to spoil anything for you, as seeing this theatrically with no prior knowledge yielded the biggest shocks and jolts of any movie I saw in cinemas this year. Game of Thrones fans might be more intrigued to see this than most, as it stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka 'Jaime Lannister', as Clas, the bloodthirsty tracker. Like Starbuck (see below), this is being remade for American audiences courtesy of Sacha Gervasi, who inflicted Hitchcock on us this year. Stick with the original, in both cases. I don't know how the revision will get away with all the crazy that is included here.

9. Turn Me On, Dammit! (Dir: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)
The best comedy of the year wasn't American (sorry, Ted), and it didn't star an emotionally stunted male (sorry, Klown). It hailed from Norway, was written and directed by a woman (adapted from a novel by, yes, a woman), and starred a 19-year-old girl. Huh? Women have always been funny, regardless of the media's recent flabbergasted response to successful women in comedy, so let's put that issue to bed right now. But the truly revolutionary Turn Me On, Dammit! has the guts to tackle a teenage girl's sexual fancy and social rebellion in a frank and funny way, and lo and behold, not judge her for it. Feminists rejoice! Beautiful and charming Helene Bergsholm, as our heroine Alma, is introduced masturbating on the kitchen floor to a phone sex line and we're off. Alma's accelerated teen sex drive becomes a problem when the boy she has a crush on makes a lewd pass at her and when she excitedly tells her girlfriends, he denies it, transforming her into the school pariah. Her friends abandon her, her single mother is horrified, and Alma dreams of an escape from her repressed small town. When she isn't having wildly romantic imaginative escapes into fantasy land, her secret friend Sara writes letters (in English) to Texas death row inmates in her form of escape from the drudgery of village life. At 71 minutes, the film feels almost too short. You want to spend more time with these characters, all of them, even Ingrid, the bitchy popular girl who invents the cruel nickname "Dick-Alma". It may not be a gut buster, but there is nothing else like this comic charmer. And the unusual fact that there are two Norwegian films on my Top 10 list is not lost on me. This is fast becoming a country to watch for interesting new films.

10. Skyfall (Dir: Sam Mendes)
Let's get the bad out of the way: the Bond films' gender politics remain entrenched in the 1960s (the Bond femme fatale, regardless of how interesting she is, is treated callously, and by the finale, a woman's place is not in the action zone) and there are lapses in logic overshadowed by gripping action sequences. But damn if Skyfall isn't the best big-budget blockbuster of the year. That might not be saying much, as it seems the trend in modern cinema is the more money you spend on a movie, the worse it becomes. Mendes' Bond entry must be given credit for not being condescending to its audience while maintaining high adrenaline during action sequences and compelling drama in-between. Daniel Craig does his reliable pouting and posing as Bond and Javier Bardem is a smarmy gay villain, but the most intriguing characters are, ironically, women, the gender so often backed into a corner in the series. Judi Dench's "M", Naomi Harris' "Eve", and Berenice Marlohe's "Severine" (sorely missed after her departure) are tremendously compelling, indicating that perhaps it's time for a well-done female-driven action film, preferably one with accents. The introductory chase scene, the Shanghai mission, the London tube pursuit, the final full-fledged assault on the moors, all are memorable set pieces. But the best part of the film just might be the visually stunning opening credits, backed by the best Bond theme song of all, Adele's "Skyfall".

10 more tremendous movies that complete my Top 20. Definitely see these with as much urgency as the top 10. Rather than give a write-up of the film, I've listed why the film made such an impression on me.

11. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dir: Lynne Ramsay)
Tilda Swinton in her best performance to date. Ezra Miller in a skin-crawling performance as the title character. Ramsay's playing with memory and time in the narrative. My stumble out of the theater as the movie ended.

12. Detropia (Dir: Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady)
The beautiful, tragic cinematography capturing the fallen Motor City. Video blogger Crystal Starr, aptly named as she steals the movie, exploring dilapidated buildings with her camera. A city official asked by Starr what she's going to do to improve the city...while her name tag is upside down. Detroit as a microcosm of the nation's financial crisis.

13. Life of Pi (Dir: Ang Lee)
Suraj Sharma, in his film debut, so wonderful in the title role. Irrfan Khan, always great, as the adult Pi. Lee's inspired use of 3-D; here is a director who knows how to take advantage of the new technology to great effect. The emotional pull of the connection between Pi and Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger sharing his struggle to survive.

14. The Invisible War (Dir: Kirby Dick)
The issue of rape and sexual harassment in the military. Heartbreaking testimonials from countless women violated by fellow officers. The central story of a young mother working her through the VA medical maze.

15. Monsieur Lazhar (Dir: Philippe Falardeau)
The ensemble cast of children, all remarkably good, making up a classroom dealing with their teacher hanging herself in their classroom. Mohamed Said Fellag as the title character, an Algerian immigrant acting as their replacement teacher and helping them come to terms with their feelings of loss.

16. Sister (Dir: Ursula Meier)
The (hopefully) star-making performances of Lea Seydoux and Kacey Mottet Klein as brother and sister struggling to survive in a Swiss ski resort town. The big revelation. Little moments of love between brother and sister. Gillian Anderson in a brief but memorable role as a mother figure for Klein.

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir: Benh Zeitlin)
The performances by non-professional actors Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry as the eyes of the story and her mentally unstable father. The floating brothel sequence. The climactic confrontation. That amazing musical score, my pick for best of the year.

18. Take This Waltz (Dir: Sarah Polley)
A supremely talented actor-director takes another sensitive approach to the relationship melodrama. Michelle Williams as a woman questioning her marriage to skinny Seth Rogen (I'd question it, too, until he gained some weight back). Williams continues to be one of our strongest young actresses. Sarah Silverman in a rare dramatic performance that moved me to the core. She has what it takes to do more work like this in addition to the whole "being funny" thing. The carnival ride with flashing lights and "Video Killed the Radio Star" blaring on the soundtrack, a scene to be repeated in a different way for the finale.

19. Sound of Noise (Dir: Ola Simonsson & Johannes Stjarne Nilsson)

The concept of "musical terrorism", brought to captivating life. A tone deaf detective, from a family of musicians, in the greatest challenge of his career. The musical numbers, bombastic, clever, and far too few.

20. Declaration of War (Dir: Valerie Donzelli)
Director-star Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim as a young couple, aptly named Romeo and Juliet, dealing with their infant son's cancer diagnosis and treatment. Donzelli is beyond superb.

Honorable Mention:

The Raid: Redemption (Dir: Gareth Evans)
Janeane from Des Moines (Dir: Grace Lee)
The Kid with a Bike (Dir: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
ParaNorman (Dir: Chris Butler & Sam Fell)
The House I Live In (Dir: Eugene Jarecki)
Ted (Dir: Seth McFarlane)
Side by Side (Dir: Christopher Kenneally)
Girl Model (Dir: David Redmon & Ashley Sabin)
Klown (Dir: Mikkel Norgaard)
Last Days Here (Dir: Don Argott & Demian Fenton)
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Dir: Alison Klayman)
Virgin Tales (Dir: Mirjam von Arx)
Consuming Spirits (Dir: Chris Sullivan)

Favorites from Festivals

These four films would have easily made my Top 20, but because they were not released theatrically outside of film festivals, I don't consider them official 2012 releases. One has a theatrical release date set for 2013, the others have no distributor to the best of my knowledge. If they are released theatrically in 2013, they will no doubt graduate to my Favorites of 2013 list. I'll refrain from discussing them in any great detail until they are more widely available. In order of excellence.

Starbuck (Dir: Ken Scott)
The Act of Killing (Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer)
Goodbye (Dir: Mohammad Rasoulof)
Our Children (Dir: Joachim Lafosse)

Great Performances in Underwhelming Films

There was something about these films that didn't work for me, whether it be narrative-wise or stylistically. But I'm a sucker for a great performance, and while the films mentioned below were ultimately disappointing, I could not overlook the stellar work done by the actors in them. Special mention must go to Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Woody Harrelson, and Melanie Lynskey. This quartet deserves Oscar attention. And Elizabeth Olsen deserves to be a star. I can see her biting at Lawrence's heels very soon in the search for great parts for young women in indie features.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook 
Anders Danielsen Lie in Oslo, August 31st 
Fiona Gordon in The Fairy 
Woody Harrelson in Rampart 
Daniel Henshall and Lucas Pittaway in The Snowtown Murders 
Thure Lindhardt in Keep the Lights On 
Melanie Lynskey and Blythe Danner in Hello I Must Be Going 
Elizabeth Olsen in Silent House 
Sara Paxton in The Innkeepers 
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master 
Stephanie Sigman in Miss Bala

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