It’s obvious that most films are, simply put, stories told visually. But what’s interesting is how the very act of storytelling plays a role in many of the year’s best films. In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, our nation’s most beloved president often halts the momentum of the film’s action by telling tangential anecdotes, often to the frustration of his cabinet members. As talking heads, the locals in Richard Linklater’s Bernie offer their takes on the ever-present yet somehow still elusive titular character. Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samuari is told through flashbacks, each one revealing the injustices of a stratified society.
There are countless other examples: tales offering historical context in The Hobbit, the opening and closing scenes with a gnarly-looking Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas and even good ol’ Neil Young rambling on about his childhood in Jonathan Demme’s latest documentary on the rock legend.
Despite this reoccurring motif, 2012 offered a wide variety of films. Superheroes and other franchise properties continued to offer easy targets for serious-minded critics, but I’d personally take the best of these blockbusters over some of the year’s acclaimed prestige pictures (e.g. Argo, Les Miserables, Life of Pi and, to a lesser extent, Zero Dark Thirty). Many loved Michael Haneke’s Amour, but I much preferred the Dardenne brothers’ humanistic The Kid With a Bike. This seems to me a year with little consensus, and just like every other year, I had too little time to watch all of the good movies. As I did last year, I have listed my “blind spots,” made up of Slant favorites, significant award season contenders and other major films I haven’t seen yet.
This year, I’ve also started noting which of my favorites were shot on film. Traditional projection of film is dead, but some filmmakers still insist on making their films using 16mm, 35mm or, in a few cases, 70mm film. I’m not as pessimistic about digital filmmaking or 3D as some cinephiles. Indeed, I am fascinated by the possibilities of digital cinema in the hands of those who understand how to use the tools. But it’s not the same as celluloid, and the use of film deserves to be celebrated.
1. Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
Forget Silver Linings Playbook. William Friedkin’s latest masterpiece showcases the year’s most dysfunctional family played by an ace ensemble. As vulgar and nasty as they come, Killer Joe truly deserves its NC-17 rating. Every single character in the film is a dreadful human being. They are willing to murder family members for money and sacrifice others as sexual collateral. And yet, the film somehow approaches all of the characters and the terrible things they do with understanding. The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Juno Temple as a sexualized innocent and Matthew McConaughey as the titular hitman. In one of the year’s best performances, McConaughey plays his character with a mix of perversion and Southern charm, simultaneously demanding our disgust and our respect. This film is not pleasant, but it’s engaging from its opening shot to its pitch-perfect, hilariously bloody ending. I would take this over director Friedkin’s The French Connection or The Exorcist any day.
Currently in select theaters, shot on film
This elliptical story of a master and a follower hypnotically captures the experience of a postwar drifter. It’s an often frustrating narrative that refuses to resolve itself, all in the service of tapping into the uncertainty of the times and the impossibility of its central relationship. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix’s loose cannon seem to need each other. The former needs a protege for his work to have meaning, and the latter simply needs direction for his life. And yet, they are always at odds as opposite-equal forces. It’s the story of two friends, or a preacher and its skeptical congregation, a father and his son. This tension works so well because of the stellar performances by Hoffman and Phoenix. Director Paul Thomas Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. clearly understood this, using close-ups (shot on 70mm film) to capture each and every detail of their faces. Whether it’s sex or cult, the characters here use whatever they can for a fulfilling sense of power over others. It might be the hand of a chilly wife (Amy Adams), meditation guided by a master, or a follower’s attempted reappropration of said meditation when bedding a woman. It is a constant psychosexual cycle of masters and followers. To borrow a phrase from the year’s best episode of television, these dissatisfied souls constantly strive in vain for something beautiful they can truly own.
3. I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Available for streaming via Netflix, shot on film
From the director of the heartbreaking Still Walking, this childhood adventure similarly examines everyday life with staggering honesty and grace. It’s the story of a young boy named Koichi, struggling to cope with the divorce of his parents and the subsequent separation from his younger brother Ryunosuke. Ever optimistic, he hears that a wish, made at the exact moment and location at which two bullet trains pass by each other, is guaranteed to come true. Naturally, he sees this as the last chance to bring his family together. Koichi, Ryunosuke and several of their friends work together to escape their lives for the momentous opportunity. They all come prepared with different wishes, dreams of growing up to be an actress or naive hopes that a dead pet might come back to life. The film moves among these different characters, resulting in the story of not one family but of many children with ever-changing anxieties and desires. I Wish captures the adventures and the pains of childhood with such whimsy and insight, and the film is ultimately less about whether the wishes come true than how the children change over the course of their trek.
4. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Available for streaming via Netflix, shot on film
The story is simple. A young boy clings onto a bike from his father, who has abandoned him. By chance, he meets a woman willing to care for him on weekends as a foster parent. But when the boy meets a charismatic drug dealer, acting as the father figure he desperately needs, he starts to head down the wrong path. Although this premise seems straightforward, the Dardenne brothers lend this story the intimacy and brutal honesty that characterize all of their films. Rather than blaming any of the characters, the film implicates socioeconomic issues as key reasons for its minor tragedies. Thomas Doret gives a heartbreaking performance as Cyril, a troubled kid who occasionally resorts to hurting others and himself. We feel Cyril’s pain when he feels like he has nowhere to go, and we are full of joy when he smiles. It’s a beautiful work of art unironically full of love and compassion.
5. Bernie (Richard Linklater)
Available for streaming via Netflix
On the surface, Bernie tells the story of a friendly mortician (Jack Black) and his odd friendship with the town’s nastiest bitch (Shirley MacLaine). But Richard Linklater’s film is also a fascinating exploration of a Texas community, how its members relate to each and how they tell their own story. Linklater uses the mockumentary format not simply as a gimmick, employing it as an essential tool to understanding a lead character full of contradictions. The film is also one of the year’s funniest, surprising at every turn with its dry and menacing tone. Black’s performance stands as the best of his career, combining his comedic showmanship with tremendous vulnerability. And again, McConaughey shows up with yet another winning performance as the DA with a bad feeling about the town’s most-beloved overachiever. With its dark opening scene depicting the preparation of a dead body and the sheer hilarity of McConaughey’s truly awful wig, Bernie stands as another masterful oddity in Linklater’s eclectic filmography.
Last year, Takashi Miike made my top 10 with 13 Assassins, essentially an hour of exposition followed by an hour of relentless bloodshed. At first, Hara-Kiri seems to be another ultraviolent revenge tale (which would have been perfectly fine with me), but what unfolds is a slow-burn drama that cries out for social justice and the dismantling of class structures. The film tells its tale of familial tragedy through two extended flashbacks. The story structure underlines the inhumanity of the privileged class, suggesting a disdain for charity to be an unacceptable personal and political doctrine. The use of 3D is haunting, allowing the film to explore the empty, unforgiving halls of the House of Li. In the end, Miike suggests that the real solution is not necessarily destroying the elite but revealing the ugliness and cowardice of their beliefs.
Shot on film
This is an undeniably messy film. Its politics are often unsettling, the acting is overstated, and the plotting doesn’t always work. But no other film this year was so full of passion for life and the possibilities of filmmaking. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a modern fairy tale, in which a child does not escape her world but rather tries to make sense of all of its messiness. Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature challenges the lines between fantasy and reality, childhood and adulthood. Like 2009’s marvelous Where the Wild Things Are, the film captures the experience of youth, the naivety with which we approach the world but also all of the fears that come with it (often overlooked in movies actually made for children). It’s all centered around the fearless performance of young Quvenzhane Wallis, whose courage and poise is not gratingly precocious but inspiring. And when we face the disasters and the death that the world has to offer, we should be so lucky to have the triumphant score by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin cheering us on.
Currently in theaters, shot on film
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is not a traditional biopic. Although Daniel Day-Lewis is the undeniable star, the film focuses on a political community to narrativize the legislative process. But to be clear, Lincoln is more than a civics lesson. This human story explores the messy intersection of the personal and the professional. Screenwriter Tony Kushner and Spielberg have crafted a dialogue-driven, engaging movie about the crooked deals, silly anecdotes and changes of heart that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. Kushner’s most stunning achievement here is the structure, with all of the subplots culminating in a simple yea-or-nay vote that turns out to be the year’s most cathartic scene. Day-Lewis plays our nation’s 16th President not as a moralist or intellectual but as a charming storyteller with a purpose. I walked away stunned by David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Halbrook, Lee Pace, David Costabile, Michael Stuhlbarg and, of course, Tommy Lee Jones. If every supporting actor nomination for every single award went to a cast member of Lincoln, it’d be justified. On top of it all, Janusz Kaminski’s grainy images are among the most expressive of the year. Is this my favorite of the major Oscar contenders? I say, aye. AAAAAAAAAAAYE.
9. 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
Shot on film
Killer Joe and Bernie might be the year’s most accomplished big-screen comedies, but 21 Jump Street was easily the year’s funniest movie. Executed with impeccable timing and energy, the wildly immature jokes remain funny after even months of reflection. From the directors of Cloud With a Chance of Meatballs, the film plays like a live-action Warner Bros. short, except with a severed penis, lots of drugs and a Korean Jesus. This manic delight keep us on our toes with its sly self-awareness, undermining action-flick expectations and challenging dated high school stereotypes. When Ice Cube’s Captain Dickson teases a college-set sequel at the end of the film, I didn’t cringe with cynicism but rather sighed with relief. This might have been the most fun I had at the movies in 2012, and I would love (at the very least) a second helping.
10. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
After a 14-year hiatus, Whit Stillman returns with a film that pushes the boundaries of good taste. I felt offended or uncomfortable for much of its running time, but this otherworldly comedy is insightful and wickedly funny, poking fun at the self-absorption of young people today. At her college, Greta Gerwig’s Violet heads the Suicide Prevention Center, where troubled students take dance lessons to work through their problems. (Aubrey Plaza makes a cameo as an especially troubled case.) Every now and then, Analeigh Tipton’s Lily will challenge the surreal absurdity of the characters’ attitudes, correctly suggesting that those seeking help need therapy and possibly medication. However, her questions come and go as brief reality checks in the midst of a twisted alternate reality. Privilege and youth keep these guys and gals from seeing the world with any sort of perspective. It is a vision that’s terrifying when one of its young adults realizes he doesn’t understand the concept of color, but it seems a fun place to escape to when a dance craze is a rational solution to all of the misery in the world.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): The Avengers (Joss Whedon), Cloud Atlas (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski) [select theaters, film], Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan) [film], The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson) [theaters], Looper (Rian Johnson) [select theaters, film], Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) [select theaters, film], Neil Young Journeys (Jonathan Demme), ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell), Skyfall (Sam Mendes) [theaters]
Blind Spots: Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman), Barbara (Christian Petzold), The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry), The Comedy (Rick Alverson), The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo), The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies), Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick), Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi), Holy Motors (Leos Carax), How to Survive a Plague (David France), The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh), Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonca Filho), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier), Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard), Tabu (Miguel Gomes), This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi), The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)
Updated: January 10, 2013
See Also: Top 10 Movies of 1951, Top 10 Movies of 1953, Top 10 Movies of 1957, Top 10 Movies of 1959, Top 10 Movies of 1962, Top 10 Movies of 1966, Top 10 Movies of 1972, Top 10 Movies of 1975, Top 10 Movies of 1984, Top 10 Movies of 1986, Top 10 Movies of 1989, Top 10 Movies of 1992, Top 10 Movies of 1999, Top 10 Movies of 2002, Top 10 Movies of 2003, Top 10 Movies of 2004, Top 10 Movies of 2005, Top 10 Movies of 2007, Top 10 Movies of 2008, Top 10 Movies of 2009, Top 10 Movies of 2010, Top 10 Movies of 2011