Despite the prevailing pessimism circulating the interwebs declaring that “cinema is dead,” I think 2012 was a very good year for film.
Both veteran filmmakers and those early in their careers landed some significant successes in genres of all kinds, with mainstream and independent cinema battling for the most entertaining films of the year. Anyone who has declared the death of cinema clearly overlooked the sense of childlike enthusiasm for the medium infused in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. And, while it had its faults, Cloud Atlas once again reinforced the fact that cinema is one of the most beautiful art forms, one where anything is possible.
I wasn’t able to see all of the films that have been getting attention at this point in the year, so my list may be adjusted early in the new year. For now, though, I’m confident in saying that Rust and Bone, Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, and Holy Motors have a serious chance of upsetting the ten I have chosen so far. I’d also like to give special mention to Silver Linings Playbook, The Central Park Five, The Deep Blue Sea, The Sessions, and Les Misérables for being outstanding works of filmmaking and just narrowly missing out in my final list.
1. The Dark Knight Rises
No film was more entertaining, powerful, or thought-provoking this year than The Dark Knight Rises. Capping off his time in Gotham City with the best film of the trilogy, Christopher Nolan proves (as he, for some reason, has to do again and again) that he is one of the five most important and impressive filmmakers working today. His filmography contains some of the most incredible films of the last 20 years, and he shows no sign of stopping any time soon.
Whether meditating on the nature of responsibility or dismantling the fallacy-ridden political thought of most Americans, The Dark Knight Rises is both a great piece of summer entertainment and a master class in directing. As with all of Nolan’s films, TDKR has been attacked since before its release, but that only serves to prove his worth as a filmmaker. No other director working today encounters as much dissection of their work from within and outside the industry as does Nolan, simply because he is too good and that makes many people uncomfortable.
2. The Cabin in the Woods
I first saw The Cabin in the Woods as the Opening Night movie at South by Southwest earlier this year, and I haven’t had that much fun in the theater in a long time. Tearing apart and then rebuilding the genre they so love (horror), Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are like two kids in a toy store hopped up on Pixy Stix. Taking the most well-worn movie trope of all-time, Goddard (who co-wrote and directed) and Whedon (co-writer and producer) take the audience down a rabbit hole they never expect. The cast is terrific, the script is hilarious, and the film’s payoff is one of the most satisfying in recent memory.
3. The Master
The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s least accessible film to date, but also his most emotionally moving. Following the aimless life of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and his “savior” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder and leader of a cult, The Master is more concerned with the moments between moments than with a formal (read: typical) plot or story. Anderson doesn’t focus on Dodd’s proselytizing efforts as much as he does the intimate interactions he has with his followers, most notably the first “processing” session between Dodd and Freddie that is heartbreaking to watch. No other film this year equals that scene in terms of acting, writing, and directing.
Striking the perfect balance between suspense and comedy, Argo pulls off what few other films can. As a director, Ben Affleck more than proved his talent in his first two films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, so questioning his abilities behind the camera at this point would be pointless. Argo allows him to stretch more than he did in his two other films, by incorporating a much grander story, bigger stars, multiple locations, and a plot that is almost too absurd to be true—and yet it is.
5. Django Unchained
Django Unchained is the film Quentin Tarantino has been waiting his whole life to make. Each of his films has dealt with conventions of the Western genre, whether explicitly (Mexican standoffs) or by implication (the redeemed bad man). More of a Southern, really, since it takes place in the pre-Civil War South, Django Unchained is brutally violent, expertly written, and perfectly cast. In sum, it is exactly what we always look forward to from Quentin Tarantino.
2012 wasn’t a great year just for narrative films; there were also some terrific documentaries, as well. Bully, which was released early in the year to much controversy, exposes the traumatic experiences of children who live in fear of going to school in the morning. Bullying has received a lot of attention lately (thanks, in part, to this film), but the issues are far from resolved. Bully shows both the struggle the students and families face, as well as the indifference and impotence of the schools’ teachers and administrators.
Like every Christopher Nolan film, Rian Johnson’s Looper was subjected to vicious criticisms and relentless reviews tearing apart every aspect of Johnson’s brilliant time travel script. As with Nolan, people aren’t comfortable with a director who is too good too soon, and Johnson is just that. After his brilliant debut film Brick, he took a surprisingly quirky turn with The Brothers Bloom. With Looper, though, he demonstrates his abilities as both a writer and a director. Despite all the armchair directors online, Looper was one of the most inspired and entertaining films of the year.
8. The Raid: Redemption
No movie has kicked as much ass as The Raid: Redemption since Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. Writer-director Gareth Evans has re-energized the world of martial arts cinema and I pity any filmmaker who isn’t smart enough to study this film in depth.
9. The Imposter
The documentary The Imposter is another film I first saw at South by Southwest almost a year ago, and my wife and I still talk about it. Though the story of the film is fairly straightforward (a con man tries to pass himself off as a teenager who had been missing for years), director Bart Layton plays with the viewer by combining reenactments, interviews, and news footage to lull them into a false sense of security. Abruptly, the story becomes something else entirely and the audience’s attention is completely shifted to begin questioning everything they have seen so far. It is truly the work of a great filmmaker.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos stunned and confused audiences with his 2009 film Dogtooth, an examination of the great (and disturbing) lengths a father takes to protect his children from what he sees as a poisonous world. His new film, Alps, is no less difficult to understand upon first viewing, but viewers who can handle its very ambiguous story will be rewarded with a touching film about belonging and loss. | Matthew Newlin