I love top ten lists, but they’re pretty damn stupid. Growing up, top tens were always a cheat-sheet to find what was really good that I either missed or never even heard about. Now, I tend to just fret about leaving off something not quite great, but still worthy of mention (hi Damsels in Distress!), while still not wanting to go the honorable mention route.
With that in mind, this year’s list, like the last one, is skipping the numerical order, minus my number one. The majority of the remaining nine films flip in and out of the top ten to begin with, so why pretend there’s any order to the bunch.
How was 2012 for film? Fine, most years are. I wouldn’t declare it especially memorable. There were a lot of really good movies, a handful of great ones; this is par for the course if you’re really looking.
This is all a long-winded way of saying yay for movies, particularly the special ones. Here, by my few-days-left-in-2012-5:37pm-eyes, is my favorite movie of this year, along with nine more that I can’t recommend enough.
1. The Kid with a Bike
A young boy (Thomas Doret) is sure his father will come for him. His current stay in an orphanage is temporary. That is what Cyril tells himself in the year’s finest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Cyril is wrong. During one of Cyril’s tantrums he meets Samantha (Cecile De France), literally yanking her off a chair and into his world. Samantha feels for the child, deciding to help him by providing a house in which to live. Of course, as the saying goes, a house is not a home. How it becomes that is what makes The Kid with a Bike such a memorable achievement, as we see the imperfect Cyril make increasingly bad mistakes on the path to finding himself.
The Dardennes have no interest in easy melodrama, once more displaying a knack for neo-realism that eschews easy manipulations for something that cuts deeper. Cyril’s dad isn’t a monster of a man. He doesn’t have time for the child, spending his days working as a cook in a noted restaurant. His decision may appear monstrous; the Dardennes’ present it, and everything, as matter of fact. Samantha’s kind gesture is simply that, followed through as her compassion grows for Cyril piece by piece. The moment where this not-yet-teenage boy hurls his head into a car window in frustration and Samantha swiftly moves to console him is painfully human, and what follows later in the movie’s climax is a miraculous closing the most moving release of 2012.
Only in Michael Haneke’s oeuvre would Amour appear to be a soft story. Yes, it’s a quiet, clinical look at an elderly French woman’s slow death and her husband’s struggle to ease her to it. Yet, as the translation of the title implies, this tale is about love, a rare thing in Haneke’s filmography. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are flawless here, letting the anguish never be the sole trait of their performances.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
I couldn’t be less sure of a pick in my top ten then Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, the Southern gothic fairy-tale about a little girl (Quvenzhane Wallis) living in a broken down New Orleans community amidst floods, evacuations and rampaging pigs the size of Hummers. Zeitlin’s picture is a visceral one, using mangled settings and his child’s unreliable viewpoint to tell a livewire story with a distinct narrative rhythm. Whether a second round would lack the punch of that initial viewing, I unfortunately can’t say at this point. Yet, that first outing was one of the most breathless movie experiences I had these past twelve months.
Holy Motors is batsh*t crazy, in a good way though. Leos Carax’s return to cinema after nearly a decade smashed together an array of missed projects and inspired ideas to create the journey of one man (Denis Lavant) living a series of personalities in a single day. From beggar to proud gorilla father, Lavant sells the tonal shifts Carax crafts perfectly; believably timid here, outrageous there. Sure the movie is a pseudo love letter to cinema, but it’s also a declaration on the shifting identities necessary in modern society.
How to Survive a Plague
I’m not the first to say this, yet the point remains true; most documentaries don’t take any risks. The majority of directors have an interesting point or yarn to tell. What they don’t do is anything besides a series of talking heads. David France’s debut effort How to Survive a Plague is a riveting piece about the fight by activists to raise awareness about AIDS and the debate amidst said activists on how to do so. It’s also almost entirely pieced together via archival footage, letting those that lived the fact tell what happened when it happened, enhancing the disagreements and successes potency.
This barely seen…sorry, barely heard of British thriller is full of chills, eerie violence and perfect pacing. A moderate success in its native England, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List snuck into a handful of theatres around January and made a significant impact on anybody who watched the damn thing. The story follows a pair of military vets cum hitmen hired to do a series of jobs that grow increasingly bizarre. Not ghosts and goblins bizarre, more of the smiling victims and nasty videotape variety, all with a feel that is far more kitchen-sink than glossy, adding to the movie’s unnerving atmosphere.
What a relief it was to discover that Spielberg’s Lincoln wasn’t a sprawling summary of our sixteenth President’s life. Instead, with the intelligent Tony Kushner adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Spielberg focuses in on the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment and the slavery’s end. Spielberg’s manages the tone perfectly, letting the surprisingly witty script blend with the serious stuff. What easily could’ve been a dry historical retelling turns out to be an often amusing, riveting recreation of the political world of Washington and the eccentrics that make up Congress, hinged to a towering turn by Daniel Day-Lewis as the Great Emancipator.
There may be a movie or two I end up watching more from 2012 than Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master; cable repeats of lighter fare tend to snatch my eyes for easier viewings. Assuredly, The Master is the film I will dive into the most, searching for its deeper meanings that reveal themselves with multiple viewings. As other notable filmmakers of his generation tinker around with franchises and the broadness that comes anchored with them, PTA continues to carve out a career that is equal parts surprising and engrossing. Phoenix and Hoffman give towering – the only proper word for it – performances at the center of this labyrinth of ego, morality and the search for some kind of truth. If there’s any movie likely to sneak its way into my top slot weeks from now upon further reflection, it’s The Master.
That fleeting moment where Wes Anderson seemed out of synch circa The Darjeeling Limited, a perfectly fine but unspectacular outing, feels all the more fleeting of late. Moonrise Kingdom is one of 2012’s funniest movies, getting a smile from over a dozen characters, from the boyishly optimistic scout-leader played by Edward Norton to the movie’s terrific pair of star-crossed lovebirds (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman). Anderson’s extraordinary ability to mix the whimsical with the universal (the boy longing for a father, the misunderstood girl) is at its most authoritative, rounded out by his patented melancholy. Plus it has this year’s best use of music, scored or previously recorded.
Zero Dark Thirty
Gripping and disturbing in equal measures, Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial staging of the hunt for Bin Laden follows a procedural structure, just with a larger hunt than you’d see on “Law & Order” and a performances at its center by Jessica Chastain that is amongst 2012’s finest. It’s shocking how much pressure and intensity Bigelow imbues into a scenario’s with a well-known ending. Watching Chastain and company strive to find new details, struggles to convince higher-ups of their theories and fret over missing any fact is nerve-wracking, even if their methods of doing each isn’t always ethical.