I am not sure how I feel about making these lists. They feel like obligations more than an actual exploration of what truly are the best films of any year. I have not seen every single film released this year, nor will I ever. I am not saying that out of spite. It is simply an impossible task. Therefore, am I really qualified to discuss what the best films of the year are?
What I can do is discuss the films I viewed that I felt succeeded. That’s becoming increasingly rare these days. Therefore, each of the great films I see end up shining far brighter in a sea of mediocrity. Some of these films were legitimate box office bombs, meaning that many people have not witnessed them for themselves. The most I can hope for is that this list inspires people to seek the films out for themselves.
I can already hear one enormous cry coming, “Where are Skyfall/The Avenengers/The Dark Knight Rises/The Hunger Games?” The answer is simple – those were not among the best films of the year. Yes, they were all good films (to varying degrees) but they were lacking in other areas. These flaws add up. You can read my original reviews for all of them to see what I mean, but the fact is, those films still felt “constructed.” It was obvious that the filmmakers were constructing each moment to ensure that Pavlovian response of the audience. Now, all filmmakers do that, but those films also did not feel natural. Characters said and did things that did not seem logical or natural for them. The scripts added moments without really exploring the themes that they meant to present.
None of these films have that problem. They come from within. They raised smart questions, but knew what to give audiences and what to let people figure out for themselves.
Again, these only include the films that I have seen. Obviously, there will be some glaring omissions for many. For example, I have not seen Zero Dark Thirty, as it will not get a wide release until January. I apologize for such lapses in advance.
Best Film of 2012
Argo–I normally put my list in alphabetical order. It is a pure coincidence that my pick for film of the year is also the first alphabetically. Not only is Argo the best thriller of the year, it is a film that manages to be surprisingly poignant. Part of this has to do with the fact it was released around the same time as a U.S. ambassador was killed overseas. But Affleck also knows exactly what the film needed in order to create a Michael Mann level of frantic energy, be it through the inventive camera work and the wonderfully done crowd scenes. It is impossible not to watch the film without feeling for the embassy workers that are fighting for their lives. Finally, Argo also casts a sly nod to all the film geeks who constantly criticize the blockbusters that Affleck used to appear in. “I may produce genre crap,” Hollywood says in Argo, “but it has quite literally saved lives.”
Cloud Atlas-The most thought provoking film of the year, and one of the few that actually bothers to have something to say about the human condition. It is also the most ambitious film of the year, especially for the actors. Fortunately, it all works – one leaves the film happy to exist. The fact that the film is a visual feast that manages to successfully portray wildly different eras of human history helps warrant Cloud Atlas’ inclusion on my top ten of the year.
Django Unchained–A spaghetti western by way of Dave Chappelle, Django manages to capture a better emotional truth about slavery than many non-genre pictures. Most of what happens in the film (like the concept of Mandingo fighting) did not occur in real life. But then, what Tarantino shows us is the perfect tool needed to remind everyone of a fact that I think most of us no longer truly understand. The fact it is also a well executed action film with lots of stuff blowing up good means that more people will go to see it. Also, Samuel L Jackson gives his best performance since Jackie Brown.
Les Miserables– The film is as big, bombastic, and grand as it needs to be. Les Miserables has been the most famous musical in the world for a long time now. But any film adaptation of it was almost doomed to fail; film has not really had the ability to properly capture any stage musical in the way most directors try. But Tom Hooper succeeds by going for broke and pushing his actors (particularly Anne Hathaway, who may well win an Oscar for her performance here) to the absolute limit. It is the most successful film musical since Alan Parker quit.
Lincoln–Abraham Lincoln has become a deified figure to many Americans. Lincoln actually destroys this myth, and presents the former president as a human that was susceptible to all sorts of pressure. But this actually strengthens the myth of Lincoln. He still managed to do so much despite the adversity he faced. Daniel Day Lewis plays Lincoln as a man with no education who most people find to be a blowhard – which, historically, is exactly what Lincoln was. Why this seems so revolutionary to me is a mystery, but then, filmmakers usually only explored the myth of this official American Hero. Spielberg and his cast actually examined the man.
Looper– Looper is the second best science fiction film of the year, barring Cloud Atlas. Second best is still sometimes enough. The film’s intelligence is enough to go over most people’s heads. But there is still a worthy discussion of fate, destiny, and time. It is also the most effective noir of the year. All of the elements are present; it’s practically a Mickey Spillane story, if Mickey Spillane was killing his future self. I wanted to see Looper again immediately after viewing it, because I know that there is definitely something profound buried within.
The Master–The film is not a tract against Scientology, which disappointed a lot of people. But they are ignoring what the film is meant to be. It is an examination about how any cult can exist – they prey on those who are at the end of the road. Joaquin Phoenix plays such a man, who drinks literal poison and sees women as nothing more than objects he may penetrate. The film works because of the fearlessness Phoenix brings to the role, and due to Anderson’s refusal to pick sides and lecture. He lets everyone make up their own minds.
Moonrise Kingdom–This is one of the few intelligent children’s films that have ever been made. Films aimed at that demographic are usually designed by committee and are treated as commodities. Anything that does not follow a preset formula is treated as a confusing anomaly. Surprise, surprise – Moonrise Kingdom was given a PG-13, thus ensuring that it is not available to many kids. But the film features two of the best child actors in recent memory and the sort of adventure they could conceivably have. Show it to the kid who always has his nose in a book; it will give him hope.
Savages-Savages was never given a proper chance with anyone. It has pretty much sunk into obscurity, with critics and audiences dismissing it. Why? This film is the return to form for Oliver Stone (the former enfant terrible of mainstream cinema) that almost everyone has been waiting for. The film is a wonderful (and surprisingly subtle) attack on the Fast and Furious scandal that dominated the headlines this year. More importantly, it is a great exploration of how smart men can go bad. Those who blame drugs are not being honest. Savages is a film that shows why.
Silver Linings Playbook – The film is one of the best romantic comedies in recent memory. It presents two realistic people falling in love in a realistic way. These two characters are not necessarily the most desirable people in the world. They are damaged and unable to recognize what is happening outside of their comfort zones. Most romantic comedies are built around two caricatures leaping from set piece to set piece. Silver Linings Playbook deconstructs that tired formula in the best way possible – by showing how silly formulas are to people who are able to see beyond them.