Combustible Celluloid
 

2012: The Year in Film

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

2012 was a year like any other year. It was filled with good movies and bad movies. It had good movies that no one else liked, and bad movies that everyone liked. It had some controversial movies, and some movies that no one paid much attention to. It had some great animated movies, and some great documentaries, and some boring ones too. It had lots of sequels. It had movies based on novels, true stories, comic books, and other movies. It seemed as if there were no "original" ideas, but that's not true. Actors gave good performances and bad performances. Some broke through and some were washed up. Some said funny things in public and some had "buzz." But aside from all these things, these were the ten films that I loved most, followed by ten more that I felt couldn't do without an honorable mention.

10. Moonrise Kingdom
When I submitted my ten best list to the S.F. Examiner, I left off Wes Anderson's quirky comedy Moonrise Kingdom. But upon reflection, I find I keep thinking of it fondly. Not only does it represent my first ever trip to Cannes, but also it's one of Anderson's purest movies, a "Noah's Ark" story centered on lost children and some equally lost adults. Its candy box design isn't quite so restrictive as it might be, given that a huge portion of the film takes place outside, and in the rain. I've heard many people complaining of how Anderson keeps doing the same thing, getting more and more cutesy and precious, but they simply missed how truthful this film really is.

9. Bernie
As the credits rolled on Richard Linklater's Bernie, I thought I had seen a pretty enjoyable, if minor movie, but after careful pondering, it became a work of genius. It's far from a "based on a true story" movie or a biopic; it's a movie told through slippery gossip, and all that that implies. Linklater's use of townspeople as a Greek chorus in his tale of the mortician/singer/murderer Bernie made all the difference, never mind that it's the role Jack Black was born to play.

8. The Avengers
The year's biggest hit, sure, but also an incredible exercise in ensemble casts and camaraderie. With The Avengers (sometimes called Marvel's The Avengers) Joss Whedon managed to seamlessly bond great actors with much poorer ones, while simultaneously delivering some seamless, uncluttered action (in a time when shaky-cam seems to rule the day). But best of all, he snuck in a theme about military paranoia and the stockpiling of weapons against possible threats (not even actual threats... just possible ones)... only this time the weapons are human. It's one of the darkest messages ever inserted into a summer blockbuster.


7. The Innkeepers
Ti West is the best maker of horror films today. With The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil, he has re-invented the rhythms of horror, changing the beats and creating fresh suspense. Best of all, his pace allows for great characters to emerge, such as Sara Paxton's Claire (West includes a scene of her taking out the trash that isn't necessary for the movie but adds delightful layers to her character). But is it scary? Yes, it is. I held my breath, and I jumped, but I didn't know when I would do it.

6. This Is Not a Film
Iranian director Jafar Panahi is currently under arrest and slapped with a 20 year-ban on making films. To be sure, This Is Not a Film is not as satisfying as one of Panahi's polished films (The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold, Offside, etc.), but it's great in a different way: as an act of political, personal, and artistic defiance. And, yet, as angry and haphazard as it may come across, it eventually veers into some sly moments of unexpected beauty.

5. Killer Joe
William Friedkin, apparently refreshed and recharged over 40 years after winning the Oscar for The French Connection, made the crime film of the year, out-Tarantino-ing even Tarantino. Working for the second time with playwright Tracy Letts -- the first was the equally great Bug -- Friedkin made Killer Joe into a constantly surprising, twisty tale that was as much about environment, the sights and sounds of it, as it was the characters or their actions.

4. The Deep Blue Sea
In an awards season full of disease-of-the-week movies, disaster movies, biopics and true stories, Rachel Weisz gave the most genuine, emotionally open performance of the year, very simply as a normal woman who falls in love with the wrong man. Veteran English filmmaker Terence Davies, who also made one of the best movies of the 1980s with Distant Voices, Still Lives, gave The Deep Blue Sea an intensely personal touch, never shying away from anything: agony, anticipation, or euphoria.

3. Cosmopolis
Critics of David Cronenberg's great film mainly complained that it didn't quite properly represent the Don DeLillo novel. But they missed what remained. Cosmopolis is an amazing odyssey through New York in a limo that constantly wrestled with Cronenberg's major theme: the way we try to outthink our bodies. A surprising coda (which critics also complained about) demonstrated the "beauty of the lopsided," which is an idea that -- more so than anything in The Master -- I'd like to keep thinking about next year.

2. The Turin Horse
That Bela Tarr is one of the world's greatest living filmmakers and that The Turin Horse was announced as his final film probably should have registered more in the film world than it did. It's perhaps even chillier than the other four Tarr films I've seen to date, but it wrestles with some extraordinary ideas, faith and nature, while settling into a daily routine in a world both mundane and absolutely frightening. It's a movie that affects you on a level far deeper than intellect or emotions; it simply hypnotizes you and carries you away.

1. Zero Dark Thirty
The film of the year didn't get here because of its politics, or its lack of politics, or its subject matter, or its level of so-called "importance." It's here because director Kathryn Bigelow tackled the material as it deserved to be tackled, gray, ambiguous, and confounding. She uses her "B" movie skills to make Zero Dark Thirty exciting, but lets the dark side creep through. She's the only living director that understands how violence can be both alluring and repellent. She deserves to make a film every year.


My 10 Runners Up
My general rule for these year-end lists is not "how important was it?" but rather, "would I want to see it again?" Thus, here are 10 extras that I will mostly likely be adding to my library at some point.

The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
 Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne)
The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley)



The Great Performances

Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea.
I was never the greatest Weisz fan, and I was vehemently against her winning an Oscar for the terrible The Constant Gardener, but here she is throwing aside all the junk, finding something true and painfully naked within, and transferring it to the screen. It's a performance that aches and breathes.

Jack Black in Bernie.
It was always apparent, from High Fidelity and School of Rock if nothing else, that Black was amazingly talented, and in Bernie, he gets his perfect role, and his greatest challenge, and he executes it with effortless precision.

Matthew McConaughey in Bernie, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike.
Not long ago, he was in a league with Gerard Butler, but, in a comeback of cosmic proportions, he finally proved that he not only had the stuff to be a great character actor, but also possibly a true movie star. To prove it, 2012 was the year I learned how to spell his name without having to look it up. Note: McConaughey was also in The Paperboy this year, but three out of four ain't bad.

Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson.
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.
Two presidential performances, two very different approaches, both great. Murray blends President Franklin D. Roosevelt with his own persona, becoming an affable guy who works the room, while Day-Lewis diligently immersed himself in the role of Abe Lincoln, disappearing completely. Who's to say that one method is better than the other?

Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln.
In a movie populated with great character actors, Jones stood out, somehow adapting his rocky, clipped delivery to the very wordy, period screenplay; it helps that his character has the most satisfying arc, but his organic performance is even more appealing than Day-Lewis's.

Scarlett Johansson in Hitchcock.
It might be easier to play an old-time Hollywood actress with larger personalities, but Janet Leigh was such a simple, girl-next-door type, sexy in a quiet way, and Johansson perfectly captured that elusive, mysterious quality. As with all of her great performances, it was so subtle that she did not get credit for how good her work was.

Sara Paxton in The Innkeepers.
Paxton was set-dressing in a few loser horror films until Ti West cast her here and let her shine; she gets moments outside the confines of the plot to show her true personality, and her blend of curiosity, perkiness, and self-effacing sadness is a huge part of this superior genre effort.

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty.
She's the all-important entry point into this material, which could have been tough and impenetrable. It helps that she's lovely, but it's the way that she throws her guard up and keeps it up for painfully long periods. Then, when it comes down, it's truly breathtaking.

Brit Marling, Sound of My Voice.
Of course, she wrote her own part, and that's impressive, but she had to play it as well. In this low-budget quasi-sci-fi film, the role required magnetism, presence, and calm control, and Marling had it all.

Denis Lavant, Holy Motors.
The concrete-faced Lavant has always had an element of fearlessness, operating outside of the world of regular movies, but here he gives perhaps his tour-de-force performance, as an actor's actor. It's a collection of audition tapes, all of which Lavant knocks out of the park, and creates something eternally moving and intriguing.

Amy Adams, Trouble with the Curve.
She's getting lots of award buzz for simply being in The Master, but she's not at her best there. It's here, in this popcorn melodrama, opposite Clint Eastwood, that she really gets to stretch and show her stuff. She stands her ground with Eastwood, suppresses pain with bluster, and just about everything else under the sun.


The Year's Worst
I saw plenty of movies I did not like this year, and many of them were award contenders (Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Impossible, Les Misérables, On the Road, The Perks of Being a WallflowerRust and Bone, etc.) or would-be blockbusters (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Battleship, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Underworld Awakening, etc.) but I've decided to make my list of the absolute trash, the most rotten of the rotten.