2012 was a good year for movies. There…I said it. You usually don’t hear such optimism coming from this blog, especially from these Best/Worst Lists. But for the first time in the last seven years of compiling the list I found that I was left with a gross surplus of films vying for the Best category and slim pickings to choose from in the Worst. Could it be that I’m getting more discerning in my viewing habits? “Of course not!” the old tubercular man on the park bench screams out. “You saw Expendables 2! And in the theater, no less!!”
The old man’s right…I still see way too many crappy flicks. But of the 108 new releases I saw this year (10 more than last year, still less than 50% on the big screen and most in the last few months of the year), the majority of them were…well…good. Paring down the Best list was a much more difficult task than usual. I had to leave some of my darlings behind. Some of those that barely missed the cut (Amour, Take This Waltz, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Elena) were not necessarily any worse than the ones on the list. But I may have erred on the side of films that took bigger risks, where familiar directors strayed a little further from their comfort zones. Either that, or ones by new directors that flat out blew me away or entertained me to a ludicrous degree.
Here’s how 2012 panned out for me in the cinema (on screen and on the couch). All in all, quite a lovely year…
10. Rust and Bone
Like last year’s Shame, I include Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone on this list not so much because it is a flawless film but because it takes a lot of chances. A movie about a beautiful Sea World worker (Marion Cotillard) who loses her legs in a killer whale accident, falls in love with a promiscuous bare knuckle fighting brute (Matthias Schoenaerts) who’s shitty to his kid, only to become his manager? That’s not exactly an easy sell in Hollywood. Probably not in France either. But Audiard tackles the melodramatic material with conviction, a sort of non-ironic emotional gusto rarely seen on film these days. Maybe I’m a little partial to Audiard since A Prophet (2010’s Best Film). Or maybe I’m just partial to spending two-hours in the company of Marion Cotillard (legless or not). Either way, I will never be able to hear that Katy Perry song in a Duane Reade and not think of Shamu or artificial limbs ever again.
9. Oslo, August 31st
There are libraries full of movies about drug addiction and recovery. But none that I’ve seen are quite as thoughtful, artful and intelligent as this one. Maybe it’s because the actual drugs involved (heroin, primarily) are sidelined for most of the movie. Instead, director Joachim Trier chooses to focus on his character, thirty-five year old addict Anders, and compress his struggle into one 24-hr period in downtown Oslo. While on leave from a rehab facility, he visits an old friend, goes to a job interview, tries to meet with his sister, attends a party...seemingly routine things that, given his past, carry much weight. The question hanging over the film is not the suspenseful “Will he or won’t he score smack?” as much as the existential “What reason would he have to do anything else?”
8. The Comedy
Take Five Easy Pieces, relocate it from the Pacific Northwest to trust fund hipster Billyburg, jack Bobby DuPea’s self-loathing up to 11, and replace his latent piano prodigy talent with Swann’s only seeming ambition…to casually and callously offend anyone he meets at every possible opportunity. Who knew Tim Heidecker (of Tim and Eric fame) had dramatic chops? I won’t say Heidecker bares his soul here (and I’m not sure his character even has one), but he definitely bares his flabby belly at least 23 times and his cock at least once. Despite the title, The Comedy is not funny, but a drama about a very sad man who can only interact with the world through his own private in-jokes. It’s a devastating character study where you’re uncomfortable laughing along (which is uncomfortably often). Director Rick Alverson, Tim Heidecker…fuck you very much...and Great Job!
A fresh Norwegian spin on familiar film noir tropes. We’re talking Coen Brothers levels of genre-bending here. There’s even a scene with a funny looking dog (ala the pit bull chase in No Country for Old Men) getting crucified on a backhoe. And did I mention the wince-inducing head shaving scene? Or the nausea-inducing outhouse scene? There are so many delectable bits in this flick. Somehow, Headhunters even manages to get away with a happy ending…in a film noir. Now, THAT’s a true art heist.
The Greeks are rapidly becoming their own cottage industry of weird, churning out a number of intriguing, elliptical films of late—Dogtooth, Alps, and this year’s best entry, Attenberg—that mix odd ritualistic behaviors, strange family dynamics and impromptu dance numbers in ways that do not come off as art film obnoxious but, dare I say, revolutionary. I guess a collapsed economy has its benefits…if not for film funding then at least lots of free time. Attenberg is a coming of teen-age story (and dying of age story) quite unlike any other that I’ve seen. It also boasts one of the most interesting father-daughter relationships ever captured on film. Are we in the midst of a Greek New Wave? Yes, I think we must be. Bring on the souvlaki and the Suicide jams. Get those shoulder blades ready.
Adaptation-wise, Don DeLillo is a tough nut to crack. Game 6 (based on DeLillo’s own screenplay) was just OK. And numerous attempts to adapt White Noise (including Cronenberg’s own) have fallen by the wayside before making it to the screen. For a writer whose books are so immersed in cinema and film grammar, it’s strange that more DeLillo novels haven’t made the leap. That said, I’m sure some neophyte director out there right now is pouring over 700 page screenplay for an appalling adaptation of Underworld. So maybe it’s a good thing. It takes a director like Cronenberg to get it right, and Cronenberg got it right with Cosmopolis. He even makes Robert Pattinson watchable, perhaps a bolder feat than adapting DeLillo.
Three months ago, I jumped the gun (or Blunderbuss) and anointed Looper as the most entertaining movie I’d see this year. I’ve seen some fine popcorn since then (Skyfall, Seven Psychopaths, hell…even Dredd), but none of them stack up to Looper’s delirious narrative inventiveness. Rian Johnson may have out-Nolaned Christopher Nolan this year. And that little Rainmaker kid (Pierce Gagnon)…where can I get one?
3. Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow nails the Hunt for bin Laden movie that no one else could (or probably should). How does she do it? By delivering a task-oriented political thriller that, like The Hurt Locker before it, remains largely non-political despite tap dancing around numerous hot button landmine issues (government sanctioned torture, privacy issues, CIA-DOD tensions, etc.). She manages to make a ten-year “needle in a haystack” investigation achieved mostly through interrogations, surveillance and good old fashioned paperwork suspenseful all the way through, perhaps even more so than the actual raid on Abbottabad compound that got the job done. Taking a cue from Seal Team Six, she’s a consummate professional. There’s not a single ounce of fat on this 2 hr 37 min flick. Or on Jessica Chastain, for that matter (despite the fact that she seems to eat nothing but cheeseburgers and fries for the duration). Chastain’s Maya is scarily efficient, almost as zealously committed as the man she’s hunting, to the point of having no other life. It’s all in decade’s work. But where do you go when the man is dead and the job is done? Is Homeland hiring, perchance?
2. Holy Motors
Sometimes, it takes a Frenchman to restore your belief in art cinema. Not to mention…your belief in Kylie Minogue. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors seems simple enough on the surface—a journeyman actor (an astounding Dennis Levant) going from one increasingly bizarre gig to another by limo in the course of one day. The job could involve the world’s most breathtaking (and erotic) motion capture session, playing a mad dwarf who kidnaps supermodel Eva Mendes and steals her into an underground Parisian dungeon, participating in a doomed rooftop musical number with the aforementioned Aussie pop star, or simply impersonating a dying father for a bereaved woman who, oddly enough, also turns out to be an actor. The roving thespian set-up is all art film contrivance, an excuse for Carax to jam lots of fantastic short film ideas into one feature film. But it doesn’t feel like a cheat—the film is about artifice, after all. Artifice on film, particularly. The fact that it was shot on digital is just another one of its many magic tricks.
1. The Master
Since I saw it in September, I’ve been telling people (when pressed) that The Master would probably end up as my favorite film of the year. No surprises here. The Master still lords over me, its images and tensions lingering stronger in my mind than any other 2012 film. It’s the one I want to see again the most (Hurry up with the video release already, Weinstein! I know you like to time these things to the Oscars, but come on!). And it’s likely the only one I will purchase an actual physical copy of, a rarity for me in our readily streaming/downloading age. You see, I want The Master on my DVD shelf, sandwiched between Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love (it’s a far better film than both of those). Hopefully, it won’t unduly influence or convert any other nearby DVDs—Master of the Flying Guillotine seems particularly impressionable, Face/Off ripe for a heavy-duty auditing session. Simply put, The Master is a masterpiece, maybe P.T.’s best so far. And Joaquin achieves Nicholson-in-the-70s heights, perhaps even surpasses them. He’s a walking powder keg (or shuffling, hunched powder keg anyway)—you can practically see the improvised hooch swimming behind his eyeballs in every scene. Phoenix could retire after this film and rest on his laurels. I mean, ACTUALLY retire…not the I’m Not Here manufactured rap career retirement. Anderson probably could as well, but I wouldn’t like it. I’m looking forward to how he tackles Pynchon in Inherent Vice too much to succumb to that belief.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
I was predisposed to hate this movie. A Sundance darling built around a precocious (though fantastically natural) cherubic child actor with word-of-mouth so loud it was dribbling out of my ears. Despite the white noise, there’s no denying first-time director Benh Zeitlin’s immense talent and filmmaking resourcefulness. There’s no denying this beautifully photographed, scrappy debut. And, yes, there’s no denying Hushpuppy (the button-cute Quvenzhané Wallis) either. You will be seeing her flexing her tiny deltoids at Oscar time, guaranteed.
The Color Wheel
I hesitate to call this micro-budget 16mm black and white road movie “mumblecore” in that it is actually entertaining. Sure, it shares some of the navel-gazing qualities of its recent low-fi, DIY brethren, but it also has something to say (even if you might not like what that something is). And, like the squabbling brother-sister couple in the film, it usually says it in the most abrasive, demeaning way possible. The ending is a complete shocker while being entirely inevitable. Carlen Altman is a revelation as J.R., the kind of too-smart-for-her-own-good hipster harpy you immediately fall for and know even quicker that you shouldn’t. And this Alex Ross Perry cat…yes, he’s one to watch. Despite his sounding exactly like Michael Cera (aka Sal Viscuso).
Damsels in Distress
I wasn’t exactly awaiting the return of director Whit Stillman with bated breath. Metropolitan was a fine debut, Barcelona a commendable follow-up, Last Days of Disco a bit of a letdown. He was something I left behind in the late ‘90s like my dial-up AOL account or—I don’t know—my integrity. Then here comes the guy 13 years later, roaring out of left field with one of the wittiest, most razor-sharp satires I’ve seen in years. Think Heathers but set in a small Northeastern college instead of a California high school. But here the nasty clique of girls in question want to KEEP YOU from committing suicide instead of verbally bullying you into it. How do they this? By starting an international dance craze (The Sambola) and dabbling in Catharism, of course.
Southern-fried trailer park noir at its finest. It’s no doubt that this was The Year of McConaughey with his career-reviving turns in Magic Mike, Bernie and this flick. For my life insurance money, Killer Joe was his best. Shoot, even the nasty pit bull chained to the trailer next door stops barking when Joe comes a‘knockin. Let’s hope McConaughey doesn’t return to the Rom-Com Dungeon anytime soon. Or William Friedkin to Director’s Prison. With playwright Tracy Letts as his wingman, Friedkin’s turned out two low-budget gems (this and Bug) in the past few years. It’s time to give the man a budget and give his classic Sorcerer a proper Blu-ray release. Failing that, another chicken drumstick ought to do.
Every once in a while a movie will come along and knock me flat on my ass (not as often as I like, but still…). On the rare occasion that it happens, I hit stop on the old Blu-ray, try to shake off what the hell I’ve just seen and immediately repair to IMDB to see what else this director has done. It’s a little like falling in love…discovering a new director to follow. What starts out as an mildly interesting British “kitchen sink” hit man movie with ample bloodshed takes a sudden turn and becomes something else entirely. I won’t spoil that something, only say that it somehow works organically against all genre odds. So I guess my new “director crush” is director Ben Wheatley. I’ve seen Down Terrace (his first film), eagerly await Sightseers and A Field in England in 2013. It’s good to fall in love every now and again. Mr. Wheatley, you have earned my affections. Now don’t treat me unkind.
10. Snow White and the Huntsman
I watched this on video primarily because I read there was some digital trickery with the dwarves involving great British thesps with their heads transposed onto little people’s bodies (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, etc.). Is this offensive to little people, especially little people actors? Probably. But even seven Peter Dinklages couldn’t keep this film from being offensive, artistically speaking, in every other way.
9. Total Recall
No Cuato. No Verhoeven. No Mars. Too much Jessica Biel. Why bother?
8. The Deep Blue Sea
I know what you’re thinking…why would I watch this movie in the first place? Well, around year’s end it started appearing on lots of Best Of lists, the accolades primarily citing Rachel Weisz’s performance. So, like a good film nerd, I did my due diligence, granted it a late night stream. I might as well have watched it midday on network TV. For it plays like a daytime soap, albeit a very well art decorated one. Weisz’s performance? It’s fine, but nothing to crow about. She can wait for her Oscar, hopefully in a better role. I mean, how long did it take Susan Lucci to win her Emmy? Too bad Netflix didn’t mislabel this and stream me the other Deep Blue Sea…the one with L.L. Cool J and the shark.
7. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Or…2012’s Other Abe Lincoln Movie. The one where Lincoln is played by someone you’ve never heard of. The one where Lincoln tells no long Illinois childhood anecdotes or shares no statesmanlike wisdom but wields a CGI axe. You would think a movie with this title would at least be a bit of campy fun or have a better sense of humor about itself. But even the arduous process of passing a bill into law in Spielberg’s Lincoln is more suspenseful, more humorous, more action-packed. And Stevie didn’t require vampires to get the job done.
6. Nobody Walks
Proof that Lena Dunham (one of the writers on this) CAN do some wrong. Further proof that John Krasinski (outside of his role in The Office) can do no right. Every character in this film is entirely obnoxious, self-obsessed. Even the one not from L.A. I'd rather stare into that swimming pool for two hours.
5. To Rome With Love
Dearest Wood-man, With Respect and A Wavering Affection…you were spared the Worst List the last two years with Midnight in Paris (which was just OK) and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (which was not very good). I would ask you to stop the cinematic globe-trotting, hurry up and get back to New York if I didn’t fear the result might be another Whatever Works (2009’s Worst Film). I would ask you to try your hand at a movie cast entirely with unknowns instead of your now customary cavalcade of marquee names. But I’m not sure that would help either. So, how about this? Take one year off between projects. Just for shits and giggles. See what happens. I know this goes against everything you believe in, your other-than-Protestant work ethic. But, hey, even the Romans take a long lunch hour, right? And when in Rome…
4. The Campaign
It’s a Will Ferrell comedy timed to come out near the 2012 election. Should we really expect that much? Yes, we should. Why? Because Zach Galifinakis is in it. And because this was fertile ground (not to mention timing) for a sharp political satire. What did we get instead? Will Ferrell punching babies. That’s about all I remember. That and not laughing very much. Of course, I watched this on video the night I was waiting out Hurricane Sandy, so I was a little more concerned with my apartment floating away. Also, I’d had a few (drinks). Neither stoked my enjoyment of this exceptionally lazy comedy. Even the title seems phoned-in…by Robocall.
3. Dark Horse
Todd Solondz lives to punish his movie characters. At this point, he is like some angry Old Testament god piling on the calamities, smiting his characters with unfortunate accidents and incurable diseases. This would be fine if his choice of characters didn’t already come somewhat pre-punished by birth (the depressed, the morbidly obese, the disabled). You don’t even get to experience their fall from grace; these people have already fallen, and Todd Solondz is the a-hole with his knee to their back making sure they can't get up. I’m guessing he got bullied a lot in high school, and his films serve as his belated revenge. Watching his movies is like watching some kid pull the legs off a helpless spider: diverting for the for first two legs (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness), then increasingly redundant with diminishing, depressing returns (Storytelling, Palindromes, Life During Wartime, Dark Horse). How many legs do spiders have anyway? Eight? Hopefully, Solondz has only two more left. Or none.
2. The Expendables 2
What’s that inane Bush-ism? “Fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.” Well, I’m an idiot twice over now. I went back for second helpings of Sly’s Aging Action All-Stars and got exactly what I deserved…a terribly unexceptional and completely expendable afternoon at the movies. I blame Stallone for dangling the childhood nostalgia carrots of Schwarzenegger, Willis and Van Damme in front of my face. Not to mention Chuck Norris (who I never really liked in the first place). One shouldn’t exhume these action relics lightly. And, if and when they do, they shouldn’t exhume them under the direction of Simon West. For the inevitable Expendables 3, at least get someone in there who knows how to build an action scene. I nominate Dolph and Jean-Claude’s latest collaborator, John Hyams, the guy who directed the surprisingly energetic straight-to-VOD release Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Dude knows how to deliver some hardcore action…without all the usual cheats.
1. Red Hook Summer
I REALLY wanted to like Red Hook Summer. Spike returning to his low-budget, BK neighborhood roots ala Do the Right Thing AND in the sweltering summer heat…what’s not to look forward to? Well, the two amateur kid actors for one thing (they are truly unbearable). And Spike’s apparent iPad fascination (it’s just a flat computer, dude…no reason to build the entire visual scheme of your movie around it). And the “shocking twist” that comes late in the film that’s neither shocking or well-handled (spoiler alert: it involves a preacher and pedophilia, which basically goes together like PB&J at this point). This movie screams AMATEUR, which would be forgivable if it were directed by a first-timer and not by one of our best modern filmmakers on their 45th or 46th film. Spike, please, close down your Twitter account, stop spending your valuable time lambasting every other film that comes out as racist, and go back to film school. I would recommend NYU, but I know you already went there and it’s a complete waste of money. Just listen to your own DVD commentary on the Do the Right Thing disc and get back to work. I eagerly await your renewed filmmaking vigor on your "sell-out" projects...the Oldboy remake and Inside Man 2.
The Bourne Legacy
Have to admit I had higher hopes. Tony Gilroy (the writer on the previous three Bournes) in the director’s chair. Jeremy Renner, a new and improved super-drug infused Treadstone fall guy. Plus, Ed Norton in the mix! But the elements just didn’t gel…the flick felt inert (i.e., The Bourne Lethargy). Will I still queue up like a jackass for the inevitable Greengrass/Damon reunion despite this franchise misstep? Probably. Call it The Bourne Dependency.
Devoid of a single solitary original thought in its numskull action head. Even the recycled title has about 20 other matches on IMDB. This movie is truly blander than cream cheese. Contra-bland. Watch this version instead.
If it weren’t for this blog, I probably would have never stumbled upon this miserable French call girl film. But I had to go and have a monthly “Working Girls” theme and needed to pep it up with something recent. Thanks, blog. Seriously. Thanks. As if you don’t compromise enough of my time. Here’s what I said about it then.
Director Olivier Megaton (of Colombiana renown) brings his own “very particular set of skills” to this already tired franchise. Sadly, none of these skills include creativity, subtlety, believability, pacing or a well-cut fight scene. Now that Soderbergh’s proven his action chops in this year’s Haywire, maybe he should take a crack at Taken 3. Gina Carano can play Liam Neeson’s daughter. Or maybe she can just play Liam Neeson. Or maybe Liam Neeson can play Liberace.
Wrath of the Titans
I made such a film geek fuss about the first one. So why bother coming back for more? I thought maybe since it was the sequel and not a soulless remake of my beloved childhood favorite that I might be able to cut it some slack, see it through a different lens. Nope. Same tired crap, same shitty lens. Wrath’s only saving grace is that the Victoria Secret model Medusa was already slain in the first one. Thankfully, there were a few digital cyclopses (cyclopi?) in her stead.
BEST 2012 RETROSPECTIVE
Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski at BAM. Eleven or so films of pure over-the-top Polish craziness. I still haven’t fully recovered…from the trailer, much less the films.
BEST WAY TO GET YOUR 24-HOUR FILM GEEK ON
Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Lincoln Center. Act fast, and you can catch it again at MOMA in January. I saw the 1 AM to 5 AM portion. Only 20 more hours to go!
BEST NARCISSISTIC SELF-INDULGENCE TAKEN TO SUBLIME LEVELS
Matt D’Elia in American Animal as an entitled layabout who indulges in an epic tantrum/freakout when he discovers his unemployed roommate has, like, gotten a job.
WORST NARCISSISTIC SELF-INDULGENCE TAKEN TO TIRESOME LEVELS
Tarantino casting himself as a slave trader (with a Brian Trenchard-Smith accent, no less) at the end of Django Unchained, thereby stopping the movie dead in its tracks. I was all-in with Tarantino/Django for the first two and a half hours—possibly his best film since the Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown trifecta. But he kinda lost me with the unnecessary second climax/shoot-out. It seemed like some of the old Kill Bill/Death Proof self-indulgence rearing its cumbersome head. Foxx is in the plantation, shooting rednecks to bloody bits, and we’re already nearing the 2.5 hour mark. Do we really need to have him captured, just to have him escape, circle back, do pretty much the same thing all over again? Yes, we do. Why? I dunno…someone needed their cameo.
MOST EXCRUCIATING SCENE INVOLVING POTATOES
The Turin Horse – I will never be able to get the sight (or sound) of the old man blowing on his scalding hot boiled potato, peeling it one-handed and eating it in chunks out of my head. The fact that he does this repetitively (about 7 times in the film) and nearly the same exact way every time in sumptuous black and white probably doesn’t help.
MOST EXCRUCIATING SCENE INVOLVING FRIED CHICKEN
Killer Joe – Surely you’ve heard about this infamous scene involving Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon and a phallocentric chicken drumstick already. Therefore, I won’t belabor the point.
Best Use of Tired Found Footage, Superhero and Teen Alienation Cliches (i.e., BY Combining Them All)
Best Limousine Prostate Exam (WHILE IN TRAFFIC!)
WORST ON-THE-JOB BODY CAVITY SEARCH
BEST CULT MOVIES ABOUT CULTS
Beyond the Black Rainbow, Sound of My Voice (excluding The Master, of course)
BEST USE OF TOM WAITS (AND BUNNY RABBITS)
BEST USE OF VINCENT GALLO
2 Days in New York – Vincent Gallo, playing himself
BEST USE OF SAM JONES (“FLASH” FROM FLASH GORDON)
Ted – Sam Jones, playing himself
BEST HOCKEY MOVIE SINCE SLAP SHOT
Most Anticipated Movie of 2013
A three-way tie: Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (February), Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (Cannes, most likely), Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (the explicit cut, obviously)