The Christ and Pop Culture writers got together and hashed out our list of the best films we saw this year. Here’s what we came up with.
(Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, we haven’t had the chance to see several end-of-year films including Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, This is Not a Film, Django Unchained, and Amour. You may also be interested in Nick Olson’s recent year-end piece for Filmwell, “Protecting Innocents, Longing for Innocence,” which is concerned with several of the films that made our list. Also, see Nick’s “25 Memorable Moments from 2012 Moviegoing.”)
1. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)
Growing up breeds cynicism. The older we get, the more people we will have disappointed and the more aware we become of the failures and mixed motives of the people around us. It’s such cynicism that makes us feel justified in keeping our distance from those who matter most to us. Wes Anderson’s movies seem to have a penchant for highlighting such cynicism, sometimes to the point where we are left wondering if he revels in it. Moonrise Kingdom, however, might be the most hopeful Anderson movie yet as it artfully strikes at the roots of such cynicism.
MK is a simple story about the love between two 12 year olds. One has lost his parents. The other’s mother and father have let their broken relationship keep them from properly caring for her. Sam and Suzy’s idealistic love not only exposes the cynicism and selfishness of the adults around them but it also challenges it. Sam and Suzy’s love is naive, but their naivete creates a space for a better life for them and the people around them. -Drew Dixon
2. The Kid with a Bike (dirs. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
I’ve wrestled with which film is my favorite of the year, Moonrise Kingdom or The Kid with a Bike. I fully support MK getting the nod for our group list favorite, but I think I’ve got the Dardenne brothers’ film at the number 1 spot on my personal list. One of the more perplexing critical lines I’ve read this year is that Bike is “minor Dardennes.” Perhaps this line is attributable, in part, to the fact that the brothers’ latest film stars a minor, Thomas Doret–prone as we are to take less seriously performances from or about children. But this film is the farthest thing from immature or insignificant or “lesser.” Based on what I’ve seen thus far, I don’t recall another film this year that resonated with me as Bike did without a trace of contrivance.
And that’s the beautiful thing about Bike: it operates from a place of stripped down realism without descending into unmysterious naturalism. There’s mystery here in terms of form and content; as to the former, there’s a kind of mystical association with water and breathing, and as to the latter, there’s a gratuitous love at work. In the battle for Cyril’s abandoned soul, a gracious hairdresser and a trouble-making gangster offer the security (or the pretense of security) needed when a single father leaves his son behind. Both offer to help the boy with his bike. But only for Samantha the hairdresser is love reason enough in itself. Only she offers a new bike ride with new gears to keep the boy from peddling furiously only to go over the edge. Only she offers a love that never leaves nor forsakes. Perhaps some critics wouldn’t have considered this “minor Dardennes” if we had been given more of a reason for Samantha’s love for Cyril. If that’s the case, how sad. -Nick Olson
3. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)
Because of a number of bad marketing decisions ranging from presenting the film as a typical Bruce Willis action-flick to mangling Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face, Looper came off as another generic action, psuedo-science fiction film that I had little interest in. However, once I realized that what I was watching was more Blade Runner or Minority Report than it was Terminator, I found one of the most surprising and entertaining science fiction films of recent memory.
There’s much that is worthy of discussion about the plot lines, paradoxes, and particulars of a movie like Looper — it’s the kind of film that’s made to make you leave the theater scratching your head. However, the film’s strength is that its characters speak on a very basic human level. It’s ultimately a film about sacrificial relationships: the mutual sacrifices necessary from a parent and a child, a husband and a wife, and yes — even yourself and your future self. Looper pushes its characters to the place of this ultimate sacrifice, a place where the true identities of its characters are revealed. It’s an action-packed exploration of love’s eschatological character — so don’t let the confusion over time-traveling keep you from this one. -Luke Larsen
4. Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Lincoln is bound to become a classic movie among others like Forrest Gump. High school American history teachers will probably show clips of it (if not the whole movie) when covering the Civil War. Nonetheless, Lincoln oftentimes felt contrived and forced. Scenes where history was made were filmed as though history were already made. A better approach would have been to recreate the wonder Lincoln, his cabinet, or elected legislators felt when they realized what they were doing was not just another day in the office but one of enduring import.
These faults aside, though, Lincoln remains an impressive film and manages to defend its place among the best films of 2012. It’s propelled by its timelineness, coming at it does just after a controversial presidential election and on the eve of an important political matter: sequestration, better known as the “fiscal cliff.” Lincoln reminds viewers of what politics has always been like: the betrayals, the bitterness, the buying of votes, and so on.
But what is perhaps greatest about Lincoln is not just that it portrays politics as it is, it also—and more importantly—portrays politics as it could be. Lincoln himself, played majestically by Daniel Day-Lewis, understands and descends into the mudslinging of politics at points, but more often than not he sets a new tune to which the politics of his day should march. That tune left an indelible impression on those around him. We can only continue to hope, as Day-Lewis’ Lincoln hopes and Lincoln himself hoped, that a better America still lies ahead. -Ryan Knight
(See also: A Portrait of President Lincoln)
5. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Gertrude Stein famously called survivors of World War I a “lost generation,” but the progression of Paul Thomas Anderson’s impressive film, The Master, suggests that being lost is an inherent condition of life. The film centers on the close-but-always-impaired father-son relationship between World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Each attempts to find some purpose or meaning during his time with the other, but they both ultimately remain unfulfilled by the end of the film.
As far as form goes, the film is—pardon the pun—masterfully done. Phoenix brilliantly embodies his character Quell with quirky and unsettling facial expressions, especially the frown always on the right side of Quell’s lips. Following many art house cinema directors, Anderson presents a number of close-up shots and long single-takes that further discomfort viewers and reinforce the central tension in the film. I consider three scenes—the “processing” scene between Dodd and Quell, Freddie’s violent outburst in prison with Dodd, and the bacchic dancing and singing led by Dodd—some of the greatest and most memorable scenes in the history of film.
The Master received mixed reviews, probably because it left viewers feeling lost like the characters it studied so closely but whose problems were left unresolved by the end of the film. But therein lies the sublime power of the film: it manages to make the themes dealt with real not just for characters but also for the audience. That ingraining of the audience into the film is something to be longed for, even though only a handful of filmmakers seem to achieve it these days. -Ryan Knight
6. The Secret World of Arrietty (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
The Secret World of Arriety is a more low-key affair than Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or Ponyo, but that’s its charm. What’s amazing about the “secret” world is that it’s in reference to the everydayness right before our eyes – a world of mundane and typical things that the movie treats with awe and respect. By drawing our focus to the beauty and wonder present in every part of life, it manages to open up the world to adults by emphasizing a childlike viewpoint.
Arriety doesn’t sugarcoat the immaturity of a child’s perspective, but it does remind us of the ways we can become cynical and uncaring as adults. While the weight of responsibility often detracts from the wonders of the things around us, Arriety shows us that it doesn’t have to, and that such a distraction often has serious emotional consequences.
While so many children’s films sell us on the value of novelty and bombast, Arriety manages to make a strong case for subtlety and emotional honesty, even in a movie for kids. Call me crazy, but if you ask me, Miyazaki’s films consistently manage to make Pixar look tacky, and Arrietty is no exception to that trend. -Richard Clark
(See also: Secret Worlds, New Perspectives)
7. Sinister (dir. Scott Derrickson)
From a more objective perspective, I’m glad to see Sinister on this list, because I think, even with some notable critical acclaim, it’s still a bit underrated as a well-crafted film. I believe it’s the most remarkable horror film in a bit of a bounce-back year for the genre. There are so many ways in which Derrickson’s approach is effective. For starters, it’s one of my favorite uses of “found footage” to date (though this year’s Chronicle isn’t far behind); the form has a crudity about it that is unnerving. The murderous crimes conveyed in the images have an elemental…unconcealed…bluntness about them. But Derrickson complements this bluntness with laudable restraint that works well as artifice. He doesn’t rely on 8mm brutality; instead, he cuts away at just the right moment to something just as horrifying–the effect that the footage is having on Ellison. Add in Fincher-esque, noir urgency, a few moments of humor, an excellent lead performance from Ethan Hawke, and it all seems to come together with startling precision.
But here’s the more personal reason why I’m thankful this film is on our list: Ellison’s temptations hit home. I just finished my first full calendar year writing for this site and began contributing to a few other places in recent months. Lately, I understand Ellison’s consuming temptation to want to be Famous True Crime Novelist. Granted, I haven’t given myself over to it like he has. I don’t have a drinking problem, and I haven’t allowed fleeting ambitions to consume me, but, to some degree, I do get it. With a young family–married almost three years with a two year old–I’m in the midst of a new time in my life when prioritizing is paramount. If I’m honest, pursuing dreams and goals and work has at times hindered me from being the more actively present husband and father that I ought to be. Sinister has me seeing the bigger picture with wide eyes. I don’t want to be the man who is eating away at the foundation of his family with inordinate career-pursuing selfishness. It’s a truly horrifying sight. -Nick Olson
(See also: Sinister Images)
8. The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield)
It would have been so easy to make a documentary lambasting the kind of one percenters that the rest of us love to hate. The Queen of Versailles looks exactly like that kind of exploitative reality television at first glance, but as time goes on, it’s easy to see how this documentary diverges from that self-righteous path.
Starting off as a typical look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, Versailles’ real life plot-twist of the recession and the bursting housing bubble makes the film much more relatable and even heartbreaking. More than mere schadenfreude, Versailles points its camera at the human moments of this family more so than the morbid moments of lost luxury and privilege. While the king of his household spirals into a damaging mindset of finger-pointing and self-pity, we find ourselves hoping that his family will be able to find peace in the midst of it.
The film will stand the test of time primarily because it perfectly captures the cultural mood and the ways we struggle to consume less even when we simply must. If you’ve ever struggled to whittle down a household budget in the face of new financial realities, this is a film you’ll relate to. Ultimately, though, what makes the movie special is the way it causes us to look with compassion on the type of people who have yet to even fully realize that they need it. -Richard Clark
(See also: The Queen of Versailles’ and Living the Dream)
9. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Given Bane’s sociopolitical motivations, it’s not surprising that his uprising has been compared to the Occupy Wallstreet movement. And while The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t contain any performances that rival Heath Ledger’s Joker and consequently does not explore the depths of human depravity as profoundly as The Dark Knight, DKR is in many ways more broadly interesting. By giving us a villain with a more plausible cause, DKR envisions conflicts that feel possible as they arise out of tensions that are already widely felt in America.
In the previous film, Bruce Wayne was constantly tempted to compromise his unflinching commitment to justice and goodness in order to stop a horrific villain; in DKR, Batman must regain what was lost in the fight against the Joker in hopes of inspiring those around him to believe in truth and justice. DKR is about the power of influence. In that sense, it is the truest of all hero movies–Batman can’t save Gotham merely by killing Bane and his minions; rather, he must inspire people to overcome evil with good and he does so, in part, by consistently sacrificing himself in defense of innocents. Superheroes serving as Christ figures is something of a tired trope, but Batman’s personal demons and failures are highlighted so often that the particular salvation he achieves appears miraculous in a much more personal and appropriate manner. -Drew Dixon
(See also: The Dark Knight Rises and Truth Has its Day)
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)
This film caught me off guard. I saw it on a whim at my local independent movie theatre at the recommendation of my dad. That said, I assumed from what little I read about it beforehand that Beasts of the Southern Wild would simply be a dramatization of ‘When the Levees Break.’
It was not.
What I saw was a fantastic, imaginative story that was somewhere in between the sublime daydreams of Hayao Miyazaki and the hyperrealism of Ramin Bahrani. The story, focusing on an imaginary community (‘The Bathtub”) in Southern Louisiana about to be hit by a terrible storm, brings to mind vivid memories of Katrina framed from the perspective of a small child. But it is not a documentary. It is a mythological world, with mythological creatures just as a 6-year-old might daydream. Along with the fantasy, and without giving too much away (seeing this film with the least possible background is ideal), the beautiful, heartbreaking relationship between the young star and her father is emotionally wrecking. For what it’s worth, I cried.
A cast of non-actors (a brave, yet rewarding tactic if done right) gave this “fantasy” movie an elementally human beauty. And, without a doubt, young Quvenzhané Wallis gave one of the best performances of the year under brand new filmmaker Behn Zeitlin. The creative minds behind this film managed to make one unlike any I have ever seen. -Nick Rynerson