By CHRISTIAN HAMAKER
The year started slowly at the cinema, but it delivered so strongly in the final few months that the dreary first two-thirds of the year are easily forgivable in retrospect. Here’s a list of the 20 best films I saw this year, tilted decidedly toward the latter months of 2012.
20. Flight: Robert Zemeckis steps away from the motion-capture animation that has earned him brickbats (A Christmas Carol (2009), Beowulf (2007), The Polar Express (2004)) from critics and some viewers to tell a drawn out but ultimately hopeful story about a man fighting his demons. Denzel Washington gives a sterling performance as a pilot who saves lives in a terrible crash, but pays a price for personal failings that impair his judgment. [Schaeffer’s Ghost review of The Polar Express available here.]
19. The Secret World of Arrietty: From Studio Ghibli, a beautiful story about a family of “borrowers”—little people who take things humans don’t need and use them to survive in a world that is increasingly unkind to them. No other animated film in 2012 had the moments of wonder that Arrietty contains.
18. People Like Us: In 2006, I declared my admiration for Freedomland, a troubled star vehicle for Julianne Moore, whose distributor had pushed the film from awards season to the doldrums of early-year moviegoing. Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times, promptly labeled the film a leading contender for the year’s worst movie. This year, after months of not caring much, pro or con, about what I’d seen at the theater, I fell hard for People Like Us, a winningly performed tale of a fractured family in which some members know more about their history than do others. The moral challenge faced by the protagonist (Chris Pine)—pass on an inheritance to a half-sister (Elizabeth Banks) or keep it for himself and pay off business debts—struck me as a timely. The lengths the movie’s script went to have Pine withhold critical information from his sibling was much easier to stomach than the monthly administration spin on the latest economic numbers. And yet People Like Us is #20 on Hitfix’s recently released list of the year’s worst movies. To each his or her own. It remains among my 20 best films of the year, although it’s slowly dropped down the list in the months since its release.
17. Lincoln: Move over Henry Fonda. Daniel Day Lewis has redefined the 16th president of the United States on the big screen—not as a young man, but as a president at the peak of his powers. Superbly acted, the film slowly buckles under the weight of words penned by Tony Kushner in a script that draws on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Lincoln never bores and only sometimes soars, but its best moments are among the best the year had to offer. [Schaeffer’s Ghost review available here.]
16. Anna Karenina: Rapturous, passionate … pointless? Joe Wright’s decision to present Leo Tolstoy’s story as mostly performed on a stage is odd and distracting, but also hard to look away from. When it works—and it often does—this moral tale about the rewards of fidelity and costs of pursuing temporary passions touches greatness. Wright’s turn to bold, expressionistic use of colors in the film’s final half hour helps cover a slackening in the storytelling just as things ought to be tightening and building in tension. But there’s much to admire here visually and thematically.
15. Sinister: Modern horror at its finest, with genuine frights, palpable fears and a resolution that is genuinely horrifying without tipping into parody or tedium. Filled with indelible images that do more than suggest but never descend to gore for its own sake, Sinister is impressive to look at and is blessed with a lead actor (Ethan Hawke) who knows how to perform for the screen. Anyone who thinks such performances should go without saying in modern horror films hasn’t watched enough of them.
14. Zero Dark Thirty: The hunt for Osama Bin Laden across several years, with Jessica Chastain’s CIA operative Maya pushing to find him when others have moved on to other matters. The century’s most important story gets the best possible treatment from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who previously teamed on The Hurt Locker (2008).
13. Rust and Bone: A strongly physical yet strangely tender movie about an animal trainer (Marion Cotillard) who loses her lower legs in an accident, and then is brought out of her doldrums by a brutish nightclub bouncer who’s also trying to raise a young son. Just when you think you understand how the story will play out, it twists, turns and leaves you gasping for air.
12. Holy Motors: A tour de force for Denis Lavant as an actor who changes from one character into another, moving from story to story. The film—a bizarre blend of makeup, computer graphics and musical performance—defies description. But when it’s great—and the accordion-driven “Entracte” is the film at its greatest—it tops every other film from this year.11. Silver Linings Playbook: There may be other filmmakers who have worked across genres as successfully as has David O. Russell, but I can’t think of who they might be. Silver Linings Playbook is so deftly performed and written, so winning in its portrait of broken people slowly learning to heal, that it never seems slight nor less than awards-worthy.
10. Cosmopolis: A film I walked out of uncertain about whether I liked it, but confident I admired in its precision and several of its performances. Robert Pattinson commands the screen, and David Cronenberg delivers another chilly, exacting film that is hard to shake even if its focus seems narrowly drawn and repetitive. Paul Giamatti injects full-blooded life late into a story that is, until then, oddly bloodless even in its frank treatment about sexual appetites, marital commitment and class differences.
9. Your Sister’s Sister: Lynn Shelton’s comic drama about men, women, procreation and deception is the most endearing challenge to tradition family values I’ve ever seen. Mark Duplass, who also appears in Zero Dark Thirty and People Like Us, makes his third and highest appearance on my list.
8. Les Misérables: One great song after another tells the story of a man (Hugh Jackman) hounded by the authorities (Russell Crowe) until he’s “bought for God” and raises the child of a woman (Anne Hathaway) whom he fails, leading to dire consequences. A profound story of grace and redemption. [Schaeffer’s Ghost review available here.]
7. The Master: Is it about Scientology? Sexual dysfunction? Post traumatic stress disorder? All of the above? Paul Thomas Anderson’s unforgettable story pits one man (Joaquin Phoenix) against another (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and asks us which of the two is the master of the other. With Amy Adams as the memorable power behind Hoffman’s cult leader. [Schaeffer’s Ghost review available here.]
6. Life of Pi: The most magical hour at the movies is set on a small boat inhabited by Pi and, at first, a few zoo animals that survive a shipwreck. But with a tiger among those animals, soon only Pi and the tiger remain. Their uneasy relationship leads to thrilling, touching moments as the two of them struggle to survive at sea. A religious allegory rings false, but the story’s visuals are rapturous. [Schaeffer’s Ghost review available here.]
5. Lawless: I’ve seen Lawless twice and will gladly watch it a third time. No film has the primal qualities that this one has, where the stakes are man-against-man rather than, as in so many of today’s Hollywood movies, superheroes in tights battling it out to rule the universe. Great performances from Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce complement the film’s rugged look, excellent soundtrack, and fine directing by John Hillcoat. Only Shia LeBeouf, as Jack Bondurant, leaves something to be desired in a role that is overwhelmed by the powerful performers that surround him.
4. Margaret: Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful story of a mother, her daughter, a bus driver and a fatal mistake. Released after the director and studio spent years fighting over final cut, the theatrical version ran 150 often glorious minutes. An extended cut of 186 minutes is now available on DVD.
3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s masterpiece follows a search party as they try to find a buried body. The investigation takes them into the dark, nighttime terrain of Turkey, and into murkier moral waters as they discuss the ramifications of the job. Gökhan Tiryaki is the year’s best cinematographer, and this is Ceylan’s most darkly beautiful film to date.
2. Looper: Rian Johnson’s sci-fi masterpiece is about much more than time travel. It’s about the old imparting wisdom to the young, and the chance to prevent the psychological damage we experience as children from carrying into adulthood—to our own destruction, and even to the destruction of others. Johnson’s great script is matched by a visual flair that marks this film as an instant classic. [Schaeffer’s Ghost reviews available here and here.]
1. The Kid with a Bike: The Dardennes brothers deliver their most heartbreaking work yet, incorporating music at key moments to elevate the emotion in this story. A woman, Samantha, serves as a caretaker and instrument of grace to a troubled young boy, Cyril, who desperately wants his dad to be part of his life. Extraordinary moral storytelling, clocking in at a lean 87 minutes. As Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker, “The principal adult of the drama, [is] a hairdresser who takes him [Cyril] in. Cécile de France played her as an ordinary, unsaintly woman who does a good thing and thereby saves a life. It was my favorite performance of 2012, and in a just world it would draw the attention of the Academy, but because it arrived early in the calendar, because it was in a foreign tongue, because it was delivered without agony or queenliness, and because it neither promoted itself nor rode on the back of a publicity machine, it is doomed to stay in the wings.” Except among those who know better. Now that you do, please watch The Kid with a Bike. [Schaeffer’s Ghost review available here.]