The Best Films of 2012
Clint Cullum | On Jan 21, 2013
Another year has come and gone and as usual there were several good films to be found if one knows where to look. Sadly, as usual the critics with their annual top 10 lists and the Oscar’s with their nominations have largely missed the boat and once more confused the good films with the bad further turning our film culture into a jaded and confused mess. Whereas juvenile sarcasm and fashionable nihilism dominate the majority of film criticism, the best films in this or any year are those which embrace life and cultural unity, and those which examine and challenge our preconceived notions, forcing us as viewers to find the humanity within ourselves and others rather than complacently allowing us to smugly affirm our own self-righteousness. As Socrates reminds us, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The best films, as indeed the best art, constantly challenge and remind us of this timeless truth.
With this in mind, I humbly submit my picks for the years best films:
1. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s latest is not only the best film of the year, but may also be his best to date. This New England set period piece naturally features Anderson’s trademark compositions, set and costume design, impeccable soundtrack, and several recurring cast members (with welcome additions from Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, and newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman), but it’s it’s his open compassion, humanism, and keen insight into adolescent loneliness and emotional development (which often applies as much to the adults as the actual children) that makes his films continuously fresh and engaging.
2. The Deep Blue Sea
Memory, nostalgia, and shared cultural heritage have been key themes throughout the films of director Terence Davies, and his latest is no different. Based on the play by Terence Rattigan, Davies’ film explores an anguished love triangle between an aging London barrister, his wife, and her rakish lover, a troubled ex-RAF pilot. Few films capture so memorably the tensions and anxieties of love which is wonderfully aided by the three lead performances in Simon Russell Beale, Rachel Weisz, and Tom Hiddleston respectively. Here, love becomes a search for individuality in a post-WWII Britain where psychological depth is complemented by the mournful imagery and well chose musical cues.
André Techiné’s latest may take the prize for the most subtly excellent film of the year. An aging writer takes a sabbatical to Venice and commences a relationship with a younger model turned real estate agent. She has a promiscuous past and as played by former Buñuel muse/Bond girl Carole Bouquet, suggests a kind of cold, expectant sensuality; he has issues of his own including a troubled and resentful 20-something daughter. But beyond immediate family relationships we are granted access to the interconnectedness of a community and how intersecting lives influence one another. Techiné’s film unfolds gradually taking its cues from the rhythms of everyday life as we watch these unsettled lives coalesce with rare cinematic depth and exuberance.
4. Damsels In Distress
Whit Stillman’s latest comedy of manners provides the perfect answer to the smug cynicism of today’s film culture. His characters are so eccentric and eloquent they make the world of Wes Anderson seem straightforward by comparison and one could almost mistake this for a fairy tale of sorts. Indie darling Greta Gerwig finally gets a role worthy of her talents as Violet, the de facto leader of a clique of girls (all named after flowers) dedicated to improving the lives of fellow schoolmates on a fictional Ivy League campus. While always casting a keen eye on the insulated world of privileged youth, this film is filled with charm, insight, and an utterly disarming sincerity.
5. The Flowers of War
Though an immensely popular international filmmaker, Chinese director Zhang Yimou has never really received the critical attention he has deserved for over twenty years now. In this, his first English language film, Zhang reconstructs the 1937 Japanese occupation of Nanking through the eyes of a group of Chinese Catholic schoolgirls, a group of abandoned prostitutes, and an American roustabout played by Christian Bale who poses as a priest in order to safeguard the girls’ from the invading forces. The shared acknowledgement that “we are all orphans” binds this unlikely troupe together as they attempt a life-threatening escape from the heavily guarded city which ultimately results in a moving film about moral courage and self-sacrifice in the face of brutal violence and overwhelming pressure.
6. The Kid With a Bike
Marginalized blue collar individuals in the midst of spiritual crises have been filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s bread and butter for over a decade now, and few filmmakers of the last quarter century have so poignantly expressed their concerns. Here they turn their lens on the story of a young boy who has been abandoned by his father into state foster care, a kindly hair dresser who ends up adopting him, and the bike he so desperately wants to locate presumably in order to have a physical connection to happier times. Ever the humanists, the Dardenne’s view these fractured lives sympathetically, though without sentimentality, as opposed to the cruel Amour which offers no sympathy or dignity to its characters. Ultimately, it succeeds as a social realist film which is never too far from suggesting the possibility of grace and transcendence.
7. Les Misérables
Despite director Tom Hooper’s best efforts, this film version of the Broadway musical based on the glorious novel by Victor Hugo is mostly a rousing success. Fortunately for us even Hooper’s bizarre framing of images and lack of editorial rhythm can’t suppress the power of Hugo’s Dickensian epic of mercy, forgiveness, and class struggle set amidst the turmoil of the French revolution. Hugo’s novel has often been described as falling within the “French Rationalist” tradition, though I would argue is much more akin to French Catholic. Headed by an excellent cast all ably performing their own songs, Les Misérables is a unifying rather than divisive experience that by the universal phenomenon of musically rendering its timeless themes invites the audience to share in the suffering and joys of peasants and nobility, cops and criminals, the fallen and the redeemed.
8. The Innkeepers
Unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino, director Ti West seems to have successfully learned how to absorb the ghosts (no pun intended) of genre films past and then disseminate them with stylistic honesty as both an homage to their legacy and a highly original and atmospheric piece of horror filmmaking. Eschewing the last decade’s “found footage” horror craze which came to its pinnacle in this year’s Sinister (see below), West proves that an inherently evocative location (a 100+ year old New England hotel which harbors a dangerous secret, now on the cusp of closing its doors for good) and slow boil tension are still a more effective recipe for gothic horror than shaky cam gimmickry. That the hotel’s empty rooms and vanishing legacy provides a kind of metaphor for the the coming of age of its young aimless and unsettled protagonists provides yet another layer to this highly successful creepfest.
9. The Lady
Stepping aside from the actions films which have made him justly famous, director Luc Besson takes on a different challenge and ends up making the most successful biopic of the year which chronicles the life of activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s decades long struggle to peaceably achieve democracy in her native Burma amidst an oppressive military dictatorship. Not only do we witness Aung’s struggle, which is a miracle of moral resolve, but also that of her British husband who is forced to endure painful separations from her for years at a time due to political turmoil. Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis turn in performances of loving depth and political complexity as we see how having the weight of a nation on one’s shoulders impacts the regimens of family and domestic life.
That this wonderful film was seemingly ignored by critics is a mystery to me, or perhaps not. The follow up to Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev even more phenomenal debut, The Return, concerns a middle aged couple, each in the midst of their second marriage after having produced children from their first. Like in Unforgivable, Zvyagintsev’s film explores the complexities of family life, especially when forceably combined through multiple marriages. Anchored by an excellent performance by Nadezhda Markina as the titular Elena, the film also casts a keen eye on how class differences can sow the seeds of dissension within families, and how the inequities of love can lead to drastic actions.
Bernie (Richard Linklater), Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell), Dark Horse (Todd Solondz), Killer Joe (William Friedkin), Sinister (Scott Derrickson), The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr), Sacrifice (Kaige Chen), A Thousand Words (Brian Robbins), Skyfall (Sam Mendes), Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap (Ice-T)
The Forgettable and the Overrated:
Amour, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Django Unchained, Lincoln, The Master, Prometheus
Clint Cullum is an independent filmmaker, author, and playwright from Willis, TX. A lover of great cinema, Cullum has extensively studied the medium, with a special emphasis on the work of European filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. He co-wrote the feature film “Project X: The True Story of Power Plant 67,” which was considered by YouTube one of “the best dramas the web has to offer.”