by Maurizio Roca
I initially had this piece slated for early March of this year before abandoning it for reasons that now escape me. I decided to post it after catching up with one or two new inclusions that motivated me.
The criteria for this list are movies made and released in 2012 or films made in 2011 but released theatrically in the USA during 2012. Two major exceptions are Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and The Turin Horse which arrived in NYC during the first quarter of 2012 but which I happened to see in 2011 due to certain favorable circumstances (and thus are ineligible). The former was named my second favorite picture of 2011 (behind only The Tree Of Life) while the latter just missed my top ten. Both would be in the same exact position this year if I decided to include them (Anatolia possibly even supplanting my #1 pick).
My list includes:
- Ten films made and released theatrically in the United States in 2012
- Zero film made in 2011, but not shown theatrically in the US until 2012.
Thirteen Almosts: Elena, The Invisible War, 5 Broken Cameras, Oslo August 31st, The Kid With A Bike, Monsieur Lazhar, Prometheus, This Is Not A Film, The Gatekeepers, Gerhard Richter Painting, The Hunter, Beyond The Hills, The Grey.
10. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, USA)
The #10 spot was the toughest to decide—four or five different films could have landed here. I chose Andrew Domink’s long-awaited return to cinema. The reason? Simply because it’s the movie I would like to see the most again out of all the finalists. Though to be fair, certain aesthetic/directorial choices from Killing Them Softly really bug me. For one, I really dislike Dominik’s decision to film the heroin scene the way he did. It does nothing but show off… and not in a particularly original or astute manner. The musical cues are also extremely obvious and heavy handed. In fact, the whole picture is a remarkably unsubtle critique of capitalism that makes every concept explicitly pronounced. That said the movie also has plenty of elements that stay with you long after you’ve departed the theater. Brad Pitt’s startling monologue at the conclusion is incendiary and provocative. The robbery at the underground card game offers nail-biting tension pushed to the absolute breaking point. And James Gandolfini’s stunning cameo turns his famous Tony Soprano characterization completely inside out with pathetically somber results. Rumors have surfaced that Killing Them Softly was severely edited from 150 minutes down to a lean 97. One hopes that the extended cut sees the light of day eventually since the movie does seem to rush to its denouement much too quickly.
9. How To Survive a Plague (David France, USA)
Chronicling the AIDS epidemic throughout the deadliest period of the disease in the 80’s and early 90’s, How To Survive A Plague looks at the founders and activists of TAG and ACT UP as they desperately tried to help discover a cure. Running into disinterested politicians and a seemingly uncaring segment of the public, the various people in both organizations continued to lobby and fight for a vaccination that could slow down the virus long enough to save countless lives hanging in the balance. Historical footage shows the frustration members felt with the US government who seemingly obstructed progress and were willing to sit on their hands throughout most of the crisis. We also catch a glimpse of the infighting that threatened to tear the movement apart and how philosophical differences in combating the disease lead to volatile disagreements with many of the principle members in the AIDS fight. Slowly we witness as various people succumbed to their afflictions and how time was running out for others. In the end, with the help of brave figures like Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, and Larry Kramer a glimmer of hope began to appear and some positive progress was made. The film is an enduring look at the capacity of the human spirit to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds.
8. The Central Park Five (Ken and Sarah Burns, David McMahon USA)
I hazily remember the rape case of the Central Park Jogger dominating news coverage when I was in the twilight of my preteen years. Being at an age where only sports and playing outside mattered to me, I can’t say I was glued to the television screen as the facts of the case unfolded and the young perpetrators were unveiled. But now as I watch this documentary as an adult, I was astonished by the massive amounts of archival footage there was to show. Not only does the film provide a capsule of a New York City (my city of birth and residence) that is now vastly different, but it also paints a portrait of all the divided citizens who lived within its borders at the time. The filmmakers show just how all-consuming the media frenzy was in its ferocity and attempt to elicit a response from anyone within its sphere. When such emotions boil to the surface with such force, one must wonder how any levelheaded (and therefore fair) outcome can be possible. Spoiler alert: Essentially, the five suspects in the attack were coerced and intimidated into giving false confessions. Their statements—made under duress and quickly recanted—were the primary reason they were convicted of a crime they did not commit once DNA was able to prove who the actual offender was. Like a modern-day Salem Witch Trial, The Central Park Five perfectly illustrates how hysteria, racism, and misplaced anger can make a travesty of the scales of justice.
7. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
Broken down into two parts, Tabu tells a story of remembrance, loss, regret, and the yearning for a moment in time one could never get back (or should). Playing alternately as both bittersweet and romantically funny, the film slowly establishes a unique rhythm that becomes extremely rewarding during the second half entitled Paradise Lost. It would be hard to argue with naysayers that find the first section (Paradise) as slow and uninvolving. I was feeling a similar sentiment myself while sitting in the Film Forum for those first 30 minutes or so. Once the story gets transported to Africa though, I found that Gomes’ lyrically innovative approach started to win me over. Some may complain that Tabu glosses over the insidious reality of colonialism in Africa at the time, but I actually felt like the whole movie was a subtle critique of that particular moment in history. The naivety of the two protagonists and their lack of responsibility for partaking in certain carefree actions contribute to the unfortunate occurrences that eventually befall them and—even worse—those around them. Perhaps we are meant to reflect on the subjectivity of one person’s paradise being another’s hell.
6. Rust And Bone (Jacques Audiard, France)
Rust And Bone can seem rather ridiculous on paper and also while being watched on the big screen. The story of a killer-whale trainer at Sea World who loses her legs, only to (kind of) find love with a single father and aspiring MMA fighter is certainly worthy of the melodramatic paths blazed by Douglas Sirk. Big, brash, and sentimentally stylized, Jacques Audiard weaves an engrossing and thoroughly watchable tale about characters on the fringe of society and their marginalized selves. What stands out most about this French film is that the motivations and actions of the two protagonists seem so complex and real. The plot developments can come across as artificial and contrived, but never the individuals we follow who reside within this universe. They are always acting and reacting like authentic people searching for a place within their respective environments. Early exasperation during Rust And Bone slowly gives way to inspirational emotions, oddly enough, brought on by sugary pop star Katy Perry and her massive hit song Fireworks. Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts both give very convincing performances with multidimensional resonance.
5. Searching For Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, United Kingdom)
As a hardcore music lover who gravitates towards underground and obscure records, I was skeptical about this documentary when the word-of-mouth buzz started circulating. After all, in all my years of record collecting, Rodriguez was a singer-songwriter I had never encountered. And I have seen countless formulaic docs about “why is ‘fill-in-the-blank’ band or artist not more famous and celebrated?” to last me an entire lifetime. Most of those are by rock scribes or “in-the-know” scenesters trying desperately to elevate neglected musicians (sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly) by any anecdotal means necessary. My problem with most of these efforts is that the passion for the subject at hand usually doesn’t translate well on screen and can come off as mastibatory and preachy. Searching For Sugar Man is somewhat different though. While it occasionally falls into cliché traps originated by predecessors mining similar territory, it also gives off genuine warmth and bittersweet poignancy. One starts to feel empathy not only with Rodriguez as an artist, but also Rodriguez as a person. His music owns more than a small debt to Bob Dylan and Donavan stylistically, yet is still quite deserving of the steady accolades he is now receiving from anywhere not named South Africa. Also won an Oscar, for those that care about such stuff.
4. The Imposter (Bart Layton, United Kingdom)
While documentaries have reserved a large percentage of my list for 2012, this British film by Bart Layton was the greatest of them all IMO. Retelling a story that would seem improbable by even Hollywood summer blockbuster standards, The Imposter effectively divulges the detailed facts of how a 20-something French conman Frederic Bourdin was able to get away with impersonating a 13-year-old American boy from Texas named Nicholas Barclay. To make matters even more incredulous, Bourdin lacked the blonde hair and blue eyes of his subject, and spoke in a thick foreign accent that was worlds apart from Barclay’s San Antonio, Texas drawl. How he managed to bilk not only the family, but also various international officials and custom agents is part of the fascinating allure of The Imposter. As the movie moves further along, we begin to see another mystery slowly unfolding before our eyes. While the first two thirds of the film are concerned primarily with the backstory of Bourdin and how he methodically achieved his brazen deception, the final third examines a possible ulterior (and more sinister) reason that may have explained how he was able to get away with such an outlandish scam. Masterly in its twists, and examining the complexities of finding out real “truth” in everyday life, The Imposter gleefully drops us into a maze of deception and circumstance that remind us that nothing is ever quite as it seems.
3. Amour (Michael Haneke, France)
After Michael Haneke’s twin career highpoints of Cache and The White Ribbon, he returns with yet another exceedingly well regarded and Cannes Palme d’Or winning film, Amour. Starring The Conformist’s Jean-Louis Trintignant and Hiroshima Mon Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva, the picture is a stark and intimate look at how an elderly couple copes with illness and death. Drained of the mystery and thematic complexities of Haneke’s previous movies, Amour instead focuses squarely on the slow disintegration of human life in a clear and directly single-minded approach. It forces us to accept the inevitable resolution without any sentimentality and forced contrivances. This candid and frank approach to its subject matter is Amour’s greatest strength (and for some naysayers, its unnerving weakness). Refusing to soft pedal what we all know is eventually coming, Amour can certainly be labeled as a sympathetic film in its desire to be truthful about the realities of a waning life. It presents challenges to its central characters that they must ultimately face with bravery and acceptance. Some viewers may never want to revisit such austerely grim material again, but it’s hard to argue against the overwhelming power that is presented throughout the movie.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA)
I believe that the controversy plaguing Zero Dark Thirty is mainly due to its close proximity to the actual events it dramatizes. Still fresh in the memory of most viewers, the film’s content has sparked wildly divergent theories and speculations on what Kathryn Bigelow is trying to say about torture and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Each individual observer clearly brings his or her own personal baggage (and worldview) when critiquing the subject matter presented. Since not enough time has passed for viewers to be more readily free of internal biases (though in this case, perhaps it will never be possible anyway), one is immediately reminded of the racial tensions that The Deer Hunter sparked in 1978 so soon after the Vietnam War. These types of movies always touch a raw nerve among audiences wanting to glean certain aspects as either detrimental or revelatory to their own personal beliefs. I have spoken at great length on WITD about my own personal views on ZDT and what the film is trying to say (as far as I see it). For me personally, I find the picture as being deeply ambiguous about the whole war on terror and its continuing aftermath. The killing of Bin Laden is accomplished with only minimal catharsis afterwards for Maya and presumably all of us (as if anything can ever make up for the numerous deaths during 9/11 and its subsequent retaliations). It’s a film with no real winners, yet the whole of civilization as losers.
1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
It took Paul Thomas Anderson five long years to follow up his greatest film There Will Be Blood. As seems to be the unfortunate custom with many innovative auteurs in this day and age of modern cinema, he suffered through many setbacks and/or financial pratfalls before he could get The Master made. His triumph over such obstacles was well worth it in the end as he was able to craft another American masterpiece. Audiences and critics alike have debated what Anderson was trying to say with his latest picture. Some moviegoers were perplexed, and opinioned that The Master was an enigmatic inscrutable work that didn’t bother to reveal anything substantial over the course of 140 minutes. Personally, I had no such problem “getting” the film and have expressed my take on more than one occasion on this blog. Below, I’ll provide some excerpts explaining my viewpoint…
“Ambitiously structured and resembling real life in its refusal to keep the story tidy and devoid of loose ends (and no neat Hollywood resolution to boot), The Master is also a pertinent study of the impossibility to control and monitor the uncontrollable. Freddie Quell feels like a Neanderthal man from a million years ago, to quote Lancaster Dodd, who cannot or will not follow certain rules or codes of conduct for very long. He initially aligns himself with “The Cause” and carries through with some responsibilities they entrust him with, but ultimately he is like the crystal blue waves that Anderson focuses in on repeatedly (who move due to forces beyond human containment). The overriding sense I got from the film is that the failure of Dodd to harness and reign in Quell is the same reason his cult rings hollow…man cannot be trapped and manipulated incessantly without it becoming individually suppressive. It’s a fascinating character study of two lonely and alienated individuals who have chosen opposite paths that momentarily collide.”
“Both characters deal with their collective postwar despair in unique ways. One is asking others to love and follow him, while the other is looking to relinquish his love to others. An unlikely friendship ensues in which they give and take from each other, but, in the end, are incompatible. For me, Dodd represents the need for rigid structure after chaos. Peel back freedom and follow a “master” who will make things okay, without you needing to figure it out for yourself. Quell represents the id—the total freedom to shun superficial rules and broken authority figures and to do whatever makes you feel content (not letting someone else decide your mode of conduct based on false, predetermined arbitrary rules). The fact that Quell ultimately leaves makes me think that Anderson is saying we must all shed such traps and follow a more personal instinctual path. Religion, cults, societal expectations, etc. are just unnatural measures of containment that deaden and hurt individuality and instinctual prosperity.”