Every year at this time, despite all the dross and dregs, the franchise-flick folderol, and the misfires, I still feel upbeat about the movies. There was a lot to like in 2012, even though most of what I admired issued from precincts far removed from Hollywood.
Before getting down to the 10 Best honor roll, a few preliminary cogitations, kudos, and cavils.
The raging digital versus film controversy continues unabated. Does digital technology, which is inexorably superseding film, signal the death knell of cinematographic artistry? I love the texture and grain of film much more than I do the comparatively flat look of digital. Still, I recognize a losing battle when I see one, so I’m trying to think positively about this.
Digital technology, because it is so much less expensive and more versatile than film technology, is empowering people who might never before have had the means to make a movie. This democratization of the medium will no doubt result in bales of bad movies, but some great talents will likely emerge, too, and from pockets previously unheard from around the world.
I was heartened by the growing spate of fine socially and politically conscious documentaries this year, films like “The Invisible War,” about rape in the military; “The Central Park Five”; “Chasing Ice”; “Under African Skies”; “Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry”; and “The Gatekeepers,” about Shin Bet, Israel’s secret security service. (It opens in February for a regular run.) These films do far more than recap events: They reframe them, and in some cases – as with “The Invisible War” – have led to much-needed legislation.
I also appreciated the personal memoir documentaries such as “This Is Not a Film” and “Photographic Memory,” welcome respites from all those docs centered on competitions (although the chess-tournament film “Brooklyn Castle” was exceptional).
The year’s most controversial movie is Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” I find myself among the lonely dissenters on this one. Certainly this film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is smashingly directed, but its torture scenes, and their consequences, are calculatedly deficient in any political context. It’s a timorous movie posing as a courageous one. At least “Argo,” flimsy but enjoyable, didn’t pretend to be some kind of new-style political docudrama.
Some of our biggest directors brought out long-simmering projects, with mixed results. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” had a mysteriously beautiful performance from Daniel Day-Lewis and a few hushed, allusive sequences that captured Lincoln’s grandeur without solemnizing him. But too much of the film felt like a streamlined history lesson in the golden age of Hollywood mold. Quentin Tarantino’s pre-Civil War slave epic “Django Unchained” (opening Christmas) is his latest tasteless (sometimes hilariously so) pop mélange of blood and guts and revisionism. It’s his “Mandingo” redo.
Literary and theatrical adaptations were up and down. “Les Misérables” (also opening Christmas) was a great big fat enjoyable entertainment, with Anne Hathaway sporting what I sincerely hope will not become the new fashion look – shorn hair and hollowed cheeks.
“Anna Karenina” had one of those awful high concepts – all the world is literally a stage – plus Keira Knightley’s too-thin Anna and a Vronsky who resembled Justin Bieber with a moustache. “On the Road” was mostly in the ditch. I suppose we should be grateful that Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D “The Great Gatsby” was put off until next year. (I know, I know, don’t prejudge ...)
Franchise fever resulted in a few more-than-OK entertainments, like “The Avengers,” “The Hunger Games,” “The Bourne Legacy” and “Skyfall” – though I wish Bond were less like Bourne these days. Does 007 really have to be that sullen? And what does it say about a James Bond movie when the chief Bond girl is ... Judi Dench?
Terrific performances often graced not-so-terrific movies. Jennifer Lawrence is a wonderment in the overrated, annoyingly nutsoid “Silver Linings Playbook,” in which a highly disturbed man who has beaten someone to a pulp is somehow made to seem as benign as a goofball in a Judd Apatow comedy. I loved Christopher Walken in “A Late Quartet,” Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone,” and John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in “The Sessions” – all movies about grave physical infirmity and with a slightly higher-than-usual suds quotient.
I’m also glad to see some attention being paid by Hollywood to characters over the age of 27. Quaint as they are, movies like “Hope Springs,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” and “Quartet” (a limited run starts Dec. 28) at least acknowledge the fact that people who haven’t the slightest idea how to work an iPhone are still worth making a movie about. The most acclaimed movie about aging this year came from France, Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” which I found more morbid than moving.
But enough back talk. Here’s my 10 Best list, plus some additional worthies:
1. The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie, loosely suggested by the early career of L. Ron Hubbard, was not an audience favorite, but it’s the most adventurous and disturbing and emotionally complex movie I saw all year, with a performance by Joaquin Phoenix that is almost prehensile in its power to hold the screen.
2. This Is Not a Film – The great Iranian director Jafar Panahi, under house arrest and forbidden by the authorities to make movies, crafted, with the help of Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, this clandestine video essay that heartbreakingly expresses both his loss and his indomitability.
3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – A Turkish police procedural about the search for a buried body in desolate Anatolia slowly, inevitably, becomes a meditation on the nature of love and loss and violence and truth. Writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan maintains a rapt, unwavering gaze.
4. Sister – A scrawny 14-year-old hustler (Kacey Mottet Klein) and his wayward older sister (Léa Seydoux) are the improbable survivalists in this beautifully acted Swiss drama, directed by Ursula Meier, which in flashes stands comparison with “The 400 Blows.”
5. Photographic Memory – Ross McElwee has been documenting his life for decades and never more touchingly than in this film, in which he seeks out his errant son and attempts to reach back into his own past as a way to connect with his future.
6. The Secret World of Arrietty – This is a lyrical hand-drawn animated marvel, based on “The Borrowers” books, from Japan’s Studio Ghibli by way of Disney. Hiromasa Yonebayashi made his feature-film debut from a script co-written by his mentor Hayao
Miyazaki, whose deft genius is felt throughout.
7. Holy Motors – Leos Carax’s phantasmagoric joyride, with the shape-shifty Denis Lavant morphing into disguise after disguise, is arguably the year’s strangest movie. The strangeness casts a lingering, night-blooming spell.
8. The Gatekeepers – Six former leaders of Israel’s Shin Bet security force open up to director Dror Moreh and lay out in uncompromising, excruciating detail their country’s post-1967 history. Nothing else like it has come out of the Middle East.
Besides films favorably referred to in the intro, other notables include: “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Patang,” “A Cat in Paris,” “Room 237,” “The Loneliest Planet,” “Unforgivable,” and “Trishna.” Track these films down. They’re worth it.