Continuing our coverage of the best films of the decade so far, we take a look at the best films 2012 had to offer. Be sure to list your own favorite films from 2012 in the comments, and stay tuned for more annual lists coming soon.
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild
The remote, barren expanse of bayou fondly referred to as the Bathtub in Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is so mysterious—and at times fantastical—that it lends itself well as a setting of a great American folk tale. A 6-year old named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) serves as our modern day Huck Finn as she lives in the Bathtub with her father Wink amongst an impoverished community displaced from the mainland (it does not take long to realize that the Bathtub is not far from the New Orleans shore). The post-Katrina allegory does not stop there, a massive storm is approaching the Bathtub, and government officials must resort to forcefully evacuating its residents. It makes sense Wink is a single father because people in the Bathtub are so in touch with Mother Nature that she could be their flesh and blood. Myths of prehistoric creatures abound, and you wonder if these people are in touch with something primal, as if they have their fingers on the pulse of the earth. Wallis gives an unforgettable performance, the kind where shots of her screaming “I’m the man!” will appear in montages for years to come.
Arbitrage comes at the apex of the era of antiheroes that spearheaded a resurgence and golden age of television. Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, an investment titan with impeccably pressed suits and a charm that subtly underscores his power. But he is also presented as a family man of sorts. His daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) is the CFO of his company, and his wife (Susan Sarandon) accompanies him to charity galas and public events. It is this layer of his character that makes his lifestyle easier to stomach; his insane fortune at least has a slight “American Dream” air to it. However, we then learn that he would do just about anything –including hiding $400 million in debt off his books and covering up the death of his mistress—to keep his empire from crashing down. When a relentless cop (Tim Roth) comes knocking about his mistress’ death, we find ourselves rooting for Miller to get away with it because part of us wants to believe that men like Robert Miller don’t exist in America.
8. Searching for Sugarman
As much as Searching for Sugarman is about the discovery of a Detroit based musician who reached iconic status in South Africa at the height of anti-apartheid sentiments while remaining anonymous in the United States, the film is also about our fascination with the great American myth. For a long time, no one knew what happened to Sixto Rodriguez, an incredibly talented singer-songwriter. Did he kill himself onstage at one of his concerts? Did he set himself on fire? And as the documentarian Malik Bendjelloul and record store owner Stephen Segerman reach more dead ends about Rodriguez as a person, we identify even more with his powerful ballads. It would be a disservice to reveal the ending here, but consider Seraching for Sugarman an essential documentary that shouldn’t be missed.
7. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino is not one to shy away from uncomfortable, and often horrendous, periods in our history. Django Unchained is the second Tarantino film that goes to such lengths, after 2009’s World War II revisionist fantasy Inglourious Basterds. In Django we traverse the Southern United States before the Civil War, where slavery was as American as apple pie. The odyssey of Django (Jamie Foxx) a freed slave venturing to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the repulsive plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the help of his liberator and bounty hunting partner Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Walz) exhibits vintage Sergio Leone while also heaping on a great deal of exploitation cinema—a Tarantino trademark. While many consider the juxtaposition of such sickening violence and a revenge-fantasy tone to be jarring, Tarantino aims to tear down any buffer we as viewers have with the happenings of the film and recognize that, indeed, this was a reductive and soulless society.
6. Once Upon a Time In Anatolia
The portion of the film’s title “Once Upon a Time” should not suggest to you the film that follows by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan resembles anything like a childhood fairytale. Rather it shares more in common with “Once” films such as Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Once Upon a Time in America, and Once Upon a Time in the West in that Anatolia is lengthy and more interested in the moments than an overarching narrative. Many who watch this film find it boring and onerous, but if you are able to tap into what lies underneath the proceedings (the search for a body after the murderer confesses and the process that entails such a situation), you will find something quite universal.
5. Holy Motors
Holy Motors is a delightfully charming tribute to one of the finer points of cinema—acting—as well as the actor’s relationship with his craft. Oscar (Denis Lavant) leaves his house in the morning like many working professionals do: donning a suit and tie, newspaper in hand, and is whisked away in a limousine to his first of many “appointments” that day. However, we soon discover Oscar is a role player of sorts, donning intricately convincing costumes and makeup and “performing” in various areas of Paris, the most memorable being a turn as an unkempt mutant-leprechaun of sorts passing through a local cemetery. Oscar’s later assignments prove to be more reflective, and you sense a lament for the actor and his art. It is his personal raging against the dying of the light, and as he ends his day with such a diverse body of work, we see how essential acting truly is—as the essence of the stories that inform our lives.
The term “unconditional love” is often thrown around at times when it is not explicitly required. Michael Haneke’s Amour is a film where we see unconditional love in practice. It is not spoken of, it is not a virtue worn on one’s sleeve, it just is. And it is not an elegant or easy path as we watch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) care for his wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), as mental and physical degeneration take hold of her. When she suffers momentarily lapses of focus and thought, Georges can’t help but take it personally and grow frustrated. Not only is he losing the love of his life before his very eyes, he is also losing their shared consciousness—one built with fond memories and accomplishments. It takes some courage to see this film, but these two leading roles demand quite a bit more. One of the hardest transitions in an actor’s career may be eschewing the sense of beauty that we as moviegoers hold up to our favorite film stars, but in exchange comes wisdom—of which Amour has plenty to offer.
3. Moonrise Kingdom
The worlds director Wes Anderson creates are both of a time and timeless, and although they are fictional cities in fictional eras, they carry such a familiarity that the themes and ideas expressed in Anderson’s work have an immediate resonance. This is accomplished largely by the extreme attention to detail he pays in constructing these worlds but also by the hints of fantasy embedded into his stories. In Moonrise Kingdom the island on which the film takes place is so self-contained that Sam (Jared Gilman), a young boy scout, and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a daydreaming young girl, are starving for adventure. And so they devise a plan to run-away from their lives and the expectations the world seems to have for them. Despite their sheltered upbringings, they seem keenly aware of their impending maturation, even if not consciously, and this rebellion is a last ditch effort to freeze time, if only for a moment, before the inevitable. Moonrise Kingdom serves as a magical escape for us as well. There is little more you can ask from a film.
2. The Master
The Master is the story of two men at very different places and social standings in life but are longingly—and at times desperately—in need of each other. This symbiosis is the beating heart of the film, which is devoid of any traditional narrative or structure. These two men are Lancaster Dodd (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), the obtuse yet charismatic leader of a cult-like group called the Cause, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy seaman displaced after the end of World War II and an unpredictable alcoholic. Plenty of parallels can be drawn between Dodd and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, but director Paul Thomas Anderson is more interested in how a man like Dodd comes into being and the kind of society that elevates such a figure. While Quell longs for the love and guidance Dodd and the Cause can provide, Dodd sees Quell as the ultimate exercise in self-legitimization. If Dodd can “cure” Quell of his ways, Dodd’s cult of personality will only grow. Nearly every scene Hoffman and Phoenix share is lightning in a bottle. Performances like these will be recalled fondly in the days we long to see Hoffman again on the silver screen.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
A film about challenging bureaucratic norms in the intelligence community with an ending that the audiences knows before the lights turn down should not be as thrilling and monumental as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the ten year search for Osama bin Laden after the events of 9/11. Our viewpoint into the film is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a fiery CIA agent whose monomaniacal pursuit of bin Laden’s whereabouts drives the film forward procedurally and emotionally. Her search and ultimate triumph does not come without costs. She appears alienated from her colleagues in the CIA, the Navy SEAL team tasked with the strike on bin Laden’s compound, and from anything resembling a “normal” life. These moments and many other scenes are rich with subtext—contemplating torture, masculine predilections, and relying on information versus instincts—which elevate the film above your typical “based on true events” story. The climactic raid on the compound is a pulse-pounding sequence, crafted expertly by Bigelow, and in the aftermath we see Maya boarding a military carrier plane, unsure where to go next. It serves as an apt metaphor for America, waging a war with unknown enemies, unknown consequences, and unknown costs.
The ultimate horror movie subversion, The Cabin in the Woods; Time travel crime drama Looper from Star Wars Episode VIII director Rian Johnson, also including the best reverse aging of Bruce Willis ever seen on screen; Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, an addiction drama and character vehicle for Denzel Washington; A bleak portrait of post-World War II London set behind a resigned but skeptical love triangle in The Deep Blue Sea, adapted from the Terence Rattigan play by Terence Davies; A bold take on the superhero (or more appropriately, meta-human) genre with an effective use of the found footage format, Chronicle; Craig Zobel’s disturbing look at social engineering, Compliance; The perfect ode to fifty years of “shaken, not stirred” in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall; Acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s filmic reveries while under house arrest in This Is Not a Film.