No introductions. No pretense. These are, very simply, the films of last year that connected with me the most.
#10: Joe Carnahan’s THE GREY
Arriving at the tail-end of January, a month well-known for creative bankruptcy at the cinema, Joe Carnahan’s The Grey remains one of the boldest achievements of 2012 by a long shot. Don’t let the studio’s reductive choice to market this as a simple “Men Punch Wolves” thriller fool you. Using the famously masculine, authoritative image of lead actor Liam Neeson not to affirm action-movie tropes, but rather, to subvert them, this contained character-piece focuses on the efforts of a small handful of plane-crash survivors to make it out of the Alaskan wilds before they fall prey to any number of dangers: the freezing cold, the crafty packs of wolves that seem to close in on them from all corners, and the growing vitriol between themselves. The Grey uses these well-executed, if familiar concepts to make a bold statement on the helplessness of man, both to exterior dangers and to their own existential crises.
#9: Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern’s SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS
When the final title-card of this film rolled up, it was perhaps the only time in 2012, movie-theater or no, where I felt like I’d lost everything. Full disclosure: Shut Up and Play the Hits appeals to me on a very personal note, as it chronicles the final days of James Murphy’s electro-dance-pop-punk-rock-joy band, LCD Soundsystem, an outfit whose music has proven a bittersweet soundtrack to a lot of my adolescence. Lots of Shut Up is simply footage of their famous farewell concert at Madison Square Garden in February 2011, and had this been as far as the film went, I’d still have been an immensely satisfied viewer. But in meditating on what exactly compelled Murphy to dissolve his (very successful) unit and watching his decision’s impact on those around him, it forced me to reflect on the value of artistic integrity and simply knowing when to walk away. For a long time, I’ve said to others that it’s an immense comfort, knowing in a few decades I’ll be able to pull an LCD Soundsystem record off my shelf and experience the same buzz of my youth. Shut Up and Play the Hits will be sitting right next to those records.
#8: Steven Soderbergh’s MAGIC MIKE
Say some shit. Go ahead. Sure, Magic Mike may be one of the most homoerotic pieces of American filmmaking since the volleyball scenes of Top Gun, and sure, if you’d asked a few years ago, I’d have labelled lead stars Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey as overrated pretty boys. But guess what?! Magic Mike is a firm product of now, tapping into the cultural zeitgeist with both uncanny perception and a fairly large dose of cynicism. When caught between the lenses of soon-to-be-retired cinematic miracle-maker Steven Soderbergh, Channing Tatum’s exploits as a male stripper serve as both indicators of the twisted sexual dynamics of pop culture and the sort of financial desperation that the film’s surprisingly dark final act observes fully. Thus, as a viewer, we can have our cake and eat it too: noting subtly the distorted paths Magic Mike‘s hot young characters take, while appreciating the sort of gung-ho, all-out sleaziness that they exude.
#7: Steve McQueen’s SHAME
With the placement of this film, I am both cheating and have been cheated. See, as at this time last year, Steve McQueen’s unflinching study of sexual addiction was swallowing whole just about every other conversation in the film world: both for the extremely graphic nudity allotted by its NC-17 rating, and for the tremendous performances of lead actors Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. But as an Ann Arbor native, I was not allotted the opportunity to see the 2011-released film until it rolled around to theaters in mid-March. This said, the utter artistic bravery of Shame has stuck with me all year long, as has the memory of walking out of that State Theater screening and literally gasping for air, after 101 minutes of pummeling misery. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch Shame again, but I’ll remember the restrained technical mastery, precise aesthetics, and unbearably sad face of Michael Fassbender as long as I live.
#6: Gareth Evans’ THE RAID: REDEMPTION and Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL
Yeah, I’m cheating with two films in one spot. My house, my rules. In a particularly weak year for action cinema, these two monoliths stood head-and-shoulders above the competition despite their remarkably different origins — one is a $1.1 million Indonesian import, and the other is the 23rd entry into a world-famous franchise with the rumored price tag of $200 million. Chronicling a couple of noble cops’ attempt to fight their way to the top floor of a compound stacked with drug-pushing martial arts experts, The Raid is a bare-knuckle, utterly savage adrenaline rush of a movie. It doesn’t have the best fight scene of the year — it IS the best fight scene of the year. So spare is its direction, so singular is its focus. Skyfall, comparatively, achieves near-identical nirvana as entertainment, but by very different means. Lead actor Daniel Craig, who by now has surely entered most serious conversations about the best James Bond portrayal of all time, guides Skyfall as it both reflects on its franchise’s past identities while pushing it ever-further into more brutal, bold territory. American Beauty director Sam Mendes proved an inspired choice to direct this thing, as his combat sequences are superb. The way that cinematography Roger Deakins frames the final 30 minutes as a sort of burned-out, dim nightmare sends chills up my spine. The film also has, bar none, the best villain in Bond history in Javier Bardem’s effeminate Silva.
#5: David O. Russell’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
As a romantic comedy focused on two emotionally and psychologically imbalanced individuals, Silver Linings Playbook always feels on the edge of disaster, as if the whole film will just collapse in on itself. Yet it never does. Writer-director David O. Russell has proven himself to be one of cinema’s most delicate, acute observers of family dynamics, and much of Silver Linings Playbook focuses on strife between the four lead actors, who it’s worth noting are the first quartet in 31 years to all be nominated for all four different acting Oscars. But by the end, the film reaches an unspeakably emotional catharsis that overwhelms the senses and warms the heart. In detecting the fatal flaw of most romantic comedies — the two leads being separated by arbitrary misunderstandings — and altering the strife into being motivated by a place of actual human imbalance, Silver Linings Playbook outdoes every movie in its genre for as long as I can remember. A triumph.
#4: Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED
#3: Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski’s CLOUD ATLAS
Cloud Atlas tried bigger, bolder, awesomer things than any other American film this year. But I’m not one to simply commend effort, but rather, product. And Cloud Atlas genuinely works. Consider the miracle of balancing six narratives with the same actors over thousands of years, in cutting between them fluidly, in ensuring they avoid monotony, in giving them a common thematic thrust, and in simply making them good. And while the conversation over its effectiveness has been wildly entertaining (Time Magazine declared it the worst film of 2012), I’m an unabashed adorer of all that this film did: reach for insanely melodramatic, often loony heights, while affirming a message about the basic decency of the human spirit.
#2: Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER
It’s fairly difficult for me to write, let alone speak, about Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master without quickly devolving into fervent hysterics and wild hyperbole. I’ll spare them. But the wild ambition and pure artistry on display with PTA’s sixth film is a sight to behold, as is the way in which he uses the massive scale of 70mm film to reveal the distorted souls of two men — one a drunken wanderer, one the leader of a cult-like spiritual movement. The off-beat rhythms of The Master may be mistaken for attempts at pretentious opaqueness, while ironically they serve perhaps the most basic function of all — worm itself fully into the clouded mind of Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell.
#1: Rian Johnson’s LOOPER
Perhaps the first thing that struck me about Rian Johnson’s Looper was how it was fully, for lack of a better word, formed. This is a film without a wasted frame or superfluous line, an unnecessary gunshot or an out-of-place pause. The premise starts knotty — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s futuristic mobster assassinates targets sent from the past, and one day sees an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) between his gun’s sights — and it only gets funkier and bloodier from there. But what sets this apart from both its science-fiction contemporaries as well as every other film of its year: it was the moment where our next great director, after flirting with excellent in past work, fully arrived. Rian Johnson with Looper has declared himself as one of the most original, talented writer-directors on the planet, a man capable of marrying shameless escapist thrills with thoughtful, somber meditations on the consequences of violence and of our actions, past and present. He’s made a classic of his genre and of his art form.
[It’s worth noting that the year of 2012 at large didn’t do much for this writer, who admittedly didn’t connect with many widely-respected films that others seemed to. Had this writer been able to expand the mathematical limits of 10, he’d probably have found room for William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, David Koepp’s Premium Rush, and perhaps most especially Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. This writer should also like to note Leos Carax’s Holy Motors as the film with the most intriguing ideas and concept of 2012, that may well stick with him longer than any other on this list, despite overall mixed feelings about the presentation of said ideas.]