Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My Top 10 Films of 2012. And Then 10 More.

With links to reviews where applicable.

1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
“More than anything, a film about death -- or perhaps more specifically, mortality…In Ceylan’s hands, this landscape becomes a metaphysical one. The endless dark valleys of the Anatolian night, where giant stone faces lurk watching and where the characters’ own memories seem to live on forever, never quite register as a real place…Then the mythical gives way to the mundane; the mystery of death is gone, replaced instead with its physical and social consequences. And a film that began in the enveloping, sensuous darkness of a dream ends in the cold, hard light of the painfully real...”

2. It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt)
More on this later, I hope, but imagine what The Tree of Life might have been like had it been animated with stick drawings and ran a little over an hour long, without skimping on any of the ambition. This is basically that movie.

3. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
“One of the most electrifyingly unclassifiable films you’ll ever see…Is it a depiction of the surreal nature of filmmaking, or of the divine impulse as it flits from person to person, or of the ever-shifting reality of modern man?”

4. The Grey (Joe Carnahan)
I’m going to write more about this soon, but I have this odd feeling that, years from now, this will be the 2012 film that we’ll be remembering: An existential action drama that has more in common with The Thin Red Line or maybe even Winter Light than it does with Taken or others of its ilk. In the Liam Neeson character’s repeated efforts to help both comfort and usher his companions into the world of the dead, and his memories of his wife, I’m reminded that this is an actor who himself not long ago lost his wife to a skiing accident, one that occurred while he was away from her. The Grey may look like an action film, and it may even work as such, but it’s also a meditation on our profound sense of helplessness in the face of death.

5. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
“I was particularly moved by the way the film depicts Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad, who is always dressed in a child’s Union Army uniform, and is constantly seen looking through photographic plates of former slaves. The child...thus becomes something of a ghost, or an angel – a figure in whom America’s past, present, and future merge. The son might, in a sense, represent the nation's conscience -- both its broken promise of freedom and its belief in a higher purpose.”

6. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Master may actually be less about its ostensible story and more about its surfaces. It’s about putting the needy, nervous angularity of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance next to the avuncular, comfy generosity of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, and seeing what develops, what ecosystems of character are formed in the back-and-forth between these figures.”

7. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
A movie all about seeing in the dark, its most haunting image a shot of two black helicopters, lights off, moving quietly through a moonless Pakistani night. Meanwhile, characters fumble amid opaque, impermeable walls of terrorist chatter. They work in “black sites” and blacken their souls – commit what many consider unconscionable crimes – to bring even the slightest glimmer of light to a shadowy world seemingly out of their reach. They plunge into the land of darkness and we wonder if they will ever find their way back.

8. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
“[It] somewhat recalls Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, which also showed the strain of its ever-expanding canvas. That film too was a gloriously expansive cartoon, an attempt to use simple, even simplistic characters and situations to forge a big, bold vision of a nation being born…But that nation wasn't a real country; Gangs was a retroactive creation myth for the ‘America’ of Sergio Leone Westerns and Bob Kane comic books. In that sense, Nolan's sprawling bleak fantasy isn't just a final curtain, but also a kind of homecoming. Ambitious, riveting and silly in equal measure, The Dark Knight Rises is a resolutely ‘shallow’ epic — problematic, perhaps, but also a work of unforgettable, compulsive beauty.”

9. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson responds to everyone who wishes he’d be less arch and stylized with what might be his most arch, most stylized film. But this time, he expands the palette to offer up a surprisingly expansive and generous vision of young love. I’ve said for years that he’s secretly wanted to remake Badlands. Now he’s gone and done it; this is his lovers-on-the-run movie, in tween miniature. The setting may be minor, but the moral vision is immense.

10. Beloved (Christophe Honore)
A musical love story that seems to exist entirely in a weird liminal space. The characters, who are often prevented from being lovers by circumstance but can still be lovers in other ways, can’t quite bring themselves to say they love each other. And the musical numbers reflect this odd, in-between quality; they’re not even numbers, not really, consisting mainly of characters walking down a street singing. The songs are reflective, quiet; they don’t denote the revelation of great moments (as in, say, something like Singin’ in the Rain) but rather seem like the thoughts of a character ruminating on his or her predicaments. The music is beautiful without being boisterous, touching without being overbearing. Not unlike life itself, it’s all recitativo.

The Next 10:

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)

Samsara (Ron Fricke)

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)

Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman)

Extraterrestrial (Nacho Vigalondo)

The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Huw Evans)

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)

The Life of Pi (Ang Lee)

Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs)

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)


  1. I'm so glad to see It's Such a Beautiful Day on your list.

    1. I missed "Room 237" at AFI Fest. "Holy Motors" was my top film of the year

  2. Awesome post! I want to watch the Moonrise Kingdom but I don't know any sites where I can watch it. Anyway, thank you for sharing this one.

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