2012 was a pretty damn good year in film — though I wasn’t totally aware of this until I sat down and tried to figure out my top ten films of the year. There were a few films that I knew would be locks for the list, but I figured out that there were many more that I loved for which I just couldn’t find the room. Before I get to my ten, I need to recognize a few films that nearly made my list that you may not have seen: Detachment, Indie Game: The Movie, The Invisible War, Arbitrage, Rust and Bone.
As for eligibility, I consider worldwide theatrical/DVD release. So, films that premiered at film festivals in 2011 are safe, but this means that many foreign films are list casualties. For example, This Is Not a Film (and perhaps others not on the tip of my tongue) could have certainly made the cut.
10. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Just like its subject, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is simple, without frills. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to take from this lovely little doc. It is full of soft-spoken but incredibly interesting characters, all are complete masters of their professions. No matter the field, it is always amazing to a genius at work, and Jiro Ono is compelling in his perfection. And if you love sushi, David Gelb’s photography is mouth-watering. In my mind, it is one of the best films ever made about food.
9. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
I have been a fan of the Duplass brothers ever since their first feature, The Puffy Chair. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is my favorite to date (a trend that will emerge throughout this list) — showing the strength of 2012. They have always shown they could tell great stories that are funny, charming and poignant, but my only drawback has been their hand-held shooting style, which tends to distract. Here the style clicked for me; the quick zooms heightening the characters’ psychologies and directly contributing to the story. I also found Jeff, Who Lives at Home their most grown-up film, which is either appropriate or ironic given the nature of its plot. The film builds wonderfully to its conclusion, which turned off some, but worked perfectly for me. I have to admit that it got a little dusty in the theater.
8. Magic Mike
Though not really thought of as a comedy, I don’t know if there was a film in 2012 that I laughed at more. Soderbergh shows us a world I never cared to visit, but the authenticity of the club sequences are completely electric. He also does so without looking down at the male strippers or their patrons, which helps the film be more inclusive for the audience and avoiding a cheap feel. Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey give two of my favorite performances of the year, both showing that they are much more than their Hollywood personas.
7. Moonrise Kingdom
Though I generally like the films of Wes Anderson, I’ve never considered myself a big fan. In my opinion, Moonrise Kingdom is his best work. You get all the quirkiness, the wonderfully staged setpieces, the offbeat humor, but I see much more heart than I expect from Anderson. I don’t know anything about his background, but I feel something personal in Sam, the young orphan desperately trying to escape a world that doesn’t understand his peculiarities. Though it gets a bit wacky in the final act, I was already charmed. Anderson also gets to work with a few new actors (Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand) who are all fantastic and all bring something a little new to the auteur’s work.
6. Zero Dark Thirty
I don’t necessarily think that Zero Dark Thirty is a better film than her Oscar breakthrough The Hurt Locker, but it definitely feels more complete. She has strengthened her rapport with screenwriter Mark Boal to produce one of the most thrilling film-going experiences of the year. Though I don’t agree with those who feel the film endorses torture, I think the controversy shows the strength of the film — it’s narrative and thematic complexity is something that should be championed. Really, though, Jessica Chastain’s performance is its bright spot. Her transformation from the first scene to the last is astonishing. Zero Dark Thirty beats down the audience, but in an acceptable way — it’s important to feel the everyday drudge that these characters face without any end in sight.
5. The Master
The Master is a perfect display of a master filmmaker in complete control — even when the film feels like it is spiraling out of control. Even without momentous stakes or suspense, I found myself on the edge of my seat. Typically this would be an “actor’s film” with the three gigantic performances at its center, but Paul Thomas Anderson never gives you any doubt that he is the real star. Even when I felt confused or emotionally cold, I couldn’t help but be entranced, as if I was the one being processed by Lancaster Dodd. I would always prefer a film to be warm and invite its audience in, but that’s clearly not Anderson’s intention. The film’s intensity never allowed me to become detached and I was able to appreciate it from afar.
4. Life of Pi
Life of Pi is a film that genuinely surprised me. Yes, the book-end narration can be tough to get through, Rafe Spall’s writer adds basically nothing, and the film decides it needs to spell everything out for the audience (one line could be cut from the film and it would be even greater). Still, Pi’s adventure across the Pacific Ocean is breathtaking in all aspects. I’m not a religious person, so I was pleased that the film never becomes preachy — in fact, it’s focus on using faith to find your own way should have merit with any atheist. My bigger takeaway, though, is that Life of Pi is a film about the power of storytelling. It shows us how stories can help us deal with tragedy and are really the only way we can understand great human experience. And it’s all shown in exceptionally beautiful 3D (gasp!) — the best use of the technique I’ve seen.
If I was recently asked about who my favorite filmmakers were and I surprised myself when Richard Linklater came to mind. He has obviously made some great, innovative films, but he has suffered from a lot of mediocrity — the last film I liked was made over eight years ago. Bernie is a strong return to form. Though the documentary style (here, faux-doc) isn’t something Linklater has worked with (he’s even taken a nonfiction best-seller and turned it into an ensemble film), but it fits right into his direction. At its heart, Bernie is a film about community, a theme Linklater knows inside-and-out. The use of real-life community members adds an extra dimension to the film, an authenticity you wouldn’t expect from any other filmmaker. Even taking the film at its surface, it is absolutely hilarious and gives us the best Jack Black we’ve ever seen.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
I feel about Beasts of the Southern Wild the same way that most everyone else seemed to feel about The Tree of Life. Yes, I realize they are two completely different films with different goals, but Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature filled me with an unbridled joy that caught me completely off guard. Like Bernie, this is a wonderful film about community — a surprising one, given that no one would expect these inhabitants to be as strong or happy as they seem. Zeitlin is able to take a destitute environment and show that as long as people have each other, they have strength. The film also plays as a fantasy, but that doesn’t wash away the harsh realities that these characters have to face. This makes the film both beautiful and devastating, often at the same time.
1. Cloud Atlas
There isn’t a film that grabbed me this year like Cloud Atlas did. Its greatness stands by the many beautiful and heartfelt moments it provides, but it is perhaps the greatest example of a film that is more than the sum of its parts. This is a result of the film’s narrative, of course, but Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis perfectly convey this through their filmmaking, as well — with some of the best editing I’ve ever seen. The editing is flashy, but it is also substantial, always building and making connections. Though it throws a lot of information at us and zooms between these stories quickly, at many points breaking at the climax of the scene, it never becomes confusing. I can understand why some are distracted by the strange makeup and racial bending. Given the major themes of the film, I find these noted missteps adding to the film’s power — if we don’t understand that these are the same souls spanning these stories, it has no power. There will probably never be another film quite like Cloud Atlas. While that makes me a bit sad, I’m glad I have this one.