Ten just ain’t enough this year. Though few of the 2012’s top films stand out as universally lauded – this award season seems wide-open, with frontrunners Lincoln and Life of Pi seemingly lacking the steam that would propel them to sweeping wins – 2012 was an unusually good year in film. From approximately 240 2012 releases that I saw over the course of the year, I counted 20 that I rated at four stars, about 33% more than 2011.
With the Oscar nominations just released, many awards-season films will see release in the Czech Republic over the next couple months in advance of the February 24th ceremony. While in the US recently, I had the chance to catch up with many films that have not yet or will not open theatrically; the following awards-season films fell short of making this list, but open in the Czech Republic over the next few months: Lincoln (January 24), The Impossible (January 31), Hitchcock (February 7), The Sessions (February 21), Flight (February 21), Hyde Park on Hudson (February 28), and Zero Dark Thirty (release date TBA).
Below is my selection of the year’s best films, and when you can see them in Czech cinemas or on local DVD/Blu-ray. Notes: this list skews to mainstream, English-language films; many foreign or independent films have yet to see wide release, and I haven’t yet seen them. What constitutes a 2012 film? I’m going by the Academy definition of anything that has opened in general (public) release during the year (I consider Samsara a 2012 release even though IMDb lists it as 2011 due to a festival screening).
20. Berberian Sound Studio
Theatrical: Not released DVD: TBA (available at www.amazon.co.uk)
Director Peter Strickland’s surreal homage to Italian horror films (Dario Argento, in particular) and sound mixing stars character actor Toby Jones (in his best role since playing Truman Capote in Infamous) as a British sound engineer who comes to Rome to work on 1970s Italian giallo. This psychological horror film – which details the mental deterioration of the Jones character, a la Polanski’s Repulsion – won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it fascinating.
19. The Raid: Redemption
Theatrical: Not released (screened at KVIFF) DVD: TBA (available at www.amazon.com)
The entire movie is one long, incredibly violent action sequence: a dazzling experience, even if it gets wearying by the very end. Helmed by Welsh-born director Gareth Evans, this Indonesian film has set a new standard for action movies that won’t be easy to top.
Audiences and critics seemed split on this one, with many frustrated by the unanswered questions; I found it a thrilling ride with a welcome dose of ambiguity. Great sci-fi is so rare that I can forgive the minor faults in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel. The visuals – especially in 3D – are breathtaking.
17. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Theatrical: Not released. DVD: TBA
Ignore the cutesy title: this high school drama blindsided me with its honest, touching portrayal of teen angst, young love, and genuine friendship. Logan Lerman is incredibly endearing in the lead, and well supported by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson. Director Stephen Chbosky adapted his own novel.
A sublime experience: Ron Fricke’s non-narrative documentary (a follow-up to his previous features Chronos and Baraka) captures some of the most beautiful images ever put to film. Poetic, expansive, and larger-than-life, this is one film that must be seen in a cinema to be able to fully appreciate it.
15. Searching for Sugar Man
Theatrical: Not Released. DVD: TBA (available at www.amazon.com)
A purely magical documentary about Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit musician who recorded a couple terrific Dylan-esque albums in the early 70s; the albums didn’t sell, and Rodriguez disappeared into obscurity. In South Africa, however, the musician (without knowing about it or profiting from it) has had incredible success, outselling The Beatles for the past 30 years; Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul – along with South African aficionados and amateur detectives – attempts to track him down. Nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.
This is simply an extraordinary story, well told: a fake film project is used as the cover story to get US hostages out of Iran. Given the subject matter – and the lack of a clear frontrunner – I think it will win the Best Picture Oscar, even though Ben Affleck failed to receive a Best Director nomination (if it does, it will join Driving Miss Daisy as the only films since 1932 to do so). Argo also scored six other noms, including Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin).
Theatrical: February 14, 2013. DVD: TBA
Michael Haneke’s shattering drama – detailing the physical and mental deterioration of a woman in her 80s (Emmanuelle Riva) while her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) struggles to cope – isn’t an enjoyable experience (one critic dubbed it the “feel bad” movie of the year) but it’s an especially affecting and worthwhile one. Amour won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and scored five surprise Oscar noms, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Foreign Language Film, and Actress (at 85, Riva became the oldest nominee In the category’s history).
I wasn’t especially a fan of The Chemical Brothers until I saw this film, which saw only a handful of “event” screenings around the world before quickly hitting DVD/Blu-ray. See it in cinemas if you ever get the chance: an account of the duo’s 2011 Fuji Rock Festival gig that accurately re-creates The Chemical Brothers live experience, this is one of the best concert movies ever made.
A dazzling experience and one of the best-edited films you’ll ever see (the lack of an Oscar nomination in this category is egregious), Cloud Atlas is a triumph of visionary filmmaking by Andy and Lara Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, from the novel by David Mitchell. Like Prometheus, critics and audiences were split on this one, but the scope and ambition is undeniable.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful drama – detailing the effects of a Scientology-like cult on a war veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) – is both fascinating and frustrating; much of film is left open to interpretation. Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams scored Oscar noms for their work; Daniel Day Lewis will win likely the Oscar for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, but Phoenix gave the year’s finest performance as Freddie Quell.
Time travel movies are almost inherently unsatisfying – containing some kind of logical loophole that doesn’t make sense – but this one gets it right. Thoughtful, intelligent sci-fi is so rare in mainstream cinema that what director Rian Johnson accomplishes here is even more impressive. Following Ryan Gosling in 2011’s Drive, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe is the coolest character of the year.
8. Killing Them Softly
Theatrical: Not Released. DVD: TBA
After tanking at the US box office – one of less than ten films over the past few decades to receive the un-receivable ‘F’ Cinemascore – this Brad Pitt crime drama was dropped from the Czech Republic’s release schedule (Pitt and director Andrew Dominik’s previously film – the magnificent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, also went unreleased in Czech cinemas). I’m at a loss: this deliciously ironic mafia movie – which parallels the breakdown of American organized crime with the 2008 economic collapse – is a wickedly entertaining ride.
It’s The Tree of Life with stick figures. This compilation of three pencil-drawn shorts (Everything will be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day) from director Don Hertzfeldt (who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2000 short Rejected) is an unforgettable experience, filled with scenes that are simultaneously bitterly ironic and unexpectedly touching. While you’re unlikely to get a chance to see this in cinemas, the DVD can be purchased from the director’s website.
6. Silver Linings Playbook
Theatrical: February 28, 2013. DVD: TBA
The best romantic comedy since When Harry Met Sally. With Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director (David O. Russell), Screenplay, Actor (Bradley Cooper), Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), and Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), Silver Linings Playbook became the first film since Reds in 1981 to score nominations in every “major” category. Check back for a full review when the film hits Czech screens next month.
This starling piece of magical neo-realism is anchored by an unforgettable performance by Quvenzhané Wallis, who at 9 became the youngest Best Actress nominee in the history of the Academy. The film also secured Oscar noms for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin), and, in a surprising turn, Director, as debuting helmer Zeitlin was chosen over expected nominees Ben Affleck (Argo), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), and Quentin Tarantino…
Tarantino’s epic revisionist Western, or more appropriately, a “Southern”, is a real blast: sprawling and indulgent, wearing a love for the genre on its sleeve, it also tackles difficult subject matter with no holds barred. No matter what you think of the director’s films, this one – more than any other – is likely to inspire fevered discussion. Nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Christoph Waltz).
Wes Anderson has his detractors, but everyone seemed to love this beautiful, nostalgic portrait of young love. Everyone except AMPAS, that is, who awarded it a sole nomination for Original Screenplay. Young actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward make for especially sympathetic leads, and are aided by a terrific supporting cast; the director’s expected quirks enhance the material rather than detract from it.
2. Holy Motors
Theatrical: November 29, 2012. DVD: TBA (available from www.amazon.co.uk)
A breathtaking piece of unbridled surrealism by French enfant terrible Leos Carax, this is a film overflowing with fantastic ideas that we struggle to piece together into something tangible. Beautifully shot, with an incredible central performance by Denis Levant. That Holy Motors was shut out of the Oscars while Amour makes waves is indicative of the average age of the Academy.
And here’s one you won’t find atop any other top ten list. Director Martin McDonagh’s endlessly-quotable, genre-defying film is hysterical, and the most fun I had at the movies in 2012. In tone and style, it’s unlike anything else; in story, it recalls Charlie Kaufman postmodernism but with a playful, easygoing quality. I simply loved it.
Those are my picks. What was your favorite film of 2012?