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The Best Films of 2012

Written by on December 31, 2012 

Nick Newman’s Best Films of 2012

2012: the year many a soft-skulled individual thought cinema made its way toward the exit sign. I don’t know what the fuck these people were even going on about. (Allow yourself to consent to frankness.) It’s not just that our finest living artists are still producing top-tier work — something I can either attest to or, for the time being, have to take the reliable word of others on — but also knowing there are new world talents coming into their own as the decade moves forward. The medium and its “culture” — whatever such a broad, loosely-used term can even signify, thank you very much — are still going strong.

The less humble part of yours truly likes to think this list can exemplify as much. Deciding on numbers 10-6 forced me to edge out films which, up until oh-so-recently, would have landed here without regret, while entries 5-2 could almost be a four-way tie. Although the crown jewel is, really, in a class of its own (hence it being a “crown jewel”), this is like any proper year-end rundown: not so much about ranking films as about commending them.

And there are still multiple entries I hope to encounter in the coming weeks and months. Here are those I, being a schmuck, didn’t have a chance (or the proper time) to see which, otherwise, may have landed here: Alps, Amour, I Wish, Neighboring Sounds, Tabu, This Must Be the Place and The Turin Horse.

Honorable Mentions

Top Ten

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Having only seen this once — and with that, too, being a recent viewing — it feels a little unfair that I’d give this film a “last-place” spot on my current top ten. What Nuri Bilge Ceylan is doing here doesn’t completely facilitate some sort of instant reaction — past that of the simple good / bad sort, of course — but one of long-term consideration and parsing. Nevertheless, an initial glance (that’s only about a week fresh) has given incentive to hail Once Upon a Time in Anatolia as a delicate, intimidatingly deliberate rumination on ethics, country, occupation, and social class which, better yet, is built upon a great premise. If you’re looking for the kind of film its plot outline would suggest, you may want to reconsider your options. Jettison those expectations and you’ll be handed a far-flung wonder.

9. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)

This, like the film discussed right above, is a slow burn of the highest caliber. Trying to pin down what makes such a bizarre film so effective in one tiny capsule is no easy task, except to say (if nothing else) that the temporal rhythm of Julia Loktev’s film is one of the most precise I’ve seen in recent years; that she, Gael García Bernal, and Hani Furstenberg could manipulate it as a point-counterpoint to observant, bruising human drama is the greatest compliment I could pay The Loneliest Planet. Don’t be content to just bother with my praise, though — not that anyone is going to do that, let’s be honest here — but take the plunge and fall under its spell for yourself.

8. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)

This film, on the other hand, does not have the same sort of flavor. Being a longtime fan of James Bond, through thick and Brosnan, there is an admittable (though not at all regrettable) smidge of bias when it comes to the pleasures afforded by Skyfall. Yet so plentiful they are, and so well-laid is the entire film, that it’s sort of for naught. Daniel Craig continues his emotionally fractured journey as what is, now, the world’s most-reluctant secret agent with the best team to ever converge over 23 franchise entries, bringing together a motion picture that’s as enjoyable to watch in the moment as it is to consider in the lens of a greater legacy. Throwing that into the equation, this might be the best instance of 007’s own.

7. The Comedy
 (Rick Alverson)

In thinking about The Comedy, there’s one central thing which refuses to escape my brain: that Rick Alverson, with whom I had zero prior association, is able to deliver both the funniest and most upsetting sequences I encountered this entire year. It’s because of an unbreakable commitment to performance — speaking both literally and figuratively — which defines the film from first scene to last, and which also makes it hypnotically compelling even as you’re repulsed out of your own skin. This is not everyone’s speed — I doubt it could ever truly be “the speed” of anyone with a good conscience, actually — but those who can go with it ought to come out shaken from and grateful for the experience.

6. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature is not nearly as inscrutable as many were wont to proclaim some four months ago; seen from a distance, this is a work ultimately dependent on what someone brings to it themselves. For the purposes of this list, many of the emotional conduits which allowed myself to tap into this story of a wayward veteran — so long as it’s acceptable to be so reductive and call The Master the story of a wayward veteran — are too personal to get into here… so focus on what’s more rigidly applied, shall we? (I swear, none involve an aunt.) While there’s (truly) nothing new to be said about Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance, the exhaustion to which it’s been covered only speaks to the strength and magnetism supplied in nearly every scene, even as it threatens to consume everything else in The Master along with it. But the “everything else” is of such exemplary caliber — framing, lighting, image & sound editing, that damn Jonny Greenwood score — that Anderson, in the end, pulls off his finest balancing act yet. If things can feel a little, well, wayward at various points, we can blame the drunken sailor at its center.

5. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)

The best filmmaker to emerge these past 25 years — a number applied out of kindness for those who might’ve jumped in a bit earlier — rides into his third decade in no short supply of something to proclaim. While Django Unchained is absurdly entertaining in its own right — so much so that it could earn a spot on this list for that much alone — it’s no less invigorating to see Quentin Tarantino take further steps in his role as, if you’ll allow another plaudit, far and away the most crucial voice American cinema currently has at its disposal. What we have here is a deep, dark journey into the helmer’s country, but that doesn’t discount the immeasurable work of his partners in crime — at first glance, the most notable being a triptych of onscreen players who, though invaluable on their own, coalesce as something altogether more special. That Django Unchained can be a genuinely warm, humanist work amidst the explosions of blood and hurls of expletives says more than I could ever hope to.

4. This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi)

Technically the only documentary on my list (a gross oversight for which I have no truly reasonable excuse), but throwing one label on it is none-too-wise. I think This Is Not a Film would deserve a place if it was only the most important work of cinema I’d seen all year, though even something about that, as well, feels like a simplification. Taken on its own terms, the picture is a remarkable blur between fact, fiction, and the sort of creative impulse that drives presentations of either; knowing the real-world consequences that may ensue for Jafar Panahi — as well as his co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb — in simply making it happen, Film is embedded with a real-world power that could render nearly everything else on this list moot.

3. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)

A young and wealthy man goes to get a haircut, and on the limo ride through Manhattan loses the last remnants of his soul. But does he actually gain something greater along the way?

This is only one of many, many questions which lie at the heart of Cosmopolis, a film that’s been plaguing yours truly as if it were some consuming disease David Cronenberg would’ve made the central focus as a younger man. Now being older and, I think, wiser for it, the horrors have become more real, tangible, and relevant — not that I want to make this out to be a total downer. Seeing Robert Pattinson cavort around town in a limousine, diners, bookstores, and, eventually, even a barber shop — all as he (sometimes intimately) interacts with an incredible ensemble — is, honest-to-God, a hugely thrilling time. And what else can you say about the soundtrack by Howard Shore & Metric? Not much when you only want to bask in a paramount work of modern ennui.

2. Lincoln
 (Steven Spielberg)

Despite being a minor student of history in my private time, biopics of the big figures have rarely struck a chord. If anything separates Lincoln and elevates it to a work that can feel as monumental as the man himself, it’s the vantage point taken by Steven Spielberg and scribe Tony Kushner. Much more a wounded reflection of feeling than rigid document of fact, here we have a picture about the way men can pivot the strengths of (immense) power and complexities of democratic process to steer the course of history for some greater good. But by no means is this saccharine in its execution; there’s something oddly cynical about the story. At Lincoln’s heart, after all, is a man who could hardly keep his own life in order, nor carry out some great act of humanity without paying for it in the blood of others and, finally, the blood of himself. The idea itself isn’t wholly new, but it’s a delivery that’s so resolute and so moving that I can’t believe a major fall release is able to stick that landing. There isn’t even enough time to dig into the strength of its performances or, in addition, the great formal resilience of its creators — but, at the end of the day, I think this is an accomplishment to be moved by. The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!

1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)

I’m sort of amazed to find this standing at the top.

Although there were, prior to 2012, a pair of great films (and some very good ones) to be found in Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, his work has rarely spoken (or sung) to myself. But after a second viewing of Moonrise Kingdom — following a quite positive (albeit somewhat reserved) initial encounter — when I was fully aware of its quirks and turns, did I also find myself surrendering to it like the throes of young love. In telling a cute, seemingly simple story about two 12-year-old kids who, in 1965 New England, run off to get married, the co-writer (alongside Roman Coppola) and director has made something as socially observant as it is internally complex. Let’s not stop short: Moonrise Kingdom may, if you’ll pardon the candor, replicate the feeling of being in love — that at one moment wonderful, at the next moment horrifying sensation which weighs down your entire body — more than any film I’ve ever seen. Personally, the experience of watching Anderson and co. work magic in a tiny, 35mm theater one warm night in June is so perfect that I’m almost afraid to venture with Sam and Suzy once more. Yet, finally, I think Moonrise Kingdom is one for the history books.

The Film Stage’s Best Films of 2012

[Jordan Raup] [Dan Mecca] [Nick Newman] [Raffi Asdourian]

[Danny King] [Jared Mobarak] [Jack Giroux] [John Fink]

Follow our look back at 2012: The Year In Film

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