Jordan's Top Ten Films of 2012
Jordan's Top Ten Films of 2012
Every year, I play the parameters of my Best Films list by ear. Sometimes I rigidly stick to the top ten format, leaving all other comers out in the cold, no matter how close they come to making my actual list. In other years, I go a little hog wild, allowing myself multiple honorable mentions to reflect the breadth and diversity of a year's offerings. I saw more movies in 2012 than perhaps ever before, and that made this list very tough to make. But at the end of the day, I've decided to be rigid this year. 2012 was full of cinematic riches, with over 30 movies making my short-list for consideration. At the end of the day, though, I allowed only ten to make the final cut. They run the gamut from sweepingly historical to vividly personal, from epic cinematic visions to intensely personal documents (some even arguably combine the two). These are my favorite films of 2012, and each is, in its own way, a forceful argument for the vitality of the cinematic form.

NOTE: As of this writing, I have not seen Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, which would quite possibly have been in high consideration for a spot on this list.

10. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's attempt to dramatize the passage of the 13th Amendment is far from perfect"”full of historical inaccuracies, and far too often assured of its own import"”but it exists as one of the greatest acting showcases of 2012 (and easily contains the best array of facial hair to grace a movie screen this year). Daniel Day Lewis is stunning (as always) in his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as a passionate pragmatist, and a man bearing the great weight of decisions past and present, but he is surrounded by a cast full of stellar performances, including Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, David Strathairn, Lee Pace, Jared Harris, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and the Oscar-worthy Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Kushner's script goes too far, on occasion, but it just as often awes, whether in the fiery oratory of the House of Representatives, or the quiet moments when Lincoln tells a ponderous story to whoever will listen. And while many of Spielberg's tics and pet themes are on display, they rarely detract from the story he is telling. Lincoln is a great, if imperfect film about a great, if imperfect man, and much of its bombast is earned by the quiet moments in between, where statesmen of great skill struggle to pass a vital law by any means necessary, while keeping their integrity intact.

9. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson has created a coming-of-age fable as only he can in Moonrise Kingdom, a delicate, hyper-stylized, drily witty story of young love in all its earnest glory. Sam (Jared Gilman) flees from his summer camp to meet up with his pen pal Suzy (Kara Hayward) so the two can run away together. The two escape into the Wilderness, camping out at a private cove, where they plan to start a life together. Sadly, the interference of the adults in their lives, (including Ed Norton as Sam's Scoutmaster, Bruce Willis as the local policeman, Tilda Swinton as a Child Services agent and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy's parents). Though Moonrise Kingdom lacks the depth of Anderson's best films, it makes up for it in emotional resonance. Anyone who ever got carried away by a childish flight of fancy or got stung when reality interceded on a fantasy will relate to the film, and it is impossible not to root for Sam and Suzy to find their island paradise, and to stay out of the clutches of the adults who clearly just want what is best for them. The performances by Gilman and Hayward are very solid, never a given when a movie hinges on a child's performance (more on that below), and the film is a treasure trove of Anderson's stylistic flourishes, carefully curated musical choices, and canny dialogue. Clever, beautiful, and ultimately emotionally satisfying, Moonrise Kingdom is an exercise in emotion transcending aesthetics, a story that will be familiar to all, told as only Wes Anderson could tell it.

8. Silver Linings Playbook

Throughout his career, David O. Russell has been a master of mining psychological discomfort and existential crises for comedic ends, and he somehow manages to lend his patented screwball energy to what could easily have been too dark a tale in Silver Linings Playbook. The film follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), a former teacher recently released from a mental institution and struggling to get his wife back and overcome his manic depression. Cooper has never been better, capturing the highs and lows of the illness but never letting it define his character. When he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, a wounded widow, it's hardly a meet-cute, but the two quickly develop a mutually beneficial relationship. When you add in Robert De Niro, at his best in over a decade as Pat's superstitious, Eagle's obsessed father and the surprisingly real stakes of Pat and Tiffany's dance competition, you have a slow boil that builds to a crescendo of comedic dysfunction. The film wouldn't work, however, if it didn't take its characters' psychological traumas seriously, and it is rarely better than when it reminds us how close to the edge they all are at any given moment. Though guilty at times (especially in its crowd-pleaser of an ending) of undercutting real mental illness for the version often depicted in movies, the film is carried by a series of tremendous performances (including turns by Chris Tucker and Anupam Kher that are funny and moving) that sketch in the characters to the point that it is hard not to love them for all their flaws.

7. Not Fade Away

For his feature film directorial debut, David Chase aimed to tackle no less than an entire decade, and to give it the resonance of a memoir. The film, based on Chase's own youth in New Jersey in the 1960's, follows the development, if never quite rise, of a local garage band operating in the shadows of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Trying to sum up the film in a blurb like this eschews its particular charms; though it runs less than two hours, it has the depth and complexity of seasons of television. The film could easily get mired in its various subplots, from the conflict between protagonist John Magaro and the various members of his band to his combative relationship with his father (James Gandolfini) and his tumultuous one with his on-again-off-again girlfriend (Bella Heathcote), his high school dream girl who proves to be far more complex than he ever would have guessed, but instead it manages to depict these strands as they would play out"”minor parts of a full life. The film doesn't ever fully escape the period clichés (family fights over Civil Rights, Gandolfini's anger that his son dresses "like a queer"), and it often meanders through its narrative rather than functioning as a propulsive narrative, but there is such a strong personal touch to even the most blatantly cliché moments that it is easy to get carried away in the sweeping narrative and get caught up in the emotional beats of each of the characters. Ultimately, Not Fade Away is about the promise of the "˜60s, and the way it was inevitably broken by the passage of time. Though it closes with a moment so absurd it is almost laughable, it has earned its hard-won sentiment by then, unspooling at its own pace a coming of age story, and a tale of the transformative power of rock and roll.

6. Wuthering Heights

In creating Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold took the source material, wiped the dust off it, and got it back to its primal roots. Like the cinematic love child of Lars Von Trier and Terrence Malick, the film is gorgeously rendered and emotionally raw. More blatant in its treatment of race than any of its predecessors, the film follows the doomed romance of Heathcliff (played during childhood by Solomon Grave, and during adulthood by James Howson) and Catherine (played in childhood by Shannon Beer, and in adulthood by Kaya Scodelario), whose attraction fundamentally alters, and potentially destroys, them both. Eschewing the period-piece stodginess most often associated with adaptations of the novel, Arnold renders the story in handheld cameras, shooting the English moors where the story takes place from low angles and emphasizing the immensity and power of natural forces against the comparative weakness of the film's protagonists. The film is also given a far more profane edge than previous attempts to bring the story to life, making Heathcliff's mistreatment and tortured soul all the more realistic. Wuthering Heights is a bleak film, full of cruelty and misfortune, but Arnold's naturalistic style, dedication to the novel's tortured soul, and the raw performances from all of the central cast create the best cinematic adaptation of the source material to date: a dark, obsessive, beautiful, and heart-rending film about the power of love to both create and destroy.

5. Amour

Michael Haneke is well known for his bracing lack of sentimentality, and for his detached views on his subjects, so he may not seem to be the most likely director of a film called Amour. The film fits perfectly within his cannon, though, in its devastatingly realistic portrait of an elderly couple (French New Wave stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva) in a slow downward slope. After Anne (Riva) suffers a stroke, her condition begins to quickly deteriorate, and Georges (Trintingant) is left to care for her. More a character study than Haneke's famous parables, Funny Games and The White Ribbon), Amour is severe, but never cruel, bleak, but rarely hopeless, and soul-crushing in as much as it is love-affirming. This is a film about the inevitable end of love, and what true love means in the long term, and it is beautiful in its depiction of a man whose devotion to his wife goes far beyond a sense of obligation, and to an almost instinctual devotion.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Easily the most impressive debut feature in 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a visual marvel, a non-narrative journey through a land not too far removed from our own, with the year's most powerful narrator as our guide. Director Benh Zeitlin creates a world of magical realism in The Bathtub, a community outside the levies in Louisiana, always one storm away from total obliteration. Hush Puppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, who was five when filming began, and gives a performance of such strength and indomitable will, she should be seriously considered for a Best Actress Oscar) lives in the Bathtub with her dying father Wink (Dwight Henry, a first time actor also giving a stellar performance). When the two are forced to interact with the real world, a mythologized 21st century South that is going about its business of coming apart, they are thrown into a whimsical journey that has Hush Puppy searching for her mother and coming face to face with the creatures of the film's title. The narrative is thin, but it gives more room for the artful tangents and striking images that make this movie stand out. It's a beautiful coming of age story, a lyrical fantasy, and a showcase for one of the greatest performances of 2012. A thousand years from now scientists will know that there was a Hush Puppy, who lived in the Bathtub with her daddy.

3. Holy Motors

Trying to explain Holy Motors is such an exercise in futility, I would probably be better served just telling you to go out and see it. A meditation on the death of cinema, as analog is replaced by digital, the film is more focused on its clever, weird, and ultimately tragic image of where artistic expression might go once film is a thing of the past. Denis Lavant gives the best performance unlikely to be recognized by anyone this year, as Mr. Oscar, a man forever traveling from "appointment" to "appointment," and assuming a different identity as he goes. Whether he is playing a bag lady, a deformed troll, an assassin, or an acrobat in full motion-capture garb, Levant completely transforms, becoming whatever is required of him. Leos Carax hasn't made a movie since 1999's Pola X, and he freely admits that many of the film's vignettes spring from ideas he was unable to turn into films over the last decade. This gives Holy Motors a surprising capacity for invention, and makes it one of the most unique films I've seen in years. The film careens from giddy heights (at one point, Lavant leads a band of accordion players through a church as they play a phenomenal cover of RL Burnsides "Let My Baby Ride") to melancholy lows (Lavant plays a dying man, and in the most ambiguous scene in a film full of them, interacts with Kylie Mingoue, who is either another person in his profession, a former lover, or both), but Lavant's incredible performance lends the film a throughline, and a surprising emotional resonance. A love letter to cinema and a reminder of the medium's endless possibilities, Holy Motors is a compelling argument for film as a medium, and for the infinite creativity of the human mind.

2. Zero Dark Thirty

From the start, it was clear that Zero Dark Thirty would be controversial: decried by conservatives as pro-Obama, liberals as pro-torture, and a depressing amount of sexists as "made by a woman," it had an uphill climb from the start. What all of the bombast and hot air obscures is the fact that the film is a vividly compelling picture of our times, a systematic procedural with a soul, and a showcase for Jessica Chastain, whose Maya anchors the film, supported by a bevy of great television actors. Director Katheryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who previously teamed on 2009's phenomenal The Hurt Locker) follow methodically every step of the investigation into the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden in the decade after he orchestrated the attacks on 9/11, never shying away from the dark, dark places this country was willing to go in pursuit of a madman, and how deep we were willing to sink to ensure another attack never occurred. The film is certainly a tribute to the skill, perseverance, dedication, and sacrifice required by the CIA and the SEAL members to capture Bin Laden, but it is never a blatant hagiography, nor does it even have a vague whiff of propaganda, as it likely would have in lesser hands. Instead, it is a dark journey into the American psyche in the post-9/11 decade, rife with grief, paranoia, anger, and ultimately fatigue. For better or worse, Zero Dark Thirty is a document of our times.

1. The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson just doesn't make bad movies, so its little surprise that The Master is a stunningly ambitious film, a panorama of its era, and a study of the father-son bond that develops between Lancaster Dodd (the stellar Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, who in a just world would win Best Actor). Quell is a damaged soul, a veteran of WWII who all too freely gives into his baser instincts and his drinking habit. Dodd is the leader of "The Cause," a philosophical movement inspired by Scientology. At its base, the film is another exercise in Anderson's pet themes, but there is so much more to it that the film is sure to reveal even greater depths on repeat viewings (I have, as of this writing, seen it but once). Quell and Dodd are drawn into a battle of wills that spans years and continents, and while much of the film is a close-up (both literally, in its cinematography, and thematically) on the two of them, it also expands to encompass the uncertainty of the post-War years. Ultimately, the film is an examination of the impulse to control and to be controlled, questioning humanity's place in the universe, our relation to each other, and the ways we can and cannot shape our lives. The Master is a philosophically deep, emotionally resonant film, beautifully directed, superbly acted, and stellar in just about every way possible. In short, its another in a long line of Paul Thomas Anderson masterpieces, a picture of its period that is more accurately a statement on humanity as a whole.

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