Top 10 cinematic highlights of 2012: one very subjective list

As I mentioned in an earlier post where I lamented the worst stinkers I endured in 2012, yours truly saw 212 movies last year, 150 of which were assignments for my freelance Movie Analyst gig. And yet even with all those films, I don’t claim the following list to be definitive — how can I say for sure what the best movie of 2012 was when I still haven’t seen Magic Mike?

In alphabetical order:

Beasts of the Southern Wild

U.S., 2012
Director: Benh Zeitlin

Surely this needs no introduction from me. The opening 10 minutes are so stunning that the rest of the film may have a hard time measuring up. But who could fail to be touched by Hushpuppy’s standoff with the mythical beasts of the title?

(I was in a movie theatre in Germany last month, and a preview for Beasts… played, with Hushpuppy’s narration translated into German. Wisely, perhaps, the translator left Hushpuppy’s name as is.)


the feel-bad movie of summer 2012Cosmopolis
Canada/France/Portugal/Italy, 2012
Director: David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg turns Don DeLillo’s cerebral, uningratiating 2003 novel into an amusing, unsettling provocation. The blackest of comedies and a funhouse mirror treatment of the financial crisis, all but guaranteed to repel a mainstream audience. Also, a perfect part for Robert Pattinson — who’d have thought? Click here for the review.


Crazy Horse
U.S./France, 2011
Director: Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman’s cinema-verité documentary about the Crazy Horse, the cabaret/ ‘erotic revue’ that is a fixture of nightlife in Paris. The backstage scenes are a nonsensational treatment of the life of burlesque dancers, and the on-stage routines are an eyeful: Wiseman films each musical number in long, unbroken takes. The lighting design and choreography are so elaborate and imaginative that the viewer appreciates that there’s actual artistry at work in the Crazy Horse’s fabled nightly show.

Moreover, the movie is unexpectedly funny. Wiseman captures a lot of bickering between the club’s new choreographer and director and the hard-nosed business manager: the choreographer’s protestations of l’art pour l’art are like an unwitting satire of artistic pretension — and yet, his work proves that he has a point.

Holy Motors
France/Germany, 2012
Director: Leos Carax

Surrealism done right: this exuberant shape-shifter of a movie is about 10 films in one. Holy Motors appears to have become a cult movie within weeks of its U.S. release, and deservedly so. Click here for the review.

honest AbeLincoln
U.S., 2012
Director: Steven Spielberg

As much Tony Kushner’s film as Steven Spielberg’s, and Spielberg seems to have recognized what a good script he had by pulling back on his trademark excess. (Lincoln is positively Bresson-like compared to War Horse, last year’s boondoggle of kitsch.)

Most of the movie is so well done that the few false notes are all the more glaring: the consensus seems to be universal that the movie should end 10 minutes earlier, with the shot of Honest Abe ambling away down a White House hallway.

It would be fine by me if this romped at the Oscars. Now if only Tony Kushner would write a screenplay for Martin Scorsese…

U.S., 2011/2012
Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Technically a 2011 film, because a shorter, studio-mandated cut received a botched theatrical release in fall of that year. But the director’s cut only surfaced in summer 2012, on DVD (but not Blu-Ray!) and at a one-night-only screening at LACMA. That showing at LACMA, with director Kenneth Lonergan and star Anna Paquin in attendance, was my favorite movie experience of the year.

Lonergan’s sprawling 186-minute cut occasionally threatens to become shapeless. But that’s part of the joy of the movie — it feels like an immersion in the New York City of the first decade of this century, with an array of vivid NYC characters and an admirably fearless lead performance from Paquin. Click here for the review.

The Master
U.S., 2012
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

I’ll confess I need to see this again to fully make up my mind about it. There’s no question that the opening half hour is filmmaking of a rare order, and after sitting through far too many indie trifles in late summer — where it felt like was everyone was working from the same screenplay manuals, and the visuals all looked like a competently shot TV show, if that — it was a  godsend to encounter genuine, we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-digital, 65mm Cinema again when this came out.

That said, for me the latter half evoked Freddie Quell’s experience of being inducted into Lancaster Dodd’s cult a bit too well — that is, I found it suffocating and oppressive in a way that had me dying to get out of the theatre. It’s possible that the sense of a static, repetitive narrative is intentional.

The three Oscar nods for Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are entirely deserved, but it’s a puzzle to me why more technical awards or nominations haven’t been showered on The Master. The production design is one of the most vivid and credible recreations of late 1940s/early ’50s America I’ve ever seen.

Moonrise Kingdom
U.S., 2012
Director: Wes Anderson

A charmer, and the antidote to blockbusters. Benjamin Britten and Françoise Hardy both sounded wonderful on the sound system when I saw this at Hollywood’s Arclight. And note how expressive Edward Norton can make the act of smoking a cigarette.

My Joy
Germany/Ukraine/Netherlands, 2010
Director: Sergei Loznitsa

The least-known film on this list may have only played theatrically in the New York area. But its power comes across on DVD (released in the U.S. in early 2012): an honest truck driver sets off on his route in the eastern European countryside (either eastern Ukraine or Russia — the writeups I found online gave differing answers), and gets swallowed up in a nightmare of corruption. A flashback to the end of World War II midway through the film adds to the cumulative sense of a region that is historically cursed by the abuse of power.

Mirroring the protagonist’s mental state, the narrative becomes increasingly disjointed and surreal — many viewers don’t seem to realize that the bearded mute man in the movie’s second half is the same hearty, optimistic guy we saw driving the truck earlier. Dark like nothing else I saw in 2012.

Oh Boy
Germany, 2012
Director: Jan Ole Gerster

A very droll, bittersweet comedy that will surely appeal to fans of all things indie, not to mention Woody Allen’s classic period. An exemplary debut film. Click here for the review, and fingers crossed for a U.S. release.

And as a fan of repertory cinemas, I can’t resist adding…

Best Revival:
Celine and Julie Go Boating
France, 1974
Director: Jacques Rivette

A movie that deserves to be much better known beyond its cult reputation: Two women in Paris meet and find themselves drawn to a mysterious mansion, where a trio of aristocrats enacts the same ritual-like behavior every day. Is it a parallel reality, or a shared drug trip between the two women?

A story that at first seems vaguely spooky, and even impenetrable, gradually (very gradually — the movie runs a leisurely 193 minutes) becomes more and more mischievous, and then gleefully subversive. Juliette Berto and Dominique Labourier are endearing cut-ups as the title characters.

A feminist comedy, and also a rare instance where the use of metafiction actually adds up to something. Now if only someone would release this on DVD in the U.S.

There were more than 10 standout films in 2012, of course — click here for the Honorable Mention category of movies that didn’t make the above list.

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