The year just ended turned out to be an unusually strong one for films, both big budget studio pictures, such as Lincoln, Argo, Skyfall, and Flight, as well as smaller productions, such as Liberal Arts, Middle of Nowhere, Moonrise Kingdom and Take This Waltz. Following is a rather lengthy list of my favorite films of the year. It’s in alphabetical order, rather than preference. I have not yet seen Les Misérables, Rust and Bone, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or Promised Land, but I suspect that one or more of those would be on this list as well.
Argo (Ben Affleck, director). Ben Affleck is emerging as a very strong director (though I much prefer his first film, Gone Baby Gone , to his second, The Town ). Argo may not be a great film, but it’s a very good one, solid, well made, and tells a fascinating story. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are standouts.
Amour (Michael Haneke, director & writer – Austria/France/Germany). This carefully crafted study of love and death after a long marriage is dry-eyed, totally unsentimental, and quite beautiful. Haneke’s approach has always been very clinical and controlled. His films can be like watching a dissection in a cold room, but he’s a great filmmaker. The White Ribbon (2009) is my favorite film of his that I’ve seen, but Amour, with extraordinary, totally honest performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, is a close second for me.
Barbara (Christian Petzold, director & writer – Germany). Barbara, a doctor in East Germany in 1980, desperately wants to get out. This quietly powerful film downplays the action. Nina Hoss is wonderful in the title role.
Breathing (Karl Markovics, director & writer – Austria). Like Barbara, this film is also quite restrained and quite powerful. It concerns an incarcerated young man who takes a work-release job in a city morgue. It really got to me with scenes such as a recently deceased elderly woman’s body being gently cleaned and dressed by morgue attendants when they come to pick up her up, or the protagonist being helped to tie his tie by an older worker previously antagonistic to him. Breathing got a very brief release, but is definitely worth seeking out. It affected me as strongly as anything I saw last year.
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, director & writer). See my earlier post on this film (8/28/12).
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, director & writer). My God, what can I say about Quentin Tarantino and this film in particular? For something that starts out as a Spaghetti Western from the 60s & 70s, Django Unchained gets into stuff about race relations that’s about as far from Gone With the Wind as you can get. We expect great writing and unpredictably inventive plotting from Tarantino, and he doesn’t disappoint. He also gets the right actors for the parts, and in this film Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Leonardo DiCaprio are just about perfect.
Flight (Robert Zemeckis, director). See my earlier post on this film (11/8/12).
I Wish (Hirozaku Kore-eda, director & writer – Japan). See my earlier post on this film (5/6/12).
The Intouchables (Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano, directors & writers – France). For some reason I resisted seeing this film earlier in the year, and couldn’t understand why when I finally saw it last month. François Cluzet plays a wealthy paraplegic man who hires Omar Sy to care for him. Both are great in their roles, especially Omar Sy. A scene where Sy breaks into dance is transporting.
Liberal Arts (Josh Radner, director/writer/producer/actor). What a great surprise this movie was! Josh Radner’s character is spinning his wheels working in the admissions office of a New York City college when he’s asked back to his alma mater in Ohio to attend a retirement party for his favorite professor (Richard F. Jenkins). While there he has a relationship of sorts with 19-year-old Elizabeth Olsen, and has to deal with growing older (and growing up), nostalgia for college life, and second chances. The movie has a couple of false steps, but it’s too close to perfect for that to matter much.
Lincoln (Stephen Spielberg, director). I never thought a film about political process could be so absorbing and exciting, as well as timely. Lincoln’s maneuverings to get the 13th Amendment legalizing the abolition of slavery passed before it can be derailed by the end of the Civil War is riveting, and quite relevant to our current political climate (and maybe all political climates). Daniel Day Lewis is beyond extraordinary as Abraham Lincoln. Liam Neeson was originally cast in the role, and as much as I like him, his Lincoln would have been a performance. What Day Lewis does is something else again. He becomes Lincoln in a way that’s almost supernatural, and feels totally authentic. All the performances are terrific, with Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader being standouts among many.
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, director & writer). The release of The Master was preceded by a lot of buzz, much of it initially focused on whether or the not the film was based on L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of Scientology. This aspect was of little interest to me, a distraction at most, though the Scientology angle undoubtedly helped fuel interest in the film. The Master seems to have divided critics and audiences. I still haven’t made up my mind if this is a grand failure or a great film, but I’m leaning toward the latter. It will be interesting to see how The Master is regarded in ten year’s time. After all, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) was poorly received upon its initial release, but is rightly considered a masterpiece today. You never know until the dust has settled. Whatever the verdict on The Master, you certainly know you’ve seen something by the time it’s over. Set in a perfectly rendered 1950, Joaquin Phoenix is simply amazing as Freddie Quell, a discharged Navy seaman at the end of World War II; unpredictable, self-destructive, maybe crazy, either a little or a lot. His performance is really out there, almost beyond acting at times, dangerous and disturbing. Philip Seymour Hoffman is great (as usual) as Lancaster Dodd, the “master” of the title, but it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s show. Though it’s Hoffman singing an a cappella rendition of “Slow Boat to China” near the film’s end that really got to me. The second time I saw The Master, that was the moment I waited for.
Middle of Nowhere (Ava Duvernay, director & writer). Lead actress Emayatzy Corinealdi is great as Ruby, a young medical student who puts her life on hold while she waits for her husband to get out of prison. She was named best actress for her performance at the recent IFP Gotham Film Awards, and the film has received six Independent Spirit nominations. It’s a small gem of a film, unpredictable and important.
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, director & writer). I love this film, one of my favorites of the year. The two young leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Haywood, in their feature film debuts, pretty much steal the movie from a strong cast that includes Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, and Tilda Swinton, to name a few. Anderson’s films can sometime skew arch and precious, but not this one.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylon, director & co-writer – Turkey). Surely one of the most unusual, mesmerizing police procedurals you will ever see. It’s slow and deliberate, but never boring. Ceylon is a great director, as his earlier Distant (2002) and Climates (2006) will attest.
Polisse (Maïwen, director & co-writer – France). See my earlier post on this film (5/13/12).
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, director & writer). See my earlier post on this film (12/4/12).
Skyfall (Sam Mendes, director). One of the best Bonds films ever, second only to From Russia with Love (1963). At least, that’s how it seems to me at the moment.
Tabu (Miguel Gomes, director & co-writer – Portugal). Saw this last weekend and can’t get it out of my mind. Filmed in luminous black & white, it’s an intoxicating, hypnotic, mysterious, and sensuous tale of doomed love, like something out of Gabriel García Márquez, or maybe James M. Cain. Plus it has a rapturously beautiful, heartbreaking cover of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” sung in Portuguese (Scorsese would love it!). And then there’s that crocodile. Tabu won’t have a big release, but if it plays anywhere near you, see it! The following trailer really gets the spirit of the film.
Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, director & writer). If anyone needs further proof that Michelle Williams is a great actress (as though Wendy and Lucy  and Blue Valentine  weren’t enough), this movie is it.
Teddy Bear (Mads Matthieson, director & co-writer – Denmark). See my earlier post on this film (5/10/12).
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, director). I’m conflicted about this film. Kathryn Bigelow really got my attention with her pedal-to-the-metal vampire film Near Dark in 1987. Coming after The Hurt Locker (2008), which I loved, I fully expected to be blown away by Zero Dark Thirty, but that didn’t happen. I was definitely impressed by the film, by the methodical, procedural, almost documentary style, but I didn’t connect with it in a visceral way. But maybe I wasn’t supposed to. That’s another kind of movie. The film is one long, slow burn to the climactic raid on Bin Laden’s hiding place. You’d think the raid would provide a sense of release, but it doesn’t. Like the rest of the film, there’s nothing remotely heightened or sensationalized about the raid. I think what I wanted at this point was something more dramatic, more POW! This is probably more my problem than the film’s. Zero Dark Thirty is an important film, and I need to see it again.
Here’s my list of “secondary” titles, films I just really enjoyed for a variety of reasons, and all worth seeing. Any year that has room for a boozing, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed, girl-chasing stuffed bear (as in Ted) going toe to toe with Mark Walhberg is alright with me. Anarchic spirit like this can only be good for the nation.
The Avengers (Josh Whedon, director & co-writer)
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, director & co-writer; Josh Whedon, co-writer)
Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, director)
Headhunters (Morten Tyldum, director – Norway)
Looper (Rian Johnson, director & writer)
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, director)
Premium Rush (David Koepp, director & co-writer)
Ted (Seth MacFarlane, director & co-writer)
Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore)
The following titles on my lists are already available via Netflix and Amazon: The Cabin in the Woods, Cosmopolis, Haywire, Headhunters, I Wish, Liberal Arts, Looper, Magic Mike, Moonrise Kingdom, Premium Rush, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Polisse, Take This Waltz, and Ted. – Ted Hicks