Deciphering a thematic constant through the films of 2012 depends on how you felt about the political landscape of the year. The anxiety that stems through many films of the year, whether it is a blockbuster like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises or an auteur’s musings in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis¸ are deeply rooted in the residual effects of the political and economic climate of 2011 going into the 2012 election. But, as if in response to the overwhelmingly anxious aura of our times, films aspiring for optimism and pure visceral engagement arose. Like a tale of great humanism in the face of catastrophe in Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible or stories of love amid handicaps in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, the cinematic terrain was at constant odds, trying to take the bad with the good.
Overtly political films, from Ben Affleck’s Argo to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, struck a chord with mainstream audiences and were staples of the 2012 cinemascape. The two pictures represent different approaches to realizing history through a cinematic lens – the former adopts a titillating approach that may lack historical accuracy but provides visceral appeal, whereas the latter subverts expectations by taking the mysticism of a president and grounds him as an everyman. Meanwhile, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty asserts itself as the procedural response to the aforementioned pictures – arousing a slight backlash from particular news outlets. From antiquity to the contemporary, from rousing crowd-pleasers to brutally realistic depictions of torture, 2012 brought different perspectives to the political landscape of the then and now.
Shifting gears, the films of 2012 was highlighted by compelling female performances. From Gina Carano’s domineering presence in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire to Brit Marling’s understated display of manipulation in Sound of My Voice, the diversity in roles for women saw significant growth this year. While women may still have been somewhat relegated to victim or mother characters, a measure of complexity was afforded to them with strong caretaker characters like Emily Blunt in Looper or Lea Seydoux in Sister. Compounded by strong screenwriting credits (Lucy Alibar for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zoe Kazan for Ruby Sparks, Sarah Polley for Take this Waltz) and directorial work (Andrea Arnold for Wuthering Heights, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, and the aforementioned Sarah Polley for Take this Waltz), it’s been a strong year for women both in front and behind the camera.
Like with last year, several films have yet to be screen in Chicago – notable omissions to this list that will be reviewed in the future include Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Michael Haneke’s Amour and Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land. I mention those specific films due to the history each director brings to their work. As, when it comes down to it, the best films of 2012 came largely from solidified directors. With one exception, my top ten is comprised of films from directors whose work began sometime between the 70s and 90s. It’s simply a matter of taste, but it’s the refinement and distinction that more experienced directors brought to their films that appealed to my taste.
There are times when you simply want to just give up on a director. Following 2011’s disappointing one-two punch of War Horse and The Adventure of Tintin, coupled with years of middling work, my interest in Steven Spielberg’s oeuvre was at an all time low. And fears of disappointment were being echoed in the opening scene of Lincoln, where Spielberg’s worst qualities – his overbearing use of sentimentality and reliance of John Williams’ score – were all too prevalent.
But then, in an impressive sleight of hand, Spielberg rejects sentimentality in favor of rigid formalism. With Tony Kushner’s impeccably dense screenplay, Spielberg flourishes as he acknowledges the difficulty in achieving idealistic virtues– a striking parallel to Spielberg’s own career as a filmmaker. With Daniel Day-Lewis’ carefully withdrawn central performance, along with a cast of some of the finest character actors in film, Lincoln reminds audiences just how good Spielberg can be when the stars align.
While lacking the sort of sweeping technical and formal finesse of other films on this list, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook possesses the bravado and comedic spirit that forgives much of its flaws. Infectiously optimistic even as it glosses over mental illness, the charm of its leading actors recalls the films of Frank Capra, particularly It Happened One Night. In Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, Russell finds two actors capable of juggling the tricky emotional terrain of coping with illness and loss while keeping the material’s comedic intent intact. Achieving this balance may strike some as odd given the severity of its subject matter, but the fleet-footed nature of its narrative begins and opens in a glow of perpetual optimism – even as things look their worst, the most down and out characters rally. Silver Linings Playbook aims to find solace in the everyday difficulties of its characters’ lives – an ambition that is sincerely approached and met.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt)
It’s Such a Beautiful Day is compilation of three short films – Don Hertzfeldt’s Everything Will Be Ok (2006), I Am So Proud of You (2008), and, It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2011). As a delicate chronicle on the fragile state of the human mind, this sparsely constructed film functions as a truly significant achievement in animation storytelling. It’s a film that possesses universal heft in spite of its crude animated style. Hertzfeldt’s primary concerns rest in connecting with his audience on a broader emotional level. Mental illness and coping with the mundane tasks of the day are presented with brutal honesty. Dealing with absent parental figures, combating terminal illness, and struggling with relationships are just some of the harsh issues that Hertzfeldt contends with. But despite the heaviness of its material, the title It’s Such a Beautiful Day encapsulates the picture’s essence and feel – regardless of the trials and tribulations that one must endure, the thirst for life and possessing that human connection gives us some measure of meaning.
In a word, Holy Motors may best be described as weird. There’s a true sense of the unknown in its opening sequence, warning the audience of the rabbit hole it’s entering. But once the initial skepticism washes away, Holy Motors enters a territory of pure cinematic delight, where its bizarre structure takes shape. Echoing most loudly as a statement on the nature of acting and the incessant falseness of cinema, this interpretation may be somewhat swayed by the fact that Denis Lavant, a chameleon of an actor, gives the most eclectic and bizarre of lead performances that I have seen in some time. But in the end, what Holy Motors provides me is a sense of true cinematic surprise – here’s a film that completely and totally blows away any sort of preconceived expectations. I can say Holy Motors is weird and totally bizarre, yet until it is experienced, the impact of those words don’t register until after you see the film.
An exercise of enigmatic filmmaking, Cosmopolis is the densest film to place on this list. It’s a jarring experience, one where no grand emotional payoff ever reaches a close. But in spite of its impenetrableness and abstract ideas, David Cronenberg always keeps the audience at an arm’s reach, injecting his own style of dry humor. Largely taking place within the confines of a limousine, claustrophobia and anxiety are among some of the most immediate sensations as the narrative guides its central character through an Occupy Wall Street-esque terrain. As the film discusses the finer points of global marketplace tactics and social obligations of the elite, one can’t help but feel enveloped in Cosmopolis’ discussions out of necessity – if these philosophical questions aren’t probed, then the insidious reality of the outside world may finally seep in and cause unrest. But as the film begins with an airy dreamscape, the apocalyptic dread of the outside world eventually forces its central character to come to grips with reality. Much like Holy Motors, Cosmopolis requires a bit of self-investment to become aware of how powerfully gripping it can be – but with Cosmopolis, the return on that investment may be a bitter pill.
Most will hail Skyfall as being the best action film of the year, but for something that expands the limits of action filmmaking, look no further than the first of two films released by Steven Soderbergh in 2012, Haywire. Soderbergh diligently positions most of the film’s self–aware elements in the first act as he subverts the gender dynamic found in a James Bond film by having a strong central female character in midst of dashing men. The gender dichotomy garners so much of Soderbergh’s attention, whereupon the notion of male and female is blurred. Proficient to a fault, Haywire may come across as a bit cold, but the strength of its material registers as sociologically perceptive. Many films overtly tackle gender issues, but to see one do so within the confines of genre is something of a rare breed – and to see one helmed by one of the best contemporary American directors is something to be relished.
While some may single out Paul Thomas Anderson as the heir apparent the throne of Robert Altman, I’d wager the most Altman-esque film to be released in 2012 comes in the form of Steven Soderbergh’s second picture of the year, Magic Mike. Filled with an eclectic ensemble cast that you wouldn’t mind spending a weekend with, Magic Mike works as a complementary piece to Soderbergh’s own Haywire. Both pictures tackle the subject of masculinity in compelling and unique ways, though Magic Mike possesses the added incentive of having a complex character-driven narrative arc to lay its thesis on. Compounded with Soderbergh’s most impressive directorial work since 2002’s Solaris, there’s significant timeliness that he and writer Reid Carolin evoke in Magic Mike. The deconstruction of masculinity is viewed through the current economic climate, generating an astute observation on our society’s fiscal concerns. There are more layers to Magic Mike than the perceived notion that it’s all about the layers (of clothes) being shed.
As a film enthusiast (and daydreamer), I often consider the music I listen to and muse on the images they conjure up. Gregg Gillis’ (Girl Talk) mash-up mixes, as far as I was concerned, provoked the sort of unfilmable imagery that could never realistically be captured on film. His music, a stream of sounds from the past and present, are something to dance to, nothing more.. Recalling the breakneck speed of a Buster Keaton short, Girl Walk takes the perpetual movement of Girl Talk’s music and layers it atop the day in the life of a girl exploring the big city. As she courts a gentleman and attempts to get the city to dance with her, Krupnick keeps the film moving. Through the streets of New York City, the canvas in which Krupnick and his crew utilizes never felt so vast. Girl Walk should be considered the single most ambitious effort of the year. It’s a film that wants to evoke happiness out of everyone it touches, both on-screen and from the viewer as well – it succeeds.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Quentin Tarantino would use Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” during a montage sequence, but not only was I surprised – I was damn impressed that he managed to use such a cliché track so convincingly within the context of the film. But that sort of stylistic decision is one of the many reasons why Tarantino is such a pivotal figure in my generation of cinephiles– from Stealers Wheel to The Delfonics, the music that Tarantino utilizes throughout his films are a brand within themselves. That sort of transcendence and subversion of expectations run the risk of becoming old hat, especially when it’s Tarantino doing all the subverting. Yet with Django Unchained, Tarantino finds himself again just letting loose, creating characters of such ubiquitous resonance. From Leonardo DiCaprio’s most chilling performance to date to Christoph Waltz at his most delicate, Django Unchained is just a constant tug and pull of expectations being met with subversion. What Tarantino has now proven time and time again is that his films all have his signature style; entertaining, filled with energy, and fiendishly violent - but none can be mistaken for the other; they all stand as wholly unique.
Out of sheer luck, I managed to secure a seat for The Master at the Music Box weeks before its national screening. Being one of the first groups of people to even see the film, coupled with my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson, hyped me up for the film beyond any reasonable expectation. My first viewing of The Master, despite seeing the picture in 70mm, was not under the best circumstances. Exhaustion and high expectations lends to misguided judgment, and initially, my impression of The Master was that it signaled a downturn for Paul Thomas Anderson.
But as I ruminated on the picture’s hypnotic features, along with trying to grasp some of its more dense qualities, I simply knew not to trust my first impression. So, on a whim, seeing the film on my own terms, I reassessed what I saw. And again, it was a picture of density, not so much from a narrative or thematic standpoint, but one from a filmmaking position. It’s a film about control, created by a filmmaker whose directorial presence is of the highest class. In a year where a country was divided along political lines, Paul Thomas Anderson, opts to probe the nature of man himself – wherein the notion of subordination and compliance are questioned. With bold intensity, Anderson’s film may be something of a conundrum to some – it certainly was for me upon first viewing. But it’s only because this is a film that very blatantly questions a much more primal aspect in every human being. It only makes sense that many can’t grasp the film upon initial viewing – how many of us really know ourselves? How many filmmakers have the audacity to even pose the question with such bold confidence?