The following, in alphabetical order, are my favorite films of 2012.
Mirrors), it retains Haneke's emotional detachment, with a denouement worthy of Haneke's notoriously cold, isolating career. The bulk of the movie is reliant on the performances of two French film icons, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. It's a rare and great opportunity to see such great actors at such an advanced age give such strong, emotionally complex performances. It's their work, particularly Trintignant, that keep the course of the film from meandering into more maudlin territory.
Alex Ross Perry's second film is at once a sloppily put together comedy, and also perhaps the most important rallying call for American independent cinema. Shot on 16mm black and white, Perry eschews the easy, often hermetically tinkered over digital cinema that makes up a majority of no budget film making these days in favor of a mistake filled, accident prone, meandering road movie that offers none of the familiar beats of a road movie and is at often times aggressively unfunny in a purposeful way. Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman are to be credited with the subtle telegraphing of the film's conclusion, which on the surface might seem like an arbitrary shock, but is actually tightly woven into the fabric of the film from the first minutes. The film is very funny though, and even it's unexpected conclusion doesn't alter mordantly funny, misanthropic tone of the film.
On my first viewing of the Dardenne brothers' seventh feature at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival, I took it as perhaps their lightest work, I thought they'd gone soft, providing the kind of easily marketable personal drama they'd so long avoided (hell, they even had a score, albeit a sparsely used, small snippet of a Beethoven piano concerto), and casually wrote it off as a disappointment. But when the film came out that following Spring I revisited it, and what I found is perhaps one of the strongest films the Belgian duo has made. Every gesture of the film is centered on the confused, frightened face of Cyril (Thomas Doret), and if the Dardennes are less hard on him than their other protagonists, it's because that face demands a more gentle, sympathetic touch. Few filmmakers are able to invest you so strongly in characters, particularly ones you may find irredeemable at points, but they invest you here, perhaps deeper than they ever have.
Yes, the running commentary of the 2008 election is unnecessary, yes, using "Heroin" during a scene where characters take heroin iss too on the nose by about a thousand, and yes that final speech is clunky and doesn't deliver the kind of astonished wallop you know Andrew Dominik envisioned when he was writing it. So why is this one of the best movies of the year? Flawed though it may be, no one took more chances aesthetically on what is largely a crime movie. There's a hell of a lot more to it than just the crime plot, and even putting aside the political parallels throughout, it's a movie of tone. Tone of conversation, of rooms, of movement of the camera, of sound, of picture. It's pure movie-making and it's a god damn thrill to watch.
That a movie centered around a male stripper has far more in commong with '70s character studies like Serpico, and Five Easy Pieces than a fireman's calendar is entirely owed to Steven Soderbergh. With his continuously adventurous camera work (serving as his own DP again, Soderbergh busts out what is now a new trademark, the unmotivated pan, it's as if his camera is looking around his story, seeing if there's anything more interesting elsewhere), and natch for finding interested ways of exploring pretty boring people in a fascinating way, he's made a movie that is at once entirely familiar and feels quietly thrilling. After starting out the year with the great, underrated Haywire, Soderbergh delivered a small-scale summer blockbuster that is by turns a somewhat seedy character study, a romance, and a non-preachy comment on the capitalist, enterprising American Dream. Most of all it's incredibly fun.
It's daunting, even in short, to try and talk about Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film. Part of this is that the film, by its nature, announces itself as an event. From the opening shot of the ocean, seen in crisp 70mm through Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s camera, a striking immediate representation of the vastness this film will encompass. Anchored by a slew of great film performances, perhaps most especially the one by Joaquin Phoenix, incredibly dense production design, great sound, stunning images, it's a film of a higher class in its making than most. But when you combine all of these elements you're left with a film of ideas, and it's those ideas, identity, death, love, purpose, etc. that are hard to talk about. Few filmmakers tend to top themselves with each successive movie so thoroughly and surprisingly as Anderson, but, with The Master, he has. This is the best film of the year.
Taking what he learned making the wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson applies that miniaturized, controlled mode of film making to his return to live action. Anderson's first overt period piece is both a funny, touching portrait of a community, and a tender, nostalgic story of young love. Working for the first time on super 16mm, Anderson embraces not only the 1960s period music and clothes, but also its film aesthetic, fusing it with his own distinctive style to make another great Wes Anderson film.
What an odd film. It is, in some respects, a barebones adaptation of Emily Bronte's much adapted novel, naturalistic to the extreme, but it's really far more avant-garde than that. It's a film textures, of wind, of wheat and grass and wood and dirt and cloth and hair and heartache. It's almost as if Andrea Arnold was able to reach into the English countryside and pull out all of the longing and pain and anger from its muddy, overcast hills and put them on film. A truly staggering film.