THE BEST FILMS OF 2012
1. “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” “Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” It’s hard to believe that the speaker of those words, little Quvenzhané Wallis, was just six years old when director Benh Zeitlin created this little masterpiece on freedom, family and the future of climate change. As a motherless child named Hushpuppy, Wallis inhabits a grungy trailer neighboring her father’s; the place is overrun by weeds, pigs, and roosters. Despite the odds, Hushpuppy is so defiantly free that she won’t even put her clothes on. Like the sparklers she wields, Wallis is a firework in a film that blends magic realism and the realities we all know too well: a dad’s tough love, diaspora, poverty, climate change. Even the doctors in white lab coats who look like they’re there to help Hushpuppy’s dear ol’ dad (Dwight Henry) are another form of social control, but the exuberance of “Beasts” is that its wild child can’t – make that won’t – be contained. Even the mythic aurochs – figments of Hushpuppy’s imagination or the four horsemen of Revelation? – bow down before her.
Next year’s “Noah,” another flood-on-film, starring Russell Crowe and directed by Darren (“Black Swan”) Aronofsky is currently in production, but it’s not too late to call the whole thing off. Zeitlin’s more modest “Beasts” already beat “Noah” to the punch with its postdiluvian picture of water, water, everywhere. That includes the tears to which I’m consistently brought by this inspiring fable. In the words of Hushpuppy, “They think we’re gonna drown down here. But we ain’t going nowhere.” This is how film is supposed to make you feel.
2. “Argo.” While “Beasts” has the best ending to any film in 2012, “Argo” has the best beginning: Iranian protesters, outraged with the US for sheltering a Shah, storm the gates of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Inside, staffers are shredding top secret documents and nervously planning their escape. When only six escape, CIA operative Tony Mendez cooks up a crazy idea: force the diplomats to impersonate a film crew to get them home safely. Enter funnymen John Goodman and Alan Arkin, the latter of whom exclaims “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!” A lesser-known history lesson on the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and the political usefulness of America’s greatest export (the movies), “Argo” is tightly wound and terrific.
3. “Life of Pi.” Is there anything Ang Lee (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) can’t do? 2005 was the pitiful year that the Oscar for Best Directing went to Lee but not to that sweetest taboo, “Brokeback Mountain,” a film that went where most mainstream filmmakers fear to tread. Weird and wondrous, “Life of Pi” is versatile enough that adults will appreciate it as a spiritual allegory while kids while stand in awe of its visual artistry. And here’s another layer: “Life of Pi” ends up, on a meta-filmic note, being about the process of interpretation: were the animals actually Pi’s family members? Is Pi the storyteller even a reliable one? A film for the whole family, “Life of Pi” is gorgeous to look at and to meditate on the morning after.
4. “Searching for Sugar Man.” Where in the world is Rodriguez? From documentarian Malik Bendjelloul, “Searching” is the only musical detective story in recent history. The artist known mononymously as Rodriguez never achieved major acclaim in America in the 1970s though he was an undeniable sensation in South Africa where his folky tunes became anthems against apartheid. The film centers around two fans from Cape Town and their wish to unravel the mystery of Rodriguez’s disappearance. Did he take his life or, everyman-style, skip out on fame to raise his daughters in Detroit and work construction? Bendjelloul’s film should put an end once and for all to websites like “The Great Rodriguez Hunt.” When they finally catch up with him all these years later, Rodriguez appears like a street-level sage saying cryptic things like “Nothing beats reality, so I went back to work.” Come again? This guy makes Bob Dylan look like an open book.
5. “The Master.” Certainly the strangest story on screen from 2012. Anderson’s choice of 70-millimeter (twice the width of ordinary 35-millimiter film and customarily used for wide-screen films) was an interesting choice as “The Master” is an epic of internal proportions. Its only landscapes are of the mental variety. Many claim the film is more a master-class for actors (Hoffman, Phoenix, Adams) than a story on par with Anderson’s earlier character studies (“There Will Be Blood,” “Magnolia”), but “The Master” requires multiple reviewing to discern its turbulent subtext. When Hoffman, as cult-leader Lancaster Dodd, serenades his friend Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) by singing “Slow Boat to China,” the complexities of the men’s relationship finally sail to the surface. Are they doctor-patient, priest-parishioner, frenemies or lovers? Loosely based on Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) is a charlatan who preys on his disciples’ weaknesses, which makes Quell his lab rat, the slave to his “master.” But is the relationship that definable? “What does the ending of ‘The Master’ mean?” became a repeated web-search in 2012 and that question is bound to remain unanswered, even unanswerable, for some time. The ending is like something out of Eliot. Such a maligned mermaid that, I fear, won’t sing to me.
6. “Cosmopolis.” In a fragment of Walter Benjamin’s from 1921, entitled “Capitalism as Religion,” the German philosopher asserts that capitalism is not only without precedent but that it offers its cult-like worshipers not redemption but total destruction. Capitalism is “the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation. God’s transcendence is at an end.” Make that the dead-end of “Cosmopolis” (based on a Don DeLillo novel now a decade-old), in which we follow a twentysomething billionaire named Eric Packer down his path of self-destruction. “Cosmopolis” is a neo-Marxist musing from the dark god of cinema David Cronenberg. The first shot of Robert Patinson, just as bloodless as he is in the “Twilight” saga, sets the mood: Packer’s sunglasses are like the impenetrable windows of a limo and that limo, in which the bulk of the film takes place, is really a casket with vinyl interior. Everyone along the way is exploited in their own special way but that’s the lesson of this rare work of Wall St. noir: a free market enterprise enslaves both the boss and his workers. Patinson is proctological as Packer.
7. “Lincoln.” A film so understated you’d almost dispute the fact it’s from uber-director Steven Spielberg. That’s attributable solely to the acting and the erudition of screenwriter Tony Kushner who immerses himself in the sound of the Civil War just as D-Day, in the title role, loses himself in Lincoln. The film, which smartly focuses on just a chapter in Lincoln’s political (and family) life, is another deposit in what Spielberg has been assembling for some time now, that is, a storehouse of American history lessons, from slavery (“Amistad”) through the twentieth century’s world wars (“War Horse,” “Saving Private Ryan”) to the techno-horrors of the past/present (“Jurassic Park”) and the future (“Minority Report”). Oscar’s eyes will be on D-Day, Sally Field (as the First Lady), but the cast is full of other gems like James Spader, Julie White and the busiest actor of 2012: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
8. “Bernie.” With the exception of “Moonrise Kingdom,” no comedies from 2012 found themselves on the critics’ Top 10 lists. That’s because Wes Anderson’s valentine to young love (see Number 10 below) is artsy and highly stylized whereas “Bernie” is big and brash and how could it not be? It stars Jack Black as a Texan funeral director Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede who will either kill you with kindness or, if you’re his millionaire girlfriend Marjorie Nugent, a BB gun. Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise,” “School of Rock”) directs in the mode of a Christopher Guest mockumentary: we’re given the gossipy real-life locals of Carthage, Texas and Matthew McConaughey as the Inspector Javier to Bernie’s Jean Valjean. McConaughey excelled in supporting roles this year (i.e. “Magic Mike”) and he’s large and in charge in “Bernie.” Add in Shirley MacLaine as Bernie’s sugar-mama Marjorie and you have a comedy blacker than black.
9. “Prometheus.” “I beheld the wretch, the miserable monster whom I had created!” That’s not Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the 1818 novel that pretty much invented science-fiction as we know it and bore the subtitle: “The Modern Prometheus.” Don’t worry: you needn’t have a degree in Greek mythology to get at the film’s interest in biogenesis. A prequel to Scott’s “Alien” of 1979, “Prometheus” sustains the series’ interest in the alien versus the human, the other versus, well, us. (Wasn’t it Zizek who argued that the alien itself is beyond representation and therefore menaces the human and his fantasies of coherence?) Yes, there’s a reptilian man-eater on the loose aboard a spaceship but there are also corporate drones working for Weyland Corporation, an outfit so exploitative it makes the mining colony of “Avatar” look like the Walt Disney Company. Here there’s a self-administered C-section as horrifying as the gut-busting moment in that earlier classic. Michael Fassbender is only halfway human as the android David; he is just as true to Ian Parker as Ash in the original as heroine Noomi Rapace is to the queen of sci-fi feminism: Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Those are some mighty big moon-boots to fill.
10. “Moonrise Kingdom.” The other great film by a guy with the last name Anderson in 2012. If 2004’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and 2007’s “The Darjeeling Unlimited” are marked by a kind of comic chilliness, “Moonrise Kingdom” turns to puppy-love to warm up matters. We’ll always have summer camp. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward have just the air of chic geek to set Anderson’s wheels spinnin’. It’s so funny you forgot to laugh.
THE (VERY) WORST FILMS OF 2012
1. “Battleship.” “It’s the North Koreans, I’m telling you!” screams some soldier as robotic squid rise from the Pacific Ocean. No, it’s this noisy shipwreck of a summer dud, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Pop-star Rihanna plays against type by wearing pants. Here she’s a weapon specialist. The traditional features of narrative, such as characterization and actual human dialogue between mortals, take a backseat to a never-ending sequence of aerial shots and fiery explosions. All inspired by the classic board game; I would have much preferred a round of Russian roulette.
2. “Chernobyl Diaries.” Did somebody say Russia? What’s next? A movie based on the recent Japanese nuclear meltdown known as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster of 2011, Godzilla and all? Even worse that being exploitative of an actual tragedy, namely the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, responsible for an unknown number of deaths, deformities, and cancers, “Chernobyl Diaries” isn’t the least bit scary. The shaky hand-held camera bequeathed to horror-film-goers post-“Blair Witch Project” produces more vertigo than uneasiness and the flesh-eating mutants that haunt the abandoned power plant look like overstock from “The Walking Dead.” Spielberg consistently turns historical tragedy into art; these guys turn tragedy into cash. Scratch that: they turned a disaster into a disaster.
3. “This Means War.” This means refund. Reese Witherspoon exhausts the cute factor in this romantic comedy/spy film in which Tom Hardy and Chris Pine pine after Witherspoon’s character Lauren, a product testing executive with zero taste. Directed by McG, “This Means War” really means two men triangulating their desire for each other through a woman, which is what the late theorist Eve Sedgwick identified as the dark-side of male homosocial bonds. Women, it seems, are only there to get in the way of what can’t be openly expressed. Get a room, guys!
4. “Total Recall.” We hardly expect an actress such as Kate Beckinsale, best known as an icy werewolf slayer in the Underworld series, to bring pathos to a reboot of the Phillip K. Dick classic, “Total Recall.” (She brought that, however, to “Contraband” by playing the victim for once.) Colin Farrell is going through the motions here as he jumps realities and time-frames; if it’s time traveling you’re after, a far better film this year was the edgier, and more original, “Looper.” Directed by Mr. Beckinsale (aka Len Wiseman), “Total Recall” is supposedly about remembering but all you’ll want to do is forget.
5. “Red Tails.” How did the true story of the African American Air Force service members known as the Tuskegee airmen of WWII become a tepid video game from the 1980s? Oh, that’s because “Red Tails” has been kicking around Hollywood since the ’80s, when producer George Lucas first took interest in the project. All that prep-time and it never leaves the runway and that’s because special effects trump life-like characters. Lucas didn’t help matters when he openly discussed the difficulty in making such a film, which was followed by a broader discussion about the (mis)representation of black Americans on film. “Flight” is a far better film from 2012 of a commanding African American pilot in mid-air. “Red Tails,” meanwhile, is a total nosedive.
TWO MORE dishonorable mentions: “American Reunion” and “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer“
What am I forgetting? Praise AND Punch the films of 2012 below…