It's the start of a new year, which calls for looking back on the glory of the previous. So here are my favorite 12 films from 2012, rated in descending order. Django Unchained
and Killer Joe
are my easy favorites; The Grey
and The Divide
1. Django Unchained.
I'm no friend of cartoon villains, especially in brutal historical periods, so I find myself repeatedly astonished at the way Tarantino uses caricature to such great effect. Django does to American slavery what the Basterds did to Nazism, ludicrous wish-fulfillment fantasies that entertain as they indict. The brilliance lies in running parallel the realistic violence done to slaves with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that Tarantino has tamed to near perfection. I honestly don't know whose performance I like better, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or (as my gut tells me) Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom -- or in Jackson's own words, "the most deplorable negro in cinematic history". Then there's Don Johnson (another plantation owner) who gets in some of the most amusing lines, as he waxes wroth over a black man who dares to ride a horse. Django
is not only my pick of the year, but probably my second favorite Tarantino film after Pulp Fiction
2. Killer Joe.
It's hard to watch some of the scenes in this sadistic black comedy, and trust me, I don't squirm easily. Friedkin has made a raging comeback this past decade with Tracy Letts scripts (Bug
was the other film), and I hope the two men continue collaborating. Killer Joe
essentially functions as a parable of white trailer trash. Opposite '80s films which saw hope in the nuclear family, this film kills that fantasy with cruelty, but with Fargo-like comedy so you get filthy sick laughing at things which are far from funny. (Lessons from Tarantino, or is it the other way around?) The story: a gambler can't pay his debts and so hires a hit man to kill his mother for insurance money; because he can't front the advance payment, he loans Killer Joe his sister for sex; the mother gets bumped off, but it turns out she left her money to someone else; things careen out of control to an outrageous climax involving a forced blowjob with a chicken leg, and a brutally unforgettable "last supper". It's a powerful film about sin and redemption, but not for the squeamish.
3. The Grey.
First things first: wolves are outrageously misrepresented in this film
. In reality the poor things are wimps, so you need to suspend disbelief and just pretend this film takes place on an alternate Earth where wolves evolved with nasty temperaments more akin to grizzly bears. The distortion makes it feel more of a horror picture, which in many ways it is. I haven't felt terror like this from a nature film since The Birds
. Demonic wolves, like Hitch's pterodactyl-birds, are effective devices in showing our helplessness against primal and savage forces. Like the great survivalist films rarely seen anymore, The Grey
has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about (an even more impressive feat given the rather unlikeable group aside from Liam Neeson) before they all go down in carnage.
4. The Divide.
It's fascinating how this was made independently of The Grey
and released the same time, neither having any knowledge of each other. Both are survivalist stories and both, weirdly, are tuned around haunting piano themes that recur at just the right moments. (Listen to The Grey's
and The Divide's
.) But where the former takes place in an unforgiving Alaskan wilderness, this one is set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment where nine strangers have gathered after a nuclear holocaust. They start out okay until cabin fever and radiation sickness -- and their own base humanity -- take over, and the cellar becomes a claustrophobic nightmare of torture, rape, sex slavery, and overblown lunacy. The Divide
holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy and is the best Lord of the Flies
-themed film I've ever seen. The performances are brilliant; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.
5. Zero Dark Thirty.
Part of me is astonished by the vitriol being hurled at this film, but then nothing really surprises me anymore. After all, Spike Lee leveled ridiculous complaints about Django Unchained
's supposed racial insensitivity, so it only follows that Zero Dark Thirty
must be (wait for it) an apologia for waterboarding and other forms of torture used by the CIA in the days following 9/11. Nothing, of course, is further from the truth. The torture under the Bush administration is simply shown for what it is. It wasn't the magic key to unlocking Bin Laden's hideout, and even if it was, the film doesn't necessarily imply that the ends would justify the means. By far the most impressive feature is Jessica Chastain, who since Tree of Life
has become for me a new Cate Blanchett, beautiful on the inside and out, and an understated actor who compels with subtleties. Zero Dark Thirty
is a lot like United 93
, devoid of political bias and never preaching.
6. The Imposter.
I'm still reeling from this one. It's a true story about a young Frenchman who fooled everyone in America about his identity, and a sharp lesson about the power of deception -- and self-deception. For a documentary it levels more suspense and thunderbolt twists than many fictional dramas. No one is saying anything bad about The Imposter
, for the simple reason that there's nothing bad you can say about it. It blends interviews, archive footage, journalistic reports, and in psychological-thriller fashion tells how a Texas child went missing then was successfully impersonated by the (much older) Frenchman. The hows and why's of bamboozling the FBI and immigration officers are stunning enough, but the question as to how the boy's own family could have accepted the impersonation is much darker... and not so cleanly resolved.
I never thought I'd see the day when an actor like Denzel Washington moves me to tears, but the final act of Flight
is that powerful. I wish there were more films where an opening scene of heart-stopping terror becomes the base for a slow-paced introspective character film. Washington plays an exceptional air pilot who is also an alcoholic, and on one of his typically drunk mornings suffers an aircraft malfunction but manages miraculous maneuvers and softens the plane's crash landing. The genius of the film relies in putting the moral spotlight on his addiction even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the plane crash, nor even the cause of the six deaths (out of 102 passengers). The story makes clear that if any other pilot had been flying, everyone would have died. Washington's character must come to terms with his disease despite his savior-like status which only fuels his pride and denial and the horrible way he treats those around him.
8. The Dark Knight Rises.
The weakest entry in the Batman trilogy is still very good, though I admittedly try to like it more than it deserves on the strength of its precursors. Batman Begins
was a drilling look at the hero's origins, focusing on the politics of fear
; The Dark Knight
examined nihilism, destroying our hope through chaos
. This third installment takes on the theme of pain
, and not as profoundly as the other two. The problem with Bane is that he's not autonomous like Ra's al Ghul and Joker; in fact, he's the former's henchman, which reduces him in a major way. Still, he's a fearsome piece of terror, and filled with an almost supernatural strength that crushes bones and (infamously) breaks Batman's back. His one-on-one's with Batman are among the best fight scenes Nolan has shot for the trilogy, and the Middle-Eastern pit he escaped as a child (now Batman's prison) is genius. Certainly compared to most superhero films, The Dark Knight Rises
is a work of art.
9. The Hobbit.
I was hoping this would be my #1 pick of the year even knowing it didn't stand a chance of matching the scope and emotional power of Lord of the Rings
. Still, I really like The Hobbit
for all its problems. If it's too ambitious, I applaud that hoping the second and third films will serve up a raging Necromancer plot in Southern Mirkwood. The deep irony of The Hobbit
is that its strongest points are those which deviate from Tolkien's book. I love the cranky Radagast (even his silly rabbit-sleigh), the orc Azog, and the riddle scene with Gollum. I deplore the cartoony Goblin-Town sequence, and most of all the Goblin King who resembles Jabba the Hut. My likes and dislikes pretty much cancel each other in this bloated stage-setter which engages and divides our interest.
10. Dark Horse.
True to form, Solondz rubs pathetic characters in our faces, but for once he doesn't treat them with contempt. Some critics find that a refreshing move, but I don't. The whole point of a Solondz film is to mock its characters (and thus the audience), and that's what fans like me watch him for. He's made an art of misanthropy, in a philosophically endearing way, but Dark Horse
feels like Solondz-lite, allowing us to identify with its losers for a change. The lead loser on display is the overweight, arrested-developed Abe who works in a dead-end job for his father, and so desperate for love that he proposes to the attractive but chronically depressed Miranda (played wonderfully by Selma Blair) after knowing her for only a few hours. It's a film about loneliness, emptiness, and desperation -- themes familiar to Solondz fans -- and if it lacks the teeth of his other films, it's still an authentic and depressing piece of cinema.
(See also: The Top Films of 2005
, The Top Films of 2006
, The Top Films of 2007
, The Top Films of 2008
, The Top Films of 2009
, The Top Films of 2010