In a year some are calling the best for film in a long while, I have unfortunately found myself mostly underwhelmed. When tasked with putting together my top 10, 108 movies under my belt simply did not feel like enough. Even if I could figure out the ten that have stuck with me most, attempting to rank them would be fruitless. So instead, I've taken a different approach this year. Below you will find my 10 favorite movies of the year, listed in alphabetical order, along with a nod to my favorite unreleased films of the year, and the best of the festival circuit from last year that made my list in 2011, but should be mentioned here as they ultimately received a 2012 release. I've also included my 10 honorable mentions, and a special category for movies I feel I haven't given a fair enough shot to, and wish I had gotten to see again.
From AFI Fest, "Michael Haneke’s beautiful Palme d’Or-winning drama about an old man caring for his wife after she has a stroke handily lives up to the hype. Everything changes [for couple Anne and Georges] one morning when Anne has a minor stroke. From then on, we watch as Georges cares for her until the very end, treating her as an equal and partner even as she loses more and more control over her body and mind….“Amour” asks what love truly is and depicts it as its most unglamorous. As difficult as it is to take in, the film is uplifting in a way, allowing us to posit that love this deep and powerful indeed exists, and we should only be so lucky as to find ourselves at the end of our long lives with the person we care for most, however that end comes about."
A surprise summer gem, this inventive and oddly joyous pseudo documentary from Texas native Richard Linklater recounts the true story of 39-year-old funeral director Bernie Tiede, who was convicted of murdering his 81-year-old millionaire companion Majorie Nugent in the late '90s. Featuring interviews with actual residents of the town of Catharge, East Texas, what makes this dark comedy so fascinating is the fact that these residents loved Bernie so much, the trial made history by being the first to move out of its city in order to have a chance at avoiding a prejudicedacquittal. Jack Black in the title role provides one of the best performances of the year, completely disappearing into nicest-man-you'll-ever-meet Bernie, and Matthew McConaheuy shines as the somewhat slimy DA Danny Buck.
"Cabin in the Woods"
Hands down the most original film of the year, "Cabin in the Woods" turns the horror genre on its head with its examination and deconstruction of all the tropes we know so well. On its face, "Cabin in the Woods" is like any typical slasher flick. A bunch of teens head to a cabin and are picked off one by one! But far be it from writer/producer Joss Whedon to have anything to do with a film as simple as that. Combining office comedy with horror flick with end of the world epic with conspiracy drama, filled to the brim with masterful pop culture references, "Cabin in the Woods" is a genre fan's wet dream, constantly keeping audiences on their toes, never going where we expect, and commenting on the very purpose of horror as we know it.
"Call Me Kuchu"
While this should technically be in my unreleased category, I can't help but include "Call Me Kuchu" as one of the years best, as it remains the documentary none others I have seen can quite hold a candle to (Granted there are plenty I haven't gotten to see yet, like "The Imposter," "How To Survive a Plague" and "This Is Not a Film.")
From LA Film Fest, "The most powerful doc I caught…was 'Call Me Kuchu,' a film that chronicles two years of the gay rights movement in Uganda. The atmosphere for homosexuals is extremely volatile in the missionary-frequented religious country as local papers label them terrorists and out those who are closeted for their own safety without so much as batting an eye…It’s a terrifying situation over there for people who just want to be themselves, but for many of them, the issue is too important to fight for to leave…While directors Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malike Zouhali-Worral were in Uganda covering the movement, an incident occurred that changes everything…The film is extremely relevant and truly makes you feel as though you are with this group of people every step of the way — because you are, to a frightening degree. While many of the docs that screened at [LA Film Fest] recall events that have already taken place, 'Call Me Kuchu' is in the action, to the point where we as an audience become so involved that when Act Three hits, I could hardly feel my face any more through the heaving sobs… ['Call Me Kuchu'] is a captivating and unparalleled look at this issue in a time when we need to be as educated as possible in order to help."
As epic as it gets, "Cloud Atlas" is a movie that never should have been made. Too sprawling to be done on a small budget, but too ambitious to have studio backing, it's a damned miracle this technically indie adaptation made it to the big screen. One of the more divisive movies of the year, one can't at least help but admire siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski's attempt. I personally was enthralled from start to finish by the six intertwining stories that span across time, from the South Pacific in the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, featuring a primary ensemble of 13 playing countless characters, all connected to each other, affecting each other's lives throughout all of time, no matter the form they may take from life to life. Themes relating to the collective unconscious, soulmates, the power of love and kindness and reversely, the power of hate and oppression, reverberate through every frame and moved me to tears on more than one occasion. Movies like this don't come along very often and I'm thankful visionary directors like the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker exist to take the risk.
"End of Watch"
Character-driven drama at its best, this riveting film from "Training Day" scribe David Ayers manages to elevate both the cop drama and the found footage genre by combining the two to startlingly engrossing results. Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal are outstanding as partners so close, they consider themselves brothers, and their dynamic makes the scenes inside the cop car just as gripping as the action on the streets. Employing a cinema verite approach makes events that an audience wouldn't blink an eye at in any other cop film, seem as horrifically bewildering to us as it does to the officers who discover it. We exasperatingly wonder along with them, "this sort of thing really happens?!" By the end of the film, these men, their wives and their co-workers have all become family, and we genuinely fear for their safety and well being. In a year so filled with movies that focus on plot, theme or conceit, it was refreshing to come across a film that put an audience's investment in character above everything else.
"Holy Motors" is one of those exhilaratingly unique films that doesn't demand your immediate dissection despite its opaque narrative and deliberately cryptic series of events. Rather than forcing you to boil it all down to one meaning, the film works as an enigma. It's a challenge one can't help but accept, even knowing there may not be answers on the other side. A sublimely entertaining and unpredictable ride from the other worldly Leos Carax, starring the effortless Denis Lavant as a man seemingly hopping through his parallel lives. Whatever he's doing, this daring film doesn't call you stupid for not knowing, and shamelessly hooks you from the get go, never letting up until its perplexingly wonderful finale.
Sure, I could have done without schmacty Sally Field and wasted Joseph Gordon Levitt but I understand why we needed it. Tried as he might have, family wasn't Lincoln's passion, politics were. He played the game as well as the best of the them, but not for personal gain, demonstrating what we hope we vote in when we follow our hearts in political races. Spielberg captures Lincoln's mix of ease and urgency in the very tone and structure of this biopic meets process film. In one of the absolute best performances of the year, Daniel Day Lewis may have actually resurrected Lincoln and allowed the former president to posses him, and it's worth noting that James Spader might be the greatest human on Earth. Despite knowing the result of the 13th amendment debate, I was on the edge of my seat, tears in my eyes, and mildly panicked throughout the perfectly paced voting scene. "Lincoln" may be flawed, but so was Lincoln, and damnit if the grand history of the whole thing didn't move me. I can has a Lincoln of my very own to tell me stories when I'm down?
Wes Anderson continues to impress, coming off the perfect (said it) "Fantastic Mr. Fox", with this sweet and whimsical look at adolescence and first love. Moonrise Kingdom wraps you tight within its Norman Rockwell-esque world, with rich production design, cinematography, costumes and music, creating an intimate sort of escapism. Anderson goes to great lengths to make this collision of Suzy and Sam's universes feel like nowhere we've been before, their experience as strange, mind opening and poignant for us as it is for them.
"Robot & Frank"
From LA Film Fest, "'Robot and Frank' is a wonderful and promising debut feature from director Jake Schreier, who really wanted to depict a future that wasn’t dystopic but rather a natural evolution from where we are now…Frank Langella gives an outstanding performance [as the titular Frank], which is not surprising considering his pedigree, and in addition to James Marsden, he is joined by a warm Liv Tyler, a radiant Susan Sarandon and a robot voice on par with 'Moon''s Kevin Spacey in Peter Sarsagard . A third act emotional punch to the gut will immediately make you want to see the film again as you dab welling tears in your eyes and puts a new perspective on everything you’ve just witnessed…. It’s refreshing to see a movie dealing with something as difficult to watch as Alzheimer’s in a fresh, atypical way, in that it brings you closer to the subject and makes you empathize more strongly….it's a smart indie flick that uses science fiction in a clever, minimalist way, proving that tropes and catalysts rather than special effects are where the value lies in sci-fi, providing a lovely and touching piece of filmmaking."
Special Mention: Congratulations
Outside of any festival, screener, limited or wide release, I happened to catch the romantic drama "Congratulations" at a one night only screening in Los Angeles a few months back. It had appeared at Austin Film Festival, but inexplicably in very few other places. I loved it so much, had it appeared at a fest I attended this year, it would have easily made my best of list. I fear this film may slip under the radar, so here is my plea to you readers. If you have a thing for relationship dramas like I do, make a point of seeking out "Congratulations", which fingers crossed will at the very least make it to Netflix Instant or VOD next year.
"Congratulations" is written by and stars television stapes Brian Dieztan ("NCIS") and Abby Miller ("Justified") and is about that impasse a couple reaches when their preconceived notions of what they think they want in a relationship gets in the way of their actual relationship. When Jim proposes to Bridget, ignoring her wishes that that level of commitment never be approached, she says no. Things get even stickier when they arrive at Jim's mother's house. She assumes Bridget said yes, forcing the couple to pretend to be engaged for the weekend. What Jim and Bridget go through in these brief couple of days feels frighteningly familiar and the way they deal with their subsequent confusion is heartbreaking, though skillfully makes a villain out of no one. "Congratulations" is simply an honest look at a very specific time in a relationship, and asks the question, is love enough? The entire cast is exceptional, from Jim and Bridgets might-have-beens, Josh and Annie, portrayed excellently by the very relatable Blaise Miller and Terryn Westbrook, to Jim's childhood friend Casey in a surprisingly warm and hilarious performance by Kevin Rankin (Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad).
Honorable Mentions: "Argo," "Compliance," "Headhunters," "Life of Pi," "Pitch Perfect," "Perks of Being a Wallflower," "Queen of Versailles," "Ruby Sparks," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Zero Dark Thirty"
Best Currently Unreleased:
Movies I wish I'd seen again:
"Dark Knight Rises"
Best released this year, from last year's list:
"Kid with a Bike"