To mark this year’s Academy Awards, four UCLA graduate students offer up their Top 10 lists for 2012.
10. Rust and Bone
Marion Cotillard gives what could justifiably be called the best female performance of the year in Jacques Audiard’s sad and tender story of two damaged souls trying to rebuild their lives. Paired with Matthias Schoenaerts, Cotillard fits seamlessly into Audiard’s deterministic universe. The film really stuns on an emotional level: there’s pain here, but also something transcendental that only a mannered filmmaker like Audiard could capture.
The beauty of Argo is how it meets its dangerous blend of espionage history and Hollywood formula head-on. A chase thriller and a spy movie as much as a political commentary, Ben Affleck’s third directorial effect has plenty to say about geopolitical relations with Iran. More impressively though, it is keenly aware of how and why Hollywood has a vested interest in transforming history. That, and it’s damn entertaining and tight as a drum.
8. Anna Karenina
The world is literally a stage in Joe Wright’s adaptation of the classic Tolstoy novel. Armed with Keira Knightley, who seems to really only engage with her acting when in front of Wright’s camera, this version of Anna Karenina is an explosion of colors, camera movements, choreography, and sheer cinematic excess. It’s a dizzying pinwheel of a production, shot with absolute clarity and bursting at the seams with melodramatic beauty.
Richard Linklater’s latest is deft, dark comedy revolving around a never-better Jack Black, who’s achingly funny as the titular undertaker-turned-murderer. Bernie does more interesting things with the docudrama format than just about any “true story” movie in recent memory, turning the residents of this Texas town into something of a Greek chorus, and giving the film an outlet into celebrating and thinking critically about what it means to be in a community, and how social norms structure behaviors.
6. The Dark Knight Rises
No, it’s not The Dark Knight. Sure, its narrative tries far too hard and has a few too many screws loose. But on the level of ideas, of discourse, Christopher Nolan’s trilogy-capper is bold and striking. It plays like an anxiety-ridden dissection of 21st-century woes: urban wreckage, political (in)difference, economic turmoil, national mythologies, and vacuous ideologies. Its spectacle is perverted; it’s hard to enjoy, but full of discomforting images to ponder.
David Cronenberg’s latest was unfairly maligned when it came out. With a focus on almost nonsensical conversations inside and around a limousine slowly crawling through New York City, it’s not the kind of film to win over new fans of Cronenberg’s unique filmmaking. Beneath the intricate wordplay, his penchant blend of sexuality and violence lingers, and the Occupy Movement provides a fortuitous cultural connection to its depiction of social unrest and economic inequities. This is one of the most important films about the economic recession to date and should not be casually dismissed.
4. Holy Motors
2012’s art house gem, that movie film festival-goers the world over raved about like maniacs for months, is worthy of all the praise bestowed on it. Leos Carax’s portrait of one man’s plural self, zigging and zagging around over half a dozen personas and genres, is a marvelous head-trip. It is by turns highly entertaining, extremely confounding, and a little bit melancholic. While told in an eccentric way, it meditates most basically on what it means to be alive, to have an identity, and it gives ample food for thought.
3. The Master
The quest for meaning and purpose is at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film about a fake religion, but to reduce it to being “about Scientology” does a grave injustice to how deeply Anderson wants to consider the demons and vices of post-World War II American masculinity. Joaquin Phoenix’s uncaged animal and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tightly wound “prophet” make for fascinating dueling protagonists, but it’s Amy Adams, lurking in a corner with her piercing eyes, who threatens to steal the whole show.
2. Zero Dark Thirty
The towering masterpiece of post-9/11 cinema to date, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s second collaboration has sparked a hotbed of controversy, much of it for the wrong reasons. It’s an immaculately made procedural thriller with stunning uses of cinematic time, from leaps across presidential administrations to the near-real-time assault on Osama bin Laden. Beyond its genre skill, it incessantly dialogues with its viewers, asking us to weigh our own morality and memories and ideologies against the film’s representations. It challenges us to consider our national identity, our own place in viewing the War on Terror, and bluntly asks where we go from here.
1. Killing Them Softly
Watching Killing Them Softly is a lot like being punched in the gut over and over. With its ugly violence and the constant news reports from the 2008 economic meltdown that play on radios and televisions, the film establishes and stresses a parallel between gangsters and bankers. Audiences seemed more than a little soft on this relentlessly dark genre fare (an F from CinemaScore showed it had little appeal in the mainstream), but I love this movie. So acutely does it use the gangster genre for a sharp, acidic dissection of “the American dream.” It is an act of cynical rage, dialectically combining genre and political discourse in an incredibly daring way.
There is (almost) literally not a story, and a weak story is (almost) guaranteed to turn me off a movie for good. But by a wide margin Prometheus is the best-looking sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen. I watched it on an airplane and still couldn’t believe it. Slap a real writer on the sequel and count me in.
“The rich are different from you and me.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald. What’s great about Cosmopolis is how fully it commits to how weird it is: the dialogue, the structure, the performances, the wife. It doesn’t require as much acting from Robert Pattinson as those of us who believe in him post-Twilight would like to see, but…baby steps. Also, this exchange:
“Speaking of sex…”
“We’ve been married only weeks. Barely weeks.”
“Everything is barely weeks. We have minutes to live.”
“We don’t want to start counting the times, do we? And having solemn discussions on the subject?”
“No, we want to do it.”
“And we will. We shall.”
“You want to have it?”
“Yes. ‘Cause there isn’t time not to have it. Time is the thing that grows scarcer every day. What, you don’t know this?”
8. Everybody in Our Family
It goes off the rails in the last 20 minutes, but until then it’s a brutally dark picture of how divorce and child custody can bring out the ugliest sides of family members. By the time the credits roll, the title phrase—which first pops up about one-third of the way through—has been redefined in a way that sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater.
7. Seven Psychopaths
The two filmmakers who excite me the most right now are Edgar Wright and Psychopaths‘s Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and coproduced this, his second feature. It’s not as polished as In Bruges, his debut, but it’s more ambitious, self-reflexive, and narratively twisted—more of a movie, really. It’s also got a perfectly realized Christopher Walken performance and some sparkling instances of the mini-stories-within-a-story that McDonagh excels at (see: the Quaker).
6. Holy Motors
A metaphor for whatever you want it to be. The only thing we can say for sure is there’s no way to know where Monsieur Oscar’s acting ends and his real life begins. What does that mean for the rest of us?
5. Zero Dark Thirty
Remarkably restrained, ZD30 is a straightforward account of professionals doing their jobs. It doesn’t glamorize or chest-thump. It calmly, level-headedly—and with storytelling ease and acumen that may not be apparent until the movie’s 160 minutes have flown by—shows how years of unsung work led U.S. operatives to Osama bin Laden.
Exquisitely crafted and perfectly rendered. Love in Amour isn’t an emotion, but rather dedication to another person when the emotions are gone or hard to come by.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Probably the best movie of the year, and the only movie I’ve ever been able to describe as “magical” with a straight face. It’s so completely a unique vision that writing about it just feels like taking time away from watching it again.
2. Wuthering Heights
A love story about falling for someone unequivocally, about being so given over to another person that he or she is your world. It’s also about being connected to a place while your connections to it dwindle. The Yorkshire Dales locations are bleakly beautiful, the stylized photography is stunning, and the emotions are raw and pure, juvenile and unconcerned with justifying themselves. Also, the end credits have what would win the Oscar for Best Original Song in a just world—it’s the entire movie in 3 1/2 perfect minutes.
1. The Comedy
The movie of my generation. It made me want to apologize to everyone I know.
10. The Raid: Redemption, Dredd, Looper, and Skyfall
Four films: the best action film of the year, the second-best action film of the year, the best action sequence of the year, and the best cinematography of the year. All four offer an intriguing vision of digital gamespace. All four emphasize the volatility and significance of time. And all four either defy or know how to use chaos.
9. Barbara, Holy Motors, and Wuthering Heights
Three studies in subjectivity and impressionism, mixing historical memory and experience with self-referentiality and revisionism. All three are especially notable for the attention dedicated to the poetry of the moment.
8. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino’s second engagement with historical tragedy is a tad too long and filled with a few inchoate ideas, but overall it is thoroughly entertaining and decisively poignant. Conceptually, it invites comparisons with Inglourious Basterds, most of them uncharitable, alas. Basterds exploited (and parodied) iconography to critique the representation of history (while capturing its tragical core). Django is cooler, more stylized, creating a larger-than-life icon (both character and film) to play with history. Basterds was mature; Django feels less mature, but nonetheless incredibly accomplished.
Joseph Kahn’s Detention may be one of the essential films of the postmodern digital age as experienced by media-literate citizens of the Internet, an underrated and truly excellent sociological study, couched in self-conscious genre filmmaking.
6. Moonrise Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook
Two narratives about marginalized and alienated characters, so touching and inspiring that it is easy to ignore the beauty and grandeur of their formal architecture. But the diegetic worlds Wes Anderson and David O. Russell create deserve special attention for their immersive and utterly disarming quality.
5. The Master
The Master may be the year’s most distinctive synthesis of form and content, a haunting and excruciating dissection of the postwar American psyche that, ultimately, is much more political than its psychological and historical narrative lets on.
4. Killing Them Softly
An uneven and overtly political manifesto that does not shy away from engaging in self-conscious formalism. It is a simple, perhaps simplistic, portrayal of post-Occupy America, but its unfaltering insistence on ideological critique is so daring, so excessive, it creates a compelling and thought-provoking dynamic that is hard to resist.
3. Zero Dark Thirty
While Zero Dark Thirty’s politics are extremely interesting, especially in relation to the moral implications of torture as well as the ethical dimensions of genre and documentary filmmaking, I cannot but characterize it as a tightly scripted and masterfully executed thriller.
The formal functionalism of Michael Haneke’s films belies their ethical and philosophical complexity. Amour is a clinical and yet devotedly humanist examination of the many layers of the supposedly simple yet ever-ungraspable concept of love. Deeply moving and profound, with extraordinary performances and a clear authorial voice, Amour, to me, is indubitably the year’s best film—one that will continue to define my life.
1. Resident Evil: Retribution
Simply put, the best film about video game aesthetics and the digitization of public/private spaces. It is an inventive genre piece that traverses horror, action, and melodrama. The opening sequence establishes the film’s thematic and aesthetic motif of digital reproduction and gamespace while the closing shot, an expressionistic tableau that spans genre aesthetics and historical periods, reveals the world through the eyes of the grotesque figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, a dystopian vision of chaos that challenges the ostensible triviality of the film’s story. The filmmaking is original, critically self-conscious, and ambitious. It is certainly not the best film of the year but I admire its audacity and formal inventiveness in the context of genre conventionalism.
10. Damsels in Distress
Whit Stillman’s return to filmmaking revels in its tastelessness but imbues every moment with insight and humor. The writer-director criticizes the self-absorption of youngsters, yet celebrates their ability to remake themselves and have some fun.
9. 21 Jump Street
This wildly immature comedy features drugs, a Korean Jesus, and one severed penis, but this piece of anti-nostalgia turns out to be much smarter and funnier than it has any right to. The adaptation of the late-‘80s TV series manages to undermine action-flick expectations and challenge dated high school stereotypes.
Despite its disappointing ending, Steven Spielberg’s latest succeeds as a stunning narrativization of the legislative process and as a meditation on the intersection of the personal and the political. Ultimately, the film works against biopic clichés, focusing not only on the deeds of one great man but also the work of the immediate community around him.
7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
No other film this year was as full of passion for life and the possibilities of filmmaking as Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature. Like Where the Wild Things Are, this mix of the fantastical and the emotional offers a take on childhood that’s more genuine than anything in movies actually made for children.
6. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai 3D
This film sets the foundation for a bloody revenge tale but turns out to be a slow-burning plea for social justice. Takashi Miike’s use of 3D is haunting, examining the dark interiors of the film’s class-specific environments. The flashback structure maximizes the impact of the film’s familial tragedy and its critiques of suffocating tradition.
More than just one of the year’s funniest comedies, Bernie employs a faux documentary structure that captures a sense of community in Carthage, Texas. As the specter of death hangs over the film, Jack Black charms as the friendliest mortician who ever snapped.
4. The Kid with a Bike
The Dardenne brothers offer another deceptively simple tale that turns out to be emotionally rich, thanks to the intense focus of their storytelling. The film centers around the heartbreaking performance of Thomas Doret, who takes us through the highs and devastating lows of his character’s life.
3. I Wish
The director of 2009’s masterful Still Walking has again proven himself a humanist in tune with the rhythms of everyday life. This portrait of childhood is sprawling but generous, examining the varied anxieties and wishes of its young characters with honesty.
2. The Master
Giving the two best performances of the year, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman together embody the inevitable but impossible relationship of a follower and a master. Paul Thomas Anderson’s elliptical narrative denies us the sort of resolution Phoenix’s Freddie Quell will never find, forever drifting in the postwar world.
1. Killer Joe
Possibly veteran director William Friedkin’s best movie, this pitch-dark comedy presents a wholly despicable family without condescension. The film fascinatingly examines a hitman’s (Matthew McConaughey) perverted but fair code of honor. As vulgar and nasty as they come, Killer Joe feels as dangerous and alive as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
James Gilmore is currently an M.A. student in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program. He received his B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of South Carolina. His research chiefly focuses on how films and other forms of media work to construct, critique, or challenge perceptions of the Nation. He also writes about genre, visual analysis, adaptation, and film history. You can follow his mostly sarcastic observations on Twitter @Jim_on_Film.
J.M. Olejarz is a film student at UCLA and a coeditor of the Mediascape Blog. He has written two books of poetry, had a letter to the editor published in The Amazing Spider-Man #588, and won a Vulture haiku contest whose prize was Season 3 of True Blood on DVD. For more of his thoughts on movies, TV, and a glut of miscellany, see mangetstowherehesgoing.tumblr.com.
Matthias Stork is currently an M.A. student in the Cinema and Media Studies program at UCLA. He is interested in video essays as emergent forms of film criticism and scholarship, the aesthetics of neo-spectacle, and the intersections of cinema and digital media, especially the synergies between films and video games. Moreover, he is interested in questions of media literacy and post-continuity. You can see his writings and video essays on his media portfolio, Cine-Essais.
He also coined the term “Chaos Cinema.”
Todd Kushigemachi received his B.S. in Journalism at Northwestern University, where he also minored in Film and Media Studies. He is currently a first-year M.A. student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. With a background in entertainment journalism, he still writes features for Variety as a freelancer. His interests include the work of Woody Allen and trends of nostalgia in both classical Hollywood cinema and contemporary visual effects.