My Top 10 Movies of 2012
How do you judge the value of a film? Is it while watching it? Immediately after? During the talking and writing? In how much it stays with you? In whether you want to see it again next week? Next year? In five years? Does it say anything worth saying about what it means to exist? Does it at least entertain in a way that doesn't feel diminishing? Does it entertain without sapping our strength?
In ranking the best movies of the year, I try for some combination of all of these.
I still say 2012 was a weak year for movies. I had my favorites early on in 2009, 2010 and 2011: “L'heure d'ete,” “Up,” “Un Prophete,” “Restrepo,” “The Tree of Life,” “Des hommes et des dieux.” I had no favorites early this year. SIFF let me down. The distributors of good French films let me down. It took them so long to get “Rust and Bone” to me. I needed it last summer when stuck in the stench between superhero July and weak-tea August. September and October had its upswings but November and December were mostly cold and harsh. In the American hinterlands, such as Seattle, we wait for January and February for the best movies to finally arrive. And sometimes they're not the best movies.
Here's my list for the best movies of 2012. When I finally put it together, right now, I thought, “You know, it's not that bad a list.”
In the 1970s in South Africa, so the story goes, there were three albums in every white, liberal (read: anti-Apartheid) home: “Abbey Road” by the Beatles; “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel; and “Cold Fact” by Rodriguez. Everyone listened to Rodriguez. “He was the soundtrack to our lives,” says record-shop owner Steve Segerman. It just took awhile for the South Africans to realize, isolated as they were by Apartheid, that while everyone in the world knew about the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, nobody anywhere knew anything about Rodriguez.
So who was he? Where was he from? Was he still alive? How did his music get to South Africa? Documentarian Malik Bendjelloul blows it, in part, by not beginning with the mystery in South Africa but with Rodriguez himself in the 1970s in Detroit, where he lived and recorded. And died? But the story itself makes up for this miscue.
Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is the type of movie Hollywood never makes any more: a thriller for adults, steeped in history and humor. The tension at the end is so heightened I almost got a headache. But it’s what they do at the beginning that is particularly noteworthy.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio have the audacity to show us, in storyboard fashion, a short history of Iran and its shahs, and of the election in 1950 of Mohammad Mosaddegh, an author and lawyer, who nationalized British and U.S. petroleum in his country, and who was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by MI6 and the CIA three years later. His replacement was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom we all knew as the Shah of Iran, whose lifestyle was profligate, whose police force was ruthless, and who attempted to westernize his country, angering Islamic clerics. This helped lead to his own coup d’etat in 1979, which brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini. Later that year, Iranian students overwhelmed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Thus began the age we live in.
8. The Avengers
This is the superhero movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s imbued with the same spirit that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought to comic books in the early 1960s. Comics under Stan and Jack grew like Bruce Banner under gamma radiation. They grew not only in sales but stature. They grew up. There was a new seriousness—superheroes had problems, superhero teams fought each other like family members—but there was also that pizzazz, that lack of seriousness, that insouciance. Jack’s drawings brought the gravitas and Stan’s personality the lighter-than-air pizzazz. Whedon’s “The Avengers” has that same spirit. It’s fast and fun and contains laugh-out-loud moments. It’s epic and smart and never gets bogged down. At one point I looked at my watch and nearly two hours had passed. Foosh.
How about the scene where all the aliens go after the Hulk? Twenty on one. How about that long, epic, tracking shot that shows us each Avenger in the midst of battle, like some two-page, single-panel extravaganza from Jack Kirby or John Romita or John Byrne? Christopher Nolan in his Batman movies uses quick cuts like he’s directing an MTV video for our distracted age. Whedon seems to be asking himself: How much epic battle can I contain in one tracking shot? He’s the Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors.
Most teachers in these types of movies are human but heroic. Monsieur Lazhar is human but a fake. In Algeria, he was a civil servant and restaurateur, not a teacher. He isn’t even a citizen of Canada. He’s struggling to stay in the country as a political refugee but the government has doubts about his story. It thinks Algeria is back to normal now. “Algeria is never completely normal,” he responds.
He may be a fake teacher but he’s genuine. He’s fussy and a little nervous. He’s scrupulous in manner. He wants the kids to learn. He has nightmares that, because he didn’t do his job correctly, they’ll become grown-ups but speak as children. A description for our entire culture.
Returning from a piano concerto, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) comments to his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) about the scuff marks on the lock to their beautiful high-ceilinged Paris apartment. They’re screwdriver marks. Someone has tried to break in. He dismisses the would-be thieves as amateurs, not professionals, but for the rest of the movie this feeling of imminent invasion and theft never goes away. It always feels like someone or something is about to come through the door because something is. The movie is about the most professional thief of all. The one we can’t keep out. The one who, in the end, takes everything.
If most movies lie to us or ply us with wish-fulfillment fantasies (we are handsome, good and victorious), the movies of German writer-director Michael Haneke do the opposite: they lay bare, in the starkest way, our greatest fears: We are not safe (“Funny Games”), we are not good (“The White Ribbon”), we have no privacy (“Caché”). Plus we have no idea what’s going on (all of the above). With “Amour,” he focuses on our greatest fear: We are going to die. And death, when it comes, won’t be easy and it won’t be pretty.
The trailers make “Footnote” seem like a lighthearted romp but there’s nothing lighthearted about it. Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a professor of Talmudic studies in Israel, as was his father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), before him. The younger Shkolnik is celebrated, the elder not. Eliezer’s tragedy, his long-stewing resentment, is that his life’s work was usurped by a lucky break by another scholar, Prof. Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who, a month before Eliezer was set to publish, simply found what Eliezer’s 30 years of careful, scientific study was attempting to point towards. His entire career is now seen as unnecessary and vaguely ridiculous. His one solace: a great scholar once mentioned him in a footnote. Every year, too, he applies for the Israel Prize, the most honored of honors, but never wins. This year, that changes. He’s walking to the library, as always, to continue his pointless research, when he receives a phone call from the committee chair congratulating him. The wrinkle? The committee called the wrong Prof. Shkolnik. The honor is supposed to go to the son.
The son finds out but keeps silent. The father finds out but keeps silent. Everything that isn’t said poisons what remains. The fiction Uriel creates to save his relationship with his father destroys his relationship with his father. The ending remains unknowable. It’s a Jewish ending, an Old Testament ending. It recalls the Yiddish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. “Footnote” is a comedy for God.
In 1915, Pres. Woodrow Wilson called “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s Confederate-friendly epic, “history written with lightning,” but I wouldn’t call this movie that. It’s history written as carefully as history should be. It’s well-researched and made dramatic and relevant. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), the most saintly of all presidents, isn’t presented here as a saint but as a smart, moral, political man, who, under extraordinary pressure from all sides, does what he has to do in order to do the right thing. His machinations aren’t clean. It takes a little bit of bad to do good. Progress is never easy. There are always slippery-slope arguments against it. Sure, free the slaves. Then what? Give Negroes the vote? Allow them into the House of Representatives? Give women the vote? Allow intermarriage? The preposterousness of where the road might take us prevents us from taking the first step. Then and now.
I once said of Jeffrey Wright’s Martin Luther King, Jr., that no one would ever do it better; I now say the same of Day-Lewis’ Lincoln. He only has to talk about his dreams to his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), with his stockinged feet up on the furniture, a kind of languid ease in his long-limbed body, and I’m his. He only has to quote Shakespeare one moment (“I could count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams”), and, in the next, ask Mary, in a colloquialism of the day, “How’s your coconut?” and I’m his. I remember when I was young, 10 or so, and we were visiting my father’s sister, Alice, and her husband, Ben, and when we had to leave I began to cry. Because I didn’t want to leave Uncle Ben. I liked being near him. He had a calm and gentle spirit that I and my immediate family did not. It felt comfortable to be around. I got that same feeling from Daniel Day-Lewis here. How does he do that? How do you act a calm and gentle spirit?
3. The Master
We’re on a Pacific island beach waiting out the end of the war, and Freddie, one Navy man of many, is already isolated from the rest. He’s cutting coconuts while the other men wrestle on the beach. They make a sand woman on the beach, hair flowing, legs open, and Freddie gets on top and starts pumping away. It’s funny for a second, then gets embarrassing fast. Freddie gets too into it. There’s too much need there. When we hear the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, Freddie and other men are aboard their ship searching for, I believe, gasoline, from the ship’s missiles. To drink. “Peace is here,” the announcer intones. You look at Freddie and think: No, it’s not.
If Freddie is a wrecked man, prone to bursts of sex and violence, Lancaster Dodd is an ebullient man who cannot abide dissent. Others call him ‘The Master’ but he lives in a post-World War II democracy that has just swept away the would-be masters of the world. Dissent lives. Thus his group, like all beginning religions, are forced to wander in the wilderness: from San Francisco to New York to Philadelphia to Phoenix, where The Cause, he hopes, will be reborn. But it’s a downward trajectory. All the while, they’re losing adherents. The movie is deeply felt and rendered, beautifully shot and art-directed, and acted by artists and professionals. It’s also a failure in terms of story. But I would still rather watch it again than almost any movie released this year.
2. End of Watch
“End of Watch,” written and directed by David Ayer (“Training Day”; “Harsh Times”), is powerful, original, funny and terrifying. It feels as authentic as anything that’s been filmed about cops. True, our guys run into more trouble in a year than most cops do in a lifetime; but the tone is right, the dialogue and acting so natural they verge on improvisational, and the vernacular so specific to police work you almost need a lexicon to understand what’s being said.
As for the Mexican drug cartel? It keeps on. Mike dies, it lives. He dies not even knowing the story he was in. One wonders if this isn’t a healthier ending than the wish-fulfillment fantasies Hollywood provides, or the kind of catharsis Aristotle recommended. We get no catharsis here, no justice, so maybe we search for it elsewhere. Maybe we try to make it happen elsewhere. At the least, “End of Watch” is a movie everyone who funds the illegal drug trade should see. Because no matter how much damage drugs do to you, the real damage isn’t done to you.
“De rouille et d’os” (“Rust and Bone”) is a beautiful film about tragic circumstances. In the hands of a lesser writer-director, it would be melodrama but Jacques Audiard (“Un Prophete”) makes poetry out of it. A bloody tooth, loosened during a fight, spins in slow motion on the pavement as if in dance. A woman whose legs have been cut off above the knee returns to the ocean, whose warm waters glisten. Later, with metal legs and cane, she walks down the steps at Marineland, where she once worked, and stands in silence before a large glass tank. She pats the glass once, twice. After a moment, a monster looms into view. An Orca. The Orca? The one who took her legs? One assumes not. One assumes that one has been killed but you never know and Audiard never says. We simply watch the whale move with her movements. It’s been trained, and she was one of its trainers. She’s confronting her past, finally, but it’s also a moment steeped in silence and mystery and beauty and forgiveness. It’s the best scene in the best movie of the year.