The year just ended was a time of personal and professional transition for me, a year when I didn't blog much or often, and sometimes didn't get to a movie theater for a couple of weeks at a stretch. Many major releases and critically acclaimed arthouse darlings passed me right by. But I've made a heroic year-end effort to catch up, averaging a movie a day for almost the last two weeks. And I'm ready to celebrate the best of what I saw this year (just 12 hours after the Academy announced its Oscar nominations - I'm a day late and a dollar short as usual.)
A few qualifiers:
For purposes of compiling my "Ten Best" list, I limited myself to films that were first available in the Chicago area between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2012, which means you'll see some films here that were on most critic's lists and award slates for 2011. It also means you won't see Zero Dark Thirty or Amour on my list as neither opens here till tomorrow. As you'll see, I also considered at least one "extended cut" that was released to DVD for the first time in 2012, even though the original film was released in 2011. Maybe that's a cheat - but, hey, I make the rules here.
And, as in every year, there are the "blind spots": the ones that got away due to missed or limited viewing opportunities, running out of of time, or sheer lack of interest. The list of these is pretty long this year: The Dark Knight Rises, Magic Mike, Looper, Skyfall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Holy Motors, This is Not a Film, Rust and Bone, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Impossible, Django Unchained.
Anyway, let us begin with a few introductory - occasionally dubious - accolades:
I Enjoyed it More Than I Was Supposed To, Part 1: Ted
Yes, I'm a middle-aged woman, but I swear my sense of humor is more like a 15-year-old boy's. Watching a blissfully infantile Mark Wahlberg and his talking Teddy bear do bong hits while watching Flash Gordon made me laugh out loud, as did much of the rest of this hilariously profane farce. The swingy, Sinatraesque theme song is my enthusiastic choice for this year's Best Original Song Oscar.
I Enjoyed It More Than I Was Supposed To, Part 2: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The Best Movie You Didn't See: Perfect Sense
A melancholy apocalyptic love story in which humans gradually lose their senses of smell, taste, hearing and sight as the world hurtles towards the end days. The last-chance romance between two lonely commitment-phobes (Ewan MacGregor and Eva Green) is ostensibly the main story, but even more compelling is the imaginative resilience of all the characters as they adapt to, cope with, and even rise above catastrophic changes. (People continue to dine out after their sense of taste is gone, for example, because they learn to celebrate and enjoy the varied textures and colors of food.) Haunting and hopeful - and too little seen.
And the Worst Movie (which I hope you didn't see): W. E.
Tedious and dramatically inert, this Madonna-directed travesty is part Wallis Simpson-biopic, part fictional tale of a modern-day Wallis wannabe - and both parts ridiculous. Pretty to look at, but utterly and unforgivably mendacious (The Windsor's fascist sympathies were documented fact, not just the product of malicious rumor as alleged here, and I doubt anyone ever mistook Edward for a socialist). I almost didn't pick this because Andrea Riseborough managed to pull out a flinty, intelligent performance as Wallis. But even she couldn't save the day.
Runners- up: The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Darling Companion
The Ten Best Films I Saw in 2012 (in ascending order of preference)
10. Ruby Sparks
Screenwriter and star Zoe Kazan kicked the shit out of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliche. A whimsical conceit (writer concocts his dream girl on the page and then finds she has come to life and moved in with him) turns into something richer and darker. One of the best in a year full of refreshingly mature and complicated romantic comedies.
9. The Deep Blue Sea
Terrence Davies' emotionally ravishing film was like a Douglas Sirk melodrama filtered through the foggy grayness of postwar England. I'm cursing the academy today for overlooking Rachel Weisz' devastating performance.
Ben Affleck's hostage-rescue drama was a tense, wildly entertaining ride, with a climactic airport sequence so unbearably suspenseful I wasn't just on the edge of my seat - I was halfway into the seat in front of me!
That's what we go to the movies for.
7. The Silver Linings Playbook
Boy comes home from mental hospital. Boy meets girl. Boy tries to adjust to life the real world. It's not easy.... Well I won't give away the rest of it. But we've seen this story before, right? (Think Greenberg, Two Lovers, Ordinary People, the list goes on.) David O. Russell's romantic dramedy hits on all those familiar tropes - and yet it feels completely fresh, original, like something you've never seen before.
6. Take This Waltz
A young woman (Michelle Williams) is torn between the husband she cares for but married too young (Seth Rogen, playing it completely straight) and her brooding artist neighbor (Luke Kirby). Yes, it's that simple, but there's an authenticity about this film - both emotional and atmospheric - that stuck in my memory for days after seeing it, plus a genuine erotic heat in Williams' burgeoning romance with Kirby.
5. The Turin Horse
Believe me, no one's more surprised to see this on my list than I am. Just a few days ago, I posted on a comments thread at Wonders in the Dark that I was awed by the stark, terrible beauty of the cinematography, but found it "a monotonous slog" and labeled it an "eat your vegetables" film experience.
But what I found was that I couldn't get Bela Tarr's last, great film out of my head - it's shattering final image and many of the images that preceded it haunted me for three straight days. I'll concede this is a great film albeit a difficult one.
4. The Master
An enigmatic work of flawed genius, P. T. Anderson's epic was a thing of beauty, graced with exceptional acting by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillips Seymour Hoffman. I still don't fully understand it, but I could look at it all day.
A literate, atmospheric political thriller with a magnificent performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. We already know he's going to win an Oscar, and I'm predicting this will take Best Picture as well.
I saw this very early in the year, and while the particulars of the story have fallen to the edges of my memory, what I clearly remember is siting in my theater seat though the closing credits as if shell-shocked. I couldn't move and I didn't want to leave. It is very rare for me to be so completely moved and engrossed in a film that the world falls away and I become totally involved in the character's lives - without thinking, at all, about whether I like the film as I'm watching it or what I'm going to write about it later. That's what seeing A Separation was like for me.
1. Margaret (Extended Cut)
I saw many films in 2012 that lingered in my mind and emotions for days afterwards, but none had the staying power of Margaret. Kenneth Lonnergan and his star, Anna Pacquin, brilliantly capture the heightened, desperate emotions of a young person's first experience of tragedy (a tragedy she may have, unwittingly, helped to bring about) against a richly detailed landscape of post-9/11 Manhattan. The initial 2011 theatrical release was itself a stellar achievement, but the additional scenes in this summer's "extended cut" DVD release only deepen and enrich the film's complex themes and character development. It's a long and meandering film, but it's ambitious in scope and rarely dull. And may I just add how wonderful it was to see Jeannie Berlin an all-too-rare screen appearance, bringing a welcome no-bullshit briskness to a pivotal supporting role.
The Ten "Second Best" Films of 2012 (in alphabetical order): Anna Karenina, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Les Miserables, The Life of Pi, Oslo August 31, Perfect Sense, The Sessions, The Skin I Live In.
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables - Because she rescued "I Dreamed a Dream" from Susan Boyle and the legions of community theater actresses who've been using it for an audition number since the early '90s. It's Fantine's song again, and Hathaway's Fantine breaks our hearts.
Honorable Mention: Helen Hunt (The Sessions); Jeannie Berlin (Margaret); Allison Janney (Liberal Arts);Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus); Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs).
Best Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln - Not many actors could kick that much ass while wearing such a ridiculous wig. Tommy Lee is always a force to be reckoned with.
Honorable Mention: Robert DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook); Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables); Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master); Jude Law (Anna Karenina).
Best Actress: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea - Watching her as she watched her young lover with unabashed wonder in her eyes broke our hearts.
Honorable Mention: Anna Pacquin (Margaret); Meryl Streep (Hope Springs); Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz); Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild); Judi Dench (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel); Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks); Andrea Riseborough (W.E.)
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln - Well, duh!
Honorable Mention: Joaquin Phoenix (The Master); Jack Black (Bernie); John Hawkes (The Sessions); Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables); Anders Danielsen Lie (Oslo August 31).