As awards begin to be handed out rewarding the films released in 2012 you'll start to hear that 2012 was a sweeping return to form for the studio prestige picture. While studios did have a stellar year (in comparison to years past of this decade, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Lincoln, Magic Mike and sections of Prometheus are certainly hallmarks of the studio system, particularly at a time when most studio films are spandexed superheroes, remakes or an endless cycle of sequels) and deserve a pat on the back for their efforts; for me, 2012 was a very good year for film, but still largely the bests of the year came from the independent and international films this year; with career highs (Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom; Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty), autueristic re-enforcers (Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master; David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis), welcome cinematic returns (Leos Carax, Holy Motors), new visionaries (Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Joachim Trier, Oslo, August 31st) and the arrival of a super financier/producer who bailed out the studios with assists on self-funding riskier, director-driven features (Megan Ellison, The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly).
In the opening months of 2013 the studios will get many chances to anoint their mantles for their best films of the year, but here I'd like to present my own round-up of the 10 best films released in 2012.
Honorable Mentions: Argo, Attenberg, Bernie, The Cabin in the Woods, The Comedy, The Deep Blue Sea, Dredd, Farewell, My Queen, The Five-Year Engagement, Killer Joe, Lincoln, The Paperboy, and The Raid: Redemption.
10. Tabu, directed by Miguel Gomes; a black and white (and sometimes silent) dalliance on memory and colonialism.
9. The Kid with a Bike, directed by The Dardene Brothers; yet another steady and loving portrait of children and parenting from the Dardene Brothers, perhaps the most consistent working directors.
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin; a lovely fable of carrying on, carried by all of the six aged years of newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis.
7. Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow; a taut, suspenseful investigative drama that skips any flag-waving mantra or politicizing of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
6. Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax; a dreamlike oddity, a love note to cinema written by Carax and his committed performer, Denis Lavant, with an envelope left unaddressed.
5. Django Unchained is a much more difficult endeavor than Quentin Tarantino's last film, Inglorious Basterds, although they both have a similar diagram: take the framework of an Italian b-movie that influenced Tarantino as the launching point for tackling horrors of the past. The difference is that many films had previously tackled WWII and Nazi Germany, so the revisionist history and loose wordplay was much easier to digest in Basterds. For Django, Tarantino is tackling a subject that is still difficult for Americans to acknowledge in great depth, and very few mainstream films have made us look into the cavern of slavery on U.S. plantations. Because of this, Tarantino's first 30 minutes -- with the throwback title sequence, gags and humor and small touchstones on the subject might seem offensive as a set-up, but by the time the German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and his freed slave body-bagging business partner Django (Jamie Foxx) reach a plantation run by the ruthless Leonardo DiCaprio it becomes apparent what Tarantino is doing: he's leading you easily into the horror of his film; Tarantino entertains you first, confronts you next, and then he rewards you with a cathartic release.
The middle section of Django is terrifying, depraved and unflinching in its portrayal of not just violence of owners on slaves, but also slaves on slaves. Once Waltz and Foxx engage in perhaps the best shootout in a movie since The Wild Bunch, Tarantino has earned the following release and eases back into some laughs and gags. His brutal middle is bookended by entertaining wordplay and action hero worshipping, and before you've realized it Django has hit every cinematic note: action, horror, comedy and drama.
4. Oslo, August 31st is a recovering drug addict movie that is different from any other that you've seen before -- it isn't built around the concern of whether the central character, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) will relapse (while he is out from rehab for one day to go to a job interview); instead, Joachim Trier's film observes how such abuses -- in response to not being able to fully handle the day to day -- can turn into a lost batch of years, and the people who built on the day to day are the incomprehensible benchmarks of where one should be.
Like two other films on this list Trier uses one day for his story, as Anders drops in on an old friend who now has a family, questions his sister who sent her girlfriend to pick him up because she's not sure if she can trust him yet, and truthfully answers a potential employer who (after a good interview) asks about the gap of years on his resume. Oslo is quietly powerful with some gorgeous moments (Oslo, similar to some of Anders' former friends is presented as something that also changed at a pace slow enough, that if you didn't pay attention it'd look suddenly unrecognizable), and Danielsen Lie who, although 34, looks just young enough to get a free pass for his mistakes, is fully aware of how much further behind he is.
3. The Master is a towering technical achievement, perhaps cut short of being a full-fledged masterpiece because Paul Thomas Anderson is in such awe of his phenomenal central performers (Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) that he lets the story stray a bit too much. That isn't a critique, per se, because it's easy to see how the committed actors could make Anderson want to stray. Anderson will let you believe that it's about the origins of Scientology, but really it seems to be much simpler (and better as): a tone poem that dances on the duality of man, and what leads men off the path of nobility (war, toxins, egotism, sexual desire). Phoenix is the wild one, a rootless, post-WWII drifter who doesn't desire stability, but stability is what keeps him around as an observer and occasional curiosity subject to Hoffman and his troupe of women who follow the self-described doctor, physicist and spiritual writer who assists people in reclaiming memories from past lives.
The cinematography, score and performances are so fully realized that Anderson (himself a great writer) goes the Kubrick route and lets his images and the tics of his performers tell the story he's most interested in. Of all the films I saw this year, only The Master has that perfect image that encapsulates the entire movie: after Phoenix and Hoffman dig up all of Hoffman's unpublished work in the desert they walk back on the path in perfect unison: Phoenix, hunched, carrying the burden of all the tools and artifacts, Hoffman, leads, carrying a gun.
2. Cosmopolis exposes most millennial concerns of identity, apathy, physical vs. meta value, telecommunications and sexual dissatisfaction during a 24-hour traffic jam created by three equal physical events: the arrival of the president into a city, an Occupy Wall Street-esque protest and the funeral procession for a recently deceased celebrity. Eric Parker (Robert Pattison) is in a traveling wi-fi hotspot: his limousine. He is the creator of a financial analysis system that traces monetary rate movements by fractions of fractions of a second, these fractions make Parker rich and most likely the cause of a pre-reactionary panic that causes economic collapses. At 28, he's old at this game now, and thus in a state of deep reflection.
Because the dialogue is mostly lifted directly from Don DeLillo's highly literate source material, Cosmopolis has a lot of ideas, only a fraction of which might register on first viewing. But because it's DeLillo, it is also very funny. And because it's directed by David Cronenberg, every limo stop feels threatening; both Cronenberg and the cast (particularly Sarah Gadon as Parker's old-money wife and Kevin Durand as his security) understand that DeLillo's satire is best served in monotone.
1. Moonrise Kingdom has the standard cues of a Wes Anderson film: pastel colors, communication through letters, immaculate sets, deadpan dialogue and deadbeat parents, but -- much like his last film (the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox) -- Moonrise Kingdom is different enough that it keeps him off the path of becoming a stuffy and predictable filmmaker. I admit that I had a bit of Wes Anderson fatigue going into this film, so it was a surprise that Moonrise Kingdom won me over as much as it did.
It's fitting that Anderson's last feature was a children's story, because Anderson has always had a childlike sense of wonder, but, previously it was always been from an adult's reflective, "where did this storybook go wrong?" mentality. Moonrise Kingdom, to me, is Anderson's most fully-realized film because it utilizes the wisdom of children (here two runaways from a small seaside town where mail is delivered by plane), to parallel the diminished returns of adulthood (ranging from a lonely policeman, a loveless marriage between rival lawyers, to an overgrown scout who leads the actual boy scouts), all of whom search for the young sorta-lovers for various reasons of societal duty.
Children have adventures, adults have reasons why they no longer do. Here Anderson has crafted an adventure story that his previous characters would have read and ached to return to. Full of whimsy and truth, winks to the French New Wave, and wonderful performances by Bruce Willis (as the policeman), Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward (as the runaways), Moonrise Kingdom filled me with more joy than any film I saw this year, but like all of Anderson's films there's some hurt that goes along with any well-earned happiness.
Follow Brian Formo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BrianEmilFormo