Anyone who follows me on Twitter would be forgiven for assuming I hate movies. I spend a lot of time cursing the darkness (looking at you Zero Dark Thirty). When I do get excited about a movie, it’s usually an online cat video– really the only new art form of the 21st century– where the Japanese formalists are in a race with the Russian New Wave to define the genre. The truth is that I saw nearly a hundred features last year (and 200 more if you count the films I screened for Sundance and AFI). I liked a lot of them. So I made a belated list of my favorites.
Most of the movies I loved last year showed their characters in perpetual motion. Two take place almost entirely inside of limousines. Two followed lovers on fateful camping trips. One was a car vs. fixies chase through the streets of New York. Maybe I’m just restless, but these are the films that took me somewhere new.
Leos Carax’s triumphantly weird return to filmmaking is many things. An elegy for the death of movies, a showcase for Denis Lavant’s chameleonic acting and a surreal hybrid of everything from David Lynch and Jacques Tati to Matthew Barney and Pixar. I enjoyed it as an (almost) sci-fi story about a near future where cinema has been subsumed by the surveillance society. Lavant’s shapeshifting Mr. Oscar is an actor, but he’s also just like the rest of us– dislocated subjects lost in the matrix. He applies fake beards and pops through manhole covers with the same ease with which we log in and out of our various online avatars. Like us, he’s just looking for a few moments of authentic connection.
Like Holy Motors, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is structured around a crosstown limo drive with various “appointments” as narrative detours, but this is a freakier, kinkier ride. Where Holy Motors mourns the death of cinema, Cosmopolis is a funeral procession for undead capitalism. Robert Pattinson plays a modern vampire, a currency trader entombed in a coffin-like stretch limo, getting daily prostate exams that ensure his immortality. This vampire loves to count, speaking in the abstract patter of pure capital. The dialogue is so alienating that you may wish for death. Our protagonist sure does. He’s a 1% ghoul who just wants a haircut and a wooden stake through the place where his heart ought to be.
3) The Loneliest Planet
Julia Loktev’s unsettling drama follows a young couple who, while backpacking in the Caucasus Mountains, experience a trauma that throws assumed gender roles into sharp relief. By rights, The Loneliest Planet should have launched a thousand angry MRA blog posts, with aggrieved men complaining about the unfair expectation of male heroism. But Loktev isn’t simply out to push buttons or take sides in a battle of the sexes. Instead, she shows how one small moment can reveal character and forever alter a relationship. Her film charts the couple’s shifting power dynamics with an uncomfortable intimacy, all the more impressive for being rendered in mostly wordless long shot.
Wes Anderson’s childhood fable looks like it was shot through the world’s most twee Instagram filter and, like all of his films, it revels in artificiality. Somehow it’s also his most deeply felt movie. The adults are two dimensional while the young lovers in the foreground are almost painfully real. Anderson takes childhood seriously and deploys his imaginative skills to give us a child’s eye view of love. Fleeing their cartoonish authority figures, our young heroes make their own seaside Eden. The film centers around a first kiss, which is at once poignant and unsettling in its eroticism. Anderson doesn’t idealize innocence, but instead reminds us of the moment when we lost it.
5) Premium Rush
David Koepp administers an adrenaline shot of pure genre filmmaking with a welcome (accidental?) subtext for post-OWS times. Joseph Gordon Levitt is the hotshot leader of a scrappy mutiracial band of bike messengers. Michael Shannon is a bug-eyed murderous NYPD who chases him through the city streets. The misfit messengers are the heroes while the Keystone KKKops are the bad guys. Whose streets?
6) Damsels in Distress
Whit Stillman’s idiosyncratic comedy is so light and inconsequential, it seems in danger of floating away. It’s anchored by the unstoppable Greta Gerwig, who delivers Stillman’s playfully stilted language as if it were her mother tongue. Gerwig plays the optimistic leader of a busybody college clique committed to ending campus suicide by inventing a dance craze. (Yes, that’s really the plot.) Meanwhile, Stillman’s WASPy conservatism is expressed through a disdain for anal sex and a odd obsession with good hygiene. Damsels is old-fashioned in another way– it’s a refreshing throwback to screwball comedies that passes the Bechdel Test and acts as an antidote to the Mean Girls of modern movies.
7) For Ellen
So Yong Kim’s third feature is a throwback of another sort– to the downbeat character studies of 70s American cinema. Paul Dano plays a deadbeat dad with delusions of rock and roll stardom. Dano’s performance is so good, and so lived-in, we nearly forget that we’ve seen this story many times before. Kim’s naturalistic approach captures at least one indelible scene in which a lonely Dano drunkenly sings along to Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night.” That this moment is funny, sad and rendered without any trace of irony is a small miracle in 2012.
Denis Côté’s experimental documentary is an intimate, wordless examination of animals in captivity. Using static compositions and uncanny sound design, he draws us in to the confined spaces where the animals are kept during winter at a zoo in Quebec. We look at the animals. And sometimes they seem to be looking back. We don’t learn much about the functioning of the zoo, except to sense its ritualized cruelty. Instead, we’re forced to abandon the anthropomorphic fantasies we came with and confront how little we know about the inner lives of animals.
9) Silver Linings Playbook
Yeah, so shoot me. I knew it had Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as cutesy mentally ill people. I knew it was a romantic comedy. I knew it hinged on shamelessly manipulative plot devices. But none of that prepared me for actually loving this misbegotten thing. David O. Russell proves that he can still pull off an ensemble comedy (see also Flirting With Disaster) with a feel for the the messiness of life, and he gets the best performance in years out of Robert DeNiro. What are the odds?
10) Cabin In the Woods
Joss Whedon’s tribute/deconstruction of American horror movies plays like Holy Motors for the Fangoria crowd. Whedon takes on the tired tropes of slasher cinema and reinvigorates them with a goofy narrative device that I won’t spoil here. Sure, by the end it’s just a bunch of fan service with famous monsters popping out of every elevator shaft. But I am a fan. And I enjoyed the service.
Compliance- This is the Milgram Experiment applied to the world of fast food wage slavery. Like Zero Dark Thirty, it’s a true story. Unlike ZDT, it lays bare how power systematically justifies cruelty.
Central Park Five- A reminder that America (and the NYPD in particular) are racist as hell.
The Avengers- Joss Whedon understands that comic book movies shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. The Pentagon disagreed.
The Kid With a Bike- The Dardenne Brothers are cinema’s most dedicated humanists. And they will make you care about this wayward orphan dammit. I cared.
Looper- For a better time travel movie, watch Men in Black 3 (seriously.) But for a scarily plausible near future, see Looper. Now if Rian Johnson could just write women characters…
Magic Mike- Steven Soderbergh continues his fascination with bland muses. In this case, the muse is Channing Tatum’s abs. But Wooderson still steals the show.
Bernie- Small town anthropology wrapped around a winningly weird Jack Black performance.
Barbara- The Cold War sure was chilly.
Starlet- That rare film about female friendship, which also explores the delicate bonds we forge to build surrogate families. More in my AFI capsule.
Beyond the Black Rainbow- This is what Kraftwerk’s music looks like. Logan’s Run for goths.
The Ballad of Genesis & Lady Jaye- The year’s most beautiful love story. And it’s shot with a Bolex(!)
Honorable mention: The Paperboy
Lee Daniels may be cinema’s master troll, but he did provide 2012 with its single most satisfying image: Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron. Run, don’t walk, to your local Redbox.