Mark Reviews Movies

The 10 Best Films of 2012

Beasts of the Southern WildThe Central Park FiveHoly MotorsThe ImpossibleLincolnLooperThe MasterThe Perks of Being a WallflowerZero Dark Thirty

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Article by Mark Dujsik | December 30, 2012

Here are the ten best films of 2012:

10. Holy Motors
I cannot tell you what Holy Motors "means;" I can only theorize as to what it is "about." I can barely explain to you why it works as well it does, but at least it is fairly easy to describe. Denis Lavant, in a brilliantly chameleonic performance, plays a man without an identity who spends the course of his day transforming into a variety of characters whose lives resemble various movie scenarios—a gangster story, a musical, a deathbed scene, a father-daughter conversation, etc. Director Leos Carax, who serves as our key to the surrealistic adventures that follow in a prologue in which he literally gives the audience the middle finger, explores identity, cliché, the art of performance, and how and why we watch movies—not to mention questioning if that is a worthy endeavor in the first place. Perhaps Carax identifies the film itself with its central character, and the reason for its creation is as simple as the man's reason for performing without an audience: for the beauty of it. Whatever it is, the film has a "je ne sais quoi l'enfer" quality, and a multitude of pleasures abound if one gives into the insane spell the film casts.

9. The Central Park Five
"We're not very good people, and we're often not," says a historian—one of the handful of insightful interview subjects that help put this story of gross injustice into context—near the end of The Central Park Five. It's a brutally cynical statement, but that does not make it any less correct. After watching how corrupt police work, lazy journalists, cowardly politicians and public figures, and a citizenry brimming with racial prejudices just below the surface—all of them—help to contribute to the railroading of five teenagers for the rape and assault of a woman in Central Park, it becomes clear that one of the greatest offenses of this case is that people simply do not care when the system and all of its components get it wrong. Directors Ken and Sarah Burns and David McMahon have taken a local crime and the resulting miscarriage of justice and given it the weight of human tragedy. They interview the five teenagers—now in their late 30s—about their ordeal, from being forced into false confessions to the difficulty of readjusting to life after prison. This is, at times, a devastating film—one that refuses to buy into an easy answer.

8. Looper
Writer/director Rian Johnson is fully aware of the cerebellum-fusing paradoxes inherent in time travel, and Looper dismisses any long-winded explanation of the specifics of its system before it can even begin. The rules here are simple: Time travel exists, and this is how people use it. More importantly, Johnson is concerned with the repercussions. This is not just a story about time travel; the film takes familiar elements and finds exciting and innovative ways to challenge our expectations of them. A criminal organization with access to a time machine sends people it wants killed back 30 years, where a "looper" kills them. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of those loopers and, as is required of everyone in his profession, has to kill his future self (Bruce Willis) to "close his loop." The film contains the seemingly prerequisite chase and shootout sequences as Joe tracks his older self and Old Joe hunts the leader of the syndicate that will betray him (at the time, still a child, played by Pierce Gagnon, and living with his mother, played by Emily Blunt, on a farm), but Johnson holds the disparate elements together with his insistence that we actively consider the film's moral conundrums.

7. The Deep Blue Sea
Poor Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz, full of agony and beauty) begins The Deep Blue Sea turning on the gas furnace in her small apartment and forgoing the lighting of it. She is in misery—and little wonder, as we discover over the course of this sad, lonely tale. The man she loves, a World War II veteran named Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) with difficulty connecting to people, has become distant toward her. Her husband (Simon Russell Beale), a kind and gracious judge, is willing to forgive her and wants her to return to their marriage, but she does not love him. The heart wants what it wants; it's anyone's guess why that might be. That is the simple yet great mystery at the heart of this story, adapted from the Terence Rattigan play by writer/director Terence Davies. It concerns three people who may or may not love another person, although we cannot even take their word on the matter. They are too emotionally unreliable or unavailable to be honest or aware of it. Like Hester, the film is content to be lost in time; it is an old-fashioned melodrama with gorgeous soft-focus cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister, vivid performances, and a narrative that effortlessly weaves the past and present to devastating effect.

6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
People will take what they want from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, director Stephen Chbosky's lovely and nostalgic adaptation of his novel, which is set in the early 1990s, based on the author's own experiences a decade prior, but, in film form, might as well be set today. They will identify with this character or that one; they will recall similar feelings of anguish or longing and, perhaps, the few spots of unmitigated joy—a time that they felt, as protagonist Charlie (Logan Lerman) puts it, "infinite." Charlie is lost—an outsider with a painful past—and simply wants to be found. He becomes friends with Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), step-siblings who are also on the fringes of high school society but do a better job putting on a sunny public face than their new friend. Chbosky has tapped into something mysterious and intangible—a feeling of familiarity toward these events, this place, and the people within them—and the result is a film that is as universal as it is specific to these characters and how they try their best against forces they cannot control. The film is a particularly lucid, emotional time capsule of the strain of adolescence, yet hope burns brightly in there, too.

5. Lincoln
Tony Kushner's screenplay for Lincoln is somehow both deeply idealistic and cynical about the operation of government. The cause at the heart of the story is the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would end of slavery in the United States, in the House of Representatives; it is unquestionably righteous. The means to that end involve doling out of patronage jobs to win the votes of lame duck politicians, brokering a peace deal with the Confederacy and keeping it secret to maintain the illusion that the Civil War will only cease with the death of slavery, and lying to Congress. These are far more questionable. It's all part of an attempt to bring Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, uncanny in the role) back down to earth; here is Lincoln, the man and, above all, the politician. He is soft-spoken and always ready with a story to ease the nerves or calm the tempers of those around him. Politically, he is at odds with everyone, from his Cabinet, who believe he has stretched the power of the executive branch too far, to progressive members of the Republican Party, who feel Lincoln has been too lax in matters of abolition. Director Steven Spielberg is as apt at presenting the debates and maneuvering as he is exploring the internal conflicts of men who do not have the benefit of history.

4. The Impossible
In detailing the true story of a vacationing family that is caught up in the ravages of the 2004 tsunami in southern Asia, director J.A. Bayona gives us a virtuoso sequence of controlled chaos. The centerpiece of The Impossible follows Maria (Naomi Watts) and her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) as they are swept away through raging waters filled with punishing debris. The film does not shy away from that story of utter devastation, but it derives its power from the basic kindness and decency of people in the midst of senseless tragedy, like Lucas trying to reunite families in an overrun hospital or his father Henry (Ewan McGregor), who is separated from them, encountering a man willing to share his dying cell phone. This is a harrowing and emotionally stirring film about survival—a relatively hopeful part of the larger tragedy. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez put the story in proper context by subverting the film's emotional progression. Just as the path of the story seems set in stone, the film begins balancing the narrative of the family with that of those in the background who are far less fortunate. It's a sort of intentional cognitive dissonance that focuses more on what has been left behind. This single episode in the greater and far more despairing story may help stay sane in the face of devastating calamity, but the film knows it could never make sense of something so horrible.

3. Zero Dark Thirty
Whatever the so-called "War on Terror" is, this is the defining film about it. After establishing the stakes of the almost-decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden with a haunting portrayal of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Zero Dark Thirty immediately and with little preparation throws us into the murky waters of the ensuing operation with a sequence focused on the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (known as "torture" in normal circles) on detainees with suspected terrorist ties. Our surrogate in that moment is Maya (Jessica Chastain in a fascinating performance of growing obsession), a new CIA operative who winces at the tough treatment of a man who insists he knows nothing. As times passes through a long slog of intelligence-gathering with no results and attacks unfolding throughout the world, screenwriter Mark Boal ensures that we understand the evolving nature of the characters as well as how changing public and political attitudes affect the techniques the operatives use; his screenplay has the objectivity and precision of a rigorous journalist. Director Kathryn Bigelow's tone is clinical as year after helpless and hopeless year passes, but she never loses sight of the human toll, either. As the film approaches the climactic raid on the complex where bin Laden is hiding in relative comfort, it effortlessly conveys the weight of history, and as the helicopters taking members of SEAL Team Six to their objective make their long flight, the sense of catharsis is overwhelming.

2. The Master
Despite its intricate external trappings (the inspiration—impossible to ignore or deny—of L. Ron Hubbard and his post-war self-help program that would eventually become the Church of Scientology upon the titular character and his own methods, the imperceptible playing with time, the use of strange jargon to hint at an uncertain philosophy behind the methods on display), there is no great puzzle to the meaning of The Master. It is simply, profoundly about that intangible quality of individuality—what it means and takes to be one's own man and whether or not it is even possible to be free (If one is looking for some easy resolution to that quandary, then I can only wish that person good luck). At the film's center is a man who, by all appearances, is free. After leaving the military at the end of World War II, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a rover, taking whatever job he can find and failing miserably at all of them, until he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a program called "The Cause."

Freddie is not free. At the start, he is obsessed with sex; he later transfers that obsession to Dodd's system. For Dodd, Freddie is a promise; success in transforming him would mean a total validation of everything in which Dodd believes. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson refuses to take sides and only weighs the options of what the characters represent. Phoenix and Hoffman's towering performances help elevate this character to devastating heights as their characters' struggle for dominance becomes a fight for a man's soul.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
No film this year filled my heart with such joy and woe more than Benh Zeitlin's debut feature film. Beasts of the Southern Wild, the best film of 2012, brings us into a unique place, where we are able to observe and, more importantly, empathize with the nearly infinite melancholy of its inhabitants while admiring their endless—some might say reckless—resilience in the face of so much ecological and personal devastation. The film casts non-professional actors to great effect in bringing to life "the Bathtub," a small community that apparently sits somewhere in southern Louisiana. The central character is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl who lives in a trailer adjacent to the shack where her terminally ill father Wink (Dwight Howard), whose behavior towards his daughter sometimes crosses into abuse as he tries to prepare her for a life on her own (He tries to calm her fears of a storm by howling at it like Lear—but with a shotgun), resides. A storm hits the region, leaving the remaining residents of the Bathtub to fend for themselves in the face of massive flooding.

Two things help tie the story together: Hushpuppy's impeccably worded narration, which juxtaposes the maturity of her thoughts with the naïve language she uses to articulate them, and the unstoppable approach of aurochs, giant creatures awakened by the melting polar ice caps that either symbolize uncaring chaos of life or exist in reality (or both). The result of all the pieces is a film of dreamlike naturalism—an approach that possesses a keen awareness of the longings and fears of its main character while still maintaining a firm grasp of the severity of the locale and the complexity of its central relationship.

Honorable Mention:

The Dark Knight Rises, Django Unchained, Headhunters, ParaNorman, Ruby Sparks, Searching for Sugar Man, Seven Psychopaths, Silent House, Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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