Movies are the greatest source of inspiration for anything I’ve tried creatively. I try to see everything good each year, below is what I thought of 2012.
Favorite Films (in order)
- Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow). The subject matter carries a lot of emotional resonance for those affected by the events of 9/11. Bigelow takes all of that weight, curiosity, anger, etc. and stays a course that doesn’t feel contrived, manipulative, didactic, partisan, overly patriotic or anti-patriotic etc., but also keeps the viewer engaged the entire length of the film (well I’m the viewer, so “me”, I don’t want to speak for everyone). When the stealth Blackhawk helicopters took off to Abbottabad I felt an anxious pit in my stomach that sustained itself, even though I obviously knew the outcome. I reflected on what Bin Laden must have been thinking as he heard the low-flying helicopters over his compound. He must have known that day would probably come. I know there is controversy around the depiction of torture, but I feel the movie portrayed it in a much grayer shade that you might have read about. Bigelow can only know so much, we can only trust what the government tells us to a certain degree, and we know those techniques were used, whether successful at obtaining useful information in capturing Bin Laden or not. I’ve seen a lot of botched endings this year, but I thought the choices made for this film were perfect. Cinematographically the last shot is gorgeous as well. This is the second film of hers that has been at the top of my list (see my favorite films from 2009).
- Samsara (Ron Fricke). Samsara is one of the most visually breathtaking films ever made. It also goes beyond just a series of pretty pictures. Juxtapositions of food factory workers en masse with fast food consumers, a performance art piece where a man in an inane office space performs a primal ritual, stunning aerial images in Burma. You missed a big opportunity if you did not see this at an IMAX theater this year. The film implies certain themes and connections, but it still leaves a lot of mystery an ambiguity which is always attractive to me.
- Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson). This is a very special film - the writing, the look, the performances, it’s really something to be experienced. My favorite Wes Anderson film since Rushmore, which is one of my favorite films of all-time.
- Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski). Another visually striking film that also follows the struggles of a man trying to fulfill a dream despite enormous obstacles including experimental equipment failures and his own body no longer cooperating. It’s been criticized as being too much about James Balog, but for me that’s what made it one of my favorites of the year. There are a lot of layers to this film besides the familiar “climate change is real” mantra, which we’ve heard plenty about (I didn’t need just another strictly informational film about this subject). His story is handled in way much different than the egomania of someone like a Jason Russell (Kony 2012). I personally identified with the heart-dropping frustration of putting so much of yourself into trying to capture a vision and having some piece of equipment fail, leaving you helpless. The scale and stakes are of course much larger in this project than some of my more modest adventures.
- Looper (Rian Johnson). In 2005 Rian Johnson made a modern film noir with high school characters called Brick. I still think about that movie and listen to the soundtrack regularly. Stylized filmmaking with a release of tension near the middle that rouses strong emotions and fires off the goosebumps.
- The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson). This movie stayed with me for a while. I didn’t know what to think after seeing it. The complexity and sadness of Joaquin Phoenix’s character and the performance behind it affected me. There’s a scene near the beginning where his character reveals a darkness that allows an escape in a disturbingly anti-social, compulsive way. A lot of people walked out of this movie in the theater as I watched, it’s definitely not for everyone. Maybe they left to go watch a sitcom.
- Marley (Kevin McDonald). This director fascinates me. He made the best mountaineering movie of all-time, Touching the Void, without knowing much about mountaineering. He is all over the map project-wise, but most everything he does ends up being good. I didn’t know a lot about Bob Marley’s life, but I’d glad Kevin McDonald was able to show me just how special he really was.
- Silver Linings Playbook (minus the end) (David O. Russell). I hate romantic comedies, but this one is much darker and more unconventional, well much of it. I would’ve loved to see David O. Russell sustain the unconventional tone, and explore new territory, but he self-consciously wraps things up Hollywood-style. Still the performances are what I really liked about this movie, Jennifer Lawrence is kind of a prodigy.
- West of Memphis (Amy Berg, produced by Peter Jackson). Documentary on top of 3 previous documentaries about these killings in Arkansas that were also good. Why do we need a 4th? The story is that strong and has that many unanswered questions. You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of corruption, pride, incompetence, failures of a local justice system, stereotyping leading to judgments that punish the innocent and let the guilty go free, etc.
- 5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi) This film is a great illustrator of the difference between reading about something on the news vs. actually seeing it from the ground-level with personal context makes.
- Barbara (Christian Petzold). Definitely a slower movie. But it’s very subtle and takes it’s time to make little pay-offs that have a lot of depth. Definitely skip if you’re not in a patient mood.
- Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow). You’d think Aubrey Plaza’s monotone delivery would get old by now, but it somehow hasn’t. This film can only be described as “really sweet”, and that’s a good thing here, it’s not corny or too chick-flick-y. Mark Duplass seems to be everywhere these days, with most of it being good stuff (Zero Dark Thirty, My Sister’s Sister, this…)
- The Avengers (Joss Whedon). I went into this movie with low expectations, but left the theater very satisfied. Following Jon Favreau’s lead with the Iron Man films, The Avengers doesn’t take itself too seriously and delivers a lot of wit along with the action.
- Holy Motors (Leos Carax) (fashion shoot scene only). Overall I thought the movie tried a bit too hard to be different, but the scene where Eva Mendes is kidnapped by this monster during a fashion shoot is unique. It’s kind of a Fellini meets David Lynch type-thing.
- V/H/S (Multiple). I liked Cloverfield a lot and I loved this movie. Extremely disturbing, but entertaining and original.
- The Intouchables (Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano). Great performances and had a very genuine feel despite re-treading the familiar “fish out of water” territory.
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb) I don’t really like Sushi, but this movie is more about an artist who has absolute dedication and respect for his craft, and who has the power and ability to instill that in others. His work is not about the financial rewards, and he’s uncompromising in his approach to a lifelong pursuit of improving himself.
- Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino). Definitely good and worth seeing, but I feel like I just saw this in the superior Inglorious Basterds. Meaning I just saw a revenge flick centered around historical, universally unpopular villains. I also wish Tarantino would follow Terrence Malick’s lead and not talk so much about his films, it kills the mystery a bit, and in this case he starts looking a bit foolish. I agree with his stance/defense against violence in films, but I think if he was silent it would serve him better. See this interview for context.
- The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard). Campy horror at it’s finest. The “Am I on speakerphone?” scene is priceless (metaphorically, there was surely a specific budget/cost associated).
- Searching for Sugarman (Malik Bendjelloul). Story about a musician most thought was dead and many think is one of the best singer/songwriters that ever lived. Very powerful especially once it gets back to South Africa.
- Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau)
- The Queen of Versailles (Laura Greenfield). Such a perfect portrait of what is wrong with America. Laura Greenfield is a talented photographer/filmmaker who lets you see what shallowness, lack of culture, and ridiculous amounts of excess looks like…all without overtly judging.
- Argo (Ben Affleck). Very entertaining. Traditional movie suspense devices are employed at the end but it all works nicely.
- Nitro Circus: The Movie (Gregg Godfrey, Jeremy Rawle). Jackass, but for talented people vs. those purposely failing for a laugh. No depth here, just pure pleasure from watching people risk their lives to entertain or just do something that pushes their limits to the edge. There’s a genuine moment where one member of the crew breaks down and appreciates that he’s able to do something he loves with great friends.
- Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton). Lesser filmmakers would ruin this narrative, but Lynn Shelton pulls it off. Great performances.
- End of Watch (David Ayer). A lot of people missed this movie, another movie that feels really genuine. Well most of it.
- Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman). Whit Stillman for me is second to Tarantino for great, witty, manufactured dialog. Well I guess there’s also Mamet, Shakespeare, Billy Wilder, ok…
- The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans). Over-the-top ultra-violent martial arts flick. Turn the mind off and enjoy. Sure to be (incorrectly) blamed for a real-life hotel massacre if one ever occurs.
- The Comedy (Rick Alverson). Tim Heidecker is one of the funniest people alive. Not in any of the stuff I’ve seen him put out, but just when I hear him off-the-cuff in interviews or whatever. He can also act. He’s not funny here, but this movie is dark, bleak, ambiguous, and has a good soundtrack - often a winning formula for my taste.
- The Imposter (Bart Layton). Ridiculous, true story.
- Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier). Quiet, sad account, of a lost thirty-something who missed chances due to drug addiction. Despite his talent and intelligence he struggles to imagine a life for himself going forward.
- Friends with Kids (1st half only) (Jennifer Westfeldt). Falls apart with predictable cliches after the halfway-point, but really funny writing from the director who also stars.
- Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) The scene where Marion Cotillard steps out of the van 3/4 of the way through the movie was original/powerful. The rest was OK and I did not like the end.
Favorite Cinematography (in order)
- Samsara (Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson). See above - 5 years filming with huge 70mm cameras across 25 countries. Digital cameras like the Red Epic only became available near the end of filming. The filmmakers actually wrote/debugged a custom motion-control rig across a custom motion control jib and dolly. But forget their tech-prowess, the result demonstrates that mastering technical challenges is truly in the name of their art, and not the other way around. The images are stunning.
- Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski, James Balog). Beautiful photography and cinematography, including a massive collapse in a glacial icefall that lasts over an hour - caught on film for what must be the first time.
- The Turin Horse (Fred Kelemen). In some ways the opposite of Samsara in terms of scale. Shot primarily in one location, a small house in the country, in b&w with natural lighting. A camera floats around like a Tarkovsky film, and lingers on some beautifully simple compositions. The movie creates a sustained, contemplative mood that’s a bit hypnotic (or boring, depending on your mood).
- Prometheus (Dariusz Wolski). Some beautiful aerial footage, especially in the film’s opening. You can’t be sure what’s CGI and what’s real, but the overall look is striking.
- Lincoln (Janusz Kaminski). Long-time Spielberg collaborator has mastered the artificial, stylized, Hollywood-look Spielberg consistently uses. I love it. If you’re curious about how much thought goes into his work, especially as it supports telling the story/elucidating character, listen to the Elvis Mitchell interview.
- Life of Pi (Claudio Miranda). Despite the massive amount of impressive CGI, the way the camera moves and the shot compositions from someone who really knows what they are doing.
- Anna Karenina (Seamus McGarvey). Beautiful lighting, scenery, and composition.
- Les Miserables (Danny Cohen). Gorgeous, especially Hugh Jackman’s earlier number. Stark, contrasty, stylized, vivid, yet very dark almost the entire movie. I love stylized night photography.
- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Gökhan Tiryaki). Very simple, mostly naturally lit (or realistically lit) scenes that linger on subtle expressions in contemplative unison with the story.
- Zero Dark Thirty (Greig Fraser)Jessica Chastain photographs so well it’s hard to separate the skill of cinematographer (who is skilled, see his other 2012 move “Killing Them Softly”) from her features just being that camera friendly. There is no shortage of visually striking scenes which include her lit in interesting ways, the last scene being the most memorable.
- Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters. The cinematography in this film isn’t necessarily that interesting, but Gregory Crewdon’s photographs are the main visual subject so I’ll place this here as I think everyone should check out his work. He does provide a lot of insight into his process, motivations, etc.
Favorite Performances (in order)
- Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
- Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
- Jean-Louis Trintignant - Amour
- Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
- Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
- Mark Duplass - Your Sister’s Sister
- Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
- Greta Gerwig - Damsels in Distress
- Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
- Omar Sy - The Intouchables
Least favorite films (in order)
I’m certain there are movies released in 2012 that were far worse than these, but I’ve become good over the years (at a cost) in identifying and not wasting my time with the absolute worst.
- Act of Valor (Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh). Unwatchable - horrible acting. It’s a bad idea to cast actual military personal as actors, just like it’s a bad idea to put athletes in commercials for local businesses.
- Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies). A shallow woman cheats on a boring husband in a melodramatic fashion. Anna Karenina, but without the stylization and superior cinematography.
- Les Miserables (Tom Hooper). I can take some musicals, but not musicals this long where every single syllable is sung to death. Especially when Russell Crowe does a lot of the singing (he can’t sing). I walked out of the theater about 2/3rds of the way through. I also don’t like overdone love stories between two people who’ve never hung out before or had a conversation. Maybe one day I’ll read Victor Hugo’s book instead.
- Skyfall (Sam Mendes). Some scenes were logically a bit ridiculous, which bothers me if it’s not straight camp or there are enough other redeeming qualities to a film. I understand this aspect doesn’t necessarily bother others, so take that to heart if you decide to read this. The female protagonist takes one shot, hitting Bond, then doesn’t take several more after the villain is in plain sight for a decent chunk of time? OK why? Forgivable maybe if the entire remainder of the movie didn’t revolve around that scene. No cool gadgets and that’s supposed to be funny, except for a very large PLB device? While Q is tracking movements he’s interrupted with a bunch of empty BS dialog by his superior and he simply stops typing and turns around, leaving his computer unattended when the scene implied he needed to be furiously typing, etc to do the tracking? “Oh sorry I’m busily trying to complete the mission, what useless information/platitudes do you have to tell me that will cause me to take my eye completely off the ball?” There were so many scenes that were logically flawed, and not enough other interesting elements to balance it out. I’m all for camp or whatever, but I honestly think you can do a bond that doesn’t include these types of lazy mistakes. I also couldn’t get into the whole “Bond is old now” haha piece. I walked out at the end just as things were wrapping up in a boring, predictable way.
- Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev). Trying very hard to be a contemplative indie film. It hinges on two quick, simple events with a ton of walking in between. I get the idea, maybe I’ve just seen too many movies like this by now and the main female character was mostly sort of annoying, so I had little invested in her outcome.
- Anna Karenina (Joe Wright). I admittedly haven’t read this Tolstoy novel (I’ve read others, ok?!), but I hope it illuminates some more depth to what seemed like a very shallow narrative. See comments on The Deep Blue Sea above, they apply here.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky). Cliche after cliche, corny, contrived dialog, horrible acting from the main character, and a twist that was just a bit…I don’t know, it didn’t work for me.
- The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan). Let’s just take an example scene to illustrate why this made my “least favorite” list: A bunch of unarmed police officers charged an army of men with huge, automatic machine guns while emotional music plays. I know I’m supposed to feel moved at this act of complete stupidity because they are cops or whatever, but it came off as emotionally contrived and completely illogical. There are many other reasons this movie did not work for me, but I’d have to see it again to now recall and I have a bad taste in my mouth from my initial viewing. I was a big fan of The Dark Knight, but that had Heath Ledger’s amazing performance to help it along. This this one felt too “large” and played-out.
- Zero Dark Thirty (Alexandre Desplat). Specifically the final piece/credit sequence.