One of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen, Michael Haneke’s uncompromising, unglamorous look at the end of a long and fulfilling relationship is also one of the most haunting movies I’ve seen in a really long time. Despite its title, Amour is at least as much about the indignity of death as it is the perseverance of love and the delicate persistence of life in the face of one’s own mortality. It’s a wrenching, deeply moving portrait of the end of a life-long love affair that is remarkable not only for its depth but also that the couple, Georges and Anne, have had a rather charmed life together. So it seems especially cruel that fate takes Anne not in a tragedy or in any kind of bittersweet passing but in the slow devastation of stroke. Starring titans of French cinema Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, and co-starring Isabelle Huppert as their daughter, Amour is a painfully raw and honest examination of life and death, framed by Haneke’s spare and unsparing lens.
There wasn’t a movie in 2012 more fun than the superhero mash-up that was The Avengers. It had no business being even half as good as it turned out, charged with the nigh on impossible task of blending four separate franchise properties into one cohesive whole. Writer/director Joss Whedon proved more than up to the task, though, balancing franchise stars like Iron Man with characters on less stable ground such as Thor and Hawkeye. And where Skyfall demonstrated the abilities of the ARRI Alexa digital camera in realizing rich, sharply real visuals, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey utilized the Alexa in The Avengers to paint a more colorful canvas, bringing the bright, poppy colors of a comic book into focus in a way that perfectly matched Marvel’s concept of these characters living just to the left of reality. Joss Whedon’s achievement pushed the limits of what franchise filmmaking can be, and also yielded one of the funniest movies of the year.
Richard Linklater’s Bernie provides Jack Black an unusual showcase for the talent he usually buries under ten layers of obnoxious. Based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, an assistant mortician who was companion to a wealthy widow, Marjorie Nugent, Bernie outlines how one day, fed up with Marjorie’s constant belittling, Tiede killed her, stuffed her in a deep freeze, and then carried on like nothing had happened for nine months. Out of that horrifying and sociopathic tale Linklater and Black bring Bernie Tiede to full, sympathetic life. They’re helped along by interviews with actual residents of the small Texas town where the events unfolded, Carthage, and Shirley MacLaine’s unpleasant portrayal of Marjorie. Matthew McConaughey also stars as the oily DA who is determined to convict Tiede. It’s half documentary and half biopic, but between standout performances by Black, MacLaine and McConaughey, and the scene-stealing interviews with the people of Carthage, Bernie is an unusual character piece unlike anything else in 2012.
Historically I’m not much of a Tarantino fan, but I loved Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained is everything I loved about that movie with a little more narrative cohesion and an even ballsier concept. With Django Tarantino continues the revisionist history tactics he used in Basterds, but where Basterds had a thesis no one would argue against—Hitler sucks, let’s blow him up—in Django Tarantino uses that revisionist POV to stare down the barrel of slavery and racism, and the result is a much more provocative film. Django has all the earmarks of a Tarantino film—visually dynamic, jaw-dropping monologues, Looney Tunes levels of violence—and is Tarantino’s most ambitious film to date. It’s wildly entertaining, highly stylized and a comedy with a bitter, bitter heart. Using spaghetti western tropes and featuring tremendous performances from everyone, but most especially Jamie Foxx, Django is both exhilarating and sobering to watch. It’s not perfect—as with all Tarantino, it’s too long—but the quality of performance (Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t just chewing scenery, he’s chomping it to bits) and showmanship is stellar. People are making a lot of Django’s jumped-up violence and use of racially charged language, but the real conversation is how Tarantino’s hyperactive style contrasts with the glut and excess of a society built on the iniquities of slavery.
There wasn’t a better written original script in 2012 than Looper, though I’m sure the Academy will try and convince us otherwise. Though the time-travel element is necessarily incomprehensible (“We’ll be making diagrams with straws,” says Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Young Joe, dismissively), the story itself is flawlessly plotted and realized. JGL and Bruce Willis do a great job portraying the same character at different points in his life, but it’s Emily Blunt’s reformed party girl turned single mom that steals scenes, and child actor Pierce Gagnon gives a stand out kid performance as her son, Cid. Looper examines how our choices today affect us down the line and the ways in which evil is either born or made through the framework of a sci-fi time travel action movie. Johnson perfectly balances the moral weight at the center of his story with the cooler action elements for one of the most interesting and tense films of 2012.
I cannot understand how PT Anderson’s examination of cult culture and our own desperate search for a place in the world has fallen off so sharply with critics and award voters, except that maybe The Master really was too dense to handle. Anderson’s follow-up to There Will Be Blood is more meditative and introspective, and provokes deep thought without offering any real answers, or even judgments. Beautifully shot on large-format celluloid, The Master is a slow unwinding of a how a Scientology-esque comes together, as seen through the eyes of a World War II veteran who is looking for something to live for in the wake of the war. Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman anchor the film with powerhouse performances, but it’s Amy Adams’ manic-eyed portrayal of the cult leader’s wife that has stuck with me the longest. Introspective and surprisingly crude, The Master is unlike any other American film produced in 2012.
Wes Anderson returned to live action filmmaking after a five-year break with Moonrise Kingdom, which is his most accessible film since Rushmore. Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) are two kids the adults in their lives see as troubled but who we see through Anderson’s affectionate, slightly distorted lens as more misunderstood and stifled than actually damaged. The adults in these kids’ lives are losers and loners—Suzy’s mother (Frances McDormand) is a drill sergeant but her father is wholly unengaged and Sam is an orphan. Edward Norton is terrific as the rigid scout master with zero control over his troop but it’s Bruce Willis’ sensitive portrayal of the small-town police chief that really stands out. Anderson at his best feels like watching an elaborately staged play and Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson at his best.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
2012 was a great year for animation—even if Pixar did drop the ball with Brave—especially for stop-motion animation. But lost among the noise of a busy animation slate was Aardman Studios’ excellent The Pirates! Band of Misfits, adapted by Gideon Defoe from his own charming pseudo-children’s books. The Pirates! hits that line Pixar usually owns, of genuinely appealing to both children and adults. It’s silly and borderline bizarre, but with eye-popping visuals and animation—the detail on the various pirates is insane—and a sweet story about friendship that never ventures into treacle territory, The Pirates! really does have something for everyone. Featuring a stellar vocal performance from Hugh Grant as the vainglorious Pirate Captain (ably seconded by Martin Freeman as his long suffering Number Two), The Pirates! Band of Misfits is the unsung hero of this standout animation year. PS: Flight of the Conchords appears on the soundtrack.
Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to his brilliant debut film, In Bruges, doesn’t match that film’s verve, but it does tackle its own tortured process in a way that should be obnoxious but ends up goofily charming. Clearly struggling with the task of following up such an impressive debut, McDonagh made Psychopaths as much about writing and storytelling as he did about the plot—an Irish ex-pat in LA struggling to write a screenplay about seven lunatic characters, each of whom manifests in his life. The story unfolds in layers, with each facet overlapping, and characters espouse bits of exposition that are so blatant you wonder how in the world they even work, but McDonagh folds in the self-aware remarks with the character revelations so perfectly that yes, it does work. At its heart is the rocky friendship between Farrell’s “Marty” and Rockwell’s “Billy”, and Rockwell’s performance as the unhinged, impassioned Billy is one of the best of year, though no one is talking about it (shamefully). Seven Psychopaths is a meta-mash-up of narrative process and gangster noir, and it proves that Martin McDonagh and In Bruges was not a fluke—he is a seriously talented writer and filmmaker.
Sleepwalk with Me
Comedian Mike Birbiglia wrote and co-directed my favorite comedy of the year, a movie that is equal parts about his own rise through the ranks as a stand-up as it is about coming to grips with the real meaning of adulthood. Birbiglia is relentless in showing his own weaknesses, his own failings and lowest ebbs, but he’s also a sweet and sincere narrator, one the audience implicitly trusts. People use the term “slice of life” a lot, but here Birbiglia really has crafted a story that feels authentic to real life. Set in the background of Matt’s struggle to both succeed as a comedian and manage his “adult” life is his struggle with a very serious sleep disorder, one that Birbiglia actually suffers from. It’s a testament to both Birbiglia’s gifts as a comedian and his movie’s excellent pacing that the moment when he runs through a second-story window while sleepwalking earns a big laugh even as you’re wincing in pain and sympathy.
Argo, Holy Motors, Les Miserables, The Queen of Versailles, Skyfall
Movie I won’t get to see in time but that looks really good
Zero Dark Thirty
Okay Movies Featuring Stellar Performances
Kiera Knightley/Jude Law – Anna Karenina, Ann Dowd – Compliance, Rachel Weisz – The Deep Blue Sea, Anthony Hopkins/Helen Mirren – Hitchcock, Bill Murray – Hyde Park on Hudson, Emile Hirsch/Matthew McConaughey/Juno Temple – Killer Joe, Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Brave, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Movies That Everyone Else Loved That I Did Not
Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Prometheus, Silver Linings Playbook
Are you fucking kidding me?
Take This Waltz