The movies of 2012 didn’t wind up being all they were made out to be. But they may have been something better. Something less predictable. What rose to the top, for the most part, were not the things you can so easily explain to others. An Indonesian action masterpiece made by a Welshman. A visceral drama made by a Canadian actor. And a comedy about comedy made by a comedian who still says he has no idea how to make movies. And others that were even more difficult to sell us on. You just had to get out there and see them for yourself.
1. The Raid ~ Redemption – The Raid and I have been together awhile now. We know each other’s faults, but they only make our love stronger. Not every time is like the first time, but who wants that. They said it would get stale eventually, but we are still going strong and aren’t too concerned about the future being any different.
I know, you had that one night with The Raid too. And it was great. But all you remember are the best times. A hallway, a bullet through the neck, a broken doorway, another hallway. And hey, I remember those things too. There’s nothing quite like your first time with The Raid. But leaving it at that might give you the mistaken impression that The Raid is just spectacle. You won’t see its inner beauty without spending a little more time with it. Or a lot more time with it.
It was all there for you that first time, but too much was happening at once for you to parse it out. Nobody blames you. I was the same way. I didn’t realize what it was doing to me even without my noticing. I didn’t see how characters were fully realized in a word or simply a look. How a shot’s composition could tell you more about what was going on than the paragraphs of dialog it would take other movies. How a shadow could be the most ominous sight in a building full of darkness. The Raid is a perfect machine. It wastes nothing. When it holds on a man standing in a hallway for thirty full seconds, it is doing that for a reason. Any less, and what follows doesn’t compel you nearly as much.
There’s nothing like The Raid and that is fine, because The Raid is all I will ever need.
2. Wreck-It Ralph – Wreck-It Ralph had no trouble selling its nostalgic visit to an All Star Game of video game characters. But I’m not sure anyone sold on that alone came away satisfied. The references to games gone by were little more than production design. There to steep us in a world where video games are office jobs for those inside of them.
My video game playing peaked with Congo Bongo for Atari 5200. Point being, I have little to no pre-existing emotional connections to the vast universe(s) provided by these games. I have but a passing knowledge of who any of them are. So Wreck-It Ralph had to speak to me on its other merits.
And it had no problem doing so. From the opening narration, shruggingly delivered by John C. Reilly, to the chemical reactive climax, Wreck-It Ralph was filled with vivid characters and intricate settings. Punctuated with incredibly poignant moments and amazing reveals. With Brave failing so miserably to represent the usual Pixar output, it is as if this Disney product was meant to stand in its place. They Freak Fridayed themselves. And hopefully learned their respective lessons.
3. Lincoln – The greatest American director making a movie about the greatest American President really doesn’t seem like a tough sell. But try to get somebody who hasn’t already to see Lincoln. Tell them it’s pretty much exclusively about the 1864 Senate discussing the 13th Amendment. Then watch them walk away.
They might know Daniel Day-Lewis is going to make them think there’s some archived footage out there he got to see in order to prepare for the role. They might know that Steven Spielberg can get any actor anywhere to show up for the tiniest part. They might even know that pretty much everyone says the same thing about it. But it’s understandably difficult to be thrilled about watching what amounts to antiquated C-SPAN.
And as such, it is equally as difficult to relate how Lincoln makes all of those reservations seem not just unwarranted, but nearly idiotic. As an American, to be bored by Lincoln is to be bored by the only true legend your country has to its name. When Edwin Stanton leaves the room in frustration at the start of another of the President’s stories, you know where he’s coming from, but you also couldn’t be more excited to listen.
Take it as a demonstration of how to inhabit a man who has become larger than life. Take it as a historical document on the fall of a horrible institutional injustice. Take it as a allegory for current civil rights issues. Take it as an enjoyable political thriller. It doesn’t matter. You can choose any of them or all of them and you are still left with a wonderful experience it will be impossible to accurately tell anyone else about.
4. The Turin Horse – I went to The Turin Horse with assumptions. But very little knowledge. I only knew (director) Béla Tarr as a name on a shirt. He was supposed to be a master of cinema. But the kind whose movies no one ever actually sees. I was ready to be bored. To regret coming to the theater. To once again test my seemingly bottomless limits of cinematic endurance. I heard he said this was to be his last movie. I had no idea it was even new. As it began, in startling black and white, my mind scrambled to place it in time. Was this from the 70s? Older than that? It looked too good to be that old. But they strike new prints of things like this all the time even though it couldn’t possibly be worth it. While I sat there watching this horse pull a cart for ten minutes, I thought, “It’s been thirty years. I wonder if this guy kept his word about this being his last movie…”
Back to that horse. It pulls a cart. For ten minutes. The first ten minutes. That’s all that happens. A horse pulls a cart. The camera sways back and forth, creeps in and out. The score drones on and on. It doesn’t even seem like a movie, never mind one of the best ones. But I would have watched that horse pull that cart for another hour. At least. I suppose that is precisely what a master of cinema can do. Somehow, in his hands, cart pulling, potato boiling, lantern lighting, wind blowing and well drying can all become fascinating apocalyptic visions.
5. The Avengers – OK, so this one sold itself just fine. But even so, after all the build up, the disbelief that this could really happen, that four giant blockbusters could all be smashed into one, not only did it not suffocate under its own weight, it was exponentially more than the sum of its parts.
Under Joss Whedon, every piece rose to the occasion. Captain America became the altruistic stalwart he mostly failed to be in his own movie. Black Widow had a purpose, and even a motivation. Loki emerged as a true villain, instead of simply a spoiled child. And Hulk was the star of the show it took two movies to disprove he always was.
Something like this, something bigger in scope than it could ever be in practice, is always going to be made up of moments. What binds them together taking a back seat to how memorable they are. And certainly The Avengers has far more of those moments than we could have expected, even at our most hopeful. To have those moments woven into a narrative that handed the spotlight over to each and every celebrated character and led neatly to a grand climactic battle where their talents are not only showcased, but field directed to serve a specific purpose seems impossible even now.
The overwhelming success of The Avengers will undoubtedly lead to far too many lesser attempts to combine properties that barely deserve to exist on their own and we may someday look back and resent what kind of wormhole the Tesseract opened us up to. But for now, The Avengers is a beacon of what commercialism can achieve if only it could see that we respond much better to it when it doesn’t take us for granted.
6. Looper – Seems as though even the most complimentary reviews of Looper can’t help but make some derogatory comment on its failure to make sense of time travel. They like to quote Bruce Willis’ line about not wanting to talk about it and draw a comparison to not thinking about it afterward or turning your brain off or some other such infuriating dismissive cliché. Funny thing about time travel though: it’s impossible. So when you question its presentation, you might as well be upset that the Harry Potter movies didn’t get magic right.
Looper is much more than the science fiction it employs. Mostly, it is pretty thoughtless about it. Not in a flippant way though, in a much more literal sense, wherein it doesn’t bother to dwell on it. Cars are yoked with solar panels. Drugs are in eye drops. Telekinesis is a stupid trick. Time travel is a boring job. These are things that aren’t worthy of note. It’s just the way of the world. And it is in precisely this way that Looper can be a great story about how things never really change before it is one about hit men killing their future selves.
But it is that too. So along with any higher aspirations, Looper can also be a thrilling noir and/or a dizzying action piece. It is a rare melding of aesthetics we have in director Rian Johnson. He can satisfy the tenants of populist fare as well as the more esoteric art house expectations. And give it all a style in which neither is all that well versed. So please, think about Looper. It won’t break.
7. Argo – Somehow, the easiest, most straightforward success of 2012 is based on the least conceivable true story of 1980. It’s kind of the cinematic equivalent of the ubiquitous pop song you don’t want to like but find yourself singing even though you swear you don’t listen to those stations. Argo is inescapably satisfying (if you’re American anyway) and if it were feasible, bandcamp would be filled with mourful acoustic covers of it by now.
Ben Affleck (the director) has usurped all of the attention Argo has rightfully received this awards season. It is a surprise to seemingly everyone that he can do anything well. As if he hadn’t already done this twice before. I’m not saying he hasn’t learned anything in the meantime. I mean, he makes an unanswered phone call one of the tensest moments of the year. Throw in amazing performances by unknowns and superknowns in all sorts of parts and you have to believe that Ben Affleck is the Clint Eastwood we didn’t know we had until way too late. No one seems ready to throw his acting in there with the accolades though. Some people never forgive.
8. Sleepwalk With Me – It’s not a complicated story. Or even all that strangely told. But perhaps that is why, coupled with how it was made, it was impossible to sell on anyone. There were all sorts of email and social media campaigns, a fake feud with Avengers director Joss Whedon, and a short starring NPstaR Terry Gross. After the show I went to, Ira Glass spent 45 minutes answering questions about everything but the movie we’d just watched. And this worked at least as well as such methods could. Sleepwalk With Me did not fail by any means. But sadly, most people are only learning about its existence now that it is on their Recently Added queue on Netflix Watch Instantly.
Mike Birbiglia has always been more of a storyteller than a comedian. So it isn’t such a surprise that he would come out with something like this on his first try. Nor is it a surprise that a quasi-comedian would make one of the funniest movies of the year. What is odd, is this early, seemingly easy success goes against everything he is saying in Sleepwalk With Me. That you have to give up a lot of things to be good at the thing you love to do. That it takes awhile to find the voice that works. That you have to run through a few windows before any doors will open for you.
Of course, this is the movie based on the story he’s been telling in one form or another for years now. So maybe it isn’t a contradiction at all. Just an extension of the first point. We’ll have to see what he brings us next. Which might not be a movie at all. But that seems like it would be loss for everyone.
9. Take This Waltz – Sometimes the movies you like best aren’t such a pleasant experience. Look at any top critic’s best of the year list and you will surmise that this must be true of every movie worth seeing. But I don’t mean it challenges you or teaches you or anything so noble. Sometimes all it has to do, all that it can do, is devastate your ability to function as you were.
Michelle Williams especially, as she is the focus, is painfully authentic. Specific enough to embody a true person, but broad enough to represent any number of people you may know. You can’t stand what she is doing (or thinking about doing, which is more often the case) but you won’t for a second think it unbelievable. Or unavoidable.
We should all hope for the kind of trouble Take This Waltz portrays, really. But that doesn’t erode the impact it can have. You might have trouble with any number of things after watching it. From public showers to rickshaws, from chicken to putting your faith in anyone ever. Not because they’ll let you down, but because you’re not going to be able to help yourself one day and then what was the point?
10. Searching For Sugar Man – I knew what this movie’s “twist” was ahead of time. Or, I thought I did. It does such an astonishing job of setting the stage (sorry) for its story, I was totally convinced I’d gotten it wrong somehow. And that’s when it pulls the rug out.
Searching For Sugar Man isn’t just a great documentary. It looks and feels the way you wish a whole lot more narrative movies would. Even when you know what has to be coming, it can still evoke the emotions it wants to. It can manipulate you in any way it wants. Which is all the more astonishing, considering that it can’t imagine its plot into a new direction to do so.
A mix of history, legend, rebellion and mystery makes this one of the most exciting and eclectic movies of the year, and all without much of anything beyond talking heads. These are some of the most excitable interviews you’ll ever see. Even though it never stops telling you how much of a commercial failure its subject was, and you know this anyway because you have never heard of him, when they are through with you, you can’t believe it either. As if you were there in 1968, recording the album you knew would take over the world.
Django Unchained – Placing a Quentin Tarantino movie even this low puts it in an unfairly defensive position. So let’s just allow this as evidence of how good a year it was.
The Kid With A Bike – The most frustrating child in Belgium is at once the best and worst advertisement for adoption there has ever been.
Rust And Bone – No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful.
The Cabin In The Woods – Now we can imagine even the most generic of horror movies has something much more intersting going on behind it.
Jack Reacher – What we should wish all best selling novels could turn into.