Cole Smithey’s Top Ten Films of 2012
2012 was an extremely eventful year in cinema. Expanded distribution channels meant more film titles being released than ever before. The growth of Video-on-Demand allowed movie audiences to avoid audience members who can’t refrain from talking, texting, or chatting on their cell phones while watching a film at the local cinema. An explosion of terrific foreign, independent, and documentary films gave Hollywood a run for its formulaic models of over-produced “movie-product.”
I’m obligated to throw stones at my ten most loathed movies of the year. Try as I might to avoid clunkers, I did manage to squander precious hours of my life on the following travesties of the seventh art.
The worst films of 2012:
10. The Master
8. The Paperboy
6. The Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
5. Citizen Gangster
4. Tonight You’re Mine
3. Red Dawn
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
1. Beyond the Black Rainbow
The best films of 2012:
10. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylon uses every shaded detail of time, atmosphere, human condition, and verbal and non-verbal communication to tell a quietly complex story about a murder investigation and the imperfect methods of the men assigned to solve the crime. At night Doctor Cemal accompanies a group of police officers and a soldier as they drive around the dark outskirts of the Anatolian steppe. The group has with them two incarcerated suspects they hope will lead them to the grave of a missing man. The story is about how detectives communicate. It’s also about how entrusted public servants wrangle with overpowering emotions and personal secrets. Nuri Bilge Ceylon is a lover of humanity. His great concern for every one of his characters goes beyond their innocence or guilt. He recognizes the balance of both qualities in their actions. The cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylon is a transformative one. It is unique and honest. Most significantly, it offers a rare experience to be treasured.
9. Killer Joe
William Friedkin's dark, funny, and sexy black comedy is a triumph. “Killer Joe” makes “Fargo” seem like a rom-com. The "Exorcist" director once again works with source material by playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts — the author responsible for Friedkin’s cool 2006 psychological thriller “Bug.” Mathew McConaughey explores his assassin character with calculated vengeance. Killer Joe is a natty Dallas detective who moonlights as a hitman. Joe gets called into action by the Smith family, a batch of trailer-trash nimrods that includes dumb-as-a-stump dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his current wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), his gambler/drug-dealer son Chris (Emile Hirsch), and his sultry teen daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). For all of its nail-biting sensuality and quicksilver violence, Friedkin is smart about what he leaves to the viewer’s imagination. He concocts a black comedy stew of blood clots, torn panties, and hard-hitting slapstick humor.
“Skyfall” divides three distinct acts as individual homages to specific aspects of the franchise. The first act is a nod to the leaner and grittier modern James Bond — as exquisitely played by Daniel Craig. He’s a first-rate action movie actor. This time around, Bond has to return to work after being thought dead for several years. He’s been off playing civilian — i.e., drinking a lot of booze. A computer-hacking genius villain named Silva launches an attack on Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s — with M (played by the irrepressible Judi Dench) in the crosshairs. Javier Bardem introduces the film’s second act as Silva, an effeminate villain busy revealing the identities of NATO undercover agents embedded in terrorist organizations. The third act provides a retro vantage point. Bond pulls his trusty 1964 Aston Martin (circa Sean Connery's "Goldfinger") out of the garage, and treats the audience to a gloomy bit of nostalgia-defying action set in the Scottish mansion where James Bond lived as a boy when his parents died. Bond says he “never did like the place.” One thing's for sure, it won't be the same when his enemies are through with it.
7. The Central Park Five
Witness the sordid handling of the notorious “Central Park Jogger” case. An April 19, 1989 brutal beating and rape of a twentysomething white woman led to the railroading of five teenagers, all members of minority groups, whose convictions were eventually vacated — but only after serving more than 41 combined years in prison. Ken Burns’s reputation as one of our era's finest documentarians informs the film’s airtight veracity. Burns made “The Central Park Five” with his daughter Sarah and her filmmaker husband David McMahon, a frequent contributor to Burns’s films. No effort is spared to expose the misconduct and complicity of New York City police detectives, prosecuting attorneys — you’ll never buy another Linda Fairstein novel — media outlets, political figures, and such racist fringe celebs as Donald Trump. Careers were made; justice be damned. The city of New York still has not settled the case to make the wrongfully convicted men whole. Each man is suing the city for $50 million in damages. In Ken Burns’s words, “After 13 years of justice denied – which everyone agrees on — there’s suddenly now justice delayed, which we know is just justice denied.” Justice, as many wrongly accused Americans can attest, is not what we do here in the trademarked “land of the free.”
6. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Takashi Miike’s update of Masaki Kobayashi’s black-and-white 1962 film “Harakiri” never so much as brushes a wrong note. The setting is Japan’s 17th century feudal Edo period — a peaceful era without much need for samurai warriors. Hanshiro, an impoverished ronin, approaches the local samurai lord — Kageyu — to request use of the House of Li’s courtyard to commit seppuku to lend a warrior’s finish to his dishonorable state. Hanshiro’s request is met with cold contempt. Kageyu tells in flashback the story of another samurai — Motome — who came with a similar request the previous week. In the sequence, Kageyu’s assistant Omodaka warns his master that he suspects the man of attempting a “suicide bluff” in order to procure money. Once situated in the courtyard, Motome is assigned a second, a witness, and an attendant. Realizing his dire condition, Motome begs for one more day, or even a few hours, to leave and return before carrying out his bloody mission. His desperate appeal is refused. When he is finished telling the story, Kageyu offers Hanshiro to give up his request and leave without incident; Hanshiro refuses, and insists on following through with his ritual suicide. What follows is all of the backstory behind Motome’s decision to attempt a suicide-bluff, and his relationship to the unwavering Hanshiro. “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a stunner from start to finish.
5. Rust and Bone
A tour de force by any standard, Jacques Audiard’s convention-breaking romantic drama is one more example of how French filmic storytelling rises above the fray of Hollywood’s forced efforts. Audiard meticulously examines a complex love story between Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a single father who boxes in an underground circuit in Cannes, and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at a waterpark park who loses her legs in a freak accident involving one of the giant creatures. Matthias Schoenaerts makes for an empathetic anti-hero in spite of, and due to, his character’s honest but guarded nature. The film’s thought-provoking title evokes the strange compatibility linking Alain and Stephanie, two unlikely lovers who develop a unique romantic bond. Based on a novel by Craig Davidson, “Rust and Bone” is an in-depth character study that never telegraphs its motivations. The provocative sexual component of the couple’s relationship helps the drama earn its stripes. Look for “Rust and Bone” to be a contender for a foreign entry at the Oscars.
4. Django Unchained
Campy, funny, shocking, and seeping with sardonic social commentary, “Django Unchained” is Quentin Tarantino’s finest film to date. The madness of slavery, the ultimate expression of racism, hangs thick in the air of the American South circa 1858. In customary revenge-plot fashion, Tarantino establishes the nimble bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz) as the kind of guy who can get himself out of any situation. The retired dentist “purchases” freedom from slavery for Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to assist Schultz in identifying a trio of brothers named Brittle whose heads carry a hefty reward. Django proves more than qualified to hunt down and kill slave-owners. Working together as a team, Dr. Schultz and Django craft a complex plan to free Django’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Leonardo DiCaprio’s evil plantation owner Calvin Candie. “Candyland” is the name of Mr. Candie’s plantation, where he cultivates “Mandingo” slave warriors who fight to the death. Tarantino’s plot acrobatics have never seemed silkier — or bloodier. Blood doesn’t just splatter — intestines explode from bodies. As with all of Tarantino’s films, “Django Unchained” is filled with spellbinding dialogue and crazy plot twists. Movie lovers rejoice; Q.T. is back in the house.
3. The Turin Horse
At the relatively young age of 56, Bela Tarr announced he would retire after the completion of his eighth feature film, “The Turin Horse.” The anti-narrative picks up after an apocryphal event on January 3, 1889 in Turin, Italy, when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche came to the defense of a stubborn carriage horse being brutally whipped by its driver in a piazza. As folklore goes, the sobbing Nietzsche wrapped his arms around the elderly horse’s neck in order to protect it from the enraged driver before the philosopher fell to the ground. Within a few weeks Nietzsche became mentally ill and was mute for the last ten years of his life, which he spent in the care of his mother and sisters. “The Turin Horse” is an existential provocation to its audience, demanding that we consider the effect of man’s judgments against nature and ultimately against ourselves. The film’s repeated visual, musical, and thematic motifs make it simultaneously transparent and opaque.
2. Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik’s cold-blooded satire of American corporate-political-capitalism cuts through its subject like a freshly sharpened guillotine blade. Economic metaphors big and small fill the narrative about gangster vengeance set in 2008. Dominik based the script on a George V. Higgins novel — see Peter Yates’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” “Killing Them Softly” is a stylish crime drama made up of piercing monologues and canny dialogue that reverberates with social implications. Nothing is wasted. People and places are appropriately ugly. Every performance is spot-on. That the film so effectively lashes out at economic hypocrisy in America is truly rewarding. Here is a one-movie revolution against all of the corporate-controlled two-party bullshit that has turned America into a third-world dictatorship. Brilliant is too soft a word to describe it.
Michael Haneke’s elegiac exploration of an elderly couple’s final days together transcends all definition of the romantic ideal. Retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) rarely leave the comfort of their spacious Parisian apartment. Anne suffers a stroke that leaves Georges as her primary caregiver. A second attack leaves Anne barely able to communicate with her long-adoring husband. The tenderness and fire in Trintignant’s and Riva’s portrayals occurs with a quietly operatic significance. The brutality of nature is a mutual enemy that the characters struggle to command. A pigeon that flies into the apartment through a courtyard window is a tragic metaphor that informs Georges’s sense of personal justice. “Amour” is an incredibly intimate movie that provides a priceless definition of romantic commitment and loyalty.
Honorable mention for their teriffic efforts goes to:
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul)
The Invisible War (Kirby Dick)
Let the Bullets Fly (Wen Jiang)
Klown (Mikkel Nørgaard)