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When I reflect on the best films of 2016, I return to moods, sensations, and melodies that, taken as gestalt, seem to evoke the entire spectrum of human feeling. I remember the almost unbearably overwhelming catharsis of a son seeing his mother for the first time in 25 years after he went missing as a boy; the indignation of a free-thinking student forced to defend himself from the patronizing harangue of a despotic dean; the excruciating awkwardness but even greater ecstasy of a birthday celebration literally stripped naked, a nightmare scenario transformed into a gesture of anything-goes abandon; the pervasive air of dread, disorientation, and grief experienced by a woman and a country following a national tragedy; the boundless exhilaration of a ragtag group of kids on the road pumped up by communal sing-a-long; the mournfulness, inquisitiveness, and compassion of a woman who sees the world through a camera. Certainly any movie year produces a plethora of these indelible moments, but in a year that saw as much callousness toward our basic humanity as 2016 did, the feelings somehow resonated just a bit stronger.It was noticeable, also, just how many of the year's greatest films were inextricably tied to music, whether they were actual musicals or dramatic films emboldened by unique, unpredictable, and exuberant incorporations of song. Many scenes are now emblazoned into the memory thanks to, among others, Rihanna's "We Found Love," Richard Harris's "Camelot," the SOS Band's "Take Your Time, Do it Right," and the most hysterical rendition of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" ever recorded. 2016 was a rollercoaster of a year, mostly not in the good way. Its best films, however, are reminders of the full register of humanity we cannot stand to ignore.One note up top: as always, tricky release dates have complicated my determinations of what I deem a 2016 film. To keep with consistency, I will continue to go by the year in which the film in question had its major premiere. Therefore, despite it showing up on several critics' lists this year (and receiving an Oscar nomination!), I am considering Yorgos Lanthimos's brilliant The Lobster as a 2015 release. If this were not the case, it would be on my list - very high on it, in fact.On to the Top 10:10. Lion / Garth DavisBased on a true story whose outcome is so improbable - a lost child in India adopted by Australian parents uses Google Earth 25 years later to successfully locate the home village he could barely remember and reunite with his mother who is still living there - Lion registers, despite its historical veracity, as the fantasy it really is. It is thus ideally made for the cinema, not only providing the kind of cathartic, against-all-odds resolution that has such capacity to satisfy our desire for closure, but thematizing it in a story that gives us the poignant shape of a narrative and an actual journey come full circle. Davis's nimble handling of Luke Davies's bifurcated structure reinforces this multiple sense of closure, movingly surfacing the memories of its first half, in which young Saroo is played by the revelatory Sunny Pawar, in the second, where Dev Patel pellucidly conveys the anguish and implacable drive of a man seized by the need to reconnect with his past and cultural identity. As his adopted mother, Nicole Kidman colors a portrait of motherhood equally embattled yet unshakable in her devotion. They contribute mightily to the film's cumulative emotional impact, which is difficult to overstate.9. Everybody Wants Some!! / Richard LinklaterOne of two blissful 2016 films that casually and unsentimentally espouses contentment as a way of life (you'll find the other further up the list), Everybody Wants Some!! is a rare kind of pleasure: a film interested in people who enjoy living, and realize it. Linklater has never been a conventional dramatist, but Everybody Wants Some!!, perhaps even more than its avowed predecessor Dazed and Confused, is the director at his most easygoing and pleasingly ambling, energized not by conflict but by the unbridled spirit of a time of life - young adulthood - and the seemingly endless breadth of possibilities it affords. At the ebullient center of this is a superb ensemble, whose group dynamic is at once rollicking in a broadly comedic kind of way and scalpel-precise, even anthropological, in its playing out of homosocial male behavior in the frat environment. This is a group of guys glued together by physical prowess and gamesmanship, experimentation and jocularity, who embody what it's like to feel young, vital, and invincible. One might expect Linklater's cleverly employed ticking clock structure to count down to some putative end to their fun, but instead, true to life and affirming of it, it only signals the arrival of more present moments to be savored.8. La La Land / Damien ChazelleYes, La La Land pays homage to the effervescent musicals of Golden Age Hollywood (as well as the candy-colored fantasias of Jacques Demy), but it neither looks nor feels particularly like them. Damien Chazelle's modern day musical is really an entity all its own, mixing and matching an array of cinematic idioms to produce a slyly postmodernist variation on some classic themes. We can talk all we want about how the film replicates the (mostly) lily-white fantasy world of classical Hollywood - this is obviously no mistake - but what deserves more comment is the film's ambivalent relationship to fantasy in general, and to the nostalgia it entails in particular. From its very beginning Chazelle is pushing the idealized polychromatic vision of the American musical up against a reality that can hardly support it: take note of all the times aggravating signifiers of contemporary life (traffic and blaring horns, cell phone ringtones, malfunctioning movie projectors) intrude upon and disrupt the romance of La La Land's self-aware "movie magic." Chazelle gets what it's like to be a struggling artist, particularly one trying to make it in an industry where the line between meaningful and meretricious is perilously thin, and it's unclear if anything you do will have any lasting value. As significant as its undeniable mirth, then, is La La Land's tension, moxie and passion in conflict with pragmatism and uncertainty. Chazelle's bittersweet epilogue indulges in one final blast of nostalgia to keep the flame burning, but its power is in its final suggestion that some fantasies ought to remain just that. Thankfully, the screen is a pretty good place for them.7. Indignation / James SchamusThe centerpiece scene in Indignation, one of the most sensationally performed of the year, is a nearly 20-minute ideological showdown between a defiant, secular Jewish student from New Jersey (Logan Lerman) and the paternalistic dean of a small conservative college in Ohio (Tracy Letts). The power imbalance is such that even before a word is exchanged, the cards are stacked against our erudite protagonist; that the dean articulates his condescending, anti-Semitic charges against the student with such eloquence serves to make this emblematic scene of inescapable dogma all the more terrifying. Adapted from Philip Roth's novel, the whole of James Schamus's Indignation similarly bristles with such palpable angst. This is a quintessential portrait of 1950s America as soulless province of conformity, repression, and covert domestic barbarism, a time and place that only rewards those willing to comply with its prescriptive conditions. In other words, not ideal for Lerman's Marcus, nor for Sarah Gadon's elusive, sultry femme fatale Olivia, whose own stifled desires and sexual hangups open a pandora's box for the inexperienced young man. Schamus's elegant narrative build and perfectly smoldering rein on atmosphere keep the vice-like grip tightening around him. As everything that could possibly go wrong essentially does, Marcus's conviction and recusance feel, paradoxically, both increasingly foolish and laudable. It's a no-win situation in one of the most searing films about the perils of stubborness since The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.6. Toni Erdmann / Maren AdeToni Erdmann makes it acutely evident just how lacking so many comedies are in the departments integral to generating, and sustaining, humor: rhythm, timing, suspense, the element of surprise. It is not merely that the film is the most uproarious of 2016, it is that it exemplifies better than any in recent memory how comedy develops and accrues, and even further, why it works so extraordinarily well when it’s working. At nearly three hours, the film on one level operates as a kind of anatomy of a particular film comedy process, using its expansive runtime to offer a methodical demonstration of its comic logic. In this formulation, Ade allows us to see precisely how her situations build and her tone oscillates, how her actors incrementally add and combine inflections of embarrassment, bemusement, pain, longing, and elation through their winching interactions. Nothing in the film ever stays one way for long: its progression is a masterclass in the escalation of incident, carrying a sustained comic momentum that never wavers even as individual episodes flit liberally between farce, pathos, and caustic absurdism. Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek provide the exhilarating tête-à-tête that keeps this tonal mélange authentic and spontaneous. Pushing and pulling at one another, deceiving and dissembling, assaulting and relenting, their brilliant performances illustrate the history of a fraught father-daughter relationship that seemingly only humor, and the blithe, extravagant undermining of social etiquette, can ameliorate. Toni Erdmann is a comedy in that it’s genuinely hilarious, but it’s also about its own hilarity: a tribute to and exemplar of comedy as disarmament, liberation, and euphoria.5. Hail, Caesar! / Joel and Ethan CoenJust when you thought every possible interpretation of Hollywood on screen had been exhausted, Joel and Ethan Coen step in to offer a fresh perspective. In Hail, Caesar!, the hegemonic American film industry becomes the church in a parable of faith in crisis, its products - mass entertainments both dazzling and phony - its religion. The witty narrative of the film finds its thrust in how Eddie Mannix, a pious studio fixer tasked with managing the folderol of industry politics, is forced to question the value of his role and the validity of his beliefs in the institution he works for. Rarely has the "Dream Factory" felt as apt a title as it does here: in characteristically sardonic fashion, the Coens satirize the artifice and mendacity of an industry that manufactures fantasies on the backs of exploited - although lavishly paid - labor, with artistic and spiritual worth almost always eclipsed by the profit motive. But this is also an atypically sanguine Coens picture. Rather than unequivocally skewer Hollywood's callous capitalist ideology, their vision evinces a pointed ambivalence that also carries a reverence for its craft and capacity to delight, most apparent in their buoyant homages to genres of the studio system. Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, and Alden Eirenreich as the dashing but guileless Hobie Doyle have a ball with these tributes, navigating with precision their lovingly mocking tone. An allegory laced with irony and acid, Hail, Caesar! ingeniously embeds a philosophical meditation inside of a farce - and argues they mean about the same.4. Jackie / Pablo LarraínJackie offers a surfeit of entry points through which it can be approached, each contributing to its prismatic, multivalent texture. From one angle, it is a feminist refiguring of an iconic historical moment; from another, it is a psychological portrait of destabilizing grief; a commentary on the performance of politics and the porousness of "official" narratives; an existential horror in which the foundations of an individual, and the country she helped represent, are thrown into terrifying limbo; a Brechtian display that uses uncanny simulations to make us aware of all the forces that mediate history. Larraín's film belongs to that special sub-category of the "biopic" in which the very conventions of biographical storytelling and cinematic representation are systematically questioned, in the process rendering conscious the larger epistemological problems of how history is written and received. But this is not a mere academic exercise: Jackie is, underneath all intellectual concerns, a chilling and visceral evocation of an unfathomable nightmare, in which Natalie Portman's haunting, brittle embodiment of Jackie Kennedy and the masterly work of below-the-line artists send physical shockwaves. In concert, they articulate a turbulent American mood with expressionistic force, fashioning a (frighteningly) resonant portrait of American political upheaval that ripples through and beyond the White House's glorified domestic sphere. In 2016, Jackie takes on another shade as an uncomfortably recognizable reflection of identity profoundly upset.3. American Honey / Andrea ArnoldAmerican Honey is a long movie, its length conferring on the spectator a sense of the drift, ritual, and general repetition of experience its characters endure. But the last thing anyone could call it is listless. On the absolute contrary, Arnold’s film is an exuberant, larger-than-life rush of cinema, a full-bodied sensory submersion that celebrates the will and resilience of its disenfranchised youth even as it palpably laments the socioeconomic circumstances that have led to their status. Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, shooting in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio that intensifies the film’s raucous energy precisely by not being able to contain it, conjure a cascade of saturated images in sensuous shallow focus. Their subjects, though, are the film’s raison d'être: a panoply of young actors, most nonprofessional, each with their own distinct physiognomies and behaviors that bear the traces of their characters’ pasts. Each actor brings their character to startling life, and in each other’s company create American Honey’s most rapturous effect: the mobilized, indomitable spirit of the group. Employing music as the motor and the glue, Arnold profoundly conveys how the individual surrenders herself not just to the group, but to the group in song. Far from implying an insidious submission, however, she powerfully demonstrates the unifying strength of music and its role in absorbing, and channeling, the collective emotions of a tight-knit community. With anthemic gusto, Arnold and her young actors produce a wellspring of angst-bound-up-in-optimism that’s vivifying, and empathetic without condescending.2. Paterson / Jim JarmuschThe other distinguished 2016 film that makes cinematic a worldview of contentedness, Paterson is a Zen-like experience whose measured rhythms and droll, affectionate regard for life's mundane sights and sounds has the effect of renewing a viewer's perceptual attunement to the world. It is a poetic, philosophical palliative, a soothing ode to deriving inspiration from the quotidian that mixes the banal and the idiosyncratic, the local and the cosmic, in ways distinctly Jarmusch-ian but oriented toward more affirming ends. In the largely invariable weekly schedule of Adam Driver's titular character, the director illustrates a blue-collar, workaday lifestyle that's recursive and predictable but also rife with expressive possibilities. Paterson names both the bus-driver-cum-poet protagonist and the city he resides in, and as the film transpires, shrewdly accumulating visual and narrative information in endlessly rhyming patterns, it becomes clear that both have reciprocally informed one another, urban space and individual mutually emboldened by the mere fact of their peaceful coexistence. And although Jarmusch slyly has us inhabit Paterson's subjectivity throughout (this is probably the most loving depiction of solipsism ever committed to film), he sketches a much more generously inclusive social portrait that reveals a whole diverse populace galvanized by creative energy they both produce and absorb. Hilarious, wise, soulful, Paterson encourages an active receptivity to and participation in life even, or especially when, it seems most routine.1. Cameraperson / Kirsten JohnsonThe title of Kirsten Johnson's humane, transcendent documentary memoir may refer to her profession, but its best and truest meaning exists beyond that literal denotation. Instead, the compound word points to a veritable melding of human and machine consciousness, an intimate, corporeal relationship between body and camera that Johnson, throughout her film in a myriad of thought-provoking ways, suggests to be one of the most significant and symbiotic partnerships we have the privilege of engaging in. Every shot and every moment in Cameraperson, all from unused footage Johnson shot for various documentaries over her career, evince the fundamental inseparability of cinematographic apparatus and embodied human subject. Johnson proves that there is no such thing as an "objective" perspective or a recording of subjects divorced from human presence: marshalling our attention, transfixingly, toward aspects of framing, lighting, and cutting, she reifies how images are made and read only through processes of human mediation. And although Johnson only appears briefly on screen once, Cameraperson is among the most personal and powerful of all cinematic autobiographies. It shows not only a woman's unique work, passion, memory, and life inscribed in the corpus of the images she's produced, but shows those images as constitutive, an archive and body all their own with the capacity to touch and transform. Although on the most basic level a superior interrogation of filmmaking practice and ethics, Cameraperson finds its greatest import as an example of cinema as our foremost conduit for communication, expression, and empathy.And the magnificent runners-up:THE FITS, by Anna Rose Holmer, a dazzling and assured debut feature that celebrates young female identity and agency blossoming through dance. At just over 70 minutes, an economical and evocative miniature with major power.LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, by Whit Stillman, an exceedingly witty Jane Austen adaptation with a blisteringly acerbic bite. Silly, caustic, brusque, and as whip-smart as the best screwball comedies.LITTLE MEN, by Ira Sachs, a beautifully sensitive child's-eye view of vexing adult conflicts that refuses to judge the positions of any of its parties. As the boys whose friendship is both forged and dissolved under their parents' contentious interaction, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are extraordinary finds.
|Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 3, 2016 at 3:55 PM||comments (0)|
10. Room / Lenny Abrahamson
Committing to the screen one of the more authentic child’s-eye views in recent memory, Room evocatively inhabits both the physical and psychological perspectives of an inchoate youth. The film accomplishes this through an impressive concert of camerawork, editing, sound, and performance: centered invariably on the amazing Jacob Tremblay, Abrahamson defines time and space through his eyes by nimbly calibrating these filmmaking tools around him, placing us in point-of-view shots that let us viscerally feel his literally expanding worldview. Trepidation, wonder, and disorientation form his turbulent headspace, and we are made to live them all. It is love, however, the primal one shared only between mother and child, that is the inviolable bond that pushes Room outward. Never taken on maudlin terms, Larson and Tremblay make their love felt on a molecular level, capturing the potent mix of biological dependency and fierce, unshakable devotion that tethers them together. In the process, the film's dramatic circumstances and blossoming aftermath magnify steps we all take in our early development as our widening perception of the world begins to redefine and supplant the reality we thought we knew. It's easy to imagine the film bogged down by manipulative tactics in other hands, but this Room fully earns the flood of emotions it elicits.
9. Mistress America / Noah Baumbach
What a terrific year for Noah Baumbach. Not only did he direct While We're Young, a hilarious and perceptive exploration of authenticity and cultural appropriation across the generations, he also made the scintillatingly witty, bracing, and poignant screwball farce Mistress America, which matches rapid-fire bon mots with equally piercing inquiries into identity, integrity, ambition, and being a young adult in the 21st century. And is there a better cinematic portraitist of urban, middle-class 21st century American identity than Baumbach? There's certainly not a funnier or more incisive one: Mistress America, in its blistering register, cannily digs beneath the very Internet-era-specific layers of performance and irony that comprise the profiles of millenials, finding confusion and doubt as familiar cornerstones and turning the awkward search for self-actualization into a blithe comedy of manners. The line is always deliberately thin between mocking, arch observation and empathetic understanding, but there is never the sense that Baumbach, or inexhaustible co-writer Gerwig, regard these fledgling characters with anything but compassion. That they are able to so adeptly tease out their anxieties with such lightness and elan is beguiling – an ability to encapsulate a particular Gen Y condition unmatched in contemporary film.
8. Son of Saul / László Nemes
Son of Saul, in form and function, concerns itself with nothing less than the burden of representing the Holocaust on screen. It presupposes we’re familiar with its history and its manifold, often graphic cinematic depictions, which allows it to take on a new perspective that, even more than presenting another side of the 20th century’s most unconscionable atrocity, actively questions the ethics and limits of its visual recreation and the roles image-makers and consumers play in approaching its memory. Locking his camera in almost unwavering close-up on his protagonist while obscuring the violence taking place around him, Nemes does this by locating his theme as vision itself: the burden of the knowledge it generates, and the extent to which we can see, or should see, such horror. The film’s claustrophobic frames and deliberate optical obfuscation also have a more immediately psychological effect, disabling the spectator’s gaze and denying him the sense of omniscience and control he is accustomed to when watching a movie. This all constitutes a hugely daring and maybe even presumptuous conceptual gambit, and Son of Saul is always running the risk of being too much of a stunt, or being unduly abstract. Yet its scrupulous constriction of vision is in the service of an intensely human story. Laser-focused on the face of a victim trying to do one decent thing in a sea of depravity, it wrests visual power from evil, elevating his experience amid abject horror while calling valuable, thought-provoking attention to the politics of one of cinema’s most morally hazardous subjects.
7. The Forbidden Room / Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
In a movie year defined by updating, repackaging, rehashing, and remixing older films, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson's manic movie-devouring fantasia represents the creative apex of what contemporary filmmakers can do with the ghosts of cinema's past. Painstakingly replicating the looks, styles, and moods of early moving image art, the film is on the surface a nostalgic mash-up of silent and early sound film idioms, replete with intertitles, rear-screen projection, superimpositions, and color-tinting. And yet at the same time, the cinema it evokes never looked or behaved quite like this, and couldn't have had without the aid of computers. With distressed images that literally morph, bubble, melt, and oscillate across the surface of the frame, not to mention a nesting doll narrative that shuttles us from a tutorial on how to take a bath to genre-influenced episodes about vampire bananas, sentient mustaches, and dierrere fixations, The Forbidden Room is an explicitly postmodern simulation, returning us to an experience of film at its most primal by way of 21st century technology and culture. Propelled by absurdist logic and a liberal confounding of spatiotemporal coordinates, it epitomizes film as an analog of dream all the same. If this sounds like esoteric cinephile territory, it is, but it's also approachably playful, imaginative, invigorating, and funny, a boundary-collapsing work of art that melds the tools and sensibilities of modern production with the infinitely elastic potentials the cinema brought with it at its birth.
6. Creed / Ryan Coogler
If The Forbidden Room was the year's innovative statement on the possibilities of making the old radically new, Creed was the film that best exemplified, in a classical narrative mode, how to maintain a legacy while reenergizing it with a wholly modern ethos. It starts with Ryan Coogler: from the first frame, the young, preternaturally gifted director commands every element on and off screen with astonishing dexterity, punching up the original Rocky formula with new levels of sensitivity, pathos, cultural detail, and visual flair that put nearly every 2015 Hollywood release to shame. The brio he brings to the table never falters, evinced in boldly dynamic sequences (that one-take boxing match is gobsmacking) and quieter emotional moments that honor real personal struggles. His conviction extends to every other person involved in the movie, all vigorously committed to material that never needed to be this good. That passion finds its concentrated center in Michael B. Jordan, who makes Creed a winning, flesh-and-blood individual we become intimately invested in. Jordan pairs so naturally with the aged Stallone – whose rugged, rueful Rocky parallels and deepens the former's efforts to extricate himself from, and finally embrace, past legacies – that what any other director might have made a rote franchise baton-pass becomes something far richer and more resonant through their interaction. It's an achievement in itself that Creed nails the combination of heart and grit that made the first Rocky special; it's an even greater one that it emboldens its image with a social consciousness that valorizes the look – and voice – of a new generation.
5. Inside Out / Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
Many films have portrayed the messy, painful, finally inevitable process of growing up (there's even another on my list!), but it's fair to say that none have conceived it like Inside Out. Pixar's film, directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, is the studio's most cerebral and ingenious idea yet, visualizing a child's transition into adolescence by literally placing us in her head. Here, cognitive functions are vibrantly and cleverly reified, bringing legibility to the mental processes that guide us through life and making knotty psychological concepts fully graspable. In the way it confronts us with our emotions by literally showing us our emotions, the film, skirting oversimplification, manages to be an extraordinary lesson in how art can help us make sense of ourselves. Inside Out certainly proves an edifying tool, and not just for children: its exploration of how identity and emotional constitution evolve as we accumulate experience; its empathic conveyance of how, and why, melancholy and nostalgia become inseparable from joy; its deft internal/external visualization of the dialog between experience and memory; its heartrending yet never mushy fostering of emotional openness - all of this becomes a template for a new awareness. That swell of emotion we feel during the film's climax doesn't arise superficially, but because we have caught something of our human condition that we have always felt but have never seen reflected with such clarity.
4. Cemetery of Splendor / Apichatpong Weerasethakul
You don’t so much watch an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie as become biologically entrained to it. As his languorous pacing moves us through a procession of placid images, we feel ourselves becoming suspended between states of consciousness. One could locate the position, perhaps rightfully, as somewhere between wake and sleep, and this is certainly the condition that Cemetery of Splendor literally points to in its story of comatose soldiers and their caretakers who drift imperceptibly in and out of lucidity. But Apichatpong’s cinema goes even further, positing itself as not something so typical as a reflection of an unconscious state, but as another mode of consciousness altogether. In Cemetery of Splendor, this alternative consciousness has meditative but also political dimensions: in the military-governed Thailand that the film presents, it has the power to free the individual from external structures that suppress. The cinema’s liberating, healing capacities are demonstrated in Apichatpong’s centerpiece sequence, which begins with our protagonists in a theater watching schlocky, state-sanctioned Thai movies and ends in a becalmed room of sleeping soldiers, neon tubes installed in the latter space filling the frame with a hypnotizing cycle of colors. All boundaries – between forms of perception, past and present, modernity and tradition – dissolve in Apichatpong’s cinema as the temporal and the otherworldly constantly, hushedly intermingle. Cemetery of Splendor distills this in his most emotionally accessible way yet, and the result feels nothing short of soul-enriching.
3. Ex Machina / Alex Garland
Ex Machina was the first film from 2015 I saw, and its seductive, sleekly disquieting surfaces have never left me, nor, certainly, have its haunting ruminations on the nature of reality and power in the digital era. A chamber piece, Alex Garland’s modestly scaled setup is ideally calibrated for a sci-fi exercise equal parts suspenseful and philosophical, in which dread is fomented by stimulating conversation and genre thrills naturally accrue from character interaction. Its space is relatively small and its players are few, but its ideas are big: confidently initiating and juggling dialogues on gender politics, subject/object positions, surveillance, social conditioning, and the increasingly nebulous lines between reality and simulation, human and machine, Garland and his pitch-perfect four-person cast play out a veritable buffet of 21st century anxieties to their seemingly natural ends. This is the rare piece of speculative science fiction cinema that actually feels completely, scarily plausible, extrapolating from our current technological moment to a future that is, in so many ways, already here, populated by hubristic tech wizards and characterized by apprehension over what, exactly, it is they're creating – and we're using. By its last scene, a contemporary allegory of the cave in reverse, Ex Machina puts into sharp relief a world and a society that have always been constructed. The stinger is that, one day, its continued construction may be out of our arrogant human reach.
2. Carol / Todd Haynes
More than an achingly wistful portrait of forbidden desire, Carol is a deeply romantic exaltation of the power of the gaze to cut through even the most rigidly orthodox of social constraints. That gaze, in Todd Haynes’s exquisitely wrought story, is an entirely female one and a resolutely queer one. Not only does it reject the male-ordered dictates imposed on life and love, it moves like a heat-seeking missile beneath a calcified system of heterosexual looking, a tacit recognition between gay individuals who know how to find each other’s eyes while subverting everyone else’s. Among the many aspects of this uniquely sublimated and coded gaze that Carol illuminates is its resilient agency: in an expressively smoggy, tea-stained, and drably proper 1950s New York City, Haynes activates and then empowers the desire of two women for each other, making their glances autonomous from conventions and into the strongest bond in a relationship that doesn’t want for physical ardor. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara realize this relationship as a thrillingly complex romance that’s also mutually emboldening guidance for two LGBT people at very different points in their lives. They may be constantly isolated behind obscuring glass or confined in the narrowly segmented spaces of Edward Lachman’s dreamy-dreary frames, but they know where to look, and Haynes lets them do so in one of the most stirring and sanguine films ever made about the optics of queer desire.
1. Spotlight / Tom McCarthy
As I noted at the very start, for me, no film in 2015 made its case as any kind of definitive "best." Read this #1 placement as belonging to Carol, or Ex Machina, or Cemetery of Splendor, or any of the others and it would be equally true to my feelings. But I like lists and their neatness, so I went with a typical ranking for the sake of tradition. Something had to be on top.
So why Spotlight? In many ways, choosing such a relatively conventional film seems incongruous in the scheme of my other favorites, many of which are on the more adventurous side. Yet to label Spotlight as "conventional" is to be terribly reductive: it would minimize its masterly self-effacement, ignore its consummate craft, and worst of all, treat narrative American filmmaking this humbly assured, measured, and unshowy as if it were a common thing. It's not. McCarthy's film, which tackles the incendiary subject matter of abuse within the Catholic Church and the journalists who dug deep to expose it, actually avoids convention in how tenaciously it steers clear of the usual dramatic Hollywood hallmarks, eschewing sensationalism, grandstanding, histrionics, and facile hero/villain, innocent/corrupt dichotomies at every turn. Also rare? Its focus on the process of doing work, unglamorously and in detail. Its unforced naturalism, exhibited by every cast member in an unerring ensemble, the most well-oiled of the year. The understatement and sincerity with which it approaches every investigation, testimony, negotiation, and incrimination, keeping its characters imperfect, never ironing out the complicated ethical knots and unavoidable compromises they must deal with along the way.
That's a lot of "un-" words. I haven't even mentioned how sharply designed McCarthy's film is visually (despite what you may have heard), how its use of line and pattern not only engender a graphic dynamism that creates a sense of tireless movement and routine, but reinforces the rigid institutional control that permeates the film. Above all, Spotlight stays in the memory because of the humanity it fights for in the face of systemic injustice, doing so with outrage but also uncommon sobriety. It may rein in the big emotions on screen, but the feelings it summons in the viewer are considerable.
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2012 offered an embarassment of cinematic riches. This was the first year I visited the theater almost weekly, at one point even making the trip 11 weekends in a row, from about mid-September to the end of November. Almost every film I saw impressed, in one way or another, and I was finally left with a huge slate of quality movies I had to tragically whittle down to 10. Rarely have I realized just how small a number that is.
If one thing stood out to me as a unifying characteristic of the varied achievements in film this year, it was vision. There was so much vision in movies this year, so much technical, thematic, authorial uniqueness and individuality, that each picture seemed to vibrate with the richness of a distinct voice. This went hand in hand with ambition - so many of the year's movies, from big to small, were nothing if not wildly ambitious endeavors. From Leos Carax's completely one-of-a-kind freakfest to Joe Wright's dizzying and experimental rendition of a Tolstoy classic to Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis' head-spinning Cloud Atlas, an "unfilmable" novel put thrillingly to screen, audacity proved it still survives in the movies. That's something we need to cherish.
Without further ado, the Top 10 films of 2012 as I saw it (saw Amour too late, so I include it in my runners-up, but it's certainly worthy of this list):
10. Les Misérables / Tom Hooper
Some people saw fit to criticize Tom Hooper's unorthodox version of the popular stage musical, as if its filmmaking flaws were somehow the death knell of an otherwise hard-hitting, stunningly acted picture. Not me. Hooper's extreme closeup approach is admittedly hit-and-miss, at times keeping us too close to the actors' faces when pulling back and letting us settle into the geography of their surroundings would have been appreciated. But when it does work, it works in spades - Anne Hathaway's rightly vaunted "I Dreamed a Dream" and Eddie Redmayne's stirring "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," both largely shot in that tight closeup, are the film at its best: rousing, emotionally intimate, and galvanizing in their larger-than-life results.
9. Silver Linings Playbook / David O. Russell
A screwball comedy brought into the 21st century, Silver Linings Playbook was probably the biggest crowd-pleaser of the year, an infectious romance inside a deeply moving portrait of a messy family. Above all, though, beyond its refreshingly non-condescending view of mental illness and its refreshingly unconventional character dynamics, it is a testament to community, to the spontaneous, miraculous moments of life where, with the help of others, order can arise from chaos. Grounded in the beautifully rendered performances of Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro, as well as a motley crew of other bit players, it is necessarily grubby and irresistibly charming.
8. Cloud Atlas / Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
It took three directors to wrangle the massive, heady six-story cosmic opera that is Cloud Atlas. Not only did they succeed in committing the sprawling source material to the screen, but most amazingly, they made a hell of a movie out of it, and a coherent one at that. Utilizing a small army of actors that range from Hugh Grant to Halle Berry, Tykwer and the Wachowskis ingeniously have them all appear as multiple characters playing multiple roles throughout all six time-spanning stories. Wearing myriad kinds of insanely transformative makeup - some silly, some astounding - it is a veritable burlesque show, but one with real ideas. There wasn't a more purely gratifying visceral experience in theaters during 2012, or a more grandly ambitious one.
7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower / Stephen Chbosky
High school movies are often not very good. They're conventional, saccharine, cliché-riddled cheese fests that are cringingly raunchy when they're not simply trite. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his own novel, manages to avoid every one of these traps. Instead it is one of the most tender, plainly heartfelt and truthful teenage movies in many a moon, with a ridiculously well-cast ensemble that move and behave like real people. Like any movie that taps so heavily into nostalgic territory, it may be a romanticized vision, but the heart of it rings loud and authentic. Becoming the inspiring anthem of our lovingly misfit characters, David Bowie's "Heroes" will never sound so good again.
6. Zero Dark Thirty / Kathryn Bigelow
A step up from The Hurt Locker in virtually every way possible, Zero Dark Thirty is a genuinely riveting procedural made with white-knuckle intensity and bravura technical prowess. What puts it over the top, though, is its intelligently judged content. What might have been jingoistic, patriotic, gung-ho US glorification is instead anything but: a truly, deeply apprehensive and critical look at the brutal lengths our country is willing to go to in order to meet an end. And what is the end, anyway? What price liberty? There is no triumph, just continued questions. Bigelow's craft here is impeccable, but her weary considerations are what really resonate.
5. Moonrise Kingdom / Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson finally finds the perfect synthesis of form and function, making this, along with 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox, his most complete cinematic achievement. But Moonrise has its own charm, and one that can't be overstated: from the warm, mustard and grass palette to the gorgeous whimsy of the dollhouse-esque sets to the perfectly wide-eyed, mischievous resolve of the kids at its center, every beat of this film is a piece of joy. But it's melancholic, too, and that subtly growing atmosphere of disenchantment is the key to its surprising power. It may be all retro spark on the outside, but inside is a man who realizes there's only so much of childhood we can hold onto.
4. Lincoln / Steven Spielberg
Lincoln is everything an historical epic should be: involving, immersive, authentic, informative, and most importantly, alive. Every line of dialogue and every spool of conversation in Tony Kushner's incredible script crackles with the energy of passionate debate. Talk is not just talk in this movie, but rhetoric and politics, delivered excitingly among many in the House of Reps and profoundly among one or two in various well-dressed venues. Nothing really more needs to be said of the otherworldly Daniel Day-Lewis, but it bears repeating that his portrayal of the 16th president is all you could ask for and more, a fully lived-in portrait of an amazing man who managed to unite a nation with pragmatic words and biting strategy.
3. The Master / Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson's opaque double character study was the brainteaser of the year, as well as the most thought-provoking. Its images, with their stunning 70mm clarity, burn themselves in your mind with a primal power not seen in many movies today. "But what is it?", people ask. Well, it's many things. It's a treatise on post-WWII American disillusionment. It's a battle between the Id and the Superego. It's a love story between two personalities that prohibit themselves from ever staying together. It's about the false hope of religious institutions. Most fascinatingly, it's an elliptical portrait of the necessity of subjugation and submission in society. Masters require servants, don't they? Teachers need apprentices. But what happens when one becomes the other, or, more dubiously, when the roles aren't so cleanly defined? Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix learn the answer, volcanically.
2. Holy Motors / Leos Carax
Talking limousines. A fully clothed body suit sex scene in a motion capture studio. An entire theater of sleeping patrons. A man(?) who chomps down on everything he can get his mouth on, from flowers to money to a woman's hair. Leos Carax's Holy Motors is sensationally, brazenly, unimaginably bizarre, defying expectations with each successive scene and leaving the audience in a state of dazed wonderment. Incredibly, it's not as inscrutable or arthouse-mystifying as you would think; as it progresses, its true intentions gradually blossom like a dream becoming increasingly lucid. This is a movie that is literally about an actor acting, but it also becomes a movie about anyone and everyone who devotes at least a part of themselves to a craft, asking what motivates one to express and, most importantly, asking what makes us want to create in the first place.
1. Sister / Ursula Meier
Of all the emphatically big, bold and audacious movies from 2012, my favorite film of the year was this small unassuming gem from Switzerland. This one has it all in its deceptively tiny package: wonderfully nuanced characters, sensitive and achingly human direction, and arresting employment of environment to convey social and economic strata. Kacey Mottet Klein, playing a boy who travels up to a wealthy ski resort every day to steal and sell gear so he can get by with his destitute sister, is absolutely brilliant, a child performer with the wit, agility, and emotional depth of a seasoned actor. He creates a character that we come to profoundly connect with and care for. A mid-film twist, meanwhile, throws our entire understanding of him and his familial relationships into disarray. It's a brave move for a brave movie, one that adds whole new layers of meaning to a disarming tale of childhood endurance.
My fabulous runners-up, all of which are fully worthy of the list above:
Amour, by Michael Haneke, with its stately elegance, unflinching objectivity, and completely unsentimental but entirely human perspective.
The Impossible, by Juan Antonio Bayona, with its staggering recreation of the Thai Boxing Day tsunami and the most heartwrenching depiction of a family torn apart I think I've ever seen.
Anna Karenina, by Joe Wright, with its elaborate mise-en-scène that must have been a pain-in-the-neck to direct and its impossibly luxurious, luxuriant, lavish artistry.
Life of Pi, by Ang Lee, with its great picturesque 3D and elemental folktale storytelling.
Brave, by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, with its majestic animation and moving story of a mother and daughter relationship.
Skyfall, by Sam Mendes, with its electric Roger Deakins cinematography and high-octane action thrills, Bond is reinvented all the while remaining the guy we know and love.
Argo, by Ben Affleck, with its unfettered speed and Hollywood lampooning, an escape movie that's also a satire and a politically relevant drama.
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