Often during the calendar-straddling list-making frenzy of "top ten season" a scene or a line of dialogue or even a whole film will refuse to dislodge itself from any internal conversation you may have with oneself about the year. That moment for me this year was Kylie Minogue's cameo late in Holy Motors when she arrives in a trenchcoat, like some lost Casablanca love, to sing:
Who were we. When we were. Who we were back then?
It'd be ineloquent bathos, too crudely and redundantly stated, if it weren't sung. But this heightened musical longing for a lost identity, lifts and soars with pathos instead. The year's best films kept reinforcing this most interior of questions as they wrestled with their past selves towards an uncertain future.
Nathaniel's Top Ten of 2012
From all movies screened that received US theatrical releases...
ZERO DARK THIRTY (Kathryn Bigelow)
Sony/Columbia. December 21st
[SPOILERS FOLLOW] My favorite exchange in Mark Boal's dense script occurs between a government official and a CIA operative. "What the fuck does that mean?" "It's a tautology". I laughed at the wordplay in the film but wasn't expecting the widespread tautological eruptions that followed the film's premiere as everyone bent themselves into self-affirming pretzels to debate its portrayal of torture in the film's opening scenes as if there were only one way to look at the damn movie... as if torture were the only thing worth discussing about the film! To Zero Dark Thirty's credit, though I too was discomfited by its suggestion that torture yielded useful intel, there's nary a comfortable or pandering moment in the film. Like The Hurt Locker before it, ZDT attempts something like an apolitical stance though how successful that is (or ever can be) will be left to each viewer to decide. In my mind, Bigelow doesn't suggest that you're meant to enjoy torture or even embrace the mission's success, exactly...
more on Zero Dark and 9 more triumphs after the jump...
For me the most brutal moments are in the film's last half hour when our nation's "triumph" is depicted as a mercilessly precise mechanical setpiece filled with casually quick killings of men and women alike in Osama's compound. Nothing could be more uncomfortable than "friendly" soldiers played by actors you already love, attempting to soothe traumatized children whose parents they've just killed. The film ends with a shot of Maya's (Jessica Chastain) face as a mask of tears in an empty aircraft. Where would she like to go? She doesn't say. Who was she and who were we when we were driven to these things? And what can possibly come next? As the film ended I kept thinking of Maya's unquestioning emphatic statement earlier in the film when she was asked to list her accomplishments outside the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and how little it's done to prepare her for a world after him...
I've done nothing else."
HOLY MOTORS (Leos Carax)
Indomina Media. October 17th
If you've ever read an article declaring that the cinema is dead (and who hasn't?) than here's your ticket to the mournful funeral, lively wake, and scattering of ashes that the artform demands and deserves all rolled up in one. That amaglam is then shoved into an actor's (Denis Lavant) makeup kit as he rolls from one assignment to the next, never questioning but definitely agonizing over his multiple temporary identities. This might be the strangest choice I've ever made for a top ten list in that I was drifting off for the whole screening (not the movie's fault - definitely my own). I thought I'd lucid dreamt it until the internet kept reconfirming it's every insane monstrous detour, crazypants tangent and rousing accordion intermission. Play on, Leos Carax, play on.
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (Ava DuVernay)
Participant Media. October 12th.
Movies about emotional stasis are rare despite it being a rather universal experience. Everyone hits a brick wall of indecision or treads water in a stagnant relationship or whatnot at some point in their life. I suspect these movies are rare because it's hard to dramatize the fact of being stuck. DuVernay's supple drama poses an interesting central question: what if you want to stay stuck? Ruby (Emayatzi Corinealdi) has transformed herself into a human countdown clock, merely waiting out her husband's prison term in an attempt to begin again where they left off. Nowhere finds multiple artful ways to jostle its stubborn heroine out of her self-imposed rut. The past is forever lost to us whether we're willing to admit it or not.
LINCOLN (Steven Spielberg)
Touchstone Pictures. November 9th
In retrospect it's amusing that the first line of dialogue we all learned from Lincoln is "...clothed in immense power!" since the shock of this Abraham Lincoln is how nakedly human he is, as if just (re)born. It's not that you can't see the solitary white marble giant in DC or the godlike face on Mount Rushmore in Daniel Day-Lewis' towering performance. But what the great actor shows us is the less familiar man who earned this stony immortality, these elevated abstractions. Steven Spielberg wisely steps back to let the accomplished ensemble and the great Tony Kushner tell the story. Kushner's tightly focused screenplay never forgets that politics is people as it details the way a political team and an entire country waged war. They fought to send an immoral way of life into the graveyard of the past so a nation could move forward, free of the weight of its chains.
FAREWELL MY QUEEN (Benoit Jacquot)
Cohen Media Group. July 17th
The first signs that this isn't your average fussy costume drama is the way the servant Laborde (watchful intriguing Lea Seydoux) slips and falls as she races around Versailles to serve the whims of her fickle queen Marie Antoinette (a brilliantly distracted Diane Kruger). There's also the crude sight of a dead rat that one servant shows to another, symbolic shorthand for the external pestilence and poverty that will soon topple the outwardly beautiful but obscene aristocratic way of life? Talk about redistribution of wealth... it's all gone upward. This bracing retelling of the Marie Antoinette story takes you deep into the interior of the kind of gated community drama that usually keeps the viewer at a certain fussy distance. Its court politicals and sexual liaisons intrigue and resonate in whole new sociopolitical ways from this servant's eye view. Laborde is a smart working class beauty but the vampiric greed of the wealthy, emotionally...sexually...financially, knows no bounds and could cost her deeply. [REVIEW]
LES MISERABLES (Tom Hooper)
Universal Pictures. December 25th.
It's often a bummer to realize you're alone or at least widely abandoned in the act of loving a movie, so allow me to wallow in that terrible moment that the young revolutionaries experience late in this film's second act when they realized the citizenry has bolted their doors and abandoned them. Ouch! But they rally on.
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
*Sniffle* The top ten exercize is a personal one, however public movie love may be. All I know is that I wouldn't trade Hugh Jackman's riveting "Soliloquy", in which the actor delivers a stunning monologue of conversion and repurposing while walking in and out of the spiritual light for anything. I had to remember to breathe. And I can't even start on Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" which is everything -- the single best scene of the movie year. The movie may peak there and too early and [insert any complaints about visual flexibility here] but I don't require perfection in film and especially not in any of the theatrical high-wire genres. I require soul. Mine was worked over and edified.
MOONRISE KINGDOM (Wes Anderson)
Focus Features. May 25th
Anderson's critics may gripe that his films are too twee, his visuals too fussy and diagrammed, his concerns too myopic. Let's say, for argument's sake, that those things are true. If they are he hasn't found a better story, theme or setting in which to funnel all of them. In this hilarious and precocious synaptic map of adolescent formation and adult melancholy, Anderson sees the invisible connecting lines (love and heartbreak) between them and his camera moves accordingly to trace them. It's his best and most transcendent film since his masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums, and the first in which I've ever wanted to revisit the characters later in life to see what kind of people they've become.
What kind of bird are you?"
MAGIC MIKE (Steven Soderbergh)
Warner Bros. June 29th
If only all pet projects of movie stars were this low in fussy noble ambition but this high in entertainment value and smarts. (Note: Channing Tatum's dumb hunk persona is just a front). Every scene here, even the ones that don't attempt to escape cliché, play enthusiastically or with a slight twist on expectations. My two favorite moments involve the brother and sister caught in Mike's orbit: Brooke (Cody Horn) watching Magic Mike's (Channing Tatum) routine for the first time, with equal parts dismissive judgment and reluctant fascination - that's as perfect a mirror as you're ever going to get of the audience watching the film; Adam's (Alex Pettyfer) endearing boyish enthusiasm after an all nighter on the town with Mike...
I think we should be best friends."
AMOUR (Michael Haneke)
Sony Pictures Classics. December 21st
You'll often read that Amour has a single setting (the Parisian apartment of Georges and Anne played by the French thespians Jean-Louis Trintignant and Oscar nominated Emmanuelle Riva) but this isn't strictly true. We first see the married couple at a piano recital though the Austrian master Michael Haneke refuses to do the work of pointing them out to us. They're merely two people in a crowd. Amour narrows its focus after this opening and we soak up the emotional details of this long marriage between two cultured octogenarians as they tell stories (or don't) and receive (or refuse) visitors. As Anne's health rapidly deteriotates, Georges plays caregiver. It'd be comforting to continue thinking of their story as merely Georges & Anne's, but despite the indelible specifics of pigeon invasions, watery nightmares, and caretaking drama, the cold hard truth somehow warmly delivered by Michael Haneke is that "the end" is a universal experience, an anonymous devastation, a vanishing act. [FULL REVIEW]
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (Benh Zeitlin)
Fox Searchlight. June 27th
"Who'da man??? I'm da man!!!" screams pint-sized Hushpuppy (Qu'venzhane Wallis) more than once as her purposefully distant father attempts to toughen her up for orphan life in the harsh environment of "The Bathtub". If Beasts had felt any less poetic, or any less generously open-hearted, you could have easily imagined the entire filmmaking collective responsible shouting this to each other boastfully as they crafted this wholly original triumph. Surely they deserve bragging rights.
I lost my own father shortly before seeing this film, and I'm sure that my copious tears had as much to do with that as anything happening in the film. But we don't see art in a vacuum nor should we. I've come to treasure Beasts not for that first magical cathartic experience but for the ways it continues to shapeshift in my memory. Maybe it's an apocalyptic drama about being forcibly removed from your nest. Maybe it's a fantastical appropriation of Hurrican Katrina narratives. Maybe it's a political poem. Maybe it's a manifesto about harnessing the power of childlike imagination to survive anything. Whatever it is and becomes over the years -- I suspect it'll continue to fascinate -- it's as rare and weirdly startling as those ancient aurochs released from their glacial prisons.
I showed you mine... your turn in the comments.