Video by Bernhard Fasenfest
If one wants to get an idea of how great a year 2012 was at the movies, maybe a top ten list isn’t the best place to look. After all, though the films that Double Exposure’s contributors elected as the finest examples of contemporary cinema are all inspiring, powerful, occasionally world-expanding pieces of work, their scope ranging from the hillsides of Anatolia to small town Tennessee, any list of only ten movies picked from such a fruitful year as the one that just concluded is bound to offer an incomplete portrait of that moment in time. How could we possibly attempt to tie a ribbon on the year without tipping our hat to the procedural immersion of Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty? Or without acknowledging the heartbreak of The Deep Blue Sea or the wit of Damsels In Distress? Is it really possible that we could be so careless as to leave out films that we’ll be talking about for years, such as The Turin Horse, The Color Wheel, Cosmopolis, and Tabu? Apparently yes. In fact, this list’s offenses go even further, since it covers only 2012 releases, leaving out festival films still to receive commercial runs in New York City, such as Like Someone In Love, Something In the Air, Leviathan, Night Across the Street, and Beyond the Hills. How could we, in good conscience, publish something so horrendously incomplete?
Well I for one may someday be able to sleep at night by re-watching the films we have selected for our top ten, each of which grapples with the problem of incompleteness in its own way. How does a family endure when one of its members passes away? How can someone stand in for another who has died, or who never existed in the first place? How should life be completed, by natural causes or by a human hand? When can the book be closed on the story of that life? Can a person be made complete through religion, or violence, or even the embrace of another? These films have more questions than answers, and are all the more rich for it. So please take this list as a point of entry, a trail of breadcrumbs winding back through the past twelve months of cinema in search of answers we may never find. In 2012, as it is in any year at the movies, the search–for beauty, for meaning, for truth–was more important than the conclusions any one person, or film journal, may have drawn from it.
#10: In the Family (Patrick Wang)
When tensions and misunderstandings start to mount up in most family dramas, I find myself thinking naively, “if only they could just talk it out!” Patrick Wang, the (if you can believe it) first-time director behind In the Family, clearly thought the same thing. I can’t remember a film that believes more earnestly in the ability of people to open up to each other in words—and, what’s more, to be heard. Praising a film for its sincerity is often a backhanded compliment (see, for instance, any given review of Cloud Atlas). Not here. In the Family is sincere to the bone, but only thanks to the 20-20 clarity of its moral vision, its skill for whittling away at human experience until all that’s left is what really matters, habit and convention be damned. In that respect and many others—its deep-set faith in human goodness, its commitment to traditional family values (if not to “traditional” families), even the absence of 21st-century signposts like laptops or iPods—In the Family is a deeply conservative film, in the best and most beautiful sense of that word.
#9: Alps (Giorgos Lanthimos)
Yorgos Lanthimos’ sophomore film shares a screenwriter, a vibe, and a few key actors with his first, Dogtooth, but according to the director, that is where the similarities end. He said in an interview with Cineuropa that the two films are, in his mind, opposites: “Dogtooth is the story of a person who tries to escape a fictitious world. Alps is about a person who tries to enter a fabricated world.” Lanthimos confronts us as an audience with the escapism in which we so readily partake, as we follow the members of the central agency, Alps, through their appointments as substitutes for the recently deceased. The characters slip in and out of their roles so that we have no choice but to be conscious of their acting and role-playing. The film is absurdist, yet deadpan, especially when some of the agents engage in agonizingly contrived (and contraband) sexual interactions with their clients. Alps forces the audience into introspection, and, with tongue-in-cheek, is successful in shaking off the traditional constraints of acting that masquerades as reality.
#8: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
For the first time in Quentin Tarantino’s career, he has made a film about a genre that has no real world counterpart. The Western has always felt like a pure fabrication of the movies, so to see this epic pastiche is to partake in the joys of the genre as a whole without needing an abnormally high suspension of disbelief. Christoph Waltz plays the most likable character I have seen on screen this year as Leonardo DiCaprio plays one of the least likable. Django Unchained’s long run time is wholly justified by its no-holds-barred, albeit controversial sense of fun.
#7: Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Moonrise Kingdom is one of the most romantic films I’ve seen in quite a long time. Sure, that’s an odd thing to say about a film in which two twelve-year-olds run away from home and try to elope, but Suzy and Sam, the young protagonists, seem decades older than the adults in every romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. I can’t figure out if this is a result of Wes Anderson’s characterization of Suzy and Sam or the magnificent, complex world Anderson’s constructed around them, and I am perfectly happy attributing my love of the film to some combination of the two. Moonrise Kingdom unabashedly relishes in the discomfort and beauty of two oddballs finding each other and staying odd. It’s also somewhat comforting to know that true love can come in the form of two people awkwardly dancing to Françoise Hardy on a beach in their underwear.
#6: Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
Silver Linings Playbook is, quite simply put, a celebration of life. It has all the rich emotions and inspiring elegance and nobility of a Frank Capra classic. And yet, it boasts an edginess and obsessiveness that blows through audience expectations to deliver a flawed and endearing set of characters. Bradley Cooper brings depth, engagement and subtlety to create the most believable individual of the year. Jennifer Lawrence has Julie Christie’s poise and Joan Crawford’s passion. Robert de Niro performs at Scorsese quality while Chris Tucker is, well, the awesomeness that is Chris Tucker! Of course, the maestro behind the film is David O. Russell, who directs his screenplay with equal parts sweetness and raw edge. Silver Linings Playbook is a triumph in personal filmmaking that fulfills Billy Wilder’s adage “Make ’em personal… But make ’em for the people.”
#5: Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
Anders, the central character in Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st is the picture of passivity. He sees himself as a victim, and prefers to observe and reflect on others’ lives rather than construct his own. As the film progresses, we come to understand Anders’ hopelessness and helplessness; he is persistently confronted by his friends’ enviable successes – things they have achieved while he has been in a rehabilitation clinic. After Anders falls back into the drug abuse for which he was hospitalized, Trier rewinds through Anders’ day, in reverse order from the way we saw it first. This time, however, the park bench, the outdoor patio of his friend’s flat, and the train are all empty of people. While Anders’ relapse is devastating to us as the audience – we who have grown to identify with him intimately – the world and life go on without him. Oslo is isolating, but composed in a way that somehow makes you feel like you are a cog in a larger wheel. The message seems to be that, in order to be missed from society, one must somehow contribute to society. Anders is hesitant to commit himself fully to anything, be it the work force, romanticism, or sobriety, and as such can depart from his friends, acquaintances, and more broadly, Oslo, with nobody – least of all his ex-girlfriend whom he tries to contact repeatedly – noticing or caring. Oslo is precise and sharply focused on Anders’ pain and solitude without any melodrama; Anders Danielsen Lie gives a subtle performance as Anders, and creates depth of character that is easy to identify with, but hard to read.
#4: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Master is a film too rich for one viewing. The interplay between the story’s themes and its history’s themes is something that will no doubt be a subject of interest. For now it may be enough to say that this is as important as a film gets in 2012. It is a Hollywood movie that will last beyond the month, beyond the awards season, beyond the decade and probably beyond our lifetimes.
#2 (Tied): Amour (Michael Haneke)
Michael Haneke is always giving his own medium its most challenging pushback, so his movies often get their most challenging pushback from die-hard lovers of the medium. In an interesting but myopic critique, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody — one of the critics who would die hardest for the medium — pigeonholes Haneke’s Amour into a “dominant mode of so-called art-house filming.” According to him, the film “reflects Haneke’s calculated desire to stir up a reaction by way of a cynical ambiguity” and “make viewers complicit with morally dubious deeds.” Even further, he says that Haneke is “holding in emotion as well as information, keeping from viewers what he knows about the characters and what the characters know about themselves.” Brody is absolutely right, although this doesn’t really distinguish Amour from most great film noirs, or from most thrilling and morally complex narratives, for that matter. But the things that Brody finds most troubling about Amour are actually its biggest assets — namely, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Says Brody, “If only some of the uninhibitedly energetic thought and insight of these actors had found its way into Haneke’s movie.” If only! Their glimmers of boyish-girlish energy make the sterile walls of that apartment tense and vibrant, as do their palpable reservations about opening themselves up in front of a filmmaker with such a cool and even cruel eye. The story that contains them may be repellent or beautiful or neither, but Haneke’s graceful and unusual ability to allow his actors’ inhibitions into the film is, in the end, what makes one fall head over heels.
#2 (Tied): Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
I could make a case for Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s lofty position on this list for any number of reasons: the stunning digital cinematography, the elegantly weaved screenplay, or the ambition of the film’s inquiry into the way we process death socially and individually. Yet I’d like to highlight a different reason for the film’s greatness, one that might not immediately seem like as significant an achievement: I don’t know if cinema has produced a finer portrayal of that ordeal known to college students and beleaguered Turkish bureaucrats alike, the all-nighter. As Anatolia’s doctor, police chief, and prosecutor search for a dead body over the course of one long night and morning, their weariness takes shape in the landscape around them, manifested by light and weather as much as actorly performance. For Ceylan, time is neither an endurance test, as it is for Bela Tarr, or a conveyor belt engineered to deliver narrative incident, as it is for so many less imaginative filmmakers. Instead, Ceylan treats time as a transitional medium, another plane through which his characters sluggishly move. Where another movie might ask what a murder looks like, Anatolia poses a far more unsettling question: what does time feel like in the aftermath of death? Ceylan’s answer finds an improbable richness in the banal transition between tragedy and everyday life.
#1: Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
For many of us at Double Exposure, 2012 was a year of firsts: the journal’s first full year of existence, our first full year playing the part of film critics, our first time covering a film festival. All the while, an increasing number of pundits wrote as if they were living not in film’s Eden, but its end times. Everywhere there were whisperings about the end of celluloid, the decline of big-screen projection, and the last days of the movies as they had long been known, watched, and understood. It’s a strange feeling to come into one’s own as a cinephile in the age of The Death of Film, and no film this year captured that strangeness—along with the accompanying fear, anxiety, and exhilaration—better than Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.
Death hangs over every corner of Holy Motors, something to be evaded, staved off, accepted, suffered, and—ultimately—overcome. Yet it’s present only as a threat to the film’s true subject: life, and by extension the ability of the movies to capture what it’s like to be alive. Each of Monsieur Oscar’s “appointments” is a mini-feat of cinematic imagination, in which recognizable facets of human experience—deprivation, lust, injury, political conviction, parenthood, loss, and maybe love—are made strange, unfamiliar, and yet devastatingly immediate through the magic of the movies. Late into Holy Motors, exhaustion takes hold of film and audience alike, explicit hints are dropped about the death of celluloid, and it’s difficult to tell whether this celebration of the movies hasn’t become their elegy. Are we entering a brave new world, or watching an old world’s life flash before our eyes? Carax doesn’t give us an answer. What he does give us—midway through the film—is one of the most exhilarating musical numbers in movie history, a digitally-shot hymn to motion and rhythm and sensation and release. It’s enough to remind us why we want to write about movies, and enough to suggest that, long after cries about The Death of Film have faded into the history books, we will still be marveling at the sight of Denis Lavant leading a troop of accordion players through a church, briefly perching in mid-air, then with a laugh and a cry letting the music crash down around him: trois, douze, merde!