In a lot of ways, 2012 was a surprising year for film, filled with huge successes (Avengers!), huge flops (John Carter!) and a whole lot of sneaky dark horse candidates that seemingly came out of nowhere (Cabin in the Woods! Matthew McConaughey?!). But ultimately it was a year where love of film overcame all, as many of the works that stood out to us at CB were about imagination and the power of cinema. It was difficult to pick just 10 films to highlight, but our five writers managed to pare down their selections and we think you'll enjoy what we've chose to spotlight. And where applicable, I've included links to our coverage of these films over the year, just click on the first mention of the title or the relevant sentence.
Matthew McConaughey's Collected 2012 Works
I saw Killer Joe back in July. I went by myself on a friday night, got a big bag of buttery popcorn and a cup of Cheerwine, and prepared myself for a nice night at the cinema.
Instead I rode my bike home, looping "How to Disappear Completely" as I made it back to my apartment where I spent the rest of the evening crying in the shower.
I saw Bernie its opening weekend, when it was only in two other theaters. Jack Black, Richard Linklater, and Matthew McConaughey are all artists whom I go either way with, so I was especially wary.
Yet Bernie was awesome.
Magic Mike. Do I really need to explain why this movie is amazing?
The common denominator? Matthew McConaughey. Every performance of his this year was delivered with such swagger, such personality, and just a smidgen of evil. In each film he plays a variation on the antagonist, from the lawyer trying to prosecute Bernie to the slimy boss of Magic Mike, and the titular role in Killer Joe; if that last one needs explanation of why he's the villain, you should learn English. But even though he's the bad guy, his snake like personality hypnotizes you, draws you in, and possibly smangs you.
The appeal of Cloud Atlas is that it’s like six movies for the price of one. There’s the gritty detective story/China Syndrome expose; the futuristic soon-to-be dystopia; the far future post-apocalypse; the current British dark comedy; a Merchant/Ivory tragedy; and a Master and Commander sailing adventure. What links them all of course are the actors, a recurring birthmark and a piece of music/diary/film/art that seems to tell the same story, time and again, but only half-way, frustrating each of the main characters in turn.
It sounds more complex than it plays, and the structure of the book is even simpler. Six half-stories, building up, interrupted, and then resumed in reverse, creating a literary palindrome. The book may actually be more successful, because a reader is able to visualize the characters and their connections for themselves, and to work out the super-structure piecemeal, leading to those “Oh-I-get-it!” epiphanies that are the fun side of brain puzzles. The book uses the structure to hang leagues of emotion on and around, and argues for an indomitable spirit that persists through something like reincarnation.
The movie argues for more than that, using its core cast to explore the constructed nature of both gender and sexual identity, arguing for a multi-everything diversity that is clearly the Wachowski vision of an utopic future (shades of Zion from The Matrix Reloaded), always threatened in the film (in successive sequences) by antagonists who represent greed, betrayal, conformity, fear, impotence and (recurrently, even in the furthest future) the cultural trap and dead-end of racism. The major factor in the filmmaker’s favor: film is already set up to tell exactly these stories, all that’s needed is montage– one of its oldest tools– and each of the six eras is so clearly depicted that cutting back and forth causes no confusion at all. It’s not the same as the Inception concept of imbedded realities (where you had to remember what level you were at), but if you could keep up with that you can definitely keep up with this.
Hanks is best as a manipulative doctor in the ocean sequence (he’s enjoying his villains these days); Berry is perfect as the intrepid 1970s reporter uncovering nuclear secrets; but the most poignant moments come from Jim Broadbent (as both a selfish composer and a betrayed editor) and Ben Whishaw (as a young man rejected by his family at a cruelly vulnerable time). And if everything doesn’t turn out quite as well as ambitions hoped (Susan Sarandon wasted as a tribal mystic, though much better as a bitter colonial wife, and beaming as a happy homemaker; Hugo Weaving saddled with one-note villainy in too many of the eras), you mustn’t miss Hugh Grant, who is the most convincing character in several time-lines. The challenge is finding him.
Now for Wreck-It Ralph, the pint-sized love story of Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz. I mean John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman. Okay, not really. The love story is between Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch. I mean Fix-It Felix and Sgt. Calhoun. Ralph and Vanellope are more like besties; especially after they both realize they’re getting the short end of the stick from their respective games.
His is Fix-It Felix, where he’s very clearly the second banana. Hers is Sugar Rush, and never has a more indulgent childhood fantasy of addictive satisfaction been envisioned. It’s like Candyland meets Mario Kart, peopled with tiny little g-rated Katy Perrys with names like Rancis Flugge
rbutter and Crumbelina DiCaramello. They all get to race for prizes, except Vanellope, because she’s only a leftover glitch from development days, hanging on to her sucrose-laden game as much as her half-life will allow.
Promotion and press for the movie were most excited about all the real-life games that make cameos (we’ve got Sonic’s voice, Q*bert is there, lots of Pac-friends and foes, Mario wasn’t available but Bowser was, etc.), but I’m much more interested in the pastiches the creators came up with. While Wreck-It and Fix-It are eternally busting up and repairing an apartment house (there’s a King Kong game behind it all somewhere, I’m sure), Sgt. Calhoun is forever running her very own Starship Troops against the horrible Cy-bugs. And poor Vanellope is surrounded by sugar on all sides, but is as miserable and as isolated as can be in her hidden Diet-cola volcano.
There’s something kind of wonderful about the cyber-community of game avatars that share the arcade when the lights are down, making the movie a benign Neuromancer fantasy of cyber-life. Ralph’s quest is a fair one, even as he clumsily breaks all the rules, and switching the love story to the supporting characters leads to hilarious moments that ring true for game players (even when Felix wants to break stuff, he only makes it stronger; Sgt. Calhoun’s doomed wedding day transforms the battle-scarred warrior into every bridal parody, before unleashing the bugs on the sparkling church in an orgy of ultra-violence), while letting Ralph and Vanellope form a more practical alliance of equals.
Hey, is that why I like it so much? Does it have, underneath all the bytes of Day-Glo glory, the same message as Cloud Atlas? Kind of. Only in videogames, the bad guys always meet their defeat before the last cut-scene, and even temporary disappointments can always be reversed with more quarters.
Cabin in the Woods
Deep down in my blackest of hearts, I want to watch the world end and make snarky remarks as it all comes crashing down. I don't want to really live in some post-apocalyptic wasteland, or have to struggle to survive any more than I already do, but in my fantasies I'm laughing as it all burns. And I don't mind admitting that. I'm comfortable with who I am.
Only two films in my life have ever really captured that sense of nihilism plus stylish sarcasm in ways that make me want to watch them over and over again. The first was The Final Programme (1973) and the second was Cabin in the Woods. The way it combined apocalyptic fervor with the breaking down of genre cliches was breathtaking– especially as it was so goddamned entertaining while doing so.
There's never really been a horror film like Cabin in the Woods, but at the same time every horror film is really Cabin in the Woods. It is an act of diabolical sorcery that contains everything and everyone inside its boundaries.
–Paul Brian McCoy
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
If there's any film in 2012 that earns a raving adjective like "transcendent," it's the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. On the surface, it's a movie about an old man who's been meticulously making sushi for 3,000 years, having devoted his life and his children to the practice. But it's a film that must be watched to be fully appreciated– proof of the power of storytelling regardless of a subject's gut-reaction importance to the viewer (fact: I am a vegetarian).
Gelb approaches 85-year-old Jiro Sukiyabashi from several angles, focusing on not only the man himself, but also his sons who take part in the family business, not to mention the craft of creating sushi — the purchasing of fresh fish, the delicate art form of cutting the fish and placing it on clusters of rice. It's a method that gives proper and digestible context to people like me who don't know the first thing about the world of fine foods and Michelin stars.
And, above all, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an elegant depiction of incessant attention to craft — a valuable example for anyone who takes part in the act of creation. Working from a tiny restaurant near the subway, Jiro is regarded by many as one of the finest sushi makers in the world, but he's never, ever satisfied with his work. It sounds insane to his admirers, but it's what drives him to continue to toil in his advanced years. Like any artist, he has a vision of what his work should be like, but what he actually creates doesn't quite match. It's tragic, but it's what drives us to create.
I have reached the age where I don't give a shit about a film unless it does something that makes me wish I had come up with the idea first. Quality no longer means the best actor everyone already knows, or the screenplay idea that is obviously a winner, or the director that everyone agrees is a genius. Fuck films like Lincoln (Danny begs to differ —ed.) and Oscar bait of its ilk.
I want surprises. I want daring. I want imagination. I want off-casting and insane mash-ups of ideas. I want jarring tonal shifts that all still work in the world being built by the director and his or her actors. I want to be taken by surprise by a perfectly cast cameo or a narrative U-turn into unknown territories.
I want Django Unchained.
And I want it all the time.
–Paul Brian McCoy
Wes Anderson's detractors accuse the director of being a proponent of style over substance, a hipster auteur who builds his worlds on coy references and cutesy aesthetics. But if you saw Moonrise Kingdom this year and didn't get just a little choked up at its depiction of innocence lost, then the problem isn't Anderson, it's you.
Time will tell whether Moonrise Kingdom stands out as Anderson's crowning achievement, but in the moment it signifies a major step up for the director, one which finds him assimilating all of the most prominent criticisms of his style to emerge with a work that flips those weaknesses into strengths. Anderson's Hal Ashby-influenced '60s aesthetic serves a true purpose in the film as it details the romantic escape of two kids living on a small island in 1965, the year before the counterculture truly began to rule the roost. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) may appear to be another in a long line of bespectacled Anderson surrogates, but his passionate infatuation with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is somehow both more doomed and inspired than Rushmore's romantic dilemma.
That's because as much as the love in Moonrise Kingdom is between Sam and Suzy, it's also between their burgeoning notions of romance, built on the films and books and pop songs they've devoured as they've begun to develop their own adult tastes. Likewise, the adults looking for them are driven by love too, whether it's Edward Norton's inept Scout Master's devotion to his tribe of Lord of the Flies wannabes, or Bill Murray and Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis' incredibly awkward triangle. Anderson is a practitioner of the mantra "I must above all things love myself" and his films have been an outward expression of that, where Anderson the person is revealed to be a physical manifestation of an era, an aesthetic and a color palette, but Moonrise Kingdom may have been the first time he felt completely unguarded and unconditionally true in that love and the film succeeds because of that, particularly given its placement in an era where we often support ironic distance over emphatic love of whatever moves or entertains us. And no number of hipsterism accusations will change its brilliance.
Silver Linings Playbook
Holy shit, the first trailer for this was awful. It was like a someone made a trailer using a checklist of things I hate. David O. Russell movie? Barf. Romantic Dramedy? Not another one. That motherfucking Lumineers song? Fuck you, movie. But after it won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival– an award also given to The Hurt Locker and Slumdog Millionaire– I decided that maybe I’d give it a chance. So on a day back in November I named “Dylan’s Day of Depression and Gluttony, Presented by Alamo Drafthouse,” I had a triple feature of Silver Linings Playbook, Wreck-It Ralph, and Lincoln.
I think the reason I didn’t like Lincoln as much as other people (hatin' on Danny again, obviously. —ed.) is mostly because of how much I enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook. When mental illness is portrayed in film, it’s mostly shown like, say, Keira Knightley in the awful A Dangerous Method or, say, Rosie O’Donnell in Riding the Bus with My Sister. But Bradley Cooper (who also starred earlier this year in the most boring movie ever, The Words) treats his bipolar disorder inflicted character as a person, not a series of kooky personality traits that the normals can laugh at.
Bradley Cooper’s character and his love interest in the film, Jennifer Lawrence, spend the entire running length constantly disappointing each other, blowing each other off, making huge scenes in public, screaming, fighting, hating, annoying. Yet they return to each other, because they love each other. And if love is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, maybe we’re all a little crazy.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Fantasy movies don't need to have dwarves and giant rock monsters in them (it helps, but…) or even big budgets. But, if you need something fantastic to latch onto, Beasts of the Southern Wild does feature giant prehistoric bull creatures stampeding across the land. Oh, and it's pretty fucking amazing, full of great performances, beautiful images and heartbreak.
Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar, in bringing a play Alibar wrote to the big screen, deliver a world much like our own, using the imagery of Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina to weave an epic, evocative odyssey featuring small people by fantasy standards. These characters aren't noble warriors or divinely chosen heroes, but the ordinary citizens of the small town of Bathtub, who brave floods and displacement and all sorts of mythic hardship just to stay alive.
In lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis, Zeitlin finds a believable lead to portray protagonist Hushpuppy — not like one of those creepy Hollywood kids that act like tiny adults, but someone who feels like a real (at the time) eight-year-old. Simultaneously capable of taking care of herself and lost in an uncaring world, Hushpuppy is a great character, one whose age doesn't limit the power and scope of the story. Also, I think this film could go really well in a double feature with Where the Wild Things Are if one were so inclined.
Chances are few of you have seen Holy Motors yet, which is unfortunate but completely understandable. But like the Velvet Underground's debut album, there's an equally good chance that those of you who saw it have been permanently altered in some way, infused either with a newfound devotion to the imaginative properties of the medium of film itself or left scarred and scorched on the mental plain by Leo Carax's lovably destructive blow to cinema.
Holy Motors took tropes and traits recognizable from throughout film and
reconfigured them in entirely alien ways, as though Carax was the Bomb Squad to Tarantino's DJ Premier, his work a glorious cacophony of samples that stood out just enough to almost be recognizable but ultimately blended together as something wholly new and different. But don't call this an auteur project; Denis Lavant's performance as the film's central character/de facto tour guide is equally integral to the film's success, showcasing the actor as a chameleon with a psychotic bent, a genius of transformation and flexibility who was nonetheless always visible behind the mask of change.
The chemistry of the collaboration between Carax and Lavant stood out in a year of films where often either directing or acting carried the work, and while its artistic impact remains far larger than the number of eyes that latched onto it, given time its influence will undoubtedly become more pronounced. Because ultimately film is an experience, an art that attacks as many senses as possible, and in 2012, Holy Motors was the experience to beat.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine,with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.
Dylan Garsee is a freelance writer/bingo enthusiast currently living in Austin, TX. He is studying sociology, and when he's not winning trivia nights at pork-themed restaurants, writing a collection of essays on the gay perspective in geek culture. An avid record collector, Dylan can mostly be seen at Waterloo Records, holding that one God Speed You! Black Emperor record he can't afford and crying. You can follow him on twitter @garseed.
Nick Hanover doesn't want to set the world on fire, unless he has to, which seems increasingly more likely each day. As Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, he most looks forward to making subliterate internet commenters angry and forcing his record collection on unsuspecting readers through his comic, film and television reviews and miscellaneous other pop culture pieces for the site. He promises to update Panel Panopticon more this year, but you can always find his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover or explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at http://cornekopia.net.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now forKindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.