Because the tradition of a “top 10” is cruel and arbitrary, and because I loved so many of this year’s movies so intensely, here are 15 more candidates for best of the year, ordered alphabetically, before I really begin: Amour, Barbara, The Cabin in the Woods, Cosmopolis, Girl Walk//All Day, The Grey, How to Survive a Plague, The Imposter, In Another Country, Lincoln, The Loneliest Planet, Looper, Magic Mike, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and Your Sister’s Sister.
And because all the same is true of performances, here are 10 more of those, too: Carlen Altman, playing sisterhood as venom The Color Wheel; Ann Dowd and her Middle American sincerity in Compliance; Thomas Doret with his wounded puppy look in The Kid with a Bike; Tommy Lee Jones topping his own Lincoln work in Hope Springs; Fran Kranz as horror’s new stoner hero in The Cabin in the Woods; Anders Danielsen Lie, haunted by himself in Oslo, August 31st; Kelly Macdonald (collaborating with Pixar animators) in Brave; lonely, frumpy Teresa Madruga in Tabu; Aggeliki Papoulia and her roleplaying breakdown in Alps; and Sean Penn, screwier than ever in This Must Be the Place.
Oh, and this year’s award for Best Performance in a Documentary—previously given to Exit Through the Gift Shop’s Thierry Guetta and Tabloid’s Joyce McKinney—goes to Frédéric Bourdin in The Imposter.
And now, my 10 favorite films and 20 favorite performances of 2012…
10) Tabu, directed by Miguel Gomes
Nostalgia pervades the films on this list. Each of them contains some yearning for a past, pre-lapsarian and long-gone, whether before the war, the digital age, or the onset of maturity. Tabu couples this same yearning with postcolonial critique, embedding them both in its form and bisected structure. Languid and bittersweet, throbbing with forbidden romance, the film dances to the beat of its own playful postmodernism. For Gomes, the histories of film genre and sound design are like tropical fruits on the branch, just waiting for an adventurous filmmaker to stroll up and take a bite.
Dame Judi Dench finally got something to do in a James Bond movie, leaving the office and weaponizing her stiff upper lip as Skyfall’s stakes grew personal.
Michael Shannon seemed to bend Premium Rush’s gravitational field around him, making the movie as much about his demented giggles as it was about bikes.
9) Oslo, August 31st, directed by Joachim Trier
This spiky Norwegian character study is in some ways the anti-Trainspotting: subdued instead of stylized, it shifts the emphasis of substance abuse away from the act of shooting up and onto the aftermath—the alienation and awkward apologies. They’re the quicksand that recovering addict Anders must shuffle through on his day-long furlough from rehab. He bounces between bistros and apartments, from one mangled relationship to another, but he can never shake the disappointment and self-loathing that choke up Oslo’s frames. The resulting film is quietly devastating, with an ending that’s still metastasizing in my soul.
In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck wore a tacky blond wig; as Killer Joe’s femme fatale, Gina Gershon wears a merkin. Her white-trash performance will forever leave a tragic imprint on the words “However much!” and the object known as a breaded chicken drumstick.
Seven Psychopaths was a lumpy witches’ brew of a movie, but Christopher Walken improved it with every second he was onscreen, his idiosyncratic cadences enriching the film with grief and absurdist comedy.
8) Goodbye First Love, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Sunlight floods this tender French bildungsroman as young Camille, played by the incandescent Lola Créton, grows from infatuation to heartbreak and regret. Season by season, her story blossoms. Year by year, the burdens of adulthood settle around her shoulders. Time flows here like a mountain stream, making Goodbye First Love a hard movie to hold in your hands. Its sensory details are so rich, yet they recede so quickly thanks to the film’s merciless momentum. But such is the pain of maturation, and Hansen-Løve captures exactly that beneath a warm, glimmering surface.
I loved every one of Damsels in Distress’s damsels (see below), but Megalyn Echikunwoke’s faux-British accent and delivery of the word “operator” cracked me up more than I thought humanly possible.
As the cuckolded husband, Simon Russell Beale has The Deep Blue Sea’s quietest role. Yet he says so much with merely a knit brow, conveying both how alien his wife’s actions are to him, and how gravely they’ve wounded his pride.
7) Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson
Last summer, I wrote about Anderson’s knack for dense, poignant compositions using an example from The Royal Tenenbaums. But I could as easily have made the same point with his latest film, the pastoral lovers-on-the-run tale of two wounded children. Its audiovisual density is startling, whether in the endless bon mots, art design Easter eggs, or musical selections from Benjamin Britten and Françoise Hardy. And yet more startling is the acute loneliness that gnaws at the film’s small island community. Moonrise Kingdom is as heartfelt as it is deadpan; as joyous as it is pained.
The one big saving grace of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is Eva Green, cackling and seductive as the wickedest witch this side of Margaret Hamilton.
The highlight of Hong Sang-soo’s lost-in-translation comedy In Another Country is Yu Jun-Sang as “the lifeguard!” who repeatedly, clumsily tries to hit on different iterations of Isabelle Huppert.
6) The Kid with a Bike, directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Little Cyril has two loves: his deadbeat dad, and his oft-stolen bike. That’s it. That’s the whole foundation for this heartbreaking fable, a film of extreme narrative clarity and unadorned technique. The Dardenne Brothers merely follow Cyril, swiftly panning as he runs or bikes across the frame, and by following him extract a complex vision of childhood—as a garden of forking paths; as a blank slate written on by every nearby adult. As pure potential, embodied by flinty child actor Thomas Doret. Helpless, wanting only to be loved back, he’s the heart and soul of this sparse, simple tearjerker.
As the pregnant wife of The Master’s title character, Amy Adams both fulfills and defies the “earth mother” archetype. She bares her teeth as the film nears its climax, especially through an unforgettable, power-exerting hand job.
In Cosmopolis, Paul Giamatti plays unemployment as abjection, turning himself into a lump of malignant flesh, a one-man dose of Cronenberg’s trademark body horror.
5) The Turin Horse, directed by Béla Tarr
This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but with the precise formal control and mordant humor that have permeated Tarr’s filmography. It’s an incredibly experiential movie, making us feel every inch of ground covered by that old dappled mare and every boiled potato dined on by her owners. Broken up schematically into days and interminable long takes, the film grinds—and Mihály Víg’s score grinds with it—toward a small apocalypse. Yet for all its gloom, The Turin Horse is a film of palpable physical realness, and in that realness lies a measure of minimalist beauty.
Jumping, kicking, flying, Anne Marsen is hyperkinetic in Girl Walk//All Day, throwing her whole body into a feature-length fantasy of free dance.
Rarely has Liam Neeson’s low, Irish growl been used better than it is in The Grey. He gives a performance of reluctant leadership wreathed with pain.
4) The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Furthering the elemental violence of There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s new film is an American epic carved from sea, sun, and rock. The relationship between two souls—one broken by war, the other longing to mend that damage—forms its spine, but the real meat of The Master is its images: a ship’s churning wake, a tracking shot through a 1950s shopping mall, the jagged face and jerky gait of Joaquin Phoenix. The Master recasts the postwar years as a war of their own, one that pits atavism against modernity and is destined to end in stalemate.
Ensconced snugly in a gilded cage, Keira Knightley goes through hell in Anna Karenina and registers each mounting indignity across her delicate face.
Jack Black refines and restrains his broad comic persona in Bernie, playing the film’s benign murderer as a smiling surface without a hint of guile.
3) Damsels in Distress, directed by Whit Stillman
No conversation is too frivolous or too silly for this through-the-looking-glass comedy of college life. No bit of zigzag plotting is too digressive. Everything is fair game on Damsels’ verbal playground, from donuts and the smell of soap to dance crazes and mental illness. Led by Greta Gerwig, the film’s feminine ensemble savors all of this absurdity, extrapolating lifestyles from one-liners and collectively establishing a very different, very funny kind of world. Not for a second does Damsels take itself the slightest bit seriously, yet its rhythms and mock-wisdom gave me more pleasure than nearly anything I saw all year.
Emmanuelle Riva’s work in Amour is so physical, vulnerable, intimate. Every year of life experienced by the elderly actress is visible onscreen.
Was Klaus Kinski reincarnated as a ’50s Method actor? Did someone hire a hungry jackal to star in a movie? No, sorry, it’s just Joaquin Phoenix in The Master.
2) Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax
I dreamed I saw a movie that dismantled the whole engine of cinema, then went on being a movie anyway. Or maybe I just saw the weird and poisonously funny Holy Motors. Energized by “the beauty of the act,” chased by ghosts of the past and future, it hops from one genre to another as if allergic to stasis. It takes on the shapes of different stories, always a little melancholy but never less than entertaining. Carax acknowledges through the film that filmmaking is impossible, immoral, and draining, yet nonetheless… 3! 12! Merde!
In Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams works layers of immaturity and emotion into her body language, casually reminding me that she’s one of the greatest living actresses.
As the star of Holy Motors, Denis Lavant delivers a performance about performance—roughly a dozen of them, in fact—and it’s rendered all the more impressive by how deftly he balances grace and grotesquerie.
1) The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies
My favorite movie of the year could so easily have been a soporific, middlebrow prestige piece. But instead of filming a conventional adaptation, Davies shattered Terence Rattigan’s play and transformed it into pure cinema from the inside out. Faceted like a diamond, The Deep Blue Sea criss-crosses time and memory with a frozen-in-amber aesthetic. (Much like The Master, it’s a story of postwar trauma involving a toxic veteran named Freddie.) The bulk of the film consists of strained conversations in private rooms, but that’s all it takes for the small cast and their muted passions to create a tragedy. In an age when the romantic melodrama often seems a dying art, The Deep Blue Sea proves it ecstatically alive.
And, in fact, I wrote about Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea for my answer to the Criticwire Survey question on the best performance of the year:
Just listen for the smoke and mystery in her voice; watch for the sardonic arch of her eyebrows, or the way her body seems to pulse with secrets rather than blood. Her work here, so finely attuned to the film’s postwar milieu, suggests a bottomless capacity for both pain and romantic ecstasy, and makes Hester Collyer one of the most tragic heroines in recent memory.
The last performance I’ll single out is Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe, who resembles either Robert Mitchum or a horny panther. As the film nears it climax, he uses his whole angular body (especially that monstrous jaw) to elicit maximum terror. 16 years ago, a young McConaughey starred in the fourth Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This year, he is the massacre.
[Movies I have yet to see include Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Comedy, Django Unchained, It's Such a Beautiful Day, Middle of Nowhere, Rust and Bone, This Is Not a Film, and Zero Dark Thirty.]