Sunday, March 3, 2013

Double Whammy - Best Films of 2012 and 2011

Since I was a slacker last year and didn't actually publish a list for 2011 (besides on, which no one saw), I've decided to do a double list and cover the best films from the last two years.  After looking at my original 2011 list, I was glad I had a year of pondering and hindsight with which to view these films, and see more 2011 releases during 2012.  Perhaps all of my lists should be a year late?  Truthfully, there were only a few additions and some reordering, but mostly it was the same films I thought worthy a year ago.  Since I am covering so many films with this double list, I won't write anything about the honorable mentions; however, please know that if I mention a film on this blog post, I am giving it very high praise.  I've seen approximately 100 films from 2011 and 73 films from 2012.  Overall, I mention 21 films from each year.  These are the best of the best.

One thing I hate that people say at the end of a year is, "this was a terrible year for movies."  I can't remember the last time I actually thought that.  People who say that simply don't watch enough films or don't make an effort to seek out the good films.  That said a quick juxtaposition of the films of 2011 and 2012 led me to believe that 2011 was more "top heavy" while 2012 was deeper with quality films.  For example, my top four films of 2011 would have been at least number two in 2012, but there were more films of note in the runners up to my 2012 list.  

One last note:  If you wonder why I didn't mention a certain film, perhaps I didn't see it.  In 2012, I started keeping a diary on Letterboxd, as well as a running, ranked list of films from 2012.  Click here to see the entire list.  Now without further ado, the best films of 2011 and 2012:

2011 - 50/50 
50/50 is based on a true story about a young man, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who finds out he has cancer at the very young age of 27.  It's a poignant look at a young man's life who hasn't had time to reach his full potential, and how the relationships with those you love are all that matter when it comes down to the end.  The film at times takes a humorous approach to the story, but it always feels genuine.  Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick also shine in their supporting roles.

2012 - The Raid: Redemption
The Raid: Redemption is the second film by Gareth Evans featuring Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais, the first being the excellent Merantau.  The Raid plays almost like a video game, in which the main character, Iko, has to get to the top of this apartment building deep in the slums in order to arrest or kill the drug lord.  The plot offers some twists and turns along the way, but the thing that makes this films stand out is the fantastic action sequences.  They are very well choreographed and feature everything from hand-to-hand combat, sniper rifles, machine guns, etc.  If you love pure action movies or martial arts movies, this film is the best of both I've seen in a while.

2011 - The Tree of Life 
The Tree of Life is a beautiful film, and features honest, revealing sequences of a child growing up and becoming disillusioned with his father, his resulting anger, and his loss of innocence, if you will.  This film was number one on probably the majority of 2011 lists.  It's obviously a great film, but personally it didn't resonate with me as I think it did for many others.  Technically the film is a marvel, and you'd expect nothing less from Terrence Malick.  The acting is also amazing and so naturalistic, especially the children.  I think for me, most of Malick's films simply come across as too precious and this one in particular is almost too vague to the point of exclusion.  That said, I cannot argue that the film is not in many ways a masterpiece, as the music and imagery are at times breathtaking.    

2012 - Monsieur Lazhar
Monsieur Lazhar takes an old movie cliche (teacher with a heart of gold) and adds something fresh to the conversation.  As I mentioned in my Letterboxd review, centered around multiple tragedies, the film does not wallow in misery, but rather focuses on the healing process, with hope and dignity, all while also commentating on the state of the modern education system and the stifling limitations placed on teachers.  The title character, played by Mohamed Fellag, is fully fleshed out, and acted with grace and subtlety.  The story itself is moving and uplifting without manipulation, a rare feat in this day and time.  

2011 - The Artist
The Artist, an ode to silent films and Hollywood, won best picture for 2011; however, it was scorned by many critics for being too light and of little substance.  Here's what I think about that:  who cares if it's light, as long as it de-lights! Am I right?  That's what this film did for me.  My wife and I enjoyed this film in the theater as much as any other film in 2011, and you can't help but leave this movie with a smile on your face.

2012 - Seven Psychopaths
Seven Psychopaths is the second feature films from Irish playwright turned screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh.  His first film, In Bruges, is easily one of my favorite films of the past decade, so needless to say, I was looking forward to this one.  while it didn't live up to the overall impact that In Bruges had on me, Seven Psychopaths is still a special film.  It's certainly not covering any new territory with it's meta approach to story telling, but with McDonagh's patented use of violence and humor, it adds a unique twist to this incredibly niche genre.  Think Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels meets Domino meets Adaptation. Lastly, McDonagh get's some pretty good performances from his cast, particularly Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken.

2011 - I Saw the Devil 
I Saw the Devil is a film from director Kim Jee-woon, one of many extremely talented Korean directors causing South Korea to be among the film producing countries most respected by cinefiles all over the world. This film is pretty much the quintessential Korean film, as it takes the most prevalent theme from Korean movies, revenge, and turns it on its head.  There are so many scenes of tension and violence in this film, and they escalate over the 2 hour and 21 minutes run time to the ultimate climax.  I can see how this film could polarize certain audiences, but I think it's use of violence and torture, to achieve what I consider to be its end goal of completely flipping tables on the audience, is unique to this genre and its audacity should be applauded.  

2012 - Django Unchained
Django Unchained is the latest film from auteur Quentin Tarantino, and if you know me at all, you know this guy is my favorite director of all time.  So I'm sure it surprises you that this film is so "low" on my list.  I don't want this to be about "why this movie isn't higher on my list," but I will say that the overall story didn't work well for me compared to his other works, and the overall intensity was lacking compared to Inglourious Basterds, which is of a similar ilk.  What did work, however, is Quentin's ever masterful use of dialog to develop characters and captivate an audience. Set in the Antebellum South, Jamie Foxx plays the title character Django, a freed slave who hopes to rescue his wife from an evil plantation owner, Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the help of bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Waltz and DiCaprio are both fantastic, as is Samuel L. Jackson as the Candy's head slave.  In his oeuvre, Django Unchained is probably my least favorite film besides Death Proof, but I think that speaks volumes for the overall quality of his work.  

2011 - The Sunset Limited
As I mentioned when I wrote about this films two years ago, "based on a play by Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited ponders the existence of God, the state of humanity, and other weighty topics, as discussed between Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. Cormac's dialogue doesn't just crackle, it detonates as it's delivered by these infinitely talented and experienced actors, each delivering tour de force performances. Jones plays a tired old professor, who attempts to commit suicide, and Jackson an ex-con who intercepts him at the last second. However, we see nothing of this event, only them talking about it in Jackson's dingy New York City apartment, right after the incident. Jackson, a jail-house convert, diligently shares his Christian faith with Jones, but Jones, who is much to intelligent for his own good, argues vehemently for his own pessimistic world view. The film itself doesn't seem to take sides, letting each man win and lose an argument or two. I certainly felt the pain and desperate persistence in Jackson as he battled for this man's life and soul, but at the same time I empathized with Jones' negative views on the nature of man and his dismal outlook on the future. Much like other McCarthy works The Road and No Country for Old Men, this film left me thinking after the credits rolled, and to me, that's a sign of a good film, or at least a well written one."

2012 - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the first feature film from director Benh Zeitlin, and was 2012's official "indie darling."  He also co-write the screenplay and co-composed the score, which was my favorite score of the year.  I find it odd that of all the Oscars it was nominated for, Best Score wasn't one of them, but I digress.  The story centers on a little girl called Hushpuppy, living with her dad in a region south of the New Orleans levy that they call the "Bathtub."  This charming yet heartbreaking film creates its own fantastic reality with a mix of harsh circumstances and imagined mythological creatures.  The performances by the mostly non-actors, especially in the leading roles, are impressive and lend to the films sometimes realistic feel.  Zeitlin must also be a magician to have achieved what he did with a minuscule budget and inexperienced child actors, and overall, I'd say that the best word to describe this little film is in fact, "magical." 


2011 - 13 Assassins 
At first glance, 13 Assassins is a traditional samurai movie, but in the hands of Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, it is much more.  True to his sadistic side Miike sets up the films by showing us how despicable the bad guy is with gruesome, despicable acts.  It turns out this guys is literally on his way to becoming an untouchable member of their governments highest council, which would been almost certain doom and unending war for Japan.  The focus then turns to a few noble men who put together a task force to eliminate this threat to their country's peace.  The film does a good job introducing us to each character and establishing the relationships and comradery between these 13 killing machines.  The last 40 minutes or so of the film is an epic showdown between these warriors and the hundreds of men protecting the evil  lord.  The technique and execution of this battle is masterful.  The camera captures all of the action clearly, and the stakes are always clear.  Far from being a gimmick, this is one of the most memorable endings sequences in a film in recent years. 

2012 - The Kid with a Bike
The Kid with a Bike is such a simple title for this multilayered film about a young boy who seemingly is wanted by no one.  At first, I feared this film would be another entry into the ever growing "tragedy porn" genre, but it transcends the typical tragic story by basing a lot of its characters and their decisions in reality.  The effect is a moving, poignant, ultimately uplifting experience.  The Dardenne brothers need no introduction to foreign film enthusiasts, but this was only the second of their films I'd seen, the first being The Child.  I now certainly want to seek out their other work, as they offer a realism and complexity to their stories and characters that is rare and should be valued.


2011 - Take Shelter 
Take Shelter is a masterpiece of suspense and tension.  I've only seen this film once, but I've probably thought about it more than any other film from the past two years.  Jeff Nichols' first film, Shotgun Stories, was among my honorable mentions in my first blog post, The Best Films of 2008.  Both films feature stunning leading performances from Michael Shannon, who has become on of the most fascinating actors working today (a particularly love his work on HBO's Boardwalk Empire).  The story is about a man with who begins having cataclysmic premonitions and sees them as a warning of events to come.  The ending sequence is the most polarizing since No Country for Old Men, and your interpretation of it will probably weigh very heavily in your ultimate determination of this film's value.  I loved ever second of this film, and would love to dissuade you if you felt otherwise.

2012 - Skyfall
Skyfall is a James Bond film, which is already more than I can say for it's predecessor, Quantum of Solace.  Sam Mendes does a bang-up job bringing us what we Bond lovers really wanted.  Babes, guns, and memorable bad guys.  This movie is the ultimate in escapism entertainment.  Between Skyfall and No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem will probably be type cast as a creepy bad guy from now on, because he is so good at it.  From the voice to the hair and the face... The guy is fantastic.  Overall, I was so happy to see a return to form for James Bond that ultimately might be my favorite Bond film of all time.  I'm not throwing the Bond franchise a bone by putting it on this list.  It deserves to be here.


2011 - Certified Copy 
Certified Copy was written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian artist turned filmmaker, although the film is set in Italy and is in Italian, French and English.  This was my first experience with Kiarostami's work, and to say I was impressed would be a gross understatement.  The film stars Juliette Binoche as a woman who meets an author who just wrote a book on the value of a copy versus an original work of art.  This is the subject, which the title hints at, of much of their discussion, especially early in the film, as they travel through and tour scenic Italian villages.  The film is romantic to its core and draws obvious comparisons to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; however, there is an air of mystery that extends its intrigue beyond the Linklater films (don't get me wrong, I love those films as well).  The nature of the relationship between the woman and the author is never truly revealed, although there are many clues along the way to support multiple readings.  Ultimately, Certified Copy is superbly satisfying in its absolute, but deft avoidance of a clear answer.  It enthralls and holds its allure without the cheap pleasure of exposure.  It's wonderful. 

2012 - The Master
The Master might be most cryptic film on either of these lists.  Paul Thomas Anderson, perhaps the most revered American auteur, has crafted a film that is far less accessible than his previous film, There Will Be Blood.  Is it a simple historical look at the beginnings of Scientology through the eyes of one of the early "believers?"  No, probably not.  Is it humanistic diatribe against all things spiritual or a character study of two men, the primal man versus the enlightened?  I don't know.  Whatever it is, it's a fascinating work of art featuring two of the best actors working today (Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) putting on a master class for the audience (pun intended).  Amy Adams is also fantastic in her role as the wife of the leader of the cult.  And leave it to PTA to shoot the film on an archaic format (70mm), which looks warmer, clearer and more vibrant than any of the digital films released last year.  As perplexing as this film is, it's worthy of much praise just for the technical aspects.  It's also I film I'm eagerly waiting to see again.

2011 - Win Win 
Thomas McCarthy knows how to write and direct interesting dramas with complex characters and meaningful stories like no one else working today.  His stories are simple but effective, never cliche, and with the backdrop of very real, American issues.  His latest, Win Win, stars Paul Giamatti as a full time lawyer and part time wrestling coach just trying to make ends meet for his family.  Along the way he makes some mistakes and has to deal with the consequences.  Like all of McCarthy's films, there's plenty of humor throughout and as with The Visitor, the ending caught me off guard with its quiet, subtle, profundity.  It's not a flashy pick, but for a while it was my favorite film of 2011.

2012 - Holy Motors
Holy cow, where do I start with Holy Motors? I'll just borrow from my Letterboxd review that I wrote the night I saw this film with my wife at a little art house cinema in Coral Gables. "I think I just saw a surreal masterpiece, but I'm still processing this beautiful, wacky film. I'm sure there are as many interpretations of this film as there are people who saw it. It came across to me as a love letter to acting. Sure, the director (Leos Carax) is obviously saturated in film, mind, body and soul; but his leading man (played by Denis Lavant) is the focus here, going through the motions, bearing his soul in every imaginable, or unimaginable, scenario. We rarely, if ever, see this man's true self, but instead he is the empty vessel which is constantly filled and subsequently emptied of the full range of human emotions and physical configurations. There are so many hilariously, awkwardly weird scenes in this film. They don't fit together in a neat package, but do form a strange, ambiguously profound tapestry. Heck, it's just a blast to experience, and obviously hard to describe without sounding like an uppity douche. Check it out for yourself!"

2011 - Drive
Drive was a movie custom made specifically for me.  I love every fiber of this movie; from the captivating opening sequence, to the pulpy noir feel, to the '80s-esque synth driven soundtrack, to the forbidden romance, to the awesome driving sequences, to the mysterious hero (Ryan Gosling), to the damsel in distress (Cary Mulligan), to the romantic rival that's in over his head (Oscar Isaac) to the loyal friend who is equally in over his head (Bryan Cranston), to the fabulously realized bad guys (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman), to the guns that go BOOM, to the gritty violence, to the director (Nicolas Winding Refn) that is 100% completely in control of every second of this perfect film.  I've heard some say it's all style, no substance.  No.  The style is the substance, and the simplicity of the story is its perfection.  This was by far the most cinematic movie of the year and it was fully realized, nothing to be added or cut.   Nothing came close to dethroning Drive from the #1 spot after I saw it on September 16, 2011. Nothing.

2012 - Moonrise Kingdom
News flash: Wes Anderson makes quirky, stylized films with moody, childlike adults and sophisticated, responsible children.  His films are filled with a nostalgia for childhood, unorthodox family units, and forbidden romances.  Most people either love his films or they hate them.  I love them, and Moonrise Kingdom combines all of his themes into his most charming, perfectly framed, perfectly cast film yet.  I saw it twice in theaters and was equally delighted during and after both screenings.  I'll admit I had a hard time figuring out the rest of the top ten, but #1 was easy.

Honorable Mentions:
A few other noteworthy films from each year, in alphabetical order:

A Separation
Girl Walk // All Day
The Guard
The Ides of March
Jane Eyre
Midnight in Paris
Of Gods and Men
The Trip

The Cabin in the Woods
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Kill List
Killing Them Softly
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Oslo, August 31
The Sessions
Sleepless Night     

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