Another great year for films large and small, but in reality I think it was the bigger films that were better than the smaller ones. Perhaps it's that the indie film marketplace has never been more difficult than it is today. Art house screens are disappearing and the ones that exist are often not much bigger than the screen in your living room. Add to that the compression of release windows, and you'll find most indies on Netflix or Amazon within a few months.
But the big films were smarter, longer and largely better than any year for the past decade, and any of the most respected auteurs working had films this year (Tarantino, Haneke, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, Speilberg, Russell). Half of this list is already streamable and the other half, should probably be seen on the screen, so go make it happen.
1) Searching for Sugar Man -- Dir. Malik Bendjelloul (Sixto Rodriguez)
Every year there is a film that transcends all others, both in creativity and also in its earnestness. Searching for Sugar Man is just that film. It is really two films in fact, the first a bizarre backstory about how an obscure folk singer became the most important musician in apartheid South Africa without ever having a clue. The second film within a film is about the journey to rediscovering one of the most criminally under-heard musicians of the '70s.
Most music docs put the music at the forefront because the stories behind the musicians are already broadly known (The Last Waltz, Marley) but Sugar Man is a story of a man nobody knew. A man who lived in quite, simple, peaceful, obscurity in a very modest apartment in Detroit making a living as a day laborer. But Rodriguez, whose records I discovered only a decade ago, and like Nick Drake who struggled to find an audience around the same time, had a voice like and angel, and wrote words even more piercing and honest than Dylan. But unlike Drake, he survived, and never seamed to carry any anger about his lack of success. He was and is still a beacon of light who exudes a kindness that makes his music so unquestionably beautiful. This film is a true masterpiece.
2) Django Unchained -- Dir. Quentin Tarantino (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz)
Picking up where Inglorious Bastards left off, Django is the perfect canvas to enjoy watching bad guys get slaughtered comically while the good guys toe that fine line. The violence is funny, but the drama is real, and for almost three hours, Tarantino entertains you mashing up spaghetti westerns with Roots. In almost anybody else's hands a bloody slavery revenge film would watch like a sloppy mess, but Tarantino is a film buff with brass balls, so anything goes.
Christoph Waltz is again brilliant as German bounty hunter, who ends up freeing Jamie Foxx's Django from a chain gang early on to help him kill the Brittle brothers. Like all of his films Tarantino spins a great yarn of a story, juxtaposes good and evil, uses music as well as can be imagined, and extracts exquisite performances from everyone. Django the character, represents the underdog who not only overachieves, but blows up the roof when given the chance. Of the two anti-slavery films this year, Django wins if for nothing other than originality alone.
3) Beasts of the Southern Wild -- Dir. Behn Zeitland (Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry)
You have never seen a film like this before. That is because the topic is so specific and the performances are so real you'd swear you were watching real life unfold, albeit a strange and almost surreal one. This world is the one inhabited by the remarkable Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old survivor from the Bathtub region -- an impoverished island-like area off the coast of New Orleans. She lives in a ramshackle trailer with her alcoholic father until the storm comes and turns everything into a swampy jungle.
Cast largely with first time actors, and shot on a shoestring budget in the ravages of the post Katrina-Bayou, Beasts plays like a slow motion, waking dream. And although each character seems pathetic and worthy of our sympathy they are all beautiful fighters, who neither want our pity nor expect it. Life in the Bathtub is filled with fragrant colors and characters who form a dysfunctional family, rag-tag yet indestructible. You will not see another film quite this rich in so many ways this year.
4) Moonrise Kingdom -- Dir. Wes Anderson (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Francis McDormand)
Most people either are or aren't Wes Anderson fans. There is no middle ground. If you're a fan, this will be one of your favorites -- right up there with Rushmore and Fantastic Fox. Everything is so small, nuanced and twee that it would be almost impossible to not appreciate his obsessive detail focus. In fact the film almost looks like you are looking into a dollhouse of tiny real people, scattered across a rustic wonderland filled with strange caricatures.
Largely a story of young love and the minor adventure that ensues when the community gets involved in the search, this film is mostly about getting to know a dozen or so genuinely unique characters: Ed Norton's super serious boy scout leader, to Bill Murray and Frances McDormand's detached parents, to Bruce Willis's wacky Captain Sharp. The film is a visual feast, but also one of the most creative films of the year, where watching what happens couldn't be more entertaining.
5) Argo -- Dir. Ben Affleck (John Goodman, Alan Arkin)
Ben Affleck is on a helluva run these days. The Town, Gone Baby Gone and now Argo are all nearly perfect films. There is nothing flashy, but everything is rock solid: cinematography, acting, and the overall texture. Perhaps it took him a while to get rolling, but his films are beginning to have the substance of Clint Eastwood's directorial efforts.
Argo tells the story of the Iran hostage crisis, and the outrageous plan to free them by staging a fictional film. Affleck is perfect in his role of producer, but John Goodman, Alan Arkin and the rest of the cast are superb, bathed in a crisp 1980 authenticity. There was no film easier to watch than this one in 2012.
6) Lincoln -- Dir. Steven Spielberg (Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field)
Watching Lincoln is like eating vegetables, but the ones that taste good -- onion rings perhaps. Weighing in at nearly three hours, it flies by. In it we learn much about the politics of getting the 13th Amendment passed, but mostly we learn about Lincoln. If we believe the film, we learn that he was laugh out loud funny, a consummate and talented storyteller, and perhaps our country's most gifted politician.
Daniel Day-Lewis makes very few films, and as a result he is staggering in nearly all of them. This might even be his best role yet, not only physically becoming Lincoln, but creating a character so nuanced (he sounds a bit like Bill Clinton on Vicodin) you'll forget at times he isn't the president. Conversely, Spielberg makes loads of films, and they cover a massive amount of ground, but with Lincoln he plays right at the intersection of his passions: history and squashing bad guys. It's really good.
7) Robot and Frank -- Dir. Jake Schreier (Frank Langella, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon)
I love this film. It is small in scale but huge on humanity, realism, empathy and a bunch of other good qualities. Frank Langella, who just seems to be getting better with age, this time plays a cranky white collar ex-thief who is sent a robot by his son to keep him company. Living in quiet isolation in a quaint New England town, he occasionally ventures into town and stops at the library (which is closing) where he flirts with Susan Sarandon -- the soon to be out of work librarian.
Although the film moves briskly through a pretty straightforward plotline, it is wonderful in that it juxtaposes the technological advantages present with the beautiful simplicity of the past. No film this year personalizes the both the realities of growing old, with the genuine human need to have meaningful companionship as a reason to survive. And yes there is a surprise twist, pay close attention.
8) Zero Dark Thirty -- Dir. Kathryn Bigelow (Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton)
If you watch and love Homeland you will no doubt like Zero Dark but perhaps a little less than if you didn't watch the show. As great as the film is, unlike The Hurt Locker which was just raw, gritty, fresh, and unexpected, this time you are seeing a story you have likely been following for a dozen years, and whose theme and setting is much more topical today than it was even five years ago.
That said, this is truly solid filmmaking with an incredibly deep cast, led by Jessica Chastain, but featuring a deep bench of familiar faces. Given that we know how the story begins and ends, watching the fat middle unfold is surprisingly intense and compelling. Katherine Bigelow has all of a sudden seemed to hit a kind of Ridley Scott stride.
9) 2 Days in New York -- Dir. Julie Delpy (Chris Rock, Julie Delpy)
I miss the Annie Hall and Manhattan era Woody Allen films, which is why I was so delighted to see Julie Delpy pick up where he left off. Everything is there in spades, the cramped but homey NYC apartments, the improbably contrived situations, the hilarious rapid-fire dialogue, and lovable characters. Instead of a nebbish Allen, we get a hipster Chris Rock, and an irresistible Delpy and her real life father.
This film is far superior to its Parisian predecessor, and might be the best performances to date from Rock and Delpy. The dialogue is relentlessly comedic, and revolves around the disastrous visit of Delpy's French relatives as they descend on her tiny Manhattan apartment. The film is both laugh out loud funny, and genuinely sentimental.
10) Cloud Atlas -- Dir. Tom Twyker / Wachowski's (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry)
In a year filled with long movies, Cloud Atlas is the one that probably deserves the longest running time, as it is derived from an enormous original work, and actually tells six interconnected but separate tales spanning 300 years. Although you might find the underlying "past lives spiritualism" a bit hokey, there is much to love even at a superficial level.
Of the many visual and plot gimmicks, the most clever, and almost always effective trick is that Hanks, Berry, and the rest of the cast play different characters in each of the six stories which begin on a Polynesian island in 1849 and end in futurist Seoul, Korea 2044. The scale and ambition of the film is among the most ambitious of the year, so despite holes here and there, I think it fair to describe it as remarkable.
11) Your Sister's Sister -- Dir. Lynn Shelton (Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt)
This is bona fide chick flick that even self-respecting dudes will no doubt relate to. In part this is because, at some point, everyone probably wishes that they could go back in time, not have kids, mortgages, and the anxiety of adult life. This film feels more like a play shot on film than a film, but it doesn't really matter because this is all about the dialogue.
Mumblecore superstar Mark Duplass is increasingly becoming a legitimate, card-carrying movie star, but it is in roles like this where he really thrives, as a dude kind of lost in the middle of his life. Thankfully he is shuffled off to recuperate at the beautiful cabin belonging to his best buddy (Emily Blunt) where he finds her irresistible lesbian sister. The rest unravels like a beautiful sweater.
12) Silver Linings Playbook -- Dir. David O. Russell (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper)
It is hard to see this film without lofty expectations unless you've been hiding under a rock. That said, David O. Russell manages to take what could have been a painfully cliché mass dramedy and turn it into a near perfect romantic comedy. Bradley Cooper's manic lead is spot on as a recovering bi-polar former teacher looking to restart his life from his parents blue-collar Philadelphia home.
Ripping what seems like a page from Frederick Exley's brilliant novel A Fan's Note, DeNiro plays the football obsessed patriarch (although his team is the Eagles, not the Giants) and delivers his best performance in years. As good as Cooper is though, Jennifer Lawrence, is adorable and -- more importantly -- believable as the girl who will help him start again. This film won't hurt your brain, but is very easy to swallow, and makes you smile throughout.
13) Liberal Arts -- Dir. Josh Radnor (Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins)
After seeing the film at Sundance, I assumed it would be the runaway indie comedy of 2012. Perhaps it's that the film has a whole bunch of personal relevance, having spent a bunch of lost weekends on the set (re: campus) when I was younger. In the film a 30-something graduate returns to his alma mater, Kenyon College, for a weekend to watch his second-favorite professor (Richard Jenkins) honored after a lifetime at the school.
While there he falls in love both with the past, and a beautiful, precocious girl half his age played by the most talented Olson sister (Elizabeth). Although it won't stretch your brain too much, there are plenty of bittersweet reminiscences and a handful of wonderful cameos including a brilliant one from Allison Janney as a cougar-esque English teacher. This film was criminally under seen.
14) The Deep Blue Sea -- Dir. Terrance Davies (Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston)
Rachel Weisz is one of the most underrated actors working today. She always delivers perfectly understated performances, but this time around her patience and sadness is as good as anything this year. The film has an incredibly slow but compelling pace, in part due to the fact the film is a remake of a film, adapted from a 1955 play. But director Terrance Davies manages to execute the authenticity of the time and place (post WWII London) to a tee.
But the story is largely about love, or the lack thereof, and features Weisz in an almost Sylvia Plath "Bell Jar" role, despondent, but with a sliver of hope shining faintly. She is married to a rich older man, but this gives way to an affair with a much younger, but volatile, man. For people looking for an upbeat feel good film, this is not the one, but The Deep Blue Sea harkens back to an older more formal kind of filmmaking.
15) Marley -- Dir. Kevin McDonald (Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff)
Who doesn't love Bob Marley? Maybe there are two other artists in the history of rock music who are as universally loved as he is, but oddly most people know almost nothing about how he started and how his life ended. Although this is not a film that shines a particularly bright light onto the mind and soul of Marley, it does a more than adequate job of outlining the basic details of his life, all set to a wonderful soundtrack of rarities and hits.
Directed capably by Kevin McDonald, Marley features interviews with friends, family, band mates and business associates, concert footage, rare photos, it is a delight to revisit Marley as a younger man making his way, and established start, and then one dealing with a fatal illness. There are no real revelations here, but I'm not sure there needs to be.
16) The Sessions -- Dir. Ben Lewin (John Hawkes, Helen Hunt)
When I saw The Sessions at Sundance last year, it was called The Surrogate. I loved it for many reasons, but mostly it was the combination of the fact that it was based on a true story, and the blunt courage of the actors. In it the great John Hawkes plays man trapped in an iron lung for most of his life, and his relationship with a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt in easily the finest performance of her career.
Although much of film involves quite graphic and awkward sex between the two, the film really revolves about the relationship the two develop over the course of their sessions. In an age increasingly divorced from actually human contact (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) watching two people interact as intimately as this reminds us how important it is to be alive and living in the physical world.
17) The Master -- Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (Joachin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman)
You will either love or loath this film about a the leader of a Scientology-like cult, and one of his rabid followers. More sheer power from PT Anderson.
18) Bernie -- Dir. Richard Linklater (Jack Black, Shirley McLaine)
Off character brilliance from Jack Black as a small town mortician caught up in murder, and winding weirdly towards a something genuinely original.
19) Looper -- Dir. Rian Johnson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt)
The mind-bending Looper sends assassins from the past into the future to kill and then dispose of bodies in the past. Yup, awesome even for non sci-fiers.
20) Amour -- Dir. Michael Haneke (Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Riva)
The story of two retired music teachers, and their daughter who reenters their life and flips it upside down.
21) Arbitrage -- Dir. Nicolas Jarecki (Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth)
This wonderfully topical film about a loathsome hedge master of the universe whose world is crumbling around him.
22) Sleepwalk With Me -- Dir. Mike Birbiglia (Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose)
A breezy little romantic comedy starring an incredibly lovable aspiring comedian and the incredible girlfriend who for some reason still loves with him.
23) Dark Horse -- Dir. Todd Solandz (Selma Blair, Christopher Walken)
Another painfully sad suburban tale of loneliness and longing from the indie sad sap Solandz. Heartbreakingly hilarious.
24) Oslo, August 31 -- Dir. Joachim Trier (Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner)
As stark and patient a film as you are likely to see, also as bleak and depressing as you are likely to watch.