Since December 17 we’ve been counting down our favorite genre movies of 2012 on the Bleader—animation, documentary, comedy, sci-fi, suspense, horror—as well as the year’s best revivals and worst new releases. Now it’s time for the big tamale, our favorite movies of 2012. Check online for links to blogs and long reviews. —J.R. Jones
Film editor J.R. Jones
1A Separation My happiest moment from this year’s Oscar show was seeing Asghar Farhadi’s moving Iranian drama win best foreign film. The personal and the political are beautifully fused in this story of a married couple prevented from divorcing by a judge of the Islamic Republic, and of the tragedy that unfolds in their home after the wife moves back in with her parents, leaving the husband with their 12-year-old daughter and his old, ailing father. The movie takes place mostly in enclosed spaces, and that sense of enclosure extends to the characters’ lives as well.
2Lincoln We’re inundated with Abraham Lincoln in this town, but Steven Spielberg’s politically astute biopic manages to make him real again. As the president, Daniel Day-Lewis is funny, loving, principled, and wise, but the story—centered mainly on Lincoln’s arm-twisting campaign to pass the 13th Amendment and free the slaves once and for all—stresses his political cunning, an element of his character seldom presented onscreen. Opening three days after the Obama victory, Lincoln immediately became an emblem of today’s politics, reminding us how divided our house has been in years past.
3In the Family The so-called “slow cinema” movement exposes a key truth about drama: people can be drawn into a story of any length as long as it travels a perceivable arc. Patrick Wang wrote, directed, and stars in this modest, quietly attentive tale of a gay man in small-town Tennessee who loses his lover in a car accident and custody of their little boy to the dead man’s sister. The movie succeeds as a civil rights drama, but Wang also accomplishes something more subtle, his languid tempo conjuring up a persuasive vision of the new (and sometimes not-so-new) south.
4God Bless America Bobcat Goldthwait’s comic riff on Taxi Driver might seem more scary than funny after the Newtown massacre, but it isn’t any less important. A middle-aged office drone, disgusted with the crassness and cruelty of American mass media, learns that he’s terminally ill and goes on a cross-country shooting spree. Though Goldthwait conceived of the movie as a riposte to progun wackos, its comic charge is the fantasy of gun vengeance that we’ve all come to enjoy on the big screen.
5Le Grand Amour Hats off to Gene Siskel Film Center for its November retrospective on Pierre Etaix, a comic genius who began his career as a circus clown, wrote gags for Jacques Tati in the 50s, then blossomed in the 60s with a series of droll, visually inventive features. The crown jewel of the series was Le Grand Amour (1969), receiving its Chicago premiere; onscreen, Etaix has the physical grace and quiet self-possession of a silent-film great, and his story of an unhappy married man who falls for his 18-year-old secretary is studded with witty sight gags.
6The House I Live In Eugene Jarecki’s ambitious, thought-provoking history of the U.S. drug war culminates in the radical idea, articulated onscreen by physician Gabor Mate, that the policy is not a failure but a success, having contributed to a booming prison-industrial complex. This perspective is only one, however, in a movie that examines the issue from all sides, presenting frank talk from cops, doctors, corrections officers, and drug dealers. Jarecki has been rapped for drawing on the reminiscences of his family’s black maid, whose son was destroyed by drugs, but they help illustrate his contention that drug policy has often targeted racial minorities.
7Beyond the Hills Cristian Mungiu, whose harrowing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) followed two women as they negotiated a hotel-room abortion in communist Romania, returns with another tale of old-world patriarchy that’s even more mysterious and disturbing than its predecessor. The two women in this one were raised in an orphanage, where they may have been lovers and may have been sexually abused; now one has pledged herself to a Russian Orthodox convent and the other arrives for a visit, introducing an element of chaos into the orderly religious world. Beyond the Hills screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October; a theatrical release is scheduled for March 2013.
8Rust and Bone In theaters now, this gravely serious French drama from French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) easily ranks as the year’s best and truest romance, a genre too often given over to froth. Marion Cotillard, mainly used as set decoration in her big Hollywood films, digs into the role of a woman who loses her legs below the knee; as she submits to the grueling process of learning to function again, her friendship with a burly street fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts of Bullhead) deepens into real devotion, though whether he’ll ever accept her as a whole woman is open to question.
9Compliance One doesn’t expect to see sharp psychological drama in a fast-food restaurant—something about the matching shirts—but this cagey indie from Craig Zobel turns a chicken-fillet place into the setting for a sinister behavioral experiment. A prank caller persuades the gullible manager that he’s a police detective and orders her to strip-search a young employee suspected of stealing from a customer. No one could be dumb enough to fall for that, you might think, though in fact close to 70 incidents like this transpired between 1992 and 2004.
10The Color Wheel Alex Ross Perry’s indie road movie ends dramatically, but mostly it’s hilarious, a cruel comedy in which a grown brother and sister bore progressively deeper into each other’s character flaws. Perry is the nerdy, sexually deprived, endlessly yammering brother; Carlen Altman is the beautful sister, a pitiably untalented and unqualified media wannabe who drags him along to collect her things from the broadcasting professor she was sleeping with. Though shot in black-and-white 16-millimeter, the movie earns its title.
Runners up: Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Richard Linklater’s Bernie, Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena, Davis Ayer’s End of Watch, Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister.
Film critic Ben Sachs
1Life Without Principle Johnnie To’s opus about the speculative economy defies categorization. It plays like a great action movie but contains little violence. It recalls classic comedies in its farcical plotting and broad characterizations, but its theme—how to preserve a sense of morality in an amoral society—is deadly serious. The mise-en-scene is as vibrant and fluidly interconnected as that of an animated fantasy, yet the plot addresses some of the most sobering crises of 21st-century economic life. Like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock before him, To works in a genre all his own, transcending boundaries between commercial movies and art movies and creating cinema that speaks to everyone.
2Possession Thanks to local archivist Brian Block, the greatest film by maverick Polish director Andrzej Zulawski finally received its Chicago theatrical premiere this April, nearly 31 years after its Cannes festival debut. It’s the breakup movie to end all breakup movies—wrenching, horrific, unpredictable, and darkly funny. It also features some of the most astonishing performances I’ve ever seen. Zulawski famously worked Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, and Heinz Bennent into a trance state before he started filming; they really seem to be going mad onscreen.
3A Simple Life Another Hong Kong masterpiece about contemporary social ills, Ann Hui’s deeply felt domestic drama considers the fate of isolated people, particularly the elderly and disabled, in a culture that values individualism at the expense of community. Remarkably subtle, the film feels gentle and unstructured while you watch it, but pointed and heartbreaking when you reflect on it. This received its local premiere in May at the River East 21 with no fanfare whatsoever, but Facets Cinematheque brought it back to Chicago in August.
4The Master Paul Thomas Anderson’s most daring film to date teases at a panoply of meanings while confirming none. At present I read it as an epic black comedy about the American success ethic, positing that a phony shaman-cum-CEO would claim as his soul mate a borderline-retarded sociopath whose only talent is making moonshine out of chemicals (though I suspect I’ll arrive at different interpretations after subsequent viewings). Singular and mysterious, down to Anderson’s decision to use 70-millimeter film for a movie that transpires largely in close-up.
5Sack Barrow The best work to screen at this year’s Onion City Film Festival, this short documentary by British experimentalist Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea) is several things at once: an elegy for London’s industrial working class, an eerie piece of found science fiction (with images of industrial corrosion that recall Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker), a witty photo-essay about outmoded lifestyles, and a master class in 16-millimeter cinematography. No other working filmmaker creates textures like these.
6We Have a Pope Here’s a movie Luis Buñuel might have admired. Under the guise of a family-friendly (and very funny) comedy about a pope-elect (Michel Piccoli) getting stage fright, Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti (The Son’s Room) argues that the civilized world no longer has any need for organized religion. This is the rare movie that truly merits the term subversive.
7Holy Motors The first feature in 13 years by Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge) is a literal dream of a film, evidently taking place in the writer-director’s limitless subconscious. It jumps playfully between popular movie genres—slapstick, musical, action, sci-fi—while gradually revealing an obsessive, mournful subtext. Once the boy wonder of French cinema, Carax remains a youthful filmmaker, drunk on the notion that anything is possible in movies.
8The Paperboy In adapting Pete Dexter’s southern gothic novel, director Lee Daniels radically presents all outward expressions of sexual, racial, and class identity as forms of theater, which strengthens, rather than distracts from, his theme of impossible love. Like his characters, Daniels believes in a desire so powerful that it can obliterate social barriers, but he also understands how firm those barriers are. Beneath the movie’s campy surface lies a profound sense of tragedy.
9This Is Not a Film This pseudo-documentary by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (codirected by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) is already the stuff of legend. Panahi made it while under house arrest and forbidden to make movies by the Islamic Republic (the sentence continues to this day); the finished version was smuggled into the 2011 Cannes film festival on a flash drive hidden inside a cake. But this is more than a stirring act of protest; it’s a witty, probing meditation on what cinema means in an age when anyone can make a “movie” on his cell phone.
10Cosmopolis David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel improves on the source material while preserving its funniest and most astute cultural observations. It’s also a thematic breakthrough for Canada’s greatest director. In his previous films Cronenberg charted a human character’s transformation into some frightening Other; here he imagines a tech-wizard billionaire (a brilliantly cast Robert Pattinson) trying to reclaim his humanity before he loses it entirely.
Runners-up: 11. Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan . . . 12. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook . . . 13. Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike . . . 14. Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom . . . 15. Andre Techine’s Unforgivable . . . 16. Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love . . . 17. Joe Carnahan’s The Grey . . . 18. Philippe Garrel’s A Burning Hot Summer . . . 19. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty . . . 20. Richard Linklater’s Bernie
Film critic Drew Hunt
1. Paul Thomas Anderson’s uniquely American The Master . . . 2. Ben Rivers’s gorgeous, idiosyncratic documentary Two Years at Sea . . . 3. Steven Soderbergh’s jazzy international thriller Haywire . . . 4. Wes Anderson’s touching coming-of-age story Moonrise Kingdom . . . 5. Rick Alverson’s PBR-soaked cautionary tale The Comedy . . . 6. Mia Hanson-Love’s somber romance Goodbye, First Love . . . 7. Quentin Tarantino’s electric neowestern Django Unchained . . . 8. Hong Sang-soo’s playful ode to Eric Rohmer, The Day He Arrives . . . 9. Terence Davies’s soulful chamber piece The Deep Blue Sea . . . 10. Philippe Garrel’s emotionally charged drama A Burning Hot Summer