Jordan Flaherty picks creative films with a conscience from the 2012 bumper crop of “bold filmmakers doing their best work.”
This year was one of the best for cinema in the past two decades. There were dozens of powerful documentaries, pulpy experiments, brilliant auteur pieces, and even some thrilling blockbusters.
Below is my top ten of the year’s best. My taste leans towards creative filmmaking with a conscience. Films like Zero Dark Thirty, that have little to say outside of glamorizing torture and military adventurism, rate extremely low, while passion, skills, and ideas rate high. I love filmmakers not afraid to break molds and challenge conventions. While Spielberg’s Lincoln deserves high praise for Daniel Day Lewis’ riveting lead performance, and an overall cast that includes scene-stealing performances by veterans like Tommy Lee Jones and relative newcomers like John Hawkes, the end result is too enamored with compromise and status quo. This year had no shortage of examples of bold filmmakers doing their best work – my list could easily be twice as long. Before we get to the top ten, here are some of those that almost made the cut.
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This list is limited to films distributed in the US this year, which leaves out many foreign pictures that had a difficult time breaking into stateside markets. But domestic audiences could still catch some great international films. Among those that nearly made my list were Russian director Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, featuring Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as a young tourist couple traveling in Eastern Europe, whose lives are changed by a brief, unexpected, event; The Imposter, a British documentary by director Bart Layton about a young French con artist who scams his way into a family in a small Texas town; and Scottish director Kevin Macdonald’s exhaustively thorough documentary Marley, about the life, music, ideas and influence of musician Bob Marley.
It was an excellent year for documentaries. One noteworthy film that would have made my list in any other year was The House I Live In. Functioning as a kind of Introduction to the War on Drugs, documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki takes a personal look at his own privilege and at the forces that drive this war on poor communities. While the film doesn’t go as deeply as it could and doesn’t say much that activists will find new, it is a great starting place for those who haven’t thought about the ways in which the Prison Industrial Complex devastates communities of color.
2012 was a year that simultaneously celebrated and subverted the rules of genre films. Cult television producer and comics writer Joss Whedon, who directed the highest grossing film of the year (The Avengers), also wrote one of the year’s quirkiest films. The Cabin in the Woods played with the conventions of horror to create a cleverly individual film seemingly constructed out of inside, film-nerd, references. Steven Soderbergh, one of Hollywood’s most singular and prolific directors, started the year with Haywire, a thrilling action film with a kickass female hero (played by newcomer Gina Carano), and followed it up a few months later with Magic Mike. Also known as “that film about the male strippers,” Mike was a breezy story of working class struggles, starring muscled heartthrob Channing Tatum and a surprisingly sleazy Matthew McConaughey. Both films are entertaining and far better than any plot summary would indicate.
In other genre explorations, Canadian actress Sarah Polley directed Take This Waltz, an achingly deep and tragic romantic comedy, while Welsh-born, Indonesia-based director Gareth Evans delivered an explosive, over-the-top action film called The Raid: Redemption that put US efforts like The Expendables 2 to shame.
The year also featured two powerful explorations of misogyny that left me deeply disturbed. I can’t recommend these films for everyone – they feature sexual violence that may be triggering for many – but they are thought-provoking and worthy of mention for the way they still haunt me. Compliance is based on a true story of a sexual assault orchestrated long distance through a “prank” phone call. While very difficult to watch, it also brings up critiques about the ways in which our society tells us to follow authority even when we should know better. Killer Joe is a depraved thriller (starring Matthew McConaughey, sleazing it up again) from William Friedkin, director of 70s classics like The Exorcist and The French Connection. Depending on the viewers’ interpretation, Killer Joe is either a trashy exploitation film or a mesmerizing exploration of power and patriarchy.
And now, the top ten:
10. The Paperboy – Another unapologetically trashy movie (featuring another unforgettable performance by McConaughey) is Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy. Daniels is a fascinating figure: a powerful and successful gay black filmmaker in an industry that is overwhelmingly white (less than 10 percent of the members of the Director’s Guild of America are people of color). The films he has produced or directed, such as Monster’s Ball, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, The Woodsman and Shadowboxer, have all dealt frankly with race, class, gender and sexuality in a way that few other US films dare, and have been awarded at the box office and by critics. He was the first African-American in US history to be the sole producer of an academy award-winning film (Monster’s Ball), and Precious was a giant hit that transformed the careers of its stars. At the same time, Daniels’ often seems to have little to say about these hot-button themes he brings up. The Paperboy definitely provokes, but what does it mean? Described by reviewers as a “hot mess,” the film borders on campy in its southern gothic exploration of sex, class and murder in the Florida swamps, but is saved by riveting performances by John Cusack as an accused killer, Nicole Kidman as a troubled woman with a sexual obsession for prisoners and a surprisingly nuanced performance by teen heartthrob Zac Efron.
9. Killing Them Softly – Director Andrew Dominik made one of my favorite films of the last decade, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a stunningly shot and perfectly acted film that reinvents the genre of the western as a psychological drama with the scale of an epic. Killing Them Softly redefines the heist film as a commentary on greed and capitalism at the end of the Bush era, with Brad Pitt (who also starred in Dominik’s previous film) playing a killer-as-businessman.
8. 5 Broken Cameras – This powerful collaboration by Palestinian activist and TV cameraman Emad Burnat and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi brings the viewer into life in a Palestinian village resisting occupation. It is an eloquent response to those who ask where the Palestinian nonviolent resistance is, showing years of nonviolent resistance, met repeatedly and systematically by brutal military repression.
7. Moonrise Kingdom – This year’s second-best film about precocious children facing a hurricane (see the top of this list for the other), Moonrise Kingdom is infused with the trademark twee, hipster style of indie film darling Wes Anderson. But beneath all the mannerisms and stylistic excess, this film also has heart. A touching story of young love (and an older generation’s desire and frustration) Moonrise is a sentimental and sweet tale. It’s also beautifully told and brilliantly acted by a spectacular cast that includes Edward Norton and Bruce Willis playing against type, as well as other ringers like Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel and Frances McDormand, and captivating performances by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, making their acting debuts as the young leads.
6. Red Hook Summer – Director Spike Lee returns to his roots, with a film that has the fresh and audacious feel of an independent first film. Part of this comes from necessity: Although he is one of the US’ best directors, consistently delivering powerful and important films, Lee has trouble getting funding from Hollywood. Anchored by solid performances from young newcomers Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith, as well as veteran actor Clarke Peters (known to fans of HBO’s The Wire and Treme), the laidback film explores life, religion, youth, and redemption in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Although it takes place in present day, the film seems nostalgic for a pre-gentrification Brooklyn, and could take place in the time of Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Spike Lee’s first film, released in 1983.
5. The Master – Director Paul Thomas Anderson and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams deliver a mesmerizing portrait of a troubled man falling under the sway of a cult leader and his wife, loosely based on the early days of L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. While the film is named after Hoffman’s character, the true star is Phoenix, who delivers a hypnotic performance – much of it shot in close-up – that explores the life of a lost man out of control.
4. Middle of Nowhere – A quietly devastating drama written and directed by Ava DuVernay (her second narrative feature film) and starring Emayatzy Corinealdi (her first feature), Middle of Nowhere immerses the viewer in the life of a young black woman trying to keep her life together while her husband is in jail. Although there are many stories told of life in prison, it is rare to see a portrayal of those who are left behind.
3. United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP – This year saw two documentaries about ACT-UP, The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, an activist group inspired by the crisis of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. How to Survive a Plague tells an easy and uplifting story and received a wider distribution. But filmmaker Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger (co-produced by novelist, historian and activist Sarah Schulman) was easily the better film. Expertly telling a sprawling story that encapsulates the diversity of voices that make up a movement, United in Anger shows how revolutionary change really happens: from the ground up, and led by those most affected.
2. The Central Park Five – First-time filmmaker Sarah Burns, collaborating with her filmmaker father Ken Burns and her filmmaking husband David McMahon, has told a crucial and heartbreaking story about a miscarriage of justice that should be taught in every school. Five young men had their lives destroyed when police, press and prosecutors ignored evidence of their innocence and locked them up for a brutal crime. This incredible film is more than a story of wrongful conviction – it is also a powerful indictment of racism in the criminal justice system, and an irresponsible media that enables it.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild – Aside from Django Unchained, this was perhaps the most controversial film of the year. Cultural critic bell hooks hated it. President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and the residents of the community it was filmed in loved it. Some critics asked if a white filmmaker from New York had the right to tell this story of a black father and daughter struggling to survive on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Leaving aside the question of who can tell what stories, the authorship on Beasts is not straightforward. While it is definitely director Benh Zeitlin’s creation, it’s also clear that a wider community helped shape the story, dialogue and look of the film. Beasts was made through an intense collaboration with stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, Zeitlin’s filmmaking collective Court 13, and the Gulf Coast residents who welcomed the filmmakers with open arms. For me, the film’s magical realism captured deep and important truths about environmental crisis and the fragility of life for coastal communities, while the breathtaking performances are a testament to a young director who has a great future.