Friday, December 28, 2012

Best Films of 2012

Below are my ten favorite feature films of 2012. You can read about the documentaries here. I tweet about movies here: @FilmPsychedelic

1. Kill List
What starts out as a drama about two middle class British thugs slowly unravels into one of the craziest mysteries in recent memory. I recommend seeing this with as little prior information as possible. The intense realism is pitch-perfect, the acting solid, and the soundtrack is amazing. While some of the other films on this list are made by artists operating at the highest pinnacle of film making, I put this at number one because it was great to watch this new talent, Ben Wheatley, emerge. 

2. The Turin Horse
By filming the daily chores of a farmer and his daughter, Bela Tarr captures the soul crushing sorrow of the repetitive banality within the lives of human beings. This is a simple meditation on survival that ingrains itself deeper and deeper as it progresses. One of the heaviest films ever made and truly a masterpiece.  And I'll never experience potatoes the same way again.  

3. Amour
Devastating simplicity from the master Michael Haneke. The process of dying has not been portrayed so nakedly and vividly since Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. The cold aesthetic Haneke is known for is subtly applied under the perfected formalism and masterful acting. Though filled with intensely emotional scenes I thought this was still one of his darker films due to the unbridled handling of the subject matter. Essential viewing.

4. Sleeping Beauty
In this unsettling story about depravity and power the lovely Emily Browning plays a college student that gets involved in a cultish business that caters to rich perverts. She performs with a subtle curiosity that would drive conservative minds mad- rarely do we see an intelligent and morally ambiguous feminine character like this on screen. An incredibly impressive debut from Australian novelist Julia Leigh, the film is refreshingly apathetic and totally beautiful with cinematic trace echoes of masters Kubrick and Briellat. I think this was actually a 2011 release but I just saw it this year. 

5. Oslo, 31, August
One of the most serious and somber looks at drug addiction and recovery ever put to film. Taking place over one day – the day an addict gets out of rehab and realizes he is irreparably damaged and that assimilating with society is not going to be an option. I’ve had a lot of heroin addicted friends over the years and most of them are dead now so this film really hit home. Stark, minimal, powerful film making.

6. Michael
The banality of evil is explored in this extremely disturbing portrait of a pedophile keeping a passive child captive in his suburban home. Bleakly intellectual and clinically sad- this makes Todd Solondz’s pedo-flicks look like Disney movies. I’d only recommend this for those that enjoy challenging films about the darkest crevasses of human nature. Everyone else may be permanently scarred.

7. Beyond the Hills
After five years, Christian Mungui returns with his follow up to one of my favorite films: 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days. Here he brings us deep inside a Romanian Orthodox monastery for a full 2 1/2 hours. We live with a priest and his nuns as they deal with an unstable homeless woman that has taken refuge with them. An ongoing quiet intensity pervades the film as her questioning of the church is interpreted as a demonic possession. Things go downhill from there. Beautiful cinematography, locations, acting, story-telling, everything… Mungui is establishing himself as a filmmaker on the level of Bergman and Haneke- very serious subject matter dealt with in an artful and insightful manner. He was present at the screening I attended and the guy is obviously very smart and cool. I am looking forward to seeing his work on the big screen as long as I am alive and he is making films. 

8. Rust and Bone
Jacques Audiard follows up A Prophet with with a nuanced and thought provoking film about self worth, healing, pain and the catharsis of violence. Marion Cotillard gives the best performance of the year as a whale “trainer” at Marineland that gets her legs crushed in an accident. She meets a poor amateur boxer that deals with her amputations in a pitiless and straightforward manner and they embark on a relationship of self discovery filled with sex and swimming. Love stories are usually pretty boring but this one is extremely well done. The use of music in this film is amazing; the scene where she is dancing to the cheesy Katy Perry song in her wheelchair that used to play in her Marineland routine was surprisingly moving. The film has an intense emotional core but at the same time has some unusual artistic flourishes like that scene that push it into a magical place. Brilliant, masterful storytelling.

9. The Hunt
As in his classic The Celebration, Thomas Vinterburg revisits themes of family-in-crisis and child sex abuse. Mads Mikkelsen stars as a good hearted man falsely accused of molestation in a small Danish town. Child reverence, coerced false confessions and misguided mass hysteria are very real problems and this film deals with them perfectly. If you dig The Hunt also check out Vinturburg’s underrated 2010 film Submarino.

10. The Master
The dark underbelly of Americana is explored in this subtle and complex film about dogmatic organizations that manipulate broken people. It’s perfectly set during a time of massive change after World War II when men were trying to find themselves and a new crop of self help/empowerment movements were popping up. It’s also an accurate and damning portrayal of the era when Dianetics was morphing into the criminal Church of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard began wielding his powers over the dummies of the world. In fact, a lot of the exercises he forces on Freddie are real life idiocies that the COS inflicts on its Scienzombies. Many are documented on the indispensable anti-COS website Operation Clambake. I especially like the song Hubbard sings throughout the film called “Slow Boat to China”, a pop standard from the 40’s about the passing of time. It rings especially powerful in the final scene when he is chastised by Hubbard’s wife for not signing the famed “billion year contract". Good stuff.

A few more worth checking:

Killing Them Softly
A great modern gangster movie that is an obvious fuck you to the American government, especially Obama and his misguided "community" and "change" rhetoric. After Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James I think it's safe to say Andrew Dominick can do no wrong.

A creepy film about societies conditioned subservience to authority. It’s almost unbelievable that people could be as stupid as the characters in this film but it is completely based on fact. A weirdo calls a fast food chain and pretends he is a cop investigating a thief and convinces the management to do perverted shit for him. For those that have already seen the film you can see the real footage here: Writer/director Craig Zobel is one to watch.

Sound of My Voice
In this intriguing low budget film a new age therapy/time-travel cult is investigated by two young journalists. It’s not a perfect movie but the subject matter is handled well and held my interest the entire 90 minutes. The ending leaves the story open to interpretation- which can sometimes be annoying- yet here it adds to the mystery that incites conversations and theories afterwards. 

The Angel’s Share
Movies are often called “heartfelt” which is usually a euphemism for “cheesy” but Ken Loach’s latest has an understated emotional current that really works. The story revolves around a gang of ruffnecks in Glasgow that come up with a plan to steal priceless whiskey in order to move beyond their dreary lives. This is the lighter side of Loach - the raw intensity of his earlier UK poverty films like Sweet Sixteen and Ladybird, Ladybird aren’t present here. And this is by far the funniest film on this list.

Adrian Brody is amazing in this film about an apathetic school teacher caught in a hellish teaching job. We follow his routine as he deals with idiot bureaucrats and offensively unfit parents. This is a very cold vision of America’s education system. One of the main messages I took away is having a child should be a privilege, not a right, and our child-obsessed culture has led to too many morons having unwanted children. 

Beyond the Black Rainbow
Another movie open to interpretation. My take: A demented acid cult in the 1960’s slowly evolves into some sort of 1980's psychotropic slave palace. Inside it, a man is trapped- totally engaged in mind melding warfare within this psychedelic dungeon. He battles his way into consensus reality and back in the physical world and then has to find his way out. You can see the passion and craft that went into the sets and costumes, this looks like an authentic straight-to-video feature from the 80's. I thought the film would have been much stronger if it ended as the man emerges from the triangular building- the “real life” ending killed the vibe. Still, a solid debut from Panos Cosmatos.

Django Unchained
Another classic from Tarantino. Sam Jackson and Leo Dicaprio have their best roles ever as a slave keeper and servant. Engrossing, smart, funny, imaginative film making.

Also of note: Klown, Headhunters, Chronicle, The Tall Man, Holy Motors.