If Oscar season proves anything, it’s that there are more artists eligible for nominations than any critic’s group or awards ceremony could possibly encompass. As a proud member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, I’m always dazzled and intimidated by the onslaught of screeners that crowd my inbox around this time of year, competing for my consideration. Yet as the Koch Brothers proved during the recent election, no matter how much money you throw at a candidate, it will never assure their victory (unless that victory comes courtesy of the Hollywood Foreign Press).
In this special two-part feature, I’ve ranked the twenty films that I consider to be at the top of the heap in 2012. The following list features #20-#11 (with #10-#1 soon to be unveiled in an upcoming post). From the finest wide releases to the most priceless art house treasures, here are the cinematic crème de la crème…
20. This is 40
Capping off an extraordinary couple of years for Judd Apatow, in which he produced the mega-hit, “Bridesmaids,” and the brilliant HBO series, “Girls” (making stars out of Melissa McCarthy and Lena Dunham in the process), this sweetly profane ode to middle-age triumphs and tribulations is a welcome return to form packed with delightful vignettes. McCarthy and Dunham are merely two of the familiar faces in the star-studded ensemble, yet the picture is ultimately anchored by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, both reprising their roles as the neurotic married couple from “Knocked Up.” Apatow’s real-life daughters are naturals on-camera–Maude exudes fiery teenage angst while Iris brings down the house with her deadpan quips. They’re the most talented pair of sisters since Sarah and Emma Bolger.
19. A Simple Life
Hong Kong New Wave icon Ann Hui crafts a delicate drama about an ailing maid, Ah Tao (veteran character actress Deanie Ip), and her beloved client, Roger Leung (Andy Lau), who decides to care for her. Like Michael Haneke’s equally observant (yet more emotionally grueling) Cannes prizewinner, “Amour,” this picture captures the frustrations brought about by a failing body while exploring the vital role of a devoted caregiver. After enduring a crippling stroke, Ah Tao declares that it’s time for her to retire and move into a nursing home. As Ah Tao and Roger suddenly find their roles reversed, Hui provokes vital questions about how society treats the elderly without resorting to self-conscious polemics. In its own quiet, deceptively simple way, this film creeps up and floors you.
18. Nate & Margaret
After making an indelible impression in Joe Swanberg’s galvanizing web series, “Young American Bodies,” Nathan Adloff steps behind the lens for his first feature directorial effort, and the results are nothing short of irresistible. Tyler Ross delivers one of the year’s finest performances as Nate, a gay film student whose best friend is a 52-year-old stand-up comedian, Margaret (Natalie West, the delightful character actress best known for her role as Crystal on “Roseanne”). A lesser film would’ve staged cheap gags based on the unlikely union of these two misfits, but Adloff has a deeper understanding of his characters. No one in the film’s poignant script (co-authored by Justin D.M. Palmer) is defined by their age, gender or orientation. Adloff finds universal truths in the specificity of his lovable Chicago eccentrics. Now that the film is officially streaming on Netflix, audiences all over America will be able to savor the distinctive charm of this indie gem.
17. Take This Waltz
Many critics were left unmoved by Sarah Polley’s follow-up to her brilliant 2006 Alzheimer’s drama, “Away from Her.” A lot of viewers detested the film’s decidedly unsympathetic heroine, unhappily married Margot (played by Michelle Williams, in a performance far more fascinating than her Oscar-nominated work in “My Week with Marilyn”), yet I’d argue that those disgruntled moviegoers have missed the point. The film is about a restless spirit unwilling to settle for stability. With a smitten hunk (Luke Kirby) materializing across the street, Margot starts to question her future with adoring hubby Lou (a very touching Seth Rogen). She can’t seem to bear that the “honeymoon phase” of her marriage has been a temporary one, and by seeking it with another man, she has set herself up for a world of heartache. Yet Williams and Polley deftly allow the audience to share in Margot’s mounting infatuation, particularly during a restaurant encounter that includes one of the most erotic monologues in recent memory.
16. The Invisible War
Kirby Dick’s shattering exposé on the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military is the sort of film one watches in appalled silence. The statistics and confessionals that it unearths are so horrifying that they could very well incite vital change in the Department of Defense’s maddeningly ineffectual Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. What continues to linger long after the end credit roll are the faces of the victims, such as Kori Cioca, a mother and wife straining to maintain her sanity while faced with debilitating injuries. Watching the husbands of these women burst into tears is enough to make one’s own eyes well up. But what makes the film so electrifying is its impassioned crusade to expose the military’s buried web of corruption, which is no less enraging and shameful than the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal.
A debut feature as visually spectacular and technically accomplished as Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Prashant Bhargava’s acclaimed drama blends documentary realism with vivid cinematic poetry. Set in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, the film centers on a jubilant family reunion fraught with simmering tensions. Businessman Jayesh (Mukkund Shukla) strains to reconnect with his estranged family members, including his nephew, Chakku (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a brooding musician unwilling to forgive his uncle for the wounds left by a past tragedy. This all takes place during the January kite festival of Uttarayan, which unites the troubled town’s diverse population under an arresting canopy of color. Some critics have complained that the film’s plot is secondary to the visual poetry, but like Terrence Malick, Bhargava manages to say a great deal without resorting to perfunctory exposition (unlike the underwhelming last act of “Life of Pi”).
14. The Deep Blue Sea
2012 has been a particularly weak year for lead actress nominees (none of the fine ladies in my top five are featured in studio-bred Oscar bait). One worthy contender who has been sadly snubbed so far is Rachel Weisz, who delivers the performance of her career in Terence Davies’ gorgeously lensed melodrama. Like Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina,” the film stages a love triangle between a respectable gentleman (Simon Russell Beale), a conflicted woman (Weisz) and her handsome infatuation (Tom Hiddleston of “Avengers” fame). And like Wright, Davies and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister stage masterful steadicam shots that encapsulate an entire time and place in a single take–namely the sequence where shivering Londoners cram into an Underground station to avoid a German raid. Yet whereas Wright’s intricate choreography and blatant symbolism end up snuffing out the dramatic impact of Tolstoy’s classic, Davies’ atmospheric, tenderly bittersweet approach enables the melodrama (adapted from Terence Rattigan’s play) to soar.
13. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
One of the great gifts of cinema is its ability to give viewers an intimate awareness of events unfolding several continents away. I was entirely unfamiliar with the controversial Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei prior to seeing Alison Klayman’s Oscar-caliber documentary. He is now one of my heroes. There is perhaps no greater champion of individuality and its inherent power than this celebrated muckraker. I was fortunate enough to be visiting my sister in Washington, D.C., when an extraordinary exhibit of Ai Weiwei’s work opened at the Hirshhorn Museum. One of the artworks on display never fails to choke me up. It contains the names of schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan earthquake, an alarming death toll that arguably could’ve been prevented. Their names are sprawled along the wall as the recorded voices of Chinese citizens recite them out loud. Since the government refused to investigate the schools’ faulty construction or even bother to release the names of the victims, Ai Weiwei collected them one by one. I love this guy.
12. Holy Motors
Is Leos Carax’s abstract curiosity about the existential crisis of actors, the mystery of reincarnation or the ever-shifting roles that we all perform during a single 24-hour period? Regardless of your interpretation, there’s no denying that Carax’s latest is a total blast. The wildly adventurous actor Denis Lavant is Monsieur Oscar, a very busy man who travels in a limo driven by his loyal chauffeur, Céline (Edith Scob). He has several “appointments” to attend to, and each one requires him to inhabit the skin of someone else–a dying man, a homicidal maniac, an angry father, a flower-chomping cave-dweller, etc. The movie observes this madness without making any attempt to coherently explain it, and that’s precisely why I love it. The film works you over like music, and what marvelous music there is–a knockout cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride” by Doctor L. and Kylie Minogue’s haunting performance of “Who Were We?”, an original number co-written by Carax. What a demented treat!
11. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Clearly, there was no one better to adapt Stephen Chbosky’s bestselling coming-of-age tale better than…well, Stephen Chbosky. I was frankly amazed by how deeply I was moved by the lead performance from Logan Lerman, an actor who has previously failed to impress me in role upon role. As the introverted titular “wallflower,” Charlie, Lerman hits his stride in a major way. He is absolutely electrifying in scenes where his body language and fumbling expressions convey Charlie’s deep discomfort in his own skin. Watching Lerman gradually crawl out of his shell after being welcomed into a cuddly clique of “misfit toys” is akin to watching a flower bloom. Same goes for Emma Watson, shedding her Hermione Granger robes to reveal a radiant, self-assured performer at the peak of her powers (her American accent, by the way, is flawless). Stealing every one of his scenes is the ever-magnetic Ezra Miller, liberated from his stereotypically sociopathic persona. His portrayal of the flamboyant gay, emotionally vulnerable Patrick is one of the year’s great supporting performances. What I especially love about Chbosky’s script is how it doesn’t let anyone off the hook–even Charlie himself. Listen to this dialogue, beautifully delivered by Watson: “You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love.” Just try watching the film’s final moments and not feel the urge to immediately download David Bowie and Brian Eno’s “Heroes.” Can’t be done.
Stay tuned for Part II, arriving soon on Indie Outlook…