Contrary to what the Academy may have you believe, the year’s best films aren’t always released during November and December. In fact, one of the pictures in my top ten premiered all the way back in January–on Vimeo, no less. Without further ado, here is the second half of my epic list ranking the Top Twenty Films of 2012 (to check out the first half, click here)…
10. Ruby Sparks
As the granddaughter of America’s most influential director, Zoe Kazan could’ve easily disappeared within his formidable shadow. Yet by her mid-twenties, Kazan established herself as an accomplished playwright (“Absalom,” “We Live Here”) and versatile actress (“The Exploding Girl,” “Meek’s Cutoff”). Never has Kazan’s potential shone as brightly as it does in “Ruby Sparks,” a beguiling romantic comedy marking the second feature effort of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who helmed 2006’s marvelous comedy, “Little Miss Sunshine”). Kazan’s debut screenplay is one of the year’s most ingenious, as it places the viewer within the psyche of a writer (played by Kazan’s real-life boyfriend, Paul Dano) obsessed with his vision of an ideal female companion. Once that vision (gamely embodied by Kazan) comes to life and develops a mind of her own, the film emerges as both a biting satire of Hollywood’s prized “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” archetype and a touching fable about embracing life’s sublime imperfections.
9. Marriage Material
2012 will be remembered by cinephiles as the year that “mumblecore” reached the mainstream. Lena Dunham’s magnificent HBO series, “Girls,” wouldn’t have existed without the trailblazing microbudget filmmakers whose work influenced it. Dunham has often cited Chicago auteur Joe Swanberg as a key inspiration, which is readily apparent in her hilariously awkward, startlingly authentic sex scenes. With Swanberg’s upcoming projects drawing raves at festivals (“All the Light in the Sky”) and attracting big-name talent (“Drinking Buddies”), it won’t be long before he becomes a household name. Boding well for his future evolution as an artist is the short yet potent “Marriage Material,” which ranks as Swanberg’s most impressive effort since his stunning 2004 debut, “Kissing on the Mouth.” Caroline White and Kentucker Audley are excellent as a young couple who start to question their bond after babysitting a friend’s toddler. In a mesmerizing fifteen-minute take, White and Audley open the floodgates on their insecurities and desires while lying in bed. Dangling over them is a string of photos featuring the once close lovers trapped in separate frames.
Editor’s note: Since there is no official trailer for the film, I’ve embedded the entire movie below–yup, all 55 minutes of it. To watch “Marriage Material” on its official Vimeo page, click here.
8. The Master
For all of its frustrating paradoxes and pacing issues, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature film still deserves a place of honor on my list, if only because its moments of greatness are so staggeringly great. Consider the scene where psychologically scarred Naval veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), undergoes an intense processing session under the instruction of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a loyal cult known as The Cause. As Freddie gradually divulges the details of his past regrets, Phoenix’s sophomoric exterior crumbles away, revealing a deep-seated anguish so agonizing it stings. Both actors are at the top of their game, though Phoenix’s performance is certainly the showier of the two. With his hunched posture, animalistic mannerisms and unnerving bouts of inexplicable laughter, Freddie resembles the primal neanderthal that Daniel Plainview devolves into during the final act of “There Will Be Blood.” Lancaster projects an image of sophisticated superiority, but he’s just as prone to flying off the handle. His goal of bringing mankind to its “original state of perfect” mirrors Freddie’s pursuit of an unattainable dream woman, whose figure he carves on the beach. Like The Cause’s phony religion, this “woman” is an illusion built on sand that can be demolished by a single wave.
7. The Impossible
Pure, unbridled emotion wallops the audience like a monstrous wave in Juan Antonio Bayona’s spellbinding tale of unlikely survival. Many critics have already blasted the film for limiting its focus to a white family vacationing in Thailand during the devastating 2004 tsunami, rather than tell the stories of local citizens affected by the disaster. This shallow critique carries echoes of the disgruntled moviegoers who chastised Spielberg for failing to represent the entire Holocaust in “Schindler’s List.” The simple truth is that Bayona’s film is based on the plight of a real family who were separated by the waves and were forced to embark on a desperate search for one another. Casting Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as the parents was a masterstroke, since neither actor is above appearing as hellaciously ravaged as the role requires. Watts has received the majority of Oscar buzz, but McGregor’s performance is even more shattering–particularly when he breaks down on the phone after sharing the dreadful news with loved ones. As the family’s oldest son, Lucas, 16-year-old Tom Holland is the film’s heart and soul. Bayona clearly has the eye of an artist, and his orchestration of special effects and sound design is second to none. I’d take this brilliantly crafted, viscerally affecting tear-jerker over “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” any day.
Whereas “The Impossible” celebrated mankind’s will to survive in the most unthinkable of circumstances, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner “Amour” is about accepting the finality of death. Is it for all tastes? Hell no. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more unflinchingly honest portrayal of old age or a more powerful examination of love in its purest form. Over breakfast, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant of Bertolucci’s “The Conformist”) comes to the frightening realization that his wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva of Resnais’ “Hiroshima, mon amour”), is not entirely herself. Halfway through conversation, she suddenly appears catatonic, unable to respond to Georges’ words. This momentary incident marks the beginning of Anne’s decline, as well as the dawn of Georges’ new role as her caregiver. While most romances opt for exploring the hormonal overtures of a relationship, Haneke aims to capture a couple’s undying devotion during their final, immensely painful days together. Though the director has been chided for his lack of empathy toward his characters, that certainly isn’t the case in “Amour,” nor in his 2009 masterpiece, “The White Ribbon.” This is cinema at its most nakedly authentic.
I’ll never forget reading the first newspaper blurb indicating that Steven Spielberg had plans to direct a biopic of Abraham Lincoln. That was 12 years ago, and I’m happy to report that the finished product was worth the wait. As the son of a lifelong Lincoln scholar who insisted on taking his family to Springfield countless times, I’m supremely familiar with the icon known as Honest Abe. Yet Spielberg’s film marks the first time I ever felt like I was truly in Lincoln’s presence. Daniel Day-Lewis took a year to research his role before even attempting to inhabit it, and his effort paid off in spades. This is the most meticulously authentic, richly textured and achingly human portrayal of Lincoln ever captured on film. He absolutely nails the immortal president’s ability to brighten the gravest of moods with amusing stories, particularly his joke involving a strategically placed portrait of George Washington (and it sure is wonderful to hear one of Lincoln’s 150 year-old punchlines earn laughs from audiences). I saw the film four times, and upon each viewing, a different section of screenwriter Tony Kushner’s masterful verbal symphony stuck with me. The methods Lincoln utilized to unite a polarized country and triumph over obstructionist politicians in order to pass vital legislation is both profoundly timely and utterly timeless. Taking his cue from such American classics as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Inherit the Wind,” Spielberg has made his best and most important film since “Saving Private Ryan.”
4. The Kid with a Bike
There is no directing duo whose work I await with more giddy anticipation than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (sorry Coen Brothers–you’re definitely in my top 5). Their background in documentary filmmaking has lent an arresting immediacy to their narratives. We don’t merely feel like we are watching a story unfold, we feel like the story is happening to us. Perhaps that’s why we’re often perched on the edge of our seats, holding our breath with the hope that no harm will come to the vulnerable protagonist. The Dardennes are as skilled at building and maintaining suspense as Alfred Hitchcock, suggesting what a picture from the Master may have looked like with handheld photography. “The Kid with a Bike” is the siblings’ most gripping achievement since their 1996 breakthrough, “La Promesse.” Both films center on wayward youth in danger of becoming destructive products of their environment. Jérémie Renier, the actor who made an unforgettable debut as the young protagonist in “Promesse,” here plays the distant father of Cyril, played by 13-year-old Thomas Doret in an equally astounding debut performance. Abandoned by his family and baited by charismatic gang leaders, Cyril’s only hope for stability is in a potential future with would-be adoptive mother, Samantha (Cécile De France). In a rare use of non-diegetic music, the Dardennes borrow an excerpt from Beethoven’s “Adagio un poco mosso.” To say that it achieves maximum emotional impact would be an understatement.
3. Moonrise Kingdom
Though “Rushmore” fans will passionately disagree with me, I believe that “Moonrise Kingdom” is the best film Wes Anderson has ever made and the first in which his signature style is perfectly married with the subject matter. Anderson’s view of the world has always had childlike overtones, yet this is his first picture in which the main character is indeed a young boy, lovestruck scout Sam (Jared Gilman). Defying the protective regulations set by aloof adults, Sam runs off for a summertime adventure with his newfound crush, the beautiful yet troubled Suzy (Kara Hayward). Like Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” gang, these kids have the vocabulary of adults and the mentality of children. Thus, their dialogue registers as both hilariously surreal and touchingly poignant. Just as Vince Guaraldi’s score brought melancholy depth to Charlie Brown’s antics, Anderson employs vibrant orchestrations by Benjamin Britten, Henry Purcell and Alexandre Desplat to convey the mounting exhilaration felt by his deadpan duo. One of Suzy’s records features a narrator who breaks down the individual parts of the orchestra. The recurring motif of this recording got me thinking of how a Wes Anderson film is like a grand orchestra, with each intricately choreographed and designed element falling perfectly into the place. If the background action is a fraction behind the events unfolding in the foreground, the entire scene falls flat. Anderson aims to achieve this mind-boggling balancing act in every single one of his pictures, and “Moonrise Kingdom” is a feat akin to genius.
2. Monsieur Lazhar
What makes one cry is every bit as personal as what makes one laugh. Nothing causes me to choke up quite like a cathartic release. When Liana Liberato’s naïve teen came to the realization that she had been raped in David Schwimmer’s overlooked 2011 drama, “Trust,” her violent outburst of conflicting emotions had me in tears. I had a similar experience while watching Philippe Falardeau’s overwhelmingly powerful adaptation of Évelyne de la Chenelière’s one-man stage show, “Bachir Lazhar.” As the titular Algerian immigrant who volunteers to teach a Montreal class, Mohamed Fellag deftly hints at repressed despair within his twinkling eyes. After suffering a devastating tragedy, Lazhar can personally relate to the grieving process of his students, whose previous teacher committed suicide in the classroom during recess. While the staff is ordered to avoid any mention of the recent catastrophe, Lazhar encourages his students to open up about their feelings. This proves to be especially cleansing for Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and Simon (Émilien Néron), the two students cursed with discovering their teacher hanging from the ceiling. Nélisse and Néron are two of the most astonishing child actors I’ve ever seen, ranking right alongside Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” In the hands of Hollywood executives, this premise could’ve easily morphed into a schmaltzy vehicle for Robin Williams. Thankfully, Falardeau got to it first.
1. The Wise Kids
The characters in Stephen Cone’s subtly nuanced indie drama have reached a crossroads. Their tight-knit Southern Baptist community has been a comfortable place to grow up, but with the first semester of college in their imminent future, three longtime friends must come to terms with their identities as individuals. Brea (Molly Kunz) is the daughter of a pastor and a devoted churchgoer, but the murky haze of doubt has begun to cloud her serene psyche. There comes a Mass when Brea simply can’t bring herself to sing the lyrics of a traditional hymnal. Tim (Tyler Ross) has come to the similarly life-altering realization that he is gay. Though this discovery hasn’t had any impact on his spiritual life, it has given the faith of his religiously devout peer, Laura (Allison Torem), a serious work-out. Laura’s mind balks at the anomaly of a God-fearing man taking part in “sinful” behavior. An equally riveting parallel subplot explores the strained marriage of Elizabeth (Sadieh Rifai) and Austin (superbly played by Cone), the church’s music director secretly questioning his own sexuality.
It is to the credit of Cone’s script that none of these people come off as two-dimensional caricatures designed to illustrate an overarching agenda. This is the most even-handed, insightful and breathtakingly authentic film about people of faith I’ve ever seen. I’ve had the honor of meeting all three of the film’s young stars, and I can personally vouch for the fact that they are the polar opposite of their respective characters. In a way, their performances are a glorious act of empathy, proving that the universality of the human experience trumps any divisive boundaries–political, ideological, sexual or otherwise. Not only is “The Wise Kids” the best film of 2012, it is a gift to all viewers disgusted with America’s tirelessly polarizing culture. I honestly can’t think of a better present for Christmas.
Editor’s note: The digital version of “The Wise Kids” is available for purchase courtesy of Wolfe Video. The DVD will be released January 8th.