Well, there goes another twelve months. Just like last year, I've put together a top 20 film list, but--yet again--that's not nearly enough space to fit in all the great films from last year (truth be told, I winnowed that list down from well over 40 films worthy of consideration), so here are, in no particular order, the runners up.
Some readers may point out that a few of the titles on this list AND the top 20 list were produced and/or released somewhere in 2011. Here's the thing: this blog is being written in Portland, OR. So, sure, some of these films toured the festival circuit in 2011 or had an Oscar qualifying run in NY or L.A. in final weeks that year, but, unless it opened in PDX before 2012, it's eligible for the best of 2012 list. Yup. Well, now that we've covered that minor detail, on with the show.
Bullhead (dir. Michaël R. Roskam):
Michaël R. Roskam's Bullhead subverts expectations surrounding how a mob film should play out, emphasizing the damage that lies in its protagonist's past over any of his present concerns, no matter how largely they may loom. Matthias Schoenaerts portrayal of hormone addled mobster Jacky Vanmarsenille, as a lumbering giant with scars that will never heal, powers the film. Bullhead dons the wardrobe of a crime thriller, but its concerns are that of a character-driven drama.
Read my review of Bullhead here.
Bullhead is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
The Deep Blue Sea (dir. Terence Davies):
The level to which The Deep Blue Sea visually approximates the emotional distress of Rachel Weisz' Hester is both astounding and profoundly disturbing. Terence Davies' camera spins frightfully fast down an ecstatic whirlpool as Hester falls deeper into an affair that threatens to be her undoing. Elsewhere, all sense of time is frozen in amber as an unyielding depression overcomes her. The Deep Blue Sea is romantic in the same way that Romeo and Juliet is, describing a feeling of love so intense that the suggestion of its denial is synonymous with one's own death.
Read my review of The Deep Blue Sea here.
The Deep Blue Sea is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson):
Wes Anderson's films tend to be overly designed, and that's at times both the major strength and weakness of his work. His best films match the fussy visual organization with an equal amount of emotional heft, raising the material to awe-inspiring levels of storytelling. Moonrise Kingdom offers a well-balanced recipe of both ingredients, resulting in Anderson's best film since The Royal Tenenbaums.
Moonrise Kingdom is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Amazon Instant Video and VUDU.
The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield):
The nouveau riche have never looked so vulgar as they do in Lauren Greenfield's documentary The Queen of Versailles. But the harsh truth is that the Siegel family is uniquely American in their desires. The film ends up being a spot on (and oddly amusing) indictment of consumer drive flying in the face of bottom line truths, something that just about any post-recession American can relate to, even if the levels of excess on display here are particularly outsized in their grotesquery.
The Queen of Versailles is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Declaration of War (dir. Valérie Donzelli):
I've found it really difficult to convince people that they should give Valérie Donzelli's second feature a chance. It's not because tons of viewer saw her first film as a director (2009's Queen of Hearts) and didn't like it. Nope, it's due entirely to three little words: kid with cancer.
Yeah, that's a scary prospect and a topic that most folks would rather not think about at all. But Declaration of War does an amazing thing with the premise; it doesn't make it about the kid. The entire film rests on the relationship of the adults dealing with this crisis and it's a refreshing, energetic, sometimes heartbreaking, but often funny turn away from the standard tropes employed in just about any film dealing with illness and terminal diseases. Plainly put, this movie rocks.
Read my review of Declaration of War here.
Declaration of War is available on DVD and can be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
The Imposter (dir. Bart Layton):
Bart Layton's non-fiction film The Imposter pissed more than a few people off last year. Constructed out of reenactments matched with interviews, the film strategically discloses the details of its story in guarded chunks that only tell part of the story. Layton uses this method of delaying information to pile up the twists in the plot and that's where he got into trouble with some audience members. Personally, I found the technique perfectly matched to the material, so I didn't mind the manipulation at all. In its finest moments, The Imposter resembles Errol Morris' Tabloid, even as it aspires to be a 21st century version of The Thin Blue Line.
Read my review of The Imposter here.
The Imposter will be released on DVD on January 22nd and can be streamed now via Amazon Instant Video.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay):
It had been nearly a decade since Lynne Ramsay released Movern Callar, only her second film after her 1999 debut with Ratcatcher. I'm not really sure what other people expected of her third film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, but, while working my final months as a video store clerk, it became pretty apparent that many viewers were disappointed by the film.
I found We Need to Talk About Kevin to be pitch perfect, as it traces not only the contours of the specific relationship being described here--a terrible proximity to an inexorable violent atrocity--but also captures a hint of what it is that we're all unable to come to grips with when facing down such tragedies. It all plays out like an unending nightmare where time is rendered an ineffective healer and the unspeakable continually loops back into memory.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Amazon Instant Video.
The Color Wheel (dir. Alex Ross Perry):
Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel isn't just a harbinger of great things to come from its director. It's a pretty damn perfect stab at the big time from all the way down in the mumblecore gutter. Featuring sometimes brilliant, sometimes shaky performances from Perry and co-star/co-author Carlen Altman, it's the writing, sense of timing, and chemistry between the leads that launches the film beyond the limitations of its budget and the experience of its makers. A very funny film that I've thought about often throughout the year.
Read my review of The Color Wheel here.
The Color Wheel is due out on DVD soon and can be streamed currently via Amazon Instant Video.
Love Free or Die (dir. Macky Alston):
Mediated events on the national and/or international scale are so often blown out of proportion that they lose all trace of the human element. Macky Alston's Love Free or Die, about Gene Robinson's ordination as the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, rescues its story from the dehumanizing effects of the sound byte. The tale of a everyday individual becoming something much more.
Read my review of Love Free or Die here.
Love Free or Die is scheduled for release on DVD and VOD (video on demand) in 2013.
Snowtown (dir. Justin Kurzel):
Snowtown, or The Snowtown Murders, as it's been renamed for its release on home video, was probably the most disturbing film I watched during 2012. It didn't help at all that I went into it with absolutely no idea that it was a serial killer flick (so, maybe, adding the word "murders" to the title is an appropriate move?) and that the only image I had to go on before the screening was a still from the film of kids eating ice cream on a street corner. It was also undeniably well made, perfectly acted, and sported incredibly self-assured direction from first-timer Justin Kurzel.
Read my review of Snowtown here.
Snowtown is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Footnote (dir. Joseph Cedar):
Footnote locates a dark strain of comedy in the competitive (some might say spiteful) relationship between a father and son, Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, both of whom are Talmudic scholars. Eliezer, the elder Shkolnik, is a hardcore researcher whose life-long efforts were undone by a competitor having stumbled upon the fruits of his labor through happenstance. His son, Uriel, despite being more of a pop philosopher in his academic aims, is the Shkolnik gathering accolades while his Eliezer's contributions are all but forgotten. The already nasty strain of resentment between them gets kicked up a level when an award intended for the son is mistakenly promised to his father.
Footnote is hilarious and uncomfortable, often in the same moment. It's a focused, well-orchestrated comedy with more than its share of twists and turns. Director Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) knows when to play up the drama and when to slice through it with a lunge of sharp-edged humor.
Footnote is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Amazon Instant Video and VUDU.
The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard):
Joss Whedon's The Avengers might have kicked up some dust at the box office this summer, but The Cabin in the Woods was the best movie he was involved with in 2012. Directed by Drew Goddard and scripted by Whedon, Cabin takes the conventions of the standard horror film and turns them upside down, injecting both new life and a whole lot of intelligence into the proceedings. This is one film where it's best to go in without knowing a single, goddamn thing in advance; all the better to discover its pleasures as they unfold across the screen.
The Cabin in the Woods is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Amazon Instant Video and VUDU.
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