Andrew O'Hehir's 10 Best Movies of 2012

Maybe film culture isn't dying just yet: The year in movies brought richness and breadth — and controversy!

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 25, 2012 6:00PM (EST)

Well, listen – the next time the movie beat gets boring I’ll write another essay proclaiming the death of film culture. Apparently that was all it took to perk things up! Actually, the widely misinterpreted point I was trying to make, which was that film no longer holds the position of cultural centrality it once did, on either the highbrow or mass levels, remains valid. Even amid the undoubted richness of this fall and winter season, you can find examples of this: While films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour” pile up rave reviews and critics’ group awards, they don’t resemble what the general public thinks of as a movie, and the number of Americans who pay to see them in a movie theater may not exceed the audience for a single episode of a hit cable show. (My No. 1 pick of the year, which will no doubt be described as an eccentric choice, failed to gross even $100,000 in the United States. That’s more like the audience for a cable-access show. In Polish.)

But there’s no point denying that things got a damn sight more interesting in the last quarter of 2012, with the arrival of big, spectacular and controversial new takes on decisive and/or divisive moments in American history – one of them recent, the other in the semi-mythical past – delivered by two of our most important mainstream filmmakers. The upcoming Spielberg vs. Bigelow Oscar campaign promises to be the most exciting, and most ideologically fraught, in many years. (But don’t you already expect that the Academy will flee from both “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” and give its biggest prize to something like “Les Misérables”?)

It’s just as true that this will be remembered as a year of extraordinary richness and breadth when it comes to what you could see and how you could see it. (Video on demand, or VOD, became an integral if bewildering part of the cinematic distribution system, replacing DVD release for major films – and replacing or augmenting theatrical release for a great many smaller pictures.) Joss Whedon, the one-time creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” set a new standard for superhero action flicks with “The Avengers,” while Haneke, the austere Austrian auteur behind “Caché” and “Funny Games,” made the gentlest and most accessible film of his career. While Paul Thomas Anderson pushed further into obscure American allegory and widescreen abstraction (allow me to confess, here and now, that I don’t get “The Master” and don’t think anyone else does either), Wes Anderson created a whimsical New England summer idyll, circa 1965, with unexpected emotional maturity and depth.

I would’ve bet thousands of dollars in Vegas that the Sundance hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild” would perish from severe indie quirkiness and fail to find a real-world audience, but boy, am I glad I didn’t. (More important, I’m delighted for director Benh Zeitlin, 9-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis and baker-turned-actor Dwight Henry.) Many of the best films to reach us from the art-house and festival world suggest that a global evolution is underway, if not quite a generational change: Andrea Arnold (“Wuthering Heights”), Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”), Jacques Audiard (“Rust and Bone”), Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”), Joachim Trier (“Oslo, August 31st”), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”) and Sarah Polley (“Take This Waltz”) are not exactly newcomers, and only Polley and Trier are under 50. But none belongs to the famous old guard of international celebrity directors – and none is likely to harbor the delusion that he or she will become a celebrity by making small, personal films.

In a year that also witnessed one of the bitterest presidential elections in our history (ending with a reaffirmation of the house-divided status quo), politics couldn’t be kept out of the movie house. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Quentin Tarantino’s farcical western “Django Unchained” tried to approach slavery – the biggest of many blights on American history – from wildly different directions, while “Zero Dark Thirty’s” depiction of CIA torture led to accusations that it sought to justify abhorrent human-rights violations. Meanwhile, the darkest political parable of the year may have been Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” which capped off the director’s grandiose Batman trilogy with a fascistic (and magnificent!) Gesamtkunstwerk of psychosexual symbolism and Hollywood excess. While the worldwide box office for “DKR” was only slightly affected by the shootings at a theater in Aurora, Colo., the ultraviolent film’s cultural legacy may have been permanently contaminated.

Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth, to launch both a “Lord of the Rings” prequel trilogy based on “The Hobbit” and a controversial new 48 frames-per-second standard for 3-D, was, in my personal moviegoing year, perhaps the biggest disappointment. I don’t think grateful fantasy buffs shared that view, and Hollywood’s bean-counters will be kept busy well into 2013 calculating whether “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” or Whedon’s “Avengers” will wind up as the year’s top grosser. Despite those two and several other huge hits – including “The Dark Knight Rises,” the James Bond flick “Skyfall,” the concluding “Twilight” chapter, “The Hunger Games” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” – the American box office likely continued its slow downward trajectory in 2012. Still and all, this rich and remarkable year has brought clear evidence that movies do still matter, even if where and how we see them (and where and how we talk about them) continues to shift. Merry War on Christmas to all! I’ll see you at the movies in 2013.

For her second feature (after directing Julie Christie in the remarkable “Away From Her”), actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has pushed the female-centric relationship movie in all kinds of sexy, daring and unexpected directions and offered Michelle Williams one of her best roles to date. An intriguing thrill ride with a central character you’re never quite sure about – Williams’ Margot is undeniably appealing but may also be nuts, and unquestionably lacks good judgment – “Take This Waltz” is one of the most mature and nuanced cinematic portrayals of marriage and infidelity in recent years. Married too young to a cozy cookbook author (nicely underplayed by Seth Rogen), the hipsterish Torontonian Margot is then madly seduced by a dark-haired stranger (Luke Kirby) and faces the predicament of so many women in fiction: The guy I’ve got, or the one I want? In this cinematically and emotionally ambitious work, there are no easy or correct answers.

Perhaps the purest, most beautiful and most upsetting moviegoing experience of the year, Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, August 31st” captures one troubled young man’s journey through the Norwegian capital on the last day of summer, toward an ambiguous final destination. After making the 2006 hipster-bromance cult classic “Reprise,” Trier took his time on this follow-up, which seems to follow the character played by doctor-turned-actor Anders Danielsen Lie in the earlier film toward a worst-case conclusion. This time around, Lie plays a handsome, intelligent young guy from a middle-class background who has spun out into drug addiction and depression, and is taking a one-day vacation from rehab for a Prince Hamlet-style look at his options. Vibrant, energetic and profoundly tragic, without a single wasted second in its 95 minutes.

Austrian documentarian Michael Glawogger has made a series of remarkable films about work in the age of globalization, beginning with “Megacities” in 1998 and continuing with the 2005 “Workingman’s Death.” But this artful, honest and profoundly compassionate survey of the lives of real female sex workers in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico is his most haunting and memorable picture yet. Considering the button-pushing nature of the subject and the enormous potential for sleaze or sentimentality (or both) when it’s approached by a male artist, “Whores’ Glory” paints a remarkably evenhanded portrayal of the world’s oldest profession, neither judgmental nor celebratory. While the women Glawogger meets in Bangkok lead nearly middle-class lives, the workers at a Bangladeshi slum brothel – often sold by their parents right after their first menstrual period -- are little better than slaves, and the hard-bitten prostitutes in the Mexican border city of Reynosa compete against each other in a ruthless free market. Furthermore, Glawogger is just as interested in these women’s lives during down time, whether their religious faith, their private relationships or their off-hours recreation, as in the banal or awful or comical details of what they do in the bedroom for money.

When this opened in a handful of American theaters just after the New Year, I described it as an episode of “CSI” written by Anton Chekhov, stretched out to two and a half hours and set on the steppes of central Turkey in the middle of the night. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan – an international film-fest fave-rave with little American audience – has borrowed the form of the police procedural, but don’t expect much action or Holmesian deduction. A group of rural cops, the local prosecutor and an urbane-seeming doctor (Muhammat Uzuner) who is pretty much the main character go out one night with a confessed murderer in an attempt to find where he buried the body. But the longer you stick with this pointless journey the more mythical it becomes, the more it assumes elements of “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Odyssey” and the mystical visions of Andrei Tarkovsky. Be forewarned: This is old-school, art-house cinema that makes no allowances for the contemporary attention span. Those with sufficient patience will be rewarded with a mysterious masterwork.

First of all, let’s recognize that every Steven Spielberg movie from now until the end of the guy’s career will apparently be a pretend John Ford film, a bid for instant American-classic status. If you’re allergic to that, so be it; I understand. But the good news is that by teaming with playwright Tony Kushner (who also wrote Spielberg’s terrific “Munich”), and focusing on the culmination of Abe Lincoln’s political career instead of delivering a log-cabin biopic, Spielberg has outdone himself on the faux-Ford front. Whatever political or historical criticisms of “Lincoln” you may wish to offer, this is a meaty and satisfying example of Hollywood cinema at its finest. It combines crackling dialogue, meticulous production design and cinematography, and a tremendous ensemble headed by likely Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, who bring the principals in America’s most notorious political marriage alive as moody, irascible, hot-headed and affectionate people.

I definitely don’t want to see the Hollywood remake of Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” (if someone in Hollywood is crazy enough to make one), since this violent and startling love story about a kickboxer and a double-amputee whale trainer feels more intensely American – in a loosey-goosey, 1970s mode – than most American movies of the last 30 years. Previous Oscar winner Marion Cotillard could get another shot here as the vain, babe-alicious Stéphanie, who needs to define a new relationship to her body and the world after losing her legs in a gruesome accident. This arrives, entirely unexpectedly, by way of a working-class Belgian single dad named Ali (beefcakey Matthias Schoenaerts), who augments his security-guard income by fighting in illegal, bare-knuckle street bouts. Audiard combines a conventional romantic plot about a man who requires the civilizing influence of woman with such haunting, poetic cinematic imagery that the film ultimately seems to be about other things altogether, such as the relationship between the mind and body in contemporary life, or the savagery below the surface of late capitalism.

No one thinks the discussion about the depiction of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama-hunting thriller is over, but since I don’t believe the film either justifies torture or seeks to, I see that conversation as a proxy for bigger questions about the uses of art in depicting political and moral crisis, and about the global role of the United States. A sweeping, moody historical chronicle of almost Tolstoyan breadth, “Zero Dark Thirty” takes us from the notorious Pakistani “black site” prison cell to the corridors of CIA headquarters, with stops in London, Gdansk, the front lines in Afghanistan and a luxury-car dealership in Kuwait City. If there’s something that’s “fascistic” about “Zero Dark Thirty,” it may be the Wagnerian scale and momentum of this impressive, totalizing spectacle, all driving forward to that night raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May Day of 2011 (rendered here as a mini-masterwork of action cinema). Does the film ask whether torture was justified? You could put it that way, but you might as well wonder whether the whole course of American history that brought us to this point was justified.

In Austrian master craftsman Michael Haneke’s subtlest and most delicate work to date, French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant (“A Man and a Woman”; “The Conformist”) and Emmanuelle Riva (“Hiroshima, Mon Amour”), both now in their 80s, play an elderly Parisian couple of the haute-bourgeois cultural elite, facing the end that awaits us all with as much dignity and courage as they can muster. This is a Haneke film so, yes, it has some shocking and confrontational moments, as well as unexplained twists and areas of controlled narrative ambiguity. But the title is not meant ironically (or so the filmmaker says) and taken as a whole this is a work of exquisite tenderness – something present in Haneke’s films but not often acknowledged – a loving tribute to the passing away of a certain European class and generation. Both actors give performances of massive power and humanity; if Riva gets an Oscar nomination for her role as the dying Anne (as many suspect), she’ll be the oldest person so honored.

This gorgeous, goofy, deliberately baffling head trip from French bad boy Leos Carax – think “The Matrix,” as remade by David Lynch – is the year’s ultimate critic’s darling. But don’t let that deter you; I promise it’s not boring! There’s no point trying to decode the ultimate whys and wherefores of “Holy Motors,” in which a man named only Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) travels through multiple identities, multiple realities and many different genres of film, from science fiction to motion capture animation to action flick to romantic musical to family melodrama. You have to enjoy the ride rather than the destination, which isn’t too tough when the ride involves Eva Mendes being abducted by a subterranean, flower-eating troll, Kylie Minogue in a ‘60s air-hostess outfit, animated lizard sex and talking cars.

I suppose Scottish director Andrea Arnold’s ravishing widescreen reimagining of Emily Brontë’s classic novel won’t launch any national debates about slavery or torture – although I would argue both those issues are obliquely addressed, among many others – but when it came time to finalize this list I realized it had burrowed into my unconscious in a way no other movie did, even in this amazing year. If there’s an element of Terrence Malick-like cinematic abstraction and landscape photography to this “Wuthering Heights,” it feels more pre-modern than postmodern, as if it’s trying to dig backward through all the costume-drama adaptations to the physical, elemental truths of life and love on the frigid moors of Yorkshire. As a visual and sensual out-of-body experience (mention must go to Robbie Ryan, Arnold’s amazing cinematographer), no other movie released this year comes close.

Honorable mention (in alphabetical order): Leslye Headland’s debut film "Bachelorette" is like the smarter, meaner big sister to “Bridesmaids.” The irresistible bayou fantasy "Beasts of the Southern Wild," with its even more irresistible pint-size heroine, was the year’s indie-film surprise. A bittersweet love story (not for kids!) with spectacular painterly backdrops and a score by Cuban jazz legend Bebo Valdés, "Chico & Rita" was both the music film and animated film of the year. Christopher Nolan brought his Batman trilogy to a crashing conclusion with the huge and bitter allegory of "The Dark Knight Rises." Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are magnificent in David Ayer’s "End of Watch," a classic L.A. cop drama. Ira Sachs’ autobiographical love story "Keep the Lights On" broke new ground for gay-oriented romance, and was probably the best American indie drama of the year. Matthew Akers’ documentary "Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present" doesn’t just explore the work of one of the world’s most important contemporary artists, but also why her unusual performance works should count as art, and why we make art (or anything else) in the first place. Wes Anderson’s daffy, affectionate 1960s summer romance "Moonrise Kingdom" is part fairy tale and part rueful, adult reckoning. David Chase’s first venture into cinema, "Not Fade Away," is both a fable about the power of mid-‘60s rock ‘n’ roll and something much deeper and stranger than that. Forbidding Hungarian master Béla Tarr bid farewell to cinema with "The Turin Horse," a visionary work of apocalyptic despair.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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