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Going deeper into movies

By Jason Gargano

Summing up a year’s worth of movies can be tricky. Top 10 lists often yield more questions than answers. The subjective nature of the endeavor inevitably reveals personal interests, quirks and prejudices, all of which can be either intriguing or infuriating depending on whether you agree with a given compiler’s cinematic worldview.

Most years my list features a few movies I feel strongly about (this year Zero Dark Thirty and The Master stand alone) and several that could easily be swapped out for 10 more (my 2012 honorable mentions include Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters, Richard Linklater’s Bernie, Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister and Lauren Greenfield’s Queen of Versailles) based on mood or day of the week.

There’s also inevitably a handful that I admire but, for one reason or another, strike me as not entirely satisfying (like David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained). Then there are those movies I didn’t even get to see — typically undistributed (at least in Cincinnati) documentaries and foreign efforts, this year most prominently Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, Michael Haneke’s Amour and Jafar Panani’s This Is Not a Film.

And that doesn’t even include the many “cinematic” offerings one can find on television. While I’m not as keen as some to pimp the rise of TV as a replacement for the singular pleasures of the movie house, it’s impossible to deny its place in our evolving cultural landscape: Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Mad Men and others were as rich and engrossing as just about anything that graced big screens this year. HBO’s documentary series was fruitful, too: especially (and unexpectedly) Eugene Jarecki’s Reagan, an even-handed evaluation of an elusive man who loomed large over my childhood; a president who is probably more responsible than anyone for our current economic woes and the intellectual and moral blind spots infecting today’s Tea Party movement.

Now on to my 10 favorite movies of 2012, a collection (in alphabetical order) in which obvious themes emerge: the exploration of truth and perception; the employment of narrative and formal subtlety; the drama inherent in the messiness of everyday existence; the ability of long, uninterrupted takes to suspend disbelief. In a messy world of perpetually shifting perspectives and alternate realities, I seem to seek refuge in movies that slow down to fully delve into a subject, situation or setting.

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)

Rachel Weisz smolders as a woman who leaves her older, upstanding husband for true love and passionate sex with a damaged war veteran (Tom Hiddelston). Davies adapts Terence Ratigan’s 1952 play with typical attention to detail, employing as much nuance as Weisz brings to her character’s damaged soul.

Footnote (Joseph Cedar)

An Israeli father and son, both scholars and authors, take radically different routes to similar endeavors in this corrosively comic drama. Footnote reveals the deep, often unspoken rivalries present in academia and family life, not to mention the perils of journalistic investigation that cuts corners.

How to Survive a Plague (David France)

A haunting documentary about activists battling the rise of AIDS in the 1980s, How to Survive a Plague tells its story largely through vintage video footage — a choice that enhances its emotional impact exponentially.

The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Ignore those who dismiss this as a minor entry in the Dardenne brothers’ canon. The set-up is nearly as simple as the title would suggest: A kid (the affecting Thomas Doret) fights to survive his fractured family while finding solace in his bike and, ultimately, a good-hearted neighborhood hair stylist (Cécile De France) with impressive patience.

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)

The busy, versatile Soderbergh’s latest was an unexpected box-office hit largely due to its ability to attract eye-candy-seeking ladies and gay men, but its real achievement lies within its sly commentary on the sorry state of our current economic climate.

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

My first exposure to The Master left me dazed in the wake of its lead duo’s odd attraction to the other (polar-opposite men played with fearless intensity by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Anderson’s willfully ambiguous narrative intentions. My second viewing reminded me how far Anderson has evolved since the days of Boogie Nights and Magnolia — he’s stripped away the previously rampant influence of other filmmakers, digging deeper into his own unique vision.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

What begins as a comically drab police procedural flowers into a subtly moving look at how truth can be elusive — and how creepy an autopsy can be. Ceylan, a Turkish filmmaker with a keen visual eye, is a humanist of Bressonian insight.

Oslo, August 31 (Joachim Trier)

The follow-up to writer/director Trier’s stellar debut Reprise, Oslo follows a recovering drug addict (Anders Danielsen Lie) as he struggles to adapt to everyday life while on leave from a treatment center. This little-seen Norwegian chamber piece is a potent reminder that stable childhoods don’t always lead to fruitful adult lives.

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

I’d argue the conventionally happy ending is earned — especially when what precedes it is a gonzo love story anchored by a surprisingly convincing Bradley Cooper and the undeniably alluring Jennifer Lawrence, a still-evolving actress who’s beginning to summon the reincarnation of Barbara Stanwyck.

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

It’s been fascinating to see the polarizing reactions to Bigelow’s deftly crafted docudrama — a tension-riddled Rorschach test that captures the deep moral and logistical conundrums conjured by modern warfare.

A cinematic mixtape for the year gone by

By tt stern-enzi

  1. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

A tough no-nonsense shooter with an eye for clarity hooks up with a top-notch journalist intent on capturing the true essence of the story (which isn’t necessarily the “truth” in an idealized sense). First we get The Hurt Locker, a historic Best Picture/Director combo winner (along with a screenplay Oscar for collaborator Mark Boal) — the first for a female director. Kathryn Bigelow’s aim is even truer in Zero Dark Thirty, a story that is as much about her (and strong-willed women) as it is about the search for Osama bin Laden.

  1. Beasts Of The Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)

At the time of its release, I compared this film to the work of Toni Morrison, maybe if she had written Where the Wild Things Are with a young black female protagonist (Quvenzhané Wallis), but that description fails to account for the phenomenon that is at the center of this film. She is lightning in a bottle, wild and wise beyond her years and the film has the good sense to let her light the way.

  1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson has, for most of his career, been a filmmaker I’ve respected rather than loved. I knew he was smart, but he never made me feel a damned thing. That is, until The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Funny, right? A stop-motion animated tale that, to be accurate, really isn’t a children’s story based upon what we normally feed our kids onscreen, and then he came right back with Moonrise Kingdom, this time with children as the main protagonists. This was Terence Malick’s Badlands as performed by pre-teens and it is a heavenly treat to behold.

  1. Argo (Ben Affleck)

That Ben Affleck has charmed the pants off me with his work behind the camera. Gone Baby Gone translates a standard thriller from crime fiction writer Dennis Lehane, but thanks to an ending that departs simply (and quite profoundly) from what was written on the page, Affleck’s film is so much better. With The Town, he raised the stakes for himself and, while not eclipsing Michael Mann’s Heat, proved that he was a sharp shooter. Argo is a home run that flies high (higher than his two previous films) without swinging for the fences.

  1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Focusing on Scientology ignores the far more mythic story about the transition from the Old World gods to the rise of New Age men eager to replace them, which is far more interesting than anything L. Ron Hubbard was peddling. Plus, such empty musings distract us from the totally appropriate craziness of Joaquin Phoenix’s work here, which is like watching the loony cousin of Daniel Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood.

  1. Rust And Bone (Jacques Audiard)

I love Marion Cotillard. She plays a character who loses her legs in a horrific accident and becomes a fuller, more beautiful woman. What more do I need to say? Okay, I can add a more than healthy admiration for the gently menacing Matthias Schoenaerts from Bullhead. He is everything that we’ve come to love about Tom Hardy (minus the Bane mask). Wait until Christopher Nolan hooks up with Schoenaerts.

  1. Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)

The whole world’s a stage, I get it, and I love that this film made that stage far more real than many of the scenes that drifted across the screen this year that were rooted in something that was supposed to resemble the real world. This whirling, twirling dance of love, Russian-style, featured grace (Keira Knightley) and quiet reserve (Jude Law) in equal measure, enough to set hearts afire.

  1. Middle Of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay)

I never knew what I was missing until I purposefully walked into the Toronto International Film Festival screening of Ava DuVernay’s feature about a truly, magnificently strong black woman (Emayatzy Corinealdi) trying to hold onto the love for her imprisoned man in the face of his extended sentence and the arrival of a new lover who is available and present for her needs to become the woman of her dreams. Forget black and white. This is the kind of story that reaches deep into your chest and massages your aching heart.

  1. Hyde Park On Hudson (Roger Michell)

While watching Bill Murray as FDR, I experienced an epiphany of epic proportions. I’ve come to realize that Murray is the flipside of the acting coin to Daniel Day-Lewis. Both guys are brilliant performers — and as FDR, we are presented with a masterful embodiment of political and personal persuasion — who disappear in between roles, but Murray teaches us, by example, to live it up.

  1. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

Winter’s Bone showcased the fierce presence of John Hawkes and tipped me off to Jennifer Lawrence. Like Crazy turned my head a bit more (moreso than The Hunger Games, which didn’t hit the target for me, sorry), although Lawrence still hadn’t become a thing of real adult yearning. Now, though, she’s the silver lining in Silver Linings Playbook, deservedly so because she helps make a man of Bradley Cooper’s pretty boy.