I'm not even going to bother lamenting about how this was the worst year for movies in recent memory (even though it was), because, frankly, I'm tired of being that guy. The thing is, I want to be one of those people who claims this to be an incredibly wonderfully great year for movies (which they do every year). And I am so freaking jealous of them. I'm jealous that they can watch a movie like Zero Dark Thirty or Lincoln and say, "Yes, this is a great work of art." It's not that I necessarily think their standards are lower than mine (even though they probably are), it's that we're clearly looking for different things, and the things I'm looking for are elusive and rare. I saw exactly two great movies last year, plus a possible third which, judging by the great wave of appreciation that crashes against my heart and brain every time I think of it, I may have underrated. There were also some other movies I liked a lot. Here they are:
10. Cloud Atlas
Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings' (sounds like a polka band) ambitious epic, based on David Mitchell's brilliant genre-bending novel (which I highly recommend), is so insane and yet so earnest that I fell a little bit in love with it, warts and all. With its devil-may-care treatment of race, gender and sexuality, it's almost like something John Waters would make if given a studio-sized budget.
9. Miss Bala
Gerardo Naranjo's rigidly self-controlled Mexican crime drama came out way back in January, and has mostly been forgotten since then (it's appeared on only two "top 10" lists made by professional critics). It's a remarkably assured work from a director with whom I was completely unfamiliar (this is his fourth feature). The title is a play on words -- the plot revolves around the Miss Baja beauty pageant, and "bala" is the Spanish word for "bullet" -- but the film is much more austere than that implies, doggedly following its heroine as she desperately strives to take control of a life that, through an unfortunate twist of fate, has become not her own.
This is the year's best CIA-in-the-Middle-East movie, a film set in 1980 that could just as easily be a film from 1980. Unlike those of that other CIA movie, its pleasures are contextually autonomous; you don't need to have ever heard of Iran or the hostage situation to understand or enjoy it. It's also the most breathtaking nail-biter to come along in some time, with a plot that would have been screaming to be dramatized immediately after the real-life events occurred, had they not been classified.
7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
One of the year's most impressive debuts (both director-wise and actor-wise), Beasts of the Southern Wild is an almost otherworldly achievement. It's pragmatic yet fantastic, morbid yet adorable, frequently unpleasant yet absolutely joyous. Six-year-old newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis carries the film as if she's been acting for thirty years.
6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
I love it when a documentary comes along that understands that non-fiction films don't have to sacrifice aesthetics. This study of the world's most revered sushi chef is a zen-like meditation on both culinary art and old age, and what the latter means for the former (and what the former means, period). And this is above its completely fascinating role as an exposition into the sushi-making process, which is much more complicated and interesting than you probably think.
5. The Snowtown Murders
The name change is unfortunate but necessary, I suppose. In Australia (and at AFI Fest, where I saw it), it was simply called Snowtown, a convenient catch-phrase recognizable to Aussies but meaningless to Americans, who likely haven't heard about the grisly real-life murder spree that inspired the film. As an abbreviated title, then, it's especially meaningless, seeing as how the film does not take place in Snowtown and the murders weren't actually committed there (but the media dubbed them "the Snowtown murders" because that's where the bodies were dumped and later found). The actual film, too, is often meaningless and difficult to follow for anyone not already familiar with the case, and yet I found this to be bracingly challenging rather than vexing. It's a quiet, eerily convincing examination of the seductive nature of evil, as personified by serial killer John Bunting, played here with a terrifying mix of menace and affability by Daniel Henshall (my pick for best actor of the year, if the Academy is paying attention). Another stunning directorial debut, by Justin Kurzel.
4. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Sometimes you just fall for a movie without really understanding why. Such is the case for me with Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which has nothing innovative or visionary going for it, and yet it provided the happiest 83 minutes of my collective 2012 movie-going experience. I think a lot of it has to do with the casual, offhand humor at which Ed Helms excels and which provides a perfect counterpoint to Jason Segel's patented dopiness (which usually irritates me, but which makes him positively cuddly here). But mostly, it's the idiosyncratic script by the Duplass brothers that got me, with its series of absurd scenarios and its characters that are fully aware of their absurdity. Hey, look at that, I guess I do understand why I fell for it.
3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
This is the one that I may have underrated slightly. I was a huge fan of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Distant, but was somewhat less enthused about his follow-up, Climates, and absolutely hated the next one, Three Monkeys, so I was relieved to find him returning to form with this, his most audacious and ambitious film yet. It runs two and a half hours, more than ninety minutes of which consists of a group of policemen searching for a dead body in the Anatolian steppes in the middle of the night. And it's riveting. Not because anything happens, but because, perversely, nothing happens. It's an existential police procedural that uses the mundanity of detective work as a synecdoche for the human experience, seeming to argue that a routine murder case maybe should be an oxymoron.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
This is the movie towards which Wes Anderson seems to have been building his entire career. Every Andersonian device and quirk seems to have been invented in earlier films in order to be perfectly placed in this one. It's wryly hilarious and deliriously romantic and impossibly adorable, filled with more delightful sight gags per square inch than any other recent film I can think of. Wes Anderson antipathists are strongly advised to steer clear.
It floors me that this film has gone almost completely ignored by critics, even as Koyaanisqatsi (a movie I find utterly tedious) is still discussed in reverential tones. Is it simply a case of Too Much? Originality versus perfection? Because this film is astonishing; not just cinematographically (though it's so beautiful it makes it hard to breathe), but intellectually, as well. It's a film about where we've been, where we are, and where we're going as a collective species. Ron Fricke is nothing short of heroic for filming it all, editing it together, and giving us this gift for what had to be absolutely zero profit, and I kind of think he deserves a medal.