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Favorite Films of 2012

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By Eric Van Uffelen
Contributing Critic

Last year offered some of the best cinema experiences I’ve ever had. I’ll spare you a preamble about the state of cinema in 2012, although I did notice that many of the films listed below prominently featured conflicts between strong ideologies.

I’d like to make special mention of A Separation, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It was released in San Francisco in late January, after my 2011 list was published, but it’s a perfect film that tells a very moving story with such nuance and intelligence, capturing the complexities of the families portrayed as well as the cultural, religious and legal realities inherent in the story. It would have ranked third on my list, behind only The Tree of Life and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Since these types of lists are so arbitrary, I decided to include a dozen titles. (Many more detailed reviews of these can be found in the paper archives and on my criticism blog.)

12. Lawless ­­— Based on the true story of a Depression-era family of Virginia bootleggers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke) who battle sinister lawmen (led by Guy Pearce) and powerful gangsters (led by Gary Oldman). Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska play the love interests of Hardy and LaBeouf respectively, and their characters' differences in demeanor and approach serve to emphasize the differences between the two brothers. It’s a gorgeous film with a beautiful soundtrack, and it strives to humanize its dangerous characters. Available on disc.

11. Django Unchained — Quentin Tarantino’s genre mix of a revenge tale was not as effective for me as Inglourious Basterds or Kill Bill. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are excellent as a slave and the bounty hunter who frees him and trains him as they partner up to take down despicable men. There was a lot to enjoy here (including the funniest line of the year and an impressive, eclectic soundtrack), but the over-the-top lurid violence was just a little too much for me to rank this higher. In theaters now.

10. Cloud Atlas — Easily the most ambitious film of the year, this novel adaptation by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis features multiple narratives across multiple centuries, with many of the same actors portraying different characters. It’s the most forward-thinking sociopolitical film — roughly, about moving beyond societal and systemic boundaries — on a grand scale that I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame that it didn’t do very well in theaters. On a somewhat “meta” level, I appreciated that it dealt with how cinema itself is an approximation of our own natures and struggles. A disc release has not been announced.

9. The Avengers —This was the most fun I had at the movies last year, but Joss Whedon’s accomplishments with this film got lost in its box-office success. Whedon had to dream up a whole bunch of things to make this even remotely entertaining, and the film has much more to offer than simply the Earth’s mightiest heroes. Definitely worth revisiting. Available on disc.

8. Moonrise Kingdom — Wes Anderson’s most charming film, within an oeuvre of infinite charm. Anderson seemed to be addressing criticism of his tendencies and moved forward with his assured style and beautiful character work in this love story about two young runaways and how grief shapes both their lives and the lives of those responsible for them. Perhaps the best cast of the year. Available on disc.

7. The Dark Knight Rises — You’ve no doubt seen this already, and I wrote at great length about this conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. It’s Batman. Available on disc.

6. Looper — Rian Johnson made a time-travel hitman movie, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the same character, that dared to subvert expectations and succeeded. It offers some profound commentary about the nature of violence and aggression, and about how men are created and how they destroy themselves. Remarkable as a sci-fi movie, tremendous as a character study. Plus, it’s just really cool. Available on disc.

5. The Deep Blue Sea — Terence Davies adopted the play by Terence Rattigan into an absolutely stunning film. Rachel Weisz gives one of the best performances of the year, as a woman caught up in her own assumptions of what love is and should be in this devastating “romance” set in London in World War II. Available on disc, and streaming on Netflix.

4. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia — The less I say about this Turkish murder drama the better. Perhaps the most beautiful film of the year, featuring one of the most human and humane scenes in cinema. Available on disc, and streaming on Netflix.

3. Zero Dark Thirty — Based on a true story of the CIA agent (Jessica Chastain in her most substantial, complex role) who tenaciously tracked down Osama bin Laden over a decade. The film is needlessly garnering controversy for its portrayal of torture. Those who actually watch the film should recognize that the screenwriter, Mark Boal, and the director, Kathryn Bigelow (the team who made The Hurt Locker) have taken an honest look at the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the tactics used to find and kill the notorious terrorist, and how the hunt itself destroyed many more lives in the process. The raid on the compound is one of the most delicately handled, tense and effective film sequences in a long while. Also, Chastain delivers the line of the year. Expands to theaters nationwide tomorrow.

2. The Master — Another film I wrote at length about upon its initial release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of a Scientology-type leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the troubled live wire he brings in to his fold (Joaquin Phoenix) is like no other. Shot mostly in glorious 65 millimeter, it’s something you should see in a proper theater, but you will probably appreciate its nuances just as well at home. Available on disc February 26.

1. Amour — I saw this at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, and it completely wrecked me. I knew before it was over that it had earned this spot on the list, even with more films to come. Nothing has touched its level of impact. Writer-director Michael Haneke’s tendency towards denial of expectations is essential to this tale of an old married couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). When Anne starts to fall ill, Georges must deal not only with her care, and all that entails, but must do so while he himself is not in the best of health. If it sounds depressing and unflinchingly realistic, it is, but in the most beautiful and tender way. Seek this film out as it expands to more theaters, as it must surely do.

Notable mentions include Argo and Chronicle. For the record, I did see Holy MotorsKilling Them SoftlyNot Fade Away and The Turin Horse, but did not consider them for this article.

Eric Van Uffelen is an analyst in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and reviews films and TV at cinematicgestures.blogspot.com

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