The Films of 2012: In conclusion

It was, all told, a disappointing year for movies: several of the films I had most looked forward to seeing (Cosmopolis, Holy Motors) left me unimpressed, and one that I had been hotly anticipating—Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, originally slated for a fall release—ended up getting pushed to 2013.  Even many of the better films I saw this year felt like let-downs; I stand firm that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is an accomplished, thought-provoking, hugely entertaining movie, but I still can’t help feeling that he failed to really knock it out of the park.  Upon reflection, I really only saw two films this year that I found deeply satisfying.  The Master (pictured above) continues to obsess, confound, and hypnotize me some five months after I first screened it theatrically; its images are still rattling around maniacally in my head. (The experience of seeing this film projected in beautiful 65mm—at a moment when theaters across the country are undergoing conversion to digital projection—was extraordinarily powerful.)  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s rendition of “Slow Boat to China” was one of only two moments at the movies this year that left me physically trembling, the other being Emmanuelle Riva’s excruciating death scene in Amour, a film worthy of instant canonization within the European art film tradition to which it pays homage.  Compared to these two masterworks, everything else just seemed inconsequential.  Nevertheless, here are the ten best films I saw this year, with links to full reviews of each:

1. The Master, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

2. Amour
, dir. Michael Haneke

3. Django Unchained
, dir. Quentin Tarantino

4. Bernie
, dir. Richard Linklater

5. The Turin Horse
, dir. Bela Tarr

6. The Loneliest Planet
, dir. Julia Loktev

7. Zero Dark Thirty
, dir. Kathryn Bigelow

8. Lincoln
, dir. Steven Spielberg

9. Tabu
, dir. Miguel Gomes

10. The Central Park Five
, dir. Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns

Five additional films I enjoyed: Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell); Argo (dir. Ben Affleck); The Kid with the Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne); This Is Not a Film (dir. Jafar Panahi); and Brave (dir. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman). 

As for performances, I was most impressed by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose work in The Master is nothing short of staggering (I wrote in my original review that each actor depends so much on the other that they appear to be giving a single performance), as well as by a surprisingly scary Amy Adams, who lends capable support in the same film; Jennifer Lawrence, for her deft screwball turn in Silver Linings Playbook; Christoph Waltz, as the smooth-talking bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained; Sally Field, who makes Mary Todd Lincoln into a tragic heroine of Shakespearean dimension (and nearly steals the film away from Daniel Day-Lewis); Jessica Chastain, who shows a certain steeliness in Zero Dark Thirty that I hadn’t seen in her previous performances; and Jack Black, whose work in Richard Linklater’s Bernie made that film one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.    


  1. Hey Ian, I'm a friend of Dianne Berg. She sent me to your blog several times and I've really, immensely enjoyed your writing and observations. I'm a filmmaker and a cinephile myself (yes, also with a blog: http://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/). You are clearly intelligent and articulate and it's been great fun reading you here. So I wanted to ask --because I respect your opinion-- what it was you liked about DJANGO UNCHAINED. It is of course an immensely popular film (and award-winning), but I personally found it to be one of Tarantino's least interesting and insightful films to date. Perhaps it was the loss of Sally Menke, but I also thought the pacing was way off. I was, truth be told, quite bored. Christoph Waltz was, as always, mesmerizing, but not enough to carry that film for me. So I would love to know what you liked about it, why it resonated with you. Because, honestly, for me, it felt like a bit of a mess. And I am familiar with many of the films and certainly the genre he's inspired by here. And I absolutely loved INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS which inspired me to write one of the more in-depth pieces I'd written on a single film in years (http://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/subversive-cinema-tarantinos-inglourious-basterds/). But DJANGO eludes me (at least until I give it another viewing, which I will). But I agree with almost all of your favorite picks from last year and love that you clearly have what I consider similar taste to my own and a predilection toward a certain type of cinema. Anyway, I haven't been able to find a decent write-up on DJANGO that really explained to me what others are seeing here that I am missing or simply not connecting to. If you have the time, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Again, the film felt under-realized for me. And I thought it was some of Tarantino's least inspired and least creative writing to date. But would love to see the film through someone else's eyes and perhaps reexamine my initial reaction.

  2. Alas, I just saw what you wrote about DJANGO (sorry, didn't realize the titles were links--silly me...). But I'd still love some more thoughts if you have any. Many folks have compared DJANGO to INGLOURIOUS, but I actually think they are opposites more than similars. At least thus far. I found INGLOURIOUS subversive in that it was "disguised" as a revenge fantasy but was anything but. The Americans in that film were presented to us in such a manner as to be more representative of the social and cinematic image of the "villain," the bad guy, despite their enemies being nazi's (who are presented, while not in a favorable light, certainly in a more human and less directly violent light). DJANGO seemed to me to be direct revenge fantasy without that deeper sense of subversion I have come to expect from Tarantino. But again, that may be a product of my first reaction. I look forward to the possibility of eating my words one day soon :)

  3. Hi Hal,

    Thanks very much for your kind words about the blog--glad to hear that you're enjoying it. I, too, find Inglourious Basterds superior to Django, and I agree that Django seems less invested in making us aware of how revenge fantasies work, etc. (I also whole-heartedly agree that it's less well put-together as a film; it does seem that the loss of Sally Menke may have something to do with that.) Nevertheless, I think Django is still worth thinking about as a revenge fantasy that affords us the pleasure of seeing the U.S. slave system (or at least a representative piece of it) go up in flames in a way that invites comparison to Inglourious Basterds' own attempt to re-write history in imagining the assassination of Hitler. To be sure, the earlier film is much cannier in calling into question the implications of the revenge fantasy and is much more self-aware in exploring the role of cinema in producing such fantasies. It seems to operate at a meta-cinematic level that Django does not. Or, to put it another way, Django seems to me a revenge fantasy whereas Basterds is a film *about* the use of cinema to create revenge fantasies. Django is certainly more "direct," to use your word. I would have to see the film again and think more about it before I would be able to say more about the significance of that difference, and also whether that difference might have something to do with the very different subject matter of each film (WWII vs. the antebellum South).

    While Django does feel less interesting than Basterds in this regard, I still enjoyed it a great deal. I appreciated the writing and the performances, and I do think that, for better or worse, it makes an attempt to get at the intimacies of those involved in the slave system--particularly via the Calvin/Stephen relationship--in ways that few American films have attempted to do. It's a flawed film, to be sure, but I felt that 2012 was a weak year for films generally, and even with its flaws Django stood out as one of the more compelling and thought-provoking films I saw.

    I haven't checked out your piece on Basterds yet, but I look forward to doing so. Thanks again for your comments!