For me, every Top Ten Film List I write tends to center around a theme of that year (something having to do with where I’m at, what I’m learning, what I’m currently experiencing in the world). This year it’s all about heart. It’s those movies that made me feel something, something hopeful, transformative, transcendent. Sure, there were more films that did that then just the ones seen here (e.g., Your Sister’s Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed, How To Survive A Plague, Keep The Lights On, Amour, Oslo August 31st, The Gatekeepers and Friends With Kids) but the following ten grabbed my heart best. They got to me, from the inside out, and reminded me of why I love stories, and why I go to the movies to get lost and sometimes find enough heart up there on the screen to go on living in this crazy, messed up world. So here’s my top ten for 2012. Movies that made me feel something. And why…
10. Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry: Alison Klayman‘s explosively brave documentary about the (now) infamous Chinese iconoclast isn’t just one of the year’s best films, it’s the ‘you-must-see-this-if-you’re-alive-in-the-world-today’ movie. Weiwei isn’t all about art, nor is he just another humanitarian. As the doc reveals, he transcends so many categories, even acting as a hooligan in order to challenge some of the Chinese governmental authorities. He advocates for freedom of expression, yes, but he goes much, much further. As Klayman’s doc wonderfully reveals, Ai WeiWei is about the right to voice your perspective, your opinion, your life without being censored, and believes this freedom collides most beautifully when we all have it. For a man who grew up in Communist China — where the ‘we’ is supposedly, everything — could there be a more restoring ideal than that? — Currently available for instant streaming on Netflix
9. Frankenweenie: In a year filled with some beautiful animated films, none b-lined it straight to my heart and funny bone faster than Tim Burton’s comic horror tale, Frankenweenie. The story of boy named Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and his beloved dog Sparky, is a wondrous meditation on an adolescent’s first brush with mortality. It’s also loads of fun — as Burton’s ghoulish, wicked sense of humor comes in all forms (e.g., a sign from the heavens comes in the form of kitty litter, at one point) — but the best part about this movie is its black-and-white, stop-motion animation heart. For when was the last time a horror family comic tale caused you to choke up? And for the Tim Burton cinephile-fan, you’re in for a treat with this one, as this is a return to Burton’s true form, his signature storytelling style. Part Beetlejuice, part Edward Scissorhands, part Sleepy Hollow, and funnier than all three put together, Burton’s kooky ode to classic Universal monster pictures was the giddiest, wackiest, and most comically touching animated film of the year, by a mile.
8. The Kid With A Bike: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne‘s stunner-of-a-film is a re-imagination of The Bicycle Thief with the childlike wonder and dreaded spirit of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. The simple story of a foster boy who wants to be with a father who wants nothing to do him could have been a melodramatic movie-of-the-week, but the Dardenne brothers avoid all soapy cliches and instead, find their drama in the fragile moments that exist between humans, daily. As the boy clings for something concrete, something of substance in this world to hold onto — including the luminescent Cecile de France, as a caring hairdresser — this quiet film takes a titillating turn, transforming into a tale of grace, mercy, and forgiveness, in a world where fathers fail to be true fathers to their sons. Simple, lyrical and fierce, don’t miss Belgium’s quietest, yet finest film in years. – Currently available for instant streaming on Netflix
7. Bernie: In Richard Linklater‘s weird-and-witty black comic docudrama, Jack Black (in a career best performance), plays a kind, granny-empathizing Texas mortician. He’s a regular do-gooder, a man of God, a lover of widows and orphans — you know, the kind of man the Bible refers to as inheriting the kingdom of heaven. And then something happens — a moment of insanity (or divine clarity?) — and he’s conned himself and the entire Texas small town (oh, and the film audience, too) into believing he’s someone he’s not (or is he?). But this didn’t happen overnight. No sir. This is one of those stories that gets under your skin, and actually makes you root for the guy who’s done something awfully wrong, which is partly why it’s so fascinating. Who is guilty? Who is the victim? And most important, what is justice, really, when evil is stomped out by a gentle Southern force-of-a-man whom everyone loves? One of the most fascinating true stories put to film in 2012, watch the conning marvel and strange wonder that is, Bernie, if you haven’t already.
6. Moonrise Kingdom: Movies are all about transporting you to other worlds. Other character’s lives. They’re about taking you to places you might never go otherwise. But with a Wes Anderson movie, you always get a little extra. Anderson always — and I mean always — creates his own movie universe whenever he makes a film. Love him or hate him, he has a grand and beautiful perspective, a voice. Something every director and screenwriter constantly works for. Once again, Anderson’s novelesque world comes to life in the richly wonder-filled, Moonrise Kingdom. In what may very well be, the purest and most heart-breaking story of the year — about a young boy, again, who is discarded by his parents — the movie is this tender, quirky, endearing (and sometimes scary) mash-up of young love and old neglect. It’s about a boy trying to become a man in a world without any (at least, without any by the beginning), and this is what Anderson captures in Moonrise Kingdom at its core. It’s a story about characters, about real people, playing their parts and coming together so that acceptance, generosity, and love can happen — especially for those whose fate may be far from it.
5. Les Miserables: Don’t judge me. Don’t you dare. I’m on the team with Kyle Smith from the New York Post, who proudly embraced this sentimental tear-jerker from the very beginning (Smith called it “The Best Picture of the Year”, sending hundreds of angry critics to their keyboards to complain). Despite what everyone who writes for The New Yorker says, this is one hell of a good movie. And as much as I can cognitively hear all its criticism, my heart doesn’t seem to give a damn. What can I say? The heart wants what the heart wants and my heart loved this movie, from beginning to end. I never understood why the song, “On My Own” was the most beloved song from the Broadway musical show, but after seeing Samantha Bark‘s luminous performance, I got it. It reminded me of T.V. Carpio singing in the ode-to-The-Beatles’ musical, Across The Universe. What it feels like to be in love with someone so much and yet, not be loved in return. Perhaps this is why this movie worked for some and didn’t for others. Here, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) strips down the movie-musical and gives us what it might have looked like if Ingmar Bergman had directed it (e.g., because of its many close-up shots of character’s faces — Bergman once said, “Film begins with the human face”). For the lyrics, for the music, for the passion and heart these characters so often wear naked on their sleeves (and sometimes, with no sleeves), there’s been no movie musical since Moulin Rouge that moved me as much as Les Miserables.
4. Lincoln: I pray someday I can write a script as palpable, deep, and richly moving as Tony Kushner’s screenplay, Lincoln. Some criticized it for being all talk and no action — not realizing that sometimes, the biggest kind of action takes place with the exchange of ideas and ideals — but I (obviously) disagree. After seeing it twice — it was just as good the second time around — this might very well be one of my favorite Spielberg films. It could’ve been a bloody hell of a mess like Saving Private Ryan – the Civil War setting certainly could’ve warranted more attention than it got in the script — but that is another movie, and thankfully, Spielberg and Kushner decided to go at it another way: the way of policy, and simply, how you implement change and democracy in a system that is thriving on the corruption it so refuses to leave behind. Sure it plays more like a great stage play with magnificent set pieces (with an alluring camera eye there to capture it), but that’s what makes it one of the most moving (and wholly satisfying) films of 2012.
3. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present: This is a self-portrait like no other. ln Matthew Akers‘ mesmerizing documentary, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, one begins on a journey into a strange, fascinating world. Abramović began as a shock-installation performance artist in the 1970s and here, the viewer catches a glimpse of what that world looked like (with beautiful to disturbing portrayals of the human body caught in torment, in flux, with self-infliction put on transparent display). It’s no wonder she’s riled up people — both crazed fan supporters and art-critic haters — for nearly four decades. Culminating in her 2010 show, “The Artist Is Present” at MoMo in New York — which transformed her from finite human to art world Messiah — you’ll be convinced after watching at how ‘nothingness’ can transform into a transcendent ‘somethingness’ (for the artist, and the viewer). It’s what the mystics called ‘presence,’ and it’s what Abramović does so dazzlingly well here. If the art world was into canonizing their artists, Abramović would be first in line to be named a saint. She gives us time and space to simply ‘be’ in a world buzzing by in time lapses and super-fast motion, and reminds us that it is our ‘being’ (and not our ‘doing’) that makes us uniquely human.
2. Silver Linings Playbook: If Little Miss Sunshine and As Good As It Gets had a 2012 rom-com movie lovechild, Silver Linings Playbook would be it. David O. Russel‘s brilliant hybrid-of-a-romantic-dysfunctional-dramedy should’ve won the Best Picture Oscar statue this year if you ask me (why is it so hard for comedies to win Best Picture?), because it is probably (save for Life of Pi) the film that will be remembered most a decade from now. But I digress. It is rare these days to meet a triple-threat-of-a-movie-lover’s-movie (e.g., with real drama, real comedy, and real romance) that never panders to its characters’ flaws or its audience’s assumption of what should happen. Instead, the movie finds its own incredible, holy, and crudely funny silver lining and makes movie-magic with it, that is never dull, never boring, never not wholly entertaining. Kudos to the Academy for recognizing one of the year’s most complex and luminescent performances (Academy Award winner for Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence), and for nominating the rest of the entire cast (Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and Bradley Cooper — in a role that will forever be remembered as one of his greatest), as this movie couldn’t have existed without each and every one of them. Silver Linings Playbook is a tender, tragic, and tenacious story of people who feel out loud, live on the verge of emotional combustion and yet still manage to find time to see goodness in those around them. To that, nothing else can be said, but “Excelsior!”
1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower: If you’ve had any contact with me the past five months, this shouldn’t come as a shocker. I said it before and I’ll say it again: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the best and my favorite film of 2012. The brilliant adaptation of a fantastic coming-of-age young adult novel — in the spirit of J.D. Salinger‘s novel The Catcher in the Rye, only with a little more hope — is, in short, a nostalgic gem-of-a-movie, with loads of heart. It’s the kind high school movie all ‘looking back’ stories aspire to be, but rarely (if ever) are. Part drama. Party coming-of-age story. Part romance. Part tragedy. The film is a visual expression of what writer David Dark calls “apocalyptic literature”, as it taps into something universal: the fragile finitude that is ultimately, deeply and divinely human. “Why can’t you save anyone?” the young Patrick (a splendid Ezra Miller) asks our wallflower hero Charlie (newcomer Logan Lerman, in a role he was born to play) in the movie. That haunting (thematic) question is more than a question, but about the very nature of salvation, itself. Do people have the power to save others? And if we do, what does that say about us? About them? About God — if God exists at all? There are no easy answers here; only personal experiences — moments, really — felt by so many lost and wandering souls, who may not always know where they’re going but are looking for meaning in life — in all its infinite wonder — no matter how light or dark this meaning may turn out to be.
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Neville’s yearly 2012 Ode-to-Cinema Award goes to…
Life of Pi: Not much more needs to be said about David Magee’s adaptation of the best-selling novel, and Ang Lee’s Academy Award-winning directed work, Life of Pi. It’s about what’s at the heart of faith and belief, yes, but it’s also about what cinema can do and about achieving the seemingly impossible. The film poster’s tagline, “Believe the Unbelievable” isn’t just a nod to the story, but a call to bold, beautiful and grand movie-making and storytelling. Ang Lee has always been a director fascinated with the outsider, and here is no different. There’s a sweeping magic to this film that captures you. Even though it has a somewhat clunky beginning/ending, it’s easy to overlook that and marvel at the solid film, overall, that this movie is. That’s why it’s the Ode-To-Cinema award for this year. Because it’s a movie that reminds us of why we go to the movies, in the first place. Not just to escape, but to (often) discover who we are, more truly.