Others often present their top 10 lists in late December and early January. The urgency of publishing this obligatory list as soon as possible allows bloggers and publications to present their opinions as fact, forgetting that art is in the eye of the beholder.
I disapprove of this perfunctory tradition as many prestige films are released in limited engagements during December, not getting a wide release until January. I also like to ponder the role of a film, not only in its genre or its release year, but where it fits in film history, our culture, and world history. Lastly, I like to take a look back at how these films affected me as I experienced them, and how they made me think long after those shadows disappeared from the screen.
Great films tend to patina gracefully over time. The greats either maintain their grasp on the spectator year after year, or gain an appreciation after being affected by a sullied or unsuccessful releases.
After browsing through the films I reviewed this past year, I developed a list of films that affected me both emotionally and politically. This list exhibits the polar extremes of unconditional love and uncompromising revenge, the unpredictability of economic s and politics in microcosms, and the appreciation of humanity in the face of down-trodden obscurity.
1. The Master
This sprawling epic puts an alcoholic WWII veteran with symptoms of PTSD back into society, only to befriend Lancaster Dodd, a man who is gaining cult status with his ideals regarding the self and how to improve it.
As my review explains, Lancaster Dodd may not be the dominate figure of the film. His wife holds quite a short leash, and her control over Dodd’s smallest transgressions is powerful. Dodd and Freddie are two men who make things up as they go. Poison as religion, religion as poison.
The film is also significant as it is Joaquin Phoenix’s first film after returning from a multi-year performance art film I’m Still Here. Phoenix’s performance shows a contorted and twisted WWII veteran who is certainly not ready to assimilate back into American society. Befriending Lancaster is both a blessing and a curse. In the end, both Lancaster and Freddie are men who make things up, and they hurt people when they do, even if the original intent is to help them, or ease their pain.
2. Cloud Atlas
Although you will not find my review of Cloud Atlas on CinemaFunk at this moment, you can see that I was deeply affected and inspired by the film if you read my review at Perihelion Science Fiction. This film connects multiple storylines in a science-fiction hodge-podge using different forms of media to inspire the generations ahead of them. Whether it is a film, a book, muck-racking journalism, a song, or even a diary, these stories portray inherent human struggles that transcend time-periods.
This bombastic film features three directors, the Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer, which is an unconventional approach to any film that is not an anthology. Cloud Atlas might feel like an overwhelming, sprawling epic, but it is a loving film that rouses all the cinematic senses and is one of the most positively humanist films of the year.
James Bond has had a rather lame previous twenty years, and the consensus that Casino Royale was adequate and Quantum of Solace was awful put the fate of Bond in jeopardy. MGM’s possible bankruptcy also did not help matters. Yet, 2012 saw Bond rise again. Directed by Sam Mendes, the British anti-American domesticism—but certainly not anti-American—director took a Best Picture Oscar home for his first feature-length film American Beauty and has continued to rage against the American Dream ever since.
Skyfall puts the identity and history of Bond into perspective by offering an incredibly dark film about the character’s past. The Bond franchise has always used contemporary cinema trends to remain relevant, but this film uses imagery directly from The Dark Knight to depict Bond’s issues of identity as well as create a relentless and vicious antagonist.
It worked. Skyfall is one of the most artistically, intellectually, and unyielding Bond films in the franchise’s history.
4. Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell gained notoriety in the 1990s by crafting highly neurotic and anxious dysfunctional family comedy-dramas before launching into Military and Advertising industrial complexes. His notoriously tyrannical work ethic has polarized talents, with that anxiety reflecting in the finished product. Silver Linings Playbook has the director returning to his 1990s material with an incredibly intoxicating romantic comedy that penetrates any Xanax prescription.
Silver Linings Playbook captures a love story between two romantically damaged and high-stressed individuals who are struggling to find a new normal in their lives. Films such as these are incredibly oppositional to the accessible, but Russell has crafted an accessible narrative that tackles family and romantic anxieties.
5. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s 2012 effort is a refreshing release after his foray into the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox. Moonrise Kingdom has the director returning to many of the themes explored in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but specifically focusing on pre-teens exhibiting sensible emotions regarding love.
Two outcast children running away from their families, both genetic and imagined, formed a romantic bond at first sight. Cobbling together biblical narratives and childhood wonder, Moonrise Kingdom posits children on the verge of puberty having a sensible outlook on love, much more than their elders.
I was surprisingly taken back by Arbitrage, which is essentially a metaphor for the excessive and dangerous risks that the financial sector took leading up to the Great Recession. The film became a thrilling narrative about a wealthy man trying to get away with manslaughter both financially and literally.
Richard Gere’s anti-hero performance is notable, as is his characters juggling the leverage he has borrowed on his professional and personal lives. Rather than beat the spectator with shallow metaphors, Arbitrage presents the carefully hidden economic and political lessons inside a man struggling to float his business and his family.
7. The Dark Knight Rises
After re-screening the entire Dark Knight trilogy, thanks to the Blu-ray trilogy release, The Dark Knight Rises is the perfect capstone for a series that encapsulates the sociological and economic anxieties of post-9/11 America. The villains in all three films are unlike any seen before in film history, and Bane is an appropriate villain after the quintessential performance by Heath Ledger.
The egregious intentions of the villains in these films unfortunately spilled out in to reality as the midnight release of this film in Aurora, CO was marred by an atrocity that was as brutal as the sequences in Nolan’s films.
8. Killing Them Softly
Killing Them Softly’s marketing campaign promises much more than what spectators expected, which was a violent bloodletting. Instead, like Arbitrage, Killing Them Softly is a cynical, microcosmic look at politics and economics in the underworld. Set against the passionate and historical 2008 Presidential election, the film’s narrative is a metaphor for the anxieties of the economic climate.
9. Safety Not Guaranteed
This lovely independent film portrays the bond between a lowly intern and a man that is seemingly deranged. Instead, one wondrous twist changes everything. We often take the dreams of others for granted, and these dreamers may surpass our understanding of our environment and cosmic possibilities.
What is at first an investigation of a curious classified advertisement, Safety Not Guaranteed becomes a lovely foray into magical realism, presenting New Sincerity romanticism in an Indiewood/Mumblecore crossover.
10. Searching for Sugar Man
American pop culture can be unforgiving, and the greatest artists do not always rise. Every producer that worked with Sixto Rodriguez would always consider him among their most memorable projects. Yet, Rodriguez, who was found playing in bars with his back to the crowd, never made a landing in America. After being released by his record label, he unknowingly became a legend in South Africa, and what became of the musician was an urban legend.
Searching for Sugar Man exposes the revival of a career that never really got started. The documentary blasts gorgeous, socially conscious folk music through your speakers with wisdom of the Dali Lama, and the inspiration of Bob Dylan. Rodriguez’s music became a cultural icon for an oppressed nation; meanwhile, Rodriguez was working construction and resisted intellectual oppression through living a humble life in Detroit.
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