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Katie Walsh's Top 10 Films Of 2012

by Katie Walsh
January 1, 2013 11:49 AM
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Katie's Top 10

Experiencing art and watching film is such a deeply subjective experience that it seems a fool’s errand to rank and list “the best" of anything. How I reacted to the films I saw in 2012 can be completely personal and different than any of my colleagues on this site, but that’s what makes it interesting. Where we come together and where we disagree is the fun of it all, really, and has made for many a lively Twitter debate among us. What else would we talk about if we weren’t passionately arguing about a film? As for the status of 2012 as a film year, there were so many that inspired such heated talk, taking bold and original paths and made the conversation that much better. And in my mind, that’s a success.

If there's one word or phrase that describes my Top 10 of the year, it would be “life-affirming.” The through line for what spoke to me this year seems to be films about humanity and the struggles that people go through to be in touch with their environment, themselves, and the people around them. Which may be why I didn’t connect with the glorious, messy and very problematic “Django Unchained.” Or why I came away cold from the technically perfect yet unsatisfying “The Master.” Of course, I haven’t been able to see everything, but that’s just the nature of the beast. It was actually rather difficult to put this list together (for the first time), because I didn’t see many films this year that I loved completely without reservation. But that shouldn’t be the barometer of ranking the best films of the year, and after much internal debate, I feel completely satisfied with putting these ten forth as my favorite films that I’ve seen this year. Two of these films caused me to weep before the title card came up (“Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “How To Survive a Plague”). Two of them feature scenes of cane-related violence (“Beware of Mr. Baker” and “Rust & Bone”). And yeah, one features the naked torsos of Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello. I'm only human, ok?

10. “Argo”
There’s a delightfully analog quality to “Argo,” not just that it’s warmly shot on film, capturing the grit and grime of 1970s Tehran, and those authentic-to-a-fault mustaches cultivated by the outstanding cast. In the day and age of technological festishism, that the nail-biter climax of “Argo” is built around the obstacles of passed messages on paper, locked doors, and someone keeping a straight face under pressure is refreshingly honest. While some films this year showed Hollywood at its worst, “Argo” is Hollywood at its best: well-crafted, suspenseful storytelling and just plain entertaining. And how suspenseful it was. The theater spontaneously burst into applause in relief from the tension that was expertly built throughout. Director Ben Affleck did give himself the lead role, but it’s an understated and restrained performance, allowing the character actors around him to shine in the showier roles. “Argo” proves there’s hope for original, authentic, serious filmmaking for Hollywood yet.

9. “Samsara”
Seeing the latest film from “Baraka” filmmaker Ron Fricke during its U.S. premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in the Arlington Theater was more of a meditative experience than a movie-going one. The huge screen, the 4K projection of the 70mm-shot film crisp and clear, like you could fall right into the imagery. But even in a smaller theater, the film was just as compelling and spiritual an experience. The thing about “Samsara” and “Baraka” is that they are such rare, precious artifacts. With the amount of work and time and technology that goes into these films, it makes sense that they only come around once every 20 years. The gorgeously rendered footage is one of a kind, something that does not or could not exist again. The sequence from Mecca might be the most memorable movie moment for me this year, but to pick only one sequence from “Samsara” is impossible. It’s a gift of a film, and even just calling it “cinema” seems inadequate at that. A true example of the possibilities of the form.

Lavant Holy Motors 1
8. “Holy Motors”
I was honestly baffled and befuddled by “Holy Motors,” and heck, I still am. But in a good way? I don’t know. I don’t know what to think about “Holy Motors,” or if I even liked it or enjoyed myself while I was watching it (that may have been because I was alone in the deserted Chinese 6 theater in Hollywood on a Friday night...). But pure entertainment and "fun" doesn’t have to be the only reaction to a film, and, in fact, it shouldn't be. I think that “Holy Motors” is important in this way, and that befuddlement is sometimes a good thing to shoot for. Leos Carax has made a film about film, a theoretical, philosophical exploration into the human condition, performed by one-man-show Denis Lavant. But aside from its reference-heavy, abstract and metaphysical nature, each moment is propelled and inspired from a place of humanity and love. And for whatever reason, I remain utterly tickled by Monsieur Merde. I’m still processing “Holy Motors,” but expect to see it on my syllabus if I ever teach Film Theory.

7. "Magic Mike"
There was no reason for this movie to be this good. The male stripper biopic of Channing Tatum didn’t need to be anything more than just a few hot dudes and dance numbers and that unique Tatum charm. But then again, most male stripper biopics (there are none) aren’t directed by Stephen Soderbergh. It’s clear this crew was just having a ball making this movie, Tatum relaxed and funny, Matthew McConaughey out-McConaughey-ing himself, a slowed down equitorial ease to Soderbergh’s camera movements. But it’s not just man thongs and booty shaking, it’s about the dolla dolla bills ya’ll. Who would have thought one of our best movies dealing with the recession would have been “Magic Mike”?! But it was an astute commentary on work, identity, and business, and when Tatum and McConaughey turned those smiles down, it was all about the money, honey. Soderbergh captured the blurry sleaze of central Florida, fluorescent lights bleeding red and blue and gold across the frame, all Ecstasy fueled hurricane parties and sand bar blowouts. An entertaining romp, yes, but with something relevant to say.

Ruby Sparks Zoe Kazan Paul Dano
6. “Ruby Sparks”
This reimagined rom com was a shockingly pleasant surprise for me when it screened at the Super Secret Screening of L.A. Film Festival this year. For some reason, I wasn’t so sure about this movie that looked like a parody of the manic pixie dream girl stereotype. In fact it was a brilliant deconstruction of that trope from screenwriter Zoe Kazan, and also an extremely honest and authentic exploration into love and relationships. With two outstanding performances from Kazan and real-life boyfriend Paul Dano, shepherded by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, this film hits that bitter sweet spot that “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” did. It’s lovely to see a young female screenwriter expressing an alternative perspective on these matters, laying down some of those truths in such a bare and honest way, while also delicately taking those stereotypes to task. What a gem.

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  • anonymous | January 4, 2013 12:09 AMReply

    not even a mention of madea goes to jail?

  • Silvana | January 1, 2013 8:07 PMReply

    Rust and Bone is a wonderful film, a masterpiece!

  • Sia | January 1, 2013 6:34 PMReply

    great list.

  • Joel Johnson | January 1, 2013 1:12 PMReply

    I found most of your list quite interesting and helpful in drawing attention to a number of worthy films that may have been overlooked. In talking with some friends last evening, we had agreed that it had been a pretty good year for films with multiple possibilities for inclusion in a best films list for 2012. "The Master" was unsatisfying, but according to your logic expressed in regard to "Holy Motors" such a shortcoming should not be an impediment to being on your list in that you do ascribe to it "technical perfection." To me it seemed that "The Master" felt like a part of a larger story though I am not aware that Paul Thomas Anderson has indicated any intention to expand on this story either earlier or after the time-period depicted. I was particularly intrigued by your inclusion of "Holy Motors" on your list. I appreciate your honesty in admitting that you were baffled and befuddled by it. I am sure that this was precisely the reaction from the vast majority of filmgoers who went to see it which certainly would explain why you were watching it in an empty theater on a Friday night. However, I am not persuaded by what you have written that a film that leaves its audiences totally confused--including film academics who should be the best prepared to deal with its continual referencing of prior films--and assaulted by a variety of visual grotesqueries warrants inclusion on a list of 10 Best Films. It seems to me that many film critics have fallen in love with this totally unique film and that others have included it on their lists just to avoid expulsion from the fraternity. Your rationale for including it when you still aren't sure what to make of it and can't even say you enjoyed the journey when you watched it suggests you are following the herd and listing it because so many other critics are.

  • Katie Walsh | January 1, 2013 1:35 PM

    I certainly understand why you might find fault with my logic there, but ultimately it comes down to that inexplicable subjectivity that can't really be explained with logic: I just liked Holy Motors better. I really debated with myself about whether to include it, and ultimately I think it's a more interesting, and yes, enjoyable mindfuck than The Master, which was an uncomfortable two and half hours that I have no desire to sit through again. Also, Holy Motors has a lot more heart and humanity, and fit into my "life-affirming" theme that became the overarching idea of why I connected with certain films this year. There's really no rhyme or reason or logic, sorry to say.

  • oogle monster | January 1, 2013 12:47 PMReply

    Anonymous strikes again! The Master is superb but Katie's list isn't half bad.

  • anonymous | January 1, 2013 11:53 AMReply

    Don't feel bad for disliking The Master. It has a hollow core of nothing. Its stupid.

  • maggie | January 1, 2013 1:28 PM

    the master was a great movie

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