Jacques Audiard’s latest stuck with me for days after seeing it, and I wasn’t sure why. Every time I try to tell someone about the film (“Marion Cotillard loses her legs in a whale training accident, so then she starts managing illegal street fighting, and Katy Perry's "Firework" is in it, twice, but no, it’s really really good!”), invariably they look at me askance and say “that sounds horrible/depressing.” Actually, it’s quite life-affirming. Of course, Cotillard is fantastic, but it’s nice to see another side to her; here she’s at times depressed, angry, confused, not so sure of herself, but utterly fearless in a way. Matthias Schoenaerts goes toe to toe with her as the feral, unbridled beast of a man out of touch with his own emotions. Her essence, her profession is managing huge killer beasts with the capacity for violence and destruction who find themselves able to nuzzle up to her love, her touch. The scene where she reconnects with her whale after the accident is not so different from when she allows him to kiss her for the first time. It’s a film about bodies, physicality and environment, emotions and connections with another human being, and Audiard works that into this unlikely love story. It also feels like it couldn’t have been directed in any other way, the dappled sunlight dancing on the back of Cotillard’s neck, the close up of a bloody tooth rattling across pavement. And even with that desperation and violence, “Rust & Bone” is possibly the most romantic movie of the year.
I’ve sounded the call for this documentary ever since I saw it at SXSW this year, and have been surprised that it hasn’t received more attention. I love rockumentaries, and this one knocks it out of park in terms of subject, content, storytelling and style. Not to mention the music itself. First-time director (yet another one on this list!) Jay Bulger goes on an epic odyssey into the life and times of forgotten genius Ginger Baker, bringing the audience on this wild and rollicking ride, a tough but satisfying tangle with the dangerous Mr. Baker. The film opened this fall at the IFC in New York, and continues to roll out, and here’s hoping it will get more exposure soon, as it’s one of the most creative treatments of the rock biopic seen in a long time. The film itself hums with the beat of Baker’s drum, throbbing with its own unique heartbeat. Beware of Mr. Baker, but don’t stay away.
3. “Anna Karenina”
The experience of watching the sweeping, gorgeous “Anna Karenina” is basically like having goosebumps for two and a half hours. It’s simply delicious, and one of the most cinematic pieces of film this year. The stage-set conceit that Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright brought to the classic novel was, of course, brilliant in its conception and execution, and it also managed to boil the tome down to its most basic themes and ideas. What really made it work for me was the slightly campy tone all the players involved brought to the proceedings. Keira Knightley is over the top as the doomed Anna, with all of her gasping and whirling and swooning, Matthew Macfadyen (so criminally underrated) bursting with ebullience, Aaron Taylor-Johnson so beautiful and so vacant as Vronsky. And yet, in contrast, we have the earthy and sensual Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), bringing the proceedings back down to earth. It perfectly captures the themes of the artifice of aristocracy battling against the simple country life. That all of these things are expressed visually and so beautifully is a testament to Mr. Wright.
Another first feature from a debut filmmaker, journalist David France culled an extensive library of video archives to create the document of the influential historical moment that was ACT UP and the AIDS crisis. This documentary plays like Activism 101, watching these young artists, intellectuals and bohemians of New York City try to understand and combat this mysterious illness that felled so many of them without seeming rhyme or reason. But it’s not just the blueprint for how these fierce individuals educated themselves and took on AIDS without any outside support, it’s also a tender and touching tribute to those who were lost. The most important thing these activists did was assert their own human rights and demand the full attention of those who might deny it, thereby creating themselves as citizens in a world where they were not fully recognized. The film is masterful in its storytelling -- there’s a moment about three quarters of the way through the movie so brilliant that you realize that France isn’t just telling the story of these people, he’s recreating that experience for the audience. At one point during the film, I stepped out of the theater, sobbing, and France was standing outside. He just wrapped me in a big hug. A truly remarkable artist, and I can’t wait to see what he does next, but if this were to be his only film, it would be more than enough.
I’ve known and followed the work of Benh Zeitlin and Court 13 for years, and was eagerly anticipating his feature debut. However, I didn’t quite expect the reaction I continue to have to this diamond in the rough of a film. 'Beasts' is a delight because of its context: made on a micro-budget by a wild band of novice filmmakers who lived inside of this film in order to get it made, but also in its content. There’s an overwhelming sense of the strength of human spirit communicated in the determined jaw of a tiny Hushpuppy, the wild abandon of her warrior shriek, the rough, tender relationship between her and father Wink. When the score opens up and the restless camera alights on the wondrous face of Quvenzhané Wallis, it’s almost too much to bear. Strikingly original, gloriously human, it’s no wonder “Beasts of the Southern WIld” took the world by storm in 2012.
Honorable mentions: “Moonrise Kingdom,” "Take This Waltz," “Cloud Atlas,” “Cabin in the Woods,” “Starlet,” “Teddy Bear,” “The Iran Job,” “Beauty is Embarrassing,” “Paul Williams: Still Alive.”