Cinema. Our cathedral in the dark for watching the lives of others flashing on a screen in hopes of a resonant echo, self-recognition, escape, catharsis, trying to make sense of this crazy world. One sometimes has to question the beings who would rather spend their time with fictional people in an unreal story instead of the real flesh and blood thing. But in the dark, sometimes, together we transcend our stations, and for a fleeting two hours, if we’re lucky, can be transported to a place that’s moving, poignant, and maybe even magical.
My top 10 lists from 2011, 2010 and beyond, may not hold up under my own scrutiny. But the top 10 is relative; it rises and falls as our relationship to art constantly evolves, and as we (hopefully) evolve as people. Katie eloquently said that ranking the best of any kind of art is a fool’s errand for myriad reasons, and she is correct. Judging art based on the arbitrary nature of release dates within a calendar year always feels self-important, silly. And yet here we are again.
Cinema felt particularly healthy in this calendar year for reasons already articulated in The Playlist contributors’ top 10s. As per usual, these are not necessarily "the best" films of the year, but my favorites. A top 13 (or 21), written in the most erratic, inconsistent, piecemeal fashion ever.
Pablo Larrain’s “No” starring Gael García Bernal won’t hit U.S. theaters until February 2013, but it was a big part of my 2012 New York Film Festival experience. Beyond the fact that I have a personal connection to the film (like many other Chileans, my family had to flee the country in 1973 as political refugees thanks to the Pinochet dictatorship that overthrew a democratically elected government), “No” is probably Larrain’s greatest work thus far, and adds a much-needed dose of humor and levity to his Chile/Pinochet era trilogy (the first two films were “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” and became increasingly grim) while never shortchanging the stakes and gravity of the situation. His first two films were set in the heart of the oppressive regime, and “No” is set near the very end -- during the referendum the regime held politely asking Chileans whether they liked things as they were (Chile, while a dictatorship, had prospered economically), or whether they would like the freedom to vote democratically again (what an offer, huh?). What transpired was the Chilean national plebiscite in 1988, which boiled down into a “Yes” or “No” campaign waged on national television in the weeks leading up to the referendum voting day. “No” centers on the advertising hot shots (Gael García Bernal being the main one) brought in to launch this televised campaign, the paid-for-by-Pinochet side urging the nation to vote Yes (keep things as they are), and the oppressed socialists on the No side (let’s have the choice to vote for who we want in power). “No” is moving, funny, dark, well-observed and a fantastic snapshot of history, going so far as to shoot on crappy low-definition ¾ magnetic tape, (which was widely used by television news in Chile in the ‘80s) to blend in with the copious amounts of archival footage from the time. Fiction and documentary merge to create a kind of hybrid doc-fiction, something full of humanity that ultimately poignantly expresses the deep need, and desire for a voice in the most inspiring way.
12. “Anna Karenina”
I don’t know why “Anna Karenina” is not in further up on my list. It was technically and visually dazzling and the story was also so moving; that sense of haunting desire and lust was palpably crushing. And yet because resonance is such a part of my criteria, it fell a little in my mind -- meaning, while the experience was tremendous, it didn’t linger in my mind like some other of the films on my list. Maybe it’s just that there were so many damn good movies in 2012. This one was criminally overlooked during awards season. It was not only ambitious with visual spectacle, like “Life of Pi,” it also it had a heart and soul that could leave you breathless. A wonderful achievement by Joe Wright, taking a conceit and really blowing it out to its majestic full potential.
11. “Ginger & Rosa”
In the crossfire of the radical politics and social restlessness of post-War London about to enter the swinging ‘60s is a teenage girl also awakening to the world. Gorgeously shot (Robby Mueller), expressively and compassionately realized (Sally Potter’s best film in over a decade, a comeback if there ever was one), and superbly acted by a terrific ensemble cast lead by an outstandingly skilled, raw and precocious Elle Fanning, “Ginger & Rosa” is a deliberately paced, engrossing look at adolescent awakenings and the betrayals committed by the untested philosophies of the would-be hippie generation.
Jacob Krupnick’s exhilarating and exuberant experiment, “Girl Walk//All Day” came to me late in the year, but boy did it leave me utterly elated. Krupnick’s piece is essentially a feature-length music video (75 minutes long) set to Girl Talk’s entire, intended-to-be-listened-to-as-a-whole genre hopscotching album All Day. It’s a mash-up, for lack of a better term (though that term seems antiquated for the artistry that Girl Talk pulls off), mixing Rihanna, General Public, Beyonce, The Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath, Ludacris, Lady Gaga, Aphex Twin, Cyndi Lauper, Nicki Minaj and about a zillion other samples into one heady and entire deliciously danceable sonic brew. So that’s just the album (which you can download for free here). Krupnick’s feature (which you can see for free here) features a carefree and blissful ballet dancer (Anne Marsen) who dances her way through New York City. Along the way she meets the Gentleman (Daisuke Omiya) and The Creep (John Doyle), and a little fairtytale is born. But “Girl Walk//All Day” is essentially one long, beautiful, funny, sparkling and vivacious dance through the Big Apple and some of its boroughs. I hate to use the term “love letter to the city,” but this “urban-fantasia” is such an affirming celebration of life, you’ll want to go outside, dial up the iPod and bust many unabashed dorky moves all day long like you just don’t care.
The male arrested development genre seems to know no end, but as tired as that genre can be, Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” is a sublimely charming and self-effacing entry within these confines. Based on Birbiglia’s one-man stand-up comedy routine of the same name (which I now wish I had seen live), “Sleepwalk With Me” is directed by Birbiglia and co-written by “This American Life” 's Ira Glass, and it’s kinda of a hell of a debut for someone who’s never directed a film before. That’s not to say it’s especially cinematic. It’s not particularly, but it knows the power and humor of simplicity and breaking the fourth wall when necessary. Thoughtful, hilarious and also low-key and melancholy, the stunted growth and rite of passage from adultlescense to actual adulthood is quickly becoming its own subgenre, but Birbiglia’s wry and self-deprecating semi-autobiographical tale of his commitment-phobic lost years is just so damn appealing, heartbreaking and also laugh-out-loud funny with all its spectacular moments of failure. Brilliantly mixing the comedian's REM Sleep Behavior Disorder anxieties with his sinking relationship and his ailing career, Birbiglia may be the next Louis C.K. in the way that he leverages the painful truth to be painfully funny.
Set in a small Danish village around Christmas, and chronicling a nursery school teacher who is wrongly accused of sexual abuse by a child, Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” is sometimes a brutal and maddening film. In a scorching internalized performance that rightfully won him the Best Actor Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, the school teacher in question who, for whatever reason -- pride, embarrassment, cultural differences and responses to innocence and guilt -- does not really deign to defend himself against what are ridiculous accusations. A well-liked and sociable member of his small town community, we helplessly watch as Lucas goes from beloved teacher to ostracized pariah by the witch-hunt hysteria that surrounds him. Ultimately, as we watch Lucas suffer humiliation and torment (not to mention getting beat to a pulp and having his dog killed) in this grueling experience of film, we grow to feel a deeper compassion for him and even for the misguided mob that is calling for his blood. A harrowing cautionary tale about the incapacity with which people can forgive and forget, Vinterberg puts audiences through the paces in this excruciatingly emotional and brutal film, but it’s almost unforgettable, and ultimately one of the most strikingly humanistic films I’ve ever seen even though its view of humanity is ultimately bleak.
07. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
“Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.” A fairy tale set in a decayed swamp, a father and daughter story, a soaring and imaginative movie about love, death, resolve, resistance and the freedom to fly your own freak flag, a lot of ink has been spilled over Benh Zeitlin’s magical and muddy “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Much of the response has been cynical, backlash opposition unfortunately, but such is the case when the zeitgeist of cinema is captured in a little phenomenon that captivates audiences. I wish sometimes expectations could be wiped from memory and people could just experience this joyful and celebratory movie without baggage, but that’s just not to be. I personally think this pure, almost-naive little film, with its charming characters and anthemic score, melts away every cynical bone in my body, and I’ll always be on the side of something that can transport and transform the individual in that manner. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is wildly optimistic, hopeful and almost painfully sincere. I’m very thankful that such a film exists.