Amy Adams (left), Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ambyr Childers rule in The Master.
Sure, Channing Tatum stepped up his game, baring comedic chops in 21 Jump Street and a whole lot more in Magic Mike. But Tatum wasn't the only one who over-performed in 2012. This year, movies I thought would be mediocre (from Bernie to Skyfall) exceeded my expectations, and the film in my top spot easily ranks among my favourites in a decade. If the movies (and Tatum) continue at this rate, I may have to tighten my belt, up my criteria and be more stingy doling out the Ns.
1. THE MASTER
Paul Thomas Anderson revisits the themes and ideas he was hammering at in There Will Be Blood and nails them in The Master, a film so accomplished and challenging it's bound to inspire both worship and dissent. Joaquin Phoenix turns in an immaculate performance as a constantly coiled, ready-to-implode WWII veteran who falls in with Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic cult leader. Although it's loosely based on Scientology, the film refuses to take down the controversial group. Instead, PTA explores how mythmaking (whether in religion or the movies) can mend America's fractured identity. Meanwhile, his masterpiece will renew your faith in bold and ambitious American art cinema.
This black-and-white gem about love and colonialism calls bullshit on The Artist's simplistic nostalgia. Its first section is set in a detached modern-day Lisbon where people long for the past while reaping what it sowed. The passionate and tragic second section (silent except for a narration and diegetic sound effects) travels back to a Portuguese colony in Africa, where an illicit affair between white folks has an unnatural effect on history. Director Miguel Gomes doesn't resort to formal mimicry as a cute gimmick à la last year's best picture winner. Instead, he exhumes silent cinema as an experimental tool to go back in time and re-discover truths that still haunt us.
3. ZERO DARK THIRTY
Zero Dark Thirty ticks, ticks, ticks with the intensity of a time bomb. Kathryn Bigelow's taut procedural covers the exhaustive, decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, following a CIA agent (Jessica Chastain) whose personal life is consumed by heaps of classified files, brutal interrogation videos and phantom whispers of a terrorist. As she did for The Hurt Locker, Bigelow brings precision-guided, live-wire direction to Mark Boal's comprehensive and tightly wound screenplay. Together they condense a decade of moral indignation, bureaucratic manoeuvring and unnecessary casualties into an explosive thriller. The mission may be accomplished, but the anxiety this film leaves you with will be impossible to defuse.
4. ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA
Nuri Bilge Ceylan's procedural is an elusive national allegory that takes us on a journey to nowhere that lingers long after it's over. Policemen, a coroner, a prosecutor and a murder suspect drag through the night digging for a corpse buried somewhere in Turkey's stunning canvas. Their aimless conversations are innocently existential, mining life's purpose in the midst of a seemingly futile search for the dead. While the title nods to Sergio Leone, the film and its pursuit hark back to Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura. People seek answers where only more mystery remains, blind to the beauty that stares them (and us) dead in the face.
5. RUST AND BONE
Jacques Audiard's follow-up to A Prophet is a gritty love story between two broken people (one physically, the other financially, both emotionally). Marion Cotillard gives a devastating performance as an orca trainer who loses her legs on the job and finds comfort in an irresponsible MMA fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts). Don't take this movie's hoary contrivances at face value, unless, of course, you are a sucker for hoary contrivances. Rust And Bone is all about deceptive surfaces, where the Côte d'Azur masks its seedy underbelly, good-looking people hide their ugly side and happy endings tell redeeming lies.
6. MONSIEUR LAZHAR
The recent Oscar nominee is a tender classroom movie that doesn't allow its emotional force to overwhelm its intricate (and uniquely Canadian) ideas. It's the story of an Algerian refugee who becomes a substitute for grade-school students grieving their former teacher's suicide. Writer/director Philippe Falardeau crafts a marvellous film about transcendence, where innocence dies to give birth to maturity and a refugee finds healing in a new place to call home.
7. HOLY MOTORS
A tombstone refers you to a web page. Two performers dance seductively in motion-capture suits, rendering their exquisite movements into lousy CGI. An elderly woman sports a green-screen mask, giving her withering face new digital life. Leos Carax's wild and intoxicating elegy for celluloid cinema is a Frankensteinish romp that is truly alive. Holy Motors is not so much a dour funeral, but a joyous celebration of what the movies have given us and where cinema can still take us.
Truth is sadly stranger than fiction in this taut, chilling yarn about how a perverted prank caller pretending to be a cop dupes a fast food restaurant's manager (the wonderful Ann Dowd) into abetting his crime. Call it the Milgram experiment with fries, where an employee blindly accepts "authority" despite the harm she inflicts. An unnecessary epilogue asserts the film's factual basis, just in case the audience isn't as credulous as Dowd's manager. Unfortunately, it weighs down a near-perfect film that would have ranked much higher otherwise.
9. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES
David Siegel is the king of a time-share empire. Jackie Siegel is his beauty-queen wife. They have an extravagant full house, brimming with kids, dogs and otherworldly riches. But when the recession hits, even they must fold. An intimate portrait of a family victimized by a financial crisis that they contributed to, Lauren Greenfield's doc dives headfirst into the American dream and wakes up to discover it's built on plastic cards.
10. DJANGO UNCHAINED
Despite a bloated last act, Quentin Tarantino's blood-soaked slave opera has plenty going for it, from Christoph Waltz's fiendish performance as a bounty hunter to Leonardo DiCaprio's head-turning, skull-cracking turn as a villain. But the main event is undoubtedly Samuel L. Jackson's layered performance as house slave Stephen, a dangerous Uncle Tom type with a simmering hatred for his own kind. Perpetuating black stereotypes and slavery as a whole, Stephen is a masterstroke from Tarantino and Jackson. Their work together has been rife with racial controversy: characters like Pulp Fiction's Jules Winnfield and Jackie Brown's Ordell Robbie must make Spike Lee feel bamboozled.
Alps, Bestiaire, Bernie, The Central Park Five, The Five-Year Engagement, Haywire, Killer Joe, Lincoln, Looper, Magic Mike, Moonrise Kingdom, A Separation, Skyfall, Stories We Tell
Loved the filmmaking, hated the film
Most grateful for
Megan Ellison (the money behind Zero Dark Thirty and The Master)
Least grateful for
48 fps (introduced in The Hobbit)