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Posted February 24, 2013 by William Dunmyer in Best of 2012
 
 

Top 15 Films of 2012

At long last, here is the Tour de Force list of Top 15 Films of 2012:

  1. A Late Quartet

  2. Django Unchained

  3. Killer Joe

  4. Lincoln

  5. Silver Linings Playbook

  6. Flight

  7. Life of Pi

  8. Moonrise Kingdom

  9. Zero Dark Thirty

  10. Argo

  11. To Rome with Love

  12. 2 Days in New York

  13. Savages

  14. Looper

  15. Rampart

Notes on the Top Four:

1. A Late Quartet

“A Late Quartet,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Christopher Walken as world-famous classical musicians, is a magnificent film, the best of 2012.

It is completely mystifying why it was not on anyone’s top 10 list. I don’t believe it has received a single nomination for any award either. Completely, completely baffling. Watching America ignore great films is always bizarre, but in this case it may be the most astonishing instance I have ever seen.

When I first saw “A Late Quartet,” I was reminded of “In the Bedroom” (2001). From out of nowhere, an unknown filmmaker explodes onto the world-cinema stage with a quiet, elegant, highly intelligent near-masterpiece. This is only the second film for Israeli-born writer/director Yaron Zilberman, and his first non-documentary. He is a major new talent.

How could this film be ignored in America? My only explanation is that America is in a very strange cultural period where favoritism is shown to big-budget studio pictures, with some willingness to pay attention to the art-house only if a big-name distributer is involved, such as The Weinstein Company. There has to be a fairly large corporation involved with the film, or Americans will ignore it. “A Late Quartet” was distributed in the US by Entertainment One (eOne), a small outfit that I’ve never heard of, with little to no advertising budget.

Another possibility is due to the fact that Zilberman is Israeli-born. One of the signature characteristics of Americans is their discomfort with “foreigners.” But certain nationalities feel more foreign than others. No Israeli film has ever become a mainstream hit in America, thus any Israeli associations will make a film feel esoteric and marginal. Even though “Quartet” was filmed in New York and had an almost completely American cast, the film still had an international aura that may have contributed to its failure to break through.

Finally, and this may be the decisive issue, the subject of the film is classical music, a topic that has long intimidated Americans, especially today in this philistine era.

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“A Late Quartet” focuses on four individuals who make up a string quartet that is approaching its 20th anniversary. The stresses and strains of, in a sense, being married to each other for 20 years are starting to show.

One of the many things I love about the film is that its characters go through the same kind of struggles that you and I go through. Adultery, lust, career advancement, jealousy, cross-generational relationships, juggling career and family, youth, aging, illness, death, cruelty toward those you love the most.

These are just some of the themes explored in “A Late Quartet,” and yet it doesn’t seem over-stuffed. The film breathes, flowing with the normal rhythms of everyday life. Zilberman is such a master filmmaker (writer, director, editor) that he doesn’t waste a second. Every move the film makes has meaning. Every turn of a corner involves a gentle revelation of what this quasi-family is going through, secrets revealed in the quiet, understated way of great chamber music.

As a backdrop to the musicians’ life struggles, there are numerous reflections on Beethoven’s difficult life. (The quartet specializes “late Beethoven,” the challenging, dense music the composer wrote in his last few years of life.) This provides beautiful resonance with other time periods, expanding the reach of the film.

2. Django Unchained

What Quentin Tarantino did (gloriously) for Jews with his last film, “Inglourious Basterds,” he now does for blacks with the brilliant, innovative, and explosively entertaining “Django Unchained,” the second-best film of 2012. The film’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture was well deserved — ditto for its Screenwriting, Cinematography, and Acting nominations.

Whereas “Inglourious” was a Jewish revenge fantasy that ended with a massacre of Nazis, “Django” depicts a slave turning the tables on one of the sickest plantation owners in 1858 Mississippi. Let’s just say that a lot of bad people are killed in the end, and it’s done magnificently. No one does a kill scene with more gusto and meaning than Tarantino.

Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a slave who is purchased and then freed by a German bounty hunter named King Schultz. Christoph Waltz plays Schultz with delicious panache. (Waltz, an Austrian character actor, won an Oscar for his eerie, remarkable performance in “Inglourious” and is now nominated for his work in “Django.”)

Tarantino brilliantly uses music to punctuate the many adventures that Django and Schultz have. I honestly can’t remember ever enjoying music in a non-musical movie as much as I did in “Django.” Tarantino is known for his use of little-known 1960s soul songs, and he uses those here quite a bit. But he also uses rap and a few other genres to great effect.

The cinematography is also breathtaking. In the first half of the film, there are many scenes filmed outdoors (in Wyoming). It’s not exactly innovative. It’s fairly traditional Western photography, but the best example of it that I’ve seen since “Brokeback Mountain.” It may be the first time an African-American character has been shown against a classic Western backdrop. I loved that. In so many ways, black history is being made by this film.

The overall art direction, including sets and costumes, is also top-notch. Tarantino has become an overall movie craftsman of the highest order. He’s always been known as a snarky screenwriter, but he’s become much more than this. His overall command of the cinematic medium is now rivalling that of Hitchcock.

“Django Unchained” is a grand epic, nearly three hours, that goes by faster than most 90-minute movies. It contains so much content, presented in such an entertaining way, that it felt like three movies in one. You always get your money’s worth at a Tarantino flick.

3. Killer Joe

“Killer Joe,” from director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist,” “Cruising”), is a tough movie to watch. It more than deserved its NC-17 rating. It is a brutal depiction of human depravity. It is also Friedkin’s best film in decades, an uncompromising and serious work of art, and the third-best film of 2012.

A family of trailer-park trash hires a hitman (Matthew McConaughey) to off one of their members. As part of the deal, they force their 12-year-old daughter (played by Juno Temple in a daring performance) to provide sexual services for the assassin. Yes, it’s stomach turning. But things get even darker when a double cross occurs, and the eponymous assassin has to get to the bottom of it.

Based on a play by Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”), the script effectively uses comedy to blunt some of the impact of the horror. “Killer Joe” could be described as a black comedy. But Friedkin, as he is wont to do, depicts a good amount of the brutality in a realistic, non-comedic way. So the comedy only lightens the atmosphere to a degree. Friedkin wants you to squirm, as well he should.

The direction is crisp and brilliant almost from start to finish. The actors all know exactly what they’re doing. The cinematography is suitably dank and lurid. Every shot is interestingly composed. The screenplay bristles with creativity and punch. The editing is a tour de force, moving everything along at an exhilarating pace.

Special mention has to be made of Matthew McConaughey and the extraordinary year he had. In 2012, he did Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” then Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike,” and finally an art-house film with an NC-17 rating. Three very unusual films, and he brought fearlessness and skill to all the performances. In 2012, he essentially turned himself back into a serious actor, after a decade of forgettable work in ultra-mainstream fare. Welcome back to the world of serious acting, Mr. McConaughey. If you keep this up, I expect you’ll have an Oscar within three or four years. You may not have gotten any nominations in 2012, but everyone who’s serious about cinema noticed your work this year. 

4. Lincoln

“Lincoln” is a quietly moving, serious film for grown-ups. It has its flaws, chiefly that it’s too worshipful of its subject. Director Steven Spielberg lays on the hagiography thick. But it is a true artistic achievement, packed with content that offers much to think about regarding the path of American history.

The central story line focuses on the extremely difficult campaign to pass the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery. The film looks at this legislative campaign in terrific detail.

I’ve never seen a film sink its teeth into complex legislative machinations, much less do it in an entertaining way. Even though one already knows how it turns out, the House vote is still a nail-biter. Spielberg also effectively conveys the momentousness of the vote. It’s hard to imagine how history would have turned out if the 13th Amendment had not passed, and it easily could have gone the other way. The amendment passed the House by a razor-thin margin.

But what I really appreciate about “Lincoln” is that it operates on several other levels as well. Its principal concern is the 13th Amendment, but it elegantly explores a range of minor themes as well. Sally Field delivers an arresting, unpretty, thought-provoking performance as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd. She is presented as fiercely intelligent, deeply engaged with the war and the general political issues of the day, and shattered by the tragic death of her 11-year-old son, William.

Other minor female characters are also looked at in an illuminating way. The film seems to say that while American women weren’t voting in the 19th century, they certainly weren’t on the political sidelines. They participated forthrightly in political discussions and had a major role in determining the course of history. Their husbands and sons may have been the ones voting, but to a large degree the family decided together how the men would vote. I love the film’s overall approach to women.

The almost complete absence of African-American characters is a bitter disappointment. The subject is slavery, for goodness sake. No slave characters? Mrs. Lincoln’s black maid does have some weight as a character, but that’s about it. She has one beautiful scene where Lincoln asks her if she is fearful of what’s going to happen to “her people” if freedom comes. In that exchange, one sees how awesomely transformative abolition was. No one knew what life would feel like in the new day. What would black people do? How would white and black people live side by side for the first time? Would black men have to be given the vote? What impact would that have?

The open-endedness of this awed Lincoln, even frightened him from time to time. Early in the film he has a dream, a sequence strikingly presented by Spielberg. Lincoln is alone on the deck of a large ship barreling forward at warp speed, powered by some other-worldly engine. He stands alone in the cold night, struggling to maintain courage as he races into an unknown future.


William Dunmyer

 
William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.