There’s never enough time — and less and less every year, as both responsibilities that swallow it and choices for how to spend it seem to keep growing exponentially. And that changes one’s outlook on things. A week or so ago I went to see Texas Chainsaw, having read some reasonably favorable reviews from some smart folks, and having been promised that the last act held some sort of intriguing break from convention. It proved to be a terrible film, hacky and ugly and lazy and inert, and there was a time when I would have checked it off on my screening log and moved on considering myself enriched by the experience. Now I thought about the myriad other ways I could have put those two hours to use, and it rankled me. Even small-scale regrets can sting.
So you start to think about this stuff differently. Like, yes, I could have gone to see The Guilt Trip last weekend, and I like Seth Rogen, and Dan Fogelman wrote Crazy, Stupid, Love, and by my reckoning there was at least a fighting chance that the thing could have been a pleasant surprise. But there were other movies to see, and not just movies, but books to read, and food to eat, and people to talk to, and work to do. The actuarial table tells me I only have like 200,000 Guilt Trips left in me. Am I really going to spend one of them watching The Guilt Trip?
I kind of wrote about this last year too, but I’m feeling this way more and more, and I wonder if my days seeing 200+ films per year are numbered by more than the aforementioned actuarial table. Then again, I’m planning to drive to San Rafael tonight to see the foreign language Oscar submissions from Belgium and South Korea, so who the hell knows. I’ll tell you this much: I’m not watching A Haunted House.
Here’s what elicited some sort of reaction from me in 2012.
The Worst Movie I Saw
One result of trying hard to avoid wasting time on the irredeemably useless is that when you fail, you often feel betrayed by deceptive marketing or someone else’s taste. But I probably have no one but myself to blame for attempting Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, a remake so completely devoid of imagination, it somehow ignored every single strange and interesting thing in its source material, leaving a soulless two-hour blob of greyish-beige blech, without a single memorable line, image, or plot point.
The Annual Listing of Movies You Probably Ignored But Shouldn’t Have
Battleship (Peter Berg) – Kind of my pet movie this year, Berg’s complete and total upstaging of Michael Bay is clever, skillful and efficient.
We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti) – Not really about Catholicism so much as about a man taking stock of who he really is. Weirdly funny and very good, with a stunner of an ending.
Entrance (Dallas Richard Hallam & Patrick Horvath) – A hugely promising first feature conveys urban alienation through purely formal means.
Lovely Molly (Eduardo Sanchez) – The year’s single most bone-chilling image comes from this weighty, dead-serious horror film from a director of The Blair Witch Project.
Red Lights (Rodrigo Cortes) – I’m convinced that Cortes is one of the most compelling new voices in genre cinema. Red Lights is goofy as all hell, but it’s so fascinatingly weird — and has so many stand-alone bravura sequences — that its wholesale critical dismissal was unconscionable.
The Oranges (Julian Farino) – Mean and very funny comedy of suburban discontent avoids the cliches of the genre.
The Possession (Ole Bornedal) – This was released in close proximity to the similarly-titled (and, by all accounts, truly terrible) The Apparition and more or less got lost, but it’s a slick and very enjoyable demonic-possession flick in the vein of Drag Me to Hell.
The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry) – Positioned somewhere between Baumbach (whom I generally quite like) and Solondz (whom I absolutely can’t stand), this minimalist dramedy about a pair of bickering twenty-something siblings on a road trip is an acerbic and insightful study of two broken people who complete each other against their will.
Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie) – A sci-fi high concept processed through the brilliant mind of Mackenzie, who continues to be among my favorite indie stylists.
Return (Liza Johnson) – Moving home-from-the-war drama offers Linda Cardellini her meatiest role since Freaks and Geeks.
For Ellen (So Young Kim) – A live-wire performance from Paul Dano anchors an excellent film about a depressed musician attempting to salvage something of his life and youth.
Pusher (Luis Prieto) – Urgent, propulsive thriller about a drug dealer in trouble. Apparently it’s just a flashier remake of the Nicolas Winding Refn movie of the same name, which I haven’t seen; it stands perfectly well on its own.
Sleepless Night (Frederic Jardin) – When people ask me about The Raid, I recommend this instead.
My Favorite Performance of the Year
It’s not that I ever disliked Rachel Weisz, but I never had an inkling that she was capable of the kind of performance she gives in The Deep Blue Sea as a woman who has entirely surrendered to regret and pain. It’s one of the most truthful and wrenching portrayals of emotional anguish I’ve ever seen.
In alphabetical order: Amour, Ballplayer: Pelotero, Bernie, Brooklyn Castle, Chronicle, Cloud Atlas, Compliance, Cosmopolis, The Dark Knight Rises, For Ellen, Holy Motors, Keep the Lights On, Killer Joe, Lincoln, The Loneliest Planet, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Oslo, August 31st, Paranorman, Perfect Sense, Promised Land, Pusher, Return, This is 40, 21 Jump Street, We Have a Pope
The Top 11 (Which Used to Be a Top 10 Until the Appearance of a Late-Breaking Entrant)
- Declaration of War(Valerie Donzelli) – A “based on true events” cancer movie, written by, directed by, and starring the person who lived through the true events (along with her real-life partner) — this would usually be a signal for discerning moviegoers to run screaming in the other direction. But with Declaration of War, Donzelli distills her trying life experience into cinema: intensely visual, restless, and full of unforgettable heightened little details. (In a different universe, Beatrice de Stael is up for Best Supporting Actress for her inimitable bit part as a weary, sympathetic pediatrician.) There’s been lots of talk about the grandiose final shot of Beasts of the Southern Wild; for my money, this film’s similarly triumphant ending beats it handily.
- Sound of My Voice(Zal Batmanglij) – I saw it at SXSW back in March 2011 and was as wowed by it as I was irritated with Brit Marling’s other screenwriting effort, Another Earth. It’s a very minor, single-minded little thriller, and I make no grand claims other than that it’s riveting, sometimes hilarious, and genuinely surprising. If you decide to check it out based on my rave (and you should!), know that I’m much more willing than most people to elevate expert genre exercises like this one; adjust expectations accordingly.
- Prometheus(Ridley Scott) – Yes, yes, I know about [insert any of the gazillion plot nitpicks that have surfaced], and I don’t care. Shut up. I cant think of a movie to which complaints about unanswered questions or vague backstories are less relevant than to this brilliant sci-fi opus that takes unanswered questions and vague backstories as its subject. It’s a film about the importance of grand mysteries; at its core is the chilling suggestion that if we ever found out the (likely trivial) truth about the origins of our species and our universe, our existence would lose meaning, and we would become as selfish, embittered, and miserable as Michael Fassbender’s malevolent android.
- Fightville (Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein) – My favorite documentary filmmakers take on MMA with their typical insight, compassion, and impeccable craft. Saw this at SXSW 2011 and it’s stayed with me ever since, even sparking an interest in a sport I used to think was for meatheads and losers. Criminally underexposed.
- Lawless (John Hillcoat) – Hillcoat’s most mainstream, digestible film; not as much of a gut-punch as The Road, but a consummate Hollywood pleasure, colorful and otherworldly (Tom Hardy’s mumbling gentleman badass is an amazing creation, and Guy Pearce’s mincing dandy of a villain is up there too), beautiful, gracefully constructed, hugely engaging on a primal what-happens-next level, and just all-around wonderful. The most Oscar-y movie on this list, though of course it came nowhere near any nominations.
- The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield) – A miracle that this even exists, since it began as a no doubt far less interesting project about the construction of the largest private home in the States, until the financial collapse turned it into not only a perfect microcosm of the broader economic crisis, but also the year’s most productively squirmy movie experience. Watching the Cohens’ opulent world almost literally decay before our eyes is a truly wicked combination of satisfying and uncomfortable.
- Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev) – Zvyagintsev’s brooding, almost inexplicably tense brand of slow-burn applied to a juicy morality play and a nuanced commentary about why Russia is, by most accounts, a deeply unpleasant place to live. Elena and The Return mark Zvyagintsev a master at wrapping thorny, heady conceits in beguiling genre trappings; Elena‘s inescapable “Slow Russian Drama” label naturally kept it from doing any real business, but don’t be intimidated: this is one of the most purely enjoyable films on this list.
- Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims & Jason Tippet) – This is a 70-minute documentary about bored Christian teen skateboarders in Santa Clarita who do absolutely nothing in any conventional way remarkable during the course of the film. And it is stunning and exhilarating and I wanted to watch it forever. The film has aesthetic virtues far beyond what virtually all documentaries — even the other ones on this list — aspire to, but it’s mostly a clinic in how riveting and affecting a simple portrait of ordinary people can be when drawn with curiosity and compassion.
- The Kid with a Bike(Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne) – I had only seen Lorna’s Silence prior to The Kid with a Bike, and the latter spurred me to finally catch up with the Dardennes’ entire filmography. It’s a remarkable body of work, but Kid may remain my favorite, perhaps because Cyril seems like the most empathetically drawn character in their ouvre, and because it’s also, somehow, a more concise and forceful treatise on moral responsibility than even La Promesse. The ending is perfect.
- Looper (Rian Johnson) – Here’s the year’s most heartening success story: Box Office Mojo has Looper budgeted at $30 million, and grossing $166 million worldwide, and hey, maybe that means there’s still room in Hollywood for mid-budget genre films from smart, ambitious auteurs with creative control. This sci-fi puzzler is a thing of beauty, thematically rich and emotionally resonant on top of its brilliantly mind-bending core.
- The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies) – Michael Haneke’s Amour seems to have been proclaimed 2012’s definitive love-is-suffering movie, but for my money, Davies’ shattering film, which calls the bluff of smelling-salt romances the world over, is both more painful and more cinematic. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at fiction where a character claims not to be able to live without his/her love, then genuflect before The Deep Blue Sea, which shows you, with peerless economy and through a towering performance by Rachel Weisz, how a human person might get to that point.