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The Top 10 Movies of 2012

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A scene from “The Turin Horse” / Courtesy of Cinema Guild

One of the recurrent topics in critical discourse this year concerned the death or moribundity of cinema, a theme that was belied by the quality of many of the movies released. The crop of 2012 was a bumper crop, whether your taste is for the arty or the commercial, or somewhere in between. Although I couldn’t find a space in my top 10 for them, I derived pleasure, worry, and/or insight from films as diverse as “Skyfall,” “Django Unchained,” “Compliance,” “Goodbye, First Love,” “Wuthering Heights,” “This Is Not a Film,” “The Loneliest Planet,” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” (At press time, I hadn’t seen “Zero Dark Thirty,” so the list below is subject to change.)

Of course, it’s accurate that film as a recording and delivery medium has been outmoded by digital technology and will eventually become as obsolete as vinyl and darkroom photography, which means it will survive on the fringes of the industry and in the hands of experimentalists, amateurs, and purists who favor celluloid’s supposed capacity for greater expressivity.

The “film is dead” mantra, scarcely new, is partially a response to the decline of mainstream Hollywood cinema, a result of computer generated imagery tainting blockbuster movies with their images of the impossible and frankly ridiculous. Ingenuity and sensationalism now hold sway over intelligence and resonance. But wasn’t it ever the case, except perhaps in the 1930s and during the creative ferment of the 1970s?

There is a lot to enjoy in “The Hobbit,” and I have no complaints about its length, but it’s marred by its elaborate CGI set pieces (such as the running rope-ladder battle between Orcs and Dwarves) that defy credibility, the demystifying clarity resulting from the 48 frames-per-second projection rate, and by 3D. Whereas Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films are immersive, “The Hobbit” constantly reminds you that you’re in a movie theater; plus they’re beautiful, which “The Hobbit” isn’t.

A more exacting and frightening vision of the imperiled world and the nature of human existence is “The Turin Horse,” the film that the Hungarian director Béla Tarr has said will be his last. Head and shoulders above anything else I saw in 2012, it’s the almost silent black and white story of an old farmer, his daughter, and a carthorse facing the end of the world, possibly the result of a climactic catastrophe, on their remote farm. (The horse may or may not be the one whose flaying by a hansom cab driver supposedly broke the spirit of Friedrich Nietzsche in Turin in 1889.) Read my review here.

Miguel Gomes’s “Tabu” and Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” – numbers three and four in my Top 10 – both engage with film’s mutability, the former with fond nostalgia for old Hollywood’s great white hunter movies, the second with a mixture of romanticism, bitterness, and Dadaist wit. Carax’s triumphant return was thrilling.

A scene from “Tabu” / Courtesy of Adopt Films

The three American films on my list – Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” – prove that the domestic mainstream cinema justifies its existence. Implicitly reflecting the turbulence of post-war America, “The Master” is a philosophical conundrum about the will to power, family dynamics, lost love, shamanism, and the search for transcendence. P.T. Anderson, it suggests, is an heir to Orson Welles.

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Master”

A towering memorial to the 16th President’s integrity and political guile, “Lincoln” is a reminder that when Spielberg reins in his tendency to pictorialize, like John Ford he becomes a greater artist. “Moonrise Kingdom,” a sweet paean to the stirrings of adolescence, is its maker’s most satisfying film.

Movies survive! Here’s the list:

  1. The Turin Horse
  2. The Master
  3. Tabu
  4. Holy Motors
  5. Lincoln
  6. Amour
  7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  8. The Deep Blue Sea
  9. Moonrise Kingdom
  10. The Kid With a Bike

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