An eclectic mix of animation, festival favorites and grimy genre films makes up numbers 20-11 of my top films of the year. Stay tuned for the Top 10 later, but in the meantime you can pad out your Netflix queue with some of these 2012 gems.
21 Jump Street is the funniest film of the year and a good example of how to smartly make dumb comedies. The film largely succeeds on the likeability of its pair of in-over-their-heads undercover cops—Jonah Hill, and especially Channing Tatum, who had a breakout year—but the film shows a bit more wit and intelligence than we’ve come to expect from this brand of comedy (see: The Campaign). Take, for example, the breezy establishment of the pair’s unlikely friendship and the social changes they experience living through high school a second time.
Tarantino’s savage revenge sagas always leave me uncomfortable with the brazen bloodlust on display, but damned if they’re not visceral fun. This clever mash-up of spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation is no exception, and while Django Unchained doesn’t have the weight or impeccable craft of Inglourious Basterds, it benefits from its scruffy exterior. It’s talky and way too long, but stuffed with so much that it’s hard not to appreciate Tarantino’s confidence and audacity.
Like Django Unchained, The Paperboy too arrives to us in 2012 with all the grain and grime of a sweaty 70s exploitation film. This pulpy tale of a Southern sexpot’s attempts to free a dangerous murder convict rides a fine line between outrageous pastiche and genuine drama, and though it swings wildly and unpredictably in each direction, the results always seem appropriate. Daniels succeeds were other retro genre exercises fail (Grindhouse, Hobo With a Shotgun) by dragging his 70s aesthetic through these unexpected tonal shifts.
Fans of Taken expecting to see Liam Neeson punching wolfs were in for a surprise with The Grey. Instead of a macho action movie, they got a deeply melancholic look at mortality and a more nuanced take on the brand of masculinity that we’re used to seeing portrayed on screen. Carnahan accomplishes a lot with a relatively small budget, making us feel the bite of the cold and the gradual evaporation of hope the film’s party of plane crash survivors experiences. Carnahan has couched a big question within a thrilling allegory: how will we face death when it arrives?
Written by anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, The Secret World of Arriety is a beautiful antidote to overstuffed Hollywood animation. The film adopts the languid pace of the lazy summer afternoons Sean spends searching for the tiny “borrowers” who live in his walls, and its slow pace allows small moments of wonder to arise quietly and subtly. Yonebayashi’s expert manipulation of sound and space to convey the shifts in perspective between the world of humans and the world of the miniature people testifies to the film’s graceful approach to storytelling.
More than a film about drug addiction, Oslo, August 31st captures the existential suffocation we all feel at some point in our lives. The film follows recovering addict Anders (skillfully played by Anders Danielsen Lie) through one day of temptation, but the stories of Anders’ acquaintances from his past life are equally telling. Whether we succumb to substance abuse or settle down and start a family, no one is immune to the feeling that our life may not have gone as planned. Oslo, August 31st harrowingly asks how we cope with that fact.
Red Hook Summer was much maligned by critics, but I felt invigorated by Lee’s emotional and tactile style, and the film offers a glimpse at a far more expanded range of cinematic expression than most films embrace. As a result, some moments may feel flat or misguided, but that’s a small price to pay for originality. Lee’s astutely observed chronicle of teenage Flik’s summer spent with his pastor grandfather in Brooklyn uses any means necessary to capture small moments of truth—albeit heightened and abstracted—among the members of this community: anachronistic music choices, humor, melodrama and, most strikingly, 16mm footage. We need Lee’s vitality and sensitivity now more than ever.
David France’s documentary captures the passion and immediacy of the advocates at Act Up and TAG who tirelessly fought for government action during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. Created largely from archival footage, How to Survive a Plague breathes new life into these old, grainy video images and allows the tenacity and vitality of its protagonists to leap off the screen. It’s an incredibly emotional story of dignity in the face of ostracism and death, but France’s achievements are as much aesthetic as they are moral and political.
At the start of This Is Not a Film, filmmaker Jafar Panahi, under house arrest for propaganda against the Iranian government, faces a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking. By the end of this deceptively simple video diary, he’s used an iPhone camera and anything else at his disposal to attest to the primal human need for self-expression, as well as the sadness and loss when that need is denied. More than a document of political protest, however, This Is Not a Film powerfully shows that art’s raw materials are all around us, and can be seen without even stepping outside the apartment.
The 10-year search for Osama Bin Laden, as dramatized in Zero Dark Thirty, hinged on luck, fate, chance encounters and diligent intelligence work. It’s far from a glamorous process, and Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal wisely focus their attention on the details and procedure that lay between the 9/11 attacks and the killing of Bin Laden. The film sees many other players come and go, but it remains the story of Jessica Chastain’s CIA operative. Despite all of Chastain’s screentime, however, we’re not given easy psychology, but instead slowly realize that she has given everything to this search, even her identity.