My friend Spencer reminded me of something yesterday: Well, I’m still anxiously awaiting your top 10 list. I saw you were waiting for Amour (I read your blog). I thought Amour was personally very cold for a movie about love, but I did think it was good. He went on to say that his personal favorite is Argo (which was such a satisfying film to watch), and he is right that it is high time I make the commitment to ten films!
As a reminder from me to you, this is not to be confused with a list of films I think are the “best” of the past year or films that I think should win Oscars. These are films that I enjoyed and/or appreciated the most over the last year, films that particularly moved or engaged me. So, in alphabetical order, here they are!
Argo – Ben Affleck’s story is extremely well-crafted. It sounds crazy, but this is a true story about a CIA operative who poses as a movie producer on a location scout to liberate six American foreign service employees who escaped from the American Embassy in Iran when it was taken over by protesters in 1979. Knowing the story is real makes parts of it more entertaining; knowing the outcome for the seven trying to get out of Iran does not diminish the drama of the situation. Well-done!
Anna Karenina – I liked Anna Karenina, which presents a bold vision for the novel that is much more an interpretation than a traditional adaptation of the type that are often so respectful of the source material that there is not enough attention by creators to the ways films and novels differ as mediums. I love the look of the film, both the overtly staged sequences and those photographed on realistic sets. Both are just dazzling and work thematically. While not a perfect film, it is ever so interesting and engaging if approached with an open mind.
Amour – Amour is a startling love story, but it really shouldn’t be. Romantic love has many stages and facets, and Michael Haneke, characteristically, chooses to shed light on the type of story that has not been told in many films – what might happen to two people deeply and companionably in love over many years when the aging process suddenly catches up with them. Haneke’s films suggest emotional truths with so much particularity that words alone or stagecraft or music or any other art form I can think of could not achieve the same level of exploration presented onscreen in these stories. Haneke uses all the elements of film in careful combination to maximize the potential of the medium.
Chasing Ice – Chasing Ice chronicles James Balog’s incredible photographic quest to document the shrinking of glaciers in different countries. Amazing visuals and a strong story to go along with them. I particularly like the combination of science, art/beauty, and personal obstacles faced by Balog.
Lincoln – Often I find Steven Spielberg’s films too manipulative, melodramatic, and sentimental. Not so with Lincoln. Maybe it’s the tempering effect of facts suggested by the source material (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book), or the screenplay by Tony Kushner, or the understated performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. The lighting and composition are lovely. The production design strikes the right note. The supporting cast is more than fine. The result is a film that deals with important issues in a serious, respectful way that elicits admiration if not passion. And, if the price for passion is manipulation, melodrama, and an excess of sentiment, I’m glad to forego it. Lincoln is a useful film that feels topical because of its attention to political process and how much of that we continue to scrutinize (well, at least those of us who are news and politics junkies).
Rust and Bone – Marion Cotillard must be one of the finest actors working. I have not seen her co-star Matthias Schoenaerts before, but he, too, is wonderful in this film. The story is raw. The look is gritty. Basically, this is a story of coming to terms. Two very different characters overcome huge obstacles – hers mainly external and his mainly internal – to connect with one another. Some people will see Rust and Bone as tragic and relentless, but I prefer to see it as sad but ultimately hopeful. There is more to life than endurance and survival, though those skills are called upon for all of us in varying degrees at different times. Sometimes it takes the direst of circumstances to create an opportunity for an emotional breakthrough.
Silver Linings Playbook – Silver Linings Playbook is a story about two troubled adults trying to find a suitable and sustainable equilibrium. The cast is terrific. I am a fan of Jennifer Lawrence since Winter’s Bone (possibly my favorite film of 2010), have never thought much about Bradley Cooper before but will after this, and Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and others are equally memorable. I think writer-director David O. Russell is enormously talented and remain particularly fond of his 2010 film The Fighter. That film, along with some others he has made, are easy for me to analyze in an appreciative, heartfelt way but with a level of emotional distance I had to work to achieve with Silver Linings Playbook. There is one moment in the film that I keep thinking about more than the others. When Pat’s father (played by Robert DeNiro) says to him: “You gotta pay attention to signs. When life reaches out with a moment like this, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back,” I was nearly moved to tears, though not the happy kind.
Skyfall – Fifty years a classic, indeed. What do you need to know about Skyfall? The set-up should be pretty familiar, but the film is uncommonly good. I’ve enjoyed it more than any Bond picture since Casino Royale (2006) and more than a great many before that. The story is clear, the dialogue crisp, the gadgets updated and understated, the pacing keeps moving at a good clip, and the performances are good. Terrific fun, and it makes me want to be back in the UK. (I do think Daniel Craig, bless his heart, needs suits that fit a little better – pants not quite so short and jackets not so snug across the shoulders. Maybe it’s just me.)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – I like both the book and the movie, though they are quite different in tone. The book is more intellectual, and the movie is a little sweeter. Stephen Chbosky wrote the novel, adapted it into the screenplay, and directed the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. There is little point in discussing the plot. This is a coming of age story. It is familiar to all of us either because parts of it reflect our own experiences or the experiences of our friends. This should not be read as a criticism, however. When such stories are told well, they resonate with us no matter what our age, and this story is told well both in written form and in visual form. The production design is real enough to feel authentic but not overdone with “look at me” nods to period. The cinematography is a little grainy and a little soft, just like a memory. The shallow depth of field emphasizes the characters and their feelings instead of the period props and settings. That look matches the context of youth when fitting in seems the most important goal to teenagers, and feelings have an intensity that has yet to be tempered by time and experience. The Perks of Being a Wallflower looks like nostalgia but feels like survival.
The Sessions – Love is an eternal mystery. What makes us fall in love with another person? What makes that feeling endure even, sometimes, when it is unrequited? At times, I wish I understood these mysteries and knew what the future would bring, and other times think it’s better to accept that some things are beyond understanding and just hope for the best. It’s not just me. I don’t think anyone knows the answers, really, but the questions are worth exploring. The Sessions presents me with a version of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) who knows love in its frustrating and fulfilling forms. I don’t think his movie life much resembles his actual life (see the documentary Breathing Lessons), but I feel the connection between this character and the women he loves, including his sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), and none of their scenes together are the least bit off-putting to me because I see the nudity and sex as essential to developing character and, even more, connection. As I said, this film moved me. I went to see it with a sense of obligation and left with something much more, a sense of possibility and hope.
It was surprisingly easy for me to compile the list this year, and I’m not second-guessing myself (like the year I left off I Am Love only to regret it ever since). There are only a handful of movies I thought about including that didn’t make the list.
Hopefully, it will be a harder task next year because that will mean more films that move me…looking forward to seeing what 2013 brings in terms of movies!