This year's list of my favorite movies is brought to you by Matthew McConaughey, who suddenly remembered that what he's really good at is not mainstream romantic comedies, but oddball indies by really awesome directors where he gets to unleash his inner manic lovable freak and/or wear a leather thong. He was the single best thing about movies this past year.
But here are my actual favorite movies--five of them:
Zero Dark Thirty
The best thing I've ever seen about America and the people fighting our War on Terror. A tense and exciting revenge procedural with taut, thrilling action scenes, no-nonsense acting, and characters and story that are made of determination and brains, but with an undercurrent of sadness and horror. This movie shows us the complicated problem of torture and revenge and bravely lets us figure out how to deal with it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
An original, fantastical movie about a fictitious place in southern Louisiana, threatened by storms, floods, a government that's alternately intrusive and indifferent, and giant mythical bison creatures, and the wonderful misfits who live there. I feel more strongly about Hushpuppy than any other movie character this year, and the scene where the renegade little girls from the Bathtub find the offshore brothel and dance with the ladies to Fats Waller is my #1 favorite scene.
In a slavery-era double feature with Lincoln, Django would be the wild, radical, bloody inferno to Lincoln's measured, determined plod. But the same moral outrage at the horror of slavery is at the center of both. Django just has a lot more style and magnetism. Plus, it's so much more satisfying to see a powerful black hero avenging his own exploitation than a bunch of Senators dithering. I can't wait to see it again.
A movie about a married couple dealing with aging, the loss of faculties, and death that doesn't pull any punches, but somehow isn't depressing at all. It's brutal, beautiful, and sad. Just by casting Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as the couple, two romantic icons of 1960's French cinema now in their 80's, Michael Haneke says so much about the reality of love, beyond passion and romance.
Wes Anderson really turns the twee up to 11 in this one, but it works. The conviction of those two 12 year-olds in love is simultaneously cute and steely. Beautiful, irresistible.
And here are some more movies I loved:
The first of the two White Limo movies of 2012, Holy Motors features Denis Lavant transforming himself into nine different characters in a series of convincing but inexplicable "appointments", performances for an unknown audience. I guess the audience is us? This one is totally captivating and exciting, a statement about identity and performance and also a lesson in the power of real cinematic acting and technique over CGI and artificiality.
The other White Limo movie, this one with a surprisingly compelling Rob Pattinson being driven across Manhattan on 47th Street trying to hang onto his unfathomable wealth while all hell breaks loose in the outside world. David Cronenberg adapted Don DeLillo's book and made it better, funnier, and more unsettling.
Jack Black and real-life small town Texans in a fascinating look at how a close-knit community can support its most beloved members so fervently that even if they kill someone, maybe it's sort of OK.
The Cabin in the Woods
One of the smartest genre movies of the year, this one rewards horror fans with a gleeful fire hose blast of all the coolest stuff from every horror movie you've ever seen. A really fun time.
The Queen of Versailles
Everything that's bad about American consumerist values in an intimate look at a rich family becoming somewhat less rich. It would be so easy to cast this family as trashy irresponsible morons, but the movie takes an approach more like sympathetic disbelief. We can't seem to hear this message enough: money doesn't buy happiness.
This sure is a beautiful movie to look at, but I sometimes struggled to see past all the Very Serious Acting going on to get at something like meaning. I also thought Amy Adams was distractingly terrible. But then there are moments like PSH singing "On a Slow Boat to China" that are transcendent and mysteriously great. I don't know if I get it, or how much there is to get, but it's good on some level, so it's on the list.
And here's a bunch of other ones that I really liked:
Flight (Denzel is so great)
How to Survive a Plague
Not Fade Away
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Oslo, August 31st
Red Hook Summer (the most uneven movie I saw this year: Clarke Peters is phenomenal, other actors are almost unwatchable)
A few disappointments:
The Dictator: not funny enough
Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman had it, maybe lost it. Too wry and winking for its own good.
Silver Linings Playbook: I cannot figure out why people think this is good. It starts as an interesting unconventional love story, but ends up a by-the-book painfully cheeseball rom-com, and "character development" is little more than a series of gestures and catchphrases each character says or does over and over again with no variation. Really sloppy.
The one movie I most wish I had seen is This is Not a Film, the Iranian sort-of-documentary by a filmmaker under house arrest, forbidden from making movies.
What good movies did you see that I missed?
Here's the list from 2011.