For the first time in 31 years, Spielberg is firing on all cylinders. Lincoln signals the return of a major voice in cinema, a voice that could may just be the strongest of his own generation. There is no denying it, Lincoln is a masterpiece that may not be considered fully to some now, but will be in the history books. Through the extreme focus on two months of the life of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg unearths the myth of Lincoln by fleshing out the man completely which could of not been done were it not for Tony Kushner’s masterful screenplay (one I would consider to be one of the best of all time) and the impressive completely lived-in performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (which is by far the best performance he has ever given). The film begins with a dream that is a manifestation of Lincoln’s guilt over not pushing the issue of passing the 13th Amendment sooner. We see two sets of soldiers (one white, one black) presented in front of Lincoln who argue the merits of Lincoln’s presidency. A challenge is set forth as one of the black soldiers walks away, reciting Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. In this five minute scene, everything we need to know is set up for the story to delve into the bloody, dirty political battle over the passing of the 13th Amendment. Even though we know the outcome, the scenes with the congress rank to be the most thrilling of the year and the most thrilling of Spielberg’s career which does not lack in thrill at all. Kushner and Spielberg go into some uncharted territory though, showing that Lincoln himself was not afraid of getting his hands dirty in order to abolish slavery. The question of “do the ends justify the means” is present in every one of these scenes because it is quite apparent that Lincoln himself is thinking about this. It is an unanswerable question that American politicians have struggled for decades to answer, coming to no easy conclusion. Kushner pushes through other uncharted territory as we uncover Abe’s difficulty at dealing with family life as shown through his emotional distance to his wife and children. Daniel Day’s dedication to the role is astonishing; after a outrageously over-the-top performance in There Will Be Blood, he is incredibly understated, building an impenetrable wall on his face that no character in the film can fight their way through. The key to Lincoln is that he opens himself up through his anecdotes and stories that will later serve as his points in a political argument. As a film maker whose films span five decades and countless productions, I see that Spielberg’s story is very much Lincoln’s. Both are fully blooded Americans who struggle to relate to society in conventional means – they must cling themselves to stories and anecdotes to get through the painful parts of life and to ultimately open themselves to other people. Abe himself is shown many times bonding with his younger son Tad which correlates to Spielberg’s own auteur stamp of showing stories through the perspective of children. Lincoln and Spielberg are both hopelessly connected to their children and their inner child which brings an endless child-like wonder to their own world respective worlds. Lincoln is a truly transcendent experience in the way that it brings everything that I love about cinema and Spielberg together in a truly masterful way. It is the best film of 2012 and it is, without a doubt, the best film Steven Spielberg has ever made.
02- This is Not a Film
Of all of the films on this list, This is Not a Film is truly the best description of “mind-fuck” that I can come up with. As the film explains in the opening moments, Jafar Panahi, an Iranian film maker, was banned by Iran from making films for twenty years and put in house arrest for several. Yet, Jafar Panahi (with the help of his documentary friend Mojtaba Mirthahmasb), created this piece of art which I would also consider not a film because it is not shot on film, but by digital cameras (it is easier to transport SD cards across the Iranian border in birthday cakes than actually film). Defying the Iranian government, Panahi has turned censorship into art which is revolutionary in and of itself, but the movie itself is an enduring portrait of an artist struggling to come to terms with the fact that he cannot do what he has been his life’s passion for the last twenty years. As he says to the camera after trying to describe a film he wanted to make before the ban, “If we can tell a film, then why make it?” The tragedy of the ban weighs heavily on the film, but Panahi moves on trying to document his personal life in the 24 hours before he hears the result of a trial of whether or not he will be imprisoned (if you’re curious to the content of the films, they are strongly feminist in an fiercely anti-women regime). Panahi uses this time to comment on his situation, to comment on the politics in Iran, and to take care of his pet Iguana. It is strange how little happens can be absolutely riveting. In the final twenty minutes, Panahi rides an elevator to the ground and talks to a garbage man. Through the conversation, you can tell that Panahi is mining the young man for perspective on his own life as a garbage man. As an artist, Panahi perfectly understands that he must speak for those who are less fortunate than he and, despite the ban, he cannot stop himself from probing others to develop a worldview for a next possible film. This is Not a Film may be true to its title in the form it presents itself, but it is also everything the medium has been for its past 100 so years. Whatever it may be, it is definitely a masterpiece.
03- Holy Motors
The best way I can describe the plot of this film is that it follows Oscar as he travels around Paris to complete various assignments that force him to take on multiple identities. A lot of the so-called “plot” of the film is obscured by a vague thorough line connected to the limo he rides in between assignments. Every assignment tackles a different genre of film. We have proletariat drama, big budget CGI fests, period piece drama, surrealistic comedy, horror, musical, family drama, crime thriller, animated comedy, amongst others. Each assignment starts one way, then completely subverts the situation to the most extreme version of ridiculousness. While the narrative does this to you, the aesthetic also pulls you in to expect a certain development in the plot, then completely repulses you back. The film is not so much a piece of traditional art as it is a cinematic toy. You will only get the maximum amount of pleasure if you completely arrest yourself to its illogical and strange world. My take on the film is that it is the day in the life of an actor in a futuristic society where film is dead and actors create art through wreaking havoc throughout the city. The eye of the beholder is lost because the cameras just increasingly get smaller and smaller, the film argues. The scrutinizing of actors have led to them being increasingly distanced to their most personal family members as shown in the final frames of the film. Actors are never not acting. They can only truly connect to others under the guise of someone else.
04- Damsels in Distress
There is just nothing like this comedy out in American cinema right now. Damsels in Distress, in a lot of ways, is the antithesis of Bridesmaids; instead of physical and gross out humor, all of the laughs come from the witty banter and extremely offbeat characters. Greta Gerwig is gloriously hilarious and yet, strange and heartbreaking as Violet, a cult-like leader of female do-gooders at a New England college. They believe in dating men who are below in intelligence in order to change their lives for the better and that they can cure suicidal cases through the power of teaching them how to tap dance. This is their form of community social service that they fully believe will change the world. The cult is disrupted when Lily, a transfer, begins questioning the group’s intentions by criticizing Violet’s increasingly strange worldview that includes the belief that starting a dance craze is the ultimate gift that she can give the world. The film’s narrative zaniness is a possible factor as why it was written off by the public, but I embrace it completely for it. I cannot praise the brilliance of the dialogue enough – lines like “You want to stop me from killing myself so you won’t look bad” “No, I want to stop you from killing yourself so you don’t make yourself look bad” are as ridiculously hilarious as they are intellectually stimulating. For those of you truly missing sex humor though, there is a anal sex subplot that reaches a rewarding punchline in a understated if outrageously humorous way. Damsels in Distress, more than any other film on this list, is one I simply cannot wait to return to.
05- The Master
To be honest, I don’t know exactly where PTA is going. I still don’t truly understand the film. The Master is less of a true masterpiece and more of a true mess-terpiece. At times it feels perfectly organized, but at others it feels like 1960s stream-of-consciousness writing. If you look past the marketing pretense of how the film is (apparently) about scientology, you will find that the film is a strong, multilayered character study of a Freddy Quell, a WWII veteran who is constantly searching for some sort of salvation for himself despite his inner reluctance to tame his inner, incredibly strong “animalistic” desires and sensibilities. He is recruited by The Cause, led by Lancaster Dodd (played in by a mannered Philip Seymour Hoffman in contrast to the chaotic performance given by Joaquin Phoenix) who takes it upon himself to reform Freddie by any means necessary. What follows is a decade long battle of different ideological bulls, a master/pet relationship, and, possibly, a romantic one. We are never quite sure what happens between Freddie and Dodd, why they are so magnetically attracted to each other despite being of two different attitudes and outlooks. Their relationship drives the film, emotionally, mentally, and intellectually as we see it dissolve and reassemble throughout the years the film follows. The Master is not an easy film, but is by far Paul Thomas Anderson’s deepest and aesthetically immaculate film. Mihai Malaimaire Jr.’s work is simply extraordinary to behold – his images cannot be denied of power. As Freddie, Phoenix digs and digs into the hardened soul of the character until he reaches a place that is similarly as mysterious as DeNiro was in Raging Bull. The film’s circular plot doesn’t allow for easy resolutions; PTA has provided us his own meditation on the universal questions of the meaning of human life. Do we continue to search for meaning in our lives? Do we indulge ourselves in life’s pleasures? Or is everything that surrounds is a master, and we are a servant to it?
06- The Day He Arrives
Every now and then I come across a film that is particularly inspiring because it is highly relatable and surprisingly universal. Hong Sangsoo’s The Day He Arrives is much like if Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad married Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. The film follows a film maker returning to his hometown (?) to see some of his friends. What follows is a cacophony of mixed scenes together that could very well relate to the scene previous or the scene following or could just be jumping around a timeline. Hong never gives you a straight answer, but he gives you enough room to take one lead and follow it down a rabbit hole and not feel wrong about it. My personal take on the film was that it was that the story is about the pitfalls of looking back, returning to your own home, but also an old girlfriend and the possible impossibility to avoid it all. Are we all cursed into trying our best to recreate the past? Are we all just attracted to one kind of man or woman? The film does not give any easy answers but only suggests that once we move forward, looking backwards may not ever be the best option.
07- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Several men led by a prosecutor, a police officer, and a doctor are looking for the body of a man with assistance by the convicted that murdered him. Nothing happens, but everything happens. As stakes are raised throughout the narrative, the three non-named characters outgrow their simple archetypical personalities and become flesh and blood characters. The methods they use to search for the body becomes a commentary upon themselves more than a commentary on the nature of crime. What is thought to be the most insignificant, rudimentary night of their lives becomes extremely important as their desperation to find the body grows. Nuri Bilge Ceylan creates the best argument for digital cinematography since Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. The images are as crisp and clear (and even sometimes more) than the master work by Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s work in The Master. Ceylan uses close-up incredibly well evoking a Dreyer-like style of directing actors – the focus is more on their silent actions and behaviors than the dialogue and the reactions to plot developments. The focus he gives to his close ups are given the same amount of weight to his beautiful landscape shots. Ceylan’s background in digital photography roots him in a refreshing cinematographic approach to cinema opposed to many film makers who tend to believe cinema is more of an extension of theatre.
08- Jeff, Who Lives At Home
The Duplass Brothers are possibly the best American film makers alive right now that seamlessly blend laugh out loud humor with tearjerking drama. It is without a doubt a feat when the duo can do all of this within a 80 minute duration and not have any of the characters or plot feel slight in development at all. Jeff, Who Lives At Home is a story about a slacker loner Jeff who believes that the universe is connected and that every life is a meaningful piece to a gigantic puzzle. He is surrounded by cynics, most notable being his brother Pat who is in the middle of a crisis with his wife after he goes behind her back to buy a car. On his way to do an errand for his pissed-off but depressed widowed mom, he runs into Pat and they begin to track Pat’s wife with belief that she is having an affair. The plot takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns with the last five minutes to be the most moving scenes in cinema of 2012. Jason Segel, as the stoner with a heart of gold, Jeff, gives an extraordinary performance that invites the audience to laugh at his incredulousness, not his extreme optimism. It is a difficult balancing act that would unhinge other actors. Susan Sarandon, meanwhile, is given a small subplot but fills it colorfully as a widow who has all but resigned to the monotony of life and eventual death until a secret admirer comes her way in another unexpected way. Very reminiscent of the Hal Ashby comedy-dramas of the 1970s, the Duplass Brothers have again out done themselves to pull the rug out under from me. Jeff, Who Lives At Home is a beautiful film about life, love, and the struggle to accept mortality.
Miguel Gomes’ sensuously gorgeous picture is a romance film on the surface, yet if you look closer at the small details he sprinkles the film with, it becomes almost an Adam & Eve like tale that explores a forbidden romance between two Portugese colonists in South Africa as much as it comments on romance films themselves. The first hour slowly delves into the later life of Aurora through the eyes of her close friend, Pilar. We see short scenes of Aurora who is brimming with mystery and life. In a bizarrely entrancing single take, Aurora retells a dream to Pilar that connects to her previous life. Another scene shows us Pilar, who is the audience’s cypher for the first hour, protesting the colonization of African colonies. It is not until tragedy strikes that we are given the second hour of the film (our keyhole for the key that is the first hour) that is largely set in Africa many years before where a young Aurora engages in a torrid affair. What is particularly striking about Tabu is how it uses black and white cinematography to give a 1930s travelogue feel to the proceedings that take place roughly in the 1960s during the second half. Other than a narration, music, and sound, the entirety of the second half is completely without dialogue which draws us even closer to the characters. What makes the film particularly masterful is how it silently criticizes colonialization; the several white Portugese people show little concern for the people in Africa, they largely see Africa as an Eden-like paradise where they can indulge themselves in fully whether it be hunting down animals for the sake of it or engaging in steamy affairs with the African sunset as background. The euphoria of conquering land is dangerous to the invaders – it gives them too much power which they use to disobey the natural and political laws of the land.
10- The Kid with a Bike
The fairy tale storybook feel that is ever present in Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Wright’s Hanna is ever present here with the film only having a total of six to seven distinct locations and the characters seemingly never changing clothes. The film tells the story of Cyril, a kid who is abusively neglected by his own father who abandoned him to a orphanage at age 10. Thomas Doret, the actor who plays Cyril, is a force of nature. The Dardennes never let us into his psyche or thoughts, but this distance to character makes us observe him all the more closer to his painful journey to acceptance of his situation. Cecile De France takes the kid in on the weekends after he desparately clings to her after an escape from the orphanage (“You can hold me, just not so tight” she tells him). The boy is in desperate need of some sort of parental love. His story is utterly devastating as he continuously tries to get himself back into his dad’s good graces who is simply not interested in being a father. The Dardennes follow the Campbellian narrative that George Lucas celebrated so gloriously in Star Wars to the T. Symbols abound in the film whether it is the freedom that Cyril feels in getting his bike back finally or the gang acceptance gift of a coca cola. Every last detail in the film pushes the narrative forward and develops the characters deeper. Sit back and appreciate the meticulousness.
Honorable Mentions: Moonrise Kingdom, Oslo August 31st, I Wish, Seven Psychopaths, & 21 Jump Street