In 2012, cinema died. At least that’s what many think pieces would have you believe. David Denby, David Thomson, and Andrew O’Hehir all wrote articles lamenting the death of cinema –– or in O’Hehir’s case, the death of film culture.
This is nothing new.
The birth of cinema was followed by pronouncements of its death as soon as the talkies were invented. Technological changes, such as the advent of television and the VCR, have always led to apocalyptic predictions. In this case, the switch from an analog, celluloid-based technology to digital projection –– a source of anxiety reflected in films as different as “The Artist” and “Holy Motors” –– has led to much hand-wringing, some of it justified. I have nothing against seeing new films in DCP –– digital cinema package –– since they were meant to be shown that way, but I worry that film history is getting lost or distorted. The warmer textures of 35mm do more justice to the cinematography of classic Westerns than digital video does.
There’s one more factor at play, which Denby touches on. Mainstream movies have become a medium aimed at teenage boys. Hollywood rarely releases films aimed at adults before the final three months of the year. For film critics who review mainstream releases, cultural literacy now means playing video games and reading comic books and YA novels. As O’Hehir’s essay shows, cinephiles have a tendency to romanticize the ‘60s and early ‘70s, as though the whole country was discussing Godard and Bergman films with Susan Sontag over cocktails.
The days when films like “The Godfather” and “Chinatown” could be instantly acclaimed and hugely popular are well behind us. TV shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “Louie” have given that medium a new respectability and a share of the adult audience that Hollywood tapped into in the era between “Easy Rider” and “Jaws.” However, art films continue to be made and distributed.
All the same, the kind of eclectic cinephilia that values bleak Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr and the video game-derived bloodbaths of Paul W. S. Anderson equally seems to be an increasingly minority taste. The film audience is fragmenting into niches. How many people saw both “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Resident Evil: Retribution”? It’s too soon to tell if this development is entirely negative, but it’s at the heart of the changes in American film culture.
In addition to my top 10 list itself, I’d like to salute two films without American distribution, both of which received one-off screenings courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center –– Adam Curtis’ “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” and Radu Jude’s “A Film For Friends.” Curtis’ three-hour documentary, made as a BBC mini-series, examines the ways in which ideologies ranging from Bill Clinton’s neoliberalism to Ayn Rand’s libertarianism have promised freedom and turned out to be traps. Jude’s hour-long film, most of which consists of a single shot from a video camera, starts out as the epitome of Eastern European miserabilism and ends up repudiating it.
My choices for the best of 2012 are:
1. “The Cabin in the Woods” (Drew Goddard) A comedy about the codes of the horror genre, drawing on everything from Michael Haneke to H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cabin in the Woods” critiques slasher films’ puritanical attitudes about sex and pot while still offering up their pleasures. It’s every bit as smart and clever as it thinks it is, and quite unpredictable to boot.
2. “Moonrise Kingdom” (Wes Anderson) Who’d have thought the year’s most touching love story would take place between two 12-year-olds? “Moonrise Kingdom” rests on the border between total ridiculousness and aching sincerity –– and is all the stronger for it.
3. “The Color Wheel” (Alex Ross Perry) The protagonists of “The Color Wheel” are a brother and sister who can’t stand each other, so naturally they go on a road trip together. Inspired by Jerry Lewis and Philip Roth, Perry creates an abrasive comedy in which love turns out to be the most twisted joke of all.
4. “Holy Motors” (Leos Carax) Appearing under 11 different guises, Denis Lavant delivers the performance of the year. It’s easy to say that the activities of his role-playing, limo-riding character are a metaphor for acting, but that doesn’t resolve the mysteries of “Holy Motors,” a film that seems torn between an excitement about cinema’s remaining possibilities and a weariness about the end of celluloid.
5. “Abendland” (Nikolaus Geyrhalter) Politically suggestive but far from didactic, Geyrhalter’s style combines the icy gloss of Haneke with the observational technique of Frederick Wiseman. His documentary observes Western Europe at night, finding immigrants doing menial labor and getting deported while the locals are busy calling suicide hotlines and keeping the Oktoberfest emergency room occupied.
6. “Attenberg” (Athina Rachel Tsangari) Tsangari’s film tracks a young Greek woman’s first encounters with sex and death. "Attenberg” does so in a refreshingly light style that flirts with Sundance quirkiness but backs away from treating its heroine as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
7. “Compliance” (Craig Zobel) The most contentious film on my list, “Compliance” was widely accused of being an exploitative peep show, even though it only offers a few brief glimpses of nudity and keeps rape entirely offscreen. Based on a true story of a phone “prankster” who commits sexual assault by proxy, it allegorizes the loss of civil liberties during the Bush and Obama administrations.
8. “This Is Not a Film” (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) When does a video diary become an act of political resistance? When the man in front of the camera is under house arrest, banned from filmmaking –– hence the title –– by the Iranian government. “This Is Not a Film” wears its poverty of means –– part of it was shot on a cell phone –– as a badge of honor.
9. “How To Survive A Plague” (David France) In the wake of Occupy, France’s documentary about ACT-UP, taken mostly from archival footage shot by AIDS activists in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, is a reminder of the value of street-level activism. Its ending may be overly optimistic, given that millions of people still can’t afford medication to treat HIV, but who can blame the ACT UP members whose lives were saved by protease inhibitors for their cheer?
10. “Django Unchained” (Quentin Tarantino) At long last, Tarantino has put his sadistic streak to good use in this spaghetti Western/ blaxploitation mash-up, which carries an unexpectedly potent strain of horror. Extremely violent and filled with humor, the latter never trivializes the former. “Django Unchained” replays American history as a sick joke with real victims.
Runners-up: “Chronicle” (Josh Trank); “Crazy Horse” (Frederick Wiseman); “The Day He Arrives” (Hong Sang-soo); “Keep The Lights On” (Ira Sachs); “The Queen of Versailles” (Lauren Greenfield); “The Raid: Redemption” (Gareth Huw Evans); “Searching For Sugar Man” (Malik Bendjelloul); "Tabu” (Miguel Gomes); “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” (John Hyams); “The War” (James Benning).