Writing a film-centric “year in review” article, it is tempting to focus on the disappointments and rehash tired laments over the death of cinema as an art form. But 2012, cinematically speaking, was like any other year in the last several decades of the medium: 10 per cent superlative, 90 per cent decent-to-execrable. Happily, the superior 10 per cent hit some peaks worth revisiting.
It was an excellent year for international cinema. Leos Carax out-lynched David Lynch (so to speak) with Holy Motors, Jafar Panahi circumvented Iranian authorities with This Is Not A Film, Nuri Bilge Ceylan wrote another tone poem of existential dread with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. But Hollywood, that eternal whipping boy for the high-minded critic, had its own quietly solid year. There were the obvious highlights, films that will mint Oscar nominations and have already garnered countless column inches of praise — Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty. Then there were the ones that slipped through the hagiographic net, marginalised but no less worthy of viewing; disreputable genre pieces like Killer Joe or niche dramas like Ira Sachs’s underseen Keep The Lights On.
The thematic preoccupations of American cinema’s best of 2012 tended to run dark and introspective. Commercial and independent cinema alike struggled with the class and political warfare, economic instability and general moral wrangling that have characterised American society in the last few years. Historical parallels were drawn with great creative ambition (if slightly less lofty standards of accuracy), straying far (Lincoln, The Master) and near (Zero Dark Thirty) in chronological proximity, but uniformly close to home in terms of cultural relevance.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is the most accessible, its value as political text enhanced by its stubborn refusal to do any actual politicking. Its expertly directed procedural scenes hum with tension, a succession of incendiary political Rorschach tests, canny enough to inspire debate even before release. Often frustratingly opaque, The Master is still full of powerhouse performances and terrifying topicality; not just about the pitfalls of organised religion, patriarchy and war but the inherent incompleteness of modern life. Lincoln is no dramatic slouch either, boasting unsurprisingly impressive acting from Daniel Day-Lewis and tight scripting by Tony Kushner that manages to transcend Spielberg’s unsubtle direction. It celebrates the progress made in racial relations but stops short of acknowledging the illusion of a post-racial America. Quentin Tarantino takes this one step further, shooting that illusion full of bloody holes in his latest masterpiece Django Unchained, a revenge fantasy set in the slavery-era South and a provocative, thematically loaded picture if ever there was one. Replete with crackling dialogue and beautifully lensed in tribute to the Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, it is also a sophisticated bit of cultural commentary.
It was not the only genre film to reflect the times with insight as keen as the resolutely realist prestige pictures. The best examples of genre cinema wield metaphor with discomfiting acuity, matching or even outdoing realism as an artistic approach to get at greater truths. Andrew Dominik’s cynical, almost elegiac, gangster film Killing Them Softly uses the seedy Boston underworld as a parallel for American capitalism, anchoring his observations in hard-edged yet soulful performances by Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini. Christopher Nolan takes capitalism and class warfare to the grandest arena possible with The Dark Knight Rises, which makes it here for its mythic and emotional resonance. Even as the film fails on the narrative front and falters with a fuzzy approach to politically-charged subjects, it continues to impress with sheer operatic heft and a mercurial take on heroism and villainy. Those who read it as a straightforward indictment of the Occupy movement weren’t watching carefully enough. Even genre pictures not directly about these topics failed to escape the impending realities of financial and environmental apocalypse, spectres that stalk Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller Looper — a movie that indicates the survival of intelligent, inventive, emotionally honest adult entertainment within the studio system. Another supremely efficient bit of myth-making for grownups, Ben Affleck’s exfiltration thriller/ showbiz satire, Argo, was about as topical as can be, particularly in light of the Benghazi attack.
Smaller dramas also had the shadow of post-recession America hanging over them. William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, a gloriously nihilistic slice of Southern Gothic about a pathologically selfish family and the hitman/policeman invited into their midst, is born of economic misery and a culture of narcissism and temporary gratification (topics that inform the best American documentary I saw this year: The Queen of Versailles). Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut Beasts of the Southern Wild is a surreal coming-of-age story that carries the weight of post-Katrina Louisiana on its shoulders. Other intimate pictures like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper opus Magic Mike paint varying pictures of what it takes to connect with others and get ahead in the brave new 2010s.
But 2012 wasn’t all gloom and doom at the cinema. No best-of list, for example, would be complete without The Avengers, a film custom-made for the purpose of putting a smile on as many faces as possible. For the most part, however, the good films were relentlessly downbeat; stark reflections of America’s fraught sociopolitical landscape, reaching for ever-elusive light even as the darkness threatened to extinguish all.
The writer is a fellow at New York University, US