In recent years, I've noticed a curious algorithm regarding pop culture oddsmaking: In any given week of DVD releases, the most interesting title hitting shelves is almost always an independent documentary. I have a theory as to why documentaries hold such an appeal these days: Because docs are about real places and real people, they provide a sense of wonder that we don't experience too much at the multiplex anymore. I love it when I go to the movies and a story blows me away. But when a true story blows me away, I get really interested.
Scary documentaries, in particular, can be much more frightening than the most explicit horror films. Take, for instance, two very different docs that were featured earlier this year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. Both have since gone on to great success, and considered together, they're even scarier than the sum of their parts.
The Queen of Versailles features some of the most hallucinatory sequences of the year. The film chronicles a year or so in the life of billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel, as their time-share real estate empire collapses around them. The Siegels, wrapped for so long in their delusional world of extreme wealth, have no idea how to tighten the household budget. Jackie takes the family stretch limo to the McDonald's drive-through. David sells all the furniture but insists on preserving the commissioned oil paintings of himself (mounted shirtless on horseback). It's raw footage of One Percenters in psychosis, and it would be funny if it weren't so terrifying.
The fest's other scary movie was Detropia, which concerns the devastating economic collapse of the city of Detroit and was recently shortlisted for this year's documentary Oscar. The film is similarly packed with surreal images—blocks of derelict houses, packs of feral dogs, avant garde artists wandering the ruins in spaceman suits. Several experts in the film speculate darkly that Detroit is the canary in the coal mine, and what's happened here will happen in the rest of America. As a member of the vast Detroit diaspora, the film depressed me mightily. Taken together, these two films were like watching the American Dream get crushed from above and below.
Happily, documentaries can cut the other way too. Three of my favorite documentaries of 2012 simply observed artists at work, and I found a brighter sort of wonder at play in these stories. Jiro Dreams of Sushi profiles Japan's most famous sushi chef, his family and his exacting culinary art. The 85-year-old Jiro has spent a lifetime perfecting the preparation and presentation of sushi by reducing it to its deceptively simple components: Rice. Fish. Plate. Chopsticks. Sometimes wasabi. Like a sculptor, he achieves perfection by whittling away all the things that aren't the perfect plate of sushi.
The rollicking doc Beauty Is Embarrassing, meanwhile, chronicles the life and work of American pop artist Wayne White—the sculptor, painter and visual architect of the groundbreaking kids' show Pee-wee's Playhouse. The film is ultimately a celebration of the artistic impulse. It reveals that White's commercial success has been essentially a side effect of his relentless compulsion to create.
My favorite documentary of the year was Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which follows China's most famous dissident artist over the course of about three years. First-time director Alison Klayman guides us through Weiwei's strange and dangerous world as he deploys joyous, defiant art to counter the oppressive policies of his own government. I had a conviction, after watching this film, that artists like Weiwei are the ones we'll really need to get us through the dark days ahead.
Independently produced documentaries are labors of love. These filmmakers aren't looking to please a broad audience or deliver a blockbuster, and they're usually tackling a subject they feel personally passionate about. Lord knows they're not in it for the money. —Glenn McDonald
I present an alphabetical listing of my Top 10 of 2012, although my absolute favorites of the year were Argo and Moonrise Kingdom, both of which had delightfully meticulous mid-century production design. Argo even began with the 1970s WB logo! Two Bollywood films, both Western style thrillers without song-and-dance numbers, and one UCLA Festival of Preservation rediscovery (which I showed in my Women of Film Noir series at the NCMA) help complete the list.
My favorite movies of 2012 all had the effect of opening my eyes to something I hadn't seen before. The best approached, from different directions, that most enduring and baffling of topics: Love. Silver Linings Playbook, Damsels in Distress, Take This Waltz and Your Sister's Sister all found new territories to map in both romantic comedy and drama. I was thrilled by all the wit, insight and honesty on display. Cheap irony seems to be in decline this new millennium, and thank the gods for that.
Other films on the list delivered new sights and stories (Frankenweenie, Beasts, Cloud Atlas) or were simply superior genre specimens (The Avengers, Argo). Ai Weiwei—the documentary on the dissident Chinese artist—opened my eyes to something else entirely: Weiwei has found a way to weaponize art and wield it against his oppressors, with good humor and a generous spirit. The film tells his story beautifully.
In a cinemascape increasingly populated by 3D/IMAX/fX phantasmagoria, the scarcest qualities are the most basic: purpose, earnestness and genuine emotion. Virtually all the films in my Top 10 of 2012 share one or more of these attributes. But above the worthy—coming-of-age dramedies, an epic biopic, thought-provoking science fiction, and lessons about the high cost of terrorism—stands a little-seen film from director Craig Zobel that won't dissipate from my conscious even days after absorbing it. The fact that it's drawn from a tragically true story is essential to its power as a graphic illustration of both the psychology of victimhood and the Milgram-tested capacity of humans to commit horrible of acts in obedience of even perceived authority. Dig deeper and you'll also find a deconstruction of femininity and a searing critique of isolation in our fast food culture. Evocative of the gritty best of Roman Polanski and Michael Haneke, the best film of 2012 is Compliance.
CRAIG D. LINDSEY
As always, my top-10 list is a work in progress. There are still several noteworthy films I haven't seen. (Shout-out to Sony Classics for withholding screeners of Amour until early next year.) In particular, I salute The Imposter for making me go, "Holy shit!" several times, Oslo, August 31st for going places Silver Linings Playbook was afraid to go, Zero Dark Thirty for making me glad women like Kathryn Bigelow and Jessica Chastain exist, and Killing Them Softly for Brad Pitt's final line of dialogue. So, here they are, the movies I've managed to see this year that didn't fill me with rage afterward.
While cinephiles continue to wring their hands about film culture (digital projection, online streaming, superior cable television), the movies keep coming, large and small. One local arthouse multiplex closed this year, but another opened. There are always good films playing in a theater somewhere in the Triangle. The list that follows is far from comprehensive, because I couldn't begin to keep up with it all.
The one unique movie award voted on annually by the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) is called the Gene Wyatt Award, which is awarded to the film "that best evokes the spirit of the South." That guideline leaves much open for interpretation, but the winner tends to be the consensus choice for the best film set below the Mason-Dixon Line. The first Wyatt Award was given in 2005 to Junebug, and other past winners include Waitress, Shotgun Stories and Winter's Bone. Last year's winner was the ubiquitous The Help, although my vote went to the Memphis-set high school football documentary Undefeated.
As it turned out, the 2012 Wyatt Award went to the Bayou-based Beasts of the Southern Wild. the stylized feature debut from director Benh Zeitlin—a native of New York City, of all places.
But 2012 has provided other notable films set in the South, including Richard Linklater's Bernie, Lee Daniels' The Paperboy and William Friedkin's Killer Joe. The indie darling Pilgrim Song has already won The Oxford American Best Southern Film and Indie Memphis Soul of Southern Film Award. And, of course, there's always Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's latest, which, while visually proficient and daringly raw at times, is probably as informative about the scourge of slavery in the American South as Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor was about the Pacific theater of World War II.
Indeed, going back to that loose criteria I mentioned above, there's a case to be made for Craig Zobel's Compliance, my choice as this year's best overall film. While the movie itself never specifies its setting, the screenplay is based on a true story that took place at a McDonald's restaurant in Mount Washington, Ky. And Zobel, a graduate of UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, has collaborated extensively over the years with director David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), who executive-produced Compliance. —Neil Morris
Enough with the comic book movies! The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises ... I just don't care. On the flipside, can't wait for the new Star Trek movie. Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan? I'm so in. —LB
Cloud Atlas featured the year's most daring narrative stunt work, and was punished for it. You have to sit back and let that movie happen to you. —GM
While I respect people's opinions about movies, I don't get those folk who dug Silver Linings Playbook. It's a phony movie about crazy people in love. Plus, who the hell are these people who liked Ted? I like Seth MacFarlane, but that movie made me mad. —CDL
After getting early awards buzz, including the hosannas from the New York Film Critics Circle, national security experts are roasting Zero Dark Thirty for its depiction of torture. For me, all that's neither here nor there, for I found the film's focus on a fictionalized obsessive investigator to be a hindrance: Jessica Chastain is a competent actress, but she's a bit boring, with none of the sexy craziness that Claire Danes brings to a similar character in Homeland. —DF
I never even considered seeing Bernie, until someone whose opinion I really respected said it was his favorite movie of the year. So rent this one. —LB
Director Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz examines love and marriage with aching, fearless honesty and a gorgeous performance from Michelle Williams. —GM
The Raid: Redemption was, without question, the best action film of the year. —CDL
David Cronenberg's tedious, talky Cosmopolis warps time/space itself by making two hours feel like six. —GM
Any movie that starred Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, Battleship, Savages). I don't know if it's him or the scripts, but they all blew. —CDL
Oliver Stone's Savages left me hating my fellow humans. —DF
WITH GIANT FLATSCREENS AND EVERYTHING ON DEMAND, IS THERE A REASON TO GO TO MOVIE THEATERS ANYMORE?
I've become totally hooked on closed captioning. You can catch a lot of missed dialogue and off-screen cues. You also get song lyrics with title and artist identified. On the other hand, laughter is famously social and contagious, so good comedies still play better in a packed theater. —GM
I adore renting movies from Avid in Durham or, if Jason doesn't have it, Netflix. But, nothing replaces the cinema. I never cease to be amazed at how different it is to watch a film, even one I have seen many times, with an audience—it's always an enlightening experience. —LB
Mary Elizabeth Winstead was the reason Smashed got made, with good reason. Plus, those vintage photos of Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man: I want to look like him. —DF
Greta Gerwig instantly brightens every movie she's in with her high-wattage likability. She might be a good source of alternative energy, actually—the government should look into this. —GM
Helen Rogers and Liz Harvey in the Joe Swanberg-directed episode of V/H/S. Hey, they were topless in it—what the hell you want from me? —CDL
IS 3-D A PASSING FAD?
I hate 3-D. I wear bifocals (don't mock me, you all will sooner or later) and between them and the 3-D glasses, I am always juggling focal length. One third of the movie I'm adjusting, one third I can see, and the last third my eyes are exhausted. —LB
It's settling into the right places. Frankenweenie and Pirates! Band of Misfits! used 3-D in an artful way to maximize the strengths of stop-motion animation. In others, 3-D is totally superfluous. It didn't even register that The Avengers was in 3-D until I remembered I had the stupid glasses on when the lights came up. —GM
Jesus, I can't even tell which movies were in 3-D and which ones weren't anymore. However, Life of Pi did have some awe-inspiring 3-D sequences. —CDL
THE MOST MYSTIFYING, INEXPLICABLE MOVIE STAR THESE DAYS?
Somehow, directors have found a way to work with Kristen Stewart's dramatic range of sullen and sullener. I just do not understand her movie star appeal at all. There must be some sort of Faustian back story here. —GM
Now that Twilight is done, and midnight is on the way, Kristen Stewart's chariot is about to change into a—you know. —DF
Channing Tatum. —Everyone
ROM-COMS ... A FUTURE?
I loathed The Vow. Dishwater dull and photo shop pretty Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum and the ridonkulous soulmate/ amnesia plot was beyond awful. But, Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen are a reminder that interesting actors and odd plots can still invigorate the formula. —LB
Silver Linings Playbook demonstrated that you can still mine art and anarchy from the old rom-com formula. —GM
Well, for one, stop casting Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler as the romantic leads in them and replace them with people we like (Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, anybody from Parks and Recreation). —CDL
HORROR MOVIE YOU WEREN'T ASHAMED OF ENJOYING
The Cabin in the Woods deconstructs the slasher film and celebrates its bloody pleasures at the same time—a hard trick to pull off. —GM
V/H/S—Gotta admire a movie that both appreciates the use of gratuitous female nudity and stresses how important it is for audiences to see young assholes die. —CDL