Monday, December 31, 2012

The 10 Best Movies I Saw For The First Time In 2012

What's a movie blog without a year-end top 10 post? I didn't see most of the new movies that came out this year, but maybe what I did see will suggest something new for you to watch in the coming year. In order of their initial release.

Hobson's Choice (1954)—Directed by David Lean back when his films were still spritely, tightly-focused affairs, this Charles Laughton comedy about an alcoholic shopkeeper and the spinster daughter who does all the work is a sharp, witty look at the British class system. Co-stars the legendary John Mills as a dim-witted bootmaker and Brenda de Banzie as the daughter who can see past his outward limitations to the talent underneath.

Baby Doll (1956)—Tennessee Williams's Southern Gothic black comedy about a bankrupt businessman who has promised not to touch his young bride until her twentieth birthday, was easily the most controversial movie of 1956—or any other year ending in 6, I imagine. Time called it "[j]ust possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited" and Cardinal Spellman threatened any Catholic who saw it with excommunication. No wonder it was a hit! As Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun put it, Baby Doll is ... sexy in that perfectly unhealthy, steamy, creamy and twisted way—the only way that works." Amen.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)—Ninety minutes in the life of a flighty French singer who's waiting to hear test results from her doctor. Light as a souffle yet as serious as the death she's contemplating, this was one of the best films of one of the best years for films ever. By the award-winning director Agnès Varda, starring Corinne Marchand.

The Exterminating Angel (1962)—Luis Buñuel's black comedy about a group of aristocrats who attend a dinner party then for reasons straight out of the Twilight Zone find themselves unable to leave. Buñuel isn't just saying that civilization is a thin veneer easily cracked apart in stressful times, he's saying that civilization is an illusion we have faith in only because we're habituated to our own inhuman behavior. If you don't believe me, just read the day's headlines. Which day's? Any day's.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)—Orson Welles took Shakespeare's greatest comic sideman, Falstaff, and put him front and center where he belongs. The result was the most personal of Welles's films, a lacerating self-portrait of a man fully aware of the cost of his life of excess and wasted potential—but who's had a good time nevertheless. Despite technical limitations arising from Welles' lack of funding, Chimes at Midnight belongs on a list with Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil as the best work of the great director's career.

Love (Szerelem) (1971)—From Hungary. The wife of a political prisoner nurses her dying mother-in-law, comforting her with fantasies of his imaginary life as a successful American film director. Does the old woman believe her stories? The movie never tips its hand. A quiet, warm, gentle masterpiece.

Lone Star (1996)—The discovery of a body buried in the desert sets into motion a series of events that rips the lid off a Texas border town. Writer-director John Sayles's story is both a gripping murder mystery and a thoughtful study of the clash of cultures in an ever-evolving society. Great performances from Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey.

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)—This adaptation of Mary Norton's novel The Borrowers is the tale of a family of tiny people who secretly live in the walls of a suburban house, "borrowing" from the human cohabitants what they need to survive. Based on a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, Japan's greatest director of animation, this is what animation ought to be and rarely is.

Midnight in Paris (2011)— Woody Allen's funniest movie since, well, ever—or at least since the 1970s. Owen Wilson plays a writer who longs so much for the good old days of 1920s Paris that he somehow winds up there and discovers nostalgia isn't all it's cracked up to be. There are any number of hilarious cameos from the Lost Generation, but Corey Stoll's grandiloquent take on windbag Ernest Hemingway is worth the price of admission all by itself. Funny, insightful, and for a Woody Allen movie, surprisingly warm.

Lincoln (2012)— Steven Spielberg's tale of Abraham Lincoln's efforts to shepherd the 13th Amendment (which finally and forever banned slavery in the United States) through a bitterly-divided Congress serves as a timely reminder that commitment, courage—and compromise—are all necessary ingredients to any truly great achievement. Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't just inhabit the title role, he redefines how I imagine we'll think of the Great Emancipator in the future. Another masterpiece from our generation's greatest motion picture storyteller.

Argo (2012)—Inspired by true events, Argo is a stylish thriller based on the real-life escape of six Americans from Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979-80. The film is so well done, Katie and I were prompted to track down the rest of Ben Affleck's directorial career. Add Gone Baby Gone and The Town to this list and, hey, you've got an even dozen!


Erik Beck said...

I don't know how you managed to miss Lone Star for all these years - an absolutely phenomenal film.

But some of the others are very understandable. Hobson's Choice is often over-looked, even among Lean fans. Baby Doll was a very hard film to find when I first saw it back in 2005.

And as for Chimes at Midnight? Well, back in 2008, someone who writes for a site I occasionally write for did an entire article on Shakespeare on Film even though he had never seen it. I responded by writing a review of it (, calling it "The best Shakespeare film you've never seen." It used to be so hard to find I owned the screenplay before I had ever even seen the film and the first time I found it for rent on VHS, I taped it so I wouldn't have to worry about not finding it again. So glad for you that you finally got to see it.

theduckthief said...

Darn you Mr. Monkey! Now I have go put a whole bunch more movies on my TBW list.

I do have reservations about "Argo" though as it seems to rewrite history by conveniently minimizing how important Canada was to the rescue.

KC said...

Ah, keep forgetting to see The Secret World of Arletty. Thanks for the reminder. Happy New Year!

Mythical Monkey said...

I don't know how you managed to miss Lone Star for all these years - an absolutely phenomenal film.

I don't know either since it came out at a time when I was paying especially close attention. Obviously it didn't show up in the suburban multiplexes, but it must have been playing in one of the art houses.

Terrific movie. When I saw it, I thought "Where have you been all my life!?"

As for Chimes at Midnight, it had been on my radar screen for twenty years, but I only got hold of it this year. Talk about great films long overdue for the proper Criterion treatment -- or even the crappy bargain bin treatment. Anything would be better than nothing.

Mythical Monkey said...

I do have reservations about "Argo" though as it seems to rewrite history by conveniently minimizing how important Canada was to the rescue.

The Canadian ambassador comes across as a real hero, but in real life the Canadians did even more than the film suggests. I think Affleck was going for the movie-makers-as-ironic-heroes angle rather than real history. An entertaining movie, but as is almost always the case with films based on true events, misleading as to the facts.

Mythical Monkey said...

Ah, keep forgetting to see The Secret World of Arletty. Thanks for the reminder. Happy New Year!

It's well worth seeing. The Studio Ghibli movies never seem to get nearly the attention they deserve when the finally make it into U.S. theaters.

And Happy New Year to you, too, KC!

northierthanthou said...

I tried getting Exterminating Angel once. Ended up with a really bad pice of softcore porn, with an even worse story behind its production. Really must get the real thing sometime.