Ordinarily, one tries to beat the Oscar nominations when one is putting together one’s own, “Oh, I’m so much cleverer than the Academy” list of personal nominees, but they happened early this year, and I wasn’t nearly ready yet. Add in my rather shockingly bad time management skills all of a sudden, and we get to the back half of January before I get the darn thing up. But I hope that everyone enjoys this my final nod in the direction of 2012’s cinema-that-was while we get ready for 2013’s cinema-that-will-be to get out of its dodgy burn-off trash season.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Visually innovative, with an elegantly simple, wonderfully evocative structure, this morality play nesting in a crime thriller was the one film of the year that best summed up, to me, what human behavior is and why we act that way, a spare, slow-moving consideration of behavior that’s never less than haunting in its silences and ellipses.
1st Runner-Up: Holy Motors
A delirious movie-about-movies with a cockeyed spiritualist bent, it is both the most imaginative and most fun movie of the year, a whirlwind tour of emotions and life-changing moments from sex to death to lost love to accordion rock interludes, the last of these being the giddiest surprise I had in 2012.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day
-For its intense minimalism used in exploring, thrillingly and movingly, the rawest of human feelings
-For its intellectual, romantic nods to film and human history, and restoring the good name of melodrama
The Turin Horse
-For an intense depiction of the edge of apocalypse and the little rituals that give life meaning there
Leos Carax, Holy Motors
There are those filmmakers for whom The Image seems to live in their DNA, and whose ability to communicate meaning through visuals is innate rather than studied. Carax is such a filmmaker, and his bombastic, show-offy mixture of tones and genres and states of being in this film is easily the year’s most entrancing balancing act.
1st Runner-Up: Miguel Gomes, Tabu
Updating silent technique to make his film seem unusually fresh rather than a musty throwback, Gomes’s rich visuals are the perfect counterpoint to the heaving well of feelings in the film’s scenario. Everything is lush and overwhelming, but the director’s firm grip keeps the film from spinning into indulgence.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
-For his ruthless control of pacing and space to make a film that creeps up on you slowly but mercilessly
Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, This Is Not a Film
-For putting their very safety on the line to share a deeply nuanced story about the human mind in captivity
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
-For using a lifetime of Hollywood skills honed to perfection to make a talky procedural the year’s tautest thriller
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
It’s almost not fair: the role of a woman stirred to sexual ardor fighting the conventions of society and her own sense of morality and fair play would be a gift to any semi-competent actress. But Weisz, one of the most underrated actors now working, is far more than semi-competent, and her subdued take on this chestnut of a role is the kind of unyielding restraint that burns like wildfire just behind the screen.
1st Runner-Up: Nadezhda Markina, Elena
The anchor of a film full of characters whose behavior is frustrating as it is recognisable, the matronly, plain Markina is simply breathtaking: reacting against everyone else in such cunning, unexpected ways that the reactions themselves become proactive. Complicated, ambiguous, and electrifying.
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
-For making a role pointedly conceived without shading or nuance completely plausible as a human in crisis
Emayatzy Corinealdi, Middle of Nowhere (not reviewed)
-For a maddening portrait of stasis and self-denial that doesn’t beg our sympathy or respect, and wins them both
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
-For navigating a minefield of easy gimmicks, depicting senility with restraint and dignity firmly intact
Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
Also not entirely fair: Lavant’s role isn’t a “character” so much as an excuse to show off in what might be broadest array of acting challenges ever crammed into one movie, from obscene pantomime to delicate intimations of heartbreak and regret. But when you’ve got the goods, you’ve got the goods, and in a part written expressly for him, Lavant does everything perfectly right..
1st Runner-Up: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln is a shamelessly baity part even by Oscarbait standards, but Day-Lewis absolutely never takes the easy route of mimicry and taciturn saintliness, instead playing the icon as a human being, with private thoughts and emotions, and a mercenary sense of his own theatricality.
Liam Neeson, The Grey
-For taking the “grr! angry Liam!” shtick of his recent career and adding a sublime layer of emotional pain and fury
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
-For making opacity sparkle in a performance that Goes There with more gusto than most actors dream about
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
-For taking the less-showy, more complex half of a two-hander and giving the brutal film its sympathetic core
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Lorraine Toussaint, Middle of Nowhere (not reviewed)
The wise, sharp-tongued black mother is about as moldy as clichéd parts get, but in a relatively small performance, Toussaint manages, thrilling and comprehensively, to dig up the emotional truths underlying the stereotype and punch through the screen with a devastatingly truthful variation of the part that points to the psychological intensity that allowed that stereotype became ingrained in the first place.
1st Runner-Up: Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy
In a career torn between movie star roles and weird little character turns in auteur pieces, Kidman has never been quite this brave and unhinged, devoting herself entirely to the tawdriness of the material without trying to retain some dignity at the expense of her character. Weird and icky, but wonderfully so.
Samantha Barks, Les Misérables
-For finding the perfect marriage between the bombastic material and the intimate filmaking, and dying awesomely
Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty
-For the tiny gestures and expressions that make hers the most fully lived-in small part in a huge ensemble
Elena Lyadova, Elena
-For playing an epically horrible spoiled brat as a living, everyday human, and not a vile caricature
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike
The highlight of the disreputable actor’s staggering comeback year was this magnificently sleazy, perfectly self-confident depiction of hucksterism, sexual magnetism, and arrogant showmanship. Charming and grotesque in equal measure, this performance was easily the most memorable thing to come from summer 2012, and the “lawbreakers” line might well be the best-delivered snatch of dialogue all year.
1st Runner-Up: Simon Russell Beale, The Deep Blue Sea
A restrained, almost totally reactive avatar of quiet Britishness in a film where that might as well be the subtitle, Beale’s is by no means the showiest male role in the story, but he inhabits his part the best, offering up a creeping sadness and anger that is as moving as anything else in the whole film.
Jim Broadbent, Cloud Atlas
-For playing tones from brutal thug to hapless screwball hero with equal commitment and effectiveness
Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
-For playing the most loving, friendly narcissist imaginable, a life force who feels like a person and not a plot point
Andrey Smirnov, Elena
-For moving from the film’s shallow heavy to its tragic voice of reason, without losing sight of his humanity
Finding the right tone in a Wes Anderson movie is tricky for a lot of people; and not a single one of his films has ever assembled a more impressive cast, nor have any of them seen such perfection out of everyone, movie star and character actor alike. And all of it anchored by two supernally talented child actors giving the best performances in the picture.
1st Runner-Up: Killer Joe
Populated almost entirely by caricatures and gargoyles, but even as they play up the absurd awfulness of the material, the actors here never forget that they are all meant to exist in the same universe and mostly the same family, and the sense of organic unity between them all is, given the margin for error, a damn miracle.
-For making Carthage, Texas, feel like a genuine community and not a quirky movie location
The Cabin in the Woods
-For playing up horror movie tropes with marvelous self-awareness, and grounding the eccentric script in the real
Think Like a Man
-For bringing middleweight material to life, and pointing out, once again, what a sin it is that terrific nonwhite actors can’t get real career traction in American cinema, when they can do this much with this little.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, by Ebru Ceylan & Nuri Bilge Ceylan & Ercan Kesal
An editorial, a puzzle, a pop-philosophy discourse; the film is a lot of things before it’s a cogent story or a rich character study. But when the ideas are this heady, and presented in a way that’s both talky and exquisitely dramatic at the same time, I for one choose to be grateful that the film elects to confront them head-on, rather than meekly trying to flirt with meaning in amongst its procedural elements.
1st Runner-Up: Zero Dark Thirty, by Mark Boal
Sidling around the Issue: as a purely mechanical act, Boal’s synthesis of non-narrative material gleaned from governmental sources into a streamlined narrative built around a single character arc is tremendously impressive. And the shift in perspective during the raid has no right to be as effortless as he makes it.
Damsels in Distress, by Whit Stillman
-For being the year’s best collection of dialogue, and having one of its most effectively disordered character studies
It’s Such a Beautiful Day, by Don Hertzfeldt
-For building up a fragmentary, piecemeal narrative that explores the Big Themes in a little, totally appealing way
Tabu, by Michael Gomes and Mariana Ricardo
-For the nuance and beauty of its melodramatic plot, and for selling great melodrama so unashamedly
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Lincoln, by Tony Kushner
No eulogies, no declamations, this is not a stately portrait of history but a grubby delve into the actuality of history that knocks the dust off of figureheads and undoes the lie that the past was somehow better and nobler than the present. All that with walls and walls of exquisite, Kushnerian speechifying that is gripping and eloquent and fun to listen to, and never once boring..
1st Runner-Up: Oslo, August 31, by Joachim Trier & Eskil Vogt
Taking grim material and elevating it with bitter humor and terrific human observation, the screenplay never shakes off the seriousness of its subject matter, but also doesn’t wallow in it, and captures the on-the-ground facts of how one person lives with precision and care.
Bernie, by Skip Hollandsworth & Richard Linklater
-For bringing a sense of life and affectionate personality to the exploitative matter of crime in a hick town
The Grey, by Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
-For adding a sense of profundity to grungy material that should be pretentious, but is instead harrowing and tender
Les Misérables, by William Nicholson
-For solving the problems of the stage musical and every previous film adaptation of the book, simply and cleanly
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE not cited under Best Feature
Oslo, August 31
Perhaps the year’s single best straight-up character study, not attempting to make bold claims about life or death or Norway, but simply following one single person’s attempt to deal with the mistakes he’s made. It’s stock arthouse fare, to a point, but the depth of feeling in it is so much more than any clichés about Scandinavian iciness could ever communicate..
1st Runner-Up: Elena
A fable of human behavior with rich humans to look at, and a sense of physical place that is second to none. A film this dependent on its second-half twist has no right to feel as honest and deep as this one does, but that is the mark of good art: it’s about truth, not facts.
-For its rare depiction of the decaying effects of old age with neither sentimentality nor suffocating earnestness
The Kid with a Bike
-For pairing two marvelous characters in a realist fairy tale that tells an unhurried, rich story of domestic feeling
The Raid: Redemption
-For being the year’s most exciting, flawlessly-crafted action film, visually gorgeous even as it is savage
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
It’s Such a Beautiful Day
The result, almost exclusively, of one artist, working in a spare but by no means easy aesthetic, and finding all of the universe in the shape of one line drawing man. Using the film frame as a shadowbox as much as a canvas, the movie is far more visually difficult than you’d think it should be, but the reward is a deeper, more knowing movie than its cartoon appearance promises..
-For being so goddamn pretty to look at, and doing more to rejuvenate the “princess movie” than it gets credit for
-For changing the faces of stop-motion animation. Haha, pun on facial animation technology. Seriously, it’s great
This Is Not a Film
A document at its purest: with nothing else to do, Jafar Panahi films himself doing stuff in his apartment. What bubbles up from that irreducibly simple concept is as rich and important as any other study of human behavior in several years. It is both a political attack and a brilliant attempt to showcase how the artistic mind functions, one of the best films about filmmakers ever made.
1st Runner-Up: How to Survive a Plague
Formally, it’s a marvel: using stock footage with elegance and sophistication that don’t show up very much in contemporary documentary filmmaking. Emotionally, it’s a raw depiction of a dark but triumphant time in human history, closely observed. Put them together, it’s a depressing, but excellent study of people in revolt..
The Central Park Five
-For capturing a moment in time with clarity and righteous, addictive fury
-For telling the most bizarre damn story imaginable with boundless momentum
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
-For depicting one man’s business and the universal notion of perfection with equal delicacy and insight
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Gökhan Tiryaki)
Exhibit A: why digital cinematography is maybe an okay thing. The nighttime minimalism that opens the film, giving way gradually to a weary morning, is the best use of darkness as a narrative and emotional tool that I can remember seeing in years: moody and evocative, and impressively controlled.
1st Runner-Up: The Turin Horse (Fred Kelemen)
The smudgy black-and-grey palette is oppressive and suffocating; the perfect fit for a movie about the flickering out of humanity in the midst of an earthbound hell..
The Loneliest Planet (Inti Briones)
-For gorgeous landscapes that are more than just postcards, but carefully-captured symbols of psychology
The Master (Mihai Malaimare Jr.)
-For the evocation of period, the sense of fatigued nostalgia, and the merciless, wonderful close-ups
Tabu (Rui Poças)
-For mixing media and textures in pursuit of the richest, lushest black-and-white in a long time
Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)
An experiment in the semiotics of action cinema, the film’s first and best weapon is its editing, which chops the non-action sequences into the same chaos as its fight scenes, and gives those same fight scenes a decidedly unglamorous, unexhilarating coarseness.
1st Runner-Up: The Master (Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty)
Isolating moments within scenes and bleeding disconnected locations and sequences into a single moment, the continuity-optional cutting renders the entire film an uncertain experiment in perception and psychology.
Holy Motors (Nelly Quettier)
-For the quick shifts within and between sequences that never fail to sell the joke or totally surprise us
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
-For general excellence, but also that cryptic non-reaction shot of Cody Horn, my favorite single cut of 2012
Zero Dark Thirty (William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor)
-For driving a movie about people doing research into a state of constant, frenzied momentum
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Moonrise Kingdom (Adam Stockhausen)
Wes Anderson’s famously fussy interiors are in top form here, as Stockhausen designs a world that is clearly but indefinably linked to the imagery of the early ’60s, while also possessing the colorful visual logic of a timeless picture book, perfectly matching the scenario.
1st Runner-Up: Cloud Atlas (Hugh Bateup and Uli Hanisch)
Pure, gaudy eye candy; but the thing about candy is, it’s tasty. And boy, do I ever not feel guilty for being constantly dazzled by the world-building in each and every one of the sequences, even the “modern ones”.
The Cabin in the Woods (Martin Whist)
-For its playful nods to horror iconography, the Wall O’ Monsters, and of course, the office betting pool
The Deep Blue Sea (James Merifield)
-For making post-war England look both utterly realistic, and also like an inescapable trap of stuffy interiors
Mirror Mirror (Tom Foden)
-For wonderfully, and without shame, following the design of animated fantasy to its logically physical conclusion
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Mirror Mirror (Eiko Ishioka)
The late designer’s final film work is quite possibly her best, as well: deliriously excessive daydreams about what life in a storybook would look like given wearable form, using color and shape to explain all sorts of things about the characters and the mood of a scene through pure, giddy visuals.
1st Runner-Up: Moonrise Kingdom (Kasia Walicka Maimone)
The muted little brother to the production design carries on its period-piece scheme in some wonderfully un-pushy ways, with simple but hugely effective details everywhere you turn.
Anna Karenina (Jacqueline Durran)
-For being lavish as all get-out, but in ways that are visually important and psychogically insightful, not just pretty
Django Unchained (Sharen Davis)
-For capturing the heightened period flavor with pulpy aplomb, and for a couple of impeccable gags
Magic Mike (Christopher Peterson)
-For never running out of hilariously crude new ways to put male strippers into a variety of ridiculous themes
The film is, after all, entirely about makeup as a tool of narrative, of personality, of social disguise, of filmmaking magic. And the fact that we actually see it being applied or removed, several times, was too perfect to resist.
-For the fantastic ideas that worked, and the nonetheless magnetic strangeness of the ones that didn’t
-For an unholy perfection of mimicking one of the most famous faces in history, and lots of historical grime
Moonrise Kingdom (Alexandre Desplat)
In a weak year for music, the one clear masterwork was Desplat’s 17-minute “The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe”, a sweeping, delicate and complex march that adds immeasurably to the narrative’s storybook elements while being incredibly beautiful on its own.
1st Runner-Up: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin)
Soaring and eerie in equal measure, appropriating just enough music from the cultural region it depicts to give it specificity, it’s indelibly moving and a perfect match for the film’s bedtime story tone.
Anna Karenina (Dario Marianelli)
-For being brittle and mechanical in a way that underlines and augments the film’s own theatrical flatness
Cloud Atlas (Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tom Tykwer)
-For living up to the incredible needs placed on it by the script, which demands classical grandeur in abundance
The Rabbi’s Cat (Olivier Daviaud)
-For mixing “ethnic” styles in a way that opens the film up rather than simply feeling corny
BEST SOUND MIXING
The Turin Horse
There is barely a moment in the film where the nightmarish howl of the wind isn’t somewhere: on the edges of perception or out front, knocking us out; the careful modulation of those sounds is the film’s single best trick in creating its sense of omnipresent dread.
1st Runner-Up: The Grey
Rare indeed is the film capture the way that the outdoors – the snowy outdoors especially – echoes and distorts all your sense of space; The Grey manages that feat, going soft and and muted in all the right places.
-For isolating the interior of its all-important limousine as a closed-off space of hushes in the midst of chaos
The Loneliest Planet
-For raising the simple sounds of nature up to rattling, unnerving heights, giving an edge to the scenario
The Raid: Redemption
-For pulverising us with violence and giving us a nearly vacant moment to breathe, in a perfect mix
BEST SOUND EDITING
The Raid: Redemption
In the midst of non-stop punching and shooting and screaming and bleeding, you’d hardly stop to notice niceties of sound design if they weren’t so perfect and nuanced: the personality given to each bullet, the texture of each punch, the hollowness of the quite rooms.
1st Runner-Up: Wreck-It Ralph
Capturing the digital, midi cacophony of a real arcade, the soundscape indulges in nostalgic beeps and buzzes while also creating a brand new aural world that can stand with any classic game soundtrack .
-For distant wolves, crunching snow, and the fabricky texture of the air in the woods, all equally oppressive
-For Foleyed fighting effects that sound like a cartoon, heightening the film’s aesthetic even higher
The Turin Horse
-For the sickening intensity of that wind, and the way that the sole interior feels muffled and fake in the face of it
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Life of Pi
Love it, or hate it, find it moving or find it contrived, surely the one thing we can all agree on is that Richard Parker the tiger is unholy perfection: a wonderfully-animated CGI cat that is flawlessly integrated into the world around him – which is also, of course, wonderful CGI.
1st Runner-Up: Ted
Quality over quantity: there are no exploding space ships, just a talking teddy bear, but the whole movie rests on our finding him a believable character, and the extraordinary work bringing him to life makes that easy.
-For looking exactly as realistic or cartoony as every new sequence demands, and never once looking fake
-For being low key and only used in moments of necessity, thus making those moments that much stronger
-For the grandeur of its execution, using computers to create impossible dreams rather than recycle old ones