This year was a memorable year in film. From pot-smoking teddy bears, to an 85-year-old sushi master, to the final chapter on a Batman trilogy, feature films and documentaries were bold and diverse. That’s why when it came time to come up with my list of top-10 favorites, it was difficult to say the least. This list isn’t a definitive list of top-10 films this year (believe it or not, I didn’t have time to catch every single one), but here are ones that I saw and liked and would recommend. Agree, disagree, or want to chime in with your favorites? Leave a comment below.
Top 5 Documentary Films of 2012
5. Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap
You might not recognize all the rappers featured in Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, but that doesn’t matter. Only hip-hop aficionados would be able to recognize the faces, but it doesn’t mean you would appreciate their talents and contributions any less. Ice-T’s passion project starts in the streets of New York, and travels to restaurants, record stores, apartments, and recording studios to meet with artists and producers like Grandmaster Caz, Chuck D., and Lord Finesse. Later, he makes his way to Detroit for a visit with Eminem, before hitting up L.A., where Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West reside. At times, the film feels a tad too long, and any fans of Ice Loves Coco would know that the rapper himself had trouble editing his beast of a baby, but for true hip-hop fans, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap is a long-awaited record of American rap and hip-hop culture that needed to happen, handing the mic to those who’ve earned the respect.
4. Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope
I’ll be honest, before seeing Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, my only experience with comics was Archie comics—and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, if that counts. Director Morgan Spurlock, who famously made himself sick over McDonalds in Super Size Me, approaches the world’s largest Comic-Con in San Diego with such friendly curiosity, however, that everyone feels welcome and you may even feel a slight desire to reveal your inner “geek” by film’s end. Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope follows the story of six Comic-Con attendees juxtaposed with interviews with Comic-Con idols like Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, Stan Lee, and Matt Groening. Spurlock’s handling of the subject is slick and fun, even so much to make all these adults dressed in Spiderman costumes look sorta cool.
3. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Several documentary films featuring artists made their debut in 2012, but Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was different. The documentary takes a critical look at China’s progressive art world while exposing the government that repeatedly attempts to silence it. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei is where these two spheres collide. First-time documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman follows Ai starting in 2008, just after the devastating Sichuan earthquake had killed thousands. In the following years, Ai creates several art pieces and organizes volunteer-run projects to account for and honour lives—particularly children—lost in that earthquake. Klayman documents Ai ‘s efforts to repeatedly expose the Chinese government on human rights-related issues up until Ai is detained and held by authorities for over 80 days in 2011. The doc doesn’t employ any fancy filmmaking techniques, and when Klayman asks questions, she doesn’t always attempt to probe further, but Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry deserves recognition because it’s able to construct an engaging narrative full of hope and humour even in the darkest of hours.
2. Marina Ambramovic: The Artist is Present
In 2010, New York’s Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective of Serbian-born performance artist Marina Ambramovic’s work and featured a new piece called “The Artist is Present”. In this performance, Ambramovic sat for more than 736 hours, silent, looking only at the person seated across from her, which could be any MoMA attendee. In Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre’s documentary, audiences watch as Ambramovic prepares for possibly the biggest show of her career, while reflecting on performances past. The reason why Marina Ambramovic: The Artist is Present comes in at number two is because it’s rich in art history while still feeling incredibly personal and honest, and because of that, the documentary will undoubtedly move you.
1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Jiro Ono is an 85-year-old sushi master and the subject of New York-based documentary filmmaker David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film takes an intimate look at the famed chef and his three Michelin star-ranked Tokyo restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro. If the mention of “food porn” makes you salivate, prepare yourself for Gelb’s beautifully-shot film, which is one continuous 80-minute-long jerk-off session of the finest quality. The reason why Jiro Dreams of Sushi takes the number one spot, however, is because it is so much more than just about dreamy fish and rice shots. It’s a portrait of a humble man who found his life’s passion and strives to do it better every day.
Top 5 Feature Films of 2012
I’m usually skeptical about buddy comedies. Too often do they rely on overdone jokes about sex, weed, and bodily functions. Somehow Ted, which was directed, co-written, and co-produced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane includes all of the above, but somehow manages to be smart, funny, and entertaining as well. Ted is the story of the beloved relationship between a boy and his teddy bear in Boston. Mark Wahlberg plays the boy, John Bennett, all grown up, and while his life not be all that he dreamed of, at least he has Ted the bear, voiced by MacFarlane, to skip work and get high with. All is swell until John’s girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) makes John pick between her and Ted, testing a lifelong friendship. The star of Ted is really the writing. Despite all the poop jokes, it’s fast and continuously funny, and in typical MacFarlane fashion, it’s also packed with pop culture references. Even though one-half of this friendship is stuffed with cotton balls, this buddy comedy turns out to be one of the most relatable.
4. The Dark Knight Rises
Has any other sequel to a trilogy ever been so highly anticipated? The lines were long and the hype was high for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, and was it worth it? Absolutely. Unlike Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which pitted Bruce Wayne against one distinct villain, The Dark Knight Rises was all about celebrating an ensemble cast of characters, which included Bane (Tom Hardy) and Selina/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). Garry Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine returned to their respective roles, and the addition of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard just meant more eye-candy for everyone. This Batman was all about the toys, special effects, and fight seasons, and while it may be difficult to officially conclude a series as iconic as Batman, Nolan did so nicely—and not too tightly in case he ever wishes to reopen it again.
3. Take This Waltz
It’s particularly difficult to follow up a film with as much critical acclaim as Away from Her has won, but Canadian writer-director Sarah Polley managed it oh-so beautifully with the heartbreakingly realistic Take This Waltz. Set in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighborhood, the film centres on a peculiar love triangle of sorts between Margot (Michelle Williams), her husband of five years Lou (Seth Rogan), and a handsome new neighbour Daniel (Luke Kirby). Daniel offers Margot everything her husband does not—mainly, excitement. Her well-meaning cookbook-writing hubby, which a restrained Rogan portrays charmingly, is more concerned with roasting chicken than noticing the sexual advances of his bored wife. The only person who does seem to notice Margot’s wandering eye is sister-in-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), who’s battling demons of her own. The reason why Take This Waltz makes the top-three spot is because of Polley’s delicate handling of the matter. She has a way of setting the scene, and allowing the sparks between the characters fly.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
Every scene of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is a masterclass in art direction. The placement of every object is purposeful, colours jump off the screen, and through the rabbit hole the audience goes to another world—supposedly 1960s New England—that’s much more picturesque than here. The basic plotline is simple: two young misfits serendipitously find one another, fall in love, and decide to run away together. It’s all of the other characters who cause this darling little storyline to go array. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are perfectly cast as inattentive parents to young Suzy. It’s now hard to imagine Ed Norton as anything but a scout master, and Tilda Swinton and Bruce Willis are memorable as a woman working in social services and captain, respectively. However, really, it’s young actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward who portray star-crossed Sam and Suzy that really carry the film, making children seem incredibly wise and the adults around them silly and immature.
1. The Master
The Master isn’t for everyone, and some people might be confused (or angry) to see it listed as number one on my list, but hear me out. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (whose credits include Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood), The Master centers around a leader of a new philosophical movement called The Cause and a World War II vet-turned-drifter who follows him. Like you would expect with most religious-cult-type leaders Lancaster Dodd (played by the mesmerizing Philip Seymour Hoffman) is charismatic and commanding. His wife (Amy Adams) seems to have something much more sinister lurking beneath the surface. When Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes a stowaway on a boat carrying disciples of The Cause, he quickly forges a unique relationship with Lancaster by sharing his particularly sketchy recipe for moonshine. Audiences quick to criticize Anderson for parallels between The Cause and Scientology should hold their tongue. Besides Anderson’s denial of the comparison, the movie really isn’t about the religious cult itself. It’s the loving and tumultuous relationship between two men—one master, one slave—that will keep you captivated.