Published Jan 11, 2013The war for the Best Film of 2012 wraps-up today with our Drama picks. Many thoroughly engrossing dramas were released theatrically in North America throughout 2012 but only a select few could make our year-end Top 10 (or 12) list.
Exclaim!'s Best Films of 2012: Drama
*Please note that there was a 3-way tie for the #10 drama.
10. The Woman in the Fifth
Directed By Pawel Pawlikowski
Much like director Pawel Pawlikowski's little seen but infinitely memorable character drama, My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth relies on subjectivity and ambiguity to build its intrigue. In plotting, this bilingual psychological mystery focuses on Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), a college literary professor and writer traveling to Paris to see his daughter. Immediately introduced to a hostile environment when his ex-wife refused to grant him access to their daughter, threatening police involvement if he doesn't disappear, the film holds its cards close, showing us the reactions without defining the specific cause. After Tom is robbed of all worldly belongings and barters with the shady owner of a rundown cafe for room and board, the story becomes increasingly oblique, involving a highly intelligent but peculiar widow (Kristen Scott Thomas) and the occasional unexplained murder. While it isn't difficult to figure out what is going on, especially once certain characters make their identities clear, the very specific and lyrical manner in which The Woman in the Fifth reveals its hand, never giving into the trap of exposition or explanation, is an experience unto itself for those keen on indulging in a non-traditional viewing.
10. Keep the Lights On
Directed By Ira Sachs
Ira Sachs' Keep the Lights On is a romantic drama about a couple whose happily-ever-after seems imperiled from the very start. Based on Sachs' own failed long-term relationship, the film feels less like a score-settling with his former partner than it does a genuine attempt to come to terms with the emotional fallout he faced. Chronicling a 10-year span of a young gay couple's tumultuous relationship, the movie begins by showing the performing nature of identity; one's claim to self, be it sexual or professional, are staged on an ever-shifting plateau of habit, fantasy and desire. Structured by abrupt leaps through time, each subsequent chapter brings viewers to a more erratic place than the last. Very few scenes of happiness are shown between the couple, instead honing in on the relentless hurt that compounds over time. Keep the Lights On is less a portrait of love than it is a study of love's passionate procedures and the lengths people will go to even when it's not meant to be.
10. Being Flynn
Directed By Paul Weitz
Paul Weitz has come a long way from his origins as one of the men to help popularize the term, "MILF." His adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Nick Flynn is an impressive piece of filmmaking that taps into the existential self-doubt of purpose and worth as exacerbated by an absentee parent with delusions of grandeur. Divided by a desire to follow in his father's often advertised, but never proven, footsteps as a great writer and a fear of becoming an emotionally unstable windbag just like him, Nick (Paul Dano) is forced to face his uncertainty when the senior Flynn (Robert DeNiro) makes contact for the first time in years, right around the time he begins working at a homeless shelter. As if that's not a difficult enough situation for a young man questioning his place in life to process, Nick's destitute dad takes up residence in the very same shelter a few months later. Flirting with fatalism, Nick uses his father's self-destructive behaviour to excuse his own. Both Dano and DeNiro give excellent performances, but for all the praise being foisted upon the elderly thespian for Silver Linings Playbook, his bombastic embodiment of the erratic Jonathan Flynn is his finest work in years. Behind the camera, Weitz hits a career high, ably juggling weighty drama with a caustic sense of humour and playful breaking of the fourth wall that feels appropriate for a story about the way people weave personal fictions. Being Flynn is an emotionally cathartic drama with themes relatable to the human condition even for those who've never had a strained paternal relationship.
Scott A. Gray
9. The Hunter
Directed By Daniel Nettheim
The premise of The Hunter, an adaptation of the Julia Leigh novel of the same name, is seemingly simple enough: A mercenary (Willem Dafoe) is hired by a European biotech company to hunt the last Tasmanian tiger in existence. He goes to the Tasmanian wilderness; he ignores the warnings and threats of the locals; and he befriends the children of Lucy (Frances O'Connor), a woman whose medically induced slumber borders on parentally neglectful. But as we soon learn, Lucy's husband—the mercenary's predecessor—has been missing for some time and everyone, including the children, are remaining somewhat vague about what really happened. In part a mystery, the beauty of The Hunter is its quiet consciousness of the smaller, presumably insubstantial, moments. Dafoe's bond with Lucy and her children is developed with a natural ease and symbiotic temperament that juxtaposes the callous central storyline perfectly. As the titular hunter learns of his true role and the nature of corporate proprietorship, these quiet secondary moments of human connection ultimately prove to be the only things of value, transcending the need to acquire even the rarest object in the world.
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed By Benh Zeitlin
It's easy to forget sometimes that movies have the ability to transport us to the kinds of magnificent lands existing only in the minds of directors like Benh Zeitlin. Immersing the viewer in a flooded area outside of New Orleans known as "The Bathtub," Beasts Of The Southern Wild presents a view of the place that's as vibrant and alive as that of its young protagonist, Hushpuppy. In the role, Quvenzhané Wallis announces her presence with a heartbreakingly genuine performance that rivals the best work of any child actor. As she and her father meander along, soaking languidly in the local color, the fantastically moribund landscape—a collection of cast-offs living in dilapidated hunks of tin with heaps of trash and livestock strewn haphazardly about—takes centre stage as the film's main character. The locals prepare for an impending storm to arrive, conjuring images of prehistoric creatures called aurochs arriving from melted glaciers. It's obviously not meant as any realistic portrayal of the situation in Louisiana, achieving instead a lyrical quality in its voiceover reminiscent of the films of Terrence Malick and a wondrous vision of the resilience of a child's imagination all its own.
7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Directed By Stephen Chbosky
In many ways, it's as if we don't exist until we find others that make us feel as if we belong and, for so many out there, this happens at some point during the brutal gauntlet that is high school. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is the film's titular wallflower, forever with his face pressed up to the glass of life until he meets the slightly older Sam (Emma Watson) and her group of friends who slowly coax Charlie out of his shell. Few high school movies manage to convey the electric feeling of those aimless nights spent with kindred spirits when time seems to stand still for a second in your honour, but there is a sense here of the importance. Obviously adhering to the adage that if you want something done right then you have to do it yourself, Stephen Chbosky writes and directs an adaptation of his own novel with rare intelligence, humour and warmth. Through Charlie's introduction to foreign concepts like love and affection, there comes an important stage in his molding process, one solidifying crucial elements like values and sensibilities. It may eventually seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but the deepest relationships established in these formative years will reverberate in an imperceptible manner for the rest of life.
6. Life of Pi
Directed By Ang Lee
It would be hard to deny that Life of Pi is a visual wonder, acting as a testament to 3D and digital creature creation. Yet, looking past the glitzy CGI and breathtaking visuals, this testament to the importance of storytelling is a bold religious allegory that explores mankind's incomplete attempt to explain their relationship to God through religion. Based on Yann Martel's critically acclaimed novel of the same name, this tale of a young man, shipwrecked at sea and drifting in a lifeboat with an adult male Bengal tiger, evolves into something much more than story of survival. Life of Pi is a story that superbly blends spectacle with introspective thought, driven by Ang Lee's keen eye for a beautiful vista that turns the impossible into something probable and even believable. Nearly everything in the film can be taken at face value or as metaphor, allowing viewers the opportunity to take as much or as little from it as they wish.
5. Anna Karenina
Directed By Joe Wright
Literary adaptations are dangerous ventures, especially when the core audience is emotionally attached to the source material. The most successful film translations tend to treat their novelistic origins with respect but distance, recognizing that the bones of the story and the thematic overtures need be little more than intriguing starting points. But it's safest to tell these familiar stories in a straightforward manner, relying on beautiful costumes and cinematography to do the majority of the translation work, and most adaptations take this approach. Occasionally these films can be masterful and entertaining—such as Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility or Joe Wright's own Pride and Prejudice—though, more often than not, they end up feeling lackluster. This year's Anna Karenina, Wright's reimagining of Leo Tolstoy's nineteenth-century Russian epic about the search for meaning and passion in a society full of hypocrisy, is anything but lackluster. It is a bold, formidable, theatrical film, as exciting as it is divisive. The movie presents an inspired and sustained vision, where even its flaws—the misguided casting of the young, effeminate Aaron Taylor-Johnson, for example—seem gutsy. Yet somehow despite all the artifice, the elaborate staging and choreography, Anna Karenina is rooted in emotion, grounded by Keira Knightley's bold performance as the oft-misunderstood eponymous heroine.
Directed By Craig Zobel
Forget storybook monsters, there's nothing more disturbing than the acts of depravity and unthinking obedience real people are capable of. If Compliance was a straight piece of fiction, viewers would be crying foul over strained credulity just a short way into the film. Nobody can be that ignorant and dismissive, can they? Yes, they can, and yes, they were. Craig Zobel's skin-crawling drama is based on actual events. The manager of a fast food restaurant (Ann Dowd) is convinced to question, detain and eventually strip search one of her employees (Dreama Walker) by a prank caller claiming to be a police officer. There doesn't appear to be any reason behind the manipulation other than a perverse desire to see how gullible and easily cowed the undereducated and overworked can be. Sure, the actions of the sadistic puppet master are nefarious but it's how unquestioning and easily convinced the victims are that's truly jaw-dropping and nauseating. Most people will ignore or go along with just about anything in order to avoid trouble. Any lingering resistance can be handled with a little flattery and some forceful insistence. Paced with nail-biting tension to match the insidious events and strong performances from all the central players—but especially the self-deceiving duplicity of Ann Dowd's Sandra--Compliance is a haunting picture of human nature at its worst that has to be seen to be believed.
Scott A. Gray
3. The Impossible
Directed By Juan Antonio Bayona
When The Impossible opens, married couple Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) are on a plane with their three overly precocious and broadly written sons to Indonesia for Christmas. The usual familial bickering and cuteness unfolds, letting us know that even though they have their differences—Henry is worried about the future of his career and Maria is hesitant to go back to work—they all love each other. But before this pseudo-patronizing treacle can ruin the movie, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami erupts, washing the family, and countless others, through absolute chaos, pushed through waters where debris tears their bodies to shreds. Only Maria and her oldest son are able to find each other amidst the living horror, which is depicted with such unflinching rawness and visceral intensity that it's nearly impossible not to feel an elevated pulse rate. Their quest to find the rest of their family without suffering additional injury or fatality is handled in a way that suggests anything is possible, which is rare for a formulaic disaster movie. Yes, there is an overall sense of emotional manipulation that bogs down The Impossible overall, but there's no denying the cinematic power and strength of the work for those that give in to its tidal wave of emotion and beauty.
2. Take This Waltz
Directed By Sarah Polley
There is no such thing as a perfect love that can make us whole. There are only the choices we make based on feelings we can't deny but can never fully understand either. Sarah Polley's highly astute and surprisingly funny drama about the temptations that can leak into even the happiest of unions, once the shiny lustre of new romance, has dulled eschews sentimentality in favour of non-judgemental realism. In yet another brave and nuanced performance that has been unfairly overlooked, Michelle Williams stars as Margot, a writer who begins to fall for a charismatic artist (Luke Kirby) she meets on a flight back to Toronto after discovering he conveniently lives across the street from her and her goofy chicken cookbook author husband Lou (a smartly utilized Seth Rogen). It's not as though she's fallen out of love with her partner – the film's sweetest and most amusing scenes involve the silly, comfortable insular humour that develops in a long term relationship – but the gleam of newness proves irresistible to explore to a woman in the throes of general malaise. Set in the oppressive humidity of deep summer, Polley uses pathetic fallacy to great effect; Margot is suffering heatstroke of the heart. Though the story employs a few minor contrivances, it's careful not to point fingers and, like in life, there are no fairy tale endings. Some decisions, especially when concerning affairs of the heart, can't be unmade. Take This Waltz is a maturely reasoned and emotionally tumultuous drama that doesn't forget the comical absurdities of life that make it worth living.
Scott A. Gray
1. Zero Dark Thirty
Directed By Kathryn Bigelow
Moving past the political posturing and cinematically illiterate argument that Zero Dark Thirty advocates torture, Kathryn Bigelow's thoroughly engrossing depiction of the decade long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden is deserving of the many accolades and acknowledgements it has received. Yes, the acting from Jessica Chastain as Maya—the relentless and focused CIA agent that ultimately finds the target—is flawless and draining; and yes, the sheer intensity of the naturalistic and surprisingly unpredictable narrative is compelling in itself. But what makes Zero Dark Thirty stand out beyond its superlative visceral component is its attention to hierarchies, gender roles and the many human complexities that go into operating a team or fighting a war. When Maya is introduced to an Al Qaeda suspect being interrogated and graphically tortured by a fellow agent (Jason Clarke), she notes that the tactics are based on power and intimidation. Realizing that emulating the actions of a male pissing contest would be an absurd redundancy, she positions herself as the rational and compassionate party, advising the terrorist suspect that he has the power to save himself from further suffering. This keen focus on Maya's more calculated modes of manipulation in her single-minded quest to find Bin Laden is what takes this from standard biopic and elevates it to the level of an astute sociological text, finding the pulse and root cause of conflict amidst a film driven by the very subject.