‘Cosmopolis’ (David Cronenberg)
There seemed to be a little juice behind Canadian director David Cronenberg’s latest effort, a wonderfully meandering adaptation of Dom DeLillo’s novel of the same name that charts a single, seemingly endless limousine ride. For one, the film premiered at Cannes, to mostly ecstatic audiences (full disclosure: I was in one of them), and for another, Cronenberg loaded his bizarre contraption with a secret weapon: Robert Pattinson. As a disaffected billionaire, Pattinson showed unheard of gravitas and wit, both of which were sorely missing during his five-movie tenure as sparkly vampire Edward in the “Twilight” movies. But not even his handsome or borderline hieroglyphic face, could get people to come out to “Cosmopolis.” Granted, the movie is pretty weird. But it’s also tremendously rewarding — it works its hooks into you and, months after seeing it, I still can’t stop thinking about it. It’s also part of 2012′s great limousine ride double feature, along with Leos Carax’s equally strange “Holy Motors.” The mini-bar optional.
‘Your Sister’s Sister’ (Lynn Shelton)
Easily the highlight of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, “Your Sister’s Sister” is a micro-budgeted indie comedy that sounds really boring, but is, in fact, one of the most surprisingly delightful films of 2012. The plot concerns Jack (played by Mark Duplass), a twenty-something loser who goes to his brother’s ex-girlfriend’s cabin in the woods to hang out and get himself together. While there, he accidentally runs into his brother’s ex-girlfriend’s lesbian sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) and, eventually, the ex-girlfriend herself (the endlessly fetching Emily Blunt). A comedy of errors, sexual misjudgments, and hurt feelings follow, and it ends with an honest-to-goodness cliffhanger, a rarity in films in general, but even scarcer in indie romantic comedies.
‘Detention’ (Joseph Kahn)
While critics (and select audiences) were falling over themselves to praise Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s splat-stick genre deconstruction “Cabin in the Woods,” another movie, just as sneakily subversive and giddily fun, was released under the radar and appreciated by almost no one. That film was Joseph Kahn’s candy-colored slasher send-up “Detention.” A film that feels genuinely ahead of its time, it involves a serial killer, time travel, misplaced nineties nostalgia, an almost uncomfortable level of self-awareness, and on screen graphics and text that make “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” seem like the paradigm of stylistic subtlety. In short: it’s bananas. It’s also totally brilliant. Kahn not only perfectly mimics the speech patterns and behavior of today’s teens, but the whole movie feels like it’s been processed by their texting, Tweeting, multi-tasking brains. It’s the kind of film that is so overwhelmingly odd that the second it’s over, you want to start it all again. A cult following now seems to be brewing, just in the few months it’s been on home video, which should be aided by the fact that one of its stars/co-producers, Josh Hutcherson, has become an overnight teen idol. (Although, that didn’t help “Cosmopolis.”)
‘Side by Side’ (Christopher Kenneally)
Documentaries are already at a disadvantage, but a documentary about the changing face of cinema and the debate caused by the industry’s wholesale shift to digital photography is just crippling. Most see it as esoteric and hard to navigate, even though recognizable directors like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron are interviewed and producer Keanu Reeves narrates and hosts. No matter. “Side by Side” is one of the most vital documentaries of the year, not just because it’s chronicling a seismic change in the way movies are made, distributed, and presented, but because it is an easy metaphor for the grander technological shifts in society, away from the tactile and into the more nebulously ethereal. Keanu turns out to be a surprisingly fun and informative host, laying out the history of film (as in celluloid) and talking with a wide range of directors that also include Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan and David Lynch. Both sides of the debate are presented passionately, and while the writing seems to be on the wall, it doesn’t change the romanticism and power of film. It’ll always be our first love.
‘Bernie (Richard Linkleter)
Bafflingly under-appreciated, “Bernie” reteamed comedy juggernaut Jack Black with his “School of Rock” director, Richard Linklater, for a pitch-black true crime tale set in a Podunk Texas town with more rumors than rattlesnakes. Shirley Maclaine co-starred in this snappy little comedy, as an elderly wench befriended by the town’s kindly mortician (Black). Of course, given that this is a true story, something altogether darker transpires, and it’s a testament to Linklater’s tonal tightrope walking that you never stop giggling. As a director, he is observant and nonjudgmental, utilizing a kind of Greek Chorus of actual Texans (some from the town where the crime took place), to give their two cents on the events of the movie. Despite its miniscule budget, it was a wildly commercial, easily accessible film, and might be the performance of Jack Black’s career. (Matthew McConaughey, continuing his unparalleled 2012 winning streak, also has a small role.) It’s nothing short of delightful; a Texas-shaped treat.
‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ (Panos Cosmatos)
Imagine a claustrophobic, atmospheric, borderline-horror movie filmed entirely in one of the Dharma stations from “Lost” (The Swan, maybe, or The Pearl). Now imagine doing an insane amount of drugs and stealing your father’s collection of early-nineties prog rock and electro records (plus the soundtracks from some Italian zombie movies) and playing that stuff while the movie is going. That vaguely replicates the sensation of watching “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” one of the most wonderfully original debuts to come around in quite some time. The plot is almost indescribably strange, but takes place in 1983 at a scientific outpost called the Arboria Institute, where a mad scientist has captured a comely young girl. Also there’s a monster — or something. “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is the rare movie that’s equal parts video art installation and midnight movie. It’s 100 percent mesmerizing, to the point of being nearly hypnotizing
‘The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim)
The premise for “The Hunter,” based on the cult novel by Julia Leigh, is singularly strange: a shadowy operative (played with uniform intensity by Willem Dafoe) is hired by a conglomerate called Red Leaf and sent to Tasmania to track down and kill the last remaining Tasmanian tiger. When Dafoe goes down there, he falls in with a family that has agreed to set him up for the trip, and things become infinitely more complicated (this on top of the fact that he’s hunting for an animal most agree doesn’t exist). “The Hunter” is a low-key thriller, of sorts, deeply melancholy and full of outback vistas that border on the surreal. But the reason it’s such a gem is the emotional wallop that’s provided, particularly in the bleak third act. It’s hard to talk about “The Hunter” without giving anything away, but it remains one of the most haunting movies of the year. It stays with you.
‘A Royal Affair’ (Nikolaj Arcel)
Enlightenment-era Denmark probably doesn’t sound like the most exciting setting for a movie, but as “A Royal Affair” proves, it really is. Based on historical fact, “A Royal Affair” concerns the court of the mentally unstable King Christian VII (Mikkel Folsgaard), who wed the young Englishwoman Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) and was highly influenced by his royal physician Johann Friedrich Streunsee (Mads Mikkelsen). While it may appear to be a stuffy period piece, it’s anything but, and features palace intrigue, plagues, bodice-ripping sex, political machinations and really large, ornate rooms. The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly the young Vikander, who is one of the year’s brightest, most adorable newcomers. Also keep in mind that the film was produced by Lars von Trier’s company, Zentropa, so don’t worry, things never become too idealistic or sappy, no matter how pretty the images get.
‘For Ellen’ (So Yong Kim)
Paul Dano scored a minor indie hit over the summer with the effervescent “Ruby Sparks,” but he clocked in his best, most nuanced performance this year in “For Ellen,” a postage stamp-sized indie from “Treeless Mountain” director So Yong Kim. Dano plays a barely functional rock star (his band seems to be on the brink of breaking up), forced to return to a snowy midwestern town to take part in divorce proceedings. It’s here that he attempts to make some kind of connection with his young daughter (Shaylena Mandigo). That’s pretty much all there is in terms of plot. But that doesn’t matter. What does is how beautiful Kim stages the interactions between the young girl and her father, and the absolute emotional devastation that can be brought about by the simplest, starkest scenes of them together. Dano has never been better (yes, even in “There Will Be Blood”), and non-actor Mandigo brings a heartbreaking realism to the role of the young girl. Ironically, “For Ellen,” a movie about a man who’s constantly on the move, is one that stays with you for a very long time.
‘John Carter’ (Andrew Stanton)
It’s weird to think of a $ 200 million Disney event movie directed by the filmmaker behind “Finding Nemo” as a “lost” film, but that’s exactly what “John Carter” was. Based on a series of hugely influential, hundred-year-old pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and flattened by the one-two punch of bad press and pour marketing, “John Carter” died a dog’s death at the box office this spring, despite being a deeply strange, wildly imaginative and hugely personal blockbuster. True, “John Carter” is a discombobulated mess, often times getting lost in a tangle of subplots and arcane terminology, but it works more often than it should, and has an easygoing, overtly earnest charm that’s hard to shrug off. Taylor Kitsch, from “Friday Night Lights,” plays the title role, a grumpy Confederate soldier zapped to Mars (that tired old story). Andrew Stanton, a Pixar veteran, made his live action debut with “John Carter,” and the action sequences have a zippy inventiveness befitting someone with an animation background (the script was co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon), often resulting in bold, sometimes deeply unsettling decisions. Known primarily as an astronomical financial dud, “John Carter” will one day rightfully be recognized for what it truly is — an utterly winning cult classic.