A bit late this year, but here we go, as per tradition: the best films I saw in 2012, that weren’t made in 2012.
10. Little Darlings (1980)
In one of the few movies that explores the pressure to lose one’s virginity from the female perspective, Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol are rivals at summer camp who find themselves in the middle of a bet to see who can lose it first. As other campers throw money behind one contestant or the other, neither girl feels she can back down, even when situations become rather complicated with the intended male “targets.” This is a very funny movie that also takes its lead characters seriously, allowing them to be weird and outlandish in the ways that best serve their conflicted, hormonal selves, not just the plot. Though some resolutions are predictable, this is one of the best teen movies I’ve seen in a long time.
9. My Brilliant Career (1979)
Speaking of headstrong teens, here we have a young Judy Davis playing Sybylla, a young woman weighing her options (not many) in early 20th century Australia. She wants to be a writer, perhaps; something that gives her independence, surely. This strong desire for independence is challenged in ways unpleasant (the family’s farm has gone into severe debt and Sybylla must work as a governess for some truly awful children) and more pleasant (a dashing young Sam Neill may just want to sweep Sybylla off her feet). Sybylla is a wonderful character, reminiscent of the great Anne Shirley, and Gillian Armstrong’s film serves her well with an ending that reflects how tough choices in life really can be.
8. Touch of Evil (1958)
I had a chance to see this film on a theater screen while I was in Paris this past November, and I’m glad I was able to finally check it off my list in that setting. No one needs to hear me explain that Orson Welles was a stunning visual director, but I’ll say that it’s impossible not to be sucked in by the world he creates here, from the opening tracking shot to the final tense, shadowy moments. Once the issue of Charlton Heston playing a Mexican man is put aside a bit (admittedly, a difficult task), it’s a great experience to bask in the dirt, grime, and sweat of this boozy border town. Plus, there’s plenty of Janet Leigh, which is always a good thing.
7. Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)
In 2012 I watched my first few films from prolific French director Claude Chabrol, and this was by far the highlight among them. The film follows four French shopgirls through their boring workdays and their dubious night lives, where they encounter a fair few hideously-behaved men. The film is observational to the point where tracing a core plotline is impossible, yet it’s also terrifically engaging as a window into a certain kind of Paris. The one development we can really grasp onto—one woman’s emerging romance with a man on a motorcycle—resolves in a way I could never have seen coming. If you’re interested in the French New Wave, this is a must-see.
6. Videodrome (1983)
I wrote a little bit about Videodrome when I had David Cronenberg Month, but a year later I’m not sure I have anything deeper to say about why I liked it so much. Someone with more expertise than I have would need to explain why some surrealism works and some doesn’t; what Cronenberg throws into his narrative of a schlock producer works incredibly. Scenes make you feel uncomfortable and confused, but in the most glorious way.
5. Marnie (1964)
Marnie was another film I wrote about while attempting monthly director-fests. For me, it might be Hitchcock’s most fascinating film, in terms of the layers of psychological complexity and amoral behavior. I still am not quite sure what to think about it, which is sometimes the best way to feel about a piece of art. I do know that Tippi Hedren’s performance is simply brilliant, and is evidence of what highs she could have reached had her falling out with Hitchcock (to use a term that probably gives him too much credit) not affected her career.
4. Le Bonheur (1965)
Agnès Varda, how I love you. But as I said in August, I’m not sure if “love” is the right word for how I feel about this film—though my admiration for it only grows the more I think about it. Le Bonheur is a story of delusional infidelity, and also a sort of parable about the way women’s lives are so often unjustly defined by their relationships with men. Watching it now, I only wish progress in that area would continue at a faster pace, because too many women are still not the controllers of their own lives. The film isn’t really an attack on men, though—more like a warning that if the world says you can have everything, there’s actually going to be a catch somewhere. This is a tough movie to explain, so I just say: watch it.
3. A New Leaf (1971)
Unavailable for a very long time, this film is now ACTUALLY OUT ON DVD!, and I urge you to seek it out. This is flawless dark comedy, and Walter Matthau and co-star/co-writer/director Elaine May play off of each other as if they’d been a long-time comedy duo. Matthau is selfish rich man who’s just been told he’s actually poor; May is a clueless rich woman he’d like to marry and then murder. I’ll actually have much more to say about this film for a piece on May that I’m preparing for The MacGuffin, so I’ll end with just urging all who like black comedies to get this one, now.
2. The Last Days of Disco (1998)
I overuse the word “delight” as a noun to describe things that bring me joy, but it’s simply the most apt descriptor for Whit Stillman’s wordy, hilarious, occasionally beautifully awkward film. I crave the kind of dialogue Stillman writes, which weighs entertainment value and true cleverness over realism, but never crosses into self-congratulatory, referential irony. I wrote about The Last Days of Disco back in April, when I was almost stunned by how much I’d enjoyed it, and not just because of all of the amaaaaazing disco music. When something can be this bitingly clever on the surface and have so much heart underneath, everyone should love it.
1. Warrior (2011)
One of the most interesting ways a film can engage a viewer is by giving us two opposing sides to root for and no way that both will win. For some reason, sports movies rarely take advantage of the fact that they’re inherently set up to make this dynamic as easily constructable as it could ever be. Warrior‘s deft handling of two brothers in the same mixed martial arts tournament wrings all of the natural drama out of the set-up, but somehow never feels cliché, even while hitting story beats we’ve all seen before: the family in desperate need of money; the husband keeping a secret from his wife; the return of the alcoholic father; the stoic man who can’t get over a loss. Co-writer/director Gavin O’Connor crafts the film perfectly to stack all of its elements in a way that feels fresh, and he pulls the viewer along breathlessly until that final fight—the one where only one brother can win. This film was a triumph for O’Connor, and a brilliant surprise for me.