It was a fair-to-middling year at the movies by ordinary standards, but 2012 also had a hidden dimension that's cause for celebration. A gratifying number of talented filmmakers from around the world has decided — no doubt at one of their secret meetings — to forsake what we like to call White Elephant projects and similar safe-and-sane, front-loaded concepts, in favor of the relatively uncomplicated field of genre movies: Westerns. Horror flicks. The perennially popular crime thriller. Disaster pics. Sports comedies. Even the car chase quickie has been revived. What a wonderful way to get back to the basics.
You could skip ahead a few paragraphs and read all about this promising new development, but then you'd miss the triumphant entry into the Hall of Mirrors of the Ten Best Movies of 2012. They are, in no particular order:
Léos Carax' Holy Motors
Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained
William Friedkin's Killer Joe
Craig Zobel's Compliance
Peter Nicks' The Waiting Room
Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights
Todd Solondz' Dark Horse
Ben Lewin's The Sessions
Ursula Meier's Sister
Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright
Bright-eyed culture hounds will see at once that at least three, maybe four, of this Ten Best qualify as genre staples: Django Unchained as a hybrid of Western and plantation slavery exploitationer; Killer Joe a salacious crime thriller; and the revived Wake in Fright as a difficult-to-pigeonhole Australian nightmare odyssey concentrating on drunkenness, humiliation, and cruelty to animals. Think of these as the anti-Cloud Atlas, or perhaps as the illegitimate bohemian sons of a stuffed objet d'art like Life of Pi.
The Waiting Room may be the very best film of the year. It's certainly the most important in terms of immediate real-world impact and the neglected art of speaking truth to power. The emergency room of Oakland's Highland Hospital is the ideal place to witness dozens, hundreds, thousands of routine, everyday, life-or-death dramas as they flit by our eyes, courtesy of documentary filmmaker Peter Nicks. Instead of tarting it up with a tufted TV-special-type cast of actors, Nicks gives it to us straight with real people, in classic fly-on-the-wall cinema-verité style, starring the worried father and his very sick little girl, the poor guy trying to fix his testicular cancer on the cheap, a diabetic senior, a philosophical doctor doing his best to avoid talking about economics in a medical setting, and Certified Nurse Assistant Cynthia Y. Johnson, the doorkeeper, a triage nurse in charge of putting band-aids on souls, the original angel of mercy. Filmed over a five-month period in 2010, the doc resonates with humanity in the midst of this country's health-care debate. With any luck, The Waiting Room will be able to find audiences long after fluffier entertainments have been forgotten.
Need more social problems? Compliance, Dark Horse, The Sessions, and Sister cover the bases — docile submission to authority, the misanthropic antics of a man-child, a paralyzed individual seeking physical love from a sex surrogate, and the lonely career of a juvenile thief, respectively — with a maximum of style. It's the cinematic style and bravura, not the therapeutic angle, that makes these generally overlooked indies so memorable.
Dark Horse writer-director Todd Solondz once again takes us to his beloved New Jersey hinterlands, where a thirtyish nebbish named Abe Wertheimer (in a miraculous performance by Jordan Gelber) scoots around in his Hummer, drinking Diet Coke, playing backgammon, and fastening his attentions on a female version of himself named Miranda (Selma Blair), who also lives with her parents (Abe's are played devastatingly by Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow). Abe and Miranda don't exactly get along, but that's the least of their problems. Keep your eye on Donna Murphy as Marie, the office manager at Abe's father's business. She has one or two other dimensions, as does this excruciatingly funny character study by the maker of Welcome to the Doll House, Happiness, and Life During Wartime.
We've reviewed The Sessions, Sister, and Compliance at length in these pages. If the three have any commonality other than their shared social quotient, it's their insistence on burrowing into marginal, face-in-the-crowd characters and revealing what goes on beneath the surface. Writing and acting, as always, are the twin keys, with the trio of John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy converting a potentially mawkish situation into the sweetest of romances in The Sessions, journeyman director Ben Lewin's late-inning home run. Nothing at all sweet, but a whiff of redemption, in the otherwise repellant duo of Kacey Mottet Klein and Léa Seydoux carrying on their sullen, doomed version of class warfare on the poor downhill side of an Alpine ski resort, in Ursula Meier's Sister.
Compliance is another kettle of fish entirely. Literal-minded commentators have been tearing their hair out over the film's verisimilitude. Did this dramatized incident of an unseen voice convincing the employees of a fast-food restaurant to humiliate themselves really happen, or not? Please. It's a piece of fiction — a particularly well-written one by filmmaker Craig Zobel, who covered similar ground in Great World of Sound. Underlying the drama is a discussion about the nature of power, in those who exercise it and in those who acquiesce. The performances of Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker, in the roles of the store manager and a victimized staffer, are among the strongest of the year in film, as is Pat Healy's as "Officer Daniels." What is gained by watching these people squirm for ninety minutes? Insight into the murky depths of human nature, and maybe a clue to our own predicament. Rather we should ask what would be lost if artists like Zobel shied away from the story in the first place.