The year’s finest films all focused on characters scrambling to survive, many of them fighting the good fight on their own. It was a year that saw protagonists fraught with modern, existential crises, searching for peace and contentment in a world that rarely makes it easy. The filmic triumphs of 2011 largely dealt with apocalypse, be it literally or thematically. In 2012, it was all about those still trucking after the fall, trying — and sometimes, failing — to traverse the rubble.
There are those who’ll argue that Joe Wright sacrificed substance for style in his lush adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic. Let them talk. Whatever pathos got lost in translation here is more than made up for by Wright’s grand technique, which involves literally staging the artifice-heavy, high-society action and choreographing the oft-wordless scenes like lavish ballet. And still, the woes of Anna (Keira Knightley) and co-lead Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) come through loud and clear, their parallel struggles for happiness stirringly contemporary.
The best performance of the year might just be Joaquin Phoenix’s transformative turn as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, post-traumatic-stress-disorder-stricken World War II vet, whose effort to rejoin postwar society proves a losing battle. When he connects with caretaking cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a supposed stand-in for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Freddie finds a subculture that might just work to replace the world. A bewitching chronicle of the need to be part of something greater than oneself, Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous drama extends the director’s wondrous track record.
Quite possibly the year’s strangest film, Leos Carax’s French curio “Holy Motors” is often bewildering and inexplicable, its episodic chapters including everything from interaction with monkeys to an impromptu musical number with Kylie Minogue. The connective tissue is the longing and verve of the movie’s central character, played, incredibly, by Denis Lavant. In a series of gonzo public performances, this man, an actor, clings to his art as if hanging from a cliff, the world of cinema, and everything else, irrevocably changed around him.
David France’s “How to Survive a Plague” is poised to rank among history’s most emotional documentaries, its content a staggering amassment of archival footage, all depicting the heroic efforts of Act Up, the advocacy group formed to help AIDS victims. No narrative interpretation of the 1980s AIDS crisis will ever tell this story better, as every gut-wrenching moment and cheer-worthy victory is here in the travails of these real-life characters, who had to take charge of their own fates when ignored by their country, and who, naturally, don’t all survive to film’s end.
Part documentary, part do-it-yourself act of defiance, Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film” sees the condemned Iranian director, whose country is punishing him for his art, filming himself while on house arrest, first staging scenes from unmade movies, then capturing bits of impossible happenstance. For a home movie partially shot on an iPhone (and later smuggled into the Cannes Film Festival inside a cake), it’s astonishing how much vast depth and meaning make their way into this creation, which is not just indeed a film, but one of the year’s best.
Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” was easily 2012’s best popular film, an artistic triumph in every respect. Leading the year’s greatest acting ensemble (which also includes Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, and a showstopping Sally Field), Daniel Day-Lewis is faithfully superb as our 16th president, who struggled internally but had to reach far outside of himself to change the world. Spielberg hasn’t been this beautifully restrained in ages, and Tony Kushner’s brilliant script is a marvel of characterization and dialogue, showing 19th century America as a world of unglamorized, resonant politics, and showing Lincoln as both tough hero and flawed, humble striver.