Justin Chang: A masterful year at the movies

Have you made your top-10 list yet? It’s that time of the year when everyone from critics to casual Facebook acquaintances reorders the cinematic output of the past 12 months according to his or her taste, when the weekly box office derby relaxes long enough to ascertain whether the world prefers the apples of “Amour” to the oranges of “The Master,” and what to do about the intoxicating ugli fruit that is “Holy Motors.”

For the record, Variety doesn’t do top 10 lists. Judging by the apologetic intros with which others begin their lists — explaining why they needed 11 slots or how the lineup might be completely different if you polled them tomorrow — the entire process is a highly unscientific exercise at best … revealing what exactly? For most, a wildly subjective list of personal favorites, ranging from populism (Roger Ebert admirably sneaks a couple foreign entries onto a list otherwise composed entirely of Oscar contenders) to almost idiosyncratic individualism (Karina Longworth offsets such esoterica as “Attenberg” with a quirky studio choice, “Chronicle,” whose inclusion deliberately slights the year’s crowd-pleasing superhero pics). Still, few deign to represent the 10 “best.”

In search of lost time

If this job has taught me nothing else, it’s that the most fascinating movies are seldom perfect, though I take genuine delight in such a broadly appealing bauble as “The Sessions,” which spins a story of disability and sex (and above all, human connection) into something universally accessible. But prickly pics often stay with me longer.

In Time magazine’s year-end list blitz, film critic Mary Pols dubbed “Cloud Atlas” the worst film of 2012, but I’d rather be stuck on a desert island with that film — an extravagant, impressionistic symphony of interlocking stories and open-ended ideas enriched by repeat viewing — than with the top pick on Pols’ separate “best of” list: the dry, process-driven get-Osama thriller “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Both movies run well over 2 1/2 hours; longer running times has been a trend since at least Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, with the Middle-earth-obsessed director’s most recent three-parter, “The Hobbit,” reaching punishing lengths. Of the year’s other marathon endeavors — “Django Unchained” (165 min.), “The Dark Knight Rises” (164 min.), “Les Miserables” (158 min.), “Lincoln” (149 min.), “Marvel’s The Avengers” (143 min.), “Skyfall” (143 min.), “Flight” (138 min.) and “This Is 40” (“…Minutes Too Long”) — only “Django” and “Skyfall” don’t overstay their welcome.

When critics and audiences demanded more from their movies, the medium clearly misinterpreted the message. We weren’t requesting a longer experience, but a deeper one. There’s an art to telling a rich, multi-layered story in 90 minutes.

Two examples that immediately spring to mind: The first, a ruthlessly effective British chiller called “Kill List,” is evenly divided into three sections. In the first half hour, director Ben Wheatley introduces a realistic, relatable batch of characters before sending them into progressively more intense circles of hell. On the opposite extreme, the densely packed Danish comedy “Klown” follows two adults and a clueless 12-year-old on a sex- and drug-fueled canoe trip, making even the raunchiest American laffers look demure by comparison.

Where the wild things are

The trouble with top 10s is that they depend on the limited sample the listmakers have managed to see by year’s end. “Kill List” scored high on British lists last year, for instance, but didn’t open in the U.S. until February, and even then, it first bowed quietly on VOD. Still, there’s something in the film’s feral energy that speaks to our time, depicting the desperate lengths an amoral head-of-household will go to provide for his family at a moment when the very rules of survival seem to be shifting beneath our feet. In facing off against the hunchback in “Kill List’s” unsettling finale, its hitman antihero is really staring down his own inner monster.

A more optimistic variation on this idea occurs in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the year’s most exhilarating — and downright exuberant — American independent film. New York-raised Benh Zeitlin’s regional fable finds a 6-year-old bayou youth named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, a fierce young natural) endangered by rising water and prehistoric Aurochs — intimidating horned creatures that bear a striking resemblance to giant pot-bellied piglets. Working wonders with scrap metal, splintered wood and a team of trusting locals, Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar have conjured a robust world right under our noses.

“Every animal is made of meat,” lectures Hushpuppy’s no-nonsense school teacher. “I’m meat. Your ass is meat. Everything is part of the buffet of the universe.” Hushpuppy has every reason to believe the Aurochs intend to gobble her up whole, but in the film’s poignant climax, she stands face to face with one of the fearsome creatures and recognizes a kindred spirit. Here, on the precarious edge of civilization, two endangered species experience a moment of unspoken communion.

Thanks to high-profile exposure at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, “Beasts” miraculously found its audience among critics and cineastes around the world, taking its rightful place on key lists (registering high on all three New York Times critics’ year-enders). But what about the dozens of deserving films that weren’t widely seen?

When filling their ballots for the Academy Awards’ newly expanded “top 10” best picture category, voters can select from 282 features that Oscar-qualified via one-week theatrical runs on Los Angeles screens. But for various reasons, that doesn’t include such treasures as Miguel Gomes’ swoon-inducing “Tabu” (which opened only in Gotham) and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Elena,” a parable of modern Russia in which a subservient wife makes a strategic play for her family’s livelihood.

Up for a challenge

Studying my colleagues’ top 10s, I suspect a number of late-year releases register high largely out of novelty, but perhaps that’s just cynicism speaking. December contenders “Les Miserables” and “Zero Dark Thirty” seem to have edged out “Lincoln” and “Argo” in a way that probably has more to do with calendar placement than anything else (then again, Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” held out well against late-year releases on critics’ lists in their respective years).

One needs time to live with and digest a work of art. As my mentor’s mentor likes to say, “A work of art should also be ‘an object difficult to pick up,'” quoting Jean Cocteau. “It should be made of such a shape that people don’t know which way to hold it, which embarrasses and irritates critics, incites them to be rude, but keeps it fresh. The less it’s understood, the slower it opens its petals, the later it will fade.”

In other words, great art confounds consensus and resists easy interpretation, revealing itself over time. But film critics work on deadline and seldom have time to revisit their favorite films, much less the classics that have come before, and we are a notoriously defensive bunch when it comes to admitting the inadequacies of our initial knee-jerk reviews.

My colleague Justin Chang suggests “The Master” may be such a slow-to-bloom triumph. I myself am skeptical. No doubt I owe Paul Thomas Anderson’s runaway enterprise a second look, though life is short and so many other films ensnared me in their mysteries that I was far happier to plunge back in for second viewings — or, in the case of Zal Batmanglij’s ingenious low-budget puzzler “Sound of My Voice,” a full four rounds.

‘Amour’ conquers all

The offering that has grown richest in my memory and imagination since seeing it earlier this year has been Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” The film, which won the top prize at Canne
s, seems unusually accessible by the Austrian director’s standards, so much so that I was sure I had missed some subversive hidden agenda upon first viewing and went back again, dissecting it with a class of film students.

“Amour” concerns the last months in the lives of a long-married couple, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The film is meticulously constructed so that every audience member sees a different movie, projecting onto the screen whatever personal history with ailing parents or loved ones we may have. (This is different from the more heavily orchestrated emotional experience of tsunami survival story “The Impossible” or 21st-century screwball “Silver Linings Playbook,” both prime examples of contemporary cinema advancing the classical Hollywood tradition.)

“Amour” takes a more elusive approach. With each subsequent viewing, the film becomes clearer — which is to say, the characters’ true nature comes forward as we begin to recognize and strip away the autobiographical details we had superimposed on them. At the same time, it’s a film I fully expect to ripen as we both grow old together. The great scandal of contemporary cinema is how few of today’s films hold up even five years down the road. So go ahead, make your lists. Stubbornly refuse to break that 10th-place tie, and rearrange them tomorrow if you must. As for me, check back in 25 years, and maybe then I can tell you the best films of 2012.