David Edelstein's Top 12 Movies of 2012 Fresh Air's movie critic does not think any masterpieces were made this year, but he does compare Daniel Day-Lewis to Julius Caesar and have some choice thoughts on the movie version of Les Mis.


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David Edelstein's Top 12 Movies of 2012

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This is FRESH AIR. It's our Best Of show. Let's see what our film critic David Edelstein has chosen as the best and worst of the year.

David, welcome. Good to talk with you again. Let's start with your 10-best list. You want to run through it for us?

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Sure, Terry. This is a - not a 10-best list. This is a 12-best list. I've stubbornly refused to conform to the dictates of my media masters.

GROSS: What a free spirit you are.

EDELSTEIN: Thank you so much. And they are in alphabetical order. So you notice, I'm not picking a best film. So I'm going to give you my list from A to Z. And, actually, this year, there is an A and there is a Z. So let's start with Michael Haneke's "Amour," Ben Zeitlin's impressionistic epic "Beasts of the Southern Wild," then "The Deep Blue Sea," Jennifer Westfeldt's "Friends with Kids," "The Gatekeepers," which is a documentary, "Holy Motors," from Leos Carax, "How to Survive a Plague," another documentary, "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," of course, "Oslo, August 31st," a film by Joachim Trier, "Pitch Perfect," the a capella musical, and finally, my Z, "Zero Dark Thirty."

GROSS: So let's start with "Zero Dark Thirty," which I think most people have heard of right now, because it's a film about the CIA trying to track down bin Laden and using waterboarding as a means of trying to extract information. You described this as a movie that's borderline fascistic, but as a piece of cinema, phenomenally gripping, an unholy masterwork. And you've been quoted in a lot of places - you were quoted in the New York Times. You've been quoted in a lot of blogs. So just tell us a little bit of what it's been like for you to say something that's gotten you in the news about this already controversial movie.

EDELSTEIN: Well, I think what I've tried to do is to spotlight my own ambivalence based on the fact that, you know, I sat through the beginning of the movie - which plays actual audio tapes from people who were about to die in the World Trade Center - and it ends with the killing of Osama bin Laden, portrayed very realistically, in the manner that we know it went down, and saying, yeah, they got him - and at the same time, being aware that the film does take - does, for all the filmmakers' professed objectivity, the fact that they say this was just the fact, ma'am, they do take what seems to me to be a very strong stance that intel on the identity of bin Laden's courier came as a result of, quote-unquote, "enhanced interrogation" - that is to say, torture.

Now, they've been backpedaling like crazy. They've been fudging it like crazy. There's even a review in the New York Times that says, in fact, the film proves the opposite. So what's the answer? The answer is we're just going to have to sit down and talk about it and look at the facts as we know them. You have so many people lined up on one side, and you have so many people lined up on the other. All I know is it's probably very, very good we're having this discussion.

GROSS: I was kind of surprised to see "Friends with Kids" on your list, because it's not - I don't think it's the kind of film that sets out to, like, win awards and be prestigious and everything. It's a comedy about single people who wonder if they even want to be married, because they see their married friends having such a hard time as spouses and as parents. So what did you love about the film?

EDELSTEIN: Well, so many people, actually, have come up to me about that film and said, wow, I hated that movie. And I can't quite figure out why, but I think the reason is that it comes on like a kind of formula, middle-brow rom-com about a lot of affluent white people. But also has this very nervous, high-strung, anxious rhythm. The characters have their backs against the wall. The biological clock is ticking. They are suffering. They have money woes. They don't know. They're very uncertain about the ethics of bringing children into this world.

So I think, you know, in a way, that the film captures better than any film I've seen, so much of the anxiety floating around how we breed now. And it's just a - as a perfect counter-example to that is the new Judd Apatow film, "This is 40," which pretends to be about many of the same things, but is, I think, just a spectacular piece of navel-gazing.

GROSS: The movie "Amour," which is on your 10-best list, is opening in January in a lot of cities around the country. And it stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was in the Italian movie "The Conformist," which is such a great film.


GROSS: He gave such a great performance in that. So tell us a little...

EDELSTEIN: That's on my top 10 films of all time list.

GROSS: Yeah. OK. Great. So tell us a little bit about "Amour" and...

EDELSTEIN: Did I just rank? I just ranked. I just said something - I just ranked that film. You know what? I apologize. I don't need to pick a top - I like all movies. OK. You know, "Amour" is a very difficult film because I really hate Michael Haneke. I think he's a provocateur. Or is he a provoc-auteur?

He is kind of a sadistic, proto-punk guy. And finally, in this case, I think he's discovered a real world antagonist that's even more brutal than he is, which is time. In the movie for two-plus hours, grueling hours, he charts the stages in the decline of an elderly woman, played by Emmanuelle Riva, and the grief and the impotence of her husband Jean-Louis Trintignant.

It's a cruel, unflinching movie, and you can't always tell if it's compassionate or mocking, if that very title is meant to be sarcastic or it's meant to be earnest. And yet, I think in spite of Haneke's coldness, something truly moving comes through. We live at a time now where we see so many older people kept alive in so many ways, and we watch them literally degenerate. And I think this movie captures what that feels like in a way I've only seen onscreen in documentaries.

GROSS: So, we're talking about movies and your best movies of the year list. So shortly after the tragedy in Newtown and, you know, Americans are always arguing about whether there is or isn't a correlation between movie violence and real world violence. But whether there is a correlation or not, do you find that a horror like the shootings in Newtown affects your interest or even your ability to sit through violent films?

EDELSTEIN: Yeah. I've been struggling with this in the days and the week after that terrible tragedy. A film like "Django," Quentin Tarantino's film that opens just in time for Christmas Day, is a film that uses violence in I think what Tarantino considers a moral way, and yet a gleeful way.

GROSS: Do you think you're evaluating the film any differently now than you would've, say, last month?

EDELSTEIN: No. I think I was very disappointed when I saw it, which is not to say that it didn't give me a great deal of pleasure. It's entertaining the way I think all of Quentin Tarantino's films are entertaining. But morally, it's very lazy. Again, you're really just supposed to get off every time a white slave owner is mowed down in some garish way.

You are never supposed to see them as any more than monsters, than monstrous exploiters. The one interesting character in the film is played by Samuel Jackson, and it is a - he's referred to as a house n-word. He is, in fact, much closer and aligns himself with the slaveholder, as opposed to his fellow African-Americans, and turns out to be, in fact, the most formidable opponent of the hero, a freed slave named Django.

GROSS: Well, "Django Unchained" is opening Christmas Day. Can we take a brief look at some other films opening for the holidays?

EDELSTEIN: Yes, we can.

GROSS: So one of the big movies is "Les Mis," the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical. I don't know if you saw the Broadway show. Some people are so attached to that show and other people think that it's, you know, just pretty treacly in its music. So I don't know if you have a preexisting opinion of the show and the music, but what did you think of the movie?


GROSS: Yeah.

EDELSTEIN: I came to it a virgin and what I saw onscreen was a transcendentally tasteless bombardment, an absolute horror show that in a just world would send people screaming from the theater. I saw a director, Tom Hooper, so eager to underline the fact that his actors were singing live, as opposed to post-synching to their own voices - which, by the way, I heard on this very show, Barbra Streisand has sung live despite the fact that the makers of "Les Mis" say this is an innovation.

He's so eager to draw our attention to that that, he gets his camera in really, really close, generally underneath. And the camera cants and tilts and follows them and gets right in their faces. You can practically see their tonsils. You can see every pore in their skin.

And this horrible music is coming out of the screen by actors who, in many cases, can't hit the notes. They're either sharp or flat or, in the case of Russell Crowe in some water buffalo zone of their own. And I'm sorry, I can't concede anything about this film. It is ghastly from first frame to last.

GROSS: My guest is our film critic David Edelstein. We'll talk more about the year in film after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is our film critic David Edelstein. We're talking about the year in film. So what were some of your favorite performances of the year?

EDELSTEIN: Well, it's very hard to talk about any year in which Daniel Day-Lewis appears without talking about Daniel Day-Lewis. There's a sense in which he bestrides the narrow world like a colossus, as someone says of Julius Caesar. Here is someone who combines the sort of method actor's total immersion in a role and at the same time is just an amazing craftsman; is formally so disciplined.

For "Lincoln" he managed to raise his voice an octave. He becomes the Lincoln of our imagination. He becomes every bit as deep in that role as we imagine the man would be. And it also points up something very interesting. If you look at another film this year, "The Master," in which Joaquin Phoenix has gotten a lot of attention, now there's an example of an actor who loses himself in a role and doesn't really come up for air.

In some ways the emotional and the moral chaos that the character goes through makes it impossible for me to relate to this man and for all of us to relate to this man and to get inside his head. He can be a great, great actor but he's also someone who has precious little control. Daniel Day Lewis seems to be able to put it all together as very few actors do.

GROSS: Any other performances you want to sing about?

EDELSTEIN: It's wonderful to see Denzel Washington, an actor who is too cool for school, you know, explore, take apart, anatomize his own cool, playing a drug- and alcohol-addicted pilot in the film "Flight." I almost feel as though he's deconstructing himself before your eyes and putting himself back together.

It becomes a film about mastery and the loss of mastery. He's a very impersonal actor. In some places not a particularly likeable actor. And yet I think the way he approaches this role gave me more insight into him than any other performance he's given.

I think Michelle Williams turns her x-ray machine on herself in Sarah Polley's very underrated film "Take this Waltz." I think that Matthew McConaughey is an actor that I've said many times I think is very undervalued. Strips down as a sort of satanic stripper and club owner in the film "Magic Mike" and just gives a high-on-the-hog, rip-roaring wonderful performance that has been awarded by a number of critic societies, deservedly so.

Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty" is a fascinating study in contrast when you compare her to the absolutely wonderful performance of Clare Danes playing what's rumored to be the same sort of character on "Homeland."

GROSS: So any final thoughts on 2012 in film?

EDELSTEIN: I didn't use the M word this year, Terry - masterpiece. Except in relation to a film that was shot in 2005, 2006 and really cannot be seen on the big screen, although it made its first appearance this year. It's Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret." It was released theatrically last year in an abbreviated cut, two hours and 20 minutes or so. I thought the first half was brilliant and the second half was a fiasco.

Lonergan got hold of it. He extended it by at least 45 minutes. He clarified certain things. I think the film that exists now on DVD is an absolutely bona fide masterpiece. This story of a young woman's moral and emotional coming of age unlike, I think, any that we've seen onscreen in decades and decades. People must rent it or buy it. They must see it. But they must see the extended cut. It really is the greatest film of the year.

GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you as always for talking with us and I wish you and your family happy holidays and a good and healthy New Year.

EDELSTEIN: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for FRESH AIR and New York magazine. You can find his list of the best and worst movies of the year on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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