Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Beau Travail (1999) A Film by Claire Denis

After Holy Motors, it's hard to imagine a cinematic scenario where Denis Lavant would not upstage anyone and anything around him. It's to his credit, then, that even in Claire Denis' Beau Travail, a film that ultimately treats him as more of a texture than a character, he commands the mise-en-scène with every gesture, every subdued expression, every dart of the eyes. His is an invertebrate sort of body capable of contorting to the every desire of his director, yet Denis mostly restrains his expression, reducing his limber figure to sharp, controlled movements. That is, until Lavant's acrobatic explosion in the final shot of the film, dancing to Corona's bouncy 90's hit "Rhythm of the Night" on an empty, dingy dance floor.

The transition between these two kinesthetic representations of Lavant's character syncs up with the larger thematic progressions of the film (what exactly to make of Lavant's dancing, however, remains unsolved, aside from the fact that he's a fabulous dancer and it's a terrific punctuation mark on the film). For the majority of Beau Travail, Lavant, playing a downbeat and solitary man named Galoup, is recalling his time as the officer of a French Foreign Legion outpost in East Africa, a time in his life marked by a mixture of pride, self-worth, and inner turmoil. In its last ten minutes, however, the film shows Galoup back in France after being dispatched on account of treason, a section that embodies what are potentially the only present-tense moments in the film (though with Denis, past, present, and future are always porous and somewhat negligible entities). This dynamic between a sense of community in a foreign land and a sense of outsidership in a native country, as well as between comforting routine and intimidating freedom, hangs over the film as heavily as the dust and sweat that cover its every surface.

There's a narrative deeply embedded within Beau Travail – inspired, no less, by Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd – but Denis obscures it in such a way that its vibrations are felt rather than telegraphed. It's utterly simple and goes something like this: Galoup remembers how a charismatic young recruit named Sentain (Denis regular Grégoire Colin) aroused jealousy in him and came between his love and respect for Commander Bruno Forestier (other Denis regular Michel Subor). This tension ultimately drove both Galoup and Sentain away from the Legion, compromising a tight-knit group of male expats. What Denis does with this mythical template is distill it down to remembered fragments that are then strung together according to the disorderly logic and speed of the subconscious. Of course, our brains don't file memories into clean-cut narratives, nor do they pinpoint the moments of time normally construed as character development. Therefore, the film resembles a murky mirage of images and sounds whose overarching shape is only decipherable in retrospect.

This is the essence of Denis's cinema, and, it could be argued, one of the modes of expression completely unique to the medium. Beau Travail's construction is fluid and organic; there are no cues, dramatic or aesthetic, that suggest what shot will come next (what else could explain a hard, unexpected cut from the shadowy outlines of club dancers to the elegant swimming body of Sentain, or from a wide shot of Lavant's stiff silhouette in front of the African desert at dusk to a sweeping pan going against the slow, turquoise ripple of the Indian Ocean, moments that arrive with no traditional cinematic "preparation"). The audience is suspended in a state of submission, privy to the movements of a consciousness that is not its own. Yet at the same time, Galoup is an intimate guide, the most permanent source of connection within the film. His wistful inner monologue crops up now and then as voiceover and Denis's camera (also known as the great cinematographer Agnes Varda's camera) stays close by his side, taking in the totality of his body from its frame to its pulsating veins, and in one haunting instance he even stares directly at it. The result is a great form of seduction, a thrill of living vicariously through a character without grasping his logic (it's also, to varying degrees, the thrill of watching Tarkovsky's Mirror or Watkins' Edvard Munch).

In a film about a military camp based in a colonial setting surrounded by women and children (Denis – or should I say Galoup? – captures with eloquence the curious gazes of African onlookers only peripherally considered by the legionnaires), the effect of this cinematic approach is to sidestep outright polemics while also offering a glimpse into the existential cost of such a political scenario. Denis codes the theme of colonialism into the Legion itself, with Galoup – a character defined by frustration, yearning, and misremembering – representing a concentration of the contradictory group ethos in the role of the leader. There are also visual hints throughout the film to the insularity and fragility of this community: long, flattened shots of the men seen through a telephoto lens that makes them appear as if they'll disintegrate in the desert haze, recurring images of them in and under water, as stripped of clothing as they are of their defenses, and camera angles that arrange them in geometric patterns against the ground, divorced from an outside context. When Galoup is finally cut off from the group, he merely moves from one imagined sense of belonging to another, larger one: the nation of France itself, at this point something of a foreign country to the migrant commander.

Denis is a director who deeply understands the psychological functions of these processes of political and geographical assimilation and re-integration, and Beau Travail reflects this complexity with style and economy. Indeed, Galoup's knee-jerk disdain for Sentain when he enters the group is a built-in emotion whose associations with colonialism and foreigner/native dynamics in general are hard to ignore. Denis never drives such points home though, instead letting them arise slowly from the surface of the film. The result is a remarkably rich viewing experience that is embedded with more sophisticated ideas, evocative images, and mysterious juxtapositions in 90 minutes than many directors accomplish in their entire careers.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Innocence (2004) A Film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic

If Catherine Breillat has emerged somewhat recently as the preeminent cinematic chronicler of the woozy transition from pre-pubescent girlhood to sexually matured femininity, it's important to recognize the achievement of French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic in the same ballpark less than a decade earlier with her striking first (and to date, only) feature Innocence. Sharing, and ultimately putting to shame, her spouse Gaspar Noé's penchant for oblique storytelling and enveloping symbology, Hadzihalilovic relates a simple, streamlined tale about young girls housed in a bare-bones boarding school whose lives are dictated by a small group of female headmasters and the rituals they impart on their students. This seemingly mundane setup – which seems to have spawned narrative, thematic, and, in the case of the latter, aesthetic resemblances in both Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go and Giorgos Lanthimos' 2010 film Dogtooth – is rich with allegorical implications. Hadzihalilovic's core approach here is to strip everything of context, leaving behind actions and images of tantalizing multivalence that never skimp on immediate emotional impact.

Innocence opens with block credits slightly quivering with the names of the entire cast and crew, an old-fashioned technique that is the first hint of the film's affected timelessness. Sandwiched amongst them are brief cutaways to uncertain imagery, the first of which is a tight overhead shot of a wooden coffin seemingly being carried through a space (the shifting light on the surface of the device being the only indication of movement). By the time the credits are finished, the frame fills with an abstracted liquid splashing insistently against the screen (a liquid that is revealed at the end of the film to be jetting out from a water fountain). Suddenly the camera finds itself beneath unsettled water, the mounting, muffled drone on the soundtrack (first mistaken for the rumblings of a distant train – which, the film ultimately proves, is no less apt) in turn revealing itself to be an approximation of underwater hearing. Bubbles bound upward, resembling sperm cells swimming towards fertilization. Suddenly, we emerge from the water, born atop the placid surface of a pond in the middle of a forest on a sunny day.

Anyone familiar with Noé's filmmaking should know that he can't get enough birth and death metaphors, and that impulse clearly seems to have rubbed off on Hadzihalilovic. But whereas Noé's deployment of them is often hasty and overwrought, Hadzihalilovic's takes on a greater subtlety both in terms of representation and thematic implication. The coffin is revealed to be a container carrying the latest newcomer (perhaps suggestively named Iris (Zoé Auclair) given the word's other meanings as the optical and photographic apparatuses that let in light) to the wooded all-girls boarding school where almost the entire film is set. Thus, her entrance into the campus is a form of birth cloaked in an instrument of death. These two competing existential poles are entangled as if to suggest that the innocence and spark of life that young girls take with them into their years of maturation is doomed to be extinguished, partially if not wholly, by the rules, restrictions, and unnatural ideals of the society they're entering. And if there's one thing that's blatantly clear about the film on a metaphysical level, it's that Hadzihalilovic intends to some degree for this boarding school to be a microcosm of a larger world.

In Hadzihalilovic's assured hand, that microcosm is a bright, pastoral landscape marked by a dark, dishonest core beneath the surface. In the disquieting quiet of nature, pre-pubescent ballerinas clad in spotless white uniforms and hair ribbons color-coded to indicate age and maturation splash around in the pond nearby and frolic in the lawns with streamers and hula hoops. They attend class – ballet, environmental science – in the same imposing 19th century mansion in which they sleep and eat. Two teachers – elegant Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard) and crippled Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles) – appear to be their only stable superiors, while geriatric female servants haunt the edges of the frame (perhaps an omen of what's to come for these stunted girls). The boarding school operates according to an economy of obedience, a value Eva explicitly nods to with one bit of dialogue: "the root of all happiness is obedience," she tells the antsy Alice (Lea Bridarolli) after ballet one afternoon, her tone a mixture of soothing and warning. The more these girls obey their headmasters, the more likely it is for them to either be escorted from the school early by ambiguous "Heads" or to graduate without complication into the outside world upon proper maturation.

Proper maturation. Never is this particular term bandied about by the teachers at the boarding school (they prefer not to speak directly of the future), but it's implicitly the narrative axis upon which Innocence pivots. The question, of course, is what constitutes this implied maturation, whether or not it's legitimate, and finally how the rubric of judgment imposed by the school aligns or doesn't align with that of our own world. Plot-wise, the film focuses on three different girls at different stages of their development: the aforementioned Iris is the focus of the film's first third, the rebellious Alice of its second, and the final third looks at Iris' first friend and guide Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge), who is essentially a model student – kind, unquestioning, tall, lanky, pretty. It may be significant that Iris, who endeavors to learn the school rules with great eagerness, is the only Asian amongst a horde of pasty French girls, though probably no more significant than the fact that Alice, marked by goofy pigtails and dark circles under her eyes, is the first to climb over the walls to freedom, or that one physically fit specimen catches the most attention from the "Heads" and is allowed to prematurely leave the grounds. What emerges is a portrait of a school breeding girls towards a standardized sort of perfection that has everything to do with surfaces and nothing to do with adequate emotional, social, or sexual complexity (in this light, it's telling that the class most focused on in the film is ballet, a pursuit of purely aesthetic ends).

The school's oversights are at their most damning when it comes to sexuality, seeing as the guiding principles of the education have to do with appearances despite never actually addressing the capabilities of the human body. Motifs and images charged with sexuality are sprinkled throughout the film: a close-up of a snake sliding over a loose thong on the ground, the prevalent birth-related iconography (water bubbles, insects sprouting from their eggs), and, in the final scene of the film when the recently-released Bianca sees her (and the film's) first boy on the other side of a water fountain, the vertical spraying not-so-subtly evokes ejaculation. The suggestion is that sex is everywhere, in nature as well as in man-made creations, so the school's unwillingness to directly address it becomes a way of shielding these girls from very relevant facts of life. One of the film's most powerful images is a fleeting shot of Bianca's upper thigh as she slides her hand up it and beneath her skirt, a moment which Hadzihalilovic excises before the hinted payoff. So ignorant under forced circumstances are these girls that any evolved behavior such as this comes across like an out-of-body experience.

Unlike Never Let Me Go, which strove to find a clever euphemism for nearly every social, emotional, and sexual development to the point where the story erected a unique vernacular, or Dogtooth, which defamiliarized and codified conventional human expression so thoroughly that it looked almost fundamentally alien, Innocence unfolds according to relatively authentic behavioral and linguistic rhythms. But while the movie's dramaturgy fits into a realist mode, its filmmaking is sensual, dreamlike, and poetic. Hadzihalilovic's camera is often steady and observant, but not in a coldly anthropological manner. Instead, it interacts with the dramatic subtexts in sneaky ways, frequently pushing the girls to the fringes of the frame or arranging them in off-kilter compositions that portray their bodies as mere streaks of color, shape, and movement against the landscapes (the frequent cutting off of heads seems a strong influence to Lanthimos). This visual style creates a sense of doom and fatalism, as if the girls' environment – as well as the camera's gaze – is rendering them obsolete.

All of these sensations suffuse the film's denouement with a potent ambiguity. What appears on the surface to be an uplifting narrative progression – Bianca finally graduates from the school and enters the real world – is complicated by the feeling that whatever awaits her on the other end of her harrowing train ride is likely to be only a bigger, more impersonal version of the boarding school. It's a feeling that weighs over Innocence's final sequence, marking everything from the previously saintly Mademoiselle Eva's sudden lighting of a cigarette (the girls, apparently, are not the only ones whose psyches are affected by the school) to Bianca's loaded expression of anxiety on the train, the occasional underground light washing over her pale face. On top of all this, there is an echo of the first image of the film: men carrying another wooden coffin through what resembles the dark, dingy tunnel from Tarkovsky's Stalker. The obvious suggestion is that the same cycle of exploitative dumbing-down witnessed throughout the film is bound to be enacted on another unsuspecting young girl. Innocence presents in all its chilling contradictions the tough truths of raising a modern female, a reality that all in the film are infected by and from which no one seems capable of escaping.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Beowulf (Zemeckis, 2007) and the Fleeting Riches of Motion Capture

At the risk of sounding deliberately contrarian, I'll admit that I've always found myself perversely intrigued, even thrilled, by Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture work. It's to my own surprise, seeing as I'm not particularly a fan of modern video games (the look of which generally serves as the most ideal reference point for motion capture technology) and I'm more or less indifferent to the ancient folk-tales Zemeckis has chosen to adapt with the approach. Nonetheless, The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol have to be the two strangest-feeling yuletide films in the history of cinema, committed as they are to radically re-thinking the worlds expressed in their respective texts. (They're also, given the oft-discussed "coldness" of the mo-cap look, rather unfitting for the emotional warmth of the holiday season.) I was first turned on to the films after reading Matt Zoller Seitz' fantastic Slant piece that loosely connected Zemeckis to Wes Anderson, both of whom share similarly visionary, from-the-ground-up filmmaking approaches.

Having now witnessed Zemeckis' resounding return to Earth in the form of 2012's live-action Flight, I had the impulse to check out Beowulf, the only mo-cap experiment I'd yet to see. The limits of the technique are, I suspect, fairly obvious off the bat: any sincere approach to human drama comes across stilted and awkward. (Zemeckis succumbs to this tendency far too often in Beowulf despite the unsentimental source material he's working with – though, it should be said, much less than in his other two mo-cap movies, wherein tear-jerking shorthand and message-heavy overtones routinely get in the way of spectacle.) On the flip side, scenes that figure humans in as mere pawns in a vast landscape of spectacle and don't limit the technology's capacities to 2D visual grammar (i.e. close-ups, static shots, etc.) often become sui generis exercises in the destruction of conventional screen space. As Seitz so eloquently argued, "Zemeckis digs motion-captured imagery not in spite of its unreality but because of it." I suspect he's after a certain surface that's unachievable with a live-action setup, a feeling of weightlessness that incorporates the "camera" not as a physical object defined by rational boundaries of perspective but as an omniscient observer that can be anywhere at a given moment and see anything/everything. All of this, in the ideal circumstances, should bolster spectacle, rendering it more sensory and all-encompassing.

These strengths are in evidence in what I would argue is Beowulf's best scene without contest (and a scene that comes surprisingly close to my 11th grade mind's fanciful imagining of it). It's the monster Grendel's (Crispin Glover) first raid of the mead hall, an utter massacre of the licentious and vulnerable Danes who are soon to be rescued by the swaggering warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone). Zemeckis opens the scene with a slow dolly towards the entrance of the mead hall, where the door is perched open, leading to a panorama of the dark, wintry landscape of Scandinavia. Suddenly, with a swiftness and force that would be difficult to capture with an image of a real actor, Beowulf drops into frame, loudly announcing his presence in the room, and only seconds later, leaps through the air to plant his oversized, slimy foot down on the camera.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Screening Notes #17

Promised Land (2012): Aside from the occasional blanketed reminder of Bela Tarr influence (a slow tracking shot around the back of a head during a dialogue scene; a dolly move ostensibly tracking an old man's journey onto his porch that slides behind a dark, featureless wall to glimpse his figure through an old curtain) and the interest in the lackadaisical rhythms of small towns, there's little resemblance between this new, unambitious Gus Van Sant and the old Gus Van Sant who was one of the treasures of American independent cinema. Whereas Van Sant's formal daring could once transform narrative downtime into enthralling pieces of cinematic meditation, here the conventionally sedate surface of the film becomes especially banal when the narrative lurches into stasis. Promised Land carefully establishes a conflict pregnant with tough moral questions in its first act: Matt Damon is an earnest businessman seeking to enact a potentially environmentally disastrous cause on a farming community for the sole purpose of collective profit; John Krasinski is a corrupt environmentalist/businessman hoping to sabotage Damon's ambitions with communitarian spirit and horror stories about the previous side-effects of corporate dishonesty. It's as good a narrative setup as any, but the film grows limp and mopey two-thirds of the way through and never really recovers.

Wreck-It Ralph (2012): Little more than a parade of references to my generation's slew of iconic video games (N64 iconography features prominently), Wreck-It Ralph is nonetheless still mildly enjoyable. The pleasure of spotting nods – and at some points even reliving the experiences of playing certain games (as in the Mario Kart-heavy finale) – usually outweighs the displeasure of sitting through such a clunky and generic narrative, which is rapidly paced in all the parts it needs to take its time and vice-versa, and which is only compounded by the cognitive dissonance of listening to gross-out humor specialists John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman voicing pandering kiddie roles. In the end, however, it's the unimaginative story that finally threatens to consign the film to the overflowing tar pit of contemporary animation mediocrity.

Epizootics! (Music Video, 2012): The music video for the ten-minute "single" from Scott Walker's Bish Bosch is a beautiful thing: eerie, inspired, and funny in equal measure. Hyper-slow-motion shots in rich monochrome seem indebted to Lars Von Trier's new baroque, painterly mode (Antichrist and Melancholia), but divorced from narrative concerns, these images work on a purely formalistic level. The compositions – static but with slowly shifting cores of movement (a luau dancer seducing the camera with ritualistic gestures, a black couple doing the jitterbug on a Marienbad-esque patio, a figure awakening in the middle of a field) – create palpable tensions with the dissonant, rhythmic intensity of "Epizootics!" that resolve once the song reaches Walker's characteristically meditative moments. At one point, we see, in color, a daddy longlegs walking across a bellybutton, glimpsed through the paper-thin focus of a macro lens. Another image, this one recurring, shows flower pedals falling through the sky and onto a pair a shiny white shoes, later sprinkling all around a woman's face. This unpredictable evocation of people lounging around in nature, coexisting with bugs and plant-life, manages to be just as strange and expressive as Walker's music. Watch it here.

2 Days in New York (2012): My few experiences with Julie Delpy are fond ones. The French-American actress has a warm, Earthy presence, not to mention an unmistakable tactility (she has the most pronounced breathing and mouth sounds in cinema), that makes the entrance into whatever film world she inhabits a smooth and welcome one. It's no surprise that she's the real virtue of 2 Days in New York, a light, proudly imperfect neurotic comedy directed by Delpy herself after its companion piece 2 Days in Paris, both of which focus on Marion (again, Delpy), her oddly convincing American boyfriends, and their respective run-ins with Marion's crazy French family. Delpy's as unapologetically narcissistic as Woody Allen in her sacrificing of all narrative and thematic concerns to a cinematic self-therapy session, but unfortunately she's not nearly as funny as Allen, and her particular way of poking fun at social mannerisms has the tendency to descend into reductiveness (the French are impolite and un-self-aware, middle-aged urban couples are really gullible, educated writer types are skeptical liberals, etc.) and, as a result, actually decrease the potential for great comedy to organically emerge. Still, she's a lively presence onscreen, and it's hard to stop watching her.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012): If this manages to take home a Best Picture from the Academy after miraculously getting a nomination, then maybe cinema (hell, maybe even society) is dead. No, I kid. But seriously, the praise for Benh Zeitlin's rancid Beasts of the Southern Wild has perplexed me more than anything in 2012, and it's depressed me about the state of film culture more than any of the nonsensical anti-Hollywood/anti-CGI/anti-digital sentiments in the "Death of Cinema" screeds that have been widely published. Zeitlin (a white liberal from NY, it must be said, who was well off enough to make this his debut feature) crafts a deplorable trivialization of Hurricane Katrina that is marked by a queasy balance between exaggeratedly aestheticizing the decay of poverty (tactile close-ups of bubbling hobo broth and muddy livestock are emphasized over the people) and ignorantly championing the self-sufficiency of the poor, flimsy souls in the film that masquerade as three-dimensional characters. But beyond the shallow and offensive politics, Beasts is stupefyingly lazy filmmaking. Montages replace scene-building, unintelligible group dynamics overshadow character development, fraudulent lifts from the Malick playbook completely miss the point, and dunderheaded metaphors (those goddamned overused "beasts") thinly cloak real, painful trauma. And then there's the offense to top it all off: Zeitlin's faux-realist camerawork, a hodgepodge of focus "mistakes" and calculatedly jerky handheld, seemingly intended to lend a veneer of emotional truth to the whole thing.

Damsels in Distress (2011): The verbal dexterity of Whit Stillman's work creates a surface texture that is all too rare in contemporary cinema, more in line with 30's and 40's screwball sensibilities than any particular development in modern comedy. For at least half its runtime, the complexity of the wordiness in Damsels in Distress is enough to keep it lively and fresh; for much of its second half, however, the film shows a watering down of the distinctive Stillman flavor, a gentle turn towards the tropes and plot mechanics of generic indiedom. (Beyond the new-girl-on-campus conceit, there are individual scenes, ensemble formulas, and a cloying bells-inflected score that feel as though they could have been pulled from any quirky college comedy of the past decade.) Still, with Stillman crafting such delicious dialogue and with the infectiously watchable Greta Gerwig front and center, the film never becomes dull, even approaching at times the characteristically Stillman-esque push-pull between a sympathy towards the characters and a cool critique of their shallowness. It's just that it hews too closely to the director's previous takes on overeducated and sheltered youth to really stand apart in his body of work.

On Spec (2012): From the ever-intriguing Mubi.com critic David Phelps comes this fascinating 22-minute piece of homespun avant-garde cinema, a seemingly free-form collage of slapdash aesthetic ideas, narrative approaches, and shooting formats. Shot within the confines of Phelps' Brooklyn apartment, with one brief sojourn to the roof of the building, the film gathers artifacts and impressions out of what seems like a compact chunk of time and mixes them, distorts them, and fragments them with reckless abandon. Ostensibly naturalistic, on-the-fly moments of Phelps and his roommates shooting the shit are contrasted by fleeting instances of time rendered abstract through harsh pixelation and unreal colors, a disjunctive pairing complicated further by the playful shifting between digital shooting devices (laptop vision, cellphone cameras, DSLR's (?)) and film stock. This dense visual surface is paired with a soundtrack that has a life of its own, splintering around the speakers in crushed bits of noise and occasionally falling off into silence. The impression of an avid thinker arbitrarily putting a slew of critical theories into practice via images and sound is inescapable, but for me it doesn't hurt that I'm also fascinated by the array of ontological issues that On Spec raises, and furthermore, the film becomes especially relevant in the context of Phelps' critical writing, which similarly features an abiding interest in reality and its relationship to the moving image as it enters the 21st century.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Favorite Albums of 2012

Given the relative dearth of music I've listened to this year, I probably have no right fashioning a Best of 2012 list. I've been much more involved with film this year, obviously. But this is the blogosphere, and we solo bloggers essentially thrive on the idea that we can post whatever we want, whenever we want. Ed Howard of Only the Cinema just published another of his exhaustive music lists (even if it's somewhat truncated this year), one of those lovely behemoths that routinely puts to shame every other music list on the internet through the sheer breadth and variety of stuff Ed listens to as well as the superb quality of his writing, so for the sake of conversation, I figured it's as good a time as any to unleash my own thoughts on the year in music. Here's ten albums I found thrilling and rewarding this year.

1. Ian Hawgood: The Shattered Light

Packaged as six tracks but more accurately one long, morphing composition, Ian Hawgood's The Shattered Light is the kind of ambient that makes all conventional music look like it hasn't set its priorities straight. This is an album that (forgive what sounds like a godforsaken hyperbole) stirs deep parts of the soul that are only touched by the likes of Tarkovsky, Bergman, bits of Bresson and maybe some Antony & the Johnsons. Enough romanticizing though: Hawgood layers extensive, glacier-sized stretches of organ and guitar drone, crackling waves of white noise, and distant, ghostly snatches of melody to form a piece of music that peaks, crests, contorts, wavers in the wind, and lounges like a heavy arctic landscape of sound. Basically, it's the classic ingredients of ambient combined with impeccable artistry and shaped into a mounting narrative that climaxes on the transcendent title track before self-destructing into a thin, gravelly fade-out, the preceding drones of the album recontextualized as a bit-crushed minefield. I've returned to this sublime arcing accomplishment multiple times now, and it's never failed to transport my mind somewhere else.

2. Sun Kil Moon: Among the Leaves

What could possibly best Admiral Fell Promises for plaintive flamenco guitar-based folk? Well, Among the Leaves, Mark Kozelek's follow-up, makes a darn good case for it. Granted, the ambition is not quite as astounding, and the music is different too: less virtuosic instrumental interludes and unwieldy song structures and more no-nonsense songwriting and guitar playing. That said, what Kozelek strips down musically he more than makes up for with emotional directness and thematic coherence. Among the Leaves is an unapologetically narcissistic album, wall to wall with as many hilariously self-deprecating jokes as there are bittersweet, often wrenching anecdotes touching on Kozelek's lonely life as a traveling songwriter, his fleeting attempts at romance, and the decades of rock sorta-stardom that have both hardened and humbled him. Taming back his penchant for allusive poeticism, Kozelek's storytelling here is tender (the album's opener), oddly charming ("Song for Richard Collopy"), self-aggrandizing ("The Moderately Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man"), self-consciously jokey ("UK Blues"), and, on album highlight "That Bird Has a Broken Wing," downright haunting. With 17 tracks and 5 bonus cuts, it's an album that is practically overflowing with memorable tunes and deceptively extraordinary musicianship.

3. Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan

David Longstreth & Co. have topped their previous career-best Bitte Orca with Swing Lo Magellan, an album that finds a gorgeous balance between the band's nervous dissonance and their equally impressive grasp on warm, pastoral textures. The dichotomy is at the heart of their music, noticeable even in a hodgepodge of solo experiments like 2003's Morning Better Last!, and it's been wielded here with consummate power. Songs like bouncy single "About to Die" or the angular "Just from Chervon," with their stop-on-a-dime transitions from prickly rhythms to glorious harmonization and back again, build this idea into their DNA, while others, like the crashing "Maybe That Was It" or the sweetly satisfying "Impregnable Question," indulge powerfully in one direction. While their hipster image becomes grating in regards to their marketed identity (Hi Custodian, the 20-minute Longstreth-directed musical film based on the album, is a shameless Jodorowsky/Buñuel pastiche committed to weirdness for its own sake), Dirty Projectors' music is the real deal, a buffet of novel ideas and distinctive sounds.

4. Scott Walker: Bish Bosch

Consistently and enthrallingly unpredictable in a way that few albums are anymore, Scott Walker shuffles through every musical idea and invents much more of his own on his sprawling 73-minute Bish Bosch, the third in a string of avant-garde opuses that constitute a radical reinvention of the musician's identity in the last two decades. Here, Walker alternates between noisy bombast and passages of whispery repose with joyful recklessness, obliterating conventional understandings of song form and musicality. The fickle nature of these jarring symphonies is complimented by Walker's deeply strange lyrics (lines like "rotting grapes bunch brooch on chest of bruises" proliferate), sprinkled like snatches of Russell Edson across collages of wacked-out instrumentation (metal chains, crying babies, slashing swords, actual farts). Bish Bosch is an album to get lost in, that's for sure, but then again, it's not really easy or possible to put a stop to it once it's started anyway. Walker commands attention with a vice grip.

5. Pedestrian Deposit: Kithless

Kithless marks the third recording by electronics guru Jonathan Borges and cellist Shannon A. Kennedy, and it's definitely one of their best. A nearly forty-minute long trip into a cold, dark mental state divided into two pieces, the album combines Borges' kaleidoscope of samples, tape loops, and edgy drones with Kennedy's expressive cello tones. Each musician takes their respective instruments past the point of recognition through both processing and a creative approach to the physical tool: Kennedy's cello, therefore, sounds like a rumbling gale, a squeaky wheelbarrow, and the cry of a seagull at varying points on the recording, while Borges creates textured frameworks of noise (the quiet hissing of a live wire or a cyclical organ dirge) beneath it. At one point Kennedy records herself lounging in an ice bath, her heightened breathing and shivering suddenly lending a palpable human element to this dreamy landscape. Kithless forges a gloomy atmosphere of loneliness and foreboding and refuses to let up; the album concludes in a way that inconspicuously segues right back into the sounds of the opening track. It's as if Borges and Kennedy want their listeners to become hypnotized by this music, to gradually lose a sense of time and structure.

6. The Walkmen: Heaven

Potentially insufferable album title notwithstanding, The Walkmen (still my favorite rock band in the world) craft a collection of songs that sensitively reflect their status as aging dads optimistically navigating an indie rock landscape of cynical, trendy young hipsters. Fortunately, at this point they've earned a reputation that is fairly set in stone with their solid, unshowy musicianship, an amalgam of earlier rock-n-roll legends that maintains a signature booziness all its own, and there's little doubt in my mind that they'll be around for as long as they want to be, carrying out the promise of their New York breakthrough at the beginning of the aughts. Heaven has a much slicker, less distinctive sound than 2010's Lisbon, or any of their work for that matter, but the unbeatable (pun intended) quality of the songwriting and the force of Hamilton Leithauser's voice (the gorgeously jagged high-register wail now finally resolving into Orbison-esque stateliness) remain intact. "We Can't Be Beat," "Love is Luck," "Heaven," and "Dreamboat" are standouts.

7. Of Montreal: Paralytic Stalks

Fifteen years and eleven LP's deep and Of Montreal are still finding ways to subtly mutate their signature sound from album to album. Paralytic Stalks seemed to have quietly passed over critical and popular attention when it was released in early February, which is ironic given the album's in-your-face directness, always a quality on the fringes of the band's sound but rarely quite as pronounced as it is here. Despite the characteristically fanciful song titles, Kevin Barnes is free of flamboyant alter egos here and uncensored, unleashing romantic agony, familial regret, and vengeful bloodlust with startling matter-of-factness. It's not that Barnes' hasn't ever been emotionally raw (beneath the poeticism and showmanship there has always been a particularly hard edge of truthfulness); it's just that he's used Paralytic Stalks as a platform for bold expressionism. To hear Barnes repeatedly scream "beating a whole in me" at the 3-minute mark of the insistently intense "Ye, Renew the Plaintiff" is to hear unfiltered passion on display. This vocal anguish, of course, is matched by Paralytic Stalks' big, messy, grandiose musicianship, a gloss of indulgence that reaches its logical conclusion in the aimlessly noisy "Exorcismic Breeding Knife" before eventually dispersing for the quiet piano farewell.

8. Nils Quak: Long Forgotten Days Under a Dust Covered Sky

Nils Quak's Long Forgotten Days Under a Dust Covered Sky has the opposite emotional effect of the Pedestrian Deposit album on this list: for me, this album inspires a warm, cozy meditation on childhood, family, and hazily remembered instances of time. With its calm, reflective, low-key ambience, it's the sort of album that pairs beautifully with a plane flight (as long as you're sitting at the window seat and have a ravishing view of clouds and the minuscule landscapes below, an opportunity I had several times this year). It's also a fairly succinct piece of work, each self-contained track a compact hybrid of analog and digital haze. Instead of fashioning the kind of glacially paced atmospheres created by Hawgood, Quak's music shape-shifts more frequently and offers more self-conscious sonic variety. Piano arpeggios bleed into airy synthesizer pads, burbling electronic glitch morphs into floating sine waves, and drones regularly thin and thicken. Although it would function fairly well as an introductory album for those not normally attuned to ambient music, it's gorgeous, inspired work nonetheless.

9. Clams Casino: Instrumental Mixtape 2

I'm not a big rap fan, not because I don't recognize anything valuable in the music (in some cases I do) but because I just have trouble personally relating to the sound, but my enthusiasm towards Clams Casino's wordless hip-hop albums suggests a major exception to that taste. The moniker of Italian-American producer Michael Volpe, Clams Casino has worked with countless contemporary rappers before, but on Instrumentals Mixtape and his latest, Instrumental Mixtape 2, he favors a complete immersion into the beat, the deep, pummeling drones, and the fragments of vocal samples scattered through the mixes like faint echoes of live performance. For the most part, these tracks are murky midtempo trudges through protracted fuzz, languorous bass movements, and heavily distorted drum loops. It's nocturnal music, the sounds of urban machinery in the middle of the night.

10. Swans: The Seer

At nearly two hours, Swans' The Seer feels like a major statement, a culmination of the many approaches frontman Michael Gira has been working with throughout his career. Augmenting and extending the intensity already inherent in the band's previous album, 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, The Seer explodes with ballsy grandeur, encompassing its listener with loud, lengthy jams on single chords and repetitive chants that sound like Aboriginal conjurations. Gira's lyrics are usually incomprehensible, a collection of bizarre, menacing riffs on ideas of creation/destruction and birth/rebirth, and on The Seer his rich baritone – supported by backing vocals from the members of Low and Akron/Family – works mostly as another texture to be added to the assault of layered noise. Though the band's relentless spell-casting grows wearisome at times (see: the 10-minute minor-key bashing in the middle of the 32-minute title track) and the album lacks the focused punch of My Father (what else could explain the seemingly arbitrary injection of Karen O-crooned folk pop at the start of the album's second half?), there are just as many instances when the music is downright entrancing ("Lunacy," "93 Ave. B Blues," "Avatar," "The Apostate").

Honorable Mentions: Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas, Tim Hecker/Daniel Lopatin: Instrumental Tourist, John Zorn: Nosferatu

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

L'Enfance Nue (1968) A Film by Maurice Pialat

As portraits of disaffected youth go, Maurice Pialat's L'Enfance Nue makes François Truffaut's already restrained The 400 Blows look downright sentimental and sensationalistic. Pialat's debut traces with its rigorously pared-down approach the downward trajectory of a young boy named François (Michel Terrazon) from the hands of one foster family to another and finally to a youth ward, all the while forgoing explanatory passages or psychological detailing to suggest that this disheartening path is an inevitability in the dilapidated working-class world Pialat depicts. It's a stark, unforgiving film, laying the blame not on the unruly child but on the pitiless society itself that insists on organizing, explaining, and punishing youthful behavior but ever so rarely on simply understanding it.

Pialat, meanwhile, maintains a directorial distance precisely to create an undiscriminating space for the viewer to try to understand François, or better yet, to merely see him for what he is: a sensitive boy frustrated by his unstable living situation and the lack of care and attention he is afforded. Pialat's curt, observant visual style – free of acrobatic fanfare or musical accompaniment – reduces the narrative to physical action: François walks here and there, François lies in bed, François fights his surrogate brother, François steals an item from a store, François kisses his surrogate mother, etc. The majority of the dialogue in the film comes only from parents and authority figures, cynically analyzing these points of action Pialat zeroes in on. More often than not, their conclusions simultaneously complicate and simplify what is seen on screen. Complicate, because they create a convoluted and needless set of repercussions, and simplify, because they take an impulsive action, difficult or perhaps even impossible to accurately decipher, and label it not as the inherently complex human act that it is but as the result of something concrete and reductive: anger problems, social neglect, etc.

The film begins in a muddy mining town stacked with identical white houses with putrid yellow trim, one of which contains the 10-year-old François and the laboring married couple he's living with for the time being. He lives alongside an adopted sister who is treated to a decorated bedroom while François must spend his nights on a firm mattress in a cramped corner (a blunt dichotomy that Pialat doesn't belabor). Pining for something, anything, to do in this dull community, he wanders the grounds, abandoning his sister for his own exploratory ambitions. As a result, François is disconnected from his caretakers, showing up late to dinner and barely helping around the house. Catching wind of his foster parents' plans to send him off, he and a group of likeminded rascals from around the village collaborate on the reckless killing of the family's cat, dropping it down what appears to be ten or more flights of stairs. The unmediated shock of this act – portrayed by Pialat in a ruthlessly matter-of-fact medium angle without suspense-building close-ups – is followed by a moment of François fashioning a makeshift shelter for the severely injured animal, and eventually by a wide shot of him disposing of the body amidst some rubbish on a hill. It's a challenging progression of events, shifting the viewer from the knee-jerk disapproval of the boy's violence to an almost sympathetic depiction of his subsequent nursing and finally to a detached perspective of his questionable disposal of the body.

Similar ellipses ensue, always encouraging an imaginative rather than reductive reading of the offscreen moments that connect the depicted events. In fact, a fairly radical one occurs only shortly after François rids of the cat corpse. When his foster mother escorts him out of the house to be placed in an anonymous authority vehicle, Pialat offers the closest thing to a tear-jerking moment in all of L'Enfance Nue: a panning close-up of the boy's blank face as the car drives away and he stares back at his "mother." The moment is undercut, however, by the subsequent shot of François surrounded by more in a continuing line of tentative "mothers," as well as a bevy of foster children, in a cab on a moving train. The image is ripe with metaphor: here is a boy swarmed by possible caretakers, none of whom quite fulfill that title, and other children in similar situations, as the outside world whooshes by as a blur. Transience, instability, familial oversaturation without the proper attention – these are the default qualities of François' existence, visualized in this shot in such succinct fashion.

Naturally, this train merely transports him to another foster family. This time, it's not the parents that passive-aggressively mistreat him but his new foster brother, who rejects François as if he's a foreign parasite invading the body. By contrast, François' new adult guardians – played by Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry, the real-life foster parents who inspired Pialat to make the film – are soft-spoken and superficially caring, not to mention committed to creating a non-threatening environment for their children. But although François warms to them, and especially Marie-Louise's decrepit but still spirited mother, more than his prior caretakers, the atmosphere of detached generosity they cultivate seems the antithesis of François' prior engagements, and it ultimately prompts more fits of rebellious activity. Or is it that the sudden death of his surrogate grandmother – telegraphed by Pialat in a bang-up series of cuts that skips over the entire process of grieving – marks François' parting with the last possibility of connection in his life and essentially drives him back to insecurity? The film avoids any sort of one-to-one relationship. Soon enough, François is being shuttled to a delinquency ward after throwing a rock at a car and causing a crash.

L'Enfance Nue's English translation is Naked Childhood. The nudity, here, refers to a sense of rawness, of uncultivated life force. There's an implication on Pialat's part that this primal form is noble and altogether human, but also that it must be adequately nurtured (though the film never shows us what that ideal nurturing looks like, probably because there's no easy answer). What's clear enough is that the illusion of guidance in L'Enfance Nue is inadequate: François is treated as an object to be passed from place to place, filed by authorities, and tucked under bed sheets to be quiet for the night. Rarely in the film does anyone attempt to level with him or understand his behavior. (The Thierrys come closest to doing so, but their curiosity is held at arm's length.) If he is spoken to at all by authorities, it's in the form of a brusque interrogation, questions of purely utilitarian purpose: "where are your biological parents?"; "do you like living with your foster parents?"; "why did you do what you did?" François shoots back vacuous, confused stares at these interrogators, and you can't blame him. Pialat's film painstakingly explodes the legitimacy of such questions. It asks its audience to look, not to ask.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

Between attending the Cannes Film Festival and the AFI Fest, acquainting myself with the ridiculously vibrant filmgoing culture of Los Angeles, and contributing to Mubi.com's The Daily Notebook, 2012 has been a banner year in my development as a voracious (though seeing other bloggers' year-end tallies of films watched, my total is comparatively measly) devourer of cinema and a sort-of critic. I met a few amazing writers, saw a few premieres of world-class art films, and generally just placed myself actively in the scene more than ever before. As a result of all this, I've actually consumed enough recent cinema this year to cobble together a year-end list, something I was sadly incapable of doing last year out of a mix of outside obligations, a predilection towards older films, a lack of new film accessibility, and a greater attention towards the latest musical releases. But because I was lucky enough to see these films this year, why not indulge my privilege?

Ultimately, in the interest of not merely repeating the same titles every other critic has already discussed and is discussing at year's end (not to say those are unworthy of such exegesis), I have chosen to limit my selections to films released to the world in 2012, not just to America after struggles through the distribution vacuum. (In other words, every film listed here will read "2012" on IMDB, with the exception of Bernie, Killer Joe, and Haywire, which were released wide very early 2012 despite their respective world premieres at the very end of 2011.) My hope is that, rather than being irrelevant and unproductive, this list will offer a collection of films in which some, if not many, represent bright spots just over the horizon. For those that have been fortunate enough to be released in the States or online on Netflix or Fandor, I look forward to the possible discussion of those with all of you. Furthermore, if you're wondering where the hell The Turin Horse, Two Years at Sea, and The Loneliest Planet (all of which would be within the top 5 here had I followed standard journalistic protocol) are after my glowing reviews of each of them, just take a look back at the bottom of my 2011 round-up, where I have compiled a makeshift list of my favorites from that year that will be ever-shifting as I catch up with things like The Deep Blue Sea, Oslo, August 31st, and Once Upon A Time in Anatolia. It goes without saying, but this list, too, is susceptible to fluctuation in the future as I shade in the neglected areas of foreign cinema. For now, I hope you enjoy what I do have to offer: my (likely incomplete and forever inadequate) best films of 2012.

20. Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (Shapiro/USA)

From my June Screening Notes entry: "I went into Ben Shapiro's documentary on renowned photographer Gregory Crewdson hoping to get some kind of hint of a future film from the master chronicler of American suburbia, but to no avail. In fact, I got quite the opposite. I've come away convinced that Crewdson's fascination with revealing narratives of immense emotional depth through single images is humbling, inspiring, and essential...Shapiro shot the film over the ten years or so it took Crewdson to shoot his consummate photography series "Beneath the Roses," and the results, mostly on handheld digital camera, are remarkably intimate. The film's finest achievement is the way it captures every precise step in the artistic process, as well as how it makes all the madness and obsession that goes into production seem utterly ordinary."

19. Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (Heidecker/Wareheim/USA)

OK, so there's gotta be some funnies on this list, and since re-watching Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie in the proper setting (a vital ingredient of the experience as dissected in my previous blurb), I've decided that this is the funniest film I've seen in 2012. Nothing can quite compare to Tim Heidecker wantonly making someone else's son his own as if it's all a normal social transaction, and then later flinging him into the sky to be mowed down by Robert Loggia's bloodthirsty corporate mobsters as if it's the noble thing to do. The whole film follows suit, radically inverting simple feel-good comedy formulas through sheer absurdity and gross-out showboating. Occasionally, some of it adds up to a genuine critique of Hollywood's conservative formalities, but most of the time it's less pointed and precise, and all the better for it. These are filmmakers that feel no obligation towards coherence or respectability, and they've pioneered a new and singular brand of comedy as a result.

18. Not in Tel Aviv (Geffen/Israel)

An exceedingly fun oddity from Israel that is like nothing else on this list. From my AFI report: "Nony Geffen’s microbudget feature Not in Tel Aviv seems to delight in its own senselessness, putting across radical tonal shifts and pieces of nonsensical dialogue with an unshakeable straight face. One might say this is a nihilistic film, but that would be disingenuous. Geffen has too much apparent joy for life and too much compassion for his wayward leads, even as he writes them into increasingly implausible scenarios. Essentially a series of non-sequiturs shared between an antisocial teacher (played by Geffen himself), his kidnapped student, and his high school sweetheart, the film has the dazed aimlessness of an Andrew Bujalski movie shot with an additional jolt of sensuality."

17. Flight (Zemeckis/USA)

From my November review: "With the exception of its jolting first-act spectacle – the disastrous flight from which the film gains its title – [Robert] Zemeckis' latest commits to a low-key atmosphere of psychological introspection, shifting the director's emphasis on soaring movement, eye-popping lights, and huge ensembles to a much humbler canvas: the contours and minuscule eruptions in Denzel Washington's pudgy, sunken face, the use of conversation as the primary dramatic activity, and a pastoral working-class milieu where the villain is as small-scale as a nip of Smirnoff. Zemeckis reportedly sacrificed his initial sum of cash to encourage Paramount to back the project, and the personal compromise clearly reflects the artistic development. Flight feels like a conscious simplification of expression for the 61-year-old Spielberg descendant even as it repurposes his showstopping wizardry to less transparent ends."

16. The Grey (Carnahan/USA)

From my February review: "[Joe] Carnahan, hitherto a director of pulpy machismo, has placed big-headed men in a situation that makes them resemble pint-sized fools, utterly helpless against the brutal climate of the wilds and the relentless encroachment of the wolves. Indeed, Neeson, ostensibly the leader and hero of the pack – at least, as this survivalism subgenre would have it – winds up leading his skeptical followers straight into the belly of the beast after every new development. Tools, smarts, and, especially, Gods, have no effect here; in fact, Carnahan shows them being decimated one by one until, in the final ten minutes of this compact 117 minute film, Neeson is bellowing at an overcast sky to an (inevitably) silent Creator. It's no surprise for an American studio picture to be this doggedly Atheist, but it is a welcome shock to see spiritual questioning on such vehement display, and especially for it to be tethered to a simultaneous take-down of masculine swagger."

15. Post Tenebras Lux (Reygadas/Mexico)

From my Cannes report: "The obligatory pillar of provocation this year was held up by Carlos Reygadas with his new film Post Tenebras Lux, an ambitious collage-like expression of Mexican country life that unsurprisingly garnered equal parts applause and booing. (One wonders when Cannes crowds will grow up and learn to embrace artistic license and individualistic work without resorting to knee-jerk skepticism.) Post Tenebras Lux digresses rather significantly from the comparatively sobering and linear Silent Light, but what it does share with Reygadas' previous work is its insistence upon making its audience feel something, and it put me in an unusually discomfiting space that I've rarely experienced from cinema. Despite some of its age-old arthouse ingredients (nature, animals, mechanical sex, an unforgivably extraneous scene of animal cruelty), the film is quite unlike anything ever made, and truly unique to Reygadas' sensibilities."

14. Haywire (Soderbergh/USA)

As a study of an athletic body, Haywire is as passionately attentive as Pierre Morel's District B13, the important distinction being that it's actually a good movie too. Steven Soderbergh continues his inspired plucking of non-actors throughout the professional world with the transformation of Gina Carano – notable MMA boxer – into an action star, punching and running and kicking her way through the worldwide locations Soderbergh writes her into. The film's most clever move is its subtle framing of Carano as a feminist warrior seeking vengeance upon the many men who have exploited her throughout the spatially and temporally shuffled narrative, yet unlike Django Unchained, another revenge tale from 2012, Haywire maintains a cool distance from its protagonist's morally ambiguous course of action. The result, both visually and thematically, is something like the work of Michael Mann: a complex and non-judgmental portrait of a lonely professional dwarfed against sublime landscapes.

13. Killer Joe (Friedkin/USA)

William Friedkin's last two collaborations with adventurous playwright Tracy Letts have constituted a key development in the director's career. Letts' cynical, uncompromising worldview is fully understood by Friedkin and then translated into tight, pulpy, expressive genre cinema. If Bug appeared to present one of the most savagely insane denouements after a slow-burning talky in quite some time, here is Killer Joe to up that ante. But before it gets there (and I won't spoil the ending because it truly is a heartstopping sort of explosion), the film carefully and evocatively develops its soaked and seedy Texas trailer-park milieu, dressing it up in exaggerated lighting and a thick mood of despair that place the film in an almost post-Sirkian zone of heightened melodrama. Matthew McConaughey, complete with iconic character gestures (his flicking of a lighter is an awesome touch), is at his sweat-glazed, maliciously soft-spoken best, and what's more, the utter commitment in his portrayal seems to have spread through the entire cast. More on this to come, I hope.

12. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami/Iran)

I was, like some other peers at the Cannes Film Festival this past May, sufficiently puzzled but mildly intrigued by Abbas Kiarostami's latest offering, but in the months since, Like Someone in Love has steadily gained footing for me as another multifaceted and rewarding discourse on the nature of identity, role-playing, and social construction. It's also plaintive in a way I haven't quite seen to such a degree from Kiarostami since Taste of Cherry. One scene sticks out as a wrenching glimpse of selfishness, and I'm sure it will move viewers when it opens in limited release in 2013. More from my Cannes round-up: "The director charts a similar paradigm shift roughly at the midway point as that of Certified Copy when the relationship between a young girl (Rin Takanashi) and an old man (Tadashi Okuno) shifts from prostitute/client to grandfather/granddaughter based on the innocuous misunderstanding of the girl's psychologically abusive boyfriend (Ryo Kase)...It's amazing how economical this film is, using such a small number of tense, protracted dialogue scenes to open up a vast ocean of mystery around these three characters, each of whom appear to be hiding something authentic and unfettered beneath their social façades."

11. Journal de France (Depardon/Nougaret/France)

From my Cannes report: "A basement full of unreleased newsreel celluloid from legendary French documentarian Raymond Depardon covering a vast range of small and large scale historical events circa the middle of the 20th century yielded the festival's most moving and poetic images. Uncovered by Depardon's wife and usual sound recordist Claudine Nougaret and positioned alongside contemporary footage of Depardon taking a photographic tour of France alone in his car, the resulting cut of Journal De France becomes a mesmerizing essay (set to killer musical cues!) on photographic truth and how images become a mirror of one's thoughts and feelings throughout the course of one's life."

10. Bernie (Linklater/USA)

From my December review: "Linklater's stroke of genius is in rendering this tale – which opens with a tongue-in-cheek title card indicating that it is a true story – as a fluid conversation between two modes of expression: a mock(doc?)umentary featuring interviews with the townspeople, and a staged narrative with Bernie as the protagonist. Eventually these two approaches overlap, with individuals initially appearing in interview being seen as characters in the story proper. The result is a sense of ambiguity regarding where the line between "authentic" and "staged" begins and ends, a relishing in a grey area not commonly approached in such sensitive true-life subjects."

9. Leviathan (Paravel/Castaing-Taylor/USA)

From my AFI report: "Whatever my own personal physical objections to Leviathan, I cannot deny the groundbreaking accomplishment that it is. This is authorless, distinctly 21st century cinema; or rather, I should say that its author is the ocean, the wind, the fish and the seagulls aboard the ship – that is, all elements untouched by the human hand, but only made visible through technological advances in image capture. To go a step further, the fact that some of the film's moments end up feeling so aesthetically sublime, such as when flocks of angelic seagulls seem to be flying in mystical awareness of the camera, implies that nature itself has an artful side."

8. In Another Country (Hong/South Korea)

From my Cannes report: "The first time Hong Sang-soo's static camera compulsively snap-zoomed in on the action in In Another Country's extended opening shot, it's as if the entire audience experienced a collective lurch towards the actors. Perhaps this impression is just to due to my unfamiliarity with Hong's aesthetic, but in any case In Another Country provides a heightened intimacy with the filmed material, a direct relationship between director/audience and subject, and a sense of the film being conceived as it's being shot. A work so casual, spontaneous, and grounded rarely makes an appearance In Competition at Cannes, and Hong's glorious hangout of a film is all the more powerful for it."

7. Berberian Sound Studio (Strickland/UK)

A destabilizing, blackly humorous look at the seedy world of Italian giallo post-production, told through the perspective of Toby Jones' neurotic, unsuspecting English sound mixer. From my AFI report: "Berberian Sound Studio manages to be both a parodic celebration of the endless innovation and almost goofy conviction of Italian horror as well as a critical commentary on not only this particular genre but all works of art and cinema that, in aiming for so-called “brutal honesty,” end up merely perpetuating dominant and wrongheaded attitudes." See also: my fantasy double feature column for Mubi.com, which features Berberian Sound Studio and another of my favorite cinematic discoveries of 2012.

6. Lincoln (Spielberg/USA)

From my December review: "Searching for unpredictable ways of quelling dissent, temporarily sacrificing one's beliefs for the sake of collaboration – these skills form the core of the film's philosophy. But it's not just a political philosophy. The techniques the characters use to achieve success apply just as well to family life, social life, professional life – anything that requires humans to interact to get something done. In a time of great bipartisan strife and some of the most urgent political issues in decades, Lincoln demonstrates, once again and for good measure, one of the most valuable tool we have as functional, productive humans: that of working together, of compromise."

5. Magic Mike (Soderbergh/USA)

From my July review: "[Steven Soderbergh's] latest film Magic Mike is like an informal companion piece to 2009's The Girlfriend Experience, a sharply observed portrait of the business of sexuality - this time set in a Tampa Bay where the males are the performers and the females the customers - in which the modus operandi is roughly the same: co-opt a subject (nightlife, sex), a hot-topic star (Channing Tatum here, Sasha Grey in TGF), and a genre (dramedy/dance film here, drama/prostitution exposé in TGF) from the universal interests of the masses in order to gain financing, and proceed to make probing, non-judgmental, humble cinema. Soderbergh strikes me as a filmmaker set upon providing gentle forms of rebellion to the reductive, predictable, conformist fare taking place elsewhere in Hollywood, not through grand gestures and cynical statements, but rather through down-to-earth socioeconomic detail and an impassioned curiosity for the various subjects he films." (See also: my December Screening Notes entry on the film following a second viewing.)

4. The Master (P.T. Anderson/USA)

Though I saw it a couple months ago, I've thought about The Master more lately than any other film on this list. It's a real grower. From my September review: "At any given moment The Master feels like it's going to explode with tension, that the primal churnings of man will wreak havoc on the unruffled surface of the film. This has been a recurring sensation in Anderson's filmography, but it's never been quite this palpable. The tweaks in Anderson's style (less tracking shots, less completely static compositions, less depth of field, a lot less) have shifted greater emphasis to the interactions of the characters themselves, and even when a composition smacks of immediate subtext – such as in the brilliant jail cell scene between Dodd and Freddie in which each of them occupy their own half of the frame, one frenetic and one stoic – there's a casual, almost fly-on-the wall quality to the images."

3. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow/USA)

Kathryn Bigelow's moving, complex, and admirably critical study of the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden is so absurdly far from the pro-torture government propaganda piece that so many conservative philistines have been making it out to be that it has begged for reasonable critical appraisal from viewers who have, y'know, actually watched the film. Fortunately, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Glenn Kenny, among others, have come to the rescue with rousing defenses. But – to descend into a momentary bit of shameless self-promotion – I'd also like to point to my own piece, written and published before the firestorm even began. At that point in time, I never once considered Zero Dark Thirty to resemble anything close to a jingoistic celebration of the CIA or whatever. On the contrary, I found it to be a riveting drama less about government triumphs than about the unsettling lack of productivity inherent in such dizzying layers of bureaucracy.

2. Tabu (Gomes/Portugal)

Miguel Gomes' Tabu, with its evocation of nostalgia and past cinematic practices, may seem to belong more comfortably to 2011 given its considerable crop of self-referential, backwards-looking films. But Tabu is wiser and trickier than any of those, even Scorsese's wonderful Hugo. Its two-part structure allows it to indulge in a nostalgic haze for one half while also pointing to the inadequacy of such fantastical remembrance in relation to the present in the other half. Trickier still, the film positions the dull routines of its narrative proper before the burst of dreamy melodrama, showing the casual racism and utter lack of passion in the present to be a product to some degree of an embellished and unrealistic colonial past. Though sneakily and deeply political, Tabu also displays an earnest understanding of the powers of memory and romantic fabrication as means of mental escape, revealing them to be essential aspects of the human experience across great stretches of time, and it does so through its immense surface pleasures. Gomes' moving and thought-provoking work of art has been on my mind ever since I saw it at AFI this fall, and I can't wait to revisit it on DVD this coming year.

1. Holy Motors (Carax/France)

I've already gushed somewhat aimlessly about it here and here, but Leos Carax's latest feat of creative genius deserves every paragraph summary it inspires, even if they all inevitably fail to do justice to its ineffable spark of life. Such is the nature of poetry, which Holy Motors, more than any other film on this list, resoundingly qualifies as. Carax has taken some of the most vital themes capable of being expressed in art – the elusive nature of the self, the fruitless war against incoming death, the search for joy and permanence – and he has spun them together in a flamboyant package of allusions reaching towards cinema's past and portending cinema's future. Contemporary film culture needs more jolts of originality and expressiveness like this. A world with Holy Motors is a world where belief in the transformative capacity of art is intact. A world without Holy Motors is quite possibly like what Denis Lavant's exceptionally performed but ultimately impenetrable character experiences: a seemingly meaningless cycle of appointments and obligations where the hope of higher understanding remains perpetually out of reach.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Amour (Haneke/France), Barbara (Petzold/Germany), Cloud Atlas (Tykwer/Wachowskis/USA), Django Unchained (Tarantino/USA), In the Fog (Loznitsa/Russia), Lawrence Anyways (Dolan/France), Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson/USA), Something in the Air (Assayas/France), Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Hyams/USA)

Major Blind Spots: Almayer's Folly (Akerman/Belgium), Beyond the Hills (Mungiu/Romania), The Comedy (Alverson/USA), The Dream and the Silence (Rosales/Spain), It's Such a Beautiful Day (Hertzfeldt/USA), Keep the Lights On (Sachs/USA), Killing Them Softly (Dominik/USA), The Life of Pi (Lee/USA), Neighboring Sounds (Mendonça Filho/Brazil), Not Fade Away (Chase/USA), Oki's Movie (Hong/South Korea), Room 237 (Ascher/USA), Seven Psychopaths (McDonagh/USA), Student (Omirbayev/Kazakhstan), Tey (Gomis/France/Senegal)