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)