Top Ten of 2012
While compiling my list of personal top ten, I came to a realization that many cinephiles did when putting together their list: 2012 was a pretty disappointing year for film. To me, it was a year marred by overhyped blockbusters, a frustratingly unoriginal output from the “indie” scene, a weaker than usual crop of Oscar bait, and finally, and most disappointingly, not enough noteworthy art house films. To make things a little more difficult, I had to disqualify a lot of great films I saw this year because they weren’t 2012 world releases. This included William Friedkin’s best film in decades, Killer Joe; Terrence Davies’s deft adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, The Deep Blue Sea; and probably the hardest to omit, Richard Linklater’s masterfully crafted black comedy, Bernie. Each were technically 2011 films, and if I were to redo my top 10 from last year, they would all make it.
But as disappointing as the year has been as a whole, I still saw my share of really good films from 2012. But before we begin, I decided to add an eleventh spot:
11. The Work of Paul Clipson (US)
Avant Garde filmmaker Paul Clipson had such a great year that I felt it would be doing a great disservice not mentioning his works (many of which can watched on his vimeo page: http://vimeo.com/user2911089/videos). A few highlights include: his beautifully composed city symphony Absteigend, his collaboration with musician Alex Cobb Ladscape Dissolves, and the epic super 8 collage Another Void (described as “Orpheus meets the bird with the crystal plumage,” though I couldn’t help be reminded more of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). The only reason this failed to crack my top ten was because it wasn’t honoring everything Clipson had done this year and not one particular cinematic work. Nevertheless, I encourage anyone to check out his work vimeo or, if you have a 16mm projector, rent his work from Canyoncinema.com.
Now, lets go to the top ten:
10. ParaNorman – dir. Chris Butler/Sam Fell (US)
This was easily the most pleasant surprise of 2012 and one I feel should have garnered more attention. Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell have crafted a horror inspired animated film that also serves as a fantastic story about intolerance. Laika Inc, the animators behind the excellent Coraline from 2009, provide the stop motion animation while the always great Jon Brion provides one of the best scores this year. Overall this was a solid year for animation: Wreck-It Ralph showed that Disney doesn’t always need Pixar’s help to create a good 3D animated film and The Simpsons: The Longest Daycare may have been the best thing series has done since Season 9. However, ParaNorman takes the cake.
9. Holy Motors – dir. Leos Carax (France/Germany)
Carax’s returns to filmmaking after over decade since his last feature, Pola X, with arguably his finest film. An elegy of sorts to an older era of studio filmmaking, Carax’s film follows Monsieur Oscar, an actor working in a futuristic Paris, spends the day being driven around in a limousine and working nine jobs, which are basically nine performances. While the movie’s ending didn’t work for me as well as it did for others, Holy Motors still contains some of the most mesmerizing cinematic moments I’d seen all year, including a phenomenal green screen segment and two of the best musical sequences in years. It also doesn’t hurt to have Denis Lavant giving the best male performance of the year.
8. Thursday till Sunday/De jueves a domingo – dir. Dominga Sotomayor Castillo (Chile/Netherlands)
Dominga Sotomayor Castillo’s film contains some of the most intelligent filmmaking from a first time filmmaker I’ve seen in some time. This subtle and beautifully crafted road film shows the collapse of a marriage through the eyes of their 10 year old daughter. I believe Castillo has established herself as a talent to watch out for and hopefully many will think the same when this film is released some time this year.
7. The Master – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (US)
Rarely has a great film frustrated me as much as Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious post-war drama, The Master. While the film doesn’t flow as well as his previous works, it’s still the most interesting film I’ve seen all year from an American director. Freddie Quell’s odyssey from war veteran with PSTD working as a department store photographer to being a high ranking member of Lancaster Dodd’s scientology like cult, The Wave, is nothing if not fascinating. The film only got better in hindsight, when a plethora of weak hollywood films were unloaded in December.
6. differently, Molussia/autrement, la Molussie – dir. Nicolas Rey (France)
Adapted from a book by German philosopher Gunther Anders, Rey’s film consists of 9 16mm film reels, projected in no specified order, documenting a fictional totalitarian country called Molussia. Rey plays with the relationship of image and sound, presenting Molussia’s ordinary landscapes and working day routines while unseen prisoners of the fascist state communicate through the film’s narration. The film is an exciting experimentation on cinematic narrative and one I hope will be screening again this year.
5. Amour – dir. Michael Haneke (France/Austria/Germany)
Since the beginning of the 21st century, few filmmakers have been as consistently thought provoking as the great Austrian auteur, Michael Haneke. His newest film and the winner of the 2012 Palme D’or is no exception. This almost voyeuristic look into the lives of a couple in their eighties, and the tragic circumstances that befalls one of them, is a masterfully crafted work of cinema that will surely test a viewer emotionally. Some online bloggers have gone as far as to say it belongs in the torture porn genre. It’s emotionally grinding for sure, but it’s also Haneke’s most gentle and affectionate as well. The love between the main characters, played brilliantly by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, help provide the film’s humanity.
4. Dream and Silence/Sueño y silencio – dir. Jaime Rosales (Spain/France)
One of the few cinematic treasure I was able to stumble upon in 2012, Jaime Rosales’s new film is a powerful portrait of grief and loss. However this family drama will surely divide it’s audience: The narrative is rather fragmented, with many isolated scenes working together to make up of collage of moments in a life rather than a flowing story, and the very raw power of the film may leave the viewer emotionally drained (though in the exact opposite way of Haneke’s Amour). Rosales also takes a unique stylistic (or non-stylistic) approach to capture a certain authenticity: Every thing was shot in one take, with much of the dialogue being improvised. Even the way Rosales handles the biggest moment of the film may be a little controversial (though I found it brilliant). Again I don’t want to give too much away. Hopefully when, or if, it gets to the states, cinephiles will give it a chance.
3. Barbara – dir. Christian Petzold (Germany)
Few directors working today can create an atmosphere better than Christian Petzold. His talent was evident in his entry of 2011’s wonderful film series Dreileben (which he did with filmmakers Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler) and even more so in 2012 with his newest film, Barbara. It’s a wonderful film set in East Germany in 1980 about a female doctor released from incarceration, trying to find a way to escape to the West. Petzold is able to create the right amount of suspense and paranoia to keep the viewer on the edge of his seat while also providing an excellent character study and moral drama. Not once does the film resort to cliches or force manipulating cues to milk emotions from it’s viewers. It’s an all around phenomenal example of intelligent narrative filmmaking.
2. On Death Row – dir. Werner Herzog (US)
Werner Herzog’s mini-series may be my favorite documentary of his from this century. Four episodes, each about a different murder case: Hank Skinner, James Barnes, two of the Texas Seven (Joseph Garcia and George Rivas), and Linda Carty. On Death Row could be seen as a complimentary piece to his 2011 documentary, Into the Abyss, but I believe this series is far and above the superior work of cinema. Herzog doesn’t attempt to make an anti-death penalty propaganda documentary (though he makes his stance on capital punishment clear before each episode), but instead creates intimate narratives, each with captivating interviews. This is a masterpiece, plain and simple.
1. Cosmopolis – dir. David Cronenberg (Canada/France/Portugal/Italy)
There was no film I watched more times in 2012 than David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. After my first viewing, I didn’t know what to make of it. I loved the style, but had trouble sinking my teeth into the substance. Then after a second screening I appreciated it more, finding myself enjoying the hyperreal DeLillo dialogue. Then after a few more viewings, I had no trouble saying it: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis was the best film of 2012. Adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel about Billionaire Eric Packer’s odyssey for a hair cut in New York City, Cronenberg’s film finds a nice balance between the Cronenberg of the old and new. All of his favorite themes are here, from the fixation of the body (Packer’s obsession with his “asymmetrical prostate”) to technology becoming an extension to oneself (Packer and his limousine), yet Cronenberg’s execution echos his more recent restrained and mise-en-scene heavy films, like Spider and A Dangerous Method. But what I respected most about this film was the fact that it stayed with me after my initial viewing like an unreachable itch. It made me want to re-watch to get a fuller understanding of the work. Thats something very few films did this year.