Every so often, when writers and editors apparently have no better ideas at that moment, they will write alarmist think pieces bemoaning the "death of cinema." Most of the arguments usually boil down to three factors: big-budget blockbusters sucking up most of the air of discussion in the press (has it not always been thus?); the effects of changing technology in production and distribution (again, has this not always been happening?); and, more recently, that there's a lot of good stuff on TV.
I won't attempt to argue against this silly notion here, other than to say that cinema's demise has been predicted almost from the time movies came into existence, and it was no truer then than it is now. Also, as far as I'm concerned, 2012 in film was an embarrassment of riches in unique visions and immense talent that do a much better job of countering the premature writers of cinema's obituary than I ever could.
So here goes: my picks for the top films of 2012, divided into two categories. The first is distributed films, which includes films that played for at least a week in NYC or were readily available on home video or VOD, whether or not they had an official distributor. I made a separate list for films that as of this writing have not yet been distributed in the US. Consider this a heads-up for intrepid distributors willing to take a chance on some great films that would be worthy additions to their catalogs.
Best Distributed Films of 2012
10. Nobody Walks (Ry Russo-Young) and Green (Sophia Takal)
These two films by two extraordinarily talented young women, featuring as their main characters other young women navigating dangerous minefields of sexuality and emotional entanglements, were two of the best American films I saw last year. Russo-Young's sun-drenched L.A.-set family drama and Takal's moody, verdant emotional horror film prove that American indie cinema, particularly of the micro-budget variety, remains a remarkably fecund source of brilliant, psychologically penetrating work.
(Read my capsule review of Nobody Walks here
, and my review of Green here
9. Starry Starry Night (Tom Lin)
Forget Beasts of the Southern Wild - this was the truly magical and gorgeously colored vision of the world from a child's point of view. Lin's adaptation of Jimmy Liao's celebrated children's book used its CGI effects to render an emotionally resonant tale worth more than a hundred Hobbits. Despite all its whimsical fantasy, it never loses sight of the harsh realities - divorce, bullying, the loss of family members through death - that often necessitate escape into imaginary worlds.
8. Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Zvyagintsev's neo-noir about class warfare in Putin's Russia, and the deadly consequences resulting from such, is just the latest example of the commanding artistry this filmmaker brings to all his work. Propelled by a knockout performance by actress Nadezhda Markina and a sinuously sinister borrowed Philip Glass score, Elena depicts social Darwinism at its most chillingly elemental.
7. Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers)
Unconscionably left off the Oscar documentary shortlist, Akers' commemoration of pioneering performance artist Abramović's 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective fully transcends the documentary label, serving as a moving, and often visually breathtaking, testament to the transformative power of great art.
6. Amour (Michael Haneke)
A heart-breaking examination of the devastatingly fatal effects of debilitating illness on the loving relationship of an elderly couple, Amour finds Haneke employing an only slightly softened version of his patented austere formalism and unflinching view of the cruel vicissitudes of fate to deliver one of his supreme masterworks.
5. Oki's Movie, The Day He Arrives and In Another Country (Hong Sangsoo)
The vagaries of US distribution of foreign films are such that it often takes years for even celebrated, major award-winning works to reach our shores. Sometimes, however, that delay can work out to the benefit of filmgoers here, who in 2012 were blessed with not one, not two, but three recent films in theatrical release by Hong Sangsoo, a truly original auteur with a style and approach to narrative that becomes more sublimely refined with each new release. Hong uses a finite set of subject materials - filmmaking, academia, male-female relationships - and discovers seemingly infinite methods of combining them. His patented structure of repeated dialogue and incident with overlapping chronology results in works that often become meta-cinematic self-critiques. However, Hong is no cold formalist; his films, especially lately, are also quite funny, particularly in its depiction of the pathetic failure of his characters (usually the male ones) to break out of self-destructive behavior patterns. The love triangle of Oki's Movie, the doppelganger effects of The Day He Arrives, and the cross-cultural complications of In Another Country are all potent examples of the versatility of Hong's method. The nominal subject matter of each may be similar, but the moods, effects, and ultimate lasting impressions couldn't be more thrillingly varied.
4. A Simple Life (Ann Hui)
Veteran Hong Kong director Hui has in recent years been making some of the finest films of her career (The Way We Are, Night and Fog), and her latest joins that illustrious company. A Simple Life would make an interesting double bill with Amour, as it too deals with the devastating effects of physical and mental decline. Though it is as bracingly unsentimental as Amour, A Simple Life has a warmer humanistic embrace, due to Hui's uncommon gifts of patient observation, and the wonderfully lived-in performances of Deanie Ip and Andy Lau.
3. Planet of Snail (Yi Seung-jun)
The year's most beautiful cinematic love story comes from a most unexpected place, in this Korean documentary observing the lives of a married couple - the man is deaf and blind, the woman has a growth-stunting spinal disability. Look elsewhere for mawkish sentiment; instead, the viewer is drawn into, and fully embraced by, the fascinating world they have created around themselves, one filled with humor and a sense of wonder. The delicate beauty of Yi's filmmaking ennobles its subjects and creates a singularly sublime experience.
2. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky)
"What is this darkness?" a young woman asks her father in a late scene in Tarr's masterpiece, as the apocalyptic mood that has been building over the last two hours-plus becomes visually literalized. Bleak doesn't even begin to describe this astonishing work, the apotheosis of a truly singular cinematic aesthetic and worldview, which The Turin Horse puts an emphatic period on, as Tarr has decreed this to be his final film. The deliberately repetitive despair here is paradoxically exhilarating, due to the sheer artistry on display, the result of Tarr's strong vision and his equally brilliant collaborators; Fred Kelemen's exquisite black-and-white cinematography and Mihaly Vig's mournful yet grandly romantic score contribute greatly to making The Turin Horse nothing less than a modern classic.
1. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
I knew Holy Motors was the film of the year for me almost from the moment I laid eyes on it during the New York Film Festival, and a subsequent second viewing only confirmed this. In fact, it almost ruined filmgoing for me for the rest of the year; next to this, all other movies seemed impossibly staid, conservative, and boring. Carax makes a grand return to features with this astonishing, unclassifiable shape-shifter creation, one that both eulogizes and celebrates cinema. Among its countless other virtues, Holy Motors is also a grand showcase for the chameleonic, acrobatic and fearless actor Denis Lavant, who equally amazes along with his director. My great hope is that the love showered on this film, here at ScreenAnarchy and many other outlets, will make the wait for the next Leos Carax feature much shorter than the 13 years between Pola X and this sublime masterwork.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
(Chantal Akerman); Argo
(Ben Affleck); Attenberg
(Athina Rachel Tsangari); Beware of Mr. Baker
(Jay Bulger); Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story
(Raymond De Felitta); The Central Park Five
(Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon); Doomsday Book
(Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung); Django Unchained
(Quentin Tarantino); For Ellen
(So Yong Kim) (review
); Found Memories
(Julia Murat); Francine
(Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky) (review
); Girl Walk // All Day
(Jacob Krupnick) (review
(Byun Young-joo) (review
); Keep the Lights On
(Ira Sachs); Las Acacias
(Pablo Giorgelli); Lincoln
(Steven Spielberg); Marley
(Kevin Macdonald); Middle of Nowhere
(Ava DuVernay); Moonrise Kingdom
(Wes Anderson); Neighboring Sounds
(Kleber Mendonca Filho); Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan); Post Mortem
(Pablo Larrain); The Raid
(Gareth Evans); Rust and Bone
(Jacques Audiard); Searching for Sugar Man
(Malik Bendjelloul); Seddiq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow
(Wei Te-sheng); Silver Linings Playbook
(David O. Russell); Skyfall
(Sam Mendes); Tatsumi
(Eric Khoo); This Is Not a Film
(Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb); Wuthering Heights
Best Undistributed Films of 2012
1. Memories Look at Me (Song Fang)
Song's elegantly made debut feature is a moving tribute to the past and the loved ones who have departed from us. (Read my review here
2. Postcards from the Zoo (Edwin)
Set mostly in a Jakarta zoo, Edwin's second feature is a dreamy, magical concoction that sensitively examines members of the animal kingdom, human and non-human alike.
3. Romance Joe (Lee Kwang-kuk)
This intricate Chinese box of narratives-within-narratives is extremely witty and highly accessible.
4. Stateless Things (Kim Kyung-mook)
Kim's boldly experimental feature is a unique and formally audacious look at Seoul's disenfranchised and marginalized. (Read my review here
5. About the Pink Sky (Keiichi Kobayashi)
Shot in luminous, silvery monochrome, Kobayashi's debut feature transcends its self-consciously quirky premise to become a quite astute portrait of aimless youth.
6. The Legend of Kaspar Hauser (Davide Manuli)
This Italian production re-envisions the story made famous by Werner Herzog as a black-and-white retro-futuristic head-trip with pulse-pounding dance music, spaceships, and a dual performance by Vincent Gallo as out-there as the film that barely contains him.
7. Young Gun in the Time (Oh Young-doo)
Raymond Chandler meets Back to the Future meets Seijun Suzuki in this inventive micro-budgeted detective story that confirms the remarkable talent and resourcefulness of its young director.
8. Goodbye (Mohammad Rasoulof)
As befits a filmmaker who was jailed along with fellow director Jafar Panahi, Goodbye depicts Iran as an open-air prison from which many seek escape; this semi-secret production is as elegantly made as it is deeply chilling.
9. Barbie and Fire in Hell (Lee Sang-woo)
Kim Ki-duk disciple Lee confirmed himself to be a prodigious talent in his own right with these two provocative features: Barbie, a caustic, take-no-prisoners examination of overseas adoption and US-Korea relations; and Fire in Hell, a tale of a Buddhist monk that resembles what Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring would look like if David Lynch had remade it.
10. Final Cut - Ladies and Gentlemen (Gyorgy Palfi)
Palfi's epic mash-up of 118 years of cinema history boils movies down to their essence: a grand love story as compelling and moving as it is ingeniously constructed.
Honorable Undistributed Mentions (in alphabetical order):
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
(Adam Curtis); Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley
(Ji Ha-Jean); Breathing
(Karl Markovics); Bwakaw
(Jun Robles Lana); Everybody in Our Family
(Radu Jude) (review
); A Film for Friends
(Radu Jude); Jesus Hospital
(Lee Sang-cheol and Shin A-ga) (review
(Shinya Tsukamoto); Love Strikes!
(Hitoshi One); Mirage
(Yang Jeong-ho); Pink
(Jeon Soo-il); Porfirio
(Alejandro Landes); Potechi (Chips)
(Yoshihiro Nakamura) (review
(Katsuhito Ishii); You Are the Apple of My Eye