The Best Films of 2012

It’s been three years since I re-started my film criticism career, and 2012 was no doubt the most difficult. Life changes, new responsibilities, and my first professional pink slip made me appreciate the highs of previous years all the more. Honestly, I’m happy 2012 is in the bag and excited for 2013.

It’s been a year of transition and frustration, new found love and wisdom, plus a lot of really good films. Here are my favorites.

This is not a film

1. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

I don’t think I can say it any better than I did in the fall of 2011. So, here you go.

Under house arrest and awaiting a verdict on his appeal from Iran’s supreme court, filmmaker Jafar Panahi spends much of This Is Not a Film remaking, rethinking, and reconstructing his Tehran apartment as a sandbox of cinema. Despite his isolation and self-doubt, every frame becomes a wondrous opportunity for expression, each corner of Panahi’s posh prison cell a mental trap door from his stifling physical entrapment. Panahi’s equipment is expectantly bare boned, consisting of only a PD-150 digital video camera, a smart phone, and some gaffer’s tape used to create spatial designs on the floor. Walls of natural light flood in from the world outside, often illuminating the empty spaces of Panahi’s rooms with a certain unexpected grace. Throughout the film’s tight 75-minute running time, Panahi perfectly captures the haunting illusion of time, how moments of reflection and fear can seamlessly overlap with the mundane, moment-to-moment process of waiting for one’s fate.

As Panahi sits in his penthouse answering calls from lawyers, feeding his pet iguana named Igi, and revisiting previous films like The Mirror and Crimson Gold, fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb charts his every move. The two friends banter back and forth, even hilariously arguing at times about who’s really directing this film. Like the act of filming itself, their camaraderie feels like an act of resistance. In terms of sound design, Panahi and Mirtahmasb simply shoot long enough to hear the loud cracks of gunfire (and later fireworks) from the chaotic streets below, expanding their restrained and limited location in horrific ways. This Is Not a Film ends in one final long take that snakes through an elevator and into a fiery darkness. For a moment, this masterpiece aching with expected pain and unexpected laughter opens up to the world, finalizing a portrait of an artist subtly rattling his cage with class, wit, and mise-en-scène. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Panahi still breathes, laughs, creates, and shoots. Considering the deeply saddening circumstances of This Is Not a Film, each is an act of celebration and defiance, something akin to a miracle.

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2. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA)

I’m planning something big on this film, but those thoughts will have to wait for a second (and third) viewing. So here’s my initial reaction reprinted here from Letterboxd.

The intimate scale of obsession at odds with the epic weight of offscreen space/action/loss. Bigelow’s key themes (professionalism, impotency, addiction) stretched, drawn and quartered, pushed to their breaking point within an expansive procedural with a fascinating lead serpent (Chastain) who becomes a perfect metaphor for exhausted, depleted, yet determined nationalism. The American film of the year.

The Turin Horse

3. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary)

A massive achievement. Here’s my final graph from the review I wrote in 2011.

Instead of culminating in a “make or break” scenario, The Turin Horse confirms the steady recycling of both pain and beauty in its staggeringly sudden final shot. No matter the location, time always moves forward, and for better or worse, so do we. Even when the daily toil wears down knuckles to the bone, or breaks whatever spirit remains, something more always awaits us; another shot of vodka, another chance occurrence with gypsies, another surprise meeting with a philosophical neighbor. These are life’s contradictions and oddities, and whether or not we want to embrace them speaks to our relationship with cinema, religion, and all the small issues of faith in between. Tarr and Hranitzky value the art of sacrifice above all other things, vividly sharing their own so that their audience may respect and consider the sublime process of living in a new way.

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4. Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico)

Maybe the most frightening action film I’ve ever seen. Ghostly and still very pertinent. My opening graph from Cannes 2011.

Much like the Bolsheviks and Czarists battling in Miklos Jansco’s harrowing The Red and the White, Gerardo Naranjo makes the often-faceless Tijuana police and brutal criminal syndicate sound ideologically identical in his harrowing formalist assault Miss Bala. The long take plays a crucial role in establishing the infinite possibilities of violence and death in any one given moment, and Naranjo sees the overlapping patterns of off-screen sound as audible meat grinders crushing any potential hope for innocent characters in distress. This rigorously cyclical aesthetic is experienced through the eyes of 23-year-old Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a young woman who gets plunged into an ongoing hell after witnessing a brutal massacre of D.E.A. agents at a south-of-the-border nightclub. After her initial exposure to this underworld of professional killers, Laura spends the rest of the film trying to regain her sense of freedom. Even when she momentarily escapes the stranglehold of either the overbearing cops or ruthless killers, she’s instantly recaptured, as if both groups wield a menacing omniscient quality no one can ever escape.

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5. The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Pure bliss, repeated. Here’s an excerpt from Cannes 2011.

Hong Sang-soo’s sublime cinematic stroll from the city, The Day He Arrives, is shot in murky black and white and traverses an open-air spectrum of repeating nuances, locations, and dialogue in charming ways. The small groups of characters, including mildly famous film director Sungjoon (Yu Jun-sang), who’s visiting an old friend in Seoul, graze on the coincidences and human fallibilities defining their overlapping mental quirks. Together, they’re like lost sheep roaming the urban academic landscape for a shepherd.

The typical Hong plot points and obsessions consistently appear: talky anecdotes, extreme social drinking, male fragility, and female loneliness. So why does The Day He Arrives feel so genuine and sad where some of the director’s other film’s come across as pedantic and shallow? Here, Hong is less concerned with the potency of his character’s pain and more with the extended duration, the longing inherent to the process. This ends up making all the difference. He measures the repeating stories and mistakes with an attention to overlapping time, giving each personal moment of déjà vu a hazy importance.

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6. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, U.K.)

Melancholy of the heart and soul. Here’s the final graph pulled from my SD.com review.

The Deep Blue Sea handles melodrama unlike any other recent film, giving the dramatic crescendos a certain restraint and the emotional minutia a specific gravitas. Taking this into consideration, Davies’s film feels like a spiritual cousin to Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece, In the Mood For Love, another swooning, spinning, and slow dancing romance tragedy burning with unrequited love. Late in The Deep Blue Sea, during one of the couple’s final arguments, Freddie laments Hestor’s extreme description of their breakup: “Tragedy is too big a word.” In a way, he’s absolutely right. But that doesn’t make Hestor’s hollowness and disappointment any less poignant, not only for the character herself but those in the audience who’ve felt the same knotted stomach when a once perfect couple ends for good.

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7. Whores’ Glory (Michael Glawogger, Germany/Austria)

More to come, but this was my Letterboxd entry:

The world’s oldest profession: necessity, survival, squalor, economics, rage, jealousy, globalization, cycles, age. A major achievement.

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8. Barbara (Christian Petzold, Germany)

From my Little White Lies review:

Without relying on explicit plot exposition, Petzold reveals Barbara’s moral nuances through shifts in her facial expressions, mostly during closed off moments to which only the viewer is privy. Watching as Barbara’s emotional façade – constructed to protect her from self-indictment – begins to crumble makes for stunning and restrained cinema.

Her attraction to a fellow doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld) only complicates this process, but it’s Barbara’s time spent with ailing patients that ultimately proves to be the greatest test for her cold persona and moral plight.

Though Barbara’s situation creates numerous opportunities for riffs on classic genre situations (in particular interrogation and chase sequences), Petzold resists sensationalising his character’s mostly interior arc. Barbara envisions a complex human situation left unfinished, still ripe with possibility and nuance.

Finally, Petzold suggests that there is no escaping one’s natural place in the world, whether you’re helping the weak from inside the communist juggernaut or cherishing an emotional connection with someone who can’t keep their eyes off you. Both are simply different shades of humanity trying to survive.

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9. Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick, USA)

From my Slant capsule, Top 25 Films of 2012.

Like any true descendant of Buster Keaton, the Girl (Anne Marsen) wears discomfort badly. She enters a stiff ballet class in the early moments of Jacob Krupnick’s rapturous Girl Walk // All Day and her young dancer’s face instantly expresses a recognizable awkwardness when asked to perform “graceful” movements. Then, something magical happens: her insecurity breeds inspiration, the black-and-white visuals immediately colorize, the banal ambient soundtrack is overwhelmed by a tidal wave of mash-ups, and the Girl starts dancing to her own primitive beat. As she and two other grooving archetypes dance their way through the busy New York City streets, they use landscape and location to propel themselves forward, backward, upward, and downward toward some unknowable goal. It’s as if their mere presence turns everyday life into a playful block party. On the surface, Kurpnick’s nearly dialogue-less film could be labeled as a feature-length music video for Girl Talk’s All Day. But it’s so much more. By engaging the world at large with different art forms in such a seamless, joyous, and publicly improvisational way, Girl Walk // All Day becomes a musical of the people, by the people, for the people, a new kind of city symphony.

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10. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) & It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Herztfeldt, USA)

I can’t choose between either of these marvels.

On Anatolia: What are fairy tales if not elaborate distractions from monotony, epic lies we tell ourselves to pass the time and re-shape human nature’s darker complexities into something digestible? Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s haunting Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a police procedural about the procedures of miscommunication, understands both the resonance and fragility of this idea. Throughout the film’s lengthy running time, Ceylan contemplates the sudden collision of fantasy and reality within a world mired in delays. He creates a meandering breadcrumb trail of memories, gossip, distractions, and disagreements, all of which feed like a river into a subjective vision of a story meant to process what cannot be processed.

On Beautiful Day: Staggering. THE TREE OF LIFE of animation.

Honorable Mentions: Perfect Sense, Burn, Tabu, Oslo 31 August, Django Unchained, Post Mortem, Two Years at Sea, The Kid With a Bike, Not Fade Away, Haywire.

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4 thoughts on “The Best Films of 2012

  1. I am so delighted to see films like Haywire, The Kid WIth a Bike, and especially Perfect Sense in your list! Miss Bala — not so much. But for all of us, there is simply no accounting for taste, and since we don’t know the ins and outs of each other’s character all that well, how can we really know — whatever we might consciously say about the films — why, unconsciously, certain films are there?
    Anyway, keep up the good work!

    Didn’t know about the pink slip. Sorry. That’s probably the ONLY good thing about working for oneself and for no money: At least only you can fire you!

  2. Thanks Jim! The pink slip came when SD.com was purchased and went away from publishing new content. A bummer, but not wholly unexpected. It was my first full-time critic gig, and I will always cherish it. Now, on to bigger and better things!

  3. Pingback: SDFCS Roundup #1: Top 10 Lists 2012

  4. HI, i just started taking some film history and Criticism classes at Palomar College, which is in San Marcos, and was just surfing the web looking for anything film related. I came across the SDFCS web page and clicked on your link for top 10. Loved the Selection, seemed well rounded with different genres, i havent seen most of the movies but now i plan too. Your descriptions were succinct and for that i thank you. Just added this to my favorites folder on my ToolBar. Thanks

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