When attempting to assemble a list of the ten best films of 2012, I realized that, while a great year for foreign cinema, the year overall was incredibly underwhelming. Even if you don’t compare the year to 2011 (one of the greatest years for film in years) it still seems slim. Sure, there were a couple of greats sprinkled throughout those long twelve months, but not the kind of greats one would expect to top a year-end list. Every time I would sit down in the theater during Oscar season, I was hoping that this film, whatever it was, would be the film to improve the year – and more often than not, I came out of the theater disappointed, underwhelmed, or, in one particular case, furious (okay, so maybe I wasn’t seething with anger when I walked out of Les Miserables.)
It’s amusing to look at my ‘most anticipated of 2012‘ list now. One film was delayed to 2013, one film delivered - albeit, in ways I wasn’t quite expecting, and the rest just left me underwhelmed, from varying degrees. Most of the films that ended up on my list were films that, as always with these end-of-year lists, snuck up on me. Truth be told, the last two entries were kind of tossed on. I had to think of which films could fill in the gaps, and these two, while very good, didn’t strike on an initial watch as films I’d be talking about now. I suppose that says something about how grim of a year I thought this really was. All complaining aside, let’s get onto the list.
10. ParaNorman (dir. Chris Butler, Sam Fell)
For the second year in a row, Pixar’s recent outing doesn’t end up as one of my year-end favorites. Instead, I get a film that snuck up on me entirely with more creativity, delight, and just all-out fun than any other animated picture. I’m usually not won over by claymation films; it’s not so much the animation itself as it’s the material imbedded within it. This was a film that paid homage to a great deal of horror films while still managing to stand on its own with an admirable – although not entirely original – thematic concern.
9. Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin)
William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is politically incorrect, morally frustrating, and sometimes just cringe-worthy – but I’ll be damned if it’s not a daring piece of cinema. The film went into places that I was not expecting (I don’t think anyone could have claimed they did, unless if they were familiar with the material), and I couldn’t help but grin at the absurdity that was taking place in the final ten minutes. All of these strengths should be bestowed upon one person: Matthew McConaughey. An actor that is known for his accent and ability to not keep his shirt on delivers an impressively nuanced performance. I’ll never think of KFC the same way again.
8. Elena (dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)
While it may lack the compelling narrative of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003), it makes up for it with a strong lead performance, and a final shot that packs a hefty punch. Just like The Return, the film tends to focus on mundane activities, almost entirely of static shots with little to no editing. It builds and builds, until it reaches a point where you’re so absorbed with the material that you know what’s going to happen but hope it doesn’t. I can’t claim that I understood its cultural undertones because, well, I’m not Russian. That’s besides the point, though. There’s enough to gain for one to consider it worthwhile.
7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
This makes Elena‘s minimalism seem amateurish. This is a film that takes its time with everything – and I mean everything. One could easily claim that this material could have been done within the realm of 90 minutes, and they would be right – but then the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. For its snail-like pace and left-and-right detours, it still never manages to build up to a grandiose final act one would expect. It leaves us with a revelation that we must ponder.
6. This is Not a Film (dir. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi)
The premise is simple: A director, Jafar Panahi, is confined to house arrest while he awaits the verdict by the appeals court. While confined to his house, a friend of his documents his nearly every move over the course of the day. What we get from this situation is the psychological study of what a director truly is. Because Panahi is unable by law to film anything, we’re left with an artist stripped away from his passion. It’s fascinating to witness. It’s almost as if Panahi, no matter his limitations, can only view reality in some cinematic way – which makes the situation all the more heartbreaking.
5. The Kid With a Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
The Dardenne’s The Kid With a Bike is a film that works wonderfully just from its simplicity. It manages to elicit emotions out of the simplest story. You expect the film to go in directions of melodrama, but it never does. The Dardenne’s are aware of this. They are aware of how this story would play out. It earns every beat without being manipulative.
4. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has the commonality with the rest of his films (There Will Be Blood being the exception): it centers on a protagonist trying to make a connection. Yet besides a similar theme, the film manages to set itself apart from the rest of Anderson’s work by being surprisingly dense. It isn’t a rewarding film by any means; the last couple of scenes are ambiguous to say the least. It’s a film that begs for repeated viewings, and even more-so, begs for close examination of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, who gives what is undoubtedly the finest performance of the year.)
3. Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax)
Abstract to its core, Leox Carax’s Holy Motors is an enigma. An enigma that leaves very little room for answers. It’s a film that defines cinema; going through the very nature of genre, creativity, acting, and technology. It’s about what cinema is and what it isn’t. Is it hinting at the death of cinema? Is it merely trying to breathe life into cinema? It very well may be both. It will frustrate, make you hum a little tune, offer a deal of pathos – sometimes all at the same time. It’s one of the most refreshing films in quite some time. Showcasing a filmmaker being as creative as he can be, and that’s something to be admired.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
The best directed film of the year is a film that mostly relies on procedural-esque dialogue. As incredible as the sudden moments of action and the raid are, I find the film to be most compelling when it focuses on the actual investigation. It’s all paced perfectly, from the constant frustration and dead-ends to a final shot that sums of the film in a nutshell. The narrative is held together by Maya (the incredible Jessica Chastain), a woman that has only one person in mind. Ignore the overblown controversy and focus on the masterful filmmaking at hand.
1. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)
I debated around for a bit if Zero Dark Thirty deserved this position. I fully acknowledge that, for the most part, it is a better piece of filmmaking. My heart, however, can’t help but lean heavily towards Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a film that I can say I truly love. Anderson’s idiosyncrasies mesh with the material perfectly. None of it comes off awkward or stiff, like Anderson’s outings tend to be (as of late, at least.) The focus on two lovestruck pre-teens brings a deal of heart that is almost overwhelming, as does the choice of handheld. It brings us back to a time that anyone can relate to, except it goes past the point that every child pondered, into directions that only Anderson could imagine.
There we go. Maybe I’ll stumble upon a couple of other 2012 films that will shape this list into something greater than it should be (Tabu perhaps?) We shall see.