This marks our first mid-year film list, showcasing our favorite movies of 2012 so far. When we first thought up creating this companion piece to our mid-year music list, we were worried about finding enough worthy films. But in the end, this year already has so many films we love that the real difficulty was narrowing it down. The Oregonian, Your Sister’s Sister, The Dictator, Patience (After Sebald), Polisse, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and The Observers all almost made the cut. Slippery film release dates also kept us from including films from 2011 (or, in the case of World on a Wire, 1973!), that didn’t see wide release until 2012 (Sleeping Beauty), just-released gems (Alps), and festival favorites that are still waiting for theatrical releases (Holy Motors). But enough about the almost-rans. Here’s our list, with new blurbs for two films that we didn’t have reviews for, and one new blurb for a film we initially panned. The rest are snippets from our reviews. While the list begins and ends with two (vastly different) versions of the apocalypse, for film, 2012 is anything but. –Benjamin Pearson
The Turin Horse
Dir. Béla Tarr
“Consisting of nothing more than increasingly apocalyptic yet overwhelmingly mundane days in the life of two destitute peasants, the plot of Béla Tarr’s latest film is about as barebones as it gets, even by his own imposingly glacial standards. Offering precious little in the way of action aside from a daily meal of a single potato, grueling slogs to the well, and the bellicose stasis of their horse, Tarr forces viewers to extract meaning from his formidable aesthetic techniques as a sort of compulsive reaction to the prodigiously overpowering boredom that quickly sets in once the realization is made that little else is going to be offered. Although his films are renowned for trying audiences’ patience through his reliance on extended takes and nearly-static images, The Turin Horse is perhaps the first to make refusing the audience’s desire for stimulation a central element. While Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour Sátántangó is leavened by a consistent use of black humor and the attention-piquing intrigues of film noir convention, The Turin Horse offers a plot that offers precious few entertainments outside of its interpretation. This dearth of traditional interest, however, becomes a distinct tool in the hands of Tarr, opening up new ways of viewing and interpreting, even within his body of work. The Turin Horse is dull to the extreme, yes, but its dullness is forced into becoming an asset.” [Full Review]
Dir. Everything is Terrible
“While the dogstravaganzas Marley & Me, Bolt, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua were all in Hollywood’s top-grossing films of 2008 (an exceptional vintage for the industry, obvs), nothing should feel timely about an adaptation of a 1970s cult film made out of 1990s videos about dogs. But Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez! couldn’t be more zeitgeisty in its digital decimation and recreation of the analog. The film’s total subjugation of seemingly all the dog-themed output of an entire medium (VHS) mirrors modernity’s total digitization of cultural artifacts into MP3s, Hulu streams, and Kindle downloads. But by training VHS dogs to emulate celluloid — the ancestral medium of the filmic — Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochies! diagrams analog-to-digital not as progress, but perhaps more accurately: as an endless feedback loop. That loop, as the film’s final scene (which one-ups the meta of The Holy Mountain’s fourth-wall breaking finale) illustrates, can be all-encompassing. Shit jokes and spirituality are the same meme.” [Full Review]
The Kid With a Bike
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
“The Dardennes are fanatically straightforward throughout the film — there is no complicated storytelling, and their characters simply say what they mean. In many ways, the film is simply an analytical study of growing up, a bildungsroman delivered in five neat little chapters, each with the same orchestral flourish (the film’s only non-diegetic sound) signaling its close. Despite this artifice, however, they’ve managed to construct an honest, powerful examination of adolescence at its most vulnerable. [The film’s protagonist] Cyril is frightened and friendless, and watching him approach his peers is fascinating. He falls in with troublemakers, but [actor] Doret does a shockingly masterful job of showcasing the moral battle within Cyril as he drifts between his guilt and the inevitable lure of community. The neatest analog for Cyril is Truffaut’s youngest version of Antoine Doinel. But where Truffaut wanted rebellion, the Dardennes want only comfort and healthy growth for their troubled lad. […] With The Kid With a Bike, the Dardenne brothers have delivered an elegant film, one about a child’s first encounters with both abandonment and acceptance, a story of trust lost and regained. They have wrung flawless performances from both their stars and have managed to tell their story within the microcosm of a simple Belgian village. Watching Cyril shift from little terror to promising youth is eminently joyful. Cyril’s adventures are simple, powerful, and moving.” [Full Review]
Dir. Wes Anderson
In Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson plunges the audience into a world of mannered quirkiness, and the film’s detractors (including us, in our review) may roll their eyes at the familiar style. The opening credits look hand-written, the camera pans left or right with unwavering steadiness, and the clothes are bespoke. But the repeated tropes are hardly a crutch for Anderson: Moonrise Kingdom is his most focused work yet. Still, the best thing about it is how it never condescends to children, whether in the audience or onscreen. It can be funny when a group of preteens hatch escape plans or prepare for battle, but what matters is how they never seem like they’re in on the joke. As with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director seems to understand children better than they understand themselves. Precocious kids will see themselves as they watch Moonrise Kingdom; older audiences will remember what it was like to feel like them. It’s a strange miracle how Anderson evokes our most awkward years and has us laugh, not cringe.
Dir. Asghar Farhadi
[Sony Pictures Classics]
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has called his Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner A Separation a “detective movie where the audience is the detective.” While you can see where he’s coming from, it’s a hopelessly ineffective way to describe his latest. Maybe it’s simply the film’s piercing emotional directness that prompted so deceptively prosaic a description. A Separation revolves around a death, a divorce proceeding, and the reconstruction of a mysterious incident, but nowhere does it ask the audience to act the part of a rumpled J.J. Gittes-type sleuth — there’s no digging though some wealthy family’s dirty laundry here. Moving in long, emotionally-draining scenes where quiet talk leads inexorably to violent screams before settling into stilted regret, Farhadi watches his actors suffer through these vicissitudes with handheld camerawork that never shies away from their faces. This stylistic and emotional directness serves as ballast to the circuitous unfolding of the story and the audience’s constantly-shifting epistemology. It’s a film of awesome performances and gnawing emotional baggage.
Dir. Markus Schleinzer
Austrian Markus Schleinzer’s directorial debut follows five months in the life of a titular pedophile who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in the basement of his suburban home, but it’s not the film’s implied sexual brutality that unnerves so much as its richly rendered approximations of domesticity. An argument over a dinner of pan-fried meat, an evening decorating a Christmas tree, hours assembling a jigsaw puzzle, the child-friendly décor of the tightly-locked bunker — under Schleinzer’s clinically precise lens, the mundanity of these nearly-normal details occupies the places usually reserved for the judgment of the deviance from which they’ve sprung. Pedophilia defines Michael, but only because without it he’s entirely unremarkable, too realistically dull to even be a caricature. Incredibly, though, it never defines the film. Schleinzer’s created one of cinema’s most nuanced, complex portraits of a child molester, but in doing so, he’s dispassionately unraveled the very taboo he started with. What’s left is both more familiar and more chilling: relationships, family.
Your brother. Remember?
Dir. Zachary Oberzan
“In his latest ultra-low-budget feature, Zachary Oberzan has undertaken a sort of microcosmic and deeply personal Up series examining brotherhood, memory, time, and loss — as well as both the cultural significance of Jean Claude Van Damme’s riveting performance in Kickboxer and the 1978 cult classic trashfest Faces of Death. Originally a mixed-media theater piece, Your brother. Remember? is a film that’s been 20 years in the making. It’s also one of the greatest uses of a medium to parse both itself and its maker that I’m aware of. Blending joyous humor with weary regret and contrasting hilariously ludicrous action with crushing emotional paralysis, Oberzan has created something genuinely sui generis and thoroughly entertaining. Once again, this fearless director has transcended monetary and technical limitations to rouse his audience.” [Full Review]