2012: Favorite 30 Films of 2012

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

Let’s all just admit that 2012 started to get a little weird towards the end. At least Stateside, anyway. There was all that unpleasant political stuff going on; somehow rape became a gift and then it was bad again; and there was that inclement weather along the East Coast that totally had nothing to do with man-made climate change. Amid all this socialecological turmoil, we shouldn’t blame you for missing some pretty big news in the world of cinema. But we will, anyway.

After all, this year we said goodbye to one controversial auteur (Béla Tarr) and adopted a different personal pronoun for another (Lana Wachowski). Whit Stillman finally made another film after a nearly 15-year hiatus (Damsels In Distres), brilliantly showcasing the talent of Generation Me’s answer to Chloë Sevigny (Greta Gerwig). Plus, any year that a Zachary Oberzan film comes out (Your brother. Remember?) is a good year for movies. Thankfully, all that Mayan apocalypse dreck ran its course a couple years ago, leaving room for some more rarefied grapplings with the end of all things (Tarr’s number-one stunner, The Turin Horse). And all that IRL political stuff we mentioned earlier? Not nearly as troubling as 5 Broken Cameras or This Is Not A Film, movies that managed so brilliantly to elucidate the very real human loss of geopolitical conflict.

But what really blew us away this year weren’t the super-good films that defied convention or made grand political statements. Instead, we were left with our mouths agape by films helmed by auteurs confident enough to be okay simply ignoring convention, never feeling the need to prove anything outside the piece of work at hand, some of which were at ease merely reveling in the sheer virtuosity of their principal actors’ performances (The Master). Oh, and Béla, you’ll be missed.

30. 5 Broken Cameras
Dir. Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi

[Kino Lorber]

In a just world, 5 Broken Cameras (TMT Review) would be shown in classrooms and recommended to the general audiences rather than strictly remaining in the hands of critics and political activists. But, as evidenced by this polemical (and understandably partisan) documentary, we are divided by ideologies and borders that are caught in a cycle of being constructed, destroyed, and rebuilt despite our noble protests. Justice is an ideal, not always a shared commodity. We witnessed this illusion through Emad Burnat’s shaky lenses, again and again and again. We watched the citizens of a Palestinian village on the West Bank as they peacefully stood their ground every week for five years, while settlements rose in place of their burned and uprooted olive trees. They were pummeled by rubber bullets and choked on teargas. When Hummers rolled through their chalky streets, the community rallied and held firm, stoking the ire of the police and drawing in the riot squads. But 5 Broken Cameras was more than a portrait of power relations. It was an autobiographical statement of the domestic costs of conflict that asked us to consider those who will inherit the land and those who will be banished from it.

29. The Day He Arrives
Dir. Hong Sang-soo

[Cinema Guild]

Why do we repeatedly reenact the unpleasant experiences of our lives? What lies behind our compulsion to repeat what Freud described as the obscure motivations that go beyond the pleasure principle? The Day He Arrives (TMT Review) seemed to take its inspiration from these questions. In the movie, a cinema director (Sungjoon) returned to Seoul to meet up with an old friend, and from then on, they performed the same routine every night: go to the bar with a lady friend, with Sungjoon noticing how the barmaid resembles his former girlfriend. The actions of each night seemed to not have any effect on the next, and only slight variations occurred each time. In this anti-Groundhog Day scenario, there was no resolution in sight, no way out of our self-imposed vicious circles. Sang-soo is not known for his subtlety, and the message here was clear: we are doomed to forget our mistakes, to forever attempt to derive pleasure from the inevitably frustrating repetition compulsion.

28. Abendland
Dir. Nikolaus Geyrhalter

[Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion]

Over the last decade, Austrian filmmakers such as Ulrich Seidl (Tierische Liebe), Michael Gottwald (Workingman’s Death), and Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Unser Täglich Brot) have been quietly developing a form of documentary that’s fast becoming one of the most innovative and incisive styles of contemporary filmmaking, built around withholding explanatory voice-over and carefully staged shots and scenes that rest in an uneasy space between cinema verité and art-house fiction filmmaking. This method has found its masterpiece in Geyrhalter’s deliriously complex yet utterly straightforward Abendland (TMT Review). Taking images culled exclusively from Europe at night as its material — CCTV, rave, childbirth, Oktoberfest, police training, sex work, UN meeting, etc. — Abendland took Europe’s spaces and spatial relations as its raw material/content/media rather than its citizens. Geyrhalter remains a master of the evocative shot, and thus the spaces remained real spaces with real humans in them, rendered with crystalline clarity, sometimes crushingly sad or quietly funny. But form and superstructure superseded the film’s human subjects in all technical aspects. A lurid attempt at subjugating a filmmaker’s perspective to that of nationalism/socialism/capitalism, the viewer’s eye became that of capital itself. Neither a simple retread of the 1950s’ “direct cinema” nor an “essay film,” Abendland made the far bolder step of performing a simple reframing, of calmly shifting our eye. No message, just endless content. No narrative, just endless situations. Far-reaching, damning, and completely gorgeous by its own rules, Abendland was one of the finest documentaries of the year.

27. Alps
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

[Kino Lorber]

Almost the inverse of his previous film Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ equally unsettling Alps (TMT Review) concerned itself with a character running towards a fictional existence, rather than away from one. A socially isolated nurse living with her aging father joined a secret group calling itself “Alps,” which hired its members out as temporary replacements for people’s recently deceased loved ones as a stop-gap coping mechanism to ease them into the grieving process. As the protagonist sank deeper into her fictional identities, the line between her real life and her false lives began to blur. The potential for trite Hollywoodisms in such a story was ripe, but that’s not the director we were dealing with. Instead, the spiral into neurosis was handled with quiet reserve and a calm, almost passionless lens. Lanthimos himself might see Alps as the thematic opposite of Dogtooth, but we recognized a stark tonal similarity wrapped up in wan imagery, emotional disconnect, and abrupt, gut-wrenching violence, both physical and emotional. The uneasy marriage of the slapstick and the bleak may become his hallmark.

26. The Loneliest Planet
Dir. Julia Loktev

[IFC Films]

Our romantic relationships require constant adjustment and calibration. Depending on the timing, a simple touch on your lover’s shoulder could lead to comfort or flared anger. The Loneliest Planet, (TMT Review) the quietly moving drama from director Julia Loktev, examined these moments with dispassionate interest. She didn’t give much detail about the lives of Nica and Alex, the couple who hiked through the Caucasus Mountains with Dato, their guide. They were happy when their journey began, particularly when they fucked with messy joy in their tent. A pattern developed: first we followed the hikers closely, then there were languid shots where Loktev filmed them from a distance so we could better appreciate the stark beauty of the mountains (the space between the hikers was a subtle sign about how their relationships shift). Her patient, hyper-realistic filmmaking reached its peak during a jarring sequence of suspense, in which Alex’s poor reflexes put their relationship in a tailspin. We never heard them talk about what happened; Loktev had them heal in restrained, lateral ways. In a year where the biggest films assaulted audiences with incident The Loneliest Planet stripped away conventional narrative, but its message was plain to see for those patient enough to look.

25. Neighboring Sounds
Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho

[Cinema Guild]

No film this year subverted my expectations quite like Neighboring Sounds (TMT Review), the phenomenal first feature by Brazilian critic-turned-director Kleber Mendonça Filho. With its “interlocking stories”-style narrative and overarching theme of class resentment, it was the kind of film that, at least on paper, might seem indistinguishable from others that made their way around the international festival circuit. Even the vague title suggested a lesser work. But after just several minutes, once it had become apparent just how crucial a role “sound” actually played into the film’s framework, I was utterly transfixed by the uncanny, bewitching atmosphere. Neighboring Sounds never exactly thrilled; it hummed, buzzed, whirred, and throbbed. Filho has a real knack for investing the most mundane of circumstances with humor and intrigue, as even a tenant meeting achieved a sort of mesmerizing absurdist quality. That’s the kind of filmmaking gift that doesn’t come around as often as you’d think. More than a merely auspicious debut, Neighboring Sounds, in its wholly unique way, was as fine a portrait of contemporary Brazil as we’ve seen to date.

24. Bernie
Dir. Richard Linklater

[Mandalay Entertainment Group]

Based on a Texas Monthly article by the great true crime journalist Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the movie with that essentially Texan filmmaker Richard Linklater, Bernie (TMT Review) might be the most quotidian murder story ever put onto (independent) film. It was made for just $6 million, yet stars three major actors (two currently popular, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey; one former starlet, Shirley MacLaine), and though it has the ostensible characteristics of a crime drama — vague waftings of some mid-80s In the Heat of the Night rerun permeate the plot — it was this year’s most sympathetic portrait of small-town America, where social life revolves around equal parts church and gossip. Bernie Tiede (Black) was an unflappably affable mortician in Carthage, Texas whose genuine concern for the well-being of everyone around him couldn’t have been better contrasted than against the cruel cantankerousness of MacLaine’s Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy widow whom Bernie befriended, served, and, against every natural tendency in his body, coldly killed and then stuffed into a deep freeze. The movie was a mixture of the kind of matter-of-fact black-humor that Black does best when working with Linklater (an actor’s director if one exists in America today) and interviews with actual Carthage residents, who knew the real Bernie Tiede. Bernie was so perfectly, effortlessly common that it very nearly justified murder.

23. Planet of Snail
Dir. Yi Seung-jun

[Kino Lorber]

I’ve only watched Planet of Snail (TMT Review) without English subtitles. I’ve only watched it in (if it can even be said) its native tongue. So, the last time I watched the film, I made a list of things for which subtitles serve no meaningful function, anyway: the private language of hands, patience, the disappearance and reappearance of sunlight, sand entombing a body, the sound of waves, gentleness, missing teeth, the distance between bodies, loneliness, wedding rings, aiming in the dark (or is it light?), giggling, a shared meal, impressions of bark, frustration, a pinecone. The list goes on. It goes on and spirals into itself, until it breaks off into nothing at some unseen point. I’ve had to look up small details to fill in the gaps (names, mostly). Often, they seemed irrelevant. In his wonderful review, Tim Terhaar talks briefly about our prioritization of the visual, our conceptual reliance upon it, and the way in which we confuse its weaknesses as advantages. Yes, it absolutely helps to have both height and sight while changing a lightbulb, but that only gets you so far. For example, it was the unblind woman who ran into the deafblind Young-Chan, not the other way around.

22. Amour
Dir. Michael Haneke

[Sony Pictures Classics]

Anne and Georges, the elderly subjects of Michael Haneke’s Amour, were mostly happy when the film began. They attended a concert, and Georges surprised Anne with a genuine compliment after returning home. Then something strange happened to Anne — she had a stroke but didn’t know it — and the connection between the couple temporarily severed. From there onward, Haneke regarded Georges and Anne with brutal precision. He showed us the difficult, matter-of-fact indignities of caring for someone after their body fails them. Anne fought to preserve her beloved independence, and it was wrenching to watch her acquiesce to death. Initially, Haneke’s camera glided through the couple’s posh Paris apartment, giving an airy sense of space. But in the closing scenes, the walls felt like prison bars. There was no world for Georges beyond Anne, whose life had become an unknowable nightmare. While Amour was disturbing and tragic material, Haneke’s compassion for the couple mirrored what Georges felt for Anne. He was determined to show how love, not romance, ekes through the atrophy and the shit. He also reminded us that, while love conquers all, the messy battle is not for the squeamish.

21. Prometheus
Dir. Ridley Scott

[20th Century Fox]

Ridley Scott’s long-awaited re-entry into the Alien universe was easily his most ambitious to date and by far his most visually striking. Criticized by some due to an ostensibly confusing and muddled plot, narrative ambiguity suited Prometheus (TMT Review) well, engrossing viewers with a terrifying journey into the unknown, as a party composed of scientists and members of a shady corporate enterprise (as well as the inevitable android, magnificently played by Michael Fassbender) traveled across the galaxy seeking an answer to the ultimate question: Why do we exist? The fact that Ridley Scott purposely denied an answer to such a question (during one of the most disconcerting scenes of the year) was a welcomed change from the worn-out truisms of mainstream film. It also showed that there is often much more power in the unknown than in an inevitable underwhelming resolution. Just like last year, audiences usually had to look outside of Hollywood for cinema that was both thought-provoking and boundary breaking. Prometheus was one of the few pleasantly terrifying exceptions.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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