Every week (bar the very thinnest parts of the calendar), somewhere between seven and twelve movies end up opening in theaters. On some weekends, it's even more — the first week of December saw eighteen films begin their theatrical runs. As such, it's hard enough for film writers to stay on top of things, let alone Joe Public, who doesn't have the benefit of free screenings and DVDs in the post to take the edge off things.
Films always slip through the cracks, and as part of our continuing year-end coverage, we've picked out a handful of films that might have passed you by over the last twelve months. There was so much small-scale greatness that we could have been here all day (check out our 2012 overrated/underrated feature piece for some more personal picks), but here are eleven films that came to mind most immediately this year. In all cases, we urge you to track them down as soon as you can. Let us know your own hidden gems in the comments section, and for all The Playlist's year-end coverage make sure to follow all our Best Of 2012 features.
"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"
A powerful statement about political dissidence, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” chronicles the path of resistance by of one China’s most famous artists, Ai Weiwei. Using Twitter, his blog, and all types of multimedia, the edgy agitprop and charmingly cheeky Ai Weiwei is both confrontational and warm. With a soothing personality, his devilish nature comes out in his art in a battle against the restrictive political regime in China. As Ai’s popularity and influence grows — he documents an earthquake that kills children in poorly constructed schools that the government refuses to acknowledge — the artist gets deeper in hot water with the authorities. He is beaten, hounded, put under government surveillance and soon his blog is shut down and he is also forced to destroy his warehouse full of art because of a trumped up zoning issue. The deck is stacked against him and yet Ai, somewhat of a merry prankster, persists against a Sisyphean battle he knows he can never win. He files lawsuits, harrasses the same police officers who beat him up and gets his crews to document and photograph it all. Ultimately detained for three months' detention on charges of tax evasion, Ai Weiwei is briefly silenced, but as a symbol for change, his anarchic spirit and innate human kindness deeply resonate and inspire.
As extraordinary a film as Georgos Lanthimos' debut "Dogtooth" was, there was something about its Fritzl-ish premise that seemed like it was riding the zeitgeist (even if it marched firmly to the beat of its own drum), and we wondered how the director would fare with something that felt less ripped from the headlines. "Alps" has no such problem, by virtue of being quite unlike anything you've seen before; "Dogtooth" is perhaps the closest comparison point, but the follow-up is darker, stranger, funnier, and somehow more moving. A nightmarish puzzle that will be too oblique for many, it starts with a string of exceptional scenes – a gymnast menaced by her coach, a girl dying in the back of an ambulance, questioned about her favorite movie star by the paramedic – and very gradually, Lanthimos reveals how they fit into the grander narrative, how each one plays out their role in his ingenious, heartbreaking conceit (which we won't spoil here). It's a film about grief, and in part about acting (it's an interesting companion piece to "Holy Motors" in some ways), a shifting meta game that never, ever lets you feel comfortable or settled in what you're watching, or knowing what to expect in the next scene. In a world of endless sequels and undemanding comfort viewing, we realize this is not going to be for everyone, but for us? "Alps" was a thrill.
Directed by Jeff Orlowski (“The Strange Case of Salman abd al Haqq,” “Geocaching: From the Web to the Woods”), “Chasing Ice” is to climate control what “The Cove” was to illegal dolphin and whale hunting in Japan. In other words, it's a powerful statement and cautionary tale about the effects of our vastly eroding polar ice caps and how they connect to the rest of the global eco-system and our growing global warming problems. But it's not simply a pro-environment eco-doc. It follows National Geographic photographer James Balog, spurned on by a work assignment, in his hunt to document and capture a multi-year record of the world's changing glaciers using time-lapse photography. What becomes very clear during Balog’s mission (which soon turns into an obsession) is that the visual evidence is stunning, near-horrifying and pretty much damaging to any of the climate control naysayers. Balog’s beautiful, breathtaking photos and his fearlessness to go anywhere to capture them (even after four knee surgeries and doctors begging him to not to continue climbing the ice caps), is undeniable evidence of climate change. Whether his photos change the tide of history remains to be seen (we as nations sadly wait til there are disasters in front of us before we act), but “Chasing Ice” is a chilling (pardon the pun) reminder if we do not respect the changes in our Earth, we and our generations to come, will be paying for it down the road in irrevocable ways.
Disturbing, upsetting, and memorable, there are few controversial films this year that have gotten audiences talking the way "Compliance" has. Based on a true story, the movie is an unsparing look at the power of authority to make people do unspeakable and humiliating things, and the film's bracing examination of those themes has been a major conversation starter. Character actor Ann Dowd shines as the dim fast food restaurant manager gullible enough to believe a random voice at the end of the line is a police officer asking her to assist him in interrogating one of the restaurant’s employees. And as it all escalates, the film gets queasier and vile. Shot with a greasy lens caked in what looks like French fry grease, “Compliance” is unpleasant and unpleasant to look at and that’s the entire point. While its confrontational and hostile nature outraged some audiences, the picture is ultimately a haunting psychological horror cum cautionary tale about the malleability of human behavior and the crushing essence of the fast food industry.
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev and this methodical, beautifully composed symphony of a film, was of the best discoveries of 2012. “Elena” played a lot of film festivals, and received an unfortunately limited theatrical release, so it’s likely to have never made it to your city. That’s frankly a crime against smart, adult filmgoers hungry for great cinema. However, with a Netflix account, you can watch it at the click of a button as it’s streaming on Watch Instant, as is Zvyagintsev’s even better debut, “The Return.” (His second feature, “The Banishment” is in desperate need of a R1 DVD release). But, what makes “Elena” so strong, beyond its wonderful subtleties and pure cinematic storytelling through imagery and sound, is how, in lesser hands, it could come off as a kind of tawdry late-night Showtime thriller. The film follows the titular character (Nadezhda Markina) as she cares for her wealthy second husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) in a gigantic penthouse apartment in a high-class area of the country. By contrast, Elena's jobless son Sergey dwells in a lower-income section with his family, faced with the dilemma of whether to have his son Sasha join the military because they can't afford school. It's up to grandma to sort things out, but unfortunately, Vladimir refuses to cough up a single penny, citing Elena's son as lazy and irresponsible. Why should he continue to support him? He's got a point, but his wife must also think about the welfare of her son — which leads to some drastic measures. And under Zvyagintsev’s masterful, patient direction, it’s the one of the most wholly satisfying films of the year. And that’s not even mentioning the chilling Philip Glass score, the work from the stellar cast (every character is a living, breathing human with actual dimensions), and the perfectly calibrated, icy cinematography from DP Mikhail Krichman, who’s worked on every film for the director.
“The Forgiveness of Blood”
The sins of the father as they pass from generation to generation and the limits of family loyalty are the two taut central themes of Joshua Marston’s powerful sophomore feature film. Moving from the Colombian drug tale of “Maria Full of Grace,” his latest effort finds him deep in Albania where traditional methods for dealing with disputes between neighbors clash with an evolving, slowly progressing society. And that’s where the teenage Nik (Tristan Halilaj) finds himself caught. When his father is accused of murder, his family is essentially exiled, with the men ordered to stay housebound as the elders confer to decide on a suitable punishment (this can sometimes take years). With his father on the run, and Nik unable to work, it falls to his younger sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) to pick up the slack. What emerges in this multi-layered film is a portrait of how an antiquated system is unable to contain the tides of change. Nik cleverly works around the system to stay in touch with his best friend, and even begin a fledgling relationship, while his sister is given a crash course in the difficulties of making ends meet. As things come to a head, Nik is faced with an impossible choice between saving himself or honoring a blood bound tradition. Immaculately shot, and presenting a fascinating world we simply haven’t seen on the big screen before, “The Forgiveness of Blood” is a remarkable slow-burning drama that presents the complex and sometimes puzzle-shaped nature of family relationships, and the tangle of their history that we can sometimes get caught up in.
“The Kid with the Bike”
While some critics complained that the latest from the famed Dardennes was more of the same, all we can say is…so? While “The Kid with a Bike” didn’t rock the boat of their established narrative and visual aesthetic, it’s hard to quibble with the results when they are this consistently strong. Perhaps some of the grumbling came from the fact that this effort is somewhat “lighter” (relatively speaking) than some of their previous efforts, but it’s no less affecting. The story essentially deals with two lonely people: Cyril, an orphaned boy, seething and wounded by anger and pain, and Samantha, a single hairdresser who takes him under her wing. While it’s a sunnier movie than you'd expect from the Dardennes (indeed, it’s the first time they shot in the summer), the organic performances from Thomas Doret and Cecile De France — who share a tremendous chemistry — maneuver the complex terrain their relationship takes them through. Having been let down for so much of his life, Cyril essentially tests Samantha to see if she too will give up on him, but as she continues to stick by his side, we get a better understanding how this wayward child enriches her life. Using a recurring musical cue to effectively mark the passage of time, “The Kid with a Bike” plumbs some rich, complicated emotional territory in its less than 90-minute runtime. But by the film’s end, the Dardennes deliver a multi-toned, minor symphony on how devotion and love — hard-earned and unquestioning — can be life-changing salvation to those who need it (read our review).
“Sound of My Voice”
On the razor’s edge of suspense lies Zal Batmanglij’s directorial debut, a film that tests the nerves of any thrill-loving moviegoer who thinks they’ve seen it all. We’re immediately thrown into the world of Peter and Lorna, two documentary filmmakers who refuse to shrink from their thesis, dead-set on exposing a phony cult leader who becomes more convincing every single day. As the ethereal Maggie, Brit Marling’s bewitching, alluring presence is both achingly sensual and diabolically Machiavellian as she turns the most innocuous words into threats, her soft voice and sand-pebble eyes demanding that those who attempt to go down the rabbit hole with her abandon everything they know and love about their past voices. “Sound of My Voice” is almost sickeningly sterile, a counterpoint to the messy, rural landscape of another recent “cult” film, “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” But while you’re never in doubt as to the intentions of the group in that film, “Sound of My Voice” is creepily compelling, an immersive cinematic experience that quietly lulls you before smashing into what would be the year’s most talked-about ending had distributor Fox Searchlight properly marketed the film. For those of you who intend to catch up on DVD, go in blindly, as each twist in the film’s narrative, each tweak of the believability of Maggie’s otherworldly story, opens up infinite possibilities. As “Sound of My Voice” unspools, it becomes clear it’s not happening in the screen so much as it’s slowly unfolding a universe of paradoxes inside your head.
"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia"
After doing tiny, highly personal art films for a little over a decade, Nuri Bilge Ceylan threw a curveball with “Three Monkeys,” an Andrei Tarkovsky-thriller goulash that retained his love for human behavior while combining a meatier plot and a lurking, uncertain anxiety. Though with "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" he established a desire to make something a bit different, few could’ve surmised that his next flick would be a nearly three-hour ensemble epic, a slow-burn murder investigation that takes the police and the guilty party through the vast steppes of Anatolia. The collective slowly make their way through nowheresville to find and identify the victim’s remains, eventually having to rest at a nearby village before returning home for the necessary paperwork. Within the long, arduous journey are rather brilliant character moments that are at times humorous and touching; always adding another intricate layer to a character’s being. Despite no longer holding the cinematographer’s position, Ceylan’s photographic eye is still there: the film showcases some gorgeous environments bathed in natural light or, more astonishingly, entire sequences that are lit by just the headlights of the investigators’ vehicles. This approach gives everything a very organic feel, one which only compliments a story that is basically about society’s relationship with life and death. ‘Anatolia’ is a long one, but it's consistently rewarding throughout and eventually leads to one of the most poignant endings of this year.
Well this one you almost certainly haven't seen as… well, it doesn't actually open til December 28th, so unless you're abroad, or caught it at a festival, you probably haven't had the chance. But consider this notice to get on it when it opens in a week or so. An under-the-radar gem from Portugal, Miguel Gomes' "Tabu" had already become a critical darling in Berlin earlier in the year, but even so, it knocked our respective socks off when we caught up with the film. The gorgeous, swooningly romantic tale, filmed entirely in black and white and partially without dialogue, is a tribute to classic silent cinema (the title nods to F.W. Murnau's film of the same name), and evokes the golden age of filmmaking as well in its feeling, but it's also far more than that. Split between a present-day Lisbon — the more "difficult" section — and a lengthy, wordless second half of colonial romance in Africa, it's a curious, opaque, yet fully accessible shot of "movie magic," as our review put it. Sensual, audacious, romantic and even funny at times as well, and boasting some great Phil Spector covers, "Tabu" is modest and dazzling all at once.
We were convinced, on walking out of Andrea Arnold's adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" in Venice nearly 18 months ago, that we were looking at film that while it had little chance of catching on with the general public, it was sure to be a critical favorite. In fact, it didn't even manage that; sharply dividing reviewers, it came and went from theaters with only a few critics really shouting from the rooftops about it. But in a way, that just makes us cherish it more. Making last year's Brontë adaptation "Jane Eyre" look like a conservative "Masterpiece Theater" adaptation, Arnold rips her source material apart and starts again, creating a savage, brutal landscape (shot in glorious Academy ratio) that neatly mirrors the characters' cruelties against one another. Unlike the bulk of period dramas, there's little room for repression and subtext. Heathcliff, Cathy and co. are as blunt towards each other as characters of their fledgling age probably would be (this is a world where virtually no one makes it past the age of 25, seemingly), and Arnold's approach of casting relative newcomers pays, for the most part, great dividends, even if it makes the film a little rough around the edges in places. Those who prefer the picturesque when it comes to their costume dramas are likely to be horrified, but "Wuthering Heights" was never a pristine period piece, and even if Emily Brontë never wrote a scene in which Cathy licks blood from the back of a badly beaten Heathcliff (it's sexier than it sounds, trust us), we have no doubt that she'd approve of Arnold's invention, and the film in general.
Honorable Mention: Let's face it, again, we could be here all day. There were many, many deserving pictures that were underseen in 2012. Above is a smattering of picks and you'll likely see more movies of this nature in our individual best of picks.
Still, there are so many worth mentioning it almost hurts to exclude them from a full write-up (but again look for some of them in our top 10 lists hopefully). Ira Sachs’ engrossing and devastating relationship drama “Keep the Lights On”; Ben Wheatley's utterly chilling horror "Kill List"; Sarah Polley’s challenging but sensuous “Take This Waltz”; the gender identity documentary "The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye"; Ry Russo-Young’s intimate and low-lit L.A.-set drama "Nobody Walks" (reintroducing Olivia Thirlby all over again); the tremendous digital vs. film doc "Side By Side"; the thrilling and crank-it-up to-11 farewell LCD Soundsystem concert doc “Shut Up And Play The Hits”; Bela Tarr’s moving final film, “The Turin Horse”; the lovely, fantastical and melancholy relationship movie “Ruby Sparks” (thanks Hollywood for finally bringing back Dayton & Faris); Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi’s powerful act of civil disobedience, “This Is Not A Film”; Joachim Trier’s addiction/depression portrait, “Oslo August 31st”; the unnervingly spare “The Loneliest Planet”; Terence Davies’ romantic and swooning, “"The Deep Blue Sea"; the disturbingly funny “The Comedy”; the awesome Ginger Baker documentary (drummer of Cream and Traffic) “Beware Mr. Baker”; Pablo Larrain’s mordant "Post Mortem"; the chillingly bleak “Snowtown”; “Wild Bill”; “The Iran Job”; and on and on, whew! Be sure to drop these in your Netflix/DVD/Hulu queues as soon as you can. — Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Erik McClanahan, Christopher Bell, Kevin Jagernauth