Christopher Bell's Best Films Of 2012

Another year, another fifty lists. There were a lot of truly terrific movies that came out in 2012 and it was difficult to sit down and whittle away at a list that contained 30+ films that warranted special acknowledgement. Eventually you have to go with your gut, and I admit that this list may look different in a year, a month, a week, maybe even a day — but these are the films that really stood out, the ones that had an especially resonant strength.

This will be my last entry as a critic. I still plan to do many things related to cinema, but that side of me must go into hibernation indefinitely. It has been an interesting, eye-opening ride these last three years and I wouldn’t give it back for anything. Thanks for having me, thanks for reading, and definitely thanks for commenting (I only regret having been delivered such a silly nickname so late in the game).

No, I’m not crying. Without further ado…

15. The Hunter
Released right at the beginning of 2012 and sharing a name with a more high profile film starring Willem Dafoe (which is relative, of course, seeing as that one came and went as well), Rafi Pitts’ fourth feature sets a cold eye on modern-day Iran, displaying it as an unsentimental and desensitized society with little hope for change. Starring the director as former convict Ali, a series of fatal blows to his family life cause him to go haywire and lash out against society, causing him to go on the run from the law. As pessimistic as it is, this slow-burn thriller enthralls with its bite and contains a number of thrilling sequences that would impress many, including a car chase that puts Justin Lin to shame. Despite opening with a still frame from the Iran Green Movement revolution and following that with a series of bitter portraits, Pitts’ argument for family and brotherhood show that he does have hope for the future of his country, but only if humanity could exude a bit more warmth.

14. Artificial Paradises
Yulene Olaizola took a couple of notes from Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Andrei Tarkovsky in her study of a woman trying to kick a heroin habit, notably in the way she exhibits the surrounding nature and the lack of adherence to narrative rules. Salomón, an older grounds keeper of sorts, runs into the aforementioned Luisa and the two hit it off pretty quickly, developing a friendship that eventually leads to the man assisting her in a self-imposed rehabilitation. Olaizola’s organic, minimalistic approach is quite infecting, and every minute spent in this environment is absolutely breathtaking.

13. In The Family
Devoid of schmaltz or unearned sentimentality, Patrick Wang’s little-indie-that-could is at times a heartbreaker and, later, completely invigorating. Set in the South and following one homosexual man’s fight to regain custody of his partner’s kin, ‘Family’ uses quiet, lengthy takes in order to live with the characters and their plight naturally, thus creating a drama that is shared and not forced. Another one stressing the importance of family (and, specific to this case, its redefinition), the filmmaker’s lengthy account shines with its compassion and will floor even the most cynical viewer.

12. Francine
Melissa Leo disappears into her role as a closed-off, unsocial former felon trying to rebuild her life in a small community. As she clings to her unconditional love of animals, her mental health continues to deteriorate and the people around her are pushed away even further. Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky refuse judgement in their approach; while they certainly don’t condone Francine’s behavior, they manage to show the complexities of the people around her — both warm and, at times, not necessarily picture-perfect. Even so, they have a way of getting into their main character’s head that makes this generally aloof lead greatly sympathetic.

11. Holy Motors
Leos Carax’s angry, free celebration and deconstruction of cinema (yes it is) is a wonderful miracle, ripe with pleasure and an apparent disgust for traditional narrative. Somehow it all works: under any other filmmaker it might have been a case of biting-off-more-than-you-can-chew, but Carax sure does have a big enough mouth. “Holy Motors” is quite the ride, dissecting everything in movies today, from banal surface-level dramas to our fascination with computer generated bullshit, by following Denis Lavant as he plays various different characters. But still, it’s not just a film of pure joy, nor is it so closed off that it wouldn’t touch those not obsessed with watching cinema eat itself — it’s about identity and what each person means or represents to another human being, and also the roles we play in society. Whether that is reverberating or not depends on the audience member, but at the same time, few can dismiss a garage full of limousines talking to one another.

10. Amour
It’s hard for me not to react to Michael Haneke’s latest in a very personal way, considering I was raised by my grandparents and was with both of them until they passed. That immediate emotional attachment to the film aside, the veteran auteur does a number of exceptional things with “Amour,” most notably in the movie’s general manner. The director shows the gradual, immensely painful passing of a loved one sans rose-tinted glasses, but exhibits love and humanity in subtle, affecting ways. On the surface (and compared to the rest of his work) it seems like a fairly straightforward narrative, but there are plenty of moments that show that the Austrian director is attempting to do something a bit different — for instance, the pigeon-catching scene alone is a chaotic, peaceful, bizarre life moment that one would never expect in a film like this, let alone a work by Haneke. Cinephiles will also find extra depth in the casting, which finds two important French thespians at their most vulnerable and, unfortunately, on their way out. Completely heartrending, front to back.

9. The Turin Horse
Probably the grimmest swan-song there ever was, Bela Tarr’s final cinematic effort as a director operates in the same way as most of his work does (at least “Damnation” and forward): incredible sculpting-in-time shots done in bleak black-and-white cinematography, long stretches of silence with attention paid to routine rituals, and a bone-dry, sparingly used sense of humor. The only change here is that it’s the most pared down and spare piece since that aforementioned 1988 film, taking place solely on an impoverished family’s property during a violent windstorm. This refined nature only enhances the futility of their plight, and poverty has never been so acutely observed or felt.

8. Oki’s Movie/The Day He Arrives
Having the dual honor of being impressively prolific yet criminally unappreciated, Hong Sang-soo had kind of a banner year in 2012, with three of his most recent movies getting U.S. releases (in addition to the two above, the Isabelle Huppert “vehicle” “In Another Country” also rolled out a month or so ago). Nobody went or cared — it seems you’re either completely charmed by the man or find his candor unmoving — but it’s still a great sign considering the two features prior to ‘Oki’ have yet to find their ways onto American soil. Both ‘Oki’ and ‘Day’ involve Hong’s usual obsessions — debauchery, ego, uncomfortable honesty, repetition, cinema — but his newest entries are much stronger across the board (funnier, too) and might be his best since “The Power of Kangwon Province.” Though his shooting aesthetic has been simplified to a point where it might seem lazy on a surface level (that’s another fight for another time), his structures have gotten increasingly ambitious, with multiple perspective shifts, time jumping forward and back effortlessly, and scenarios repeating with slight tweaks, as if characters are representing others scene to scene. These rather elementary constructs are actually used intelligently and give each film an incredible amount of layers and substance.

7. Snow On Tha Bluff
A bold, kinetic found footage-esque movie about a drug dealer in Atlanta, Damon Russel’s gritty drama pulls no punches in its depiction of an Atlantan rolling in one of the most dangerous communities in this country. The camera follows lead protagonist Snow, adopting a verite, faux-documentary approach to detail his day-to-day life as a drug slinger, robber, and father. It doesn’t sound novel, but the filmmaker’s handling makes it incredibly immersive, and his refusal to sugarcoat anything within the movie (or judge his subjects in any way) makes it a highly satisfying experience.

6. The Comedy/New Jerusalem
One is an examination of a numb over-privileged society (and a dissection of comedy itself), the other a quiet piece on friendship and faith — general aesthetic aside, the two films couldn’t be more different. But this pair by Rick Alverson are likely the smartest, subtly powerful films in American independent cinema at this moment. Taking cues from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Claire Denis, and Ulrich Seidl (rather than being influenced by his contemporary peers, cough cough), the filmmaker operates with an assured hand, setting his camera on the faces of characters to hint at what really makes them tick. Alverson’s disinterest in traditional narrative is not only brave but incredibly rewarding, and both his ideas and the general tone flourish thanks to this attitude.

5. Almayer’s Folly
Chantal Akerman’s lovely reworking of a Joseph Conrad novel deserves so much more than being swept under the rug with zero fanfare. Identity, family, colonialism, racism, and nature are just some of the ideas that the director analyzes in the story of a wealthy white man looking for riches in order to give his dark-skinned daughter a good “white education.” Akerman still retains her eye for framing, and the lush, chaotic jungle is captured fantastically within her brooding long takes. Her patient disposition builds a terrific atmosphere, which only makes the last ten minutes more affectingly devastating. Why is Akerman a renowned filmmaker that nobody cares enough to follow anymore? With new work as strong as this, the lack of interest is truly baffling.

4. Tabu
This Portuguese filmmaker’s latest is an ode to cinema and youth, a two-part tale where the hangover hits before the party. Despite partaking in the pleasures that the medium offers, Miguel Gomes never strays far from the cold truth, and even when an elderly man waxes nostalgic on a past romance he had in a colonial African country, the director presents it in a chilly, level-headed way, acknowledging the shitty society they reveled in because those living in it are so oblivious. They didn’t care, but we will. Gomes constantly plays with dueling forces — surrealism and realism, memory vs. time — and the resulting film is oozing with substance. That should be enough, but as a whole “Tabu” is quite bewitching and delightful, proving that you can have a smart, weird film and still have it be wildly entertaining.

3. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s epic murder investigation is actually a treatise on life, and if you think that subject is a bit too large to take on then you don’t know the Turkish auteur. A remarkable, slow-burn tale taking place in the endless steppes of Anatolia, Ceylan puts together a ragtag ensemble (the police, a prosecutor, a doctor, and the two murderers) and rounds out nearly every character, giving them multiple dimensions and complexities generally only offered to lead principals. Somehow he still finds the time for the beautiful random moments in life — for instance, he looks away from the murder investigation to track an apple rolling down a hill — and it makes it all the more rewarding.

2. Elena
To put it bluntly, this Russian film is nothing short of incredible. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s masterful work observes class and generational values in modern Russia, all seen through the eyes of the titular protagonist (also a terrific performance by Nadezhda Markina). Handled like a thriller, “Elena” is a stimulating cinematic experience, from its unbroken shots of people traversing through an unwelcoming country to its downright unsettling score by genius composer Phillip Glass. It’s a film steeped in mystery (you’ll never know where Zvyagintsev will go next or what he will decide to put in front of his camera) and contains so much vigor that you’ll be shaken for days.

1. This Is Not A Film
A marvelous, emotional, and loud statement by an artist cruelly silenced by his government, this “documentary” about and by Jafar Panahi (sharing a co-credit with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) is downright otherworldly. Shot on cruddy equipment and taking place within the confines of Panahi’s home/prison, the filmmakers create unfaltering beauty out of the most mundane things, and the more cinematic it gets, the bolder it feels. I can’t honestly say that I’ve seen a more passionate or beautiful film than this one, and the fact that it also operates as a defiant protest just makes it that more astonishing. Rising above just about every constriction inherent in the art of cinema, “This Is Not A Film” is an extremely important movie, both for cinema and, as melodramatic as this sounds, humanity.

Honorable Mentions
At a certain point you have to stop toiling over these lists and commit to something, but on a different day any of these could’ve been a main entry. While I do have some inexplicable, borderline-pathetic nervousness over putting the first four into an “Honorable Mentions” category and not in the actual list above, I want to stress that these are still excellent pieces of work that are worthy of anyone’s time: “The Master,” “The Kid With A Bike,” “The Loneliest Planet,” “Miss Bala,” “Magic Mike,” “Alps,” “Post-Mortem,” “Michael,” “The Ambassador,” “Scenes Of A Crime,” “Last Days Here,” “Fake It So Real.”

Distribution Please
For better or worse, this year’s section got a lot bigger. Thanks to some festival outings and a generous 3-month trial from Festival Scope I was able to see all of these unspoken-for gems, and I implore all to check each and every one of them out if they stop by your village. The crop of American micro-indies all use their tiny budgets wisely: both Nathan Silver (“Exit Elena“) and Kris Swanberg (“Empire Builder“) utilize their family, friends, spouses, and homes to create incredibly affecting stories, and their attachment to the players and personal material only elevates them. Little money doesn’t stifle Sean Gillane’s ambition for “CXL,” a movie which puts a surreal, sometimes unnerving spin on the angsty-lost-young-male subject and returns the topic’s potency. “Marvin Seth & Stanley” finds director Stephen Gurewitz, his father, and 2012’s go-to indie funny-man Alex Karpovsky on an extended family outing. It has a consistent, rapid-fire wit and also manages to say something about the unspoken, inexplicable bond between family members, regardless if they get along or not.

What really tickles my fancy are the quiet, atmospheric slow-burns (if you haven’t gathered that yet), and it’s nice to find more of those cropping up in this country: “Pilgrim Song” (Martha Stevens), “Sundowning” (Frank Rinaldi), “The Sound of Small Things” (Peter McLarnan), and though already mentioned, “Empire Builder” fits this bill snugly. ‘Pilgrim’ appraises relationships of different kinds through one lost soul, while ‘Sound’ takes interest in a couple’s communication (or lack there-of) and the weird terror that comes within the territory of commitment. “Sundowning” is the oddest duck as it changes tunes frequently, from dedicated snail-paced realism to psuedo-Lynchian sci-fi to Asian tour video (and plenty more) — it’s a movie that absolutely needs to be taken on its own terms, but the trickiest thing is figuring out what exactly those terms are. Still, it’s an often frightening and, most importantly, unique ride. Quite a brave debut.

Nicolas Pereda has been building his own world for the last few years through his films, employing the same actors and frequently breaking cinematic constructs wherever he sees fit, but as far as I can tell none of his features have any form of distribution (you can find “Perpetuum Mobile” on Netflix, thankfully, but it’s a pseudo-sequel to “Junta” and it’d be worthwhile to start from the beginning). “In April The Following Year, There Was A Fire” is a beautiful Thai movie that effortlessly combines narrative and non-fiction to tell a very personal tale. Wichanon Somunjarn weaves his own story into a showcase of contemporary Thai life and cinema after country auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. “Lament For Foresight” also plays with fiction/non-fiction; Turkish filmmaker Savaş Baykal gives his village’s children a camera to see what will happen and the resulting depiction of Turkey is akin to something post-apocalyptic. In contrast to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Tarkovskian character studies, Baykal’s brief career suggests Iranian new-wave influence, particularly Abbas Kiarostami or Bahman Ghobadi.

Dominga Sotomayor Castillo’sThursday Through Sunday” places the audience in a cramped car during a family road trip, and though it seems pretty inconsequential for quite a long time, its subtle look at marital troubles through the eyes of a child is pretty devastating. A good chaser is “Andrew Bird: Fever Year” (especially if you’re a fan); Xan Aranda’s documentary follows the musician on the road while providing insight into his career and unearthing what makes him keep at it. Already appearing on the above list for their narrative feature “Francine,” Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s “The Patron Saints” lives in a nursing home, chronicling an undisclosed amount of time with those on their last legs of life. The duo eschew any sort of traditional approach and evolve their film from documentary’s inherent restrictions, in turn creating something deeply unsettling, sometimes funny, but most importantly unlike anything else I’ve seen in a long time. Its determined look at the latter, unglamorous years of humanity is truly poetic. Ruben Ostlund’sPlay” was probably the best surprise at last year’s New York Film Festival, and it still has yet to receive the love it deserves. It’s probably one of the few films that prods at all of the layers and consequences of racism, presenting complicated questions without answers.

Last but not least is “Old Dog,” a random find at this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival that turned me on to the work of Pema Tseden. Simply put, anyone who digs the Argentinian New Wave or the work of Jia Zhang-ke (both put their homelands under the microscope in a similar way) will fall in love with his oeuvre. Sporting a glorious minimal style and moving long takes that celebrate “happy accidents” thanks to the unpredictable nature of animals, Tseden’s latest is an unsentimental look at modern Tibet (another seemingly post-apocalyptic wasteland) and human nature — the climactic scene will absolutely choke you up.

Best Unproduced Screenplay: “Octogenarius,” Andrew Friedman & Stephen Dackson
There are a few great screenplays that, for multiple reasons, have yet to make the jump from the page to the screen. One of the biggest disappointments is Charlie Kaufman’s bizarre, ambitious meta-musical “Frank or Francis” being hindered in its evolution to a movie — surely such a singular work will find its last bit of money, one would (maybe naively) think. But that’s been widely discussed, along with likely anything that is lucky or connected enough to get itself onto the “Black List.”

Something that could use a little more heat is Stephen Dackson and Andrew Friedman‘s “Octogenarius,” a dank, gritty LA-based story that manages to create an atmosphere akin to those lovable 1970s American flicks or even Abel Ferrara’sBad Lieutenant.” The plot centers on a former gang leader of sorts, now considerably wrinkled and slow, cruising his former stomping grounds in order to murder his son’s manipulative, insane girlfriend. Dackson and Friedman nail their tricky lead, managing to create a character that is likable yet off his rocker, sympathetic though a pretty terrible human being. It’s part thriller and part character study, but the two also manage to tackle the notion of traditional (and possibly outdated) manhood and highlight some of the more bizarre Los Angeles/Hollywood myths out there (ex. The “Geffen Babies”). It’s a great read that would be even better on the screen, especially considering you don’t normally see a lead character of this age in a film like this very often. While not yet in production, there have been rumors that Harvey Keitel is attached, which is pretty fitting considering the script’s likeness to Ferrara’s 1992 crime-drama. Here’s hoping this one sees the light of day.

That is all. Let’s talk soon, okay? Enjoy 2013 and Netflix all of these films, why don’t you.

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