Let me analyze my end-of-the-year top ten list for the moment: three French films, two Americans and one of each from Portugal, Belgium, South Korea, Greece and the United Kingdom. This list also includes two female directors, two Andersons and two fellow Longhorns. Some of these statistics may be more meaningful than others, but I’m inclined to say that 2012 was a great year at the cinema for me. Making a list like this is highly subjective. My job as a critic is to articulate why the following ten films are better than everything else I’ve seen this past year.
1. The Master
When I left the Alamo Ritz after seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film in 70 mm projection for the first time, my opinion of it was inconclusive. I thought it was an exquisitely shot picture featuring some of the best acting in recent memory, but I was unsure if I liked it as much as I had hoped. But this film about a lost soul and his spiritual mentor haunted me in the days since. It is one of those movies that the more I think about it the more I come to like it. Eventually, I returned to the Ritz for a second viewing and it resonated with me on a much deeper level than the first viewing. Everything made sense to me this time. Anderson aptly conveys the feelings of his characters through the subtext instead of heavily relying on the meticulously written dialogue marked in his earlier films. In the years to come, The Master shall be cited as an important work by one of the great visionaries in American cinema of his time.
2. Holy Motors
There is no more exciting cinematic experience in 2012 than watching Léos Carax’s Holy Motors. In his first full-length feature since Pola X in 1999, the French filmmaker teams up with longtime collaborator and actor extraordinaire Denis Levant in this strange limo-ride that not only pays homage to cinema (or acting, specifically) but turns itself on its head. Conventions are completely thrown out the window, so please don’t bother yourself with the puny pleasures of plots and logic. Instead, follow Levant’s Monsieur Oscar deep into the rabbit hole where green screen alien-humping, family melodrama and gangster knife fight all come together swimmingly. And how can one forget the greatest musical interlude ever commissioned for a film? Oscar and his accordion gang’s cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride” pleases the ears and cheers the soul. It is a damn shame that Holy Motors only made $641K for its U.S. distributor Indomina (which has recently announced the closing of its distribution branch) because a film of such quality deserved a lot better treatment.
Following up his concert-documentary-turned-fictional drama Our Beloved Month of August, Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes has turned heads at every festival he attended with Tabu, an unpredictable film that playfully alludes to F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name (and same chapter titles but in reverse order). In the first half, a kind-hearted woman is concerned with her elderly neighbor, Aurora, whose paranoia threads between fact and fiction. In the later half—where the film kicks into high gear, Aurora’s past life in colonial Africa is presented in an inventive flashback that has all the dialogue silenced in favor of the voiceover by Aurora’s erstwhile lover. Gomes toys with the essence of storytelling with an imagination that rivals the dream-like pictures of Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The former film critic also utilizes all the tools in his toolbox—black and white cinematography in 35 mm and 16 mm, 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a Spanish cover version of “Be My Baby” among other pop songs—to create this cinephilic wet dream.
4. Moonrise Kingdom
What took Wes Anderson so long before he finally made a film that centers on children? His previous films all revolve around immature adults who refuse to grow up and his highly stylized mise-en-scène is of its own world. It makes perfect sense for his film to be about two preteens running away from home for love on a fairytale-like New England island. There are no questions in Anderson’s ability to put together a beautiful film with his recognizable framing, cute props and an appealing soundtrack. But Moonrise Kingdom also strikes a fine balance between its fantastical and dramatic elements, thus opening itself up to become the native Houstonian’s most sincere effort since Rushmore.
5. The Kid with a Bike
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been making realist dramas about innocent youth on the verge of being corrupted by the cruel world for as long as I can remember. After the disappointing Lorna’s Silence in 2008, The Kid with a Bike is a welcoming back-to-the-basics return for the Belgian brothers. Abandoned by his deadbeat father (Jeremie Renier), 12-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret in a brooding performance) is a troubled child who repeatedly runs away from foster care before he meets Samantha (Cecile de France), a hairdresser who kindly takes him in on the weekends. The rawness of Cyril’s violent attachment to his father is stirring and his unspoken yearning to be loved is heartbreaking, while Samantha’s unwavering acceptance might just be a glimmer hope for Cyril (and us, as witness of this harrowing tale). Sob stories are in abundance, but few can turn a script into a powerful tale of redemption on celluloid like the Dardenne brothers.
6. The Day He Arrives
Like the Dardenne brothers, South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo pretty much revolves around the same topic in every film. They are usually small-scale comedic dramas that are known for Hong’s depictions of the awkward dynamics in romantic relationships. They always involve characters making inappropriate comments after drinking binges. But Hong’s films are nothing like the unremarkable comedies on American television that overkill their welcome with repetitive play on contrived awkwardness. Instead, imagine the kind of clumsiness one would experience when saying goodbye to a one-night stand. The Day He Arrives finds humor, not in gags, but in the painfully confessional and personal interactions between his characters. The South Korean continues his experimentation with chronology and narrative structure, which he has been keen on in recent years. His protagonist wakes up to a day as if yesterday’s events were irrelevant—there is no telling if the days were shuffled or the events are happening in a parallel universe. The film’s narrative structure is governed by its alcohol-loving director’s controlled chaos, which is a befitting analogy for its characters that are hopelessly overran by their messy relationships.
7. House of Tolerance
For a film about a turn-of-the-century luxurious brothel, the sex in Bertrand Bonello’s ensemble picture is hardly sexy— the johns make ugly sex faces, while the girls fake it. Like Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi (Street of Shame), Bonello explores the dark side of prostitution behind the glamorous façade. And like the films of another Japanese master, Mikio Naruse (Flowing), House of Tolerance also puts great emphasis on the women’s doomed love and emotional struggles. In spite of those parallels, Bonello’s lavish picture truly stands on its own as he weaves the subplots of the six main characters (played by six excellent and beautiful actresses) together within their disquieting milieu. Bonello’s astute use of 60s soul music (most notably, Lee Moses’s “Bad Girl”) in a period piece is also a stroke of genius.
I can dig quirky and strange, but the opening 30 minutes of Attenberg did not impress me in my first viewing. Marina (Ariane Labed), a socially awkward young woman who is disgusted by the all things related to sexuality and men, practices making-out with her only friend Bella (Evangelia Randou) when she’s not accompanying her dying but spirited father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) to cancer treatment. I was put off by her modus operandi at the start but slowly I began to understand her character as her coyness begins to give way for close inspection—much like the Sir David Attenborough wildlife documentaries she adores. Greek filmmaker and Texas alum Athina Rachel Tsangari rewards my patience with a warm and refreshing take on the father-and-daughter relationship. In contrast to her fellow countryman Yorgos Lanthimos (director/co-writer of Dogtooth), who played Marina’s love interest, Tsangari places less importance in her characters’ shocking antics and relies on the heroine’s gradual discovery of intimacy to provide the emotional punch.
9. The Deep Blue Sea
Terence Davies’s gorgeous picture of a love triangle in post-war Britain is not simply another beautiful film on the topic of unrequited love; it reaches deep into the intolerable pain when love is in vain while remains clear-eyed as the heroine has her head stuck in the clouds. In the best female performance of the year, Rachel Weisz plays Hester, the wife of a high court judge (Simon Russell Beale) who feels shot right through with a bolt of blue when the passion between her and her younger lover (Tom Hiddleston) has waned. Weisz communicates the strength and vulnerability empathically and her two male co-stars are stellar as well.
10. Goodbye, First Love
Drawing from her own personal experience, Mia Hansen-Love has crafted a poignant portrait of the volatile and engulfing infatuation of a first love—a perfect candidate for a double feature with The Deep Blue Sea. Unlike her shamelessly over-sharing contemporaries, Hansen-Love creates a healthy distance between herself and her subject and thus results in a refreshing take on love that is neither generic nor sentimental. Young actress Lola Creton, who was previously in Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard, has the raw talent and potential to become the next great French actress (if she can stop prancing around in a construction site while playing the role of an architect). I was awe-struck by the ending that evokes the ephemeral beauty of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 1986 Dust in The Wind—another enduring film about the inimitable taste of first love.
Turn me On, Goddammit (dir. Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, Norway)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
Bonsái (dir. Cristián Jiménez, Chile)
The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary)
Las Acacias (dir. Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina)