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.