Top Ten Films of 2012

This Is Not a Film (dirs. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi) - #10

In 2010, the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested by his country’s government. The essential “crime” was committing acts of supposed propaganda against Iran through his movies. In addition to house arrest, he was banned for 20 years from writing and directing films, giving interviews, and from leaving the country.

This is where we come in, in this, his latest effort. While he’s awaiting an appeals court verdict, he decides to challenge his restrictions and calls over friend and fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Mirtahmasb records Panahi as the director describes and performs sections of a recently written film (the script is already done, so he’s safe there, and nobody said anything about acting).

This he does for a while, setting up the basic scenario and characters, mapping out the location in his living room, and going through the motions of certain scenes. Eventually though, this isn’t enough. Why make a film if you can just tell it, he asks. Try as he might, something’s missing. He needs to direct.
Following this daylong endeavor, This Is Not a Film takes shape as a poignant statement on an artist’s need and on the role and meaning of a filmmaker. It also calls powerful attention to the state of contemporary Iran, as we hear Panahi’s phone calls and see him watch the news, both revealing much about this controversial nation.

An altogether innovative approach to documentary (and fiction) filmmaking, this provocative movie was initially even shown in distinctive fashion: it was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a cake, on its way to premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Today, Panahi’s fate remains uncertain, though he has somehow made a new film, Parde, and it showed at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Ah, the triumph of cinema.

Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg) - #9

How could a David Cronenberg film based on a novel by Don DeLillo be anything but atypical? And while Cosmopolis is certainly that, it is also absorbing and intellectually stimulating (not dirty words for a movie).

Here, we’re in a limousine; in fact, we’re here for most of the film, riding along with billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) as he simply tries to get across town for a haircut. As ostensibly banal as this endeavor may appear though, it becomes anything but. External forces continually overwhelm and bombard Packer: professional predicaments, ongoing, citywide riots, threats on his life, and even a prostate exam.

As Packer is driven along, mystery abounds, as do statements on society, consumerism, capitalism, sex, and violence. Various people come in and out of his life (and often in and out of his limo), many played by great supporting performers such as Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche and Samantha Morton. As Cosmopolis builds in tension, Packer’s life grows more and more chaotic, eventually reaching a startling breaking point.

Cronenberg is nothing if not consistently innovative, in terms of form and content. With Cosmopolis, we get him at his best in both.


Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax) - #8

Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, has an unusual job. At least, it seems to be his job. Through the course of his day and into the night, he transforms himself, via elaborate and convincing make-up and costume, applied in the back of his white, stretch limo, into a number of individuals. In Holy Motors, we see him do this about nine times. He exits the vehicle, steps into the position of said “character” and goes about the respective business. He’s a monstrous, underground-dwelling deviant one minute, a performer in a motion-capture film the next. There’s a musical interlude; there’s a scene of graphic violence; there’s a scene of graphic (and bizarre) nudity; there’s a scene of immense tenderness.

Where does his real life begin, and where does it end? How, despite moments of obvious artificiality, does he maintain this charade? What, exactly, is the goal of this vocation? I won’t pretend that Holy Motors answers any of this. That such a peculiar movie could be so thoroughly engaging and amusing despite these ambiguities is a testament to Lavant’s performance and Carax’s confident direction. It takes confidence to craft a film like this, and it takes some degree of confidence to watch Holy Motors. One has to be comfortable enough with the surreal. Like with the films of Luis Bunuel, an acceptance of idiosyncrasy is mandatory, as should be the viewing of this extraordinary movie. 

How’s this for a plot? Aging former rock star Cheyenne, disaffected and melancholy, a goth living in Ireland, visits his dying father in New York, and upon his dad’s passing he picks up his father’s mission to track down and possibly kill a Nazi war criminal hiding in America.

As unusual as that may sound, This Must Be the Place, named after the Talking Heads song - which is essential to the film and used brilliantly - is nonetheless relatively reasoned and thoroughly compelling. It’s also one of the most amusing films of the year, thanks in no small part to Sean Penn’s bizarre and strangely charming portrayal in the lead role. On the outside, he’s still the bombastic rocker of old, hair in a torrent, makeup pronounced, but inside he’s subdued, his voice barely above a mumbled whisper. He embodies the sort of anxious potential inherent in the film itself, where one gets the sense that the story could go any number of ways, and then frequently finds those expectations defied. This Must Be the Place, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (Il divo, 2008), moves along a strange path, with pleasant and sometimes random stops, but it ultimately arrives at an extraordinary destination.


This is a film for our times. Set in 2008, just around the time of the Wall Street collapse and President Obama’s election, Killing Them Softly looks at how financial burdens and a jaded nation can also affect the world of hit men. Brad Pitt stars alongside James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta as criminals and killers who are feeling the pinch of an economy in crisis. After a card game heist, Pitt is brought in to help get to the bottom of things and to begin (violently) restoring order. In the depiction of this, the film looks at how unstable and poor fiscal conditions can hinder quality and compensation, even for hired guns.

The standard salary isn’t quite what it used to be; for example, you can now get someone to kill someone else at a lower fee … you know, because of the economy. These guys barter and treat their business just like any other working man.They struggle to survive in America, to make a go of it, even if it isn't exactly honest or legal. As Pitt's character says in the film's best line, "I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business."

While Pitt may headline the picture, it’s director Andrew Dominik who stands out, bringing a strong visual flair to the film and capturing much of the tone and dialogue of George V. Higgins source material. This film doesn’t have the ethereal, poeticism of Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007 - my pick for the best film of that year, also with Pitt); now the images are damp and dirty, with sporadic bursts of cinematic flourish — one shooting sequence in particular.

An arresting film with something to say, Killing Them Softly will hopefully find the audience it missed (or I should say the audience that missed it) once available on DVD/Blu-ray.   

The most wide-ranging emotional film of the year, Rust and Bone is a multilayered story of two people who come from lives of broken dreams and despair to find purpose and love with each other. As the film plays out, this seemingly melodramatic storyline develops into something much, much more. Led by a stunning performance from Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone covers the gamut of expressive resonance. There are moments of great joy and terrible sadness, scenes fraught with tension placed right next to moments of compassion.

Director Jacques Audiard, whose previous work, A Prophet (2009), was one of the most lauded films of that particular year, manages to balance this assortment of sentiment superbly. The film is also notable for having what I feel to be the greatest single sequence of any film last year, as Stéphanie, Cotillard’s disabled whale trainer, comes to terms with her condition and begins to move on by going back, remembering what she loves and acting on it, all to her signature song.


Amour (dir. Michael Haneke) - #4

For Amour, German filmmaker Michael Haneke took home last year’s Palme d’Or for best picture at the Cannes Film Festival (his second such honor; sixth time nominated) and it now has the distinction of being nominated for five Academy Awards: best picture, foreign language film, director, original screenplay, and lead actress. Several organizations worldwide have already chosen it as the best film of the year.

That said, I’m noting nothing new when I also proclaim Amour to be an amazing, heartbreaking and powerful movie. It may also be one of the greatest films I am in no big hurry to watch again, as it is truly a demanding (yet highly rewarding) experience. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva star as an eighty-something husband and wife who struggle to deal with the latter’s recent stroke and her subsequent deterioration and death.

Haneke has never made films that were always easy to watch, and Amour is no exception. Here, he maintains an observational distance, but it is an unflinching one. We are simultaneously drawn to and troubled by the level of intimacy granted. The discomfort while watching Amour doesn’t derive - like some Haneke’s past work - from overtly disturbing content. Instead, the tragic normality is most affecting.

Alps (dir. Giorgos Lanthimos) - #3

Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), one of the most extraordinary films in recent memory, was a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, Alps, just the Greek director’s third solo feature, comes pretty close to matching that film for daring and originality.

Like Dogtooth, Alps is notable first and foremost for its unusual plot: A group of individuals, each code-named for a mountain in the Alps, take on a side job of impersonating someone recently deceased. Friends and family hire them to fill that vacant spot until the grieving process is over. Typically, despite the obvious, all goes well and this seems to help. Inevitably though, the charade goes too far and the professional distance is broken down.

Filled with the absurd, the comic and the tragic, Alps can be as bizarrely disquieting as it is hilariously amusing. We can’t believe what we’re seeing at times, but it’s all so mesmerizing and distinctive - stylistically and substantively - that we’re enthralled all the same. This approach, while typifying Lanthimos’ work, also seems to be spreading throughout his homeland, as Attenberg (2010), a good film in its own right (and one in which Lanthimos actually stars), seems to attest to. It has some glaring similarities, but lacks something of the visual appeal and wit of Dogtooth and Alps

The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr) - #2

The great Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, one of the most distinctive and astonishing directors of the past few decades, has declared The Turin Horse to be his final film. If that is indeed the case, he chose an excellent conclusion to a remarkable career.

In many ways, this is Tarr’s most intimate film, and his most narrowly focused. Several of his features contain just a handful of characters, but here we’re essentially dealing only with the farmer Ohlsdorfer and his daughter for the entire film, most of which takes place in and around their small, isolated house existing in a wind- and rain-swept rural expanse of land, typical of Tarr’s scenic preferences.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in Turin, had apparently at one point protected the titular horse from abuse. Now, this father and daughter use the horse to cart items in and out of town. However, the horse is growing old and weak, and with that realization also comes the awareness that these two farmers will not be able to sustain their current existence.

As with much of Tarr’s work, the plot is sparse and the images are immaculate. The long takes, some going on for several minutes at a time, are hauntingly beautiful in their black and white composition. Minute details are deliberately lingered upon until they take on surprising resonance. The Turin Horse, done in collaboration with long-time associates Ágnes Hranitzky and László Krasznahorkai, is one of Tarr’s best … hopefully it won’t be his last.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film continues his trend of making extraordinary and wholly original movies. The Master is also his most complex and baffling feature. A film like this can easily frustrate, but for those willing to step outside of the norm, it can also be immensely satisfying.

The story revolves around a naval officer Freddie Quell, played remarkably by Joaquin Phoenix, who finds himself adrift in his post-World War II life. Through the course of his meandering travels, he encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of The Cause, a sort of religion that is in many ways a not-too-thinly-veiled take-off on Scientology. Quell’s involvement with Dodd and his parishioners grows ever more tense and complicated as he struggles with his own eccentricities.

Gorgeously shot (but rarely shown) in near-defunct 70 mm, The Master is as visually arresting as it is engaging in its plot construction. Quell’s actions and his thoughts (many rendered subjectively by Anderson) are frequently inexplicable, and the film follows this erratic form more than it necessarily strives for overt continuity. There is no simplistic narrative thread running through The Master; like Quell, the audience has to find its own meanings and reasons. Also like for Quell, the journey here is paramount, even if we’re not quite sure where we end up.

2012 - Runners up

End of Watch (dir. David Ayer)
The Kid With A Bike (dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
Twixt (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)
The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Loktev)
The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)
A Royal Affair (dir. Nikolaj Arcel)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Paperboy (dir. Lee Daniels)

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