Best Films of 2012

Last updated January 3, 2013

Favorite Commercial Releases

I’ve seen about 45 films that had a one-week theatrical release in NYC in 2012. Of those I’ve missed, only a few have a chance of making my top 10 (Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film is the best bet), so I’ll edit this list if need be as I catch up with the stragglers on DVD.

A quick word about my favorite film of the year. Soon after the pivotal scene in The Loneliest Planet, I realized the main characters are named Alex and Nica, and I began to sob — so much so that I worried the strangers seated on either side of me would think I was a crazy person. Aside from the emails we exchanged, I never knew Alexis Tioseco or Nika Bohinc, a young couple, both of them film critics, who were murdered in 2009, and I understand that the similarity between their names and those of Jula Loktev’s characters is a simple coincidence. But that one strange resonance was all it took to release the emotional pressure that had been building within me for the previous hour.

The Loneliest Planet might be my favorite film about marriage ever because it stages the potential destruction of Alex and Nica’s relationship as a tragedy of the highest order. How many other films can make that claim? A Woman Under the InfluenceDon’t Look NowSunrise? But the genius of Loktev’s film is that the drama is so quietly self-contained and so rich in gestures. I don’t know much about much, but I’ve now spent exactly half of my life with the same person, and if I was overwhelmed by The Loneliest Planet it’s because I recognized in it so many of the intimate struggles of marriage — the stupid shame, petty fantasies, and fumbling reconciliations. And also, of course, the joy and pleasure. The Loneliest Planet is so good because so much — everything, really — is at stake.

I wrote more about The Loneliest Planet after seeing it at TIFF 2011.

  1. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
  2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  3. Barbara (Christian Petzold)
  4. Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman)
  5. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
  6. The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo)
  7. A Burning Hot Summer (Philippe Garrel)
  8. Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)
  9. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  10. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho)


August and After

Favorite Unreleased Films

Films I saw in 2012 that haven’t yet been released theatrically in the States. I suspect a few of them will also appear on my list of favorite commercial releases of 2013. I wrote about most of them in my TIFF 2012 report at Senses of Cinema.

  1. August and After (Nathaniel Dorsky)
  2. Viola (Matías Piñeiro)
  3. differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey)
  4. Three Sisters (Wang Bing)
  5. Big in Vietnam (Mati Diop)
  6. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang)
  7. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
  8. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
  9. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel)
  10. Memories of a Morning (José Luis Guerín)


Whirlpool of Fate

Favorite Discoveries

Older films that I saw for the first time in 2012. In chronological order, with a limit of one film per director. I didn’t make enough discoveries this year. Hence, two resolutions for 2013: two old films for every one new one, and at least two silent films each month.

  • Whirlpool of Fate (Jean Renoir, 1925)
  • Zéro de Conduite (Jean Vigo, 1933)
  • Caught (Max Ophuls, 1949)
  • Death in the Garden (Luis Bunuel, 1956)
  • Far from Vietnam (Marker, Godard, Resnais, Klein, Ivens, Varda, and Lelouch, 1967)
  • Le Gai Savoir (Jean-luc Godard, 1969)
  • Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969)
  • Daguerreotypes (Agnes Varda, 1976)
  • The Cry of the Owl (Claude Chabrol, 1987)
  • Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)



Movie Recommendations for People Who Don’t Like the Kinds of Movies I Like

I get especially awkward when people ask me about my favorite movies because I have very particular interests in film. I’m more interested in form (how they’re constructed) than content (what they’re about). My preferences are often esoteric, but I like “regular” movies, too. (Marvel’s The Avengers ranked higher on my year-end list than a lot of important films by important directors.) So this year I’ve decided to offer some additional recommendations. As of January 2, 2013, all of these films are streaming on Netflix in the States.

As fun an action film as you’re likely to find. I watched it four times in three days. Soderbergh released this, Contagion, and Magic Mike all in the span of ten months. Unbelievable.

The Queen of Versailles
Did you hear about the billionaire and his trophy wife who set out to build the biggest home in America? Did you hear about what happened to them after the real estate market collapsed and access to credit evaporated? There’s no reason this documentary should be so good. It should’ve been one more piece of schadenfreude porn, as we in the audience get to laugh bitterly at the troubles of the attention-seeking morons at the center of this story. Instead, The Queen of Versailles manages to dismantle the nation’s obsession with “reality TV” from the inside while also offering a fine critique of the economic policies that allow people like David and Jaqueline Siegel to exist.

How to Survive a Plague and We Were Here
Although We Were Here is technically a 2011 release, it only became widely available this year. It deserves mention because it and Plague benefit from the pairing. Each documents the early years of the AIDS epidemic. We Were Here is an oral history of the nightmare in San Francisco; Plague is about ACT UP in New York. Both are heart-breaking, inspiring, and really well made.

I’m pleased to see Richard Linklater’s Bernie receiving so much attention in year-end critic polls. I don’t blame the distributors for marketing it as a Jack Black comedy, but it’s really something else — although I’m not sure what, exactly, which is probably why so few people saw it. Inspired by the true-life story of a good-hearted, well-loved, thieving murderer, Bernie is less about the title character than about the small Texas community who tell his story and make his myth. A fascinating mash-up of fiction and documentary, satire and earnest affection.

Woman in the Fifth
I mean this as a compliment when I say that Pawel Pawlikowski is a great middlebrow director. The script for this psychological thriller is a bit silly, and the pacing of it might be too slow for some tastes, but this is the kind of film Michael Douglas would have made 20 years ago. Instead, we get Ethan Hawke in the lead role as a quiet novelist who moves to Paris in order to be closer to his daughter and gets caught up in various intrigues. (Come to think of it, I’d be fine with Hawke becoming my generation’s Michael Douglas.) Honestly, the main reason I like Woman in the Fifth so much is because every single shot is immaculate — to a fault.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Marina Abramovich: The Artist is Present, and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Three excellent documentaries about the work and craft of art-making.


Singin' in the Rain

Film Event of the Year

On July 12 I took my two-year-old daughter to her first movie, Singin’ in the Rain. Despite it starting past her bedtime, she stuck it out for the whole thing and clapped after every song. She didn’t mention the experience again until just a few days ago. While I was getting her dressed, I started singing “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and when I finished she smiled and said, “I love that movie!” Santa must have heard because a blu-ray showed up in her stocking.

There was no close second in this category.