Top 10-ish Films of 2012 (Pierre Badiola)

10. Tabu

A jarringly bifurcated, black and white (figuratively and literally) tale of old world, colonial romance and modern alienation. Miguel Gomes charts the vast chasm between the passion of youth and the dulling of the twilight years with a spare eye and dryly comic ear for storytelling, which seems equal parts Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismäki. Merits a second viewing, especially if your first is at one of those dingy screens in Leicester Square ODEON where the film looks like it’s being projected from a 240p stream on YouTube.

9. The Descendants / We Bought A Zoo (tie)

Two very early January/March releases that may have slipped under the end-of-year radar kicked 2012 off to a thoroughly heart-warming start. Both films—one being set in Hawaii and the other in Southern California—seemed to radiate sunlight and sentimentality in a way that only American films can, with US independent cinema linchpins Alexander Payne and Cameron Crowe approaching themes of love, loss and starting afresh from opposite yet totally complimentary sides of the dramedy divide.

8. Killer Joe

The unforgettable last 20 minutes of this Tracy Letts penned and William Friedkin (The Exorcist) directed film is why I go to the cinema. Letts seems incapable of resolving his plays without some kind of “CANNOT UNSEE” moment, and that matches Friedkin’s unflinching cinematic ferocity to a tee. Putting crazy people into confined spaces and watching the pot boil over appears to be their fucked up calling.

7. Girl Model

An eye-opening and deeply unsettling documentary on the lives of two thirteen year-old girls who are snapped up by a scouting agency and flown to Japan unaccompanied, where they are thrust into the belly of the emotionally taxing, morally ambiguous and borderline unregulated world of teen modelling. A great companion piece to Sara Ziff’s Picture Me on the subtle or just plain unseen abuses so commonplace in the industry. Unfortunately, for many, this will all be business as usual.

6. Moonrise Kingdom

The maestro of minutiae takes on a rollicking adventure of prepubescent romance and al fresco camping, all framed within the fastidiously regimented world of American boy scouts. Unusually for him, Anderson’s adult characters are quite emotionally thin this go around, but Moonrise Kingdom’s bounty of texture (Super-16 grain), timing and nuance is an undoubtedly prestige spectacle.

5. Amour

Haneke affixes his firmly analytical and apolitical gaze to the finality of death, but any sorrow or sympathy you may feel from watching the slow mental and physical disintegration of Emmanuelle Riva’s Anne will be incidental. He doesn’t give the film room to indulge in the pain on display — there are no sappy strings or reassuring morals to ease the tragedy. There is life, and then there isn’t. Besides some of the year’s most heartbreaking performances from Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour offers a pair of closing metaphors that rank right up there as some of Haneke’s best and most affecting moments.

4. Holy Motors

Leos Carax’s ambitious and loony rumination on the mosaic of life can almost be seen as an analogue to Charlie Kaufman’s impossibly complex maze of livelihoods, Synecdoche, New York — both deal with personas as coping mechanisms; personas of personas; what happens when one persona can’t sustain the next, or is completely supplanted by the next; or maybe that you were neither of those personas in the first place? It’s an existential tangle that in both Carax and Kaufman’s case is inexorably tied to the plight of the actor. But no matter how many times identities may fold in on themselves (Carax references a lot of his past work throughout the film, and even stars in the beginning), it’s simply a one-of-a-kind ride; stream of consciousness cinema about cinema.

3. Polisse / Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (tie)

A police procedural duo that could not be further apart: One riled, rough and beautifully messy in Maiwenn’s hard-hitting child victim drama Polisse, and the other calm, ponderous, almost tortuously event-less. It’s a good cop/bad cop routine that rubs in different directions but yields the same thrilling results.

2. The Life of Pi / The Turin Horse (tie)

This is my 2012 Tree of Life/Melancholia dichotomy. Yann Martel and Ang Lee pull towards the soul while Bela Tarr once again reminds me of the distance. Lee’s vibrant and eye-popping digital sets a new standard for 3D filmmaking, while Martel’s story loads an impressive number of layers into a humanist parable about parables, which may or may not try to sell you on the idea of God (or, at least, the edifying power of figuration). But Tarr’s black and white 35mm grain, with the potency of paint stripper, pares everything down to mostly show humans just walking foolhardy against the wind.

1. The Master

A tent-pole release for cinema-as-performance, but Anderson’s increasing openness to arrhythmic patterns, both psychological and cinematic in nature, makes him one of the most truly arresting and stylistically audacious filmmakers working today. The Master was imperfect, but it left me hoping that his next film would be even more so.

Pierre Badiola