Granting Top Films of 2012 blessings to a riveting drama about a troubled boy’s redemption does not imply well-done superhero movies lack any cinematic merit. Very good or better entertainment will always outshine mediocrities aspiring only to liberate one’s disposable income. Yet appreciating entertainment shouldn’t necessarily wall off one’s desire to seek out films that aim for the higher goal of enjoyably challenging one’s beliefs. Cinema has had more than 115 years of existence to constantly redefine its possibilities.
Seeking out such high-aiming films is always an inherently flawed task. When the terrestrial stars lack proper alignment, such 2012 critical darlings as “The Master,” “The Turin Horse” or “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia” slip through one’s viewing net. This Top Films of 2012 list will attempt to offer other films which will stand the judgment of that ultimate critic, Time.
Before the main list is presented, notice must be taken of the films that, in no particular order, fell short of surviving the final cut: THE COLOR WHEEL (2012’s dysfunctional siblings road trip dark comedy of the year); PLAY (A disturbing Swedish film screened at Cinequest about the games our social roles both create for us and trap us in); THIS AIN’T CALIFORNIA (A documentary about East Berlin’s first skateboarding crew, as told by the survivors and their contemporaries); BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (An amazing fantasia about a 6-year-old girl dealing with Hurricane Katrina, ancient prehistoric beasts known as aurochs, and a dying father); A SIMPLE LIFE (Deanie Ip’s amazing performance anchors this heartfelt award-winning tale about the frequently raw deal society visits on the elderly); INVISIBLE (A Jewish Film Festival selection about the consequences of two women discovering their shared bond of victimization by the same serial rapist); DREDD 3-D (The unfairly overlooked adaptation of the famed British comic book about a future supercop in an American megalopolis gone to hell).
Now, in ascending order, the films that did make the cut:
12. In GOODBYE FIRST LOVE, Mia Hansen-Love illuminated the melancholy aspects of the romantic notion of the inability to forget one’s first love. Being grateful for the person who affirmed one’s capacity for love doesn’t necessarily mean letting the loss of that first lover turn into an obsession permanently overshadowing one’s life.
11. Justin Kurzel’s SNOWTOWN (released in the U.S. as “The Snowtown Murders”) chillingly showed how teenage Jamie’s need for a father figure led him to fall under the sway of charismatic serial killer John Bunting. This Australian true crime dramatization focused less on the gore and more on the gradual process by which heinous behavior became an acceptable part of a community.
10. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES documented what happened when a rich couple’s plans to construct a 90,000 square foot mansion collided with the 2008 housing meltdown’s effects on the couple’s fortunes. Lauren Greenfield’s documentary effectively combined compassion for its titular subject with schadenfreude at her family’s gradual fall from their luxurious lifestyle.
9. “Suburbia is an emotional hellhole” may be a familiar fictional theme. But Borunda, the setting of Kjell-Ake Andersson’s Swedish ensemble drama SOMEWHERE ELSE, effectively mixed minimalist character strokes with dark humor in a manner which would have made both Richard Yates and Raymond Carver smile.
8. THE KID WITH A BIKE was equal parts “Pinocchio” tale and fable of redemption. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne created a memorable anti-cinematic child who required viewer effort to empathize with his fears and desires even as his behavior often tried one’s sympathies.
7. Arnon Goldfinger’s simply titled documentary THE FLAT did not prepare the viewer for the complex emotional issues it raised. This enthralling personal tale of unexpected Holocaust guilt and denial challenged the viewer to define their personal boundaries of friendship and forgiveness.
6. OSLO AUGUST 31 was a gripping example of emotional trainwreck cinema. Drawing from the same source material as the Louis Malle classic “The Fire Within,” director Joachim Trier heartbreakingly depicted the unraveling of a former drug addict’s fragile sobriety over the course of a very long day.
5. THIS IS NOT A FILM powerfully captured director Jafar Panahi’s carving out small niches of freedom within the Iranian government’s ban on both his filmmaking and his freedom of movement. The non-film was less a portrait of Panahi’s putting one over on the government and more a witnessing of an artist’s demonstration of his ultimately uncrushed spirit.
4. Craig Zobel’s spectacularly visceral COMPLIANCE challenged America’s post-9/11 authority fetishism. It demanded viewers think about what limits they’d personally place on obeying authority figures. Learning that the film was inspired by an unfortunately true incident made this disturbing film particularly relevant.
3. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE was a passionately angry chronicle of ACT-UP’s ultimately successful fight to overcome the death sentence imposed on those who contracted AIDS. Using rare video footage shot by ACT-UP activists themselves, director David France’s documentary showed how militant LGBTs rose to the occasion by defeating both government and religious hostility plus drug company inertia to save countless LGBTs’ lives.
2. 2012’s best relationship drama was Ira Sachs’ semi-autobiographical KEEP THE LIGHTS ON. Sachs’ portrait of the tormented relationship between a Danish filmmaker and his drug-using lover may not have been easy to watch. But against a backdrop of Arthur Russell’s eclectic musical catalog paired with emotionally and physically explicit moments, the film powerfully demonstrated the limits of love and devotion to save a lover from himself.
1. In the midst of cinema’s transition away from 35 mm film, Leos Carax’ HOLY MOTORS provided 2012’s most memorably dazzling love letter to the art of cinema. Sir Alec Guinness may have played eight different murder victims in the dark comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Favorite Carax lead actor Denis Lavant went Guinness one better in a film which skillfully dipped into nine different movie genres ranging from teenage angst drama to computer animation. Viewers melted their minds deciphering Carax’ film when chuckles weren’t raised over his inspired use of the “Godzilla” theme.