Update: see the top tens of other Keyframe contributors
From start to finish, 2012 boasted films of remarkable variety and splendor; even the worst films of the year had something going for them (In The Hunger Games, it’s the scowl Jennifer Lawrence wears while withstanding lectures by Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz; in The Dark Knight Rises, it’s Ann Hathaway knocking Christian Bale to the floor; in Argo… well never mind).
Here are twelve that stayed with me the most. But not far behind are: Abendland, Attenberg, Barbara, Bernie, Bestiaire, The Color Wheel, Girl Walk // All Day, Life of Pi, Looper, Moonrise Kingdom, The Turin Horse, Two Years at Sea, Whore’s Glory, Woman in the Septic Tank, Wuthering Heights and You Are Here.
And extra special mention to five undistributed films I saw this year that I hope will get deserved exposure in 2013: So Sorry (dir., Ai Weiwei), When Night Falls (dir., Ying Liang), The Three Disappearnces of Soad Hosni (dir., Raina Stephan), Golden Slumbers (dir., Davy Chou) and Jerry and Me (dir., Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa).
Video Essay: Twelve for 2012: The Best Films of the Year
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12. Meanwhile. Hal Hartley’s best film in years, a sharply designed city symphony and picaresque journey through multiple layers of Manhattan society, moving freely within its own rules of space and time.
10. A tie between two of the most curiously constructed films of the year. The Day He Arrives (dir. Hong Sang-soo) is a gentle comedy that explores the mysteries of déjà vu, and how we make meaning out of the patterns we see in everyday life. A Simple Life (dir. Ann Hui) is even more deceptively simple, tracing the slow decline of an elderly housekeeper with minimal melodrama and maximum attention to life’s unexpected moments of grace. In that way, it’s the antidote to that other movie about old people dying, Michael Haneke’s overrated and overserious Amour. Ann Hui treats aging and death with humor, acceptance and the everlasting potential to be surprised by life.
9. There were a lot of heroines in 2012, from Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games to Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, to Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. But my favorite screen heroine is a throwback to the leading lady you’d find in classic Hollywood melodramas. Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea isn’t as steely strong as her peers but her vulnerability reveals great reserves of resolve. She’s directed by Terrence Davies with a breathtaking sensitivity to the sensibilities of a lost time.
8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s masterful odyssey of shadows and light through one dark night of the soul shared between cops and criminals.
Numbers 5 through 7 on my list are all from directors making their feature film debuts.
7. In the Family. An impeccably crafted drama that explores the meaning of family in contemporary America, through the struggles a gay father in Tennessee played by Patrick Wang, who also wrote, directed, and produced the film.
6. Neighboring Sounds. Brazil’s Kleber Mendonca Filho orchestrates an entire apartment complex worth of characters and the secrets they hide from each other.
5. Consuming Spirits. Animation artist Chris Sullivan uses a wholly original gothic style to dig up the skeletons of an Appalachian family, with haunting dialogue that’s worthy of Eugene O’Neill.
4. My favorite American film of the year is Silver Linings Playbook, the most personal film to date by David O. Russell, who may be our generation’s answer to Frank Capra, a director who can channel the social and psychological demons of our time and let us laugh at them, and even find hope in an America that seems built to drive us insane.
3. Over in China, actor-director Jiang Wen pulled off a similar feat with Let the Bullets Fly, a scorching satire of government corruption that somehow passed the censors to become the top grossing Chinese movie of all time, It helps that the film sugarcoats its poison critique in black humor and skillful action scenes, like a Chinese cross between Billy Wilder and Akira Kurosawa.
2. Holy Motors is regarded by many to be the film of the year, and for good reason: it’s got some of the most original and resourceful filmmaking I’ve seen, where director Leos Carax and actor Denis Lavant seem to conjure unforgettable moments out of thin air.
1. This Is Not a Film. It may not even technically be a movie, but no other work this year grappled more thoughtfully with the question of what a movie is and what it’s good for, especially for a man no longer allowed to make them. A day spent with director Jafar Panahi, a political prisoner in his own home, becomes a meditation on the fundamentals of filmmaking, showcasing its greatest assets: imagination, resourcefulness and perseverance. More than just something to watch on a screen, This Is Not a Film is a demonstration of cinema’s liberating power, one that even transcends the screen and ultimately lives in how we see the world. Faced with a life without movies, Panahi proves that cinema truly is a state of mind.
Update: See the top tens of other Keyframe contributors.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.