2012 in film was a year defined by ambiguity and ambivalence. I don’t mean that to sound disparaging – on the contrary, some of the most engaging films of the year are defined by their elusiveness, their unwillingness to define the statements they are trying to make. Thusly many of the year’s biggest films have been met with considerable divisiveness amongst critics, and have left me perplexed. Whereas last year there were four or five films that blew off my head, more often than not this year I’ve left the cinema scratching it. It’ll take me a couple more viewings of Holy Motors and The Master and The Turin Horse before I can really feel that I can say definitively if they are the masterpieces that so many people see in them, but that’s a good thing – film should challenge and defy expectations, it should encourage dialogue and discussion.
It has also been one of the finest years for documentaries I can remember, taking on subjects as diverse as the economic crisis, Iran’s censorship laws, Chile’s painful history, and filmmaking itself, whilst still finding time to tell gripping real-life yarns like that of The Imposter with flair. It was a great year for genre film too, with The Cabin in the Woods, Premium Rush, The Raid, Sleepless Night and especially Dredd 3D all deserving honorable mentions. And while I thus far missed many of the films that have made other people’s lists – I am particularly sad about having missed Tabu, Barbara, Laurence Anyways, Sightseers and The Hunt – the films that do make it are all of them bold and daring efforts, many of them from first-time directors. Film may be dying, but cinema isn’t.
10. House of Tolerance
Supposedly set in fin de siècle Paris but really set in its own dreamworld outside of any real time and place, Bertrand Bonello’s sumptuous visual feast hides its teeth behind the blood-red drapes and inky black recesses of the brothel. Possessing the strongest sense of place and some of the most striking images of the year, House of Tolerance is a period drama by a stylist concerned with 21st Century, its closing images of prostitutes on modern Parisian streets underlining what he’s been saying all along: the dream may seem intoxicating, but the reality is harsh and sobering.
Not as much of a cold bucket of water as Giorgos Lanthimos’s previous film, the brilliant Dogtooth, but this tale of a group of people who play the passed-away loved-ones in significant moments in their clients lives is a potent exploration of shifting identities and the ways we try to find to connect with each other. Possessing the same pitch-black humour and sudden bursts of violence of his previous film but softening his tone somewhat, Alps establishes Lanthimos as one of the most unique and important voices in cinema.
8. Martha Marcy May Marlene
The most disquieting film of the year, Martha Marcy May Marlene gets under your skin by getting into the mind of its three-times titular character as it falls apart. Sean Durkin’s debut film is a tour-de-force of editing as the film fractures and disintegrates until you have no idea where or when anything is taking place. It could have been a disaster without a powerful central performance to anchor the whole thing, and Elizabeth Olsen gives just that, her both searching and vacant eyes betraying the storm that roaring behind them.
7. Nostalgia for the Light
The central parallel between the stars in the night sky above the Atacama Desert and the countless lives lost and disappeared by Pinochet’s dictatorship is what drives Nostalgia for the Light, and Patricio Guzman manages to take what could be a hokey, patronising concept and turn it into a powerful, intensely moving metaphor. The immense pain that the people of Chile have suffered through is documented in rigorous and respectful detail, and by pairing it with the search to solve the mysteries of the universe he finds a way to process that pain into something positive and life-affirming without ever diminishing its horror.
6. The Queen of Versailles
It’s human nature to look for symbolism in the everyday, but so many of the images in The Queen of Versailles are so potent that it’s a wonder that it isn’t a creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald. As the Siegel’s multi-million pound mansion is left to decay and their home gets filled with dead lizards and dogshit in the wake of the recession, one is tempted to call it poetic justice, but Laura Greenfield is a sympathetic enough to never fully laugh in their faces, she is instead more interested in drawing the lines between them and the countless others ruined by the economic collapse. The result is a documentary about a very real crisis viewed through a funhouse mirror, as grotesque as it is timely.
Michael Haneke’s film about decay and dying is bleak to say the least, but the indignities suffered by Emmanuelle Riva in Amour are the indignities suffered by people all over the world, everywhere, that we are prone to shying away from. By depicting her decline with a clinical, but nonetheless respectful, detachment, Haneke seeks to say nothing more than “this happens”, but when it concerns something so vital and so often avoided, that is as grand a statement as they come.
Not for everyone to say the least, but those who respond to Exision’s particular brand of body-horror/teen drama mash-up will fall for it hard. Richard Bates, Jr. takes the film language of late 90s teen horrors like The Faculty and May and using it to tell the deeply personal and surprisingly heartfelt story of a seriously fucked-up kid and the family that doesn’t know how to deal with her. Anchored by daring, passionate performances from AnnaLyn McCord and Traci Lords, and featuring some gleefully campy cameos from John Waters and Malcolm McDowell, Excision is one the weirdest, most abrasive films about familial love and mental illness I’ve seen all year.
3. The Kid With a Bike
As effortless and humane a tale as we’ve come to expect from the Dardennes, The Kid With a Bike is, in it’s own quiet way, the most moving and passionate film of the year. As with any Dardenne film, the story of Thomas Doret’s angry, eleven-year-old Cyril and the woman who wants to save him isn’t without its allegorical implications, but it’s the effortless way they integrate these into an entirely realist milieu, never overstating or underlining any point, instead letting their characters and story speak for themselves.
2. This is Not a Film
For a film (or not) that seems so slight, This is Not a Film is about so many things, from Iran’s oppressive censorship laws, to the tenuous line between fiction and reality, to filmmaking itself, as a political force and a vital medium of self expression. As Jafar Panahi guides Mojtaba Mirtahmasb around his tiny apartment, talking him through films he’s made and trying to guide him through the future films he is banned from making, the film takes on a profound sense of frustration, not just because he is being censored but because the act of filmmaking is so crucial to the way Panahi sees the world around him. The final 30 minutes are the most graceful, powerful thing I’ve seen all year, as filmmaking itself becomes his method of escape before settling on an image of celebration that could double as an image of protest.
About Elly is not the most important film of the year. It is not the most daring, or the most innovative, or the most exploratory. No, About Elly is my number one film of 2012 because it does what it does so well. Though it’s not as devastating as his later A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s 2009 film, released here this year, is still so most skillfully plotted, so perfectly executed, as to inspire awe. Put simply, About Elly is the best film of the year because it is just so good. The moral conundrums and twists and turns that make up its plot could so easily have descended into sloppy farce in less skilled hands, but Farhadi is careful to make sure that every development is rooted in his characters and the painfully restrictive social etiquette that they must bow to. The eventual scrubbing away of the tangled web of lies that defines the film’s act is as cleansing as it is emotionally draining, leaving you feeling exhausted and gratified. As with A Separation, the nature of truth is Farhadi’s main concern – luckily, he’s smart enough to know that truth is an objective thing.