Friday 4 January 2013

The Year's Favourites - 2012

I did a much better job of seeing most of the current mainstream "Best Of" contenders this year than in previous ones, but there's still scads of titles I've missed. Out of the big names, Zero Dark Thirty, Life Of Pi and The Impostor are the most egregious holes, but there are also plenty of other titles that have made a variety of end-of-year lists that still intrigue me: The Invisible War, Tabu, This Is Not A Film, Barbara, Berberian Sound Studio, Beyond The Hills, Blancanieves, The Hunt, Rebelle, Robot And Frank and Sightseers just for starters. Granted, a good chunk of these were festival films and will likely have screenings in 2013 to make them candidates for next year's list, but I could have seen them in 2012...Still I'm pretty happy with my list of 20 favourites - solid top to bottom.

As I mentioned in my favourites of 2011 post, I'm often unsure as to whether I should include film festival screenings in my list since they typically won't be available to wider audiences until the following year. A good chunk of the films below are from festivals and they haven't seen the light of day otherwise (at least not locally in Toronto). Additionally, there are worthy titles that are making many lists that I counted as 2011 films: The Raid, Samsara, Oslo August 31st, The Kid With A Bike, ALPS and the best film of the past 2 years Cafe De Flore. You won't see them on this list.

Therefore, below is simply a personal list of the films that excited me, moved me and stuck with me this past year...

1. Moonrise Kingdom

I'm predisposed at this point to like Wes Anderson films, but even that bias doesn't quite explain why I fell head over heels for this gem of a film. It's not just his perfectly composed frames, but also the wonderfully realized characters that populate them. I know they leave some people cold, but to me all those quirks come directly from the characters - they don't define them. That made the entire film (and especially the two central kids) completely charming.

2. Stories We Tell

Sara Polley's extraordinarily personal documentary on her roots is not only captivating, emotional and surprising, but it examines and plays with the concepts of how we remember events from our lives and how we turn them into stories.

3. Django Unchained

It's bloody, it's brutal, it's disturbing and I completely understand those who think it lacks in taste. My goodness it's a lot of fun though. Christoph Waltz is indeed King.

4. Skyfall

See what happens when you find that perfect balance between old Bond and new Bond? You get the best action movie of the year. It's also one of the prettiest.

5. Rhino Season

Bahman Ghobadi's film about a Kurdish/Iranian poet imprisoned for thirty years (based around a true story) has more astonishing moments per reel than many directors have their entire careers. It also shows the incredible depths of selfishness and cruelty humans can have towards each other. During a post-film Q&A Ghobadi's account of the real life portions of the story and his inability to return to his country of birth brought me to tears.

6. Tchoupitoulas

Though I've only been to New Orleans twice in my life (pre-Katrina), both were experiences to cherish. Teeming with music and joie de vivre, the city sparkles in the evenings. The Ross Brothers documentary of a group of brothers exploring Century City at night has no real narrative or even an accurate timeline - but what it gives is an overwhelming feeling of the experience. And it's simply wondrous.

7. First Comes Love

Have I mentioned that I like deeply personal documentaries about the director's own lives? Nina Davenport's look at the story of her quest to become a single mother (at the age of forty) is one of the best examinations of the joys and pitfalls of becoming a parent that I've seen. If you're feeling a bit down about the state of humanity, this will rejuvenate your faith.

8. Looper

I found that a lot of criticism of Looper focused on "too much time on the farm, too little with Willis and Gordon-Levitt". I wouldn't want either of those ratios changed a bit - the two stars are great together, but turning this into a buddy picture would've ruined its entire premise. In the end, the full arc of the story and its theme of learning how to sacrifice was completely satisfying. If you were worrying about plot holes or time-travel paradoxes, you missed the best stuff.

9. Argo

Not to focus again on the criticism aimed at a film, but I do completely understand the points raised against Argo regarding the narrow picture we see of Iran and its people. But given that the film focuses on the hostages and their rescuers, I found that it represented how those people at that time would have viewed the situation. In that light, I can accept the biased no-shades-of-grey portrayals. I also can't ignore how vastly entertaining it is.

10. Key Of Life

Kenji Uchida's Key Of Life was just pure enjoyment from start to end as it took the well-worn idea of people switching identities and crafts a continually surprising story about doing things for the right reasons. Its finely tuned characters always manage to stay true to themselves and I can't think of a single misstep the movie made.

11. Vivan Las Antipodas!

Director and cinematographer Victor Kossakovsky takes delight in comparing and contrasting 4 sets of Earth's antipodes (land based locations on opposites sides of the planet to each other) by playing with transitions between scenes and locations. Using tricks like rotating cameras upside down and visually rhyming his edits. he provides a joyful sense of connection between locations while also pointing out some great disparities. In the end, the film manages to tie the entire planet together.

12. Dreams For Sale

A subtle and surprising film that charts the con games a couple use against a variety of women to "borrow" large sums of cash. Takako Matsu gives one of the best performances of the year as the wife determined to restore their finances after their business was destroyed in a fire. Meanwhile, as her husband starts to understand how to truly be a sensitive person, their own relationship slowly disintegrates. Rich in character detail, the film never forces you to take sides.

13. Call Girl

A terrific "based on true events" account of a prostitution scandal that almost toppled the Swedish government in the 1970s. The look and feel of the film is pure gorgeous, grainy 70s and it perfectly captures that spirit of the paranoid-70s-espionage-thriller. That style puts you constantly on edge by favouring slow zooms on characters and a pulsing score. If the sound of tampered evidence, corruption running high and a principled cop against the system strikes you as familiar, consider that it is simply existing within the parameters of the genre - and doing so brilliantly.

14. The Secret World Of Arrietty

Simply lovely on every level. One of the widest and brightest colour palettes Studio Ghibli has ever used (and it's not like they shy away from colour) and chock full of the endless creativity and wonder that defines their animated films. If it felt a bit too short, it's just because you didn't want it to end.

15. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

One of the most remarkable aspects of the story of Ai Weiwei's unwavering commitment and courage towards his art and his country is how collaborative he is in all aspects of his life - in how he creates, in how he protests and in how he provokes. He's inspired and inspirational.

16. Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

Like Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants (Stacy Peralta's previous skateboard documentary and his surfing one respectively), you don't have to have any nostalgic reverence for or knowledge of the people or events involved within Bones Brigade. The film provides fan and non-fan alike an entertaining, oddly emotional and well laid out story with surprisingly interesting central characters. Peralta's films document not just the sport and the excitement of seeing the impossible before your eyes, but the stories of some fascinating individuals. Isn't that what the best documentaries do?

17. 21 Jump Street

I'm still surprised at how much I enjoyed 21 Jump Street. I had few expectations, but laughed louder and longer than probably any other movie this past year. Juvenile? Oh, for sure. But it treats its silly behaviour in reasonably intelligent ways and creates characters that you genuinely really like. It also plays with the concepts of second chances at high school, role reversals and being open to change. Not bad for a supposed remake of an 80s TV series.

18. Shanghai

The Indian political thriller Shanghai (named so because of Mumbai's desperate wish to copy Shanghai's growth and become a modern city) fully lived up to its pedigree. When you set out to make a film of the book Z - especially after Costa Gavras has already made his own exquisite version - you better know your conspiracies. And that the filmmakers do - incorporating the issues of modern day India and all of its own political quirks, the film has a keen feel for delivering just enough information to keep you completely immersed in the storylines that intersect.

19. Headhunters

It took me awhile to get around to this Norwegian crime thriller, but it was still as fresh as when everyone else saw it in 2011. Even though its central character is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief while also juggling a wife and mistress, you still manage to empathize with him when things start unraveling after his most recent and biggest theft. A tricky premise handled with loads of cleverness and a deft touch.

20. Sleepwalk With Me

Sneaking in under the wire (I saw it with 3 days left in the year), Mike Birbiglia's "small" indie showed me more finely drawn characters per scene than most franchises have over the span of all their sequels. Oh, and it's very funny too.

20 Honourable Mentions:

Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Penance, Brave, 7 Boxes, The Thieves, The We And The I, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Indie Game The Movie, Wasteland, Premium Rush, Silver Linings Playbook, Holy Motors, American Mary, Citadel, Safety Not Guaranteed, Killing Them Softly, Magic Mike, Beware Of Mr. Baker, Crave, Resolution


James McNally said...

Great list, as always, Bob. A few I definitely need to track down soon, and we mostly agree on those I've seen (well, except for Skyfall).

Bob Turnbull said...

Oh right, you weren't big on Skyfall were you...Fair enough. Hit on all cylinders for me. I do admit that I'm a sucker for cinematography like that...

Dan said...

Bob, this is an excellent list. What I like is finding out about smaller films that I knew nothing about, and there were a bunch of them here. I'm really looking forward to checking out some of your choices, particularly Tchoupitoulas and First Comes Love. I also had Moonrise Kingdom at #1, so you obviously have great taste. All kidding aside, nice job!

Bob Turnbull said...

My sincere apologies for not answering this comment sooner Dan - especially since you were so kind. If you ever catch up with Tchoupitoulas or First Comes Love, please let me know - truly wonderful films.

And yeah, we have refined tastes don't we...B-) I'll post some comments on your own list in your post.