1) Oslo, August 31st
The best film I had on this list for 2011 was Take Shelter. That remained the case up until I saw Steve McQueen’s Shame, starring Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender’s penis. Apparently, I’ve got a thing for character-driven thought pieces about addiction, because my favorite film of 2012 is about a recovering heroin addict. Anders Danielsen Lie keeps it in his pants for a terrific lead performance and I was more emotionally invested in this character’s story than any other this year.
2) Holy Motors
If one was looking for a film this year that featured humor, horror, a prosthetic stiffy, hair-eating, and Kylie Minogue, one need look no further than Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. It combines visually fantastical sequences with quasi-episodic storytelling and is highlighted by the wildest performance this year from Denis Lavant (sorry, Joaquin). It’s a dense slab of meta-cinema and its arthouse touches will leave a lot of people cold, but I found it to be one of the richest and most rewarding theater experiences in recent years.
3) This Must Be the Place
Just when I’d forgotten just how terrific Sean Penn can be as a leading man, he goes and gets transformative on us in Paolo Sorrentino’s English-language feature debut. Beyond some awesome David Byrne concert footage and a great performance from Frances McDormand, this is a beautifully shot film that you’ll wish you could hang on the living room wall. There are images from the last 20 minutes that are still etched in my memory.
Michael Haneke does raw and real like few other directors, and this one packs a wallop. Beyond Emmanuelle Riva’s stellar performance, the movie is well-paced and the direction is terrific. The camera barely leaves the apartment in which the couple resides and there’s an almost complete absence of recorded music. This is the end-of-life movie to rule them all. You might want to go out for something cheery like ice cream or whiskey afterwards.
If, for some wild reason, Takashi Miike decided to do nothing but samurai period pieces for the rest of his career, we’d be all the richer for it. This remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 masterpiece is in good hands. Miike doesn’t shy away from silent moments, he composes his shots beautifully, and handles the emotional qualities of his characters with purpose and care. The first and final acts are incredible filmmaking.
6) The Raid: Redemption
Respectfully, anyone who says this film was by-the-numbers or anything other than a huge step forward for action film might need to give it a rewatch or ten. This features some of the most inventive and sadistic fight choreography in years, with heaps of tension laced between. I look forward to Iko Uwais and Gareth Evans making films together for the next decade and trying to top what was accomplished with this landmark work.
7) Zero Dark Thirty
Due in part to the universal praise this film received, I’ll have to admit that I was chilly on Kathryn Bigelow’s newest joint. The real-life events on which the film is based were so fresh that this reeked of too-soon sensationalism, and I couldn’t help but feel that this was going to be another two-hour commercial for U.S. military might. I couldn’t have been more wrong, though. The film cooks like the finest of police procedurals at a rolling boil for a good 110 minutes before a tense and shadowy climax. Chastain is terrific and you can forgive a few of the WTF cameos because the movie is that good. Captain Jack Harkness AND Scott Adkins?
8) Killer Joe
I haven’t seen The Paperboy yet, so for the time being, this remains my favorite Matthew McConaughey film of the year. His performance as the titular Joe is nuanced and layered, and recalled the menacing and gentlemanly balance on display in Robert Mitchum’s role in The Night of the Hunter. William Friedkin shifts between sleazy and silly tones effortlessly, nudging the audience to alternate between winces and laughter throughout.
9) How to Survive a Plague
The story and struggle of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power and its activist efforts during the early days of the AIDS crisis is powerful, sad, and uplifting all at once. I was especially surprised by the film’s heavy reliance on primary-source archival footage of the group’s meetings and demonstrations. It’s a testament to how well ACT-UP documented itself that the narrative cohesion would have suffered in the absence of it. As a burgeoning professional in the field of archives, it was a personal affirmation that yes, preserving history for future audiences is really fucking important.
10) The Kid with a Bike
There were few debut performances from child actors better than Quvenzhané Wallis this year, but Thomas Doret as the restless, abandoned character of Cyril was one of them. All the layers of this boy’s hurt -- rage, sadness, and distrust -- are peeled back and made palpable by skillful direction from the Dardenne brothers and Doret’s steely demeanor. This one hit all the right emotional beats for me and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little dust in the room during the last 15 minutes of this film.
The Best of the Rest
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
End of Watch
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
5 Broken Cameras
Sleepwalk with Me
John Dies at the End
Searching for Sugar Man
The Deep Blue Sea
Cannibal Warlords of Liberia
Safety Not Guaranteed
The Loneliest Planet
Beasts of the Southern Wild