Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Nuri Belge Ceylan’s methodically paced depiction of a nearly inept crime scene investigation in the Turkish outlands is a wonderful surprise for the patient film fan. While on the surface, the film is about the search for and maintenance of a murdered corpse, through the prolonged conversations between an autopsy doctor and a prosecutor, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia shrewdly reveals itself to be (despite the implicit grandiosity of the title) a unique examination of cultivating a life made up of non-events: lawyers and doctors similarly devote their lives to deconstructing and reassembling lived moments rather than witnessing such moments in the present. An unpretentiously insightful and gorgeously photographed film about life on the margins of experience, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a profoundly honest work of cinematic poetry.
Take This Waltz
Another year, another great performance from Michelle Williams. Perhaps more than any other film in 2012, Sarah Polley’s sophomore directing effort has stuck in my mind; not only because it’s a well-acted, poignantly straightforward depiction of falling in love while committed to someone else, but because it does so without resorting to pessimistic good guy/bad guy patterns that films about infidelity almost always reduce such a complex topic to. Take This Waltz is a bit shaggy here and there, but I can’t think of another film about emotional infidelity that’s this good since David Lean’s Brief Encounter (and yes, that includes this year’s The Deep Blue Sea).
Oslo, August 31st
When Joachim Trier’s second feature-length film won several top awards at the 2011 Stockholm Film Festival, Whit Stillman called the film “a perfectly painted portrait of a generation.” While I can’t say for certain whether or not this quiet, unassuming, heartbreaking little masterpiece captures an era, this story of a heroin addict trying to get his life back together certainly moved me like no other film this year. At several points tragic, incisively comic, emotionally wrenching, and aesthetically perfect, Oslo, August 31st is a triumph that balances masterful storytelling, complex and relevant social themes, an intense array of emotions, and some of the most beautiful and wrenching images you’ll see in a film this year.
This Is Not a Film & Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
I know it’s cheating a bit to credit these two films as one, but this pair of documentaries about provocative media artists in disparate corners of the globe speaks to the enduring potential of personal expression to speak truth to intimidating regimes of power. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s urgent work of self-documentation during house arrest captures the insatiable urge of a filmmaker to tell stories despite incredible limitations better than any film about filmmaking in recent memory, and Alison Klayman’s documentary about famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei paints an inspiring, maddening, and thorough portrait of art as social activism in the age of surveillance and social media. While the offerings of the multiplex are more repetitive than ever, these films serve as an important reminder that cinema can still shock, subvert, and act as a vessel for social change.
Whatever writer/director Leos Carax has been up to in the thirteen-year interim since his last feature film, the images and ideas he’s accumulated during the wait have been well worth it. Simultaneously a barely legible Dada-anarchist ode to cinema, a showcase for veteran actor and Carax-muse Denis Lavant’s incredible talents, and a joyously self-destructive amalgamation of ideas about technology, everyday human performance, music, and 21st century sexuality, Holy Motors resists coherence just as it bursts at the seams with an overflow of sometimes-conflicting meanings and visions. It also has some of the most effective visual gags in any film this year. Holy Motors is a vision of brash, irreverent originality all too appropriate for the apocalyptic year of 2012.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The best thing about cinema is the way it can take so many different art forms, like photography, writing, music, and acting, and smash them all together into a rich experience that’s even greater than the sum of its parts. Most movies do one or two things well, but Beasts of the Southern Wild is the sort of rare experience that combines beautiful imagery with harrowing human drama, music that sweeps you away, and affecting performances that put you in someone else’s shoes. It’s able to make all of these things work in concert with one another, which elevates them and creates an almost overwhelming sensory and emotional experience. It’s the kind of art that gets inside of you and fiddles with the way you feel, which makes it one of the best movies of the year.
The Silver Linings Playbook
The handful of standard formulas that are utilized by modern movies were first developed and continue to be used, quite simply, because they work. We usually think of movies being “formulaic” as being a bad thing, but that’s because filmmakers too often rely solely on the benefits of a standard formula and allow craftsmanship to fall by the wayside. With The Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell has proven that as long as you create characters people care about, stick to the fundamentals of good movie-making, and inject the proceedings with enough personality, following the patterns of a proven formula can be one of the most effective ways to create an emotional response in your audience. The Silver Linings Playbook is a pretty straight romantic comedy, but it’s one of the best romantic comedies there is. And, in addition to the way it builds to a big payoff and then delivers, this one features a couple of attention-worthy performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as well.
Not all great movies rely so heavily on storytelling. Some of them are more focused on meditating on a moment and being an emotional experience the viewer processes right alongside the characters. Michael Haneke’s Amour is that sort of movie, and it’s a doozie. While the subject matter here lends the material a little more sentimentality than you usually get in Haneke’s work, this tale of an elderly man taking care of his dying wife could still be described by using words like “clear headed” and “unflinching.” The director’s camera sits you right next to this woman’s suffering, his conservative editing forces you to linger in the moment, and the experience is one you won’t be able to shake for quite a while. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, also, give two of the very best performances of the year.
The Avengers takes The Silver Linings Playbook’s adherence to formula and Amour’s commitment to emotional experience and combines them to create the sort of film that’s a summer blockbuster in all the best ways. This movie follows a very standard alien invasion plot, but it does it competently enough to build to an action climax that feels like a big moment. And once the big battle at the end takes place, it’s such a thrilling experience that injects so much adrenaline into your system that it’s not hard to imagine why describing big summer movies as being “roller coaster rides” has become such an oft-used cliche. Also, it can’t be stated enough how much writer/director Joss Whedon’s wit and ability to give his characters unique voices works to elevate this one above being just another superhero movie.
Your Sister’s Sister
Your Sister’s Sister is the small sort of story that rarely makes enough impact to show up on year-end lists. It’s basically just a movie where three people spend a weekend together in one location and talk, about their relationships, their hangups, etc… But the three-way chemistry that its stars, Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt are able to conjure together, and the way writer/director Lynn Shelton is able to make sure that a casually paced, improvisation-heavy movie always remains funny and always keeps moving its modest story forward without straying too far to the side or lingering too long on any one moment proves to be enough to make it greater than the sum of its parts, head and shoulders above most of the features that get labeled “mumblecore” movies, and one of the best films I saw all year.