While I had no trouble whatsoever coming up with a dozen LPs to populate my 2012 year-end music list, I struggled here to find ten films that I felt good enough to include.
Part of the problem was that I saw fewer films this year than in previous years. I watched about 110 films in 2012 of which about 40 were from 2012. But as much as I like to blame myself, I think things are also getting worse in terms of film distribution. The opportunity to see good films in the cinema is decreasing year-by-year, and, as much as I appreciate the Cinematheque here in Winnipeg, they are limited by the conservatism of distributors and unable to mount the kind of large-scale retrospectives that people in the UK, as a result of the BFI and its affiliated regional cinemas, get to enjoy. Streaming services promise much and deliver little: iTunes selection is spotty and Netflix Canada is more or less a total embarrassment. If you’re looking for yet another reason to hate the Canadian government, their inability to craft modern copyright laws or regulate the digital spectrum in a way that benefits people rather than corporations should infuriate you immensely.
Politics rants complete, the list below is probably distinguished by a whole bunch of omissions. There are a few major things out there that plenty of people seem to like, but which I haven’t seen and would probably not trouble this list even if I had: Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012, USA) and Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012, USA) come first to mind.
There are other films which I am keen to see, but which probably won’t get any kind of North American distribution: Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012, Portugal), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2012, Turkey), No (Pablo Larrain, 2012, Chile), The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012, Denmark), A Royal Affair (Nickolaj Arcel, 2012, Denmark), Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012, Brazil), Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012, UK), and, for the second year running, Lawrence of Belgravia (Paul Kelly, 2011, UK). 2012 is, cinematically, still more in my future than it is part of my past.
So, to the list itself: my top ten of twelve as seen in twelve:
10. Detropia (Heidi Ewing/Rachel Grady, USA, 2012)
I’ve written here and here about the peculiar role that Detroit plays in the contemporary cultural imagination and must confess that I remain susceptible to the spectacle of Detroit, the images of its collapse, and the portrayal of the signs of life that remain. Ewing and Grady’s documentary focuses more on Detroit’s possible futures than either Julien Temple’s Requiem for Detroit (2010) and Florent Tillon’s Detroit: Wild City (2011), which makes it less a cautionary tale than a manifesto for alternate forms of urban community and civic renewal.
9. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA, 2012)
I’m deeply conflicted about including this at all. I continue to love Anderson’s precision and style, and have a known tolerance for the twee, cute, and quirky, but do recognize that this film is an odd ideological fantasy, an island isolated from the tumults of the sixties that puts a lot of water between it and complex questions of race and class it clearly doesn’t want to confront. Torn.
8. Sound it Out (Jeanie Finlay, UK, 2011)
Focusing on the last independent record shop in Stockton-on-Tees, England, Finlay’s documentary is a moving portrait of the community that the store supports and nurtures. The store attracts its fair share of oddballs and eccentrics and Finlay is superb in drawing these men (and they are largely men) out of their shells to talk about what music and the shop means to them. In doing so, the film becomes about far more than the on-the-ground struggles of running a small shop. It’s a document that captures contemporary life in the north of England and represents the consequences of the economic downturn, of the digital restructuring of the market, and of globalization more generally. But, these bigger issues aside, the real pleasure of the film resides in the affection it has for the enthusiasts it encounters and who open up to the camera.
7. Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (Naeem Mohaiemen, Bangladesh, 2011)
An experimental documentary about the 1977 hijacking of Japan Air Lines flight 472, the rerouting of the plane to Dhaka, and the fraught negotiations between the Japanese Red Army hijackers and representatives of Bangladesh’s military government. Drawing primarily on audio recordings of the event, the film projects the conversation as text on screen. This may not sound like it would work, but most definitely does. Interaction between the two parties ranges from tense to philosophical to comic as they try to make their positions understood to each other. The whole episode was presented live on Bangladeshi television and Mohaiemen primarily remembers being upset that it pre-empted his favorite show, The Zoo Gang. A film about memory, modernity, the archive, and the volatile political landscape of the 70s. See here for my enthusiastic response to the film immediately after I saw it as Hot Docs. Most excitingly, there more to come: Mohaiemen indicated at the screening that it is the first part of a planned trilogy of works dealing with the history of 1970s ultra-left terrorist groups.
6. McCullin (Jacqui Morris and David Morris, UK, 2012)
A fantastic documentary on the legendary photojournalist who, as a correspondent for the Sunday Times Magazine, shot every major conflict throughout the 60s and 70s. The strength of the film comes from McCullin himself who is a deeply thoughtful and articulate man, more than able to detail the ethical dilemmas that the photojournalist faces. It’s also a melancholic film that documents the end of an era. McCullin was let go from the Times in the early 1980s when Rupert Murdoch took over and basically decided that readers should no longer care about the news or the wider world and transformed the Sunday supplement into a style magazine.
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA, 2011)
A creepy film that has stuck with me. Fine performances from John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen, but what I remember most about the film are the moments of menacing stillness. It’s a film about a cult and the cult personality, but also about sisters and separation. I watched it fresh and it had all the greater impact because of the fact I knew virtually nothing about it, so that’s all I will say. Go watch it now.
4. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjalloul, Sweden/USA, 2012)
By now, I suspect, many have heard the story of Sixto Rodriguez, who released two albums in the early 70s that found no acclaim in America, but were treasured in South Africa by liberal Afrikaaners who heard in his lyrics something that applied to their own desires for a different kind of world. This film documents the search for Sixto by a handful of South African enthusiasts who feared that the rumours of his premature death were true. It’s an extraordinary story, and Rodriguez is an extraordinary man, but what really interested me is the melancholy air of the genre itself. Is the epic search for the lost pop star a form that will lose its force or even disappear in the internet age? The film is about Rodriguez, but it is also about unavailability and a world defined by analogue scarcity rather than digital abundance.
3. Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, France, 2012)
On paper the plot of Rust and Bone seems ludicrously melodramatic: woman who has her legs bitten off by a
shark whale falls in love with an unemployed guy who takes up illegal bare-knuckle fighting to support him and his son. Well, as it turns out, I like ludicrous melodrama, especially when its bolstered by such strong performances. Marion Cotillard is great, but the real revelation is Matthias Schoenaerts, whose impossible to spell last name hopefully won’t hold him back from being cast in everything everywhere.
2. Amour (Michael Haneke, France, 2012)
A powerful, deeply moving film that, frankly, I’m a bit surprised is getting so much mainstream acclaim. A film about dying was never going to be easy, but Haneke doesn’t sentimentalize and by keeping it so austere, he makes it all the more affecting.
1. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK, 2012)
Admittedly, I’m the target market for this film, but I’m still going to argue that it’s the best one of 2012. Set in the 1970s, Berberian Sound Studio is about a meek English sound engineer who is hired to work on an Italian horror picture. From the very moment of his arrival in Italy, he is alienated and unsettled. He watches in horror as the sounds of flesh being stabbed, seared, and torn apart is created by abusing a whole array of fruit and veg. The producers refuse to pay him and the director alternately praises and provokes him. Alone in this foreign world, his mind starts to fray and he is thrust into a world of horror, haunted by the sounds and images of the very film he is working on.
Toby Jones is terrific as Gilderoy, but the real force of the film is in the claustrophobic atmosphere Strickland creates. We, like Gilderoy, are trapped in the confines of the studio, the tension heavy and punctured primarily by the screams of voice artists mimicking victims or the aroused goblins doing the killing in the imaginary film. The soundtrack, by Broadcast, is perfect. And, on the basis of the title sequence by Julian House alone, I’m almost willing to give The Equestrian Vortex, the film-within-a-film here, a place on my list of the year’s best.
Stayed tuned for an update to my 2011 list!