Lovers and masters: Guy’s top 10 films of 2012

And so it is that I’ve left it until the last day of the year to add my Top 10 list to the already teetering; I don’t think I’ve ever left it so late before, and it certainly wasn’t calculated on my part, though there’s something pleasingly tidy about using New Year’s Eve as an occasion to post a list that, in some ways, looks forward as much as it looks back. (Speaking of looking forward: in a break from tradition, the list is accompanied by a video countdown this year, so if you want my curious accent guiding you through, just press play.) 

This is the space where I’m supposed to say it’s been a good/bad/indifferent year for film, though I’m increasingly uncertain of how to answer that question. That’s partly because of the way I compile my list: given that I occupy the no-man’s-land territory of a European critic on an American site, release calendars are hard to keep up with and even harder to stick to, so I opt instead to include any new film I saw in 2012, whether as a theatrical release, on the festival circuit or somewhere in between.

Yes, that means there’ll be some films in my Top 10 you may not have had an opportunity to see yet — but I hope you’ll see that not as irritating exclusivity, but as planting a flag for films you’d be wise to look out for in 2013. As such, my cinematic year tilts differently from how it would if I were a ticket-buying film fan; my first impulse, as I compare the following list to last year’s edition, is to say this year’s hasn’t quite matched the standard of 2011. Then again, many of my favorites from last year’s ended up as highlights of the 2012 release calendar. (At the end of this Top 10, I’ve included an adjusted list of the year’s best US theatrical releases which is frankly better.) Take it as you will — the bottom line is, it’s all great stuff, in any year.

I further doubted my initial estimation of the year’s quality when I began whittling down the list to a scant 10 titles — well over 30 titles made the initial shortlist, and I’m as surprised as anyone about some of the titles I’ve omitted. I’m made a point of not using the word “best” in titling this list, and there’s a reason for that: I’m pretty sure some of the films that didn’t make the cut are more accomplished and complete than some of the films that did — yet somehow, when push came to shove, they didn’t prompt quite the same degree of attention or affection.

It was a heart-led process, yet it was still heartbreaking leaving out some titles: I’m suspicious of any professional critic who can’t find more than 10 films to love in 365 days. I fully intend to follow the example of some of my HitFix colleagues in following up this list with a second 10 — from “Holy Motors” to “Pitch Perfect,” I’m too devoted to the runners-up to let the year go without bidding them a formal farewell.

Still, here are the 10 left standing. They’re a rum bunch, and some of the survivors surprised me as much as they may surprise you — but as the more I consider them together, the more I see unexpected throughlines emerging: broken love stories, haphazard families, fragile power ladders. I could continue, but it’s time to let the film’s speak for themselves. You can count down with me in video format above, or scroll through it in more traditional form below. Either way, enjoy.  


Directed by Tarsem Singh

Fairytales are back in fashion in Hollywood, so we can safely expect a lot of humorlessly “dark” reimaginings and smartass revisionism – but hopefully some will follow the lead of Tarsem”s joyously silly spin on Snow White, the lightest and loveliest of three tellings of the same tale this year. Though its tongue is firmly in cheek (chiefly that of Julia Roberts, lending some contemporary diva snap to the Wicked Queen figure) its modern-day interjections don’t come at the expense of old-school romance and wonder — with jaw-dropping costumes by the late, great Eiko Ishioka providing much of the latter. As he proved with last year’s rapturously daft Hellenic spectacle “Immortals,” Tarsem remains one of the industry”s most extravagant fantasists, and he”s conjured genuine child”s-eye magic here. (Full review here.)


Directed by Cate Shortland

The long-awaited second feature from “Somersault” director Cate Shortland was Australia”s submission for the foreign-language Oscar and that, combined with the all-too-unfairly dreaded words “Holocaust film,” may have led some to expect granola-flavoured awards bait. But this bracing, sensual coming-of-age story surprises and disconcerts us by adopting a different victim’s perspective: that of a brittle, brainwashed Nazi teenager, abandoned by all known authority figures and struggling to make sense of what remains in the dying days of WWII. Balancing the title’s character’s slow confrontation of her prejudices with her natural sexual awakening — drawn with the same crisp candor as in her debut — Shortland offers us no easy redemption or simple sympathies; if not seen with new eyes, this is history felt with fresh skin. (Longer review here.) 


Directed by Sarah Polley

Another sophomore feature from a vibrant female auteur, Sarah Polley”s messy, sexy, excitingly divisive “Take This Waltz” is a relationship drama as expressive and sweat-stained as “Away From Her” was subtle and snowbound. (If the mind-melting fug of summer has ever been more tangibly depicted on screening, I don’t recall the film.) Smartly dissecting the breakdown of a seemingly ideal marriage with even-handed warmth and an unexpectedly dayglo palette, Polley’s brazenly poetic script makes refreshingly adult admissions to the irrational, even unreasonable nature of human desire. Michelle Williams and a revelatory Seth Rogen are superb in what one might call an electric-blue valentine, and you”ll never hear “Video Killed the Radio Star?” quite the same way again. All that, and it’s not Polley’s only great film of 2012. (Longer review here.)


Directed by Joachim Lafosse

A far more sombre study of a household in crisis, Belgian auteur Joachim Lafosse”s devastating “Our Children” is still seeking a US distributor. Someone needs to fix that. Sadly inspired by a true-life case, this emotional body-blow of a film tells the story of a young wife and mother driven to the unthinkable by a combination of post-partum depression and less diagnosable domestic oppression; beginning at the unspeakable end, Lafosse patiently builds the unforgiving tension of a thriller as he traces a tragic family history from the flush of first love to far more smothering forms of intimacy; Émilie Dequenne, a richly deserving Cannes prizewinner this year, may deliver the performance of the year as a woman watching all psychological escape routes close before her eyes. It demands to be seen, but maybe not on a first date. (Longer review here.)


Directed by Ursula Meier

The third foreign-language Oscar submission on this list (and the one to crack the shortlist), Ursula Meier”s “Sister” has prompted understandable critical comparisons to the work of the Dardenne brothers — though I’d actually take The Kid With The Skis over “The Kid With a Bike.” Sharp, spry and sneakily moving, with a staying power that belies its modest form, this study of working-class survival on the moneyed ski slopes of Switzerland is impressive enough before it subtly morphs into a genuinely surprising family melodrama, making sense of that cryptic title. In a strong year for child performers, no newcomer struck a brighter spark than Kacey Mottet Klein as the modern-day Artful Dodger at the film’s center; master DP Agnes Godard’s camera is equally attuned to the finest contrasts in social standing and the white-on-white shifts of sun on snow. (Longer review here.)


Directed by Steven Soderbergh

A number of the year”s best studio releases sounded pretty disposable on paper, and none more so than  Magic Mike.” Even with Steven Soderbergh”s name attached — this could have been “Full Frontal”-weight, after all — a male-stripper comedy starring Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer promises little more than highly caramelized man-candy. But that”s reckoning without the keen social and sexual politics of Reid Carolin”s loose, witty script, Soderbergh”s briskest, breeziest direction in ages, and one of the year”s most complete ensembles: the resurgent Matthew McConaughey’s has received some deserved awards notice, but it’s Tatum (in conjunction with his lightning turn in “21 Jump Street”) who cements his status as a real-deal movie star. Somehow bleak and bouncy in equal measure, the film may delve under the overbronzed skin of latter-day masculinity, but if the skin”s all you”re here for, you won”t be disappointed either. 


Directed by Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland”s ingenious meta-horror film is something of a festival underdog: unaccountably turned down by certain European majors, it premiered quietly at Edinburgh only to amass a devoted cult of followers on the UK critical scene. (The US gets to join in next year.) I question some festival programmers’ savvy: giving the oft-sidelined art of sound design its richest, most inventive showcase since De Palma’s “Blow Out,” Strickland’s film immediately joins the canon of essential movies about the movies. Toby Jones, never better, is as a meek British sound engineer hired to work on a Z-grade Italian horror movie, only to find his mind swiftly consumed by the film – or possibly the other way round. It’s ostensibly an homage to the likes of Dario Argento, but everyone from Hitchcock to Coppola to Antonioni to Lynch can be glimpsed in this celluloid hall of mirrors. (Full review at Variety.)


Directed by François Ozon 

I realize I haven”t discussed this one much on these pages. That’s partly because I caught it at the tail-end of a tiring London Film Festival (and there’s plenty of time to talk ahead of its 2013 release), and partly because I hadn”t realized until compiling this list just how far this dizzyingly clever comedy of manners had crept under my skin. It is, first and foremost, a story about storytelling, as a bored schoolteacher becomes intrigued by, and eventually complicit in, a precocious pupil”s voyeuristic homework essays; as the boy”s salacious tales, viewed through alternating eyes, gradually move to the center of this spider-web narrative, the psychosexual stakes increase and fictional boundaries blur. Ozon’s best films to date have engaged either in arch camp or whispery human study; equal parts Hitchcockian thriller, French bedroom farce and literary brainteaser, “In the House” combines those two modes, and may well be a career peak.


Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson 

The latest opus from Paul Thomas Anderson entered 2012 as my (and many others’) most anticipated film of the year, and exits as my (and many others’) most debated – whether with friends, colleagues or even myself. At once abrasive and exquisitely elliptical, the film has been interpreted by some as a meditation on man”s animalistic nature, by others as the latest chapter in the filmmaker”s ongoing study of father-son power struggles. It may well be both those things — and much else besides — but from where I was sitting, “The Master” played out as the year”s most complex love story, with Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman performing a brilliant pas de deux as two men undone by mutual need and fascination. Which one is The Master? Is it someone else entirely? I look forward to changing my mind across multiple return visits. (Full review here.)


Directed by Miguel Gomes

From a recondite love story to a rapturous one: if my runner-up arrived on a cloud of anticipation, my #1 dropped out of clear blue sky. 10 months after its Berlin premiere, Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes’s unclassifiable blend of contemporary absurdist comedy, swooning colonial-era romance and cinephile’s bingo game still feels like something of a mirage, too beautiful to be entirely real. In modern-day Lisbon, a dying elderly woman reflects on her steamy extra-marital affair in an unnamed African country half a century ago; but no description of the plot conveys the reach and resonance of Gomes”s vision, or the poetry of his verbal, visual and aural language, which incorporates everything from silent cinema to Phil Spector tunes; it”s a love letter to the movies, but also to love itself, and my favourite film of 2012. (Longer review here.)

And there we have it. To recap:

1. “Tabu”
2. “The Master”
3. “In the House”
4. “Berberian Sound Studio”
5. “Magic Mike”
6. “Sister”
7. “Our Children”
8. “Take This Waltz”
9. “Lore”
10. “Mirror Mirror”

Finally, for the purists who prefer their 2012 lists unsullied by unreleased festival fare, here are my top 10 U.S. theatrical releases of the year — featuring a number of returning favourites from last year’s list. It may well be a stronger collection of films.

1. “Tabu”
2. “The Master”
3. “Elena”
4. “Damsels in Distress”
5. “Alps”
6. “Post Mortem”
7. “Magic Mike”
8. “Wuthering Heights”
9. “Sister”
10. “The Snowtown Murders”

(Images: Relativity Media, Music Box Films, Magnolia Pictures, Peccadillo Pictures, Adopt Films, Warner Bros. Pictures, Artificial Eye, Cohen Media Group, The Weinstein Company)