This year has been fairly strong for art-house and indie cinema, and the second half of 2012 has produced films achieving both commercial and critical success. But what should these lists take into consideration? The focus is on the most impressive and intelligent filmmaking, but also to give attention to films that deserve and require praise, further discussion and the chance to remain in the public eye. With that in mind, this list attempts to factor these approaches in.
No. 10 – Monsieur Lazhar
Philippe Falardeau’s loving yet tragic film unfolds at a Montreal school devastated after a teacher commits suicide in her classroom. Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag) is hired and tries to broaden the curriculum by teaching the children to express themselves through poetry and perfect diction. His fondness for the children at first seems misplaced, but it is revealed that he has escaped from Algeria after his family were killed at the hands of political terrorists. Falardeau’s film is a complex intertwining of childhood grief, closure and survival – and is about the parallels between what we experience as youngsters and the similar impact tragedy has on us as adults.
No. 9 – Martha Marcy May Marlene
Sean Durkin’s indie thriller perhaps eluded some lists since it was released in February. It relives the memories of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) after she joins and then escapes from an outback cult ruled by the wonderfully baleful John Hawkes. Jumping back and forth between Martha’s time as a member and modern day, she tries to readjust to regular life with her sister. It is by no means perfect, but the themes of psychological conditioning and brainwashing are strong; Durkin suggests that consumer culture is a form of cult life itself and reintegrating back into society can be just as alienating as leaving it in the first place. It is a profoundly haunting and melancholic telling of repression and escapism.
No. 8 – Samsara
Almost like a sequel to Baraka, Ron Fricke’s Samsara, a cultural exploration of the highest order, uses the same pensive cinematography, detailing the wondrousness of the night skies and the beauty of ancient rituals. Filmed over five years and across just as many continents, Fricke transports us from jungles to pyramids, holy lands to heavy industry; it is an extension of the marvel found in Baraka, which received rerelease this year. His calm narratives juxtapose the most violent and disastrous contexts with areas of peace and spiritual harmony, captured without judgment, agenda or bias. He is a master of cross-cultural fusion and this is one of the most quietly stunning films of the year.
No. 7 – The Imposter
The novelty of Bart Layton’s documentary is that its storyline is almost unbelievable. Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in Texas only to suddenly reappear three years later. But he returns as someone else; not just metaphorically, but literally. This is quite clearly a conman, yet puzzlingly, the family take him in as their lost son. The film includes interviews with the family and with the conman himself, Frédéric Bourdin. The Imposter provides a startlingly bizarre glimpse into the human psyche, the sightlessness of devotion and the motivation behind abuse. Reading around the film about Bourdin is also fascinating and at times the twists that take place throughout the film are simply preposterous. It is unnerving, weird, but completely immersive cinema.
No. 6 – This Is Not a Film
This is a political film like few others, a directly confrontational message against the State and against subjugation. Activist Jafar Panahi used an iPhone and a digital camera to dissect his daily life through film and ritual while under house arrest for protesting against Iranian regime in 2010. It is a heartbreaking, unswerving and topical account of his detainment and the twenty year filmmaking ban that was imposed on him. The idolisation of films such as this can be dangerous, as it means we sometimes ignore other equally important contributions to Middle-Eastern cinema. That being said, it reveals much about the importance of free speech, the struggle filmmakers face to distribute their output and have it discussed, and the role political activists and directors play in Iran.
No. 5 – 5 Broken Cameras
The issue of Israeli power has been reignited with the conflict between home forces and Hamas soldiers. Emad Burnat’s documentary captures life on the border of the West Bank in which daily military interference has left many small towns under threat. The village of Bil’in faces regular invasion from Israeli soldiers and Burnat documents how tear gas and live ammunition are used to drive back the citizens to allow for further land grabs by Israel. The first four of his cameras are lost to stray bullets and the director himself is caught by aggressive firing from the Israeli forces. Just as This Is Not a Film shows, the importance of this film can be found in its delivery to the western world.
No. 4 – Berberian Sound Studio
It was rewarding to see British director Peter Strickland emerge with this triumphant statement about film itself. He tells of Gilderoy (Tony Jones), a post-production editor slipping between the cracks of reality while working on an Italian horror film in the 1970s. Berberian’s black comedy comes from the satirical comments Strickland makes about directors trying to do horror with the aim of sensationalising the genre. For a main character who’s quite timid, Strickland’s film is mischievous, loud, dark and confident – celebrating a love of analogue sounds and horror by not diving wholly into it. The mystery and allusion surrounding what Strickland says about filmmaking itself provides enough hints at his position. The director described his appreciation of the Coen brothers and how they counterbalance comedy and tragedy; you get the sense that this natural tendency can be found underneath Strickland’s film too.
No. 3 – Amour
We’ve come to expect films of great magnitude from the maestro of serious drama, Michael Haneke. He unwraps and unravels the depths of love in this latest addition to his catalogue of frosty films. The compassionate side to the director comes through however, as he tells of Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), a reclusive couple pushed further inwards after Anne suffers a paralysing stroke. The couple are locked in history since Haneke sets the entire film in their apartment, surrounded by their possessions accumulated over the years. Haneke probes what it means to love someone, what it demands from family, whether we must obey dying requests and how the love we hold is the very thing that unhinges us. Almost unsurprisingly, this is astoundingly intelligent and lofty filmmaking.
No. 2 – Holy Motors
It was a film desperately anticipated and patiently waited for by art-house fans; thirteen years in all since Leos Carax produced a feature. Holy Motors arrived with much intrigue and ambiguity, and watching the film didn’t necessarily clarify anything. Denis Levant is largely to thank for its success. He plays Monsieur Oscar, a businessman employed to perform bizarre requests from shady clients, which involve him being married to a chimp and kidnapping a fashion model after running through a graveyard munching on a bouquet of flowers. Carax’s absurdist and sometimes baffling experimentation with narrative makes this journey worth the wait; it is an absorbing portrait of peculiarity writ large – effectively a tribute to the mad idiosyncrasies of modern life and the insanity of what we are “driven” to by orthodoxy.
No. 1 – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Technically, Benh Zeitlin’s Deep South firecracker isn’t the best film of this year. Admittedly, it’s very likeable and it lacks the icy yet fierce clemency of Haneke’s Amour, the mystery and wonder of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, even the confrontational politics of This Is Not a Film and 5 Broken Cameras. But, for a debut feature of this scale and one which contains more than just a simple story, it is a remarkable piece of cinema. Using the landscape of post-Hurricane Katrina, Zeitlin tells of a Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her life amongst the bayou wetlands of the southern states. After Katrina savages the terrain, the locals rebuild, assimilate and take action against the flood diversion systems put in place by the government which leave their homes underwater. Zeitlin imbues his film with more than coming-of-age themes and political assertion about how the US abandons its citizens; it is rich with gorgeous magic folklore, biblical purification and a soundtrack which simply must take home the prize at next year’s Oscars.
*This list has been assembled from films that have been released in the UK in 2012, including films on limited release.