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Christopher Bell's Best Films Of 2012

by Christopher Bell
December 28, 2012 2:32 PM
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Another year, another fifty lists. There were a lot of truly terrific movies that came out in 2012 and it was difficult to sit down and whittle away at a list that contained 30+ films that warranted special acknowledgement. Eventually you have to go with your gut, and I admit that this list may look different in a year, a month, a week, maybe even a day -- but these are the films that really stood out, the ones that had an especially resonant strength.

This will be my last entry as a critic. I still plan to do many things related to cinema, but that side of me must go into hibernation indefinitely. It has been an interesting, eye-opening ride these last three years and I wouldn't give it back for anything. Thanks for having me, thanks for reading, and definitely thanks for commenting (I only regret having been delivered such a silly nickname so late in the game).

No, I'm not crying. Without further ado...

15. The Hunter
Released right at the beginning of 2012 and sharing a name with a more high profile film starring Willem Dafoe (which is relative, of course, seeing as that one came and went as well), Rafi Pitts’ fourth feature sets a cold eye on modern-day Iran, displaying it as an unsentimental and desensitized society with little hope for change. Starring the director as former convict Ali, a series of fatal blows to his family life cause him to go haywire and lash out against society, causing him to go on the run from the law. As pessimistic as it is, this slow-burn thriller enthralls with its bite and contains a number of thrilling sequences that would impress many, including a car chase that puts Justin Lin to shame. Despite opening with a still frame from the Iran Green Movement revolution and following that with a series of bitter portraits, Pitts’ argument for family and brotherhood show that he does have hope for the future of his country, but only if humanity could exude a bit more warmth.

14. Artificial Paradises
Yulene Olaizola took a couple of notes from Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Andrei Tarkovsky in her study of a woman trying to kick a heroin habit, notably in the way she exhibits the surrounding nature and the lack of adherence to narrative rules. Salomón, an older grounds keeper of sorts, runs into the aforementioned Luisa and the two hit it off pretty quickly, developing a friendship that eventually leads to the man assisting her in a self-imposed rehabilitation. Olaizola’s organic, minimalistic approach is quite infecting, and every minute spent in this environment is absolutely breathtaking.

13. In The Family
Devoid of schmaltz or unearned sentimentality, Patrick Wang’s little-indie-that-could is at times a heartbreaker and, later, completely invigorating. Set in the South and following one homosexual man’s fight to regain custody of his partner’s kin, ‘Family’ uses quiet, lengthy takes in order to live with the characters and their plight naturally, thus creating a drama that is shared and not forced. Another one stressing the importance of family (and, specific to this case, its redefinition), the filmmaker’s lengthy account shines with its compassion and will floor even the most cynical viewer.

12. Francine
Melissa Leo disappears into her role as a closed-off, unsocial former felon trying to rebuild her life in a small community. As she clings to her unconditional love of animals, her mental health continues to deteriorate and the people around her are pushed away even further. Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky refuse judgement in their approach; while they certainly don’t condone Francine’s behavior, they manage to show the complexities of the people around her -- both warm and, at times, not necessarily picture-perfect. Even so, they have a way of getting into their main character’s head that makes this generally aloof lead greatly sympathetic.

11. Holy Motors
Leos Carax’s angry, free celebration and deconstruction of cinema (yes it is) is a wonderful miracle, ripe with pleasure and an apparent disgust for traditional narrative. Somehow it all works: under any other filmmaker it might have been a case of biting-off-more-than-you-can-chew, but Carax sure does have a big enough mouth. "Holy Motors" is quite the ride, dissecting everything in movies today, from banal surface-level dramas to our fascination with computer generated bullshit, by following Denis Lavant as he plays various different characters. But still, it’s not just a film of pure joy, nor is it so closed off that it wouldn’t touch those not obsessed with watching cinema eat itself -- it’s about identity and what each person means or represents to another human being, and also the roles we play in society. Whether that is reverberating or not depends on the audience member, but at the same time, few can dismiss a garage full of limousines talking to one another.

10. Amour
It’s hard for me not to react to Michael Haneke’s latest in a very personal way, considering I was raised by my grandparents and was with both of them until they passed. That immediate emotional attachment to the film aside, the veteran auteur does a number of exceptional things with "Amour," most notably in the movie’s general manner. The director shows the gradual, immensely painful passing of a loved one sans rose-tinted glasses, but exhibits love and humanity in subtle, affecting ways. On the surface (and compared to the rest of his work) it seems like a fairly straightforward narrative, but there are plenty of moments that show that the Austrian director is attempting to do something a bit different -- for instance, the pigeon-catching scene alone is a chaotic, peaceful, bizarre life moment that one would never expect in a film like this, let alone a work by Haneke. Cinephiles will also find extra depth in the casting, which finds two important French thespians at their most vulnerable and, unfortunately, on their way out. Completely heartrending, front to back.

9. The Turin Horse
Probably the grimmest swan-song there ever was, Bela Tarr’s final cinematic effort as a director operates in the same way as most of his work does (at least “Damnation” and forward): incredible sculpting-in-time shots done in bleak black-and-white cinematography, long stretches of silence with attention paid to routine rituals, and a bone-dry, sparingly used sense of humor. The only change here is that it’s the most pared down and spare piece since that aforementioned 1988 film, taking place solely on an impoverished family’s property during a violent windstorm. This refined nature only enhances the futility of their plight, and poverty has never been so acutely observed or felt.

8. Oki’s Movie/The Day He Arrives
Having the dual honor of being impressively prolific yet criminally unappreciated, Hong Sang-soo had kind of a banner year in 2012, with three of his most recent movies getting U.S. releases (in addition to the two above, the Isabelle Huppert “vehicle” “In Another Country” also rolled out a month or so ago). Nobody went or cared -- it seems you’re either completely charmed by the man or find his candor unmoving -- but it’s still a great sign considering the two features prior to ‘Oki’ have yet to find their ways onto American soil. Both ‘Oki’ and ‘Day’ involve Hong’s usual obsessions -- debauchery, ego, uncomfortable honesty, repetition, cinema -- but his newest entries are much stronger across the board (funnier, too) and might be his best since “The Power of Kangwon Province.” Though his shooting aesthetic has been simplified to a point where it might seem lazy on a surface level (that’s another fight for another time), his structures have gotten increasingly ambitious, with multiple perspective shifts, time jumping forward and back effortlessly, and scenarios repeating with slight tweaks, as if characters are representing others scene to scene. These rather elementary constructs are actually used intelligently and give each film an incredible amount of layers and substance.

7. Snow On Tha Bluff
A bold, kinetic found footage-esque movie about a drug dealer in Atlanta, Damon Russel’s gritty drama pulls no punches in its depiction of an Atlantan rolling in one of the most dangerous communities in this country. The camera follows lead protagonist Snow, adopting a verite, faux-documentary approach to detail his day-to-day life as a drug slinger, robber, and father. It doesn’t sound novel, but the filmmaker’s handling makes it incredibly immersive, and his refusal to sugarcoat anything within the movie (or judge his subjects in any way) makes it a highly satisfying experience.

6. The Comedy/New Jerusalem
One is an examination of a numb over-privileged society (and a dissection of comedy itself), the other a quiet piece on friendship and faith -- general aesthetic aside, the two films couldn’t be more different. But this pair by Rick Alverson are likely the smartest, subtly powerful films in American independent cinema at this moment. Taking cues from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Claire Denis, and Ulrich Seidl (rather than being influenced by his contemporary peers, cough cough), the filmmaker operates with an assured hand, setting his camera on the faces of characters to hint at what really makes them tick. Alverson’s disinterest in traditional narrative is not only brave but incredibly rewarding, and both his ideas and the general tone flourish thanks to this attitude.

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  • Grover | January 8, 2013 9:13 PMReply

    Like good criticism should, your writing makes me realize how much harder I need to watch! It's an essential part of being a creator. Christopher, I know you just a bit, but can't wait to see your already engaging work as a filmmaker keep expanding. If retiring your byline (at least for awhile...) helps the process, so be it!

  • Cristof | January 1, 2013 5:33 PMReply

    Great job and good taste! Thanks for that!
    Keep reviewing independent films, 2013 more than ever has to spread the beauty of independent performance, and what you do is essencial for it healthy growth.

  • Ben | December 31, 2012 4:12 PMReply

    Thanks for a great list, I am definitely going to make an effort to track most of these down.

  • 4588 | December 29, 2012 6:23 PMReply

    I really appreciate this list. The most panoramic glimpse at what's going on in American independent cinema c. 2012 that I've read

  • Glass | December 29, 2012 10:44 AMReply

    Goddamnit, I need to fucking move to LA or New York or something. It's like all we get in theaters here is Dark Knight Rises and Wreck-It Ralph.

  • Ryan | December 29, 2012 10:07 AMReply

    Great list, Chris. I'm sure whatever else you in cinema will be equally idiosyncratic and inspiring.

  • Ryan | December 29, 2012 10:07 AM

    *you do

  • Mr Anonymous | December 28, 2012 7:53 PMReply

    As your above-average somewhat intelligent cinema-goer out that list of 15 i have only seen one film, and heard and know of 7 out of the 15. The 1 film that i saw was Holy Motors which i just found to be too WTF?! but i guess that's the point. Next time i might take some drugs before i watch that film again! Lol.

    Interesting list. The one that interests me the most is The Hunter. Although i would put Willem Defoe's The Hunter in my own top 20 list as i thought it was superb with an extremely emotional ending and one of Defoe's best.

  • Jess | December 28, 2012 6:10 PMReply

    The Amazing Spider-Man -- how come you not include dat?

  • Deb | December 29, 2012 10:27 AM

    Dammit. Jess beat me to it! Great list, Crispy Bell! I'll miss reading your reviews. Take care...

  • Deb | December 29, 2012 10:26 AM

    Dammit. Jess beat me to it! Great list, Crispy Bell! I'll miss reading your reviews. Take care...

  • SkaterQ | December 28, 2012 5:53 PMReply

    Anyone who would put This is Not a Film & The Turin Horse on a "Best of" list is certifiably insane. I mean, have you see those films!!! Jesus Christ, I think some critics have this desperate compulsion to be "different" and "avant-garde" because no rational human being could even call those things "films" much less "great films." Wow.

  • Rodrigo from The Playlist | December 28, 2012 9:02 PM

    This comment is more idiotic than usual. This is very much Chris Bell's taste and has always been. He's not *trying* to be anything other than representing his true nature and the film's he's always enjoyed.

  • SkaterQ | December 28, 2012 8:31 PM

    lol, that was weak. Is that really the best you've got? It's utterly meaningless. Do you have an aversion to skaters or the letter Q?... but that would be assuming you actually thought it through....

  • Christopher Bell | December 28, 2012 7:08 PM

    I have no problem being thought of as "certifiably insane" by someone who goes by SKATERQ.

  • Edward Davis | December 28, 2012 6:04 PM

    Turd blossom.

  • SkaterQ | December 28, 2012 5:59 PM

    Actually, to quote Woody Allen in Manhattan: "You people are dropping quaaludes and doing angel dust all day, naturally you think it's great."

  • Erik McClanahan | December 28, 2012 5:31 PMReply

    Great list Chris, as usual. You and me will continue the praise to anyone who'll listen to watch Elena (my #1 for the year). You will be missed here at The Playlist!

  • Oogle monster | December 28, 2012 5:09 PMReply

    You may have quit The Playlist, but we will never quit you!

  • Hackett | December 28, 2012 4:51 PMReply

    Lovely. The best possible future is ahead of you.

  • MDL | December 28, 2012 3:39 PMReply

    Nice original list of films.

  • Kimber | December 28, 2012 2:44 PMReply

    Aww, Chris. You--and your perspective on film--will be missed. Don't be a stranger.

  • Mark | December 28, 2012 5:18 PM

    Seconded wholeheartedly!

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