Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The 25 Best Films Reviewed Here in 2012


1. A Separation. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the way A Separation’s exquisitely human situations unfold is that the narration allows for as many points of view as there are characters. Everyone is fallible yet everyone feels justified in their own particular grievances, and the film is at pains not to pick sides.

2. Elena. Post-Soviet Russia in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s somber, gripping film is a moral vacuum where money rules, the haves are contemptuous of the have-nots, and class resentment simmers. The movie, which shuttles between the center of Moscow and its outskirts, is grim enough to suggest that even if you were rich, you wouldn’t want to live there.

3. The Interrupters. No concept in the critical lexicon has been more devalued and debased than "inspirational." The term has been so misused, it’s just about lost all meaning. A film that makes that word real and vital has to be special. The Interrupters is such a film.

4. Take Shelter. This film, which, it should be said, boasts haunting but seamless visual effects, is a movie for this moment in time, this moment in our lives.

5. Monsieur Lazhar. This film is good. Really good. Philippe Falardeau's gentle, perceptive drama takes viewers by the hand, not the throat, leading them through volatile emotional territory with assurance, compassion and lucid, steady-eyed calm. Deceptively simple and straightforward, Monsieur Lazhar resembles a clear, clean glass of water: transparent, utterly devoid of gratuitous flavorings or frou-frou, and all the more bracing and essential for it.

6. Project Nim. There is no doubt that Nim, the chimpanzee at the center of this documentary, was exploited, and also no doubt that he was loved. Director James Marsh, by allowing those closest to Nim plenty of room to explain themselves, examines the moral complexity of this story without didacticism. He allows the viewer, alternately appalled, touched and fascinated, to be snagged on some of its ethical thorns.

7. Certified Copy. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s delicious brain tickler is an endless hall of mirrors whose reflections multiply as its story of a middle-aged couple driving through Tuscany carries them into a metaphysical labyrinth.

8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Eerily tragic and chillingly hard to come to terms with.

9.  Footnote. Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar imbues his tale of academic maneuvering, misunderstanding and mystery with the zest of passion and the zing of intrigue, It’s a vivacious film, having its little fun with suspense-flick conventions (including Amit Poznansky’s bouncing score) that build to a climactic finish.

10. Le Havre. Alternately lighthearted and deeply spiritually grounded, director Aki Kaurismaki's distinctive sensibility spins what could have been a grittily realist polemic into a fanciful fable, all the more affecting for being so tethered to the urgencies of the real world.

11. Marley. Though made with the cooperation of the Marley family, the film is far from a hagiography; and while stocked with musical sequences, it is not a concert film. Few if any of his songs are heard all the way through. Marley is a detailed, finely edited character study whose theme — Marley’s bid to reconcile his divided racial legacy — defined his music and his life.

12. Mysteries of Lisbon. A formal marvel carved from, and around, a narrative whopper, Raul Ruiz’s adaptation of the mid-19th century Portuguese novel Mysteries of Lisbon arrives on DVD as a two-disc, four-hour version edited down from a six-hour version produced for European television. It’s a lot. But if you’re at all inclined, it’s just right.

13. The Deep Blue Sea. Rachel Weisz — in what has to be the performance of her career, and there have been lots of good ones — plays an intelligent woman in the grip of a lust that's too big to handle or suppress. She can either ride the tiger or be devoured.

14. Ai Wiewei: Never Sorry. You come away from this documentary with an appreciation of the abstraction, scale and daring of Ai’s art and, even more, a sense of the living man in his courage, humor and restlessness. It’s an invigorating experience.

15. Thunder Soul. You may never have heard of the Kashmere Stage Band, but by the end of Thunder Soul you will wonder why. A big-hearted, back-in-the-day tribute — and a stand-alone argument for public-school music programs — Mark Landsman’s bittersweet documentary has designs on your feet, heart and mind.

16. The Queen of Versailles. What might have been mere reality-TV fodder about hissable symbols of overconsumption turns out to be a three-dimensional study of a marriage. It’s also a timely look at the middle-class American Dream on hyperdrive: aspire, acquire, arrive and then try to keep the "good life" going.

17. I Wish. Tends toward the vaporous and not just because of its volcano; but whenever its children are on screen, lighted up with joy or dimmed by hard adult truths, the film burns bright.

18. Melancholia. Leave it to writer-director Lars von Trier to conceive an intergalactic sci-fi metaphor for a psychological disorder — and then make it work so astonishingly well.

19. Goodbye First Love. This movie endows each word of its title with equal weight. It examines, with compassion and clarity, a young woman’s discovery of passion and also of the pain, disappointment and partial wisdom that follow.

20. Pariah. Benefits from solid performances among its young castand warm, lucid camerawork, but benefits most of all from a careful screenplay, which dances that shifting line between fear and emergent hope. One of heroine’s poems says it best: "Even breaking is opening. And I am broken. I am open."

21. Senna. A documentary with the pace of a thriller, a story of motors and machines that is beyond compelling because of the intensely human story it tells.

22. Coriolanus. Features the sheer pleasure of hearing Shakespeare’s words spoken by an actor like Ralph Fiennes, whose phrasing is so brilliant, you might be tempted to close your eyes if his physical performance weren't equally mesmerizing.

23. The Guard. For the f-word in heavy, conventional rotation, rent the DVD of The Change-Up. Which is another way of saying there's not much reason to watch The Change-Up, unless you're an unusually big fan of Ryan Reynolds or Jason Bateman. But for the same word in heavy, unconventional and often very funny usage, in a disarming black comedy set in County Galway, Ireland, feast your ears on the sweetly profane dialogue of writer-director John Michael McDonagh as heard in The Guard.

24. Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This film is is a foodie’s delight, obviously, and best viewed either on a full stomach or with restaurant reservations immediately following.

25. Martha Marcy May Marlene. This film moves from its protagonist’s dream state to her memories to her waking present in imperceptible shifts — the effect is disorienting, at first, but ingenious. We’re as rattled and wary as Martha is — we’re seeing the world as she does, pulled under in the wake of her trauma.

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