Favorite Films of 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
2. The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr)
3. Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

My top three films of the year are very similar thematically; that is, they are all careful studies of how individuals face head on the tragedy of existence.  In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Turin Horse, we see characters dwarfed by their environments, helpless and vulnerable amid tragic circumstances.  Yet we also see glimmers of humanity, of perseverance, of wonder.  Sure, existence can be dreadful at times, but moments of beauty are still possible.

This is especially true in Anatolia where, for example, the remarkable sight of a distant train with lighted windows can cut across a blackened landscape and draw us to rapt attention—or, where a young girl serving tea in lamplight can soften a group of hardened men and chip away effortlessly at their posturing facades.  Moments like this are everywhere throughout Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s masterpiece.  The film is essentially a procedural about a police unit trying to find a body buried somewhere out in the vast Anatolian hillside.  But as the story progresses, it becomes so much more.  In an excellent essay on the film, Sheila O’Malley writes:

Every man in the entourage brings his entire life experience to the search, and that experience is rarely expressed, but is there in the wind-filled eerie silence of the steppes. They all seem to be in communication with the landscape. It infuriates them, beckons them.

Despite the anger and sadness of the characters (the causes of which are subtly and slowly revealed), it must also be stated that Ceylan manages to achieve some great moments of comedy; indeed, the dialogue is brimming with it.  For the absurd can induce laughter as well as terror, and this makes for a richer cinematic experience.

With its flawless cinematography, tight narrative control, and memorable characters, I can honestly say that no film from the past year has left an impression on me quite like this one.


Amour approaches the tragedy of life differently and more intimately.  In this film, we face mortality with a loving married couple—Georges and Anne (portrayed with great commitment and humanity by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva).  Anne suffers a stroke toward the beginning of the film, and her health steadily declines from that point onward.  Yet the film’s sense of melancholy and hopelessness is still challenged by none other than Anne herself.  While looking at scrapbooks of old photographs, she acknowledges aloud the beauty in her long and transitory life.  This admission lingers, even when Anne’s two great loves (Georges and music) can no longer bring her comfort or ease her pain and suffering.  And it is an acknowledgement that lingers like an echoing whisper after the film has ended and we are left alone to reflect on our own lives and loves.

The Master

4. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

The Master is truly a puzzling work, as many critics have pointed out, but that does not mean that we should dismiss it.  For one thing, it includes two of the greatest performances of the past year—Joaquin Phoenix as the wayward Freddie Quell and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.  The two characters strike up a strange and uneven friendship, and the joy of the film is watching them play off of each other in an endless power struggle.  There are certainly many ways to interpret the film, but I’ll simply use this space to restate a comparison I made between The Master and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the comments section of Jim Emerson’s essay on the film (please skip to avoid possible spoilers):

Freddie (as with Alex in Kubrick’s film) is incapable of being other than who he is (i.e., what his experiences have made him).  Dodd, like the state (and the priest, to a lesser extent) in A Clockwork Orange, wants to “cure” Freddie.  That is, he wants him to conform to his view of how humans should behave.  At first, Dodd assumes (like the priest in Clockwork) that Freddie will be able simply to live a more spiritual, guided life of his own free will with the proper teaching. When this fails, Dodd (like the state in Clockwork) believes he can at least train and condition Freddie to behave like the other followers of the Cause (Dodd’s religious teachings).

This conditioning works for Freddie, just as it does for Alex.  But the effects are very short-lived.  Freddie and Alex both eventually shed these psychologically imposed restraints.  And at the end of both films, we see Alex and Freddie each underneath a naked woman, enjoying sex, and mocking those who tried to “cure” them.

I doubt that this even comes close to figuring out what Paul Thomas Anderson might really be doing with The Master, but I thought the comparison was warranted.  (Also see: Urges and Desires in P.T. Anderson’s The Master.)  I would love to know how others have read this intriguing work.


5. Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Lincoln is a fascinating film.  Despite the sentimentality of Spielberg’s directorial techniques, it portrays quite frankly and somewhat disturbingly the moral ambiguity of political process.

In an essay titled “Oscars 2013: what the nominations say about America,” David Cox writes of Lincoln:

Ruthlessness is to be admired in pursuit of a cause whose champion has deemed it surpassing. So it seems are bribery, deceit and the subversion of democracy.

To secure the passage of his anti-slavery bill, Spielberg’s Lincoln has to buy votes with jobs, conceal the availability of peace and obstruct the will of the people. You might have thought that the custodian of a republic built on law would agonise over this. America’s most illustrious president faced the prospect of pioneering the kind of behaviour that has since destroyed faith in the country’s body politic. Would it have been better to make abolition wait? Perhaps not – but wasn’t the question worth asking?

In the film, we do learn that Lincoln has side-stepped the Constitution to administer to himself executive powers to which, at the time, there was no precedent.  He does this because he has a clear moral goal before him: the complete and legal eradication of slavery in the United States.  Does this goal somehow justify Lincoln in granting these powers to himself?  And what of the bribery, deceit, and coercion that he must employ to secure the votes necessary for his amendment to pass?  Do the ends justify the means?

I have no answers to these questions, but they are worth considering, and Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay does not shy away from these challenging implications.  For this reason, and for the film’s magnificent performances, cinematography, and production design, I have included Lincoln on this list.

6. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (dir. Matthew Akers; Jeff Dupre)
7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (dir. David Gelb)
8. This Is Not a Film (dir. Jafar Panahi; Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)

Here are three brilliant documentaries, all portraits of artists.  Each one works in a different medium and in a completely different part of the world, yet they all share an obsessive dedication to their respective crafts and to finding beauty in unexpected places.

The Artist Is Present

In the first film, we get a biographical look at performance artist Marina Abramović as she prepares for her Museum of Modern Art exhibit and retrospective, The Artist Is Present.  The film not only shows us the life and work of an extraordinary artist, but it documents as best as it can Abramović’s time at MoMA.   In her special exhibit, she sits still for hours at a time and lets visitors sit across from her in moments of complete silence.  In these moments, she and the visitors stare into each other’s eyes.  It sounds so simple, yet many participants claimed it to be a life-changing experience.  In the film, you can watch as some visitors simply break down and cry.  It’s truly a grand achievement in depicting how our bodies and our shared humanity can be sources of sublime aesthetic experience.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we get a glimpse into the life of Jiro Ono, a master sushi chef.  David Gelb, the film’s director, does a really fine job of conveying Jiro’s process, from the selection of his fish up through its painstaking preparation and final presentation.  Jiro’s restaurant was awarded three-stars from Michelin (no small feat), and it’s easy to see why.  The obsessive attention to detail that Jiro brings to his craft, every step of the way, is very much evident in the film.  Gelb uses some interesting classical music selections on the soundtrack to highlight the artfulness in Jiro’s sushi.  This is far from necessary (the work speaks for itself), but it’s an appropriate and fitting touch.

This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film is something of an oddity.  Smuggled out of Iran on flash drive hidden inside of a cake, it is not legally supposed to exist.  That is because the film’s director and subject, Jafar Panahi, is under house arrest in Iran and has been forbidden from making any new films.  But how can you stop an artist from exercising his artistic ambitions?  As Panahi demonstrates, it cannot be done.  Even when he abandons a makeshift charade of an unfinished script, disappointed that he is reduced to telling what he should be showing, he does not stop the camera from filming.  By the end of this strange document (remember, it is not a film), we have gone in some surprising directions and have seen Panahi capture some unexpectedly touching and sublime moments in the ordinariness of his life.  Like Marina Abramović, Panahi shows us that art can be anywhere, even where we do not at first notice it or know exactly how to see it.

9. Barbara (dir. Christian Petzold)
10. Oslo, August 31st (dir. Joachim Trier)

The final two films on my list are both foreign films, and each seeks to present a sympathetic portrait of the complex inner workings of its protagonist.


In Barbara, we follow a woman working as a doctor in East Germany in the 1980s.  The oppressiveness of the government, especially in regard to its means of invasive surveillance, is deeply felt.  Barbara has been carefully orchestrating a plan of escape (with the aid of her boyfriend in the west).  But where do her duties as a physician fit into these plans?  What of her patients and those who are reliant upon her?  This moral quandary is explored through the extraordinary and understated performance of Nina Hoss in the lead role.  She helps us understand just how difficult her situation is and how unclear her moral choices are.

Oslo, August 31

In Oslo, August 31st, our subject is Anders, a recovering drug addict.  Anders is granted permission to leave rehab to travel to Oslo for a job interview.  Throughout the day, he runs into many old acquaintances and has many conversations that shed light onto his sadly resigned disposition.  There is a strong sense that he can no longer fit in with the world around him, that it is too late for him to catch up with his friends.  Thus, he remains passive; he’s just along for the ride.  Like Anders, we, too, are mere passengers in this narrative.  As much as we want Anders to participate more meaningfully in the goings on about him, we know it is impossible.  We stick with Anders, despite this, all the way to the film’s inevitable conclusion.  Yet we do not feel the same sense of resignation.  Even though Anders himself is unable to embrace it, his journey has shown us just what Anne reflects upon while looking through her old photo albums in Amour:  life, transitory and tragic though it may be, is still indeed beautiful.

What are your own favorite films from this past year?  Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in the comments.


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