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  • Don’s Favorite Narrative Films of 2012

    By | January 1, 2013


    First of all, you should know that I really hate the process of rating and ranking films, but such is the life of a film critic. So, as the title of this post suggests, this is a list of my favorite narrative films of 2012, not the best narrative films of 2012 — and, yes, there is a drastic difference between the two. I can be fairly confident about which films I like the most, but it would be impossible for me to claim that one film is better than another. Most of the films on this list are totally incomparable. Speaking of totally incomparable films… I no longer even attempt to combine documentary and narrative films together on the same list. (Here are my Favorite Documentary Films of 2012.)

    The one characteristic this list does not differentiate between is what was theatrically released versus unreleased in 2012. Basically, any of the 400 or so new narrative films that I saw in 2012 were considered for this list. Some of these films were distributed in 2012, some have signed distribution deals for 2013, and others remain undistributed. Regardless, I am confident that it is only a matter of time that all of the films on this list will be available to you in one way or another. I followed this same logic last year, so films like Attenberg, Bad Fever, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Color Wheel, The Dish and the Spoon, Gabi on the Roof in July, Green, Turn Me On, Dammit!, and You Hurt My Feelings which were distributed in 2012 appeared on my 2011 list. As much as I would love to list these films again, I decided that would not make much sense.

    I should also note that despite seeing so many films in 2012, I have not seen every film that I hoped to consider, including a few films that would have almost definitely made this list: Amour, The Impossible, Killing Them Softly, and Looper.

    Well, without further ado, here are my favorite 25 films of 2012…


    25) Red Flag


    Taking his cue from the neo-realists, writer-director Alex Karpovsky intersperses his fictional characters within real settings and among real people. Then again, this might be another elaborately staged ruse along the lines of Woodpecker — maybe it really is all just fiction? (My Red Flag review and interview.)


    24) Keyhole


    Keyhole is apparently a cinematic essay about the intersections of memory and architecture, specifically Bachelard’s theory that homes function as repositories of emotions and memories. Fashioned as a visual mash-up of surrealism, film noir, German Expressionism and avant garde cinema, Keyhole is a total headtrip captured by Benjamin Kasulke’s stunning black and white cinematography. (My Keyhole review.)


    23) Bonsái


    Bonsái playfully uses literature, music and plants to provide greater significance and meaning to scenes; the hints and metaphors provide the audience with more layers to consume, forming a hyper-contextual love story. Jimenez confidently juxtaposes those directorial flourishes with naturalistic representations of dialogue and sex, which hints at a certain kinship with Joe Swanberg. Bonsái is one of the smartest and most poetic films I watched in 2012. My Bonsái review.)


    22) Tiger Tail in Blue


    Sure, this is a bleak perspective of life, but for so many of us the story is bitterly truthful and relevant. Sure, I enjoy escapist cinema as much as most people, but I also admire filmmakers who are brave enough to shove the sheer mundanity of life into my face. (My Tiger Tail in Blue review.)


    21) Empire Builder


    Jenny hops on Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train from Chicago to visit a primitive cabin in Montana that she inherited. It is important to note that Jenny owns the property, not her husband. In other words, Jenny takes the Empire Builder train to do some empire-building of her own. Just as countries are prone to do, Jenny seeks to utilize her privately-owned property in an effort to gain some leverage and power. (My Empire Builder review.)


    20) Marvin Seth & Stanley


    Filmed on 16mm film, Marvin Seth and Stanley might look and feel like a lost classic of 1970s American independent cinema, echoing John Cassavetes, Woody Allen and Robert Altman; but this film also confidently places Stephen Gurewitz in the center of the vibrant post-Mumblecore/micro-budget movement of the 2010s. (My Marvin Seth and Stanley review.)


    19) All the Light in the Sky


    The conversations of Joe Swanberg’s films have almost always revolved around his characters’ existential crises; societal and world issues, such as environmentalism or feminism, have never been so front and center until now. With All the Light in the Sky, Swanberg also opens up the discussion to solar and wind energy, rising sea levels and the healing powers of smoothies. (My All the Light in the Sky review.)


    18) Cinema Six


    Cinema Six is the funniest film I have seen all year. And despite its sublime knack for incredibly creative uses of excessive obscenity and vulgarity, Cinema Six is a very profound film. Very few comedies are this consistently funny while also showcasing such a strong, noteworthy narrative. Oh, and Cinema Six is quotable as all hell. (My Cinema Six review.)


    17) Pearblossom Hwy


    Mike Ott simplifies and streamlines what he did with Littlerock, creating a new film that is both more mature and meaningful. Ott is clearly still growing as a filmmaker, but I sense that he has truly hit his stride with Pearblossom Hwy. (My Pearblossum Hwy review.)


    16) Magic Mike


    Steven Soderbergh presents us with the Cock-Rocking Kings, men with impeccable pecs and 12-pack abs, flaunting their bulging banana hammocks and taut bare buttocks for the audience to ogle and fantasize about; but as the audience wipes the drool off their chins, they realize that Soderbergh has just tricked them into consuming an overtly-intelligent film about socio-economics and gender issues. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but one that is sugar-coated with scantily clad sexy people. (My Magic Mike review.)


    15) Cabin in the Woods


    The Cabin in the Woods is everything that I love about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse wrapped up in one, witty and intelligent script. (I did not review Cabin in the Woods, so here is Jessica’s review.)


    14) The Comedy


    Other than the painstakingly profound lead performance by Tim Heidecker, the strength of The Comedy is that Rick Alverson never once panders to the audience. We can each indulge in our own psychoanalysis of Swanson, but we will never learn anything about him. (My The Comedy review and Dave’s video interview.)


    13) Only the Young


    Between the words “true” and “false” is an entire spectrum, and Only the Young falls somewhere along that spectrum. Most surprisingly, the fictional influences do not lessen the impact of Only the Young, if anything those tropes are utilized to heighten the film’s sense of realism. (My Only the Young review.)


    12) Without


    There is something incredibly creepy about Without, as Mark Jackson relies upon certain horror film conventions to retain a constant state of tension. Without is a story that truly revels in the inherent audio and visual qualities of cinema; there is no other medium that could possibly convey the intricate layers of emotional qualities that Jackson is studiously able to unravel. (My Without review.)


    11) Pilgrim Song


    When most people think of female directors they assume that their films will portray complex female lead characters, but Martha Stephens and co-writer Karrie Crouse develop an extraordinarily profound portrayal of a male lead. Their insight into the psyche of James is keener than that of most male filmmakers. (My Pilgrim Song review and interview.)


    10) Welcome to Pine Hill


    The winner of the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Narrative at Slamdance 2012, Welcome to Pine Hill is the most naturally positive portrayal of a black character that I have ever seen dedicated to film — and I am incredibly embarrassed to say that if I knew that a white guy directed Welcome to Pine Hill, I probably would not have even bothered watching it — but the outsider perspective actually works in Keith Miller’s favor, and it certainly helps matters that he avoids all of Hollywood’s racial stereotypes. (My Welcome to Pine Hill review and interview.)


    9) Alps


    I love the way that Giorgos Lanthimos submerges his films in so many vibrant layers of metaphors. Alps is as good of a follow up to Dogtooth as I could have ever possibly hoped for. (My Alps review.)


    8) It’s a Disaster


    It’s a Disaster is an impeccably-written, dark-as-a-moonless-night satire that hearkens back to the glory days of classic comedy. Existing in the surreal ether somewhere between Preston Sturges and Woody Allen, Berger takes on disaster films as well as the trope of trapping characters in one location; all the while, Berger and cinematographer Nancy Schreiber beautifully choreograph the on screen events to Altman-esque precision. (My It’s a Disaster review and interview.)


    7) Wuthering Heights


    Wuthering Heights is a strange Frankenstein-like creature that combines the distinct cinematic worlds of kitchen sink realism, art house and slow cinema, the confluence of which forms a beautiful beast. I wonder if Andrea Arnold is up for doing a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens adaptation? (My Wuthering Heights review.)


    6) Tchoupitoulas


    Tchoupitoulas is a cinematic experience that continues to reverberate in my subconscious like a fading childhood memory. No one makes films like the Ross brothers — at least not anymore — and Tchoupitoulas is no exception. A cerebral experience like none other, Tchoupitoulas is certainly going to be one of my favorite films of 2012. (My Tchoupitoulas review.)


    5) Oslo, August 31


    With the visual poeticism of Robert Bresson, Joachim Trier creates an incredibly complex 24-hour character study with the intellectually insightful panache of Camus and Sartre. In this modern day example of existentialism, Trier avoids the Hollywood cliche of drug addiction — which informs us that drug addiction is perpetuated by financial woes and unstable families — revealing that wealthy, intelligent and resourceful people can become addicts too. (My Oslo, August 31 review and interview.)


    4) Cosmopolis


    I really could not imagine a better writer-director to adapt Don DeLillo’s dense-yet-dreamily-poetic dialogue and David Cronenberg nails DeLillo’s token tone, rhythm and pacing that has differentiated him from other [post] modern writers. DeLillo and Cronenberg saturate every single word, sound and image with significance creating a presumably impossible to crack puzzle, not unlike some of Cronenberg’s most challenging films, Existenz, Crash, and Videodrome. (My Cosmopolis review.)


    3) Sun Don’t Shine


    Amy Seimetz creates a brutally intense rollercoaster ride that takes its time in revealing the details of the history of its protagonists, but their history does not really matter because Sun Don’t Shine serves to exist only in the here and now. (My Sun Don’t Shine review and interview.)


    2) Beasts of the Southern Wild


    As dire and depressing as this post-apocalyptic land of perverse poverty sounds, The Bathtub retains the wistfulness and purity of a child’s playground. While most cinematic representations of post-apocalyptic worlds are hopeless and fearful, Beasts of the Southern Wild possesses ever-present feelings of hope and positiveness. (My Beasts of the Southern Wild review.)


    1) Holy Motors


    We quickly surmise that the pure, unadulterated dream logic of Holy Motors is the only thing that will tie the experimental narrative together. This set-up also permits Leos Carax the opportunity to remind us of our roles as voyeurs in this hyper-cinematic world. We are the mannequins in the audience, coldly observing the on screen events; we are rendered desensitized, emotionless. (My Holy Motors review.)


    And because I have seen so many narrative films in 2012, there are so many others that I would like to highlight. So, here is an alphabetical listing of the best of the rest (for the most part, these are films that I rated 8 out of 10 and higher)…

    Anna Karenina


    Any Day Now


    Café de Flore

    Cloud Atlas

    Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same


    Damsels in Distress




    God Bless America


    The Hunger Games

    The Innkeepers

    In the Family

    Jeff, Who Lives at Home

    Keep the Lights On

    Killer Joe


    The Last Elvis

    Laurence Anyways

    The Master


    Moonrise Kingdom

    The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had With My Pants On

    Nobody Walks

    Now, Forager

    Pictures of Superheroes


    The Raid: Redemption

    Richard’s Wedding

    Robot and Frank

    Rust and Bone

    Satellite of Love

    Saturday Morning Massacre

    Sleepwalk with Me




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