Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Favorite Films of 2012

2012 Ten Favorite Narrative Features

Beyond the Hills (Romania, dir. Cristian Mungiu)
This would have topped the list even if these films weren't listed alphabetically. A riveting drama about the secular vs. the sacred which is even better than the director's Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days

Damsels in Distress (USA, dir. Whit Stillman)
The archly deadpan campus musical-comedy that was loved by a few and loathed by many, but was still the funniest movie I saw in 2012. Mr. Stillman, please don't make us wait another 14 years for a new film. 

Facing Mirrors (Iran, dir. Negar Azarbayjani)
Shayesteh Irani (the most fervent female soccer fan in Jafar Panahi's Offside) gave one of the year's great performances in this quietly intelligent and non-didactic drama about a FTM transsexual's friendship with a female taxi driver. This was the discovery of Frameline36, where the post-screening appearance by the film's director and producer nearly brought the house down.

The Giants (Belgium, dir. Bouli Lanners)
Three abandoned teens fall under the sway of a psychotic marijuana farmer and then hit the road in this sweet, unpredictable, heartbreaking, hilarious, and visually arresting survival tale with more than a few nods to The Night of the Hunter. My favorite film at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival.

In the Family (USA, dir. Patrick Wang)
Finally, an American indie film even I can love. Kudos to Mr. Wang for having the audacity and talent to write, direct and star in this nearly three-hour gay child custody drama set in the South without villains or heroes. Your loss if you if you missed one of the film's three swings through the Bay Area in 2012. 

Lincoln (USA, dir. Steven Spielberg)
The world didn't come to an end in 2012, but a Spielberg film did make it into my Top Ten. (In all fairness, last year's The Adventures of Tintin was also pretty fabulous). Thanks to Tony Kushner's brilliant script, Daniel Day Lewis' performance of the year, a great supporting cast and composer John Williams turning the schmaltz w-a-y down.

Michael (Austria, dir. Markus Schleinzer)
This is the last film added to my list, and I re-watched it two nights ago to see if it made as strong an impression as when first viewed last January. This debut feature from renowned casting director Schleinzer (the films of Michael Haneke, Michael Glawogger and many others) is a brave, unnerving and methodical study of a bland 30-something office dweeb who keeps a 10-year-old old boy locked up in his basement.

Moonrise Kingdom (USA, dir. Wes Anderson)
The alleged charms of Wes Anderson were completely lost to me until 2009's The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Now once again, he has hit all the right buttons with this New England 1965 coming-of-age charmer. Even better the second time around in 35mm at the Castro Theatre.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
A slow-burning police procedural-cum-long night's journey into day laced with magnificent character studies, this was the only film on the list I felt compelled to watch three times. While acclaimed as a masterpiece elsewhere, it was dismissed by San Francisco's lead film critic as "colossally, memorably and audaciously boring."

The Turin Horse (Hungary, dir. Béla Tarr)
The end of the world as experienced in a wind-blown, dilapidated farmhouse by a father and daughter subsisting on boiled potatoes. The director has claimed this exercise in hypnotic formalism will be his final work, and really, what could there possibly be left to say. It supplants Damnation as my all-time favorite Tarr film.

2012 Narrative Feature Honor Roll

Amour (Austria/France, dir. Michael Haneke)
Beauty (South Africa, dir. Oliver Hermanus)
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (France/Israel, dir. Thierry Binisti)
Bullhead (Belgium, dir. Michael R. Roskam)
Chicken with Plums (France/Germany, dir. Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi)
The Conquest (France, dir. Xavier Durringer)
Death for Sale (Morocco, dir. Faouzi Bensaïdi)
Django Unchained (USA, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Donoma (France, dir. Djinn Carrénard)
Dreileben: One Minute of Darkness (Germany, dir. Christoph Hochhausler)
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Brazil, dir. José Padilha)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (USA, dir. David Fincher)
Guilty (France/Belgium, dir. Vincent Garenq)
Here and There (USA/Mexico, dir. Antonio Méndez Esparza)
Holy Motors (France, dir. Leos Carax)
In Another Country (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Las Acacias (Argentina, dir. Pablo Giorgelli)
Neighboring Sounds (Brazil, dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Omar Killed Me (France/Morocco, dir. Roschdy Zem)
Oslo, August 31st (Norway, dir. Joachim Trier)
The Other Son (France, dir. Lorraine Levy)
Rebellion (France, dir. Mathieu Kassovitz)
The Salesman (Canada, dir. Sébastien Pilote)
Sister (Switzerland/France, dir. Ursula Meier)
Sleeping Sickness (Germany, dir. Ulrich Köhler)
Smuggler's Songs (France, dir. Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)
The Snows of Kilimanjaro (France, dir. Robert Guédiguian)
Tabu (Portugal, dir. Migues Gomes)
The Woman in the Septic Tank (Philippines, dir. Marlon Rivera)

*note – I've yet to see The Master or Zero Dark Thirty.

2012 Ten Favorite Documentary Features

The Ambassador (Denmark, dir. Mads Brugger)
The Central Park Five (USA, dir. Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon)
Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey (USA, dir. Ramona S. Diaz)
Give Up Tomorrow (USA, dir. Michael Collins)
Joann Sfar Draws from Memory (USA, dir. Sam Ball)
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (USA, dir. Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre)
Only the Young (USA, dir. Elizabeth Mims, Jason Tippet)
Under African Skies (USA/South Africa, dir. Joe Berlinger)
Vito (USA, dir. Jeffrey Schwarz)
The Waiting Room (USA, dir. Peter Nicks)

2012 Documentary Feature Honor Roll
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (USA, dir. Alison Klayman)
Ben Lee: Catch My Disease (Australia, dir. Amiel Courtin-Wilson)
Benda Bilili! (Congo/France, dir. Renaud Barret, Florent de la Tullaye)
Caesar Must Die (Italy, dir. Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani)
Call Me Kuchu (USA/Uganda, dir. Katherine Fairfax Wright, Malika Zouhali-Worrall)
Crossfire Hurricane (UK/USA, dir. Brett Morgen)
Ethel (USA, dir. Rory Kennedy)
Golden Slumbers (France/Cambodia, dir. Davy Chou)
The Sheik and I (USA/United Arab Emirates, dir. Caveh Zahedi)
Whore's Glory (Germany/Austria, dir. Michael Glawogger)

*note – I've yet to see Searching for Sugarman or How to Survive a Plague

2012 Favorite Repertory/Revivals Screenings

Yellow Submarine (1968, UK/USA, dir. George Dunning, Castro Theatre)
As best as I can remember, this new restoration is the only film on the list that was projected digitally. And as much as I hate to admit it, was all the better for it. A trippy, eye-popping joyride.

Napoleon (1927, France, dir. Abel Gance, Paramount Theatre)
Kevin Brownlow's restoration of this silent classic presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was, of course, the repertory event of the year. While I can't say I was enraptured by all 330 minutes, Part I (Napoleon's childhood) and the grand three-screen finale were more thrilling than anything else I watched all year.

American Graffiti (1973, USA, dir. George Lucas, Pacific Film Archive)
I hadn't seen this in over 30 years and it held up shockingly well. The screening featured a conversation with costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers, for whom this was a first film. Rodgers shared dozens of anecdotes, my favorite being the great lengths taken to keep Richard Dreyfuss' sweat from bleeding his madras shirt, all in the service of continuity.

Quadrophenia (1979, UK, dir. Franc Roddam, Castro Theatre)
The experience of seeing this San Francisco International Film Festival late-show presentation of The Who's second filmed rock opera began while waiting in line, with two dozen motor-scooters with costumed riders pulling up in front of the Castro Theatre. During the screening, drunk and unruly wanna-be Mods and Rockers cheered and hurled insults at each, while others sang along to The Who's anthems. The new, pristine 35mm print was being projected for only the third time, and the highlight, as it was when I first saw the film 33 years ago, was Sting's nearly wordless, uber-cool performance as the king of the Mods.

Underworld USA (1961, USA, dir Sam Fuller, Castro Theatre)
I was lucky enough to catch all but one of the 26 flicks on offer at 2012's Noir City. Most were pretty darn fabulous, but this gritty revenge tale starring Cliff Robertson managed to stand out. Other highlights included the inane slapstick of Frank Tashlin-scripted The Good Humor Man, the slatternly haughtiness of Beverly Michaels in Pickup and the Angie Dickinson double bill of The Killers and Point Blank (with Dickinson herself on-stage in conversation with Eddie Muller).

Animal Crackers (1930, USA, dir. Victor Heerman, Castro Theatre)
Monkey Business (1931, USA, dir. Norman Z. McLeod, Castro Theatre)
Horse Feathers (1932, USA, dir. Norman Z. McLeod, Castro Theatre)
There were plenty of terrific revivals going on at the Castro outside the realm of 2012's film festivals, including this revelatory triple bill of the Marx Brothers' second, third and fourth features – and all for the price of one movie. Another memorable 3-way for the budget conscious was a Saturday marathon of Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and 2046.

Possession (1981, France/West Germany, dir. Andrzej Zulawski, Castro Theatre)
The Tenant (1976, France, dir. Roman Polanski, Castro Theatre)
More love for the Castro Theatre, this time for their inspired double bills, and in particular this Isabelle Adjani creep-fest with gorgeous 35mm prints which looked like they'd been struck yesterday. I was also thrilled to partake in 2012 double bills of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2, and Boogie Nights with Pulp Fiction.

The Cheat (1931, USA, dir. George Abbott, Roxie Theater)
As a Tallulah Bankhead obsessive, this was of course my favorite of the eight films I caught during programmer Elliot Lavine's springtime pre-code series, "Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films For a Nasty-Ass World." Another highlight was finally getting to see the "Sweet Marijuana" production number from Mitchell Leisen's très risqué 1934 flick, Murder at the Vanities, complete with bare-breasted chorines posing as singing cactus flowers.

Come Back Africa (1959, USA, dir. Lionel Rogosin, Roxie Theater) Seeing and hearing Miriam Makeba sing two songs in an intimate living-room setting was the high point of this film about one black man's struggles in apartheid-era South Africa. The screening I attended was followed by a live performance by the Vukani Mawethu Choir, who sang a selection of South African freedom songs. Talk about your value-added in-cinema experience! Other memorable 2012 revivals at the Roxie include Shirley Clarke's The Connection and 60's live-concert movie, The Big T.N.T. Show.

The Docks of New York (1928, USA, dir. Josef Von Sternberg, Castro Theatre)
Last, but certainly not least was this utterly exquisite love story set in a shabby waterfront saloon, my favorite of the 15 programs I saw at this year's better-than-ever San Francisco Silent Film Festival. There wasn't a single dud in this year's line-up, although I regret having to miss the Alloy Orchestra accompany The Overcoat, due to the REALLY late start time of the festival's Centerpiece Film, Pandora's Box. Other standouts included my first exposure to Pola Negri in The Spanish Dancer, the beautiful heartbreak of The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna, the dashing antics of Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro and of course, Buster Keaton in the closing night film, The Cameraman.