Shelagh's Intense, Low-Fi Top Films of 2012

This was a great year in film for me, for two big reasons. One: great sci-films are making a comeback, ones that care about story, not just explosions. Two: the classical, cause-and-effect narrative, where the audience is led by the hand from one scene to the next, seems to be disappearing, at least among the better filmmakers, in exchange for something more surreal, where the audience is expected to use their brains. When I was going through my list for 2012, the films that I remember most, that I loved, are the ones which take a more intimate approach to the human condition, focusing on a few people in very specific circumstances. Considering my work in programming and academia, my tastes tend to lead towards science fiction, horror and fantasy, (and yes, films from Spain,) so of course it's hard to avoid the high-concept scenario.  Lord knows I'm a geek, and love films such as Cabin in the Woods, and Looper, but the ones that stick with me tend to be more on the low-fi side. (Admittedly, I was a bit surprised to find that only one of my top 20 films is a blockbuster.) And while I appreciate great special effects, action, etc., that's not the work I remember. Give me the strange, the beautiful, the grotesque, but give it a human heart. (Also, as so many of the over 200 films I see every year are at festivals, I've included a few of them as well, though some may not get a release in your area. Look out for them on DVD/BluRay/home viewing.)


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Vanishing Waves
(Kristina Buozyte, Lithuania/France/Belgium, 2012)

On a recent trip to Paris, I visited La Laboratoire, a gallery that combined the work of people in the humanities and the sciences to better understand the human condition; the exhibit at the time was intense, slow-motion images of people in motion, as an examination of physiology and psychology of the human body. The exhibit was fascinating, and reminded me of what eventually won out as my favourite film of 2012. The narrative follows Luka, one of a group of scientists attempting to understand the human mind by connecting with a comatose patient. As Luka spends more time in this patient's dreamscape, the more obsessed and attached he becomes. With incredible cinematography and sound design, that at times is cacophonous and other times subtle and haunting, Buozyte and creative director Bruno Samper capture the amazing surreality, not only of the dream world, but also of the human subconscious, or at least how we might perceive it. It is also (relatively) lo-fi sci-fi that is rarely seen enough: focusing on the erotic and sublime. I've watched this film four times in two months, and each time I find a different theme/motif: obsession (particularly male obsession with the female), scopophilia, power, regret. As one reviewer wrote, this film shows the "human psyche as a severely haunted house." It is hard for a film, which as a medium only really engages two senses (sight and hearing), to engage the sense of smell, touch and taste, at the same time, individually and collaboratively, but this film does, in such sensuous wonder. It is not a perfect film, but it is one that I have found myself thinking about constantly. It is the film of a filmmaker whom will, I have no doubt, reach even greater heights in years to come. Which is why, even with some flaws, to my mind, Vanishing Waves is a remarkable film.

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Holy Motors
(Leos Carax, France/Germany, 2012)

Bold. Brash. Sublime. Enigmatic. Pretentious. Infuriating. Boring. So many adjectives have been used to describe Carax's incredible opus. While I wouldn't necessarily disagree with some of the more negative ones (except boring), this film is a love letter to cinema, especially European cinema, and that of the more avant-garde leaning. It's also the story of one man's daily masquerade; it is not that Monsieur Oscar is trying to find his own identity; rather that he has none, and each persona is one part of himself that he is allowed to let play. Is he God? An Angel? I lean more to him as some kind of Trickster (not necessarily an evil one,) with his driver Céline as the angel who transports him from one scenario to the next, in a kind of Parisian experimental version of Quantum Leap, though he is not always making things right, but serving as catalyst, comforter, kidnapper, father figure, lover, killer. As Twitch's Brian Clark said, this film is a breathe of fresh air, never asking or even wanting any kind of definition or analysis of its themes or subtext. Both joyful and melancholic, angry and sad, heartfelt and heartbroken, it's hard not to be in awe, or dream of having an accordion band following you around.

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Blancanieves
(Pablo Berger, Spain, 2012)

Pablo Berger spent nearly 10 years working on this, his tribute to European silent film, and it shows with a story dripping in sensuous, gorgeous wonder. A black-and-white silent reworking of the Snow White fairy tale, Berger transports us to 1920s Spain, populated by matadors, black lace, flamenco dancers and the carnivalesque. Rather than serving as a nod to the industry, the film is a nod to the format itself, invoking the likes of Carl Theodore Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, and Abel Gance, and yet remaining true to its Spanish cultural roots in its grand melodrama, never shying away from the grotesque, and creating a very brave and real heroine. The always graceful and yet fiercely intense Maribel Verdu is clearly having a glorious time as the evil stepmother, and there are several self-reflexive, tongue-in-cheek moments. Alfonso Villaronga's score is exquisite, perfectly capturing both the big and the small moments, and the cinematography takes advantage of modern technology to find the nuances of grey between the black and white. Forget that 'other' silent film; Blancanieves is the true tribute to the form, an homage, as well as far surpassing it.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
(Benh Zeitlin, USA, 2012)

Films that focus on the perspective of the child are not new; nor are films that use that perspective to explore magic realism, especially in conjunction with historical events (think Pan's Labyrinth). And my expectations were very high going into this film; but it did not disappoint in the slightest. I'm sure readers are familiar with the praise heaped on this film, of its incredible lead performance by Quvenzhané Wallis, the wonderful fantasy world of her character Hushpuppy, how even in the midst of great tragedy she finds energy and life and imagination to create her world. And all of this is true, but more than that, this film is about a segment of the American population too often ignored in media: the very poor, the ones who rely on each other, who life almost completely off the land, whose poverty might seem abhorrent to many, but to them, it is freedom. These are the that ones that have fallen through any and all social safety nets and yet manage to remain free, alive, and happy. It is a revelation and a joy of a film.

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Berberian Sound Studio
(Peter Strickland, UK, 2012)

Sound and sound effects, while perhaps recognized by the film audience, are all too often neglected except by the most discerning cinephile. To look back on an era when such effects where created in a more (for lack of a better word) analog way is a joy and fascination, as seen in Strickland's second feature film, hauntingly mesmerizing in its exploration of '60s Italian horror cinema and the effect on the quiet genius of a British sound engineer, played with understated brilliance by Toby Jones. Set almost entirely within the claustrophobic confines of a sound studio, at once dealing with the reality of the stranger in a strange land and suddenly veering into a surreal nightmare, Jones' Gilderoy confronts Italian egos, sexual bravado and compromise, slaughtered vegetables and his own increasingly fragile, shattering mind in this homage to and dissection of the work of sound, in a complex character study as frightening and barbaric as the film world it represents.

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The Master
(Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2012)

Anderson has never been a filmmaker to follow a traditional narrative cause-and-flow; his films have become more and more surreal each time. Thankfully, The Master follows on this surreality: sharp and dangerous as a knife, cold as the knife's blade, it is work of poetic modernism. And I do mean modernism: not only does Anderson set his film in those postwar years when faith was replaced by anger, what he presents is an aesthetic and mood of that modernist time. One of deep examination and heartless disengagement. Hoffman and Phoenix are incredible, as to be expected: Hoffman following on Anderson's examination of the megalomaniac, who finds both his soulmate and counterpart in Phoenix's 'lost' soul, who operates in fits and starts. The real revelation is Amy Adams, who represents both the master and the student, docile and wifely one moment, mad and controlling the next. The discordant and rhythmic minimalist jazz score and concave camera lens make the spectator feel as though they were trapped in a strange kind of fun house, moving between mirrors and scenes with little information except from observation of these lost souls.

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Ginger & Rosa
(Sally Potter, UK/Denmark/Canada/Croatia, 2012)

Potter returns with arguably her most accessible, but no less brilliant film to date, that tells the story of two life-long friends, struggling in their teenage years with sexual and intellectual longings, caught in the confusion of the early 1960s of nuclear threats and broken families. Potter films this through a judicious combination of close-ups and deep focus, moving across the faces of her cast to capture their moments of vulnerability, when the love and anger of their hearts is unmistakable. Elle Fanning and Alice Englert are tremendous as the title characters, displaying a wisdom about the heart of the teenage girl whom Potter captures with an unwavering honesty. Like The Master, it is about its time and in many ways of its time, moving on to the more turbulent 60s, examining a somewhat different side of the mid-20th century, when girls were learning they did indeed have power outside the home, and yet were still trapped by cultural expectations. It is something of a jumble, as if recreating the rage and insecurity of its leading teenage girls, in a world where no family, no planet, no future is secure.

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Moonrise Kingdom
(Wes Anderson, USA, 2012)

A recent quiz posted on various websites, 'Which Wes Anderson Character Are You?', identified me as Suzy from the filmmaker's latest opus. That is pretty accurate, and might be the reason that, after several viewings, this has become my favourite of his films. Taking his microscopic look at the social awkward and not entirely undangerous inhabitants of the world, and setting the film in what in the hands of other filmmakers would be an idyllic past, was a stroke of genius. Yes, this little New England haven may be populated by nice boy scouts, hippie intellectuals and the otherwise strange yet fascinating, but it is not without its perils, and the inhabitants not without their dark secrets and desires. Sam and Suzy are both changelings, landed in worlds and families they do not understand and vice-versa, and while the film is perhaps a bit more sweet than Anderson's past films, the young lovers and their disparate yet conjoined personalities keep it grounded. As usual, the attention to detail in the mise-en-scene is amazing, one of the reasons why Anderson's films feel like such self-contained universes, ones we would all long to live in.

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Sound of My Voice
(Zal Batmanglij, USA, 2012)

This is the second year in a row that a sci-fi film by writer/producer/actor Brit Marling has made it into my top 10 list, and I doubt it will be the last. At the tender age of 30, Marling has more than proven herself to be a unique voice in a burgeoning area of the genre, a subgenre of more narrative sophistication, intimacy, intensity, personal, and frequently terrifying film. In this film, Marling plays the leader of a cult who claims to be from the future. While the film is ostensibly about whether or not she is lying, the film is about faith, how we decide who is telling the truth and why, and how far we will go to prove or disprove someone else's claims, especially if we feel that we have been betrayed. I know of no better voice in American films of the minimalist sci-fi variety than Marling, and am at the point where I will see any film of hers without question.

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Extraterrestrial
(Nacho Vigalondo, Spain, 2011)

Vigalondo's film cycle seems to be all about information: what it is, how it is presented, and how we use it. While his first film, Timecrimes, was all about the how (everything out of order,), his second feature film, a sci-fi-romantic-comedy, is all about what we do, or don't do, with the information we have. It's a strange combination perhaps, but Vigalondo is examining questions of how we behave when we have little information, and how, rather than panic under possibly dire circumstances, we concentrate on seemingly trivial matters. Knowledge is a precarious thing, and the characters operate on very little; more than that, they make little effort to expand their knowledge. They watch the spaceship on the television rather than look out the window; a splinter group attempts to broadcast the situation, but end up arguing about cue sheets; and Julia's boyfriend Carlos can't even see the plain evidence of her affair with Julio right before his eyes. Vigalondo is a master of comedic mystery - not the whodunit kind, but why people behave in uncommunicative and seemingly atypical ways in order to achieve their goals.

Honourable Mentions:
Painless (Juan Carlos Medina, Spain/France/Portugal, 2012)
Citadel (Ciaron Foy, Ireland/UK, 2012)
Animals (Marçal Forés, Spain, 2012)
Headhunters (Morten Tyldum, Norway/Germany, 2011)
Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, USA, 2012)
Skyfall (Sam Mendes, UK/USA, 2012)
A Fantastic Fear of Everything (Crispian Mills, UK, 2012)
Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, USA, 2012)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malick Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK, 2012)
Your Sister's Sister (Lynn Shelton, USA, 2012)
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