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New Orleans Film Society

NOFS Staffers Pick Top Ten Films of 2012

Thursday 1/10/2013

New Orleans Film Society staff members chose their top ten films of 2012, listed below. The film that came out on top (making four of the five staffers’ lists) was Holy Motors, the crazy new film from French director Leos Carax. Other films that made it to three of their respective lists include Bernie, The Kid With a Bike, The Imposter, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

I am shocked (and admittedly ashamed) to only have two documentaries on this list. I don’t know how I find myself in this predicament — but I must admit that it was a strong year for narratives (I must also admit that there are some 2012 documentaries that I desperately need to watch, Searching for Sugar Man, The Gatekeepers, Stories We Tell, The House I Live In and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry are a few among them).

The Imposter: Here lies the solitary Sundance doc that completely stole my heart last year. First off my lips in conversation with any doc lover (and even the occasional stranger who had heretofore not professed any love for non-fiction fare): “Have you seen The Imposter?” The story is at once stranger-than-fiction unbelievable but entirely based on our collective need to believe. The film’s deft use of lip sync only added to an already eerie pathos. Don’t less this one pass you by.

Le Havre: This one technically came out in 2011 but only made its way across the Atlantic to us here in New Orleans early in 2012 (thank you, Chalmette Movies, for co-presenting). Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki weaves a tale of a young African boy who lands in a sleepy French port city Kaurismaki considers to be the “Memphis, Tennessee of France” and takes up with an unlikely companion, an old shoe shiner. Something about Kaurismaki’s directorial turns—the lighting, the framing—that lay bare this refugee story sans cliche and teases out the unlikely connections that can form between two unfamiliar souls, both dwelling on the fringes. I must also thank Mr. Kaurismaki for introducing me to Little Bob, an aptly named French singer who missed his calling as a “Twin Peaks” castmember.

Holy Motors: Staying on theme (France), this is would belong very near the top of my list were it numbered. When I saw the trailer for this movie, it gave me shivers, no lie. The full-length version was a phantasmagoric meditation on identity, technology and the confines of both. I would sit through a dozen more “appointments” fueled by Leos Carax’s genius if I had my way.

Starlet: I feel like each year, I divulge a new weak spot when it comes to cinematic subject matter. 2012 topic du jour – octogenarians. Truth be told, I’ve always had a fondness for any film featuring the trials and tribulations of the older set. But in Starlet, Besedka Johnson’s performance made me catch my breath more than once; her convincing “I-don’t-give-a-damn” attitude butts up against Dree Hemingway’s unflappable puppy dog persistence in the most charming of ways. Director Sean Baker’s squeezes us into this at-times uncomfortable space—between one young world opening up and another seasoned one narrowing to a point—and makes us stay there with lurking questions about routine, corruption, and connection.

Girl Model: In a way, I think of David Redmon and Ashley Sabin as a king and queen of access (not with a capital ‘A’—not in the embedded journalist kind of way that is to say). Their access is an intimate and often fragile thing—and it’s what makes their films for me. I think this film, in a sophisticated and nuanced fashion, deals with the harsh realities of a world that makes you want to both stare and look away.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: I’ve seen Beasts three times now—each time in a wildly different setting (1. Sundance 2. Montague—where the film was mostly shot and 3. New Orleans). Each time was an entirely different experience and each time I felt wrapped up by its attention to beauty (in the writing, in the cinematography, in the music) and stirred by the film’s commitment to chaos of all varieties (family, environment, love). Happy to know that Court 13 and Director Benh Zeitlin (the Film Society’s 2012 Celluloid Hero honoree) are both sticking with Louisiana as home base.

Bernie: More plot-driven than your average Linklater film and mixed with scintillating documentary-style footage featuring Carthage, TX, residents, this film was a comedic feast (please, I need another Texas geography lesson from one particularly colorful resident…and stat!). Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine + Matthew McConaughey are unstoppable. And with Texas as a near neighbor, it was no wonder that there happened to be someone in the audience who actually knew Bernie and was quick to tell me about all the ways in which the film got him wrong. A little lagniappe on top of a side-splitting afternoon.

Compliance: Here comes another narrative film that plucks its unbelievable tale from the pages of the local paper. Compliance is unquestionably uncomfortable with its characters’ skin-crawling deference to authority, mysteries in motivation and the film’s overarching vulnerability. Zobel creates a situation in which we are both implicated in the crime that is being committed and starkly alienated from it (How could she ever believe that???). In the wise words of Hammer to Nail’s Michael Tully: “this film should be required viewing.”

Jiro Dreams of Sushi: I don’t even like sushi but David Gelb’s documentary was like a religious experience—specifically one unfolding in a religion of which I knew nothing. Jiro Dreams of Sushi premiered in New Orleans at our spring film showcase, filmOrama at the Prytania Theatre to a sold-out audience. During the Q+A, David described how he was mostly a one-man crew during much of the filming. To know that he captured so much all by himself seemed only appropriate given the singular talent he followed. It almost seemed as though they fed off each other’s talent. The film takes you on a mouth-watering journey into questions of tradition, obligation and passion.

Margaret: And so it goes: I’ve left the film that’s hardest to write about, that left me virtually speechless upon viewing it, for last. I’ll say this: I don’t think there’s ever been a film that takes on, with no apologies, the murky waters we all navigate in realizing that our opinions and beliefs, in their totality, are held by a community of one. Lisa Cohen has to figure out how to step outside herself—and there are a lot of casualties along the way. Lonergan’s film—oft derided for its “messiness”—feels far more fresh and brave than it does untidy.

Honorable Mention: Argo

Margaret: One of the best films I’ve seen in years. I wanted to stand up and cheer “Bravo, brava, bravi!” when it was over—and even though it was pushing three hours I would gladly have sat through more. Challenging, questioning, entertaining, and beautiful to look at, Margaret is a great example of what cinema is capable of. And Anna Paquin delivers one of the best performances of the past decade.

The Turin Horse: Bleakness has never been as beautiful as in this modern-day masterpiece from famed Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Almost nothing happens in the film—half of the first hour alone consists of a woman boiling a potato for her father, who then peels it with his one good hand and eats it. But it’s still so incredibly compelling, in large part because of how beautifully shot it is, but also because every single second of their hardscrabble lives is a test of their endurance and will to live—and, for the viewer, a test of their own endurance and compassion. I hungrily ate it all up, like a hungry man eating a boiled potato.

The Kid With a Bike: This film (which NOFS screened during filmOrama last year) boasted one of the best performances of the year by the young actor who played 12-year-old Cyril. I was convinced he was really a feral cat offscreen. Watch out, Quvenzhane: you’ve got some competition on the child actor front.

Holy Motors: I loved every second of this film. Carax needs to make more movies.

The Color Wheel: I admit that the leads are hatable, but they’re also the most lovable hatable characters I’ve ever seen on screen.

Django Unchained: Sure, Christophe Waltz recycles his character from Inglourious Basterds, but when acting is that entertaining, I don’t mind a bit. This may sound anathema to some, but this is the first Tarantino film that I actually really like.

The Imposter: I remember reading the New Yorker piece on this case a few years back, mouth agape, thinking, “Someone really needs to make a documentary about this.” I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one who thought that, as this stranger-than-fiction tale is one of the most fascinating films of the year.

The Snowtown Murders: Unsettling and, at times, nauseating to watch, this Australian film (which NOFS co-presented at Chalmette Movies in March) does a near-perfect job of creating a completely coherent atmosphere, with a look and sound that are not just background but key figures in the film. This film affected me in a way that few films do, and while I can’t say I “enjoyed” this movie-going experience, I was certainly awed by it.

Girl Model: An intimate look at a very complicated industry, this riveting documentary (also a filmOrama selection) baldly shows the gross realities of modeling, in a way that compelled me to watch every second but repelled me at the same time. My heart still breaks for “gray mouse” Nadya. That a film could introduce her to me over the course of an hour and then have her story stick with me as viscerally as it has for almost a year is a true filmmaking feat.

Take This Waltz: Sarah Polley is something of a crazy genius. This film—her follow-up to the brilliant Away From Her—was infuriating in a lot of ways (much of it was overwritten, the tone was all over the place, and there was nothing believable about the lover character). Nevertheless, the moments of brilliance (Sarah Silverman’s gut-punching final scene, for example, and both scene of Michelle Williams in the Scrambler) are enough to make me excuse its shortcomings. I really think Polley is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today and can’t wait until her next film. And her next after that.

Honorable Mentions go to Ultimate Christian Wrestling (my favorite film from the 2012 New Orleans Film Festival), Dreams of a Life (another documentary that’s on the same too-crazy-to-believe scale as The Imposter), and Elena (a Russian neo-noir that’s as tense as anything I saw this year). And just a note: A Separation played New Orleans in 2012 but since it won an Oscar last year, I decided not to include it on this list. Had I, it probably would have been number two on my list. Also, I never saw The Master, but I’m looking forward to it and think that PTA can do no wrong.

John Desplas (artistic director)
Bernie: While plaudits are as generously bestowed on serious-minded narrative features like throws by a tipsy masked float rider, comedy still seems to be treated rather stintingly at awards time, even though it is generally acknowledged as being a more challenging endeavor. Well, mirabile dictu, Richard Linklater and Jack Black have made the comedy of the year; hell, the film of the year. As the great tragedian Alfred Kean supposededly uttered on his deathbed: Dying is easy; Comedy is Hard. Most fun I had all year at the movies.

The Kid with a Bike: Another unassuming documentary-inflected fiction film from the Dardenne Brothers who arguably are the great humanists of contemporary film-making. While showing compassion toward their characters, the Brothers never succumb to easy sentimentality.

The Master: Not a perfect thing, but huge chunks of it—like the incredible sequence in which Joaquin Phoenix loses it during a photo shoot in a department store—are better than anything I saw on screen this year. Director Paul Thomas Anderson is on record as saying Joaquin was a royal pain in the ass to work with but most defintely worth it. You right about that, Paul.

Anna Karenina: All right, I admit it up front: I’m a sucker for any movie where peoples’ lives are ruined by an  ungovernable romantic passion—especially for an unworthy object—and director Joe Wright presents the sorry spectacle with great panache. See it on a Big Screen if you can; the whole tawdry affair is sumptuously mounted.

The Imposter: A documentary that plays like a mystery film, a really intriguing mystery film. Recreated scenes are blended with actual documentary footage. Leave it to the purists to argue over whether the final product is a hybrid or a true “document.”

Holy Motors: One can never be quite certain as to What It All Means in director Leos Carax’s first film in twelve years, but I suspect that the director means to leave that to each viewer to decide for himself or herself. But then, there really is no need to have the haunting and hallucinatory images mean anything much beyond themselves. Even the director was astounded by the performance of Denis Levant. And there’s an unaccountably exhilarating accordian interlude smash dab in the middle of the film.

Beloved: Few people saw this latest film from French director Christophe Honore’ (it screened locally at the past year’s French Film Festival) and it is one of those either you-love-it or you-hate-it kind of movies. I loved it. For me, the blend of artifice (a la Jacques Demy and “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg) with a darker realistic drama was my kind of pot au feu.

Skyfall: All of the naughty playfulness—well, most of it—of the Sean Connery-James Bond films has been siphoned off to be replaced with a more somber approach to the business of spying for Her Majesty’s government and it worked surprisingly well for me as high grade pulp fiction. And the film looked smashingly good.

Lincoln: If for no other reason then to sit there and be awestruck at how Daniel Day-Lewis can completely vanish into a character. You don’t sit there and think my-my, I’m getting a lot of fancy acting for my ten bucks; it doesn’t appear to be a performance; as old-timey movie ads might say: Daniel Day-Lewis IS Lincoln. Also this is a movie with a script (imagine that), not a premise for a lot of set pieces. Spielberg is to be commended for not mucking up the drama with lots of cinematic “flourishes.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild: The Indie success story of the year, should do for director Ben Zeitlein what “sex, lies, and videotape” did for Steven Soderbergh. Not often that anyone attempts a kind of folk poetry on film; that it has been so well realized (and with a minimum of financial resources) is no small achievement.

Monika Baudoin (membership coordinator)
Top movie of the year: Beyond the Hills
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
The Intouchables
A Late Quartet
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Unfinished Spaces

Sergio Lobo-Navia (technical associate)
1. The Master: There were three moments this year when a movie made me slackjawed. All three moments occurred during the first half of The Master. No other film made me feel the same way. No other film had stayed in my head. The 2nd half drops off a bit, but it is still far and away, the best movie I saw this year.

2. Holy Motors: In about eight months when The New Yorker rolls out another “Death of Film/cinema/cinephillia/movies” piece, I’m going to casually offer Holy Motors as an example of why the movies aren’t dead. It is encyclopaedic in its use of genre and not afraid of it.

3. Looper: About half-way through the movie you realize this is a sci-fi film about parenting and it hits home. Imaginative and heartfelt, it is perhaps the finest Hollywood South flick ever made. A wondrous use of tax credits.

4. The Kid With The Bike: If I wanted to be nitpicky, most of the films problems could be solved with a bike lock. The same could be said of Bicycle Thieves, but that’s not really the point. 

5. Killer Joe: It’s all about Matthew McConaughey and some K Fried C. I correct myself: this is the funniest film of the year. 

6. Django Unchained: Tarantino’s least ironic and most straightforward film, it encapsulates 148 years of post-civil war racial politics into a spaghetti western, much in the same way Italian directors developed the genre to explore the ugly specter of fascism. It’s not disrespectful but brilliant. This film might be higher on the list if Mr. Tarantino didn’t grace us with his Australian accent.

7. Killing Them Softly: Brad Pitt brooding and tough guys talking in the midst of the 2008 election. A stylish denunciation of political rhetoric and spectacle, the film offers a brutal punchline in its closing line. Also perhaps the funniest movie of the year.

8. Bernie: Much in the same way that some of my co-workers hate Tom Hanks, I really detest Jack Black. The simple fact that this film is eighth on my list demonstrates how good it really is.

9. Cosmopolis: The strangest double feature I undertook this year was Sleepwalk with Me (on my honorable mention list) at the Prytania and rushing over to Canal Place for David Cronenberg’s latest. The 2nd best film this year that mostly take place in a limo, it is icy examination about dehumanizing nature of finance and capital.

10. Juan de los Muertos (Juan of the Dead): An independent horror comedy made in Cuba where the zombies are dissidents, blood runs thick, and one man hustles to the occasion. 

Honorable Mentions: Haywire, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Raid, The Cabin in the Woods, Sleepwalk With Me, Lincoln, and Margaret. All of these films are tied for 11th place. Two action pictures, a horror flick, a food documentary (I don’t even LIKE sushi), a coming of age story (where the protagonist is in his late twenties), a political procedural about the thirteenth amendment, and a far greater epic about a teenage girl than The Hunger Games could ever fathom.