The films of 2012 (contributors S)

90 international critics on their top five films and highlights of 2012.

Sight & Sound contributors
Updated:

Full web edition

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

Sukhdev Sandu
Critic, UK

Practical Electronica
Ian Helliwell, UK

In which the most distinguished bedroom boffin-lineage filmmaker in the UK pays homage to kindred spirit F.C. Judd, amateur radio enthusiast, electronic music proselytiser, and a contemporary of fellow radiophonic pioneers such as Daphne Oram and Tristram Cary. Diligently researched and wittily constructed, it offers a fascinating and interconnected circuit diagram of obscured post-war British culture – an especially crucial document for the growing field of tape studies.

The Bruce Lacey Experience
Nicholas Abrahams & Jeremy Deller, UK

Deller’s wonderful Hayward retrospective this year was called ‘Joy in People’, and this fond portrait of the eightysomething English director – a work of antic archivalism – provokes only joy.

Deep State
Karen Mirza & Brad Butler, UK

Co-scripted by China Miéville, this is a blistering example – informed as much by the work of the Black Audio Film Collective as it is by Godard – of the current upsurge of interest in the histories and possibilities of the ‘militant image’. Interlacing archival footage from Cairo, London 2011, Turkey and Bangladesh, it makes telling use of a ‘riotonaut’ figure to probe multinational repressions that annul global social justice movements.

The Loneliest Planet
Julia Loktev, USA/Germany

Any studio exec seeking to reboot the modern thriller for the post-Paul Greengrass era should see this apparently minimalist follow-up to the Russian-American director’s Day Night Day Night, fusing 1970s formalism with an incredible eye – and ear – for the kind of infra-detonations that can sunder a world.

Hauntologies
John Akomfrah, UK

A word too often used as a synonym for nostalgia for 1970s kids TV here links a collection of lush, aching, endlessly resonant gallery films about the enigmas of departure and arrival.

Highlights

A great year for independent British film (Kieron Evans, Andrew Kotting, Peter Strickland, Mark Cousins), but my main memory was November’s power outage of lower Manhattan: the 20th century’s most cinematic city transformed into a blackened auditorium.

Andrew Schenker
Critic, USA

Holy Motors
Leos Carax, France/Germany

Film as performance. Life as performance. Film as life, even as the medium dies off. The most inventive, irresistibly nutty film of the year, with Denis Lavant delivering the greatest performance (or performances) of 2012. The late-film turn towards melancholy is as unexpected as it is affecting.

Like Someone in Love
Abbas Kiarostami, France/Japan

Also about performance and life as performance – like most films of significance these days. The move to Japan is new for Kiarostami, the themes are not. Far more successful than the overvalued Certified Copy, if more deceptively modest, the Iranian auteur’s latest is his most squeamishly perverse, but also one of his fullest explorations of the barriers we erect to authenticity, whatever that word may mean in a 21st-century context.

Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson, USA

It’s Wes Anderson, so you know what to expect, but the director hasn’t probed the depths of human longing and familial discontent so deeply since The Royal Tenenbaums.

Vamps
Amy Heckerling, USA

It’s not the cleverness but the aching melancholy (call it anti-modern nostalgia if you must) that makes Heckerling’s latest so great.

Girl Walk//All Day
Jacob Krupnick, USA

A wordless, endlessly inventive dance performance (held together by a sliver of a narrative) set across the vivid expanse of New York and timed to Girl Talk’s album All Day, this is the most irrepressible film of the year, featuring 2012’s other great performance, by the wondrous Anne Marsen.

Jasper Sharp
Critic and programmer, UK

The Echo of Astro Boy’s Footsteps (Atomu no ashioto ga kikoeru)
Tominaga Masanori, Japan

Fans of experimental music and anime will find this utterly riveting anyway, but most impressive for me is the human dimension to this incredibly moving portrait of the secret life of 1960s sound designer Ohno Masuo.

Sightseers
Ben Wheatley, UK

Berberian Sound Studio
Peter Strickland, UK

British cinema continued its purple patch, and while 2012 wasn’t quite as strong as last year, it threw up some really innovative and fun films. Both of these two fell slightly short of excellence, but were definitely heading in the right direction…

The Woman in Black
James Watkins, USA/UK/Canada/Sweden

I just loved the way this film uses the screen, in terms of composition, depth of field, light and shadows, harking back to Freddie Francis’s cinematography on The Innocents.

Generator
Makino Takashi, Japan

Makino’s collaborations with the musician Jim O’Rourke defy words. His mesmerising response to the Fukushima disaster is nothing less than sheer cinematic rapture.

Highlight

Would it be too conceited to cite an event I organised myself? Maybe, but it’s so rare that one gets the chance to unearth a virgin subtitled print of a film never heard of in the West before, yet alone screened, and it actually turns out to be rather good. Somi the Taekwon-do Woman (Chang Yongbok, 1997) – a beautifully shot historical martial-arts co-production between Japan and North Korea, which screened as part of Zipangu Fest opening night in London’s magical Cinema Museum – has been completely under everyone’s radar since it was made. One prays it doesn’t stay there. 

Anna Smith
Critic, UK

The Hunt
Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark/Sweden

Vinterberg’s portrait of a teacher wrongly accused of sexual abuse is an intense, compelling watch with terrific performances from Mads Mikkelsen and a perfectly cast Annika Wedderkopp. Beautifully shot, too.

Skyfall
Sam Mendes, USA/UK

2012 was an unusually strong year for blockbuster franchises: The Dark Knight Rises was super-slick and Skyfall far exceeded my expectations, despite my reservations about Craig in the role. A very well-rounded action thriller, Bond or no Bond.

Sound of My Voice
Zal Batmanglij, USA

Respect to star and co-writer Brit Marling for this contemplative thriller about a cult leader who may or may not be a time traveller from the future. Her performance is luminous and the script keeps you guessing.

Young Adult
Jason Reitman, USA

Reitman and Diablo Cody work their magic again in this bitterly funny comedy-drama, anchored by an excellent performance from Charlize Theron.

Sightseers
Ben Wheatley

It’s always a joy to see a genuinely funny low-budget British film – this dark comedy ticks all the boxes with a consistently witty script and committed performances from writer-actors Alice Lowe and Steve Oram.

Highlight

I went to seven music festivals this summer and was pleased to see an increasing amount of immersive outdoor cinema on offer. Whether dancing to Pulp Fiction at Bestival or foam-fighting at Bugsy Malone at Wilderness, you could feel the love for film in the air.

Fernanda Solorzano
Critic, Mexico

Amour
Michael Haneke

The notion of transcending love taken to its last consequences. By choosing to represent agony in the life of a couple of OAPs, Haneke forces the audience to step into the characters’ shoes. The payoff is deep catharsis.

Blancanieves
Pablo Berger

A contemporary silent version of the Snow White, this witty take on the jealous-stepmother archetype is set in rural Spain at the beginning of the 20th century. While the The Artist may fall on the side of self-celebration, Blancanieves is true to the form, and equally engaging.

The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson

Much more than a depiction of cults, this fable of congenial souls is in itself mesmerising. Both Phoenix and Hoffman’s performances are truly trance-inducing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin

Any attempt to describe this film are doomed to reduce it to a primitivist tale with magic-realist undertones. Not fair at all. The story of a larger-than-life six-year-old, as told by wunderkind Zeitlin, is something to be experienced first-hand.

Searching for Sugar Man
Malik Bendjelloul

A superstar in a parallel universe, folk singer Rodriguez finally has a glimpse of the recognition he was denied in his time. An absorbing documentary about second acts in life.

Highlight

After years of mixed emotions towards Carlos Reygadas’s films, the opening sequence of Post Tenebras Lux completely blew my mind. It’s his most honest and coherent film to date, and the sight of a little girl surrounded by tamed and wild animals (first bathed by sunlight, then by a fierce storm) flawlessly summarises the various conflicts at the centre of his work.

Kate Stables
Critic, UK

The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson, USA

Amour
Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria

Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson, USA

The Queen of Versailles
Lauren Greenfield, USA/Netherlands/UK/Denmark

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin, USA

The DVD highlight of my year was watching Anglo-Iranian director Rafi Pitts meld one cinema culture with another, poetry colliding with the paranoid thriller in a restrained but audacious fashion. (The Rafi Pitts Collection, Artificial Eye)

Brad Stevens
Critic, UK

4:44 Last Day on Earth
Abel Ferrara, USA/Switzerland/France

Ferrara’s latest has – perhaps surprisingly – attracted some positive reviews, though – less surprisingly – no UK distributor. Impossibly combining the rigour of Bresson with the energy of Renoir, this masterpiece resembles Godard’s Film socialisme in its ferocious optimism about modern regimes of imagery.

J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood, USA

Richard Combs called it Eastwood’s Gertrud, which seems about right, though this is also a companion piece to Bird, another biopic about a public performer portrayed as constantly retreating into darkness.

A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg, UK/Germany/Canada/Switzlerand

Un été brûlant
Philippe Garrel, France/Italy/Switzerland

The latest films from Cronenberg and Garrel sum up themes and motifs their auteurs have been exploring for several decades, but give the impression – so typical of late works – that complexity can now be achieved with effortless ease.

Life Just Is
Alex Barrett, UK

British films that can stand comparison with the best in contemporary world cinema have become increasingly rare, but this remarkable debut is the work of a director who will surely bear watching.

Highlight

For me the cinematic event of the year was the appearance online of English fan-subtitles for those few Naruse Mikio films that hadn’t previously been accessible to non-Japanese speakers.

Isabel Stevens
Sight & Sound, UK

Planet of Snail
Yi Seungjun, USA/South Korea/Japan/Finland

This Is Not a Film
Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson

Damsels in Distress
Whit Stillman

Tabu
Miguel Gomes

Highlights

Discovering Georges Franju’s early short films at the Donostia/San Sebastián Film Festival; being mesmerised first by Ordet at the BFI’s Dreyer season and later by Masters of Cinema’s The Passion of Joan of Arc restoration; visiting the Tate’s William Klein retrospective and becoming acquainted with the pavement shutterbug’s crazy excursions into cinema; peering at the art on the walls of Hitch’s films and the walls of his home, and researching which exhibitions might have made a young Alfred’s eyes widen in his teens and early twenties for the BFI’s Hitchcock catalogue.

Francine Stock
The Film Programme, Radio 4, UK

Holy Motors
Leos Carax, France/Germany

Sacre bleu!

Michael
Markus Schleinzer, Austria

Humanely horrifying.

Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson

Once more – with feeling.

The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson

Resistance is futile.

This Is Not a Film
Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

Everything a film can be, the result of a rigid – unwelcome – discipline.

Highlights

Memorable scenes – Freddie Quell lying high above the deck of his ship; the daughter dressing her father in The Turin Horse; the entire interlude in the hungry village in Once upon a Time in Anatolia; Huppert and the lifeguard in In Another Country; Bond and an assassin in the glass maze of a Shanghai office building; mothers and sisters searching the desert in Nostalgia for the Light; mad-dog cop Woody Harrelson and his women round the dinner-table in Rampart; that forklift and its burden in Headhunters; David Byrne performing ‘This Must Be the Place’; Marley’s daughter’s testimony in Kevin Macdonald’s doc; the victim’s reckoning in The Angels’ Share.

Trippiest experience: Comrade Kim Goes Flying, a North Korean/Belgian/UK co-production seen at TIFF – like Jacques Demy directed an industrial video.

Total cinematic immersion: Being guest artistic director of Bridport’s From Page to Screen festival in April – five days of audiences and practitioners watching and debating film, whether in hundreds as James Watkins discussed The Woman in Black in the atmospheric 1920s Electric Palace (with a real ghost in the machine that night) or as Sir Tom Courtenay recalled The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, or in dozens for Bunny Lake Is Missing or Went the Day Well?. Masterclasses with Simon Beaufoy and Moira Buffini, late night dressing-up for The Masque of the Red Death…

Vlastimir Sudar
Critic, UK

Beyond the Hills
Cristian Mungiu

Mungiu focuses on two young women in his latest feature, although without the same emotional impact as in his breakthrough 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Instead, Beyond the Hills is an outstanding meditation on the nature of institutions and the fragile role individuals have within them.

Amour
Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria

My initial suspicions of this latest Haneke outing were very wrong. It’s a true classic, and both Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are unforgettable.

It Was the Son (È stato il figlio)
Daniele Ciprì, Italy/France

Another film that wrongfooted me this year. It started off as a substandard Sorrentino imitation, but grew into one of the most disquieting critiques of contemporary Italy – as well as the current widespread economic angst. Those with an aversion to Italian baroque excess should stay away; everyone else is in for an exceptional surprise.

Virgin Margarida (Virgem Margarida)
Licínio Azevedo, Mozambique/Portugal/France/Angola

I’m suspicious of African cinema that still dwells on the betrayals of revolution and independence. But despite dealing with some acutely difficult historical episodes, this film is made with such effortless charm that it lingered in my mind for weeks on end.

Cinema Komunisto
Mila Turajlic, Serbia/Netherlands/Greece

This film is a couple of years old now, but has only just been released in the UK, so I wanted to right the wrong of not including it in previous years. An excellent documentary on a particular cinema culture that is probably lost forever.

Lowlight

Unfortunately, everything else this year has been overshadowed for me by the death of Branka Petrovic. Widow of the late Yugoslav director Aleksandar Petrovic, she followed him in his itinerant career, often working as his translator. Fluent in seven languages, she met all the key players in the film industry of the 1970s, from Belgrade, Budapest, Rome, Paris and Los Angeles. In later years, she invested her personal authority in efforts to release the still legally deadlocked and rarely seen Yugoslav classics of its ‘golden era’. Her intellectual wit and kind spirit will be sorely missed.

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