COMPLIANCE: the most polarizing, provocative film I saw in 2012 provoked walkouts both times I saw it, and why wouldn't you want to look away? No film said more about the ugly truths that allow our society to function.
DJANGO UNCHAINED: the biggest adrenaline rush I had in a theatre all year. Can't wait for everyone in New Zealand to see this, but it won't quite have the same charge as seeing it with a mixed-race audience in a Detroit suburb; Spike Lee's protestations to the contrary, folks of all races seemed to have a great time, staying to the end to chortle with their friends about the KKK scene.
HOLY MOTORS: such a singular film, with so many bolts of unexpected genius and conflicting currents of emotion from the ecstatic to the funereal, that I can't help but forgive its indulgences and slower moments.
THE LONELIEST PLANET: no film this year delivered a stronger "holy shit" moment than the moment that splits this film into two; knowing that something big is coming doesn't hurt the film at all, because no matter what you think you're prepared for, it's not this (and no, it's not horribly graphic or anything like that). Its ending seemed to upset many at my screening, but no film was more rigorous in its structure, and if you compare the first scene to the last, no film was more quietly heartbreaking.
MISS BALA: mysteries of the universe: how Gerardo Naranjo makes a film I don't like very much and doesn't seem very special (DRAMA/MEX), and then, two films later (I skipped one), makes this balletic, kinetic masterwork of long takes that trawl through the Mexican under - and over - world. Comparisons to Antonioni not entirely inappropriate; this film could just as easily be called THE PASSENGER.
THE RAID (SERBUAN MAUT): in New Zealand, there was no REDEMPTION in the title, which is as it should be, as there's sure as shit no redemption in the movie: just a monomaniacal focus on non-stop action, one that colored my viewing of every other action film this year. (Only DREDD came close, and certainly has the upper hand when it comes to cinematography, but THE RAID warmed my heart ever so slightly more.)
THE RED HOUSE: New Zealander Alyx Duncan's debut film manages one of the rarest magic tricks of cinema, balancing a probing intellect with a generous, nonjudgmental spirit. You can watch this film as a meditation on differences between cultures, between urban and rural ways of life, or between industrial progress vs environmentalism (to name just three of many binaries explored), or you can simply watch it as a beautiful love story, and somehow it works either way. Hopefully this film gets a life overseas; despite its modest means, I can't think of the last film I saw from New Zealand that deserved it more.
TABU: if HOLY MOTORS, as some (including me) argued, was a death notice for film, TABU could be seen as its loving, luminous eulogy, a memory of a forgotten time lensed in black and white Academy ratio. If it doesn't work for you at the start, see it through; the back half of the film completely recontextualizes the first.
TWO YEARS AT SEA: if I was forced to put these in order, this would probably wind up as #1, despite the fact that I expect most people would hate it. It's almost punishingly slow, and there's nothing resembling a conventional narrative; it's simply about experiencing someone's dying way of life, while shot on a dying medium (black and white 16mm short ends), and no film spoke more with fewer words about the end of film as we know it, or more carefully embedded its content into its very form. I know: but where's the story? Sigh.
THE WALL (DIE WAND): Conversely, this would probably be my #10, one of many exciting but flawed and/or problematic films that have been vying for this space (see also: THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, THE SKIN I LIVE IN, KILLER JOE, and ARGO). THE WALL (aka DIE WAND), a magical realist fable of sorts about a woman trapped in a valley after an invisible wall appears, is overburdened by voice-over, true; but it also contains an astonishing one woman performance, stunning photography, and a hell of an emotional punch. Plus, it features the first canine I've ever fallen in love with in the cinema, Lynx.
(And honorable mention to KATY PERRY: PART OF ME 3D. No, really. I can't in good conscience consider it a well-made film on the level of the aforementioned films, but there's no film I had more fun talking about this year, and no film has (probably inadvertently) explored the existential dilemma of what it means to "be yourself" so thoroughly since I HEART HUCKABEES.)
Other films that crossed my mind as possibilities while making this list, with varying degrees of seriousness: SKYFALL, LOOPER, SIGHTSEERS, HEADHUNTERS (HODEJEGERNE), IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (다른 나라에서), ROOM 237: BEING AN INQUIRY INTO THE SHINING IN 9 PARTS, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, SISTER (L'ENFANT D'EN HAUT), SOUND OF MY VOICE, the straight-to-video HAYWIRE, UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, HOW FAR IS HEAVEN, and MOONRISE KINGDOM, as well as the not-released in New Zealand ALPS (Αλπεις), OSLO AUGUST 31ST, and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO.
Films I saw in 2011 that went unreleased in New Zealand in 2012: BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (now out on video without so much as a theatrical run, sigh); A BOY AND HIS SAMURAI (ちょんまげぷりん); EXTRATERRESTRIAL (EXTRATERRESTRE); CARRÉ BLANC; RABIES (כלבת).
Nominees for the SYNCHEDOCHE, NEW YORK/DRIVE award, aka "film that everyone else liked but I didn't get on a first viewing, then fell in love with on a second": THE MASTER, BEYOND THE HILLS (DUPĂ DEALURI), FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (コクリコ坂から), STUDENT (Студент), AMOUR. (All pending a second viewing, naturally.)
As for the worst movie of the year? There were surprisingly many films that I disliked, which depresses me; as much as I sometimes take delight in a sarcastic turn of phrase, I don't like not liking films. One trend in particular that I'd love to see die is the "sex madness" narrative as personified by SHAME and TRISHNA. I think, however, IRON SKY created a near-unique form of despair in me. Anticipated for years, crowd-funded on the basis of a catchy idea, it's teeth-grindingly terrible from start to finish. If the future of cinema is crowd-funding, and what we have to look forward to are great log-lines that are terribly executed, then, to paraphrase John LaRoche (Chris Cooper) in ADAPTATION: fuck cinema.