I watched over 300 films this year. It seems like a lot. But also maybe not so much; I never got to see Michael Haneke's Amour, Rick Alverson's The Comedy, and Rodney Ascher's Room 237, which were screened but transiently, at inopportune times, in my hood, and thus remain elusive, in the purgatory of awaiting-a-local-cinematic-release-that-may-or-may-not-actually-come. It also seems incomplete, when time comes to tally up the year that's been, when you've dodged all the awful multiplex dreck that would make a Worst Films Of The Year tally glorious reading; I've spent decades avoiding Adam Sandler vehicles, I'm not about to start watching him now, just to give you, kind reader, the gentle pleasures of my incandescent rage. Instead, if you want some sarcastic critical scorn, try your old pal Film Carew's typing on Sarah Polley's embarrassing Take This Waltz, Woody Allen's shitty To Rome With Love, the hateful, awful Polisse, and far-and-away the year's most overrated film, Beasts Of The Southern Wild. But enough of the bad, and let's get to the good; to the risen cream of a year in cinema; the best of the best, thee royale FILM CAREW TOP 20 FILMS OF 2012:
20. Magic Mike (USA, director Steven Soderbergh): The year's best piece of American genre cinema is an auteurist vision of the stripper-flick; Soderbergh authoring the most beautifully-shot multiplex movie in aeons. It may've made a mint playing for crowds of screeching harridans, but Magic Mike was popcorn entertainment blessed with style, truth, and unexpectedly on-it acting; a sad, faded shrine to male sexual potency that doubled as a portrait of lost souls drifting through the smoggy landscape of a crumbling empire, scrapping for their meagre piece of theirs in a country that long ago foreclosed on the American Dream.
19. Tropicália (Brazil, Marcelo Machado): The rockumentary is normally one of cinema's very-worst genres, living off the music chronicled, but rarely living up to it. Machado's portrait of the Brazilian psychedelic epoch of the '60s is, of course, driven by the awesomeness of the jams; and the joys of seeing archival footage of Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes et al on stage (not to mention Tom Zé in interview) are a huge part of its appeal. But Tropicália matches the beat of tropicália: cut-up into a wild, colourful, cacophonous romp bursting with energy, vitality, joy, and ideas.
18. Las Acacias (Argentina, Pablo Giorgelli): Perhaps the year's most tender piece of cinematic humanism, this hyper-minimalist drama follows a truck driver, his ride, and her infant as they embark on a symbolic trip from the Paraguayan plains en route to Buenos Aires. At first, the journey takes place almost entirely in silence; and the silences are loaded with countless unspoken sentiments. Though the silence eventually, tentatively melts, it remains the definitive element in Giorgelli's poignant portrait of transient souls and momentary connections.
17. Miss Bala (Mexico, Gerardo Naranjo): An action-thriller in genre, but not spirit, Gerardo Naranjo's high-tension hijacking of standard narrative presentation follows its titular heroine via an unblinking hand-held camera, surveying the scorched earth of a Tijuana turf skirmish between cops and crims. Here, our aspiring beauty queen —and the audience who watches, often from her perspective— is taken hostage, and held as bait; peddled flesh in a shootout that depicts Mexico's war on drugs as civil war.
16. Beyond The Hills (Romania, Cristian Mungiu): Though it doesn't hit the artistic heights of its pitch-perfect predecessor, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Mungiu's follow-up furthers Romanian cinema's undoubted Golden Age. Another formally-assured, brilliantly-directed piece of pure cinema, Beyond The Hills is a stark critique of religious orthodoxy and backwards superstition; an eerie, unnerving, quietly terrifying take on the tired trope of exorcism that amounts to a critique of religion's place in the modern world.
15. Our Children (Belgium, Joachim Lafosse): The family home is an airless prison in this austere Belgian drama; smothering and suffocating all who dwell within it. Therein, a young couple (and their growing brood of kids) cede ever-increasing power to a live-in godfather, who exhorts emotional, financial, and psychological blackmail in doses of toxic 'love' (the film's title translates as Loving Without Reason). Lafosse is unafraid of the terrifying descent his narrative has in store; its tension growing evermore oppressive, its eventual climax unbearable and brutal.
14. Whores' Glory (Austria, Michael Glawogger): The third in his Globalization Trilogy of documentaries exploring toil in the modern age —following 1998's Megacities and 2005's Workingman's Death— finds Glawogger chronicling a cast of third-world prostitutes; new-millennial women-at-work at the world's oldest profession. It's a piece of piercing observationism that caps an astonishing sustained study; Glawogger's triptych finding some of the most profound documentarymaking of the past three decades.
13. The Master (USA, Paul Thomas Anderson): Anderson's follow-up to There Will Be Blood doesn't quite hit the same sustained, satisfying cinematic tenor, but it's a brilliantly-directed piece of stark, glowering formalism whose themes run deep. It's not, as assumed, Anderson's 'scientology movie', but a borderline-unlikeable portrait of the darkness and flux of post-war America; a nation that, as in its predecessor, is a perpetual frontier, perennially pillaged by disreputable men.
12. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan): A stilled police procedural told at a contemplative crawl, Ceylan's masterfully-shot film is a parable played out on desolate stretches of the Turkish steppes. It's a slow descent into the darkness that sustains —in its long, unbroken shots— an oppressive tension; its dramatic developments merely hinted at, its true drama found in the loaded silences. As its title suggests, the film is about storytelling: anecdote, folktale, police report, and autopsy all variations on the same narrative; the differing modes reflective of divisions in changing Turkish society.
11. Like Someone In Love (Japan, Abbas Kiarostami): Kiarostami may've made his latest picture in Japan, in Japanese, and in Japanese culture, but the master's hardly changed his spots: Like Someone In Love featuring so many scenes taking place in his favourite loaded dramatic setting: the car. As ever, Kiarostami's sense of framing —what to show and, more importantly, what not to show— is impeccable, and sound out of the frame is often a profound storytelling agent; the final reel of this film a masterclass in this cinematic approach.
10. Wuthering Heights (UK, Andrea Arnold): Arnold's transgressive, radical adaptation of Emily Brontë's high-school-syllabus perennial slays the spectre of the polite period-piece, fleeing from the stilted sets and manicured lawns of drawing-room dramas, and throwing itself into dank, dirty, rural miserablism. Her dialogue-ditchin', socio-realist take on the text is a work inhabiting its environment: naturally-lit, free from score, and set solely against the unending howl of the gale blowin' 'cross those wiley, windy moors.
9. Children Of Sarajevo (Bosnia, Aida Begić): Begić's descent into the night is a portrait of Sarajevo as both dark, disturbed, delirious dream and stark, unromantic socio-realism. Here, a pair of grown-up orphans struggle to keep their heads above water; the war persisting, still, in their daily lives. They're representatives of the generation who grew up in conflict, and symbolise the city itself: the Jerusalem of the Balkans wearing the scars of the siege in its buildings, with racial and religious tensions still high.
8. Boy Eating The Bird's Food (Greece, Ektoras Lygizos): A piece of down-and-out domestic socio-realism openly inspired by the Dardenne brothers, Lygizos' slice of contemporary Greece trails in unbroken shots after a 20-something loner scraping out any means of subsistence. Going hungry to the point where it 'fries his brain', lead Yiannis Papadopolous spirals down a descent into depravity; literally ejaculating into his hand and eating it in a film both genuinely transgressive and symbolically animalistic.
7. Alps (Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos): Following up his masterpiece Alps (one the truly great artworks of the 21st century), the don of the Greek Weird Wave authors another extreme-deadpan parable on modern society. Here —as we follow the bizarre 'jobs' of a grieving support-group, who act out roles as recently departed— the emotionless, monotonous, robotic delivery symbolises an era in which the inauthentic, contrived, and play-acted is accepted as genuine experience.
6. Modest Reception (Iran, Mani Haghighi): High in the Iranian mountains, a pair of Tehrani grifters effectively enact Brewster's Millions with tomans, desperately tossing bags of cash at suspicious rural locals, who don't know if the tainted lucre is a gift from God or work of the devil. Haghighi plays on those suspicions with the audience, never explaining the motivations —or the relationship— of the manipulative pair; leaving it open to any and all interpretations. It makes for a salty, provocative parable from a national cinema —think Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Farhadi— long known for them.
5. Neighbouring Sounds (Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho): Befitting its title, this thoughtful, contemplative picture is a glorious shrine to sound design, with the environmental noises of a high-density Recife 'hood forever pressing in on frame; ambient noise ably summoning the feeling of living a life surrounded —and overseen— by ever-present neighbours and constant surveillance. Filho —a former film-critic!— is just as gifted at turning his mastery of sound/vision into a sustained narrative; his oddly-paced, elliptically-phrased film playing with the passage of time, the screenwritten form, and audience paranoia in deft, dynamic fashion.
4. The Loneliest Planet (Georgia, Julia Loktev): One of cinema's greatest-ever works of environmental, phenomenological filmmaking, Loktev's pic is about inhabiting a (near-mythical) landscape; revelling in the altitude of the Caucasus Mountains. In one way, it's backpacker fantasy, but there's a darkness to this eco-tourism, in the extremes humans will go to —both culturally and geographically— as attempt at escape. The film has almost little-to-no exposition, and its central dramatic device is over in an instant, but its repercussions ripple across the rest of the picture; Loktev managing to capture an elusive feeling —trust decaying— in emulsion.
3. House Of Tolerance (France, Bertrand Bonello): Bonello's On War follow-up casts a belle époque bordello as shadowy, German expressionist prison, in which the Flowers of Paris wilt and die at the fin de siècle. His gloriously-directed picture paints prostitution as so much viscera; a body-horror canvas caked with skin, sperm, decay, disease, and disfigurement, then dressed in perfume, lace, pretty face, and boldly anachronistic soundtrack cues. The maison's ensemble of employees are so much peddled flesh, their demise (made incarnate in a heartbreaking turn by Jasmine Trinca) the stuff of tragic heroines writ corporeally human.
2. Holy Motors (France, Leos Carax): With rag-tag marching bands, Kylie Minogue chirping in a trench-coat, and Denis Lavant literally chewing scenery, there's a giddy sense of bright, colourful joy to Carax's long-awaited return from the wilderness. Existing in some strange, surreal, unexplained realm, Holy Motors is an episodic portrait of an immortal otherworld obsessed with observing theatricalised deaths. Starting off with an opening scene in which Carax himself climbs through a movie screen, it's a portrait of the world as cinema manifest, sure; but the scenes of motion-capture-as-procreative-act or the gags where gravestones point visitors towards the deceased's website suggest Carax sees the true terror in the digital grid's endless, unchecked eternity.
1. Moonrise Kingdom (USA, Wes Anderson): Feeling like the culmination of Anderson's meticulously-art-directed studies of precocious children, sad adults, and the painful migration from being one to the other, Moonrise Kingdom is far and away the most beautiful film of 2012, and one of cinema's greatest-ever depictions of young love. Here, a pair of 12-year-old runaways —gripped by all-consuming devotion depicted with nary a hint of condescension— retreat to an isolated cove they turn into their own world; a republic of two fancifully, fleetingly removed from the forces of (and their own inevitable, imminent future in) sad adulthood. It's impossible not to see the resonance for the filmmaker: Anderson having spent an entire career creating expressive fantasy worlds in which misunderstood daydreamers can escape and cinematic romantics can take shelter.
OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES: 17 Girls (France, Muriel Coulin); Beijing Besieged By Waste (China, Wang Jiuliang); Best Intentions (Romania, Adrian Sitaru); Bestiaire (Canada, Denis Côte); Dreams Of A Life (UK, Carol Morley); Elena (Russia, Andrey Zvyagintsev); Elles (France, Malgorzata Szumowska); Goodbye First Love (France, Mia Hansen-Løve); The Interrupters (USA, Steve James); The Island President (Maldives, John Shenk); Killing Them Softly (USA, Andrew Dominik); Monsieur Lazhar (Canada, Philippe Falardeau); No (Chile, Pablo Larraín); Oslo, 31. August (Norway, Joachim Trier); Pink Ribbons, Inc. (Canada, Léa Pool); Sexy Baby (USA, Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus); Sound Of My Voice (USA, Zal Batmanglij); Summer Window (Germany, Hendrik Handloegten); Wolf Children (Japan, Mamoru Hosoda); Wrinkles (Spain, Ignacio Ferreras).