As we reach the end of an inspiring year for cinema, here are ten titles that stood out for me in 2012, and an explanation of why I chose each of them. Although I saw many of these at film festivals, so they may not make it to your local art house cinema, in the coming year you may be able to catch them at small festivals of different national/regional cinemas in your city, or at least on DVD.
From Thursday to Sunday (De Jueves a domingo)(dir. Dominga Sotomayor)
On a family road trip through rural Chile, a young girl witnesses her parents’ marriage fall apart.
-For its tender portrayal of childhood, complete with extroverted playfulness and introverted worry. For its subtle but consistent exploration of foreground versus background space, which reflects two separations: between children and adults, and between husband and wife.
Neighbouring Sounds (O som ao redor) (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)
A portrait of the everyday lives the residents of a middle-class Brazilian neighbourhood, where a subconscious awareness of past wrongs and present-day inequalities make everyone paranoid.
-For its skilful stylistic creation of an oppressive atmosphere, which makes the audience feel the locals’ sense of menace; this atmosphere provides a strange contrast with their largely safe and peaceful existence.
Tabu (dir. Miguel Gomes)
In present-day Lisbon, an elderly woman’s death gives her former lover a pretext to tell the story of their illicit romance in 1950s Africa.
-For its original combination of wittiness with haunting lyricism: it is a tribute to cinema history that is fully aware of the superficial glamour, absurdities and solipsism of its love stories.
Death of a Man in the Balkans (Smrt ćoveka na Balkanu) (dir. Miroslav Momčilović)
When a man commits suicide, his neighbours arrive on the scene, where respectful tributes soon give way to spiteful speculation and self-interest.
-For its skewering of individual and official hypocrisy: a delightful black comedy, which skillfully avoids claustrophobia, despite taking place entirely in one room.
Wadjda (dir. Haifaa Al Mansour)
A little girl won’t let social pressure stand in the way of her desire to get a bike so she can race against her best friend: to get the necessary cash, she’s willing to transform herself from her school’s worst Koran student to its star pupil.
-For providing an unusual glimpse of what life is like for women in Saudi Arabia, demonstrating the resilience of the human spirit in the face of crushing misogyny, and offering hope for the future in two kids whose friendship is based on love and mutual respect, and untainted by gender stereotypes.
Tall as the Baobab Tree (Grand comme le baobab) (dir. Jeremy Teicher)
To prevent her little sister being made a child bride, a teenage girl needs to find another way to raise money for her brother’s medical bills.
-For the respectful and collaborative way in which this American director went to Senegal to make a film that genuinely reflects locals’ experiences. The film’s atmosphere is gentle, realistic, and treats all its characters even-handedly, whether they are progressive or traditionalist in their views.
Modest Reception (Paziraie sadeh)(dir. Mani Haghighi)
A brother and sister need to give away a large sum of money surreptitiously, a task harder than it sounds.
-For its original and engaging premise, for the appropriately dramatic snowy mountain setting in which it takes place, and for the way it explores the distinction between material and spiritual poverty.
Eat Sleep Die (Äta sova dö) (dir. Gabriela Pichler)
A realistic exploration of the effect of unemployment on a small Swedish town, as seen through the eyes of a young Balkan immigrant and her aging father.
-For its compassionate portrayal of good-hearted people whose need to find work threatens to separate them from family and friends. It shows how capitalism, for all its promises, ultimately fails to respect human dignity.
Kokoko (dir. Avdotya Smirnova)
A reserved anthropologist befriends a woman from the lower-classes: at first it looks like this spirited ‘fishwife’ will teach the cultured woman how to enjoy herself, but the middle-classes just can’t resist their desire to elevate and educate…
-For its ambitious, if not entirely successful concept, and for the magic and originality of its settings (the museum of anthropology and a shadowy artist’s studio/apartment).
Francine (dir. Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky)
A middle-aged woman is released from prison and must re-integrate into society. Her love of animals seems to offer her a way in, but will also prove to be her downfall.
-For its dignified portrait of a woman who is interesting despite not being young, beautiful or rich. For its theme of animals, which unifies the film and gives the audience a way to understand this reclusive and taciturn character’s psyche.