My Top Ten Movies for 2012–Reviewed, Not Necessarily New

Happy New Year–the Year of the Snake in 2013!  Most of all, I want to again thank all of you for your responses and comments, and for continuing to read my blog!

With 2012 coming to an end, I wanted to take a look back at the movie reviews I wrote this year.  When I counted the reviews I have written this year (=21), I wanted to see what would be my top ten favorites.  It wasn’t easy, especially for independent films.

This list is not ranked –only my top ten for 2012, grouped by genre.

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) A Separation  (March 23 review)– An Iranian “Rashomon”, this cinematic masterpiece offers a rare view of ordinary Iranians–both affluent and struggling. Minor misunderstandings morph into a slow-motion nightmare that threatens to destroy everything and everyone in its path.

2) Jiro Dreams of Sushi  (April 29 review)– This documentary is much more than a movie about the perfect slab of sushi.  “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi” is a hauntingly elegant meditation on work, obsession, family, and the art of perfection, chronicling Jiro’s life as both an unparalleled success in the culinary world, and a loving yet complicated father.

3) Memory of a Killer (June 18 review)– With a fresh take on the revenge drama, this nail-biter transforms the hired assassin into a kind of moral hero: an aging killer with a conscience.   With an electrifying visual, almost palpable energy, “Memory of a Killer” is a highly original, disturbing and unforgettable thriller.

4) Scottsboro (July 10 review)– The history and analysis of this case deserves to be in every history book of 20th Century US civics. The landmark trial magnified rampant racism, denial of due process, and the continued North-South animosity that existed almost 70 years after the Civil War had ended.

5) Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (September 2 review)– The home-video footage of the explosive black waves surging towards the coastline of Sendai will render you speechless.  The scale and imagery are overwhelming. This superb film reveals healing wounds and healing people, even in times of disaster.

6) Between the Folds  (August 6 review)– The intersections between origami, mathematics, and science are manifested in a magical sleight-of-hand. I promise you–if you see “Between the Folds”, you will never look at origami, the same way ever again!

7) The Garden (December 3 review)– Juggling politics, race and religion as well as the rights of property ownership in a free-market society,  “The Garden” is an investigation into a complicated case of backroom dealings, racial tensions and the question of just who represents a community.

COMEDIES

8) Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (June 30 review)– This charming movie, while a paean to the aging baby boomers who are cinephiles,  is also   a shout-out to chasing your dreams, regardless of age.  The hopeful message: it’s never too late to make things happen.

BIG STUDIO MOVIES:

Political and Sociological

9)  Iron Lady (January 12 review)– Meryl Streep’s award-winning performance is achingly honest in its interpretation of  Margaret Thatcher’s powerful intellect, motivations, even perhaps her unconscious.

10) Arbitrage (September 29 review) In this film we witness unrelenting evil and an underlying fear of capture, committed in the pursuit of money and glory.  No one is spared.  This is a morality tale–a tale of hell in a financial guise. Richard Gere gives a virtuoso performance as a man who has lost his way on Wall Street.

Honorable Mention in Action: 

11) Safe House  (February 21 review) Though this is first and foremost a guy’s action-packed blockbuster, there is something for the rest of us. What do people sacrifice in service to the government that others don’t know about and don’t care to know anything about?  Denzel Washington superbly plays the anti-hero in “Safe House” and retains his integrity!

 

“A Separation”–Between Truth and Lies

I haven’t seen a film from Iran that I have loved as much as “A Separation” since I enjoyed “Children of Heaven”  (1997).  “A Separation”, winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is an Iranian “Rashomon”.  This masterpiece of cinema lays out multiple stories unfolding from six principal characters.  Stripped of any vestige of a moral absolute, in spite of the low dramatic temperature of the filming, viewers will hang on every scene and every word.  The vast middle ground of truth and falsehood leaves you spellbound.

The storyline is simple.  A young upper class schoolteacher , Simin, yearns for a better life for her daughter, Termeh,  and wants to leave Iran.  Nader, her husband, however, is deeply devoted to his father, who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. Consequently, Nader refuses to leave his father behind, knowing that immigration is no longer an option for him.  The couple has a divorce hearing before a magistrate.  With her husband’s permission, Simin is allowed to leave the country but her daughter, Termeh, chooses to stay with her father. The conflict over custody for Termeh unwinds, and with it, their moral convictions.

“A Separation” offers a rare view of ordinary Iranians–both affluent and struggling– in an urban center.  The upscale apartment is contrasted with the grittier working class district in the south.  Simin and Nader’s lives are a world away from the pious, poor districts of Tehran. Thin slivers of religious conviction and family bonds unravel in unexpected and nuanced ways as a desperate married woman (Razieh) offers to become the caretaker for the aged father. Minor misunderstandings morph into a slow-motion nightmare that threatens to destroy everything and everyone in its path.

Hand-held cameras lend a documentary quality and visceral sense of realism throughout. The superb script carefully conceals the central incident so we’re never quite sure who’s telling the truth. We can see the logic of everyone’s position, their good intentions and their emotions while we vacillate on whose version of the truth to believe.  The director’s only agenda seems to be to express empathy. Although the judge may be tending against our own sympathies, we understand why he does so and may be correct to do so. That a director can make such a sympathetic film in such a troubled time is a tribute to his skill.

In this compelling drama about the dissolution of two families, all six characters feel justified in their own particular grievances.  The film accomplishes an extraordinary feat in not selecting sides in the midst of so many moral contradictions.  “A Separation” ultimately separates us from our own need for intellectual clarity and security in our values. Every single performance is noteworthy and natural, perhaps especially  the performances of the two young actresses who play Temreh (the incredible Sarina Farhadi, director Asghar Farhadi’s daughter) and Somayeh (the doe-eyed precocious Kimia Hosseini), the five-year old daughter of the caretaker Razieh.  The film’s ending is so iconic I could think of no alternative that underscores the theme more faithfully—namely, the thin places—the membrane between what is a lie and what is truth– fragile and easily torn.