For his first film in thirteen years and his very best work to date, the Cinéma du look-era director brings the (nineteenth) century of cinema's invention into seemless contact with the imagistic overload and narrative fatigue of the digital age. A portmanteau art that can be explained therefore by the exigencies of the early 21st century, Holy Motors, more so even than its perfect Cannes companion Cosmopolis, provides an invigoratingly new glimpse of our post-celluloid present. A strong choice for film of the year.
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, France/United Kingdom/United States)
Abstracted from the murk and shadow of the swirling North Atlantic surf, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's avant-gardist experiment in lyrical-mode documentary attends foremost to the laborious act of its own making and to the viscous textures that confront the film's spectators with sensory experiences that are as often olfactory and tactile (as they are visual). An anti-Deadliest Catch in its narrative unmooring, the very new Leviathan is heavy-metal slow cinema.
A gesamtkunstwerk constructed primarily from American folk and craft traditions, Anderson's latest and perhaps greatest relies on the counter-intuitive presence of mid-century composer Benjamin Britten for not only its allegorical grist, but also for its decisive autobiographical resonance. Belying its sterling surface design and artefactual acuity, Moonrise Kingdom is work of conspicuous emotional depth, translating an experience that is both personal and generational.
Barbara (Christian Petzold, Germany)
Saturated with its Stasi subject in its minutely calibrated detail and unerringly precise observation, Barbara concentrates most forcefully on Nina Hoss's angular, intractable face. A master-class in post-Hitchcockian suspense, Barbara slowly pivots from pure political thriller to ethics-oriented melodrama, with the needs of the eponymous heroine's patients increasingly taking precedent. A new career peak for Petzold, and one of the best works of the director's Berlin School.
Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France)
Infusing faux ethnography with a Bataille-inspired surrealism, the fast-rising forty year-old's post-colonial, post-structuralist Tabu inverts the two-part organization of its 1931 namesake, as it ironically imagines the restoration of paradise in a grainy 16mm technology and post-synchronous sound that are all but extinct. A consummate work of historical reference and obsessive piece of post-modern scholarship, Tabu is equally rich in libidinal and kitsch pleasures.
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, United States)
Pursuing and providing the greater and more novel insight into American slavery than its A-side Lincoln, Django Unchained unearths a piquant metaphor for the abhorrent institution in the period-specific performativity that the film spotlights. Whether or not Tarantino's latest piece of historical wish-fulfillment can or should be described as socially responsible ultimately, Django Unchained remains undeniably powerful and accomplished popular art.
The most outstanding fiction debut of 2012, Filho's three-part, security-themed (sporadically surreal) feature cues graphically and thematically into the high-rise urban architecture that serves as a reminder of the class-based fear around which the film's upper-class subjects organize their lives. These spaces provide a symbolic field for the film's depiction of alienated twenty-first existence, with the filmmaker's camera penetrating in a surveillance-coded set of forward zooms.
You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Alain Resnais, France/Germany)
A spatially unstable mapping of shared memory, the most accomplished filmmaker on this year's list (born a mere ninety years earlier) brings one of 2012's most ontologically adventurous efforts: twelve actors, appearing under their real names, react to and reprise their roles from play-within-the-film Eurydice. The great Resnais's latest presents a group of lives consumed by artistic passion - an almost perfect subject for this very late entry into the New Wave canon.
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania/France/Belgium)
Completely composed of shifting single-take set-ups that systematically substitute for an analytic breakdown of the bleak Carpathian landscape and barren convent interiors, Mungiu's epic-length latest serves to summarize the new Romanian cinema. Presenting a novel and contemporary contribution to Christ narratives in its queer thematic, Mungiu's latest marks a major advancement over his previous, Palme d'Or prize-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, United States)
A Romantic inquiry into love's eternal inconstancy and its coextensive capacity for redemption, To the Wonder emerges as a New World in reverse, with its frequently frivolous female lead following her often ineffectual man deep into the methadone-ravaged interior of Malick's Middle America. Though it plays somewhat like a B-side to the director's marvelous The Tree of Life, it is a variation that pushes the filmmaker's art forward.