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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Top Films of Summer 2012

by Joshua Handler

Summer 2012 has given us some really great films and a few bombs.  Ironically, all eight films on this list were independently produced.  Over the summer, I saw quite a few films.  There were many that I enjoyed, some that I didn't, but the following eight blew me away.  I always try to see the best new releases and avoid the bombs, hence why the vast majority of films reviewed on this site I really enjoy and why there are so many excellent films on this list (I do not, however, review everything that I see).  So with that, here are eight films that are must-sees.

Sony Pictures Classics

7. Searching for Sugar Man (Dir. Malik Bendjelloul)

Searching for Sugar Man is an outstanding documentary that tells the story of Rodriguez, a musician who sold few albums in the US, but became a superstar in South Africa without knowing it.  What follows that is a compelling and moving film about a mysterious man and a group of South African men who try to find him.  The music (obviously) is great and the film has many surprises that moved and astounded me.  This is a movie for everyone to enjoy.

Indomina Films
6. The Imposter (Dir. Bart Layton)

The Imposter is another fantastic documentary that follows the story of a kid who disappeared from his Texas home in 1994 and how a person who claimed to be him appeared in Spain in 1997.  Director Bart Layton structures the film like a mystery-thriller and kept me guessing at every turn.  This film is incredibly entertaining and more than a bit disturbing.

Magnolia Pictures
5. Compliance (Dir. Craig Zobel)

By far the craziest true story (and it is completely true) that I have seen this year, Compliance asks the question "how far will someone be willing to go to follow authority?"  I will not give you any synopsis for this film as it is best to view it without knowing anything about it.  It is the only film that has made me uncomfortable in the theater and feeling ill afterwards.  This sounds terrible, but it is a testament to how effective this film is.  The performances, particularly that of Ann Dowd, are very good.

IFC Films 
4. Your Sister's Sister (Dir. Lynn Shelton)

Your Sister's Sister is a beautiful little comedy shot for a small sum of $125,000.  It stars Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, and Rosemarie DeWitt and follows a man (Duplass) who's best friend (Blunt) sends him to her family's lake house after the death of his brother.  There, he meets her sister (DeWitt) and has a fateful one night stand with her.  The cast gives their most heartfelt performances to date and Shelton never settles for cheap laughs (her dialogue is very realistic too).  I came out of this film with an enormous smile on my face.

Magnolia Pictures
3. The Queen of Versailles (Dir. Lauren Greenfield)

Documentaries were great this summer, but the greatest of them all is Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles.  The film follows Jackie and David Siegel, billionaires who were building a 90,000 square foot house until the 2008 housing crisis when they lost much of their money and had to put their unfinished house on the market.  Greenfield shows all of the Siegels' excess in detail and shows every aspect of their lives, sometimes from more than one perspective (she even interviews one of the housekeepers in a fascinating segment).  Greenfield pays sharp attention to detail and paints a sometimes very disturbing portrait of the American Dream taken to the extreme.  

Sony Pictures Classics
2. Chicken with Plums (Dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)

Based on Satrapi's graphic novel of the same name, Chicken with Plums is a clever film about a man who decides to die after his wife breaks his beloved violin.  The film shows the man's final eight days and his the memories that he remembers during that time.  Satrapi and Paronnaud (Persepolis) use beautiful animated back-drops and whimsical humor mixed with drama to create this magical story.  The film has a one-of-a-kind magic to it that only Satrapi and Paronnaud can make.  I felt enriched after the movie ended.  Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) heads the fantastic cast.  Read my review here.

Focus Features
1. (Tie) Moonrise Kingdom (Dir. Wes Anderson)

I have never seen a film quite like Wes Anderson's masterpiece, Moonrise Kingdom.  Following two pre-teens who escape their New England town and the people who chase after them, this film, like the next one that I will write about, captures the pure magic of cinema.  Anderson's whimsical world looks as if it was created from a children's book (the references to Peter Pan throughout the film support this) and his story tells the timeless tale of two children discovering love and the adults who want to crush the magical bond between them.  Moonrise Kingdom features an excellent cast and script and will easily go down as one of the best films of 2012 by the year's end.  Read my review here.

Fox Searchlight 
1. (Tie) Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir. Benh Zeitlin)

This film is a miracle.  Director Benh Zeitlin creates a unique world unlike any other.  The film, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d'Or (best first feature) and three other awards at the Cannes Film Festival, follows a young girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan√© Wallis), who lives with her ill father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in The Bathtub, a self-sufficient community south of the levee in Louisiana.  However, when a storm hits, it nearly destroys Hushpuppy's world.  Under these circumstances, Hushpuppy must learn how to survive and care for her father.  This film is the most emotional film that I have seen this year.  The performances, particularly those of Wallis and Henry (both non-actors), are Oscar-caiber.  They contain a raw power that few actors have today.  The story is wrenching and magical and Ben Richardson's 16mm handheld cinematography is gorgeous, as is the score by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin.  In short, this is a must-see film that you will never forget.  I have seen it twice and could easily watch it another five times, at least.  Read my review here.

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