Best Films of 2012

I’m a bit late with this list, but I’ve come to think of the film year as a 12-month period from Feb. 1 to Jan. 31, or something like that. And of course, there are still many films from 2012 I haven’t seen yet. And many films I’d like to watch a second or third time. But with all of those usual caveats, there is my snapshot, at this moment in time, of the 2012 films I liked the most. I’ve included films that played at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival last year — as well a few films that finally reached Chicago in early 2013.

1. Amour (Michael Haneke, France) — An unflinching depiction of old age, illness, death — and the bonds that tie us together — with astounding, heartrending performances by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant … and a mysterious, memorable cameo by a pigeon. A harbinger of death? A symbol of nature intruding upon the world constructed by humans. “Consider the pigeon just a pigeon,” Haneke says. I don’t know. I keep thinking about that pigeon.

2. Consuming Spirits (Chris Sullivan, U.S.) — No wonder this quirky, magical animated feature feels lived in — the director, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, spent more than a decade making it. It looks handcrafted, like a quilt sewn together from scraps of three different films. The story’s fragmented, too, shifting backward and forward in time, but what might initially seemed cobbled together turns out to a meticulously constructed pattern. Alcoholism, insanity, neglect and downright weirdness dominate the story’s twisted relationships, all related with a wickedly dark sense of humor.

3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) — A crime drama, but more like an impressionistic landscape or a metaphysical meditation than a film noir. Slowly paced but highly engrossing, the film ends up going in an unexpected direction for its final act.

4. Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece) — The director of Dogtooth takes another disturbing trip to a world that seems almost like an alternate reality, telling a story with its own set of rules that defy normal logic. However strange it may be, Alps taps into the very real emotions of people struggling to cope with devastating loss.

5. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.) — A puzzle, but one that you can’t stop staring at. At the center of the enigmatic story, filmed in stunning visual clarity, there’s a protean struggle between two men. Paint thinner and lust runs through it.

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, U.S.) — Seen through the eyes of a child and told in a child’s voice, this vivid swamp tale swirls together fairy-tale fantasy and grim, gritty glimpses of reality.

7. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, Japan) — The Iranian director’s trademark style (including long, talky scenes filmed inside automobiles) turns out to be an excellent fit for the Japanese milieu, as he deftly captures the subtle shades of his characters, obsessively following them to a stunning climax.

8. The Fairy (Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy, Belgium) — The slapstick and sight gags in this charming comedy are so outlandish that they’re startling to see outside the boundaries of cartoons and silent movies.

9. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, U.S.) — It isn’t a justification for torture. It isn’t a documentary. And it isn’t the entire story. What could be? But it’s a totally riveting procedural on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, as seen through the perspective of a driven CIA detective. Masterfully made and acted, it leaves much room for debate, and rightfully so.

10. Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, U.S.) — This moving cinematic portrait of Detroit — or some of its people and places, anyway — finds a few glimmers of hope in the decaying urban landscape.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S.)
Sister (Ursula Meier, Switzerland)
2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy, U.S.)

Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, Norway)
Argo (Ben Affleck, U.S.)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/U.S.)

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, U.S.)
Morgen (Marian Crisan, Romania)
Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran)

Looper (Rian Johnson, U.S.)
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
Hors Satan (Bruno Dumont, France)

The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, U.S.)
Bernie (Richard Linklater, U.S.)
Dreileben Trilogy: Beats Being Dead (Christian Petzold); Don’t Follow Me Around (Dominik Graf); One Minute of Darkness (Cristoph Hochhäusler, Germany)

How to Survive a Plague (David France, U.S.)
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, France)
The Life of Pi (Ang Lee, U.S.)

Best concerts of 2012

My favorite concerts from the past year. Just 10 very memorable and outstanding performances of a hundred concerts I attended; there were so many other great ones…

1. Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Sept. 16 at Riot Fest (Humboldt Park). Blog post.

2. Glen Campbell, Jan. 26 at Rialto Square Theater. Blog post.

3. Ida, Jan. 29 at Saki. Blog post and photos.

4. Jeff Mangum, Feb. 8 at the Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee. Blog post.

5. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Oct. 11 at the United Center. Blog post.

6. Willis Earl Beal, April 19 at the Hideout. Blog post and photos.

7. Patrick Watson, June 1 at Lincoln Hall. Blog post and photos.

8. Le Butcherettes, June 2 at Do-Division. Blog post and photos.

9. The Cairo Gang, Dec. 9 at the Burlington. Blog post and photos.

10. Eighth Blackbird and other musicians perform John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit,” Aug. 26 at the Pritzker Pavilion. Blog post and photos.

Best Records of 2012

1. SPIRITUALIZED: SWEET HEART SWEET LIGHT (Fat Possum) — Spiritualized maestro Jason Pierce emerged from a brush with death to make a soul-searching, musically rich masterpiece. Lush orchestrations and choirs of harmony singers shine like beams of light to fend off the existential angst creeping into Pierce’s world-weary rocker narration.

2. SHIRLEY ANN LEE: SONGS OF LIGHT (Numerophon) — These songs were recorded between 1996 and 1968, but only a few of them were released at the time — and even those were just 45 rpm singles distributed by bicycle in Toledo, Ohio. In other words, even though this is old music, it didn’t truly see the light of day until 2012, thanks to the invaluable work of the master musical archeologists at Chicago’s Numero Group. These spare, occasionally primitive and off-kilter recordings feature little more than piano or electric guitar and Lee’s remarkable voice, but that’s all they need to showcase the heartfelt songs, mostly written by Lee herself. Each song is built around a gospel message, but they transcend any particular religious denomination’s beliefs, expressing life’s universal struggle. When the Numero Group’s Rob Servier visited Lee at her Toledo home in 2008, she had no copies of her own records. Lacking a CD player, she went out into Servier’s car so she could hear the disc he’d made of her old recordings. Hearing the music for the first time in 40 years, she sang along. And now, the rest of the world can marvel at these lost recordings.
Buy from the Numero Group.

3. RADAR EYES: RADAR EYES (HoZac) — Garage rock of the ’60s and punk rock of the ’70s continue to inspire a lot of new music, including many Chicago bands recording on HoZac and other labels. Chicago’s Radar Eyes are one of the best, packing a punch with fuzz-drenched guitar riffs, stomping drumbeats, walloping bass lines, droning keyboards and catchy singing about, well, prairie puppies, among other things. On the final track, Radar Eyes suddenly sounds almost exactly like Joy Division, making for an odd shift in style but one that gradually starts to make sense after you get used to it. A strong set of tunes from start to finish.

4. THE CAIRO GANG: THE CORNER MAN (Empty Cellar) — The Cairo Gang is Emmett Kelly, a versatile guitarist, singer and songwriter who has shown up a lot on Chicago stages over the past several years, always demonstrating an impressive talent for sensitive playing that feeds off the musicians next to him. On this lovely new LP, Kelly’s songs resemble the music he’s recorded as a collaborator with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, but they’re all his own, with subtle, organic arrangements that shift from hushed falsetto ballads to dramatic bursts of rock. In one song, he aptly asks, “Tell me what’s better … being quiet in the noise?”
Buy the record from Endless Nest.
Buy the record on Bandcamp.

5. JOSHUA ABRAMS: REPRESENCING (Eremite) — Joshua Abrams is another musician who appears with Zelig-like frequency in Chicago nightclubs and concert halls, playing jazz as well as experimental music that overlaps with the rock scene. Abrams often plays bass, but on this record he plucks the guimbri, a three-stringed North African bass lute, also known as the sintir. His choice of instrument gives these improvisational jams a tactile sensation — you can almost feel those strings bending and snapping under his fingers. A variety of other musicians join in, creating exotic and evocative sounds. The textures change from song to song, but they’re consistently engaging, even hypnotic.
Buy the record from Eremite, and hear a sample track.

6. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR: ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND ASCEND (Constellation) — Epic visions of decay and destruction, all communicated without a single word being sung. The music by this Montreal collective (back in action after a long absence) could be categorized as instrumental rock music, but that feels like an inadequate label. GY!BE’s compositions owe as much to classical music as they do to rock, and the band erupts into apocalyptic bursts as intense as anything a full orchestra could conjure.
Constellation Records

7. DR. JOHN: LOCKED DOWN (Nonesuch) — The legendary New Orleans singer and keyboard player found an ideal collaborator for this record, working with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. The resulting musical stew includes pieces of Afro-beat, Ethiopiques, funk, blues, jazz and rock. It’s colorful, odd and cool.
Nonesuch’s website for Dr. John
Dr. John’s website

8. KELLY HOGAN: I LIKE TO KEEP MYSELF IN PAIN (Anti) — For the past decade, Kelly Hogan has been a singer you had to catch live. Despite having one of the best voices in the business, she shied away from the recording studio. She finally released an album this year, with a top-notch band and a whole slew tunes contributed by noteworthy songwriters. She wrote only one of these songs, but she makes them her own. Hogan’s home territory is a landscape with patches of country music, soul, folk, old standards and rock — classic American scenery.

9. TREASURE FLEET: COCAMOTION (Recess) — This Chicago band features former members of the Arrivals, the Smoking Popes, the Lawrence Arms and Sass Dragons, and the music they make overflows with 1960s influences, including Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Who and the Kinks, and there’s a bit of Guided By Voices in the mix, too. The songs are inventive and scrappy, sometimes whimsical, sometimes yearning, always highly melodic. Cocamotion was just one of two records Treasure Fleet released in 2012; the other was Future Ways, which is almost as great as this one.
Buy the album from Recess Records.

10. CATE LE BON: CYRK (The Control Group) — The Welsh singer-songwriter takes Great Britain’s folk-music idioms and channels them into a rock band setting, adding psychedelic flourishes, Nico-style intoning and waltz beats. Le Bon’s dulcet voice glides serenely and seemingly effortlessly through it all.
Listen to the album on Paste magazine’s website.

Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
Amadou & Mariam: Folila
Antibalas: Antibalas
Willis Earl Beal: Acousmatic Sorcery
Andrew Bird: Break It Yourself
Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Hummingbird (EP)
Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Mariee Sioux: Bonnie & Mariee (EP)
Cat Power: Sun
Cinchel: Stereo Stasis
The dB’s: Falling Off the Sky
Dan Deacon: America
Disappears: Pre Language
Divine Fits: A Thing Called Divine Fits
Justin Townes Earle: Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
The Explorers Club: Grand Hotel
Father John Misty: Fear Fun
Bill Fay: Life Is People
Lee Fields & the Expressions: A Faithful Man
Gap Dream: Gap Dream
Guided By Voices: Let’s Go Eat the Factory
Guided By Voices: Class Clown Spots a UFO
Guided By Voices: The Bears for Lunch
Hanne Hukkelberg: Featherbrain
The Horse Loom: The Horse Loom
Catherine Irwin: Little Heater
Kayhan Kalhor: I Will Not Stand Alone
Brendan Losch: Low
Aimee Mann: Charmer
Mexican Institute of Sound: Politico
Mind Spiders: Meltdown
Mount Eerie: Clear Moon
Georgia Anne Muldrow: Seeds
Salim Nourallah: Hit Parade
Angel Olsen: Half Way Home
Oneida: A List of the Burning Mountains
Outer Minds: Behind the Mirror
Poor Moon: Poor Moon
Redd Kross: Researching the Blues
Megan Reilly: The Well
Lee Renaldo: Between the Times and the Tides
Ty Segall: Twins
Ty Segall Band: Slaughterhouse
Spires That in the Sunset Rise: Ancient Patience Wills It Again
Swans: The Seer
The Tallest Man on Earth: There’s No Leaving Now
Thee Oh Sees: Putrifiers II
Treasure Fleet: Future Ways
Trembling Bells & Bonnie “Prince” Billy: The Marble Downs
Corin Tucker Band: Kill My Blues
Sharon Van Etten: Tramp
Waco Brothers and Paul Burch: The Great Chicago Fire
The Walkmen: Heaven
M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion
Patrick Watson: Adventures in Your Own Backyard
White Hills: Frying on This Rock
Matthew E. White: Big Inner
Bobby Womack: The Bravest Man in the Universe
Woods: Bend Beyond
The World Record: Freeway Special
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill