In our Yearbook series, Double Exposure contributors share lists and essays that attempt to define their year in film.Will Noah kicks off closing the book on 2012 with a list of his favorite films of the year.

This is a list of the best films of 2012, based on the indisputably objective grounds of because I said so. I’ve made my list free of any rules: it contains 2012 theatrical premieres, festival favorites that will be turning up in arthouses in 2013, undistributed films, and even one film I saw at a repertory screening. All that they share in common is an ability to speak to the world we inhabit now, whether that means challenging it, resisting it, mourning it, celebrating it, or merely reminding us what it looks like.


1. Leviathan

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s film may have been billed as a documentary on commercial fishing, but potential viewers should dispel any expectations of talking heads or tasteful B-roll. Leviathan skews closer to the avant-garde tradition, eschewing the quantified abstraction of statistics in favor of the formal abstraction of Stan Brakhage. While the average nature documentary might convey a few bullet point facts, Leviathan’s “sensory ethnography” plunges viewers headfirst into the environment it explores. Here we see where the wheels hit the pavement between man and fish; fish and boat; boat and sea; sea and sky; camera and reality. I’d be tempted to call it “experiential” if I had any real life experiences comparable to it. No other film this year opened my eyes to the world around me to the same degree.


2. Target

This criminally undistributed sci-fi epic views contemporary Russian society through the prism of a group of discontented bourgeois who take a trip to a strange site that grants its visitors the gift of youth. Director Alexander Zeldovich’s fast-paced visual grammar seems to owe more to Hollywood than any art house contemporaries, but his sense of provocation rivals that of Lars von Trier (he even tips his hat to Luis Buñuel). Equal parts scathing satire and deeply felt melodrama, Target is a kind of epic rarely attempted in the movies, a funhouse mirror that demonstrates how technology warps the human soul even as it sustains it.


3. The Master

In order to understand where we are now, we’ve got to look back at where we came from. This statement seems self-evident, but only Paul Thomas Anderson would think to dramatize the conflicts and tensions that defined the twentieth century in a parable about a mentally traumatized and sexually frustrated veteran and the cult leader who gives him a temporary sense of purpose. Through this seemingly obscure lens, Anderson conjures up a series of dreams, each more beautiful and fragile than the last. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Master offers a vision of human perfectibility that ignores the basic lusts, pains, and ecstasies of daily existence. The film’s ending charts a course that could extend for centuries, the mythical wanderer drawn back again and again by the erotic pull of the master he wasn’t made for.


4. Satantango

Bela Tarr’s 7+ hour 1994 masterpiece is too big to be contained by that or any other year.Satantango is so monumental that every other film on this list could be said to orbit around it.


5. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Forget Zero Dark Thirty; this year’s most captivating procedural was a search for a body, not a man. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, perhaps the most masterful stylist working in digital cinema today, treats the frame with a painterly eye, assimilating the lessons of Antonioni, Tarkovsky, and Kiarostami into a cinematic approach that is completely his own. Over the course of two and a half hours, Anatolia tracks a procession through the Turkish countryside as a confessed murderer leads the police from one site to another in search of the body of the man he killed. Ceylan’s camera finds poetry, as well as despair, in the banality of the journey, weaving an epic worthy of the film’s title out of fleeting glimpses into lives of the searchers.


6. Two Years at Sea

Ben Rivers’ 16mm feature tracks the day to day life of a recluse, yet its tone is closer to magical realism than documentary (anyone who applied that term in a positive sense to Beasts of the Southern Wild should spend some time in Rivers’ world). Tracking one man’s solitary lifestyle in nature, Years depicts a near-total removal from society as a strange blend of rapturous serenity and pronounced longing.


7. Holy Motors/Cosmopolis

Two different white limousines move through two different cities over the course of two different days with two different passengers—each an agent of some mysterious force of modernity—inside. While Leos Carax’s elegiac romp (trust me, it’s not an oxymoron in such capable hands) through Paris provides a giddier high and a more poignant comedown, David Cronenberg’s traversal of a gridlocked rear-projected New York supplies the more challenging intellectual stimulant.


8. anders, Molussien

Nicolas Rey’s avant-garde feature will likely never be presented the same way twice, since its nine reels are projected in random order at every screening; yet this is itself the very type of probability exercise that Molussien undermines through its very form. As a response to fascism, Rey offers a cinematic form in which the basic structuring principles of time are pulled out from under the film, creating a new kind of temporality in the process.


9. In the Family

The year’s most impressive debut film, Patrick Wang’s In the Family, tells the story of a gay man in Tennessee who must fight for the custody of his son after his partner dies in an accident. Boasting a stunning combination of respectful distance and moral urgency, Wang’s film tempers the melodrama of its premise with an incredible eye for the rhythms of everyday life. In the Family skirts the edge of sentimentality, but never betrays the emotional honesty that it brings to matters of love, death, and empathy.


10. Keyhole

One would think that switching from film to digital might cripple Guy Maddin, robbing his cinematic ghosts of their spectral aura. In fact it does just the opposite—the format’s distance from the forms of the past gives Maddin’s images a frightening unreality that transcends pastiche.

11. Moonrise Kingdom  (Wes Anderson)

12. Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)

13. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (Adam Curtis)

14. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)

15. Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami)

16. Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman)

17. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

18. The Deep Blue Sea (Terrence Davies)

19. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)

20. Walker (Tsai Ming-Liang)

21. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

22. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)

23. Zero Dark Thirty (Katherine Bigelow)

24. Something In the Air (Olivier Assayas)

25. Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)