Out of the three film festivals I attended this year (South By Southwest, Silverdocs, and the Toronto International Film Festival) came some movies that were reasonably easy to find, at least if you have an art-house theater and sometimes even if you don't: Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Bernie, The Sessions, and so forth.
But I also saw movies this year that are more elusive, and in some ways, those are the ones most worth highlighting. Maybe more meaningful than my top 10 favorite films of the year, here are 10 that you'll have to go out of your way for, but if you can find them, it will be well worth it. It's heavy on documentaries, because that's where my passions lie and where I find a lot of less well-known gems. (I've already spoken about several others, including America's Parking Lot and Beauty Is Embarrassing.) But here are 10 from 2012 that I'd go out of my way for.
1. Compliance. This is probably the best-positioned film on this list. It's scheduled for a DVD release in January, and it is playing and has played in some theaters. But it also raised hackles for showing star Dreama Walker (whom you may know for a completely different role in the ABC comedy Don't Trust The B) playing a character who spends much of the film at least partially naked and profoundly abused.
In the film, Walker plays a young fast-food worker who's victimized by a bizarre and terrifying scheme (which would be utterly unbelievable if it weren't basically true) in which a man called her boss pretending to be a police officer, claimed she'd been accused of stealing, and gradually convinced the (female) boss to confine, strip-search, and humiliate her, all based on the belief it was the police on the other end of the line.
While I'm instinctively sympathetic to concerns about how women are treated and portrayed in film, it's really regrettable that this one colored some people's impressions of the film. Compliance is ambitious enough to be about morality, and about how good people do the wrong thing (and, just as importantly, fail to do the right thing), and while it's very hard to watch, it never revels in what's happening to Walker's character. It's a gut-punch of a film, but there are some fantastic performances (Ann Dowd, as the boss, is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award), and the only thing I regretted about seeing it was that I was at South By Southwest on my own and didn't have anyone to chew it over with on the way home.
2. Wolf. If I saw a movie this year that was harder to watch than Compliance, it was probably Wolf. This is not the Jack Nicholson one. This is a drama about an already strained — but loving — couple's discovery of the abuse of their son. Directed by Ya'Ke Smith, it makes the unusual decision to insist upon nuances of feeling in a story that would, in most films, ignore them. As I said, it's very tough to watch, but it's an impressive piece by a young director who's jumped right into a very, very complex subject.
3. Planet Of Snail. Look, it's not easy to convince people that they want to watch a documentary that follows a blind and deaf poet and his wife as they go about their daily lives. It is literally true that one of the most wonderful sequences in the film involves their changing a light bulb in a ceiling fixture together. (She's very small, so she can't reach it even standing on the bed, and they can only communicate well when their hands are touching — they basically type on each other's fingers, an elegant little dance that's just lovely to watch — so a task like that is a real trial that requires patience many of us don't share.)
But — but! It's so wonderful, it really is. It's romantic and unusual and engaging, and when it comes out on DVD in February, I'm really hoping it will be available for streaming as well, because you'll see nothing quite like it.
4. Time Zero: The Last Year Of Polaroid Film. I reviewed this one during Silverdocs, and I still believe it's one of the best lighter-weight documentaries I saw this year — light in that this is not a doc addressing itself to a disaster; but one trying to tell the story of some people who are trying to save something they love: instant photography. As near as I can tell, there's nothing on the horizon that's going to allow you to see it, but I'm perfectly okay with agitating now and then until something happens, because it deserves to be seen.
5. The Revisionaries. This film follows a dispute at the Texas State Board of Education over changes to the science curriculum — and, in the process, it explains how one state board can affect what's taught in classrooms all over the country. Filmmaker Scott Thurman comes down quite clearly on the side of teaching evolution and against the changes in the curriculum that are proposed by some of the story's central figures, but he anchors the film around a fascinating discussion between two men who believe diametrically opposed things and will never, ever find any common ground no matter how hard they try. They're both courteous, they're both absolutely convinced they're right, and the absolute impasse at which they find themselves says a lot about how irreducible some of the conflicts that confront us actually are.
6. Seeking Asian Female. I loved this movie, and I wasn't sure I would. It's the story of a guy who basically goes looking for an Asian wife on the internet, finds one, brings her to him, and then realizes he's married an entire person rather than a fantasy figure. Filmmaker Debbie Lum gets herself tangled up in the story, but only in a way that underscores just how out of hand that story is getting. It's not even clear by the end what outcome you should be rooting for, but the people are fascinating, and the line between happy and unhappy proves exceedingly and intriguingly hard to locate.
7. Fat Kid Rules The World. This film, directed by Matthew Lillard (an actor you may remember from Scream or, more recently, The Descendants), is a little raggedy in places. It teeters on the edge of any number of teenage underdog clichés. But this was an underdog story I really liked. It also gives a great part to Billy Campbell, a guy who's had a lot of not-great parts but is perfectly cast as a deeply loving, deeply imperfect dad. (Please note: The trailer contains strong language.)
8. The Waiting Room. Recently short-listed for an Oscar for Best Documentary, The Waiting Room is scheduled for next summer on PBS's Independent Lens, so it'll get to you at some point. As I wrote when I saw it during Silverdocs, it introduces you to some remarkable characters and also makes some terrifying points about the use of emergency care as a substitute for — or a consequence of the lack of — proper primary care.
9. Only The Young. I was very skeptical when it came to this little documentary about three teenagers who spend a lot of their time skateboarding and hanging around and getting themselves into what's described as a "love triangle." It turns out to be a much less conventional piece than that makes it sound like, and not at all the slacker-worship-slash-ironic-mocking I expected. It's really a very sweet piece about how kids rarely get quite what they want, how flawed they are, and how filled with doubt — and yet, somehow, how happy, too.
10. Virgin Tales. This documentary by Mirjam Von Arx follows the Wilson family, of Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Wilsons are evangelical Christians who are raising their seven kids, and particularly their five daughters, in an ethic of "purity." For them, that means not only no sex before marriage, but no kissing before marriage, and no dating other than what's intended as a direct line to marriage.
While Von Arx clearly has concerns about all this, she gives the Wilsons' views a sympathetic airing. She says in a director's statement on the film's site that she doesn't agree with the Wilsons' views at all, but acknowledges that they're often likable and that her own sense of them was complicated: "Our all-female and consistently feminist crew," she says, "was unbelievably fascinated by this family who provoked contradictory and alternating emotions: sympathy as well as aversion." She gives the Wilson parents time in the film to explain what they want to get out of this way of raising their kids, and why they think it will help their daughters have happier marriages and ultimately higher self-worth. It would have been very easy for Virgin Tales to feel like gawking, but it never does. In fact, I wasn't certain how she felt about the family's practices until I read the statement, which is really saying something.