The Best Movies You May Have Missed in 2012

December 31st, 2012

Kimstim Films

A scene from Denis Côté’s “Bestiaire.”

Bestiaire

Directed By Denis Côté

The Canadian director Denis Côté’s “Bestiaire” invites us to look directly at its subjects, the inhabitants of a safari park in Quebec. The film often holds these beasts (zebras, chimpanzees, hyenas, giraffes) in a frontal gaze, and at times the animals look right back into the camera and, seemingly, at us. We are so accustomed to the voyeuristic conventions and pedagogical tendencies of nature documentaries that the returned gaze and its manifold implications are startling.

With wildlife documentaries expanding their bag of technological tricks and YouTube an ever-growing menagerie of pet videos, animal imagery has never been more prevalent. In some ways “Bestiaire,” nearly wordless but infinitely suggestive, is a comment on and a reaction to that saturation, a meditation on what we think we are looking at when we look at animals.

While most nature films seek to minimize the gulf between viewer and subject, usually by anthropomorphizing the animals, “Bestiaire” acknowledges this distance. Mr. Côté shows that the human desire to get close to and understand animals often means exerting control over them — in addition to the wild beasts at the zoo we get glimpses of stuffed creatures in a drawing class and at a taxidermist’s workshop.

Some scenes show the confined park animals in a panicked state, and Mr. Côté’s striking compositions, held long enough for the mind to wander productively, point to the absurdity and cruelty of a life in captivity. But “Bestiaire” is hardly an animal-rights tract. Named for the medieval bestiary, an illustrated compendium of animal fables, it is itself a kind of picture book come to life, not to mention a work of unexpected poetry and philosophical richness. Among other things, “Bestiaire” confirms the claim of the anthropologistClaude Lévi-Strauss that “animals are good to think with.”

Cinema Guild

The Day He Arrives and Oki’s Movie

Directed By Hong Sang-Soo

It was a good year for fans of the prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, who has long been a fixture at film festivals (especially Cannes), but whose work rarely makes it to American screens. Three of Mr. Hong’s recent movies opened in New York theaters this year. “In Another Country,” the newest, is also the highest profile because it stars Isabelle Huppert in a triple role. But the other two — “The Day He Arrives” (2011) and “Oki’s Movie” (2010), which had briefer runs in the spring — are better examples of Mr. Hong’s distinctive sleight of hand.

The common rap on Mr. Hong — that he repeats himself — misses the point of his increasingly rich (and yes, repetitive) body of work. In film after film he trains a gimlet eye on doomed romantic entanglements, saving his sharpest jabs for the tragicomedy of male narcissism and neediness; time and again a potent combination of insecurity, alcohol and lust leads to boorish spectacle and all-around mortification.

Mr. Hong is not just an astute observer of delusion and bad behavior but also a deft, playful formalist. Repetition compulsion is often the subject of his films as well as their principle structuring device. Many of his earlier movies took the form of twice-told tales, each chapter providing an angle on the other, but of late he has been toying with more intricate narrative architecture.

“The Day He Arrives,” above, filmed in black and white, acknowledges the “Groundhog Day” aspect of his movies by stranding its hero, a lapsed filmmaker, in a time warp of sorts. He returns to Seoul and, after a messy reunion with an ex, proceeds to a bar where, every night, he encounters a woman who looks just like her. (She’s played by the same actress.)

“Oki’s Movie” tells four stories in succession, each one preceded by a blast of Elgar and all involving a love triangle among a callow male film student, his female classmate and their smug professor. The tricky ways in which the segments interrelate — two of them turn out to be films within the film made by the students — keeps the power dynamics among the three in flux.

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