Here are my favorite (non-Indian) movies first seen in the past twelve months; for Indian films, see Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal.
Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa, 2010): Chilean director Raúl Ruiz's next-to-last film is more than four hours long, but its length is fully justified by its sweep, complexity, and visual splendor. Adapted by screenwriter Carlos Saboga from a 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, the film begins with an orphan boy's search for his origins, and soon takes us into stories nested within stories about forbidden passions and social upheaval in the aristocratic world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Ruiz's camerawork is sometimes deliberately obtrusive in a way that will be familiar if you saw his version of Proust's Time Regained (1999). Perhaps intended as a Brechtian alenation effect, or perhaps as a way of making the action seem more dreamlike, the gliding camera sometimes seems overdone to me. But this is a minor quibble in such a rich and involving film.
Romantics Anonymous (Les émotifs anonymes, 2010): At the other end of several spectrums from Ruiz's epic is writer/director Jean-Pierre Améris' short, slight and sweetly charming film. Angélique (Isabelle Carré) and Jean-René (Benoît Poelvoorde) are two cripplingly shy people trying to overcome their fears and find a soulmate. To add to the pleasures of the writing and performances, much of the film revolves around the preparation and tasting of exquisite-looking chocolates.
Babette's Feast (Babettes gæstebud, 1987): Speaking of exquisite food, half of this film's 100-minute running time is taken up with the preparation and consumption of the title's once-in-a-lifetime meal. Based on an Isak Dinesen story, Babette's Feast portrays the thwarted lives of two sisters, Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), in an isolated, windswept Scandinavian village. The women are the daughters of a sternly ascetic pastor, and after their father's death they grow old ministering to his dwindling congregation. Into their lives comes Babette (Stéphane Audran), a refugee from Paris, who agrees to become their housekeeper. Babette is concealing a secret, though, which changes everyone's lives when it is revealed by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune.
I had avoided seeing this film when it came out because it seemed to dovetail a little too neatly with the focus on gourmandizing and the retreat from political engagement apparent in the yuppified Berkeley of the mid-1980s. I'm glad I finally rectified my mistake: this is a film not only about the sensuous pleasures of food, but about love, loyalty, and the joys of making use of one's gifts and sharing one's passions.
Outsourced (2006): A call-center manager finds that his entire department has been outsourced, and that he is being sent to India to train his own replacement. As I wrote in the post "Cross-cultural comedy: Outsourced and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," the message of writer/director John Jeffcoat's movie "is one of tolerance, openness to new ideas and experiences, and acceptance of differences."
Street of Shame (Akasen chitai, 1956): Director Kenzi Mizoguchi's final film, based in part on Yoshiko Shibaki's short stories "Susaki paradaisu" and "Yako no Onna," depicts the intertwined lives of five women who work at a brothel in Tokyo's seamy red-light district. The brothel is named "Dreamland," and each woman dreams of escape—dreams that for most of them will inevitably be shattered. Most of the women have been trapped in prostitution by poverty and familial responsibility, and face ostracism by a hypocritical society that allowed them no other choices. The film's final images of an innocent new recruit timidly beckoning the drunken, reeling men passing by in the street suggest that the bitter experiences of the women are doomed to be endlessly repeated.
First Position (2011): Bess Kargman's documentary follows seven young dancers as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, an international competition that will determine their futures. The dancers come from North and South America and the Middle East, range in age from 10 to 17, and come from very diverse backgrounds. Aran Bell, 11 at the time of filming, is the son of a military doctor; Michaela DePrince, 14 at the time of filming, was orphaned by the civil war in Sierra Leone; and Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16 at the time of filming, lives and trains in New York, thousands of miles away from his family in Columbia. As with The Audition, Susan Froemke's compelling 2008 documentary about the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions, the competition provides built-in drama. The film isn't flawless—we see only brief excerpts of most of the dances, and there are no interviews with anyone who offers a critical perspective on dance competitions. But the stories of these dancers and their struggles to excel at their chosen art are riveting.
Update 16 December 2012: For more favorites, see Bollywood and Bengal, Television, Music, and Books