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By Roderick Heath
Many times in 2014, I was tempted to throw my hands up and walk away from the year’s film scene. It seems to have been a pretty common feeling. The profitability of the film industry’s most exalted spheres have slumped, and the sense that the obsession gripping Hollywood for recycled product and well-milked cashcows might be choking the industry it at a time when people are all too willing to switch over to some other source of entertainment is becoming more convincing—not that it’s likely to spark any great sea change in Hollywood yet. Certainly a sense of diminishing returns was all too palpable in this year’s mass market cinema. Some have posited that the current economics of Hollywood have practically killed off the stream of mid-budget films aimed at adult audiences, though that strand had long been an endangered species: adults have long been very picky about what they go to see in a movie theatre. This year, I lost the last of my patience with Marvel and even Godzilla’s presence on the big screen couldn’t entirely please me.
Despite all that, 2014 has slowly accumulated good films like specks of gold in river sand until the year has proven doggedly, quietly impressive.
We Are the Best!
A lot of this year’s films have concerned themselves with creativity itself as a theme: the sources of it, the process of gaining the skill to express it, the worldly powers it gives those who master it, and the constant, dogging anxiety of doing right by it. We Are the Best! looked wistfully back to time most artists have gone through, when their impulses and characters demanded creative outlet long before they actually had the skills for doing so, when their spirits were at their purest. Damien Chazelle’s scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash posited the idea of the artist needing brute force to gain virtuosity. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood proposed that creative vision is the result of specific, often terrible, sometimes wonderful formative experiences. John Carney’s Begin Again and Jon Favreau’s Chef both suggested a fall is needed to rise again as a creative force. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook presented a heroine as a frustrated artist whose possible incipient psychosis might be a by-product of that potential creativity. Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur turned creative ownership into gender struggle, the wish-fulfilment side of much art turned around on itself in a bitter sex farce. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) portrayed an actor who had known the dizzy heights of Hollywood success trying to prove himself an artist in the face of a culture geared to poles of celebrity-obsessed admiration or antipathy. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner gave us a panoramic contextualisation for a boorish genius. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars portrayed creativity turned septic tank, the world of acting and celebrity having turned into stews of self-worship and pharaohlike, incestuous self-perpetuating discourse control. Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright, a film that failed resolutely to achieve any of its interesting goals, nonetheless also made the link between cathartic horror and creative success with a great climactic image, its heroine transformed into a stylised icon of trauma and triumph, splattered blood and theatrical make-up mixing on her face.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek depicts an exercise in self-mythologising fallen victim to the primal, unruly terrors that still inhabit our world. The Lego Movie made good sport of generations of popular mythology and then delved into the childhood roots of how we construct our own world views, and then how we adapt them to coexist with others. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys breezed through the familiar rags-to-riches-to-pain narrative of the showbiz flick to conclude that sometimes professionalism is a greater value than mere inspiration and that identity often trumps aspiration. The Fault in Our Stars tried to portray the moment when the intellectual awareness that art cannot contain life’s grief suddenly becomes all too immediate.
Some films took this thematic turf a step further and contemplated characters trying to create or recreate themselves, the creation of the self and life itself becoming art forms. The very notion of becoming, the processes that create us as individuals and as a collective and point us forward became a recurring concern. The alien temptress of Under the Skin felt the faint breezes of the humanity she gazed at uncomprehendingly, but finally became fatally trapped between worlds. The heroines of Wild and Tracks both sought to conquer distance to rebuild their damaged interiors. The eponymous Lucy of Luc Besson’s scifi action epic accidentally pushed onto a higher level of awareness and then willingly pushed herself to achieve the status of a god. The flailing hero of Locke, his life suddenly turning into a disastrous quagmire, struggled throughout to pull off a piece of managerial legerdemain that would write his commitment in the sky. The hapless heroine of Obvious Child converted the minutiae of her existence into her art, stand-up comedy, which then often affected her life, an ouroboros chain of creation and deflation. The bourgeois Los Angelinos of Coherence, many of them failed or flailing artists, are confronted by doppelgangers who might turn their own failings and self-hatreds upon themselves, and offers a heroine who quite literally tries to beat herself to death to grasp a better version of the same thing. Amy of Gone Girl tried to control her own life narrative through a dense mesh of art and action.
As far as “big” movies go, this year has been trending lacklustre to rotten, riddled with overhyped, underwhelming fare as the current Hollywood ethos of sequels, remakes, and franchise service finally began to crack up under its own weight. Usually a film year offers two or three blockbusters deserving of appreciation, but this year, the fun and spectacle the genre offers have been remarkably lacking. Something like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla sounds far better as a think-piece article than it actually played as a movie, with its occasionally brilliant images foiled by a flimsy script. Guardians of the Galaxy, a pseudo-original hit for Marvel, spawned innumerable memes, most of them wittier and more entertaining than the spectacularly ordinary, lazily composed film. Maleficent, a promising concept in revisionist fairy-tale-telling from Disney, proved to be depressingly incompetent trash that couldn’t even be bothered to sustain a basic story and character logic. After feeling the strain throughout 2013, I also felt this year like I saw the comic book movie, the industry’s greatest money faucet at the moment as well as its stand-out cultural phenomenon, begin quietly dying. The depth of enthusiasm it can still wring from aficionados has started to feel forced and wilful, with minor tweaks and twists greeted like momentous events and competent films inflated into titans by sheer force of hype. What was once one of the best comic book series, the X-Men franchise, saw Bryan Singer returning to the helm on Days of Future Past, a work overloaded with promise and expectation that managed to piss just about all of it up against the wall, save for the great “Time in a Bottle” scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier provided a reasonably honourable attempt to bring the superhero genre down to earth and contextualise it amidst a semblance of real, contemporary evils, but still ended up a grab bag of random story elements and stodgy action. The unfortunate mess that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been generally recognised, though again I felt a little out of step as I found it a slight improvement on Marc Webb’s first, dolorous reboot; at least it had the minatory courage to shoot for romantic tragedy, something the gutless Marvel films couldn’t countenance.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Ironically, I found two of the most entertaining big-budget works of the year were throwbacks to bygone brand of spectacle, the biblical epic: Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Scott’s film sometimes played like a highlights reel from The Ten Commandments (1956), but Scott’s pernickety, critical scepticism gave it specificity and wove intelligently with the vistas and grandiosity, taking as its keynote the detail that “Israelite” means “he who wrestles God,” and keeping camp and earnestness in a healthy balance. Aronofsky’s was a different beast, more ambitious and cinematically lively than just about any other big movie of the year, if also more humourless in trying to forge new zones for mythopoeic inquiry. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s (probably) final entry in his Tolkien series, like Scott’s film, is all but a throwaway master class in big movie making, making sweeping use of the screen, reading action coherently, and packing even the most functional shots with visual lustre. The most hyped and discussed blockbuster this year was Christopher Nolan’s divisive Interstellar, another supremely ambitious work that saw Nolan trying simultaneously to earn the Kubrick comparisons he’s had heaped on him whilst also positioning himself as heir to Steven Spielberg as king of the Hollywood mythologists. He didn’t make it, with a script that ran the gamut from irritatingly pedantic to haplessly schmaltzy, took some blind alleys and a last act that didn’t work. Yet Interstellar was still an often-compelling experience that packed a sense of true wonder in both scientific theory and cinema, and signaled the widening outlook of movie scifi after decades of being reduced to mere action backdrop.
The Lego Movie
One of the best major money-spinners from Hollywood this year was Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie, a zippy, hugely entertaining film that contained, in its building blocks, a sense of perspective on how children build their own worlds, a satirical streak that broadly and successfully lampooned many popular modern Hollywood narratives, and also more specific gags that occasionally cut deep: after its portrayal of Batman as an emo-jock jerk with a sideline in death metal music sporting lyrics like “Darkness!” and “No parents!” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take the character seriously again. One thing that 2014 has been a quietly terrific year for is the kind of trashy fare we’re not supposed to honour on best-of lists: I’ve created an honour roll for my preferences below.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
Not for the first time in cinema history and surely not for the last, it was interesting to see filmmakers from beyond the pale take on the sort of thing we used to expect from the Dream Factory and outdo it by degrees. Stephen Chow’s funny, frenetic, almost endlessly inventive Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons had zest and ingenuity enough for 10 films, as well as a lampooning streak that didn’t strain to seem urgently hip. Meanwhile Welsh expat turned Indonesian auteur Gareth Evans made the year’s best action film and crime epic by far in The Raid 2: Berandal. Evans will certainly hear the call from Hollywood soon, and part of me hopes he might spread his gospel from such a vantage, but another part of me wants him to stay where he is, creating tropical storms. Paul W.S. Anderson took a thankful time-out from those goddamned Resident Evil things to make Pompeii, a film that was crucified by many on release and a box office bomb, and yet became a quick fetish object for Anderson’s vulgar auteurist fans. Yes, it reminded me why I once thought him an interesting talent: the film’s clunky, clichéd sword-and-sandal first half gave way to a second half that was a sustained study in controlled, ebullient cinematic spectacle.
David Ayers, who gained some notice as a screenwriter and then as director, released two films this year, the fairly well-regarded and successful Fury, and the much-derided Sabotage. I greatly preferred Sabotage, a gamy, vicious, hard-driving revisionist western in cop garb that sported Olivia Williams and Mireille Enos’ in two impressive, blind-siding female performances—you know something’s weird when Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger counted as one of the best romantic pairings of the year. Fury, by contrast, tried a two-faced game in looking with unvarnished force at the inhuman side of war, and offered a marvellous centrepiece sequence that saw Yankee tank crewmen and two German women thrust together amidst rites of passage and stews of resentment. But then it retreated into a stale and incomprehensible celebration of comradeship that threw away the very point it had been making in favour of a clumsy, ill-conceived action finale. Jaume Collet-Serra, who has made some decent DVD shelf filler in the past, raised his game considerably with Non-Stop, an expertly developed pressure-cooker thriller that slipped into excess by its finale, but along the way used widescreen photography to conduce both claustrophobia and paranoia, expertly charting a drama that concerned not just Liam Neeson’s regulation damaged badass and his electric concerns, but also a small community roused from dozy distraction to group action. Even better was Omid Nooshin’s barely seen Last Passenger, a thriller similarly pitched at first on a level of near-subliminal menace amidst a drowsy romantic comedy, building into an urgent fight for survival with dashes of Spielberg’s Duel (1971), even if, again, Nooshin didn’t quite know how to end it.
Cold in July
Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ attempt to revive his beloved TV show, proved a mixed, but mostly charming bag that provided solid evidence that social commentary and good humour don’t have be mutually exclusive and that Kristen Bell remains one of America’s wasted natural resources. I wasn’t so thrilled with Jeremy Saulnier’s much-hyped Blue Ruin, a very indie film that displayed some fine craft throughout but fizzled on both the levels of raw suspense and supposed critique of revenge-minded action films, many of which already essentially made the same points: if the movie really wanted to disassemble the genre’s usual presumptions, it might have started by making the villains less caricatured. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July was a similar mixture, more intriguing and pulling off some inspired perversions of expectation. Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed was excessively goofy and a little too determined to annex the Fast and Furious fans, yet it was the kind of formally strong, candy-coloured entertainment too rare this year, and benefited from an excellent cast having a ball. Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano sustained some strong sub-Brian De Palma staging and remained taut until almost the end, though, like too many films this year, failed to even try to come up with a convincing finish. The zippy efficiency and moodiness of these films to my mind showed up the pretences of some of the year’s more acclaimed genre-leaning films, including Bong Joon-ho’s okay but incredibly overblown Snowpiercer (save that schoolroom sequence, a black comedy apotheosis) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, a film that had no idea how to discipline the many impulses of its source material for effective cinema, leaning at different stages towards media satire, marital parable, thriller, and horror film, and doing none that well.
Similarly confused was Luc Besson’s Lucy, which toyed with some great mind-bending scifi ideas and confirmed Besson’s powerful sense of style hasn’t entirely abandoned him. But Besson’s lazy story development and perpetual B-movie presumptions foiled its potential. José Padilha’s remake of Robocop was a beggaring spectacle, lumbering where the original was fleet, obvious rather than sly, painfully literal and bogus-classy rather than disreputably ingenious. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow became a critical charity case after it bombed at the U.S. box office because it was a rare attempt in the current studio scene to forge something new, but it never had any clue what to do with its superficially clever storytelling and battery of reliable actors. Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was an odd duck, trundling into a tedious welter of contemporary action clichés, but along the way suggesting something more serious, contemplating its young hero’s confrontations with his mortality and first life-or-death struggle and patriotic duty shading into romantic conflict in a manner vaguely reminiscent of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Divergent was a The Hunger Games cash-in that moved in frustrating fits and starts, but proved ultimately more entertaining than any of the Hunger Games films have managed to be yet, with a less duly stoic heroine and some nice villainy from Kate Winslet. McG’s 3 Days to Kill was a sorry waste of talent, including the agreeably battered Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld playing the same part as she did in Begin Again, and Amber Heard cast as a potentially great character, a brilliant, ruthless, sexually adventurous hit woman who was then made to stand around and do absolutely nothing.
White Bird in a Blizzard
The Expendables 3 continued that barely watchable series’ habit of casting an increasingly awesome array of leathery action greats and forcing them to mouth terrible dialogue and mow down cardboard villains. Machete Kills, which likewise cast Mel Gibson in what seems now to be his most appropriate role as charming asshole, was a slightly more enjoyable genre mockery, but signs are that between this and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it’s time for Robert Rodriguez to grow up. The latter at least featured a well-reviewed Eva Green, who was unleashed to great effect in an off-the-wall incarnation of thwarted passion in White Bird in a Blizzard, where she found the meeting point of Douglas Sirk character and J-horror ghoul, and also in 300: Rise of an Empire, the latter, a mildly entertaining, if often ponderous study in CGI action that offered one of the year’s most memorable movies images: Green’s Queen Artemisia kissing the lips of a prisoner’s severed head, a bold moment of far-out eroticism in the midst of a genre usually very busy sublimating it.
Amidst the growing school of independent fantastic cinema, Ti West, who had been shaping up as a major talent, turned in The Sacrament this year; tense and entertaining, it was nonetheless something of disappointment in resorting to the found-footage mode West had so effectively countered before, and skating over its not-quite recreation of Jonestown without penetrating beyond its studiously composed surface. Still, some sequences, like the lengthy one-shot portrait of a woman poisoning her brother, were powerful, and Gene Jones’ performance, alternately seductive, defensive, and imperial, was superlative. Two classy thrillers I was eager to see and ultimately severely disappointed by were Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. The former almost gave “old-fashioned” a bad name as it moved pokerfaced through potentially cracking, perverse material, and the latter crept glacially towards a preordained, cynical finale without locating its own dramatic heart, for all the good work by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams.
The Quiet Ones
More sustained, and indeed one of the small gems of the year, was professional provocateur Bobcat Goldthwait’s restrained, smart, witty found-footage burlesque Willow Creek, which wove rich, satirical value contemplating various forms of mythologising and coupling whilst offering some quality scares, particularly in its signature, epic-length tent sequence. Hammer Studios’ revival continued to slip along unsteadily with John Pogue’s well-made, attractively cast, but rickety The Quiet Ones, a film that, like Blair Erickson’s The Banshee Chapter, mixed traditional horror filmmaking with found-footage touches to varying effect. The Banshee Chapter sustained interest by having a plot composed of an array of inspired connections and a defiantly Val Lewton-esque sense of minimalist scariness. The Irish horror film In Fear failed to keep me until the end, sadly. Surprisingly, the best-regarded horror film of the year has proven to be an Australian film, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, all the more remarkable considering the film’s quick trip in and out of movie theatres here. I must admit, however, that apart from Essie Davis’ sustained performance, it left me cold: the relentless showiness of the filmmaking couldn’t disguise that this is well-worn territory for horror fans, replete with neon-flashing metaphors, and the marvelous prop book that sets up the drama wrote a cheque the film couldn’t cash. Also, the characterisations, particularly of the hapless heroine’s son, kept changing according to what Kent wanted to do with a scene. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence was a fleet and entertaining mindbender, made for next to nothing and sustaining its “Twilight Zone”-esque plot with conceptual cleverness and a dash of enjoyably sarcastic commentary in offering a literal portrait of people who become their own worst enemies.
The Monuments Men
Over in “serious” movie land, things have often been just as frustrating. George Clooney, who was so impressive with his first two features as director, reached an artistic nadir with The Monuments Men, a film that lurched from scene to scene with no sense of structure, tension, or character substance, only the most snivelling take on its cultural thesis, and a series of lazily tethered vignettes that added up to the one of the most galling moviegoing experiences I had in 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo were terrific as a pair of mutually exploiting rodents in Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal particularly offering an expert black comedy performance as a creep who shape-shifts into whatever he thinks the market wants of him. But the one-note script was far too pleased with itself, built to an utterly predictable “dark” climax signalled about an hour earlier, and cut no deeper as media satire than the average Kent Brockman report. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was for me a new departure for the director: whereas his take-it-or-leave-it directing style has been at least reliably on a level with his writing, this was the first time I’d been frustrated that his script couldn’t have been handled by a director with a half-ounce of taste and a real sense of the European tradition he was bastardising and trivialising. David Cronenberg, who had been on a roll, crashed to a halt with Maps to the Stars, a would-be devastating critique of modern Hollywood and American parenting. Cronenberg’s direction was poised in a way that only showed up the emptiness of the script, which did at least have a core idea with potential—the likening of modern Hollywood with ancient Egypt as a place where incest is the logical end-point of cordoned power and privilege. Yet the satirical points were dismayingly stale and smug: nutty actress celebrating a rivals’ misfortune and a self-help guru who’s a total asshole to his kids.
Under the Skin
The year’s most unavoidable movie in terms of critical regard has been Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Boyhood’s stature derives entirely from the unique conceit behind its filming, having been shot in snatches across a 12-year period to chart young star Ellar Coltrane’s growth. This method is indeed affecting for allowing us to see actors age before our eyes, but as a work of dramaturgy, it’s a superficial achievement that fails to gain real entry into the psychology and viewpoint of its young hero (certainly not like Terrence Malick did with The Tree of Life), instead presenting a mass of vignettes and ironically being prevented by the niceties of that method to get up close to the poetry of becoming. Studying Ethan Hawke’s face and how much it’s changed since Joe Dante’s Explorers (1986; another greatly preferable study of childhood dreams giving way to adult realities), moved me more than young Mason’s growth into a vague and wooden avatar for just about every stubbly, arty, self-involved young man likely to make up the bulk of its audience. Yet the film offered up some excellent moments that rang painfully true, particularly Mason’s encounters with the various men, most of them his mother’s poor choices in mates, frustrated with his ever-intensifying individuality, making plays for power over him disguised as sagacious aid. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is another highly regarded work of the year, and I have more sympathy with it: the final scene was so good it almost urges me to put it on my best-of list, and yet I could never shake off the feeling that I was watching an exercise in music video aesthetics being stretched to a 90-minute film: so coolly confident when portraying utter alienness stalking social refuse in a desolate Glasgow, the film turned stodgy as it tried to reverse the perspective, as ornery, ordinary humanity can scarcely get past Glazer’s relentless aesthetic filter. Still, the film’s sense of atmosphere, the chill and cheerless Glaswegian streets and the wild surf and rain-smothered hills, were powerful in a manner that made the film’s contemplation of various forms of life stunted by circumstances urgent.
Gregg Araki, a filmmaker who shifted from enfant terrible to major artist nearly a decade ago with Mysterious Skin, returned with White Bird in a Blizzard, a jumpy, oddly curtailed film that nonetheless continues to nag at me, in Araki’s perfervid and often dreamlike blend of John Waters-esque camp and P. T. Anderson-like haunted nostalgia. The film’s animating murder mystery offered a thriller element less by pondering who murdered whom, but rather in contemplating whose aberrant and frustrated sexuality boiled over with destructive results, and how much Shailene Woodley’s young protagonist has inherited it, in a work pitched at the nexus of wistful coming-of-age tale, suburban tragedy, and punch-drunk satire. Gia Coppola’s debut film Palo Alto, an interesting if rather loosely structured adaptation of a book of short stories by James Franco, sometimes trod similar territory in portraying adolescence in affluent, distracted America as a no-man’s-land of experience. Franco’s much-mocked, yet dogged, directorial career threw up some intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful films, particularly Interior. Leather Bar., a pseudo-documentary exploration made with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews that rummaged through concepts of acting and the aesthetics of sexuality, whilst Franco’s solo work Child of God turned Cormac McCarthy’s arty gross-out novel into a portrait of utter human degradation that, by the end, may well have been reborn. Jean-Marc Valee’s Wild tried to bash Cheryl Strayed’s diffuse memoir of walking therapy into an epic of personal experience: the result swung wildly between clumsy devices and granola pseudo-philosophy, and yet often communicated a sense of life far more unruly than this sort of thing usually offers, and had the straight-up nerve to portray a heroine who was no angel. John Curran’s Tracks, a similar tale, chose a more distanced take, one that ought to have proven superior, and yet the evasive smugness of the film’s dramatic pitch somehow turned great adventure into tedious hike. Amma Assante’s Belle touched on fascinating history and personalities and offered Gugu Mbatha-Raw a star-making role she made the most of (see also Beyond the Lights), but proved filled with vapid characterisations and laborious speechifying on a level somewhere between romantic melodrama, historical consciousness-raiser, and Jane Austen fan bait, to the point where it almost became self-satire.
Get On Up
As ever, biopics were a cash crop this year. Mr. Turner essayed the form with eccentric power and teeming detail, trying to capture an age and way of life as much as the prickly personality of the singular man who inhabits it. And yet somehow, somewhere, the film lost its own thread of enquiry, to the point where it seemed to be essentially ingeniously-composed rubbernecking. The Theory of Everything provided an utterly contrived and smoothed-over portrait of Stephen Hawking, exemplifying just about everything wrong with this contemporary brand of prestige lure. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys and Tate Taylor’s Get On Up were both showbiz biopics that gained less attention than expected. Both films kept their own theatricality in mind, making comedy out of the usual road-to-stardom stuff, and the vivacity of Get On Up’s early scenes suggested Taylor might redeem himself after the godawful The Help: the recreations of the flash and cool of a real cultural revolution were often superb. But whereas Eastwood’s sturdy sense of technique and emotional directness eventually helped his film locate a modicum of worldlywise catharsis, Taylor’s became cartoonish and ultimately formless: Chadwick Boseman worked his ass off playing James Brown, and yet never quite found what was going on behind those sharklike eyes, whereas Nelsan Ellis quietly stole the film as his long-suffering, less mercurial yet vital compadré Bobby Byrd. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Coincidence) likewise was essentially a showbiz farce constructed out of archetypes and received ideas posing as a grand and incisive tragicomedy, but redeemed by its sheer delight of technique and performance.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
2014 was a weak year for comedy, but then again so are most years now. The controversial dumping of the Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle The Interview by an assailed Sony probably hasn’t cheated us of a classic of mirth, and yet the event as a whole suggested new truths about global culture with some galling and ridiculous ramifications. Few were particularly keen to see a film from Seth MacFarlane after his job hosting the Oscars, and his western parody A Million Ways to Die in the West proved frustratingly patchy and indecisive as to what kind of movie it was. Yet it was an intermittently enjoyable experience after all, a contemporary answer to Blazing Saddles (1974), just as undisciplined and tendentious, if much less consistently inspired, offering such random joys as the spectacle of Amanda Seyfried sucking on Neil Patrick Harris’ moustache, and Gilbert Gottfried’s wacko cameo as a fake Abraham Lincoln joyously announcing his newfound wealth to a bunch of oblivious schoolkids. On the other hand, the much-praised Obvious Child was, like its heroine, nowhere near as funny or radical as it wanted us to think it was. Jon Favreau’s likeably minor Chef had energy and a good-humoured take on the same story other films took deadly seriously this year, though its chief effect in the end was to make me hungry. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! was a gleefully energetic if rather shallow and sometimes nerve-trying paean to the joys of youth rebellion.
Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)
2014 was at least a vintage year beyond the precincts of the Anglo-American zone. Little surprises and pleasures I was privileged to catch this year included a couple of fine Canadian films, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s mordant portrait in comedic existential angst Whitewash, featuring a drolly soulful Thomas Hayden Church, and the superior Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, both films unfolding like bleak fairytales in the midst of the woods. Out of France came one of my more frustratingly unseen films of the year, Jean-Luc Godard’s much-acclaimed Goodbye to Language. Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay (released abroad as The French Minister) was a divisive film, as some branded it a laboured Gallic version of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, but it was to me a lighter, much less one-note indictment than those satires, instead a deft comedy of manners that tried to comprehend the degree to which modern politics is a game of perpetual catch-up football enacted by people whose talents and follies coexist. Roman Polanski offered what was, to me, easily his most enjoyable and full-blooded film in a long time with the twisted role-playing satire Venus in Fur, setting Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner into a pas-de-deux of sexual and artistic gamesmanship. Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie was, by comparison, a good-looking but still-born study of an alienated young woman who finds…well, something or other in prostituting herself out. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, maker of 2011’s superlative Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, captured the Palme d’Or this year with Winter Sleep, an equally lengthy and intensive interrogation of the modes of petty tyranny and fear that too often consume and define life on the most everyday levels, unfolding like a good book but infused with genuine cinematic values. Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s spacy, intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfying odyssey across the Argentine pampas inferred history as a chasm people fall into and societies emerge from. Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water was a lustrously beautiful, if excessively diaphanous fable that told a not-dissimilar story to Boyhood, but with a far richer sense of social and natural connection, as well as a more specific sense of the fears and torments of growing up.
Performances of Note:
Agata Kulesza, Ida
Allison Pill, Snowpiercer
Brendan Gleeson, Calvary
Dakota Fanning, Night Moves
Don Johnson, Cold in July
Dorothy Atkinson, Mr. Turner
Dylan Moran, Calvary
Edward Norton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Emma Watson, Noah
Emmanuelle Seigner, Venus in Fur
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire; White Bird in a Blizzard
Gene Jones, The Sacrament
Golshifteh Farahani, My Sweet Pepper Land
Imogen Poots, Need for Speed
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant ; Inherent Vice
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Katia Winter, The Banshee Chapter
Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night; The Immigrant
Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Mireille Enos, Sabotage
Nelsan Ellis, Get On Up
Olivia Williams, Sabotage
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Russell Crowe, Noah
Shailene Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard
Thierry Lhermitte, Quai d’Orsay
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive; Snowpiercer
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Tom Hardy, Locke
Favourite Films of 2014
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Calvary wasn’t a perfect work, but it was a massif of ambitious drama that actually had something to say and said it well, simultaneously curious and sceptical, brutal and humane, extraordinarily funny and deeply sad. A titanic lead performance from Brendan Gleeson backed by excellent ensemble work helped give flesh to a film that delved into matters of faith and character and beyond, to study the failure of the most profound social bonds in the modern world, to try and honestly state both why the failure happened and also question what, if anything, might remake those bonds.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson)
A lot of pretenders have tried to claim the crown of the FX blockbuster king in recent years, and the sharp knives that greeted Peter Jackson’s final Tolkien entry suggests many are ready for a change of dynasty. But Jackson still does this sort of thing with a sense of gusto, fulsomeness, and an eye for beauty in unlikely places that makes most rivals look pathetic, particularly amongst this year’s big movie dross. Battle of the Five Armies stands tall in the Hobbit triptych: fun as they were, the first two often felt like theme park rides in Middle Earth, whereas here the final battle rams together every moving part in the story with consequence, and pays off with a pair of harshly beautiful death scenes carrying more tragic gravitas than just about anything else in the entire sextet. The spectacle of cross-purposes, naked greed, and swaggering arrogance from various self-appointed supermen who conspire to start a war also represented the most morally complex passage in the series, and the possibility of redemption through trial therefore more moving.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
I found myself cocking an eyebrow suspiciously at Ida, a continental excursion for a filmmaker who had previously been based in Britain. With its black-and-white photography, Holocaust themes, preciously framed shots, and general air of mournful seriousness, it seemed like something carefully pitched to be the perfect art film for pseuds. Yet under the film’s studied surface lay a fervently beating heart and a brilliant sense of character in a work attuned to cultural dislocation and flavourful in its evocation of the period. Pawlikowski’s style conveys the way life flows on, running roughshod over personal loss and horror, suggesting both why that’s inevitable and possibly even for the best, and also noting the good and bad reasons why some might choose to opt out altogether.
The Immigrant (James Gray)
A tragic tale situated in real history but dusted with the lightest gilt of magic-realism, The Immigrant needed no gimmicks or stunts other than good filmmaking to tell its story, rising with a symphonic blend of intricacy and directness and represents one of the most concise and intelligible aesthetic constructions of recent years: The Immigrant withholds until its last shot, and then haunts for days afterwards. The sublime intelligence of Marion Cotillard’s bedeviled heroine and particularly Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured Caliban deserve great acclaim, but won’t get it.
My Sweet Pepper Land (Hiner Saleem)
This oddball mix of Fordian western, Leanian epic, Shakespearean romance, with a jigger of antic gallows humour, has gained little release and appreciation, and yet it’s stuck with me with more affection that many other films of the year. My Sweet Pepper Land resituated Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) in the wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan, portraying a young policeman’s entanglement with a victimised schoolteacher and a criminal potentate as a way of exploring the new frontiers of an ever-assailed nation and cultural tensions pulling the Middle East in the many directions all too clearly described by contemporary history.
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
I wasn’t sold on Kelly Reichardt’s lauded anti-western Meek’s Cut-Off (2010), but her follow-up Night Moves was accomplished in treading similar territory with a lighter foot and a less obvious sense of irony. A notable film talent emerged more completely. Depicting a trio of eco-terrorists driven to blow up a dam by various motives both political and personal, Reichardt, like Hiner Saleem, blended disparate genres, including war movie, murder mystery, horror film, and the jangled nerved thrillers of ‘70s cinema (including Arthur Penn’s great film of the same name) for the sake of depicting people and an age at a crossroads, the grey zone where commitment shades into hostility, idealism is subsumed by solipsism, and alienation realises that it is actually sociopathy.
Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
Aronofsky’s startlingly odd, mammoth, misshapen revival of the biblical epic had chutzpah beyond the measure of any rival in big-budget cinema this year and an actual vision to purvey, daring to enrich a stark legend with conceptual weight and philosophical enquiry. See also Ridley Scott’s less thoughtful, but brilliantly staged Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s best film in many years was a droll and opulent exploration of the bohemian creed through a twist on an old metaphor: vampirism. Tourism through the desolate grandeur of Detroit is equated with the intellectual journey of life and of romance through the ages, constantly changing expressive form and governing code but never the vital essence. The coda landed a blackly humorous rabbit punch in contemplating how sooner or later, everyone who looks at the stars has to acknowledge the gutter they’re in.
The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)
Punctuated by thunderous, brilliantly staged and choreographed sequences of mayhem and martial artistry, Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his claustrophobic ass-kick classic from 2011 expanded his scope enormously, not entirely without some pacing problems, but finally creating a spectacle of motion matched to an expansive drama of gangland honour, offering everything from tragedy to farce and hazy poeticism.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Note-perfect social realism and incisive ethics and psychology provide reminders just why the Dardenne brothers are so lauded, in a taut and thrilling tale that is also utterly believable. Marion Cotillard’s second great role of the year saw her inhabit an Everywoman without a trace of either star slumming or self-important art.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) / Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
I pair these films in part because Stranger by the Lake was a delayed 2013 film, which Marilyn Ferdinand reviewed back then, and because both are cool, bare-boned, almost mythic tales with a queer twist: Stranger by the Lake invoked primal rituals of mating and blood sacrifice in a landscape deliberately cordoned off from the modern world, whilst Vic + Flo Saw a Bear becomes a kind of fairy tale enacted by two aging, life-damaged lesbian partners threatened by a lurking demon from one woman’s past. Both films conclude with wrenching, brutal, yet oddly touching visions of people who just can’t live without love, even in the face of annihilation.
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Palme d’Or winner is over three hours long, driven by dialogue, and replete with silence and evocations of alienation–it’s like the art movie your mother warned you about. Yet Winter Sleep is patient rather than inflated, dense with detail and quietly motivated, taking its characters seriously but never over-indulging them. Ceylan analyses psychology and social context with a feel for how the two affect each other. Like Calvary, with more finesse, Ceylan uses a small town and its occupants to delve into the way so many of us create phantoms of our preoccupations, terrors, and preferred world views and inflict them on other people.
Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
Locke (Steven Knight)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Still the Water (Naomi Kawase)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki)
Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait)
Rough Gems & Underrated
Begin Again (John Carney)
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
Quai d’Orsay (aka The French Minister, Bertrand Tavernier)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Starred Up (David Mackenzie)
Roll of Genre Pleasures
Cold in July (Jim Mickle)
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Chi-kin Kwok)
Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin)
Need For Speed (Scott Waugh)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson)
Sabotage (David Ayer)
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas)
Overrated & Underwhelming
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Fury (David Ayres)
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
John Wick (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Tracks (John Curran)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)
3 Days to Kill (McG)
The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone)
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Robocop (José Padilha)
The Rover (David Michôd)
Bird People / The Blue Room / The Captive / Charlie’s Country / Child’s Pose / The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby / Force Majeure / Frank / A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night / Gloria / Goodbye to Language / The Guest / Horse Money / Ilo Ilo / In Bloom / It Felt Like Love / Joe / Land Ho! / Leviathan / Love Is Strange / Mommy / Norte, The End of History / Nymphomaniac / Pride / The Strange Little Cat / Stray Dogs / The Tale of the Princess Kaguya / The Tribe
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2014:
Baby Face Nelson / The Beguiled (Don Siegel)
Bell Book and Candle (Richard Quine)
The Big Night / Finger of Guilt (Joseph Losey)
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino)
Break of Day (Ken Hannam)
China Seas (Tay Garnett)
The Colossus of Rhodes (Sergio Leone)
Creature with the Atom Brain / The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake / Pier 5, Havana (Edward L. Cahn)
The Driller Killer / China Girl / The Addiction (Abel Ferrara)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse / The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio)
Faces (John Cassavetes)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava)
Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
The Horsemen / Black Sunday / Prophecy (John Frankenheimer)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Matango (Ishiro Honda)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)
Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak)
Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson)
Rabid / The Brood / Scanners (David Cronenberg)
Railroaded! / T-Men (Anthony Mann)
Seas Beneath / The Plough and the Stars / The Long Voyage Home / The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford)
Shaft / Shaft’s Big Score! (Gordon Parks)
The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves)
The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts)
Strangler of the Swamp (Frank Wisbar)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce)
Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon)
Une Femme est une Femme / Vivre Sa Vie / Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard)
The Uninvited (Lewis Allen)
Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow)
Woman Who Came Back (Walter Colmes)
Wyatt Earp (Lawrence Kasdan)
Scorecard: Best Films of the 2010s, Halfway Mark:
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
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By Roderick Heath
We citizens of cinephilia live in a strange time. It’s perfectly possible to live completely insulated from the bustle of the weekly release schedule in theatres, video stores, and, increasingly, online, and settle in to survey the great sprawl of the medium’s history with more freedom and range than ever before. And it’s equally possible to do the opposite, and voraciously consume the new without a thought to the old, as the repositories of film history move online, where they need not stir even the moment’s interest they used to for the curious renter. Does either position constitute good citizenship in movie land? What is any art form without a sense of its past or an interest in its present and future?
2013 has been great year for film, and yet a lot of people wouldn’t ever know it—some don’t even want to know it. I can understand that to a degree. Super-sized studio movies rule our roost more than ever before, but even some of them still manage to hide in plain sight, qualities distorted and masked by their own gravitational fields. The current dominance of the blockbuster mentality, which tosses out everything from bright gems to massive turds, has not destroyed creative labour in the margins; indeed, in many ways, it seems to have created great metamorphic pressure on other zones of current film. But what’s the use of that if the audience has given up? Smaller films need the attention and support of critics and passionate viewers more than ever. Of course, when I say a great year for film, that doesn’t mean that it was all great. The one luxury of my position is that I don’t have to watch any old crap. But if 1939 is considered the greatest year for film because of the perhaps two dozen excellent works released at the time, then this year presents a perfectly legitimate rival. A different breed of rival, of course, a collage filled with oddballs, malcontents, misshapen beasts, a freaky longhair happening in contrast to the swanky old soirée.
Given how fast cultural dissemination happens now, the feeling one sometimes gets is that a film hasn’t really been seen, but rather one notes a network of received impressions and preformed judgements. 2013 has been a bonfire of the works of aging auteurs: Abbas Kiarostami, Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Sally Potter, Wong Kar-Wai, Ridley Scott, and more released new films, all of them interesting, some of them important, sparking enthusiasm in some circles, but disdain and belittling in many others (and with Martin Scorsese’s new work an exception that proves the rule, his having successfully become an institution). There’s often a point where the young imitators of notable artists gain more plaudits than the originals’ new works. For example, the dull and affected Ain’t Them Bodies Saints owed much to the shooting style of Malick’s ’70s films but had none of his originality in storytelling and structuring. Several of the year’s best-reviewed works come from directors who emerged in the 1990s—Spike Jonze (Her), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alexander Payne (Nebraska)—whom I’ve only warmed to in extremely varying degrees, if at all, but whose work undeniably works as catnip for many, as does that of Joel and Ethan Coen, spiritual godfathers of many of these filmmakers, who invoked the spirits of Americana again with Inside Llewyn Davis. Independent film in North America is definitely in a state of flux at the moment, finally seeming to have moved out of the hands of people trying to recreate the success of Reservoir Dogs or Little Miss Sunshine, and aesthetically at least that’s a good thing, as more adventurous and eccentrically ambitious work emerges like Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution, Stacie Passon’s Concussion, and many more.
2013 saw a minor upsurge for Australian film: I haven’t seen the big-ticket films of the year, the much-anticipated second film from indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen, Mystery Road, or the three-hour portmanteau based on the writing of Tim Winton, The Turning. But I did catch Ben Nott and Morgan O’Neill’s Drift, which was good-looking drivel, and Goddess, a surprisingly energetic and good-hearted, if rather thin and cliché-happy attempt to construct a populist Aussie musical but far superior to Wayne Blair’s slick but phony The Sapphires (which was released at the end of last year but gained international release in 2013). There was also The Great Gatsby, the most American of subjects, but an Aussie film to a surprising degree. As incontinent with images and ideas and trashy in its aesthetics as Baz Luhrmann’s films always are, it was nonetheless something close to a real film as it refused to embalm a classic, but rather tried to find narrative purity in aesthetic excess.
The Place Beyond the Pines
In past years, I’ve sought out connecting themes and images between the many films of the year, that elusive sense of the communal mind and spirit as expressed by artists. There’s been a glut of movies looking hard at racial prejudice in the past and present, as ever an electric theme in the U.S. and particularly keen this year, expressed through works like 42, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, whilst black directors, who made several of these, also had a banner year. Likewise, a glut of films contended with endemic decay and the threat of violence in working class and regional enclaves: Prisoners, Out of the Furnace, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, hell, even The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, whilst, at the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale, the bandits of jejeune privilege in The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers went on the offensive.
Some directors, including Shane Carruth, Danny Boyle, Peter Strickland, and Ben Wheatley, toyed with reinvigorating a mode of cinema based on extreme visual stylisation and recreations of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, as if on the verge of kicking off a new psychedelic era in cinema. Similar in mood though different in approach was Nicolas Winding Refn’s much-abused but potent and hypnotic dream-movie Only God Forgives. Films based on true stories were all over the place: The Bling Ring, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Lone Survivor, Eden, The Wolf of Wall Street, Lovelace, Fruitvale Station, The Butler, Behind the Candelabra, No, A Hijacking, Beyond the Hills, etc., ad nauseum. The endemic hunt for a sense of truthfulness, of ripped-from-the-headlines veracity and RELEVANCE! some of these works display began to bother me after a while, as I commenced to ponder if this borrowed finery didn’t retard the creative insight of some artists. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, for instance, had the instincts of a blisteringly funny satire somewhere inside it but was oppressed by its own sheen of detached authenticity, whilst works like Captain Phillips and Lone Survivor seem at least superficially to present experiential studies rather than interpretive narratives, an approach that makes in their context of their stories, for gripping movies that raise perturbing questions as to what truths are being left out. On the other hand, a film like No readily displayed the epiphanies an attentive attitude to recreating familiar fact can generate, whilst American Hustle improvised freely on its chosen tale but sought no insight beyond pop sentimentality.
Another stream apparent in the year’s works is the attempts by filmmakers to grasp and pull apart their material on a systemic level, tracing cause and effect through layers of narrative and time. Some were happy to do this in regards to film construction and narrative itself, apparent in movies like Resolution, Berberian Sound Studio, Computer Chess, Trance, or Museum Hours, in which the very structure of the film itself is toyed with to examine the way we’re relating to it whilst watching it. Others turned a structuralist sensibility on their material, whether it be in mechanics, like the Rube Goldberg-like narrative form of Gravity, the anatomised drug trade and show-and-tell plot of The Counselor, studies in situational dynamics like A Hijacking, the elaborate biological tag game of Upstream Colour, the genes and generational events, as in Stoker or The Place Beyond the Pines, and interpersonal relationships, like Blue Is the Warmest Colour. It’s not so surprising that in the wake of financial crisis and political turmoil, the desire to dig down and comprehend phenomena on a more complete level is apparent in such works and for artists to engage the growing canniness of the audience regarding how narrative and other systems work. British films shared this interest in cycles of behaviour in antiheroic characters, marked in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End and Danny Boyle’s Trance. Characters at the mercy of cruel fate, and cruel overlords and companions, likewise litter the screens: the most striking scene in Wheatley’s peculiar A Field in England had a man, just tortured into compliance with an evil alchemist, emerging from a tent in slow motion with a beaming rigid smile on his face, the sickly image of Orwellian slavery as freedom, and therefore one of the most politically interesting scenes of the year.
Oz the Great and Powerful
Similar notes flowed through Man of Steel, as Zod kills, tortures, and annihilates in the name of patriotism and then chucks a super-nihilistic hissy fit when someone disagrees with his method, a moment that called to mind the similar all-or-nothing stances by conservative politicians all around the world in the past year or so. There was a peculiar conceptual similarity to Man of Steel in Wong Kar-Wai’s staggering comeback The Grandmaster: both took well-known stories of beloved folk heroes and refracted them to emphasise the violence, disconnection, and lost pasts that defined them, filtered through islets of almost hallucinogenic imagery. Star Trek: Into Darkness undermined the moral presumptions of a cosy scifi franchise, with villains both official and rebellious variously war-mongering or entrapped, and heroes wrenched into new realms of unfamiliarly ferocious behaviour by the loss of friends and mentors. False and corrupt regimes recurred throughout many films, even in ones as playful as Iron Man 3 and Oz the Great and Powerful. State and criminal elements stalked each other into a bloodbath in Drug War, with a grotesque scene halfway through in which a criminal forces a cop posing as a drug dealer to take life-threatening amounts of his own product, another act of cruelty that again must be met with a smile, whilst the very conclusion offers the bleakly doubled-edged spectacle of a criminal pleading to his last breath for a way out until machinery he’s been trying to stymie since the opening inevitably ends his life.
Only God Forgives
The beleaguered people of Upstream Color were united by abuse and intestinal instinct, but finally rejoined the natural world. Similarly concerned with returning to the earth were Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, following last year’s impressive Sound of My Voice with The East, an attempt to create a thoughtful but more conventional thriller that finished up sadly overcooked. But it was fascinating in trying to dramatize a new, literal resistance to the modern world by creating a world within that world with its specific rituals and motives bordering on the cabalistic. The sad girls of Beyond the Hills had their lives repeatedly corralled and ruined by institutionalisation; the lead victim of Eden had to become conspirator and participant in slavery to survive. The essential drama of Only God Forgives accepted the familiar moral exigencies of noir melodrama and yet undermined them with a vision of sin and redemption enacted through the most gruellingly corporeal means, dragging back the ideas of justice and order a couple of thousand years to their primal roots. Two films that danced about each other like conjoined twins were Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, both of which dealt with the same essential matter but in divergent terms, one a scrupulously realistic but nightmarishly personal experience where the passion of victim and power-holder was clear, and the other a study in removed perspectives, men inflated to godlike status or reduced to insects according to their use not just of guns but words, technology, money, and time.
On the other hand, films motivated by a sheer, unironic (but not necessarily oblivious) love of medium and story still crop up now and then, evinced by the expansive, if rather differing pleasures of films like Pacific Rim or Blancanieves. It was a pretty good year for unalloyed fun at the movies. Two major critical flops there were also big-budget fantasy films were, I found, rather cheery. Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer, which was also a big fiscal flop, was surprisingly old-fashioned, and starred Nicholas Hoult, who was also agreeable in the lightweight zombie romance Warm Bodies. Sam Raimi ran the risk of despoiling an eternal critics’ favourite with a defiantly Sam Raimi-ish take on L. Frank Baum in Oz the Great and Powerful, enjoying the showbiz bluster and protean sexuality he finds behind the curtain of the classic family yarn. Neil Jordan’s vampire film Byzantium was deeply problematic, and yet I’ve wrestled very hard with whether to include it on my favourites list, with its moments of original brilliance and intensity of imagery arguing in its favor.
Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion was eye candy of the first order and stirred me for at least trying to be real scifi, but it could not overcome its wearyingly derivative script. The cumulative effect of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World was to finally sour me on the Marvel franchise, with two loosely cobbled-together pseudo-stories laced with entertaining but unconnected moments, proving this realm has no serious place to go after The Avengers. The death of Paul Walker was a tragic coda to his singular success as an actor in the Fast and the Furious series, which racked up its sixth instalment earlier in the year and lodged it firmly in place in the pantheon of gleefully absurd entertainment. Certainly Furious 6 was more successful in recreating the yahoo fun factor of ’80s action drama in its own meathead way than the year’s several studied attempts at same, like Iron Man 3, The Expendables 2, and The Last Stand. J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness failed interestingly to dislodge its early ’80s precursor, though the new film was quite perversely and excessively abused for being a zippy, probing, if modishly conventional adventure movie that chiefly lacked the mythic aspect of its model. The actual, absolute bottom of the barrel for easy comparison was John Moore’s degradation of a once-great series with the turgid A Good Day to Die Hard. You can’t go back to Nakatomi Plaza again. Or to 1953 again. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger sparked some defences from some critical quarters after its box office failure, but this was one time I had to stand with the consensus: the film’s general mix of by-rote Bruckheimer pizzazz, Verbinski’s dull and clumsy idea of slapstick action, general story incoherence, and the film’s aberrantly evasive and stupid approach to its revisionism, made for a singularly trying film. It was an action-comedy that wasn’t exciting or funny.
Of course, I have my list of the overhyped and the underwhelming. Some of those films have me more intrigued than others at this point, particularly the ones that came close to being very good. The World’s End, for instance, was a movie with many fine qualities, and it staked new adult ground as the cap for the “Cornetto trilogy,” and yet it finished up as a confused work that failed to develop any of its ideas or characters anywhere near as well as they should have been; it stands for me as perhaps the year’s subtlest but most definite letdown. Upstream Color was dazzling at first, but it came down to some tinny, rather painful New Agey ideas explicated via a cinematic method that became tedious after 20 minutes. I loved the basic idea of Stoker, a rewrite of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt as black antithesis, but the style, apart from two great scenes, kept the charge of genuinely transgressive transformation too ponderously aestheticized.
American Hustle unleashed an array of revved-up stars and some delicious cinematography on an oddball caper tale, but the film’s lack of a genuine focal point or clarity of emotion, not to mention plot, essentially turned it into a collection of flashily shot, unevenly acted scenes without rhyme or reason. Also, as a sustained piece of fake Scorsese, it neatly joins the aforementioned phenomenon of the superseded auteur, as did the macho wankfest The Place Beyond the Pines, which mistook ripping off good ’70s fims for actual moviemaking. For all its luminous acting and formidably artful craft, Blue Is the Warmest Colour needed to get deeper into its characters’ heads and spend less time writing its own textual analysis. Francis Coppola’s long-delayed Twixt was quite interesting and a total mess. But I’d certainly encourage anyone to see it, because it offers a privileged glimpse of a real artist wrestling deeply with his very creative nature in the face of mortality and life experience, and that’s a rare thing. I have no problem confessing that one of the major reasons the orgiastic praise turned on Gravity pissed me off was the interesting subtext of a lot its praise; that although it was a “special-effects movie,” it was a “realistic” and “thoughtful,” even “artistic” one, as opposed to those other special-effects movies that are the bane of modern moviegoing. Gravity was actually none of those things, but rather was a corny and reductive adventure flick that allowed critics and audiences to get off on CGI without the guilt of liking a genre film.
Star Trek: Into Darkness
Images, as ever, images, in films good and bad and middling, still bespoke the power of the medium. In Man of Steel, Superman, floating in the ocean, bemusedly watching a pair of whales swim above him. In Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a pair of young lesbian lovers melding into a symmetrical new creature, and, later, one of them, cast out of Eden, walking away into the rest of her life clad in an emblematic colour that is now a surrendered standard. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, a genetically-engineered villain, on the run from his enemies, materialising over a smoky, desolately alien landscape, replete with Wagnerian gravitas of menace and danger. In Oz the Great and Powerful, a witch about to go wicked with tears burning rivulets in her cheeks from the acidic bitterness of disillusionment. The hapless hero of 12 Years a Slave dangling from the end of the rope, trapped with painful exactitude between life and death, only kept alive by constant effort. Or, later, when he desolately burns a hopeful letter, the last tremors of light and heat becoming a small constellation, a total reversal of the earlier moment in style and yet still communicating the same sense of essence. The tear leaking from the eye of the sleeping beauty at the very end of Blancanieves touches the essence of cinema itself. So does the play of watching in Passion, with the watcher watched by the watcher’s watcher, sex object staring back at viewer, potentate willingly blinded, the screen cleft as artist and killer, victim and patsy are all entwined, marching towards the final cut.
The Great Beauty
In The Counselor, the malicious art of beheading carefully prepared for under a Cretaceous dawn, the tragic indictment of the title character as he wanders dazed and gutted through people at a rally for the needlessly killed, and the hilarious sight of Cameron Diaz having sex with a car windscreen. The slow zoom in on a celebrity doll house suspended in panes of light against dark with the L.A. skyline beyond through which The Bling Ring gang scuttles, at once like invasive rodents and blessedly foolish children in some Chuck Jones cartoon. The child prodigy in The Great Beauty, bullied into creating art in front of a gaggle of society swanks, hurling paint at a huge canvas in her rage, but then succumbing to her greatest instincts and creating a delirious work of colour, humiliating every phony around her. Or, in the same movie, the midnight exploration of the palaces of Rome crammed with the art of centuries. The paintings in Museum Hours, endlessly scrutinised, endlessly rich, and the human visions, like the lone woman singing mournfully in a hotel room, ephemeral and echoing. The villain of Drug War, having tried every trick in the book to give the slip to his fate, reduced to dragging along the corpse of the hero to which he’s handcuffed, in his last desperate effort to escape. Amongst an endless sprawl of great visions in The Grandmaster, my two favourites were the hazy moment of make-believe for a very real purpose that sees two lost souls momentarily united in an approximation of their fantasies, on a train, and the climactic appearance of the heroine wreathed in steam and smoke, ready for battle.
A Field in England
The manic hallucinogenic freak-out that is the set-piece of A Field in England, when time and space and person all fold in on each other. The hot rod loaded with celebrating black folk liberated by wealth and Jazz Age mores crossing the bridge in The Great Gatsby. The masked girls dancing with automatic weapons and their piano-tinkling gangster guru on the dock in Spring Breakers. The mountain of squirming zombies assaulting the bastions of civilisation in World War Z. The nuns carrying their personally crucified martyr across the snowy church compound in Beyond the Hills. The crazy cliff-face battle in GI Joe: Retaliation. The incestuously tinged piano duet in Stoker, and the perverted beauty of the psychopath coming of age whilst masturbating to sweet memories of snapping necks. Another psychopath, this time ensnared by her own games and stirred revenge, gazing out from the hospital window at the end of Side Effects. The heartbreak and rage on Andrea Riseborough’s face, cracking the studied sheen and ultra-modern artifice of Oblivion, as she’s confronted by the sudden, forced change in her reality by her lover. Another great scene featuring Riseborough, the Fritz Lang-esque escape through the urban underworld at the start of Shadow Dancer.
I’m So Excited
The look (and sound) of unimaginable terror of a screaming starlet unleashing the genuine dread of the pit, even in cynically creating schlock, in Berberian Sound System. The erotic encounters of Concussion, bodies meeting in multifarious brands of intimacy and tactile appeal with the specific poetry of flesh. The dead pop star transcending unpleasant reality and taking off for a properly kitschy afterlife at the very end of Behind the Candelabra. The trio of dazzlingly gay airline stewards staging an impromptu dance number to the eponymous song in I’m So Excited as they try to keep their audience of passengers narcotised to the reality of an epoch that may end in crash landing. The body of a fallen ecoterrorist interred in the ground as naked as she came into the world, in The East.
The computer beadily watching its creators in frustration, trying to will the future into being, in Computer Chess, and the prostitute casually removing her head to allow access for the young, bemused nerd to begin exploring far more complex systems. The lovers swimming in the moonlight, beatific prelude to the gruelling assaults on flesh and spirit to come, in Rush. The tiny girl chased by a gigantic monster like some prepubescent nightmare brought to life and radiating from a totemic red shoe in Pacific Rim, and its answering moment later, as the same girl, grown and in a monstrous robot, drags a ship to use as a club on her lysergic-coloured quarry in a moment of sublime revenge. The flurry of light, motion, wet, and pain, staged like a spirit journey, distorting the would-be hero’s vision as he tries to get a dying girl to a hospital, which forms the climax of Prisoners. Amy Adams’ whoop of incoherent life-lust after a disco toilet declaration intercut with bawling Tom Jones sing-alongs of the regular guys in American Hustle.
The waterfalls of gushing blood and swirling bats that give Byzantium its cred as gothic horror, offset by hazily alienated visions of its ageless heroines spying on their own remembered selves. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III recalls a furious lovers’ quarrel as a dumb show within a Volkswagen as it travels through a car wash. The damaged young hoodlum watching his girlfriend strip through dazzling veils of drenched colour and false glamour, in Only God Forgives, somehow watching her and watching himself at the same time, inside and outside of the dream. The pensive young prostitute looking in vain for her grandmother in the teeming heart of an alienating metropolis in Like Someone in Love, and its climactic reversal, as the camera calmly watches curtains that bat lazily in the breeze after a brick crashes through the glass and knocks out the hapless old intellectual. The waters slowly rising over the causeway like cyclical fate even as the young lovers dance in their ignorant bliss amongst the plethora of similarly great crystalline visions in To The Wonder. And on and on, on and on, images.
12 Years a Slave would’ve been a good film without Chiwetel Ejiofor, but Steve McQueen has a knack for carefully choosing actors who can burrow deep within the substance of his work, and the actor’s endlessly expressive countenance provided a symphonic display of emotion and intelligence, moving from horror to shame to rage to soul-cracking despair. Even for such a well-proven actor, it was a hell of a job. He was well-supported, with Michael Fassbender at a rare pitch of ferocity, Benedict Cumberbatch revealing in the subtleties of cravenness, and Brad Pitt saving the day, albeit in the most soft-spoken of ways. Fassbender and Cumberbatch continued to be the men of the hour, as the latter did a good job in a thankless role, taking up the reins of Khan in the enormous shadow of Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek: Into Darkness, his characterisation potent, insolent, self-confident, but supremely ruthless and ultimately lunatic. As hyped as the role was, and as dismissed as it’s been subsequently, it was still a supremely cool piece of villainy. Fassbender meanwhile was the smug, glib soul of The Counselor, ripe for the fall into stygian darkness, contending with Pitt again and Javier Bardem as artful chewers of Cormac McCarthy’s deliciously arch noir dialogue. By contrast, in To the Wonder, Ben Affleck’s mug was the stony Easter Island visage around which Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams danced in intimations of variable personality, particularly Kurylenko, whose dazzlingly sustained impersonation of a mercurial but deeply flawed nymph was the only one this year that struck me as powerfully as Ejiofor’s for sheer commitment. McQueen tends to use his actors’ physiognomies like canvases on which his films are projected, and Malick is similar, as is Wong Kar-Wai, the only man alive who can start with an Ip Man biopic and come out with a poetic paean to the marvel that is Zhang Ziyi.
Adele Exarchopolous exerted a similar, if more controversial spell on her director and audience thanks to the protean power of her lead role in Blue Is the Warmest Colour, holding the film’s final scenes on course as a study in the physical pain of losing love written entirely on her young but sturdy frame. Amidst the occasionally overripe histrionics of Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance held up in trying circumstances, whilst Viola Davis and Terrence Howard were so good I wished they’d been the proper stars of the film. In a similar vein, Keith Carradine’s grizzled eloquence almost shocked Ain’t Them Bodies Saints out of its stance of po-faced revivalism with his performance as an aging but still-formidable Fagin figure watching over the fates of his wayward former charges. Tom Hanks hardly needs plaudits, but Captain Phillips nonetheless supplied him with a chance to prove himself on a new level, particularly in the concluding scenes that wowed everyone as the heretofore stoic and intensely controlled sailor crumbles after he gets his happy ending. It looked like this was going to be another year of Matthew McConaughey, and his excellence in playing variations on southern-fried peckerwoods with nascent humanity in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club cannot be denied, though the former movie proved a slightly unsatisfying blend of indie-flick modesty and crowd-pleasing escapade, and the latter gave way to too many obnoxious conventions in both the heroic-biopic and gay-films-for-straight-people fields. Nonetheless, there was a sense of physical intensity to McConaughey in the latter, evoking both the corporeal devastation and psycho-spiritual ignition derived from his existential battle.
Tony Servillo effortlessly held together the carnivale that was The Great Beauty, making a potentially unlikeable main character into the man everyone wants, just a little bit, to be. Toby Jones, always an excellent performer, loaned his presence mysteriously to the latest Hunger Games film for a part that’s all the more insulting after watching his note-perfect subtlety in Berberian Sound System, communicating both his character’s deference, ferocity, disquiet, and genius. Amidst some unnecessary stunt casting and wobbly accents, Alessandro Nivola was superb in Ginger and Rosa as the phlegmatic, self-involved, radical father who is a prophet of modernity but doesn’t see past the end of his own nose (or penis). Russell Crowe is aging into an elder statesman with surprising dignity and new good humour (as long as he doesn’t sing), and he propped up two pretty bad films I saw this year, The Man with the Iron Fists and Broken City, with an old trouper’s sense of charm, and just about stole Man of Steel with his mix of gravitas and punch. Henry Cavill did well playing the hero, because he didn’t make me miss Christopher Reeve, and better, he didn’t remind me I’d first seen him in Immortals. Michael Shannon was also in that film and he was commanding, though overshadowed in evil by the icily charismatic Antje Traue. Shannon was star of The Iceman, a third-rate Scorsese knock-off that came out on DVD this year; it still used Shannon’s trademark mix of awkwardness and brutality well, and gave some supporting roles to some oddly but effectively cast actors like David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, and a particularly good Winona Ryder. Robin Weigert was gutsy and interesting in Concussion, and had some strong support from Laila Robins, whilst A Hijacking was blessed with the triangulated presences of Søren Malling, Pilou Asbæk, and Abdihakin Asgar as the men whose tempers are tested by tensions between their shared desires and their ulterior goals.
The definition of a great ensemble performance is one where you can’t imagine any one actor removed from the whole with others. The small ensemble of Like Someone in Love would certainly count there, and certainly the team in The Past were superlative in and of themselves. Two comedy films this year that had oddly similar premises were tied together equally by ensemble comic performances in which the shambolic was brought to life with sharpness: The World’s End and This Is the End. Emma Watson’s hilarious but sadly small part as “herself,” the innocent but plucky English girl at the mercy of the wilds of L.A. celebrity, in This Is the End, was a fitting counterpoint to her witty and convincing turn as the shallowest of Californian princesses oblivious to all concerns but her own self-written life script in The Bling Ring. Drug War, although exceedingly cinematic, had a theatrical aspect to it as the heroes shifted guises and personalities. It was a tour de force for Sun Hong-lei in particular as the stone-faced cop who adopts the most divergent personality possible in the course of his investigation, and it became an existential portrait not just of subterfuge or police work but of the roles circumstances force us to play. Amongst the battery of heavyweight actors in American Hustle, Christian Bale’s grotesque was technically impressive acting but never felt particularly urgent as characterisation, and Bradley Cooper was just plain annoying, whilst Jennifer Lawrence managed to stay just on this side of broad in playing a ferociously fascinating but precociously disturbing harridan, leaving it to Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner to keep things grounded, the former as a peculiarly honest con artist and the latter as a doomed man of the people. Charlie Sheen’s part in A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III was dismissed generally as smug, but there was a cheeky sense of play and self-mockery mixed with unexpected dignity in his acting that reminded me at least why once he was an actor and a star with a rep.
The women of 12 Years a Slave were interesting, too. Lupita Nyong’o was class because she knew she captured the peculiar, nihilistic power of her victim role as well as the pathos and terror, Alfre Woodard offered a weirdly persuasive portrait of sex slave as female entrepreneur, whilst Sarah Paulson stopped just this side of caricature in portraying her spurned, vengeful, contemptuous homestead queen as her equally hateful husband’s enabler. There were definite weak links in the ensemble Joss Whedon gathered together for his gonzo edition of Much Ado about Nothing, but there were some marvellous ones, too, particularly Amy Acker as Beatrice, who did the most impressive moment of slapstick comedy I’ve seen in years at one point, and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. Soairse Ronan was as palpably intelligent as usual alongside a slippery, sensually vicious Gemma Arterton in Byzantium, and also in the even less-seen Violet & Daisy, an intriguing if unsuccessful piece of light surrealism, where Ronan actually got a run from her money not just from the late, great James Gandolfini, but from costar Alexis Bledel’s surprisingly droll, emotive turn as Ronan’s prematurely world-weary partner in assassination, as if someone had packed Lee Marvin into her diminutive frame. Ellen Page was quintessentially impressive in her limited but vital supporting role in Zal Batmanglij’s The East as the incarnation of radicalism formed by bitter personal experience.
Andrea Riseborough kept on rising with a triptych of expert performances in very different films, as the doomed gal Friday of Welcome to the Punch, the spurned lover and inadvertent species traitor in Oblivion, and as the quietly steely, enigmatic antiheroine of Shadow Dancer. Olivia Wilde, after lurking on the edge of stardom for nearly a decade now, suddenly came into focus for many in Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, beautifully skewering her character’s mix of ladette winsomeness and flake. Jamie Alexander, striking in her parts in The Last Stand and Thor: The Dark World, might well take over from Wilde as the most appealing actress to be found in the most frustratingly nonpriority roles. Rachel McAdams’ performance in Passion provided high contrast with her portrait of febrile feeling in To the Wonder, and gave Brian De Palma’s film the jolt of high-camp verve it required. Laura Michelle Kelly was a firecracker of unleashed, incandescent energy in Goddess, a musical-comedy performance comprising surprisingly old-school chops. Cristina Flutur’s performance in Beyond the Hills was vital, as she captured both the desperate, heart-rending neediness of her character, and also her tunnel-visioned, infuriating, self-destructive side. One of the most mesmerising, amusing, intelligent performances of the year was that of Ela Piplits in Museum Hours (not to denigrate the easy improvisatory turns of leads Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, by any means), playing a mere gallery guide expounding intelligently about art, but doing it with such calm panache, such dextrous engagement in easily batting way the representative of modern Puritanism, that it reminded us of how blunt and patronising many films are when they come close to such ideas. For me, however, some of the year’s most memorable on-screen performances didn’t even come from actors. The cast of Computer Chess, mostly nonprofessional, seemed born in their roles mostly because they were. I can’t think of Gerald Peary’s magnificently stilted emcee work without a wide grin.
Favourite Films of 2013
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
A lot of the praise for Steve McQueen’s third film smacked of sophomore political and cultural studies, but this adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir did far more than check off a list of desirable talking points: McQueen’s incisive eye, as exacting as in his debut Hunger (2009) but less mannered, succeeded in both indicting a grotesque system and illuminating its horrors. McQueen’s evocation of the peculiar institution is often gut-wrenching, and yet often purposefully banal in portraying what was merely the reductio ad absurdum of free enterprise. But the film’s strongest achievement lay in how carefully it ransacked every character’s psychologically enmeshed responses and blind spots, from hero Northup whose exceptionalism proves largely only a taunting absurdity, to Benedict Cumberbatch’s genteel, amicable, but moral coward plantation oligarch (the man Ashley Wilkes realised he was), and on down to Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the Edward Albee-ish poisonous pair who treat slaves quite literally as objects to enact their passions and cruelties upon, all portrayed with unforgiving clarity.
Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)
Peter Strickland’s study in private psychological anguish in the context of trashy ephemera and nostalgic pop culture fetishism was not a film for everybody, but definitely a film for me. Misread by too many as a missed opportunity for a thriller, it’s really a queasy comedy of manners that slides into a surreal dreamscape for a journey through the underworld before rebirth.
Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)
When everything old is new again (see also Computer Chess, No), Spanish director Pablo Berger made a silent film, but amazingly, not just one for critics and retro film fans, but for actual audiences. He gave them the humour, thrills, and delicate beauty of both a real silent film and a fairy tale, in a version of the past that recalls the great works of Expressionism and yet filtered through a modern sensibility. Even Pedro Almodovar couldn’t hold a candle to it this year as far as Spanish cinema went.
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)
So feather-light it seems like it might crumble at a touch, Andrew Bujalski’s oddball-screwball comedy actually reveals ingenious gall holding it together, basic jokes and ideas and even more basic technology layered upon layer to create something deeply strange, very funny, and, finally, beguiling.
The Counselor (Ridley Scott)
A post-apocalyptic nightmare set in the present, Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy reduce the Hollywood crime film to its constituent parts and watch them twitch in the midday sun. The result is nasty, funny, and hopeless, at once lucidly beautiful and bitterly ugly. The filmmakers, much like their hero, pushed far out into deep waters and paid the price with some ugly critical assassinations.
Drug War (Johnny To)
Completely different in tone and approach to The Counselor and yet built around many of the same ideas, Johnny To’s latest film works as both self-commentary, as both hero and villain circle each other in sustained acts of bluff and gamesmanship, and as whip-crack thriller. In a modern China that seems to be a wilderness of newness, justice is upright but also constitutes just another competing system in the market, and the gangster and cop protagonists both scuttle across its surface, trying to survive.
Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter)
Sally Potter’s reminiscence about bohemian youth in early ’60s Britain was compelling, not least in its peculiar female perspective, but also for its fascinating lack of nostalgia and sense of sociological precision, exposing heartbreak, betrayal, familial tragedy and disappointment, and the omnipresent pall of fear of the nuclear age. Potter explored with a rare seriousness the problems that result when people decide to live without old values but find nothing with which to replace them, and yet she managed to make the film feel the opposite of heavy. In spite of some casting problems, it was sustained by Elle Fanning’s luminous lead performance.
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)
A divisive work, but to me a serious candidate for the greatest film of the decade so far, Wong Kar-Wai’s resurgence is a lode of ironic disparities, tackling seemingly very stolid subjects—the martial-arts action epic and the biopic—and constructing a supercharged rhapsody of vision, time, and poetic humanity as revealed in rest and motion.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
This extraordinary remix of La Dolce Vita as a cultural anatomy of modern Rome through the eyes of a social gadfly is also extraordinarily uneven: the nominal heart of the film, that gadfly wrestling with his reawakening desire to be a true artist, never feels more than a McGuffin, and the finale’s attempt to encompass an aspect of spiritual longing and wonder fails badly to mesh with overlarge satire, especially frustrating as elsewhere in the film director Paolo Sorrentino generates the desired duplicity of effect so beautifully. And yet Sorrentino offers some of the most stunning set-pieces and artistic epiphanies of recent cinema, confirming the impression of Il Divo (2009) that he knows how to throw parties on screen better than anyone alive, far outstripping Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for capturing both the powerful splendor and obscenity of decadent high life, dancing with dreamy artistry through the Eternal City to pick up an insane collage of compelling vignettes. Tony Servillo’s wry, yet emotive performance kept the boat steady, presenting a fascinating continuity with Il Divo as studies of men at the centre of things who are, nonetheless, enigmatic in their seeming obviousness.
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Like several films this year, Abbas Kiarostami’s latest was perceived by some as a comparative letdown by a major director, but the perception perhaps said more about the onlooker than the object. Kiarostami’s new world-wandering project landed in Japan and created this superficially delicate, surprisingly concentrated tragicomedy about roles played in youth and old age. It recalled Paul Desmond’s album titled after the same song standard, as both are lounge jazz opuses stripped down to the most elemental, expressive, romantic, and mournful notes.
Man of Steel (Zack Snyder)
It took a second viewing for me to properly appreciate what Zack Snyder had managed with his revisionist Superman epic. With the Marvel franchise this year offering films barely holding together on any level and revealing that the Marvel world has nowhere to go, Snyder’s film looked and felt brave and grand; even with the excess of its battle scenes and weaker aspects, it still seems like the closest thing the superhero craze has thrown up to a classic since Hellboy II, a big, bristling, good-looking, surprisingly serious brand of fantastic film that went far beyond spotty fan service to provoke as well as please its audience.
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
About as far from Man of Steel as it’s possible to get in the same medium, Museum Hours is an almost indescribably original oddity, combining essayistic filmmaking, documentary, and gentle drama. Its portrait of a Canadian in Vienna making friends with a gay, middle-aged ex-rocker turned museum security guard almost completely rewrote the rules of how a narrative film can work, and did so with the simplest and most modest of methods. It’s an odd film that counts an art history lecture as an action climax.
Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro)
The other top-of-the-line blockbuster of the year. Although it was a heavy flop in the U.S., there’s something salutary in the fact that this film was an enormous international success, especially in China, with its globalised heroics and roots in an alternative stem of modern pop culture based in Asian fantasies. In any event, it was cool, it was colourful, it had the year’s best heroine (sorry Katniss), and in the year of Ray Harryhausen’s death, it provided ample evidence that his legacy lives on in popular cinema.
Passion (Brian De Palma)
Brian De Palma’s latest comeback special was uneven in tethering his narrative and camera gymnastics to a remake, but damn if it wasn’t still De Palma, still making films that glow like neon and cut like surgical steel.
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
Asghar Farhadi’s latest wasn’t entirely up to the standard of its predecessor, but it’s still good enough to make most films in the same vein of domestic realism look shrink-wrapped, offering an emotional range in regarding the modern family that spanned from wry amusement to desolation.
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
Malick’s follow-up to an enormously critically acclaimed film failed to ignite the same blazing admiration and indeed perhaps suffered from a backlash against his style, usually given a lot of time to dispel between the director’s releases. But for me, this was a dynamic, deeply pleasurable and stirring attempt by Malick to wrestle with something he’d avoided until now—a detailed, fleshy, true-feeling adult romance—in the context of his most modern and most overtly religious narrative. Although always a shooter of great pictures, few of Malick’s images have felt so genuinely immediate and human as several found in this one, like Rachel McAdams holding out her rope-bound hands to her lover, counterpointed in Malick’s editing with her forlorn and floundering emotional squall in facing rejection and her stoic resignation in getting on with life, giving three points of behaviour within seconds in a coherent, economic, and powerful manner. Many directors can cut quickly; few can create a little world with such brevity.
Would Have Been on This List If I’d Seen It In Time (progressively updated):
Bastards (Claire Denis)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
Significant Blind Spots
A Touch of Sin / Anchorman: The Legend Continues / As I Lay Dying / The Book Thief / Carrie / Don Jon / Elysium / Europa Report / The Fifth Estate / Frances Ha / Fruitvale Station / Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom / Out of the Furnace / Saving Mr. Banks / The Spectacular Now / The Unspeakable Act / The Way, Way Back
A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm)
All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Byzantium (Neil Jordan)
Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)
Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)
Mud (Jeff Nichols)
No (Pablo Larrain)
Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi)
Flawed but Appreciated
American Hustle (David O. Russell)
Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
Concussion (Stacie Passon)
The East (Zal Batmanglij)
A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
Furious 6 (Justin Lin)
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola)
Jack the Giant Slayer (Bryan Singer)
Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)
Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski)
Resolution (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
Rush (Ron Howard)
Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams)
The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
Disappointing and/or Overrated
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow)
The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Stoker (Chan-Wook Park)
Trance (Danny Boyle)
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
42 (Brian Helgeland)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
Lone Survivor (Peter Berg)
Lovelace (Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman)
Runner Runner (Brad Furman)
Welcome to the Punch (Eran Creevy)
World War Z (Marc Forster)
My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2013
And Soon the Darkness/Wuthering Heights (Robert Fuest)
Apache Drums (Hugo Fregonese)
Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda)
Caged (John Cromwell)
Cuba (Richard Lester)
Decoy (Jack Bernhard)
Django/The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)
Electra (Michael Cacoyannis)
The Face Behind the Mask (Robert Florey)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Shunya Itō)
Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog)
Fixed Bayonets (Sam Fuller)
Five Miles to Midnight (Anatole Litvak)
Hell Is for Heroes (Don Siegel)
It Happened Here (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo)
Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland)
The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper)
The Magician (Ingmar Bergman)
One Wonderful Sunday/Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa)
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray)
Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark)
Pink Flamingos (John Waters)
Raw Deal (Anthony Mann)
Rock All Night (Roger Corman)
The Tall T (Budd Boetticher)
That Cold Day in the Park/Brewster McCloud/California Split/Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson/Fool for Love (Robert Altman)
The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang)
Town without Pity (Gottfried Reinhardt)
Two Rode Together/Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford)
Vanishing Point (Richard C. Sarafian)
Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff)
The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava)
White Sun of the Desert (Vladimir Motyl)
Wings (William A. Wellman)
Witchcraft (Don Sharp)
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By Roderick Heath
Wait, let me get the familiar motifs of my yearly confession out of the road. Many films overrated, blah blah. Many good films vilified, blah blah. Bloody distributors, blah blah. Okay. Let’s go.
Several critics this year took the time and effort to declare this the year cinema died. This suggested, in part, a symptom of solipsism, as what’s much closer to the truth is that film criticism as a tenured profession with major newspapers and magazines is fading, if not dying. So it’s tempting to do as the Vikings do and burn the ship along with the corpse of the fallen warrior. The proposition that because more people watch certain TV shows than certain well-reviewed, but aesthetically difficult films and that, therefore, the art form is dying, could well have been clipped verbatim from a newspaper column in 1962. Granted, film is going through an upheaval at the moment in terms of the nature of the medium itself and the kinds of audience it can draw out of their homes. Like every other art form and entertainment at the moment that isn’t Xbox or You Tube, it has to fight for its survival and status.
From a personal perspective, 2012 did not prove a repeat of 2011, a vintage year for cinema. It seems like I spent most of this year waiting—waiting for good movies. I beat my own record for viewings of films released in the calendar year, which entailed increasing the amount of mediocrity and missed opportunities I willingly exposed myself to. Of course, several of this year’s most “important” films have been held back until the very last moment, or have received such listless distribution (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master‘s cursory Australian release), that I find myself genuinely bereft for not being able to comment here on several (but the lists are updated as time progresses). Only sheer luck and a helping hand allowed me to catch a couple more that grace my lists below.
I had hoped this year I might be able to curb my contrarian tendencies a little, but I instead find them stronger than ever. A lot of highly regarded films left me frigid if not bored, many quality works carried a distinct and quietly disturbing aspect of déjà vu or ambition without the strange heat of real creativity, and several of the handful of films I felt any true affection for have been treated with outright contempt by the cultural apparatchiks. There were many films I anticipated watching enthusiastically, perhaps too much so, like Holy Motors, The Deep Blue Sea, and Oslo, 31 August, where I admired them and saw their specific beauty, and yet in the end felt something lacking; perhaps it was the lack of true penetration of the inner life of the dramatic protagonists or, in the case of the occasionally very brilliant Holy Motors, a final sense of the often strained conceptual stunt truly adding up.
After watching the diptych of Australian-directed, American-set gangland dramas, Killing Them Softly and Lawless, I became afflicted by the knowledge that I’ve been watching the same scuzzball crime flick in variations since about 1990, a blend of detailed criminal argot, showy grit, method-inflected overacting, and gunshots to the head. This sensation sharpened to a point where both films proved to have one particular moment in common, a thug getting pissed off and delivering an even worse beating when the victim has the temerity to get bodily fluids on the thug’s clothes. Many films with potential seemed to lack that extra inspiration to break themselves out of the ruts of Good Little Movie or Nice Try, to whit Liza Johnson’s Return or Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister. It was sad and frustrating to watch a film brimming over with unruly life like Bachelorette take refuge in the cosy clichés of the chick flick brand it seemed to be attacking.
Others, like Rian Johnson’s Looper and Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, tried on the other hand to be a bit too clever, failing to juggle all of the many balls they threw in the air. Looper also exemplified a breed that includes films like Sleepless Night, The Grey, and Haywire in setting up magnificently and failing to bring it all home. 2012 was overloaded with self-serious action films and spectacles with pretensions to substance, films like Looper, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Cloud Atlas, The Grey, Chronicle, The Hunger Games, Haywire, and The Bourne Legacy. These often received glowing reviews and filmgoer enthusiasm, and some of them were genuinely good films. But there must be something wrong with me: most of these felt half-baked, failing to measure up to what a good craftsman, like Joseph H. Lewis, Andre De Toth, or Richard Thorpe, could invest in a pulp narrative 60 years ago. Skyfall was a case in point, sporting a great and intelligent core idea: to walk James Bond back through his half-mythical past only to bring him to a new beginning. But the idea was squandered through a listless and derivative story that finally left the film exposed, stripped of the pop-art exuberance that made the series interesting in the first place. By comparison, I found myself responding far more to the buoyant inanity in films like The Avengers, Wrath of the Titans, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, films that do not try for a second to fake meaning. And there are few words fit for polite company I can think of to address those critics who have put the marvellous John Carter on their worst-of-year lists.
Yet, after all this, cinematic excellence still accumulated, like the gentle rain from heaven, as a better writer than I said about something completely different. In films of 2012, characters seem splintered off from the bulk of humanity like rubble flung off from some great collision. And indeed that’s how many people at large feel—I know I do. Look at the protagonists of films like Cosmopolis and Holy Motors, contained by their universe-unto-themselves limousines, travelling the cityscapes in search of a moment of transcendent creation/destruction, their immediate psychic and physical reality redesignated as an extended piece of performance art. Their bond with the actor-therapist heroes of Alps was inescapable: the Alps troupe filled in as simulacrums of the dead, as their own existences become voids to be fled no matter how painful the consequences. The wandering nonhero of The Day He Arrives, a film director entrapped by those long, improvised takes known as life, was surrounded by doppelgangers and numbing repetitions, elliptical events, and hazy, half-remembered epiphanies. The aged, haggard, aching characters share a dolorous existence in contemporary Portugal in Tabu, and the revelation of a past finds an exotic netherworld where melodramatic passion flared and died and led them to this end, the former colonial tended to a bitter grave by the former colonised. The alienated protagonists of the great diptych of unabashed horror films released early in the year, The Innkeepers and Kill List, were driven to distraction and despair by looming financial crisis and finding avatars for their own folly in the strange id-emanations that torment them. The ragged and bloodied survivors of The Grey fended off armies of wolves and the perishing cold, poised as onanistic avatars for the reality of trying to retain masculine self-respect in modern working-class life. The intergalactic swashbucklers of The Avengers had one of the most amusing and telling single shots of the year’s cinema, coming after the end credits of their own movie and added like a little supernal signature flourish by mastermind Joss Whedon, showing them exhaustedly and silently chewing over ethnic cuisine: saving the world is just another shit job.
Speaking of shit jobs, the victims and abusers of Compliance swam in the same reeking, overused frying fat. The physically broken and fiscally pummelled lovers of Rust and Bone hung off the edges of their society with what was left of their bodies and wits. The aging, exhausted cops trudging around the wastelands of rural Turkey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia were haunted by the broken idols of the past and the accusing eyes of the living. The readily brutal heroes of Sleepless Night, The Grey, Kill List, Haywire, and Savages fought tooth and nail to keep their narrow foothold in the prosperous human community above chasms of existential fear. Hell, even the dwarfish band of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were looking for a way to get their home back off the dragon/finance company. Miss Bala’s titular wannabe beauty queen attempts to use her looks and body to escape poverty and gains her prize through the most ironically horrifying of entrapping nightmares, her body turned into a far more immediate commodity, peeling off the skin of her society and discovering the chaos and hypocrisy beneath.
Damsels in Distress
Batman found himself the thin black line between pseudo-revolution and toothless authoritarianism in The Dark Knight Rises, the richest vigilante in town engaged in a tango of toey flirtation with the most supine of criminals and recovering from having a back snapped by the most uppity of plebeian radicals. The übermensch antihero of Cosmopolis could be a distant relative of Bruce Wayne’s but without the altruistic delusions, glimpsed at one point splayed on all fours whilst receiving a rectal examination, gilded by sweat, and flirting with an employee. Later he casually shoots his bodyguard and revisits his childhood in a seeming quest to pull apart the fibres of his life one by one, before eagerly finding his opposite in life in Paul Giamatti’s pathetic assassin, luckless agent of a devoutly wished extinction. Even in the gentler parts of town, eccentrics had to fight to claim their space and right to exist. The protean boy and girl of Moonlight Kingdom, the collegiate, depressive do-gooders of Damsels in Distress, the Norwegian teens of Turn Me On, Dammit!, the bizarre family of Dark Shadows: all looked for redemption in love and fellowship, but still always faced the oncoming day when anomie would turn to crisis.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
Heroes exhumed from classical texts and history for this year’s films seemed to share this outsider-looking-in quality: the hopped-up holy anarchists of On The Road, rushing at a hundred miles per nowhere, were the characters in Moonlight Kingdom a few years older and a bit more damaged. The final day in the life of the protagonist of Oslo, 31 August, wandering the city disgusted with his failures and himself. Anna Karenina’s eponymous heroine alternating between stage and audience in wrestling between her moral and sensual sides. The princess of Snow White and the Huntsman, the living lodestone for a natural order degraded and exiled by a grotesque caricature of celebrity culture. Even Abraham Lincoln, in Steven Spielberg’s crucial film, attempts to leaven a great good at the price of surveying the wasteland his efforts wreaked, a sense of the moral cost of even supposedly moral struggle accounted for by corpse-strewn battlefields, blazing cities, and piles of rudely amputated limbs—and that’s to say nothing of his vampire-hunting sideline.
Oslo, 31 August
But for many, the unceasing battery of a world gone wrong gave way to moments of grace and epiphany: even the doomed hero Anders of Oslo, 31 August found fleeting moments of joy and beauty in his odyssey, even if he remained as repelled as he was compelled by things from which he felt himself eternally severed. He represented a striking inversion of last year’s number of peacefully conceding heroes, unable to escape a downward spiral that finally announced the rupturing of logic in the jarring cessation of a beautiful piano tune. Anna Karenina’s similar self-induced end came at the end of a life lived as a headlong rush of pleasure and pain. The triumph of the last seconds of Alps finally sees life and performance converge in a moment of perfection. Eruptive celebration momentarily breaks the mood of oppressively weighty and corrosive choices in Lincoln. There was surreal beauty in Rust and Bone, as Marion Cotillard’s character went from broken remnant to the carnal ferocity of her self-induced reinvention as a tattooed, hard-rutting fight promoter.
Declaration of War
And everywhere were fragments of insane beauty—images, images, images, the soul of cinema, laced with the muscle of sound, and sculpted by the edit. The ecstatic abandon of On the Road’s uncouth scallywags, their momentous dawns and fraying nocturnal revels. The dawn-light epiphany of Levin in Anna Karenina and the obscene beauty of Anna’s death, the thunder of the horses riding through the theatre and the abandon in her dance floor surrender to physical ardour. The swooning drug-dreams and hideous violence of Savages. The raging protest outside the limousine whilst within savants converse about how the external chaos is governed by mathematical certainties and inevitable defeat. The cross-edited visions of the equally phony Victoria Winters and Alice Cooper in straightjackets in a lucid game of accusation and anger essayed in playful pop cultural terms in Dark Shadows. The insane smile of Angelique Bouchard in the same film, still planted on her face even as she plucks out her heart and hands it over to the man who disdains her amour fou and collapses from within, revealing the lacquered mannequin her obsessiveness made of her. The teeming magnificence of the alien cities and the gorgeous desolation of Mars in John Carter, captured and contained in the redemptive lustre of Dejah Thoris’ sea-blue eyes. The awesome one-shot survey in The Avengers of the team in action that crossed the breadth of the city. The dawn-light swim of Oslo, 31 August where Anders watches his young and pretty companions with the descending pall of a man with no sense of the future. Cotillard saluting the whale that crippled her and the mammal gesturing back in Rust and Bone, and Matthias Schoenaerts punching the ice over his drowning son with raw, injurious desperation. The perplexingly magnificent dread landscapes of Tartarus and the Labyrinth in Wrath of the Titans. The sight of the duelling hero and villain of The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate being sucked up into a hurricane to continue their battle whirling in the eye of the storm. Valérie Donzelli’s distraught run through the hospital in Declaration of War.
The ecstatic thunder of the accordion band in Holy Motors’ entr’acte and the mystique of Edith Scob donning her Eyes Without a Face mask. In Tabu, the black-and-white, soundless sex scene that ruptures the film’s air of physically manifest decay and remoteness, the prayer shot through with rapturous poetry that punctuates the stolid modern pieties of a protest march, and the idiot enthusiasm of the frontier pop band. The egglike, bloodied remnant of the once-smug physiognomy of Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, touched by the grace of his wife’s forgiveness. The perpetual motion machine that is the hero of Sleepless Night eluding his pursuers by diving into a cotillion of clubbers grooving to Queen, enacting a primal drama against a backdrop of entitled hedonism. The racing intercut stories of Cloud Atlas, that incredible, pounding cyberpunk chase of the futuristic lovers, and the beatific suicide ritual of the young composer. The stone idol, carved by a forgotten society in the midst of a wilderness illuminated by lightning to shock a man into sudden awareness of his mortality, in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the hovering, mysterious, marvel-provoking beauty of the peasant girl who astounds the tired, dessicated menfolk. The lost beatitude of romantic haven in the sight of Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in tipsy ebullience before the inevitable fall in The Deep Blue Sea, and the communal nostalgia dream of the sing-along in the tube station. The sinking ship and springing whale of Life of Pi, twinned moments of gleaming leviathans depicting the folly of humankind and the power of nature. The characters of The Day He Arrives shivering in a snowy, slushy dawn after a night of revels, departing to their separate, lonely abodes.
That moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Bilbo stands in his house, suddenly bereft, before his charge to join his new friends in an adventure; the swashbuckling charge of the dwarves through the kingdom of the goblins; and the gang’s dangling cliffhanger peril, saved by a feathered deus ex machina. The dazzling, terrible whirlwinds of violence that Miss Bala has to charge through repeatedly, and the strange semi-rape that sees her awkwardly trying to mount an injured, saurian beast of a drug lord who is both her protector and tormentor. The dark god’s hand erupting from the earth as the apocalyptic punchline of The Cabin In the Woods’ jokey generic play, after a menagerie of horror cinema’s icons have been released to commit gorgeous carnage. The liberated teens spinning high in the sky in Chronicle. In Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and his black housekeeper/lover reading the 13th Amendment in bed together in celebration of a future made possible; the blazing buildings of Confederate cities; the arcane melodrama that evokes Manichaeistic struggle just before a titan’s death is announced to his son. The dying Goody of Vamps standing amidst Times Square, aging by the second even as she passes through a rapturous peeling back of the years and transformations of the beloved space to its once-quaint, cobbled self. The rage of the killer paterfamilias in Kill List, stoked to a world-melting heat by obscenity revealed, pounding in a paedophile’s head with a hammer, only to later be chased through stygian woods and hellish tunnels by masked demons determined to implicate him in the reckoning he thinks he can buy off with too-late righteousness.
Cinema is dead, my arse!
I don’t know if I saw a better-acted film this year than The Day He Arrives, purely by dint of the fact that the human behaviour it depicted seemed to flow with the happenstance energy and gestural concision of real life. This quality of extreme, almost invisible naturalism was shared by the cast of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, who all seemed to have been born in the clothes they wear and in the space they inhabit. But, of course, that’s not the only standard for great acting, which can also be the alchemical art of display that sometimes risks excess for the sake of finding something more finite and compelling. In that regard, one of the year’s most inevitably well-regarded acting efforts, Daniel Day-Lewis’ incarnation of Abraham Lincoln, was a surprising pirouette for the actor who had delivered two of the last decade’s greatest performances in a grandiose key (Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview): Day-Lewis offered not just the eloquence and folksiness of Honest Abe but also the shrewd lawyer, dry, bordering on parched, struggling against a subtly conveyed terror to hold together the remnants of his family and self-respect even in the throes of being transformed into an icon by his final successes, even reduced at one point to glaring out of the shadows of a window bay with baleful anger and sorrow at his accusatory wife. The incredible roster of support Day-Lewis has in Spielberg’s film emerged as a Dickensian roster of precisely illuminated, ever-so-slightly magnified portraiture, including Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, brittle and intelligent and tragic in her self-crucifying anxiety, Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, the most unprepossessing of ideologues revealed as a brutally witty moral swashbuckler, Gloria Reuben’s careful, but crucial, small part, and David Strathairn’s dusty, crafty William Seward. Michael Stuhlbarg, who helped fill out Lincoln’s cast with a memorably John Ford-esque, timorous congressman, also contributed the only performance in Sacha Gervasi’s lamentable rubbish Hitchcock, as crafty agent extraordinaire Lew Wassermann, that didn’t look like a mobile waxwork exhibit.
Well, all right, Scarlett Johansson made for a tolerably perky Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, too. She also continued her recent run of films suggesting she’s finally growing into the movie star zone into which she was thrust prematurely after Lost in Translation (2003) with her contribution to one fairly popular film this year, which sported a generally marvellous collection of character turns by actors playing emotionally crippled, physically misshapen, neurotically talkative misfits engaged in group dysfunction and rampant physical comedy. Wait, was The Avengers a Woody Allen film and nobody told me? I always grudgingly enjoy being forced to change my mind about an actor, and one I had dismissed as an asinine pretty boy quite genuinely impressed me with his gall this year in a diptych of roles: Robert Pattinson’s performances in Bel-Ami and Cosmopolis were received with disparate levels of interest and recognition, but in both, he cleverly played off his signature role as a beautiful bloodsucker, as the former film allowed him to play a conflicted and frightened man lusted after and idealised by the women around him in a fashion usually reserved for the opposite situation, and the latter let him play a smarmy billionaire driven by forces within to try to smash apart his own pharaohic hegemony as part of a masochistic experiment in system decay. In both films, Pattinson was nimble enough to depict the turmoil, even foolishness, under the surface of superficially purposeful cads. His Twilight costar, Kristen Stewart, weathered storms of scandal and popular opprobrium to expand her increasingly impressive resume with a lead performance in Snow White and the Huntsman that was sturdy and restrained until it finally bloomed in butch glory. Charlize Theron was splendidly arch playing Stewart’s wicked queen enemy. Stewart was also an affecting addition to the vigorous cast of On the Road as the blazing-eyed, jailbait bohemian Marylou. But the film properly belonged to Sam Riley, all doe-eyed naivete mismatched to a prematurely lived-in voice, and Garret Hedlund, the garrulous, but shark-eyed rough trade byproduct of a juvie hall education in a rougher, bleaker, but paradoxically freer America.
Denis Lavant was the glue that held the fractured pieces of Holy Motors together, at once a study of acting itself whilst sustaining a coherent characterisation of an actor as a character: it was impossible, of course, to miss Lavant’s physical dynamism and chameleonic talents, because the film was about those very talents so long in need of a vehicle, and the result was very much an exploration of the traditional symbiosis of filmmaking talent behind and in front of the camera. Kylie Minogue’s beguiling cameo and song likewise buoyed the film’s flagging second half like a visitation from another, classier planet. Aggeliki Poupolia led the cast of Alps, equally multitudinous, except, of course, where Lavant was playing the epitome of acting talent, the Alps team were the opposite, deliberately awful actors filling in for real people: as in Dogtooth (2009), but essayed in a subtler fashion, Poupolia’s genius at slow burns arriving at incendiary climaxes shook continents with its force. Amongst the manifold offhand pleasures of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, with the customary Johnny Depp grotesque front and centre, the real battle for acting honours fell to Michelle Pfeiffer as haughty matriarch and Eva Green playing her cabalistic minx as an undead Joan Crawford heroine. Green shifted to completely different register of soulful resignation opposite Ewan McGregor in David Mackenzie’s odd but occasionally striking parable Perfect Sense. Jennifer Lawrence underplayed her lead role in a film that made her exponentially more famous, The Hunger Games, to an extent that inspired some internet mockery, but it was a performance consistent with her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone (2010) in trying to embody a heroine given to simply accepting the evil inherent in any situation and proceeding for the sake of survival.
Greta Gerwig’s star turn in Damsels in Distress was very much the key to the film’s seemingly insufferably arch, blithely self-impressed façade, cleverly shading into modes of honest pain, sly self-critique, and finally, pure goofy charm. Brit Marling might have committed the ultimate actress-writer faux pas in having someone else in the film she wrote describe her as beautiful, and yet her capacity to animate her character in Sound of My Voice as both radiant and yet, with suggestions of serpentine evil constantly lurking behind an ambiguous smile, was the work of someone who knows her stuff, and Christopher Denham was as impressive opposite her as he was wasted in Argo. Anne Hathaway may well get herself an Oscar this year for Les Misérables, but the role most people saw her in this year was, of course, Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, a ringer who successfully kept the ball in play with sufficient insouciant wit and poise to make up for the turgid, incoherent pseudo-epic around her. Her costar and rival for the listless affections of Bruce Wayne was Marion Cotillard, wasted in her second Christopher Nolan film. But Cotillard’s superlative performance alongside the equally impressive Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone was her artistic compensation, and much more than just the mischievously clever CGI that made her look like a double amputee: rage and grief and erotic force have rarely been presented together and with such force, especially without a trace of actorly showboating. Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina was, on the other hand, showboating with careful and compelling modulation, playing a self-dramatist for whom everything is, on some level, a theatrical gesture. Her befuddled, tortured husband was played with career-best pathos by Jude Law, who turns his fading matinee idol looks into an aesthetic weapon.
Another star who, like Law, emerged in the late ’90s and whose career had seemed to be slowing, had a suddenly incandescent year: everyone’s talked about the second coming of Matthew McConaughey, and I can’t really argue with it, though I wish it had been in better films. The best of the bunch was William Friedkin’s broad and excessively theatrical, but impressively seedy Killer Joe, which, of course, culminated in his forcing Gina Gershon to fellate a chicken drumstick, one of the most memorable single moments of 2012: Gershon’s own feral force, finally tamed by the cruellest of methods, was equally impressive. In Magic Mike, McConaughey provided the meaty, muscly, wolfish smarm to offset Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer’s well-exploited physiques and pleasant lack of acting talent. Bruce Willis, still an unflappably laid-back presence, was affecting as the dopey, but affectionate sheriff in Moonrise Kingdom, and sported an amazing manga hairdo for a couple of minutes in Looper. His confrontation with a weirdly convincing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his youthful alter ego in Looper saw two generations of male movie stars share a diner breakfast in by far the best moment in the film, presenting the amusing conceit of the older and younger versions of the same violent dipshit in different phases of self-deception. Emily Blunt, who backed them up, was the year’s most accommodating female movie star, handling thankless roles with class, including being surprisingly convincing as the besotted third wheel in Your Sister’s Sister, opposite Rosemarie DeWitt, who was, in turn, the only thing worthwhile about Promised Land. Their male costar in Sister, Mark Duplass, was also in Safety Not Guaranteed, playing exactly the same character in each, a slightly more lunky, blue-collar version of the smart, loquacious, but fragile boy-men so popular in modern comedy. Two films provided more than enough of that, so, of course, now he’ll be in everything.
Indie veteran Ann Dowd was the engine of Compliance, communicating middle-aged anxiety and quiescent vindictiveness without entirely losing her façade of amiable managerial politeness; full marks as well to her costar Dreama Walker for playing the year’s most hapless character. Pat Healy, as the villain of the piece, ably sustained the necessary, slippery, verbal wit and also appeared, completely unrecognisable, as the feckless coworker of Sara Paxton’s assailed, flaky hero/victim, one of the year’s most underappreciated lead turns, in The Innkeepers. Similarly strong in a low-key, quietly engaging indie film was Linda Cardellini in Return as a returned servicewoman beset by alienation and unable to live in the present; Michael Shannon and John Slattery gave her good support. Stephanie Sigman as the human ping-pong ball who temporarily becomes Miss Bala was a study in sustained terror, with gifts of bravery and loyalty occasionally showing through an otherwise wisely maintained mantle of acquiescence. At the other end of the scale, Cloud Atlas was hurt almost irreparably by its excruciating conceit of using its actors in recurring roles, with Tom Hanks delivering two or three of the worst performances of his career. But Jim Broadbent held his own in two segments, particularly in a peerless comedic turn as the editor stranded in an old folks’ home by his brother’s conniving. Doona Bae managed to imbue her part as a sagacious clone with sensuality and suggestions of spiritual grace that transcended the compilation of stereotypes and clunky axioms she represented. Ben Whishaw’s perpetual air of spidery intelligence likewise buoyed the film, as did his brief appearance in Skyfall as a Q for the new millennium. Noomi Rapace was intelligent and gutsy in Prometheus alongside the impressive, but extremely ill-utilised Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba, providing, in that immortally queasy robotic abortion scene, the only real reason to watch that unholy mess of a movie. Although they did not say a word, Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta as the doomed lovers in the flashback sequences of Tabu, proved you don’t always need dialogue to deliver hypnotic performances, and Teresa Madruga as the saintly but solitary Pilar was the soul of the film’s first half.
I know that Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale were very good in The Deep Blue Sea; in fact, it was impossible to miss, as if heavyweight dramatic acting had been included as an event in this year’s London Olympics. Come on, Rachel, one more sobbing moan for Britain. By contrast, Anders Danielson Lie’s excellence in Oslo, 31 August was predicated on a difficult part, as his namesake character only occasionally emerged from his position as melancholy observer to reveal his anger and despair, as well as self-mortifying impulses. Eddie Redmayne, also getting good notices for Les Misérables, offered a startling performance cast against type as a sociopath slowly but inevitably giving in to his worst impulses in weird and uneven Hick, which also featured another of Chloë Grace Moretz’s protean turns as the teenaged heroine who finally and fatally could not get out of his clutches. Blake Lively backed them up and also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages, cumulatively making a case for herself as a bonafide actress playing characters easy to dismiss as airheaded parasites who prove to have hidden depths and reefs. Amidst the wobbly satire and shenanigans of the chicks-behaving-badly epic Bachelorette, the key threesome of Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and particularly, Isla Fisher were game in inducing hilarity, empathy, and convulsive vomiting. In a similar vein, Alicia Silverstone was smart and endearing as the vampire long past pop culture expiry date fed up with playing the modern game of feigning eternal youth in Vamps. I dare say more people feel sympathy with her character’s plight than are willing to let on.
Favourite Films of 2012
Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Alps feels, at first glance, too much like another entry from the now familiar school of mordant Greek absurdist cinema exemplified by Lanthimos’ first film, Dogtooth, and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011). Like those films, it’s a through-a-glass-darkly portrait of socially normative behaviour studied like an alien scientist watching humanity through a telescope held the wrong way around. But it holds together with greater integrity as both a story—though still infused with jolts of surrealism and enigma—and as a personal odyssey for its disintegrating heroine’s efforts to slot herself into other people’s realities. In other words, a distinctive filmmaker retaining his distinction whilst visibly and intelligibly evolving.
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
Joe Wright’s second appearance in two years on my list confirms me as a resolute Wright fanboy, I suppose, but Wright seems to me to speak in a cinematic language once fairly commonplace but now almost freakish—poised, yet expressive; smart, but emotional; showy and semi-experimental, but rooted in a passion for the material and a desire to engage the audience. Few others directors on the scene seem able or willing to be as formally animated and innovative without being precious to the point of irritation. The result shakes up a moribund subgenre, but also realises the inherent beauty and brilliance of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg continues on his recent roll, recasting Don DeLillo’s admired novel as his late-career critique of his very first movie, Shivers (1975), substituting the immobile trap of an apartment building for a self-sufficient limousine, and humans threatened not by parasites, but humans turning into parasites, feeding off larger, incorporeal organisms. Eric Packer, well-played by a cleverly exploited Robert Pattinson, is the wizard of high finance who’s conquered his piece of the world, but, now bored, does not so much give himself up to fate or primal experience as conduct another of his studies in systems, being this time the dynamics of disintegration, observing and even creating his own downfall with the same bewildered, semi-human fascination.
Dark Shadows (Tim Burton)
A delicious, if uneven emporium of droll absurdity from Burton, Dark Shadows did not escape the stored-up disdain for some of Burton’s profitable, but weaker recent efforts. Nonetheless, this was one of the year’s liveliest mainstream releases, a blend of retro psychedelia and good-natured satire at once deeply acerbic and perversely earnest in its investigation of retro obsessions, familial bonds and maladies, post-’60s liberation, and the joys of hate-sex on the ceiling. (See also Amy Heckerling’s delightfully screwball, accidental companion piece, Vamps.)
The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong)
Some people complain that Sang-soo Hong makes the same movie over and over again, and that could well be true, but so do a lot of other directors, and very few with the same beguiling mixture of formal artistry and improvised elan. Hong digs so cleverly and yet subtly into the more melancholy aspects of modern life with its stripped illusions, trashed niceties, and collapsed hierarchies.
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark)
Less beautiful and controlled than Hark’s comeback film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), this follow-up nonetheless saw Hark perhaps surpass it by going totally for broke, in a breakneck ride of multiple factions, heroes and villains, deceptions, double-crosses, sand-dancing battles, and sky-riding duels. Result: Hark proves he still has a capacity to make even close Hollywood avatars like The Avengers look nearly anaemic by comparison.
The Innkeepers (Ti West)
Ti West’s bare-boned, classical horror aesthetic builds on the intoxicating minimalism of The House of the Devil (2009) for a slightly more traditional, but no less sustained tale of factotum depression shading into supernatural terror.
John Carter (Andrew Stanton)
This year’s Sucker Punch (2011), with a twist: whereas Zack Snyder’s film from last year was flagrantly postmodern and cool in its take on CGI spectacle, John Carter is a reinvention of the yarn-spinner’s wheel, resolutely traditional cowboys vs. aliens stuff realised with more class, visual spectacle, and actual entertainment value than 50 dark knights rising. The big multiplex screens were bathed in all the lush, absurd splendour of turn-of-the-century scientification; just a pity so few people were sitting in the audience to see it. (See also another critically underrated spectacle, although likely in the end to be a far bigger popular success, Peter Jackson’s simultaneously grand and mischievous The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
A restless, unsettling, mercilessly potent vision of contemporary angst, be it financial, military, or familial, churning the uneasy mindset of the millennium’s first decade into a great British horror film. Images as stark and appalling as any in classic genre cinema rub against a hazy, paranoid parable for the cost of maintaining a prosperous western lifestyle, whilst everywhere, demons wait.
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Lest things get too grim in a time in which the political venality on display across the world will echo in infamy for decades, Lincoln reminds us of the potential nobility of the human condition, as manifest both in leaders reputed, like the title character, and in the lesser, or merely less-remembered, mortals around him. The way politics is an accumulation of, rather than a force upon, individual feeling and perspective has rarely been described with such ardour and intensity, nor stuffed historical countenances reanimated with such relish for the expressivity of words and the concise power of images. (See also Timur Bekmembetov’s trash-mash edition of the same tale.)
On the Road (Walter Salles)
Cruelly but not surprisingly received with dismissal by many critics, this is youth culture mythology’s bleary awakening and its night-after hangover and self-critique. Walter Salles’ film of the Beat bible strips the material of legend and finds human foible, failings, and hope still rudely alive. It’s a film for people who both fondly regard the novel, but also hold it in perspective, and for people who know that life often requires looking disaster dead in the eye and then looking past it.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
What was perhaps most impressive about this work by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the way in which it manages to bridge several different kinds of movie-making without apparent effort or violating its quiet, ambling, deceptively deadpan façade. It’s an historical rumination. It’s as realistic a portrait of police and policing as you’re ever likely to see. It contains fragments of magic realism and eerie, almost expressionistic beauty and dread. It’s an oft-hilarious situation comedy. It’s a desolating study in time, age, and fate.
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)
Jacques Audiard has a cunning capacity to make far-out melodrama tropes and weird afflictions for his characters work in deceptively realistic, everyday contexts, which makes him often seem like the last of the great Victorian Naturalist novelists, the Zola of the banlieus. In part a nongenre remake of his romantic thriller Read My Lips (2001) as a raw, modern epic of sex and money, with damaged souls rendered literal in limited and injured bodies, Rust and Bone swerves a couple of times too many, but its boldness and vivacity linger large.
Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
Tabu also directly contrasts the pettiness of modern life and the way age reduces everyone to less than they truly are with the outsized passion of yesterday’s youthful folly, with everyday depressive longing segueing into period melodrama, but with a constant, morally serious eye on the shifting vicissitudes of history and personal nature. Gomes’ masterful formal conceits constantly evoke another phase in cinema and life—black-and-white photography and a long, semi-silent segment—and yet avoids any hint of self-satisfied stunt.
Would Be on This List If I’d Seen It in Time
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
Frankenweenie (Tim Burton)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson)
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo)
Oslo, 31 August (Joachim Trier)
Savages (Oliver Stone)
Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin)
Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders)
Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij)
Vamps (Amy Heckerling)
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmembetov)
Bel-Ami (Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod)
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
Cloud Atlas (Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer)
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Declaration of War (Valérie Donzelli)
Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Return (Liza Johnson)
Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)
The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb)
Argo (Ben Affleck)
The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy)
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
The Grey (Joe Carnahan)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Lore (Cate Shortland)
Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve)
Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi)
Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
Lawless (John Hillcoat)
Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)
Significant Blind Spots
Almayer’s Folly, Amour, Bernie, Detachment, Keep the Lights On, The Loneliest Planet, Monsieur Lazhar, Seven Psychopaths, Sister, Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse
My Year of Retro Wonders: Great Older Films I Saw First in 2012
All The King’s Men (Robert Rossen)
A Bell for Adano (Henry King)
Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur)
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
Countdown (Robert Altman)
The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kolatozov)
Dark Waters (Andre de Toth)
The Day the World Ended / Not of This Earth (Roger Corman)
Die Nibelungen / The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
The Earth Dies Screaming / Revenge of Frankenstein / Frankenstein Created Woman / Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher)
Elevator to the Scaffold / Viva Maria! (Louis Malle)
Farewell to the King (John Milius)
Faust / Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau)
Flowers of Shanghai (Hsiao-hsien Hou)
Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Gilda (Charles Vidor)
Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding)
Hercules in the Haunted World / I Tre Volti Della Paura / Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava)
Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack)
Judex (Georges Franju)
The Knack…and How to Get It / Royal Flash / Robin and Marian (Richard Lester)
La Frissons du Vampires / Les Démoniaques (Jean Rollin)
Laura (Otto Preminger)
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner / The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz)
The Looking Glass War (Frank R. Pierson)
Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey)
Mountains of the Moon (Bob Rafelson)
Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)
No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer)
The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöstrom)
The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson)
Phantom of the Paradise / Obsession / Blow Out / Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma)
Sorcerer / Cruising (William Friedkin)
The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed)
Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto)
Tattooed Life / Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki)
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk)
Torment (Alf Sjöberg)
Track of the Cat / Blood Alley (William A. Wellman)
When a Woman Ascends a Staircase (Mikio Naruse)
Young and Innocent / Under Capricorn / Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock)
Young Mr. Lincoln / Three Godfathers (John Ford)
Zatoichi Monogatari (Kenji Misumi)
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By Roderick Heath
“We’re going to need more holy water!” – Ron Perlman, Season of the Witch (2011)
It’s been a hell of a year. One of rage and anarchy, sloth and pathos, calamity and continuity. Our world reminds us every day now of both how close we are and yet also how far apart.
And our cinema—is our cinema keeping pace and reflecting our interesting times? Not if you’re looking for Godardian agitprop aesthetics, obviously. But perhaps, on another level, a psychological level, a mythopoeic level?
Regular readers of my end-of-year confessions will know I usually finish up feeling disappointed, cheated, frustrated, and generally bewildered by my cinema going, especially once awards season is in full swing. So many Oscar-hungry puff pieces, so many overstuffed fanboy epics, so much faux-auteurist pap clad in the new imperial clothes! Usually my frustration tends to stem from being denied a chance to see important movies, and this year there are, as ever, a few real nagging gaps in my viewing, and also quite a few that I refuse to care about. Amongst the year’s biggest movies are some I’ll probably never see, including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, desperate franchise-wringers from people who barely know how to make movies, but know all about getting bums on seats.
Film itself, the actual physical medium, is dying, or at least bound to be valued only by niche obsessives, retronauts, and historians. Like many things, this stirs a debate between my practical yin and my romantic yang: for filmmakers it means both a liberation from the cost of the medium, helping level the playing fields a little more in the always-expensive world of movie production, and yet it threatens also a potential loss of craft, of care in shooting and assembling those fragments of arranged reality which we call films. Major, well-proven filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorsese have this year made large-budget films with personal themes that are intended for the broadest audiences possible, yet these have been characterised, and to a certain extent received, as some kind of retrograde, risky perversity. Does such fretting count as evidence of how deeply we have been brainwashed by the carefully niche-marketed, incessantly hip zeitgeist?
Yet there’s little doubt in my mind that this has been the best year for cinema since at least 2007, and possibly since 1999. Of course, “year” is always a problematic categorisation, given the channels of distribution that many films, particularly indie films and movies from non-English-speaking markets, have to flow though. In any event, any time frame that brings us cinema on the level of The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee, and Mysteries of Lisbon on their own would be a memorable window in movie history. Even some of this year’s outright disasters had at least a perverse ambition going for them. Whatever else you can say about the likes of Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, both ramshackle attempts to crossbreed geeky genre satire with slacker-stoner humour (with Greg Mottola’s Paul as a third, though far superior, entry), they had an eccentricity and, occasionally, a sheer sense of anarchy that made them far more engaging than such bathwater-flavoured square-deal fare as Captain America: The First Avenger or Contagion, if not, in the end, any better.
Yet I’m surprised at how much bitching I’ve encountered about the year’s low quality of movies amongst mainstream moviegoers. Even there I’m at odds: the multiplexes have seen such lively fare as X-Men: First Class, Thor, Fast Five, Scream 4, Hanna, Super 8 (not a sequel!), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, and Sucker Punch flitter across the screens in sprawls of pixels and pummelling. I’ve certainly had some powerful disappointments, many of which weren’t even bad, and yet which are bundled together in my mind for seeming to offer far more than they really give: the sophomoric insights of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, the aggressively, turgidly oddball angst of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine; the overwrought mustiness of Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock; the hollow, New Age parent-baiting of Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; the shrill conscience-movies clichés of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator; the clogged and dreary Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the blundering wastage of Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America: The First Avenger, etc., etc. But even in such disappointments, good moments hold the memory, like the scene in Submarine where the young hero is left alone at the dinner table whilst his girlfriend’s family have a crisis hug, a penetrating and all too tangible moment.
So, I’m really still impressed with the breadth of energy evident in cinema, both mainstream and tributary. I’m left with a patina of sensations and textures, visual and emotional and intellectual: the symphonic natural landscapes and macro- and microcosmic attentiveness of The Tree of Life, the dense jungle populated by id-welling monkey men, black caves, easeful waters, and starlight of Uncle Boonmee, the alien, rectilinear universe perforated by proofs of jagged humanity in Drive. The soaring visions of an alien Asgard where matter and dream hang on the edge of eternity in Thor. Hugo’s Belle Époque neverland. The Moses-as-sociopath vision of X-Men: First Class’s Erik Lensherr hauling a submarine from deep in the sea and hurling a sky full of rockets back at Pharaoh’s army for the sake of liberating his people from bondage. The dreamy thickets of nocturnal suburbia where protean teens venture out and evolve into new beings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and Super 8, the globe-trotting of Hanna, the snowy mountain fringes where the monks of Of Gods and Men are marched to meet their fate, already touched with the otherworldly and the purified.
The sombre desert limbo and the nocturnal jazz of Passion Play and the stygian, drug-fuelled nightclub rampage of the anti-hero in Oren Moverman’s Rampart. The bleak forest halls and the eerie, totemic wind farms that guard the edge of the darkly enchanted village in Wake Wood, littered with corpses as nature is thrown fatally out of balance by human arrogance. The wistful chamber music of Mysteries of Lisbon where time and tales’ edges blur and congeal and reverse upon themselves. The wonder of the perfectly formed small baby’s limbs in The Tree of Life and Womb; the foggy, bleary oedipal plains of that second film. The ethereal, noir-soaked frames of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, where murder and muse coalesce into a fabric of both eroticised yearning and alienation. Rivers of gore spilled by the heroes of 13 Assassins and Drive in their divergent quests to defend the weak. The anticipated nightmarish blood-tide of the future permeating the uptight adventurers of A Dangerous Method. Endless armies of the psychic war in Sucker Punch warded off by its singular warrior amazons in landscapes that suggest a nerd’s busted hard drive in hell. Harry Potter and friends standing before the blazing ruins of their alma mater, releasing quietly relieved breaths of victory and survival.
Last year, I waxed excessive about some linking themes I had noticed preoccupying the minds of filmmakers, as they offered a raft of variations on the theme of the maladapted survivor searching desperately for their humanity. This year, many films expanded upon such a motif to ask almost cosmic-scaled questions: What makes us what we are? Do the events that shape us truly make us, or do such things only give us tools and vices that enable our expression? Where are we going and what things we have learnt help us when trials come? Such questions permeate movies as seemingly different as The Tree of Life, X-Men: First Class, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, Womb, Sucker Punch, Hanna, Mysteries of Lisbon, Attenberg, Drive, The Ward, and Jane Eyre. I was fascinated by the powerful images of parents with children, and those of the hazy fringes of civilisation where there is a kind of spirituality even in the act of corporeal extermination, repeating throughout many. Several films evoked the trappings of psychotherapy and depicted adventures in the inner space. One of the more conscious, recurrent themes was that of generational torch passing, messy and fraught as it always is. Sex and violence are eternal presences in movieland, of course, but imbued so often of late with aspects of the genuinely primal, parsed through dream states, myth, and frantic hunger, from the Freudian fever-dreams of Womb, to the masochistic heroines of Leap Year and A Dangerous Method, needing physical shock to suture together sex and spirit. Heroes have come sometimes beaten, commonly bloodied, often falling with feet of shattered clay. Villains have often been hard to discern from heroes, with characters who bundle together what we love most and fear most within their frames. Hell, even the mysterious alien beast of Super 8 is both a terrible monster and a desperate, forlorn prisoner.
Children and adolescents have been peculiarly powerful protagonists throughout the year, fighting off alien invasions, saving cinema history from the rubbish heap, battling off superpowers and secret armies, even committing mass murder with admirable focus. Simultaneously, the older men are older and more tired, beaten about by life and watching hopes fade, from Ben Kingsley’s tragic Georges Méliès in Hugo to Kevin Spacey’s and Stanley Tucci’s bruised company men in Margin Call, Antonio Luz’s swashbuckling but haunted Father Dinis in Mysteries of Lisbon, Vangelis Mourikis’s dying idealist in Attenberg, and even the collapsing dignity of Kristen Wiig’s oddly tragicomic heroines in Paul and Bridesmaids. All perhaps could hope for an ounce of the dignity, even nobility, which the monks of Of Gods and Men and Uncle Boonmee himself can take to their respective graves. By contrast, many heroines have been frantically trying to hold together the shape of their world and give it meaning by sheer will, from the fantasy monster slayings by the girls of Sucker Punch to the atavistic rituals of Attenberg’s Marina, Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein knitting neurosis into theory, and Jane Eyre’s rectitude in the face of degradation.
Is there a keynote to any of this? Certainly not one that encompasses so many films, with their manifold aims and qualities. And yet, throughout such experiences as those of the adventuring youths of Hugo and Super 8, their more thoughtful kin across town in The Tree of Life, and their (spiritual) older siblings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and the survivalist fantasias of Hanna, Sucker Punch, 13 Assassins and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, the old men on their final pilgrimages in Of Gods and Men, Attenberg, and Uncle Boonmee, and the Driver giving his lady one life-encompassing kiss just before stamping out another man’s life entirely: all see their protagonists unable to escape their limited selves, and yet all finding a kind of perfection in fellowship and moments of strange serenity remaking an often dull, sometimes cruel world into a place of raptures. Perhaps the figure who could encompass them all is the hapless filmmaker of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, the end product of evolution up from the magician Méliès is presented as in Hugo, hurrying his naïve dreams past the camera lens, where Hellman’s protagonist is constantly reaching towards the past, the present, to other people, to a story to be told, and always seeing them retreat into amorphous unknowns and unanswerable longings.
PS: I only saw two current Australian films this year. One was Snowtown, which started off well, with a compelling portrait of seedy hate mongers in a poverty-stricken environment, but devolved into “droning psychopath browbeats fearful youngster” shtick well-exhausted by The Boys (1997) and Animal Kingdom (2010). The second was A Heartbeat Away, a film that filled me with incoherent rage and made me turn it off less than 20 minutes in. This may be an unfair sample of the year’s local cinema.
Some Favourite Performances
Whilst I found it wore out its welcome pretty quickly, I will give Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip this: it captures something convincingly, even affectingly insufferable and doleful about actors thanks to Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s deft performances. They offered, in between Michael Caine impressions, authentic portraiture of the second-tier male celebrity as show-off, restless consumer, feckless egotist, and occasionally, very familiar figures of middle-aged pathos, angry and bewildered at the sometimes tiny quirks and infinitesimal vagaries of luck that can rule a career. Many actors and other creative people can, I suspect, discover of shiver of self-recognition. Similarly, although the film actively pissed me off, it’s hard to ignore how Tilda Swinton sustains We Need to Talk About Kevin purely and literally by the sweat of her brow. Other famous actors lose and gain weight and slap on the prosthetics to gain awards, but Swinton belongs to a small breed who really does seem to use her own strangely textured flesh as a palate for her artistry, even if directors keep casting her in the same part over and over. Indeed for me it’s been mostly a year of actresses. One of my favourite performances, Shannyn Sossamon’s in Road to Nowhere, was a meditation on the idea of the actress, mutable, inaccessible yet exposed, duplicitous yet laid bare, multitudinous and yet tethered to a single constant image. Sossamon, like Megan Fox, whose low-key, well-textured performance as the angel so bruised by the male gaze in Passion Play that she can barely meet anyone’s eyes, also represents the former It-girl as case study, foiled in the attempt to walk the line between teen-boy masturbation fodder and capital-A actress, diffused through a prism of punch-drunk fantasy.
Perhaps a claim for future It-girl status was Claire Sloma’s magical performance in The Myth of the American Sleepover, the pixie-haired, nose-studded individualist feeling her way through a night of epic debauchery, coming into focus for a jazz ballet routine which, like the film itself, manages to capture something glorious yet painfully transient about the changeling age. Elle Fanning, following up her performance in last year’s Somewhere, made a marvellous contribution to Super 8, standing out amongst a strong cast of youngsters as she shocks her young male friends with real acting talent, and in the scene of the young hero falling in love with her as she’s slathered in zombie make-up, a moment alive with layers of adolescent Eros and transformational strangeness. A couple of years older but no less protean, Saoirse Ronan’s star turn in Hanna possessed a singular grace in playing a character who’s both a casual killer and an utterly bewildered innocent. Polar opposite in temperament, if not homicidal capacity, was Emma Roberts’ delicious psychopathic teen narcissist in Scream 4, avatar of everything suspect about Gen Y, managing to be both hilarious and alarming as she shreds her own body to convincingly inhabit the role of media hero, and later walloping David Arquette to jelly with a bedpan. I’m not sure if I enjoyed a moment in 2011 cinema more. Similarly, memorably ballsy and occasionally unhinged, Amber Heard strode through her two-for-one trashterpiece year of Drive Angry and The Ward with the feral pride of a lioness who considers the cinema screen her private patch of veldt.
Words of praise for some Aussie girls who seem to move from strength to strength: Mia Wasikowska, who inhabits her role in Jane Eyre as if no one else has ever played the part before. Emily Browning, whose supple emotional register gave Sucker Punch both its grit and its emotional intensity. Rose Byrne, who made trying to spy in her underwear seem just another day on the job in X-Men: First Class and managed to make her bitch role in Bridesmaids convincing in her chichi pathos. Speaking of which, Kristen Wiig’s excellence in her self-penned vehicle was most apparent when the film kept to its true brief—portraying a woman in a flailing midlife crisis, riddled with class rage and emotional resentment—rather than the limp attempts to match the frat boy hijinks of Judd Apatow. Wiig was also a gas playing the lazy-eyed, foul-mouthed, new-minted atheist in Paul. Eva Green’s reptilian cool was beautifully exploited in Womb, as was Matt Smith’s rubbery intensity and Lesley Manville’s wizened brilliance. Brighton Rock at least had Andrea Riseborough’s engaging portrait of dim but dogged rebellion against the fetid drear of post-austerity England. Jodie Whittaker left Venus well behind with her similarly sleek impersonation of a put-upon yet heroic nurse in Attack the Block. Kathy Burke was almost my lone salvaging grace for the train wreck of a film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in playing her aged, exhausted she-geek with a still-bubbling edge of randy gaucheness. Robin Wright’s retention of dignity buoyed The Conspirator. Keira Knightley and Monica del Carmen shared, if little else, a taste for masochistic extremes in A Dangerous Method and Leap Year, and both lived up to playing difficult, intransigent, inchoate personalities whose very pain and fragmentation made them more powerful than anyone close to them. The year’s most genuine breakout star, insofar as a year ago no one had even heard of her, was Jessica Chastain, in her ethereal impersonation of Terrence Malick’s idea of earthbound grace, and her gutsy, emotionally well-shaded semi-lead role in The Debt.
Amongst the male of the species, Christoph Waltz might have been disappointed with his first follow-up to Inglourious Basterds, but, considering that he provided most of the few actual laughs in The Green Hornet (“I am ungassable!”), we can’t be disappointed in him. Attack the Block was similarly given some saving zest by the flip wigger cynicism of Alex Esmail, the drolly stoned college boy filled out by Luke Treadaway, and the posturing yet actually befuddled masculinity of Joe Boyega. Ryan Gosling’s thousand-yard-stare-of-the-sensitive-hunk acting has generated a wealth of amusing internet memes, but it’s a great part of the power of Drive, enticing and yet puzzling in his silent, seemingly open demeanour that hides a soul filled with great and terrible wrath. Similarly cunning was Albert Brooks’ justly acclaimed casting as the unlikely force of evil Gosling is fated to meet. Oscar Isaac contributed to the film’s peculiar textures with his evasive performance as Gosling’s foil, but his major part of the year was his alluring, villainous ham in Sucker Punch, shooting hapless ladies in the head and crooning Roxy Music with equal aplomb.
James McAvoy had an excellent year after a spell of eddying post-Atonement, playing conscientious, whip-smart young heroes in The Conspirator and X-Men: First Class: anyone who can make the line “I can’t feel my legs” sound halfway convincing deserves some sort of award. That film was also given some genuinely relishable villainy by unexpectedly dashing, sublimely sadistic Kevin Bacon, and, of course, the man who was everywhere this year, Michael Fassbender, slinked through his role as the proto-Magneto with dark wit and charm. Fassbender might get awards props for the one major role of his I haven’t caught yet, but considering that Fassbender also gave fine physical form to Rochester in Jane Eyre and inhabited Carl Jung with a smouldering brilliance in A Dangerous Method, he certainly has earned his pay. Viggo Mortensen was similarly stellar in Cronenberg’s film, wielding a crafty, authoritative intelligence in portraying Sigmund Freud that far transcended the usual look-at-me celebrity impersonations. Woody Harrelson’s excellence in Rampart sustains a meandering but occasionally ferocious journey into the dark heart of American manhood. Amongst the undoubtedly awe-endowing cast of the final Harry Potter chapter, Alan Rickman’s hyped grace note as the hapless Snape was fine indeed, but oddly enough, I came out having enjoyed Ralph Fiennes’ invocation of something pathetic in the monstrous Voldemort; in a year in which we’ve seen genuine fawned-over-but-actually-detested tyrants depart the earth, he summarised something about them, in his cringeworthy attempt to play the loving despot, not easily appended to news stories.
I’ll spare a kind word for two good actors in movies I hated, Tom Hardy, whose sullen aggression blended with irreducible pain in Warrior was genuinely rousing, and Matt Damon’s frazzled everyman mucking through disaster in Contagion. Along with costar Emily Blunt, Damon’s class also gave some solidity to the stupefyingly silly The Adjustment Bureau. Kevin Spacey, after a long spell of strange and hammy roles, finally snapped back into A-game mode in the generally well-acted Margin Call, and gave his best performance in a decade. Seasoned Hollywood leading men Sean Penn and Brad Pitt were similarly, uncannily immersed in the texture of The Tree of Life, though the film’s real star was young Hunter McCracken, voluble in his incarnation of nascent pubescent emotion and receptivity. Christopher Plummer’s lauded role as the dying gay father in Beginners is obviously an emeritus Oscar in the making, but he was also very good, giving one of his most intimate and convincing film performances in many years. But perhaps the real gem of that film was Goran Visnijc’s role as his peculiar, emotionally bewildered lover. Paul Giamatti, everyone’s pet thespian, sustained the schmaltzy duo of Win/Win and Barney’s Version, imbuing them with life their screenplays probably didn’t deserve, and meanwhile his despicable King John in the rowdy Ironclad was a nice change of pace: nobody has or ever will catapult Brian Cox into a brick wall with as much bravura. Eric Bana was incredibly good and rather underused in Hanna, which is pretty well the story of his career. Young Asa Butterfield in Hugo offered a peculiarly restrained and subtle adolescent performance, keeping pace with the ever-luminous Chloe Moretz playing perhaps her most normal character ever; standing over them literally, if not figuratively, were Ben Kingsley in a characteristically electric turn as the haunted Georges Méliès, Helen McCrory as his sadly ebullient wife, and Sacha Baron-Cohen lobbying hard to be the heir to Peter Sellers as Hugo’s tragicomic foil.
Jean Dujardin has snagged himself an almost certain Oscar nomination this year with his part in The Artist, a role that neatly sidesteps any language difficulties for a French actor in a French movie, an interesting corollary to a year filled with excellent performances in non-English-language films that will, by and large, be entirely ignored. These ranked from the entire cast of Of Gods and Men, including familiar old hands Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson, to the daring of Monica del Carmen in Leap Year, and the hypnotic work of Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, and Clotilde Hesme in Mysteries of Lisbon, and Kseniya Rappoport as the antiheroine with a splintered psyche in the uneven The Double Hour. Sergey Puskepolis’ hulking, abusive, scary, yet strangely fatherly characterisation in How I Ended the Summer did a lot to give the film its sense of latent threat and grizzled, vodka-scented heartbreak. Ariane Labed in Attenberg provided a deliciously deadpan portrait of millennial angst and perversity and, finally, almost subliminal grief. Luis Tosar, in Even the Rain, gave a solid core to a thumpingly unsubtle piece of proselytising with his intelligent portrait of a professional jerk obeying humanitarian impulses within himself he wishes he could wish away. Kôji Yakusho gave 13 Assassins its unshakeable moral and physical core, opposite the most memorable villain of the year, the dead-eyed psychopathic princeling embodied by Gorô Inagaki.
Favourites Movies of 2011
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
Cronenberg’s cool, intelligent dissection of not merely the human foibles of the great and brilliant, but of an era and different ways of conceiving the world is his best film in 20 years, and a refreshingly sober study of the trial and error demanded by both scientific method and rebelling against the world that cocoons and frustrates us.
Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Far deeper and more genuinely affecting than its English-language equivalents, The Descendants and Beginners, and a worthy follow-up for the Dogtooth team, Attenberg was a notably astringent, yet penetrating study of an inchoate, quietly grief-stricken era where certainties slip away along with loved ones, and humans become strangers to themselves.
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Refn’s second appearance on my best-of list in two years was a superficial departure from 2010’s Valhalla Rising, and yet maintained deep ties with the earlier film, as a portrait of the human capacity for psychotic rage and benevolent care cohabiting uneasily in one body, and repainting the world according to a mysterious and sometimes frightening moral and aesthetic force. A triumph for cinema craft and directorial vision.
Hanna (Joe Wright)
Joe Wright’s succinctly shaped, yet reflexively epic fairytale-cum-action flick skipped nimbly through genres and continents, evoking everyone from Orson Welles to Terry Southern to the Brothers Grimm on the way. Plus, love that Chemical Brothers score.
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
A touch distended and ungainly, there is nonetheless a genuine sense of cinematic wonder and emotional iridescence in Martin Scorsese’s first tilt at making a film for all ages, as he finds a way to pull everyone closer to his life obsession and entertain at the same time. Hugo both celebrates the communal dream of cinema and embodies it, and evokes the painful joy of leaving behind childhood even in the midst of a neo-Technicolor fantasia.
Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)
Brusquely handsome and flushed with real feeling, this surprising little gem manages to quietly ransack the settled conventions of the costumed literary adaptation and find a bleary realism in an old and settled template, without stooping to Lit Theory class gimmicks or chocolate box romanticism.
Leap Year (Michael Rowe)
A searing nugget of excellence revolving around cryptic suggestions of familial trauma and Latin American dislocation, vast realms of history and discourse channelled into the body of Laura (Monica del Carmen), trying to exculpate loneliness and crisis through inviting abuse to her body from the one guy who likes her enough to do it. Falls down right at the end, but a vital trumpet blast all the same.
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
The lamented Ruiz’s swan song had all the qualities one expects of both great cinema and also great literature, narratives and images flowing with perfervid beauty and rich melancholia in currents and cross-currents of cause and effect, personality, and sexuality, finally adding up to prove that history is a joke played on all of us.
The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)
So restrained and limpid in its rewriting of American Graffiti as a Prozac-infused odyssey through the mating rituals of contemporary teenagers that it begins to feel like a fever dream, this film turns its quietly poetic realism into one of the most unobtrusively authentic, yet also artistic and beguiling, portraits of being at that cusp of final adulthood I’ve ever seen.
Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)
Hellman’s first film in 22 years has its share of longeurs, as if negotiating the strange new textures of modern digital indie cinema, and yet it carefully compounds into a deceptively skillful contemplation of the directorial craft itself and a genuinely clever deconstruction of the noir film and the femme fatale/muse figure. Fittingly for one of the true fathers of independent cinema, Road to Nowhere, like Hellman’s works did 40 or more years ago, impresses with the sense of sovereign artistry wrung from a low budget.
Scream 4 (Wes Craven)
Call it the year of the horror comeback: John Carpenter and John Landis both returned to movie screens after a decade’s absence with erratic films, the resurgence of Hammer Studios continued with the interesting, almost really good Wake Wood and the terrible The Resident, and Wes Craven returned to his famous postmodern slasher series. With original cast members obviously feeling their age and a slew of newbies of variable charm, nonetheless this, when it found its groove, became one of the most purely entertaining and refreshingly nasty mainstream films of the year, with Emma Roberts’ narcissistic psycho proving a far wittier, equally relevant rejoinder to the dolorous art-house exploitation of We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)
The year’s most mistreated mainstream film (amongst several) that revealed a general cluelessness and neopuritanical streak underlying much critical mentality about the possible fusion of cinema with internet and gaming culture, as well as attempts to expand the lexicon of American blockbuster cinema, Sucker Punch is a wild, crazy, irresponsible ride through the id, and a celebration and deconstruction of the 20th century’s fantasy canon, a bleak satire on institutionalised, outsider-crushing “care”, and the relationship of both with the slow but irreversible liberation from many forms of psychic tyranny. There’s hot chicks with machine guns killing dragons, too.
Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)
J.J. Abrams’ nimble-bodied attempt to recreate the early Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment aesthetic also inspired a lot of surprising hostility, to the extent of crowding any serious contemplation of not only how well he recreates that aesthetic, but also how he offers a self-reflexive meditation on nostalgia, childhood awakenings, and the techniques of cinema. He considers again his recurring fascination with not only themes of familial longing and damage, but also with the act of mediating life through visual recording, and makes it work as its own piece of filmmaking to an extent very few such pieces of retro-cinema tribute ever manage. It also takes its young protagonists far more seriously and on their level than the patronising hipster snark of Attack the Block. Plus, that train wreck was the set-piece of the year.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
Whilst, on balance, I didn’t think it quite lived up to the more integral, if also more prosaic, greatness of Malick’s The New World, The Tree of Life earned all its gobsmacked plaudits through sheer nerve and vision: physically ravishing, spiritually probing, and genuinely complex and observationally acute beneath the potentially dizzying pretences, it’s the sort of film that gives ambitious art movies a good name.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) and Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
I’ll count these two together because they are, in a way, “last year,” and they each represent fascinating, moody meditations on how we approach a sense of the infinite in both human terms and through the natural world’s benign, embracing indifference: the explicit religious-cultural war in Of Gods and Men and the cryptic militarist repression in Uncle Boonmee each lend a background of human cruelty and irrationalism, whilst the foreground drama concentrates on the values, experiences, and binding ties of family and comrades that leaven the journey into the undiscovered country.
Womb (Benedek Fleigauf)
A caustic little Euro-sleeper with a powerhouse cast and a thorny plot, Womb is a Kubrickian scifi chamber piece with a streak of Polanski-esque psychological gamesmanship, that actually manages to investigate its singular basic idea through with nerveless logic and emotional depth, thus succeeding where many similar films pretend to try and still fail.
X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn) and Thor (Kenneth Branagh)
There were too many comic book superhero movies released this year, or at least so I’m told. But these two movies manage to take that dreary job description and do joyously different things with their respective material, pushed into different realms of Hollywood genre lore by two perpetually energetic British directors. In the case of Vaughn’s film, that meant offering a sleek, swashbuckling reinvention of the well-worn franchise that paid honourable tribute to ’60s Bond flicks and the broad neo-pulp pantheon, whereas Branagh turned the Umpteenth Avenger into the protagonist of a rousing Shakespearean power ballad, with a smart lead performance as a fairly thick hero by Chris Hemsworth and some genuinely soaring fantasy imagery. If you wanted colour and light this year—and god knows I did—then these were the ticket.
Would Have Been On This List If I Had Seen Them In Time:
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg)
13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (David Yates)
How I Ended This Summer (Aleksey Popogrebskiy)
Rampart (Oren Moverman)
Wake Wood (David Keating)
X (Jon Hewitt)
I Liked, With Reservations
Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)
The Double Hour (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Fast Five (Justin Lin)
The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Paul (Greg Mottola)
Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Super (James Gunn)
Passion Play (Mitch Glazer)
Point Blank (Fred Cavayé)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
The Ward (John Carpenter)
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
Burke and Hare (John Landis)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi)
The Conspirator (Robert Redford)
The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Your Highness (David Gordon Green)
Brighton Rock (Rowan Joffe)
Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
The First Grader (Justin Chadwick)
A Heartbeat Away (Gale Edwards)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Immortals (Tarsem Singh)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Red Riding Hood (Catherine Hardwicke)
The Resident (Antti Jokinen)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
As Yet Unseen
50/50, Amigo, Bellflower, Margaret, My Week With Marilyn, Red Dog, Shame, The Sleeping Beauty, Weekend
My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I First Encountered in 2011
Arashi Ga Oka (Kiju Yoshida)
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko)
Back Door to Hell / Ride the Whirlwind / Cockfighter (Monte Hellman)
The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra)
Blast of Silence (Alan Baron)
The Bride with White Hair (Ronnie Yu) / The Bride with White Hair II (David Wu)
Castle Keep (Sydney Pollack)
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai)
Contraband / A Matter of Life and Death / Gone to Earth (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff)
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Koji Wakamatsu)
Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges)
Freud (John Huston)
A Generation (Andrzej Wajda)
The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino)
It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod)
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Sergei Eisenstein)
Land of the Pharaohs / El Dorado (Howard Hawks)
Letter from an Unknown Woman / Lola Montes (Max Ophüls)
The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
Mahler (Ken Russell)
Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner)
The Nanny (Seth Holt)
Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz)
Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
The Quatermass Xperiment / Quatermass II / The Day The Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest)
Sebastiane (Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)
The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tess (Roman Polanski)
Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
The Wedding Party / Sisters (Brian de Palma)
Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti)