That the New York Film Critics Circle recently named Katherine Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty its best film of 2012 before it had even been released commercially illustrates an increasing quandary with year's end 'best of' awards and lists. There's an in-built bias towards films recently seen by the critics, while those seen a year or more ago but released more recently have been already stored in the attic in a box marked 'past treasure'. By the time films screened widely on the festival circuit in early-to-mid 2011, such as A Separation and Martha Marcy May Marlene, finally saw Australian commercial release this year, they seemed to some of us like last year's news. The same goes for the likes of The Artist and Hugo, originally positioned for last February's Oscars campaign and screened to critics before the end of 2011. Only by reluctantly excluding some of these titles was I was able to cull my best-of list of 20 films down to a more manageable size. Clearly this was a strong year and I couldn't forgive myself if I didn't at least nod to films of the caliber of (in alphabetical order) Arbitrage, Arrietty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Holy Motors, Lore, Looper, Margin Call, Skyfall, Polisse and Where Do We Go Now?
Taking cues from Huckleberry Fin, Stand by Me and The Night of the Hunter, Belgian filmmaker Bouli Lanners's rustic tale of teenage boys running free in an isolated river valley gently accrued a hauntingly mythic aspect.
Israel's Joseph Cedar took what might have been a dry specialist story of father-son rivalry in the world of Talmudic scholarship and mined a universe of emotion.
¡Vivan las Antipodas!
Along with Leos Carax's freewheeling Holy Motors, Russian director Victor Kossakovsky served up the most bold and formally innovative film I saw in 2012 in the shape of this poetic documentary about people living on opposite sides of the earth. (Seen at Sydney Film Festival.)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan began his tale after the arrest of an alleged murderer, the exact point where most crime stories end. In this long and carefully composed journey through the night, the darkness is shot through with a wickedly sly wit
Three Honourable Mentions: The Master, Shame, Stopped on Track.
As I remarked on my entry in this year's Sight and Sound poll, criticism is (and should be) entirely subjective—which makes any notion of the 'best' movies of the year utterly meaningless. I've therefore chosen my five favourites instead, out of a surprisingly crowded field. I've also restricted it to things I saw in 2012, not films released this year—otherwise Martha Marcy May Marlene would be included in the top five, and Madonna's W.E would almost certainly top the Worst List.
Too often, attending a film festival is like visiting a necropolis—the memorialising of dead aesthetics, phatic gestures. That, or the tacit endorsement of an established brand: 'a Loach', 'a Haneke' . . . There are of course exceptions, but of everything I saw at Cannes 2012—indeed, out of everything I saw all year—Carax's brilliant, provocative, frequently breathtaking film, a cri de coeur in the form of a plaything, testified most persuasively to the possibility that cinema was in fact vital, daring, alive.
Bravura filmmaking from one of the US's most idiosyncratic talents: meticulously in command of every frame, matching widescreen aesthetics to a story that is, in essence, a chamber-piece. While its two leads offer up a master class in screen acting, Phoenix's performance—like Daniel Day Lewis's in There Will Be Blood—proves once again that Anderson is not afraid to go for Baroque, armoured by the knowledge that real art (and this is definitely that) can only be achieved when real risks are taken.
From the moment that '70s Angolan funk blasted from the soundtrack, as the titular heroine first got high (on the sap from a 'magic' tree, naturally) and saw a landscape suddenly filled with ghosts, I was hooked: what had hitherto been brutally compelling, suddenly became altogether richer and stranger—a journey into the Inferno. A pity, then, that its maker had to deal with bullshit questions about his 'right', as an Asian-Canadian, to tell this African-set story. Why, when the result was so harrowing, rigorous, and true?
Beasts of the Southern Wild
For sheer visionary power, see , above. For quibbles about authorship and the filmmaker's 'right' to make this film (he's white, they're—mostly—black), see . It's hardly a heretical proposition in 2012, with the wars of post-structuralism mostly concluded, to concede the possibility that a text is 'owned' neither by its author or its audience; this one, more singular and resourceful than any micro-budget feature I can recall, creates a fantasia compete unto itself, a closed system. To brand it conservative, either in ideology or aesthetic, is to almost determinedly miss the entire point.
Evoking the spirit as well as the aesthetic of Maurice Pialat, this was not only the year's most rapturous (and sexiest) romance, but its most acute study of sexual politics—and as such, a welcome riposte to a mainstream cinema dominated by superheroes, vampires, zombies, et al. Constructed as a succession of pas de deux, by turns flirtatious and uncertain, it boasts moments of extraordinary beauty and sadness; by the end, you want these two to be together more than any couple since Hepburn and Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.
READ SHANE DANIELSEN'S WORST FILMS FOR 2012 HERE
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Film in 2012 ran deep: selecting the best for this year was not easy in comparison to 2011, and the spread of possible nominations was a reminder that we've thankfully got increased access to the best of world cinema and documentaries in Australia now. You just have to look past the blockbusters.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Director Tomas Alfredson and his screenwriters didn't just compress John Le Carré's intricate period tale of betrayal within the British security services, they made it a film about the giving and withholding of information and the savage cost of duplicity. The result, built around the distinctly English viciousness of Gary Oldman's lead performance, was a masterpiece.
Killing Them Softly
Fetid, cruelly funny and filled with long, telling conversations, Andrew Dominik's third feature found considerable new life in the gangster genre, depicting a world populated by the likes of Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini and Ben Mendelsohn where crime has stopped paying but no-one realises.
Going back was just what Wes Anderson needed: in a 1960s setting with adolescent protagonists, his hand-wrought comedy revealed his most heartfelt work since The Royal Tenenbaums. With Bill Murray and Bruce Willis as the faces of adulthood's regret, Anderson captured the tenuous hope love brings.
To quote Contagion from this list a year ago: Right now it's an appreciable pleasure to watch Steven Soderbergh at work. Against the setting of a Florida male strip club, complete with an unlikely cast including Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, Soderbergh documented the business of pleasure and inverted film's masculine gaze.
The Queen of Versailles
There were feature films about the causes of the Global Financial Crisis, as well as the considerable fallout, but only this remarkable documentary from Lauren Greenfield was able to encapsulate both the disastrous American faith in unfettered capitalism and the psychological aftershocks.
Honourable mentions: Lore, Footnote, Holy Motors.
Australian cinema had a big hit this year with The Sapphires (wildly overpraised), while word-of-mouth soon skewered the Ockeristic Mental and the coarse A Few Best Men. Hail, Toomelah and Not Suitable for Children deserved more local audience love. Hollywood continued to lose its grip on the 20-something demographic, with critically-lauded indie films like Ruby Sparks, Celeste and Jesse Forever and Safety Not Guaranteed landing D.O.A. On the festivals front, the new Sydney Film Festival head, Nashen Moodley (thumbs-up on his first year program), need not fear just yet the Cockatoo Island Film Festival, which is still licking its wounds after a brutal post-launch media bashing. And the digital conversion of the nation's projection booths gathered steam, yet unforeseen tech issues have soured the experience for many (seems half of Australia has seen two-thirds of Skyfall). Cinema this year felt a bit like a transitional period, with both the joy of discovery and the emptiness of loss (Australia's vast, vacant studio space) sharing equal space.
Of the 2012 blockbusters, Prometheus was the most ambitious but also the most confounding and disappointing. The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Battleship and The Amazing Spiderman ground through their tropes with conviction, though none were groundbreaking. A fresh coat of franchise paint helped Skyfall, The Muppets and Men in Black 3 guilty pleasure honours go to John Carter. The only blockbuster with the smarts to really soar was Rian Johnson's time-travel thriller Looper, its twisted tale told with shrewd economy before revealing a strong heart and deft touch with subtle but stunning effects work.
Michel Hazanavicius' ode to the magic of movies effortlessly glided from exhilarating positivity to heartbreaking melancholy; of the Oscar's Best Picture nominees, The Artist was certainly the standout, which also makes it also this year's best international film. Elsewhere, India's beguiling Barfi, the mesmerising French/Canadian co-production Café de Flore, Belgium's heartfelt The Giants and Australia's beautifully-crafted German-language drama Lore were all standout examples from global cinema.
Ben Affleck's Iranian hostage drama is complex, compelling commercial filmmaking of the highest order, recalling the politically-charged films of Hollywood's last golden era ( All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor). American filmmakers exhibited a smart streak in 2012 which invigorated true, socially-aware stories, key amongst them J.C. Chandor ( Margin Call), Nicholas Jarecki ( Arbitrage) and Jonathan Levine ( 50/50).
Those with a penchant for the perverse had to search hard for the best of genre cinema. Elijah Wood's starring turn in Maniac is a masterclass in subliminal horrific intent, but it has only played festival slots to date. The deconstructionist puzzle The Cabin in the Woods finally surfaced to fandom satisfaction. Only Josh Trank's terrific debut Chronicle got the studio-marketing push denied most other worthy genre works. The hottest new names on the horror scene are Canadian twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska, who unleashed upon the world the supremely stylish, body-modification ickiness of American Mary.
Rodney Ascher's dazzling, demented documentary is a giddy cacophony of conspiracy theories and secret meanings that purportedly exist within the labyrinthine structure and symbolism of Stanley Kubrick's horror opus The Shining. Room 237 is a film buff's dream come true. For everyone else, it's merely an exhilarating mystery overflowing with 'is-it-or-isn't-it' postulating and gleeful malarkey.
Oh dear, what a dreary year it's been. I've seen more than 100 films including a score or more that premiered at various festivals. If I had to compile the top 10 in terms of sheer enjoyment, let alone artistic achievement, l'd be struggling after number seven or eight. Let's hope the year ends on a much more positive note if The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Les Misérables are as superbly-crafted as the initial reviews suggest.
Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's powerful, Oscar-winning drama is a riveting tale of conflict over honour, money, pride and religion, focussing on a middle-class couple in Tehran who decide to divorce. Telling the story from multiple viewpoints leaves it to the viewer to decide who's telling the truth and who's dissembling.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
There's more creativity, originality and flair in this fantasy/drama set in a mystical part of Louisiana than in the vast majority of the high-priced Hollywood films I've seen this year. An astonishingly assured debut from director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin, with wonderful acting by non-pros and impressive production values that belie its $1.8 million budget.
Who knew Jack Black was capable of casting aside his trademark brash, noisy comedic shtick for a shrewdly-judged performance of remarkable nuance, subtlety and complexity? Jack acts his socks off as an assistant funeral director with a dark secret in Richard Linklater's film, based on a true story, which is alternately laugh-out-loud funny, disquieting and shocking.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor's striking debut feature plays like a finely-calibrated thriller, a compelling tale of money, power, greed, ego and personal and corporate responsibility as a bunch of increasingly desperate, highly paid and supposedly smart men and one woman face a series of ethical dilemmas. Far more grounded and realistic than Oliver Stone's histrionic Wall Street movies.
If John Hawkes doesn't snag a best actor nomination at the Oscars for his mesmerising performance as a quadriplegic who's determined to lose his virginity in Australian-born, L.A.-based writer-director Ben Lewin's funny/sad gem, something is seriously amiss with the Academy members' taste and judgment. And I'd be similarly peeved if Helen Hunt isn't nominated for best supporting actress for her gusty portrayal of the sex therapist.
First, a guilty admission; I managed to miss Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour and The Kid with a Bike. I suspect the following list would look different if I'd managed my time and schedule better. Scrutinised sanely, 'best of' lists are, at best, a ritual, with the final reckoning a consequence of mood and longing. As for honorable mentions, I can't go past Hugo and The Master. These two share much; there's a dignity and humanity in these pictures, which I found profoundly moving, and an ambition in the filmmaking that's stirring. Then there was Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Castigated as inferior to Oplev's movie, I find it criminally underrated. In its own wry way, it is a vicious black comedy; a healthy, affirming and valid rejoinder to the claustrophobic nihilism of Stig Larsson's icy despair.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tomas Alfredson's superb film of John Le Carré's fine novel about the search for a traitor in England's secret service during the '70s Cold War is a rich and delicate thing, expertly cast and exquisitely produced. Anchored by Gary Oldman's astounding performance as the dogged, depressed and heartbroken Smiley, this Tinker is a grey and dusty labyrinth of sad and lethal secrets, jealously guarded by fearful men and women who live in peril of losing their hearts, their minds, their souls. As befits a movie about spies, the camera constantly prowls and the world is but an abstract box-like maze of mixed motives and furtive passions. Tragic, passionate and ruthless, the film has a quiet power that's enthralling.
Director Asghar Farhadi, using bold performances, and a highly mobile camera, takes a ferocious high-energy approach to this story of class, religion and marriage in crisis. Deep and complex, it's more a thriller in tone than a domestic drama. A Separation has an immediacy that staggers.
A Dangerous Method
An austere and brittle screen adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure, this is David Cronenberg's best film in a while. It concerns the nascent years of psychiatry where Jung and Freud were locked in a debate over how best to evolve its theories and ideals, all the while contemplating their own monstrous desires. Cronenberg's camera is like an x-ray for the soul here; the dialogue snaps, and Keira Knightly as Sabina, a famously troubled patient, is a revelation.
Killing Them Softly
After its untimely fate at the box office this fine hard-boiled thriller is most likely destined for cult status. If the remarkable The Assassination of Jesse James…etc wasn't proof that writer/director Andrew Dominik is prodigiously gifted, this gripping and hilarious yarn about a sardonic, wearied hit man – played to the hilt by Brad Pitt – ought to silence naysayers once and for all. Based on the book by George V. Higgins, it's got, in the best B movie tradition, a subversive subtext – here it's class – and a heartless eye for human weakness in a world that feeds on relative morality.
I saw this at the Sydney Film Festival and found it deeply moving. A fine low budget feature from the Netherlands, it's a movie about sex and parenthood, built around a dangerously fragile and ambiguous father/daughter relationship. Director Sacha Polak experimenting with time, mood and story, and guides Hannah Hoekstra's title character to extraordinary depths of anguish and spectacular self-delight.
So much to see and so little time, but always beneficial to follow one's cinematic bliss rather than see franchise films because some advertising campaign says you must. These were the films that rocked me while sitting in movie theatres in Sydney, Tokyo and Busan.
A Terminal Trust
With Japan's biggest comedy success (Shall We Dance?) under his belt, the world is still having trouble accepting Suo Masayuki as a serious director. With rich performances from Yakusho Koji, Kusakari Tamiyo and even Asano Tadanobu, this romance wrapped in a legal and medical euthanasia drama was the most satisfying and sophisticated Japanese film in years.
Confronting and brutal, low-budget Accession employed a camera almost continually in medium close-up to its repellent lead character – a man who ruthlessly sexually uses and abuses women in his South African township – leaving audiences no escape route from his repellent escapades. Cleverly implied violence is no less repugnant for occurring completely off-screen.
'Based on Actual Events', this dramatisation of a suspected theft by fast food worker Becky in small-town USA is designed to make you feel angry. Directed in a no-frills documentary style without resorting to phony camera wobbles, Compliance sandblasts viewers into questioning the value of blind obedience to employers, parents or government.
This is a mystery about a pregnant woman investigating the disappearance of her IT expert husband in Kolkata while working for an Indian government agency. Matching a great script with Hindi cinema's best actress Vidya Balan, Kahaani was the Bollywood film of the year. Taut throughout, the film also makes excellent use of Puja celebrations to heighten drama as well authenticity.
Pieta beat out The Master for The Golden Lion at Venice and deservedly so. The story of a cruel standover man who has his life and long suppressed emotions turned upside down by a woman claiming to the mother who abandoned him at birth was an intense return to form for controversial South Korean director Kim Ki-duk.
Honourable mentions: Argo, Vulgaria, The Master.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
First-time feature writer/director Benh Zeitlin invited us into the private universe of a feisty six-year-old as her way of life in swampy Lousiana was jeopardised by catastrophic events, real and imagined.
At face value, a Michael Haneke film called 'Love' is an intriguing prospect, given the austere German's filmography is hardly the stuff of sentimental yearning. Mercifully, neither is this depiction of the changed circumstances of an elderly couple, confined to their Paris apartment when the woman is rendered an invalid. Amour's authentic depiction of the undignified business of dying caused tears before 10am at an early press screening in Cannes, where it went on to win a deserved Palme d'Or for best film. Too good a film to be delayed til next year's list. (It's set for 2013 release, post awards season, where it's bound to feature heavily.)
Finnish oddball Aki Kaurismaki applies a retro flavour to a contemporary tale of resistance, as a cantankerous agitator finds renewed purpose in organising safe passage for an African refugee stranded in the titular port city. This warm and witty celebration of civil disobedience deserved a wider audience when it was released back in March.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
The synopsis of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's fable of a late night corpse-recovery exercise reads like a kind of CSI: Anatolian Steppe procedural. However, this profound Turkish oddity refuses to be boxed in by genre convention, and made for one of my most rewarding cinema experiences of the year. With just the unreliable memory of the accused as their guide, a tired convoy of husky investigators snakes through the dark, looking for a dead man whose resting place is the geographical equivalent of a needle in a haystack. Over the course of this existential journey lit by hatchback headlight, superficial small talk gives way to remembrance of absent women, whose influence on their men can't be overstated.
The family of a missing child is overjoyed when after years in cold case limbo, he returns as a teen, to reconnect with his kin. To be sure, puberty can do much to change a person, but the heavily accented French man-child with receding hairline and advanced facial hair is a far cry from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy they lost. Bert Layton's fascinating exploration of the ties that bind this highly unconventional family unit together was one of many excellent factual features in 2012. I recommend seeing it in a group setting, as I did at a late-night Sydney Film Festival session, with a crowd left incredulous with each bizarre twist in the story.
Another 'too good to wait til next year' inclusion is this Cannes title that has played at select local festivals ahead of an early 2013 release. A shell-shocked Mads Mikkelsen plays a kindergarten teacher blindsided by a wrongful accusation of paedophilia when well-intentioned authorities mistake a child's tantrum for trauma.
Honourable mentions: 50/50, Teddy Bear, Killing Them Softly, Safety Not Guaranteed, Holy Motors, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom.
READ FIONA WILLIAMS' WORST FILMS FOR 2012 HERE
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