Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Fine Year: Film in 2012

Another year draws to a close, and so we find ourselves looking back on the past twelve months of cinema and the highlights therein. Unlike last year’s list, we find ourselves more divided in our choices, with Nick favouring a number of European pieces in lieu of Tom’s giddiness over genre works.

Nick’s choices

10. Faust Dir. Alexander Sokurov

Alexander Sokurov is a tricky one to get to grips with. Mother and Son is sublime and one of the greatest films ever made, but Russian Ark is the very definition of self-indulgent tedium. Faust, his eccentric retelling of the age-old myth as filtered through Mann and Goethe, doesn't particularly resemble either, and falls somewhere in the middle of those two poles of quality. Nevertheless, it's an often enchanting Germanic fantasia, and its freewheeling structure interweaved with moments of grimy magic is reminiscent of vintage Terry Gilliam. 

9. The Kid With A Bike Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Depending on how charitable one is feeling, the Dardenne brothers' Kid With A Bike is either a companion piece to their earlier unflinching studies of lonely, clumsy souls, The Kid and The Son, or the re-treading of old ground. Whilst they might have tilled this creative soil to the brink of exhaustion, it's still capable of yielding subtle riches.
As always in their films, the camera treats its subject like a specimen under a microscope, rarely shifting from their perspective, keeping them always in the centre of the frame as they cannonball through life causing pain to others and themselves. This time around, twelve-year-old Cyril is the eye of the storm. Abandoned by his irresponsible father, he is eventually taken in by a compassionate hairdresser willing to offer the boy a love that he comes to resent. The Kid With A Bike is like a rose in the desert: so tiny and delicate it might blow away in an instant, yet beautiful and imbued with a great deal of life.

8. Martha Marcy May Marlene Dir. Sean Durkin

This year was bookended by two compelling dissections of the American cult from PT Anderson and newcomer Sean Durkin. The more conventional Martha Marcy May Marlene was still a supremely impressive debut for the writer-director. Elizabeth Olsen was revelatory as the headstrong yet impressionable Martha, struggling to cope with the trauma of her time as a member of a sinister backwoods community when she is reunited with her unsympathetic family. In its willingness to plumb a bruised underbelly of Stateside life, and offer few concessions to audience comfort, it evoked the glory days of New Hollywood without becoming derivative.

7. The Dark Knight Rises Dir. Christopher Nolan

To paraphrase The Clown Prince of Crime, Christopher Nolan has changed things...forever, and we all know there's no going back. If any more proof were needed of the Brit dynamo's game-changing impact on blockbuster entertainment, then look at this year's Skyfall: The broken hero struggling to live up to his legend, the narrative deconstruction of an icon, the mirror-image villain - all lovingly ripped off from Nolan's superior Batman movies. And whilst The Dark Knight Rises doesn't quite equal its near-perfect predecessor, it silences the naysayers who doubted its director's talents. His genius is to make the spectacle and the action set-pieces integral to the plot, and to offer punters ideas nestled unobtrusively amongst the explosions. Although this might sound more like common sense than genius, it's been out of fashion for so long in Hollywood (since The Matrix, to be exact) that they might as well be the same thing.

6. Amour Dir. Michael Haneke

I'm not entirely convinced that Amour is on a par with Michael Haneke's two previous masterworks, Hidden and The White Ribbon, but it's difficult to find fault with a drama that can hold its own in their lofty company. Looked at in the context of Haneke's career, it's difficult to argue that he's not the greatest living European director.
  It's certainly a timely story, the much-applauded Austrian auteur pointing his unflinching camera at elderly couple, Georges and Annes, as they cope with the sudden onslaught of debilitating illness, at a time when the world is faced with the crisis of an ageing population. Unsurprisingly, death itself is effectively the third character in this chamber piece, its majesty and horror evoked with a moving but unsentimental power comparable to that of Bergman's Cries and Whispers.
  The story is confined almost exclusively to the retired music teachers' Parisian apartment, its shelves lined with literature and classical music. Although the apartment begins as a home, it becomes a cavernous and inhospitable warzone, and finally a fortress in which Georges inters himself, its collection of art all but forgotten. Haneke appears to be raising the question of culture's ultimate significance in our lives and that of our world, when death and destruction wreak utter ruin.

5. The Turin Horse Dir. Béla Tarr

Seemingly determined to establish his position as the Beckett of film ( as distinct from the Beckett of Film...which would be Beckett) beyond all reasonable doubt, Béla Tarr gave us what is ostensibly his swan-song: The Turin Horse. Its relentless documentation of a father and daughter undergoing the daily drudgery and hardship of life in an increasingly apocalyptic European wasteland is a lot like Endgame, but without the laffs: a depiction of the unavoidable entropy and meaninglessness of existence that is genuinely disturbing yet highly thrilling in a way that few straight horror movies can match.  On a purely visceral level, this is the most memorable (or scarring) film of the year. It's also really beautifully shot and demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible. But perhaps only once...

4. Sightseers Dir. Ben Wheatley

Easily the best British film I've seen in a somewhat lacklustre year for homegrown talent, Ben Wheatley's third feature Sightseers was often sharp and funny, but also much sadder than the misleading advertising campaign might have led one to expect. The plot might be a re-run of Badlands transplanted to the English countryside, but this is no embarrassing Anglo attempt at emulating American cool. Instead, the creators poke fun at England's relationship to its own heritage, painting modern-day Brits as clueless children confounded by their nation's past and mystical landscape, but affecting a pompous reverence of it. In the character of Tina, the horror-comedy sub-genre has also found a genuinely strong female icon, who's at least as ballsy, ruthless and bonkers as the boys.

3. Holy Motors Dir. Leos Carax

If you only see one nutso art-house oddity released this year, make it Holy Motors. Errant hell-raiser Leos Carax's return to feature filmmaking after more than a decade's absence was certainly the most original prospect this year. It's an episodic look at a day in the life of the mysterious Mr Oscar, played with irrepressible dynamism by Denis Lavant, as he is ferried around in a white limo to impersonate a rogue's gallery of characters in scenarios that appear to exist somewhere between reality and fiction.
  Carax has stated that the idea was to depict life in the post-internet age and the film succeeds better than any more literal-minded attempts: just as in the virtual world, there might not be anything immediately at stake for Oscar's body, but we feel that the soul of this everyman, like ours, is caught in a profound and as yet uncharted transformation. And in the lead role, the inimitable Lavant once again shows himself to be a one-man circus: alternately clown, acrobat, lion and chimpanzee.   

2. The Master Dir. PT Anderson

The Master is appointed saviour of American cinema Paul Thomas Anderson's first film in five years. His response to the ridiculous weight of expectation cinephiles the world over have loaded onto his shoulders? To shrug it off with an unexpected and brilliant sidestep. His typically distinctive vision of drifter Freddie Quell's brief and bizarre encounter with a snake-oil California spiritualist was several galaxies removed from the filmmaker's early, Altman-esque marvels and streets ahead of his peers. It resembled something that amateur brewer Quell might've concocted in his booze shed if he'd mixed equal parts Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood: a psychotic love story locked in a haunted monument of 20th century American history. There is greatness here: startling, mesmerising, frustrating, funny, and more, it defies categorisation or easy opinions.

1. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

If there's one picture this year I feel confident in calling an outright masterpiece, it's Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. Turkish photographer-turned-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has long been a darling of the festival circuit with bold and intentionally 'difficult' explorations of the human condition like Distant and Climates, but his latest - and longest - effort ascends to a different class of filmmaking altogether.
  It is ostensibly the real-time tracking of 24 hours in a murder investigation, as a group of policemen, prosecutors, doctors, and suspects search the Anatolian hills for the body of the victim. It's actually a forensic examination of how men interact when alone, and there are echoes of (a mellower) Tarantino in the way that Ceylan allows the plot to drift into the background to focus on his characters as they bicker, bond and break down. Strikingly, the narrative shifts from one member of the party to another, never permitting our sympathies and our prejudices to settle, so that the protagonist effectively becomes Man himself.
  If all this sounds a little portentous, it's not. The tone is leavened, like all of Ceylan's work, with moments of bone-dry humour, such as when Prosecutor Nusret scolds the police chief for roughing up one of their suspects because he thinks it will affect his country's standing in the eyes of the European union.
1. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
2. The Master
3. Holy Motors
4. Sightseers
5. The Turin Horse
6. Amour
7. The Dark Knight Rises
8. Martha Marcy May Marlene
9. The Kid With A Bike
10. Faust

Honourable mentions: Shame, Berberian Sound Studio, Killing Them Softly, The Raid, Nostalgia for the Light, Warhorse, Skyfall, Looper

Tom’s choices

10. Rampart dir. Oren Moverman

Whilst James Ellroy may have cut his chops playing with (to great success) the genre conventions of classic noir storytelling, Rampart sees the writer’s LA of the 1940s morph and decay into a sticky, sun-drenched apocalypse that at once evokes and condemns that now similarly iconic City of (Fallen) Angels circa 1994. Using the infamous Rampart scandal as its jumping off point, Ellroy and Moverman’s critique of the LAPD focuses upon the suicidal swagger of Office Dave Brown. A would-be rockstar and successful bigot, Brown is played with aplomb by Woody Harrelson, a man too busy sleeping, snorting and beating up the excess of the 90s to really care about the political honey trap he finds himself in after being filmed thrashing someone to near death in broad daylight. Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube feature as the figures bearing down upon Brown’s insanity, but this is really a one man show – we’re all just along for the ride.

9. Beyond the Black Rainbow dir. Panos Cosmatos

Arguably the most stylish of this year’s releases, Cosmatos’ debut release constantly threatens to throw itself beyond pastiche into the territory of self-parody. Incredibly earnest and totally humourless, Beyond the Black Rainbow – to my mind – successfully manages to stay on the right side of the line throughout its duration, offering up a slice of psychotropic sci-fi nitro-injected with the paranoia of 80s genre cinema. Whilst not the only film to pay homage to the days of late night cinema and VHS obscurities this year (see below), Beyond the Black Rainbow is certainly the most stirring – acting more as a mood piece than a straight narrative. Cosmatos’ love of cross-fades and saturated colours lends the film a quality almost as hypnotic as the supposed joys of the ‘Arboria Institute’ in which much of the action takes place. And Michael Rogers surely wins the award for showing just how many variations on a sour face one man can evoke.

8. Dredd dir. Pete Travis

However, king of the genre features this year is without a doubt Dredd. Whilst Looper may have offered a smart, neo-noir sci-fi in its first half, the film most definitely lagged later on, its dense pack of ideas spiralling out and fizzing away to almost nothing by the final scene. In contrast, Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s attempt to bring the law of Mega City One to the big screen kisses exposition goodbye, whilst still offering something infinitely more intelligent and true to its origins than the atrocious Stallone vehicle of old. Opting to present only enough details of its world to allow its 80 minute apartment block raid (ahem) to kick off in earnest, this is a filthy, hyper-violent little monster with a wickedly dry sense of humour to boot. Urban’s Dredd is the grunting fascist the character was always meant to be, but it’s Olivia Thirby’s take on PSI Division’s Judge Anderson that stands out. And, despite what those awful trailers might suggest, the ‘Slow-Mo’ scenes are a sensual feast.

7.21 Jump Street dirs. Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Far too often, comedy movies are left at the bottom of the pile in End of Year lists, despite the apparent love critics slather them with upon release. To wilfully ignore the hilarity and snarky intelligence of 21 Jump Street however, would be a crime – this is easily the funniest film released all year. Poking fun at both the current trend for unnecessary franchise reboots, and the stupidity of many recent teen movies, Lord and Miller’s comedy is arguably the first successful buddy cop movie of the post-Apatow generation, with the dynamic between Hill and Tatum (who woulda thunk it?) being a joy to behold. Too bad Michael Bacall’s other script this year (Project X) was the most cynical, audience-reviling shit of 2012. Swings and roundabouts!

6. Martha Marcy May Marlene dir. Sean Durkin

If cinema is any sort of indicator of geo-social truths, then the American South is still the lawless land of devils and self-interested free agents that it was so often painted as in the Bad Old West. The mystery and unease conjured by its landscape continues to capture the imaginations of up-and-coming American directors, and Durkin’s debut is no exception. John Hawkes’ is electric as the leader of a cult hidden away in the Catskill Mountains, the grotesqueness of his small, sinewy frame darkly at odds to the wells of charisma and violence that swim inside. Elizabeth Olsen, meanwhile, makes sure that her entrance onto the silver screen stands as far apart from the values of her sisters’ media empire as possible, throwing herself into a role that calls for tragic confusion and a frustrated sense of utter isolation – regardless of the community she finds herself in.

5. Ruby Sparks dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

It’s unfortunate that Zoe Kazan’s highly perceptive study of idealisation and control in relationships was so aggressively marketed as the quirky successor to its directors’ previous effort, Little Miss Sunshine. For there is little that is particularly twee in Ruby Sparks, despite the quaint premise upon which the story is built. Paul Dano stars as a struggling young novelist who is still living off the phenomenal success of his debut work. When his latest fictional muse, Ruby, suddenly appears in his house, it’s all Pygmalion and wish-fulfilment – until facets of Ruby’s character unaccounted for by the circumscribed nature of Dano’s fiction begin to come forth. Kazan’s script is surprisingly poignant, at times heart-breaking, exploring the needs for certainty and control we all fall into when in love, and how difficult it is to accept the fundamental disconnect with those we want to feel closest to.

4. Holy Motors dir. Leos Carax

Denis Lavant is whatever you want him to be, whether he has any real say in the matter or not. Carax’s latest feature is a troubled ode to the means and history of cinema, featuring as many nods to Carax’s work and beyond as it does roles for Lavant’s Mr. Oscar to utterly lose himself in. In the world of Holy Motors, acting isn’t so much a role as a societal function, as cinema and reality seem to awkwardly exist side by side, with the rules of the universe shifting as the unseen director best requires. The result forces us to consider the ease with which audiences are manipulated and ensnared by what they are shown on screen, the ultimate insincerity of film, and the increasingly dilutive effect post-modernism has on our appreciation of media.

3. Shame dir. Steve McQueen

McQueen’s latest team-up with Michael Fassbender presented a nihilistic New York that didn’t allow for positivity or healthy emotional relationships – only for conscious acts of hurt to one another, be it through sexual or emotional violence. Whilst the film ostensibly focuses on Fassbender’s Sullivan and his sexual addiction, beyond this lies a bleak portrait of modern life. As Sullivan passes through immaculate hotels, bars and restaurants, the need to consume is apparent throughout. With a camera that dispassionately captures sex at its most reductive, Shame is an emotional endurance test that will leave you numb.

2. The Master dir. PT Anderson

Passing by like a dream, at times feverish and distressed, at others euphoric, PT Anderson’s take on a-group-not-unlike-Scientology is so much more than just a case study of a cult’s origins – if indeed it is that at all. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman mesmerize as two men trapped within their own personal obsessions, drawn to the respective sense of freedom they sense within one another. Anderson offers no simple answers to the questions asked throughout, as Freddie Quell’s experiences with ‘The Cause’ impact / fail to impact upon his own character. Malaimare, Jr.’s cinematography is a delight, whilst Anderson leaves his indelible mark even as the film offers a far more languorous journey than that of his earlier works.

  1. The Dark Knight Rises dir. Christopher Nolan
 Every chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy has been its own beast; Batman Begins was the definitive Superhero origin feature, The Dark Knight was one of the best crime films of the past decade, and The Dark Knight Rises claims that title of Epic Blockbuster the much-overrated Inception first dallied with. Arguably the ‘truest’ Batman feature yet brought to the silver screen (despite the surprising absence of its titular character for much of the running time), Nolan’s finale is a sweeping ensemble drama that offers a damn fine action movie whilst satisfyingly concluding the more intelligent ideas that his prior entries had gently seeded in under the scenes of vigilante justice. If we go to the cinema to be transported, then The Dark Knight Rises was the greatest escape of 2012.

  1. The Dark Knight Rises
  2. The Master
  3. Shame
  4. Holy Motors
  5. Ruby Sparks
  6. Martha Marcy May Marlene
  7. 21 Jump Street
  8. Dredd
  9. Beyond the Black Rainbow
  10. Rampart

Honourable mentions: The Muppets, Cabin in the Woods, Looper, Shadow Dancer, The Artist