The Big Picture
2012 was in many ways a landmark year for the film industry. Worldwide, more films were screened with digital film projectors than analogue ones; Fujifilm stopped producing film stock due to low demand; the year also saw a shift in funding models as established Hollywood directors turned to crowd-funding websites to finance their projects; and for the first time a major blockbuster (Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”) was shot and shown at 48 frames per second – twice the industry standard – a move intended to reduce the blur commonly seen in stereoscopic films.
While the 3D goldrush seems to be over, 2012 continued to see new releases by “art house” favourites who’ve tried their hand at the medium: Takashi Miike with “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai”; Ang Lee with “Life of Pi”; even Jean-Luc Godard (the godfather of the French New Wave) announced that his next project will be in 3D. But there were those in cinema’s mainstream and fringes who continued to sing what Nick James (editor of Sight and Sound magazine) called “the elegy for analogue”. Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”) and Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight Rises”), for instance, shot their films on 65mm film stock, which has higher resolution and handles special visual effects better than 35mm film. They also secured limited releases for 70mm prints of their films.
No-one though quite matched the radical commitment to analogue of British filmmaker Ben Rivers, whose feature debut Two Years at Sea was shot on a handcranked 16mm Bolex camera, and was handprocessed in his bathroom and kitchen sinks. Despite its very limited release and slim box office takings (£29k), the fact that it got a theatrical release at all is not something that should be overlooked. Its distributor, Soda Pictures, is one of a handful of independent distribution and programming companies in the UK (New Wave Films, Artificial Eye, Dog Woof) that make it possible (along with essential government funding) for groundbreaking works like this to reach our big screens, providing a much needed antidote to mass entertainment. How dull the movies would be without them. Tastes may differ it’s true, but it’s also true (to modify a quote by Einstein) that what is good is not always popular and what is popular is not always good.
My Top 10
Somehow, between work, marriage and parenting, I managed to squeeze in 35 new releases this year. The full list of films can be found here: Films of 2012. There’s lots I didn’t get to see, some of which may well have made my top ten of the year:
- “This is not a Film”, the latest work by banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, which was made while under house arrest and smuggled out of the country on memory stick hidden inside a cake;
- Grant Gee’s experimental essay film “Patience (After Sebald)”, by all accounts a highly original and meditative retracing of writer W G Sebald’s walking tour through the Suffolk countryside;
- “Beauty” the second feature by up and coming South African director Oliver Hermanus – winner of 2011’s Queer Palm;
- P T Anderson’s highly acclaimed “The Master” about a charismatic cult leader, which many believe was modelled on Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard;
- Peter Strikland’s “Berberian Sound Studio”, a homage to giallo, a subgenre of Italian psychological horror-thrillers;
- “Holy Motors” by Leos Carax and “Cosmopolis” by David Cronenberg, two much revered films set largely inside limousines;
- Bart Layton’s intriguing documentary “The Imposter”; and,
- Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s existential police procedural “Once Upon A Time in Anatolia.”
Overall, I think 2011 was a better year for film, but the list presented below still represents a good sample of the best filmmakers working across the world today in both fiction and non-fiction film. The films are certainly not for everyone. And I have to admit there is a lot of dark material being tackled here. But each one of them has something important to say about the world we live in and has been made with impeccable skill and integrity.
So here then, without any further ado, is my top 10 of the year:
(d. Oren Moverman, 2011. USA)
Woody Harrelson has had many memorable roles since playing bartender-buffoon Woody Boyd in the long-running series “Cheers”: Mickey Knox in “Natural Born Killers”; Larry Flint in the “The People vs. Larry Flint”; and Billy Hoyle in “White Men Can’t Jump” all come to mind. While I haven’t seen his Oscar nominated performance in 2009’s “The Messenger”, I’d be willing to bet that this is the finest performance of his career to date. Harrelson brings complexity, charisma and a true grit to his role as an unrepentant rogue doing society’s dirty work in Oren Moverman’s terrific portrait of politics and corruption at the notorious Rampart police station. But the heart of this story, and Harrelson’s performance, is the intelligently rendered struggle for connection with his daughters. Thoroughly enjoyable.
9. Moonrise Kingdom
(d. Wes Anderson, 2012. USA)
A joy from start to finish, Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s best, funniest and emotionally most satisfying film to date. All the familiar tropes of Anderson’s work are there – dysfunctional families; jaded, immature father figures; youth wise beyond their years; his unmistakably anachronistic costume and production design; and, of course, his signature camera move. And yet, here all of them seem perfectly calibrated and fresh. What can I say: I was utterly charmed by Jared Gilman and Kara Haywood as the pubescent love birds who hatch a plan to run away together; not to mention the wickedly funny ensemble cast and Robert Yeoman’s wonderful cinematography. Escapist cinema at its best.
(d. Steve McQueen, 2012. UK.)
The second feature by Turner-prize winning artist turned director, Steve McQueen, “Shame” features a blistering central performance by Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a sex addict whose tightly controlled life slowly unwinds when his screwup sister moves in to his apartment. This could be the premise for a comedy, but it most certainly isn’t. Intense and brooding, the film observes Brandon in intimate detail as his relentless consumption of sex is slowly exposed to those around him, and each new act seems intended to blunt the shame of the last. A subtle and fascinating film, of and about our times.
(d. Markus Schleinzer , 2011. Austria)
If Britain gave the world the comedy of embarrassment, then Austria is surely to be credited for the cinema of unease. Over a number of years directors such as Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidel have built up considerable reputations for making uncomfortable and provocative cinema. Now Haneke’s former casting director, Markus Schleinzer, has staked out his own corner of this domain with his debut feature which confronts its audience with the gut-wrenching terror of child abduction. Through restrained storytelling (more is suggested than shown onscreen) the director emphasises Michael’s ordinariness, alienation and numbness of feeling; so that while much of the screentime is focused on the relationship between paedorast and victim, it is clear that an equally important theme is the paedorast’s relationship with society. We may be no better off understanding why these crimes are committed, but we leave with important questions about how our lives have become so disconnected from our families, colleagues and communities that such horrors can go undetected for years on end.
(d. Bruno Dumont, 2009. France.)
Obliqueness is one of the words that crops up a lot in discussions about Bruno Dumont’s work. This may be a result of the strong influence of Robert Bresson on his work, who famously sort to remove all traces of theatricality from his actors performances and pared down everything in his films to the barest minimum. Like Bresson, Dumont favours the use of non-professional actors in his films, and here casts the young Julie Sokolowski to play Celine, a young novitiate who is expelled from her monastery because of her dangerous devotion to God. Celine’s pain at the absence of God in her life is shown not as your garden variety existential angst, but the ache of a lover desparately longing for her beloved’s touch. This love leads her further and further down the path of fundamentalism and self-sacrifice. I’ve not seen anything like it, and was absolutely transfixed. The film’s elliptical ending was initially made frustrating by the director’s obfuscatory statements in the press, but thankfully I ignored him, and settled on its meaning myself. So much more satisfying this way.
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene
(d. Sean Durkin, 2011. USA.)
Sean Durkin co-founded the film collective Borderline Films with fellow NYU graduates, Antonio Campos & Josh Mond. The trio’s set up works something like this: while one of them writes and directs a feature, the others take on the role of producers. Together they’ve made some of the most critically acclaimed films to emerge from the US Independent scene over the past few years, including Afterschool and Simon Killer. Martha Marcy May Marlene is Durkin’s debut feature, an atmospheric thriller about a young woman who takes up with her estranged sister after fleeing a cult in the Catskill Mountains. He draws great performances from Elizabeth Olsen as the haunted and increasingly paranoid Martha, and John Hawkes as the dangerous and charismatic cult leader. Durkin’s deft plotting never lets the tension slip while subtly probing the nature of family and identity. A thoroughly deserved winner of the Best Director at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
(d. Lisa Aschan, 2011. Sweden.)
It’s hard not to compare this film to “Fucking Amal” (aka. “Show Me Love”), Lukas Moodysson’s acclaimed debut about two teenage girls falling in love in small-town Sweden. But Lisa Aschan’s striking debut stands its own ground. It’s a wise, witty and thoroughly engaging portrait of the competitive friendship between two young girls vying for a place on an equestrian team. Aschan’s taut script explores her themes her of female sexual identity and power-play with originality, and her direction effortlessly ratchets up the dramatic tension of the story. I loved the sound design and naturalistic performances too – none more so than the little girl, Sara, who’s angst ridden clash with the adult world stayed with me long after the final credits. A surprising gem.
(d. Michael Haneke, 2012. Austria.)
Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Michael Haneke’s latest film is a beautifully realised chamber piece about an elderly couple whose love is severely tested after one of them suffers a stroke. As film critic Jonathan Romney points out, there are echoes here of the home invasion theme Haneke has explored in other films – though here, rather than people, it is infirmity that invades. Unfortunately, despite feeling that the film deserved its critical acclaim, it suffered in comparison with one of my favourite films from 2011, a little seen Icelandic film called Volcano, with which it shares an almost identical narrative and thematic structure. Still, it’s hard to deny that Haneke’s film (when seen on its own merits) is one of the best and most affecting of this year; and that he is a master filmmaker at the top of his game. The success of the film though rests largely on the powerful central performances from veteran French actors, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintingant, who bring dignity, tenderness and occasionally surprising humour to their roles. Just make sure you’re in the right frame of mind to see this.
2. Bombay Beach
(d. Alma Har’el, 2011. USA.)
In the early 1900s irrigation canals channeling water from the Colorado River into a dry lake bed in the Southern California desert became blocked up with silt, causing the river to overflow and eventually the creation of the Salton Sea. An influx of money and people followed in the 50s as resort towns like Bombay Beach were developed along the water’s edge. Alma Har’el exquisite debut documents life in this town 50 years on – now a ghost of its former self, decrepid and destitute. But this film is far from poverty porn. Gaining incredible access to her subjects, Har’el focuses on the stories of three men: a traumatised seven year old boy dosed up on increasing prescriptions of behavioural drugs; an ambitious and lovestruck American football player who moved to Bombay Beach to escape gang violence in Los Angeles; and a retired oil field worker who hustles reservation cigarettes for a living and for leisure, philosophises over a bottle of whisky. Beautifully filmed, Har’el’s documentary breaks the mould by going beyond mere observation and constructing poignant vignettes in which their dreams spill over into reality. Highly recommended.
1. Two Years At Sea
(d. Ben Rivers, 2012. UK.)
My film of the year is Two Years At Sea, and I knew it within minutes of watching it. It’s a work of immense beauty by British experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers, documenting the hermitic existence of its subject Jake, who lives in alone in a remote forest dwelling somewhere in the Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland. A near wordless film, Rivers takes his time immersing you in the day to day rituals and objects that make up Jakes life through long static takes – some nearly 10 minutes – and a wonderful, ambient sound design. Every handprinted frame is perfectly composed and worthy of a place in a museum and throughout the film feels as if it is alive, with flares, scratches and other emulsion effects giving it a somewhat protean quality. This is majestic cinema, and, if there is one film on this list that I absolutely urge you to see, this is it.