Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Best Films of the Year

I saw more movies this year than any other in my life. Nearly seventy features, at a rate of  better than one a week.

And most of them were... pretty average.

Which comes as no surprise  Let's face it, when it comes to sampling something, whether it's movies or restaurants of pictures of dogs wearing hats, most of what you experience is going to be neither brilliant nor terrible, but somewhere in between. The average is the norm and always has been.

You could take this to mean that creating something average, or slightly above or below, is easy. That it doesn't take that much skill to fall into the middle percentile groups, the fat part of the bell curve.

But to make an average film still takes a remarkable amount of talent, skill and luck. Films are complex and time consuming and expensive to produce (even a low budget film will consume more resources than say, a painting, to compare mediums). Making a 90 minute film that provokes a 'Yeah, nah, it was good but,' is still quite an achievement.

What this abundance of average really tells you is how exceptional the films that rise above the throng are. In a year when a record number of feature films were released, proving the vitality of the industry, the select few that cut through the noise and stayed with you after you'd left the cinema and wondered how you'd managed to miss the last tram were all pretty exceptional.

Today's list contains ten of these, my favorite films of the year.


US Director Paul Thomas Anderson is a product of the film geek era and may be it's finest ambassador. His IMDB bio lists Renoir, Ophuls, Truffaut, Scorsese, D.W. Griffith, Altman and Spielberg as influences and touchstones and even that may not be broad enough. His films offer such an unusual mixture of old and new, classic and contemporary, substance and style that it's hard not to think that you're watching something quite extraordinary unfold before your eyes, beyond what even those aforementioned masters were able to achieve. In this, his sixth feature, PTA takes a loosely adapted look at the origins of Scientology and uses it to kick start a layered character study revolving around want, need and co-dependence. Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic World War Two veteran and troubled soul and Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), an almost indescribable author and pseudo mystic, cross paths at random and forge a bond that is as deep as it is surprising. Their time in each others company spans years, continents and moods and unfolds almost like a good book; rich in portent and suggested meaning. Both leads deliver career defining performances and the director continues to expand on a  reputation that is assuming historic proportions. A complex movie that delivers in every possible respect.


Beneath the simple surface of both this low budget British drama and its main character, Jospeh (played by veteran character actor Peter Mullan), lies profound depths of emotion; overwhelming, intense, but only rarely seen. Since the passing of his wife, Joseph has allowed himself to sink into a trough of despair and self loathing, a dreary routine broken only by occasional outbursts of violence. When he stumbles across housewife and community volunteer Hannah (Olivia Colman), he initially mistakes her for one of the better off types he imagines himself at war with, before eventually recognising a fellow damaged soul and kindred spirit. Their gentle, fragile friendship slowly edges Joseph back towards engagement with the world around him, although the film's narrative has more surprises than will be revealed here. Simple, tough, yet touching and wonderfully put over by the two leads, Tyrannosaur makes a mark much more indelible than those left by many bigger productions this year. A remarkable achievement for first time director Paddy Considine. 


Wes Anderson's seventh feature is another sprawling, serio-comic, coming of age story set in a parallel universe of his own devising. The fact that it resembles his other films so much, and yet still works so well,  is a tribute to the director's talent and commitment to delivering his vision. The story, admittedly a little darker of shade than Anderson's other films, pairs two young misfits; Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), whose decision to run away together gives the film what impetus it needs. Not that it needs much as, again of a type with his earlier works, a lot of the pleasure in this film is derived from the surrounding details. And these are amply delivered by an all star supporting cast and an incredible production design, that fills the screen with curios and eye catching ephemera of every type. In a movie that deftly changes mood a number of times, the ending is astutely judged to send you out of the cinema with a spring in your step, a quality not to be underestimated.


In a year in which rising star Michael Fassbender portrayed both a futuristic robot and one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, it's interesting to reflect on the fact that his most indelible performance came in this, playing an almost anonymous mid level business executive. Fassbender's Brandon is young, handsome, charismatic and on his way up in the world, the sort of person that is well liked wherever he goes and seems almost predestined for success. But beneath this carefully constructed facade, Brandon's private life is almost terminally malnourished. Emotionally stunted and unable to connect to anyone around him in a meaningful way, Brandon copes by losing himself in anonymous sex and graphic pornography, leading a seedy, hermit like existence after hours. Clues as to how Brandon's personality evolved are given, most notably by a visit from his misfit sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), but it is a credit to the film that his behaviour is never fully explained, merely presented. Fassbender's stunning, haunting performance drives this melancholy drama, a thought provoking meditation on loneliness and life in the turbo charged modern era.


A Separation starts with an argument before a judge and moves forward largely through conversation; between the husband and wife considering the act of the title, their children, their extended families, friends and work colleagues. Ideas and positions are debated, arguments made and rejected, points thrust and parried. While the characters talk and attempt to sort through their feelings, in the background the machinery of Iranian society forms almost another character in itself, interjecting itself into the narrative at every turn. Life under an oppressive social system has rarely been highlighted with such skill. Acutely real and intellectually stimulating,  this film works equally well on a personal and conceptual level. A deserved winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar.


For a man who has spent most of his career depicting gangsters doing terrible things to each other, Marty Scorsese makes a hell of a kids flick. The veteran director brings the full force of his talents to this picture, creating a vivid and highly stylised world for his characters, and even adds a new string to his bow by shooting the film in 3D (and shows a few young turks how to do it, in the process). The titular character, an orphan, lives a secretive existence behind the scenes in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris, pursued by a crippled policeman and locking horns with an aged toy maker. When Hugo uncovers a secret from the toy makers past, it affords Scorsese the opportunity to present a wonder filled recreation of the birth of cinema, a topic which is very obviously close to his heart. Full of surprises and a sense of awe, at the opportunities afforded in both life and art, Hugo is a family film for the ages.


Michael Haneke's top prize winner from Cannes takes the simplest of stories - an elderly couple facing their own mortality - and turns it into a delicate, moving ode to love and a heartbreakingly frank depiction of loss. As the elderly couple, veteran actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva fully inhabit their roles, making the relationship and emotions on display entirely believable and absorbing. Both sad and uplifting, sometimes in the same scene, this quiet gem is one to ruminate on, long after some of the flashier releases of the year have faded from memory.


A low budget Hungarian film that screened at MIFF,  Just the Wind shows life among a community of gypsies, living on the fringes of mainstream society. While in many ways fully engaged with the
broader community around them - the adults work, the children attend school, they pay bills and shop - the film details the thousand different ways that this minority group are discriminated against and abused in their day to day lives. Life as a band of outsiders never looked less romantic and more isolated. Director Benedek Fliegauf creates an intimate portrait of these cowed, marginalised characters and his largely amateur cast bring them vividly to life. A tragic, wrenching film with a devastating conclusion.


Proof positive that you can make a compelling film out of anything, if the ideas and the talent behind it are strong, this minimalist sci fi consists of little more than; two sets, three characters and one elaborate secret handshake. Maggie (Brit Marling) is a golden haired waif who lives in a basement in LA and claims to be a refugee from the year 2054. Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are amateur journalists out to expose her as a fake. And that's it, really. The dynamics of their interaction - tense, humourous, even tender - push the story into unexpected places while the film sustains a compelling sense of tantalising intrigue from start to finish.


David Cronenberg's latest drama for adults examines the early years of psychoanalysis, with Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender delivering finely etched performances as Freud and Jung. Their friendship, and subsequent falling out, is compelling enough to drive both the nascent science  and the film (the latter of which is also strong enough to survive some outrageous overacting from Keira Knightly, as a female patient of both doctors). The director's earlier films, so much concerned with the nature of reality and perception, are curiously echoed in this more mature piece, the tone of which suits his more restrained recent style. Ultimately, the film poses as many questions as it answers, chief among them one of the greatest of questions ever posed by science; how well can the mind ever know itself? Bold, provocative film making.

Just Outside

Bernie, Margin Call, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Sleepless Night, Wish You Were Here, Frankenweenie, The Avengers, The Artist, This Must Be The Place.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Top 5: Woody Allen Performances in Other People's Films

Woody Allen is a big talent.

Edging towards the end of his career, he undoubtedly has already earned his place among the great entertainers of all time. His plays, films and books, and directing, are all among the most elite bracket that these disciplines have ever produced..

He's also a fine comic actor, as witnessed by any number of performances from his own films. Less highlighted are his straight acting performances in other people's movies, which form an eclectic mixture of lead and cameo, mainstream and independent.

Today's list picks 5 of his best acting efforts, from films that weren't his own.


As Woody has gotten older, a growing number of well known actors (John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh, Owen Wilson among them) have portrayed Woody-ish characters in his films, so it's fun to see Woody playing this same type of character in another director's movie. The 1989 Paul Mazursky comedy Scenes from a Mall teamed Woody with Bette Midler as a long term married couple coming to grips with middle age. And while the film never worked as well onscreen as those two names looked next to each other on paper, you do still get to see our boy with both a surfboard and a ponytail,something that you definitely won't see anywhere else.


The only film on this list that Woodyphiles may - may, I said - not know intimately is this low budget comedy from 1998, written and directed by actor Stanley Tucci. Tucci stars alongside Oliver Platt as a pair of long term friends and hopelessly inept actors who get involved in a series of old school, screwball style antics. Towards the beginning of the film they audition, terribly, for a play, performing for the director played by you know who. And while Woody is only onscreen for two minutes, he still gets a chance to have a quick whack at producers and the whole 'money' side of showbiz.


A pretty good animated film with one absolutely inspired casting decision; Woody playing an ant in a kids animated film sounds like something that just couldn't possibly be true. The fact that it works so well is down to the Woody's ability to get in any number of gags aimed at his usual favorite targets while still playing a broadly comic part for a young audience. The opening, above, with echoes of Manhattan, still makes me laugh every time; ' When you get down to it, erm, handling dirt is, you know, not my idea of a rewarding career.'


No sign of Daniel Craig and Dame Judy in this one, the original swinging sixties take on Casino Royale, with the world's most famous secret agent played for laughs. Lucky that Woody appears to deliver a few then, as his scene as Jimmy Bond, 007's nephew, is about the only funny thing in an otherwise dire, bloated turkey.


On a much more serious topic, but still witty, is Woody's leading role in Martin Ritt's 1976 drama about the tragic affects of anti Communist blacklisting in 50's Hollywood. And Woody delivers one of the finest performances of his career as he is perfectly cast as a nebbish (what else) roped in to 'fronting' for some of his friends, blacklisted writers with mild Communist sympathies. His showdown with the House Un-American Activities Committee, excerpted above, is a genuinely great film sequence.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Every Film I Saw This Year (with a one sentence review!)


Rates: * * *
Bold and surprisingly unbloody, the Soska sisters horror comedy features a great central performance by Katharine Isabelle as a med student who finds a unique way to pay the bills.


Rates:  * * * *
Michael Hanneke's top prize winner from Cannes was a warm and simple film, a heartfelt attempt to capture on screen the depth of emotion that can exist between two people, and the terrible gulf that's left behind when one of them departs.


Rates:  * * * 1/2
Ben Affleck's half awake lead performance is at odds with his taught direction in this old fashioned CIA hostage rescue drama.


Rates:  * * * 1/2
Overpraised but entertaining, and surprisingly melancholy, 'silent' film about a golden age movie star struggling with the transition to sound, rejuvenated by his leading lady and one of the greatest dogs in screen history..


Rates: * * * 1/2
Hip actors trade one liners and battle space aliens in the best Blockbuster of the year.


Rates: * * * 1/2
Director Benh Zeitlin's low budget debut shows life on the extremes of American society and is a rough and ready mixture of unique ideas, some more successful than others, while child lead Quvenzhane Wallis is nothing short of astonishing.


Rates:  * * 1/2
More a collection of filmic references then a fully functional movie, behind this movie's facade are some excited film nerds and a nonplussed audience.


Rates:  * * * *
Jack Black is in career best form as the title character, although the film is nearly stolen by the real life Texans that dot Richard Linklater's true crime murder flick, the year's best comedy.


Rates:  * * 1/2
Pixar's muddled and uninspiring Scottish fable looked pretty but otherwise went against the studio's well known ethos by failing to appeal to either children or adults.


Rates: * * * 1/2
Co-written by Joss Whedon, this deliriously entertaining movie is best seen in a full house session packed with excitable Whedon fans.


Rates:  * * *
Exiled, and occasionally detained, director Roman Polanski's latest highlights the difficulty of adapting a stage play to cinema, regardless of the quality of the source material or the talent involved. 


Rates:  * * 1/2
The sometimes curse of the film documentary: interesting subject, bland presentation.


Rates: * * * 1/2
Director Whit Stillman made a welcome return after a long absence with this college comedy which was alternately droll and nuts, like the best of his earlier films.


Rates:  * * * *
David Cronenberg's excellent character study is powered by two fine performances from Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbinder and is good enough to survive some outrageous overacting from Keira Knightly.


Rates:  * * *
Batman down a hole, Baine with a plummy accent, Alfred in a lounge suit drinking a fruity cocktail... not exactly what we were expecting then, as this bloated and heavy handed movie became the most disappointing Blockbuster of the year.


Rates:  *
A fine example of a great trailer disguising a woeful film.


Rates:  * * * 1/2
Some good acting and effective scenes hampered by a meandering narrative.


Rates:  * *
See Chasing Ice.


Rates:  * * 1/2
A vibrant design studio in California produces many world famous conceptual ideas yet somehow fails as an engrossing documentary subject.


Rates: * 1/2
An original idea that spawned an almost unwatchable film.


Rates: * * * 1/2
A chance to use the phrase 'Return to Form' as Tim Burton expands a short film he made in the 1980's into the best feature he's made in some time.


Rates:  * * 1/2
High concept film making: a gaggle of Irish drunks battle a Dr Who monster.


Rates:  * * 1/2
Long, rambling, scattershot; these are not the adjectives you want attached to a 150 million dollar production, a major disappointment from the production team that delivered The Social Network.


Rates:  * * * 1/2
If a family of apes living in a townhouse is your thing, you've just found your movie.


Rates:  * * * *
Stretching right back to the start of the year (at least in Australia), veteran director Marty Scorcese shows any number of young turks how to really incorporate 3D into a film.


Rates:  * *
Standees for this series of books suddenly sprouted, elaborately, everywhere and the series was on the tip of everyone's tongue and ... then the film came out.


Rates:  * * * 1/2
Powerful, arresting documentary about former gang members, now reformed, who try and prevent the next generation from following their violent path.


Rates:  * 1/2
My girlfriend likes to say the title of this one in a silly voice, which is considerably more entertaining than the film itself.


Rates:  * * * *
Microbudget Hungarian film depicts life on the fringe, as a community of gypsies struggle in the face of relentless abuse and prejudice.


Rates:  * * 1/2 
Speed 2's Jason Patric returns from... wherever, in cult favourite Guy Maddin's indescribable arthouse oddity.


Rates:  * * * 
Matthew McConaughey delivers a deliciously dark turn as the title character in an otherwise undistinguished rednecks-run-amuck crime comedy that will, at the very least, ensure you never look at KFC quite the same way again.


Rates:  * * 1/2
Muddled ideas sink this black comedy which wastes good performances in pursuit of some poorly conceived social commentary.


Rates:  * * * 
Writer Nick Cave and Director John Hilfcoat (The Proposition) re-team for this depression era hooch smuggling yarn, which is similar to, but inferior, to their earlier film in nearly every respect.


Rates:  * * *
Time travel, the mob, telekinesis and Bruce Willis collide in a story that looked great on paper but just didn't evolve into anything very interesting.


Rates:  * * 1/2
Playwright Kenneth Lonergan's second feature (after You Can Count On Me fifteen years ago) was eagerly anticipated and sported a dynamic opening hour, before falling into a confused, self indulgent and lengthy resolution.


Rates:  * * 1/2
Elijah Wood defines the term 'change of pace' with this serial killer nightmare, a remake of an 80's film of the same name, which mixes bravura film making and ugly violence to create the year's most disturbing movie.


Rates:  * * * *
What the 'Occupy' people were angry about.


Rates: * * * 1/2
Elizabeth Olsen's terrific central performance in the title role anchors an interesting study of cults, families and group dynamics.


Rates: * * * * 1/2
PTA delivers again with this stunning drama, loosely based on the formative days of Scientology, showcasing two of the world's best actors (Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) in career defining roles.


Rates:  * * 1/2
Like any film with a '3' in the title, you know what you're gonna get when you buy your ticket.


Rates:  * * *
Cute kids film becomes an unlikely showcase for Sean Lennon's singing.


Rates:  * * * * 1/2
Another slice of perfectly pitched, bittersweet romance and melodrama from the Wes Anderson universe.


Rates: * * * 
Catchy songs, cute performances and 'Dad, what's a muppet?' in the back of my head.


Rates:  * *
An expensive waste of time from a director who seemed to run out of inspiration some time ago.

ROOM 237

Rates:  * *
A few kooks obsessed with Stanley Kubrick's The Shining provides only the slimmest of justification for a 102 minute film.


Rates:  * *
Hunter S. Thompson's first, and least accomplished, novel demonstrates exactly why it was considered unfilmable for so many years.


Rates:  * * *
The biggest Australian release of the year showcased Jessica Mauboy's singing and dancing chops, but relied heavily on Chris O'Dowd to give the rest of it any juice. 


Rates:  * * * *
At once cerebral and emotive, that this brilliant Iranian film was able to juggle so many story elements with such success was a real tribute to the skill of the film makers.


Rates: * * * 
Sam Rockwell steels the show in this aptly titled crime-Hollywood-comedy mish mash.


Rates:  * * * * 
Michael Fassbinder delivers one of the years most captivating performances, as a driven and successful young man unable to connect to the people around him and finding solace in anonymous sex.


Rates:  * * 1/2
LCD Sound System concert film where the film makers should have followed the title's advice.


Rates:  * * *
Engagingly low key black comedy about a most unlikely pair of serial killers, that plays almost like a violent version of the Rob Brydon-Steve Coogan effort The Trip.


Rates:  * * * 
All the peripheral elements were in place, but somehow this incredibly successful Bond outing failed to deliver.


Rates:  * * * *
Tough, kinetic, superbly directed (by Frederic Jardin)  Belgian thriller that evolves across one very elaborate set on the long night of the title.


Rates:  * * * * 
Clever and thought provoking, this shows you don't need much of anything to make something truly memorable. 


Rates:  * * 1/2
Twenty minutes of conventional (and very good) story telling gives way to the most irritating film gimmick of the year.


Rates:  * * * 1/2
Sean Penn makes a welcome divergence into comedy, portraying a burnt out rock star taking a road trip after years of reclusive living.


Rates:  * * * 1/2
Dense, layered, dour rethink of the John le Carre cold war classic, expertly crafted but difficult to fully engage with.


Rates: * * * * 1/2
One sentence could never be enough to adequately describe this devastating drama, if you've not seen it find it and watch it immediately.


Rates:  1/2
The cinema equivalent of a slap in the face; six arrogant young up an coming directors demonstrate their total disdain for their audience by producing this disastrously awful omnibus movie, the year's worst film by some distance.


Rates:  * * * 1/2
A rare adult drama from the local industry, this film posits the almost shocking concept, never discussed in the mainstream media, that Australians overseas are sometimes an ugly bunch.


Rates: * * 
Daniel Radcliffe emerges from the deep shadow of the Boy Wizard in this remake of an old British telemovie, which is well produced but lacking in scares.