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.

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