Werner Herzog’s 4-part miniseries of interviews with death row inmates is simply gripping documentary filmmaking on every level, that reminds us over again of Herzog’s native intelligence and unerring instincts as a filmmaker (here's the Berlin review). Perhaps my appreciation of his skills had become somewhat dulled of late. I was mildly interested in, but didn’t love “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” and there is something so seductive in the parody version of Herzog’s gloomy death-obsessed Teutonic voiceovers, and of the man himself as the lunatic who gets shot at during interviews and makes “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans,” that it’s easy to think of him as a guy who gets cast as the baddie in Tom Cruise action pics and not as an artist of singular intelligence and sensitivity (any more). These death row portraits explode any those slowly forming misconceptions and show Herzog at his most restrained and even-handed, with an uncanny knack for eliciting the most devastating of stories and reminiscences from his chilling subjects, and then getting swiftly out of the way.
4. "Moonrise Kingdom"
I’m not sure which backlash, or backlash-against-the-backlash (frontlash?) we’re up to on this one yet, because trying to keep up was threatening to give me whiplash. All I can say is that Wes Anderson’s latest (review here) was one of the most truly gorgeous, lovable times I had at the cinema this year, and when I left it wasn’t so much that the film stayed with me as that it felt like it had always been there. There is a formal precision to Anderson’s aesthetic that of course can become twee if it is not underpinned by real emotions, but here, as fetishized as the art direction is throughout, what you really come away with is the warmth of the film’s heart, and the odd accuracy of the memory of childhood’s glories and mortifications. Holding Anderson accountable for the slew of second-rate imitators of his style is wrongheaded anyway, but if you allow the copycats to put you off the original, then you’re denying yourself a real, heartfelt treat.
A formally thrilling and thematically daring film detailing the terrible personal toll that a Tel Aviv suicide bombing takes on one good man, with "The Attack" (reviewed here), Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri pulls off the task of taking an utterly poisonous political subject and making a brilliantly compelling film that doesn’t feel like it panders to any particular notions of political correctness, but never feels like propaganda either. Based on the novel of the same name by Yasmina Khadra, “The Attack” is ultimately a personal story but it never trivializes the dreadfulness of the act at its centre, nor the injustices that fuelled it. And if it doesn’t offer any answers, perhaps, in bringing us, so skilfully, deep into the belly of the beast, it makes us understand the questions just a little bit better.
2. "The Hunt"
Anchored by Mads Mikkelsen’s Cannes Best Actor-winning central performance, Thomas Vinterberg’s brilliant but harrowing “The Hunt,” is a scorchingly tense return to form (and to early themes) for the “Festen” director (reviewed here). An account of the witchhunt that ensues after a false accusation of paedophilia among a tight-knit group of friends, some critics have complained about the central, innocent man’s passivity in the face of his increasing pariah status within the community. To them I say, respectfully, whaaa? He is not passive, he’s paralysed with incredulity, the knowledge of his innocence, and the belief that his friends must come to their senses. So while he is victimised physically and emotionally by others, the real drama of the film is internal -- it is not about proving his innocence, it is about not believing for a second that anyone could actually need proof. And finally it is him, simply having to say the words, that ends the misery but it’s also a defeat -- an acknowledgement that the friendships he believed in were not what he had thought. For me, that the protagonist’s terrible predicament is partly the result of this trapped, circular thinking is the film’s greatest strength, and it makes the man’s situation almost unbearably relatable: if this were to happen to me I would simply be waiting for the madness to end too. Terrifying, chilly and ruthlessly logical, I’m not sure the film needed its final slightly gimmicky twist, but otherwise nothing had me as far on the edge of my seat all year as this did.
Kidding! Just kidding! My number one is "Holy Motors," like nearly every other critic's, sorry. You’re probably as sick as I am of seeing Leos Carax’s rollercoaster mindfuck tour de force on the top of year-end lists, but though every contrarian impulse in my body is screaming against it, it deserves its spot here for me too, and by quite some distance. A lot’s been said about 2012 being a great year for movies and I’d tentatively agree in that I think there have been a lot of generally pretty decent films, and the base level has seemed, to generalise wildly, slightly higher -- perhaps as a result of having some of our better-performing blockbusters also be the sort of films that don’t make your brain cry. But at the same time there were very few total standouts for me personally, except for "Holy Motors," which truly towered head and shoulders above anything else I saw in terms of verve and nerve and scope and audacity. It is also the best value film I saw all year comprising pretty much ten or eleven films rolled into one that run from horror to drama to comedy to thriller, and in almost all cases, are absorbing, sometimes lovely, sometimes spooky, sometimes sad stories in their own right. And that’s before we even start talking about the meta-story, which is the biggest puzzle of them all.
I was not a fan of Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge” at all, in fact I loathed it and remember it as pretentious and really very dull. So what surprised me here was just how entertained I was by "Holy Motors" which did everything that every other film on this list did, in one glorious jumbly messy brilliant soup, and also gave me my longest, heartiest, least expected laugh of the year (chimps). And really that’s the crux of it. A riddle wrapped in a drama wrapped in a comedy wrapped in a thriller wrapped in an enigma, "Holy Motors" isn’t just my favorite film of the year -- it’s all of my favorite films of the year, and quite a few other films besides.
“Anna Karenina” was the first film from Joe Wright that I’ve been really impressed by, though many of my esteemed colleagues are long-time fans (our review is here). It’s a beautiful, imaginative movie, particularly in its first third, where I almost got tired of having my breath taken away. Still, while Keira Knightly didn’t jaw-act this time, which I have accused her of previously (it was all about the clavicles here), her characterisation of the petulant Anna might have been brave in its unlikability, but it did make her ultimate tragic fate kind of not-so-tragic. Nonetheless, had it been about 15 minutes shorter, it probably would have made my list proper, just for the conviction Wright brought to doing something truly new and different with the fustiest of genres.
Another literary adaptation, Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” (review) was the most incredible evocation of mood I saw all year -- the dripping muddy moors, the mists and rains and scabs and whipping hair all made for some of the most seemingly unaestheticized and yet beautiful shots I'd seen. But I just didn’t get caught up in the human story of Cathy and Heathcliff, as good as all the actors (particualrly the younger set, I thought) were. It’s a story about ungovernable, passionate love, but it felt like the dampness stifled the fire.
And finally “Killing Them Softly” (reviewed here) boasted some terrific performances, especially from Scoot McNairy and the appalling duo of Ben Mendelsohn and James Gandolfini, and I wanted to love the film as much as I loved “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (which is probably in my top ten of the decade). But the elegiac sadness of ‘Assassination’ is absent here and replaced by nothing but what felt to me like easy cynicism. Plus I started to think about how much more interesting it would have been had Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins switched roles, and then I couldn’t get that out my head.
Runner up: “The Cold Light of Day” is remarkable only (and I mean only) for having Sigourney Weaver turn up in exactly the same role she played in 2011 Worst Film candidate “Abduction,” wearing what I’m pretty sure is the exact same ill-fitting trouser suit.
The absolute pits: “This Means War” gets special dishonour for taking three principals I actively like and making all three mince around like idiots serving a plot that isn’t just silly, it’s patently offensive on every level.
“Argo” was fine, but a little flat, and ultimately a bit forgettable, except for Scoot McNairy’s glasses which I liked a lot. I just like saying Scoot McNairy. Scoot McNairy.
“Silver Linings Playbook” was a nicely played romantic comedy that was billed as something transgressive or progressive or whatever, but was actually hugely conventional, right down to the “the dance finals are on the same day as the Big Game” trope which I’m almost certain is the climax of at least three “Step Up” movies.
And “Beasts of the Southern Wild” made me generally uncomfortable, but I’m not sure if that’s because of my ancient wariness of magic realism as a genre, or because there really was something exploitative about the “wonder in squalor” aspect of it. For magic realism to work at all for me (and I stress it rarely does), the realism has to earn the magic, and vice versa -- a really difficult, symbiotic balance has to be struck if it’s not going to end up simply a fantasy that borrows relevance and interest from real events, or a ‘real’ story that escapes into unrelated fantasy when it can’t think of exactly what it’s trying to say. And when you feel alienated from this kind of narrative, that's when empathy crosses over into condescension. So while I believe the intentions of all concerned were good, and Quvenzhane Wallis is endearing to watch, ultimately I feel the film takes more from the discourse around Katrina, and general disenfranchisement, than it gives back to it. Hence: discomfort.
“Prometheus” crushed my hopes for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe as surely as Charlize Theron was crushed beneath that big rolling thing that she didn’t think to simply move out of the way of. A mess of unresolved subplots, baffling character 180s and Dramatic Things That Happen and then are Never Mentioned Again, I may have seen worse films this year, but none hurt quite so much.
Let’s never speak of it again.
Happy New Year, everybody, thanks for reading.