In the fourteen years since the release of his masterpiece "Festen," Thomas Vinterberg's follow-ups have been, to varying degrees, disappointments. So in a way, it makes sense that his storming comeback comes from a film that looks again at the subject matter of sexual abuse, albeit from a very different perspective to that of his 1998 Dogme picture. Mads Mikkelsen, in a career-best performance, plays Lucas, a teacher in a small Danish town, left lonely after a poisonous divorce, and working as a classroom assistant after his old school shuts down. Things start to look up after he strikes up a romance with his co-worker, but suddenly, his world is up-ended when Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of his pupils and the daughter of his best friend, accuses him of inappropriate behavior. It's the thoughtless and mostly unknowing act of a little girl -- we know from the start that Lucas is blameless -- but like a 20th century melodrama (the film's reminiscent of both Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's "The Visit" in some respects), the townspeople can't believe that a child would lie, and so Lucas becomes ostracized and untouchable in the community. Vinterberg makes the smart move and simply gets out of the way of the story, letting the script (co-written by Tobias Lindholm, writer-director of the equally great "A Hijacking") and phenomenal cast do the heavy lifting. And at the center of it all is Mikkelsen, giving an absolutely titanic performance as a man so confounded by the idea that people might think he could do such a thing that he can never bring himself to deny it. It's something that aggravated some viewers, but in Mikkelsen's hands, it's understandable, and deeply, deeply moving.
Some have tainted Ben Affleck's "Argo" with the faint praise that, once upon a time, all commercial movies were as smart and well-executed as this, so really "Argo" is nothing special. Well, I'm not sure that it was ever the case that films like this arrived like they grew on trees, and if it was, it certainly isn't the case now, so we should certainly cherish an "Argo" when it does come along. Affleck's first two films as director, "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," were promising without quite sticking the landing, but even this marks a real leap up; a thrilling, breathlessly tense picture with plenty of wit, style and feeling. Affleck surrounds himself with a cast stacked with character actor greats (Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston being particular stand-outs), putting flesh on the bones of Chris Terrio's screenplay which is terrific, but perhaps drew the characters a little thinly. It's just one example of the way that Affleck makes all the right choices from here, from never leaning too heavily on sentiment with his own character, to a clear, concise storytelling. And some of the filmmaking here -- the way he juggles the tone from life-and-death-stakes to the Hollywood fun-and-games and back, the breathlessly tense editing of the final act -- is pretty much world class. It's absolutely a mainstream crowd-pleaser, but an impeccably executed one, and I must have missed the memo that declared that was a bad thing on either count.
In an especially strong year for political cinema, my favorite came from a relatively unlikely source; Chile, and rising director Pablo Larrain. I'd been a big fan of the director's previous two pictures, "Tony Manero" and "Post Mortem," dark, but quite different pictures that both looked at his nation in the years when it was being ruled by General Pinochet's dictatorship. To close off this trilogy, Larrain naturally looked at the final days of the regime, doing so with "No," a film that marks both his most formally audacious, and yet his most commercially accessible, picture to date. The film follows Rene (the best performance yet from Gael Garcia Bernal), a trendy, skateboarding ad executive with a collapsing marriage, who's asked to run the advertising campaign for those asking the people of Chile to vote 'No' on the upcoming referendum, and oust Pinochet from power. His boss (Alfredo Castro) is meanwhile fighting for the 'Yes' side, but that's almost the least of his problems, as the previously apathetic Rene attempts to use American ad techniques to sell the idea of freedom to the people. Funny, gripping and as perceptive as anything ever made about the power and process of advertising, it was also one of the most visually bold films of the year, thanks to Larrain's decision to shoot on bona-fide 1980s-style video. You feel like it shouldn't work, but he finds a strange beauty in the format, and it helps him blend contemporary archive footage in with what he shot seamlessly. In short: Yes.
Speaking (as we were at the start of this piece, if you've made it this far...) of children's literature, "Moonrise Kingdom" makes a good claim for being Wes Anderson's first children's film. His last, "Fantastic Mr Fox," might have a more obvious claim to the title, but that was essentially an urbane, if unusually zippy early Woody Allen picture that happened to be made in stop-frame animation. "Moonrise," however, taps more than anything else the director's ever made into that innocence of youth (complete with nods to classic children's literature along the way), and in the process turned out to be certainly the director's best film since "The Royal Tenenbaums," probably his best since "Rushmore" and maybe even his finest work ever. Obviously of a piece with the immaculate tableaux of his earlier films, Anderson feels looser and more playful here, formally at least, freed up by his fresh-faced protagonists (who are both excellent). Perhaps more importantly, the script (co-written by Roman Coppola) tones down the more arch qualities, and plays up the feeling that had often been lacking from his more recent films, thanks to beautifully drawn performances from the adults, including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. Despite the coming-of-age subject matter, and evocation of hazy endless summers and scouting adventures, it also feels like Anderson's maturing, somehow. If nothing else, worth watching for those glorious end credits.
I have to admit, I'd been something of a "Life of Pi" grinch around the Playlist water cooler in the run up to release. I wasn't sure that the novel could ever be adapted, I'd been unimpressed by Ang Lee's last few films, and the trailers had left me unmoved. But lo, when I caught up with the film just before Christmas, my heart grew two sizes too big, and I fell seriously in love with it. It's obviously a visual marvel. Even a 3D refusenik like myself was left positively evangelical by the format after the way Lee uses it, and Richard Parker (and the other animals) are pretty much the best visual effects I've ever seen. And the way that the filmmaker manages to find endless and imaginative ways to lens his hero (Suraj Sharma, in perhaps the most undervalued performance of the year), his tiger, and his boat, which could easily have become repetitive after about ten minutes, further cements that he's truly one of the greats. But it's far from just empty spectacle either; the director, and his script (by David Magee) engages intelligently and wholeheartedly with the novel's themes of religion, fate and storytelling, without becoming overbearing or tiresome -- in fact, it's arguably more successful than the novel in that respect. That Lee was able to make a $100 million dollar movie about these themes at 20th Century Fox was impressive enough, that he turns it into something of a Rorschach test for the audience (I felt that the film was suggesting that belief in God is a comforting fiction, religious friends took it as an affirmation of their faith) even more so. In a year full of idiotic 'cinema is dead' op-eds, Lee basically refuted themacross the space of two hours here.