In the cleverest volte-face of the year, Rian Johnson made everyone think they were going in for a smart, original piece of science-fiction reminiscent of "The Terminator" and "Twelve Monkeys," among other things. Audiences got that, but in the film's intimate, powerful second half, they also got a movie that turned out to be about parenting, about the problems of raising a troubled child, and about the consequences of trauma. And it was still a global hit. That's a pretty great smuggling act, if you ask me. This isn't to put down the film's first half, which sets up a genuinely distinctive near-future world (where Johnson's retro trappings make narrative sense, rather than feeling tacked-on), introduces two tremendous sides of the same coin in the performances from Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, plenty of intriguing philosophical dilemmas, and a grisly hall-of-fame demise for Paul Dano's character. But the real meat can be found in the second half, when Joe hides out on a farm with Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who may or may not grow up to be a fearsome crime lord known as the Rainmaker. Suddenly, what was an enjoyably twisty chase thriller becomes an equally-gripping, but far more effective look at the old would-you-kill-Hitler-as-a-child dilemma. Johnson movingly argues that even a child as destructive and volatile as Cid shouldn't be written off. Anyone who's ever worked with or known children with... particular needs will surely identify, and I can't be the only person who thought of the film when reading this blog post a few weeks back. And all of that wrapped up in a beautifully made, fiercely original sci-fi picture that confirmed that Rian Johnson is one of our most exciting young filmmakers.
I liked Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz" an awful lot, but there were enough dodgy directorial decisions (that passage-of-time sex scene, for instance) in place to keep it off this list. But I had no such issues with her follow-up, "Stories We Tell," which played the festival circuit, and was released in her native Canada, in 2013. A documentary (at least on the surface...) that serves as something of a companion piece to both "Take This Waltz" and her debut "Away From Her," it sees the director turn her lens on her own family, and specifically her parents, Michael and Diana (who passed away when Sarah was only eleven), who were both themselves actors when they met. Initially, it seems to be a sweet, lovingly-constructed home movie, but soon, Polley reveals there's a much stronger narrative throughline. I won't give it away here, but I did discuss it in my original review if you want to know more. What unfolds, through archive footage, interviews and reconstruction, is a story as absorbing as anything in any fictional film this year. The documentary form is perfect for a subject like this, where much of what the filmmaker is discussing is about the nature of memory, and truth, and Polley is upfront about the ethical dilemmas and difficulties of delving into her own past, and the means with which she does so. But for all its meta qualities, it's also a deeply humanistic story, in which Polley tries to get to the heart of the mother she never really knew, pay tribute to her repressed, but incredibly warm father, and work through her own identity crisis. That she does so in a film as warm, technically impressive and smart as this suggests that Polley's career as a director is only just getting started.
Given that it was made by a female director in an environment as hostile to both women and film as Saudi Arabia (where women can't drive, and cinemas have been closed for decades), it's genuinely staggering that "Wadjda" turned out as brilliantly as it did. Owing equal debt to Italian neo-realism and more contemporary Iranian cinema, Haifaa Al-Mansour's feature debut follows the title character, a rebellious 12-year-old girl who enters a Koran-recitation competition at school in order to win enough money to ride a bike, while her mother (Reem Abdullah) fights to hold on to her husband, whose wealthy mother is encouraging him to get a second wife. In many ways, Wadjda and Hushpuppy from "Beasts of the Southern Wild" feel like sisters; independent, spirited, mischievious and played without manner or precociousness (in this case, by the young Waad Mohammed). To a western audience, Riyadh might feel almost as alien as the Bathtub, and Al-Mansour shoots the city, and the world, with both the back-of-the-hand expertise of an insider, and the careful eye of an outsider (she went to film school in the U.S, and had to direct mostly from the back of a van, lest she be seen doing the job in public). Again, it's an unashamedly political picture, but relaying its message -- about the rotten lot of women in the country -- through the personal and the specific, with a humanism that refuses to demonize anyone, from Wadjda's father (Sultan Al Assaf), who loves his daughter and wife, but faces external pressures to marry again, to the stern headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd). It might tip into sentimentality in places, but it's the kind of sentiment that's entirely earned, and few would begrudge it in a film as warm, sweet and beautifully made as this.
Popular conception of much of European 'arthouse' cinema is that it's a form of eating your cultural vegetables; you'll go, and have your brain stretched, and feel better for it, but may not necessarily enjoy it very much. That can be true -- something like Cristian Mungiu's excellent, but punishing "Beyond The Hills," which just missed my list, probably does reaffirm those stereotypes. But I don't see how anyone could sit down to Miguel Gomes' "Tabu" and find it anything but one of the most enjoyable, romantic and beguiling experiences of the last year. Shot in hauntingly beautiful black-and-white, the first half, set in modern-day Lisbon, is a little more in step with some of the Portugese helmer's contemporaries, austere and slow-paced, but with plenty of wit and emotion there too. And it pays off extraordinarily well in the second-half, which heads back to colonial Africa for an homage to F.W. Murnau's film of the same name, silent beyond narration, and the occasional blast of Wall of Sound pop. And it's those Phil Spector records that feel particularly appropriate; this second half has the immediate swooning romantic qualities of a great three-minute pop song; vivid and sad and sexy as all get out. And yet there's much more going on besides, Gomes bringing a sharp but never overcooked flavor of post-colonialism, a lovely examination of memory and regret, as well as a formal playfulness. I have to confess that I wasn't really aware of the filmmaker before seeing "Tabu," but I'm going to be watching him like a hawk from now on.
From Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder" to the aforementioned "Tabu," the spirit of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" ran through a lot of film this year, so it's appropriate that 2012 saw a cinematic version of the original story that, while bold and cinematically inventive, manages to come close to being a definitive take on the classic, as well as being my favorite film of the year. In Tom Stoppard's spectacularly good script (I suspect the quality of which has been overlooked because so few film critics have actually read the book), it has a jumping off point that more than any previous take, digs into the themes of the novel -- the many forms that love takes, artificial metropolitan life vs. simple pastoral life -- and allows the peripheral characters their moment in the sun, while still keeping the running time at around a brisk two hours. And in Joe Wright's directorial decision to set the film almost entirely in a theater, it has a brilliant conceit, somewhere between Baz Luhrmann and Powell & Pressburger, both intimately theatrical and dazzlyingly, inventively cinematic. But it's also a case of the content dictating the style, rather than the other way around, creating a world that's beautifully created and absolutely true to the spirit of the novel. On first viewing, I mostly loved the film, but had some reservations, but a second viewing recently saw them fall away, even when it came to the biggest of them, Aaron Taylor-Johnson's turn (first-time round, he felt out of his depth, the second, that seemed to be the exact right approach to the part. Although his haircut's still silly). He's only one part of a fine ensemble that includes career-best work from Keira Knightley, a fierce turn from Jude Law that virtually reinvents the character, and lovely supporting performances from both older hands like Matthew Macfayden and Kelly Macdonald, and newer hands like Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. I can understand why the take on the material threw some, but even those who are skeptics, or who aren't interested in the source material, should give "Anna Karenina" a try, because it was, for me, the single richest and most rewarding film of 2012.
Honorable Mentions: Other festival favorites include "A Hijacking," the gripping docu-drama from "The Hunt" co-writer Tobias Lindholm, which I stumbled upon semi-accidentally in Venice and proved to be one of the Lido highlights. I also (unexpectedly, given that I wasn't a big "Tree Of LIfe" fan) fell for Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder," a gorgeous and sincere look at people with great voids in their lives. And, while I didn't find that it held together in the way that its greatest fans did, some of the scenes and performances in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" were among the best things I saw this year, while I also found Olivier Assayas' "Something In The Air" growing on me over time, while Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" is kind of a blast.
Otherwise, aside from the aforementioned "21 Jump Street" and "Beyond The Hills," I also loved Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike," his best film, in my eyes, since "Solaris," while Peter Strickland's "Berberian Sound Studio" was a hugely impressive sophomore film from the British director, with Toby Jones giving one of the best performances of the year. "Cabin In The Woods" was Joss Whedon's second triumph of 2012, while "Jeff Who Lives At Home" was an understated treat, while I also really liked the similarly Mark Duplass-related "Safety Not Guaranteed," and, until its hasty conclusion, "Your Sister's Sister," and "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" turned out to be the best surprise I had all year. Plus, as a huge LCD Soundsystem fan, "Shut Up And Play The Hits" was like manna from heaven, and only just missed the top 15. And of the 2011 films that only hit the UK in 2012, "Rampart" and "Young Adult" were the best of them, even if neither quite cracked my final list.
Worst Of 2012: "Battleship" came close, but I really, really loathed "Ted." It might have a typically game performance from Mark Wahlberg at the center, and a few fitful laughs, but the rest of it seemed aimless, lazy and offensive without being transgressive (say what you like about the mostly weak "The Dictator," but it sets out to hit more taboo subjects than 'Chinese people speak funny.') That it was such a huge worldwide hit upset me more than almost anything else.