Monday 17 December 2012

End of Year Review: Cinema - 15 Favourite Films of 2012

Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

With just a few notable exceptions, the movies that meant the most to me in 2012 weren’t those concerning my own generation but rather those focusing on children, teens or the elderly confronting ordeals of various sorts. And, in a terrifically rich film year, no work meant more than Haneke’s distilled, devastating Amour. I opened my heart about the movie here and I don’t think I can honestly say more about it, yet. Except that the critical discourse that’s started to surround the film in some quarters - “a weepie for posh people,” “On Golden Pond directed by Hitler” (that last courtesy of Bret Easton Ellis) - can make you feel as sorrowful as the movie itself, in some ways.

Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

“Ah! as the heart grows older/It will come to such sights colder…” Named not for its heroine but in reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s aching 1880 poem “Spring and fall (to a young child),” Lonergan’s absolutely terrific, sharp but soulful post-9/11 New York drama - belatedly released after a lengthy studio battle - absorbs the viewer completely over its generous running time. As the student whose involvement in a fatal traffic accident results in a moral quagmire, Anna Paquin captivates as she hasn’t since The Piano way back when. But what I admire most about Margaret is the way it holds such a diverse range of characters in balance and focus, and often threatens to spin off into a passer-by’s story too, creating as rich a tapestry of interaction in the contemporary city as has been seen in many a long year. A favourite moment (of many): Kieran Culkin (splendidly louche and seriously messin’ with our Home Alone memories) describing his recent activity: “Watching some questionable movies and deciding where to go to college.”

The Kid With A Bike (dir. Dardennes)

It feels right to place together these indelible childhood portraits in which two dogged pre-teens negotiate fraught, unsatisfying family situations. By coincidence, my two favourite endings of the year, too. Reviews here and here.

Hot-wired to their creators film-fed fantasies, the years most mercurial movie mind-fucks came courtesy of Guy Maddin and Leos Carax, the former with a self-consciously haunted and haunting ghosts-and-gangsters opus that gradually takes possession of the equal-parts beguiled and bewildered viewer, the latter with an audacious meditation on identity and performance featuring a stunning vaudeville turn from Denis Lavant.  Amen! Reviews here and here.

Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

“As fluffy and playful as a two-week-old kitten cuddling candyfloss” was one commentator’s verdict on Moonrise Kingdom. Is that actually the case, though? Notwithstanding the surface cuteness, the deadpan delivery and the gorgeously quirky design (including perhaps the year’s most brilliantly integrated soundtrack) I think there’s plenty of pain underpinning Anderson’s marvellous elopement odyssey, in which two teens devise a getaway plan that's every bit  as intricate in its design as the movie itself. You're a hero, Master Shakusky.

About Elly (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

The success of A Separation (which made my list last year, of course) finally ensured a belated British cinema release for Asghar Farhadi’s 2009 film, a gripping and gruelling cautionary tale for meddlers in which the disappearance of the title character during a friends’ weekend at the Caspian Sea ends up embroiling the group in a web of evasions and lies. Even richer than A Separation? I’d say so.

Beloved (Les bien aimes) (dir. Christophe Honoré)
There wasn’t a whole lotta love around for Christophe Honoré’s globe-trotting mother-daughter musical saga which most critics seemed to regard as a silly, indulgent folly that the director lost control of. Starting as spry, colourful Demy homage, ending in unsettlingly bleak terrain, I found Beloved’s zips between styles and modes exhilarating and there are sequences in this movie that have stayed with me vividly in the many months since I saw it. Full review here.

Shell (dir. Scott Graham)
As yet unreleased, Graham’s beautifully assured and bracingly atmospheric debut explores the frustrations and the comforts of entrapment through a tense father-daughter relationship in the Scottish Highlands. The movie's bleak look and tone are subverted by a redemptive finale that blindsides the viewer. Full review here.

Ginger and Rosa (dir. Sally Potter)

Ending with the beginning of a poem, Sally Potter’s earnest saga of 60s British radicalism doesn't have the elements of formal daring that have distinguished her best work. But this merging of teen angst, family melodrama, protest and politics is illuminated by a performance of heart-melting gorgeousness by Elle Fanning.

The Artist (dir. Hazanavicius)
The backlash was inevitable, I suppose,  but Hazanavicius’s adorable cine-homage remains one of the happiest memories of 2012 movie-going for me. Full review.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

Simon Killer (dir. Antonio Campos)

Bravo, Borderline boys. Two discomforting, twitchily intense dramas from the creative collective formed by NYC alums Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond. Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene zips backwards and forwards in time, concealing and disclosing, as it explores a young woman’s experience with a cult, while Campos’s Simon Killer plops its dumped and deluded protagonist down in the City of Light and into two relationships that gradually reveal the extent of his psychosis. Along with Lonergan’s movie, this pairing’s enough to make you hopeful for the future of serious-minded US cinema, after all.

In the House (dir. Francois Ozon)

It’s a funny thing about Ozon’s latest, an exploration of fiction-making that, like his Sitcom before it, riffs around Pasolini’s Theorem to its own cheeky ends. I was constantly absorbed, riveted, delighted, moved and amused whilst watching it and yet the movie hasn’t really resonated in my mind the way some of the director’s other work has. I put this down to film fest overload, though, and include the movie on this list in the hope of a rewatch sometime soon, and a reassurance that this is indeed - as I felt straight after the screening - one of Ozon’s finest, deepest offerings to date.

Enigma: The Master (dir. Anderson)

Honourable mentions: Tall as the Baobab Tree (dir. Teicher), Laurence Anyways (dir. Dolan), Le Havre (dir. Kaurismaki), Caesar Must Die (dir. Tavianis), Like Someone in Love (dir. Kiarostami), Imagine (dir. Jakimowski)

Disappointments, duds: The Players (dir. Dujardin and other culprits), War Horse (dir. Spielberg), Rust and Bone (dir. Audiard), Everyday (dir. Winterbottom), What Richard Did (dir. Abrahamson), Blood (dir. Murphy), Take This Waltz (final 20 minutes excepted) (dir. Polley)


  1. Good list. I would have included Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (possibly my film of the year), Shame, possibly Le Havre, and removed Ginger and Rosa, which was sterile, static, predictable and dreadfully miscast (although you're right about Fanning). Otherwise, excellent choices.

  2. Excellent list, Alex! I felt so-so about Lonergan's Margaret; it didn't all fit together for me, and I felt the film was often overly melodramatic. The Kid with a Bike is probably the best movie that I've seen this year. I also appreciated the surprises and innovations of Holy Motors, as well as the tone and intensity of Martha Marcy May Marlene.

    Moonrise Kingdom was indeed fun and gorgeously designed. Maddin's Keyhole has yet to surface here in Boston, sadly. Amour will be released here next week, however, so I plan to see that one on your enthusiastic recommendation. I'll let you know what I think of it when I do.

    Regarding Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master: I think it helps to view the film allegorically, perhaps, as the way a film director (Philip Seymour Hoffman's character) has to rein in and "tame" a young actor (Joaquin Phoenix's character). In my opinion, Joaquin Phoenix's performance should get this year's Oscar for Best Actor, though it may not even be nominated. They'll probably give it to Daniel Day-Lewis again.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Anonymous - I meant to add a "Yet To See" section here which would have included ANATOLIA -I must catch up with that soon. I was ambivalent about SHAME, and included GINGER AND ROSA mainly for Fanning's performance, though there were other things about it that I liked. Can't agree that it was sterile: I found it to be an extremely emotional film.

    Jason - Yes, agreed on the swerves into melodrama in MARGARET but I found the film so rich, tonally, that these didn't bother me at all. Brace yourself for AMOUR...

    As for THE MASTER, well, it certainly seems to be an allegory for *something*. ;-) I was absorbed and irritated in about equal measure throughout and would need to see it again before coming to a final judgment. I can't help but hope that P.T.A gets back to the contemporary world for his next outing, though...

  4. There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights were definitely better films than The Master, I feel. Not so sure about Magnolia. But there's certainly a consistency to his themes and style.

    I forgot to mention Ben Affleck's Argo, which is really a smart and entertaining movie. I liked it nearly as much as The Kid with a Bike, although they're very different films.

  5. Great list! I am looking forward to seeing many of these films, especially Amour. I hadn't heard of Shell, Sister, or The Kid With a Bike. I'm adding them to my list now.

  6. Thanks! Let me know how you liked them.