The best (and worst) films of 2012
by Philip Matthews
The best films of 2012 so soon? Sure, there is still a month of the year to go. And who knows – maybe The Hobbit will make a late run for the 11th spot. One more caveat: I missed at least three films that festival word of mouth suggests could have been contenders (Tabu, Faust, West of Memphis). But no one can claim to have seen everything.
Anyway, the ten “best” along with a few also-rans and notable failures …
1 AMOUR (dir. Michael Haneke). The standard line on Haneke in 2012 is that you thought he was a brutalist but he turned out to be tender. Actually, tenderness crept into The White Ribbon, the first film to win Haneke the Palme d’Or – Amour being the second. What’s different this time is that, unusually for a Haneke film, including The White Ribbon, Amour is built on two classically human performances. Once you might have suspected that Haneke liked to dehumanise his characters – his trick of reusing the names George and Anna in successive films suggests that – but New Wave veterans in old age Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant inhabit an unexpectedly delicate quotidian love story that becomes universal. This is every audience member’s confrontation with their own mortality. What will you do as you near the end?
In very broad terms, Haneke has described the shift in his approach as going from Brecht to Chekhov. But some old habits die hard. Trintignant and Riva are George and Anna in Amour, just as Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche were George and Anna in Hidden and Dieter Berner and Birgit Doll were George and Anna, 23 years ago, in Haneke’s first feature, The Seventh Continent. Speaking of which, it was a surprise to read Haneke, in the December 2012 Sight & Sound, claiming that the parallels between The Seventh Continent and Amour hadn’t occurred to him until Alexander Horwath from the Austrian Film Museum pointed them out. Really? I came out of Amour pretty sure that Haneke was making a direct connection to the earlier film, which tracked, in a colder and more clinical way, the slow deaths of an Austrian couple and their young daughter in a group suicide (another link: the young girl was named Eva, as is the adult daughter in Amour, played by Isabelle Huppert). In the earlier film, the family destroy their apartment, flush their money down the toilet – that scene, Haneke has said, was the most upsetting of all for European festival viewers – and pass out in a darkened room as the television plays Jennifer Rush performing her 80s power ballad, “The Power of Love”. That soundtrack might have seemed like sarcasm, but maybe it was a more sincere gesture. “We’re heading for something / somewhere I’ve never been …” the lyrics say. Later, the police break down the door: the end of The Seventh Continent is the start of Amour.
2 MARGARET (dir. Kenneth Lonergan). In an ideal world, Margaret would have been on top ten lists in 2007. We won’t go back over the drawn-out editing nightmares here, and it doesn’t even matter that Lonergan’s post-9/11 New York ambience feels like more a time capsule, as that contextual stuff seems irrelevant in the end. Margaret is evidence that a film can be both brilliant and imperfect, but the revelation is Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen in what was threatening to become the great lost performance of her career. I hadn’t been keeping up with the progress of Paquin’s acting – in other words, I didn’t watch True Blood – but her Lisa initially seemed like a more detailed, more complex, more infuriating, more morally troubled version of her character in The Squid and the Whale. But this sprawling, earnest film takes you far from Noah Baumbach land.
3 HOLY MOTORS (dir. Leos Carax). Number one on the Cahiers Du Cinema 2012 list, by the way. No surprise: this polarising, constantly surprising weird dream was the year’s movie movie. Absurd, profound, erotic, nostalgic, it was really getting at the urges that produce cinema, through a series of vignettes that suggest endless possibilities. Or it was a day-into-night ride through an imagined museum of French cinema. The less you know going in, the better.
4 MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (dir. Sean Durkin). In both Martha Marcy May Marlene and the short that preceded it, Mary Last Seen, Sean Durkin shows that you can still go and disappear in the dark American woods. In that act, or that story, there is both utopian promise and creepiness. Elizabeth Olson is remarkable as Martha, who we first see escaping from a cult in the Catskills. Over the course of the film, the cult as Martha remembers it goes from seeming borderline Amish – the head scarves, the old-fashioned sexism, the barns and blanket-selling – to sub-Manson-like, with cult leader, would-be folk singer and death philosopher Patrick (John Hawkes) seducing and controlling the women with his songs (look at your game, girl) and inaugurating creepy crawls and orgies. Durkin’s prevailing mood is ambiguity, and not just in storytelling terms: how much better is the world outside?
5 THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (dir. Drew Goddard). Written by Joss Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods is both a serious critique of the worst misogynistic excesses of Saw/Hostel torture porn and an affectionate, hilarious send-up of the slasher movie clichés that have piled up since Halloween. Attractive teenagers still die horribly in remote settings, but for better reasons than usual. Reviewed in full at Werewolf 35 (link).
6 A SEPARATION (dir. Asghar Farhadi). This opened everywhere, as few Iranian films have done before. What made this Iranian domestic drama so universal? Part of it must surely be that Farhadi’s film seems to be about a society defined by class more than religion or localised politics – it’s both not the Iran we expect and is more familiar to audiences in the west. Structures of Tehran social life and bureaucracy are dramatised: people are forever up and down stairs and in and out of rooms.
7 THE SKIN I LIVE IN (dir. Pedro Almodovar). Another of the year’s great movie movies. There were elements of Vertigo in an erotic horror storyline about an obsessed surgeon (Antonio Banderas) constructing the perfect woman but – as in Holy Motors, incidentally – Eyes Without a Face is a central text as well. Almodovar directed this preposterous and outrageously entertaining story (key line of dialogue: “I’ve got insanity in my entrails!”) with a mature and eerie calm. The full review is at Werewolf 29 (link).
8 SHAME (dir. Steve McQueen). When did sex in the movies stop being fun? While not as good as artist-turned-film-maker Steve McQueen’s debut, the astonishing Bobby Sands drama Hunger, Shame was carried by yet another remarkable Michael Fassbender performance. In Shame, all sex is pornographic and appetites are insatiable. Thus, Shame could also have been called Hunger (or Greed, or Damnation). It’s like American Psycho restaged as tragedy not farce. Fassbender, McQueen and co-star Carey Mulligan were British strangers in New York and that sense of alienation is deep in the pores of the picture: this New York is a city where no one is at home. Really, it could only have been sadder if McQueen had put some music by Burial on the soundtrack.
9 AUTOLUMINESCENT (dir. Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein). More than any other genre, maybe, music documentaries are a subjective area. You might have preferred the Shihad one, or the LCD Soundsystem one or what seemed like the 50th Neil Young one. Fine. But Autoluminescent is a fascinating, detailed and respectful account of a neglected talent, former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S Howard. Howard died in 2009 of liver disease, after years as a heroin user. Lowenstein, who directed the punk-age Melbourne cult movie Dogs in Space, was wise enough to collect some interviews before Howard checked out. The result is a moving story about drug addiction, creativity, bohemianism and truly extraordinary guitar playing. Key quote, from Howard himself, near his death: “I find it remarkable that most people don’t seem to see the world as being essentially a very sad place.” His lyrics communicated that. Even the amazing sound of his guitar communicated that. But the doco’s posthumous achievement is to put Howard’s post-Birthday Party work, which was in Nick Cave’s shadow for too long, before a wider audience.
10 LOOPER (dir. Rian Johnson). If you’re tired of time travel, you’re tired of movies. What was Jeff Daniels’ question to Joseph Gordon-Leavitt about why is he dressing like he’s in a film? Actually, the better self-referential line from Looper was, “I’m from the future, go to China”. Also, in the year that we lost Chris Marker, this La Jetee-quoting sci-fi action film was like an oblique tribute. And it would have been even more so had Rian Johnson not swapped Paris for Shanghai. But then, as Abe said, China is the future.
FROM NEW ZEALAND: Alyx Duncan’s The Red House was my favourite local film.
OUT OF THE PAST: We didn’t get the festival’s fresh print of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in the South Island, but we compensated with the blu-ray. We didn’t get Room 237 either, the documentary that collects fan theories about what it really means. But it sounds like we didn’t miss much. Everyone has their moment from The Shining that they really shouldn’t have explained. Mine is to do with the glimpse of the guy in the bear suit. Anyway, the reissue of The Shining, and the reappraisals that have followed, must be the year’s great revival moment.
WHEN THE ACTING IS BETTER THAN THE MOVIE: Alan Arkin in Argo (or, Wag the Dog in Afghanistan). James Gandolfini and Ben Mendelsohn in Killing Them Softly (are we in 1974 or 2008?). Christoph Waltz in Polanski’s Carnage. Michael Fassbender in the lousy Prometheus. Almost everyone in The Ides of March.
SERIOUS MISCASTING: Sam Riley as Jack Kerouac in On the Road. Also, did anyone believe that Frances McDormand would be married to Sean Penn’s washed-up goth-moper Cheyenne in Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place? As Cheyenne, Penn appeared to be playing Meryl Streep playing Ozzy Osbourne.
OVER-RATED: Benh Zeitlen’s Beasts of the Southern Wild constructed a mythic, faux-Malick world in the shadow of civilisation, on the outskirts of New Orleans. Festival crowds were won over but to me it seemed like exotic tourism in poverty fetishism, based on the worst “magical negro” clichés: these folk are poor but noble, in touch with their dreams, the earth, the environment, real life.
DUDS: The Beaver (no film in which Mel Gibson has a breakdown and starts talking like Michael Caine should be this dull). Our Idiot Brother. Prometheus. You could add The Avengers but it was already in the category titled “lower your expectations” – otherwise known as superhero movies.
THE MOST ANTICIPATED FILM TO COME IN 2013: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. I’m curious about Cosmopolis too, and Lincoln. At least one American critic has called Lincoln “the highlight of the Janusz Kaminski/Steven Spielberg collaboration”, which means that apart from anything else, it looks beautiful.