Another year, another Top 10 Best Films list. Yawn. As if the Internet isn’t inundated with enough lists. I’m probably the bazillionth so-called critic rounding up another list that doesn’t really change much of the planet. Or how stupid War Horse really was. By the way (take note, folks) – if you love, or even remotely like, the aforementioned film – then this list is not for you. Go read Claudia Winkleman’s list or something. If you happen to shed a teardrop on that film, along with Madame Claudia, then SHAME ON YOU! Cheap, manipulative mawkishness has no place in this list, or anywhere else in this blog. I’d rather eat sugar and have a glucose overdose than watch that sugar fluff again. Anyway, enough ranting about that film, it won’t even make my 2012 list. Not in the very least.
To resume, if you start moaning that there wasn’t enough good films last year, you were probably busy watching Pirates of the Fucking Caribbean 3. It’s been truly a magnificent year for the arthouse circuit – the mainstream, not so much. Rango is probably the closest it can get to a Hollywood studio-funded project, and it’s in the honourable mention. It’s been a tremendous battle of the auteurs, with Terrence Malick, Lars von Trier, Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen and the Dardenne Brothers hitting balls out the park, producing films that engross, challenge and make you think about your place in this super-large universe. And who’ve had expected that a French director that nobody heard about made a film that everybody fell in love with, The Artist, a sweet, soulful paean to an age when none of the Hollywood stars talked on screen, a time when actions spoke louder than words.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order): Mysteries of Lisbon, A Dangerous Method, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Bridesmaids, Weekend, The Skin I Live In, Beginners, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior, Poetry, I Saw The Devil, Rango, Tabloid, The Future, Another Earth, Hanna
(Note: There’s a caveat – I haven’t seen Martin Scorcese’s Hugo. I know, shame on me too. And speaking of Shame, I have seen Steve McQueen’s new opus but technically speaking, that qualifies for the 2012 list. This list is based on films released in the UK for the last calendar year.)
The well-respected Dardenne brothers return to the scene with this remarkable addition to their humanistic body of work. They took a startlingly simple concept – a boy looks for his estranged father – into something that’s heartbreakingly sad, truthful and ultimately life-affirming. It’s reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, where troubled fathers are haunted by life’s harsh realities and where sons witness the unfolding tribulations, but The Kid with a Bike offers something relatively challenging. What happens when it’s the father runs away from responsibility, leaving the kid to deal with the situation? The result is a personal odyssey of a kid’s quietly tragic coming of age, going from one bully to another, with his bike being constantly stolen and retrieved (the bike being a perfect metaphor for the only possession attached to the memory of his father left with him), captured with documentarian precision by the Dardenne brothers. If there’s one film that makes you want to carry on fighting all the shit you face in life, it’s this one.
The slow motion sequences. The killer French soundtrack. The Godardian colour palettes. The retro nods to Audrey Hepburn and James Dean. The oddly amusing ménage à trois of Quebec hipsters. Many will scoff at the ultra self-conscious approach of Les Amour Imaginaires (lazily translated to its English title Heartbeats) or smother Xavier Dolan in his sleep for taking over as many jobs in the film production (this guy’s a one-man crew), but this will certainly be adored by the same cult who followed many of Jean-Luc Godard films or the cinema of François Truffaut. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Dolan’s knack in injecting a much-needed cinematic style to a generation fed with kitsch cinema, reviving self-conscious explorations on immortal themes – love, jealousy, desire – and make them look as if something new out of the water. Even the talking heads interspersed throughout the film, where random individuals detail their broken relationships, makes absolute sense in the context of Dolan’s character turmoils. OK, this is no Jules et Jim, but it’s pretty damn close. And you’d never imagine this coming from a director at the age of 22.
When other below-par debut directors mess around with genre movies, Richard Ayoade soaks himself with the spirit of the French New Wave and revitalised the hyperventilating British cinema (everyone lauded Joe Cornish Attack The Block as the British film of the year, it’s not) and produces something artistically credible, fun, funny, heartfelt and very much alive. Like the best films of nouvelle vague, Submarine is playful and irreverent to narrative structure, with a cinematic style (jump-cuts, slow-motion, vintage footage, alternate reality sequences) that would seem ambitious for a first-time feature director but becomes effortless in Ayoade’s deft hands. But Submarine‘s coup de grace is in its wonderfully-told tale of adolescence, pitch-perfectly capturing the awkward insecurities and precociousness of Oliver Tate and his femme fatale in red duffel coat Jordana. Amidst Oliver’s escapist antics, whether it be imagining his own death scenes or hilariously setting up a night of lovemaking, there’s a truthful, if self-aware, portrait of what it’s like to fall in love for the first time. Whilst keeping human relationships around you intact. If you dig The 400 Blows and Harold and Maude, you’ll also fall in love with this one.
For the last decade or so, Woody Allen is pretty much hit-and-miss. Putting aside Match Point (even that was too ghoulish for Allen standards) and Vicky Christina Barcelona (good, but overrated), he has never made a film that matches the artistic greatness of Manhattan, Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. Thank fuck then he made Midnight in Paris, a film so beautifully soaked in nostalgia that watching it feels like having a hot bath with golden bubbles. If that sounds frothy to you, then perhaps you haven’t really bought the delights of Allen’s genius in his screenplay and characters, who are all very flawed and relatable, if somewhat neurotic. This is, without a doubt, the best film Allen has produced in years. From its opening, a postcard-perfect montage of Parisian streets by dawn to night set to Sidney Bechet’s jazzy ‘Si Tu Vois Ma Mere‘, followed by a droll yet sincere monologue from Owen Wilson’s creatively decrepit writer musing about beauty and the City of Lights, it’s palpable Allen is back to beautiful form. This montage alone is a gorgeous as Gershwin serenading Manhattan in monochrome. It’s a heartfelt, charmingly poignant love-letter to Paree and nostalgia by an auteur who certainly hasn’t lost his joie de vivre.
A film fan’s film, Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir is so steeped in genre filmmaking that any aficionado who sees it would recognise the overt references (Lynch! Scorcese! Tarantino! Noé! Wong Kar Wai!). But Drive is no mere film tour – it’s a masterfully crafted mood-piece (take that, you imbecile hag from America who sued the producers for apparently not producing Fast and the Furious) that marries cinematic beauty with raw, gripping violence. The elevator sequence is alone eloquent and protean filmmaking. What starts as lyrical suddenly becomes astonishingly brutal and visceral. It’s a sleight of hand that Refn handles assuredly. You might dub Refn as recycling man, sure he recycles themes and genre elements here, but there’s no denying the man has good taste. We get an immortal Raymond Chandler figure, drifting around the seedy, morally decayed backstreets of Los Angeles, perfectly embodied by the near-silent, brooding charisma of one Ryan Gosling, who is fast becoming the coolest guy in cinema around. The jacket, the gloves, the toothpick, the no-nonsense attitude – even Paul Newman would’ve been green with envy.
The most divisive piece of work in this list, no doubt. The Tree of Life divides opinions as conspicuously as Moses parting the Red Sea (if that one ever happened). It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been bored to death by Malick’s pseudo-spiritual mooning or hypnotised by its enigmatic lyricism and eye-watering visuals – The Tree of Life is important cinema, whether you like it or not. If that Great Flashback Sequence to the Birth of the Universe (literally) where Malick is trying to be as important as Kubrick doesn’t do it for you, then, darling, you don’t have much worldly perception and ambition so why don’t you go carry on watching Transformers or Captain Fucking America where your brain and heart will certainly rot. With maggots. At least somebody in this godforsaken Earth makes something profound and profoundly human, how’s about that? It’s a beautiful, soaring ode to childhood, nature, life and the universal human experience – things, moments and people that we take for granted every single waking day of our lives. Malick, who’s always been a pacifist and humanist, tells this minimalistic story of a 1950’s suburban family in Texas and makes their experience a blank canvas for us to project and resonate. He is able to prod our deepest feelings with a profound evocation of childhood, growing up, growing old and the nature of dying. It might first appear to be so stunningly complex, but Malick’s message is so stunningly simple – to make the most of every second we have in this world. Whoever claims that the film’s epilogue, a family reunion on a beach, symbolically stands for heaven, is obviously not looking and thinking hard enough. The Tree of Life does not pretend that there is God, nor it refutes a godless existence. To Malick, a god, be it as it may, is present in every living thing – in the sun, the wind, the trees, our mothers, father, brothers, friends. So if you have some shred of a heartstring left dangling inside their ribcage, watch this and start appreciating everything and everyone we have around us.
Michel Hazanavicius must be insane making a silent film (that is virtually dialogue-free for the Scouse and Liverpudlians who demanded a refund upon realising that the people in The Artist don’t talk! OMG, we want our money back!) in pure Academy ratio, black-and-white with unknown actors in this day and age, where 3D, colour and lots of eye-popping explosions and mayhem rule the silverscreen. But it proves that it takes some insanity to have the touch of genius to make The Artist, a kind of film that no one should really care about but somehow made everyone running to their theatres and see what all the fuss is about. This defiantly and unabashedly romantic tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood Silents creates something that most films these days fail to do – taking a simple concept and transcending it to wonderful, glorious guilty-pleasure entertainment. And there’s an irony that lies at the heart of The Artist, it’s a French film about Hollywood (how dare the French make a film about the Americans!), but it’s an irony well-founded and established. We all have seem to have forgotten that perhaps 90% of Great American Silent Films were directed by European auteurs – Murnau, Lang, Borzage, von Stroheim, Hitchcock, Chaplin, to name a few. So, for those who carp at The Artist anti-protean simplicities, try naming a film in the past decade which entertained crowds with barely a dialogue. I bet you can’t name one. That, my friend, is part of its charm – a glorious throwback to a bygone age when a wordless sequence made audiences laugh, cry and heart bouncing in pure joy.
This low-key masterwork from one of France’s greatest cinematic voices is so deliberately low-key that you’d be forgiven to think that this tale of two bickering people in the sun-dappled Tuscany is going nowhere. Yet, in fact, Certified Copy goes to places you’d never imagine. What starts as a tour guide stroll in this part of Italia, where a French woman meets writer-cum-artist, transforms into an extraordinarily illuminating discourse into history, human relationships, existentialism, life, love, art and the copies in between. It’s a magnificent stroke, but one that’s drawn from sheer modesty – Kiarostami is never pretentious in his cinematic essay. He places Juliette Binoche’s unnamed woman and William Shimmel’s James on a crossroad, just like Richard Linklater once did with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise, and makes the couple bicker endlessly into the edge of their perceptions. But whilst Sunrise was straightforward, Copy throws a stunning conceit at the middle, leaving us viewers bewildered and aghast. Are they really a couple? Have they been really married 15 years? Are they pretending to be that they are? Or does it really matter? Every viewer will be compelled to have their own interpretations, but it seems Kiarostami is having his last laugh. Certified Copy, beautifully epitomised in the title itself, is not so much about tangible reality than cinematic reality. Copies of reality. His thesis is that we we are what we see around us. We all unconsciously become forgeries of past truths, emotions, moments, ideals, flaws. And that makes cinema a brilliant medium of exploring those elements. This is, ultimately, emotionally charged, perceptive and intelligent cinema bursting with ideas.
There’s a cunning directness at the crux of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, one film that has been banned in his home country Iran but ubiquitously praised in the Western world as an astounding masterpiece. At surface, it’s a divorce drama with marital spouses battling at court over an appeal for child custody, but this is only a prelude to a domino-effect chain of events that would compel these warring couple to reassess their position in a very asphyxiating society. Layers upon layers are peeled, as the film metamorphose from a mere divorce drama into a powerful indictment of the Iranian government, religion and shariah law. Structured like a tightly wound clockwork, events unfold like a whodunnit that will have you at the edge of your seat as any gripping decent thriller would, only that the central conflict revolve around the daily crises faced by the main protagonists in this society – a husband attending to his Alzheimer-stricken father, a wife who wanted to flee Iran with her daughter, a maid who claims domicile violence and a daughter who witness everything. And yet Farhadi does no lazy finger-pointing – he painstakingly reveals each and every character and their own version of subjective truths, Rashomon-style. The result is utterly devastating, harrowing piece of cinema, gut-churning and smothering with all its moral and philosophical statements. The real separation portrayed here extends from mere domestic walls, but both the external and internal barriers which set us all, civilians, from freedom to choose. Watch this and discover how A Separation will affect you. You will need a good breath of fresh air afterwards.
It’s curious that left-field, liberal cinema makes the number one spot every year. After all, this is an annual list that chose I Am Love and Hunger in its previous roll. But this is exactly what this blog is all about – paying tribute to the liberal, artistic films that grace our screens, defying conventions and mass expectations. And none is even moreso appropriate than Lars von Trier, the enfant terrible of Western filmmaking, and his latest tour-de-force Melancholia – a dazzlingly unforgettable psychodrama sci-fi of sorts that’s part dysfunctional family drama and part contemplative exploration on mortality, human depression and extinction – a hybrid of genre that’s very much von Trier territory. Let’s not forget this is the director who smashed the musical genre on its face with Dancer in the Dark and dismantled cinematic pretension with his cruel moralistic fable Dogville. Here, von Trier brings everything to dust with such finality he draws a rogue blue planet to wipe out every trace of existence in this planet, causing control-freak Charlotte Gainsbourg to really freak out and manic-depressive Kirsten Dunst to feel redemptive and Zen. But it all makes perfect sense, psychologically, in von Trier’s Chekovian analysis of two sisters on a lockdown. Set against a full-on Wagnerian bombast of Tristan und Isolde romanticism, apocalypse in brought upon like a saving grace to Justine’s state-of-mind. And all of these happens in a wedding, so hilariously, terrifyingly set-up with pitch-black nihilism and scathing criticism of human wretchedness with some terribly beautiful images conjured with masterly and painterly precision worthy of Tarkovsky or Last Year in Marienbad. It has an über slow-motion prologue that will blow your mind, and a finale that will, ironically, make one feel rapturous, exhausted, devastated yet liberated. It’s a mix bag of feelings, but that’s the testament of Melancholia‘s searing power. This is bold, brave, aesthetically impressive filmmaking of the highest order imaginable.