So it turns out that we’ve survived another apocalypse. Perhaps for the bazillionth time, some ancient civilisation predicted some grand catastrophe of Michael Bay proportions and all we get is the prolonged hum of existential continuity – like a film that keeps going on and doesn’t know how to end. A bit like Les Misérables, if you will. Shame, Tom Hooper’s fuck-your-eardrums songfest managed to lob itself to human consciousness, making you wish the Mayans were dead accurate in the first place. So to jump into this 12-12-12 bandwagon, I immediately thought The Moviejerk needs a little rejig and introduce the Top 12 Films of 2012 in a desperate attempt to achieve some numerical consistency here.
Another year, another rundown of the year’s best. Front, left and centre – critics across the nation have revealed their crème de la crème. In typical fashion, mine arrives late as usual – just like a guest arriving late in a party only to find the defacing conclusion that all the canapés are gone and that he wasn’t invited in the first place. Besides, everyone has already left the building to go rave somewhere. The year’s toast has already been done (Oscars don’t count – it’s a pantomime), and I’m just about to open my solitary bottle. Now, let it fizz. Cheers.
For the uninitiated (or those who happen to drunkenly stumble onto this site), I barely pay heed to the awards season. Lincoln, Argo and Les Misérables will sweep the board there, but not here. And despite my irreverence, what I do pay heed is the calendar known to mankind, so the list rolled out here encompass the films released theatrically in the UK from 1 January to 31 December of last year. Which means I spent 366 days trying to make my mind up and come up with this list, so be a kind human being and relish the pleasures of countdowns. It’s the journey that matters after all.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order): Looper, Argo, Take This Waltz, Nostalgia for the Light, Deep Blue Sea, Tomboy
No other film in 2012 studied the banality of evil in scatological precision as much as Markus Schleinzer did in his paedophile-locks-up-a-child-in-the-basement anti-drama, the sparingly titled Michael. Just like its central character, the film is lend with sparse, chilling moments that refuse to build up to an explosive climax – and instead drifts into the twisted, sociopathic tendencies of a villain masquerading as a soft-spoken, seemingly harmless insurance salesman. Schleinzer’s approach is cold and calculating, perhaps a style he’s acquired over the years of assisting co-Austrian Michael Haneke in casting direction. The result is a deeply disturbing portrait of psychological malaise, a horribly familiar tale of suburban isolation. Schleinzer begs to ask the question, what makes a man imprison a child and repeatedly molest him? The answer is in the face of Michael, a tawdry, unhappy product of social discontent. This is the year’s most effective horror film, all the more dreadful in its portrayal of a very mundane antagonist.
The second ripped-from-the-headlines child-abuse drama hails from Denmark, possessing a delicate sensibility that will make Daily Mail and its readers sharpen their pitchforks and burn Thomas Vinterberg at the stake. How dare he suggest a man accused of child molestation innocent? Burn him alive! With all the subversion of a socially perceptive, liberal essayist, the prodigal son of the Dogme 95 manifesto Vinterberg turns the small-town exposé around its head and daringly sheds some cautious light on communities’ predilection for easy scapegoating and collective condemnation. Like the reverse approach of Michael, The Hunt sets out its ostracised protagonist Lucas (a devastating, multi-layered performance by Mads Mikkelsen) as innocent straight away, making this a sobering, pulverising indictment on mass hysteria and suspension of rationality in the name of victimisation of our children. Not since 1998’s Festen Vinterberg made a compelling film as this.
For all Tabu‘s wistfulness and nostalgic aesthetic, you can hardly blame Miguel Gomes for harking back to the glory days of cinema when action spoke louder than words. Last year’s The Artist has proven that the modern audience have some respect after all for silent celluloid, and the little-seen and under-appreciated Tabu contends as a more refined, cinematically informed work of art than that of Hazanavicius’s. Borrowing from F. W. Murnau’s silent melodramas, Gomes frames his doomed romance with an eye of an aesthete, switching from 35mm that captures a pale, jaded latter-day Lisbon to 16mm black-and-white film stock that evokes a wildly adventurous, colonial Mozambique – a picture so naturally and beautifully grainy that defies the shiny, mass-market cinema we see today. And yet it’s not all style – there’s a quietly heartbreaking substance in Gomes’s sincere lament to the bygone era when lovers love deeply, emotions run freely, actions spoke louder than words and artists make films as beautiful as this.
There’s hardly a documentary out there that exposes the darker recesses of the human mind as compelling as any work of fiction does. That says an awful lot to a medium of cinema that employs truth as its guiding principle. Documentary-as-art becomes a fascinating weapon in Bart Layton’s clockwork-constructed piece of investigative journalism about a cunning charlatan Frederic Boudin who has deceived governments, civilians, families and fraternities by claiming to be an AWOL teenager and turning up at the aggrieved family’s doorstep. The Imposter‘s genius is that it never pretends to know everything, but rather observes, penetrate and assess facts and people’s version of the truth, transforming this piece of how-dunnit into a bold, transcendent exploration of truth, deception and storytelling itself. Despite of its documentary roots, this is, above all, a tour-de-force cinematic account on the human faculty to manipulate stories, to create fiction out of real lives. Just like Rashomon and 12 Angry Men once postulated, truth is subjective after all.
There’s a galling sense of familiarity the way Oslo, August 31st is structured – it takes place during a day at a European city with a central protagonist drifting through its streets and byways, trying to connect to people and making sense of it all. On paper, it sounds long-winded, dreary with plenty of navel-gazing. But on screen, it’s anything but. Joachim Trier infuses this film with such poignant melancholia and places a quietly devastating existential predicament at the heart of its conflicted hero, the 34-year old Anders, a recovering drug-addict fresh from rehab. Drawing influence from Agne Varda’s French New Wave masterpiece Cleo From 5 To 7 where a central character spends the entire film worrying about cancer, August 31st draws finely observed moments of extreme sadness and humility, with Anders contemplating on suicide and later turning up instead at a job interview to only fuck it up. There’s nary a flashback of how this man has become a drug-addict – but instead an aching sense of regret, past failures, that bourgeois expectations of happiness and fulfilment seep through the pores of this film, and through Anders’s forlorn, world-weary face. The final shots of the film will silently rip your heart apart into pieces.
The sooner you start delineating every single episode that happens in Leos Carax’s subversive and scintillating Holy Motors, the greater chance your braincells will explode one by one. ‘Barking mad’ isn’t even enough to cover it. For a film that features an actor-cum-performance-exhibitionist rolling from one gig to next across the vistas of Paris, from an old beggar to a doting, pick-up father, from a dying uncle to a sewer-dwelling leprechaun who kidnaps Eva Mendes from a graveyard, dresses her up in burka while professing an erection in front of her, it’s startlingly original. And there’s Kylie Minogue, who turns up looking like Jean Seberg from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and warbles an aching song about love lost, identity and death, and suddenly jumps from a rooftop. What the actual fuck it all means boil down to your own subjective reading – but there’s no doubting Carax’s subliminal purpose to pose a commentary on the death of film and performance in a way that only the medium of cinema can express. We draw meaning from its defiantly constructed narrative not in a literal sense – the same way we watch a David Lynch film on a metaphysical level. Carax chaperones us to a hell of a ride into the magnificent, kaleidoscopic, transgressive corners of avant-garde cinema where rarely other directors dare to go.
Show me a director who makes films like Wes Anderson at this very hour, and I’ll chew all my toenails off. That’s not a threat – it’s an order. And there isn’t any other film in 2012 quite like Moonrise Kingdom, with an overdose of quirk, whimsical touch and cool idiosyncrasy that could make any Anderson detractor run cover. It won’t convert non-followers, but it will certainly please Andersonians in what is arguably his best film since The Royal Tenenbaums. His latest aventure romantique is an apotheosis of his craftsmanship – right from the opener’s meticulously staged trademark tracking shots, eye-bleedingly saturated cinematography, beautifully scenic compositions, impossibly hip French-inspired soundtrack, droll characters and a finale worth a standing ovation – Moonrise Kingdom wonderfully and fittingly crystallises Anderson’s filmmaking aesthetic, a signature style he can proudly (and so he should) call his very own. It’s his own take on Pierrot le Fou, but with less pessimism and more heartfelt nostalgia, making Sam and Suzy’s rogue elopement a boldly confrontational act against the loveless, passionless adult relationships that surround them. To Anderson, childhood love is precious and pure, and it should be cherished.
The hipster generation of cinema has found a new messiah and his name is Xavier Dolan. This impossibly talented hot young bastard is the envy of many pretenders, having furnished three thematically rich and stylish films for such a startlingly young age (he’s 23 – that’s equivalent to an infant in cinematic mileage), making him a legitimate film wunderkind. His third effort Laurence Anyways sees Dolan maturing behind the camera, tackling a dubious, less-explored terrain of transvestism that ranges from the campy work of John Waters to the fetishistic oeuvre of Almodovar. Here, Dolan injects his own brand of emotional and psychological credibility to the proceedings by charting an existential odyssey of a man’s desire to become a woman over the length of a decade. He makes an unapologetic statement – throwing in a 168-minute run-time, framed in trendy 1:37:1 Academy ratio, suffused with expressionistic melodrama, grand emotion and hyper-stylised visuals. But what rises beyond the indulgences is the story’s raw, heartbreaking emotional honesty – Laurence’s self-discovery at the expense of the bruises he inflicts on the people around him. As much as it is Laurence’s film, it is also the girlfriend-cum-martyr Fred’s journey, who unleashes a tirade of conflicted emotions throughout the affair. But behind it all is Dolan launching a passionate, courageous cri de coeur to social convention, apathy and sexual intolerance. And for a 23-year old, that’s a fucking accomplishment.
Steve McQueen’s sex-addiction film has been imperceptibly shoved to the butt end of year’s best films due to the fact that it’s been released at the early part of the year, or it tackles a touchy subject matter that would make your puritanical parent faint featuring Michael Fassbender’s massive weiner taking centre stage, almost overshadowing everything Shame stands for. Never has a film been so committed in portraying sexuality with all its darkest, soul-baring intensity since Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial, taboo-breaking Last Tango in Paris. The comparison is fitting – both films have broken grounds with the ratings board, challenging those puritans from MPAA to finally grow up and watch adult films, and ultimately reassessing our perceptions about sex, sexuality and hedonism. It is also intelligent, a grown-up film for grown-up people that says a lot of truthful things about 21st century cosmopolitan life. With unflinching honesty, Shame (a title so pertinent to the subject matter) does to sex addiction what Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream did to drugs – peeling away glorification to reveal a ruthless, shattering world of meaningless flirtations for a quick fuck underneath a subway drawn with dirty graffiti, of uncontrolled midday urges behind toilet cubicles, of empty orgasms masquerading pain and inconsolable loneliness. Finally, here’s a film that does not treat sex addiction as tea-time laughing stock, but a serious affliction that could plunge a man’s life into total despair and the inability to connect.
The wondrously titled Beasts of the Southern Wild is entirely a creature all on its own, a film hard to categorise and too free-spirited to bottle up. It’s a magical-realist coming-of-age fable that centres on the neo-realism of the Southern American bayou in Louisiana, with elements of poetry, tragedy and sheer ambition from a neophyte director who clearly has talent to burn. It’s a magnificent cinematic fable, reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s groundbreaking Spirited Away, featuring a doe-eyed, rambunctious yet utterly ferocious child protagonist who had to battle extraordinary odds in the name of survival – hurricanes, storms, floods, hunger, illness, an AWOL mother and all other fucking miserable things you can think of – making your own childhood look like some bourgeois postcard Disney fairy-tale compared to Hushpuppy’s gargantuan life-and-death ordeals. The indomitable two-foot tall heroine is pitted against the natural forces, along with a community of misfits who all stubbornly refuse to leave their homes despite threats of extinction – but it’s what you do when home is all what you have. Miraculously, it never descends to pithy miserablism. Instead, we get a barnstorming parable of childhood that’s soaring, soulful, poignant and goddamn awe-inspiring. If the film’s finale doesn’t inspire you to face whatever shit life has thrown its way to you, then I don’t know what will. This is cinema at its most dazzlingly, gloriously alive anchored by one of the greatest child performances of all-time.
2012’s most misunderstood film is also the year’s most complex, vital and criminally under-seen work from one of America’s finest purveyors of humanity’s modern malaise. The Master leaves no one without an opinion – after watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s dissection of cultism, chances are you’ll have something to say about the elusive world this film occupies, which is very much like our own. Anderson silences those that qualm about The Master‘s potentially explosive exposé of Scientology, and rather surgically sliced open a very American psyche and our species’ grandstanding capacity for self-delusion. If you’ve paid enough attention, he’s not bothered about pointing a finger to a specific quasi-scientific group, but rather indicts the very essence of cultism – the business of silver-tongued men selling misguided hope to weak-willed, disillusioned people. This canvas of postwar gloom is a pitch-perfect setting for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s magnetic and mischievous Dodd, part-opportunist and part-charlatan, to snare Joaquin Phoenix’s aimless alcoholic Freddie, a walking Pandora’s Box of chronic social dysfunction, violent outburst and sexual unfulfillment. The interplay between master manipulator and subservient simpleton is dramatically intense and psychologically revealing, all captured in beautifully vintage 65mm. This is pure, immaculate, ravishing piece of cinema – challenging yet ultimately rewarding.
There’s only one simple criterion in which I measure up a film that rises up to the hallowed Number One spot – sheer impact. Over the years, I’ve chosen films that possessed the most emotional resonance, cinema that changed or enhanced the way we see the world, works of art that defied our expectations – 2010’s I Am Love, 2011’s Melancholia and now Michael Haneke’s supremely crafted Amour. Like the stunning simplicity of its title, Austrian master Haneke depicts a very universal portrait of the single human emotion that binds us all. This is cinema as truth, and while it’s not exactly 24-frames per second, Haneke excruciatingly illustrate the painfully observed moments, strategically placing his viewpoint around an ageing couple’s flat, a self-made fortress built with memories throughout the years, and now threatened with an imminent arrival of humanity’s most basic and profound ultimatum – mortality. And the camera never looks away, exquisitely and yet devastatingly portraying ageing, deterioration and ultimate demise, in a decisively merciless, unflinching, slow-burn fashion. Haneke frames Emmanuelle Riva’s retrogression and Jean-Louis Trintignant’s tenacity in his signature icy-cold, calculating approach – sparse in aesthetic, almost free of music and devoid of manipulative sentimentality. Haneke’s enemy is kitsch, and he throws it out of the window. Amour is bleak and lugubrious and saddening, yes – but it’s not pessimistic. This is Haneke at his most humane and compassionate. His thesis is not without emotional and existential power – genuine love is both one’s freedom and imprisonment, and death is the absolute payback for having lived all those years. Take that perspective and you’ll weep buckets through Amour without any attempt at hyperbole. This is a crushing work of art that earns every tear your shed. One of the greatest thesis on human existence ever committed to screen. How about that for an impact?