Alps (Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
Because: it asks, like very few other recent films have (outside of Holy Motors), How do you fake like you care? Well, you can't. Alps is a bold, wry study of liminal grief where perplexity rules just fine. It’s a wily little number, as cheeky as it is frank and near-unfathomable, and eager to push an audience’s sense of narrative orientation to an absurd extreme. With a loose hold on logic, it near as dammit begs you to abandon its wonky, wayward path and seek out a more linear entertainment. But perseverance pays dividends: it gradually reveals itself as an amusing anomalous puzzle. What it says is: identity can blur to the nth degree; death is insurmountable; we all go a little mad sometimes. Alps hasn't stopped sloshing around my brain since I saw it late last year. Having slept on it – and on it some more – it still mesmerises. I now contentedly flit between a state of fuzzy perplexity and... *blankface*
Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, USA)
Because: it’s finely synthesised pure Super-glee! A film that, without any allusions to pretense, prides itself on maintaining a high-end level of sheer entertainment. Clearly lovingly smacked together with a hefty focus on achieving fast-paced spectacle, Avenger’s Assemble was a joyful example of what someone can do with a rich history of familiar characters and worlds (and pre-existing franchises). Whedon made it all cohere in game, splendid fashion. The giddy banter and playful dialogue nimbly whipped off the characters’ tongues, and I particularly enjoyed the fluid domino-effect action direction, choice cameos and, well, anytime the Hulk muscled his way on screen. There were no dips, lulls or moments that straggled; it was sheer full-pelt momentum, and as much grand fun as could be thrown into 143 minutes. I’m glad there will be another one.
Breathing (Karl Markovics, Austria)
Because: it took a curious glance at isolation and death, from the perspective of a character who’s dragged himself through ongoing hardship and strife, and it saw renewed life. Its hard-won glimmers of hope were well earned. Breathing’s precise, vivid images, courtesy of first-time director Karl Markovics, felt fresh and contained a restrained potency that established a quality tone from the first scene on. The economy of plot is often astonishing. Its rich arousal of guarded feeling within the characters, which gradually morphs into wholly open acceptance, is one of the many well-conveyed aspects to be celebrated. Lead actor Thomas Schubert gives a strong, moving performance, free of needless affectation, which grounds the film; he provides it with much of its pared-down power. A superb debut. I’m eager to see what Markovics does next.
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, USA)
Because: it was a genuine delight, a gem of comely proportions with a charm all its own. Having been lukewarm on a couple of Whit Stillman’s previous films (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) my expectations were low-to-untroubled. But a few years out has evidently triggered a sense of exuberance, of soft calamity, in his approach to directing, as he’s made his most perky, revivifying film yet. It was at once an archaic hark back to some kind of pale eighties nostalgia town and a joyous skip forward, a delicate response to the sometimes sour nature of many current school-set films. The script flows with frequent well-placed and -spoken corkers and the use of precise and delicious comic language complemented the pastel-prim visual panache. Greta Gerwig and co. were all on top, amiable form. My favourite line, of many: "Thor can't tell the colours. Rainbows must be just a lot of gibberish to him."
Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev/Russia)
Because: it’s about a housewife in a Hitchcockian quandary. Sometimes that’s purely enough for me. It’s darkly human – an ink-hued, life-bruised marvel. An astonishingly economic film, tautly made with assured filmmaking force. It keeps its mysteries eloquently compacted within every line and action, and advances character and plot in progressive, piecemeal fashion. The crux of the film is subtle, but it’s right there, hidden in plain view, if you like, and made just that little bit more concrete with each shot. Nadezhda Markina is remarkable as Elena. She displays so much conflict and submerged feeling in her gestures; it’s a performance that soars on intuition, simplicity. Kudos goes to Mikhail Krichman’s dank, noirish photography and the best (re)use of Phillip Glass’ music on film in quite some time. It’s more compact than The Return, less winding than The Banishment; it’s Zvyagintsev’s best film yet.
Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont, France)
Because: Bruno Dumont knows how to make an idea, an image, a film stick in the mind in uncommon ways. He’s a clever yet, at times, frustrating filmmaker. I’ve not always enjoyed his films, let’s say, or seen the fuss in some of them (I’m nonplussed to the praise given to La vie de Jésus and Twentynine Palms), but when he gets it right, as he does here and with Hors Satan and Flandres, he’s one of the most captivating filmmakers working, someone who manages to impart stone-cold plot in rich, elusive and sometimes downright infuriating ways. I duly appreciate him for that. Hadewijch – made in 2009, but only released in the UK last year – was full of bold, clear images that fluently play out and then slowly, curiously crack apart. More than many filmmakers of his calibre, I find myself blind as to his intentions until they sneak up and almost wilfully shove me in a direction I wasn’t expecting or entirely sure about. But that’s the fascination inherent in his work. This is firm and often quietly forceful stuff that appeals as much to emotional resonance as it does to intellectual stimulation. I'm often bewildered with where he takes me, but am glad he tells stories that require a responsive investment.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France/Germany)
Because: motion-capture lizard sex. The accordion entr’acte. Kylie in a dowdy Jean Seberg wig serenading a lover and an abandoned department store at the same time. A high-rise family of apes. Eva Mendes pouting to within an inch of her life in a graveyard – and then a cave. Edith Scob looking suave and sexy as a chauffeur. A criminal killing of the weirdest and most baffling kind. Monstrous movie-theatre beasts, makeup and merde. But perhaps most of all: Denis Lavant as a panoply of people – personas? acts? identities? forgotten cinematic ghosts? – all emanating from the doors of a limo that talks to you by the end credits. If I didn’t praise a film that so playfully and wilfully embraces the bizarre and the inventive like this, then there would be little point in demanding something more from cinema. All manner of film history appears to be referenced by Leos Carax here, but isn’t it perhaps simply the Monty Python episode of our dreams?
I Want Your Love (Travis Mathews, USA)
Because: frank depictions of gay life are too few and far between, especially this beautifully shot and subtly heart-rending. There’s an easy charm to the story of this group of amiable guys making and breaking up. Director Travis Mathews films in a close, intimate way that allows revealing insights into their sometimes fun, sometimes introspective – yet most often explicit – and easy-going personalities. The handful of likeable characters felt real, unaffected by some of the over-familiar clichés that some mainstream gay cinema often offers up. You get a feeling for a rich, charming San Francisco that chimes with the film’s plot arc: why do you need to leave a place when what you have there is almost perfect? Mathews depicts 21st century gay relationships in an honest, open way. In some small way I Want Your Love is an affectionate retelling of Maupin’s Tales of the City in microcosm. And it’s every bit as refreshing and thought-provoking as last year’s similarly-themed Weekend. It deserves just as much praise, too. (More on I Want Your Love – interview with Travis Mathews and review – here)
The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy)
Because: it was a miniature gem, yet no less expansive in nature, that achieved grand aims in detailing an affecting story of loss and connection with exquisite skill. The Belgian brothers rarely, if ever, falter. The quality of the story and imagery here follows in fine fashion their exploration of low-key and left-of-centre fascinating lives lived beyond the realms of glamour or privilege. It’s human, focused and rich, as ever; the brighter disposition and glimpses of hope enhance and lift, not diminish, their art. Plus, those four brief Beethoven blasts bypassed all my critical faculties to grab directly at my tear ducts. It reminded me that a raw emotive response – like laughter and fear – often speaks a louder truth than any over-padded analysis. Plus De France and Doret are exceptional. (More on Cécile De France in The Kid with a Bike here)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, USA)
Because: it’s a terse, compulsive crime film that jolts along with a dirty rhythm and an angry tone of disaffection. The characters may swan about in, alternatively, thrifty threads and natty-chic clothing, but each one of them is grounded by authenticity. Every actor excels here, often at glorious length. Dominik allows his cast carefully drawn-out scenes in which they flex their specified personas – as ugly, overconfident, pathetic or wrongheaded as they are. Pitt and McNairy shone bright; Dominik knows how to show off Pitt’s smarmy-suave nature (also see Jesse James) and he gets best-so-far work from the up-and-coming McNairy. But Gandolfini was the gold standard here. His two talk-heavy scenes were exercises in weaselly pitiful characterisation; he gave resoundingly sad life to a man we maybe wouldn’t care to know. Killing’s outlook is bleak and its politics front and centre; the hotly contested political subtext seemed more like just text to me. It was fervent in its message to a country gone to – and heading toward further – wrack and ruin. Dominik’s sour, stylish fractured criminal world was full of urgent filmmaking.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA)
Because: like Alps, it made me work overtime in the best way; at every turn it made me question the (dis)order of narrative filmmaking without ever letting its guard down or quite giving me the slip. It trod a fine narrative balance between crafty and clear whilst judiciously keeping its core intentions tantalisingly closed off. It taxed my senses like a surreal accountant and prodded my brain with a probable, possible imaginary stick in all the right places. Debut (feature) director Sean Durkin has a solid style that I hope he expands and develops in future. The evocation of a pair of rural environments, both as underhand and filled with uncertainty as each other, despite their differences and allures, was key to the slippery way Durkin aroused atmosphere in an almost pungent manner. On the evidence of Martha Marcy..., he has an exciting, promising road ahead. Unlike, perhaps, his protagonist here...
Prometheus (Ridley Scott, USA/UK)
Because: it's science fiction driven by striking visuals, searching ideas and exhilarating moments of curious wonder. It was occasionally audacious, even reckless at times; it tapped directly into my thrill temples. It’s a film with so much pumped-up momentum and strange imagery that I forgave its few stumbles. Some of the stuff that bothered many didn’t bother me. And there was so much else to revel in anyway. It wasn't flawless, but even its imperfections were interesting (and much of the tonal chaos evaporated on subsequent viewings). Stellar special effects, efficient editing, expansive photography (few films looked as bold, as exotic as this last year) and some lithe, deft direction from Ridley Scott all made it a spectacular treat. Its successes far outweigh its structural issues. I'll take adventurous, disorderly and involving sci-fi filmmaking that strives for a raft of intriguing ideas, alongside some genuine thrills, over many other films any day. Also: they do run sideways. Prometheus is a lot more fun when you pay attention. And it worked just splendidly for me. (More on Prometheus here)
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, France/Belgium) *Film of the Year*
Because: it was the one film last year that completely and unexpectedly punched me properly in the heart zone and blitzed my senses on numerous occasions over its duration. It was a deftly blended genre combination – a gritty melodrama? a grim romance – made with guts and a compassionate eye on all the things that make life sublime, messy, truthful. It’s an unabashed film made from raw ingredients and flush with ragged, ardent emotion – and at no point does it misuse it. Full of moments of harshness and poignancy, it showed that unexpected connections can be the stuff of intimate human spectacle. It’s the kind of ballsy, open-hearted and quirk-free romance that I can get behind. See also: Japanese Story (2003) and Head-On (2005).
Volcano (Rúnar Rúnarsson, Iceland/Denmark)
Because: in a year in which Haneke’s Amour was, by and large, solely highlighted as the year’s best film to deal with old age and terminal illness, Rúnarsson made, well, just that with Volcano. The lives of an elderly couple are given sensitive and heartbreaking attention; the husband is fraught with burden and frustration at his wife’s illness. His life is shown as equally beleaguered by pain and suffering as hers, though clearly suffering of a different kind – the kind that those left behind pre-empt and feel. But what he does, and how Rúnarsson depicts it, is conveyed with a tender, wrenching focus. Amid crisply-shot Iceland vistas, the narrative of the couple’s – and their immediate relatives’ – lives plays out. It makes room not only for sorrow, but also lightly affecting humour. Theodór Júlíusson gives a great central performance and Rúnarsson directs with instinctual flair. I’d say it’s warmer, maybe, slightly more humane, and certainly messier in its arousal of intimate tragedy than Haneke’s fine film. And I think I preferred it just a little bit more because of this.
Young Adult (Jason Reitman, USA)
Because: thoughtful, keenly-focused portraits of caustic, acerbic regret aren’t too easy to come by, especially this pointed and pin-sharp. It’s essentially a prom queen's rude awakening – one that has taken many years steeped in self-delusion to come about. Charlize Theron’s YA ghost-author Mavis Gary is a remarkable creation. She’s a character that, at the same time, I both cared about and willed to... just stop; and equally found drawn from truth and experience. Theron gives a poignantly precise and layered centrepiece performance that royally shows up many other 2012 turns. But it’s remarkably crafted and played excellently by all (Patrick Wilson’s spot-on everyman and Patton Oswalt’s home-rooted geek especially). It certainly rewards further viewing: on second watch its sense of sadness and its wicked way with words and cringe-inducing situations were beautifully reinforced; so, too, was its accomplished editing (by Dana E. Glauberman). This is a genuine keeper for years to come. I reckon it’s Jason Reitman’s best film by a mile. (More on Charlize Theron in Young Adult here)
15 more films I liked (listed alphabetically): Amour / Bernie / Bombay Beach / The Cabin in the Woods / Carnage / Crazy Horse / Dredd / Even the Rain / The Housemaid / The Innkeepers / Magic Mike / Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present / Nostalgia for the Light / Patience (After Sebald) / A Simple Life
Surprises: films that I had little expectation for, but turned out beter than I thought they would (listed alphabetically): Absentia / Chernobyl Diaries / Dark Shadows / Goon / Hell / Jeff, Who Lives at Home / The Pact / Ruby Sparks / Seeking a Friend for the End of the World / Small, Beautifully Moving Parts