(Greece, Dir: Giorgos Lanthimos)
The directors previous film, Dogtooth, was a real oddball gem a few years ago and whilst this latest offering doesn’t work quite as well it still has some of the same bizarre framing, deadpan humour and philosophical depth. The premise is darkly intriguing – a small group of people start a company called Alps that provides a service to the recently bereaved; they’ll stand in as replacements for the deceased to help the family as they grieve. Although, how much it helps is debatable. And some of the things they have to do in acting out the roles of other peoples lives gets pretty messed up. The film is wilfully obtuse leaving the audience having to piece together most of the movie and the meaning of the whole thing is left pretty damn mysterious but theres a lot of interesting stuff here to contemplate.
(US, Dir: Bennett Miller)
I usually run a mile from sports flicks but this baseball movie is really about information and systems and their interaction with the human element. This is probably the most information loaded movie since Zodiac, another film I loved. Both films show how information can empower us, change us, take over our lives. Here, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill come up with a way of looking at baseball statistics that evaluates a players worth by their actual in-game merits rather than the surface/non-relevant things that the old men who run the game judge players by. Like in The Social Network (another true story from the same script-writers), we see the struggle between the few people with vision and the mass of people quite happy with the status quo of the current flaawed system. As one character says in this film, the first person through the wall always comes out bloody.
(US/UK, Dir: Steve McQueen)
If the ‘glass half full’ depiction of sex addiction is Family Guy’s Quagmire character then this movie is the ‘glass half empty’. Michael Fassbender plays a basically successful New York office worker who tries to hide his dysfunctional private life from those around him. For he is a sex addict who has to shag as many people as possible, making it hard to form a lasting, meaningful relationship. As an expose’ of the perils of sex addiction I didn’t think the movie really succeeded as there wasn’t enough insight into it as a condition. But I think the movie does a better job of just showing the state of contemporary Western existence; a self-absorbed, isolated life dominated by computer screens and monetary interactions. A world where morality, emotions, identity, all become vague notions subject to the swing of primal needs and market forces. Now that’s something to be ashamed about.
(Canada, Dir: David Cronenberg)
A surreal, episodic journey around New York over the course of a day as a young billionaire businessman is driven in a limo to get an unnecessary haircut as the world around him crumbles. Twilight’s Robert Pattinson is surprisingly good as the lead character and gets up to some sordid stuff that should have his tween fan base
asking their parents googling some awkward questions. It’s a difficult film that is off putting at first as you’re just thrown into it, the way characters talk is very wordy and somewhat theatrical. But I slowly got into its rhythm and tone and found it quite hypnotic. I took it as a brutal and relevant takedown of capitalism today, how it acts without conscience or empathy and ultimately will bring about it’s own destruction. (Well, here’s hoping.)
6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
(US, Dir: Benh Zeitlin)
A post-Katrina, magical-realist fairytale that feels like a hybrid of The Tree of Life and Where The Wild Things Are. This could have been just another twee indie/arthouse film with a poor child protagonist who gives a folksy voice-over narration. But any tweeness is mostly avoided here by a sense of honesty and authenticity that just radiates from the screen, greatly aided by the incredible performances of the non-professional actors playing the six year old girl and her father at the heart of the film. It’s a beautiful and boisterous testament to the resilience of the human heart, facing down the impossible with joy and imagination. Like fighting a storm with a shotgun. And winning.
5. Moonrise Kingdom
(US, Dir: Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson back on form with perhaps his best film yet. Beautiful to look at and listen to, it’s the story of two young teens who run away together after falling in love and the grown-ups who are left to chase around after them. The pure simplicity of the teens feelings for each other is sharply contrasted with the messy, confused emotional relations of their parents and guardians. Although the film is fun and funny, a melancholy air hangs about it; such uncomplicated love as the runaways feel is something they will surely grow out of as they gradually succumb to the pressures of the adult world. Moonrise Kingdom is a hard place to find and an even harder place to stay.
4. Holy Motors
(France, Dir: Leos Carax)
A surreal, episodic journey around Paris over the course of a day as an actor is driven in a limo from one acting job to another (double bill with Cosmopolis?). Except you never see any cameras or film crew and the line between reality and fiction is completely blurred. Probably the strangest film of the year, this abandons any traditional sense of narrative you might be expecting and instead gives us one poetic, allegorical delight after another. You either fully get on board with a movie like this or run away screaming. But the wackiness of the film doesn’t mean it’s a fun ride exactly, the tone is somber, mournful. I found it all to be a rather touching reflection on the nature of performance (not just the myriad roles a real actor must play but all the roles one plays in day-to-day life) and on the history of cinema (it’s role in our past and what it has/is morphing into).
(US, Dir: Kenneth Lonnergan)
An affluent New York student who accidentally causes an horrific road accident tries to set things right with the various parties involved but finds truth and justice a harder thing to pinpoint that she thinks. This is an epic drama about big issues but filled with small moments; it’s the intersection between the personal and the global, the struggle of the individual within a complex multitude of voices. Brilliant characters and dialogue with some standout verbal exchanges so sharp you could cut your wrists on them.
2. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
(Turkey, Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
It’s a three hour Turkish film that mainly consists of old men wandering around the countryside at night. I’m really selling it to you right? And yet it’s utterly compelling. It’s a slow-burn for sure but the subtly of the story telling at work here is so good, leading to a quietly devastating conclusion that just creeps up and disappears before you know it. What is ostensibly a crime procedural/ murder mystery reveals itself to be a complex metaphysical journey through morality, causality and Turkey’s gender politics and social divides. The closest thing to a Tarkovsky movie in years.
1. The Master
(US, Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)
In post-WW2 America, an alcoholic and disturbed veteran wanders into the path of a charismatic charlatan cult leader and the two men begin a strange symbiotic friendship. Who or what is ‘The Master’? Is it the L. Ron Hubbard-like character played by Philiip Seymour-Hoffman who is referred to as ‘Master’ in the film? If so why does he seem like a supporting character in his own movie? Is it the broader concept of the master that all humans seem to be seeking, some kink in our psyche that craves someone to tell us what to do and what life means? Is it a reference to ‘master shots’ in a movie which ironically mainly uses closeups? Is it a hubristic nod to the writer-director, Paul thomas Anderson, himself – the master film-maker? I think it could be all of these things and more, the answer really lies within the mind of each viewer. And that’s what’s troubled so many people about this film – it doesn’t give you the answers on a plate.
For my money, PT Anderson is the greatest film-maker working today. Like Kubrick, his films get better each time you see them and this is the first filme I’ve gone to see three times at the cinema in short succession. As with There Will Be Blood, my initial viewing left me somewhat ambivalent; there’s something going on in these films, the way he uses time or the mysterious depths of the characters, that means I have to watch the films once just to take it in, get a sense of the rhythm and then can actually go back and really watch it, if that makes sense. And like Kubrick, he’s now making films that are like rorschach tests for the audience – how you react perhaps says more about you than about the film itself.
I love that theres someone out there making stuff that challenges and confronts me, as an audience member I’ve got to catch up to where he’s gone to as a film-maker. And that’s always exciting. But that can be off-putting for some. Many people have complained this film is too obtuse, too open-ended and obscure for the sake of it. I just can’t see that. It can all ‘make sense’ if you need it to, it’s all there in the movie, you just have to join some of the dots up yourself. But as well as being thought-provoking, it’s also the funniest film I can remember seeing in years. So many genuine laugh out loud moments that it puts purported comedies like Ted to shame.
The acting is off the scale. Joaquin Phoenix gives arguably the greatest performance since, well at least Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, if not Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Philip Seymour-Hoffman is amazing as well and has been kind of overlooked because of the extreme physicality of Phoenix. It’s a subtler performance but incredible none the less. And Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead once again delivers the perfect musical score, setting just the right off-kilter tone for a movie about a man so out of place in the world around him.
I’ll do a more extensive anaysis of the film and what I personally think it means, what the subtext is, who/what The Master is, at a later date, as there’s so much to talk about in this movie. But for now I am just so grateful that this film exists, that in this day and age such a radical work of art can be made on such a scale and find at least some kind of audience. It honestly makes me feel a bit better about our species.
Runner-up films: Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Kid with the Bicycle, Killing Them Softly, Elena.
Films I did not care for this year:
Argo – A competent enough thriller but spoilt by a sentimental ending and too many cliches. Not to mention the deplorable depiction of the Iranian people but sadly that is what one expects from a Hollywood film today.
Looper – Visually ugly, dull characters, unfocused plot, just didn’t click with me at all.
Cloud Atlas – A feat of film-making no doubt, what with it being a 3 hour film that juggles between 6 different story lines across thousands of years. But it just doesn’t add up to a hill of beans. The film-makers ram home their ‘message’ so blatantly that the film warrants no contemplation once it’s finished and the whole thing is weighed down by relentless dialogue scenes that belie it’s literary origin and makes it pretty much the anti-’2001: A Space Odyssey’, a film the directors bizarrely name checked as a key inspiration.
Seven Psychopaths – A desperately forced Tarantino rip-off that’s almost twenty years late to the party. To be fair I only saw the first half of this as the digital projector broke down at the cinema I was at but the fact I didn’t hang about for it get fixed says it all.
Prometheus – apalling script and mismatched cast. Quite nice photography.
Ted – laughed once.
Films I didn’t see yet which look like strong contenders for the top ten: Django Unchained, Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, Berberi Sound Studio, Tabu.