Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review - Lincoln

When one of cinema's greatest directors unites with its greatest living actor to make a film about the most iconic figure in American history, it's fair to say that expectations are high. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln exceeds these expectations by subverting them; instead of making a fawning biopic of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg has delivered a dense, dialogue-driven exploration of political process. The sentimentality and heavy-handedness that has sometimes marred the director's previous historical films is pleasingly absent here, with his restrained directorial approach largely allowing Tony Kushner's script and his impeccable cast to drive the film. Even the score from John Williams feels unusually reined in.

Perhaps this pared-down and focused approach was simply necessitated by the story Kushner and Spielberg have chosen to tell. Although it opens on the battlefield, Lincoln is a film that largely takes place indoors, in the buildings of government, where the conflict is verbal rather than physical. Lincoln takes us through the last few months of the 16th American President's life and details his fight to force the 13th Amendment through Congress, therefore ending slavery. The imminent end of the Civil War gives this action a sense of urgency that imbues the film with its drama and momentum, but even so, many audience members may be sceptical about the film's potential for entertainment. With scene after scene of bearded men sitting in stuffy rooms and discussing the fine details of the American Constitution, Lincoln sounds unbearably dry, but there's a strange alchemy at work here that elevates it into a grand, rousing drama. It is history brought to vivid life.

Of course, the manner in which Daniel Day-Lewis has brought Lincoln to life is a marvel in itself. His embodiment of the man feels utterly authentic, from his slightly stooped posture to a high-toned accent that seems a little off at first but ultimately feels like a perfect fit for the character. This Lincoln has a fondness for folksy anecdotes as a means of taking a circuitous route to his ultimate point (there's a delicious moment when he embarks upon such a tale, to the chagrin of Bruce McGill's Stanton) but behind the calm and humorous manner lies a sharp strategic mind and a fierce determination. He needs those qualities to procure the two-thirds majority needed in Congress in order to pass the 13th Amendment, and Lincoln turns this quest for votes into a riveting caper. A rambunctious trio of lobbyists (led by an unrecognisable but brilliant James Spader) is enlisted to persuade wavering Democrats to support the bill, while Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) trades angry speeches with Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) on the floor of the House.

Lincoln aside, Thaddeus Stevens is perhaps the most fascinating character in the film. Played with just the right measure of cranky gruffness by Jones, the radical abolitionist begins the film by demanding complete racial equality but is forced by Lincoln to soften his stance in order to ease this amendment through. Through this character, Lincoln shows the compromises and manipulations that are required in politics, and the way ideals must sometimes be yielded in order to find common ground and serve the greater good. In Lincoln we see Democrats being cajoled, pressured and even bribed into switching their allegiance in time for the vote. Politics is a dirty business but Lincoln, Stevens and their cohorts were driven by the knowledge that this was their moment ("We've stepped out upon the world stage, with the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood's been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! Now!" Lincoln exclaims), and they had to win this battle by any means necessary.

The political aspect of Lincoln is more compelling than the personal one. Scenes between the president and his family are sensitively played, but these characters don't appear quite as convincingly realised and there's always the nagging sensation that there is more pressing business to attend to. Sally Field perhaps needed one more scene to make her performance as Mary Todd Lincoln feel fully rounded, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is inserted awkwardly into the narrative as Lincoln's older son, whose desire to join the army contradicts his father's wishes. In fact, the most affecting glimpse into the private lives of these characters comes at the end of Thaddeus Stevens' story; a touching scene that gives his narrative arc a satisfying climax, and serves to remind us what was at stake for these men.

Although it is bookended by its weakest scenes (typically, the director bypasses a perfect note to end on), Lincoln is a considerable triumph for Steven Spielberg, whose direction may be uncharacteristically free of the sweeping spectacle and grand flourishes we expect, but whose composition and judgement of emotion and character remains as sharp as ever. We tend to think of him primarily as an entertainer, but he has also made his mark as one of American cinema's foremost historical filmmakers, and the fact that he has managed to make a serious, verbose, ideas-driven political film on a grand scale in the current climate is something to be thankful for. This is a great film about a great man; a film driven by noble ideals and determined to show what the best of us can achieve in troubled times. Politically, personally and artistically, Lincoln gives us something to strive for.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review - Django Unchained

Django Unchained is Tarantino Unrestrained, a film that simultaneously displays the very best and worst of this filmmaker. After rewriting the history books with the audacious climax of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has now turned his attention to slavery, using American cinema's most iconic and durable genre to explore the most shameful period in the country's history. Having allowed the Jews to turn the tables on Hitler, this second historical fantasia follows a freed slave who turns bounty hunter and wreaks bloody vengeance against plantation owners in the Antebellum South. It's a volatile premise, and there's certainly something bracing in the idea of one of the most singular auteurs in American film engaging with the subject of slavery in his typically forthright manner.

The problem is that Tarantino isn't really engaging with America's slavery past because Django Unchained doesn't really take place in America. Every film Quentin Tarantino has made from Kill Bill onwards has existed in Tarantinoland; a place slightly removed from the real world and governed by the rules of film genre. Django Unchained follows the pattern of the films that have preceded it by acting as a showcase for Tarantino's stylistic verve and indulgent monologues before climaxing in carnage, but rarely digging beneath the surface to find some human emotion. It's no coincidence that Tarantino's last recognisable 'real world' film (Jackie Brown, the only film he has adapted from someone else's material) is still, I think, his best work.

Django Unchained is far from Tarantino's best, but in its opening hour it looks like it might get there. In its favour, the first half of the movie gives the spotlight to Dr King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty hunter who frees Django (Jamie Foxx) from his chains and hires him to help locate the Brittle Brothers, a gang of outlaws he has been fruitlessly tracking. Waltz is the perfect actor for Tarantino, so at ease with the director's verbose dialogue and such a pleasure to watch as he uses his superior intellect and verbal skills to manipulate every negotiation to his advantage. His loquacious civility is a perfect foil for the silent steeliness of Foxx's performance, whose Django often seems as bemused by the white man riding alongside him as everyone else. Tarantino gets plenty of comic mileage out of the incongruity of this partnership, and the opening hour contains some of the director's best visual work, with potent images such as a Klan raid at night or blood splattering onto cotton being skilfully photographed by Robert Richardson.

Unsurprisingly, Tarantino doesn't soft-pedal the racism in any way. Many of the southerners Django rides past simply gape open-mouthed at the mere sight of a "nigger on a horse" while others respond more aggressively, but Tarantino makes them all buffoons, playing up their ignorance and incompetence for comic effect. These characters are habitually dumbstruck by Schultz's verbal dexterity (even a word such as "ascertain" prompts the response "Speak English!") and the Klan raid is halted by the riders complaints about the eyeholes in their hoods, with the man whose wife made the hoods leaving in a huff. In fact, Django and Schultz don't encounter any racists who carry a genuine threat until they reach Candieland. Regrettably, this is also where the film stalls and never recovers.

Candieland is the plantation run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose favourite pastime is watching two black slaves fighting to the death. He currently has in his possession Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and in order to get her back Schultz comes up with a plan that involves them posing as Mandingo experts and offering to purchase one of Candie's fighters. It's a needlessly convoluted approach that adds nothing to the film but a lot of repetitive talk. DiCaprio is miscast in the role – he can't express the character's sadism and menace when it counts – but he appears to be having a lot of fun as the moustache-twirling villain of the piece. What struck me about halfway through the long Candieland sequence was the realisation that I wasn't having fun, and hadn't been for some time. Django Unchained is 165 minutes long, but what matters is not how long a film is but how long it feels, and the film feels bloated and sluggish, like a rough cut in need of another pass in the editing room. Scenes are allowed to drag, cuts disrupt the film's rhythm, and even some of the musical choices feel like temp tracks awaiting further tinkering from the director.

It's a shame Tarantino couldn't have cut off some of the film's fat (his own risible cameo would be a good place to start) and instead exploited the rich potential in some of his supporting characters. As Candie's wizened and toadying manservant Stephen, Samuel L. Jackson gives the film's most startling performance; a fascinating portrait of subservience and malevolence that eventually marks him out as the film's most interesting antagonist. I was hoping Tarantino would give the talented but perennially underused Kerry Washington a meaty role, but she's nothing more than a damsel in distress here, and even after Django rescues her she takes no part in the final revenge, waiting patiently outside for her man. Broomhilda strikes me as the first totally nondescript female character Tarantino has ever written, and in a film about the uprising of the downtrodden black man, it seems like a missed opportunity to not give her at least one strong moment.

But the biggest disappointment of Django Unchained is that the film ends in the only way Tarantino seems to know how, with a bloodbath that suggests the director is trying to one-up his previous efforts. The climactic shootout is long and messy, with blood spurting out of multiple wounds and splashing up against the white walls. Tarantino directs Django's bloody vengeance against the white oppressors with obvious glee, but in doing so he makes the film seem ever more cartoonish and undermines the seriousness of the white-on-black cruelty he attempts to depict in a more sombre tone. The violence in Django Unchained isn't shocking or cathartic, it's just numbing and puerile. Tarantino has made another film that satisfies all of his own urges – referencing his favourite films, including his favourite music, starring his favourite actors – but again I find myself being disappointed in his determination to make a film that fits neatly within the filmography he has become obsessed with rather than daring to engage with something bigger than movies. Django Unchained could have been a bold and shocking examination of American history, but it's just a Spaghetti Western that has been badly overcooked.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Review - Leviathan

The biggest challenge facing a viewer in the opening moments of Leviathan is working out just what in fact they are looking at. The film opens in darkness, presenting us with murky, indecipherable images and a soundtrack of mechanical sounds with a few men's voices being barely audible above the din. As our eyes adjust to the image and the camera begins to reveal more of its surroundings, we realise we are onboard a fishing vessel somewhere in the middle of the ocean at the dead of night. We are watching commercial fishermen hauling in a huge catch, with cameras apparently fixed to the helmet of one of the men giving us as subjective a view of this procedure as cinema can manage. At least we can be thankful that the film has no way of expressing the smell.

Co-directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel haven't kept any kind of objective distance from events on board this trawler, and instead they have plunged straight into the midst of it, using a number of small cameras positioned around the vessel and given to crew members. These cameras have captured the tumultuous nature of the sea, and the violent struggle between man and nature, with a visceral immediacy that is equal parts disorientating and exhilarating. Leviathan is also a powerful argument for the redundancy of 3D, as few film experiences are as immersive as this.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor's last feature film was Sweetgrass, which he co-directed with Ilisa Barbash (but went uncredited), and like that film, Leviathan is an examination of men at work, and a way of life far removed from regular society. But whereas Sweetgrass had a leisurely rhythm entirely appropriate for its portrait of sheep being herded across a mountain range, Leviathan possesses a harder and faster editing style; the film is a maelstrom rather than a ramble. The cutting is sharp throughout and from the vast amount of footage they collected from their multiple viewpoints, the filmmakers have astutely picked out a series of striking images that instantly imprint themselves on viewers' minds. From close-ups of dying fish packed inside the trawler's huge nets to a shot of blood-red water pouring over the side after the catch has been gutted, Leviathan consistently finds seemingly incidental details that feed our sensory experience of this vessel.

Towards the end of Leviathan, the filmmakers include a lovely shot of one fisherman sitting in the break room and slowly nodding off in front of the TV. It's a rare moment of quiet in a film that thrives on chaos, and while the men involved in the expeditions that Leviathan captures are all credited at the end of the film, they don't make any impression in the film itself. They remain on the fringes as they work diligently and efficiently, no more human than the machinery utilised in their process. Perhaps this is why I was slightly less satisfied by Leviathan than Sweetgrass. The shepherds being followed by that earlier film offered a point of engagement for the audience, their journey provided a narrative shape, and the fact that their way of life was coming to an end gave the film an affecting elegiac quality. This film doesn't offer any such hook for the audience, as Castaing-Taylor and Paravel disregard any rules of documentary filmmaking, and this approach can be both thrilling and vexing.

Even if I found it sometimes frustrating to watch, there's no denying the astounding formal achievement that's evident in Leviathan, with the expert editing and sound design being particularly praiseworthy. The filmmakers occasionally emit a whiff of pretension, through decisions such as opening with a quote from the Book of Job ("He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.") or listing the Latin names of every creature caught in the end credits, but they have created something spectacular here. Leviathan's signature image may be the remarkable upside-down shot of countless seagulls following the trawler, and that's what the film does at its best; it forces us to look at the world from a different angle, seeing commonplace occurrences through fresh eyes. Leviathan is exploring territory that's centuries old – in fact, it was filmed in the same waters that Melville used for The Pequod's epic pursuit of a whale in Moby-Dick – but the manner in which it has been created makes this primal struggle between man and nature feel dramatically new.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review - What Richard Did

Lenny Abrahamson's first two features told stories about characters on the margins of society. The title characters in Adam & Paul were a pair of comically misfortunate junkies stumbling through the Dublin streets, while the protagonist in Garage was a slow-witted man in a rural community who unwittingly found himself committing a crime. In What Richard Did, Abrahamson's third film, the central character comes from a far more affluent background and appears to be a young man with the world at his feet. Richard (Jack Reynor) is an 18 year-old rugby star who is looking forward to university. We meet him in the last few weeks of his summer break, as he spends time drinking good-naturedly with friends, and it's easy to see why this witty, thoughtful and endearing young man is so popular.

The skilled performance of Reynor as Richard gives the character a certain cockiness but ensures he remains likable, and few audience members will be able to resist his charm. In this way, What Richard Did deeply involves the viewer in his story before the mid-film twist that suddenly changes the whole tenor of the film. Signs of trouble are evident when Richard starts seeing Lara (Róisín Murphy), but suspects her of still having feelings for her ex-boyfriend, and Richard's teammate, Conor (Sam Keeley). Tensions simmer quietly until Richard and Conor's mutual resentment boils over at a drunken party, with both men fuelled by a misguided sense of romance, wounded pride and too much alcohol. Punches and kicks are thrown as the pair's friends pile in to the fray, and in the morning Richard wakes up to hear that Conor's body has been found.

After the crime, we await the punishment, but What Richard Did isn't as simple as that. The investigation into Conor's death doesn't finger him as the culprit, and when Richard passes off his facial wounds as rugby injuries to the police it appears that he is in the clear, but the weight of responsibility is less easy to shake off. Abrahamson's film explores the sense of guilt that Richard is forced to wrestle with as he avoids prosecution. He and his friends collude on a cover story, but their deceit begins to gnaw away at them, and when Richard confides in his father, he responds by offering to help keep the boy out of sight until the heat dies down. At Conor's funeral, the deceased boy's mother stands up and makes an impassioned plea for someone to come forward with the truth, and we can Richard's internal moral conflict written across his face. He wants to do the right thing, but can he sacrifice his prosperous future to atone for one mistake?

What Richard Did is the first film Lenny Abrahamson has adapted from a novel – Malcolm Campbell's screenplay being based on Kevin Power's Bad Day in Blackrock – but it feels very much of a piece with his previous films. The director has a spare, naturalistic style that feels very unforced, and he draws uniformly convincing performances from his young cast, trusting them to carry a number of ambiguous and emotionally testing scenes. This is a more sombre film than Adam & Paul or Garage, both of which leavened their unsettling tales with a dry sense of humour, but it proves to be uncommonly gripping for much of its running time.

Abrahamson's unwillingness to offer any clear-cut conclusion to Richard's plight is admirable but it also means the film drifts a little in its final scenes, although perhaps it is simply taking its lead from the central character, whose hitherto promising life has suddenly lost direction. What Richard Did is a powerful examination of how the repercussions from one incident can last a lifetime, and its effect lingers long after the credits have rolled.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review - Gangster Squad

There have been so many films made about American crime in the post-war years – and so many great ones at that – it's surely a challenge for any new take on this era to feel fresh. Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad attempts to distinguish itself with flashy direction and an interesting angle on a notorious real-life kingpin, but the former overwhelms the latter to disastrous effect. This is Fleischer's third feature – after the intermittently amusing Zombieland and the slapdash 30 Minutes or Less – and it is by far his most ambitious production yet. But that increase in scope has apparently prompted Fleischer to liven up his aesthetic style appropriately, and there's a horrible mismatch between his garish contemporary visuals and the dully familiar narrative.

If you've heard of Gangster Squad at all it may be because of the film's troubled production. The picture was delayed for reshoots and reedits late last year because of a scene in a cinema that suffered from troubling echoes of the tragic shooting in Aurora. Perhaps the reshoots had an impact on the tone of the film, because as it stands Gangster Squad is a film that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be – an old-fashioned mob movie, a contemporary spin on classic themes, or an homage to earlier pictures. In fact, the film's script and characterisation is so appallingly clichéd and witless I almost suspected that it might be a spoof.

Gangster Squad claims to be "inspired by a true story" but when the filmmakers have blithely rewritten the well-known fate of Mickey Cohen (played here by Sean Penn), who's to say what we can believe? The protagonist here certainly seems too good to be true. Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is a war hero-turned detective; tough, square and incorruptible. We are introduced to him as he cleans out a roomful of Cohen's goons single-handed, and as one of the LAPD's few honest cops, he is selected by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte, at his gravelliest) to head up an off-the-books squad aimed taking down Cohen's operations through brute force. O'Mara hires a team, which consists of laid-back ladies' man Ryan Gosling (bored, mannered, irritating), knife-throwing Harlem cop Anthony Mackie and surveillance geek Giovanni Ribisi (both disposable). These characters have no more depth to them than the brief descriptions I've outlined, and they seem to have stepped right off the pages of a comic book – literally so, in the case of Robert Patrick's sharpshooting cowboy.

Like the characters, the LA of Gangster Squad is all surface. Fleischer is obviously in thrall to the glamour of this era, from the sharp suits and to the neon-lit nightclubs, but it all looks too clean and too fake, thanks to Dion Beebe's over-stylised digital cinematography. Above all, however, Fleischer is in thrall to the violence these men (it's always the men; women are here to simper and worry) do to each other. There's a grim sadism apparent in the way the director utilises slow-motion so excessively to watch bullets fly from Tommy guns and tear through flesh; the film may have removed the one sequence that the filmmakers feared would offend, but the content that remains is still entirely repugnant.

It's all rather exhausting to watch, especially when Sean Penn is on screen. While most of the actors appear subdued (notably Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, whose easy chemistry was the highlight of Crazy, Stupid, Love.), Penn chews the scenery with a ferocity and relish that I haven't seen from an actor in many years. With a permanent snarl on his lips and his eyes glaring out from under a thick prosthetic brow, he looks more like a refugee from Dick Tracy than the real Cohen, and his excruciating display only highlights what a ridiculously cartoonish fiasco this is. Gangster Squad is ugly, vapid and irredeemably stupid; it wallows in violence but ends up looking and feeling about as authentic as Bugsy Malone. Instead of wasting time and money on this garbage, just watch LA Confidential again. See how the grown-ups do it.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Review - The Impossible (Lo imposible)

The tsunami that hit Southeast Asia on December 26th 2004 was sudden and catastrophic, and surely no film will give us a closer approximation of that experience than The Impossible. The moment in which the wave surged inland with such ferocity is captured through an exceptional combination of CGI work and physical production design. Bodies are pulled helplessly by the current, along with cars, trees and a multitude of debris. When the waters finally subside, the wreckage of what was once a luxury seaside resort resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with a few battered and bleeding survivors stumbling through it while bodies lay scattered on the ground around them. From this disaster, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has found a single story of hope and survival to focus on.

The Impossible is the true story of the Belon family, who were holidaying in Thailand for Christmas and who were separated when the tsunami hit. The family were Spanish, although they have been turned into an English family here, with Naomi Watts playing Maria Bennett and Ewan McGregor playing Henry. Such a move might feel a little disingenuous following the film's emphasis of the words "true story" in its opening text, but questions of funding and distribution probably made such a decision inevitable. The bigger issues lie with the way Bayona has told this story. The film grips in its early stages, until the inspiring nature of the story is submerged under a sea of sentiment.

The film's best section is the first half in which Bayona follows Maria and her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) as they find each other being dragged along by the stream and desperately looking for something to cling onto. Screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez doesn't waste much time on developing these characters (Maria's a doctor, Henry is worried about losing his job as...something in Japan) and the filmmakers rely heavily on the actors to flesh out their roles. Watts brings a fierce maternal instinct to her scenes with Holland, whose initially sulky turn grows in maturity as the film progresses, and this relationship is the backbone on which much of The Impossible rests. The film's effects are extraordinarily convincing and often disgusting (Bayona is a horror director at heart, and he knows how to make a viewer flinch), but it's the maternal bond created between Watts and Holland that proves to be the film's most vital special effect.

However, The Impossible is a film of two halves, and the second half of the picture is markedly less interesting. Ewan McGregor's performance as Henry is committed and emotionally raw, but watching him scour the ravaged landscape for his wife and eldest son (his two others boys having survived the tsunami with him) is less compelling as their reunion is a foregone conclusion. The Impossible may well be based on events that really happened to the Belon family, but their depiction onscreen doesn't feel real. Too much of the film consists of the various family members finding, losing and then finding each other, and these twists in the tale feel like little more than contrivances aimed at prolonging whatever sense of tension exists before the inevitably uplifting end. What makes it intolerable is the way Bayona works so hard to wring tears from the audience in this section; an overbearing approach that I found to be exhausting and distancing rather than moving.

The other thing that feels strangely distanced as The Impossible progresses is the sense of large-scale disaster. By focusing the film so intently on the experiences of one family who survived and escaped from the devastated region, the film fails to illuminate the many lives shattered beyond this single story. Of course, you may argue that this is not the filmmakers' intention, and other films – such as Polanski's The Pianist – have narrowed in on one tale against the backdrop of a vast tragedy, but The Impossible fails to get that difficult balance right and it too often neglects opportunities to widen its scope beyond the Bennett clan's increasingly repetitive experience (a late flashback to Maria's subjective view of the tsunami is a real misstep). There's something unsatisfying and troubling about watching them fly away together in a private jet while the inhabitants of the continent beneath them remain mired in such despair. The Impossible is one half an efficient survival thriller and one half an overcooked melodrama – what it is not, at any point, is a sufficient window onto this terrible event.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Review - Hors Satan (Outside Satan)

I have a strange relationship with the French director Bruno Dumont. He has been responsible for one of the few films in my life that I've walked out on before the end (his 2003 feature Twentynine Palms) and I have found none of his films entirely satisfying, but I continually find myself drawn to them nonetheless. The weirdness of this pattern is exacerbated with the release of Dumont's latest film Hors Satan, which is in many respects the director's most opaque and mystifying picture to date. There is no attempt made to explain the motivations of its characters or the often inexplicable actions that take place within the story, and the themes of the film remain frustratingly hard to grasp. It comes as a complete surprise, then, that I find myself regarding Hors Satan as perhaps my favourite Bruno Dumont film yet.

Set in the barren but often starkly beautiful Nord–Pas-de-Calais, Hors Satan is so pared down to the essential elements it doesn't even give its leading characters names. The Guy (that's how he is credited) is a drifter who seems content to live outside society, setting up a little campfire every night and subsiding on handouts from people in the nearby village. One of the people who most regularly offers him food and drink is a young woman (Alexandra Lemâtre), the closest thing this man has to a friend. They make an odd couple. He's taciturn and possesses a thousand-yard stare that can be read in a variety of ways, while she's a withdrawn teenage, pale and clad in black, and often squinting as if she finds daylight too much to bear. Together they calmly trudge across the fields, exchanging few words, and seemingly find some kind solace in each other. The man appears to be a placid type of character, until he takes violent retribution against those who threaten or abuse his female companion.

As well as a killer, this man is a healer, imbued with the ability to cure ailing people seemingly through having sex with them (grubby sex being a Dumont trademark), and to perform miracles. Dumont drops these miracles into the film without any emphasis; they are simply another aspect of the film that we are invited to make sense of as best we can. Is he an angel, a devil, or both – a kind of satanic saviour? The title Hors Satan – or Outside Satan – gives us little to go on, and Dumont has no intention of providing any answers for his audience. His role here is to pose questions and he does it with an obliqueness that many will find off-putting – as I often have in the past – but in this case proves strangely compelling.

It's hard to know why this offering hooked my attention where his previous films have failed, but maybe it has something to do with the way Dumont uses lead actor David Dewaele, whose unusual and enigmatic screen presence is deliberately inexpressive but consistently intriguing. There are other virtues here too, notably the arresting widescreen cinematography provided by Yves Cape, and a climax that is simultaneously baffling, absurd, transcendent and satisfying. It's also open-ended enough to leave room for possible further adventures of this mysterious loner, and for the first time in a long time I can say I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing where Bruno Dumont goes next.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2012 in Review - The Best Films of the Year

10 – The Master

Many were ready to hail Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master as a masterpiece the moment it was released. I'm not quite there yet, but it's impossible to not recognise the greatness within the director's sixth film. Purely on a level of ambition and craftsmanship, the film is a cut above the vast majority of 2012's American films. The gorgeous 65mm photography from Mihai Malaimare Jr. instantly marks this as a singular piece of work, with Jonny Greenwood's typically abrasive score bringing the same discordant edge to the film that he did to Anderson's There Will be Blood. The director also draws two vastly different but brilliantly complementary performances from his lead actors, and on a scene-by-scene basis there's little to match The Master. So why am I stopping short of hailing it as one for the ages? The film's deliberate evasiveness and ambiguity didn't always work for me, and I miss the unabashed directness of PTA's earlier features, where he showed his strengths as an emotional filmmaker rather than a cerebral one. Having said that, I'm certain that The Master is a film I'm going to revisit numerous times, and maybe one day the scales will fall from my eyes allowing me to see the film that others have seen.

9 – Goodbye First Love

Love hurts in Goodbye First Love. Mia Hansen-Løve's film charts the vicissitudes of a teenage girl's first taste of romance. Camille (played by the wonderful Lola Créton) is 15 years old when she gives her heart to Sullivan, who breaks it when he leaves to travel the world. The film shows us how the character wallows in despair before picking up the pieces and moving on with her life, but her first love remains with her throughout the subsequent years. Hansen-Løve is an extraordinarily delicate and perceptive filmmaker and her film hinges on small moments of keen observation that tell us where Camille is at this point in her life and how she's feeling. Instead of giving the film a defined narrative structure, Hansen-Løve dips in and out of Camille's story, showing us how she has matured in some ways while in other ways she remains the same teenage girl we met at the film's start. Few films have captured so accurately the way in which first love feels like the most important thing in our lives, and how we might spend the rest of our lives trying to replicate that fleeting but powerful emotion.

8 – Laurence Anyways

Xavier Dolan is not a man who lacks for ambition, and the wunderkind went for broke this year with Laurence Anyways. Dolan's third film is a decade-spanning, Academy ratio, 160-minute epic about the relationship between a transsexual and his long-term girlfriend, and I'll admit that I approached the film with some trepidation. I doubted his ability to handle such a long and complex story, but to my surprise he pulls it off magnificently. Aided by outstanding performances from his cast, Dolan has made a spectacular film that dazzles us with the director's familiar stylistic verve but – crucially – matches that vivid surface every step of the way with real emotional weight. The film feels sincere and complete in a way that Dolan's previous films didn't, and he packs the lengthy Laurence Anyways with a series of jaw-dropping sequences. It's a huge step up for this young director, and appeals for Dolan to curb his excesses or invest his work with more discipline seem misguided to me. He's 23 years old; discipline will surely come later, and right now it's exhilarating to see this remarkable talent spreading his wings.

7 – Alps

How do you follow a film like Dogtooth? Yorgos Lanthimos' new film feels like an extension of, and reaction to, that astonishing film, and while it inevitably lacks the shocking impact of the earlier work, it may be an even more impressive achievement. The story of a group of people who substitute themselves into the lives of grieving families, Alps is a film about shifting identities and Lanthimos sustains the deep sense of ambiguity to the point where we can't be sure which of the relationships in the film are real and which are false. In just three films, Lanthimos has established a style and tone that is definably his. The flat line readings make it hard to get a handle on the characters' real feelings and motivations, but they also fascinate and provide some priceless moments of comedy ("Don't stop. It feels like heaven."), while Lanthimos' expert compositions and sharp editing create an unnerving atmosphere that's unlike anything else. Alps is the work of a remarkably distinctive new voice in world cinema, and it is a film that deepens on repeated viewings while simultaneously raising further questions.

6 – Cosmopolis

David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis is surely one of the year's most wilfully perverse films. The director has stayed entirely faithful to the source material, even retaining the strangely cryptic, epigrammatic dialogue that sounds nothing like real human conversation, and he makes no concessions to audience comfort or engagement. It's fair to say that this film will not be to all tastes, but as Eric Packer's ornately designed limousine slowly crawled through a chaotic New York, I found myself getting on board with its unusual rhythms and becoming engrossed by the vision of a collapsing society that it presented. The image of a billionaire sequestered from anarchic uprising on the streets, while he watches his financial stock fall dramatically on computer screens, is in itself a potent one at this particular time, and Cosmopolis feeds off the current state of things while telling its own strange story. Cronenberg is in full command of this material, from the way he directs cohesive performances from his eclectic collection of actors to the brilliant way he frames every shot within the confines of Packer's limo. This is the most alive and idiosyncratic film that the director has made since Spider ten years ago, and it may – like Videodrome – prove to be even more telling and prophetic in years to come.

5 – About Elly

About Elly was one of the best films I saw in 2009, and I had long given up on its chances of finding UK distribution when it finally arrived on these shores this year. For that development, we have the success of Asghar Farhadi's 2011 film A Separation to thank, as it encouraged people to shine a light into the director's body of work and to unearth proof that his Oscar-winner was no flash in the pan. About Elly begins as a simple, endearing tale of a group of friends enjoying a weekend at the beach, but after a mid-film twist it begins to grip with the urgency of a thriller. About Elly brilliantly explores the psychology of its characters through the layers of well-intentioned lies and deceit that they pile upon one another. The file depicts the culture of lies that exists in Iranian society, but it is first and foremost an absorbing moral drama, and I remain in awe of Farhadi's ability to constantly play with our emotions and question our perception of his characters. This is a serious, complex, morally profound piece of work, and one fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with the director's more acclaimed later work.

4 – This Is Not a Film

Was there a more essential film released in 2012 than This Is Not a Film? Shot partially on a phone and smuggled out of Iran inside a cake, this collaboration between directors Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi takes place entirely inside Panahi's home, which is where he is confined while he awaits news on his appeal against a six-year jail sentence and 20-year ban on making films. By making this small film they are breaking the law, but Panahi is such a restless creative spirit and This Is Not a Film captures him trying to find an outlet for that desire. He reads from a script he has written and attempts a small-scale recreation, but ends that experiment in frustration. What else can a filmmaker do when his raison d'être has been taken away from him? The very existence of This Is Not a Film is important as an act of defiance against an oppressive regime, but that would mean nothing if the film wasn't compelling, funny and troubling in its own right. This Is Not a Film shows us an artist paying the price for simply having a strong voice in a country that brooks no dissent. Despite the protestations of Mirtahmasb and Panahi, this is a film – and what's more, it's a great one.

3 – Amour

Amour is a great love story and a great horror film. It is a love story in a sense that the affection and devotion we see between its two lead characters feels entirely real, and it is a true horror in the way it unblinkingly faces the pain and suffering that so many of us will eventually have to face in our own lives. The film is often hard to watch, which is not unusual for a Michael Haneke film, but this time it feels different. The film's power is drawn from our association with the characters and the emotional truth of what we see rather than the director's clinical and often cruel manipulations. Amour is the story of an elderly couple struggling to cope after the wife is partially disabled by a stroke that hits her (in a terrifyingly quiet manner) early in the film. We watch the husband do what he can to assist her, and while this may sound like the most depressing two hours imaginable, there's actually something inspiring about seeing such a pure and unquestioning love being depicted on screen. Haneke's direction is as intelligent and precise as ever, but this film is built upon a sense of compassion that I have rarely found in his films. Amour may not be an easy film to watch but it is a rewarding one, displaying a master filmmaker at the height of his powers, and two of the most moving and courageous pieces of acting you will ever see.

2 – The Kid With a Bike

Every three years the Dardenne brothers release a new film and every three years I brace myself for disappointment. Surely their run can't continue. Surely they will soon falter and make something less than a great work. As of yet, I haven't been let down once, and The Kid With a Bike is yet another masterpiece from two directors who seem incapable of making anything but. With this film, their work has the effortless quality possessed only by filmmakers who have mastered their craft. The story is simple – a troubled boy looks for love – but the humanity that the Dardennes bring to the film makes every scene feel real, and as if it is unfolding in front of our eyes with the spontaneity of real life. They manage to elicit tears without ever straying into sentimentality and they retain the extraordinary ability to spin gut-wrenching suspense out of nowhere; in the final stretches of The Kid With a Bike I was holding my breath as I had become so emotionally invested in Cyril's fate. The Dardennes make films about ordinary people in trying circumstances, whom they regard without any judgement. Their films are great works of realism, humanity and artistry, and The Kid With a Bike is simply the latest in a run of films that has few parallels in contemporary cinema.

1 – The Turin Horse

Béla Tarr made it clear that The Turin Horse would be the last film he ever made, and he couldn't have picked a more fitting film to end with than this one, which is so heavy with the sense of impending darkness. We spend most of the film inside the cabin inhabited by a poor father and daughter, who earn a meagre living from farming but who can do little while the wind howls incessantly outside. They have a simple routine – they wake, they do chores, they eat potatoes, they sleep – but over the course of the seven days that this film observes, their routine begins to be disrupted. A neighbour arrives with apocalyptic tidings, a band of gypsies drive by, the well dries up, their horse refuses to work, and all the time the wind continues to howl. It is as bleak and unremitting a picture Tarr has ever made, all unfolding in his familiar slow takes to a foreboding score by Mihály Vig, but this bleak picture is also incredibly compelling. It grabs our attention with the unforgettable opening shot and doesn't relinquish its grip for the next two and a half hours. The solemnity and austerity of the picture may be suffocating, but the steady rhythm that the director establishes keeps us following the story, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, until Tarr finally turns out the lights. Maybe this is how the world will end, not with a bang but with a quiet howl of despair. Many films recently have depicted the apocalypse, but watching The Turin Horse – and contemplating the loss of a great artist from the cinematic landscape – is the only one that actually feels like the end of the world.

Honourable Mentions: BarbaraBombay BeachElenaHoly MotorsKiller JoeMagic MikeNostalgia For the LightOnce Upon a Time in AnatoliaParanormanTabu