2020s, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2022

By Roderick Heath

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2022 was always going to be a rough year for cinema. Ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on production and how movies are consumed were felt all year, setting everything into an uneasy churn. A vast array of strong movies were rudely shuffled off to streaming whilst movie theatres were often left with a drought of big, attention-getting new films to lure people out, and a lot of the big movies that did come out were lacklustre and betrayed the waning grip of recent blockbuster trends. The smaller, quality works that did get release sank without anything to counterprogram against. The only real winner out of it all was Top Gun: Maverick, a vehicle Tom Cruise smartly delayed until it could play to packed and appreciative theatres, and it succeeded in uniting young and old audience members in a single, shared moment. Even if it certainly wasn’t the greatest movie ever made, Top Gun: Maverick proved old-school Hollywood values were the best curative for the doldrums of the moment, especially when the superhero movie is devolving into cluttered and confused pile-ups like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Thor: Love and Thunder. And then right at year’s end we got James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, and just what that will do for mass audience cinema is still playing out.

Things often weren’t that much better in the more officially artistic and serious zones of cinema, with many a movie of strong pedigree and real worth failing to find an audience. It was hard to deny the feeling the brutal financial failure of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans in particular signalled on some level the fatal decline of Hollywood cinema in its purest form as everything falls into the sinkholes of streaming and a pervasive anti-art mood. Threads of common concern nonetheless wove throughout so many films this year. Spielberg and James Gray, two very different filmmakers, nonetheless both meditated on their most intense childhood experiences through alter egos with many points of similarity. The love of cinema as a shared experience and of media capturing as a mode of tantalising, frustrating meaning bobbed up in works as diverse as Ti West’s X and Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun and Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light. The antiheroic artists of Xavier Giannoli’s Lost Illusions and Todd Field’s Tár surrendered their creativity for the allure of power and self-indulgence, only to eventually be destroyed by the verdict of a society they’ve offended. Terence Davies’ Benediction and West’s Pearl both concluded with powerful but diametrically opposed images of faces, one of cathartic emotional release and the other desperately asserted pleasantness covering bottomless madness and horror. In Pearl and Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, a woman crushing an egg invoked shattering of a thin membrane of reality and the mental stability of the heroine.

Stark moralistic comeuppances were visited upon the absurd denizens of a landscape of celebrity, influence, technology, and plutocratic riches, played out in isolated locales, in Spiderhead, Glass Onion, The Menu, Death on the Nile, and Poker Face. Spiderhead and Don’t Worry Darling depicted a sinisterly sequestered community ruled by a charismatic creep played by one of Hollywood’s many current Chrises. Films like You Won’t Be Alone, Avatar: The Way of Water, Ted K, Pearl, and Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon grappled with characters dwelling on the fringe of society, wrenched in diverging directions by urges to both completely escape the world and angrily take it on, feeling the temptations of monstrousness whilst also gripped by strange pathos. Rebels around the same outskirts manifested in the likes of Neptune Frost and Prey and Bones and All. Reclaiming youngsters stolen by representatives of invasive and coercive authority preoccupied Rise Roar Revolt and Avatar: The Way of Water. Lovers trapped with each-other in dangerous zones in Stars At Noon, Emily The Criminal, and Bones And All faced the toughest of possible choices, one partner eventually forced to, figuratively and in one case literally, consume the other in the name of survival. Black heroes used to fending off the surreal reflexes of the real world had little fear taking on more fantastical threats in Saloum, Nope, and Day Shift.

Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski emerged with his debut, You Won’t Be Alone, filmed in his ancestral homeland and its language. Stolevski portrayed, in a hazily folk-historical setting, the odyssey of a young woman, raised in isolation and fated to be claimed by a gnarled witch and transformed into her skin-changing, blood-drinking kind, who nonetheless uses her gruesome talents to insinuate her way back into a village community and make human connections. Over the years she tries on different guises, male and female, young and mature, all the while taunted by her justifiably bitter and misanthropic “mother,” who was once burned at the stake. Stolevski’s ambition was notable, his film operating as a work of magic realism mixed with folk horror elements, using fantastical motifs to explore human perversity and gender fluidity. The overall design was similar in concept if not specifics to fellow Aussie director Rolf de Heer’s classic Bad Boy Bubby. You Won’t Be Alone was naggingly intriguing, but also badly hampered by bluntly mannered filmmaking far too imitative of other models, particularly Terrence Malick, and needed a lighter touch. Stolevski shot it in a constant handheld register replete with aggravating close-ups, so what ought to have been dreamy and mysterious was rendered far too literal throughout, working against some of his finer epiphanies of behaviour. Ana Lily Amirpour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon had a similar basic proposition, likewise depicting a supernaturally gifted young woman roaming at large in the world for the first time with a blend of angry bewilderment and yearning, but did so with an entirely different, and ultimately more successful creative palette.

In what could be considered a matched pair with You Won’t Be Alone of mythopoeic meditations on humanity made by Aussies this year, George Miller returned to the big screen with the fantasy romance Three Thousand Years of Longing, an adaptation of a story by A.S. Byatt. Tilda Swinton, wielding an aggravating accent, played a middle-aged expert in storytelling traditions and interpretations who chances upon a glass jug in an Istanbul shop and releases a long-trapped Djinn. The Djinn, after settling down into the sturdy form of Idris Elba, begins narrating how he came to suffer such a fate. Like much of Byatt’s writing, the narrative was pitched as argument, between academic knowing and artistic ardour, intellect and passion, man and woman, with the Djinn’s narratives invoking a sweep of myth-history, great and doomed loves, and metaphorical import, but all faced down by the academic’s forewarned knowledge of how stories like theirs always play out. Miller applied some clever visual touches here and there, and indulged his penchant for bulbous odalisques, and yet the film as a whole felt strangely uninspired. The story never came close to effectively transferring from page to screen, finishing up a loose assemblage of not-terribly-interesting episodes that often looked like outtakes from Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, taped together by the overarching narrative, which aimed for a note of autumnal companionship that was modestly affecting as the miraculous crumbled in the face of the prosaically modern, mostly thanks to Elba’s elegance as a performer: he alone had the power to make you believe in his wise and ageless Djinn.

With Emergency, Carey Williams followed in Jordan Peele’s footsteps in utilising a classic variety of genre film to explore fine gradations of Black American experience. Williams however bypassed Horror to instead tackle frantic ‘80s comedies like Adventures In Babysitting and Weekend At Bernie’s and blended them with a more urgent and serious imperative. Williams offered the adventure of two young Black pals, one nerdy and circumspect and bound for great things, the other a fun-seeking slacker with a streak of socially aware attitude, who find themselves, along with their Latino roomie, stuck with trying to find help for the young, doped-up, possibly dying white girl who turns up inexplicably in their dorm room, without chancing an uncomfortable, even deadly encounter with authority. Williams, with the help of great performances, managed for the most part to walk the line between jaunty shenanigans and something more pensive and biting. The official point about the way being Black intensifies the danger in certain circumstances was sustained, but also dared to venture into contradictory waters, with the heroes wreaking through their choices mounting dramatic hyperbole where the girl’s pursuing friends and the police were entirely justified in their fierce reactions. All ended fairly well but with lingering notes of trauma and regret, which might have been asking just a little too much of what preceded it.

Directing team Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who scored a popular success with 2019’s class warfare horror movie Ready Or Not, applied their new-kids-on-the-block touch to a well-worn franchise with Scream, a next generation entry that brought back the classic trio of heroes and other familiar faces but then applied a notably ruthless touch to killing a lot of them off, and positing a new core series protagonist, played by Jenna Ortega, who answers murderous insanity with, well, murderous insanity. The directors turned in a slick and twisty episode spiked with jolts of newly nasty violence and some knowing jabs at precisely the soft reboot approach being applied to the film. The lack of Kevin Williamson’s wry sidelong social and genre commentary and Wes Craven’s dynamic staging, despite the newcomers’ competent mimicry, was cumulatively telling, however, as much of the series’ good-humour and humanity were bled out, along with at least one beloved hero. Whilst it seems to have done the trick of revitalising the franchise box office-wise, I’ll likely sit it out from now on.

Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone also blended nostalgia and suspense. Set in the 1970s and deploying an anthropological eye not just for the pleasures of being a teen in the era but also its particular, folkloric dangers, The Black Phone depicted a town being terrorised by a serial killer snatching up young teens in his van and murdering them after holding them captive for a short time. The focus fell on a brother and sister, children of a flailing, abusive, grieving father, both of whom prove to share a talent for clairvoyance in different forms. When the boy is taken by the killer and held in a barren basement, his sister tries to use her gifts to track him down, whilst the boy communes with the ghosts of previous victims who push him to try various means of escape. The film generally stole from the best models (including Stephen King and The Silence of the Lambs) and sustained tension to the end. Extraneous elements however, like the kids’ father and the killer’s dork brother obsessed with the kidnappings, proved a real drag, and the period detail tended towards surface fetishism. Whilst the focus on methodical process as the key to survival was engaging, as the young hero assembled tools both physical and mental to defeat his foe, the denouement still felt like a bit of a cheat: we were meant to go “Ah!” when we saw how it all fitted together, and not think about what it really meant for hero’s supposed growth and rebirth as a badass. Ethan Hawke’s flamboyant performance as the creepily masked killer hovered just on the near side of shtick.

Jessica M. Thompson’s The Invitation cast Nathalie Emmanuel in her first major lead role as a young, broke, lonely New Yorker who, after losing her mother and desperate for family connection, tests her DNA and finds she’s connected with a blue-blooded English clan. Flown over the pond to meet them, she falls into flirtation with a criminally handsome and smooth lord of the manor who seems to hold peculiar status over her family and others. Signs begin amassing that something evil is lurking and that her new bae’s true identity is…well, if you don’t guess ten minutes in you’ll have to hand in your horror fan membership. Thompson offered a story with real potential, riffing on the Dracula mystique by combining it with a sceptical variation on Austenesque romance and contemporary cautionary tale that suggested a worse-case-scenario take on Meghan Markle’s journey, blended with shades of Get Out, Thirst, and The Wicker Man. The result, however, was painfully flat: the himbo Dracula was boring, the attempts to invoke feminist and racial angst too paint-by-numbers, the script cowardly in avoiding any truly dark temptation for the heroine, and the con-job romance overextended. The film threatened to become interesting once major reveals arrived at long last, as our heroine was confronted by the cruelty and weirdness of her potential new mate(s), but then pivoted to become a woke superhero origin story, essentially arguing that if you’re well-grounded in online rhetoric evil shalt never tempt thee.

Stunt performer turned director J.J. Perry helmed the Jamie Foxx vehicle Day Shift, a film with a simple but very likeable genre twist for a premise. Foxx played a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck professional separated from his wife and child and trying hard to walk the straight and narrow. With the corollary that his job, under the cover of being a pool cleaner, is actually that of vampire hunter, extremely skilled at overcoming his prey but with a habit of cutting corners that’s made him persona non grata in the small, covert circle of his trade. The film unfolded in a manner reminiscent of ‘80s B-movies, lampooning buddy cop flicks as Foxx was forced to work with Dave Franco’s wimpy bureaucrat. The story wasn’t always tight – Natasha Liu Bordizzo as an enticing neighbour with a secret suddenly became an important character in the film’s last third with minimal set-up, and as with The Invitation the film had confusingly cavalier attitude to dealing with the ramifications of becoming a vampire. Still it was a good lark all told, thanks to Perry’s excellent action directing and fun performances: any film that features Snoop Dog wielding a cowboy hat and a minigun can’t be all bad.

Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius offered yet another vampire variant, this one intended to perform the thankless task of wedging Jared Leto into a superhero paycheque gig, playing a character known as a canonical Spider-Man villain but pitched here as a tragic antihero. Leto played a sickly savant who seeks out the key to perpetual health only to infect himself with blood-drinking tendencies. Matt Smith was his plutocratic benefactor and fellow invalid who proves rather more eager to accept the taint of vampirism. Morbius again had potential. The storyline had echoes of the classical brand of Universal monster movies with their cursed protagonists, with Morbius forced bit by bit to give up his humanity to defend the few things he loves. Whilst Smith’s performance as the former cripple turned robust and eager monster provided flickers of life, the film as a whole was the most tepid variety of current big-budget sludge: released by Sony not long after the colossal success of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Morbius proved an instantly notorious example of lazy, witless franchise extension, executed in the blandest possible style of CGI-heavy and personality-free filmmaking. Leto’s listlessness in the lead didn’t help.

Anthropoid director Sean Ellis returned with The Cursed, a period-piece horror movie that bypassed vampires and went for a werewolf as its monster of choice, or at least an odd, skinny, hairless variation on the concept. Ellis intrigued initially with his glimpse of a surgeon digging a silver bullet out of a soldier killed in World War I, before flashing back a couple of decades to describe the roots of a bloody curse, when a cabal of landed gentry had a tribe of gypsies slaughtered over a land dispute, only for one of their sons to be transformed into a marauding monster to visit punishment on the locale. The Cursed certainly dangled some interesting ideas, operating as a more class and race-conscious variant on classic wolf man motifs and trying to bring an almost novelistic texture to the complex, intergenerational story. But Ellis’s mannered handling conspired to throttle tension and impact with heavy-handedness at every turn, the overtones of dark foreboding and pinched emotion and grating camerawork becoming annoyingly pretentious for what was in the end a pretty straight-laced genre story.

After a few years in the wilderness, once and future indie horror princeling Ti West suddenly roared back to life and attention with two movies in 2022 and with another to round off a trilogy in the offing. His first release was X, a tribute to the aesthetics of low-budget 1970s horror, particularly Tobe Hooper on a visual level, but with a story closer in spirit to oddities like Curtis Harrington’s retro camp studies and Charles B. Pierce’s backwoods bloodletters. West sent a small unit of would-be filmmakers and stars out to a remote farm, sometime in the mid-‘70s, to shoot a porn film, only to find they’ve become targets for the crazed and sleazy attentions of their elderly hosts, a crusty, devoted husband and his murderous, sexually deviant wife. West’s anthropological and cinephiliac obsessions dovetailed as he explored the confluence of transgressive impulses and art in the context of a mythologised era, and hinted at digging out the roots of the current reactionary spirit in the period’s jagged confrontation of liberated youth and jealous age. But for me the film failed to convince on several levels. The uncertain tone wavered between tongue-in-cheek and pathos. West was big on self-consciously gross vignettes but short on real tension and scares. He had Mia Goth play both the young and heedless and old and covetous versions of the star wannabe, playing the latter caked in make-up, a superficially clever touch that nonetheless robbed the film of its necessary evocation of maniacal fire guttering within an aged frame.

A few months later West released Pearl, a prequel to X again featuring Goth, this time playing the previous film’s killer as a young woman in 1918, the daughter of German immigrant farmers subsisting on the family farm in the midst of war and pandemic. Feeling trapped by a domineering and dour mother worried about anti-German sentiment and obliged to care for her paralysed father, and with her newlywed husband off fighting in France, Pearl becomes increasingly obsessed with becoming a dancer and escaping her lot. Only trouble is she’s also a budding psychopath who likes killing animals to take out her feelings, and as tensions build to a head blood starts to flow. Pearl arguably had a narrative that was a little too obvious, perhaps inevitably given that one already knows if you’ve seen X where things are heading: West reportedly threw the project together on a fit of inspiration and filmed it back-to-back with the other film. And yet Pearl proved not just far superior to X but perhaps the highpoint of 2022’s bountiful horror cinema, a weirder, uglier, more impressively and intimately cruel portrait that managed to subvert a certain style of making-of-a-monster story. West forced the audience to empathise with Pearl’s viewpoint even after making clear right off the bat she’s a fruitloop and that her embittered mother is trying to keep a lid on Pearl’s rising madness, and whilst Pearl’s aspirations and emotions are entirely ordinary, her ways of dealing with them are dreadful. West’s newly vivid sense of style found cunning ways to both invoke classic Hollywood products as extrapolations of Pearl’s role in the great American dream of self-invention, whilst forcibly mating them with a bleak genre story that turned the Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre influence back towards their Geinian roots, whilst also sideswiping The Wizard of Oz with grim sarcasm.

Jordan Peele, now thoroughly ensconced as a pop culture brand, made his third film with the enigmatically marketed Nope, which proved a combined homage to Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and mixed with plentiful, if nebulous, hints of a parable about racial erasure and media voraciousness at play. The heroes were OJ and Emerald, children of a horse rancher killed in a freakish incident, who try to obtain filmed proof that a huge, UFO-like thing is living near the ranch and consuming horses, whilst their neighbour, a more successful showman with a tragic background as a child actor, seems to be trying to bait the thing into becoming one of his attractions. Daniel Kaluuya was wasted as the rather dull hero, Keke Palmer more engaging as his would-be star sister, and Michael Wincott was the grizzled, famous cinematographer they hire to get a shot of the impossible. Peele proved again that’s he’s a real talent when it comes to setting up mystery and tension, building compelling early sequences with a sense of isolation and paranoia punctuated by the thing’s appearances, as well as a barely connected but suggestive flashback to a bloody, haunting event from the neighbour’s past. But Nope also confirmed some of Peele’s lacks: his hints of deeper meaning were eager to be noticed but weakly tethered to his monster movie plot, and his story and character threads felt underdeveloped. The film as a whole had the tenor of an each-way bet, trying at once to solidify Peel’s status as popular artist telling mass audience stories, and as a biting satirist with an outsider’s voice, but finding the two difficult if not impossible to reconcile.

Similarly preoccupied with characters desperately trying to capture filmed proof of the extraordinary, if in quite a different aesthetic mode, Something In The Dirt saw filmmaking duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson wearing many hats, including playing their main characters. These were a pair of alienated Los Angeles men, one gay, divorced, and a member of an apocalyptic church, the other an asexual bohemian and with a string of legal and mental problems in his past. This mismatched duo start working in partnership when they behold a mysterious phenomenon inhabiting their shabby apartment building and determine to document it, whilst chasing an array of clues about its nature down metastasising rabbit holes of esoterica. The mix of elements here was basically the same as Moorhead and Benson’s earlier, defining indie films like Resolution and The Endless, blending realistic character studies of shambolic individuals with mind-bending high conceptualism and a veneer of post-modern knowing that’s also ultimately a shaggy dog yarn. But it did manage to expand the filmmakers’ creative palette: the real subject of Something In The Dirt was the nature of creative collaboration, the untrustworthiness of mediated reality, and the way paranoid obsession tends to be refuge and torment simultaneously for many people, the relentless pull to investigate and research in an attempt to contain the world’s craziness. The film’s heroes were pulled together by a shared sense of wonder and ambition but finally, fatally divided by their divergent characters and worldviews. In this regard, Moorhead and Benson delivered a compelling human story that ended on a haunting note of lingering enigma.

Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling proved an unwitting topic of classically bitchy gossip regarding behind-the-scenes squabbles between director and cast, an ironic fate for a would-be feminist movie that cast a beady eye on hazy nostalgia for the alleged certainties of the 1950s via sci-fi allegory. Florence Pugh and Harry Styles played a couple living an apparently idyllic lifestyle as members of a community employed on a Manhattan Project-like secret enterprise sometime in the ‘50s and run along old-fashioned gender rules, only for Pugh to start suffering increasing certainty something’s wrong, and eventually learns she’s living in a simulated world created by a retrograde cult headed by Chris Pine’s bromide-spouting Svengali. The story had plenty of familiar elements, with nods to the likes of The Prisoner and The Matrix, as well as ironically owing as much to online erotic fiction derived from The Stepford Wives as the original film as Wilde engaged with the forbidden thrills of submission and delayed gratification, whilst playing it all as a heightened diary-of-a-mad-housewife story. Wilde confirmed she has a strong eye, backed up by Matthew Labatique’s gorgeous photography, and a good way with actors, particularly apparent in Styles’ surprisingly adroit and calculated turn. But Wilde’s attempt at drip-feeding a feeling of emergent unease exacerbated the way Katie Silberman’s script stretched out the game way too long and didn’t give wield that much surprise or satirical bite when it did finally give things away. By the time it did, and offered some intriguing complications to the seemingly prosaic metaphor at the story’s heart, the film had already outworn its welcome, and the plot resolutions proved clumsy.

Zach Cregger, a member of the comedy team The Whitest Kids U’ Know, made his directorial debut in a patent attempt to follow Jordan Peele down the rabbit hole as satirist turned horror maestro. The result, Barbarian, was a surprise hit that tried to mix sidelong social commentary with plain, old-fashioned suspense-mongering and freaky, gross-out thrills. Georgina Campbell was the young woman visiting Detroit for a job interview who finds her far-flung AirBnB double booked, and so must share it with Bill Skarsgard’s intense nice guy, with the pair soon confronted with signs they’re far from the only ones sharing the house. Justin Long was tossed into the mix mid-movie as the mystery house’s owner, a sitcom actor accused of rape who decides to sell the property to pay his legal bills, only to also be drawn into the grim tale. Barbarian started well, with its believably tense and provocative situation and introduction of dank, alarming yet also enticing enigma that bends the characters out of their rational minds, even if Skarsgard tried a little too hard to work his character’s ambivalence. Cregger evinced a strong sense of style. As it played out though, the story turned out to be extremely familiar stuff, with its lumbering monster crone offered as the by-product of generations of diseased abuse, with a weak last-minute stab at investing it with pathos but otherwise simply serving as a standard movie monster, with added attempts to encompass fashionable talking points barely connected to what’s actually going on. Cregger’s desire to keep his ultimate game vague resulted in some ostentatious storytelling shifts in focus and style that had superficial impact but felt forced, and would probably have worked better if deployed in a more classical fashion. By the end the film collapsed in a heap.

Neil Marshall’s The Lair had many of the same touchstones as other genre films of the year, with loud nods to John Carpenter and James Cameron, as well as the glorious old school of creature feature, the kind that sported monster costumes that don’t quite fit properly around the crotch. It also announced Marshall’s determination to get back to his roots circa Dog Soldiers and The Descent. His wife and screenwriting collaborator Charlotte Kirk starred as a badass pilot shot down over Afghanistan in 2017, who discovers an old Soviet bunker inhabited by grotesque chimeric beings. After barely escaping whilst the critters rip apart some hapless Taliban, she takes refuge at a US Rangers outpost, only to suffer siege by these tough and toothy blighters. The Lair lacked the cleverness and deftness of characterisation Marshall once imbued on Dog Soldiers, the acting from an unseasoned cast often broad and awkward, and the last act got a little too frenetic and indebted to Aliens for its own good. And yet, whilst less polished than the likes of Nope or Barbarian, ultimately I found it a more successful film, an enjoyable, pure-hearted tribute to, and example of, the B-movie ethos. That’s largely because Marshall’s craftsmanship and capacity for tackling monster movie thrills with authentic relish proved undimmed. The film also provided a curiously salutary revisit to the director’s penchant for political parable as explored in Centurion, as The Lair made overt nods to Zulu and the theme of empires fleeing inhospitable lands.

Colin Trevorrow’s return to helming the Jurassic Park franchise with Jurassic World: Dominion was a more straightforward special effects-driven monster movie than Nope, albeit one that also tried a little to shake up the material a little, with the dinosaurs now roaming the world at large, fuelling the rise of exploitative black markets. Heroes new and old were pitched in together to battle yet another nefarious plutocrat, this time played by Campbell Scott and supposed to be the same one who caused all the ruckus in the original film, when his attempts at genetically engineering market advantage result in swarms of mutant locusts wreaking havoc. Dominion had real problems, including some jagged editing that hinted at last-minute interference, and some extremely tired plotting, particularly in the downright perverse subplot involving young Maisie Lockwood and her girlboss genius mother-twin, a particularly egregious example of trying to reorientate narratives to be more female-centric in the silliest manner possible. The film was still better than generally painted: the united cast of old favourites and new fixtures interacted well, Trevorrow had fun giving them all a moment to shine, and the action sequences were strong, particularly the wild mid-film chase sequence in Malta.

Parker Finn’s Smile, the year’s biggest Horror hit, like Barbarian prioritised raw creepiness and menacing thrills staged with cinematic largesse over pretentions to deep commentary and parable, although it still built itself around a blatant metaphor for the insidious power of trauma. Sosie Bacon was the dedicated but vulnerable psychiatrist who, after seeing a panicky patient kill herself whilst wearing a hideous fixed grin, finds herself dogged by a malevolent trickster demon that makes clear it intends her destruction in the same way, and her attempts to escape the curse mean confronting the life-defining imprint of her mother’s suicide. Finn’s film was initially intriguing and gained much from Bacon’s impressive, likely star-making performance, even if she was pushed to inhabit extremes of neurosis with near-comical speed. As a whole though I found Smile didn’t add up to much, in part because Finn’s direction was so showy and spectacle-driven that it kept giving the game away, where the story needed a more brittle and deceptively calm setting. Interludes of showy gore and demonic manifestations were overdone, and by the time of the nasty bummer climax, the heroine’s pathos had been outmatched by genre shtick and bumper sticker psychology.

Scott Mann’s Fall exemplified several recent trends in attention-grabbing action-thrillers – just thrust one or two comely young women into a high-pressure survival situation, throw in some grief, trauma, or other just-add-water feels as an identification pretext, and away you go. In this instance, the heroines were two young devotees to the religion of extreme sports, but with one, Becky, turned apostate since her husband died in a rock climbing accident. The other girl, Shiloh, now a rising social media star, is determined to shake her pal out of her grieving torpor, and convinces Becky to join her in climbing a colossally tall, soon-to-be-demolished TV antenna tower in a desolate stretch of the American west, only to find themselves trapped atop it. In order to happen the film depended on the two women being astonishingly reckless and foolish, and the script took refuge in some now-cornball clichés, including a particularly silly narrative fake-out and shock reveal, and liberal pinching from Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Still, Fall remained engaging almost until the end, thanks to glimmerings of a nicely vicious lampoon on influencers spouting pop no-fear bromides, and it provided thrills aplenty, as a calling card for Mann as a director capable of sustaining what was essentially a chamber piece with a sweat-inducing sense of danger.

Baltasar Kormakur’s Beast was almost the same movie, albeit with a different subgenre frame. This time the protagonist was Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) a recently widowed doctor on a visit to his late wife’s home village out in the South African veldt whilst trying to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughters. Attacked by a lion that’s been driven to homicidal and indiscriminating fury by poachers, and left stranded in a rugged stretch of a remote national parkland, Nate was obliged to protect his daughters and try to save his wife’s childhood friend and game warden Martin (Sharlto Copley) from both the murderous animal and the well-armed poachers. The script was, again, just a little too basic and eager to deploy its pretexts before getting down to business, and the lion itself – animated with surprisingly convincing CGI – was presented at some points as an improbably cunning and irresistible force and at others as something a bit more realistic. The strength of the lead actors and Kormakur’s staging, complete with constantly prowling, paranoid camerawork, made it a decent, entertaining survival thriller. Also nice to see Elba playing an everyman type of hero, albeit one who when push comes to shove can still wrestle a lion.

Sam Walker’s The Seed provided an intersection for at least three of this year’s movie strands, blending satire on pushy queen-bee influencer culture, portraits of young women suffering millennial ennui, and chamber-piece sci-fi-horror. Walker depicted three friends who retreat to a house in the California desert for one girl’s self-promoting fashion shoot, with tensions manifesting in their diverging outlooks even before a meteor shower deposits a disgusting, turtle-like alien life-form in the yard. The creature soon begins asserting an insidious sway over two of the women, infesting their bodies with alien spawn, leaving the third to face some terrible choices. The Seed’s low budget was telling in places, the acting a bit forced, the script dotted with unanswered questions, and the regulation final girl a bit pallid. Still, Walker managed to do quite a bit with not much, applying flecks of very dark humour to visions of icky assimilation and body horror touched with aspects of kinky sexuality, as the alien played at becoming a mind-and-body-melting extra-terrestrial Hugh Hefner.

Speaking of body horror, the style’s progenitor David Cronenberg re-emerged with Crimes of the Future, a film that recycled the title of his 1970 short film attached to quite a different story. This variant was set in an epoch where both physical pain and infection have vanished from the human experience, whilst some people suffer bewildering growth of seemingly extraneous organs, and so self-mutilation is the new art. Cronenberg offered a sardonic self-portrait via Viggo Mortensen playing Saul Tenser, who wows the art scene by making spectacles of getting his aberrant organs removed. The film didn’t so much have a story as recount Saul’s interactions with various scenesters, bureaucrats, militants, and cultists, eventually confronting the possibility that the human race is evolving to live off its own plastic waste. Cronenberg certainly hasn’t mellowed when it comes to drumming up intriguing ideas or ugly-beautiful images, but like quite a few of his late career works it really just kind of sat there on a dramatic level, filled with elements that went nowhere and dotted with clumsily blunt violence, both a portrait and example of an intellectual-artist’s tendency to hide from emotional intensity by taking refuge in conceptualism.

Mark Mylod’s The Menu also took on the uneasy relationship of artist and audience and laced it with flashes of outright horror and blackly comic meditation on one of the year’s most popular themes, in brutally accosting the rich and influential. Ralph Fiennes was Chef Slowik, a titanic figure of the culinary world who invites a select coterie of smug-uglies to his cutting-edge restaurant on an island and treats them to the products of his cult-like operation, only to slowly unveil an intention to kill everyone by the night’s end in a banquet of truth and death. Anya Taylor-Joy was the humble escort accompanying one guest, who finds herself doomed along with everyone else unless she can find the chef’s one weak spot. The Menu was engaging on a baseline thriller level although it spurned believability in favour of a kind of nightmare logic that might have been aiming for the Buñuelian but came closer to Grand Guignol camp like Theatre of Blood (1972). The Menu was packed with concerns of potential, particularly in exploiting the curious grip celebrity chefs have on the contemporary bourgeois mind, testing the eternal tension between creative figure, critic, and consumer, indicting the naked classism often lurking behind foodie culture, and considering the mix of sadism and masochism often required by success on the highest level. Like too many films to tread such territory this year, however, the satire (in a script by to two former The Onion scribes) was tinny and shallow, sacrificing any nuance or clash of voices to better have its basic, populist thesis, and indulging its elegantly deranged tormentor-avenger to a disturbing degree. The programmatic nature of the story meant no real surprises were in store, which meant that once the punchline arrived, The Menu added up to nothing more than a sick joke.

Graham Moore’s The Outfit was another thriller that sought to make minimalist virtues out of production lacks, if in a more intimate and restrained manner. Filmed on a single set, The Outfit’s title was a pun hinting at two aspects of the story, which unfolds entirely within a Chicago bespoke tailoring shop in the 1950s, run by an aging, prudent-seeming English immigrant, Burling (Mark Rylance) with the help of a young protégé (Zoey Deutch). Burling is connected with a big-time gangster who uses his shop as a message drop as well as a source of good clothes. Deutch is playing dangerous games, a gang war seems about to break out, the modest tailor – sorry; cutter – is hiding his own motives, and things come to a head when the gang lord’s son brings a wounded pal there to hide out, forcing secret loyalties to emerge. The Outfit certainly reiterated how a filmmaker can tell a good, gripping story with a couple of rooms and some good actors. As a whole though I found the film a bit facetious, with twists and confrontations piling up to a rather absurd degree, which combined with the cramped setting left it all seeming just that little bit too theatrical and artificial, if still diverting.

Michael Bay’s Ambulance also revolved around the basic concept of dangerous criminals crammed into a tight locale, if articulated in the exact opposite manner. Bay applied all his formidable technical skill to his remake of a Danish film, which saw two brothers, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen and Jake Gyllenhaal, both raised by a criminal father, staging a bank robbery in downtown LA with very different motives in mind. Their getaway proves disastrous and the duo finish up holding two ambulance medics hostage in their vehicle and careening around LA at speed, looking for any chance to slip the net. The film wedded fraternal melodrama as old as the movies themselves with frantic, absurdist humour and dashing action staging, with Bay making plentiful use of swooping drone shots in the midst of staged chaos. Ambulance saw Bay trying to stay on the cutting edge of Hollywood tech and style whilst also growing just a little out of his perma-‘90s dudebro bliss zone, and Gyllenhaal and Eíza Gonzalez as one of the paramedics gave smart performances. Trouble was, Bay kept spoiling the impact of the dynamic camerawork with his usual incessant and careless cutting, and the overheated dramatics became more exhausting than compelling by the climax.

Special effects maestro Phil Tippet emerged from his back shed with a movie project over thirty years in the making – the stop-motion epic Mad God. This labour of love was a frequently grotesque and surreal vision of a post-apocalyptic future landscape, inhabited by labouring homunculi, misshapen monsters, mad doctors, and warring magicians. As a technical achievement it was practically without equal, and as an aesthetic one undeniably powerful, its rank, ugly, often despairing mood quite palpable but leavened ever so slightly by humour so dark it might count as a black hole. How much it worked however depended on tolerance for the constant stream of hyperbolic violence and sadism, and the opaqueness of its suggested parable, which seemed to want to say something about the cycles of war and environmental degradation but was ultimately more enthralled by its own whacko stream of invention. At its best it was genuinely, peculiarly transfixing as a portrait of a total state of lunacy; at its least it resembled the drawings a particularly talented, morbidly creative teenager might sketch inside their math book cover, taped together in a string. Cult status certainly awaits.

10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg made a bold grasp at one of the seemingly poisoned chalices of current franchise cinema, expanding the Predator mythos with Prey. Trachetenberg offered a wisely bold twist in trying to revive the series by shifting to a period setting and deploying a what-if scenario. Prey depicted a young Comanche woman (Amber Midthunder) in the early 1700s who, determined to become one of her tribe’s hunters, ventures out alone into the forest where she encounters both boorish French trappers and something far more dangerous and mysterious. This set-up allowed Trachtenberg to get back to basics in again telling the story of one wily hero who eventually has to take down the alien with smarts and guts, with a new, added gloss of trendy politics with girl power and indigenous perspective exalted. The film was superficially well-executed, with Trachtenberg’s dynamic staging and minimalist special effects matched to determination to tell a familiar story well and patiently, even if failed to offer a convincing-feeling depiction of the Comanche lifestyle, with Midthunder’s performance too calculated as an easily assimilated emblem for millennials.

Chloe Okuno’s Watcher cast Maika Monroe as the flailing former actress wife of a young businessman assigned to work in his company’s Bucharest office. Left alone in their sleek, barren apartment during the day and often into the night, and with dread stories of a serial killer at large and few people she can communicate with, she becomes convinced a man in the opposite building is watching her with evil intent, but can’t convince anyone her concerns are urgent. The basic story here was well-worn, very similar for instance to John Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me!, but sought to highlight an implicit feminist theme about being listened to and believed. In those terms Watcher was a little thin, as the script never quite engaged with its characters beyond the obvious – the husband for instance was a rhetorical stick figure – and Burn Gorman was a little too obviously if effectively cast as the inscrutable onlooker. Okuno compensated with a slowly, steadily woven sense of dread and alienation, with a strong feel for the location. Monroe portrayed the heroine struggling to climb out a mire of weak-willed isolation with real class, and built to a properly agonising climax.

Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi was a film with similar precepts to Watcher, likewise depicting a young woman – Zoë Kravitz this time – living an isolated life in a to-die-for apartment and with at least one man spying on her. This time, however, the heroine’s solitude was by choice: stricken with agoraphobia after being molested in her last job, she now works remotely for a rising tech firm, analysing recordings of users of their Alexa-like AI system. When she hears what sounds awfully like a murder being committed, she begins digging to find the truth of it, only to find the trail leading to her employer. Soon she faces not just corporate obfuscation but Orwellian surveillance and hired killers on her tail. But they don’t reckon with either her grit orher intimate knowledge of the tech they propose to corner her with. Following No Sudden Move, one of his most annoying movies, with Kimi, one of his best, reiterated that Soderbergh is by far and away at his best in pulp entertainer mode, trying to invisibly blend thrills with strong elements of social critique. The result was glib in places and cried out for more interest in its perverse marginalia, like the lonely peeping tom who proves to be a nice guy but is only used as a kind of deus ex machina, which some of the film’s influences like Hitchcock and De Palma would have wrung for ripe humanity, as indeed the Soderbergh who once made Sex, Lies and Videotape might have done. That said, Soderbergh worked his most chicly efficient filmmaking to date. Kravitz, as the blowsy, damaged, but wily and quietly badass heroine, gave a strong performance which when viewed as a companion piece to her Catwoman in The Batman felt close to defining a contemporary archetype.

Andrew Gaynord’s All My Friends Hate Me applied a mordant, unpredictable tenor to a study in social and psychological tension by playing it out as a blend of black comedy and folk horror creepiness. Gaynor depicted a former party animal reunited with his posher pals from university over the course of a weekend bash to celebrate his birthday and recent engagement, only to find himself feeling increasingly unmoored and paranoid when he just can’t recapture the old wild spirit. To the extent that the movie eventually proved an elaborate miscue of style it couldn’t escape a cumulative feeling of being excessively arch, and it ultimately shied away from the intriguing depths of character and consequence it wanted to evoke, leaving it to some extent as merely a feature-length variation on a particular brand of very British comedy-of-humiliation more often seen on TV. It was nonetheless clever in keeping the exact truth of what’s going on hazy and charged with an off-kilter blend of dread and bitter humour, until the climactic revelations that proved in essence to be another shaggy dog story, but also dared ask a genuinely needling question: what if you’re the worst person you know?

Swiss Army Man auteurs Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert returned with their own particular, more frenetic brand of metaphor-heavy, reality-twisting, post-genre mischief applied to what was actually a minor-key character portrait, exhibited in their art-house hit Everything Everywhere All At Once. Kwan and Scheinert’s film was the tale of a middle-aged Chinese-American Laundromat owner who, faced with multiple personal and business crises being brought to a head by an ornery IRS agent, finds herself plunged into a multiverse-spanning quest connecting her with myriad versions of herself spanning many dimensions in trying to head off apocalypse caused by her disaffected daughter’s embrace of nihilism. As with their precursor film, Kwan and Scheinert tried to present a metaphor for life through the prism of fantasy gimmicks, wu xia tropes, and magic-realist glee, and for a while, at least, the film was a giddy romp. The excellence of the cast, including Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong, and a surprisingly, wonderfully renascent Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, also helped. But the film dragged out every conceit and set-piece to a ridiculous extent, and fell victim ultimately to an increasingly tedious blend of hipster smart-assery and shallow feel-good messaging, trying ultimately to use its po-mo, multi-culti posturing to give a new gloss to well-worn indie film tropes.

Lei Qiao’s The Hidden Fox was an actual, proper wu xia flick that took plain inspiration from both Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, in imitating its smoky-textured and desaturated visuals applied to dazzling, acrobatic fight scenes, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, with its cast of colourful villains known as the Eight Evils. This gang are introduced in the employ of a corrupt government official seeking a legendary treasure, engineering a deadly duel between two heroes and massacring a village all to clear their way. Ten years later, they’re put on the path to the treasure again and dispatched to a remote, snowbound locale, only to find someone in their midst isn’t who they say they are. The Hidden Fox had some problems that have beset recent wu xia, particularly overripe performances and a script that only engaged its characters in the sketchiest terms at first and piled on narrative gimmicks in spite of not really being that complicated. Qiao’s fearsome action scenes and great photography made up a lot of ground: this might well have been the year’s best-looking film alongside Avatar: The Way of Water at much less cost, and as it barrelled towards a climax Qiao worked up some of the operatic emotional force the genre commands so easily at its best.

Latter-day Master of Disaster Roland Emmerich tried damn hard to pretend it’s still 1998 with Moonfall, a throwback to his classical brand of big, dumb special effects extravaganzas, albeit this time with a big, dumb sci-fi idea to justify it, proposing that the moon is a gigantic, encrusted alien mechanism that one provoked to action begins causing havoc on Earth and requires some affordable, available movie stars to save the day. Said movie stars included Patrick Wilson as the disgraced astronaut getting his shot at redemption and payback and Halle Berry as his once-and-future co-pilot, backed up by John Bradley, bringing his patented porky-plucky nerd hero into a contemporary setting. The film didn’t just demand turning your brain off but pulling it out of your skull and placing it in a pickling jar, and Emmerich’s touch just hasn’t been the same since he stopped working with Dean Devlin, his movies afflicted by a sterile aesthetic designed to be redubbed with ease for foreign markets. Fair’s fair though – it had just enough headlong, pulp magazine energy and absurd spectacle, delivered with Emmerich’s trademark graphic fluidity, to make me want to play along, particularly as this kind of movie’s been sidelined so long by superhero stories.

It’s long felt possible that the classic high-powered, jingoistic Hollywood action-adventure movie from the ‘80s and ‘90s, still beloved by boys of all ages and from all places but now stuffed away in Tinseltown’s locker in vague embarrassment in favour of superheroes and high-concept IP farming, might find new life outside of the US, much as the Western once did. Indeed, some movies out of Scandinavia in the past few years have already tried it. Australian pulp author Matthew Reilly offered his take, with his directorial debut Interceptor. Reilly cast Elsa Pataky, aka Mrs Chris Hemsworth, as a dauntless but ostracised soldier assigned to a floating command centre for the US’s missile defence system, who finds herself fighting to hold off a glib megalomaniac’s efforts to break in and disable the system, leaving the US vulnerable to nuclear annihilation. Kickboxing, gunplay, and corny CGI aplenty ensue. Reilly delivered a cheerfully cheesy, low-budget attempt to approximate that old school blockbuster vibe, complete with lots of Aussies doing dodgy American accents and a heroine whose Spanish lilt despite being the daughter of a respected US soldier is explained in a passage of ADR. The concoction was flimsy but delivered where it counted, and Pataky’s authentic physicality was utilised brilliantly. Reilly also wove in stabs at hot-button social commentary, including the heroine’s history with sexual harassment and the villain’s desire to cleanse his nation of its fractiousness, that were at once goofy and oddly substantial. Hemsworth made a funny cameo as a dopey salesman cheering on the heroine.

Hemsworth meanwhile returned to playing his most beloved character for Thor: Love and Thunder, a second helping of Taika Waititi’s distinctive take on the Norse god turned Marvel superhero. This time Thor, totally ripped once more and playing the zany wildcard in space adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy, was suddenly drawn back to Earth and forced to confront his ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who’s terminally ill with cancer but has also been reborn as a new, female Thor. Together they battle Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), whose sobriquet says it all. Where Waititi’s previous Thor: Ragnarok succeeded in applying self-satirising humour and an ‘80s cartoon aesthetic to fantasy and space opera tropes, Love and Thunder offered a darker, potentially very rich story contending with tragedy and revenge, but also threw comedy at it incessantly, as if scared of getting too heavy for the eight-year-olds with plastic Mjolnirs in the theatres. Waititi waded through his own sticky melange of childish fervour and hipster cynicism, offering up such try-hard delights as Russell Crowe as a hard-partying, plummy-accented Zeus and some screaming, cosmos-traversing magic goats. Waititi’s occasionally striking visuals were foiled and the excellent cast wasted.

Sam Raimi, who helped birth the superhero craze with his first Spider-Man twenty years ago, returned to the genre to helm the MCU entry Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. This one saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s mystic master drawn into a dimension-hopping adventure when he encounters America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl gifted with the capacity to leap between realities. America is being pursued through time and space by a mysterious enemy seeking to control her powers, a foe Strange learns soon enough is all too familiar and might well be unstoppable: Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, turned maniacal and broody after losing her beloved Vision. Raimi got away with surprisingly strong doses of his mischievous humour and invention as well as oddball, morbid imagery, which lacked only, in wielding the full force of Disney-Marvel’s special effects teams, the handmade charm of his early films. Raimi was also willing to countenance a once-heroic character’s downfall with a modicum of seriousness, and sequences like a mystic battle fought with musical notes had just the right crazy energy. That said, a mid-film pause to exploit the dimensional shift for some franchise blurring and nostalgia-baiting just got in the way, and the storyline was in such a rush it failed to make all its hero-journey beats land properly.

Meanwhile, another venerable fantasy franchise curled up like a dead spider, with David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. The third entry in this prequel series saw magizoologist Newt Scamander, his brother Theseus, and sundry pals trying to prevent archvillain Grindelwald from getting himself elected leader of the wizarding world through machinations involving a magical version of a groundhog. Given the lumpiness and lack of focus of the previous two entries, The Secrets of Dumbledore tried to turn things around by pairing screenwriter J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter adaptor Steve Kloves. But this one proved just as awkward, in trying at once to provide a potential capper for a series that was supposed to go much longer whilst leaving the door open for continuation. This meant major storylines were rushed and then given cursory climaxes, and largely displaced by a core plot that tried to articulate a strained commentary on current politics, which might have hit differently if Rowling’s big mouth hadn’t dug her so deep a hole of late. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt had become a bore and Katherine Waterstone’s Tina was largely missing in action, which is a problem when they’re the core heroes of the enterprise, whilst Callum Turner’s nominally more stolid and traditional Theseus iroically emerged as more engaging.

After the calamity that was their previous collaboration, the only place for Jaume Collet-Serra and Dwayne Johnson to go was up, and the returned this year with Black Adam, revolving around one of the more antiheroic figures in the DC comics pantheon. Johnson was the title figure, a magically endowed ancient superwarrior with a grimly wrathful streak revived in the present day to protect his homeland of Kahndaq from an army of slimy mercenaries that’s taken it over for plundering. He’s soon pulled into conflict with a team of more traditionally righteous superheroes called the Justice Society, and all eventually are obliged to battle a descendant of Adam’s ancient foe. Black Adam actually started pretty well with and wielded a decent streak of dark humour, whilst Collet-Serra’s eye really let rip on some spectacular action sequences, particularly with Adam’s initial emergence, set to “Paint It Black.” I also liked the casual approach to introducing the Justice Society, a gang comprised of relatively obscure DC heroes, and setting them and Adam at odds in a story that did actually manage to approximate some of the random craziness of classic comic books. The problem was the film smacked of Warner Bros.’ uncertainty in going for wall-to-wall action in a movie that finally went on way too long.

I could make many of the same comments about Ryan Coogler’s over-everything Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the inevitable sequel to his zeitgeist-defining 2018 hit. Wakanda Forever sported in Namor a very similar figure to Black Adam, as another formidable antihero defending his nation. In Namor’s case the realm he sought to protect was the aquatic city of Talokan, determined to remain unmolested by a world hungry for Vibranium resources which until now Wakanda seemed to have the monopoly on. With King T’Challa dead from sudden illness and his young sister Shuri forced to step into his shoes, the two nations finished up warring for contrived reasons. Wakanda Forever was certainly a profound mess, jerkily paced and far too long, telling a story that scarcely made sense and with an array of MCU make-work shoehorned in, including introducing the absurd teenage genius Riri Williams, as well as dealing with the obvious and critical damage done to its prospects and narrative clarity by Chadwick Boseman’s death. Attempts at extending the first film’s political edge were even more clumsy and self-contradicting. Somehow though, I found it an intermittently likeable film, particularly in giving Leticia Wright’s Shuri space to evolve as a grief-stricken and angry new hero, backed up with strong performances by a battery of major actresses. Coogler and his megabudget production wielded some amusingly lush visuals depicting the two quasi-tribalistic superpowers going to war: Coogler confirmed at last that he does have an interesting eye, even when it’s at the mercy of CGI slathering and dark digifilm textures.

Simon Kinberg, back to deliver more mediocrity after his X-Men movie, directed The 355, a thrill-free thriller about an array of badass female security agents chasing down a MacGuffin and forced to work together despite their rivalries when caught up in a melange of double-crosses and conspiracies. The film brought together a marvellous array of actresses, headlined by Jessica Chastain again trying to get her action mojo working, and backed up by Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o and more. Despite such an array of talent wielding years of accumulated affection, The 355 finished up such a derivative affair, replete with make-work plotting and lumbering action, that I didn’t finish watching it. Anthony and Joe Russo’s hugely expensive streaming epic The Gray Man was slightly better but basically the same cookie-cutter product, this time based on a popular series of airport novels, casting Ryan Gosling to do variation #3.12 on his stoneface-with-slightly-wry-tweaks act whilst playing a criminal refashioned into an omnicompetent assassin, who goes to war with a CIA cabal to save the daughter of his mentor. The film had muscular production values thanks to its absurd budget and sported an entertaining turn from Chris Evans as the smarmy villain, but it was little more than an accumulation of genre clichés and algorithm-based keywords, with a dingy, flavourless look that managed to make every globetrotting location look the same, and no idea how to fit its story and character elements together. If this is what the future of cinema is, I feel deeply depressed.

Just as depressing was Ruben Fleischer’s Uncharted, adapted from the much-loved video game about roguish adventurer Nathan Drake, with Tom Holland playing Drake in a nominal origin story, as the barista orphan falls in with a roguish mentor played by Mark Wahlberg in premium smarm mode and sets out to find a long-lost treasure, competing with various roguish competitors and roguish quasi-love interests. Uncharted pilfered freely from a vast array of classic adventure stories and movies and completely drained them of all hints of life, sex, blood, danger, and excitement, substituting soulless digital photography gloss, boring and annoying heroes, and a ridiculous villain. Holland, Wahlberg, and Antonio Banderas delivered shameless in-it-for-the-money performances. The finale had a potentially entertaining if ridiculous conceit as heroes and villains battled it out on Spanish galleons dangling from helicopters, but even that finished up a whole lot of nothing.

Aaron and Adam Nee’s The Lost City looked almost exactly the same as Uncharted, with its phony-looking digi-jungles, although it aimed for quite a different spin for its pilfered tropes. The Nees stole the basic proposal of Romancing The Stone – romantic novelist gets thrust into a real adventure – whilst giving it a slight makeover. This time the novelist was Sandra Bullock’s successful but self-deprecating scholar turned hugely popular trash writer. The love interest was a likeably dopey male model who provides the looks for the hero on her book covers and has a secret crush on the author, played with winning fortitude by Channing Tatum. The latter chases the former when she’s kidnapped by a playboy villain (Daniel Radcliffe, amusingly cast but uninspired), to tap her authentic knowledge about an ancient treasure. At least The Lost City proved a mildly spry and painless take on recycled ideas: too much of its humour was that brand of semi-improv yammering that’s everywhere these days, but Brad Pitt was great in a cameo as a he-man adventurer hired by Tatum to save the day only to casually die, and Bullock and Tatum had just enough chemistry to make the rest of it an okay time-waster.

Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent tried a brand of meta storytelling that’s become increasingly popular of late. Nicolas Cage played Nicolas Cage, or rather a version of the popular impression of his career as an earnest but livewire talent cursed with poor judgement, who likes arguing with another, even more caricatured version of that persona that sometimes appears to him, one who likes howling out weird line readings. ‘Cage’, facing career downturn and problems relating with his ex-wife and teenage daughter, wearily accepts an offer to collaborate on a project with an amateur but very wealthy screenwriter, played by Pedro Pascal, who’s a huge fan. To both men’s surprise they become great friends, but Cage is soon warned by some CIA agents that his new pal is an arms dealer involved in a recent, high-profile kidnapping, and is asked to spy on him. The script’s pitch wasn’t entirely original in its ironic juxtaposition of humdrum lifestyle jokes and mutually-boosting buddy shtick against outsized melodrama and genre film canards. Cage however had a high old time simultaneously exalting and mocking his screen persona, and the plot, as well as delivering a suitably over-the-top approximation of buddy comedy shading into absurd action flick, had some fun with the idea of an actor using those skill as another weapon in the arsenal.

Tom George’s See How They Run also applied a comic and aggressively metafictional approach to a thriller blueprint, splitting the difference between honouring and burlesquing one of the most famous whodunits ever penned, Agatha Christie’s never-ending play The Mousetrap. George’s film had a potentially fun and clever gambit, setting a murder mystery backstage of the play when it was still a relatively fresh hit, and roping in some of its real-life stars including Richard Attenborough, Sheila Sim, and Christie herself, whilst also presenting a smart-aleck spin on the play’s plot. Adrien Brody was the jerk Hollywood director murdered by persons unknown, Sam Rockwell the sleepy, depressed, suggestively named investigating cop Inspector Stoppard, and Saoirse Ronan his bright and eager young assistant. George applied a lot of colourfully stylised jokiness derived rather too blatantly from the likes of Wes Anderson, and one late touch had real potential, as Shirley Henderson was cast a frayed and batty Christie who tries to intervene in a stand-off by clumsily applying her literary art to life. The script otherwise had an awful paucity of good jokes or substantive characters it took seriously enough to lend the larkishness a fulcrum, and failed to gain much momentum from the disparity of fact and fiction because it had no feel at all for reality, so the whole thing only added up to a superficially energetic pastiche.

Munich: The Edge of War was based on a novel by Robert Harris exactly the same as every other Robert Harris novel, with the same basic plot applied to varying historical backdrops. This one unfolded against the 1938 Munich Conference, casting Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain and George Mackay as a young aide who tries to act as mediator between the Prime Minister and a German friend who aims to blow the whistle on Hitler’s conquering intentions. The film was helmed by German director Christian Schwochow, which raised the possibility of a new perspective on this kind of gathering storm tale. It didn’t stop the results from being insipid as a thriller and distracted as a portrait of a much-mythologised historical pivot, punctuated by such obvious touches as casting August Diehl yet again as a nasty Nazi. The movie was only made vaguely memorable by Irons’ crafty, convincing performance as Chamberlain, trying to apply all his diplomatic wiliness to preventing war with earnest motives but also far out of his depth in dealing with authentic evil.

Greg Mottola’s Confess, Fletch revived the wily journalist, alias-happy investigator, and all-round wiseass created by Gregory McDonald and played in two movies in the ‘80s by Chevy Chase. Jon Hamm was an inspired choice for the role, playing a Fletch who’s quit journalism and, whilst living in Rome, gets involved with a Count’s daughter. He returns to the US to help unravel the theft of some of her family’s art collection, only to find himself accused of a murder. Attempts to revisit the appeal of cultish literary antiheroes can sometimes go wrong – remember Mortdecai? – but Mottola was judicious in updating the material and applied a smart, snappy sense of style. Almost to a fault: the comedy didn’t have much time to breathe as it was so determined to speed from one wisecrack and quirky vignette to the next, which meant the film almost outwore its welcome at just over an hour and a half. Still, it was for most of that length an elegant, playful, old-fashioned entertainment, with a script peppered with genuinely funny lines, and a pretty good mystery in an extended lampoon of Chandleresque thrillers.

Kenneth Branagh’s Death On The Nile finally came out early in the year, just a few weeks in fact after his Oscar-nominated Belfast, after being incessantly delayed by COVID and controversies involving several of its stars. Playing Hercule Poirot again, Branagh was bolder this time around in suborning the ritual form of the whodunit to his own fascination with formative psychology and cine-theatrical staging, as he tackled one of Agatha Christie’s most famous stories, with murder and skulduggery unfolding mostly on a paddle steamer working its way up the Nile. Branagh painted Poirot more overtly this time as a damaged misfit posing as suave force of justice, and surrounded him with versions of Agatha Christie’s characters tweaked to emphasise hidden passions and expose new forces, cultural and carnal, blending to push aside the posh Englishness Christie’s writings mythologised. Gal Gadot was ineffectual as the key victim, but Emma Mackey sizzled as her randy, vengeful sister, and Branagh’s freewheeling direction ticked off influences as diverse as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Bollywood epics. The last scene in particular struck a truly odd and affecting note, and the film, for all its wayward impulses, emerged deeply stamped with Branagh’s personality.

Rian Johnson’s more impudent take on the set-in-stone whodunit template Knives Out proved so popular in 2019 that this year he returned with a follow-up, Glass Onion, this time sending Daniel Craig’s sartorial detective genius Benoit Blanc to a Greek island owned by Edward Norton’s obscenely rich and tasteless tech mogul and his coterie of obeisant frenemies, gathered nominally for fun and frivolity, only to find murder and mayhem ensuing. This time around Johnson reiterated most of the core concepts from the first film in a more inflated and self-conscious manner, including offering a new raft of satirical caricatures seeking to skewer obnoxious species in the contemporary landscape of fame and wealth. Whilst Craig’s Blanc remained an inspired characterisation and held the film together when on screen, and Johnson’s filmmaking has become slick in the extreme, the second helping was far, far less satisfying, and indeed indicative of Johnson’s worst instincts. Johnson’s new mystery, which tried to build a key joke around things being less complicated than anyone wants them to be, still crammed proceedings with busy-work to provide an illusion of complexity, whilst the satire was one-note, and overall the incessant “fun” choked off any actual fun, any chance to enjoy the actors and let the characters and ideas flourish.

It’s easy to forget given his perpetually looming pop culture status that Batman is another beloved detective hero born just a few years after Poirot. The character made yet another retooled return in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, a film that pushed certain tendencies for the character and his cinematic portrayals to a limit, making him the hero of a long, moody, ‘80s-style neo-noir film. Reeves avoided offering yet another origin recapitulation, and instead portrayed the Dark Knight fairly early in his crimefighting campaign, contending with both Gotham City’s gang lords and the vicious, agenda-driven vigilante calling himself The Riddler, whilst getting involved with thief and demimondaine Selina Kyle, a rival and helpmate in his assault on the underworld with a secret project of her own. I liked The Batman quite a bit: Reeves applied a careful blend of stylisation and realism to a solid, well-told story, creating a slightly cyberpunk Gotham, and his filmmaking was elegant. Robert Pattinson was surprisingly, smartly low-key as a Bruce Wayne who barely has an identity beyond the nightfaring guise he’s constructed for himself, and Kravitz had a sly intensity as a Catwoman with a very personal thirst for justice. Only the overbusy script and occasionally ponderous length got in the way of the film’s total success.

As well as contributing one of his best scores for The Batman, Michael Giacchino also emerged as a director of potential when he helmed a Marvel by-product, the odd little amuse-bouche Werewolf By Night, based on one of the imprimatur’s more cultish and grown-up properties. Werewolf By Night mimicked classic Universal-style Horror movies in form and look, particularly Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, as it depicted a gang of notorious monster hunters converging at a mansion to participate in a monster hunt to prove themselves worthy inheritors of a magical object called the Bloodstone. Laura Donnelly was the spunky black sheep daughter of the Bloodstone’s old master and namesake, Gael Garcia Bernal the guarded nice guy with a feral secret, and Harriet Sansom Harris had a high old time as Donnelly’s fearsome, fanatical mother-in-law. Giacchino proved himself competent and well-steeped in the mystique of the kind of classic fare he ape, even if the black-and-white photography wasn’t terribly well-attuned to the medium. It’s also a pity the script didn’t learn more lessons from the old B-movie models with their ability to sharply sketch characters in a few minutes, where Werewolf By Night felt like a long prologue for a longer movie that doesn’t yet exist. Still, taken within its self-prescribed limits it was fun.

Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, which finally hit screens after a long COVID delay, was always going to be a hit, but the degree to which it proved not just the year’s biggest success but an all-time blockbuster took everyone by surprise, casually turning many assumptions of current mainstream cinema on their head. Kosinski anointed Tom Cruise, returning to his career-making role as ace pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, as a logical extension of his fantasy figure status, undimmed by age or compromise, and as the last true movie star. He was thrust into a storyline just about as old as Hollywood itself: the aging Maverick, almost out of options despite being a glory-crusted hero thanks to his penchant for bucking the system, was assigned to train and eventually lead some young pilots for a good old-fashioned impossible mission, requiring him to make peace with the past on the way as he struggles in a quasi-paternal role for Rooster (Miles Teller), son of his old pal Goose and vanguard of the next generation. Kosinski managed a genuinely unexpected alchemy, playing off the mystique of Tony Scott’s slick and silly 1986 original, but also moving far beyond it, turning the sequel into a more general paean to classic Hollywood virtues – showing a beloved star and good-looking people doing thrilling, spectacular things, and tapping it for emotional depth, particularly in the vital meeting between Cruise and an ailing Val Kilmer. As a work of dramatic art I found it a double-edged blade – movies just like it, if not so visceral, came out every other week in the 1950s, and that familiarity was both appeasing and also a little wearisome. The compensation was Kosinski’s cutting-edge style and genuine sense of big-screen spectacle.

Only a few weeks after releasing the biggest hit of the year, Kosinski saw his follow-up Spiderhead more or less dumped. Spiderhead had a reasonably familiar starting point – condemned criminals try to expiate their sentences and their mental demons by signing up to be guinea pigs for a mad scientist’s experiments, in this case being dosed with drugs that can finely control mood and behaviour. But Kosinski’s approach to this concept was to, at least initially, play it as a bright, shiny lampoon on the softly fascistic self-confidence of techie entrepreneurs, playing the beneficent geniuses whilst heedlessly ignoring actual consequences for human beings, and the bromides of online poptimism, before the troubling truth begins to infect proceedings. Chris Hemsworth delivered an inspired performance as the beaming, snazzy, palsy supervisor for the experiment who pretends to be a functionary but is actually the master of puppets, and Miles Teller was solid as one of his subjects, guilt-ridden but increasingly assured in his resistance. The key problem with the film, despite some formidable qualities, was the story was just a little too straightforward to sustain a whole feature, being the sort of thing The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits might once have knocked over in half an hour. Subplots never quite became substantial enough to sustain themselves, the climax didn’t resolve too gracefully, and Kosinski, strong a formalist as he is, doesn’t yet have quite the touch for this kind of off-beat satire.

Following Top Gun: Maverick’s release, the movie event of 2022’s second half was the arrival at long last of James Cameron’s sequel to his epochal 2009 hit Avatar, a release that bore a heavy burden in trying to restore some wonder to the special effects blockbuster and the theatrical experience in general. Avatar: The Way of Water saw Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and their brood of kids forced to uproot from their jungle home when the return of human colonists and their great personal enemy Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has suffered a curious kind of reincarnation as his mind has been rehoused in an avatar body, sparks new conflict. Taking refuge with a sea-dwelling Na’vi populace and coming to love their lifestyle despite clashes between the Sully youngsters and snooty local brats, the Sullys are eventually forced to go to war again as Quaritch’s vendetta becomes increasingly unhinged. Cameron didn’t really try to do much new in terms of story and theme, beyond a swerve into a different brand of slightly masked environmental hectoring (swapping save the rainforest for save the whales), and shifting to a new locale for his particular brand of lysergic travelogue. Many of the fresh threads involving the conflicted and hybridised identity of the next generation introduced through characters like Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the bemusing child of Dr Augustine from the first film, are destined to carry over into further sequels. The Way of Water came on with such maximalist passion and spectacle that all this didn’t really matter much, with Cameron’s astonishingly beautiful filmmaking woven around a sufficiently elemental story that built to a thunderous action climax that amongst other things provided a greatest hits collection of Cameron’s cinema and retold Moby Dick from the whale’s point of view, reiterating that Cameron has cojones the size of California.

After years of quiescence, Adrian Lyne resurged with the would-be erotic thriller Deep Water. Ben Affleck was a husband who, having made a fortune out of designing weapons tech and now settled into a seemingly placid-to-a-fault life with his wife and daughter. Ana de Armas the wayward, capriciously horny spouse given to having flings and provoking her husband with her shows of messy extroversion, and whose lovers Affleck might be vengefully murdering. Lyne officially adapted the film from a Patricia Highsmith novel, but it was really another derivation of Claude Chabrol’s Une Femme Infidele like his previous Unfaithful. It came wrapped in Lyne’s customary gloss, particularly his penchant for real estate porn matched to softcore sexuality, which, given how neutered recent cinema has been, felt here close to daring. Lyne won good performances from his cast and sustained intrigue in the early portions as just what was going on was left enigmatic, and displayed a good feel for the behaviour, individual and communal, in this pocket of moneyed smugness. But the narrative became increasingly predictable as what was going on became clear and the characters reamined opaque, leaving me with the feeling, as Lyne’s films usually do, that it was all much less than met the eye.

Thirteen Lives was another movie that even five years ago would have been a major cinematic event but this year was shuffled off to streaming. Ron Howard tackled subject matter reminiscent of his Apollo 13, as he depicted the famous 2018 rescue of a team of teen boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell were cast as the two stoic, experienced cave rescue experts who, after finding the trapped kids by braving dark and swirling hell, had to come up with a way of getting them out, with the whole world watching and little expectation of getting everyone out alive. On a dramatic level, the film walked a tightrope between no-nonsense docudrama and something more expansive. The depiction of the Thai side of things was a bit scanty, sparing only sidelong glances at the politicking and ethnic tensions at play, and despite the title the actual kids were barely characterised, with the emphasis instead falling on the western rescuers. Nonetheless Howard plainly thrives on this kind of intense, detail-based filmmaking, applying formidable technical chops to communicating the danger and pressure of the scenario. He celebrated the same methodical tendency in his heroes, and managed again to make a story everyone knows the ending to thrilling.

Thomas M. Wright’s The Stranger offered a fictionalised story based on an infamous Australian murder investigation in the 2000s, via a Kate Kyriacou novel. Sean Harris did a superlative job transforming himself into a familiar type of rootless, damaged Aussie man, Frank Teague, the chief suspect in a young boy’s disappearance and presumed murder. Whilst fleeing attention and seeking work by travelling to Western Australia, Frank was quickly drawn in by an undercover policeman (Joel Edgerton) posing as a member of a crime gang who offers Frank everything he’s ever needed, a sense of belonging and protection from both the law and his own haplessly antisocial nature. The story certainly had intriguing precepts, portraying a glum and tacky Aussie demimonde, as Wright and the actors worked to portray the killer in his isolate pathos and the cop fraying whilst maintaining his submerged life and mimicking care for Frank that demands a kind of Stockholm syndrome. And yet the film ultimately remained at a distance from the men, failing to convey much complexity or detail to their relationship beyond the obvious, and proving particularly evasive at the end when the hammer fell, so that it didn’t really satisfy as either a stark procedural or a psychological portrait. Wright’s thick glaze of what has now become the cliché aesthetic of dark Aussie crime-themed dramas – creepy music, onerous, cryptic cinematography, and a gawking fascination for inarticulate losers – tried to convince the viewer it’s all something arty and deep.

Baz Luhrmann, never afraid of tackling big subjects and shrinking them down to the negligible, decided to assault one of the most famous and pivotal figures of twentieth century pop culture, with a biopic of Elvis Presley, albeit one that also encompassed a portrait of his crafty, controlling manager ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker. The thesis of Elvis was the two men were a symbiotic creature, Elvis embodying American synthesis, rebellion, and messy passion, Parker cynicism, commercialism, and a kind of performed squareness in a desperate attempt to stay below the radar, and the two men’s success each foiled and destroyed the other to some degree in a particularly American tragedy. Not a bad starting point, but of course with Luhrmann subtlety was never going to be the point. The best moments came early on as the film surveyed the time and place Elvis rose out of, raising the possibility Luhrmann intended to make a Moulin Rouge!-esque panoramic musical about the melting pot of mid-century American music of which Elvis was the most famous exemplar. Then it settled for being a stock-standard biopic, with a painful bulk of the runtime dedicated to The King’s decline whilst still sanitising his life and delivering the shallowest possible psychological portrait. Elvis in the end felt close to a greatest hits compendium for flourishes stolen from other recent biopics, with only curlicues of Luhrmann’s flashy artificiality for decoration. Tom Hanks was broad but daring and curiously effective playing Parker as a Fritz Lang ogre creeping through neon-lit aisles, but Austin Butler’s lead performance was like a model in a themed magazine photo spread, his speaking voice dead on but his face vacant and evasive in performing, the polar opposite of Presley’s fiercely projected engagement.

After successes with the art-house hits The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers made an all-out effort to earn his spurs as a genuine movie visionary playing to the mass market, as he released The Northman, a very loose adaptation of the Danish saga that also inspired Hamlet. The young Viking Prince Amleth, played in full manhood by Alexander Skarsgaard, sets out to avenge his father’s murder and mother’s forced marriage to his wolfish uncle. Eggers endeavoured to articulate the worldview of the Vikings through a blend of grimy physicality and stylised mystical visions, the blood-black fixity of Amleth’s purpose punctuated by flashes of something new and redemptive as he falls in love with the Russian witch Olga, played with vehemence by Anya Taylor-Joy, and finds something to fight for other than mindless revenge. Eggers conjured some technically and aesthetically formidable sequences, replete with incidents of cruel bloodshed balanced with folkloric vignettes illustrating a bygone world. But there was something calculated and artificial about the film. On a dramatic level, it was quite straightforward, filching from the likes of Conan The Barbarian and Sergio Leone, and offering lots of blunt violence, whilst posturing as something more thoughtful. Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother, who reveals a nasty surprise to her avenging son when they finally meet again, almost shocked the film into something genuinely interesting and off-kilter, but then it resumed its rather blankly macho business. As it was The Northman was an interesting, impressive, but not particularly rich work.

Like Eggers, Luca Guadagnino has repeatedly tried to make unstable concoctions in blending artistic pretence with gritty fare. Not dissuaded by his disastrous remake of Suspiria, he returned to Horror territory with Bones and All, an adaptation of a Camille DeAngelis’ novel about a teenage girl (Taylor Russell) who is abandoned by her father after her inherited, predatory cannibalistic traits start to become uncontrollable. Travelling across country in a bid to find her similarly afflicted mother, she encounters an aging, creepy dude (Mark Rylance) and a young man (Timothée Chalamet) who share her mysterious trait and seek her company, and faces a grinding crisis as her hungers constantly threaten to get the better of her scruples. The material might well have been made a meal of by George Romero or Wes Craven once upon a time, but Guadagnino played it for the most part as a touchy-feely heartland drama about people loaded with pathos in the mould of Drugstore Cowboy or the like, as well as extending the familiar mini-genre of European directors losing their bearings in the American expanse. Bones and All came complete with an insufferably folky gee-tar pickin’ score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for extra lo-fi romanticism, even as Guadagnino loaded the film with gory scenes of flesh-eating, and the film left me wondering just who the hell it was meant for. The collision of tones and impulses failed to cohere in any fashion, and after an initially intriguing start became quite dull. Rylance, Michael Stuhlbarg, and David Gordon Green turned up at intervals to inject calculatedly weird turns as other members of the “eater” community, and yet the film had nothing at all to say about this community, and it became apparent Guadagnino had only chosen to tackle the material as the theme would wield more shock value than it he’d made yet another movie about junkies or other, more prosaic footloose types.

David Leitch, a director who keeps suggesting real talent without yet finding the right material to apply it to, followed up his hard-edged action flicks John Wick and Atomic Blonde with the wild, fluorescent, comedy-action extravaganza Bullet Train, adapted from a popular manga. Brad Pitt was wittily cast as a blissed-out thief riding on a wave of new-age therapy bromides, thrust amidst a deadly contest on one of the titular transports. Assigned to steal a briefcase, he finds he’s surrounded by assassins both professional and amateur, all being played off against each-other by a shadowy, ruthless Russian crime lord and his offended daughter. Bullet Train was blatant in offering a particularly slick variation on the kind of bouncy, bloody, absurdist post-Tarantino thriller developed by the likes of Guy Ritchie and Joe Carnahan, the kind with character-announcing title cards, whirlwind explanatory flashbacks, and humorously inapt pop ditties on the soundtrack. It was however elevated to the head the pack by the cast and Leitch’s formidable formal gifts, particularly his spryness in staging action scenes and surprisingly precise feel for when to pivot from shenanigans to seriousness and back again. If the film didn’t wield the same visual class as Atomic Blonde, it was more successful in tracking the frenetic crisscrossing of interested parties and building to a madcap climax, and though ultimately way too long, it was more entertaining than it should have been. Walter Hill’s Dead For A Dollar was sort of like Bullet Train’s elderly relative, playing out a not-dissimilar story in a proper Western setting and swapping lightning zaniness for shambling, autumnal verbosity. Ditto Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum, which provided an African-set, horror movie-inflected variation on the concept.

One of the few things viewers seemed to agree on this year was that S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR (Rise Roar Revolt) was one of the major movie events. A Telgu-made, Bollywood-style epic, RRR told the interwoven story of two fictional folk heroes, one a policeman working under the British raj in the 1930s, the other a holy warrior sent by a village to find and restore one of its children, stolen by an English governor and his wife, with both men eventually embroiled in the burgeoning independence movement. RRR was praised by lefties for its unabashedly fight-the-western-Man attitude but criticised at home for its appeal to nakedly self-righteous nationalism, making for interesting intellectual incoherence, whilst most just let the over-the-top action and dance sequences crash over them. It was hard not to get the feeling RRR hit a sweet spot of exoticism, supplying things people would’ve ripped to shreds in a Hollywood film doing the same. Although the dance sequences were good, personally I found RRR pretty irritating, with its overbearing style and lousy acting, with Rajamouli dragging out every sequence five minutes longer than it needed to be. With its absurdly pumped and performed machismo, leaping wild animals, and goofy humour, it had the quality of a beer commercial run amok.

David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, the director’s first film since his underrated Joy, chose a similar starting point to his overrated American Hustle by tackling a historical scandal and kneading some of Russell’s favoured brand of shambolic protagonists into the dough. This time Russell’s story touched on an authentic conspiracy from the early 1930s involving an attempt by reactionary plutocrats to manipulate veterans into forming a fascist revolutionary army, via suborning their trusted spokesman, whose fictionalised equivalent was played by Robert De Niro, cast with ironic pep as a salt-of-the-earth heroic patriot. But the story concentrated on three invented figures: Christian Bale’s damaged doctor, John David Washington’s stalwart pal, and Margot Robbie’s bohemian rebel, who find themselves enacting a half-remembered Hitchcock plot on the way to proving touchstones for Russell’s conviction that the whacky outsiders and rejects often prove national saviours. The initial set-up was intriguing, Russell offered a beautifully recreated historical milieu, and there were good flourishes scattered throughout, like a sing-off between Nazi goons and a ruck of Black American veterans. These got lost in the blur of Russell’s penchant for superficial energy and even more superficial showy neuroticism from his characters, and his attempt to balance his native hipster cynicism with a paean to Capraesque heart didn’t so much result in a draw as in a brutal mutual beat-down, manifesting in a terminally overdrawn and clumsy coda. The formidable cast all seemed to be acting in different movies, and only De Niro and Anya-Taylor Joy as an insufferable society wife seemed to be in the right one.

Santiago Mitre’s Argentina 1985 also contended with troubling history, as it depicted events doubtlessly extremely familiar to an Argentine audience: Mitre charted the travails of a state prosecutor and his team of earnest young aides trying to indict military bigwigs from the recently deposed junta for their abuses and tyrannies, despite knowing full well many of their friends are still in power and they have vast reserves of support from the upper classes. Mitre’s approach to the loaded, fascinating material, far from the more allusive and insinuating aesthetics of movies to tackle this milieu before like Pablo Larrain’s early movies or Andreas Fontana’s Azor, offered a very Hollywoodised approach, charting the formation of the team of valiant justice-seekers with jots of comic relief and catharsis between the heavy stuff and punctuating all with a standard inspiring music score. Fair play: it was at least good Hollywood, with smart performances, fleet-footed direction, and some deft blending of recreation and historical broadcast footage from the real trials. Importantly, Mitre achieved a palpable sense of what it’s like to emerge from a repressive state, painting an inherently paranoid mental and political landscape where everyone’s determined to press on but knows full well it could all very suddenly become a deadly trap for the supposed hunters, and noting the ambivalent aspect of the heroes’ final, curtailed success, to keep things getting too cheaply triumphal.

With The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood set out to explore African history with an edge of feminist and ethnographic import, as she portrayed the famous women warriors of the Kingdom of Dahoumey. Viola Davis was cast as a potent but world-weary commander defending the state of John Boyega’s young king in the 1830s and schooling some new recruits, one of whom has an unexpected secret, whilst their country faces conflict with a powerful neighbour and some sleazy Brazilian slavers. Leaving aside the film’s problematic historicism and blatant indulgence of pure crowd-pleasing fantasy, Prince-Bythewood did an initially intriguing and visually impressive job of venturing into a little-portrayed place and period, and pulled off some well-staged action scenes. The movie, which might have made for a thrilling study of a proud but morally complex society as well as a great war story, settled for being a merely decent thud-and-blunder epic that owed at least as much to old-school swashbuckler melodramas like The Black Shield of Falworth as to Braveheart, with its reunions between long-lost family members, and a drippy romantic liaison with a hunky human trafficker in the bargain. Lashana Lynch’s broad but entertaining performance as a tough but doomed warrior was the best feature. Actual African cinema of the year, including Saloum and Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, was in general far superior.

Terence Davies tackled the life and legacy of Siegfried Sassoon, the poet laureate of World War I’s special horror, with Benediction, a long, muted, but intelligent and strongly felt portrait that set out to mostly illuminate Sassoon’s postwar life as the survivor of another besieged community, as a gay man weathering a gilded underground of queer celebrities, including an ill-fated fling with Ivor Novello. Davies, a director I’ve had a lot of trouble warming to and who applied his specific brand of occasional quasi-abstraction and heavily glazed seriousness to a generally intimate and very human story, did very fine work that found interesting ways to weave Sassoon’s work into the film, even if he just couldn’t in the end overcome some of the usual problems of the biopic, including a whiplash-inducing shift from the wartime setting to the peace (perhaps feeling that had already been well-covered by Pat Barker’s Regeneration). Davies was plainly more interested in recreating the waspishly witty but emotionally dangerous world Sassoon moved in before taking refuge in a self-mortifying marriage. I never felt he quite reconciled the two halves of his hero and the story dragged as Sassoon moved from one calamitous romance to another; regardless, the last scene had haunting power.

Tony Stone’s Ted K was a biopic with a very different focus, presenting a study of the infamous ‘Unabomber,’ Ted Kaczynski. Sharlto Copley, who also produced, played the clever and cunning but deeply alienated and aloof oddball who retreated to the woods in his search for a peaceful, modernity-rejecting existence, but felt himself driven to acts of revenge against anyone and everything that provoked him by violating the sanctity of his refuge, contradicted his ideals, or just plain pissed him off. Copley give a superficially exacting performance, and the film was interesting enough as a portrait of Kaczynski’s extreme lifestyle and obsessive pursuits to keep things watchable, giving hints of sympathy for his anxiety regarding technology and environmental destruction whilst clearly showing how maniacal he was in expressing them. But it didn’t add up to much either, as Stone’s mannered direction matched a script that had little to say about Kaczynski beyond portraying him over and over a pathologically lonely and driven kook, whilst evading engaging with his family, who he has constant, percussive fights with over the phone, and his earlier life. Worse still, it pinched from Joker the motif of the whacko outsider courting an imaginary girlfriend, a trite device for working up sympathy in a film that was ultimately way too long.

She Said was officially the year’s most shit-out-of-luck film. German actor-director Maria Schrader’s Hollywood debut was a depiction of the investigation by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) into Harvey Weinstein’s reign of abuse, gradually drawing together the story that led to his downfall. The film’s apparent evasiveness when it came to taking on Weinstein’s in-the-know lackeys and protectors was a lapse both YouTube reactionaries and Twitter lefties agreed upon, and the general audience proved about as eager to be roasted over hot coals as they were to revisit this ground, meaning the would-be award favourite and prestige picture bombed hard. She Said certainly had a lot of problems. Schrader’s approach baldly mimicked All The President’s Men in aiming for a cool, docudrama method, but played more like Spotlight 2. Far too much of the dialogue sounded like an op-ed, sidelong glances at the reporters’ home lives were clunky, as were concluding attempts to convey catharsis, and the film as a whole was badly paced. The story was certainly worth telling, however, and Schrader at least delivered a stinging, accusatory portrait of the legal weaponry Weinstein had in his arsenal. She also placed emphasis not just on the assiduous process of nailing down the story but on the survivors of abuse, particularly the not-famous ones, and their attempts to articulate deep-riven distress and scalding anger in nominally neutral settings. The cast, including Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle, generally gave good performances, but Andre Braugher stole proceedings as one of the team’s solicitous editors, well-practiced at hanging up on bullies.

Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider was another based-on-fact tale of a flinty woman journalist trying to bring down a monster, albeit one executed with considerably more artistic licence. Zar Amir Ebrahami played Rahimi, a journalist (fictional) launching a dogged investigation into the case of the “Spider Killer” (real), a serial killer slaying prostitutes in the Iranian pilgrimage city of Mashhad circa 2000: Rahimi, suspecting the police are uninterested in catching a murderer many think is doing holy work in ridding them of “corrupt women,” eventually goes undercover to try and lure him in. Meanwhile the killer himself, Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), moves from victim to victim whilst tending his religious mania and appearing the upright family man and war veteran. Whilst Abbasi’s fictional interpolations arguably romanticised the story to a degree in giving it a familiar thriller structure and providing an on-message feminist foe for the killer, he at least did so with real tabloid flare, as the film moved deftly between the investigator contending with an opaque and often openly misogynist officialdom and Saeed’s intimate brutality, which Abbasi didn’t shy away from depicting, and when the two antagonists finally intersected it made for a doozy of a suspense scene. In a year of serious protest and revolt in Iran sparked by much the same topics, Holy Spider was certainly a timely reflection on the nation’s septic psychological state, mordantly noting the connection between the killer and much of the community who share his worldview, even if finally something like justice arrives for him. Ebrahami and Bajestani were excellent.

In the year Jean-Luc Godard died, Neptune Frost, a directorial collaboration for American rapper Saul Williams and Rwandan actor and writer Anisia Uzeyman, set out to prove that the Godardian influence still persists with their singular, freaky blend of sci-fi, mythology, musical, and agitprop. Neptune Frost followed disparate characters uprooted by Burundi’s political and economic turmoil, like a miner who’s recently lost his brother thanks to thuggish bosses, and student revolutionaries driven out of the city by government repression, including an intersex being who becomes the miner’s lover. All converge on a ruined city that proves to be a once-and-future supertechnological enclave, which allows them to hack the online world and bond on digital-spiritual levels, only to invite vicious reprisals. Resembling a blend of Spartacus and The Matrix as remade by a street theatre collective, Neptune Frost boldly tried to encompass many current, obsessive points of concern for the modern youth left, and articulate a boldly radical outlook. At points the filmmakers sustained a rhapsodic flow and vibrancy in their approach, blending hip-hop and tribal musical styles, realism and surrealism, with traditional sequence structuring suborned to this open approach. But the directors weren’t able to sustain that rhapsody, with a lot of clumsy composition and staging, and a script that made half-hearted stabs at complication with subplots that went nowhere, and eventually devolved into speechifying. By the end, whilst feeling the film had tremendous elements, I was more than a bit ambivalent about the whole.

Romain Gavras’ Athena also dealt with defiance and revolt by righteously incited youth, in this case the largely African Muslim population of an outer Parisian tower estate. The block’s denizens are driven to violet and well-planned insurrection after one of their own has been filmed being murdered by what appears to be federal police, capturing police weaponry and fortifying the estate. Athena was punctuated by several spectacular, incredibly choreographed long-take shots, as Gavras aimed first and foremost to thrust the viewer amidst a thrilling, concussively convincing depiction of such chaos and violence, and he did manage to capture through this aesthetic some sense of people left blinkered by rage and grief and rushing headlong at the horns of the bull. As a clotheshorse for his dynamism, Gavras embraced a classical kind of fraternal melodrama, as he pitched the dead boy’s brothers, all emblematic of different factions – a soldier, a gangster, and the leader of the rioters – into more personal conflict. The limitations of Gavras’ approach were as notable as his achievement, all said: characterisation was thin, and the drama, which ought to have encompassed the whole community’s viewpoints, instead rode on the zephyr of a puffed-up macho rage it sought to critique. The film had both too much and not enough story, as when it laboured to contrast righteous revolt with terrorist anarchy, and delivered a confused sting-in-the-tail coda. There’s also something a little grimace-inducing about a film that tries to offers such a beautifully filmed riot. Still, it had real power.

Uptown in setting, focus, and style as far as current French cinema goes, if no less intrigued by the social and human experiments of melting pot areas in Paris than Athena, Les Olympiades, aka Paris, 13th District, saw Jacques Audiard, who counts by now as a venerable elder, confirming his determination to stay true to the current zeitgeist. Co-written with Celine Sciamma, Audiard this time spurned the melodrama he’s known for in exchange for a particular blend of romanticism and acerbic realism, as he concentrated on the travails of a few sexually and socially active young people of diverse backgrounds and contending with the random glories and cruelties supplied by the big city in an age of instant online connection and equally quick hostility and harassment. The black-and-white photography applied a gloss of nostalgic elegance to the intersecting tales of people who didn’t always act that well or smartly, and who sometimes weren’t all that particularly interesting. Audiard nonetheless accepted the challenge of finding beauty and meaning precisely in portraying such disordered people and the way they find even the most temporary safe harbours in a rough modern world. Noemie Merlant stole the film as a mature-age student who experiences and dishes out some of that roughness.

Palme d’Or-winning Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, made a sojourn to South Korea to make Broker. Kore-eda’s story revolved around the Korean phenomenon of “baby boxes,” a modern improvement on the old habit of leaving orphans on the church steps, but with the twist that two men (Song Kang-ho and Gang Dong-won) have a business purloining the odd foundling and selling them to adopting couples. When the young prostitute mother (Lee Ji-eun) of one of the babies comes back to check on what’s happened to it, she rumbles the pair and insists on accompanying them to vet potential parents. Along the way they fuse into an odd family unit, soon augmented when they’re joined by an impudent orphan boy, whilst they’re chased by two cops and gangland heavies. In a fashion familiar for Kore-eda, Broker tackled serious things with a light touch close to a rather old-fashioned kind of sentimental comedy, although a pervasive sense of melancholy and humanist heartache overlay it all as all the characters knew the axe would soon drop. Kore-eda’s flashes of poetry and sheer strength of feeling, aided by Song’s established ability to seem charming and pathetic at once and by Lee’s luminous beauty, made it a fine but not transcending experience, and the clumsy pile-up of plot was mostly adornment for a movie that took a long time to reach an end that tried a bit hard to satisfy irreconcilable desires.

Swedish director Ruben Östlund meanwhile captured his second Palme d’Or at 2022’s Cannes Festival with Triangle of Sadness, a black would-be comedy mocking the silliness of fashion and influencer culture and the grossness of the very rich, and an indulgence of the eternal fantasy of role reversal in a crisis. Östlund’s focal point was a young couple, both models worrying about their careers, taking a freebie voyage on a luxury yacht packed with ponderous plutocrats, only to find themselves shipwrecked and at the mercy of the only person who knows how to catch food, being the yacht’s toilet maid. It seems plain that in anointing this film the Cannes jury were hoping for another Parasite-like zeitgeist lightning rod, and Östlund’s storyline did have Swiftian potential. Potential it remained, as Triangle of Sadness proved one of the year’s most galling pictures. After a couple of striking early scenes, Östlund refused to do much with his ideas, settling for programmatic pokes at his various targets and clichéd oppositions. His gags were laced with a depressing brand of cynicism, particularly in a mid-film set-piece that saw characters get violently ill in rough seas, a spectacle of humiliation and gross-out glee that really only pointed to Östlund’s crass notions of class consciousness. Like Glass Onion, Östlund conspired to draw his presumed audience into a satire of a world he only has the most superficial and populist-posturing grasp on, and whilst he sometimes balanced it all with hints of sympathy for his various avatars, it wasn’t nearly enough. More aggravatingly, it wasn’t even particularly good on a pure filmmaking level, full of longeurs and fumbled staging, and stretched just about every gag and idea well beyond breaking point.

Rom-com veteran Ol Parker offered the parental date movie equivalent of Top Gun: Maverick as he paired George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Ticket to Paradise, a pleasant piece of counterprogramming that cast the two stars as a formerly married couple thrust into close proximity again when their daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) intends to marry a Balinese seaweed farmer (Maxime Bouttier). They plot to bust up a relationship they assume won’t last, only to find their own long-banked fires starting to heat up again. The film offered a basic proposition as a variation on classical screwball stuff heavily indebted to stuff like Private Lives and The Philadelphia Story, including Lucas Bravo as a dopey French lover in the Ralph Bellamy zone and Billie Lourd in the Ruth Hussey part, with a first half dominated by bitchy mutual put-downs and a second by lots of touch-feely exchanges in beautifully photographed Balinese locations. In some ways Ticket to Paradise was the haute bourgeois companion piece and antiverse to Triangle of Sadness, with a similar theme of collapsing barriers and shifting power played out in an island locale, played out in a completely different key. The script was replete with jokes older than Moses, and made a point of not offering any surprises, settling for letting its stars indulge their chemistry, particularly in a marvellously frantic game of beer pong that becomes an islet of regained adolescence for the characters. I Know Where I’m Going it certainly wasn’t, but then no-one was expecting it to be.

Oran Zegman’s Honor Society was a nominal high school comedy that set out with the honourable purpose of giving Angourie Rice a star vehicle, following in the honourable tradition of everyone from Molly Ringwald to Emma Stone. Rice played Honor Rose, a bright young teen from a working class family who, desperate to escape her grim home town and desperate to be the one anointed by a sleazy teacher for a shot at Harvard he swears he can wrangle for his best and brightest, tries to take out all her potential rivals for the shot by distracting them, particularly the nerdy Michael (Gaten Matarazzo), only to fall for him. Honor Society resembled an array of pages torn out of other, successful teen flicks and pasted together with a fresh gloss of cringe comedy and salving PC canards. Honor Society wanted to be funny and heartwarming and meaningful, but was instead cumulatively rather depressing. At first the film presented Honor as a Tracy Flick type mated with a sort of junior Richard III as she delighted in explaining her methods and expressing her general contempt for her surrounds to the audience in perpetual fourth-wall break. Eventually however Zegman contrived to have her emerge a selfless impresario making everyone else’s lives better whilst choosing not to improve her own, whilst ultimately vilifying another character ultimately revealed to be doing the same thing as her but better, which was interesting morality, to say the least. For an infinitely more honest and affecting teenager-at-school movie, one had to look to James Gray’s Armageddon Time.

Nicholas Stoller’s Bros, written in collaboration between the director and star Billy Eichner, was released with some fanfare as a gay romantic comedy for a broad audience, only to prove that the broad audience wants virtue signalling in superhero movies, not actual gay movies. Bros depicted a pair of verging-on-forty, romantically disillusioned men, one, a loud-but-not-so-proud writer and podcaster who’s opening an LGBTQ+ history museum, the other a hunky but bored estate planner, who, after a flash of attraction in their first meeting in a nightclub, drift into an unsettled relationship. Bros was sometimes genuinely funny, mostly for its many meta sideswipes at gay representation in the recent media landscape, at the various quarrelsome but ultimately loyal tribes within the larger queer community, and the wry portrayal of the more hedonistic if impersonal pleasures in modern gay dating. The attempts to say something more meaningful amidst this, about the lingering anxiety of a generation schooled in harder lessons before things got so hunky dory, was interesting but didn’t quite coexist with the rest of the film, which aped standard rom-com arcs just a little too neatly and with exceedingly bland filmmaking, and its mildly spiky likeableness gave it an oddly dated feel despite the Grindr jokes, like it should have been a modest indie hit circa 2002.

Russell Crowe jumped into the saddle as director again as well as star in Poker Face – not, sadly, a screen adaptation of the Lady Gaga song. Crowe’s Poker Face rather was the tale of some middle-aged pals, connected by their passion for poker, reuniting for a private game at the remote, glitzy estate owned by Crowe’s character, Jake Foley, who’s become hugely rich from purveying internet poker software that proved a great surveillance tool, but has recently been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Whilst Foley plays some mean but purgative party games with his variously troubled friends, and his despairing daughter and trophy wife race for a confrontation, all become targets for a slimy criminal from their past who intends robbing Foley’s extensive Australian art collection. Crowe charmingly employed a great array of Aussie stalwarts, and amusingly if awkwardly paid back RZA for The Man With The Iron Fists by casting him in a cameo as the group’s one American member. Crowe approached through the story at hand with some meditations on aging, the problems of legacy, and the value of art as a vehicle for creative immortality. Unfortunately it extended the problems of his debut The Water Diviner – a narrative that tried to encompass too much story and too many divergent tones and genre modes, which Crowe’s fidgety, distractible, borderline amateurish directing had no hope of keeping balanced – and doubled down on them, as Poker Face swung wildly between earnest character drama, crime flick, goofy melodrama, and hangout picture, and whilst not even making the 90 minute mark, outstayed its welcome.

Now weathered and grey-flecked, Adam Sandler nonetheless found a new way to extend his early career fascination with sports as a subject for his movies with Hustle. Sandler played a former basketball player whose career was ruined by a car crash and has been making a living as a talent scout for the 76ers: after being patronised by the team’s new boss and inheritor (Ben Foster) once too often, he quits and pursues his determination to make a star of a towering, preternaturally gifted Spanish labourer he beholds hustling on a backstreet Madrid court one night. The main source of dramatic tension was whether the young player has the mental fortitude to play at the top level, as well Sandler’s hunt for sweet justification. Sandler gave a decent lead performance and the film was modestly enjoyable given the underdog sports movie formula’s hard to entirely screw up, but as the exceedingly generic title promised, Hustle was really just a basic-bitch variant that harvested elements from the likes of Rocky, Moneyball, and The Color of Money, whilst Jeremiah Zagar’s direction was annoying and clumsy, turning great stretches of the film into long montages, and the script thin.

Todd Field returned after a long absence from cinema screens with one of the year’s most acclaimed works. Tár was an epic-length drama about a composer and conductor who falls from the pinnacle of success when a former protégé’s suicide sparks questions about her habits of applying her personal passions to people whose careers she can make or break, a habit she’s busily indulging whilst trying to stage a magnum opus performance of Mahler’s Fifth. Tár was conceived specifically as a star vehicle for Cate Blanchett in the title role, and she responded by filling the role with theatrical bravura, whilst Field dug into the world of the orchestra and the classical music world without dumbing down too much. He also picked at the open wounds of recent celebrity scandals and downfalls and our attitudes towards them. The film started well, with early scenes portraying at length its antiheroine as a great performer before audiences and a brilliant, creative, but also quietly thuggish personality in other settings, and was always interesting, up to and including its odd, sardonic coda. For me though it just didn’t work, with too much evasiveness about Tár’s actions resulting in a film that avoided digging into Tár’s innermost nature and creativity as well as her culpability, and this was in part to avoid making definitive statements about the social and personal phenomena it took on. Field took few stylistic risks, offering an endless string of crisply shot posh environs occasionally violated with calculated eruptions of defiling mess, and the film finally had the quality of one very long tease.

Aftersun, the debut film by Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, was an exceedingly modest and allusive drama that proved nonetheless the year’s most critically-acclaimed film, the kind of attention that doesn’t necessarily do such a movie favours. Aftersun unfolded mostly in flashback scenes from the perspective of Sophie, a woman who’s travelled to a holiday resort in Turkey trying to relive and understand a vacation she took there in the 1990s as a child with her divorced, gay father: Sophie toggles between her possibly misleading memories and their camcorder tapes from the trip, trying to fathom the mystery of her dad, who was fighting off some nagging, possibly tragic source of melancholy even as he laboured to provide his daughter with all due life lessons. Wells’ key choice was to keep the causes and results of the father’s moodiness enigmatic, instead fixating on describing an extremely rarefied feeling – the tantalising and troubling process of unpacking treasured formative experiences and finding nested truths, discoveries that seem to have some import the grown Sophie who’s recently become a mother. Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio’s performances had a chemistry and vivacity that gave the flow of scenes charming anchors, as Wells drifted with virtually plotless observing through the locale, keen to the peculiar wavelength of troubled people persisting in a festive place, even if what happens in that place wasn’t particularly vivid or exciting. I can’t say that Aftersun wowed me, in part because the vagueness meant that the obliquely approached emotion became at once blatant and well out of reach, quiet pathos turned into unavoidable spectacle, particularly in the climax as the urge to deliver catharsis became more overt but offered only to the characters, not the viewer. So it leaned on a Queen song to make the link for us. The notion of comparing reminiscence with media records of the events, a strange purgatory only available to we children of this epoch, was potentially very powerful, and yet Wells ultimately didn’t do that much with it, violating the design by privileging the viewers to things neither camera nor girl witnessed. Also, in certain aspects the film felt just a little too contrived to tug thirty-something film critics by the heartstrings. Still, it was a very interesting debut by a talent of promise.

A more traditional, if still purposefully circumspect, tale of a child confronted by the strangeness of adults, The Quiet Girl saw Irish director Colm Bairéad engaging with areas of rural Ireland where Irish Gaelic is predominantly spoken and so comprised the vast bulk of dialogue, imbuing a gloss of exoticism to a seemingly familiar world. This gesture of representation also aided the film’s thematic pursuits, depicting relations charged with disparities and wounds that are constantly walked and talked around. The setting was sometime in the 1980s, as the title girl, Caìt (Catherine Clinch), one of many children to a slovenly and resentful father and his perpetually pregnant wife, is packed off to live with the mother’s cousin and her husband for a summer whilst yet another sibling is being born. Caìt finds the aging couple ideal parental substitutes as they bring her out of her shell, particularly as they’ve been in stasis following their own child’s tragic death, and the inevitable return home provokes crisis. Clinch had luminous presence as Caìt, who evolves from a tormented appendage to a burgeoning being. Bairéad applied patiently observant pacing and occasional flecks of the poetic and symbolic to evoking the evolving emotional bonds of the characters and their pastoral world, a tad obviously at points but also with a glistening texture of curious and elegiac beauty. The script was also a little too reticent about the innermost meat of the story: hints the girl was a sexual abuse victim on top of everything else charged the story with an undercurrent of menace, and which made the unresolved finale feel just a little calculated, even as it was also undeniably moving.

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light was yet another movie of 2022 preoccupied by both sad nostalgia and the theoretically redemptive power of art. Mendes’ film unfolded in dreary, rundown 1981 Brighton, centring on a movie theatre of somewhat faded glory that, in a story development that provides a partial backdrop, is chosen to host a regional premiere of Chariots of Fire. Empire of Light was mostly interesting as Mendes’ first real return to the kind of small-scale, ordinary-people study as he emerged with on American Beauty, although it also came laden with symbolism in regards to the fallout of the waned, twinned empires of Britain and cinema. Olivia Colman played a lovelorn middle-aged woman with a history of instability working in the cinema: whilst she’s been having a desultory affair with her married twat of a manager (Colin Firth), she has a fling with a handsome, frustrated young Black man (Michael Ward) who starts working alongside her. Disasters ensue, including her having another spiral into self-destructive behaviour and him being badly beaten by some skinheads, but the ultimate pitch was as an affirming a tale of healing and rebirth. No film that offers the sight of Colman giving Firth a hand-job in the first five minutes is entirely without entertainment value, but there was aggravating tension between Empire of Light’s low-key story and its status as a major-league Oscar bait entry, with Mendes’ customary minimalist-monumentalist visual textures labouring to imbue a degree of arty sweep. The basic thesis, about the kinship of different varieties of outsider, was modestly affecting, and Colman’s brilliant performance was the best reason to watch, even if her character, like everyone else in the film, was given an essentially shallow and evasive treatment. The overall tone was one of treacly pathos punctuated by tacked-on paeans to companionship and the cathartic power of a good movie. It was, in short, the sort of thing that would likely have been far better if it had been at the time it was set by Handmade Films.

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, never the most cautious and restrained of auteurist voices, resurged after a few quiet years with Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, an entry in the year’s bumper crop of director memoir and self-portrait films, closer in focus to the middle-aged fretting of The Eternal Daughter than The Fabelmans or Aftersun. The director’s alter ego was Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a former Mexican TV personality and journalist who’s become an international celebrity with his docudrama films, who, at the pinnacle of success, is nonetheless gnawed at by uneasy melancholy in the feeling he’s abandoned his country, in having moved to the US, and his principles in achieving his status, and is haunted by the death of an infant son. By compensation he flits through various fantasies, including conceiving of his son as having simply refused to emerge from his wife’s womb. Iñárritu’s filming was as dynamic as ever with his vivid lensing and roving camerawork, and he approached some weighty concerns, conflating his own uneasy sense of identity with Mexico’s troubled history and relationship with the US, with ineffectual satiric swipes including the purchase of Baja California by Amazon and a Trumpian American president. The problem was that Iñárritu was also just as obvious as ever on an artistic level, rehashing such well-worn territory in his many nods to Fellini’s and a magic-realism-for-beginners style that ripped off his own Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) but with Silverio proving a much less compelling protagonist. After a reasonably involving first half, the film dragged on without any particularly interesting place to go with its self-conscious artifice and half-hearted tilts at self-satire, and devolved to an expression of morbid anxiety. The strongest moments were, in spite of all the showmanship, scenes of intense verbal conflict, between father and son and with a critic character who attacks the script of the film he’s in.

Noah Baumbach’s White Noise and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking had significant differences but also points in common – both were based on highly admired novels and tried to retain as much of those sources’ literary flavour as possible. Baumbach tackled Don DeLillo’s satiric novel, the story of a middle-aged professor of “Hitler Studies,” his pill-popping wife, and their gaggle of kids from many partners, who are all forced to confront their mortality, particularly when a freak accident unleashes a toxic cloud over their town. Where David Cronenberg smartly applied stringent, quasi-expressionist intensity to translating DeLillo to cinema for his Cosmopolis, Baumbach applied a mash-up of stylistic approaches, moving from arch theatricality to the Felliniesque before dipping into weird pastiches of Close Encounters-era Spielberg and the National Lampoon’s Vacation films during the set-piece depiction of panicky escape from the cloud. The actors including Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle, were required to give studied, motor-mouthed performances rattling off DeLillo’s theses in a clumsily ritualistic way. Baumbach showed his technical chops have become formidable even as his worst streaks finally hatched out, forcing everything to a degree of heightened, insufferably smug stylisation whilst purveying dated satiric targets like academic wankery and the shiny but maddening aisles of consumerism without anything new or convincing to say about them. For what seems the millionth time in his career, Driver worked his ass off to little effect, whilst Cheadle held his own as his Elvis-obsessed and curious-minded colleague.

Women Talking meanwhile echoed Don’t Worry Darling in offering an explicitly feminist drama through the prism of an isolated, male-dominated and coercive commune, albeit in an antithetical style. Polley’s film was adapted from a novel by Miriam Toews, itself based on an infamous event that took place in Brazil, involving the organised drugging and raping of women in a Mennonite colony. Toews’s story focused on the aftermath, as a core set of the women debate whether they’re going to forgive the abusers as their elders have ordered, put up a fight, or leave the community altogether. Polley was unabashed in tapping the theatricality inherent in Toewes’ emphasis on the debate between the women, which echoed the likes of 12 Angry Men, with proceedings mostly confined to a barn as various infuriated and aggrieved personalities clash and weave consensus. This was definitely the stuff of high drama, but Polley’s approach was a serious drag. She filmed the whole movie in sharply desaturated and pretentious but not terribly expressive images, failing to create the right kind of atmosphere for the decidedly non-realistic dialogue, as the characters, who we’re repeatedly reminded are virtually illiterate, spoke like public radio audio essayists. The schematic, zeitgeist-courting approach of Polley’s script, with its carefully delineated perspectives included a shoehorned trans character and an unthreatening male ally, didn’t help, and found overly-neat ways out of what should have been the core dread of the choice for the women, between rigid faith and self-protection. Yet again, the powerhouse cast kept it watchable, particularly Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley as the two angriest women who nonetheless had sharply divergent responses to their lot.

Alice Diop’s Saint Omer was another chamber-piece drama laden with hot-button issues, but treated in a more stringent and subtle fashion. Diop’s subject was the trial of French-Senegalese woman (Guslagie Malanga), well-educated and exceedingly intelligent, who has confessed to the killing of her young child, but insists she doesn’t feel responsible. During the course of the trial, her background, the breakdown of her long, odd coupling with an aging French artist, and her curious conviction she was the victim of some form of sorcery that might be a ruse or just another way of conceiving clinical depression, were all relentlessly parsed. Diop’s austere approach to the courtroom scenes allowed Malanga in particular to fixate the screen with a mix of defiant ambiguity and pathos, as the slowly emerging story to grip through its own awful power and evocation of the deepest personal hells, as well as drip-fed hints of the impact of dislocation on her mind. Diop enveloped this with depictions of another woman of the same background (Kayije Kagame), more successful as a writer and academic, whose initial intention to write a book about the killer based on the theme of Medea breaks down through the trial as she’s challenged by raw experience, forcing her to confront in particular her relationship with her own troubled mother. Whilst the doppelganger theme had potential, Diop didn’t offer nearly enough meat with this portion, and frankly I just felt this device got in the way in an obvious attempt to offer the film’s own insta-critique. Also, the climactic scene of the defence attorney’s emotive, didactic closing speech, felt like a veering into a different kind of movie.

Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel and co-scripted by her, Lelio, and Alice Birch, had points of similarity with several movies of the year, as a study of women locked within insular faiths and communities and forced to justify their choices to patriarchal authority, and also made an even more superfluous stab at bracketing its drama with a meta approach. This time, the setting was a village in 1860s Ireland, where ugly feelings still linger after the potato famine: Florence Pugh, restored to her Lady Macbeth hairdo, was Elizabeth Wright, an English nurse employed along with a nun to keep watch on a 9-year-old girl who has supposedly been living for months without eating, in what many take to be a miracle. Wright, a modern mind with hard losses in her past, becomes attached to the girl, particularly as she begins wasting away for unknown reasons, and eventually elects to fight the various parties who’d prefer a dead saint to a live, ordinary girl. Tom Burke was the initially aggravating journalist who proved to have a deeper connection to the locality and its sensibility who becomes Wright’s lover and ally; Kila Lord Cassidy and her mother Elaine were the miracle girl and her on-screen mother. The wonder of The Wonder was that Lelio, equipped with some formidably good acting and cinematography (by Ari Wegner), trod with nuance through its web of oppositions, tackling some expected themes and issues but not belabouring them, whilst also remembering to tell an interesting story with a striking blend of crude beauty and dread that eventually blossoms into something else. Lelio offered most of the characters just a little more sympathy than expected, even as the fetid truth emerged.

Still in a mode of Irish historicism, Martin McDonagh, back in his homeland after his unfortunate American sojourn for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, nonetheless sustained his fascination with physical and spiritual mortification and flailing, internally riven characters with The Banshees of Inisherin. McDonagh reunited Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, stars of his debut In Bruges, as two long-time friends residing on a small, dull island in 1923, with civil war raging within earshot. Farrell’s Padraic is thrust into a state of perplexed crisis when the other, Gleeson’s Brom, suddenly tells him he doesn’t want to be his friend any longer, as he can’t stand Padraic’s blather anymore and wants to devote the rest of his life to writing music to escape a state of gnawing despair. Brom soon proves willing to go disturbing, masochistic lengths to dissuade further communication. Plainly more at home in the setting than he was in Midwest America, McDonagh wove together deadpan, very Irish humour and a darkening Celtic atmosphere of descending fate. What seemed at first to be a gently goofy character comedy instead shaded into a story with tragically symbolic overtones as the small conflict became more clearly intended to mirror the larger. As with McDonagh’s other films, I couldn’t help but find it all far too affected, with his anachronistic, showily foulmouthed dialogue and unpleasantly morbid edge, whilst the film’s overall impact depended on how much you bought into the aptness of the parable, which I didn’t. In compensation, the cinematography was atmospheric, and the performances were lovely, particularly Kerry Condon was Padraic’s more determined sister and Barry Keoghan was an abused local boy.

Probably no other director could have weathered the pandemic so unruffled and productive as Sang-Soo Hong, who proved he can defy laws of thermodynamics and produce a movie virtually out of thin air with three films released internationally this year. On the surface, Introduction barely seems to be there, depicting the interactions of a handful of characters over a space of time, filmed in flatly monochrome hues and mostly in anonymous-looking exterior shots (including a story digression to what was supposedly Vienna but likely required no flights), and major story events inferred in the gaps between scenes. And yet Hong slowly accumulated a character portrait of the flailing son of a doctor’s secretary, whose romantic failures, cultural dislocation, and general personal confusion bewilders and sometimes provokes his elders, particularly a respected actor he lunches with, who boozily espouses a life-is-for-living philosophy. Hong’s style was reminiscent of his The Day He Arrives but even more bare-boned, with time and location jumps often hard to parse, forcing the audience to share his characters’ dizzied mindsets.

Hong’s second release for the year, In Front Of Your Face, was less cryptic and rarefied in its dramatic approach, and touched on several themes running through his recent films, including imminent mortality and male auteur romantic guilt, but with a glaze of elusive poeticism. This time Hong’s focal figure was a middle-aged retired actress, Sang ok (Lee Hye-young), recently returned to Seoul after years living in the US, visiting her sister and keeping a rendezvous with a movie director who wants to build a movie around her, and also, as he admits after the compulsory Hong long, lubricious lunch, wanting to seduce her. But she has a secret that makes their yearnings at once more plaintive and pathetic. In Front Of Your Face was chiefly a vehicle for Lee’s remarkable performance, dextrous in portraying her character’s attempts to at once achieve philosophical peace and snatch onto life, in particular unpicking the director’s motives with as much patience as she can muster as well as a certain determination to get to the point. The central story crux was more blatant and melodramatic than usual for Hong and the film lacked the sly complications of his greatest work, but his digital camera minimalism now again risked colour textures to better essay the thesis contained in the title. A third Hong work, The Novelist’s Film, was released late in the year, but I didn’t see that one, for better or worse.

Max Walker-Silverman’s A Love Song had points of kinship with In Front Of Your Face, likewise presenting an evanescent romantic tale about confronting grief and mortality where the male lover finally retreats from prospective passion nominally to honour old loyalties but also perhaps through a failure of nerve in confronting such dizzy new extremes. Dale Dickey was the aging widow who’s camped out a lakeside spot in the Colorado Mountains to await the visit of an also-widowed childhood friend, played by West Studi, for what both plainly hope and fear will prove a tryst. Walker-Silverman set out to knit together aspects of Wong Kar-Wai-esque romantic fable and American indie film’s more familiar, modest humanism. The film remained a little aggravatingly vague about its characters in the long haul, its evocation of pathos just a little too studied, and didn’t quite nail the kind of transcendental experience its final episode chased. Elements of deadpan humour provided by a clan out to disinter their father from under the campsite were a bit too cute, but also genuinely funny. Dickey and Studi, both cast for a change as very ordinary souls confronting neediness and the weight of experience, gave remarkable performances, and despite its contrivances the film was an affecting experience that made the most of very limited scope.

Performances of Note

Ana de Armas, Deep Water
Mehdi Bajestani, Holy Spider
Cate Blanchett, Tár
Rachel Brosnahan, Dead For A Dollar
Jessie Buckley, Women Talking
Nicholas Cage, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Catherine Clinch, A Quiet Girl
Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin
Willem Dafoe, Dead For A Dollar
Dale Dickey, A Love Song
Zar Amir Ebrahami, Holy Spider
Idris Elba, Beast / Three Thousand Years of Longing
Yann Gael, Saloum
Mia Goth, Pearl
Tom Hanks, Elvis
Sean Harris, The Stranger
Chris Hemsworth, Spiderhead
Nina Hoss, Tár
Kate Hudson, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin
Nicole Kidman, The Northman
Zoe Kravitz, The Batman / Kimi
Lee Hye-young, In Front Of Your Face
Emma Mackey, Death On The Nile
Guslagie Malanga, Saint Omer
Noemie Merlant, Les OlympiadesParis 13th District
Fatma Mohamed, Flux Gourmet
Annie Mumolo, Confess, Fletch
Keke Palmer, Nope
Elsa Pataky, Interceptor
Aubrey Plaza, Emily The Criminal
Florence Pugh, The Wonder
Margaret Qualley, Stars At Noon
Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All At Once
Sami Slimane, Athena
Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds
Scott Speedman, Crimes Of The Future
Tilda Swinton, The Eternal Daughter
Wes Studi, A Love Song
Harry Styles, Don’t Worry Darling
Miles Teller, Spiderhead / Top Gun: Maverick
Anya Taylor-Joy, Amsterdam / The Menu / The Northman
Donald Elise Watkins, Emergency
Leticia Wright, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once
Ensemble, Armageddon Time
Ensemble, The Fabelmans
Ensemble, Hit The Road

Favourite Films of 2022

Armageddon Time (James Gray)

One irony of 2022 was that two of its best films were criminally under-seen, autobiographical tales of youth from great Jewish-American filmmakers, although that’s just about where the similarities between James Gray and Steven Spielberg end. Spielberg, even after a few stumbles, is still Spielberg, and Gray doesn’t seem to be able to get the mass audience into a movie theatre if he paid them. Stepping back from his recent ventures into more epic stories with The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, Armageddon Time was one of the finest films about being a boy of a certain age ever made, and saw Gray applying his familiar, visually and tonally muted yet graceful and emotionally direct style to a tale laced with flashes of nostalgia but also profound disquiet in casting his mind back to 1980. Banks Repeta played Gray’s stand-in Paul Graff, who feels the weight of his heritage, of his family’s place in the scheme of things and the expectations placed upon him, and the common troubles of school life, all grating against his nascent rebellious and artistic streaks. His attempts to push the envelope sometimes earn the concussive wrath of his parents, particularly his mostly good-natured but sometimes terrifying boiler repairman father (Jeremy Strong), who locks up his fury until need for fuel when he senses his son going astray. Gray explored the mystique of family dinners where the Holocaust is a constant, wearing refrain of rebuke, whilst grandfather Harry (Anthony Hopkins) offers hard-won, open-minded wisdom and a gentle sense of humour and connection to the boy that eludes his father and mother (Anne Hathaway), who are necessarily preoccupied with bigger pictures.

Gray’s portrait of period New York was touched with rueful and knowing presaging of the modern era, noting both the lingering schisms of class and race in a supposedly egalitarian, past-all-that era, and the rising tide of a new, triumphalist reactionary spirit represented most sardonically by Fred Trump (John Diehl), Donald’s father, and Maryann (Jessica Chastain), his sister, both products and shepherds of elitist flocks who see themselves both as assailed bastions and encampments of heroic strivers – ranks Paul is eventually obliged to join. Nor does he exempt himself and his clan from playing a part in it all, his elders for their casual racism and himself for his failure to combat it. Armageddon Time was in part another of Gray’s explorations of burdensome connections between family, particularly father and son, crystallised in the astonishing, intimate climactic scene between them. But the film’s dramatic engine went beyond family, depicting Paul’s friendship with another class clown and aspirational dreamer, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a Black kid with an unsettled home life, and the two of them become familiar with the motives other people, sometimes with well-meaning purpose and sometimes with vicious pleasure, to crush the individual spark in the young. Johnny’s fate not only counterpoints Paul’s journey and also, as Gray ultimately diagnoses, becomes a victim of it despite Paul’s best intentions, and his eventual choice to truly dedicate himself to art is informed as much by a sense of accountability as for creative fancy.

Dead For A Dollar (Walter Hill)

Dead For A Dollar saw Walter Hill returning to the Western genre with obliviously discursive and boldly revisionist attitude, pursuing only his own satisfaction when it came to reviving the brand of tough genre film he cut his teeth on. Christoph Waltz was Borland, the hard-bitten bounty hunter commissioned to chase after a wealthy woman (Rachel Brosnahan), allegedly kidnapped by a Buffalo Soldier, Elijah (Brandon Scott), and dragged off to Mexico, but he soon finds the pair really ran off together after the woman grew tired of her cruel magnate husband (Hamish Linklater). After catching up with the runaways with the aid of Poe’s fellow soldier Poe (Warren Burke) and bringing them to heel, Borland and Poe soon finds themselves forced to make a choice when it becomes clear the husband intends to kill the lovers and anyone who gets in the way, having made a deal with an imperious local gangster (Benjamin Bratt) to get the job down. Hill’s plot referenced a number of classic Westerns in his own particular manner, with a project that tackled the tricky task of at once honouring essential Western motifs – the cross-country pursuit, the thunderous final shoot-out, the panoply of petty tyrants and local warlords and stoic, heroic gunslingers – and also pulling them apart, shifting moral and historical emphases and having fun with clichés whilst never treating the genre’s essential rituals cynically or cheaply.

Hill’s chief fascination was for flashes of nascent modernity in the historical context, rooting each of his characters in authentic period figures who nonetheless cut against the grain of the world at large, populating a landscape where nations, races, and genders are all in flux. The pacing was defiantly ambling and conversational, perhaps to the point of aggravation for some as Hill patently refused to get to the point. But it was precisely this relaxed quality that made the film so deeply pleasurable as a viewing experience to me, as Hill dropped his characters like dice into a cup, rattled them around for a while to enjoy hearing them strike against each-other, before finally tipping them on the table to see what they roll up. Dead For A Dollar was modern and yet defiantly unfashionable, as Hill also seemed to be trying to avenge some of his brutally edited and discarded ‘90s works. The patience came nonetheless laced with tension constantly ratcheting, and when the action finally arrived it hit hard and wild, with Hill emphasising shock and disbelief gripping the dying, the sheer amazement of mortality a discovery one can only make alone and too late. Brosnahan’s marvellous performance as a hyper-intelligent, self-emancipating woman who’s sick of her own compromises and enunciates her motives with professorial precision, played off Waltz’s unusual restraint and coolness as the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-gun hero who’s tired of other people’s alibis, whilst Willem Dafoe offered colourful support as a rival gunfighter once imprisoned by Borland and eager for a showdown. Hill’s visuals were essayed in pseudo-sepia tones, his starkly fashioned frontier towns and dusty plains only truly enlivened by blotches of red blood.

Emily The Criminal (John Patton Ford)

A curt, clever, sinuous melding of film noir motifs and contemporary indie realism, Emily The Criminal also wove deft character portraiture with a stinging portrait of contemporary hard times. Aubrey Plaza, so long typecast as an emblematic millennial, at once turned that unfortunate status to her advantage and subverted it with force in playing Emily, a talented artist and former college student now stuck in a menial delivery job thanks to a criminal conviction, the nature of which is left vague until close to the end. Creatively blocked and increasingly exasperated despite a friend’s efforts to get her a magazine job, Emily finds a new world opening up to her when a helpful gesture and some good luck puts her in contact with a criminal gang of brothers recruiting willing foot soldiers to commit credit card scams. Emily proves not just motivated but tough and fearless, occasionally paying for lapses into naivety and incautiousness but resurging with shows of alarming grit and cunning, like in a terrific scene where she’s held up by a pair of frayed scumbags, only to turn the tables on them with clinical and punitive zeal. After venturing out on her own in committing scams, she drifts into a romance with her mentor in the game, a Middle Eastern immigrant who has upward aspirations, but their affair inadvertently provokes a split with his brothers and a deadly contest for their accumulated fortune.

Emily The Criminal’s story sounded in abstract like the stuff of a romp, a dark comedy of self-realisation through larceny, and there is a little of that in there. But director John Patton Ford instead played things very straight. He kept Emily in focus as both a generational avatar, confronted by a ruthless society and cut off from any of the possible recourses someone of her education and background would normally seek, and as an individual. The title’s signal ultimately proves correct, as Emily finds through the course of the story that she’s made for living outside the law, and the flaws in her character that brought her to such a limbo also provide her with the armament to crawl out of it, so long as she can abandon what’s left of her moral scruples and loyalties. Emily’s various encounters with bosses in job interviews, including a cameo by Gina Gershon as a self-congratulatory magazine editor who wants an unpaid intern, stung in showing the forces Emily is up against in trying to extricate herself from the shittiness of working class life in modern urban America and the way the system is so often rigged in favour of those who already have it all. By comparison Emily’s adventures in thievery, including ripping off a sports car and emerging with a bloodied nose and demand for payment, are more physically dangerous but engaging of every inch of mind and body, and Plaza was particularly great in portraying Emily’s renascent confidence and sense of purpose. The climax laid bare both the necessary choices for Emily to finally escape and the awful price for making the correct one, whilst the coda struck a note of wry humour even in its unsentimental diagnosis.

The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg)

Many films this year, in a movement evidently born of weeks spent brooding in pandemic lockdown, were preoccupied by the uneasy relationship of memory, identity, family, and creativity. Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter took an unusual approach to such concerns, presenting a movie that worked as both a standalone work and as an addendum to her The Souvenir diptych, in again taking up the tale of alter ego Julie and her mother Rosalind, with Julie now in fretful middle age and facing up to one of life’s greatest conceivable pivots. This time Hogg cast Tilda Swinton as both women, who have come to spend a week in a virtually empty hotel out in a gloomy, foggy region of countryside. The hotel was one a great house that belonged to Rosalind’s aunt, where she spent time hiding out from the Blitz as a child. Julie wants to make a movie about her mother, but contends with insomnia, gnawing anxiety, writer’s block, and the perhaps literal haunting of the hotel. Swinton’s brilliant improvisatory performances were the focal point of the movie, anchoring it in pernickety realism and observational character study all charged with simmering emotional disquiet, even as Hogg wove around her a glutinous atmosphere that paid homage to the great British Horror movie tradition. The opening was lifted from Night of the Demon; much of what followed sustained a mood of fog-shrouded mystery and with creepy flute scoring on the soundtrack that recalled the likes of the BBC’s Christmas Ghost Story specials and the 1989 version of The Woman In Black, and Hogg nodded repeatedly to Kubrick.

All this mostly proved an elaborate aesthetic miscue on the most obvious level, as the real subject on hand was an entirely psychological form of haunting, and led to a climactic reveal that much of what we’ve seen has been imagined for a desperate and pathetic reason. Whilst this could easily have become just another annoying attempt to cloak an arty drama in facetiously borrowed genre movie trappings for hype, Hogg made it work. In part because of the power of the feeling she sought to portray, one that distorts time and reality by pure force of need, and Hogg’s apparent conviction that mere naturalism can’t convey it, and because the aesthetic infrastructure of the ghost story and its symbolic import was an authentic part of her subject matter. Hogg explored the relationship of past to present, noted how ghost stories are how history and memory and its darkest facets conveyed with a sense of place. The haunted hotel extended the interest of Hogg’s debut Exhibition in understanding a building as necessarily a place inhabited but also indifferent to them, with presence and memory sometimes becoming slippery and inseparable things. Another concern was that of modern England’s anxious feeling of losing touch with itself, enacted through Julie’s attempts to understand the past through her mother’s gaze, but contending constantly with the vast gap of attitude and expectation between them.

The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg)

The Fabelmans shouldn’t have been much of a surprise from Steven Spielberg, even if it was breaching new territory for the director in directly tackling his formative years as a subject after decades of splintered and refracted self-portraits. The film’s general dismissal both by the mass audience and by many critics who should know better (including me before I saw it) took it as ill-timed navel-gazing when mainstream cinema urgently needs seismic shocks. But The Fabelmans proved a film of rare and blindsiding vitality that also expressed the director’s ambivalence as well as evergreen sense of wonder for the art form he’s so often seen as virtually personifying. With a thin sheathe of fictional distance via alter ego Sammy Fabelman and a script co-written with Tony Kushner, Spielberg explored his own attraction to making movies, born of an agreeably traumatising early viewing of The Greatest Show On Earth, as a way of expiating as well as stirring emotion. The bulk of the film was dedicated to analysing the impact of his two vividly different and slowly detaching parents on his art and personality – the generous, good-natured, but insular and nerdy paterfamilias Burt (Paul Dano), a technical wiz engaged with birthing the future by building computers that also incidentally make his family well-off and mobile, and his luminous pianist wife Mitzi (Michelle Williams), the kind of woman who drives herself and her kids out through a tornado-ripped landscape to gain a glimpse of the awesome and destabilising. The artistic urge is rendered as a veritable curse as well as blessing, as Sammy encounters his nutty great-uncle (Judd Hirsch), a former circus performer, who recognises another member of their hapless tribe.

Spielberg dipped into territory that referenced Hitchcock and Antonioni with equivalence as he depicted himself discovering his mother’s affair with stalwart family friend Benny (Seth Rogen) in the background of his family films, editing the footage on one hand to offer private truth and reconciliation to Mitzi whilst also neatly clipping out it all out for general consumption: different cinematic realities coexisting simultaneously. The latter sections contended with teenage Sammy contending with anti-Semitism and bullying, finally baffling and seducing his peers with his unique and powerful capacity to reshape reality. This tug-of-war between life and artistic transformation, crystallising in extraordinary vignettes like the strained David Lynchian smiles detected on the parents’ faces when performing for Sammy’s camera, and a bully jock’s squall of confusion at being transformed into a mythic hero by the same means, confirmed Spielberg’s always known what he’s doing in terms of what he chooses to do and how, his engagement with the American religion of movies also a neutral zone of cultural and personal meeting where everyone has the chance to become everyone else. Nor was the nod to Lynch coincidental, as Spielberg delivered a master stroke in casting his great if antithetical fellow as his singular idol, John Ford, in a final scene depicting rude but consequential mentorship that split the difference between leave-‘em’-laughing punchline and immensely moving statement of gratitude.

Flux Gourmet (Peter Strickland)

Peter Strickland manages to go from strength to strength without abandoning the rarefied creative zone he’s created, persisting in making movies that unfold in a retro-chic netherworld with increasing confidence and myriad notes of sly perversity. With Flux Gourmet, he turned his own delight in weaving strange textures around a subject of folly and fascination, as he riffed on the pretensions of the art world but with a characteristic twist that had the quality of something out of a dream: the setting was an academy devoted to showcasing practitioners of “sonic catering.” The story, such as it was, centred on a trio recently given a month-long residency, led by the passionate creative mind and ideologue Elle (Fatma Mohamed), and the tensions that begin pulling their successful team apart. Strickland’s conceits extended to having a character who narrates the film entirely in Greek on the soundtrack – he’s a filmmaker hired to document the residency and who also suffers from chronic gut problems – and casting Gwendoline Christie as the academy’s haughty directress, who makes unwelcome creative suggestions to the trio and seduces their one, young male member. Where his In Fabric embraced overt Horror elements, Flux Gourmet saw Strickland returning to the stylised annex of The Duke of Burgundy in portraying an imagined high-end world of institutionalised weirdness, where everything is touched with a glaze of the unsettling but there’s no definite source of menace.

But this time he did so with a wittier and more complete-feeling blend of setting and story, detailing the academy’s preponderance of oddballs, including the infuriatingly self-satisfied house doctor, who eventually drives the filmmaker so crazy as he investigates his gut problems he tries to strangle him when he won’t get to the point. Meanwhile the academy suffers vandalising attacks by a culinary team who didn’t get the fellowship, and directress and artist constantly clash over seemingly minor details that nonetheless hinge entirely on power. Strickland allowed an overt homage to Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating through as well as more pervasive nods to the likes of Peter Greenaway and Mario Bava through. The most intriguing and original aspect of Flux Gourmet for Strickland’s art was the sharply-observed quality of the satire, which nested within and coexisted with the never-never atmosphere, touched with an edge of gleeful caricature, particularly through Elle, who postures as a gutsy feminist from a disadvantaged background but is actually extremely rich and oppresses her collaborators, but also resists all attempts by the institution to dictate their creativity in vehement defence of artistic prerogative. The very last scene brought the tale to an ingenious close as the healing power of both art and good food were applied to one very grateful subject.

Hit The Road (Panah Panahi)

A near-sublime road movie, Hit The Road saw Panah Panahi, son of Jafar and former assistant to Abbas Kiarostami, making his own debut in a film that travels literally and figuratively across the state of contemporary Iran. The situation was at once simplicity itself but touched with rare mystery and feeling: a family of four – father, mother, grown-up son and pre-adolescent younger son – are travelling across the desert in a borrowed SUV, their journey punctuated by the usual in-jokes and squabbles of a tight-knit clan, but with strange tension apparent in all but the rambunctious younger son, who gets chastised for bringing along his cell phone, which the mother takes pains to bury by the roadside. Eventually it becomes clear that the family have sold their possessions to finance the older son as he flees across the border to seek out better fortunes in Europe. This means engaging with the opaque and sometimes menacing network that helps people making such flights, as well as confronting the pains of their imminent separation which they’re trying to keep hidden from the boy. The family movie across a parched and desolate landscape where the modern world they inextricably belong to sits cheek-by-jowl with primal nature and decaying remnants of classical lifestyles, whilst the film itself shifts with ease from comedy to drama and back again, with flashes of fantasy and musical tossed in.

Whilst Panahi arguably went a little far in also sticking the family with a cute, sick dog whose eventual expiring gives the movie a last sting of low-key tragedy, Hit The Road was largely remarkable in offering one of the best portraits of family in many a year, defined by the disparity between affectations of easy-going normality for the sake of the young son, and the awareness of looming sundering and the plain fact they’re taking a risk that could bring down awful legal consequences if they’re caught. The wise and witty mother who’s fond of singalongs nonetheless finds herself plunged into grief by parting, whilst the father suggests a portrait of a generation of Iranians as he shuffles along on a plastered leg, complains about a rotting tooth, and indulges his kids with a blend of sly humour and distracted melancholy. The younger lad embodies all the heedless energy and bounty of youthful promise, and the elder has wilted under the weight of expectation. Great scenes included an encounter with a gabby bike rider who crashes against their vehicle and gets a lift, a bewildering exchange with a fleece seller and a masked motorcyclist that mark thei entrance into some kind of Kafkaesque netherworld, and what proves to be the ultimate farewell played out in a long shot that evoked Kiarostami and David Lean in its coolly removed portrait of human pathos amidst the boding grandiosity of nature. The older son’s love of 2001: A Space Odyssey rhymes with the younger boy’s dreams of Batman and Superman, all echoing in a spacefaring fantasy as father and son drift away through the stars in a moment of mental release, claiming the right and necessity of dreaming as one things that always transcends the pains of any given place and moment.

Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

In a strong year for African cinema, Mali’s former tourism and culture minister Mahamat-Saleh Haroun went rogue and offered a beautifully observed and surprisingly gripping drama that must certainly have been a provocative gesture at home but also had accidentally acute relevance outside the country. Haroun’s film depicted a woman who’s spent years eking out a living and maintaining a toehold in society after being shunned by her family for having a child out of wedlock when she was only a teenager, forcing her to make a living incessantly making and selling wire stoves. Now, with her daughter almost grown up, she’s playing the meek and pious breadwinner, seeking her pompous imam’s approval and receiving a marriage proposal from a prosperous but grizzled neighbour. When she learns her daughter is now pregnant, she steadily begins to abandon her pretences and gets down to trying to fund an abortion, which is illegal in the country. This begins a sometimes comic, often excruciating odyssey as they rustle up funds and seek someone willing to perform the operation. But the identity of the father is a secret that will, when it finally comes out, provoke murderous wrath.

Lingui was reminiscent of the kind of slice-of-life social drama that Ken Loach made in his 1990s heyday, although Haroun’s direction avoided that brand of squirrelly, hand-held realism and instead wielded a lush eye for colour and a free-flowing feel for the streets of N’Djamena. This was matched to a sly sense of character, evinced in early scenes as the daughter wandered about in sullen unease, dashing against friends and family like a billiard ball in her quietly distraught and incommunicative state, and when the mother began indulging old vices and shows of her old, cheeky character as she comes to understand the hypocrisy of the world about her and the pointlessness of playing by its rules. Haroun also allowed a stream of gentle humour to flow through all, particularly in portraying women’s witty capacity for getting around arbitrary authority being imposed on their bodies, including the commissioning of a fake female circumcision. This contrasted the pervasive sense of tension and anxiety eating up the two women as they’re driven to desperate ends to get the necessary cash and constant twists of luck help and foil them alternately, like seeing their would-be saviours suddenly netted by a police raid. But the film was really made by its ending, which shifted gear towards a dark, noir-like confrontation and saw the seemingly familiar and friendly streets of the mother and daughter’s neighbourhood became a labyrinthine trap.

Lost Illusions (Xavier Giannoli)

Not many filmmakers could make a story as ruthlessly cynical as Lost Illusions into a compulsively watchable and ebulliently cinematic experience, but Xavier Giannoli did just with this adaptation of one of Honore de Balzac’s most regarded novels. Lost Illusions followed the wayward path of Lucien, a talented but penniless young poet, illegitimate son to an aristocrat, who becomes the lover of a Countess who worships his talent, and she introduces the young man to Parisian society. After proving a flop in exalted circles, Lucien vengefully turns his hand to becoming a successful journalist in the rough-and-tumble world of newspaper publishing, where everyone’s on the make and everything hinges on confluences of money and power. Whilst the erstwhile hero seems to be on the rise for good as he tries to get his aristocratic parentage recognised, he doesn’t suspect dark forces are conspiring to use him and then break him. Giannoli diverted from Balzac in some crucial ways, as he retained sympathy for his main character, who very often acts like a jerk and participates in a corrupt and corrupting world with increasing enthusiasm, but also has the stuff of an authentic artist in him.

Importantly, however, Giannoli stayed very true to capturing Balzac’s exacting, analytical portraiture of the way his world worked in an era of madcap energy and pervasive expedience. With forceful, Scorsese-like editing and camera gymnastics, Giannoli deftly laid bare, say, the machinations of the gutter press in an era without regulation of what gets written or why, with everything, especially creative art, at the mercy of who can pay the most for a good review or a scathing putdown, or the laborious process of trying to gain a foothold in the aristocracy, where good manners conceal shark’s teeth. Whilst the recreation of the period fervour and flavour were exacting, the story’s relevance in portraying anarchic media and its eager purveyors and the brute power of a public downfall fizzed away. Giannoli cleverly cast actor-director Xavier Beauvois as the hero’s frenemy, a practiced dandy and wit who nonetheless feels real kinship with him in their authentic passion for creation. The last act was suitably desolating as Lucien has everything stripped from him, including his consumptive lover, but where for Balzac it was chiefly an illustrative and cautionary example, for Giannoli it became, ultimately, a crucial episode in the eternal battle for an artist’s soul, and the worth of their creation, however it’s received in the moment, is the only thing that can outlast the empty furore of such a world.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (Ana Lily Amirpour)

A splendidly odd, and oddly splendid, contraption from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night director Amirpour, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon had a quality that resembled what a modern Val Lewton film might look like. The actual plot came across more like a melange of The X-Files, a superhero origin story, and some 1940s noir film. A teenage Asian immigrant, the titular Mona Lisa (Jun Jong Seo), is first glimpsed lingering in a padded cell in a mental hospital, where she’s pettily tormented by a staff member. The girl, who has mysterious telekinetic powers and is seemingly locked in a catatonic state as well as a strait-jacket, suddenly unleashes her abilities, forcing the bully to wound herself and help her out of her bonds. The girl flees the hospital, finally finishing up adrift amongst the flotsam of contemporary New Orleans, in a nocturnal odyssey punctuated by islets of strange humanity amidst the nightlife. There she becomes friends with vulgar, self-centred pole dancer Bonnie (Kate Hudson) and her young son (Evan Whitten), and is pursued by a determined cop (Craig Robinson) even after he’s had one painful encounter with the girl and her abilities. The oddball relationship of mystery girl, mother, and son became the fulcrum of proceedings as Bonnie uses Mona Lisa and her powers to enrich herself with robbery, whilst the girl and boy form a bond and plan flight whilst her cop nemesis scrambles around town, and hard choices have to be made if anyone is to have a hope of escape.

By contrast with the monochrome style of her debut, Amirpour this time chased a nocturnal mood again but this time with lush colour applied to a quasi-neorealist approach to shooting, roaming the byways of the Big Easy and imbibing its unique mixture of seediness and communality, almost surrendering entirely to charting the vibe of the place . Amirpour often filmed in wide-lensed shots to give everything a looming, fluorescent immediacy befitting the viewpoint of her heroine as she explores this strange new world. As she does so, she evolves from a blankly alien symbol of all that’s strange and threatening about the outsider to a functioning human being who finds people by and large far more eager to help her than torment her, contrasted with Bonnie, a woman who exploits her new friend and often acts in a greedy and obnoxious way, but is also gifted a hard shell by trying to survive and has underneath it all a streak of decency, not entirely revealed until she pays an ugly price for her actions. The film was dotted with some marvellous character turns from names like Hudson, who along with her turn in Glass Onion had an interesting renaissance, and Ed Skrein as a seemingly sleazy but ultimately obliging and protective DJ who plays fairy godmother to the young runaways.

Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot)

A blend of Tarantino-esque neo-Western, John Carpenter-type supernatural siege drama and a bunch of other trash movie touchstones, the Senegalese action-horror blend Saloum nonetheless forged something fresh and vigorous in blending those familiar influences with concepts and meditations more specific to its native land. Saloum’s heroes were Bangui’s Hyenas, three swashbuckling mercenaries from humble origins who have become folk heroes for their balls-to-the-wall daring and attitude in conflicts across Africa. But they face a truly disturbing reckoning after rescuing a Mexican cartel member from the midst of a civil war, when they’re forced to land their plane near the titular river. Soon they shuffle into a co-op camping ground run by an affable manager where everything seems idyllic, but signs of something truly strange seethe under the surface as well as multiple factions all with their own objectives. One of the mercenaries has revenge in mind, a path that will lead to the delicate balance of place, history, and guardian spirits all toppling into chaos.

Saloum eventually confronted the troubled history of Senegal and neighbouring lands, including the lingering legacy of war and the trauma of child soldiers, as well as more personal crimes, on the way to a surprisingly tragic and sharply moral ending, without turning into a message movie or surrendering its hard-charging genre film cred. The script was intelligent in weaving symbolic elements in with the immediate plot business, as well as being littered with intriguing details, like the Hyenas being able to converse with a deaf girl with sign language learnt when working as miners: the girl herself wants to join the mercenary ranks proves to have the ideal trait to fend off evil spirits who seduce with song. Director Jean Luc Herbulot expertly shifted between tones, both delighting in the infrastructure of an old-fashioned monster-battling shoot ‘em up and swiftly investing his heroes with a titanic aura that gets tested to utmost in confronting otherworldly enemies, whilst also casting a dubious eye on his own emblems of cool. Such as that invested in a gleaming Remington revolver, a hero’s Excalibur-like weapon that’s also a captured trophy from an evil man, and also a dark totem that rots the soul of whoever holds it by constantly whispering promises of empowerment through bloodshed, like Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer. Herbulot’s crisp widescreen visuals and steely colour palette were consistently arresting in shifting between igneous blocking and flashes of folkloric vision, and he actually managed to do something fresh when staging the climactic battle with shapeless demons with oblique and mobile camerawork. Yann Gael, as the most commanding and troubled Hyena, had major movie star presence.

Stars At Noon (Claire Denis)

The first of two films Claire Denis released in 2022, Stars At Noon was a sharp return to her finest form after the awkward High Life. Tackling a novel by Denis Johnson set amidst the 1980s war in El Salvador, Denis didn’t have the budget to make her film in period, and so updated it to the pandemic era, which she then able to draw on to capture a pervasive mood of fetid, paranoid, enigmatic anxiety and dislocation. The Graham Greene-esque story revolved around a shambolic former journalist and broken-down idealist (Margaret Qualley), who’s trapped in El Salvador after losing all her sources of employment for writing too many torrid exposes and pissing off too many bosses, and has been reduced to occasional prostitution and other acts of opportunism to make ends meet. She encounters a suave Englishman (Joe Alwyn), who she first zeroes in on as a mark, but the two find they have an arc of authentic chemistry, and drift into a fractious relationship that intensifies when he turns out to be engaged in shady dealings and is just as in over his head as his new lover. Eventually they’re forced to try and flee the country as he’s hounded by shadowy foes and officialdom.

Denis provoked Qualley into giving the year’s most essential performance as the initially insufferable antiheroine, an ideal Denis protagonist at once violating and enshrining every cliché about strong female characters in movies. Her skittish, self-destructive behaviour, incessantly confrontational bent, and frenetic randiness task everyone she knows and even perplex herself, but she also retains a mind that starts snapping into focus as she confronts existential desperation, able to feel her way through the labyrinth of power by pure honed instinct, the one gift she’s gained from her degrading life. Denis, as is her wont, trailed her characters with languorously observational and atmospheric camerawork, alive to fleeting details whilst remaining purposefully opaque about the backdrop of repression, politicking, and espionage her two protagonists contend with, including a cameo from Bennie Safdie as a smarmy CIA agent who talks entirely in pleasantly discursive phrasing, Mephistopheles in a suit. The proper emphasis was on the doomed romance at its core, Denis fascinated by two such characters locked into their folie-a-deux and the rarefied transactions of psychic power between the couple in their long dance to a foregone end, each moving along a continuum between burning passion, pathetic neediness, and stoic resignation, with an ending that gained not spectacular tragedy but the wearying necessity of betrayal.

Runners-Up:

Avatar: The Way of Water (James Cameron)
The Batman (Matt Reeves)
Benediction (Terence Davies)
Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi)
In Front Of Your Face (Sang-Soo Hong)
Introduction (Sang-Soo Hong)
Kimi (Steven Soderbergh)
The Quiet Girl (Colm Bairéad)
Pearl (Ti West)
The Wonder (Sebastián Lelio)

Interesting and/or Underrated

Aftersun (Charlotte Wells)
All My Friends Hate Me (Andrew Gaynord)
Argentina 1985 (Santiago Mitre)
Athena (Romain Gavras)
Death On The Nile (Kenneth Branagh)
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (Sam Raimi)
Don’t Worry Darling (Olivia Wilde)
Emergency (Carey Williams)
The Hidden Fox (Lei Qiao)
Interceptor (Matthew Reilly)
The Lair (Neil Marshall)
Mad God (Phil Tippett)
Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams)
Les Olympiades – Paris, 13th District (Jacques Audiard)
Saint Omer (Alice Diop)
Something In The Dirt (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
The Northman (Robert Eggers)
The Seed (Sam Walker)
Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard)
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Tom Gormican)
Watcher (Chloe Okuno)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

Amsterdam (David O. Russell)
The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh)
Barbarian (Zach Cregger)
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
The Black Phone (Scott Derrickson)
Crimes Of The Future (David Cronenberg)
The Cursed (Sean Ellis)
Elvis (Baz Luhrmann)
Everything Everywhere All At Once (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (David Yates)
Glass Onion (Rian Johnson)
Nope (Jordan Peele)
Prey (Dan Trachtenberg)
Rise Roar Revolt (S.S. Rajamouli)
Scream (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett)
Tár (Todd Field)
The Stranger (Thomas M. Wright)
Thor: Love & Thunder (Taika Waititi)
Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller)
Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski)
The Woman King (Gina Prince-Bythewood)
Women Talking (Sarah Polley)
X (Ti West)
You Won’t Be Alone (Goran Stolevski)

Crap

The 355 (Simon Kinberg)
Bones And All (Luca Guadagnino)
The Gray Man (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)
Honor Society (Oran Zegman)
Morbius (Daniel Espinosa)
Poker Face (Russell Crowe)
Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund)
White Noise (Noah Baumbach)
Uncharted (Ruben Fleischer)

Unseen:

∙ 6 Festivals ∙ After Yang ∙ Ahed’s Knee ∙ All Quiet on the Western Front ∙ Apollo 10½  ∙ Autobiography ∙ Babylon ∙ Belle ∙ Blonde ∙ Boiling Point ∙ Both Sides Of The Blade ∙ Bowling Saturne ∙ Breaking ∙ Bruno Reidal, Confession of a Murderer ∙ Burning Days ∙ The Cathedral ∙ Catherine Called Birdy ∙ Compartment No. 6 ∙ Corsage ∙ Devotion ∙ Decision To Leave ∙ Dinner in America ∙ Down With the King ∙ Earwig ∙ The Electrical Life of Louis Wain ∙ Emancipation ∙ EO ∙ Father Stu ∙ Everything Went Fine ∙ Funny Pages ∙ Good Luck to You, Leo Grande ∙ Great Freedom ∙ Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio ∙ Happening ∙ Il Buco ∙ Living ∙ Marcel the Shell With Shoes On ∙ Master ∙ Murina ∙ No Bears ∙ Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris ∙ My Policeman ∙ A New Old Play ∙ Nobody’s Hero ∙ The Novelist’s Film ∙ One Fine Morning ∙ Pacification ∙ Peter von Kant ∙ Playground ∙ Pleasure ∙ Return To Seoul ∙ Sick of Myself ∙ Slash/Back ∙ Smoking Causes Coughing ∙ Speak No Evil ∙ Stonewalling ∙ Turning Red ∙ Unrest ∙ Vengeance ∙ Weird: The Al Yankovic Story ∙ We’re All Going to the World’s Fair ∙ Wendell and Wild ∙ The Whale ∙ Will-O’-The-Wisp ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2022

7th Cavalry (Joseph H. Lewis)
Artists and Models / The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin)
The Barbarian and the Geisha (John Huston)
Battle of the Coral Sea (Paul Wendkos)
Beach Red (Cornel Wilde)
The Bermuda Depths (Tsugonobu Tom Katino)
Les Biches / La Femme Infidèle / Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)
Black Widow (Bob Rafelson)
Cry of the City (Robert Siodmak)
Deadly Run (Claude Miller)
Fantastic Planet (René Laloux)
Funny Face (Stanley Donen)
I Live In Fear (Akira Kurosawa)
In Harm’s Way (Otto Preminger)
Kirikou and the Sorceress (Michel Ocelot)
The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott)
L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel)
The Mangler (Tobe Hooper)
Man Made Monster (George Waggner)
The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)
Night and the City (Jules Dassin)
October: Ten Days That Shook The World (Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei Eisenstein)
Prescription Murder (Richard Irving)
The Prince and the Showgirl (Laurence Olivier)
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (Guy Hamilton)
The Rite (Ingmar Bergman)
Run For The Sun (Roy Boulting)
Satan’s Triangle (Sutton Roley)
The Sin of Nora Moran (Phil Goldstone)
They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (Gordon Douglas)
What’s Up, Doc? / Nickelodeon (Peter Bogdanovich)

In Memoriam

∙ Matthew ‘Meat Loaf’ Aday ∙ Kirstie Alley ∙ Angelo Badalamenti ∙ Jules Bass ∙ Jean-Jacques Beineix ∙ James Bidgood ∙ Peter Bogdanovich ∙ Michel Bouquet ∙ Peter Bowles ∙ James Caan ∙ Irene Cara ∙ Jean-Claude Carrière ∙ Jack Charles ∙ Robbie Coltrane ∙ Kevin Conroy ∙ Bernard Cribbins ∙ Myléne Demongeot ∙ Ruggero Deodato ∙ Louise Fletcher ∙ Clarence Gilyard Jr ∙ Daniela Giordano ∙ Jean-Luc Godard ∙ Clu Gulager ∙ Philip Baker Hall ∙ Anne Heche ∙ Mike Hodges ∙ Bo Hopkins ∙ Marsha Hunt ∙ Artis ‘Coolio’ Ivey Jr ∙ Just Jaeckin ∙ L.Q. Jones ∙ Hardy Kruger ∙ Günter Lamprecht ∙ Angela Lansbury ∙ Ray Liotta ∙ Diane McBain ∙ Stuart Margolin ∙ Yvette Mimieux ∙ Roger E. Mosley ∙ Edson Arantes ‘Pelé’ do Nascimento ∙ Francesca ‘Kitten’ Natividad ∙ Olivia Newton-John ∙ Nichelle Nichols ∙ James Olson ∙ Irene Papas ∙ Evangelos ‘Vangelis’ Papathanassiou ∙ Nehemiah Persoff ∙ Wolfgang Petersen ∙ Leslie Phillips ∙ Sidney Poitier ∙ Andrew Prine ∙ Albert Pyun ∙ Bob Rafelson ∙ Ivan Reitman ∙ Henry Silva ∙ Paul Sorvino ∙ Larry Storch ∙ Venetia Stevenson ∙ Austin Stoker ∙ Jean-Marie Straub ∙ Alain Tanner ∙ Jean-Louis Trintignant ∙ Douglas Trumbull ∙ Gaspard Ulliel ∙ Monica Vitti ∙ ‘Jimmy’ Wang Yu ∙ Fred Ward ∙ David Warner ∙ Dennis Waterman ∙ Yoshishige ‘Kiju’ Yoshida ∙

Review Index

The 355 (Simon Kinberg)

Aftersun (Charlotte Wells)

All My Friends Hate Me (Andrew Gaynord)

Ambulance (Michael Bay)

Amsterdam (David O. Russell)

Argentina 1985 (Santiago Mitre)

Armageddon Time (James Gray)

Athena (Romain Gavras)

Avatar: The Way Of Water (James Cameron)

The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh)

Barbarian (Zach Cregger)

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

The Batman (Matt Reeves)

Beast (Baltasar Kormakur)

Benediction (Terence Davies)

Black Adam (Jaume Collet-Serra)

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Ryan Coogler)

The Black Phone (Scott Derrickson)

Bones And All (Luca Guadagnino)

Broker (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Bros (Nicholas Stoller)

Bullet Train (David Leitch)

Confess, Fletch (Greg Mottola)

Crimes Of The Future (David Cronenberg)

The Cursed (Sean Ellis)

Day Shift (J.J. Perry)

Dead For A Dollar (Walter Hill)

Death On The Nile (Kenneth Branagh)

Deep Water (Adrian Lyne)

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (Sam Raimi)

Don’t Worry Darling (Olivia Wilde)

Elvis (Baz Luhrmann)

Emergency (Carey Williams)

Emily The Criminal (John Patton Ford)

Empire Of Light (Sam Mendes)

The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg)

Everything Everywhere All At Once (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)

Fall (Scott Mann)

The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg)

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (David Yates)

Flux Gourmet (Peter Strickland)

Glass Onion (Rian Johnson)

The Gray Man (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)

The Hidden Fox (Lei Qiao)

Hit The Road (Panah Panahi)

Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi)

Honor Society (Oran Zegman)

Hustle (Jeremiah Zagar)

In Front Of Your Face (Sang-Soo Hong)

Interceptor (Matthew Reilly)

Introduction (Sang-Soo Hong)

The Invitation (Jessica M. Thompson)

Jurassic World: Dominion (Colin Trevorrow)

Kimi (Steven Soderbergh)

The Lair (Neil Marshall)

Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

The Lost City (Aaron Nee, Adam Nee)

Lost Illusions (Xavier Giannoli)

A Love Song (Max Walker-Silverman)

Mad God (Phil Tippett)

The Menu (Mark Mylod)

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (Ana Lily Amirpour)

Moonfall (Roland Emmerich)

Morbius (Daniel Espinosa)

Munich: The Edge of War (Christian Schwochow)

Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams)

Nope (Jordan Peele)

The Northman (Robert Eggers)

The Outfit (Graham Moore)

Paris, 13th District (Jacques Audiard)

Pearl (Ti West)

Poker Face (Russell Crowe)

Prey (Dan Trachtenberg)

The Quiet Girl (Colm Bairéad)

RRR (S.S. Rajamouli)

Saint Omer (Alice Diop)

Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot)

Scream (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett)

See How They Run (Tom George)

The Seed (Sam Walker)

She Said (Maria Schrader)

Smile (Parker Finn)

Something In The Dirt (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)

Spiderhead (Joseph Kosinski)

Stars At Noon (Claire Denis)

The Stranger (Thomas M. Wright)

Tár (Todd Field)

Ted K (Tony Stone)

Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard)

Thor: Love & Thunder (Taika Waititi)

Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller)

Ticket To Paradise (Ol Parker)

Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski)

Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund)

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Tom Gormican)

Uncharted (Ruben Fleischer)

Watcher (Chloe Okuno)

Werewolf By Night (Michael Giacchino)

White Noise (Noah Baumbach)

The Woman King (Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Women Talking (Sarah Polley)

The Wonder (Sebastián Lelio)

X (Ti West)

You Won’t Be Alone (Goran Stolevski)

Standard
2020s

Confessions of a Film Freak 2020

.

By Roderick Heath

Well. That was interesting.

This year those of us lucky to survive spent much time hunkered down in physical and psychological siege. For me, as for just about everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic had a direct impact on how I watched the movies of this year. Mostly by curtailing my watching them at all. Movie theatres closed down and then reopened without major films to fill screens. The sudden, colossal public demand for internet bandwidth made streaming somewhat difficult for me through much of the year. So my best alternative for viewing new movies was, ironically, the DVD vending machine in my local supermarket. This year, perhaps for good, some barriers between cinema and TV collapsed, but the only thing that’s definitely true for now is that things are in a state of flux. The vigorous mix of trends and styles we usually get in the course of any given movie year was choked off, precious few expansive entertainments and movies of mature and well-honed expression making it under the boom, leaving us mostly with a mealy stream of dumped studio refuse, dour low- and mid-budget dramas, and callow indie movies. For a time I lost interest almost entirely. I wasn’t entirely unhappy with this, as I had an excuse to get off the treadmill of currency and dig into my DVD and blu-ray collection for an epic rewatch of classics and newer movies I hadn’t seen since first release. Good for my head, not so good for this annual Confession.

But my viewings still piled up, and so too did the number of interesting movies and quite a few films that would be great in any year. Given how relatively few of these I’ve written up in the course of the year I’ll be writing more on the films on my favourites list than usual.

Unhinged

2020 felt like debts accrued these past few years coming due, societies at large paying the price for the blindness and incompetence of chosen leaders. So it’s appropriate, if not at all consoling, that a lot of the films that came out this year tended to be grim, savage, punitive in outlook. Many dealt with sexism and racism on manifold levels, along with monstrous greed and malfeasance. Horror movies proliferated and often purveyed a bleak and nightmarish tone. Sadomasochistic psychedelia and surrealism bloomed in films like Possessor, She Dies Tomorrow, Capone, Color Out Of Space, The New Mutants, Tenet, and Shirley. Psychos like the loony avenger in Unhinged, the transparent husband of The Invisible Man, the unseen boss in The Assistant, and the plutocrat husband from hell in Tenet made lives hell for women who offended their egos. People fought for space to release expression and gain fellowship in movies like Night of the Kings, Birds of Prey, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; A Rainy Day In New York, Mank, Lovers Rock, First Cow, The New Mutants, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Emma, Sonic the Hedgehog, On The Rocks, and Mulan. Others battled to simply claw their way out of deadly abysses and provide proof of their own existence, as in Underwater, Above Suspicion, Capone, Extraction, The Midnight Sky, Greyhound, Rogue, The Outpost, 12 Hour Shift, The Rhythm Section, Ava, Kajillionaire, Escape From Pretoria, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Bacurau, Palm Springs, Ammonite, I’m Your Woman, and VFW.

Greyhound

The time-slipping warriors of Tenet went to war with the future, with fate, itself. The young folk of The Vast of Night discovered how flimsy the substance of their stolid reality was and slipped through the cracks into realms unknown. Others faced the collapse of their personalities in the face of stronger ones or vortexes of confusion caused by destabilising reference points of body and mind, like the brainjacking antiheroine of Possessor, the constantly rebooted hero forced to re-experience his deepest trauma in Bloodshot, and the innocent abroad perverted out of shape in Shirley. Delroy Lindo’s shambolic ‘Nam vet in Da 5 Bloods seemed like the incarnation of the moment in his fervent, volatile, desperate need to express something chokingly inexpressible whilst feeling like spear-points levelled all around. Characters faced with endemic, even universal corruption and inequity in films like Da 5 Bloods, The Whistlers, Bad Hair, 12 Hour Shift, The Burnt Orange Heresy, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Wild Goose Lake reacted by endangering themselves and their identities for what they judged the worthwhile risk of slicing off a piece of the pie; antiheroes in the likes of Capone and Greed felt the same urge even in the lap of luxury as age and the world’s repudiation starts whittling them down. Tyrannical regimes ascended and demanded resistance and familiar systems crumbled into anarchy in films like Bacurau, New Order, Night of the Kings, Escape From Pretoria, and Tenet.

The Rhythm Section

In further irony the wing of cinema most usually ubiquitous was the one almost entirely muted for most of the year: Hollywood superhero blockbusters. One of the few to see release was Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, which proved a last gasp for the familiar X-Men franchise even though intended as a new beginning, doomed to sit on the shelf for a couple of years amidst the tumult of 20th Century Fox’s purchase by Disney and then be dumped by its new owner to drum up some streaming revenue with a sigh of expedience. The film took a refreshingly indirect path towards the familiar mutant spectacle in portraying a quintet of adolescents being held in a near-deserted and fancifully segregated gothic hospital, contending with Alice Braga’s manipulative therapist and the mysterious and frightening talents for conjuring terrors the latest inductee seems to wield. The film courted the YA crowd in hiring The Fault In Our Stars director Boone, who made sure to keep including clips from Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the rec room TV to let us know what his touchstone was, as well as nudging everything from The Breakfast Club to Girl, Interrupted. The film was largely trashed by both genre fans and critics, but it didn’t really deserve to be, sporting a lot of overlap with M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass but not nearly so affected. A solidly creepy, horror movie-lite tone was wedded to a straightforward take on the series’ driving urge to link teenage angst to superhuman traits with some decent performances, and sporting a refreshingly gentle queer romance at its centre.

Bloodshot

Derrick Borte’s Unhinged offered a merging of Duel and TV movie psycho stalker tale, as Caren Pisotorius’ listless divorcee was forced to fight for her life and the people she loves when she crosses paths in a heated moment on the road with Russell Crowe’s psychotic creep, who sets about avenging a minor infraction with a campaign of terrorism and murder. The result was a fun, tense throwback to an earlier age of down-to-earth, pulse-pumping thriller fare, but its ultimate impact was foiled by constant resorting to idiot logic as well as oddly wasting Crowe in a straightforward monster role, when the film could have tapped him for a stranger and more discomforting portrait of frustration and rage. David S.F. Wilson’s Bloodshot was a slick modern B-movie with a plotline that came across like a bit of a throwback to the days of weird grow-your-own-superhero flicks like Darkman, sporting Vin Diesel as a man brought back from the dead and imbued with incredible powers by nanotechnology and employed as a super assassin by the inevitably cast Guy Pearce. A good mid-film plot twist and some peculiarly lyrical visuals made the watching vaguely worthwhile, although the script was ultimately far too unambitious, and a strong cast, rounded out by Eiza Gonzalez and Sam Heughen, went almost sadistically wasted.

The Invisible Man

Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man picked at an interesting loose thread in blending the Wellsian concept of a scientific genius who makes himself invisible and uses it to evil ends, and the everyday psychological anxiety of spousal abuse and mental cruelty, the idea of the malevolent person close to you deconstructing your sense of reality. So Whannel’s inventor was also an abusive creep bent on using his invisibility device to torment and ultimately destroy his former partner, played by an inevitably cast Elisabeth Moss, in a slow-mounting campaign of harassment and victimisation. An interesting idea, one that ultimately wasn’t really developed much beyond the obvious, with Whannell just a little too eager to conflate his own showmanship with his villain’s. He relieved the psychological tension too soon, his story played out in an unconvincing milieu, and his plot kept offering huge holes in logic for a movie trying to offer relatively believable sci-fi excitement, particularly the superficially clever ending.

Possessor

David Cronenberg’s son Brandon made a bold gambit to anoint himself heir to his father’s unique cinematic kingdom with Possessor, exploring similar realms of body horror, conspiracy, and psychic disruption. Cronenberg the Younger cast the ever-valiant Andrea Riseborough as a fraying woman with unique aptitude for the latest realm in corporate warfare, having her consciousness plugged into the minds of luckless people chosen to commit assassinations, only to find herself trapped inside her latest mark and experiencing bizarre new zones of identity on the way to a bloody consummation. Cronenberg employed a fascinating premise and occasionally lighted upon a striking image in offering a surreal flux of style and story in portraying any sure sense of physical and mental reality dissolving. But as the film droned on it became a dull and oppressive chore punctuated by blunt, witless gore, the ideas lost amongst the overbearing style, and by the end the young pretender seemed practically interchangeable with any number of his father’s legions of imitators in film schools and music videos.

Bad Hair

Dear White People director Justin Simien seemed to develop good-humoured ambitions to get in on some of that sweet Jordan Peele money by making his own horror movie revolving around racial paranoia with Bad Hair. Set in 1989, Simien’s film portrayed a young woman, well-played by newcomer Elle Lorraine, beset by unruly hair, who chooses to get a radical new weave for the sake of making the leap from the production staff at a Black audience-aimed cable TV staff to on-camera star, only to find her lovely fake tresses have a vampiric life of her their own and will take over her mind entirely if she doesn’t fight it. With an eye to introducing an aspect of cultural anthropology rather than only nostalgic callbacks (but those too), Simien offered wittily exact recreations of the era’s music videos and would-be streetwise pop culture. Likewise he nailed the tone of a lot of low-budget horror cinema from the same era whilst giving the template a racially conscious makeover, and managed to make the most awkward of monstrous threats work. He also made great use of a cast full of old-school faces including Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood. Only towards the end did the film lose some control, letting the climax turn goofy and trying a little too hard to ram a message home.

Da 5 Bloods

Meanwhile Spike Lee, the now-venerable yet ever-restless dean of African-American cinema, returned with Da 5 Bloods, one of many films of late to offer homage-cum-variation on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This one focused on four aging survivors of a tight-knit gang of Black Vietnam War soldiers who return to the former warzone to retrieve a stolen horde of gold and the body of a lamented comrade, but find themselves fighting thieves and each-other with equal ferocity for the prize. Lee still hadn’t lost any of his ambition, trying to blend rich humanity, in depicting his shambolic heroes and the hapless people they draw into their madness, with fluorescent melodrama and agitprop signposting. Lee’s script, despite many nods to other movies (the Apocalypse Now-themed dance club in modern Ho Chi Minh City was some kind of evil genius), was another work along the lines of Get On The Bus (1996) and He Got Game (1999), in presenting a situational portrait of a gamut of Black experience and dealing with generational as well as racial and national incomprehension. Delroy Lindo, as the most reactionary and damaged of the team, gave a near-Olympian performance, and the late Chadwick Boseman had a salutary cameo as the fallen comrade who served as the team’s political conscience, feeling between the two of them like the psychic poles of Lee’s aesthetic sensibility. The film was ultimately hampered by Lee’s familiar failings in not knowing when and how to quit nor nail a cohesive tone (I counted down to the moment when a character would “shockingly” step on a landmine), eventually taking recourse in tired twists and an ungainly last act. To be honest, nothing in it threatened to displace Dead Presidents in portraying the Black Vietnam experience.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

August Wilson’s lauded play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was brought to screens by Tony-winning stage director George C. Wolfe, handing career-capping parts to Viola Davis as the legendary chanteuse and “mother of the blues” and Chadwick Boseman in his last role as her aggressively ambitious but psychologically fraying trumpeter who finds his sustaining fantasies fatally endangered, in a story charting a mounting sense of crisis in the course of a hot Chicago day in a recording studio. Wilson’s theatrical architecture and lacerating perspective on the two main characters’ attempts to gain, wield, and show power in a culture that ritualises denying it to you according were largely transferred intact and made voluble by the potent, if unabashedly large, performances from the whole cast. Wolfe’s direction was slick and showy, however, with an overly-stylised recreation of the period milieu that lacked the crackle of verisimilitude to properly offset the balletic force of the dialogue, to really communicate the mounting furore and fetid mood and give a space to the telling: everything, including the actors, felt buffed and shiny and well-arranged. Some moments, like the start of Boseman’s epic central monologue, seemed more like filmed theatre than film. Still, no movie that records such vital drama is negligible.

The King of Staten Island

Judd Apatow tried to do for Saturday Night Live player Pete Davidson what he did for a battery of rising comedy stars back in his ‘00s heyday, and forge him an iconic star vehicle with The King of Staten Island. This took the interesting route of presenting Davidson not in some hyped-up farce but in an autobiographical comedy-drama drawn from his own experience as the son of a firefighter who died on the job: Davidson’s shambolic alter ego Scott Carlin had struggled well into adulthood with mental health problems and a general habit of weed-huffing ennui. Apatow drew low-key humour and feels from the character’s plight as he’s forced to come to terms with the past and head into the world after his mother finally gets another boyfriend, also a firefighter. The film finished up foiling itself on several levels despite Apatow’s talent for enabling vibrant acting. The cliché story arc felt at odds with its attempt to explore the fallout of grief and dislocation whilst the everyone-talks-like-an-improv-star style of verbal humour leeched the realism. Apatow ruined the story’s argument that Scott had worthy talent for some cheap laughs, and Apatow’s tendency to ramble on was particularly pronounced to no greatly enriching end. Supporting performances, including Marisa Tomei as Davidson’s mother and Bill Burr as her new love, tended to overshadow Davidson’s modestly appealing but one-note characterisation.

Palm Springs

Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs took up Harold Ramis’ beloved Groundhog Day and gave it a contemporary spin, that is by grafting on a very similar character type to The King of Staten Island, casting Andy Samberg as a young man caught in a time loop that dooms him to repeat the same day in the title locale, thanks to a freaky geological-quantum physical event and so exists in a state of wilful, lackadaisical disconnection, only to be eventually joined by an angry coot (J.K. Simmons) and a young woman (Cristin Milioti). The former constantly kills him whilst he finds himself falling for the latter, demanding a true reckoning with their situation that involves both achieving a level of maturity and purpose alien to them so far. Barbakow tried to augment the core theme of Ramis’ film, the futility of life lived without love, by confronting the hero with his female foil and making them reckon with their failings in terms of other people. But ultimately the film tried and failed to blend absurdist humour and earnestness, without many great jokes, and failing to really develop their journey into anything particularly memorable, aiming for a note of emotional crescendo in the final confrontation with mortal risk but ultimately remaining jammed in a gear of hipster self-satisfaction.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Andrew Pattinson’s The Vast of Night was subtler and more truly disconcerting in presenting a destabilisation of reality that also encompassed a fledgling romantic relationship faced with the difficulty of escaping the stolid, whilst also harkening back to the glory days of science fiction fandom and a newly weird evocation of 1950s American society. Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog tried to wrangle a coherent plot out of the beloved vintage video game, presenting the title character as an interdimensional exile hunted by government agents led by the arrogant Dr Robotnik and protected by a small town cop. The movie was tolerable but also as numbingly bland and ambition-free as last year’s Pokemon movie. It did have a fun performance from Jim Carrey as Robotnik, particularly the extraneous yet delightful scene where he combined bad guy business and workout by dancing to “Evil Grows In the Dark,” the kind of moment that reminds how you how much a real comic actor can be worth amidst a sea of boring CGI.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

I hadn’t seen any work by Giuseppe Capotondi since his interesting The Double Hour back in 2011, so was intrigued to take a look at his The Burnt Orange Heresy, an adaptation of a well-received novel depicting a disgraced art critic and historian, who, just after commencing an affair with an enigmatic young woman, is handed a chance to revive his career when a tycoon (played by a wittily-cast Mick Jagger) offers to get him an interview with a reclusive and legendary artist if he’ll steal one of his unseen trove of artworks for his collection. What seemed set to be a posh thriller about skulduggery in well-decorated rooms proved eventually to instead be a rather noirish study in self-destructive characters and creative and moral bankruptcy. A clever subtext ironically dramatized the often inverted stereotype role of host and parasite in art and criticism, as well as the misogyny subsisting in the modern art world. The acting, particularly from Elizabeth Debicki as a doomed adventurer and Donald Sutherland as the artist with all his hard-won wisdom, helped impose cohesion on a plot that required to some forced-feeling twists to occur.

Above Suspicion

Similar in its ultimate focus and upshot, despite a radically different setting, was Philip Noyce’s true crime drama Above Suspicion, focusing on a notorious incident from the late 1980s involving the fallout of a clandestine affair between a go-getting FBI agent assigned to an Appalachian backwater and drift into an affair with the much-abused young woman who becomes his key informant in her desire to escape a den of lowlifes and drug abuse. Emilia Clarke’s surprisingly strong turn as the angry, wilful, infuriating antiheroine, seemingly cursed to a daisy-chain existence of succumbing to her own flaws as well as the weakness of the men in her life, gave the film enough juice to keep it watchable. But Noyce’s direction eventually lost its way, and delivered what should have been a grimly compelling last-act study in personal and institutional hypocrisy in a rushed and slipshod manner. Yi’nan Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake was another, specifically localised spin on genre movie clichés and with a similar structure in confronting a young woman repeatedly with the bloody debris of crime and justice, taking on a classic style of noir tale, the man being hunted by authorities, and using it to anatomise the social landscape of modern China.

Mulan

Amongst the deluge of girl-power narratives this year, Niki Caro’s live-action remake for Disney of their 1990s hit Mulan again recounted the popular Chinese myth of a young woman who defies norms and dresses as a man to go to war for the sake of the family name. This finished up one of the more perplexing if not worthless misfires of the year. Caro’s filming looked good in a chintzy fashion, but the flimsy script swapped out the original film’s celebration of its heroine’s cleverness and competence for a cod-Star Wars narrative depicting the title character as a wondrous phenomenon who needs to reclaim her femininity to achieve her potential, but playing awkward games in trying to reconcile the model’s celebration of eruptive individualism with respectful traditionalism for the sake of making inroads with the Chinese market. Humour and music were discarded, too, in favour of a string of expensive but half-hearted action scenes. Given the large number of authentic wu xia films with kick-ass female heroes and villains going back decades in films made with much more elan, Hollywood trying to sell its own confusion with such things back to the Chinese was definitely trying to teach grandma to suck eggs.

Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Another tale of a young woman weathering a world of criminals was Julia Hart’s slow-burn and realistic I’m Your Woman. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn took a different tack, wielding a waggish sense of humour in presenting a gang of crime-fighting female frenemies as drawn from the DC Comics universe, led after a fashion by Margot Robbie’s semi-reformed gangster’s moll and general-purpose nutjob, in a would-be jaunty and colourful distaff edition of the Deadpool and Kick-Ass movies. Yan displayed an occasionally striking eye in sporadic neo-psychedelic visuals, but the film proved a teeth-gritting experience for the most part, with a script that felt like a mishmash of strategies, incompetent in trying to reconcile the divergent projects of providing a Robbie star vehicle whilst also introducing the titular team, who didn’t even meet up until the film’s climactic scenes and lacked any sign of group chemistry when they did. Plus the fact that, well, its comedy wasn’t really that funny and the action sporadic and lumpen, a nasty and bullying streak failing to mesh with the frivolity. Only newcomer Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead gave flashes of the right stuff, whilst Ewan McGregor gave the worst performance of his career as the bad guy.

Ava

Reed Morano’s The Rhythm Section and Tate Taylor’s Ava both offered stories revolving around that much-fetishised modern archetype, the female assassin, the former charting the steady transformation of Blake Lively’s debased trauma victim into a cool and purposeful killer, the latter casting Jessica Chastain as one in the prime of her career but feeling the constant tug of old weaknesses and emotional ties. Of the two films The Rhythm Section was initially the more interesting, with Morano suggesting a feel for action and atmosphere as well as a patient touch for the essential character drama, the process of rebuilding a shattered self in dealing with an intriguingly (if ultimately excessively) closed-off and unsentimental protagonist: a lot of movies this year mistook blank unreadableness for stoic strength. The film eventually fell apart, the story trickling out in some terribly anticlimactic scenes. The reliably awful Taylor meanwhile applied clumsy, cheap-looking style to Ava, and Chastain, strong as ever on an acting level, never quite convinced as a lethal creature of balletic motion. The script tried to say something interesting about addiction and reckoning with damage left in its wake, at least, almost to the point of displacing the flimsy genre story, and the cast, particularly Colin Farrell as the villain, did their best to play up the modicum of substance.

Escape From Pretoria

Francis Anann’s Escape From Pretoria offered up a good old-fashioned, based-on-fact escape-from-prison tale, depicting the efforts by some white South African anti-apartheid campaigners (including one played by Daniel Radcliffe), railroaded for lengthy prisons stretches, who set about breaking free by taking advantage of the small but consequential security lapses of their arrogant but dim-witted guardians. Anann handled the suspense sequences and the minutiae of the escapees’ method with attentive skill, but the film never escaped prison movie canards or truly investigated its characters and their plight beyond the superficial, and so remained only a modestly gripping diversion. Tom Hanks returned to a World War II milieu for Greyhound, based on a C.S. Forester novel, with Hanks playing the inexperienced but quick-study captain of a destroyer on his first convoy escort mission during the Battle of the Atlantic, battling a rapacious U-boat pack and heavy weather with a cool head and a sense of religious duty. Director Aaron Schneider handled the high seas action very well, with a palpable sense of the setting and maintaining a high-pressure mood throughout, really nailing the feeling of being locked in a duel with utterly remorseless enemies. But, again, the film’s nods towards human drama were barely sufficient, including a stiff and unconvincing prologue sporting Elizabeth Shue as Hanks’ girlfriend, and it would certainly have been better spurning that stuff altogether and keeping focus purely on the business at hand.

The Outpost

Rod Lurie’s The Outpost was another warzone plunge, depicting the true story of a small US Marines garrison in a remote Afghani valley in 2009, a seemingly cursed locale that keeps losing COs. Eventually the outpost becomes the object of a large, committed Taliban assault in what became known as the Battle of Kamdesh, resulting in the first ever awarding of two Medals of Honor for a single action. Lurie tried to delve into the dynamics of the garrison and its personnel in a more restrained and realistic manner than a lot of recent War on Terror-age movies with less blustery machismo and some attention devoted to the uncomfortable tilts at outreach and community-building defining the soldiers’ relationships with their local hosts before everything goes to shit, trying to earn comparisons with precursors like Zulu and Pork Chop Hill. Scott Eastwood and Caleb Landry-Jones anchored the film effectively as the two rather different types of hero, but somehow the other soldiers remained not terribly well-delineated as a collective of personalities or even faces, and Lurie’s constantly moving camera was often aggravating and confusing rather than intensifying, badly hampering the intended sense of intimacy even if did convey toey entrapment.

Extraction

Extraction tried to install Chris Hemsworth in an action movie role worthy of an icon of the genre, casting him as a mercenary hired against his misgivings and the wind drag of background pain to rescue the kidnapped son of a drug mogul from his even nastier rival, finding himself trapped on the ground in an Indian city and forced to fight his way out with the lad. The film delivered the requisite dose of shooting, punching, running, and jumping in a year starved of such basic cinematic pleasures. It was also an uneasy attempt to blend a gritty, old-school style of action-thriller with slick, hyped-up, John Wick-derived gun-fu business, two modes which to me can’t really be reconciled, and the wall-to-wall fisticuffs and spasmodic plot crowded out interesting elements, like Golshifteh Farahani’s equally proficient and vengeful partner.

Rogue

M.J. Barrett’s Rogue offered a version of the same basic plot only done on the cheap and with some killer lions thrown into the mix. Barrett cast Megan Fox as the appointed rescuer with a team of fellow badasses sent in to save some kidnapped schoolgirls from a vicious extremist group in an unnamed African nation. The unconvincing CGI lions and air of low-budget waywardness almost foiled the film, and Fox, trying to get gritty and de-glammed, didn’t convince despite offering a decent performance. As a whole, though, Rogue was a moderately engaging mixture of the ungainly and the likeable, trying to offer many of its characters moments to make them specific and empathetic, and sell itself as a message movie wrapped in a shoot-’em-up.

VFW

Joe Begos’ VFW was a similarly, self-consciously and happily trashy throwback B-movie, offering up a wonderful collection of aging but still potent genre movie faces including Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, and William Sadler, as a gang of war veterans hanging around one of the titular watering holes who find themselves fighting off an army of brain-dead addicts and punk gangsters. The official style guide was early period John Carpenter with George Romero gore and some nods to Neil Marshall as well, the story a bare-faced if honest rip-off of Assault on Precinct 13. The cast interacted well, including young ringer Sierra McCormick as the truculent cause of the battle who proves every bit as ornery as the old coots, and the film provided some solid, grimy fun. The directing was jittery and clumsy when it came to action, however, and the script was sketchy, lacking the kind of casual wit and feel for character its models wielded, so it didn’t add up to anything more than a fun-sick diversion.

Underwater

William Eubank’s Underwater, released early in the year after sitting on the shelf for a while, blended disaster and monster movie and tried, like VFW and a score of recent movies, to sustain something like traditional dramatic values whilst also playing out a high-pressure situational thriller, shearing off the first act and cutting to the chase. Eubank started with everything going to hell and followed his emergent heroes as they try to survive an attack by a Lovecraftian monstrosity on their deep-sea drilling structure. The film also tried something interesting in making Kristen Stewart’s hardy protagonist, schooled well by grief in struggling through terror and darkness, provide the undertone of emotional evanescence investing the story. The result was, again, watchable and modestly entertaining, and yet failed to develop any aspect of itself enough to really count, never really scary or exciting or engaging sufficiently with its characters, even Stewart’s, to make the film truly thrilling or memorable. Plus the elaborate but murky special effects were trying.

Color Out Of Space

Veteran genre freak and pariah Richard Stanley finally returned to feature directing a quarter-century after his infamous sacking from The Island of Dr. Moreau, with another tilt at adapting a classic sci-fi/horror story. This was H.P. Lovecraft’s already twice-filmed Color Out Of Space, the story of a small New England farming family, here recast from Lovecraft’s eccent yokels to very modern folk, unlucky enough to have an unnatural meteorite land on their farm and begin affecting flora, fauna, and themselves in increasingly disturbing fashion. Stanley made sure to present his story and sketch atmosphere with a thankfully old-fashioned approach as well as good-looking photography, whilst his reading of Lovecraft’s story tried to turn it into a barbed portrait of family identity and the cruelty of time and nature working upon it. His approach to the body horror aspect of the story was strongly indebted to John Carpenter’s The Thing, whilst trying for an appropriately disquieting new edge of intimacy. Despite real initial promise, however, Stanley lost control quite badly, the build-up to insanity breaking out spasmodic and unconvincing when it arrived, the horror derivative, and most frustratingly, the characterisations never cohered. Altogether the experience was largely depressing.

Tenet

Christopher Nolan tried and largely failed to revive the year’s cinema-going mojo when he decided to release his latest opus Tenet in theatres, and those who did see it were often mixed in their feelings. So of course I liked this crossbreed of action and sci-fi more than most of his films to date, appreciating his stabs at giving some urgency to his characters and their plights, in a tale of a secret organisation in the present day battling a mysterious cabal in the future who, per some of Nolan’s weapons-grade gobbledygook, send people and objects back in a reversed time flow with an ultimate aim to reverse-colonising the past. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson did fun work as the uneasily partnered heroes and Elizabeth Debicki was affecting as the wife of Kenneth Branagh’s vicious Russian arms dealer who has his own motives for aiding the future enemy. As usual for Nolan, however, the conceptual gymnastics eventually displaced the personal drama and his ham-fisted visual style often foiled the thrills.

The Midnight Sky

George Clooney offered The Midnight Sky, casting himself as a brilliant but emotionally distant and deathly ill astronomer residing in an Arctic research station. His theory that a newly discovered Jovian moon has life-supporting potential has just been confirmed by an exploratory mission, including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, and Kyle Chandler, now journeying back to Earth in their massive spaceship. But an unspecified apocalyptic event devastates the Earth, leaving polar regions temporarily untouched and the scientist marooned with a young girl who seems to have been accidentally left behind. The story counterpoints the two groups as the scientist and girl make a desperate journey across the Greenland wastes to reach a base with a large enough satellite dish to warn off the spacefarers, who have their own problems. Clooney set up an initially compelling set of situations and tried to weave a rarefied mood of blasted but lingering humanism, whilst offering some of his most visually accomplished filmmaking to date, including an excellent spacewalk sequence and ensuing crisis. None of that stopped the film proving an embarrassingly hackneyed disaster, with climactic revelations that reduced the whole film to a painful gimmick enabled with absurd coincidence, and themes illustrated with head-slapping obviousness. It’s the sort of movie that makes you hiss and shake your head for hours afterwards.

Emma

Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks and Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day In New York shared both a level of ardour for New York as a seat of wistful dreams and comforting alienation whilst confronting different stages in life, youthful floundering in the latter, middle-aged fear and aging regret in the former. Experienced music video director Autumn de Wilde made her feature debut by getting into the Jane Austen adaptation business with Emma because, well, apparently enough time had passed since the Gwyneth Paltrow version. 2020’s most employed new star Anya Taylor-Joy was cast as Austen’s self-satirising heroine, artful arranger of domestic bliss who must contend with her own perturbing love-life. De Wilde followed Whit Stillman’s example in adopting a highly affected style, complete with arch performances designed to mimic the crisply ordered flow of Austenian prose but instead locking into a frieze of affectation, a strategy I found initially very hard to take. The film began to work, that said, when it started to relax in its second half and allowed the characters and their reactions to deepen.

Ammonite

Francis Lee’s Ammonite was a radically different take on the period romance mode, and depicted an interesting and neglected female figure of history, in this case working class paleontological pioneer Mary Anning. Whilst many compared it to last year’s Portrait of a Woman on Fire really Ammonite was closer to faux-Mike Leigh, with Lee weaving a remarkably immediate sense of her windswept stomping grounds on the English coastline and the tight, tense world of regional life in the 19th century. But without much if anything to say about the interest that was the driving obsession of Anning’s life, Lee decided to invent a lesbian romance for her on the thinnest pretext so as to sell it to a current audience for PC brownie points. Said romance, between Kate Winslet’s dour, impenetrable impersonation and Saoirse Ronan as the grieving young mother she’s saddled with by her distractible nerd husband, was modestly engaging and sported a pivotal sex scene that was at least more realistic and less diagrammatic than many such recent set-pieces of queer passion. But the film still never penetrated Anning’s mind beyond the self-evident, indeed leaving her as mostly the same lugubrious bore it presented her as at the start, in the sort of narrative that wants to be celebratory and liberating but was actually subtly sexist.

Shirley

Josephine Decker’s Shirley united several aesthetic strands of the year’s cinema, blending biopic, semi-surrealist mind-bending, quasi-feminist cultural anthropology, and psychological narrative. The nominal focal point was the beloved master of discomforting fiction Shirley Jackson, incarnated by a tic-ridden Elisabeth Moss, contending with the tantalising disparity between the writer’s bizarre and fecund artistic sensibility and her life as a housebound, cripplingly neurotic wife to a minor teaching star in the midst of stolid academia. The film divested the couple of their real-life children and invented a young couple, all the better to filch from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, invited to lodge with them only to be manipulated and finally subsumed into the creative process and the cult of personality. Decker’s style grew high-handed very quickly, offering scene after scene of Sapphic-tinged witchypoo nonsense between Jackson and her young female protégé/victim filmed in excessive close-up, in a desperate attempt to create an unstable and ambiguous mood, even if the narrative ultimately boiled down to some trite and vague statements about the relationship between life and creativity. Michael Stuhlbarg as Jackson’s alternately insufferable and understanding mate was, when all was said and done, the best reason to watch; Moss, despite working really hard, was oddly wasted.

Capone

Josh Trank’s Capone, pitched as his comeback after the evil fate that befell his Fantastic Four, took a similar approach to the basic chore of the biopic. Trank tried to capture the state of mind of the legendary gangster in his last year by reproducing the garbled, ghost-filled perceptions of a brain eaten out by syphilis, with Capone desperately trying to hold on to his sanity long enough to aid his family and fend off a still-dogging government. Capone seemed to have everything going for it, with a major star in Tom Hardy tackling an inherently interesting historical figure. But the film was a squalid disaster, completely failing to make any element of its plot or strained stabs at emotional catharsis mean anything and wasting an excellent cast. Trank instead offered indigestible wads of fake Lynchian strangeness and corny CGI visions, and with Hardy chewing the scenery, furniture, and fellow actors with a flatly grotesque performance.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

By contrast Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 took a more traditional approach to recreating a historical moment and its antagonists, applying slick theatricality in invoking the heady days of the 1960s antiwar movement and the facetious prosecution of protest leaders to make them shoulder the blame for the riots around the 1968 Democratic Convention. Sorkin’s script took many liberties with events and characterisations, and his ultimate intellectual project, despite all the invited likenesses between the Nixon and Trump regimes and period and current activism, was actually looking at internal style conflicts on the left and the tension between Sorkin’s preferred brand of institutional-minded reformer and the boogeyman of genuine social rebels, obliging Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman to become his duelling puppets in this. Sorkin’s still a rather basic director in many ways and his primly loquacious politicking was almost amusingly wrong for dealing with the wild and shambolic energy of its topic, but his cross-cutting style helped keep things propulsive, with Frank Langella delivering a peach of a scary-funny performance the trial’s fossilised judge.

Incitement

Incitement saw Israeli director Yaron Zilberman dealing with a topic that must have taken some nerve to tackle, given the way it still echoes through Middle East politics: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a law student and fixated ultranationalist. The young killer’s journey to the fateful moment was charted with a rigorous sense of both psychological and political context, including the right-wing Rabbis who urged him on, and the political figures who benefited from the stoked, fervent deploring of Rabin’s peace moves. Zilberman’s intense, intimate handling and deft mixture of recreation and news footage helped make the time and place palpable, and the script was smart in contending with the tensions within the Israeli social make-up rarely noted by outsiders. Zilberman’s accusatory thesis set out to depict radicalisation as a process of intellectual seduction and mental colonisation from specialists in rhetoric who would like to create a certain outcome but not perform it themselves, relying on double-edged statements and seeking out amanuenses smart enough to join the dots and compelled by their own interior needs. This aspect gave Incitement relevance transcending the specifics of the story it tackles, even if perhaps its psychology was a bit too straightforward.

Mank

David Fincher returned for his first feature in six years with Mank, a biopic inevitably close to his heart, written as it was by his father Jack. Mank proposed to tell the story of screenwriter extraordinaire Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman. Fincher the elder’s script took the ever-controversial writing of Citizen Kane as a framing device but looked more to the acerbic and decent but also sadly alcoholic Mankiewicz’s immersion in the Hollywood of its day and his encounters with the plutocratic power of William Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, and others. The Finchers’ desire to “take the writer’s side,” as they had a character put it, had an honourable purpose in celebrating people often under the heel of old Hollywood’s hierarchy. But even putting aside the extremely debatable portrayal of Kane‘s development, I found the film was an intensely aggravating and ultimately dire experience for several reasons. The imitation of Kane‘s structure was scattershot, the script far too in love with its approximations of Mankiewicz’s Algonquin wit deployed in drawn-out but not terribly illuminating sequences, and yet never quite managed to be genuinely funny or ironic, littered with fudged facts and anachronisms. Fincher’s familiar tendency to foil his undoubted technical prowess with flat, fidgety visuals, trying desperately to look retro-classy, was rendered particularly trying by Erik Messerschmidt’s occasionally well-composed but too often drab-looking, blow-out-happy black-and-white photography. Only Amanda Seyfried’s excellent Marion Davies was a good reason to watch.

The Gentlemen

For a rather more interesting and bloodcurdling exploration of the connection between power and storytelling, Philippe Lacôte tried to explore the schismatic mind of post-colonial Africa in Night of the Kings through the fetid microcosm of a prison where ancient tribal rituals and strange social compacts reign, but the thrill of both individual and communal expression still has meaning. Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock tackled some similar ideas and images but in a more familiar context. Trying to earn back a little of his street cred after the cinematic autotune of Aladdin and the punishingly empty spectacle of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie returned again to his roots in the Cockney gangland flick with The Gentlemen. Matthew McConaughey was deftly cast as a transplanted ganja kingpin battling off both enemies and supposed friends long enough to sell his business, in a narrative that proved good as a black comedy-thriller and better as a free-form satire contending with Brexit-era Britain as a prospective haven for all kinds of scamps, ruled by a venal press, a waned and cashless aristocracy, and a shaken Pax Americana, spiced up with a deal of meta play. Neat performances, particularly from Michelle Dockery as McConaughey’s stiletto-clad, derringer wielding “Cockney Cleopatra,” helped a lot. As with all of Ritchie’s films the result was patchy in its levels of invention and wit and purveyed all at the same volume, but it had a droll and flavourful texture overall and sufficient jolts of seriousness when required.

She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow saw writer-director Amy Seimetz trying to dramatise a rarefied and difficult subject, the feeling of dread and despair in confronting mortality, in portraying a metastasising epidemic amongst a group of acquaintances who all become convinced, through some enigmatic influence, that they’re going to die the following day. The theme is certainly always worth tackling and indeed for some effectively represented the experience of 2020 in specific, but Seimitz’s chosen method was impenetrably pretentious and pseudo-experimental. Michel Franco’s New Order confronted straits just as nightmarish but with a far more immediate method, portraying a klepto-fascist regime taking control of Mexico using an underclass revolt as a pretext, with conclusions that were difficult to stomach but certainly valid in invoking pockets of recent world history. Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Bacurau played an inverse game in depicting determined resistance to fascistic thuggery in a Latin American context, this time Brazil, via a loopy semi-futuristic parable. Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers was an equally eccentric but likewise dug into the problem of retaining your autonomy and humanity, and indeed your life, in a country where corruption and political malfeasance are a way of life and even decent people can be forced to countenance dangerous acts.

Kajillionaire

Reigning queen of American indie oddball Miranda July presented Kajillionaire, an initially intriguing, bizarre tale depicting a drop-out couple and their androgynous, clever, but socially maladroit daughter, dedicated to living off the grid in the concrete forest of LA and subsisting through petty crimes and scams, or what the father calls “skimming.” Their tight-knit unit began disintegrating once another young woman comes into their orbit, slowly drawing the daughter towards something resembling normality. Parts of this were ingenious, like a central sequence where the gang invaded a dying old man’s house and found themselves pressganged into recreating familial sounds to help him pass on, fulfilling his need for the illusion of domesticity even as they parody it according to their distaste for such things. July’s point, the difficulty for children of nonconformist families to orientate themselves in the world at large, came through in the deliberate exaggeration, and the excellence of the cast, with Wood giving a witty, physical, quietly pathos-ridden performance and Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger both amusing and excruciating, did a lot to keep the movie going. Still, July’s eccentric flourishes felt contrived and artificial as often as they worked, and the characters never felt real enough for their plights, and affections, to convince.

The Nest

Sean Durkin’s The Nest played as a tonal and situational inversion of Kajillionaire and yet was preoccupied by the same ideas: the perversity of family and the illusory nature of prosperity versus the necessity of rooting in the world. Durkin cast Jude Law and Carrie Coon (both quite excellent) as a 1980s couple with two kids who move from the US back to the husband’s homeland in England so he can take a job in a share trading firm he used to work in. The family soon face a slow-tightening gyre of anxiety and anger as the husband, driven by personal demons, tries to push big deals that won’t come to fund his fantasy lifestyle victory, including renting a huge, creepy country house, whilst the rest become increasingly aware of their tenuous position. As with his Martha Marcy May Marlene but with less justification, Durkin blended what was ultimately a story preoccupied by material (and materialist) truths with stylistic flourishes borrowed from horror movies to build tension and dread, constantly suggesting a haunted house with miscuing visual flourishes only to reveal – gasp! – the only ghosts are in the characters’ heads. Such devices, as well as the more literal one involving a dead horse, got in the way of a drama that, whilst straining at points to indict aspirational entitlement and entrepreneurial smokescreens, had substance and needling accuracy in depicting mounting familial crisis, and the last shot captured exhausted catharsis and ceded power like the release of a breath held for nearly two hours.

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, despite its very different setting and style, told a not-so-dissimilar story in depicting characters taking too many risks to cut themselves off a slice of the capitalist dream. Reichardt told the story of two outsiders in a stretch of frontier forest somewhere in the American northwest in the early 1800s, who become friends and partners in commerce and find themselves a hit when one man’s talent for baking earns them the custom of people desperate for real cooking, only with the caveat that their successful wares depend upon milk taken at night from the one cow in the district, belonging to Toby Jones’ local bigwig. Reichardt avoided repeating ideas from Meek’s Cut-Off, her previous blend of deflated Western mythology and ultrarealist moodiness, and her calm, determinedly unhurried style drank in time and place, the visual exposition clean, some real elegance to the evocation of a constant edge of the absurd to life in such a place. The lead characters however remained flat and dull (despite Orion Lee’s class as one of the men, a well-travelled Chinese sailor), and the film took two hours to reach a predestined point, the upshot far too obvious. Reichardt is almost certainly the most talented of the ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers and yet she’s now butting against the limits of such a recessive, exterior style. Casting René Auberjonois in one of his last roles acknowledged the debt to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but the comparison with Altman’s jostling, fecund, detailed take on similar material wasn’t that flattering.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Kitty Green’s The Assistant and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always both dealt with very young women traversing the isolating climes of New York and contending with the dismaying spectre of systematic domination, the former depicting an aspiring producer working as a mogul’s tirelessly labouring factotum who begins to suspect her boss is exploiting women who come into his orbit, the latter tracking a teenage girl who sets out on an interstate odyssey to obtain an abortion in secret with her cousin’s aid. Green’s film was fascinatingly cryptic, totally submerging the viewer in a state of existence almost totally severed from any world beyond and where gravity bends to unseen masses. Hittman’s film was a more classical brand of indie-realist drama, detailing her characters’ travails with a painfully precise feel for the minutiae of such a venture. The film was strong as both a caustic portrait of a social issue and a vision of people who are barely adults trying to weather a waking nightmare. The characterisations were a bit sparse, however, hinting at mysteries and distresses motivating the central character left undeveloped, and the film’s urge to keep the screws on felt a bit forced.

Greed

Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela explored the grief and anger of a woman at the opposite end of life, coming to Portugal to confront her husband decades after he left her behind, and becoming ensconced in a community of fellow immigrants trapped in a zone on the fringes of society. Michael Winterbottom and Steven Coogan finally got back to work after several The Trip series to make Greed, a film that pointedly sports an act of bloody revolt by a young female employee against her creep boss, climaxing an occasionally biting (that’s a pun) satire. Coogan was customarily good as a fashion tycoon Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie on the build-up to his orgiastic 60th birthday party, with David Mitchell playing his official biographer who soon begins comprehending how much his business success is based on conartistry and exploitation. Greed was deliberately heavy-handed in mixing consciousness-raising fable and black comedy, but it settled for skimming the surface for the most part, despite nods to Barry Lyndon and Lindsay Anderson as points of inspiration, with the comedy not quite strong enough to compensate. Some great supporting performances from Isla Fisher as McCreadie’s symbiotic ex-wife and Shirley Henderson as his ancient but still-pithy Irish mother helped keep things bouncy.

Eurovison Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was a comedy with rather less on its mind, perhaps to its ultimate credit. Will Ferrell played another of his signature boy-man roles, this time a middle-aged loser from a small Icelandic town whose singular obsession with winning the eponymous music competition, forged after a transformative childhood glimpse of ABBA, distracts him from everything else, including the love of his talented performing partner, played by Rachel McAdams at her most ridiculously winning. When seemingly absurd fate allows them to actually make the contest, the duo are tested by temptation and their own seemingly endless capacity for self-sabotage. The storyline, even as a pretext for silliness, hit beats and covered ground Ferrell had already worn ragged. And yet Dobkin and the cast, also including Dan Stevens as a campy Russian star and Pierce Brosnan as Ferrell’s disappointed dad, put it across with enough conviction to make it work. The general high spirits and good-natured sensibility, where even the nominal villains were ultimately likeable, were a balm in a year filled with so many glum, mean movies. The lampoons of Eurovision fare also managed to be both affectionate and craftily dead-on.

12 Hour Shift

Brea Grant’s black comedy/thriller 12 Hour Shift offered another hellish workplace with indie horror star Angela Bettis smartly cast as Mandy, a life-battered, drug-addicted hospital nurse involved in a scam purloining organs from the recently deceased and who sometimes gives the dying a little push along to make the process run more smoothly. Her night on a double shift is made intolerably complicated when her dimwit living-Barbie in-law Regina (Chloe Farnworth), acting as her courier, loses the latest harvested kidney, and is pushed by their gangster connection to get a replacement on the pain of donating one herself. This sets in motion mounting chaos on the wards, with both women pushed to acts far beyond the pale. What made the film interesting was the way it charted a gyring sense of random and lethal abnormality with segues into both outright farce and straight genre film, whilst working coherently as a metaphor for the cynical headspace of its wired, overworked, grief-stunned antiheroine. Ultimately the film would have been better – even great – if it had been a bit more disciplined in terms of how far it pushed its cruelly absurd edge and stylistic quirks, as the script kept threatening to lose its grounding, particularly once Regina turned into an absurdly stupid killer. But the actors forced their characters to work, and as the film gained momentum it delivered some delightfully sick twists.

Performances Of Note

Rachel Brosnahan, I’m Your Woman
Emilia Clarke, Above Suspicion
Steve Coogan, Greed
Carrie Coon, The Nest
Gail Cronauer, The Vast of Night
Elizabeth Debicki, The Burnt Orange Heresy ; Tenet
Frankie Faison, I’m Your Woman
Chloe Farnworth, 12 Hour Shift
Sidney Flanagan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Julia Garner, The Assistant
Shirley Henderson, Greed
Rashida Jones, On The Rocks
Udo Kier, Bacurau
Frank Langella, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Jude Law, The Nest
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Elle Lorraine, Bad Hair
Rachel McAdams, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Matthew MacFadyen, The Assistant
Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night ; VFW
Bill Murray, On The Rocks
Naian González Norvind, New Order
Donald Sutherland, The Burnt Orange Heresy
Marisa Tomei, The King of Staten Island
Vitalina Varela, Vitalina Varela
Ensemble: The Gentlemen
Ensemble: Lovers Rock
Ensemble: Night of the Kings
Ensemble: A Rainy Day In New York
Ensemble: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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Favourite Films of 2020

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

In abstract this film threatened to be a dubious exercise in tabloid exploitation or a tinny talking-point drama a la last year’s crummy Bombshell: a tale of workplace abuse inspired by Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. The Weinstein figure was rendered here as an unnamed, unseen movie company executive whose shows of wrath and prerogative register through emails and phone calls like the tremors of the tyrannosaurus’ footfall in Jurassic Park. The situation was explored through the viewpoint of his young, still relatively green, hardworking assistant Jane, who in trying to pay her dues on the way to becoming a documentary producer, has the job of literally cleaning up the mess left by his casting couch adventures amongst myriad other duties beginning before dawn and ending at night. But Green’s feature debut did something very smart in tackling such subject matter. Green put the minutiae of Jane’s day front and centre with a sense of workaday routine perhaps derived from Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, unfolding in an office space where the sombre, intense atmosphere and the constant work has an embracing, almost homey mystique, one easy to imagine could sustain Jane through the gruelling and alienating entry-level days in the industry.

Except this was revealed with pitiless concision to conceal the constant knife-edge of threatened disruption lest the boss’s evil temper register, the parade of young lovelies waiting to go into the office perhaps just potential talent or willing supplicants or meal for a hungry ogre, whilst Jane’s submergence in her work at once makes her privy to signs of sleaziness but also allows her to retain an envelope of plausible deniability to let herself keep her job. The most frightening scene in any movie of the year came when Jane did finally work up the nerve to approach the company’s HR boss, beautifully played at maximum sucker-punch smarm by Matthew MacFadyen, only to have him fend off her concerns with expert soft bullying and then find everyone already knows about her foray when she returns to the office. The film relied on the audience to connect portrayed events with what we know about the Weinstein case, but what made it really worthwhile was the way that to a certain extent all that was rendered ambiguous, even supernal, to the exploration of the crushing weight of factotum solitude and powerlessness experienced by its heroine as only a slightly more urgent version of that experienced day in and day out by others like her.

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Bacurau (Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonca Filho)

Evoking the traditions of Latin American magic realism and its fascination with peculiar communities and fluxes of time and identity, as well as the Western movie genre, Bacurau can also be described a cleverly nasty inversion of familiar horror movie tropes. You know, those movies where hapless tourists stumble into malignant locales full of people, often in sleazy, degraded backwaters, and have to fight for survival. Here Dornelles and Filho define the people of a small, far-flung town out in the Brazilian boondocks as a collective defined by mutual trust and identity, a proud sense of both tradition and openness to the world in a movie set in the very near future. The droll early scenes depict the locals reacting to the death of a matriarch and the communal rejection of a patronising politician, tapping elements like the politician’s rolling campaign show for slyly deceptive comedy, came with sidelong hints of what’s coming as coffins are left scattered all over the road to town, empty at this point, and a teacher schooling local children is bemused when the town seems to vanish from online maps. Talk about cancel culture.

Those very communal strengths play a part in why they’re earmarked for eradication for reasons connected to local power structures whilst also equipping them to resist it. The actual agents of suppression are sourced, in a twist of sublime if incredibly harsh wit, through another potential future industry: murder tourism, bloodlusting internationals come to indulge lethal fantasies. The swerve towards ugly violence after the gentle absurdism of the first half serves a definite purpose as the racism and entitlement of the invaders is contrasted with the ordinariness of the locals, save the scattered criminals used to making their own impotent tilts at the world but who find their special talents needed to help the town fight back, the weirdness and wildness suddenly becoming weapons. It helped that the directors didn’t abandon their profoundly odd sense of humour even as war erupts, including an elderly couple whose choice of nakedness fools their opponents and also seems to contain some primal sensibility. Udo Kier, bringing the film cred in linking it to that horror movie tradition, was cunningly cast as the tour guide/assassin boss whose air of flinty command doesn’t quite conceal a bloodthirsty mania that gains the most fitting, and frightening, of comeuppances.

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I’m Your Woman (Julia Hart)

Last year Julia Hart’s Fast Color intrigued me with its blend of fantasy, fable, and dry realism, an unusual and interesting mixture that suggested where the superhero genre might find some artistic growth, foiled only by a rather too stringent budget and a poky tone. Hart’s return with I’m Your Woman wielded a similar interest in characters exiled both in the world and within themselves, and proved one of the year’s quietest successes in trying to present a feminist twist on the well-trod routes of the retro gangland drama. Rachel Brosnahan gave a terrific lead performance as Jean, the trophy wife to a gangster forced to go on the run with their mysteriously acquired adopted son for reasons she has no real understanding of, only slowly learning the truth whilst meanwhile forced to witness and do terrible things in the name of survival. Hart had to negotiate a dramatic difficulty in the central character’s blindsided passivity through much of the film – the gangster genre’s been beset by too many blankly reactive viewpoint characters in recent years.

Hart turned this into a dramatic strength in the space of bewilderment and hermetic detachment woven about Jean, her feelings of being at once deserted and besieged exacerbating her already confused and detached perspective on her existence, presented at the outset as a domestic fantasy, life in constant showroom readiness, wrapped in breathless plastic. Soon she’s on the road as the uneasy charge of one of her husband’s colleagues, a black man who barely knows more than her and proves to have a ruthless side despite seeming decent, and finds herself taken under the wing of his family, where she has to contend with the secrets compelling their assistance as well as try to find a way out of limbo. The mixture of character drama and tension had rigour, and if the film’s slight over-length did make me wonder what some 1940s noir-style on the story might have looked like, perhaps with a less naïve heroine and a pithier telling, ultimately Hart’s firm control and purpose paid off with several riveting suspense sequences. Most of these scenes were unusual, too, in dealing with characters who tend to stumble upon the results of others’ actions or get caught up in the furore. Jean’s breakdown in a Laundromat, swathed in sodden disco finery, was a marvellous vision of total pathos, precursor to the inevitable pivot as she matured into someone capable of protecting not only herself but others.

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Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

Part of a five-episode string of thematically related movies detailing black British life from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s, grouped under the heading Small Axe, Lovers Rock saw Steve McQueen doing something, on the surface at least, rather different to what he’s done to date in cinema, in choosing to depict joy and celebration. Stepping back from the kind of explicit portraits of psychological and social torment he purveyed in fare like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Year a Slave, and recovering from the sluggish disappointment of his commercial foray Widows, McQueen set about recreating, with a precise sense of both personal nostalgia and anthropological import, the sights and sounds of a house party in a black London neighbourhood circa 1979, from early scenes noting the DJs setting up and cooks preparing and young women choosing their battle dress, to giddy dance moves executed to “Kung Fu Fighting.” McQueen avoided inserting any traditional comic antics or big dramatic gestures to mythologise the event, or even nodding to any larger socio-political context beyond what he can grazingly suggest. Instead, he kept to his brief of simply watching people at a moment in time celebrating within the embrace of their fellows, a hermetic cultural experience at once in reaction to and ignorance of racism and incomprehension without.

In its way as maniacally focused and radical a piece of formalism as Hunger, Lovers Rock obliged the viewer to shift into a slightly different headspace to enjoy it. Some flashes of complication were introduced. A jolt of racist harassment from some white louts. A near-sexual assault by a pushy dandy, and the show of female solidarity that fends it off. One woman leaves in fear of intimacy, one tests out glimmerings of same-sex attraction, one seems to find the love of her life and rides off with him into the sunrise and beyond. But McQueen, to the point of risking patience at points, keeps his focus on the communal experience of dancing to music that invokes group identity, building to a rhapsodic eruption from the dance floor-lording young men, laced with political meaning as well as the insensate quality of authentic shared ecstasy, as the DJs play The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub,” suburban party suddenly become ancient rite of belonging and defiance, achieving the kind of mesmeric frenzy of body and mind so often sought and so rarely, truly gained. The coming of daylight brings the familiar flow of little, stinging insults and defeats but also the burgeoning of new hopes. Plus; given 2020’s feeling of isolation and besiegement, the film provided something close to a virtual reality simulator for the socially deprived.

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New Order (Michel Franco)

The bleak and unflinching flipside to Bacurau‘s prophecy of resisting exploitative power and oppression in a Latin American context, New Order ruthlessly charts its own socio-political thesis, proposing that very often the threat of class warfare usually finishes up benefiting reactionaries and opportunists far more than the masses, and illustrates it in truly effective ways. Disorientating flashes of revolt and totems of political transformation give way to a skittishly realistic portrait of economic disparity, as a former employee of a very rich family comes to ask to borrow money to help his sickly wife during a wedding party. The alternations of patronisation, outright rudeness, and actual charity from the good-nature bride amidst a show of dynastic ziplocking are pointed but believable, until purely by evil chance a revolution breaks out, people from the bottom of society climbing over fences and activating agents within.

Swiftian parable takes over: the military called into the streets to put down the revolt soon become agents of their own and their bosses’ enrichment, the rich are kidnapped and ransomed back to their families and the poor made to look responsible. Franco’s vision was by the end hard to take, but moved towards that end with remorseless energy and a vision of mounting horror brilliantly executed with a thriller’s tension, with its cruelly victimised heroine used in every way possible despite (and because) her being the most conscientious and likeable figure in the film, who finishes up in the deepest shit imaginable whilst setting out to do a good deed – not that staying within the castle walls would have spared her. Ghastly visions like a mass pansexual rape of the prisoners were mixed with a sourly detailed depiction of the nuts and bolts of repression under the guise of security, choking off easy communication and enabling disorientation, and concluding with brutish taciturnity with shots of the hangman’s ropes. Amidst all the phantoms of paranoia and appropriate anxiety thriving in 2020’s politics, New Order provided a cold reminder of what real tyranny looks like, provoking any sensible person to ask just what holds it off.

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Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)

Ivory Coast director Lacôte set his Night of the Kings in that country’s huge, forest-girded MACA prison, a community nominally controlled by the agents of the state but actually ruled over by an anointed kingpin whose command over the prison, in a pointed echo of old tribal law, depends on retaining his virility: when he gets too old or too sick he must die. Trying to fend off fate for one more day as he’s stricken by illness, the chieftain uses one technicality in his arsenal, appointing a young and naïve hoodlum just arrived in the prison to become the Roman or storyteller, tasked with telling the inmates a story through a long night with the Scheherazadian twist that if he finishes before dawn he’ll be put to death. The storyteller’s vigil becomes a communal theatrical event as the inmates invent dances and physically mimic the events he speaks of, whilst the storyteller himself tries desperately to synthesise his scanty and pathetic experiences as the lieutenant of a minor gang lord into a Homeric epic of national identity and magic-realist history.

Lacôte’s vision managed, in the course of a curt running time – it might well have been the only film of 2020 that could stand to be longer – to evoke both the specific cultural and historical experience of the Ivory Coast and the entire human experience of art as a communal event, people rearranging their minds and bodies to make sense of existence and the craving for narrative, for heroes, for psychic landscapes that knit the one into the whole, the spasms of interpretive dance and role-play the audience apply to the story giving it shared life and vitality. Tabloid violence and ancient myth bleed into each-other, the Roman connecting the contemporary folk hero with a suitably legendary backstory, so that the grimy and oppressive present gains the lustre of something deep-rooted. The young Roman’s night of testing is also an event with specific political purpose, an attempt to buy more time for a teetering regime, as lurking factions wait to invade the stage, including the watching, fraying eye of the armed yet besieged guards, one of whom finally shoots down into the arena to deliver random death, fending off, at least for another night, the moment where the jailed become masters.

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A Rainy Day in New York (Woody Allen) / On The Rocks (Sofia Coppola)

I’m counting these two together as connected evocations of a melancholically romantic New York, and whilst flawed they balanced each-other in gesture and impulse. Allen’s film loitered in fantasies of being young, rich, and free in his native city, at both his most off-hand and his most crisply directed and scripted in a long time. Coppola’s was a martini-dry deconstruction of fantasies both cinematic and personal, turning the tension between its relentlessly limited purview, in dealing with niggling psychic anxiety and uncertainty and the song of issues that seem long suppressed and yet need resolution, and the seemingly necessary largesse of cinematic expression, into its driving concern.

I didn’t expect Allen to deliver a film as blithely charming as A Rainy Day In New York at this point in his career, especially given that I’ve never been a fan, but it was the kind of sublime doodle late careers sometime offer, sporting ingenious comic performances from Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning as a mismatched young couple whose adventures in Manhattan provoke maturation and self-understanding, whilst contending with an array of farce trope characters and mood-piece havens. It’s the sort of movie an artist might only make when they’ve allowed themselves to relax on some fundamental level, simply existing within a way of seeing and feeling.

Coppola by contrast seemed to be in conflict with her own career to date, pulling apart the elements of her early signature success Lost In Translation and refashioning them in a more self-conscious and probing thesis, casting Bill Murray as an aging roué whose transgressions and failings are charted with a more precise sense of what they cost his daughter, played by Rashida Jones, even as his approach to life, laced in movie-fit postures, seems irresistible. If the key tension in artistically ambitious recent indie American cinema of late has been being sticking to a realm of low-key and hyper-realist authenticity at the expense of sacrificing bigger dreams and styles like weaning itself off a sugar rush, Coppola seemed to be trying to make this her very theme.

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The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)

An inventively crafted tribute to bygone dreams mediated by more modern insights and paranoias, The Vast of Night offered itself as a purported episode of some Twilight Zone-ish TV show from the black-and-white era, only to shift into full-colour, long-take, steadicam-enabled contemporary style. Two ordinary young people, the gabby, nerdy telephone operator Fay (Sierra McCormack) and the wannabe cool cat DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz), connect over a tape recorder test whilst walking through the streets of their small, flat, close-knit home town in the Texas boondocks, a certain arc of fledgling attraction manifesting in their shared status as people with minds flung out far beyond the city limits even as she spills her enthusiasms and he plays aloof hipster. They soon find themselves draw together more urgently as strange phenomena begin manifesting, weird signals on the wires, lights in the sky, and callers testifying to universe-reshaping events. Patterson underlined his fascination, bordering on fetishism, for backdated technology and the accompanying mystique of past entertainment – the fertile, deftly minimalist palette of radio drama and the threadbare expressionist sketches of early television, the savoured fervour stoked in a time when expressions of nerdy obsession had to await the mailman bringing a magazine packed full of mind-expanding concepts and thrilling wonder stories.

Patterson’s more blatant cinematic gimmicks, his unblinking takes and roving camerawork, doesn’t simply seek to offer impressive technique but actively work to maintain the same sense of dramatic intensity and unity that such models wielded. Patterson’s eye and ear for the place and time was genuinely admirable, his actors precise in nailing period mannerisms and speech patterns. Patterson alternated shows of camera dynamism, including an astounding travelling shot that seems to travel from one side of town to the other, with passages of deadpan minimalism, so neither felt strained. The key influence here was ultimately less Rod Serling or George Pal or even Steven Spielberg than David Lynch, quoting his estranged depictions of ‘50s small town environs with a destabilising event forcing the two protagonists to face hidden truths social, as one caller explores the racist use of African-Americans in cleaning up an apparent UFO crash, and historical, as an aged recluse recounts to them tales of such events going back to the Old West with an enigmatic influence at work. Amongst the many Lynch acolytes emerging this year, Patterson was the best because he used the influence most subtly. Only in his climax did he spurn his theatre-of-the-mind aesthetic and offer a glimpse of something straining for the startling and awesome but not quite landing it. Nonetheless his final shots reverted to a haunting tone and suggested the price for getting out of Nowheresville can be steep.

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Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

Given how many movies are made these days by directors who scarcely seem to have any concept of framing and staging, it’s a bit of a shock to watch a movie that consists of nothing less than perfectly crafted pictures, composed in depth and with care in lighting that turns a nominally gritty location and subject and location into the stuff of Renaissance art. The latest film from sporadic Portuguese director Pedro Costa unfolds in a dreamlike key, shot in a Portuguese shanty town filled with immigrants in a manner that makes it look like warren of menace out of a Val Lewton or Marcel Carne film, but the only ghosts and crimes are banal in scope, if never feeling so to those who have suffered them. The title character, played in neorealist fashion by a non-actor woman of the same name, arrives in Portugal from her home in Cape Verde to confront her dying husband, the man who abandoned her decades earlier, only to find he’s passed just before her arrival. Vitalina is left alone in his crumbling, sloppily-built house, eddying in a space of grief commingled with rage.

Costa’s films are known for their severe façades and themes of an unquiet past, mixed with empathy for the underclass. The film’s political undertow, meditating on the false quest for prosperity for immigrants, a siren song strong enough to sunder the most idyllic unions, meshes in a particularly lucid but unforced way with Vitalina’s experience, her own recollections of constructive partnership from the early days of her marriage contrasted with evidence of phthisic will and shrivelled personal passion, a contrast illustrated by two different houses. Costa richly humanises and endows palpable, even epic eminence upon his outsider protagonist, Vitalina granted the blazing-eyed stature of a Greek tragic heroine whose ancient wounds hurt no less for their age. She’s also tormented not simply for being left behind but because she’s fed herself on her hurt, her nursed grievance a source of strength and still-stinging bewilderment, frustrated that she cannot gain the confrontation and catharsis she deserved. Meanwhile she comes into contact with an aged, haggard priest consumed by his own lode of guilt and evil memory. Costa truly nails down the experience of grief, the aimless desire to wrestle with phantoms, the long nights of grinding, inchoate feeling, as well as the slow coming of healing, a process Vitalina forces along with customary rituals even when they seem utterly false. Some of Costa’s images, like Vitalina trying to seal up her roof during a storm, had a visual power barely seen in cinema since the heyday of expressionism.

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The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Corneliu Porumboiu is generally known for his dark, tough, stringent dramas about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The Whistlers was a sharp change of pace for him, insofar that it’s a dark, tough, off-beat, often funny post-genre film about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The plot had a uniquely clever point of departure, as Cristi, a corrupt policeman, is sent to the Canary Islands to learn from the locals their time-honoured art of communicating through whistling, so that he and his accomplices in a drug-dealing operation can communicate in a manner incomprehensible to surveillance. Along the way he’s thrown into the company of a beautiful femme fatale aptly named Gilda, forced to negotiate for their lives with clashing factions and dodge plots involving his confederates and even his own opportunist boss. Poromboiu had the gall to sell a bent cop enmeshed with some real scumbags as a protagonist on the understanding that in a bottomlessly corrupt society all bets are off.

Cristi is the hangdog embodiment of moral and mental exhaustion, the son of a former Communist party official who never benefited from his father’s dishonesty but everyone assumes he did anyway, left excruciatingly exposed when his mother finds his stash of illegal cash and gives it to the church. Porumboiu taps the constant experience of surveillance and intrusion for both dark humour and tension, in a film that walked the line between satire and straight-faced, sharp-edged crime drama, with evident political dimensions: his gang of dangerous and diversely motivated criminals becomes stand-ins for a dissident element. The early encounter between Cristi and Catrinel Marlon’s smoky beauty Gilda, which sees them forced to have sex to satisfy hidden cameras, is a quietly hilarious game of deception and misdirection through sexual illusion Brian De Palma might have been proud of, whilst the sarcastic nods to Western films throughout leads to a shoot-out in a movie set and a curtailed gunslinging match between the two major female characters. Eventually all the hero is left with is his new, peculiar language, but that proves to be the key to a happy ending where his one good deed gains a just reward.

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The Wild Goose Lake (Yi’nan Diao)

Like The Whistlers, The Wild Goose Lake used film noir conventions to anatomise a society in a moment of painful and dislocating transformation, in this case the grim and gritty zones of China’s developing but iniquitous cityscapes – Wuhan, no less – where money is the only motive that keeps its value but evanescent connections keep people tethered to each-other with a host of needling motives. The Wild Goose Lake certainly fits in with a plethora of excellent recent Chinese films with similar preoccupations. Director Yi’nan Diao’s vision was certainly its own, particular thing, however, utilising the traditional noir theme of a manhunt, following a strong but dim gangster from an outfit specialising in stealing motor scooters, who kills a cop after a battle with rivals in his own gang. When a large reward is put out for his capture by the barely competent local police force and seeing no real way out, he tries to remain free long enough to contrive a way of making sure the reward money can go to the wife he abandoned years earlier. He finds himself thrust into the company of a deadpan and enigmatic young prostitute, who describes herself as his wife’s friend and emissary.

Diao’s woozy, fluid style avoided some of the more outright surreal touches offered by the likes of Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan in their ventures down this mean street, and yet he painted the story with flashes of electric strangeness, from the hooker washing off the antihero’s jism from her hand in lake water, to a young woman providing a sideshow attraction as a disembodied head in a box, and a gang of policemen converging on a felled gangster whilst all wearing fluorescent shoes glowing hallucinatory in the night. Such sights not only gave the movie its punch-drunk texture but also effectively described Diao’s thesis about modern China as a place filled with human rubble and where life and death have a perverse, almost acausal rhythm. Moments of bleak and gnawing irony, like a union meeting voting to see who gets sacked from a factory that mimics the conclave of hoods assigning turf from earlier in the film, rubbed against episodes of black comedy and vivid physical action John Woo might have been proud of, including one astonishing moment involving a creatively used umbrella. Underlying all this was an authentically noir sense of blasted solitude and tenuous human connection, building to a final revelation about the prostitute’s motives that finally drew the film’s serpentine emotional landscape as well as plot together. Vied with Vitalina Varela as the best-shot film of the year, too.

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Added to 2020 Favourites List after 1/1/2021

To be announced

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Honourable Mention

12 Hour Shift (Brea Grant)
Incitement (Yaron Zilberman)
The Nest (Sean Durkin)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

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Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Bad Hair (Justin Simien)
The Burnt Orange Heresy (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (David Dobkin)
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
Greed (Michael Winterbottom)
Kajillionaire (Miranda July)
The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins)

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Disappointing and/or Overrated

Ammonite (Francis Lee)
Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Cathy Yan)
The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)
The King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow)
Mank (David Fincher)
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow)
Tenet (Christopher Nolan)
Shirley (Josephine Decker)

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Crap

Capone (Josh Trank)
The Midnight Sky (George Clooney)
Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)

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Unseen

∙ Another Round ∙ Bad Boys 4 Life ∙ Beanpole ∙ Bill and Ted Face the Music ∙ Black Bear ∙ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ∙ Butt Boy ∙ Cuties ∙ Deerskin ∙ Driveways ∙ The Father ∙ The Forty-Year-Old Version ∙ Fourteen ∙ Hillbilly Elegy ∙ The Hunt ∙ I Was at Home, But… ∙ I’m Thinking of Ending Things ∙ Let Them All Talk ∙ The Lodge ∙ Mangrove ∙ Martin Eden ∙ Minari ∙ Miss Juneteenth ∙ News of the World ∙ Nomadland ∙ The Old Guard ∙ The Personal History of David Copperfield ∙ Promising Young Woman ∙ Relic ∙ Saint Maud ∙ Soul ∙ Sound of Metal ∙ Swallow ∙ Tesla ∙ The Trip to Greece ∙ Tommaso ∙ True History of the Kelly Gang ∙ The Twentieth Century ∙ The Wolf House ∙ Wolfwalkers ∙

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The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2020

Deluge (Felix E. Feist)
I Married A Witch (Rene Clair)
On The Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
Phase IV (Saul Bass)
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini)

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In Memoriam

∙ Orson Bean ∙ Honor Blackman ∙ Chadwick Boseman ∙ Wilfred Brimley ∙ Tim Brooke-Taylor ∙ Earl Cameron ∙ Sean Connery ∙ Gene Corman ∙ Linda Cristal ∙ Abby Dalton ∙ Sonia Darrin ∙ Olivia de Havilland ∙ Brian Dennehy ∙ Kirk Douglas ∙ Mort Drucker ∙ Rhonda Fleming ∙ Derek Fowlds ∙ Stuart Gordon ∙ Buck Henry ∙ Ian Holm ∙ Terry Jones ∙ Hugh Keays-Byrne ∙ Shirley Knight ∙ John Le Carre ∙ Michael Lonsdale ∙ Vera Lynn ∙ Ennio Morricone ∙ Daria Nicolodi ∙ Geoffrey Palmer ∙ David Prowse ∙ Helen Reddy ∙ Carl Reiner ∙ Little Richard ∙ Diana Rigg ∙ Kenny Rogers ∙ John Saxon ∙ Joel Schumacher ∙ John Shrapnel ∙ Jerry Stiller ∙ Max von Sydow ∙ Stuart Whitman ∙ Fred Willard ∙ Barbara Windsor ∙

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2010s, Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak 2016

 

By Roderick Heath

Around the middle of this year, I found myself awake late at night watching the oldest films ever made on YouTube—that place where everything resides now, the whole memory of the technological age of art. I watched Thomas Edison’s first stuttering shorts with their subjects dancing or fighting or simply being, against depthless black backgrounds. It felt like an act of cabalism, looking beyond the fringe of living memory at people recalled from the dead, hovering in a void. By comparison the Lumiere brothers’ escape into the light and discovery of the world at large was like returning to the land of the living. What genius of the day it took to create such an art form. What genius lets me watch it today with a click of a button.

Around the same time, I went to a cinema to see Suicide Squad. The experience was an ordeal, from the film itself, a work that might have been fun but which had been rendered close to intolerable by poor editing and witless handling, to the multiple irritations of the screening itself–the overly dark picture, the teenage jerks in front of me insisting on filming part of the movie and uploading it to the vague interest of their friends. It was hard not to feel like I’d stumbled upon cinema’s death throes, done in by an age in which the idea of a movie has devolved into a series of delivery systems, feeding fragments of incoherent but striking information to be channelled into instant iconography, detached from any pleasure of narrative or shared experience. But by year’s end I had also had radically different filmgoing experiences: regardless of what I thought of the movies in question, I knew when sitting in the theatre with crowds watching the likes of Rogue One and La La Land that the communal dream of cinema is hardly dead. In fact, it might be more vital, in both senses of the word, than ever. 2016 has felt like a year of gearing for hard knocks and rude awakenings. But it’s also had its bright lagoons and blooming promises.


Rogue One

Make no mistake—2016 has been a rough year, that’s for sure. Cultural heroes have departed us with dismaying regularity, and the less said about certain political twists the better. Hollywood definitely hasn’t been immune. The US summer blockbuster season saw film after film ring big loud gongs both critically and at the box office, and the laziest assumptions of filmmaking’s Mecca seemed set to be ransacked right at a time when it can least afford it. Apart from Disney and its many octopoidal limbs, it’s hard to shake the feeling much of Hollywood has almost forgotten what its business is. But what seemed like a train-wreck in July steadily resolved instead into a phase of quiet strength and achievement and signs of a shifting pop zeitgeist; audiences hungry for fresher, sharper thrills have been gravitating towards mid-budget thrillers, and for attentive cinephiles there’s been a constant flow of fascinating, worthwhile movies. Which is, of course, not to say that the age of franchise filmmaking is at an end, not when Marvel and Lucasfilm are raking in cash hand over fist. We still want great sagas and epics. But we want them done well, and finally audiences seem to be voting with their feet more effectively.


Little Sister

Suitably, a certain battered, whatever-it-takes terseness has defined many protagonists this year, with most keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. The themes of besiegement, whether literal or spiritual or psychological, and of the fraught gathering of tribes only to find their axis has broken, have been obsessively touched upon. Following last year’s parade of collapsing systems, this year was all about getting through. A few mighty drama queens still made their presences felt, a la the damaged, frenetically needy mothers of the homecoming diptych Krisha and Little Sister, Ralph Fiennes’ gabby, sybaritic rogue in A Bigger Splash, and, more quietly but perhaps the most insistent of the lot, Toni Erdmann’s insinuating farceur father. But the year belonged more to the soldiers of extreme necessity, even in the year’s big, “fun” films. Roland Emmerich’s would-be throwback to ’90s pop jauntiness Independence Day: Resurgence, emphasised the damage and premature gravitas imbued by survival. The Star Wars franchise dug more deeply into the die-or-die grimness of the war film, offering up damaged and doomed heroes who finish up as backstory to someone else’s triumph. The very last scenes, a madcap, enthralling depiction of self-sacrifice whilst Darth Vader returned to his rightful place in the collective unconscious as emblem of marauding evil, came loaded with such symbolic and imagistic power that it seemed to capture something undefined about the year’s mood of dread. The Legend of Tarzan presented its never particularly talkative hero in battle with historical evil and deeply personal threat. Marvel came close to its finest moment in pitting its roguish gallery of heroes not against a great enemy but against each other, in Captain America: Civil War, which dramatized the very process of larkish venture shading into bleak and hateful interpersonal combat over deeply personal definitions of pain and history. The clash of titans in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice employed the same motif but with a different slant, presenting a battle of id and superego allowing ego to run rampant—a motif relevant in its own way. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room managed in a few quick, dense cinematic ideograms to sum up the extreme poles of political and civic discourse this year: idealistic but clueless hipsters, convinced a few blunt “fuck offs” to their enemies would dispel all opposition and carefully cultivate their dissident status, run headlong into potent, eagerly violent Nazis, whose downfall is that they’re not half as smart as they think they are.


Hell Or High Water

Tom Hanks’ eponymous hero of Sully was the epitome of the year’s heroes, a professional who brings utter cool and a cellular-level marriage of craft and intuition to a high-pressure situation, only visited with doubt under the scrutiny of a scourging public eye. Meanwhile the pilgrims of Paths of the Soul engaged in their arduous, infinitely repetitive journey to try to redeem the whole world. The couple at the heart of a pivot in law and culture in Loving stayed loyal and true in the midst of the world’s cacophony. Chris Pine’s heroes in The Finest Hours and Hell or High Water dealt with life’s storms with stern resolve, counterbalancing Ben Foster’s part in the latter, as the man who brings his own storms. Pine and his familiar compatriots of Star Trek Beyond couldn’t mourn their own defeat and the loss of their ship, instead forced to keep moving by any means possible to keep up the fight. The patriots of Anthropoid set out to kill a monster with the fixated nihilism of the intensely dedicated; those of Allied found themselves forced to question whether the profoundest loyalty is political or personal. The hero of Hacksaw Ridge endures ostracism, disdain, and finally war at its most savage without protection. Nat Turner offered himself as incantatory engine of revenge in The Birth of a Nation whilst Free State of Jones came under the domain of Matthew McConaughey’s glowing-eyed honky beneficence. Elle’s elegantly untraditional heroine refused to be reduced to victimhood, instead entrapping her rapist’s desire and perversity within her own until it is shrunken enough to conquer. The certain women of Certain Women coolly and patiently waited out the gnawing winters of the heart and the hapless Little Sister and her family fronted up to things that could be changed and things that couldn’t, its heroine fulfilling both sides of her titular role on the field of care and responsibility by any means on hand. The inhabitants of the Cemetery of Splendour contended with randomly cruel illnesses and multiple zones of reality. Amy Adams’ epitome of the human race in Arrival even had to put up with having her brain rewired and her future mapped out in excruciating detail, and learned to accept it.


Suicide Squad

Perhaps it’s apt that the western has been sputtering to life this year, evinced in Hell Or High Water, In a Valley of Violence, The Magnificent Seven, and Jane Got a Gun, being as it is a genre where hard-bitten, squinting antiheroes live wild and die free. Results differed. Hell or High Water, a Texas excursion for Scots director David Mackenzie, who has been making the sort of vexing films that illustrate the maxim “good is the enemy of great” for over a decade now, was a Peckinpah-esque exploration of the legacies of dispossession and violence past and present. The film struggled to find its feet with (sometimes literal) big signs announcing its themes and some familiar chestnuts of the Euro-director-goes-US mode, but the last half-hour sang with its eruptions of violence and genuinely ambivalent coda. In a Valley of Violence brought a similar blend of referential exactitude and shrewd dissection of the tropes of its chosen genre that defined Ti West’s earlier horror films, restaging the basic revenge drama in many a western as tale of mirroring misanthropy and brutal reckoning. The result was foiled only by West’s already familiar tendency to take refuge in formula when his ideas run out. Antoine Fuqua’s visit to the trail blazed by Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges occasionally caught the breeze of straightforward, cheery, bloodthirsty entertainment that once made the western so popular, giving Chris Pratt a death scene to die for. But Fuqua’s lead-footed filmmaking squelched any hope this film could live up to its models—that, and a fascinating refusal to engage with the same themes of class and race so important to those predecessors. Jane Got a Gun tried to bring a feminist tilt to the table, but failed to also offer an effective story or any pulse of excitement, playing out on all levels with strenuous inevitability. Suicide Squad was the grunge-tinted, contemporary variant on The Magnificent Seven, as a mob of variously low-rent, half-mad villains were pressganged to fight for…well, something or other. Whatever potential the film had was lost in a shit-storm of studio second-guessing and tired “fun” gimmickry.


Independence Day: Resurgence

Nonetheless, the superhero genre is definitely the modern-dress version of the western, following very similar templates—heroes with an edge over ordinary folk forced to answer their questions of the nature of justice and the meaning of community whilst fighting variations of the same essential moral dramas over and over. Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was met with merciless brickbats for trying to expand and deepen the superhero film’s palette. Whilst it did deserve some of the criticism, Snyder’s superior director’s cut restored heft and solidity, as well as a truly epic gravitas. And yet for all the huffing and puffing, the movie it wanted to be still only finally emerges in the last few fleeting minutes. Dawn of Justice isn’t the only one of this year’s whipping boys for which I found a little fondness. Independence Day: Resurgence was interminable when trying to outdo the original’s wholesale destruction porn, but curiously likeable elsewhere, particularly as it gave old pros Jeff Goldblum and Brent Spiner a chance to make me chuckle and offered Maika Monroe one of the year’s better action heroine roles. David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan was weighed down by an extremely lazy chase plot and a script that seemed determined to foil all its own impending climaxes. And yet Yates’ eye for epic filmmaking was evident, and his film offered an intelligently revisionist approach to its hero. Yates’ other film for the year, an extension of J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, renewed the franchise by backtracking. The result was at its best when simply having larkish fun and fell flat with the big picture game. Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was doomed to languish in its shadow as its frizz-haired auteur tried his hand at juvenile franchise cultivation. Burton couldn’t break out of the bland rhythms of slickly CGI-crusted Harry Potter wannabes, but his strong imagery, furtive understanding of adolescent proto-eroticism, and episodes of slyly nasty humour (like introducing Judi Dench only to feed her to a monster) made it a reasonably honourable discursion.


Star Trek Beyond

Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’ entry of the now rapidly expanding Star Wars mythos, was only serviceable on a dramatic level, but was jolted to life by the force of Edwards’ visuals and the sheer whatever-it-takes verve of his and his filmmaking team’s love of the material. Eternal rival Star Trek also had an entry this year: Star Trek Beyond was a similarly mixed bag but ranked as one of the year’s better FX blockbusters. The script, co-written by cast member Simon Pegg, actually understood how to pace and shape an adventure story and grasped the essence of the Trek brand, particularly as it pitched its heroes into amusingly generic Trekian locations. But it was also weighed down by a plot that bashed together concepts from the last four Trek films, including yet another quasi-terrorist villain with a grudge against the Federation. Justin Lin’s direction embodied the schism, drinking in scifi spectacle with an eye that easily dwarfed that of J.J. Abrams, but also offered jarringly hard-to-read action scenes. The film’s weak box office was undeserved but perhaps inevitable given how much air Abrams had let out of the tyre. X-Men: Apocalypse’s weak box office was, on the other hand, entirely deserved. Rarely has a once-noble franchise come to such an underpowered, apathetically written, acted, and directed turn, lumbering through the motions of killing off Magneto’s family yet again, and setting up Oscar Isaac as a villain of cosmic menace only to have him stand around waiting for the big gang-up finale—a sequence that did finally deliver some entertainment, but not sufficiently to redeem it. Marvel rival Doctor Strange was a splashy but entirely hacky entry in the superhero stakes from Scott Derrickson. The film was dotted with moments of cleverness, some vivid visuals and fun performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, but it foundered on its derivative and tony annexation of a more mystical wing of the Marvel realm, and failed that most basic of tests for this genre: it’s not in the slightest bit exciting. Tim Miller’s Deadpool, meanwhile, aimed at upending all familiar rules for this filmmaking mode, offering up a potty-mouthed antiheroic jerkwad as protagonist and making sport of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s self-seriousness. And yet it was the kind of curative that hurts more than the disease, a wad of collected internet memes passed off as antic cool.


The Neon Demon

Horror and thriller cinema proved extremely lively this year, benefiting from the disenchantment with the laborious parade of “big” movies. The second instalment of James Wan’s happily ridiculous The Conjuring series maintained the brand’s defining contrast between the loving, lively, generous impulses of its heroic, central married couple, and their line of work, which brings them into contact with forces of cosmic nihilism, this time around with a great supporting turn from Madison Wolfe as the victim of a demon’s possessive streak. Fede Alvarerz’s Don’t Breathe was a tolerable but trite and mechanical entry, depicting a home invasion with a nasty twist. Don’t Breathe desperately needed some of the hallucinatory gusto of the late Wes Craven’s similar The People Under the Stairs, but was faintly redeemed by its coal-black sarcasm in handling the idea of identity as fate—who could forget the turkey baster of doom? Jason Zada’s The Forest had an interesting setting, the “suicide” forest of Aokigahara by Mount Fuji, and a cool star, Natalie Dormer, but misused both in a half-hearted spookfest. Karyn Kusama bounced back from lacklustre blockbuster experiences to make the tense and smart The Invitation, which imagined the touchy-feely precepts of La La Land encounter culture as prelude to cathartic mass carnage. Perhaps the film I most anticipated this year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and it became conversely perhaps my biggest disappointment, though I still liked it in some ways. Refn’s craft, at once languorously aestheticized and patiently nasty, managed to tether together a raft of referential peccadilloes—classic Hollywood’s imperial egotisms and the mythology of its sacrificial young, the horny, id-welling chic of ’70s Euro-horror, the totemic force of Greek legend and the airy gloss of high-class consumer culture—into a heady stew replete with magnificent images. But it went on far, far too long and went down so many blind alleys before reaching its true reckoning that much of its minatory power evaporated.


Under The Shadow

Although more thriller than horror movie and technically really not even that, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals touched on similar territory to The Neon Demon in studying LA’s exalted spheres (and sharing cast member Jena Malone) counterpointed with harsh and menacing evocations of ambition falling foul of the nation’s dark heart. Ford evinced surprising gifts for generating suspense and envisioning pivots of horror to a degree that suggests he might eventually make a good noir director. But whereas Refn’s quotes of fashion art were satiric, Ford’s are merely displays of brand affectation, and his better work here dissolves amidst dumb ideas, like a pair of murdered bodies rhymed with a couple in bed, and a finale when revenge literally costs an eye for an eye, before the narrative cuts off in a place that reduces the whole affair to a sick joke. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow was similar to 2014’s The Bababook in portraying a mother’s claustrophobic haunting by a demon, set not in anodyne suburbia, but in Tehran during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war and its stifling, paranoid, reactionary zeitgeist: Anvari’s cool direction only occasionally let slip visions of strangeness, sustained an eerie mood right to the end, and held its own metaphorical inferences tightly leashed until nearly the end. Meanwhile, Robert Eggers’ The Witch gained plaudits as a horror film that took on the foundational struggles of European colonisation in America and its lingering credos. For myself, I’m still not sure how much I like it. Eggers’ eye is undoubtedly excellent, some of his images sear, and his sustained mood of dread was deeply effective. But the film’s supposedly radical tilt is actually pretty familiar for horror fans.


10 Cloverfield Lane

One of the year’s more surprising winners was Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, triangulating scifi and psychological thriller, sustaining a genuinely intense and unsettling note of dislocation and apocalyptic mystery until nearly the end, whilst maintaining a gloss of pop cinema fun. Terrific performances from the perpetually underrated John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead helped. And I can’t help but admit a little, sneaky enjoyment of one of the year’s bigger critical and commercial failures, Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a work that tried to combine Regency manners and Romero splatter with a certain clunky, goofy zest. Jeremy Saulnier, whose Blue Ruin didn’t quite live up to its hype for me even as it marked an interesting debut, returned with the superb Green Room, a film with a genuinely Carpenter-esque sense of efficiency and drive. On top of its political inferences, it’s a film that offers sympathy for everyone by the end and actually manages to restore some of the fear of death and mutilation to a genre that too often treats both as playful pyrotechnics. Kudos in particular to the late Anton Yelchin and the marvellous Imogen Poots.


The Jungle Book

Making account of this year’s bad and mediocre films does require some time and effort. Timur Bekmambetov’s remake of Ben-Hur broke my personal record for turning off a film, when its opening frames insisted on taking me to the start of the chariot race, with Morgan Freeman’s stentorian voice delivering nonsensical narration, and the actors playing Judah and Messalah swapping lines of dialogue with all the conviction of two high schoolers who get involved with theatre club to meet girls. Jack Huston, one of those actors, has been a promising talent, but probably won’t get another leading role until 2033. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was another fascinating example in how, if one can master certain arts of high-pressuring an audience through relentless use of editing and audio stunts, one can be taken as a genius even if the raw material of one’s art is tepid schlock. The climactic scene of a Chinese general explaining the plot by way of a supposedly casual encounter remembered/foreseen by its heroine was the stuff of broad lampooning, whilst the movie as a whole bested Interstellar for reducing the apparatus of cosmic awe to the meal of TV melodrama. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial hits, a real display of Disney’s regal force of production values. But although it was entertaining, there was something pleasantly trite about its glossy, photorealistic but essentially nondescript CGI animals, duly solid depiction of Rudyard Kipling’s fantasia, and half-hearted annexation of the 1964 film’s musical aspect. Also the attempts to beef up the mythic and heroic side of Kipling’s story proved awkward, as in the finale when young Mowgli, marked for death by intolerant Shere Khan for his kind’s carelessly destructive ways, proves his point by behaving in a carelessly destructive way—but he’s the hero, so it’s okay.


The BFG

Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War trod arduously through their mythic-heroic guff composed of utterly flavourless drama and purely rote, appropriated scenes. Even Steven Spielberg couldn’t entirely escape the air of enervation that hovered around so much of this stuff this year. Although his The BFG was clearly personal and intriguingly muted, it felt weirdly flimsy and miscalculated, a gigantic project couched in intimate whimsy that desperately lacked a meaty story and compelling, detailed characters. Whilst by no means bad, it stands as the director’s biggest bust since the not-so-dissimilar Hook. The year’s most disgraceful entry from a major director was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, a staggeringly bad romp through a fantasy realm carefully wrought to evoke the computer game it was based on whilst obeying no laws of aesthetics, physical logic, or storytelling sense. Far from legitimising such adaptations, Warcraft instead described just about everything wrong with modern filmmaking, from pulverising its good cast into a lump of indistinguishable blandness to failing utterly to convey any feel for fantasy cinema, offering something more like a gamer convention promo reel gone berserk. Paul Feig’s remake of Ghostbusters, meanwhile, became a cause celebre for all the wrong reasons. For all the hype and hate, the actual movie proved about as thrilling as a bucket of warm spit, a total failure of wit and invention sporting an array of tepid pseudo-improv comedy, weak heroes and villains, and empty, characterless special effects. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth did more for the film than it did for them. Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows started intriguingly as a gap-year take on Jaws with an emphasis on minimalist menace, promising a rock-solid thrill ride. But it quickly sank amidst clichés and contrivances before revealing itself as the most elaborate game of hot lava ever played, with added Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue appeal. Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen was the shit-smeared caboose of the long post-Die Hard action movie train.


Jason Bourne

J. Blakeson, whose debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, was so impressive a few years ago, returned at last, helming the eye-twistingly silly YA actioner The 5th Wave. The Divergent series went belly-up with the incident-free Allegiant, proving you can push the “let’s split the last book in two” adaptation process way too far. Tate Taylor, who at the moment is a serious candidate for the worst director in Hollywood, took on this year’s bestselling blockbuster adaptation, The Girl on the Train, and managed to waste Emily Blunt’s customarily good lead performance by shooting a supposedly creepy and intense thriller with all the propulsion and authority of a feminine hygiene commercial. There was some real bullshit amongst the year’s well-reviewed, classy fare too. Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship was Suicide Squad for people frustrated they never went to Oxford. Jeff Nichols’ first of two films for the year, Midnight Special, was an initially intriguing attempt to blend Nichols’ moody, big-things-happen-to-small-people motif first mooted on Take Shelter with tributes to ’80s Spielberg and Carpenter, but finished up boring me silly with its fuzzy, hole-ridden plot, unearned emotional ploys, and banal visualisations of the miraculous: the finale offered a magic, invisible city that looked disturbingly like the one in Tomorrowland, a place no one should have to return to. Rufus Norris’ London Road was an intriguing, radical-sounding project, adapted from a stage musical that used real interviews of the inhabitants of the title street where a serial killer lived as the libretto for its stuttering tunes, but the result was revealing only in how little such heavy lifting achieved. Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s return to profitable stomping grounds, Jason Bourne, had one fine set-piece, a chase staged in the midst of an Athens riot, but proved so listless and unoriginal as a whole that it didn’t just bore me, but also made me wonder if I’d actually enjoyed the earlier films in the series.


Down Under

Ben Stiller also tried to revive a beloved character engaged in international assassinations and conspiracy for Zoolander 2, and blimey if I didn’t get a few chuckles out of the resulting stew, even if it lacked the blindsiding nerve that made the original memorable, instead memorialising its own formula. On the other hand, Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army revived the loveable old TV show but expended a perfect cast on hoary shenanigans and made the canonical mistake of such revivals by imposing an unfunny major character and resulting new dynamics on the classic template. Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows exasperated me last year, returned with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a tribute to bygone days of New Zealand’s comic outlaw movies and the wider pantheon of ’80s genre film: here Waititi’s true chops emerged, adroitly mixing authentic sentiment and pop culture-inflected waggishness. Abe Forsyth’s Down Under took on a disturbing major event of recent Australian history, the ethnically charged 2005 Cronulla Riots, and offered shots of effectively weird humour, but its attempt to segue from broad, caricatured satire to violent, darkly telling parable was ultimately laboured. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man tried to mate hipster philosophical concerns—the nature of life and how to meet girls—with body humour, and got a surprisingly long way on that odd mixture, only to fall foul of a near-inevitable exhaustion of inspiration well before it ended. Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s Sausage Party tackled a similar mixture of authentically heady themes and raunchy humour and worked rather better, in part because as well as a spicy parable in favour of hedonism and against prescribed blinkering, it was also a much-needed burlesque of the now well-worn Pixar animation formula.


Paterson

Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was doomed to be cited as the kind of great nonspecial-effect-driven film everybody claims to want more of but then doesn’t go to see, as, in spite of its top-line cast and strong reviews and crowd-pleasing tilt, it bombed hard at the box office. For me, Black’s raucous blend of black humour and retro action was often great fun and enabled an array of terrific performances from stars familiar (Russell Crowe), maturing (Ryan Gosling), and fresh (Margaret Qualley, Angourie Rice, Yaya DaCosta). But it also played the same hand one or two times too many, and wasn’t always so sharp at telling its great ideas from the ordinary. Gosling also featured in the film that will probably win all of this year’s Oscars, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film that seeks to wrap its audience in a fervent recreation of musical aesthetics past whilst telling a mildly bittersweet tale about love going awry whilst careers catch fire. The pretty photography and Gosling’s chemistry with Emma Stone distracted from the fact it’s a neutered New York, New York (1977) knock-off that does precious little that’s genuinely creative or incisive, littered with utterly forgettable songs and choreography. Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle blended drollery and bloodletting but in a very different fashion to The Nice Guys, applying the fuzzily realist aesthetics of contemporary indie cinema to a Civil War-era tale of two brothers sent along different paths with the thesis that people back then were just as confused, listless, and hapless as we are today—only the tides pushing them around were stronger. Jim Jarmusch’s charming, ambling Paterson was an ode to creativity as a life-force for ordinary people, couched in typically timeless, oddball terms by its writer-director and littered with lovely performances. But as a whole I didn’t enjoy it as much as its immediate predecessor Only Lovers Left Alive, for whilst Jarmusch’s feel for neurasthenic cool is undeniable, I doubt he could find actual normality with a road map.


Don’t Think Twice

Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice was a film about comedy and the kinds of people who create it, exploring the tension between public artistic idealism and private expectation that eventually it had better start paying off: the film’s rueful portrait of the resulting crisis was affecting but never really proved as compelling, or funny, or insightful, as it wanted us to find it. Robert Edwards’ One More Time also depicted the pleasures and pains of a life in show business, offering Christopher Walken and Amber Heard a diverting if unmemorable vehicle as a waned crooner and his shambolic wannabe daughter. Two entries in the very familiar indie film subgenre depicting tense reunions of dysfunctional families gained strong plaudits this year. Zach Clark’s Little Sister was the lighter in spite of dealing with suicidal tendencies and gruesome disfigurement, whilst Trey Edward Shults’ stylistically harder-edged Krisha portrayed the fallout of addiction. Both films revolved around the impact of a self-destructive mother steeped in countercultural cool but now just a wash-up with ironically square kids (a theme also echoed in Toni Erdmann). Clark’s film offered rather too many cute ironies left insufficiently explored, and political themes that never came into focus beyond indicting the smugness of the bourgeois lefty style many felt the Trumpista victory was comeuppance for. But it had a fine touch for the ways people who love each other find ways both oblique and direct to make contact.


A Bigger Splash

Krisha, by contrast, came on strong but also blunt, laying on pathos and cinematic manipulation with a trowel, held together mostly by the deeply convincing portrait of fraying human will at its heart: its suggestion that some people can’t help laying waste to everything even when they don’t want to was fittingly cruel, but Shults’ tricky direction kept bad faith with the audience and struck one note for 80-odd minutes. Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash sprawled out with glorious energy and eccentric humour with underlying menace for its first two-thirds as it explored the lives of the variously careless and rapaciously sensual, but then, after segueing into a fateful act of violence, left itself painfully beached without any idea where to go next. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women was rapturously received by many. I liked it, although I can’t quite see what the big deal here is—stepping back from the genuinely original, cryptic indie-noir of Night Moves, Reichardt here offered a triptych of suggestive portraits where all the details feel as a carefully arranged as your grandmother’s crystal collection. Excellent performances and a great last 20 minutes did make the film worthy, however. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, on the other hand, gripped from the get-go with its enigmatic but almost physically exciting portrait of isolation within community, taking up a conceit similar to last year’s The Falling but more effectively, respecting the mystery it invoked but clearly understanding the unruly heart of youth.


Allied

Simon Stone’s The Daughter likewise revolved around the power and fragility of youth on the cusp, transposing Henryk Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to Tasmania’s drizzly heartland with respectable if sometimes heavy-footed results, swapping Ibsen’s cool tragedy for soap operatics on occasion, but retaining an architectural solidity. I preferred it all in all to the film that overshadowed it on Aussie award nights, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. That film was a big, bristling, very broad tribute to the clichés of war films past and a celebration of Gibson’s overwrought but curiously compulsive worldview, his happily boldfaced, confessional purging, his storytelling savvy, and his love of thrilling butchery—all peculiarly enjoyable when taken as pure theatre. Allied saw Robert Zemeckis similarly delving into classic movie lore with a less personal but more peculiar, intriguing bent, starting off with obvious touchstones—a spy romance set initially in Casablanca, of all places, replete with we-saw-Inglourious Basterds-isms—before turning into a darkly romantic portrait of marital distrust and sacrifice in the context of onerous official duty and collective paranoia, spiralling in towards intimate reckoning rather than explosive theatrics. It could well be Zemeckis’s best film, and certainly his determination to unmask the mobile orgy the war obliged might count as a historical duty. Another director who started, like Zemeckis, as a screenwriter in the heady days of New Wave Hollywood, is Terrence Malick. Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups, received an indifferent reception upon release early in the year. Understandable, I suppose—after all, it was just another magnificently shot, feverishly edited, astonishingly acted visionary confession-cum-tone-poem exploring a deeply personal zone of experience through a universalised lens.


Sully

As usual, the major yardstick for would-be seriousness in this year’s high-end fare was a basis in some suitable real-life tale. That most esteemed of Hollywood veterans, Clint Eastwood, returned with Sully, another study in the ambivalence of myth-making as backdrop to the reality of valour. Few films of recent years have been so efficient, so concerted, and even the somewhat overworked bureaucrat bashing aspect was kept contained by Eastwood’s complex yet entirely lucid assemblage. Meanwhile eternal try-hard Peter Berg released two based-on-a-true-story fob-jobs this year, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day. Deepwater Horizon was the only one I saw: bolstered by a strong supporting performance from Kurt Russell, who proved he still commands the screen like an ageing but still ornery beast of the veldt, this one built to an impressive but curiously, cumulatively pointless recreation of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Good thing dramatic niceties and a nick-of-time fade-out relieved the film of the responsibility of noting one of the worst environmental catastrophes of all time resulted from these events, which were all apparently the fault of nasty, weirdly accented John Malkovich. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was a similarly pumped-up take on recent headlines, inflating controversial events that cost the life of a US diplomat and military personnel as a kind of neo-Alamo, but at least Bay’s showmanship was sufficiently madcap to serve as an end in itself. Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, unlike Berg and Bay’s films, was not officially based on a true story but lightly fictionalised some familiar aspects of the War on Terror and its strange new battlefields into the texture of its drama for the purpose of introducing the audience to the simultaneously detached and nightmarishly intimate world of drone warfare. Whilst not quite wielding the same bleak and alien power, it could be counted as a modern-day take on something like Fail-Safe (1964) as a chamber drama of conscience versus necessity.


Miles Ahead

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa returned to the kind of preposterous yet fact-based story they cut their teeth on with I Love You, Phillip J. Morris in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film that offered Tina Fey and Martin Freeman welcome breaks from their more familiar parts, playing nerds transformed into wild cards in the midst of Afghanistan war reporting, but the film which could have been the MASH of the ’10s proved rather a few swear words away from being Private Benjamin instead. Natalie Portman had a much better time impersonating Jacqueline Kennedy and finding a lode of determination under her bob and Nob Hill accent in Jackie, the first of a superlative one-two punch from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, the other being Neruda, an inspired poetic twist on the usual hagiography. Don Cheadle suggested some real directorial chops in the snappy, colourful frames of Miles Ahead, a portrait-biography of Miles Davis, and Cheadle’s impersonation of the jazz great was suitably exact. But the facetious script eventually proved the opposite of Sully in that its showy structure led nowhere whilst its insights remained skin-deep. Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid, depicting the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the heroically futile battle for survival by his patriot killers, confused recreating scenes from generations of spy thrillers for noble filmmaking, and the results just serviceable. Mick Jackson’s Denial explored a moment of subtle but consequential import in the history of history, depicting the slow skewering of Holocaust denier David Irving, but David Hare’s script proved a textbook for study of now-familiar screenwriting tricks for this sort of thing—convenient conflict here! contrived misunderstanding there!—and Rachel Weisz’s annoyingly broad lead performance didn’t help matters. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert depicted the life of Gertrude Bell, architect of nations and fool of fortune. Although generally dismissed and dumped on the home viewing market, I found this one quietly rapturous in recreating the brand of stoic, yet often blindingly intense romanticism at the crux of war, peace, man, woman, east and west: only James Franco’s miscasting proved a drag.


Hidden Figures

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation looked set to be one of the films of the year, with director-star Parker receiving ovations at Sundance with his project which, in theory, sounded inspired—recounting the tale of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion and stealing the title of D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying epic, aiming to angry up the blood. But something went wrong: Parker’s dubious past became, perhaps unfairly, a sticking point for easy acceptance. More to the point, the film was a troubling chimera, with its best traits, a sense of moral torpor and lurking unease blooming into outright horror, owing too much to 12 Years a Slave (2013), and its lesser to a well-thumbed playbook of righteous avenger movies resolving in clumsily staged action scenes whilst suggesting, dismayingly, that laundered, manipulative history was the answer to the same. Jeff Nichols’ Loving ventured to explore the marrow-deep malignity of racist legacies and the challenge to it via the experiences of the so-aptly named Lovings and their consequential victory for marriage freedom in the late 1960s. Nichols’ feel for place and lifestyle was truly evocative here, but as it went along, the usual lapses of Nichols’ style manifested, particularly over-length, whilst the central, essential portrayal of the couple strained to celebrate them as quiet and decent but proved on closer inspection sentimentalised and vacant instead, offering plaster saints rather than real people, with the cumulative effect of locking all potential dramatic power in amber. Still, Ruth Negga, who also gave Warcraft its sole flicker of life, maintained dignity. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures played a more populist key in recounting the stories of black women mathematicians working for NASA in the early 1960s: there’s a more serious and memorable movie lurking somewhere within, but the one around it has its moments.


The Handmaiden

Radu Jude’s Aferim! trod a sneakier path towards a truer depiction of human absurdity and cruelty as it roamed around historical Romania, a place hovering on the threshold of modernity’s transformations whilst still subsisting in a medieval past, showing how we all learn to acquiesce to wrong and injustice when it’s painted as eternal truth and if our paycheque depends on it. Jacques Audiard’s Cannes winner from last year, Dheepan, finally surfaced this year in English-speaking markets. Audiard’s usually riveting gifts for blending raw sociology and dramatic daring with genre filmmaking proclivities here failed to fuse properly, but the result was still intriguing in its depiction of total personal and social dislocation and the peculiar malleability of identity, trying to wedge itself into the grey zone between Kafka and De Palma’s Scarface. Chan-Wook Park’s The Handmaiden, which appeared at this year’s festival, was much hailed as a lush and loopy transposition of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith to Korea in the 1930s. This was another one everyone seems to have loved but me: I find Park’s filmmaking, eager as it is to claim the mantle of great cinematic sensualists and impresarios, to be a big hollow gong, his themes announced in unmistakeable brass booms, his eroticism slick and cold even (or especially) when it’s trying to be celebratory. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s follow-up to her great Attenberg was Chevalier, a would-be droll parable lampooning male anxieties and power games with a hint of political inference: some of its arrows landed deep and true and some images were sharp and funny. But the film, like its characters, kept going long after it had forgotten what the point was, if there ever was one.


Toni Erdmann

Tsangari’s fellow Greek tyro Gyorgos Lanthimos made his English-language debut with The Lobster, one of the year’s arthouse hits. Offering a twisted exacerbation of contemporary life’s obsession with sex and coupling as a retro-futurist dystopia, Lanthimos mixed comedy, horror, even romanticism in his stylised, deliberately (?) stilted context. At its best, it was jarring and disturbing in confronting human nature, but on other levels it was also just an inflated Monty Python sketch, and I absorbed it more in dazed fascination than real enjoyment or deep contemplation. Meanwhile in Germany, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann found general acclaim blending chilly realism and deadpan absurdity in depicting a mischievous father trying to prod his grown daughter, a serf to corporate life, to make some needed displays of undisciplined behaviour. Although the film had its fitful comic coups, and in spite of a nearly three-hour running time, it remained evasive in its characterisations and hackneyed in its supposedly biting critique of high capitalist behaviour, dressing up what was essentially an inflated Neil Simon three-act in the full regalia of Euro-cinema provocation. By comparison with such fastidious quirk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour was so delicate and sublimely well-fashioned, it barely seemed to be there, and yet it accumulated like summer mist on leaves until the finest patina of brilliance appeared as it drifted through ages and states of being with wry and melancholy grace. Yang Zhang’s Paths of the Soul, the first mainland Chinese film to deal with Tibetan Buddhism, engaged in spiritual themes in a more worldly yet no less mesmeric fashion, lifting the spirits by studying the unyielding dedication of the truly faithful and its more secular celebration of teamwork and trust. Way over in France, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle proved a tour de force for the filmmaker even as he ceded so much of its intent and effect to star Isabelle Huppert, who responded by giving a performance made of vulcanised rubber. The harder she was hit, the faster and straighter she flew.

Performances of Note:

Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Luke Evans, High-Rise
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Taissa Farmiga, In A Valley of Violence
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Sienna Guillory, High-Rise
Tom Hanks, Sully
Amber Heard, One More Time
Royalty Hightower, The Fits
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon
Ruth Negga, Loving
Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Daughter
Chris Pine, The Finest Hours; Hell or High Water
Jenjira Pongpas, Cemetery of Splendour
Imogen Poots, Green Room
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie
Addison Timlin, Little Sister
John Travolta, In a Valley of Violence
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Madison Wolfe, The Conjuring 2
Odessa Young, The Daughter
Ensemble: Knight of Cups
Ensemble: Paterson
Ensemble: Paths of the Soul

Favourite Films of 2016

Aferim! (Radu Jude)

A blackly comic yet casually tragic journey through Romanian history, Aferim! viewed the past through black and white photography to present a remembrance that refused to offer monochrome morality, an attempt to diagnose national ills and deliver a finale that succeeds as sad pivot for a young man’s maturation and a study of the blend of arbitrary human constructs we call reality.

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul’s latest was nominally slighter and even less overtly fantastical compared to his earlier work, but his vision has arguably never been more lucid or imaginative. When so many films struggle to pinion us in our seats with vistas of soporific spectacle, Weerasethakul here evokes multiple planes and states of being with pure language of mouth and eye, and, like the hospital that is his film’s setting, provides an islet of enigma and contemplation in the midst of a modern world bellowing in our faces.

Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

Signalling that Verhoeven’s cinema has become cooler and more insidiously methodical in his late phase, Elle shows he’s lost none of his characteristic provocation, the taste of arsenic under the heady aroma of this stew. Isabelle Huppert’s effortlessly commanding performance is the linchpin of a study that both totally fulfils and makes ruthless sport of the cultural grail that is the Strong Female Character, portraying a heroine who refuses to be judged by anyone’s standards but her own.

The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)

Sparse, cryptic, finally ecstatic, an American descendent of such bastions of European social cinema as The 400 Blows and the Dardennes that nonetheless feels original, this study in a young black girl’s desire for acceptance and communal identity amidst a mysterious outbreak of paroxysms amongst a team of talented dancers provided one of the best portraits of inner-city life ever put on screen.

The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie)

Nobody but me seemed to like this, but I found this throwback to an old-fashioned kind of adventure film a tonic amongst so many lumbering, bludgeoning big movie misfires, unabashedly corny but heartfelt and ravishingly shot. With its populace of hearty seafarers and flinty New Englanders, it was like an old Saturday Evening Post cover brought to life, and more successfully Spielbergian than the real Spielberg film of this year.

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)

Straddling zones of horror, thriller, even western, Green Room quickly proved that Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier has his ear to the ground in ways I couldn’t anticipate, depicting the political schisms manifest this year in the manner of all great genre cinema—by enacting them at wild extremes. The result was hard, fast, and beautiful in the precision of its ugliness.

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)

A portrait of Western civilisation’s crack-up as viewed through a lens of retro perversion, High Rise is the companion piece to Green Room’s diagram of 2016’s grotesqueness, contemplating the breakdown of a human and technological system that lays bare the workings of the social organism and suggests the strange, hideous, thrilling things that might take place.

Jackie / Neruda (Pablo Larrain)

A tawdry wing of current prestige cinema, the week-in-the-life biopic, is annexed by Latin America’s most dynamic current talent and transformed into something thrilling in Jackie, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her President husband’s assassination. The result is intelligent, investigative, and pungently unsentimental in its portrait of both intense personal horror and grief, and the construction of political mythology. Meanwhile, companion piece Neruda more quietly but just as radically dissects the role of the artist in society. Both films encompass the process turning life into fiction and fiction into the template of a new reality.

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

Knight of Cups offered the third and least celebrated of Malick’s unofficial trilogy exploring the state of modern life, coming on like a natural force in the relentlessness of its images and associations, replete with wide-eyed good humour as well as tragic force and fatalistic awe in its consideration of the manifold ways of humans being. Someday, it will be counted as a great shame no one was interested when such filmmaking was still being made.

Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang)

The first Chinese film to deal with contemporary Buddhist faith blends documentary with gentle drama for a hypnotic experiential work depicting the quest of a small band of the faithful from a small Tibetan town who undertake a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, kowtowing all the way, for the sake of not just their own souls but the whole world. In a year of massive shows of wilful ignorance and collective sparring, this experience made me sad for wondering whether we are worth such dedication.

Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog)

Another dismissed artefact by an ageing auteur, Queen of the Desert set out to be the anti-Lawrence of Arabia in style and substance, its lensing immediate rather than grandiose, desert surveys dusty and grey rather than radiantly expansive, its depictions of people and cultures intimate rather than mythic. Apt, for a tale that envisions the life of its heroine Gertrude Bell as moments of fleeting grace and escape and the desert an ocean of peace but only a respite from civilisation’s perversities. The result is that most contradictory of propositions: a romantic Werner Herzog movie.

Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:

Silence (Martin Scorsese)

Runners-Up

Allied (Robert Zemeckis)
Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
Sully (Clint Eastwood)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)

Rough Gems & The Underrated

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)
Captain America: Civil War (Anthony & Joe Russo)
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Fences (Denzel Washington)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
In a Valley of Violence (Ti West)
Little Sister (Zach Clark)
The Lobster (Gyorgos Lanthimos)
Men Go To Battle (Zachary Treitz)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
Rogue One (Gareth Edwards)
Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin)

Disappointing, Overrated, & Underwhelming

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
Deadpool (Tim Miller)
Free State of Jones (Gary Ross)
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Passengers (Morten Tyldum)
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)

Crap

The Fifth Wave (J. Blakeson)
Ghostbusters (Paul Feig)
The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)

Not seen:

20th Century Women ∙ Captain Fantastic ∙ Christine ∙ Cosmos ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ Indignation ∙ Julieta ∙ Louder Than Bombs ∙ The Mermaid ∙ Neon Bull ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ The Treasure ∙ A War ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2016:

Bird of Paradise (King Vidor)
The Cat O’Nine Tails (Dario Argento)
The Edge of the World (Michael Powell)
A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinneman)
Marooned (John Sturges)
Nazarin / The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel)
Outrage (Ida Lupino)
Phantasm (Don Coscarelli)
Rapture (John Guillermin)
Road Games (Richard Franklin)
Rodan / Mothra (Ishiro Honda)
They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray)
Transylvania (Tony Gatlif)
The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman)
The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg)

Standard
2010s, Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak, 2014

moshka-3d-aviator-glasses

By Roderick Heath

Many times in 2014, I was tempted to throw my hands up and walk away from the year’s film scene. It seems to have been a pretty common feeling. The profitability of the film industry’s most exalted spheres have slumped, and the sense that the obsession gripping Hollywood for recycled product and well-milked cashcows might be choking the industry it at a time when people are all too willing to switch over to some other source of entertainment is becoming more convincing—not that it’s likely to spark any great sea change in Hollywood yet. Certainly a sense of diminishing returns was all too palpable in this year’s mass market cinema. Some have posited that the current economics of Hollywood have practically killed off the stream of mid-budget films aimed at adult audiences, though that strand had long been an endangered species: adults have long been very picky about what they go to see in a movie theatre. This year, I lost the last of my patience with Marvel and even Godzilla’s presence on the big screen couldn’t entirely please me.

Despite all that, 2014 has slowly accumulated good films like specks of gold in river sand until the year has proven doggedly, quietly impressive.

WeAreTheBest4
We Are the Best!

A lot of this year’s films have concerned themselves with creativity itself as a theme: the sources of it, the process of gaining the skill to express it, the worldly powers it gives those who master it, and the constant, dogging anxiety of doing right by it. We Are the Best! looked wistfully back to time most artists have gone through, when their impulses and characters demanded creative outlet long before they actually had the skills for doing so, when their spirits were at their purest. Damien Chazelle’s scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash posited the idea of the artist needing brute force to gain virtuosity. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood proposed that creative vision is the result of specific, often terrible, sometimes wonderful formative experiences. John Carney’s Begin Again and Jon Favreau’s Chef both suggested a fall is needed to rise again as a creative force. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook presented a heroine as a frustrated artist whose possible incipient psychosis might be a by-product of that potential creativity. Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur turned creative ownership into gender struggle, the wish-fulfilment side of much art turned around on itself in a bitter sex farce. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) portrayed an actor who had known the dizzy heights of Hollywood success trying to prove himself an artist in the face of a culture geared to poles of celebrity-obsessed admiration or antipathy. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner gave us a panoramic contextualisation for a boorish genius. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars portrayed creativity turned septic tank, the world of acting and celebrity having turned into stews of self-worship and pharaohlike, incestuous self-perpetuating discourse control. Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright, a film that failed resolutely to achieve any of its interesting goals, nonetheless also made the link between cathartic horror and creative success with a great climactic image, its heroine transformed into a stylised icon of trauma and triumph, splattered blood and theatrical make-up mixing on her face.

WillowCreek1
Willow Creek

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek depicts an exercise in self-mythologising fallen victim to the primal, unruly terrors that still inhabit our world. The Lego Movie made good sport of generations of popular mythology and then delved into the childhood roots of how we construct our own world views, and then how we adapt them to coexist with others. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys breezed through the familiar rags-to-riches-to-pain narrative of the showbiz flick to conclude that sometimes professionalism is a greater value than mere inspiration and that identity often trumps aspiration. The Fault in Our Stars tried to portray the moment when the intellectual awareness that art cannot contain life’s grief suddenly becomes all too immediate.

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Tracks

Some films took this thematic turf a step further and contemplated characters trying to create or recreate themselves, the creation of the self and life itself becoming art forms. The very notion of becoming, the processes that create us as individuals and as a collective and point us forward became a recurring concern. The alien temptress of Under the Skin felt the faint breezes of the humanity she gazed at uncomprehendingly, but finally became fatally trapped between worlds. The heroines of Wild and Tracks both sought to conquer distance to rebuild their damaged interiors. The eponymous Lucy of Luc Besson’s scifi action epic accidentally pushed onto a higher level of awareness and then willingly pushed herself to achieve the status of a god. The flailing hero of Locke, his life suddenly turning into a disastrous quagmire, struggled throughout to pull off a piece of managerial legerdemain that would write his commitment in the sky. The hapless heroine of Obvious Child converted the minutiae of her existence into her art, stand-up comedy, which then often affected her life, an ouroboros chain of creation and deflation. The bourgeois Los Angelinos of Coherence, many of them failed or flailing artists, are confronted by doppelgangers who might turn their own failings and self-hatreds upon themselves, and offers a heroine who quite literally tries to beat herself to death to grasp a better version of the same thing. Amy of Gone Girl tried to control her own life narrative through a dense mesh of art and action.

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Maleficent

As far as “big” movies go, this year has been trending lacklustre to rotten, riddled with overhyped, underwhelming fare as the current Hollywood ethos of sequels, remakes, and franchise service finally began to crack up under its own weight. Usually a film year offers two or three blockbusters deserving of appreciation, but this year, the fun and spectacle the genre offers have been remarkably lacking. Something like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla sounds far better as a think-piece article than it actually played as a movie, with its occasionally brilliant images foiled by a flimsy script. Guardians of the Galaxy, a pseudo-original hit for Marvel, spawned innumerable memes, most of them wittier and more entertaining than the spectacularly ordinary, lazily composed film. Maleficent, a promising concept in revisionist fairy-tale-telling from Disney, proved to be depressingly incompetent trash that couldn’t even be bothered to sustain a basic story and character logic. After feeling the strain throughout 2013, I also felt this year like I saw the comic book movie, the industry’s greatest money faucet at the moment as well as its stand-out cultural phenomenon, begin quietly dying. The depth of enthusiasm it can still wring from aficionados has started to feel forced and wilful, with minor tweaks and twists greeted like momentous events and competent films inflated into titans by sheer force of hype. What was once one of the best comic book series, the X-Men franchise, saw Bryan Singer returning to the helm on Days of Future Past, a work overloaded with promise and expectation that managed to piss just about all of it up against the wall, save for the great “Time in a Bottle” scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier provided a reasonably honourable attempt to bring the superhero genre down to earth and contextualise it amidst a semblance of real, contemporary evils, but still ended up a grab bag of random story elements and stodgy action. The unfortunate mess that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been generally recognised, though again I felt a little out of step as I found it a slight improvement on Marc Webb’s first, dolorous reboot; at least it had the minatory courage to shoot for romantic tragedy, something the gutless Marvel films couldn’t countenance.

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Exodus: Gods and Kings

Ironically, I found two of the most entertaining big-budget works of the year were throwbacks to bygone brand of spectacle, the biblical epic: Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Scott’s film sometimes played like a highlights reel from The Ten Commandments (1956), but Scott’s pernickety, critical scepticism gave it specificity and wove intelligently with the vistas and grandiosity, taking as its keynote the detail that “Israelite” means “he who wrestles God,” and keeping camp and earnestness in a healthy balance. Aronofsky’s was a different beast, more ambitious and cinematically lively than just about any other big movie of the year, if also more humourless in trying to forge new zones for mythopoeic inquiry. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s (probably) final entry in his Tolkien series, like Scott’s film, is all but a throwaway master class in big movie making, making sweeping use of the screen, reading action coherently, and packing even the most functional shots with visual lustre. The most hyped and discussed blockbuster this year was Christopher Nolan’s divisive Interstellar, another supremely ambitious work that saw Nolan trying simultaneously to earn the Kubrick comparisons he’s had heaped on him whilst also positioning himself as heir to Steven Spielberg as king of the Hollywood mythologists. He didn’t make it, with a script that ran the gamut from irritatingly pedantic to haplessly schmaltzy, took some blind alleys and a last act that didn’t work. Yet Interstellar was still an often-compelling experience that packed a sense of true wonder in both scientific theory and cinema, and signaled the widening outlook of movie scifi after decades of being reduced to mere action backdrop.

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The Lego Movie

One of the best major money-spinners from Hollywood this year was Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie, a zippy, hugely entertaining film that contained, in its building blocks, a sense of perspective on how children build their own worlds, a satirical streak that broadly and successfully lampooned many popular modern Hollywood narratives, and also more specific gags that occasionally cut deep: after its portrayal of Batman as an emo-jock jerk with a sideline in death metal music sporting lyrics like “Darkness!” and “No parents!” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take the character seriously again. One thing that 2014 has been a quietly terrific year for is the kind of trashy fare we’re not supposed to honour on best-of lists: I’ve created an honour roll for my preferences below.

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Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Not for the first time in cinema history and surely not for the last, it was interesting to see filmmakers from beyond the pale take on the sort of thing we used to expect from the Dream Factory and outdo it by degrees. Stephen Chow’s funny, frenetic, almost endlessly inventive Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons had zest and ingenuity enough for 10 films, as well as a lampooning streak that didn’t strain to seem urgently hip. Meanwhile Welsh expat turned Indonesian auteur Gareth Evans made the year’s best action film and crime epic by far in The Raid 2: Berandal. Evans will certainly hear the call from Hollywood soon, and part of me hopes he might spread his gospel from such a vantage, but another part of me wants him to stay where he is, creating tropical storms. Paul W.S. Anderson took a thankful time-out from those goddamned Resident Evil things to make Pompeii, a film that was crucified by many on release and a box office bomb, and yet became a quick fetish object for Anderson’s vulgar auteurist fans. Yes, it reminded me why I once thought him an interesting talent: the film’s clunky, clichéd sword-and-sandal first half gave way to a second half that was a sustained study in controlled, ebullient cinematic spectacle.

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Last Passenger

David Ayer, who gained some notice as a screenwriter and then as director, released two films this year, the fairly well-regarded and successful Fury, and the much-derided Sabotage. I greatly preferred Sabotage, a gamy, vicious, hard-driving revisionist western in cop garb that sported Olivia Williams and Mireille Enos’ in two impressive, blind-siding female performances—you know something’s weird when Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger counted as one of the best romantic pairings of the year. Fury, by contrast, tried a two-faced game in looking with unvarnished force at the inhuman side of war, and offered a marvellous centrepiece sequence that saw Yankee tank crewmen and two German women thrust together amidst rites of passage and stews of resentment. But then it retreated into a stale and incomprehensible celebration of comradeship that threw away the very point it had been making in favour of a clumsy, ill-conceived action finale. Jaume Collet-Serra, who has made some decent DVD shelf filler in the past, raised his game considerably with Non-Stop, an expertly developed pressure-cooker thriller that slipped into excess by its finale, but along the way used widescreen photography to conduce both claustrophobia and paranoia, expertly charting a drama that concerned not just Liam Neeson’s regulation damaged badass and his electric concerns, but also a small community roused from dozy distraction to group action. Even better was Omid Nooshin’s barely seen Last Passenger, a thriller similarly pitched at first on a level of near-subliminal menace amidst a drowsy romantic comedy, building into an urgent fight for survival with dashes of Spielberg’s Duel (1971), even if, again, Nooshin didn’t quite know how to end it.

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Cold in July

Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ attempt to revive his beloved TV show, proved a mixed, but mostly charming bag that provided solid evidence that social commentary and good humour don’t have be mutually exclusive and that Kristen Bell remains one of America’s wasted natural resources. I wasn’t so thrilled with Jeremy Saulnier’s much-hyped Blue Ruin, a very indie film that displayed some fine craft throughout but fizzled on both the levels of raw suspense and supposed critique of revenge-minded action films, many of which already essentially made the same points: if the movie really wanted to disassemble the genre’s usual presumptions, it might have started by making the villains less caricatured. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July was a similar mixture, more intriguing and pulling off some inspired perversions of expectation. Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed was excessively goofy and a little too determined to annex the Fast and Furious fans, yet it was the kind of formally strong, candy-coloured entertainment too rare this year, and benefited from an excellent cast having a ball. Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano sustained some strong sub-Brian De Palma staging and remained taut until almost the end, though, like too many films this year, failed to even try to come up with a convincing finish. The zippy efficiency and moodiness of these films to my mind showed up the pretences of some of the year’s more acclaimed genre-leaning films, including Bong Joon-ho’s okay but incredibly overblown Snowpiercer (save that schoolroom sequence, a black comedy apotheosis) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, a film that had no idea how to discipline the many impulses of its source material for effective cinema, leaning at different stages towards media satire, marital parable, thriller, and horror film, and doing none that well.

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Robocop

Similarly confused was Luc Besson’s Lucy, which toyed with some great mind-bending scifi ideas and confirmed Besson’s powerful sense of style hasn’t entirely abandoned him. But Besson’s lazy story development and perpetual B-movie presumptions foiled its potential. José Padilha’s remake of Robocop was a beggaring spectacle, lumbering where the original was fleet, obvious rather than sly, painfully literal and bogus-classy rather than disreputably ingenious. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow became a critical charity case after it bombed at the U.S. box office because it was a rare attempt in the current studio scene to forge something new, but it never had any clue what to do with its superficially clever storytelling and battery of reliable actors. Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was an odd duck, trundling into a tedious welter of contemporary action clichés, but along the way suggesting something more serious, contemplating its young hero’s confrontations with his mortality and first life-or-death struggle and patriotic duty shading into romantic conflict in a manner vaguely reminiscent of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Divergent was a The Hunger Games cash-in that moved in frustrating fits and starts, but proved ultimately more entertaining than any of the Hunger Games films have managed to be yet, with a less duly stoic heroine and some nice villainy from Kate Winslet. McG’s 3 Days to Kill was a sorry waste of talent, including the agreeably battered Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld playing the same part as she did in Begin Again, and Amber Heard cast as a potentially great character, a brilliant, ruthless, sexually adventurous hit woman who was then made to stand around and do absolutely nothing.

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White Bird in a Blizzard

The Expendables 3 continued that barely watchable series’ habit of casting an increasingly awesome array of leathery action greats and forcing them to mouth terrible dialogue and mow down cardboard villains. Machete Kills, which likewise cast Mel Gibson in what seems now to be his most appropriate role as charming asshole, was a slightly more enjoyable genre mockery, but signs are that between this and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it’s time for Robert Rodriguez to grow up. The latter at least featured a well-reviewed Eva Green, who was unleashed to great effect in an off-the-wall incarnation of thwarted passion in White Bird in a Blizzard, where she found the meeting point of Douglas Sirk character and J-horror ghoul, and also in 300: Rise of an Empire, the latter, a mildly entertaining, if often ponderous study in CGI action that offered one of the year’s most memorable movies images: Green’s Queen Artemisia kissing the lips of a prisoner’s severed head, a bold moment of far-out eroticism in the midst of a genre usually very busy sublimating it.

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The Sacrament

Amidst the growing school of independent fantastic cinema, Ti West, who had been shaping up as a major talent, turned in The Sacrament this year; tense and entertaining, it was nonetheless something of disappointment in resorting to the found-footage mode West had so effectively countered before, and skating over its not-quite recreation of Jonestown without penetrating beyond its studiously composed surface. Still, some sequences, like the lengthy one-shot portrait of a woman poisoning her brother, were powerful, and Gene Jones’ performance, alternately seductive, defensive, and imperial, was superlative. Two classy thrillers I was eager to see and ultimately severely disappointed by were Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. The former almost gave “old-fashioned” a bad name as it moved pokerfaced through potentially cracking, perverse material, and the latter crept glacially towards a preordained, cynical finale without locating its own dramatic heart, for all the good work by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams.

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The Quiet Ones

More sustained, and indeed one of the small gems of the year, was professional provocateur Bobcat Goldthwait’s restrained, smart, witty found-footage burlesque Willow Creek, which wove rich, satirical value contemplating various forms of mythologising and coupling whilst offering some quality scares, particularly in its signature, epic-length tent sequence. Hammer Studios’ revival continued to slip along unsteadily with John Pogue’s well-made, attractively cast, but rickety The Quiet Ones, a film that, like Blair Erickson’s The Banshee Chapter, mixed traditional horror filmmaking with found-footage touches to varying effect. The Banshee Chapter sustained interest by having a plot composed of an array of inspired connections and a defiantly Val Lewton-esque sense of minimalist scariness. The Irish horror film In Fear failed to keep me until the end, sadly. Surprisingly, the best-regarded horror film of the year has proven to be an Australian film, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, all the more remarkable considering the film’s quick trip in and out of movie theatres here. I must admit, however, that apart from Essie Davis’ sustained performance, it left me cold: the relentless showiness of the filmmaking couldn’t disguise that this is well-worn territory for horror fans, replete with neon-flashing metaphors, and the marvelous prop book that sets up the drama wrote a cheque the film couldn’t cash. Also, the characterisations, particularly of the hapless heroine’s son, kept changing according to what Kent wanted to do with a scene. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence was a fleet and entertaining mindbender, made for next to nothing and sustaining its “Twilight Zone”-esque plot with conceptual cleverness and a dash of enjoyably sarcastic commentary in offering a literal portrait of people who become their own worst enemies.

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The Monuments Men

Over in “serious” movie land, things have often been just as frustrating. George Clooney, who was so impressive with his first two features as director, reached an artistic nadir with The Monuments Men, a film that lurched from scene to scene with no sense of structure, tension, or character substance, only the most snivelling take on its cultural thesis, and a series of lazily tethered vignettes that added up to the one of the most galling moviegoing experiences I had in 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo were terrific as a pair of mutually exploiting rodents in Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal particularly offering an expert black comedy performance as a creep who shape-shifts into whatever he thinks the market wants of him. But the one-note script was far too pleased with itself, built to an utterly predictable “dark” climax signalled about an hour earlier, and cut no deeper as media satire than the average Kent Brockman report. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was for me a new departure for the director: whereas his take-it-or-leave-it directing style has been at least reliably on a level with his writing, this was the first time I’d been frustrated that his script couldn’t have been handled by a director with a half-ounce of taste and a real sense of the European tradition he was bastardising and trivialising. David Cronenberg, who had been on a roll, crashed to a halt with Maps to the Stars, a would-be devastating critique of modern Hollywood and American parenting. Cronenberg’s direction was poised in a way that only showed up the emptiness of the script, which did at least have a core idea with potential—the likening of modern Hollywood with ancient Egypt as a place where incest is the logical end-point of cordoned power and privilege. Yet the satirical points were dismayingly stale and smug: nutty actress celebrating a rivals’ misfortune and a self-help guru who’s a total asshole to his kids.

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Under the Skin

The year’s most unavoidable movie in terms of critical regard has been Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Boyhood’s stature derives entirely from the unique conceit behind its filming, having been shot in snatches across a 12-year period to chart young star Ellar Coltrane’s growth. This method is indeed affecting for allowing us to see actors age before our eyes, but as a work of dramaturgy, it’s a superficial achievement that fails to gain real entry into the psychology and viewpoint of its young hero (certainly not like Terrence Malick did with The Tree of Life), instead presenting a mass of vignettes and ironically being prevented by the niceties of that method to get up close to the poetry of becoming. Studying Ethan Hawke’s face and how much it’s changed since Joe Dante’s Explorers (1986; another greatly preferable study of childhood dreams giving way to adult realities), moved me more than young Mason’s growth into a vague and wooden avatar for just about every stubbly, arty, self-involved young man likely to make up the bulk of its audience. Yet the film offered up some excellent moments that rang painfully true, particularly Mason’s encounters with the various men, most of them his mother’s poor choices in mates, frustrated with his ever-intensifying individuality, making plays for power over him disguised as sagacious aid. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is another highly regarded work of the year, and I have more sympathy with it: the final scene was so good it almost urges me to put it on my best-of list, and yet I could never shake off the feeling that I was watching an exercise in music video aesthetics being stretched to a 90-minute film: so coolly confident when portraying utter alienness stalking social refuse in a desolate Glasgow, the film turned stodgy as it tried to reverse the perspective, as ornery, ordinary humanity can scarcely get past Glazer’s relentless aesthetic filter. Still, the film’s sense of atmosphere, the chill and cheerless Glaswegian streets and the wild surf and rain-smothered hills, were powerful in a manner that made the film’s contemplation of various forms of life stunted by circumstances urgent.

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Palo Alto

Gregg Araki, a filmmaker who shifted from enfant terrible to major artist nearly a decade ago with Mysterious Skin, returned with White Bird in a Blizzard, a jumpy, oddly curtailed film that nonetheless continues to nag at me, in Araki’s perfervid and often dreamlike blend of John Waters-esque camp and P. T. Anderson-like haunted nostalgia. The film’s animating murder mystery offered a thriller element less by pondering who murdered whom, but rather in contemplating whose aberrant and frustrated sexuality boiled over with destructive results, and how much Shailene Woodley’s young protagonist has inherited it, in a work pitched at the nexus of wistful coming-of-age tale, suburban tragedy, and punch-drunk satire. Gia Coppola’s debut film Palo Alto, an interesting if rather loosely structured adaptation of a book of short stories by James Franco, sometimes trod similar territory in portraying adolescence in affluent, distracted America as a no-man’s-land of experience. Franco’s much-mocked, yet dogged, directorial career threw up some intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful films, particularly Interior. Leather Bar., a pseudo-documentary exploration made with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews that rummaged through concepts of acting and the aesthetics of sexuality, whilst Franco’s solo work Child of God turned Cormac McCarthy’s arty gross-out novel into a portrait of utter human degradation that, by the end, may well have been reborn. Jean-Marc Valee’s Wild tried to bash Cheryl Strayed’s diffuse memoir of walking therapy into an epic of personal experience: the result swung wildly between clumsy devices and granola pseudo-philosophy, and yet often communicated a sense of life far more unruly than this sort of thing usually offers, and had the straight-up nerve to portray a heroine who was no angel. John Curran’s Tracks, a similar tale, chose a more distanced take, one that ought to have proven superior, and yet the evasive smugness of the film’s dramatic pitch somehow turned great adventure into tedious hike. Amma Assante’s Belle touched on fascinating history and personalities and offered Gugu Mbatha-Raw a star-making role she made the most of (see also Beyond the Lights), but proved filled with vapid characterisations and laborious speechifying on a level somewhere between romantic melodrama, historical consciousness-raiser, and Jane Austen fan bait, to the point where it almost became self-satire.

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Get On Up

As ever, biopics were a cash crop this year. Mr. Turner essayed the form with eccentric power and teeming detail, trying to capture an age and way of life as much as the prickly personality of the singular man who inhabits it. And yet somehow, somewhere, the film lost its own thread of enquiry, to the point where it seemed to be essentially ingeniously-composed rubbernecking. The Theory of Everything provided an utterly contrived and smoothed-over portrait of Stephen Hawking, exemplifying just about everything wrong with this contemporary brand of prestige lure. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys and Tate Taylor’s Get On Up were both showbiz biopics that gained less attention than expected. Both films kept their own theatricality in mind, making comedy out of the usual road-to-stardom stuff, and the vivacity of Get On Up’s early scenes suggested Taylor might redeem himself after the godawful The Help: the recreations of the flash and cool of a real cultural revolution were often superb. But whereas Eastwood’s sturdy sense of technique and emotional directness eventually helped his film locate a modicum of worldlywise catharsis, Taylor’s became cartoonish and ultimately formless: Chadwick Boseman worked his ass off playing James Brown, and yet never quite found what was going on behind those sharklike eyes, whereas Nelsan Ellis quietly stole the film as his long-suffering, less mercurial yet vital compadré Bobby Byrd. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Coincidence) likewise was essentially a showbiz farce constructed out of archetypes and received ideas posing as a grand and incisive tragicomedy, but redeemed by its sheer delight of technique and performance.

Film Review A Million Ways to Die in the West
A Million Ways to Die in the West

2014 was a weak year for comedy, but then again so are most years now. The controversial dumping of the Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle The Interview by an assailed Sony probably hasn’t cheated us of a classic of mirth, and yet the event as a whole suggested new truths about global culture with some galling and ridiculous ramifications. Few were particularly keen to see a film from Seth MacFarlane after his job hosting the Oscars, and his western parody A Million Ways to Die in the West proved frustratingly patchy and indecisive as to what kind of movie it was. Yet it was an intermittently enjoyable experience after all, a contemporary answer to Blazing Saddles (1974), just as undisciplined and tendentious, if much less consistently inspired, offering such random joys as the spectacle of Amanda Seyfried sucking on Neil Patrick Harris’ moustache, and Gilbert Gottfried’s wacko cameo as a fake Abraham Lincoln joyously announcing his newfound wealth to a bunch of oblivious schoolkids. On the other hand, the much-praised Obvious Child was, like its heroine, nowhere near as funny or radical as it wanted us to think it was. Jon Favreau’s likeably minor Chef had energy and a good-humoured take on the same story other films took deadly seriously this year, though its chief effect in the end was to make me hungry. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! was a gleefully energetic if rather shallow and sometimes nerve-trying paean to the joys of youth rebellion.

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Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)

2014 was at least a vintage year beyond the precincts of the Anglo-American zone. Little surprises and pleasures I was privileged to catch this year included a couple of fine Canadian films, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s mordant portrait in comedic existential angst Whitewash, featuring a drolly soulful Thomas Hayden Church, and the superior Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, both films unfolding like bleak fairytales in the midst of the woods. Out of France came one of my more frustratingly unseen films of the year, Jean-Luc Godard’s much-acclaimed Goodbye to Language. Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay (released abroad as The French Minister) was a divisive film, as some branded it a laboured Gallic version of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, but it was to me a lighter, much less one-note indictment than those satires, instead a deft comedy of manners that tried to comprehend the degree to which modern politics is a game of perpetual catch-up football enacted by people whose talents and follies coexist. Roman Polanski offered what was, to me, easily his most enjoyable and full-blooded film in a long time with the twisted role-playing satire Venus in Fur, setting Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner into a pas-de-deux of sexual and artistic gamesmanship. Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie was, by comparison, a good-looking but still-born study of an alienated young woman who finds…well, something or other in prostituting herself out. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, maker of 2011’s superlative Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, captured the Palme d’Or this year with Winter Sleep, an equally lengthy and intensive interrogation of the modes of petty tyranny and fear that too often consume and define life on the most everyday levels, unfolding like a good book but infused with genuine cinematic values. Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s spacy, intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfying odyssey across the Argentine pampas inferred history as a chasm people fall into and societies emerge from. Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water was a lustrously beautiful, if excessively diaphanous fable that told a not-dissimilar story to Boyhood, but with a far richer sense of social and natural connection, as well as a more specific sense of the fears and torments of growing up.

Performances of Note:

Agata Kulesza, Ida
Allison Pill, Snowpiercer
Brendan Gleeson, Calvary
Dakota Fanning, Night Moves
Don Johnson, Cold in July
Dorothy Atkinson, Mr. Turner
Dylan Moran, Calvary
Edward Norton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Emma Watson, Noah
Emmanuelle Seigner, Venus in Fur
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire; White Bird in a Blizzard
Gene Jones, The Sacrament
Golshifteh Farahani, My Sweet Pepper Land
Imogen Poots, Need for Speed
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant ; Inherent Vice
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Katia Winter, The Banshee Chapter
Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night; The Immigrant
Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Mireille Enos, Sabotage
Nelsan Ellis, Get On Up
Olivia Williams, Sabotage
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Russell Crowe, Noah
Shailene Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard
Thierry Lhermitte, Quai d’Orsay
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive; Snowpiercer
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Tom Hardy, Locke

Favourite Films of 2014

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

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Calvary wasn’t a perfect work, but it was a massif of ambitious drama that actually had something to say and said it well, simultaneously curious and sceptical, brutal and humane, extraordinarily funny and deeply sad. A titanic lead performance from Brendan Gleeson backed by excellent ensemble work helped give flesh to a film that delved into matters of faith and character and beyond, to study the failure of the most profound social bonds in the modern world, to try and honestly state both why the failure happened and also question what, if anything, might remake those bonds.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson)

Bilbo-Dwarves

A lot of pretenders have tried to claim the crown of the FX blockbuster king in recent years, and the sharp knives that greeted Peter Jackson’s final Tolkien entry suggests many are ready for a change of dynasty. But Jackson still does this sort of thing with a sense of gusto, fulsomeness, and an eye for beauty in unlikely places that makes most rivals look pathetic, particularly amongst this year’s big movie dross. Battle of the Five Armies stands tall in the Hobbit triptych: fun as they were, the first two often felt like theme park rides in Middle Earth, whereas here the final battle rams together every moving part in the story with consequence, and pays off with a pair of harshly beautiful death scenes carrying more tragic gravitas than just about anything else in the entire sextet. The spectacle of cross-purposes, naked greed, and swaggering arrogance from various self-appointed supermen who conspire to start a war also represented the most morally complex passage in the series, and the possibility of redemption through trial therefore more moving.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)

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I found myself cocking an eyebrow suspiciously at Ida, a continental excursion for a filmmaker who had previously been based in Britain. With its black-and-white photography, Holocaust themes, preciously framed shots, and general air of mournful seriousness, it seemed like something carefully pitched to be the perfect art film for pseuds. Yet under the film’s studied surface lay a fervently beating heart and a brilliant sense of character in a work attuned to cultural dislocation and flavourful in its evocation of the period. Pawlikowski’s style conveys the way life flows on, running roughshod over personal loss and horror, suggesting both why that’s inevitable and possibly even for the best, and also noting the good and bad reasons why some might choose to opt out altogether.

The Immigrant (James Gray)

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A tragic tale situated in real history but dusted with the lightest gilt of magic-realism, The Immigrant needed no gimmicks or stunts other than good filmmaking to tell its story, rising with a symphonic blend of intricacy and directness and represents one of the most concise and intelligible aesthetic constructions of recent years: The Immigrant withholds until its last shot, and then haunts for days afterwards. The sublime intelligence of Marion Cotillard’s bedeviled heroine and particularly Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured Caliban deserve great acclaim, but won’t get it.

My Sweet Pepper Land (Hiner Saleem)

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This oddball mix of folk tale, Fordian western, and Shakespearean romance, with a jigger of antic gallows humour, has gained little release and appreciation, and yet it’s stuck with me with more affection that many other films of the year. My Sweet Pepper Land resituated Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) in the wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan, portraying a young policeman’s entanglement with a victimised schoolteacher and a criminal potentate as a way of exploring the new frontiers of an ever-assailed nation and cultural tensions pulling the Middle East in the many directions all too clearly described by contemporary history.

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)

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I wasn’t sold on Kelly Reichardt’s lauded anti-western Meek’s Cut-Off (2010), but her follow-up Night Moves was accomplished in treading similar territory with a lighter foot and a less obvious sense of irony. A notable film talent emerged more completely. Depicting a trio of eco-terrorists driven to blow up a dam by various motives both political and personal, Reichardt, like Hiner Saleem, blended disparate genres, including war movie, murder mystery, horror film, and the jangled nerved thrillers of ‘70s cinema (including Arthur Penn’s great film of the same name) for the sake of depicting people and an age at a crossroads, the grey zone where commitment shades into hostility, idealism is subsumed by solipsism, and alienation realises that it is actually sociopathy.

Noah (Darren Aronofsky)

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Aronofsky’s startlingly odd, mammoth, misshapen revival of the biblical epic had chutzpah beyond the measure of any rival in big-budget cinema this year and an actual vision to purvey, daring to enrich a stark legend with conceptual weight and philosophical enquiry. See also Ridley Scott’s less thoughtful, but brilliantly staged Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)

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Jim Jarmusch’s best film in many years was a droll and opulent exploration of the bohemian creed through a twist on an old metaphor: vampirism. Tourism through the desolate grandeur of Detroit is equated with the intellectual journey of life and of romance through the ages, constantly changing expressive form and governing code but never the vital essence. The coda landed a blackly humorous rabbit punch in contemplating how sooner or later, everyone who looks at the stars has to acknowledge the gutter they’re in.

The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)

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Punctuated by thunderous, brilliantly staged and choreographed sequences of mayhem and martial artistry, Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his claustrophobic ass-kick classic from 2011 expanded his scope enormously, not entirely without some pacing problems, but finally creating a spectacle of motion matched to an expansive drama of gangland honour, offering everything from tragedy to farce and hazy poeticism.

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

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Note-perfect social realism and incisive ethics and psychology provide reminders just why the Dardenne brothers are so lauded, in a taut and thrilling tale that is also utterly believable. Marion Cotillard’s second great role of the year saw her inhabit an Everywoman without a trace of either star slumming or self-important art.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) / Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)

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I pair these films in part because Stranger by the Lake was a delayed 2013 film, which Marilyn Ferdinand reviewed back then, and because both are cool, bare-boned, almost mythic tales with a queer twist: Stranger by the Lake invoked primal rituals of mating and blood sacrifice in a landscape deliberately cordoned off from the modern world, whilst Vic + Flo Saw a Bear becomes a kind of fairy tale enacted by two aging, life-damaged lesbian partners threatened by a lurking demon from one woman’s past. Both films conclude with wrenching, brutal, yet oddly touching visions of people who just can’t live without love, even in the face of annihilation.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

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The Palme d’Or winner is over three hours long, driven by dialogue, and replete with silence and evocations of alienation–it’s like the art movie your mother warned you about. Yet Winter Sleep is patient rather than inflated, dense with detail and quietly motivated, taking its characters seriously but never over-indulging them. Ceylan analyses psychology and social context with a feel for how the two affect each other. Like Calvary, with more finesse, Ceylan uses a small town and its occupants to delve into the way so many of us create phantoms of our preoccupations, terrors, and preferred world views and inflict them on other people.

Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Runners-Up

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
Locke (Steven Knight)
Still the Water (Naomi Kawase)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki)
Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait)

Rough Gems & Underrated

Begin Again (John Carney)
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
Quai d’Orsay (aka The French Minister, Bertrand Tavernier)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Starred Up (David Mackenzie)

Roll of Genre Pleasures

Cold in July (Jim Mickle)
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Chi-kin Kwok)
Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin)
Need For Speed (Scott Waugh)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson)
Sabotage (David Ayer)
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas)

Overrated & Underwhelming

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Fury (David Ayres)
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
John Wick (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Tracks (John Curran)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)

Crap

3 Days to Kill (McG)
The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone)
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Robocop (José Padilha)
The Rover (David Michôd)

Not seen:

Bird People / The Blue Room / The Captive / Charlie’s Country / Child’s Pose / The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby / Force Majeure / Frank / A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night / Gloria / Goodbye to Language / The Guest / Horse Money / Ilo Ilo / In Bloom / It Felt Like Love / Joe / Land Ho! / Leviathan / Love Is Strange / Mommy / Norte, The End of History / Nymphomaniac / Pride / The Strange Little Cat / Stray Dogs / The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2014:

Baby Face Nelson / The Beguiled (Don Siegel)
Bell Book and Candle (Richard Quine)
The Big Night / Finger of Guilt (Joseph Losey)
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino)
Break of Day (Ken Hannam)
China Seas (Tay Garnett)
The Colossus of Rhodes (Sergio Leone)
Creature with the Atom Brain / The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake / Pier 5, Havana (Edward L. Cahn)
The Driller Killer / China Girl / The Addiction (Abel Ferrara)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse / The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio)
Faces (John Cassavetes)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava)
Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
The Horsemen / Black Sunday / Prophecy (John Frankenheimer)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Matango (Ishiro Honda)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)
Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak)
Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson)
Rabid / The Brood / Scanners (David Cronenberg)
Railroaded! / T-Men (Anthony Mann)
Seas Beneath / The Plough and the Stars / The Long Voyage Home / The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford)
Shaft / Shaft’s Big Score! (Gordon Parks)
The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves)
The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts)
Strangler of the Swamp (Frank Wisbar)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce)
Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon)
Une Femme est une Femme / Vivre Sa Vie / Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard)
The Uninvited (Lewis Allen)
Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow)
Woman Who Came Back (Walter Colmes)
Wyatt Earp (Lawrence Kasdan)

Scorecard: Best Films of the 2010s, Halfway Mark:

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

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Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak, 2013

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By Roderick Heath

We citizens of cinephilia live in a strange time. It’s perfectly possible to live completely insulated from the bustle of the weekly release schedule in theatres, video stores, and, increasingly, online, and settle in to survey the great sprawl of the medium’s history with more freedom and range than ever before. And it’s equally possible to do the opposite, and voraciously consume the new without a thought to the old, as the repositories of film history move online, where they need not stir even the moment’s interest they used to for the curious renter. Does either position constitute good citizenship in movie land? What is any art form without a sense of its past or an interest in its present and future?

2013 has been great year for film, and yet a lot of people wouldn’t ever know it—some don’t even want to know it. I can understand that to a degree. Super-sized studio movies rule our roost more than ever before, but even some of them still manage to hide in plain sight, qualities distorted and masked by their own gravitational fields. The current dominance of the blockbuster mentality, which tosses out everything from bright gems to massive turds, has not destroyed creative labour in the margins; indeed, in many ways, it seems to have created great metamorphic pressure on other zones of current film. But what’s the use of that if the audience has given up? Smaller films need the attention and support of critics and passionate viewers more than ever. Of course, when I say a great year for film, that doesn’t mean that it was all great. The one luxury of my position is that I don’t have to watch any old crap. But if 1939 is considered the greatest year for film because of the perhaps two dozen excellent works released at the time, then this year deserves at least some accolade on similar grounds. A different breed of rival, of course, a collage filled with oddballs, malcontents, misshapen beasts, a freaky longhair happening in contrast to the swanky old soirée.

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Upstream Color

Given how fast cultural dissemination happens now, the feeling one sometimes gets is that a film hasn’t really been seen, but rather one notes a network of received impressions and preformed judgements. 2013 has been a bonfire of the works of aging auteurs: Abbas Kiarostami, Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Sally Potter, Wong Kar-Wai, Ridley Scott, and more released new films, all of them interesting, some of them important, sparking enthusiasm in some circles, but disdain and belittling in many others (and with Martin Scorsese’s new work an exception that proves the rule, his having successfully become an institution). There’s often a point where the young imitators of notable artists gain more plaudits than the originals’ new works. For example, the dull and affected Ain’t Them Bodies Saints owed much to the shooting style of Malick’s ’70s films but had none of his originality in storytelling and structuring. Several of the year’s best-reviewed works come from directors who emerged in the 1990s—Spike Jonze (Her), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alexander Payne (Nebraska)—whom I’ve only warmed to in extremely varying degrees, if at all, but whose films undeniably works as catnip for many, as does that of Joel and Ethan Coen, spiritual godfathers of many of these filmmakers, who invoked the spirits of Americana again with Inside Llewyn Davis. Independent film in North America is definitely in a state of flux at the moment, finally seeming to have moved out of the hands of people trying to recreate the success of Reservoir Dogs or Little Miss Sunshine, and aesthetically at least that’s a good thing, as more adventurous and eccentrically ambitious work emerges like Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution, Stacie Passon’s Concussion, and many more.

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Goddess

2013 saw a minor upsurge for Australian film: I haven’t seen the big-ticket films of the year, the much-anticipated second film from indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen, Mystery Road, or the three-hour portmanteau based on the writing of Tim Winton, The Turning. But I did catch Ben Nott and Morgan O’Neill’s Drift, which was good-looking drivel, and Goddess, a surprisingly energetic and good-hearted, if rather thin and cliché-happy attempt to construct a populist Aussie musical but far superior to Wayne Blair’s slick but phony The Sapphires (which was released at the end of last year but gained international release in 2013). There was also The Great Gatsby, the most American of subjects, but an Aussie film to a surprising degree. As incontinent with images and ideas and trashy in its aesthetics as Baz Luhrmann’s films always are, it was nonetheless something close to a real film as it refused to embalm a classic, but rather tried to find narrative purity in aesthetic excess.

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The Place Beyond the Pines

In past years, I’ve sought out connecting themes and images between the many films of the year, that elusive sense of the communal mind and spirit as expressed by artists. There’s been a glut of movies looking hard at racial prejudice in the past and present, as ever an electric theme in the U.S. and particularly keen this year, expressed through works like 42, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, whilst black directors, who made several of these, also had a banner year. Likewise, a glut of films contended with endemic decay and the threat of violence in working class and regional enclaves: Prisoners, Out of the Furnace, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, hell, even The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, whilst, at the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale, the bandits of jejeune privilege in The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers went on the offensive.

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Captain Phillips

Some directors, including Shane Carruth, Danny Boyle, Peter Strickland, and Ben Wheatley, toyed with reinvigorating a mode of cinema based on extreme visual stylisation and recreations of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, as if on the verge of kicking off a new psychedelic era in cinema. Similar in mood though different in approach was Nicolas Winding Refn’s much-abused but potent and hypnotic dream-movie Only God Forgives. Films based on true stories were all over the place: The Bling Ring, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Lone Survivor, Eden, The Wolf of Wall Street, Lovelace, Fruitvale Station, The Butler, Behind the Candelabra, No, A Hijacking, Beyond the Hills, etc., ad nauseum. The endemic hunt for a sense of truthfulness, of ripped-from-the-headlines veracity and RELEVANCE! some of these works display began to bother me after a while, as I commenced to ponder if this borrowed finery didn’t retard the creative insight of some artists. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, for instance, had the instincts of a blisteringly funny satire somewhere inside it but was oppressed by its own sheen of detached authenticity, whilst works like Captain Phillips and Lone Survivor seem at least superficially to present experiential studies rather than interpretive narratives, an approach that makes in their context of their stories, for gripping movies that raise perturbing questions as to what truths are being left out. On the other hand, a film like No readily displayed the epiphanies an attentive attitude to recreating familiar fact can generate, whilst American Hustle improvised freely on its chosen tale but sought no insight beyond pop sentimentality.

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A Hijacking

Another stream apparent in the year’s works is the attempts by filmmakers to grasp and pull apart their material on a systemic level, tracing cause and effect through layers of narrative and time. Some were happy to do this in regards to film construction and narrative itself, apparent in movies like Resolution, Berberian Sound Studio, Computer Chess, Trance, or Museum Hours, in which the very structure of the film itself is toyed with to examine the way we’re relating to it whilst watching it. Others turned a structuralist sensibility on their material, whether it be in mechanics, like the Rube Goldberg-like narrative form of Gravity, the anatomised drug trade and show-and-tell plot of The Counselor, studies in situational dynamics like A Hijacking, the elaborate biological tag game of Upstream Colour, the genes and generational events, as in Stoker or The Place Beyond the Pines, and interpersonal relationships, like Blue Is the Warmest Colour. It’s not so surprising that in the wake of financial crisis and political turmoil, the desire to dig down and comprehend phenomena on a more complete level is apparent in such works and for artists to engage the growing canniness of the audience regarding how narrative and other systems work. British films shared this interest in cycles of behaviour in antiheroic characters, marked in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End and Danny Boyle’s Trance. Characters at the mercy of cruel fate, and cruel overlords and companions, likewise litter the screens: the most striking scene in Wheatley’s peculiar A Field in England had a man, just tortured into compliance with an evil alchemist, emerging from a tent in slow motion with a beaming rigid smile on his face, the sickly image of Orwellian slavery as freedom, and therefore one of the most politically interesting scenes of the year.

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Oz the Great and Powerful

Similar notes flowed through Man of Steel, as Zod kills, tortures, and annihilates in the name of patriotism and then chucks a super-nihilistic hissy fit when someone disagrees with his method, a moment that called to mind the similar all-or-nothing stances by conservative politicians all around the world in the past year or so. There was a peculiar conceptual similarity to Man of Steel in Wong Kar-Wai’s staggering comeback The Grandmaster: both took well-known stories of beloved folk heroes and refracted them to emphasise the violence, disconnection, and lost pasts that defined them, filtered through islets of almost hallucinogenic imagery. Star Trek: Into Darkness undermined the moral presumptions of a cosy scifi franchise, with villains both official and rebellious variously war-mongering or entrapped, and heroes wrenched into new realms of unfamiliarly ferocious behaviour by the loss of friends and mentors. False and corrupt regimes recurred throughout many films, even in ones as playful as Iron Man 3 and Oz the Great and Powerful. State and criminal elements stalked each other into a bloodbath in Drug War, with a grotesque scene halfway through in which a criminal forces a cop posing as a drug dealer to take life-threatening amounts of his own product, another act of cruelty that again must be met with a smile, whilst the very conclusion offers the bleakly doubled-edged spectacle of a criminal pleading to his last breath for a way out until machinery he’s been trying to stymie since the opening inevitably ends his life.

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Only God Forgives

The beleaguered people of Upstream Color were united by abuse and intestinal instinct, but finally rejoined the natural world. Similarly concerned with returning to the earth were Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, following last year’s impressive Sound of My Voice with The East, an attempt to create a thoughtful but more conventional thriller that finished up sadly overcooked. But it was fascinating in trying to dramatize a new, literal resistance to the modern world by creating a world within that world with its specific rituals and motives bordering on the cabalistic. The sad girls of Beyond the Hills had their lives repeatedly corralled and ruined by institutionalisation; the lead victim of Eden had to become conspirator and participant in slavery to survive. The essential drama of Only God Forgives accepted the familiar moral exigencies of noir melodrama and yet undermined them with a vision of sin and redemption enacted through the most gruellingly corporeal means, dragging back the ideas of justice and order a couple of thousand years to their primal roots. Two films that danced about each other like conjoined twins were Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, both of which dealt with the same essential matter but in divergent terms, one a scrupulously realistic but nightmarishly personal experience where the passion of victim and power-holder was clear, and the other a study in removed perspectives, men inflated to godlike status or reduced to insects according to their use not just of guns but words, technology, money, and time.

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Warm Bodies

On the other hand, films motivated by a sheer, unironic (but not necessarily oblivious) love of medium and story still crop up now and then, evinced by the expansive, if rather differing pleasures of films like Pacific Rim or Blancanieves. It was a pretty good year for unalloyed fun at the movies. Two major critical flops there were also big-budget fantasy films were, I found, rather cheery. Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer, which was also a big fiscal flop, was surprisingly old-fashioned, and starred Nicholas Hoult, who was also agreeable in the lightweight zombie romance Warm Bodies. Sam Raimi ran the risk of despoiling an eternal critics’ favourite with a defiantly Sam Raimi-ish take on L. Frank Baum in Oz the Great and Powerful, enjoying the showbiz bluster and protean sexuality he finds behind the curtain of the classic family yarn. Neil Jordan’s vampire film Byzantium was deeply problematic, and yet I’ve wrestled very hard with whether to include it on my favourites list, with its moments of original brilliance and intensity of imagery arguing in its favor.

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Oblivion

Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion was eye candy of the first order and stirred me for at least trying to be real scifi, but it could not overcome its wearyingly derivative script. The cumulative effect of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World was to finally sour me on the Marvel franchise, with two loosely cobbled-together pseudo-stories laced with entertaining but unconnected moments, proving this realm has no serious place to go after The Avengers. The death of Paul Walker was a tragic coda to his singular success as an actor in the Fast and the Furious series, which racked up its sixth instalment earlier in the year and lodged it firmly in place in the pantheon of gleefully absurd entertainment. Certainly Furious 6 was more successful in recreating the yahoo fun factor of ’80s action drama in its own meathead way than the year’s several studied attempts at same, like Iron Man 3, The Expendables 2, and The Last Stand. J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness failed interestingly to dislodge its early ’80s precursor, though the new film was excessively abused for being a zippy, probing, if modishly conventional adventure movie that chiefly lacked the mythic aspect of its model. The actual, absolute bottom of the barrel for easy comparison was John Moore’s degradation of a once-great series with the turgid A Good Day to Die Hard. You can’t go back to Nakatomi Plaza again. Or to 1953 again. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger sparked some defences from some critical quarters after its box office failure, but this was one time I had to stand with the consensus: the film’s general mix of by-rote Bruckheimer pizzazz, Verbinski’s dull and clumsy idea of slapstick action, general story incoherence, and the film’s aberrantly evasive and stupid approach to its revisionism, made for a singularly trying film. It was an action-comedy that wasn’t exciting or funny.

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Stoker

Of course, I have my list of the overhyped and the underwhelming. Some of those films have me more intrigued than others at this point, particularly the ones that came close to being very good. The World’s End, for instance, was a movie with many fine qualities, and it staked new adult ground as the cap for the “Cornetto trilogy,” and yet it finished up as a confused work that failed to develop any of its ideas or characters anywhere near as well as they should have been; it stands for me as perhaps the year’s subtlest but most definite letdown. Upstream Color was dazzling at first, but it came down to some tinny, rather painful New Agey ideas explicated via a cinematic method that became tedious after 20 minutes. I loved the basic idea of Stoker, a rewrite of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt as black antithesis, but the style, apart from two great scenes, kept the charge of genuinely transgressive transformation too ponderously aestheticized.

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American Hustle

American Hustle unleashed an array of revved-up stars and some delicious cinematography on an oddball caper tale, but the film’s lack of a genuine focal point or clarity of emotion, not to mention plot, essentially turned it into a collection of flashily shot, unevenly acted scenes without rhyme or reason. Also, as a sustained piece of fake Scorsese, it neatly joins the aforementioned phenomenon of the superseded auteur, as did the macho wankfest The Place Beyond the Pines, which mistook ripping off good ’70s fims for actual moviemaking. For all its luminous acting and formidably artful craft, Blue Is the Warmest Colour needed to get deeper into its characters’ heads and spend less time writing its own textual analysis. Francis Coppola’s long-delayed Twixt was quite interesting and a total mess. But I’d certainly encourage anyone to see it, because it offers a privileged glimpse of a real artist wrestling deeply with his very creative nature in the face of mortality and life experience, and that’s a rare thing. I have no problem confessing that one of the major reasons the orgiastic praise turned on Gravity pissed me off was the interesting subtext of a lot its praise; that although it was a “special-effects movie,” it was a “realistic” and “thoughtful,” even “artistic” one, as opposed to those other special-effects movies that are the bane of modern moviegoing. Gravity was actually none of those things, but rather was a corny and reductive adventure flick that allowed critics and audiences to get off on CGI without the guilt of liking a genre film.

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Star Trek: Into Darkness

Images, as ever, images, in films good and bad and middling, still bespoke the power of the medium. In Man of Steel, Superman, floating in the ocean, bemusedly watching a pair of whales swim above him. In Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a pair of young lesbian lovers melding into a symmetrical new creature, and, later, one of them, cast out of Eden, walking away into the rest of her life clad in an emblematic colour that is now a surrendered standard. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, a genetically-engineered villain, on the run from his enemies, materialising over a smoky, desolately alien landscape, replete with Wagnerian gravitas of menace and danger. In Oz the Great and Powerful, a witch about to go wicked with tears burning rivulets in her cheeks from the acidic bitterness of disillusionment. The hapless hero of 12 Years a Slave dangling from the end of the rope, trapped with painful exactitude between life and death, only kept alive by constant effort. Or, later, when he desolately burns a hopeful letter, the last tremors of light and heat becoming a small constellation, a total reversal of the earlier moment in style and yet still communicating the same sense of essence. The tear leaking from the eye of the sleeping beauty at the very end of Blancanieves touches the essence of cinema itself. So does the play of watching in Passion, with the watcher watched by the watcher’s watcher, sex object staring back at viewer, potentate willingly blinded, the screen cleft as artist and killer, victim and patsy are all entwined, marching towards the final cut.

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The Great Beauty

In The Counselor, the malicious art of beheading carefully prepared for under a Cretaceous dawn, the tragic indictment of the title character as he wanders dazed and gutted through people at a rally for the needlessly killed, and the hilarious sight of Cameron Diaz having sex with a car windscreen. The slow zoom in on a celebrity doll house suspended in panes of light against dark with the L.A. skyline beyond through which The Bling Ring gang scuttles, at once like invasive rodents and blessedly foolish children in some Chuck Jones cartoon. The child prodigy in The Great Beauty, bullied into creating art in front of a gaggle of society swanks, hurling paint at a huge canvas in her rage, but then succumbing to her greatest instincts and creating a delirious work of colour, humiliating every phony around her. Or, in the same movie, the midnight exploration of the palaces of Rome crammed with the art of centuries. The paintings in Museum Hours, endlessly scrutinised, endlessly rich, and the human visions, like the lone woman singing mournfully in a hotel room, ephemeral and echoing. The villain of Drug War, having tried every trick in the book to give the slip to his fate, reduced to dragging along the corpse of the hero to which he’s handcuffed, in his last desperate effort to escape. Amongst an endless sprawl of great visions in The Grandmaster, my two favourites were the hazy moment of make-believe for a very real purpose that sees two lost souls momentarily united in an approximation of their fantasies, on a train, and the climactic appearance of the heroine wreathed in steam and smoke, ready for battle.

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A Field in England

The manic hallucinogenic freak-out that is the set-piece of A Field in England, when time and space and person all fold in on each other. The hot rod loaded with celebrating black folk liberated by wealth and Jazz Age mores crossing the bridge in The Great Gatsby. The masked girls dancing with automatic weapons and their piano-tinkling gangster guru on the dock in Spring Breakers. The mountain of squirming zombies assaulting the bastions of civilisation in World War Z. The nuns carrying their personally crucified martyr across the snowy church compound in Beyond the Hills. The crazy cliff-face battle in GI Joe: Retaliation. The incestuously tinged piano duet in Stoker, and the perverted beauty of the psychopath coming of age whilst masturbating to sweet memories of snapping necks. Another psychopath, this time ensnared by her own games and stirred revenge, gazing out from the hospital window at the end of Side Effects. The heartbreak and rage on Andrea Riseborough’s face, cracking the studied sheen and ultra-modern artifice of Oblivion, as she’s confronted by the sudden, forced change in her reality by her lover. Another great scene featuring Riseborough, the Fritz Lang-esque escape through the urban underworld at the start of Shadow Dancer.

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I’m So Excited

The look (and sound) of unimaginable terror of a screaming starlet unleashing the genuine dread of the pit, even in cynically creating schlock, in Berberian Sound System. The erotic encounters of Concussion, bodies meeting in multifarious brands of intimacy and tactile appeal with the specific poetry of flesh. The dead pop star transcending unpleasant reality and taking off for a properly kitschy afterlife at the very end of Behind the Candelabra. The trio of dazzlingly gay airline stewards staging an impromptu dance number to the eponymous song in I’m So Excited as they try to keep their audience of passengers narcotised to the reality of an epoch that may end in crash landing. The body of a fallen ecoterrorist interred in the ground as naked as she came into the world, in The East.

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Prisoners

The computer beadily watching its creators in frustration, trying to will the future into being, in Computer Chess, and the prostitute casually removing her head to allow access for the young, bemused nerd to begin exploring far more complex systems. The lovers swimming in the moonlight, beatific prelude to the gruelling assaults on flesh and spirit to come, in Rush. The tiny girl chased by a gigantic monster like some prepubescent nightmare brought to life and radiating from a totemic red shoe in Pacific Rim, and its answering moment later, as the same girl, grown and in a monstrous robot, drags a ship to use as a club on her lysergic-coloured quarry in a moment of sublime revenge. The flurry of light, motion, wet, and pain, staged like a spirit journey, distorting the would-be hero’s vision as he tries to get a dying girl to a hospital, which forms the climax of Prisoners. Amy Adams’ whoop of incoherent life-lust after a disco toilet declaration intercut with bawling Tom Jones sing-alongs of the regular guys in American Hustle.

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Byzantium

The waterfalls of gushing blood and swirling bats that give Byzantium its cred as gothic horror, offset by hazily alienated visions of its ageless heroines spying on their own remembered selves. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III recalls a furious lovers’ quarrel as a dumb show within a Volkswagen as it travels through a car wash. The damaged young hoodlum watching his girlfriend strip through dazzling veils of drenched colour and false glamour, in Only God Forgives, somehow watching her and watching himself at the same time, inside and outside of the dream. The pensive young prostitute looking in vain for her grandmother in the teeming heart of an alienating metropolis in Like Someone in Love, and its climactic reversal, as the camera calmly watches curtains that bat lazily in the breeze after a brick crashes through the glass and knocks out the hapless old intellectual. The waters slowly rising over the causeway like cyclical fate even as the young lovers dance in their ignorant bliss amongst the plethora of similarly great crystalline visions in To The Wonder. And on and on, on and on, images.

Actor Appreciation

12 Years a Slave would’ve been a good film without Chiwetel Ejiofor, but Steve McQueen has a knack for carefully choosing actors who can burrow deep within the substance of his work, and the actor’s endlessly expressive countenance provided a symphonic display of emotion and intelligence, moving from horror to shame to rage to soul-cracking despair. Even for such a well-proven actor, it was a hell of a job. He was well-supported, with Michael Fassbender at a rare pitch of ferocity, Benedict Cumberbatch revealing in the subtleties of cravenness, and Brad Pitt saving the day, albeit in the most soft-spoken of ways. Fassbender and Cumberbatch continued to be the men of the hour, as the latter did a good job in a thankless role, taking up the reins of Khan in the enormous shadow of Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek: Into Darkness, his characterisation potent, insolent, self-confident, but supremely ruthless and ultimately lunatic. As hyped as the role was, and as dismissed as it’s been subsequently, it was still a supremely cool piece of villainy. Fassbender meanwhile was the smug, glib soul of The Counselor, ripe for the fall into stygian darkness, contending with Pitt again and Javier Bardem as artful chewers of Cormac McCarthy’s deliciously arch noir dialogue. By contrast, in To the Wonder, Ben Affleck’s mug was the stony Easter Island visage around which Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams danced in intimations of variable personality, particularly Kurylenko, whose dazzlingly sustained impersonation of a mercurial but deeply flawed nymph was the only one this year that struck me as powerfully as Ejiofor’s for sheer commitment. McQueen tends to use his actors’ physiognomies like canvases on which his films are projected, and Malick is similar, as is Wong Kar-Wai, the only man alive who can start with an Ip Man biopic and come out with a poetic paean to the marvel that is Zhang Ziyi.

Adele Exarchopolous exerted a similar, if more controversial spell on her director and audience thanks to the protean power of her lead role in Blue Is the Warmest Colour, holding the film’s final scenes on course as a study in the physical pain of losing love written entirely on her young but sturdy frame. Amidst the occasionally overripe histrionics of Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance held up in trying circumstances, whilst Viola Davis and Terrence Howard were so good I wished they’d been the proper stars of the film. In a similar vein, Keith Carradine’s grizzled eloquence almost shocked Ain’t Them Bodies Saints out of its stance of po-faced revivalism with his performance as an aging but still-formidable Fagin figure watching over the fates of his wayward former charges. Tom Hanks hardly needs plaudits, but Captain Phillips nonetheless supplied him with a chance to prove himself on a new level, particularly in the concluding scenes that wowed everyone as the heretofore stoic and intensely controlled sailor crumbles after he gets his happy ending. It looked like this was going to be another year of Matthew McConaughey, and his excellence in playing variations on southern-fried peckerwoods with nascent humanity in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club cannot be denied, though the former movie proved a slightly unsatisfying blend of indie-flick modesty and crowd-pleasing escapade, and the latter gave way to too many obnoxious conventions in both the heroic-biopic and gay-films-for-straight-people fields. Nonetheless, there was a sense of physical intensity to McConaughey in the latter, evoking both the corporeal devastation and psycho-spiritual ignition derived from his existential battle.

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Tony Servillo effortlessly held together the carnivale that was The Great Beauty, making a potentially unlikeable main character into the man everyone wants, just a little bit, to be. Toby Jones, always an excellent performer, loaned his presence mysteriously to the latest Hunger Games film for a part that’s all the more insulting after watching his note-perfect subtlety in Berberian Sound System, communicating both his character’s deference, ferocity, disquiet, and genius. Amidst some unnecessary stunt casting and wobbly accents, Alessandro Nivola was superb in Ginger and Rosa as the phlegmatic, self-involved, radical father who is a prophet of modernity but doesn’t see past the end of his own nose (or penis). Russell Crowe is aging into an elder statesman with surprising dignity and new good humour (as long as he doesn’t sing), and he propped up two pretty bad films I saw this year, The Man with the Iron Fists and Broken City, with an old trouper’s sense of charm, and just about stole Man of Steel with his mix of gravitas and punch. Henry Cavill did well playing the hero, because he didn’t make me miss Christopher Reeve, and better, he didn’t remind me I’d first seen him in Immortals. Michael Shannon was also in that film and he was commanding, though overshadowed in evil by the icily charismatic Antje Traue. Shannon was star of The Iceman, a third-rate Scorsese knock-off that came out on DVD this year; it still used Shannon’s trademark mix of awkwardness and brutality well, and gave some supporting roles to some oddly but effectively cast actors like David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, and a particularly good Winona Ryder. Robin Weigert was gutsy and interesting in Concussion, and had some strong support from Laila Robins, whilst A Hijacking was blessed with the triangulated presences of Søren Malling, Pilou Asbæk, and Abdihakin Asgar as the men whose tempers are tested by tensions between their shared desires and their ulterior goals.

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The definition of a great ensemble performance is one where you can’t imagine any one actor removed from the whole with others. The small ensemble of Like Someone in Love would certainly count there, and certainly the team in The Past were superlative in and of themselves. Two comedy films this year that had oddly similar premises were tied together equally by ensemble comic performances in which the shambolic was brought to life with sharpness: The World’s End and This Is the End. Emma Watson’s hilarious but sadly small part as “herself,” the innocent but plucky English girl at the mercy of the wilds of L.A. celebrity, in This Is the End, was a fitting counterpoint to her witty and convincing turn as the shallowest of Californian princesses oblivious to all concerns but her own self-written life script in The Bling Ring. Drug War, although exceedingly cinematic, had a theatrical aspect to it as the heroes shifted guises and personalities. It was a tour de force for Sun Hong-lei in particular as the stone-faced cop who adopts the most divergent personality possible in the course of his investigation, and it became an existential portrait not just of subterfuge or police work but of the roles circumstances force us to play. Amongst the battery of heavyweight actors in American Hustle, Christian Bale’s grotesque was technically impressive acting but never felt particularly urgent as characterisation, and Bradley Cooper was just plain annoying, whilst Jennifer Lawrence managed to stay just on this side of broad in playing a ferociously fascinating but precociously disturbing harridan, leaving it to Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner to keep things grounded, the former as a peculiarly honest con artist and the latter as a doomed man of the people. Charlie Sheen’s part in A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III was dismissed generally as smug, but there was a cheeky sense of play and self-mockery mixed with unexpected dignity in his acting that reminded me at least why once he was an actor and a star with a rep.

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The women of 12 Years a Slave were interesting, too. Lupita Nyong’o was class because she knew she captured the peculiar, nihilistic power of her victim role as well as the pathos and terror, Alfre Woodard offered a weirdly persuasive portrait of sex slave as female entrepreneur, whilst Sarah Paulson stopped just this side of caricature in portraying her spurned, vengeful, contemptuous homestead queen as her equally hateful husband’s enabler. There were definite weak links in the ensemble Joss Whedon gathered together for his gonzo edition of Much Ado about Nothing, but there were some marvellous ones, too, particularly Amy Acker as Beatrice, who did the most impressive moment of slapstick comedy I’ve seen in years at one point, and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. Soairse Ronan was as palpably intelligent as usual alongside a slippery, sensually vicious Gemma Arterton in Byzantium, and also in the even less-seen Violet & Daisy, an intriguing if unsuccessful piece of light surrealism, where Ronan actually got a run from her money not just from the late, great James Gandolfini, but from costar Alexis Bledel’s surprisingly droll, emotive turn as Ronan’s prematurely world-weary partner in assassination, as if someone had packed Lee Marvin into her diminutive frame. Ellen Page was quintessentially impressive in her limited but vital supporting role in Zal Batmanglij’s The East as the incarnation of radicalism formed by bitter personal experience.

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Andrea Riseborough kept on rising with a triptych of expert performances in very different films, as the doomed gal Friday of Welcome to the Punch, the spurned lover and inadvertent species traitor in Oblivion, and as the quietly steely, enigmatic antiheroine of Shadow Dancer. Olivia Wilde, after lurking on the edge of stardom for nearly a decade now, suddenly came into focus for many in Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, beautifully skewering her character’s mix of ladette winsomeness and flake. Jamie Alexander, striking in her parts in The Last Stand and Thor: The Dark World, might well take over from Wilde as the most appealing actress to be found in the most frustratingly nonpriority roles. Rachel McAdams’ performance in Passion provided high contrast with her portrait of febrile feeling in To the Wonder, and gave Brian De Palma’s film the jolt of high-camp verve it required. Laura Michelle Kelly was a firecracker of unleashed, incandescent energy in Goddess, a musical-comedy performance comprising surprisingly old-school chops. Cristina Flutur’s performance in Beyond the Hills was vital, as she captured both the desperate, heart-rending neediness of her character, and also her tunnel-visioned, infuriating, self-destructive side. One of the most mesmerising, amusing, intelligent performances of the year was that of Ela Piplits in Museum Hours (not to denigrate the easy improvisatory turns of leads Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, by any means), playing a mere gallery guide expounding intelligently about art, but doing it with such calm panache, such dextrous engagement in easily batting way the representative of modern Puritanism, that it reminded us of how blunt and patronising many films are when they come close to such ideas. For me, however, some of the year’s most memorable on-screen performances didn’t even come from actors. The cast of Computer Chess, mostly nonprofessional, seemed born in their roles mostly because they were. I can’t think of Gerald Peary’s magnificently stilted emcee work without a wide grin.

Favourite Films of 2013

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

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A lot of the praise for Steve McQueen’s third film smacked of sophomore political and cultural studies, but this adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir did far more than check off a list of desirable talking points: McQueen’s incisive eye, as exacting as in his debut Hunger (2008) but less mannered, succeeded in both indicting a grotesque system and illuminating its horrors. McQueen’s evocation of the peculiar institution is often gut-wrenching, and yet often purposefully banal in portraying what was merely the reductio ad absurdum of free enterprise. But the film’s strongest achievement lay in how carefully it ransacked every character’s psychologically enmeshed responses and blind spots, from hero Northup whose exceptionalism proves largely only a taunting absurdity, to Benedict Cumberbatch’s genteel, amicable, but moral coward plantation oligarch (the man Ashley Wilkes realised he was), and on down to Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the Edward Albee-ish poisonous pair who treat slaves quite literally as objects to enact their passions and cruelties upon, all portrayed with unforgiving clarity.

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)

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Peter Strickland’s study in private psychological anguish in the context of trashy ephemera and nostalgic pop culture fetishism was not a film for everybody, but definitely a film for me. Misread by too many as a missed opportunity for a thriller, it’s really a queasy comedy of manners that slides into a surreal dreamscape for a journey through the underworld before rebirth.

Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)

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When everything old is new again (see also Computer Chess, No), Spanish director Pablo Berger made a silent film, but amazingly, not just one for critics and retro film fans, but for actual audiences. He gave them the humour, thrills, and delicate beauty of both a real silent film and a fairy tale, in a version of the past that recalls the great works of Expressionism and yet filtered through a modern sensibility. Even Pedro Almodovar couldn’t hold a candle to it this year as far as Spanish cinema went.

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)

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So feather-light it seems like it might crumble at a touch, Andrew Bujalski’s oddball-screwball comedy actually reveals ingenious gall holding it together, basic jokes and ideas and even more basic technology layered upon layer to create something deeply strange, very funny, and, finally, beguiling.

The Counselor (Ridley Scott)

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A post-apocalyptic nightmare set in the present, Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy reduce the Hollywood crime film to its constituent parts and watch them twitch in the midday sun. The result is nasty, funny, and hopeless, at once lucidly beautiful and bitterly ugly. The filmmakers, much like their hero, pushed far out into deep waters and paid the price with some ugly critical assassinations.

Drug War (Johnny To)

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Completely different in tone and approach to The Counselor and yet built around many of the same ideas, Johnny To’s latest film works as both self-commentary, as both hero and villain circle each other in sustained acts of bluff and gamesmanship, and as whip-crack thriller. In a modern China that seems to be a wilderness of newness, justice is upright but also constitutes just another competing system in the market, and the gangster and cop protagonists both scuttle across its surface, trying to survive.

Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter)

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Sally Potter’s reminiscence about bohemian youth in early ’60s Britain was compelling, not least in its peculiar female perspective, but also for its fascinating lack of nostalgia and sense of sociological precision, exposing heartbreak, betrayal, familial tragedy and disappointment, and the omnipresent pall of fear of the nuclear age. Potter explored with a rare seriousness the problems that result when people decide to live without old values but find nothing with which to replace them, and yet she managed to make the film feel the opposite of heavy. In spite of some casting problems, it was sustained by Elle Fanning’s luminous lead performance.

The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)

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A divisive work, but to me a serious candidate for the greatest film of the decade so far, Wong Kar-Wai’s resurgence is a lode of ironic disparities, tackling seemingly very stolid subjects—the martial-arts action epic and the biopic—and constructing a supercharged rhapsody of vision, time, and poetic humanity as revealed in rest and motion.

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)

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This extraordinary remix of La Dolce Vita as a cultural anatomy of modern Rome through the eyes of a social gadfly is also extraordinarily uneven: the nominal heart of the film, that gadfly wrestling with his reawakening desire to be a true artist, never feels more than a McGuffin, and the finale’s attempt to encompass an aspect of spiritual longing and wonder fails badly to mesh with overlarge satire, especially frustrating as elsewhere in the film director Paolo Sorrentino generates the desired duplicity of effect so beautifully. And yet Sorrentino offers some of the most stunning set-pieces and artistic epiphanies of recent cinema, confirming the impression of Il Divo (2009) that he knows how to throw parties on screen better than anyone alive, far outstripping Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for capturing both the powerful splendor and obscenity of decadent high life, dancing with dreamy artistry through the Eternal City to pick up an insane collage of compelling vignettes. Tony Servillo’s wry, yet emotive performance kept the boat steady, presenting a fascinating continuity with Il Divo as studies of men at the centre of things who are, nonetheless, enigmatic in their seeming obviousness.

Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)

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Like several films this year, Abbas Kiarostami’s latest was perceived by some as a comparative letdown by a major director, but the perception perhaps said more about the onlooker than the object. Kiarostami’s new world-wandering project landed in Japan and created this superficially delicate, surprisingly concentrated tragicomedy about roles played in youth and old age. It recalled Paul Desmond’s album titled after the same song standard, as both are lounge jazz opuses stripped down to the most elemental, expressive, romantic, and mournful notes.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder)

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It took a second viewing for me to properly appreciate what Zack Snyder had managed with his revisionist Superman epic. With the Marvel franchise this year offering films barely holding together on any level and revealing that the Marvel world has nowhere to go, Snyder’s film looked and felt brave and grand; even with the excess of its battle scenes and weaker aspects, it still seems like the closest thing the superhero craze has thrown up to a classic since Hellboy II, a big, bristling, good-looking, surprisingly serious brand of fantastic film that went far beyond spotty fan service to provoke as well as please its audience.

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)

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About as far from Man of Steel as it’s possible to get in the same medium, Museum Hours is an almost indescribably original oddity, combining essayistic filmmaking, documentary, and gentle drama. Its portrait of a Canadian in Vienna making friends with a gay, middle-aged ex-rocker turned museum security guard almost completely rewrote the rules of how a narrative film can work, and did so with the simplest and most modest of methods. It’s an odd film that counts an art history lecture as an action climax.

Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro)

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The other top-of-the-line blockbuster of the year. Although it was a heavy flop in the U.S., there’s something salutary in the fact that this film was an enormous international success, especially in China, with its globalised heroics and roots in an alternative stem of modern pop culture based in Asian fantasies. In any event, it was cool, it was colourful, it had the year’s best heroine (sorry Katniss), and in the year of Ray Harryhausen’s death, it provided ample evidence that his legacy lives on in popular cinema.

Passion (Brian De Palma)

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Brian De Palma’s latest comeback special was uneven in tethering his narrative and camera gymnastics to a remake, but damn if it wasn’t still De Palma, still making films that glow like neon and cut like surgical steel.

The Past (Asghar Farhadi)

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Asghar Farhadi’s latest wasn’t entirely up to the standard of its predecessor, but it’s still good enough to make most films in the same vein of domestic realism look shrink-wrapped, offering an emotional range in regarding the modern family that spanned from wry amusement to desolation.

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

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Malick’s follow-up to an enormously critically acclaimed film failed to ignite the same blazing admiration and indeed perhaps suffered from a backlash against his style, usually given a lot of time to dispel between the director’s releases. But for me, this was a dynamic, deeply pleasurable and stirring attempt by Malick to wrestle with something he’d avoided until now—a detailed, fleshy, true-feeling adult romance—in the context of his most modern and most overtly religious narrative. Although always a shooter of great pictures, few of Malick’s images have felt so genuinely immediate and human as several found in this one, like Rachel McAdams holding out her rope-bound hands to her lover, counterpointed in Malick’s editing with her forlorn and floundering emotional squall in facing rejection and her stoic resignation in getting on with life, giving three points of behaviour within seconds in a coherent, economic, and powerful manner. Many directors can cut quickly; few can create a little world with such brevity.

Would Have Been on This List If I’d Seen It In Time (progressively updated):

Bastards (Claire Denis)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Significant Blind Spots

A Touch of Sin / Anchorman: The Legend Continues / As I Lay Dying / The Book Thief / Carrie / Don Jon / Elysium / Europa Report / The Fifth Estate / Frances Ha / Fruitvale Station / Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom / Out of the Furnace / Saving Mr. Banks / The Spectacular Now / The Unspeakable Act / The Way, Way Back

Runners-Up

A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm)
All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Byzantium (Neil Jordan)
Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)
Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson)
Mud (Jeff Nichols)
No (Pablo Larrain)
Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi)

Flawed but Appreciated

American Hustle (David O. Russell)
Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
Concussion (Stacie Passon)
The East (Zal Batmanglij)
A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
Furious 6 (Justin Lin)
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola)
Jack the Giant Slayer (Bryan Singer)
Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)
Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski)
Resolution (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
Rush (Ron Howard)
Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams)
The World’s End (Edgar Wright)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow)
The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Stoker (Chan-Wook Park)
Trance (Danny Boyle)
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

Crap

42 (Brian Helgeland)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
Lone Survivor (Peter Berg)
Lovelace (Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman)
Runner Runner (Brad Furman)
Welcome to the Punch (Eran Creevy)
World War Z (Marc Forster)

My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2013

And Soon the Darkness/Wuthering Heights (Robert Fuest)
Apache Drums (Hugo Fregonese)
Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda)
Caged (John Cromwell)
Cuba (Richard Lester)
Decoy (Jack Bernhard)
Django/The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)
Electra (Michael Cacoyannis)
The Face Behind the Mask (Robert Florey)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Shunya Itō)
Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog)
Fixed Bayonets (Sam Fuller)
Five Miles to Midnight (Anatole Litvak)
Hell Is for Heroes (Don Siegel)
It Happened Here (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo)
Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland)
The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper)
The Magician (Ingmar Bergman)
One Wonderful Sunday/Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa)
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray)
Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark)
Pink Flamingos (John Waters)
Raw Deal (Anthony Mann)
Rock All Night (Roger Corman)
The Tall T (Budd Boetticher)
That Cold Day in the Park/Brewster McCloud/California Split/Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson/Fool for Love (Robert Altman)
The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang)
Town without Pity (Gottfried Reinhardt)
Two Rode Together/Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford)
Vanishing Point (Richard C. Sarafian)
Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff)
The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava)
White Sun of the Desert (Vladimir Motyl)
Wings (William A. Wellman)
Witchcraft (Don Sharp)

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2010s, Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak, 2012

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By Roderick Heath

Wait, let me get the familiar motifs of my yearly confession out of the road. Many films overrated, blah blah. Many good films vilified, blah blah. Bloody distributors, blah blah. Okay. Let’s go.

Several critics this year took the time and effort to declare this the year cinema died. This suggested, in part, a symptom of solipsism, as what’s much closer to the truth is that film criticism as a tenured profession with major newspapers and magazines is fading, if not dying. So it’s tempting to do as the Vikings do and burn the ship along with the corpse of the fallen warrior. The proposition that because more people watch certain TV shows than certain well-reviewed, but aesthetically difficult films and that, therefore, the art form is dying, could well have been clipped verbatim from a newspaper column in 1962. Granted, film is going through an upheaval at the moment in terms of the nature of the medium itself and the kinds of audience it can draw out of their homes. Like every other art form and entertainment at the moment that isn’t Xbox or You Tube, it has to fight for its survival and status.

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The Master

From a personal perspective, 2012 did not prove a repeat of 2011, a vintage year for cinema. It seems like I spent most of this year waiting—waiting for good movies. I beat my own record for viewings of films released in the calendar year, which entailed increasing the amount of mediocrity and missed opportunities I willingly exposed myself to. Of course, several of this year’s most “important” films have been held back until the very last moment, or have received such listless distribution (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master‘s cursory Australian release), that I find myself genuinely bereft for not being able to comment here on several (but the lists are updated as time progresses). Only sheer luck and a helping hand allowed me to catch a couple more that grace my lists below.

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Holy Motors

I had hoped this year I might be able to curb my contrarian tendencies a little, but I instead find them stronger than ever. A lot of highly regarded films left me frigid if not bored, many quality works carried a distinct and quietly disturbing aspect of déjà vu or ambition without the strange heat of real creativity, and several of the handful of films I felt any true affection for have been treated with outright contempt by the cultural apparatchiks. There were many films I anticipated watching enthusiastically, perhaps too much so, like Holy Motors, The Deep Blue Sea, and Oslo, 31 August, where I admired them and saw their specific beauty, and yet in the end felt something lacking; perhaps it was the lack of true penetration of the inner life of the dramatic protagonists or, in the case of the occasionally very brilliant Holy Motors, a final sense of the often strained conceptual stunt truly adding up.

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Return

After watching the diptych of Australian-directed, American-set gangland dramas, Killing Them Softly and Lawless, I became afflicted by the knowledge that I’ve been watching the same scuzzball crime flick in variations since about 1990, a blend of detailed criminal argot, showy grit, method-inflected overacting, and gunshots to the head. This sensation sharpened to a point where both films proved to have one particular moment in common, a thug getting pissed off and delivering an even worse beating when the victim has the temerity to get bodily fluids on the thug’s clothes. Many films with potential seemed to lack that extra inspiration to break themselves out of the ruts of Good Little Movie or Nice Try, to whit Liza Johnson’s Return or Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister. It was sad and frustrating to watch a film brimming over with unruly life like Bachelorette take refuge in the cosy clichés of the chick flick brand it seemed to be attacking.

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Cloud Atlas

Others, like Rian Johnson’s Looper and Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, tried on the other hand to be a bit too clever, failing to juggle all of the many balls they threw in the air. Looper also exemplified a breed that includes films like Sleepless Night, The Grey, and Haywire in setting up magnificently and failing to bring it all home. 2012 was overloaded with self-serious action films and spectacles with pretensions to substance, films like Looper, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Cloud Atlas, The Grey, Chronicle, The Hunger Games, Haywire, and The Bourne Legacy. These often received glowing reviews and filmgoer enthusiasm, and some of them were genuinely good films. But there must be something wrong with me: most of these felt half-baked, failing to measure up to what a good craftsman, like Joseph H. Lewis, Andre De Toth, or Richard Thorpe, could invest in a pulp narrative 60 years ago. Skyfall was a case in point, sporting a great and intelligent core idea: to walk James Bond back through his half-mythical past only to bring him to a new beginning. But the idea was squandered through a listless and derivative story that finally left the film exposed, stripped of the pop-art exuberance that made the series interesting in the first place. By comparison, I found myself responding far more to the buoyant inanity in films like The Avengers, Wrath of the Titans, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, films that do not try for a second to fake meaning. And there are few words fit for polite company I can think of to address those critics who have put the marvellous John Carter on their worst-of-year lists.

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The Grey

Yet, after all this, cinematic excellence still accumulated, like the gentle rain from heaven, as a better writer than I said about something completely different. In films of 2012, characters seem splintered off from the bulk of humanity like rubble flung off from some great collision. And indeed that’s how many people at large feel—I know I do. Look at the protagonists of films like Cosmopolis and Holy Motors, contained by their universe-unto-themselves limousines, travelling the cityscapes in search of a moment of transcendent creation/destruction, their immediate psychic and physical reality redesignated as an extended piece of performance art. Their bond with the actor-therapist heroes of Alps was inescapable: the Alps troupe filled in as simulacrums of the dead, as their own existences become voids to be fled no matter how painful the consequences. The wandering nonhero of The Day He Arrives, a film director entrapped by those long, improvised takes known as life, was surrounded by doppelgangers and numbing repetitions, elliptical events, and hazy, half-remembered epiphanies. The aged, haggard, aching characters share a dolorous existence in contemporary Portugal in Tabu, and the revelation of a past finds an exotic netherworld where melodramatic passion flared and died and led them to this end, the former colonial tended to a bitter grave by the former colonised. The alienated protagonists of the great diptych of unabashed horror films released early in the year, The Innkeepers and Kill List, were driven to distraction and despair by looming financial crisis and finding avatars for their own folly in the strange id-emanations that torment them. The ragged and bloodied survivors of The Grey fended off armies of wolves and the perishing cold, poised as onanistic avatars for the reality of trying to retain masculine self-respect in modern working-class life. The intergalactic swashbucklers of The Avengers had one of the most amusing and telling single shots of the year’s cinema, coming after the end credits of their own movie and added like a little supernal signature flourish by mastermind Joss Whedon, showing them exhaustedly and silently chewing over ethnic cuisine: saving the world is just another shit job.

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Haywire

Speaking of shit jobs, the victims and abusers of Compliance swam in the same reeking, overused frying fat. The physically broken and fiscally pummelled lovers of Rust and Bone hung off the edges of their society with what was left of their bodies and wits. The aging, exhausted cops trudging around the wastelands of rural Turkey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia were haunted by the broken idols of the past and the accusing eyes of the living. The readily brutal heroes of Sleepless Night, The Grey, Kill List, Haywire, and Savages fought tooth and nail to keep their narrow foothold in the prosperous human community above chasms of existential fear. Hell, even the dwarfish band of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were looking for a way to get their home back off the dragon/finance company. Miss Bala’s titular wannabe beauty queen attempts to use her looks and body to escape poverty and gains her prize through the most ironically horrifying of entrapping nightmares, her body turned into a far more immediate commodity, peeling off the skin of her society and discovering the chaos and hypocrisy beneath.

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Damsels in Distress

Batman found himself the thin black line between pseudo-revolution and toothless authoritarianism in The Dark Knight Rises, the richest vigilante in town engaged in a tango of toey flirtation with the most supine of criminals and recovering from having a back snapped by the most uppity of plebeian radicals. The übermensch antihero of Cosmopolis could be a distant relative of Bruce Wayne’s but without the altruistic delusions, glimpsed at one point splayed on all fours whilst receiving a rectal examination, gilded by sweat, and flirting with an employee. Later he casually shoots his bodyguard and revisits his childhood in a seeming quest to pull apart the fibres of his life one by one, before eagerly finding his opposite in life in Paul Giamatti’s pathetic assassin, luckless agent of a devoutly wished extinction. Even in the gentler parts of town, eccentrics had to fight to claim their space and right to exist. The protean boy and girl of Moonlight Kingdom, the collegiate, depressive do-gooders of Damsels in Distress, the Norwegian teens of Turn Me On, Dammit!, the bizarre family of Dark Shadows: all looked for redemption in love and fellowship, but still always faced the oncoming day when anomie would turn to crisis.

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Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Heroes exhumed from classical texts and history for this year’s films seemed to share this outsider-looking-in quality: the hopped-up holy anarchists of On The Road, rushing at a hundred miles per nowhere, were the characters in Moonlight Kingdom a few years older and a bit more damaged. The final day in the life of the protagonist of Oslo, 31 August, wandering the city disgusted with his failures and himself. Anna Karenina’s eponymous heroine alternating between stage and audience in wrestling between her moral and sensual sides. The princess of Snow White and the Huntsman, the living lodestone for a natural order degraded and exiled by a grotesque caricature of celebrity culture. Even Abraham Lincoln, in Steven Spielberg’s crucial film, attempts to leaven a great good at the price of surveying the wasteland his efforts wreaked, a sense of the moral cost of even supposedly moral struggle accounted for by corpse-strewn battlefields, blazing cities, and piles of rudely amputated limbs—and that’s to say nothing of his vampire-hunting sideline.

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Oslo, 31 August

But for many, the unceasing battery of a world gone wrong gave way to moments of grace and epiphany: even the doomed hero Anders of Oslo, 31 August found fleeting moments of joy and beauty in his odyssey, even if he remained as repelled as he was compelled by things from which he felt himself eternally severed. He represented a striking inversion of last year’s number of peacefully conceding heroes, unable to escape a downward spiral that finally announced the rupturing of logic in the jarring cessation of a beautiful piano tune. Anna Karenina’s similar self-induced end came at the end of a life lived as a headlong rush of pleasure and pain. The triumph of the last seconds of Alps finally sees life and performance converge in a moment of perfection. Eruptive celebration momentarily breaks the mood of oppressively weighty and corrosive choices in Lincoln. There was surreal beauty in Rust and Bone, as Marion Cotillard’s character went from broken remnant to the carnal ferocity of her self-induced reinvention as a tattooed, hard-rutting fight promoter.

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Declaration of War

And everywhere were fragments of insane beauty—images, images, images, the soul of cinema, laced with the muscle of sound, and sculpted by the edit. The ecstatic abandon of On the Road’s uncouth scallywags, their momentous dawns and fraying nocturnal revels. The dawn-light epiphany of Levin in Anna Karenina and the obscene beauty of Anna’s death, the thunder of the horses riding through the theatre and the abandon in her dance floor surrender to physical ardour. The swooning drug-dreams and hideous violence of Savages. The raging protest outside the limousine whilst within savants converse about how the external chaos is governed by mathematical certainties and inevitable defeat. The cross-edited visions of the equally phony Victoria Winters and Alice Cooper in straightjackets in a lucid game of accusation and anger essayed in playful pop cultural terms in Dark Shadows. The insane smile of Angelique Bouchard in the same film, still planted on her face even as she plucks out her heart and hands it over to the man who disdains her amour fou and collapses from within, revealing the lacquered mannequin her obsessiveness made of her. The teeming magnificence of the alien cities and the gorgeous desolation of Mars in John Carter, captured and contained in the redemptive lustre of Dejah Thoris’ sea-blue eyes. The awesome one-shot survey in The Avengers of the team in action that crossed the breadth of the city. The dawn-light swim of Oslo, 31 August where Anders watches his young and pretty companions with the descending pall of a man with no sense of the future. Cotillard saluting the whale that crippled her and the mammal gesturing back in Rust and Bone, and Matthias Schoenaerts punching the ice over his drowning son with raw, injurious desperation. The perplexingly magnificent dread landscapes of Tartarus and the Labyrinth in Wrath of the Titans. The sight of the duelling hero and villain of The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate being sucked up into a hurricane to continue their battle whirling in the eye of the storm. Valérie Donzelli’s distraught run through the hospital in Declaration of War.

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Sleepless Night

The ecstatic thunder of the accordion band in Holy Motors’ entr’acte and the mystique of Edith Scob donning her Eyes Without a Face mask. In Tabu, the black-and-white, soundless sex scene that ruptures the film’s air of physically manifest decay and remoteness, the prayer shot through with rapturous poetry that punctuates the stolid modern pieties of a protest march, and the idiot enthusiasm of the frontier pop band. The egglike, bloodied remnant of the once-smug physiognomy of Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, touched by the grace of his wife’s forgiveness. The perpetual motion machine that is the hero of Sleepless Night eluding his pursuers by diving into a cotillion of clubbers grooving to Queen, enacting a primal drama against a backdrop of entitled hedonism. The racing intercut stories of Cloud Atlas, that incredible, pounding cyberpunk chase of the futuristic lovers, and the beatific suicide ritual of the young composer. The stone idol, carved by a forgotten society in the midst of a wilderness illuminated by lightning to shock a man into sudden awareness of his mortality, in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the hovering, mysterious, marvel-provoking beauty of the peasant girl who astounds the tired, dessicated menfolk. The lost beatitude of romantic haven in the sight of Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in tipsy ebullience before the inevitable fall in The Deep Blue Sea, and the communal nostalgia dream of the sing-along in the tube station. The sinking ship and springing whale of Life of Pi, twinned moments of gleaming leviathans depicting the folly of humankind and the power of nature. The characters of The Day He Arrives shivering in a snowy, slushy dawn after a night of revels, departing to their separate, lonely abodes.

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Miss Bala

That moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Bilbo stands in his house, suddenly bereft, before his charge to join his new friends in an adventure; the swashbuckling charge of the dwarves through the kingdom of the goblins; and the gang’s dangling cliffhanger peril, saved by a feathered deus ex machina. The dazzling, terrible whirlwinds of violence that Miss Bala has to charge through repeatedly, and the strange semi-rape that sees her awkwardly trying to mount an injured, saurian beast of a drug lord who is both her protector and tormentor. The dark god’s hand erupting from the earth as the apocalyptic punchline of The Cabin In the Woods’ jokey generic play, after a menagerie of horror cinema’s icons have been released to commit gorgeous carnage. The liberated teens spinning high in the sky in Chronicle. In Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and his black housekeeper/lover reading the 13th Amendment in bed together in celebration of a future made possible; the blazing buildings of Confederate cities; the arcane melodrama that evokes Manichaeistic struggle just before a titan’s death is announced to his son. The dying Goody of Vamps standing amidst Times Square, aging by the second even as she passes through a rapturous peeling back of the years and transformations of the beloved space to its once-quaint, cobbled self. The rage of the killer paterfamilias in Kill List, stoked to a world-melting heat by obscenity revealed, pounding in a paedophile’s head with a hammer, only to later be chased through stygian woods and hellish tunnels by masked demons determined to implicate him in the reckoning he thinks he can buy off with too-late righteousness.

Cinema is dead, my arse!

Actor Appreciation

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I don’t know if I saw a better-acted film this year than The Day He Arrives, purely by dint of the fact that the human behaviour it depicted seemed to flow with the happenstance energy and gestural concision of real life. This quality of extreme, almost invisible naturalism was shared by the cast of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, who all seemed to have been born in the clothes they wear and in the space they inhabit. But, of course, that’s not the only standard for great acting, which can also be the alchemical art of display that sometimes risks excess for the sake of finding something more finite and compelling. In that regard, one of the year’s most inevitably well-regarded acting efforts, Daniel Day-Lewis’ incarnation of Abraham Lincoln, was a surprising pirouette for the actor who had delivered two of the last decade’s greatest performances in a grandiose key (Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview): Day-Lewis offered not just the eloquence and folksiness of Honest Abe but also the shrewd lawyer, dry, bordering on parched, struggling against a subtly conveyed terror to hold together the remnants of his family and self-respect even in the throes of being transformed into an icon by his final successes, even reduced at one point to glaring out of the shadows of a window bay with baleful anger and sorrow at his accusatory wife. The incredible roster of support Day-Lewis has in Spielberg’s film emerged as a Dickensian roster of precisely illuminated, ever-so-slightly magnified portraiture, including Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, brittle and intelligent and tragic in her self-crucifying anxiety, Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, the most unprepossessing of ideologues revealed as a brutally witty moral swashbuckler, Gloria Reuben’s careful, but crucial, small part, and David Strathairn’s dusty, crafty William Seward. Michael Stuhlbarg, who helped fill out Lincoln’s cast with a memorably John Ford-esque, timorous congressman, also contributed the only performance in Sacha Gervasi’s lamentable rubbish Hitchcock, as crafty agent extraordinaire Lew Wassermann, that didn’t look like a mobile waxwork exhibit.

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Well, all right, Scarlett Johansson made for a tolerably perky Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, too. She also continued her recent run of films suggesting she’s finally growing into the movie star zone into which she was thrust prematurely after Lost in Translation (2003) with her contribution to one fairly popular film this year, which sported a generally marvellous collection of character turns by actors playing emotionally crippled, physically misshapen, neurotically talkative misfits engaged in group dysfunction and rampant physical comedy. Wait, was The Avengers a Woody Allen film and nobody told me? I always grudgingly enjoy being forced to change my mind about an actor, and one I had dismissed as an asinine pretty boy quite genuinely impressed me with his gall this year in a diptych of roles: Robert Pattinson’s performances in Bel-Ami and Cosmopolis were received with disparate levels of interest and recognition, but in both, he cleverly played off his signature role as a beautiful bloodsucker, as the former film allowed him to play a conflicted and frightened man lusted after and idealised by the women around him in a fashion usually reserved for the opposite situation, and the latter let him play a smarmy billionaire driven by forces within to try to smash apart his own pharaohic hegemony as part of a masochistic experiment in system decay. In both films, Pattinson was nimble enough to depict the turmoil, even foolishness, under the surface of superficially purposeful cads. His Twilight costar, Kristen Stewart, weathered storms of scandal and popular opprobrium to expand her increasingly impressive resume with a lead performance in Snow White and the Huntsman that was sturdy and restrained until it finally bloomed in butch glory. Charlize Theron was splendidly arch playing Stewart’s wicked queen enemy. Stewart was also an affecting addition to the vigorous cast of On the Road as the blazing-eyed, jailbait bohemian Marylou. But the film properly belonged to Sam Riley, all doe-eyed naivete mismatched to a prematurely lived-in voice, and Garret Hedlund, the garrulous, but shark-eyed rough trade byproduct of a juvie hall education in a rougher, bleaker, but paradoxically freer America.

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Denis Lavant was the glue that held the fractured pieces of Holy Motors together, at once a study of acting itself whilst sustaining a coherent characterisation of an actor as a character: it was impossible, of course, to miss Lavant’s physical dynamism and chameleonic talents, because the film was about those very talents so long in need of a vehicle, and the result was very much an exploration of the traditional symbiosis of filmmaking talent behind and in front of the camera. Kylie Minogue’s beguiling cameo and song likewise buoyed the film’s flagging second half like a visitation from another, classier planet. Aggeliki Poupolia led the cast of Alps, equally multitudinous, except, of course, where Lavant was playing the epitome of acting talent, the Alps team were the opposite, deliberately awful actors filling in for real people: as in Dogtooth (2009), but essayed in a subtler fashion, Poupolia’s genius at slow burns arriving at incendiary climaxes shook continents with its force. Amongst the manifold offhand pleasures of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, with the customary Johnny Depp grotesque front and centre, the real battle for acting honours fell to Michelle Pfeiffer as haughty matriarch and Eva Green playing her cabalistic minx as an undead Joan Crawford heroine. Green shifted to completely different register of soulful resignation opposite Ewan McGregor in David Mackenzie’s odd but occasionally striking parable Perfect Sense. Jennifer Lawrence underplayed her lead role in a film that made her exponentially more famous, The Hunger Games, to an extent that inspired some internet mockery, but it was a performance consistent with her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone (2010) in trying to embody a heroine given to simply accepting the evil inherent in any situation and proceeding for the sake of survival.

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Greta Gerwig’s star turn in Damsels in Distress was very much the key to the film’s seemingly insufferably arch, blithely self-impressed façade, cleverly shading into modes of honest pain, sly self-critique, and finally, pure goofy charm. Brit Marling might have committed the ultimate actress-writer faux pas in having someone else in the film she wrote describe her as beautiful, and yet her capacity to animate her character in Sound of My Voice as both radiant and yet, with suggestions of serpentine evil constantly lurking behind an ambiguous smile, was the work of someone who knows her stuff, and Christopher Denham was as impressive opposite her as he was wasted in Argo. Anne Hathaway may well get herself an Oscar this year for Les Misérables, but the role most people saw her in this year was, of course, Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, a ringer who successfully kept the ball in play with sufficient insouciant wit and poise to make up for the turgid, incoherent pseudo-epic around her. Her costar and rival for the listless affections of Bruce Wayne was Marion Cotillard, wasted in her second Christopher Nolan film. But Cotillard’s superlative performance alongside the equally impressive Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone was her artistic compensation, and much more than just the mischievously clever CGI that made her look like a double amputee: rage and grief and erotic force have rarely been presented together and with such force, especially without a trace of actorly showboating. Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina was, on the other hand, showboating with careful and compelling modulation, playing a self-dramatist for whom everything is, on some level, a theatrical gesture. Her befuddled, tortured husband was played with career-best pathos by Jude Law, who turns his fading matinee idol looks into an aesthetic weapon.

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Another star who, like Law, emerged in the late ’90s and whose career had seemed to be slowing, had a suddenly incandescent year: everyone’s talked about the second coming of Matthew McConaughey, and I can’t really argue with it, though I wish it had been in better films. The best of the bunch was William Friedkin’s broad and excessively theatrical, but impressively seedy Killer Joe, which, of course, culminated in his forcing Gina Gershon to fellate a chicken drumstick, one of the most memorable single moments of 2012: Gershon’s own feral force, finally tamed by the cruellest of methods, was equally impressive. In Magic Mike, McConaughey provided the meaty, muscly, wolfish smarm to offset Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer’s well-exploited physiques and pleasant lack of acting talent. Bruce Willis, still an unflappably laid-back presence, was affecting as the dopey, but affectionate sheriff in Moonrise Kingdom, and sported an amazing manga hairdo for a couple of minutes in Looper. His confrontation with a weirdly convincing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his youthful alter ego in Looper saw two generations of male movie stars share a diner breakfast in by far the best moment in the film, presenting the amusing conceit of the older and younger versions of the same violent dipshit in different phases of self-deception. Emily Blunt, who backed them up, was the year’s most accommodating female movie star, handling thankless roles with class, including being surprisingly convincing as the besotted third wheel in Your Sister’s Sister, opposite Rosemarie DeWitt, who was, in turn, the only thing worthwhile about Promised Land. Their male costar in Sister, Mark Duplass, was also in Safety Not Guaranteed, playing exactly the same character in each, a slightly more lunky, blue-collar version of the smart, loquacious, but fragile boy-men so popular in modern comedy. Two films provided more than enough of that, so, of course, now he’ll be in everything.

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Indie veteran Ann Dowd was the engine of Compliance, communicating middle-aged anxiety and quiescent vindictiveness without entirely losing her façade of amiable managerial politeness; full marks as well to her costar Dreama Walker for playing the year’s most hapless character. Pat Healy, as the villain of the piece, ably sustained the necessary, slippery, verbal wit and also appeared, completely unrecognisable, as the feckless coworker of Sara Paxton’s assailed, flaky hero/victim, one of the year’s most underappreciated lead turns, in The Innkeepers. Similarly strong in a low-key, quietly engaging indie film was Linda Cardellini in Return as a returned servicewoman beset by alienation and unable to live in the present; Michael Shannon and John Slattery gave her good support. Stephanie Sigman as the human ping-pong ball who temporarily becomes Miss Bala was a study in sustained terror, with gifts of bravery and loyalty occasionally showing through an otherwise wisely maintained mantle of acquiescence. At the other end of the scale, Cloud Atlas was hurt almost irreparably by its excruciating conceit of using its actors in recurring roles, with Tom Hanks delivering two or three of the worst performances of his career. But Jim Broadbent held his own in two segments, particularly in a peerless comedic turn as the editor stranded in an old folks’ home by his brother’s conniving. Doona Bae managed to imbue her part as a sagacious clone with sensuality and suggestions of spiritual grace that transcended the compilation of stereotypes and clunky axioms she represented. Ben Whishaw’s perpetual air of spidery intelligence likewise buoyed the film, as did his brief appearance in Skyfall as a Q for the new millennium. Noomi Rapace was intelligent and gutsy in Prometheus alongside the impressive, but extremely ill-utilised Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba, providing, in that immortally queasy robotic abortion scene, the only real reason to watch that unholy mess of a movie. Although they did not say a word, Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta as the doomed lovers in the flashback sequences of Tabu, proved you don’t always need dialogue to deliver hypnotic performances, and Teresa Madruga as the saintly but solitary Pilar was the soul of the film’s first half.

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I know that Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale were very good in The Deep Blue Sea; in fact, it was impossible to miss, as if heavyweight dramatic acting had been included as an event in this year’s London Olympics. Come on, Rachel, one more sobbing moan for Britain. By contrast, Anders Danielson Lie’s excellence in Oslo, 31 August was predicated on a difficult part, as his namesake character only occasionally emerged from his position as melancholy observer to reveal his anger and despair, as well as self-mortifying impulses. Eddie Redmayne, also getting good notices for Les Misérables, offered a startling performance cast against type as a sociopath slowly but inevitably giving in to his worst impulses in weird and uneven Hick, which also featured another of Chloë Grace Moretz’s protean turns as the teenaged heroine who finally and fatally could not get out of his clutches. Blake Lively backed them up and also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages, cumulatively making a case for herself as a bonafide actress playing characters easy to dismiss as airheaded parasites who prove to have hidden depths and reefs. Amidst the wobbly satire and shenanigans of the chicks-behaving-badly epic Bachelorette, the key threesome of Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and particularly, Isla Fisher were game in inducing hilarity, empathy, and convulsive vomiting. In a similar vein, Alicia Silverstone was smart and endearing as the vampire long past pop culture expiry date fed up with playing the modern game of feigning eternal youth in Vamps. I dare say more people feel sympathy with her character’s plight than are willing to let on.

Favourite Films of 2012

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos)

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Alps feels, at first glance, too much like another entry from the now familiar school of mordant Greek absurdist cinema exemplified by Lanthimos’ first film, Dogtooth, and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011). Like those films, it’s a through-a-glass-darkly portrait of socially normative behaviour studied like an alien scientist watching humanity through a telescope held the wrong way around. But it holds together with greater integrity as both a story—though still infused with jolts of surrealism and enigma—and as a personal odyssey for its disintegrating heroine’s efforts to slot herself into other people’s realities. In other words, a distinctive filmmaker retaining his distinction whilst visibly and intelligibly evolving.

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)

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Joe Wright’s second appearance in two years on my list confirms me as a resolute Wright fanboy, I suppose, but Wright seems to me to speak in a cinematic language once fairly commonplace but now  almost freakish—poised, yet expressive; smart, but emotional; showy and semi-experimental, but rooted in a passion for the material and a desire to engage the audience. Few others directors on the scene seem able or willing to be as formally animated and innovative without being precious to the point of irritation. The result shakes up a moribund subgenre, but also realises the inherent beauty and brilliance of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.

Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)

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David Cronenberg continues on his recent roll, recasting Don DeLillo’s admired novel as his late-career critique of his very first movie, Shivers (1975), substituting the immobile trap of an apartment building for a self-sufficient limousine, and humans threatened not by parasites, but humans turning into parasites, feeding off larger, incorporeal organisms. Eric Packer, well-played by a cleverly exploited Robert Pattinson, is the wizard of high finance who’s conquered his piece of the world, but, now bored, does not so much give himself up to fate or primal experience as conduct another of his studies in systems, being this time the dynamics of disintegration, observing and even creating his own downfall with the same bewildered, semi-human fascination.

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton)

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A delicious, if uneven emporium of droll absurdity from Burton, Dark Shadows did not escape the stored-up disdain for some of Burton’s profitable, but weaker recent efforts. Nonetheless, this was one of the year’s liveliest mainstream releases, a blend of retro psychedelia and good-natured satire at once deeply acerbic and perversely earnest in its investigation of retro obsessions, familial bonds and maladies, post-’60s liberation, and the joys of hate-sex on the ceiling. (See also Amy Heckerling’s delightfully screwball, accidental companion piece, Vamps.)

The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong)

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Some people complain that Sang-soo Hong makes the same movie over and over again, and that could well be true, but so do a lot of other directors, and very few with the same beguiling mixture of formal artistry and improvised elan. Hong digs so cleverly and yet subtly into the more melancholy aspects of modern life with its stripped illusions, trashed niceties, and collapsed hierarchies.

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark)

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Less beautiful and controlled than Hark’s comeback film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), this follow-up nonetheless saw Hark perhaps surpass it by going totally for broke, in a breakneck ride of multiple factions, heroes and villains, deceptions, double-crosses, sand-dancing battles, and sky-riding duels. Result: Hark proves he still has a capacity to make even close Hollywood avatars like The Avengers look nearly anaemic by comparison.

The Innkeepers (Ti West)

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Ti West’s bare-boned, classical horror aesthetic builds on the intoxicating minimalism of The House of the Devil (2009) for a slightly more traditional, but no less sustained tale of factotum depression shading into supernatural terror.

John Carter (Andrew Stanton)

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This year’s Sucker Punch (2011), with a twist: whereas Zack Snyder’s film from last year was flagrantly postmodern and cool in its take on CGI spectacle, John Carter is a reinvention of the yarn-spinner’s wheel, resolutely traditional cowboys vs. aliens stuff realised with more class, visual spectacle, and actual entertainment value than 50 dark knights rising. The big multiplex screens were bathed in all the lush, absurd splendour of turn-of-the-century scientification; just a pity so few people were sitting in the audience to see it. (See also another critically underrated spectacle, although likely in the end to be a far bigger popular success, Peter Jackson’s simultaneously grand and mischievous The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.)

Kill List (Ben Wheatley)

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A restless, unsettling, mercilessly potent vision of contemporary angst, be it financial, military, or familial, churning the uneasy mindset of the millennium’s first decade into a great British horror film. Images as stark and appalling as any in classic genre cinema rub against a hazy, paranoid parable for the cost of maintaining a prosperous western lifestyle, whilst everywhere, demons wait.

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
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Lest things get too grim in a time in which the political venality on display across the world will echo in infamy for decades, Lincoln reminds us of the potential nobility of the human condition, as manifest both in leaders reputed, like the title character, and in the lesser, or merely less-remembered, mortals around him. The way politics is an accumulation of, rather than a force upon, individual feeling and perspective has rarely been described with such ardour and intensity, nor stuffed historical countenances reanimated with such relish for the expressivity of words and the concise power of images. (See also Timur Bekmembetov’s trash-mash edition of the same tale.)

On the Road (Walter Salles)

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Cruelly but not surprisingly received with dismissal by many critics, this is youth culture mythology’s bleary awakening and its night-after hangover and self-critique. Walter Salles’ film of the Beat bible strips the material of legend and finds human foible, failings, and hope still rudely alive. It’s a film for people who both fondly regard the novel, but also hold it in perspective, and for people who know that life often requires looking disaster dead in the eye and then looking past it.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

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What was perhaps most impressive about this work by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the way in which it manages to bridge several different kinds of movie-making without apparent effort or violating its quiet, ambling, deceptively deadpan façade. It’s an historical rumination. It’s as realistic a portrait of police and policing as you’re ever likely to see. It contains fragments of magic realism and eerie, almost expressionistic beauty and dread. It’s an oft-hilarious situation comedy. It’s a desolating study in time, age, and fate.

Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)

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Jacques Audiard has a cunning capacity to make far-out melodrama tropes and weird afflictions for his characters work in deceptively realistic, everyday contexts, which makes him often seem like the last of the great Victorian Naturalist novelists, the Zola of the banlieus. In part a nongenre remake of his romantic thriller Read My Lips (2001) as a raw, modern epic of sex and money, with damaged souls rendered literal in limited and injured bodies, Rust and Bone swerves a couple of times too many, but its boldness and vivacity linger large.

Tabu (Miguel Gomes)

Tabu5

Tabu also directly contrasts the pettiness of modern life and the way age reduces everyone to less than they truly are with the outsized passion of yesterday’s youthful folly, with everyday depressive longing segueing into period melodrama, but with a constant, morally serious eye on the shifting vicissitudes of history and personal nature. Gomes’ masterful formal conceits constantly evoke another phase in cinema and life—black-and-white photography and a long, semi-silent segment—and yet avoids any hint of self-satisfied stunt.

Would Be on This List If I’d Seen It in Time

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Honourable Mention

The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
Frankenweenie (Tim Burton)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson)
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo)
Oslo, 31 August (Joachim Trier)
Savages (Oliver Stone)
Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin)
Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders)
Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij)
Vamps (Amy Heckerling)
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

Reserved Approval

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmembetov)
Bel-Ami (Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod)
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
Cloud Atlas (Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer)
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Declaration of War (Valérie Donzelli)
Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Return (Liza Johnson)
Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)

Disappointing/Overrated

The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb)
Argo (Ben Affleck)
The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy)
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
The Grey (Joe Carnahan)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Lore (Cate Shortland)
Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
Skyfall (Sam Mendes)

Crap

Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve)
Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi)
Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger  Michell)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
Lawless (John Hillcoat)
Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)

Significant Blind Spots

Almayer’s Folly, Amour, Bernie, Detachment, Keep the Lights On, The Loneliest Planet, Monsieur Lazhar, Seven Psychopaths, Sister, Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse

My Year of Retro Wonders: Great Older Films I Saw First in 2012

All The King’s Men (Robert Rossen)
A Bell for Adano (Henry King)
Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur)
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
Countdown (Robert Altman)
The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kolatozov)
Dark Waters (Andre de Toth)
The Day the World Ended / Not of This Earth (Roger Corman)
Die Nibelungen / The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
The Earth Dies Screaming / Revenge of Frankenstein / Frankenstein Created Woman / Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher)
Elevator to the Scaffold / Viva Maria! (Louis Malle)
Farewell to the King (John Milius)
Faust / Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau)
Flowers of Shanghai (Hsiao-hsien Hou)
Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Gilda (Charles Vidor)
Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding)
Hercules in the Haunted World / I Tre Volti Della Paura / Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava)
Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack)
Judex (Georges Franju)
The Knack…and How to Get It / Royal Flash / Robin and Marian (Richard Lester)
La Frissons du Vampires / Les Démoniaques (Jean Rollin)
Laura (Otto Preminger)
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner / The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz)
The Looking Glass War (Frank R. Pierson)
Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey)
Mountains of the Moon (Bob Rafelson)
Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)
No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer)
The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöstrom)
The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson)
Phantom of the Paradise / Obsession / Blow Out / Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma)
Sorcerer / Cruising (William Friedkin)
The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed)
Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto)
Tattooed Life / Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki)
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk)
Torment (Alf Sjöberg)
Track of the Cat / Blood Alley (William A. Wellman)
When a Woman Ascends a Staircase (Mikio Naruse)
Young and Innocent / Under Capricorn / Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock)
Young Mr. Lincoln / Three Godfathers (John Ford)
Zatoichi Monogatari (Kenji Misumi)

Standard
2010s, Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak, 2011

By Roderick Heath

“We’re going to need more holy water!” – Ron Perlman, Season of the Witch (2011)

It’s been a hell of a year. One of rage and anarchy, sloth and pathos, calamity and continuity. Our world reminds us every day now of both how close we are and yet also how far apart.

And our cinema—is our cinema keeping pace and reflecting our interesting times? Not if you’re looking for Godardian agitprop aesthetics, obviously. But perhaps, on another level, a psychological level, a mythopoeic level?

Regular readers of my end-of-year confessions will know I usually finish up feeling disappointed, cheated, frustrated, and generally bewildered by my cinema going, especially once awards season is in full swing. So many Oscar-hungry puff pieces, so many overstuffed fanboy epics, so much faux-auteurist pap clad in the new imperial clothes! Usually my frustration tends to stem from being denied a chance to see important movies, and this year there are, as ever, a few real nagging gaps in my viewing, and also quite a few that I refuse to care about. Amongst the year’s biggest movies are some I’ll probably never see, including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, desperate franchise-wringers from people who barely know how to make movies, but know all about getting bums on seats.

Film itself, the actual physical medium, is dying, or at least bound to be valued only by niche obsessives, retronauts, and historians. Like many things, this stirs a debate between my practical yin and my romantic yang: for filmmakers it means both a liberation from the cost of the medium, helping level the playing fields a little more in the always-expensive world of movie production, and yet it threatens also a potential loss of craft, of care in shooting and assembling those fragments of arranged reality which we call films. Major, well-proven filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorsese have this year made large-budget films with personal themes that are intended for the broadest audiences possible, yet these have been characterised, and to a certain extent received, as some kind of retrograde, risky perversity. Does such fretting count as evidence of how deeply we have been brainwashed by the carefully niche-marketed, incessantly hip zeitgeist?


Paul

Yet there’s little doubt in my mind that this has been the best year for cinema since at least 2007, and possibly since 1999. Of course, “year” is always a problematic categorisation, given the channels of distribution that many films, particularly indie films and movies from non-English-speaking markets, have to flow though. In any event, any time frame that brings us cinema on the level of The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee, and Mysteries of Lisbon on their own would be a memorable window in movie history. Even some of this year’s outright disasters had at least a perverse ambition going for them. Whatever else you can say about the likes of Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, both ramshackle attempts to crossbreed geeky genre satire with slacker-stoner humour (with Greg Mottola’s Paul as a third, though far superior, entry), they had an eccentricity and, occasionally, a sheer sense of anarchy that made them far more engaging than such bathwater-flavoured square-deal fare as Captain America: The First Avenger or Contagion, if not, in the end, any better.


Submarine

Yet I’m surprised at how much bitching I’ve encountered about the year’s low quality of movies amongst mainstream moviegoers. Even there I’m at odds: the multiplexes have seen such lively fare as X-Men: First Class, Thor, Fast Five, Scream 4, Hanna, Super 8 (not a sequel!), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, and Sucker Punch flitter across the screens in sprawls of pixels and pummelling. I’ve certainly had some powerful disappointments, many of which weren’t even bad, and yet which are bundled together in my mind for seeming to offer far more than they really give: the sophomoric insights of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, the aggressively, turgidly oddball angst of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine; the overwrought mustiness of Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock; the hollow, New Age parent-baiting of Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; the shrill conscience-movies clichés of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator; the clogged and dreary Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the blundering wastage of Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America: The First Avenger, etc., etc. But even in such disappointments, good moments hold the memory, like the scene in Submarine where the young hero is left alone at the dinner table whilst his girlfriend’s family have a crisis hug, a penetrating and all too tangible moment.

So, I’m really still impressed with the breadth of energy evident in cinema, both mainstream and tributary. I’m left with a patina of sensations and textures, visual and emotional and intellectual: the symphonic natural landscapes and macro- and microcosmic attentiveness of The Tree of Life, the dense jungle populated by id-welling monkey men, black caves, easeful waters, and starlight of Uncle Boonmee, the alien, rectilinear universe perforated by proofs of jagged humanity in Drive. The soaring visions of an alien Asgard where matter and dream hang on the edge of eternity in Thor. Hugo’s Belle Époque neverland. The Moses-as-sociopath vision of X-Men: First Class’s Erik Lensherr hauling a submarine from deep in the sea and hurling a sky full of rockets back at Pharaoh’s army for the sake of liberating his people from bondage. The dreamy thickets of nocturnal suburbia where protean teens venture out and evolve into new beings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and Super 8, the globe-trotting of Hanna, the snowy mountain fringes where the monks of Of Gods and Men are marched to meet their fate, already touched with the otherworldly and the purified.


Rampart

The sombre desert limbo and the nocturnal jazz of Passion Play and the stygian, drug-fuelled nightclub rampage of the anti-hero in Oren Moverman’s Rampart. The bleak forest halls and the eerie, totemic wind farms that guard the edge of the darkly enchanted village in Wake Wood, littered with corpses as nature is thrown fatally out of balance by human arrogance. The wistful chamber music of Mysteries of Lisbon where time and tales’ edges blur and congeal and reverse upon themselves. The wonder of the perfectly formed small baby’s limbs in The Tree of Life and Womb; the foggy, bleary oedipal plains of that second film. The ethereal, noir-soaked frames of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, where murder and muse coalesce into a fabric of both eroticised yearning and alienation. Rivers of gore spilled by the heroes of 13 Assassins and Drive in their divergent quests to defend the weak. The anticipated nightmarish blood-tide of the future permeating the uptight adventurers of A Dangerous Method. Endless armies of the psychic war in Sucker Punch warded off by its singular warrior amazons in landscapes that suggest a nerd’s busted hard drive in hell. Harry Potter and friends standing before the blazing ruins of their alma mater, releasing quietly relieved breaths of victory and survival.


The Ward

Last year, I waxed excessive about some linking themes I had noticed preoccupying the minds of filmmakers, as they offered a raft of variations on the theme of the maladapted survivor searching desperately for their humanity. This year, many films expanded upon such a motif to ask almost cosmic-scaled questions: What makes us what we are? Do the events that shape us truly make us, or do such things only give us tools and vices that enable our expression? Where are we going and what things we have learnt help us when trials come? Such questions permeate movies as seemingly different as The Tree of Life, X-Men: First Class, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, Womb, Sucker Punch, Hanna, Mysteries of Lisbon, Attenberg, Drive, The Ward, and Jane Eyre. I was fascinated by the powerful images of parents with children, and those of the hazy fringes of civilisation where there is a kind of spirituality even in the act of corporeal extermination, repeating throughout many. Several films evoked the trappings of psychotherapy and depicted adventures in the inner space. One of the more conscious, recurrent themes was that of generational torch passing, messy and fraught as it always is. Sex and violence are eternal presences in movieland, of course, but imbued so often of late with aspects of the genuinely primal, parsed through dream states, myth, and frantic hunger, from the Freudian fever-dreams of Womb, to the masochistic heroines of Leap Year and A Dangerous Method, needing physical shock to suture together sex and spirit. Heroes have come sometimes beaten, commonly bloodied, often falling with feet of shattered clay. Villains have often been hard to discern from heroes, with characters who bundle together what we love most and fear most within their frames. Hell, even the mysterious alien beast of Super 8 is both a terrible monster and a desperate, forlorn prisoner.


Margin Call

Children and adolescents have been peculiarly powerful protagonists throughout the year, fighting off alien invasions, saving cinema history from the rubbish heap, battling off superpowers and secret armies, even committing mass murder with admirable focus. Simultaneously, the older men are older and more tired, beaten about by life and watching hopes fade, from Ben Kingsley’s tragic Georges Méliès in Hugo to Kevin Spacey’s and Stanley Tucci’s bruised company men in Margin Call, Antonio Luz’s swashbuckling but haunted Father Dinis in Mysteries of Lisbon, Vangelis Mourikis’s dying idealist in Attenberg, and even the collapsing dignity of Kristen Wiig’s oddly tragicomic heroines in Paul and Bridesmaids. All perhaps could hope for an ounce of the dignity, even nobility, which the monks of Of Gods and Men and Uncle Boonmee himself can take to their respective graves. By contrast, many heroines have been frantically trying to hold together the shape of their world and give it meaning by sheer will, from the fantasy monster slayings by the girls of Sucker Punch to the atavistic rituals of Attenberg’s Marina, Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein knitting neurosis into theory, and Jane Eyre’s rectitude in the face of degradation.


13 Assassins

Is there a keynote to any of this? Certainly not one that encompasses so many films, with their manifold aims and qualities. And yet, throughout such experiences as those of the adventuring youths of Hugo and Super 8, their more thoughtful kin across town in The Tree of Life, and their (spiritual) older siblings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and the survivalist fantasias of Hanna, Sucker Punch, 13 Assassins and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, the old men on their final pilgrimages in Of Gods and Men, Attenberg, and Uncle Boonmee, and the Driver giving his lady one life-encompassing kiss just before stamping out another man’s life entirely: all see their protagonists unable to escape their limited selves, and yet all finding a kind of perfection in fellowship and moments of strange serenity remaking an often dull, sometimes cruel world into a place of raptures. Perhaps the figure who could encompass them all is the hapless filmmaker of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, the end product of evolution up from the magician Méliès is presented as in Hugo, hurrying his naïve dreams past the camera lens, where Hellman’s protagonist is constantly reaching towards the past, the present, to other people, to a story to be told, and always seeing them retreat into amorphous unknowns and unanswerable longings.


Snowtown

PS: I only saw two current Australian films this year. One was Snowtown, which started off well, with a compelling portrait of seedy hate mongers in a poverty-stricken environment, but devolved into “droning psychopath browbeats fearful youngster” shtick well-exhausted by The Boys (1997) and Animal Kingdom (2010). The second was A Heartbeat Away, a film that filled me with incoherent rage and made me turn it off less than 20 minutes in. This may be an unfair sample of the year’s local cinema.

Some Favourite Performances

Whilst I found it wore out its welcome pretty quickly, I will give Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip this: it captures something convincingly, even affectingly insufferable and doleful about actors thanks to Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s deft performances. They offered, in between Michael Caine impressions, authentic portraiture of the second-tier male celebrity as show-off, restless consumer, feckless egotist, and occasionally, very familiar figures of middle-aged pathos, angry and bewildered at the sometimes tiny quirks and infinitesimal vagaries of luck that can rule a career. Many actors and other creative people can, I suspect, discover of shiver of self-recognition. Similarly, although the film actively pissed me off, it’s hard to ignore how Tilda Swinton sustains We Need to Talk About Kevin purely and literally by the sweat of her brow. Other famous actors lose and gain weight and slap on the prosthetics to gain awards, but Swinton belongs to a small breed who really does seem to use her own strangely textured flesh as a palate for her artistry, even if directors keep casting her in the same part over and over. Indeed for me it’s been mostly a year of actresses. One of my favourite performances, Shannyn Sossamon’s in Road to Nowhere, was a meditation on the idea of the actress, mutable, inaccessible yet exposed, duplicitous yet laid bare, multitudinous and yet tethered to a single constant image. Sossamon, like Megan Fox, whose low-key, well-textured performance as the angel so bruised by the male gaze in Passion Play that she can barely meet anyone’s eyes, also represents the former It-girl as case study, foiled in the attempt to walk the line between teen-boy masturbation fodder and capital-A actress, diffused through a prism of punch-drunk fantasy.

Perhaps a claim for future It-girl status was Claire Sloma’s magical performance in The Myth of the American Sleepover, the pixie-haired, nose-studded individualist feeling her way through a night of epic debauchery, coming into focus for a jazz ballet routine which, like the film itself, manages to capture something glorious yet painfully transient about the changeling age. Elle Fanning, following up her performance in last year’s Somewhere, made a marvellous contribution to Super 8, standing out amongst a strong cast of youngsters as she shocks her young male friends with real acting talent, and in the scene of the young hero falling in love with her as she’s slathered in zombie make-up, a moment alive with layers of adolescent Eros and transformational strangeness. A couple of years older but no less protean, Saoirse Ronan’s star turn in Hanna possessed a singular grace in playing a character who’s both a casual killer and an utterly bewildered innocent. Polar opposite in temperament, if not homicidal capacity, was Emma Roberts’ delicious psychopathic teen narcissist in Scream 4, avatar of everything suspect about Gen Y, managing to be both hilarious and alarming as she shreds her own body to convincingly inhabit the role of media hero, and later walloping David Arquette to jelly with a bedpan. I’m not sure if I enjoyed a moment in 2011 cinema more. Similarly, memorably ballsy and occasionally unhinged, Amber Heard strode through her two-for-one trashterpiece year of Drive Angry and The Ward with the feral pride of a lioness who considers the cinema screen her private patch of veldt.

Words of praise for some Aussie girls who seem to move from strength to strength: Mia Wasikowska, who inhabits her role in Jane Eyre as if no one else has ever played the part before. Emily Browning, whose supple emotional register gave Sucker Punch both its grit and its emotional intensity. Rose Byrne, who made trying to spy in her underwear seem just another day on the job in X-Men: First Class and managed to make her bitch role in Bridesmaids convincing in her chichi pathos. Speaking of which, Kristen Wiig’s excellence in her self-penned vehicle was most apparent when the film kept to its true brief—portraying a woman in a flailing midlife crisis, riddled with class rage and emotional resentment—rather than the limp attempts to match the frat boy hijinks of Judd Apatow. Wiig was also a gas playing the lazy-eyed, foul-mouthed, new-minted atheist in Paul. Eva Green’s reptilian cool was beautifully exploited in Womb, as was Matt Smith’s rubbery intensity and Lesley Manville’s wizened brilliance. Brighton Rock at least had Andrea Riseborough’s engaging portrait of dim but dogged rebellion against the fetid drear of post-austerity England. Jodie Whittaker left Venus well behind with her similarly sleek impersonation of a put-upon yet heroic nurse in Attack the Block. Kathy Burke was almost my lone salvaging grace for the train wreck of a film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in playing her aged, exhausted she-geek with a still-bubbling edge of randy gaucheness. Robin Wright’s retention of dignity buoyed The Conspirator. Keira Knightley and Monica del Carmen shared, if little else, a taste for masochistic extremes in A Dangerous Method and Leap Year, and both lived up to playing difficult, intransigent, inchoate personalities whose very pain and fragmentation made them more powerful than anyone close to them. The year’s most genuine breakout star, insofar as a year ago no one had even heard of her, was Jessica Chastain, in her ethereal impersonation of Terrence Malick’s idea of earthbound grace, and her gutsy, emotionally well-shaded semi-lead role in The Debt.

Amongst the male of the species, Christoph Waltz might have been disappointed with his first follow-up to Inglourious Basterds, but, considering that he provided most of the few actual laughs in The Green Hornet (“I am ungassable!”), we can’t be disappointed in him. Attack the Block was similarly given some saving zest by the flip wigger cynicism of Alex Esmail, the drolly stoned college boy filled out by Luke Treadaway, and the posturing yet actually befuddled masculinity of Joe Boyega. Ryan Gosling’s thousand-yard-stare-of-the-sensitive-hunk acting has generated a wealth of amusing internet memes, but it’s a great part of the power of Drive, enticing and yet puzzling in his silent, seemingly open demeanour that hides a soul filled with great and terrible wrath. Similarly cunning was Albert Brooks’ justly acclaimed casting as the unlikely force of evil Gosling is fated to meet. Oscar Isaac contributed to the film’s peculiar textures with his evasive performance as Gosling’s foil, but his major part of the year was his alluring, villainous ham in Sucker Punch, shooting hapless ladies in the head and crooning Roxy Music with equal aplomb.

James McAvoy had an excellent year after a spell of eddying post-Atonement, playing conscientious, whip-smart young heroes in The Conspirator and X-Men: First Class: anyone who can make the line “I can’t feel my legs” sound halfway convincing deserves some sort of award. That film was also given some genuinely relishable villainy by unexpectedly dashing, sublimely sadistic Kevin Bacon, and, of course, the man who was everywhere this year, Michael Fassbender, slinked through his role as the proto-Magneto with dark wit and charm. Fassbender might get awards props for the one major role of his I haven’t caught yet, but considering that Fassbender also gave fine physical form to Rochester in Jane Eyre and inhabited Carl Jung with a smouldering brilliance in A Dangerous Method, he certainly has earned his pay. Viggo Mortensen was similarly stellar in Cronenberg’s film, wielding a crafty, authoritative intelligence in portraying Sigmund Freud that far transcended the usual look-at-me celebrity impersonations. Woody Harrelson’s excellence in Rampart sustains a meandering but occasionally ferocious journey into the dark heart of American manhood. Amongst the undoubtedly awe-endowing cast of the final Harry Potter chapter, Alan Rickman’s hyped grace note as the hapless Snape was fine indeed, but oddly enough, I came out having enjoyed Ralph Fiennes’ invocation of something pathetic in the monstrous Voldemort; in a year in which we’ve seen genuine fawned-over-but-actually-detested tyrants depart the earth, he summarised something about them, in his cringeworthy attempt to play the loving despot, not easily appended to news stories.

I’ll spare a kind word for two good actors in movies I hated, Tom Hardy, whose sullen aggression blended with irreducible pain in Warrior was genuinely rousing, and Matt Damon’s frazzled everyman mucking through disaster in Contagion. Along with costar Emily Blunt, Damon’s class also gave some solidity to the stupefyingly silly The Adjustment Bureau. Kevin Spacey, after a long spell of strange and hammy roles, finally snapped back into A-game mode in the generally well-acted Margin Call, and gave his best performance in a decade. Seasoned Hollywood leading men Sean Penn and Brad Pitt were similarly, uncannily immersed in the texture of The Tree of Life, though the film’s real star was young Hunter McCracken, voluble in his incarnation of nascent pubescent emotion and receptivity. Christopher Plummer’s lauded role as the dying gay father in Beginners is obviously an emeritus Oscar in the making, but he was also very good, giving one of his most intimate and convincing film performances in many years. But perhaps the real gem of that film was Goran Visnijc’s role as his peculiar, emotionally bewildered lover. Paul Giamatti, everyone’s pet thespian, sustained the schmaltzy duo of Win/Win and Barney’s Version, imbuing them with life their screenplays probably didn’t deserve, and meanwhile his despicable King John in the rowdy Ironclad was a nice change of pace: nobody has or ever will catapult Brian Cox into a brick wall with as much bravura. Eric Bana was incredibly good and rather underused in Hanna, which is pretty well the story of his career. Young Asa Butterfield in Hugo offered a peculiarly restrained and subtle adolescent performance, keeping pace with the ever-luminous Chloe Moretz playing perhaps her most normal character ever; standing over them literally, if not figuratively, were Ben Kingsley in a characteristically electric turn as the haunted Georges Méliès, Helen McCrory as his sadly ebullient wife, and Sacha Baron-Cohen lobbying hard to be the heir to Peter Sellers as Hugo’s tragicomic foil.

Jean Dujardin has snagged himself an almost certain Oscar nomination this year with his part in The Artist, a role that neatly sidesteps any language difficulties for a French actor in a French movie, an interesting corollary to a year filled with excellent performances in non-English-language films that will, by and large, be entirely ignored. These ranked from the entire cast of Of Gods and Men, including familiar old hands Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson, to the daring of Monica del Carmen in Leap Year, and the hypnotic work of Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, and Clotilde Hesme in Mysteries of Lisbon, and Kseniya Rappoport as the antiheroine with a splintered psyche in the uneven The Double Hour. Sergey Puskepolis’ hulking, abusive, scary, yet strangely fatherly characterisation in How I Ended the Summer did a lot to give the film its sense of latent threat and grizzled, vodka-scented heartbreak. Ariane Labed in Attenberg provided a deliciously deadpan portrait of millennial angst and perversity and, finally, almost subliminal grief. Luis Tosar, in Even the Rain, gave a solid core to a thumpingly unsubtle piece of proselytising with his intelligent portrait of a professional jerk obeying humanitarian impulses within himself he wishes he could wish away. Kôji Yakusho gave 13 Assassins its unshakeable moral and physical core, opposite the most memorable villain of the year, the dead-eyed psychopathic princeling embodied by Gorô Inagaki.

Favourites Movies of 2011

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

Cronenberg’s cool, intelligent dissection of not merely the human foibles of the great and brilliant, but of an era and different ways of conceiving the world is his best film in 20 years, and a refreshingly sober study of the trial and error demanded by both scientific method and rebelling against the world that cocoons and frustrates us.

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)

Far deeper and more genuinely affecting than its English-language equivalents, The Descendants and Beginners, and a worthy follow-up for the Dogtooth team, Attenberg was a notably astringent, yet penetrating study of an inchoate, quietly grief-stricken era where certainties slip away along with loved ones, and humans become strangers to themselves.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Refn’s second appearance on my best-of list in two years was a superficial departure from 2010’s Valhalla Rising, and yet maintained deep ties with the earlier film, as a portrait of the human capacity for psychotic rage and benevolent care cohabiting uneasily in one body, and repainting the world according to a mysterious and sometimes frightening moral and aesthetic force. A triumph for cinema craft and directorial vision.

Hanna (Joe Wright)

Joe Wright’s succinctly shaped, yet reflexively epic fairytale-cum-action flick skipped nimbly through genres and continents, evoking everyone from Orson Welles to Terry Southern to the Brothers Grimm on the way. Plus, love that Chemical Brothers score.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

A touch distended and ungainly, there is nonetheless a genuine sense of cinematic wonder and emotional iridescence in Martin Scorsese’s first tilt at making a film for all ages, as he finds a way to pull everyone closer to his life obsession and entertain at the same time. Hugo both celebrates the communal dream of cinema and embodies it, and evokes the painful joy of leaving behind childhood even in the midst of a neo-Technicolor fantasia.

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)

Brusquely handsome and flushed with real feeling, this surprising little gem manages to quietly ransack the settled conventions of the costumed literary adaptation and find a bleary realism in an old and settled template, without stooping to Lit Theory class gimmicks or chocolate box romanticism.

Leap Year (Michael Rowe)

A searing nugget of excellence revolving around cryptic suggestions of familial trauma and Latin American dislocation, vast realms of history and discourse channelled into the body of Laura (Monica del Carmen), trying to exculpate loneliness and crisis through inviting abuse to her body from the one guy who likes her enough to do it. Falls down right at the end, but a vital trumpet blast all the same.

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)

The lamented Ruiz’s swan song had all the qualities one expects of both great cinema and also great literature, narratives and images flowing with perfervid beauty and rich melancholia in currents and cross-currents of cause and effect, personality, and sexuality, finally adding up to prove that history is a joke played on all of us.

The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

So restrained and limpid in its rewriting of American Graffiti as a Prozac-infused odyssey through the mating rituals of contemporary teenagers that it begins to feel like a fever dream, this film turns its quietly poetic realism into one of the most unobtrusively authentic, yet also artistic and beguiling, portraits of being at that cusp of final adulthood I’ve ever seen.

Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)

Hellman’s first film in 22 years has its share of longeurs, as if negotiating the strange new textures of modern digital indie cinema, and yet it carefully compounds into a deceptively skillful contemplation of the directorial craft itself and a genuinely clever deconstruction of the noir film and the femme fatale/muse figure. Fittingly for one of the true fathers of independent cinema, Road to Nowhere, like Hellman’s works did 40 or more years ago, impresses with the sense of sovereign artistry wrung from a low budget.

Scream 4 (Wes Craven)

Call it the year of the horror comeback: John Carpenter and John Landis both returned to movie screens after a decade’s absence with erratic films, the resurgence of Hammer Studios continued with the interesting, almost really good Wake Wood and the terrible The Resident, and Wes Craven returned to his famous postmodern slasher series. With original cast members obviously feeling their age and a slew of newbies of variable charm, nonetheless this, when it found its groove, became one of the most purely entertaining and refreshingly nasty mainstream films of the year, with Emma Roberts’ narcissistic psycho proving a far wittier, equally relevant rejoinder to the dolorous art-house exploitation of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)

The year’s most mistreated mainstream film (amongst several) that revealed a general cluelessness and neopuritanical streak underlying much critical mentality about the possible fusion of cinema with internet and gaming culture, as well as attempts to expand the lexicon of American blockbuster cinema, Sucker Punch is a wild, crazy, irresponsible ride through the id, and a celebration and deconstruction of the 20th century’s fantasy canon, a bleak satire on institutionalised, outsider-crushing “care”, and the relationship of both with the slow but irreversible liberation from many forms of psychic tyranny. There’s hot chicks with machine guns killing dragons, too.

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

J.J. Abrams’ nimble-bodied attempt to recreate the early Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment aesthetic also inspired a lot of surprising hostility, to the extent of crowding any serious contemplation of not only how well he recreates that aesthetic, but also how he offers a self-reflexive meditation on nostalgia, childhood awakenings, and the techniques of cinema. He considers again his recurring fascination with not only themes of familial longing and damage, but also with the act of mediating life through visual recording, and makes it work as its own piece of filmmaking to an extent very few such pieces of retro-cinema tribute ever manage. It also takes its young protagonists far more seriously and on their level than the patronising hipster snark of Attack the Block. Plus, that train wreck was the set-piece of the year.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Whilst, on balance, I didn’t think it quite lived up to the more integral, if also more prosaic, greatness of Malick’s The New World, The Tree of Life earned all its gobsmacked plaudits through sheer nerve and vision: physically ravishing, spiritually probing, and genuinely complex and observationally acute beneath the potentially dizzying pretences, it’s the sort of film that gives ambitious art movies a good name.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) and Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)

I’ll count these two together because they are, in a way, “last year,” and they each represent fascinating, moody meditations on how we approach a sense of the infinite in both human terms and through the natural world’s benign, embracing indifference: the explicit religious-cultural war in Of Gods and Men and the cryptic militarist repression in Uncle Boonmee each lend a background of human cruelty and irrationalism, whilst the foreground drama concentrates on the values, experiences, and binding ties of family and comrades that leaven the journey into the undiscovered country.

Womb (Benedek Fleigauf)

A caustic little Euro-sleeper with a powerhouse cast and a thorny plot, Womb is a Kubrickian scifi chamber piece with a streak of Polanski-esque psychological gamesmanship, that actually manages to investigate its singular basic idea through with nerveless logic and emotional depth, thus succeeding where many similar films pretend to try and still fail.

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn) and Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

There were too many comic book superhero movies released this year, or at least so I’m told. But these two movies manage to take that dreary job description and do joyously different things with their respective material, pushed into different realms of Hollywood genre lore by two perpetually energetic British directors. In the case of Vaughn’s film, that meant offering a sleek, swashbuckling reinvention of the well-worn franchise that paid honourable tribute to ’60s Bond flicks and the broad neo-pulp pantheon, whereas Branagh turned the Umpteenth Avenger into the protagonist of a rousing Shakespearean power ballad, with a smart lead performance as a fairly thick hero by Chris Hemsworth and some genuinely soaring fantasy imagery. If you wanted colour and light this year—and god knows I did—then these were the ticket.

Would Have Been On This List If I Had Seen Them In Time:

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg)

Honourable Mention

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (David Yates)
How I Ended This Summer (Aleksey Popogrebskiy)
Rampart (Oren Moverman)
Wake Wood (David Keating)
X (Jon Hewitt)

I Liked, With Reservations

Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)
The Double Hour (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Fast Five (Justin Lin)
The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Paul (Greg Mottola)
Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Super (James Gunn)
Passion Play (Mitch Glazer)
Point Blank (Fred Cavayé)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
The Ward (John Carpenter)

Significantly Disappointing

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
Burke and Hare (John Landis)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi)
The Conspirator (Robert Redford)
The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Your Highness (David Gordon Green)

Crap

Brighton Rock (Rowan Joffe)
Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
The First Grader (Justin Chadwick)
A Heartbeat Away (Gale Edwards)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Immortals (Tarsem Singh)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Red Riding Hood (Catherine Hardwicke)
The Resident (Antti Jokinen)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

As Yet Unseen

50/50, Amigo, Bellflower, Margaret, My Week With Marilyn, Red Dog, Shame, The Sleeping Beauty, Weekend

My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I First Encountered in 2011

Arashi Ga Oka (Kiju Yoshida)
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko)
Back Door to Hell / Ride the Whirlwind / Cockfighter (Monte Hellman)
The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra)
Blast of Silence (Alan Baron)
The Bride with White Hair (Ronnie Yu) / The Bride with White Hair II (David Wu)
Castle Keep (Sydney Pollack)
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai)
Contraband / A Matter of Life and Death / Gone to Earth (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff)
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Koji Wakamatsu)
Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges)
Freud (John Huston)
A Generation (Andrzej Wajda)
The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino)
It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod)
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Sergei Eisenstein)
Land of the Pharaohs / El Dorado (Howard Hawks)
Letter from an Unknown Woman / Lola Montes (Max Ophüls)
The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
Mahler (Ken Russell)
Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner)
The Nanny (Seth Holt)
Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz)
Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
The Quatermass Xperiment / Quatermass II / The Day The Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest)
Sebastiane (Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)
The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tess (Roman Polanski)
Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
The Wedding Party / Sisters (Brian de Palma)
Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti)

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