I made a real effort to see all the major releases this year so that my top 10 has some meaning. A couple of notable films still slipped through, most conspicuously The Avengers (highest grosser of the year?!) and The Hobbit, Life of Pi. I doubt any of these would have made my top 10, but you never know. You can check the validity of my efforts by looking at this spreadsheet of the films I watched this year: http://bit.ly/10AYW7x
There were a few films that were notably lauded by UK critics this year that I admired but had reservations about (Berberian Sound Studio, Tabu, Cosmopolis). There were some others were similarly championed which I didn’t see much in at all, or downright disliked (Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild, This is Not a Film, The Artist, Shame, Killing Them Softly). There were a couple I’d love to include which are disqualified for not being 2012 releases (Dreams of a Life, Hors Satan) and there was the odd one which I liked a fair bit more than most, but I don’t feel perverse/provocative enough to fit into my top 10 (Prometheus). Near misses include Martha Marcy May Marlene, Weekend, Kotoko, Elena and Rust & Bone.
1) Holy Motors
My head tells me that this isn’t as good a film as numbers 2) and 3) in my list, but my heart says this has to be the number one film of the year. I watched it for the first time on the day of its UK release, but at home on a VOD service that was so technically compromised it should have left me furious. In fact the sheer joy and exuberance of the film cut through any annoyance. This is a film about performance, cinema and the power of moving images, but while I had some serious concerns this year about the trend in UK film journalism to over-praise films because of their inbuilt cinematic self-referentiality (Tabu, Berberian), Holy Motors can be enjoyed by any adventurous viewer regardless of a prior knowledge of, say, Les yeux sans visage. Every sequence and frame is filled with passion; the passion of imparting memorable, eye-searing and beautiful imagery that will stay with the viewer. I watched it again at the cinema and it’s not as powerful second time around, but like Pauline Kael I’m a great believe that first viewings are the only ones that matter.
2) Nostalgia For The Light
A 2010 film only released this year in the UK, and one I hadn’t managed to see until it was. Not just an impressive intellectual discourse linking the search for the history of light and the search for archeological and social history in the Atacama desert, but also a thoroughly moving and humane documentary. Chilean cinema may need to move on from 1973, but if ever film was to provide such cultural catharsis it would be this one.
3) Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
Ceylan’s sixth feature had everything. It was absorbing, haunting and meditative like the very best ‘slow cinema’, but never overly challenging or obstructive. Complex themes around guilt, corruption and repression are surfaced with a playful, humorous tone that’s as unexpected as it is delightful. Its cinematography isn’t just starkly beautiful but also packed with meaning and metaphor, such as the famous shot of the pristine apple gathering dirt as it falls down the hillside. My favourite Ceylan remains the more formally focused Climates, but this is magisterial filmmaking.
I never expected to see the intimate social cinema of Mike Leigh transposed to the US, but for me that’s what Margaret was. As far as I know no other critics made the connection, but Lonergan’s attempts to capture ultra-realistic social confrontations, complete with all the tics, mistakes, misapprehensions and mannerisms we see in everyday life was pure Leigh, as was Anna Pacquin’s gauche, passionate, annoying and (dare I say) strident central character. Of course the film was more expansive, intricate and dramatic than many of Leigh’s and it was totally Lonergan’s own. It was also brilliant.
5) The Raid
I always like to include at least one example of cinematic spectacle and this relatively low budget UK-Indonesian action film trumps all Hollywood’s pyrotechnics, for me. The kineticism and energy on display amounts to a distillation of all the joys of pure cinema.
The UK had to wait an awful long time for Hadewijch, but it was, of course, worth it. Dumont’s tongue seems less firmly in cheek than usual for this relatively straightly told tale of a young woman whose religious fervor is co-opted by fanatics. Dumont’s unusual take on religion is to the fore again – his focus on the lowly, purist, transcendental forms of divinity has seen him compared to the likes of Pasolini and Bresson, and here Dumont echoes the Frenchman’s genius for purposefully obscured, ambiguous framing.
7) The Hunt
Some had doubts about the believability of this story of a small town’s descent into anti-paedophile hysteria, but I don’t think it required an excessive suspension of disbelief. Vinterberg’s approach is refreshing: rather than an intimate, gritty drama, this is colourful, vivid, verging on impressionistic widescreen cinema . Funny at just the right moments and in just the right amounts.
I didn’t admire this as much as many others and find it absurd that a second tier Haneke like this received the Palme D’Or over Holy Motors. But second-tier Haneke is still much better than most films in any given year. After the Cannes hype I expected Haneke not only leave me emotionally devastated but to rip my heart out of my body and render me a sack of wobbling insentient sinew. Amour didn’t live up to those expectations, but it’s an affecting and thought provoking drama containing the year’s best two performances.
9) The Dark Knight Rises
Yes it’s flawed and frustrating at times, and easily the weakest of the trilogy, but for me it’s still the best mainstream Hollywood offering of the year. The fact that so many are down on it just proves how much Nolan has spoiled us. The action spectacular won’t be the same again, as the trilogy’s subtle influence on films like Skyfall proves. Exhilarating and exciting cinema, brilliantly conceived to the highest technical standards.
10) The Descendents
My curveball choice is a film overlooked by most either because it came so early in the year, or because most critics thought Payne had gone too mainstream and cuddly. I like to include something warm and this was the best films of its type I saw this year. I thought Payne did an excellent job crafting sympathy for a rich Hawaiian and there are some marvelous scenes of Payne awkwardness, wry humour and touching moments aplenty.
These are the best ‘older films’ I saw, although I also saw Certified Copy, Down Terrace and Police Adjective for the first time this year, three films I consider among the best of their respective decades.
1) Colour of Pomegranates
3) Letter Never Sent
4) Boat People
6) A Night To Remember
7) The Phantom Carriage
8) The Naked Prey
9) The Exiles
10 People On Sunday