Rules: Films I have seen for the first time on an Australian screen in 2012, whether it is a general cinema release or viewed at one of the festivals I have been involved with. Films like A Separation and Martha Marcy May Marlene, which would have been included, are left off because I watched them for the first time in 2011. As there are close to 200 films considered here, it was hard to leave so many out. Here is my Top 25:
25. Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson continues his run of zany inventiveness, utilising his trademark quirks – meticulous framing, excruciatingly considered attention-to-detail and a catchy score, to create a funny and charming coming-of-age tale. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are fantastic (as are the surprising supporting turns from Edward Norton and Bruce Willis) and their affections for one another, brewing from adolescent instinct and a desire to escape their less-than-spectacular daily lives for a stolen period of freedom in the wilderness, is sweet and endearing. Moonrise Kingdom is beautifully composed, will have you grinning throughout, and may be perceived as one of Anderson’s greatest accomplishments over time.
24. Your Sister’s Sister – One of the year’s most underrated indie comedy gems - a smart, consistently hilarious and dramatically convincing human relationship story. Aided by fantastic chemistry between the principal cast of Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt, and the collaborated creative freedom between them and writer/director Lynn Shelton, Your Sister' Sisterachieves a rare feat with it’s swift moving story: maintaining the laughs for almost the entirety of the 90 minutes and only surrendering them for effectively moving dramatic periods.
23. The Hunt (MIFF) – A haunting, deeply affecting drama about a small town kindergarten teacher wrongfully accused of the sexual abuse of a child and the mounting insular paranoia that follows. This frustrating film frequently made me angry - courtesy of the decision-making by some the adult characters - and I left the cinema feeling devastated. Thomas Vinterberg, perhaps best known for his Dogma 95 film The Celebration(1998), has crafted an unnerving atmosphere of a community embroiled in hysteria and turmoil. Vinterberg makes wonderful use of Mads Mikkelsen's emotive face, drawing a mesmerising performance from one of Europe's most talented performers. This fascinating character study captures the emotions on both sides and asks us not to desire justice being served but to hope that in this case it isn't wrongfully done so.
22. Searching For Sugar Man - Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul tells a magical, moving and transcendent tale and explores the life and fate of a largely unknown folk music phenomenon while balancing a tremendous human story with a damn good mystery. As I began to learn more about Rodriguez (a talented Mexican-American singer/songwriter who fell off the radar following subsequent album failures, with rumours spreading about an on-stage death) and listened to the emotional testimonies of his fans and people who were involved with him, my appreciation and admiration for the man began to grow. A moving and fascinating film about hope and the resonating power of music told with cinematic flourishes.
21. Berberian Sound Studio (MIFF)- Set in the 1970's the eerie, audacious, mind-bending Berberian Sound Studiostars Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a quiet sound engineer summoned to Italy to work on the lurid new 'giallo' picture, ‘The Equestrian Vortex’. Being thrust into one of Italy's sleaziest post-production studios to work on a sordid film is the last thing Gilderoy expected. We never see a reel of the misogynistic mayhem of ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ but we feel like we have experienced it all the same. The narrative, manufactured by Gilderoy through his inventive methods of creating accompanying sound effects, begins to reflect his work in the studio. Gilderoy's sanity begins to become victim to the repetitive horrors and he begins to lose his grip on his reality. With this award-winning feat of production and sound design director Peter Strickland has constructed a creepy, claustrophobic thriller in which fans of surrealist cinema - Lynch and Bergman - will find plenty to admire.
20. The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Steven Chbosky’s wonderful film (self-adapted from his own acclaimed novel) is one of the finest I have seen about the challenges of adolescence and the life of a high schooler. There are more than half a dozen moments that are so scarily relatable and moving that they had me on the verge of tears. While one may relish in the nostalgia, and wish that they could return to those memorable high school parties, or listen to Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ for the first time again, there are a number of poignant themes – bullying, sexual abuse, prejudice against sexual orientation and teen suicide – that builds engrossing drama between the characters. They account for what has wounded and scarred them in the past and the lingering obstacles they are still trying to overcome. We grow to care about them and as a result the repercussions of the film’s serious themes hit hard. With a pumping soundtrack, and eye-opening performances (especially Logan Lerman, a revelation, and Ezra Miller, scene-stealing), this is a genuine and sincere portrait of friendship, embracing who you are and the trials and tribulations of high school life.
19. From Up On Poppy Hill – Tells a beautiful story with a charming teenage romance at the core, and much like some of the most poignant of Studio Ghibli's features, offers up inoffensive small-scale drama without the presence of an obvious villain. It relies on generating context and attentive world building, and after introducing us to troubled characters we immediately care about, Miyazaki (Goro) immerses and inspires. Beautifully detailed animation and a rousing score punctuate this touching, funny, emotionally rich and thematically engaging story. For me, this is the top animated film of the year.
18. The Raid - The now-infamous Indonesian martial arts film from Welsh director Gareth Evans, who also wrote and edited, will seriously blow your mind. The Raid was immediately being hailed as one of the best action films to hit cinemas in years. I can’t think of a film that contains action so hard-hitting and convincing, nor one so intelligently filmed. So many action films depict similar skirmishes, but they are edited together with such haphazard speed, and use predominantly hand-held, that often the fights are near impossible to make sense of. There are no such problems here. Evans has obviously brought in some of the world's finest martial arts actors and ensures the camera lingers on them, situating the audience directly within the chaos and as a result making the brutal takedowns more realistic than one can believe possible.
17. Argo - Based on the true events of what became known as the Canadian Caper, Chris Terrio’s screenplay is adapted from Tony Mendez’s account of his role in the joint covert rescue by the Canadian Government and the CIA of six U.S diplomats from Tehran, Iran in 1979. Argois engrossing from the opening frames and not only does it work as a political insider but also as a satire of Hollywood filmmaking. The tonal shift in the middle does not interfere with or undermine the seriousness of the mission, and this is what makes Argoso entertaining. The good humour of secret national heroes Siegel (Arkin) and Chambers (Goodman) is a pleasure to watch and blends better than you’d expect with a gripping espionage tale in one of the world’s most dangerous locations. A patriotic and inspiring story, Argo is a gripping thriller that proves Ben Affleck is not only a talented filmmaker, but also one who continues to improve. The history makes for an extraordinary story, and it has been commendably transformed into a very satisfying experience.
16.Weekend - On a Friday night, after hanging out with his mates, Russell (Tom Cullen) heads out to a nightclub on his way home. Intoxicated, alone and on the pull, he picks up Glen (Chris New) – setting in motion an unexpected weekend together and a connection that will continue to resonate throughout their lives. This is an honest and intimate tale – as powerful and poignant as any romance I have recently seen portrayed on screen. The observational way Haigh captures these young people in all their insecurities, emotionally opening up to one another, is refreshing and satisfying. Anyone can relate to the challenges experienced by these two people, whether we share their orientation or not. Though the focus has been shifted to a gay friendship, the themes are amplified through smart and sensitive writing. It unflinchingly uses sexual candour but always in way of further unraveling these characters.
15. This Must Be The Place - This wonderfully weird and ambitious road movie is very funny in a droll, deadpan sort of way, tracking Cheyenne (Sean Penn, in a flawless performance), an 80's goth rock star, on a quest across America to track down a war criminal. His seemingly impossible quest remains one we mysteriously find ourselves wholeheartedly embracing. This oddball collaboration of far-out comedy and heartbreaking drama is original and unpredictable filmmaking from director Paolo Sorrentino. The photography from Luca Bigazzi is sublime and almost every shot in this film is a work of art on its own. One of the highlights is a one-shot of David Byrne’s live concert performance of ‘This Must Be The Place’, while Byrne’s music (with lyrics written by Will Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) perfectly accompanies the bizarre events. Cheyenne’s endearing protagonist and the film’s surreal qualities will continue to linger with you long after the film.
14. The Grey – Joe Carnahan has created a gripping survival thriller that satisfies on many levels. When the survivors of a plane crash – a ragtag group of oil drillers including Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo - are forced to battle the harsh Alaskan elements to survive, they soon learn that they are being picked off one by one by a pack of wolves. This leads to an escalating tale of survival that’s more than the usual man vs. the elements tale tackling themes of challenged masculinity, existentialism and faith. Immediately, Carnahan builds a terrifying atmosphere and there is an ever-present sense of dread amongst the crew that the wolves could attack at any moment and fears that the elements could shift for the worse at any time. There are some extremely tense set pieces (which continue to top the last one); the initial plane crash itself is terrifyingly realistic, and the gang’s traverse of a canyon on a makeshift rope should have you aggressively ripping into your seat. The Grey is tremendously moving – one scene near the end brings me to tears – but is also tense enough to keep you up at night.
13. Bleak Night (KOFFIA)- Originally created as a graduation project for the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), Bleak Night premiered at the 2010 Pusan International Film Festival. It is puzzling to learn that it has not received an international release outside of film festivals, because this remarkable work needs to be seen by more people. Australians were lucky enough to have the chance to catch the engrossing drama at KOFFIA during the year. The intelligent structuring ensures this layered narrative progresses on two levels: in the present and the past – and the way the flashbacks are introduced is masterful. We are revealed to varying perspectives on a sequence; and nothing is ever obviously stated. It is left to interpretation, an understanding of teenage angst - repressed homosexual tendencies, jealousy over female friends, shifting allegiances and misguided over-aggression - and careful observation of these characters to determine how they are feeling and why they are feeling that way. The complexity of these characters is beautifully realized in the subtlety of the writing, but also through the intimate hand-held camera work (outstanding!) and the superb performances. I started out the year as a novice of Korean cinema, but I have now seen over twenty Korean films. Bleak Night is my favourite.
12. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – David Fincher’s re-adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s pulp crime novel is a hell of a film, substantially topping the Swedish original in every way. He has brought back the same tech team (Cronenweth and Reznor/Ross) that worked on The Social Network, and it is obviously a well-oiled machine. It looks and sounds amazing, and this close-to-three-hour epic rockets along courtesy of the Academy Award winning editing by Baxter and Wall. The casting of Daniel Craig and especially Rooney Mara (Oscar nominated last year) was in a word…perfect. Their chemistry is dynamite. Mara is bold and committed to the role and her Lisbeth is a badass. Zailian’s script ensures that these two leads are fully fleshed out – and somehow manages to overcome the source’s narrative issues - transforming it into a dark and gripping procedural. I even surprised myself how much I fell for this film.
11. Oslo, August 31st (MIFF) - This is a powerful, stylish and deeply tragic drama from Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, whose daringly upfront feature not only remains sensitively observant of its central character but is also study of a generation and a portrait of a city. It is one of the best-directed works found on this list. Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a well-educated academic and once a talented writer/journalist but he has become deeply troubled as a result of drug addiction. We follow him over a 24-hour period as he finds himself reuniting, and in some cases confronting, people he knew in the past. Throughout the film he has the opportunity to turn his life around and re-build the once-promising career, and we follow him as he copes with the perils of rehabilitation and reintegration into regular life. This striking story is told with a great sense of style - hypnotic camerawork and effective soundtrack selections situate us within Anders' personal space. Danielsen Lie carries this film squarely on his shoulders.
10. Caesar Must Die (SFF) - Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's gripping drama-within-a-drama, which picked up the Golden Bear earlier this year at Berlinale, is a mesmerising blend of documentary, narrative and cinematic style. It is one of the most original and inventive, and ultimately inspiring, ways to bring Shakespeare's Julius Caesarto the screen one could imagine. The film was made in Rome's Rebibbia Prison, where the inmates are preparing to stage Shakespeare's famousplay. Once the primary roles have been cast the inmates begin to explore the text whenever they are allowed out of their cells. They find unexpected passion from within themselves and develop kinships. Within the tale of fraternity, power and betrayal, they find parallels to their own lives and stories. What is extraordinary about this film is how cinematic it is. It is beautifully shot, predominantly in black-and-white, though colour (an essential feature) is used whenever we are given a glimpse of the world outside the prison. A lot of the takes are also very long, lingering on the inmates as they exchange Shakespeare’s dialogue, observing as the scene evolves not just par course with Shakespeare but within this potentially hostile environment. I was absolutely riveted, and I wholly embraced this ambitious direction. Part Shakespearian adaptation, part prison drama and part human philosophical study; this is a wonderful film.
9. Amour (SFF), which won Michael Haneke (one of the world’s great visionaries) his second straight Palme d’Or this year,follows Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), retired music teachers in their 80's. The couple's eternal love is severely tested when Anne suffers a debilitating stroke, which leaves her house bound and completely reliant on the care and continued devotion of her husband. As Anne begins to slowly deteriorate, both her immense suffering and the tremendous stress and heartbreak this causes Georges is more-than-effectively conveyed to an audience that can only watch in despair at what is being forced upon them. Haneke masterfully crafts an honest, grueling and emotionally devastating portrait of the strength of human devotion, delving into the fears that everybody has about old age, whether it is suffering like Anne does, or watching a loved one suffer and being unable to help them. Amour achieves a level of perfection in every frame and the two lead performances are AMAZING.
8. Margaret - The performances here are all phenomenal and Lonergan’s scripted dialogue blows my mind. Anna Paquin gives an incredible performance, but the whole ensemble is wonderful. Just watch the scene between Paquin and Mark Ruffalo. So intense. Margaret, a post 9/11 film that took six years to hit screens after multiple lawsuits and struggles with cuts, is brimming with thought-provoking ideas. Unraveling all of them, and discussing how they effectively builds an intriguing study of not just American youth and the morals/opinions of the individual, but extends to analyse New York City itself, America as a nation and even the forces beyond humanity, is overwhelming. Margaret’s themes include religion and politics, literature and interpretation, youthful naivety and idealism, guilt and justice. It is a rich film that improved further on a repeat viewing (the 180-minute Director’s Cut, I might add) and it is a damn shame that it took so long to reach our shores.
7. Undefeated (SFF) - Set against the backdrop of the football season in Memphis, this remarkable documentary follows some genuine heroes – three under privileged student-athletes who play as part of the Manassas Tigers, and their volunteer coach, Bill Courtney. This film, while about football - and what exhilarating and beautifully filmed/edited coverage of the Tigers’ matches we are privileged to - is about the human beings under the helmets. It is great that directors Lindsay and Martin never lose sight of that. Courtney surrenders all of his heart and soul for the team, enforcing not just the discipline and physical training, but psychological and emotional tutoring and above all, character building and the desire to draw out their tenacity, their heart, their will to win and their desire to make something of their lives beyond the season and football. Undefeatedisa riveting documentary about overcoming adversity, division and under privilege to soar when it matters the most. It transcends football and becomes about the strength of the human spirit and the path you take in life. Last year it was Senna that brought me to tears. This year it is Undefeated. Just goes to shows the power that can be found in real human stories.
6. Monsieur Lazhar – This is not the typical story of an inspirational teacher who comes in and changes the lives of everyone they meet. A lot of the characters, especially some of the children, are also kind and endearing; despite struggling to overcome the loss that sets this film in motion. It doesn't succumb to easy doses of sentimentality, but instead tells a genuine and gentle tale that is grounded in organic reality. The simplicity of the story is effective, yet there are several layers that give it surprising depth. What impressed me most about Monsieur Lazhar were the performances from the ensemble cast of child actors. Two in particular - Alice (Genie award-winning Sophie Nelisse) and Simon (Emilien Neron) - have strong individual arcs. It is a testament to Falaredeau's stellar writing and direction to involve all of these issues and examine them in such a sincere way, while keeping his audience glued to the screen. Monsieur Lazharis a delight. It is almost impossible not to find it emotionally affecting on some level.
5. The Imposter (MIFF) - In 1994, a 13-year-old boy, Nicholas Barclay disappears from his rural hometown in San Antonio, Texas without a trace. Three and a half years later, his family is contacted with the news that Nicholas has turned up...in an orphanage in southern Spain. He has a story of kidnap, abuse and torture - at the hands of the military - and is evidently a very different person to the blue-eyed, blonde-haired youth who went missing. The Imposteris a truly mind-blowing documentary, blending real-life testimony with sleekly photographed re-enactments. Despite hearing multiple sides of this bizarre tale, and we gather further insight from investigating parties and those involved with the reuniting of the family with their supposed son, we still leave feeling like we are no closer to complete authority on the truth. Manipulation is part of what makes it such an engrossing study and the way the film is structured, edited and scored, it rivals some of the great whodunit mysteries. It is bewildering, edge-of-your-seat entertainment. There are twists you will never see coming, and just imagining where this story could have gone, and how unfathomable that would have been, is enough to provoke an endless series of deliberations and discussions.
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Everything about this film – a wonderful adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1974 novel – is as close to perfect as you can get. It is a thinking person’s espionage thriller, with not the reclamations of nuclear warheads at stake, but the possession of incriminating information, surrounded by a stifling claustrophobic and paranoiac atmosphere. The performances from the ensemble – led by Gary Oldman – are all superb, but on a technical level it also can’t be faulted. Alberto Iglesias’ score, the murky cinematography, the art direction. All high-quality work. It takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate because the storytelling is so dense, but there is not a moment wasted. For such a complex web of tales it is impressively concise. Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) was robbed of a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards (yes, it was released in the rest of the world in 2011), but I will be on board for whatever he works on next.
3. The Master - A grandiose achievement in every sense, The Master is an evocative work of vibrant cinematic vision and a film that will offer plenty of rewards for inquisitive filmgoers. Not easily forgotten, it is a dark and haunting storm that stirs emotions and through its explored themes, leaves a percolating concoction of contemplation and admiration. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is clearly interested in pitting big ideas against one another, ideas that burrow into the psyche of the United States. The Master, set in the 1950’s – at time when spiritual movements began to start – delves into post-war disillusionment and the one man who believes he has the answers to the nation’s desire for happiness and purpose, while the mask he wears crediting his own begins to slip away. The performances are astonishing, and it is hard to find enough words to praise Phoenix, while Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are also at the top of their game. This bracing, gripping, exhausting and often puzzling cinematic experience tells, with the greatest of assurance, a pair of tremendous character studies with an enveloping backdrop of American post-war disillusionment and the guises of alternative religion. Intelligently conceived and strikingly photographed (in 65mm) and scored, The Master is a landmark American film from a true auteur of the cinema.
2. Shame – There is a moment in Shame when Michael Fassbender’s character, Brandon, goes for a run in the middle of the night. Whether this is a common practice for him is unknown to us as viewers, but sometimes (and many viewers will relate) it feels necessary just to run to briefly escape the stress of your life. Feeling claustrophobic and constricted by the unannounced arrival of his estranged and mentally unbalanced sister, played by Carey Mulligan, trying to wrestle with a destructive personal ‘affliction’ while also brimming with frustration and self-loathing, who can blame him for running aimlessly through the city. The incredible extended take, with tracks Brandon as he is running, allows viewers’ time to process all that they have seen up until this point too, and I can assure you, it's pretty harrowing stuff. Steve McQueen’s film is one that after I have grown to adore – after initially finding it difficult to connect to – and I have appreciated it further on every level on subsequent viewings. Fassbender is phenomenal – and you may have noticed on a recent list I made, he delivers what I think is the most raw and committed performance I have seen this year. Mulligan is phenomenal. McQueen’s direction must be praised for his boldness to observe human suffering in such an intimate way. Other features – the songs used on the soundtrack, Sean Bobbit’s cinematography (and the extraordinary framing) and Joe Walker’s editing – cannot be faulted. But above all, this is so much more than a film about ‘sex addiction’ - just a powerful and resonating human story.
1. Holy Motors – Arriving at #1 I reflect on the experience of watching this film, having known nothing about it when I entered, and remembering my giddiness at not knowing what to expect next, and the buzz I had immediately after. You hope there is a film every year that provokes this sort of response. This is a piece of weird and wonderful pure cinema (about cinema) from Leos Carax, who hadn’t made a film since 1999. Many have debated as to what the film ‘means’ and I don’t think there is one concrete meaning. What we see can be interpreted in many different ways – and contemplating how each of the vignettes relates to one another is as fascinating as the experience itself - but Carax has clearly squeezed in a lot of ideas regarding the history of avant-garde/surrealist cinema, the current state of cinema and technology and how performance art has evolved. Denis Lavant is unforgettable, delivering a series of impeccable performances as a man who rides around in a limo doomed to recreate the subject of people’s dreams for imaginary audiences. Holy Motorsis absurd; it's an experiment in all-out obscurity - gloriously original at every turn, breathtakingly beautiful in its production, perplexing, perverse, shocking and hilarious all at the same time. This is a masterfully crafted, wildly inventive and provocative work. It initially seems to defy logic – and it has been a divisive film - but once some consideration is given, I think that Carax raises some very interesting ideas about how we evaluate the reality of our lives. No film this year has satisfied my curiosity for what cinema can offer and kept me as glued to the screen as Holy Motors.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22