George East’s Top Ten Films of 2012

by George_East on February 23, 2013

Well we have finally reached the last of the review posts for last year.  As is traditional (well, as started last year), my Top Ten Films of the year post is timed to coincide with the somewhat less important Oscars weekend.

Before I get onto the list, let’s take a step back and look at the year in film overall. Unlike last year with Ashgar Farhardi’s A Separation I do not think there was an out and out masterpiece.  But the overall quality of films in 2012 was very high (higher I think than   2010 or 2011). There were loads of good films out there, which meant that compiling this list was a really difficult (if enjoyable in a film geeky way) this year.

First, I’d like to mention a few films that didn’t quite make my final list.

Three featured children as their focal point. Beasts of The Southern Wild – a tale of a remote community in Louisiana wonderfully pulled off the most unlikely of combinations (American, child’s perspective, folksy voiceover and focus on environmentalism) without turning into a sickly cheese-fest. Wes Anderson released his best film since Rushmore with Moonrise Kingdom with a funny but touching portrayal of edge of puberty first love in the 1960s with Benjamin Britten thrown in.  The Belgian Dardennes Brothers The Kid With A Bike was not their best film (see Rosetta or The Son if you want to see how good they can be) but still a compelling and touching study of a boy abandoned by his father.

One of the strangest and most fascinating stories of the year came in documentary form in The Imposter an utterly incredible tale of a French-Algerian in his early 20s who passed himself off as a missing American teenage boy, convincing American and Spanish Authorities and even the teenage boy’s family (or was it that simple).   Another powerful documentary or quasi-documentary was Jafar Pahani’s This Is Not A Film, smuggled out of Iran on a memory stick, by the Iranian director under house arrest and subject to an order preventing him from making films.  It is a genuinely brave work given the regime, about story telling, art and determination to continue in the face of oppression –  oh and it has a star turn by an Iguana.

Other films that made a lasting impression on me included: Barbara, Berberian Sound Studio, Silent Souls, Cosmopolis, A Simple Life, Goodbye First Love, Tabu and  Polisse.

Of mainstream Hollywood films, I thought Ben Affleck’s period political thriller Argo was probably the best of the crop.

The biggest disappointment of the year for me was Prometheus – a film I was really looking forward to.  Ridley Scott returning to Alien, what could go wrong?  Pretty much everything as it turned out – messy, internally inconsistent, overlong, rubbish 3D and lost in metaphysical musings.   Even Michael Fassbender (as good as he was) couldn’t rescue it. Oh dear.

And I really did not understand why The Master ran away with the critics’ lists.

Anyway to the list:

1.    Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Ceylan cemented his reputation as one of the very finest directors currently working with his biggest, most complex and perhaps best film (high praise indeed given the brilliance of both Uzak (2002) and Climates (2006)).  As with his other films it is beautifully shot – there is no one else currently working in cinema, in my view, who can frame a shot like Ceylan.   His is to wide screen landscape cinematography what Yosijuro Ozu is to domestic interiors.  Everything perfectly, poetically placed.

On the surface this is the a tale of 24 hours in a murder investigation centred on a cynical police officer, a recently divorced doctor and a widowed prosecutor in denial about the fact that his wife may have committed suicide.  The investigation and interaction between the three main protagonists and a motely crue of minor characters  is wonderfully realised.

But what takes Once Upon A Time In Anatolia to another level is that like Leonne’s  Once Upon A Time In The West  and Once Upon A Time In America, the story is used to interrogate the society depicted.  If Leonne explored the nature of capitalism in America, Ceylan explores how modern Turkey faces in two directions: tradition and modernity, Asia and Europe, family and the individual.

2.    Amour (Michael Haneke)

Haneke’s film about an elderly Parisian couple is set almost entirely inside their apartment (apparently based on the Viennese apartment that the director grew up in).  Over the course of just over 2 hours we watch Anne (Emmanuel Riva) have a stroke, and slowly decline.  Her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) struggles to deal with what is happening to his partner of over 50 years.

At the first signs (in a beautifully played scene at the kitchen table) that Anne has a problem, Georges is not sure whether it is him.  His puzzled double take as Anne forgets what she has just been told by him, indicates just how close they are.  As Anne declines, Georges goes through various emotions – anger, shame, frustration.    An old piano student of Anne comes to the apartment, as does their daughter, Eva (Isabella Huppert), but other than that it is just the couple.

Although this is a film about old age and death, it is, at its core, a film (as the title starkly states) about love; two people who have been together for ever and are faced with the end of the bond they have as death nears.

It is a beautiful, profound film, if not one that you are likely to watch repeatedly, as it is not the easiest watch.

It has two stunningly brilliant acting performances at its core, which put the ACTING in The Master  to shame.

3.    Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki)

The Finnish absurdist produced the best feel good film of the year, with this brilliant comic tale of how a group of ordinary people in Le Havre help an African asylum seeker to leave France for Britain.

It imagines a world where a community comes together (including by way of a benefit gig played by the diminutive French  blues singer, Little Bob) to help the boy, and only the bureaucracy and one neighbour – played by legendary French New Wave star, Jean-Pierre Leaud, try to stop him.  This is a world you want to live in.

The film has great performances throughout, in particular Andre Wims reprising his role as Marcel Marx who he last played 20 years ago in Kaurismaki’s  only other French film, La Vie de Boheme and Kaurismaki regular, Kati Outinen, as his wife, Arletty.

This is a film that you will smile all the way through and come out thinking better about the world.

4.    Holy Motors (Leos Carax)

Leos Carax’s comeback is an extraordinary film that could have gone so badly wrong.  Carax regular Denis Levant plays, Monsieur Oscar, who is driven around Paris by his chauffeur, Celine (played by Edith Scob, star of French horror classic, Eyes Without A Face (Georges Franju – 1960)).

Oscar goes from appointment to appointment, on the way he applies make up and costume.  At each stop he acts out a role.   As the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that he is travelling through various film genres – sci fi, social realism, horror, a Bergman style chamber piece, thriller, musical etc.   He has 11 roles in the film overall.

Oscar is joined at one point in the back of the car, by European arthouse legend Michel Piccoli, who is some kind of producer, who tells Oscar that he is no longer needed.  Things have moved on.

It is I think a film about the death of cinema, or at least the death of arthouse cinema.   It is ambitious, original and even if not everything in it quite works, it is one of the most memorable and enjoyable films of 2012.   Levant is extraordinary.  It also has a great turn by Kylie Minogue in the Jacques Demy-like musical section and a great accordion playing turn by Levant as an interval.

5.    Shame (Steve McQueen)

Michael Fassbender as the sex addicted and secretive Brandon is brilliant in this frank and frankly uncomfortable study of male sexuality.   McQueen’s clinical eye lays bare a difficult subject without voyeurism or titillation.

Brandon’s inability to connect emotionally is contrasted with his functional use of sex as a release.   The film is all repetitive rhythms – bedroom to shower to work – all punctuated by sex, watching or doing, with himself or others.   McQueen’s direction shoots Brandon with pallid, almost translucent skin.  There is no emotional blood in him.

His relationship with his sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan forced upon him when she shows up in his apartment from LA, all emotion and neediness – will result in self-destructive rejection of the only person who he really has in the world.

This is a film that confirms (if it needed confirming) Fassbender as one of the finest young actors around and McQueen (after his 2008 debut about Bobby Sands, Hunger) as one of the finest British directors around

6.    Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev)

If Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a film about modern Turkey, then Elena is a film a about modern Russia.  The titular Elena (played in, for me, the female performance of the year by Nadezdha Markina) is a former nurse and now second wife to wealthy businessman, Vladimir.   Although she is Vladimir’s wife, her status is more that of house maid and occasional fuck, than an equal.

Elena has her own unpleasant and scrounging family, who live in a tower block in a shitty part of the city, spending their time playing video games.  They want her to get money from Vladimir so that they can get a university place for their son, which will mean he will avoid national service.  The film follows Elena as she goes about the task of getting the money.

There are only the very rich, the poor and the absolutely destitute in the new Russia and you don’t rise to the top without using foul means.  Putin’s Russia.

7.    Nostalgia For The Light (Patricio Guzman)

The feature documentary of the year.  Guzman’s film about the observatories in the Atacama desert (the driest place in the world) in Chile, which was also the place where the Pinochet regime dumped bodies of the disappeared and turned old mines into prison camps, is extraordinarily powerful.  It has all of the profundity that self-consciously deep films like The Tree of Life  and Melancholia  do not.

The powerful radio telescopes allow scientists to see deep into space, but the mothers still looking for the remains of their loved ones in the desert, need the same intensity of focus to be put on the desert itself.

8.    The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)

This is apparently going to be austere Hungarian arthouse legend, Bela Tarr’s last film.  He announced that he is now retiring to teach and promote aspiring directors.  It is also the only Tarr film I have seen.    It is bleak in the extreme but at the same time shot in the most stunning black and white imaginable.

It follows an elderly peasant farmer and his middle aged daughter in their remote windswept farm house as the world comes to an end.  It is the creation story in reverse, as movement, animals, water, heat and light are gradually removed.  The daily rituals become more difficult each day.

No director has ever made the eating of a baked potato more compelling.

9. About Elly (Ashgar Ferhardi)

The thoroughly deserved success of A Separation led to the first time release of Ferhardi’s previous film, About Elly.    It too is an impressive piece of work.  The film tells of a group of middle class Teheranis on a sea side weekend break.  One of their number is recently divorced (and back from Germany).  Another tries to set up her daughter’s teacher, Elly, with the friend.   The only thing is that the teacher is already engaged (a thing of some significance in Iran).

This secret will, as a result of a stomach in the mouth incident  involving a young child in the sea, which might be the tensest piece of cinema of 2012,  resulting in Elly’s disappearance, lead to cover ups, more lies, guilt and the group blaming each other for what has happened.  Something which would be a little embarrassing in the west (and might lead to a fight), is shown as something in Iran which could lead to prison or even worse.   This is, like so much great Iranian cinema, a subtley political film.   I only hope that Ferhardi’s other films (there are two others) are also released.

10. Martha Macy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

Not only the best American independent of the year, but also, for me, the best film about cults of the year (I thought it was far superior to The Master).  Martha Macy May Marlene starts with Martha, escaping from the cult community she has joined.  The film shows her joining, initiation, disillusionment and escape in flashback, as she is taken in by her wealthy and very conventional sister and her British husband.

The cult leader, Patrick (played by the excellent John Hawkes), is good looking, charismatic and thoroughly controlling.  So controlling that he re-names the young women who join the cult (Macy May in the case of Martha) and each new initiate will be prepared for sex with him by the existing members.

Can you ever really escape a cult?  Is conventional life just as controlling?  These questions are dealt with intelligently and entertainingly by Durkin and it has an extremely impressive performance by Elisabeth Olsen (sister to the Olsen twins, no less!) as Martha.

This is an extremely impressive directorial debut film from Durkin and for me the best first film of the year.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Multiplex February 25, 2013 at 9:00 pm

I can’t argue with any of the films on the list George. We’ll beg to differ on The Master, and perhaps The Hunt could have got a mention.

One correction. It was, of course, boiled rather than baked potatoes that the family in The Turin Horse chose as their dish de jour. Extra salt for me!


George_East February 25, 2013 at 10:56 pm

Ah yes, of course it was boiled potatoes. I agree with you on The Hunt, even if it seems a little less impressive (and more predictable) now than it did when I saw it.
As you know I am not wholly against The Master – Amy Adams was brilliant. A lot of it I liked. I just think it was massively over-reviewed.


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