Monday, December 17, 2012
Underachievement Films of the Year
It is a moot point to say if any year is a good or bad one in cinema, especially if one watches films on theatrical release, as I do, even more so if one is considering films from all corners of the Earth, and only a tiny sampling at that. That said, there were long stretches this year when I wondered whether I was going to see anything of note again; the better releases mostly seemed to come in clumps in the spring and the autumn, with long stretches of unremarkable fare in between. In the end, though, it was a decent enough year, with more than a few films that will be remembered in years to come as classics.
On the awards front, 2012 was a year when nobody was happy with anything. The Artist was a surprise Academy Award winner (or maybe not such a surprise) with many in the US complaining that the Academy was becoming increasingly detached from the concerns of ordinary filmgoers (that a film as ultimately unchallenging as The Artist might be considered an avatar of elitism just shows how alternative a universe the Oscars actually do inhabit). At Berlin, though the Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die was in many respects an admirable film, few people expected Miguel Gomes's Tabu to be overlooked for the Golden Bear in its favour. Michael Haneke picked up a second Palme d'Or at Cannes for Amour, and there was much grumbling about the overweening deference to realist dramas shown by Nanni Moretti's jury; in truth those films that were rewarded were, by and large, quite good but, like many others, I think it might have been a shot in the arm for unconventional cinema to have given the top prize to Leos Carax's wonderfully barmy Holy Motors. The Mostra's arcane rules prevented Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master from winning the Golden Lion at Venice, Kim Ki-duk's Pieta being a surprise winner instead. All of these controversies are piddling in the wider scheme of things but it was curious how resistant to (qualified) popular opinion the voters were throughout the year.
My own list, like any other, reflects my own tastes and prejudices; history and social realism feature heavily as themes and genres in the selection, though not necessarily consciously. Something I do find strange is that four of my top ten come from former Eastern Bloc countries (with another focused on Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia). Perhaps they are blessed (or cursed) with more interesting stories to tell; perhaps, as the abbott in Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills says, we have lost our way in the West. But that would be both an unfair and a fatuous assertion to make. There were decent films from Western Europe this year though it might be said the US, both Hollywood and the independent sector, continues to underperform. There were a handful of good films this year from the States but that is a pitifully low number for such a huge industry; and though many critics got wildly excited about Benh Zeitlin's Caméra d'Or-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild but I personally found it contrived, over-egged and ultimately grating. I have long ago recited my requiem for Hollywood cinema and these days I am grateful for any decent films that the studios manage to turn out; TV is where the interesting stuff is at the moment in the US and that is likely to remain the case for some years to come.
But overall then, it was a decent enough year, and I left the cinema with a thrill in my heart on enough occasions to justify saying that. I also saw many films a second or even third time – most of the top ten and I would gladly watch any of the top twenty again soon. There's plenty to look forward to in 2013 too. Cinema's far from dead, thankfully, even if it would be nice for the mainstream, in Europe as much as the US, to begin to take a few chances once again.
(As ever, my criteria for inclusion are: a cinema release in France before the third week of December, with films released at the tail end of last year, after the 2011 list being finished, allowed in too. For that reason, there will be films below that either been and gone where you are a long time ago or have not yet made it there, or, in the odd case, are unlikely to make it there at all. Rest assured though that all are worth watching, if any of them do come your way. I also decided not to draw up a worst-of list this year, not for want of bad films, but simply because there were very few that were so offensively wretched to warrant their own podium.)
1. Tabu - Miguel Gomes (Portugal/France/Brazil/Germany)
Miguel Gomes's third film is by turns elegiac, winsome, nostalgic and mournful but it is its lightness of touch that is the most striking thing. This story of an adulterous past in Portugal's African colonies is shot through with the same type of deft languor as Gomes's previous two films, and, indeed, much of contemporary Portuguese cinema. Gomes does some heavy narrative lifting while never breaking a sweat, being as effortlessly industrious as the great Argentine playmaker Juan Ramón Riquelme orchestrating the midfield in his pomp.
Tabu is comprised of an oblique prologue in Africa - which sums up Portugal's colonial enterprise in one sardonic sequence - and two parts of equal length, one set in present-day Lisbon, the other in an unnamed Portuguese colony in the 1960s, just before the outbreak of the armed independence struggle. In the first part, Pilar, an unmarried middle-aged woman of leftish Catholic sensibilities, becomes preoccupied with the health of her elderly neighbour, Aurora. The old woman's behaviour is increasingly erratic and reckless, tormenting her stoically loyal Cape Verdian housekeeper Santa. Both Pilar and Santa are, in their own way, figures of impeccable goodness - you get the sense Gomes either doesn't like to, or just can't, fashion mean, unsympathethic characters. His ability to conjure up drama from such unpromising sources of friction is remarkable. Even the episode of a young Polish woman who is supposed to visit Pilar, but abuses her hospitality by turning up at the airport and pretending to be someone else passing on news of her friend's absence, has its cruelty tinged with a gauche charm.
The second episode, which recounts an adulterous affair in the colonies, is where Gomes's decision to shoot in black and white Academy ratio becomes obvious and where the film really begins to soar. The half-way point brings a stylistic break –– like the Murnau and Flaherty classic whose name it shares, there is no dialogue, but it is not exactly silent either. The action is burnished with ambient sound and music, and occasional lapses into pure silence; this precise syntax is overlaid with a narration that is both beautifully written and sonorously voiced by Gomes himself. The ploy distances us from the characters, trapped as they are in the dream of an irretrievable past; it underscores the irrevocable goneness of all that it details, the comfortable colonial life, youth, friendship. The opening part is titled 'Paradise Lost', the second one 'Paradise'. It's a clichéd dichotomy but the simple act of placing them in reverse chronological order gives it vitality. Tabu is a serious film that doesn't take itself too seriously and a work of formal splendour. It takes intangible memory and makes it flicker briefly before our eyes; if we can't experience directly the textures and sensations of a vanished age, we can at least feel their palpable absence.
2. Elena - Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russia)
Almost as many people hated Andrei Zvyagintsev's second film, The Banishment, as loved his first, The Return. The Banishment was widely panned as an uninentional self-parody of arthouse mannerism, replete with overly composed framing, a chronically mournful air and catatonic acting (the latter of which, did not, however, prevent Konstantin Lavorenko from winning Best Actor at Cannes in 2009). Though it's hard to refute those detractions, I didn't mind The Banishment too much; yes, it was a much less natural-feeling drama than The Return (which won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2004), but there was a pleasing exoticism to its portrayal of a little-seen rust-belt provincial Russia. It all looked a little like a gritty 1970s Hollywood thriller directed by Tarkovsky, however much you got the feeling it was a placeholder for a fine director who would soon return to form.
And boy, is Elena a return to form. In a purely formal sense alone, it is flawless, starting and ending with the very same shot, and every frame of the film is endowed with an assuredly laconic beauty. It is a perfectly calibrated drama too and its air of steady menace seeps through every scene. The performances are great, especially Nadezhda Makina in the title role, a working-class nurse in late middle age who has married a former patient, a wealthy entrepreneur. What really makes Elena stand out though is its steely-eyed exploration of class relationships in Putin's Russia, a relationship that is, not unlike in the United States, simultaneously disavowed and mobilised for populist ends. Like all great films, Elena looks like one that will be revisited by later generations to provide a glimpse of what it was like back then, a biopsy of the society of the day.
The glimpse of Russia the film provides is a grim one, all right, but hardly unexpected after Zvyagintsev's earlier two films, not to mention other recent slices of harrowing Russian realism such as Sergei Lozintsev's My Joy or Angelina Nikonova's Twilight Portrait. Elena's new-found wealth has not cut her off from her roots - she regularly visits her son's family, who live in a tower block in a distant city, that is also a world away from the plush gated Moscow community she and her husband Vladimir live in. Sergei, her forty-something son, is a feckless couch potato, equal parts self-pity and self-righteousness, who can barely provide for his family (we learn that Vladimir helps them out a lot but only in the form of loans that he expects to be repaid). His eldest son is approaching college age, but college is beyond the family's means. They are hoping Vladimir might step into the breach to fund it, otherwise Aleksandr is off to the army, and the notoriously brutal hazing routines of the Russian military, which there is a fair chance of him not surviving. But Vladimir is being a bit of a hard-ass, unhappy at previous loans still being unpaid, and Sergei's own reluctance to get a job.
Also in the mix is Vladmir's icily glamorous party-girl daughter, Katerina, a sleek embodiment of contemporary Moscow hedonism if there ever was one. Katerina accuses Elena, not too surprisingly, if a bit unfairly, of being a gold-digger. Unfortunately for Katerina, she is as much of a disappointment to her father as Sergei is an irritant, but Vladmir, for all his grumpy bluster, still has a tinge of paternal indulgence. Elena is a tale of post-Soviet anomie, a portrait of a Russia where whatever old ties of solidarity there once existed beyond official rhetoric have not well and truly evaporated. It is cynical but never nihilistic, unlike so much popular Russian art of the Putin/Medvedev era; everyone in the film, from the pot-bellied layabout Sergei to Vladimir, the puritanical New Russian, is given their due. Though it is a straightforward enough drama, there are layers of meaning in its narrative and it is one of the most visually beautiful films of the year, with marvellous photography by Zvyagintsev's regular collaborator Mikhail Krichman. You can even forgive the omnipresent Phillip Glass 'score' cobbled together from previously recorded scores and symphonies. It grates from time to time, but maybe that act of magpie pilfering has its own significance too.
3. Aurora - Cristi Puiu (Romania)
Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu was, by many accounts, one of the five best films of the past decade - some might say the best. It heralded the New Wave of Romanian cinema, consisting of films from a clutch of staggeringly gifted young directors. It was a development nobody really saw coming, given Romania had a cinematic heritage practically unknown abroad and a largely impoverished film industry. Puiu's long-awaited follow-up to Lazarescu screened at Cannes in 2010 and then kept us waiting even longer as it got caught up in distribution hell. Few wanted to handle an indifferently-reviewed bleak three-hour arthouse film about a disgruntled middle-aged divorcee and Puiu resisted any attempts to turn in a shorter cut. You can't blame him because, in an age where few films have any business being longer than 90 minutes, Aurora justifies every second of its running time and actually seems far shorter than it is.
Puiu himself plays the lead character, Viorel, a factory worker whose wife has left him and is hardly ever off screen for the film's three hours. It's very much in the tradition of unflattering self-casting by a filmmaker, such as Welles in Touch of Evil or Fassbinder in Fox and his Friends, but you also think Chaplin, Keaton and Tati, as Viorel is, however perversely, a brilliantly comic figure. He carries about his sadsack resentment with roly-poly aplomb, jerking nervously and analysing every situation he finds himself in with a frighteningly childish inquisitiveness. In a series of remarkable scenes, mainly encounters with figures of the faintest authority, such as his daughter's primary school teacher, the staff of a lady's clothes shop or his garrullous stepfather, Viorel looms and glowers in a manner that might be menacing if it weren't so ridiculous. He is a strange composite of Roy Keane, Myles na gCopaleen's The Brother and Beckett's Pozzo.
But Viorel does accomplish his passage à l'acte, even if he remains as ridiculous as ever afterwards. His killings don't seem particularly evil - though they are excepionally cold-blooded - as much as they are puzzling. There is something familiar to his everyday oddness and the shock you feel at his murders is the shock friends and neighbours feel when someone 'who seemed so quiet' commits a terrible deed. Puiu says he was inspired by a murder story he had read about that struck him by the strangeness of its vector of revenge. Aurora is unusual in recent Romanian cinema in not having any explicitly social references, even though its setting and its characters are typically realistic. It is a spare portrait of an unlikely killer, one that is at times horribly funny, often disturbing and at its centre is one of the most memorably ill-mannered performances of recent years. You wonder if Puiu finds people trying to avoid eye-contact with him whenever he is out in public these days.
4. Like Someone in Love - Abbas Kiarostami (Japan/France)
For someone who many rank as the world's greatest living filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami has been serving up some weak brew over the past decade or so. While a younger generation of Iranian directors, including Bahman Ghobadi, Asgar Farhadi and Kiarostami's former assistant Jafar Panahi, have forged ahead, revitalising the country's cinema in spite of increasingly draconian restrictions, Kiarostami has retreated into a corner of aestheticised self-indulgence. Not for Kiarostami the sort of confrontational cinema that has seen Ghobadi and Mohsen Makhbahlbaf flee the country, or Panahi and Mohamed Rasoulof imprisoned. Apart from a petition signed in protest at the clampdown on the election protesters in June 2009, the 62-year-old has kept his own counsel and made increasingly gentle, often dull, films.
His first fictional excursion outside of Iran, to Tuscany for the 2010 Juliette Binoche vehicle, Certified Copy, didn't improve things much. When I heard he was going to Japan to make a 'hommage to Ozu', my heart didn't exactly start racing. However there are few pleasures in cinema as bracing as a great filmmaker rediscovering his or her touch, and, in this respect Like Someone in Love was probably the gratifying film experience of the year.
It is a simple tale, of Akiko, a young student from the Japanese provinces, furtively working as a call-girl to put herself through college, and, Takashi, the retired university professor she visits on the job. It is not clear if Takashi, who appears to be a widower, just wants the chaste pleasure of a young lady's company for dinner, or something more carnal. In any case, after an initial conversation, an exhausted Akiko falls asleep. When Takashi drops her off at university the next morning, he is intercepted by Akiki's boyfriend Noriaki (played by Ryo Kase, from Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, who has been to trying to reach her all night and who initially takes Takashi to be Akiko's grandfather, but who soon begins to smell a fish.
The nods to Ozu are cursory enough, as much as they were in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumière, but Kiarostami's lightness of touch in delineating deception and recrimination is reminiscent of the Japanese master. The film is also a practically seamless insertion of a foreign director's art into a Japanese setting; Like Someone in Love is recognisably Kiarostami's - nobody can film the drama contained in a moving car quite like he does - but also feels indelibly Japanese. Unlike Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which, rather typically for an Anglophone director, dwelled on the language barrier, Like Someone in Love is not afraid to dive into Japan and grapple with its strangeness and its more recognisable aspects.
Kiarostami tells the tale with a fine economy of detail; though the film was inspired by the Japanese phenomenon of student prostitution, that's not really its theme. In a superb opening scene however, we see how even this more courtly end of the oldest profession is beset by passive-aggressive coercion. And Kiarostami mines drama from every frame, often without any need for dialogue - the long scene where Akiko listens to voicemail messages from her grandmother, visiting Tokyo for the day, and trying to get in touch with her, and then drives past her in a taxi, is probably the most heartbreaking sequences of cinema this year.
5. Holy Motors - Leos Carax (France/Germany)
There's a touch of John Peel's words about The Fall - 'always different, always the same' - about Leos Carax's first full feature in thirteen years. Holy Motors looks both glaringly familiar and unlike pretty much anything else you will have seen this year. It is a film that both resists meaning but is easily digestible for something so defiantly abstract. It is also splendidly entertaining, dangling little slices of conventional movie drama in front of us as it leads us up its hermeneutic culs de sac and swiftly moves us on to the next bizarre installment.
After a prologue featuring a scantily-clad mutant played by Carax himself and a panther in a cinema, the film settles down into something more recognisable. A wealthy banker, Mr Oscar, played by Carax regular Denis Lavant, sets off for a day's work from his home in an affluent suburb west of Paris, driven in a white stretch limo by the elegant Edith Scob (she of Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage, which Carax references towards the end of the film). It looks like we are in the dreary territory of an accusational film about the financial crisis (there is even a mention of Nicolas Sarkozy's restaurant fétiche Le Fouquet's, where Scar arranges to meet an associate later that day). The stretch limo also brings to mind another, far more lugubrious film from this year - David Cronenberg's leaden adaptation of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis.
Oscar's appointments for the day, however, are not what you'd expect; his first detour is a costume change to become a haggard old beggar woman ambling painfully up the Pont Alexandre III. From then on in, it is Levant we are following, not the banker, as he transforms himself in the dressing room of the increasingly disorderly limo. He visits an industrial plant to take part in what looks to be a motion-capture film shoot, turns into an ogre who kidnaps an impassive fashion model played by Eva Mendes in Père Lachaise cemetary, dons a leather jacket to become an absent father in a scene that is straight out of a French arthouse film made by Carax's more workaday contemporaries. He becomes a hired killer who, in a wonderfully Lynchian touch, dresses his victim up to look like himself, and the elderly resident of a plush Paris hotel, riven by some mysterious guilt that is only partially revealed in an enigmatic scene with his daughter. There is also a scene with Kylie Minogue (who speaks surprisingly good French) on top of the hauntingly derelict Samaritaine department store.
It's hard to tell you what Holy Motors is about, much easier to list off everything it isn't about - all that is contained within its obliquely-linked mini-dramas. Its various episodes are decoys, supposedly recognisable tranches of cinema whose significance evaporates as rapidly as they unfold. It is a film that is, by turns baffling, disturbing, hilarious and also brilliantly entertaining. Carax has a tremendous gift for conjuring up images that become instantly embedded in your mind as surely as a ubiquitous brand logo. His compositions are beautiful and stately and make Paris, both its bourgeois and grotty side, look equally so. If it resembles any films of recent years, I would venture and say Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle, but where Barney's films were ultimately cold at their core and very much full of themselves, Holy Motors is a lot more generous to its audience. It is a film many will be watching for years to come, still trying to figure just what it was supposed to be about anyway.
6. Take Shelter - Jeff Nichols (USA)
At first glance, Take Shelter looks like it's going to be your run-of-the-mill US indie film; it's got the heartland setting, the family unit, the ever-excellent Michael Shannon in the lead role. But Jeff Nichols's second feature has a lot more ambition than most - if anything it resembles the best of contemporary American TV series more than many films on the big screen. Given the historical scorn most cinephiles have for television, that's strange indeed, but the situation has been very much turned on its head in the US these days.
Nichols's film tells of the frightening descent into mental illness of Curtis LaForche, played by Shannon, dragging his young family down with him. Curtis becomes increasingly obsessed with building a bigger and better storm shelter that will allow the family to weather a huge tornado he is convinced is on the way. This being rural Ohio, it's not the most outlandish hunch to have but friends and family alike are sceptical. Curtis, whose mother was institutionalised when he was young, takes the matter in hand, borrowing heavily to finance the improvements. He also takes a few liberties behind his employer's back, jeopardising the job whose generous health insurance is vital to his deaf-and-dumb daughter's care.
Where Take Shelter really stands out is its dramatisation of psychological decline, always a tough thing to do without saddling a film with heavy, theatrical dialogue. The storm trope is inspired, as who are we to gainsay Curtis, given the fear we all have of being forced to consider a horrific disaster in hindsight? The film's mobilisation of certain mundane details of life so often neglected by the movies is also striking, such as insurance, be it health insurance and, in one instance, (drumroll please), public liability insurance. It is this attention to the prosaic that gives it an extra layer of pertinence; it is a film in which the contemporary debate of universal healthcare resonates but the economic crisis also casts its long shadow.
The film's visual palette is also impressive, lifting it beyond other current American films. The long horizons of the Ohio countryside offer a menacing perspective and the family lives in Hopperian isolation in a house out on the plain. This, and the presence of Jessica Chastain, also seen recently in The Tree of Life, brings to mind Terrence Malick. Take Shelter has a different level of intensity to either Badlands or Days of Heaven but it is similar in its unfussiness. Jeff Nichols's vision of American life is not unlike Malick's before Malick began to think himself too good for this lifetime. Here's hoping Nichols keeps more rooted in the here-and-now, while thinking ahead of the pack, naturally.
7. Barbara - Christian Petzold (Germany)
The recent school of German realist cinema, so impressive in its forensic examination of ordinary lives and obscure social milieus, has not interested itself too much in German history (unless one counts Hans-Christian Schmid's 2006 exorcism film Requiem). It was a surprise then to see Christian Petzold, previously noted for his quotidian melodramas Jerichow and Yella, turn his attention to the former GDR.
Petzold's regular leading lady, Nina Hoss - here, as taciturn and world-weary as ever - plays the heroine, a young doctor who has been transferred to a rural hospital in 1980, as punishment for seeking an exit visa. She takes matters into her own hands and is planning a clandestine defection, via a night-time boat crossing to Denmark, to meet up with her lover in the west. The Stasi is keeping an eye on her however and puts pressure on a colleague Dr Resen, played by Ronald Zehrfeld, to find out more. Barbara initially spurns Resen's advances but she comes out of her shell when she takes under her wing Stella, an escapee from a youth-detention centre, who is then found to be pregnant.
There are few of the visible trappings of the old GDR in the film (though Petzold, whose parents moved to the west shortly before the Berlin Wall went up, says he did incorporate details he recalls from childhood trips east) and the Stasi is not quite so omnipresent as in The Lives of Others. Barbara is, however, a much darker, more unremitting film. It has a similar low-key register to Petzold's contemporary films and Barbara's secret trips to elude detection remind you of the clandestine lover's trysts Nina Hoss's characters embark on in those films. There are unlikely to be many movies that make the horrors of totalitarianism so humdrum or familiar, and Barbara is all the more devastating for that.
8. Le Sommeil d’or - Davy Chou (France/Cambodia)
The first Cambodian film on record was made in 1960, and the country quickly grew into a prolific movie-making machine, turning out almost 400 films over the next fifteen years, which was particularly impressive given that civil war raged for much of that time. The films were popular both at home and throughout South-East Asia and launched the careers of dozens of directors, actors and musicians. It was to be a brief glory though, cut short in a literally brutal fashion by the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
Like the rest of Cambodia's educated middle-classes and elites, its filmmakers, actors and film technicians were targeted for extermination. Practically everyone connected in some way with the film industry was liquidated. One of those was Davy Chou’s grandfather, one of the country's first producers. Le Sommeil d’or traces the handful of survivors and tries to piece together the remains of a vanished heritage. There is little left of the films produced prior to the Khmer Rouge's rise other than posters, the odd reel end, and the songs, which have now gained popularity abroad thanks to YouTube. It's a common enough occurrence in the history of film - it is estimated 70% of all films made before 1950 are now lost - but rarely has the wipeout been so total. Without anyone to watch over the films, practically every print in the country disappeared.
The Khmer Rouge genocide occasioned probably the greatest destruction of a country's film industry ever - not even the Holocaust had as sudden and as devastating an effect on filmmaking. Without even the ghostly flickers of surviving films to illustrate the history, Chou is forced to rely on the testimonies of a few witnesses, and Le Sommeil d’or is a haunting meditation on memory and loss as much as a documentary about film history. Among his witnesses, Ly Bun Yim, who recounts buying his first movie camera in Hong Kong in 1959 and learning as he went along. Also featured is Ly You Sreang, a producer, who, having lost his family, managed to escape via Thailand to Paris, where he built a successful taxi company. Several years ago he retired and returned to Phnom Penh, itself an act of considerable fortitude considering the memories it must engender for him. There is also Dy Saveth, one of Cambodia's first film stars. She recreates from memory dance scenes from her films, with younger Cambodians and also visits a village in rural Cambodia, where the older peasant's memories are jogged about a filming that took place in the late 60s. Chou also meets two working-class cinephiles who used to risk their lives during wartime curfews to catch films around the capital, in cinemas that have now been converted into restaurants, karaoke halls or, in one case, a Phnom Penh squat occupied by dozens of indigent families, which Chou visits.
Le Sommeil d’or never dwells too long nor broods too intensely on the ephemerality of film, faced as it is with the enormity of what afflicted Cambodia as a whole. It is an interesting companion piece to the films of Rithy Panh (who was producer here), himself the sole survivor of a family of genocide victims. It also goes some way to comprehending the incomprehensible, armed as it is with precious slivers of testimony.
9. Alois Nebel - Tomáš Luňák (Czech Republic/Germany)
The most unexpected cinematic delight of the year was this atmospherically monochrome animated film from the Czech Republic, adapted from an acclaimed comic-book trilogy by Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99. Alois Nebel relates the tale of its eponymous hero, a middle-aged railway dispatcher in the mountains of rural Czechoslovakia, around the time of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. He has been witness as a child to post-war reprisals against Czechoslovak Germans, of which he is one (his name, quite ominously, means 'fog' in German). This is turn has set in train a cycle of revenge perpetuated by what appears to be a serial killer on the loose in the region.
Nebel also, on a trip to Prague to grapple with state bureaucracy, meets a middle-aged woman with whom he forms an unlikely long-distance relationship. What is striking about the film, which is probably one of the bleakest animated features of all time, is its resigned attitude to the historical changes taking place in the background. The film's working-class characters are as cynical about 'Havel and his students' as they are about the exiting regime. That may be all with the benefit of hindsight but for a film that takes the long-view of Czechoslovak history, there is a certain Mitteleuropean logic to this derision.
Importantly for an animated film, Alois Nebel looks fantastic, its high-contrast black-and-white faithfully reproducing the clean chiaroscuro of the original comic. The action is given added fluency by using rotoscope technology, which involves filming actors and then drawing over the rushes. It's the same method used in recent years by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and Ari Folman in Waltz with Bashir, but which has been curiously underused since it was invented in 1915. Alois Nebel, with its relatively obscure subject matter and brooding atmosphere, will probably have an appeal limited to comic buffs and those interested in twentieth-century European history, but it's a welcome change from the pedestrian manner in which such tales often get recounted on the big screen.
10. Reality - Matteo Garrone (Italy/France)
Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone's adaptation of Roberto Savioni's bestseller about the Neapolitan Mafia, was an exhilarating piece of brash, kinetic cinema. You did wonder though how much of its energy was pumped straight fom the book. With Reality, Garrone shows that he is no one-trick-pony. He starts us off with a virtuoso aerial shot, which zones in on a horse-drawn carriage carrying a pair of newly-weds to an unspeakably tacky wedding reception; accompanying it is a dreamily Elfmanesque score by Alexandre Desplats, who seems to be everywhere these days both sides of the Atlantic.
At the wedding, among the guests, we meet the Chiollis, a working-class family from Naples's old town, and most particularly Luciano, paterfamilias, fishmonger, ducker and diver and part-time drag queen. Luciano has ambitions to appear on Gran Fratello, the Italian version of Big Brother and things appear to be going well, until he starts getting paranoid that he is being watched in order to test his aptitude for the show.
Reality is a far from perfect film and its main flaw lies in it not really having anything to say about reality TV. That said, there is much to marvel at in its wonderfully garish picaresque, which inevitably recalls Fellini, but also Ugo Tognazzi and Pasolini. Garrone uses many non-professional actors and coaxes remarkably robust performances out of them for what is by no means a small, low-key film. Best of all is Aniello Arena, as Luciano. Blessed with a face that is a landscape in itself, Arena resembles a beefcake Marty Feldman, a bundle of gregarious energy and corrosive self-doubt. Arena is not quite the lovable rouge he portrays in the film though - he is serving a life sentence for a Comorra-related murder and, like the convicts in the Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die, took up acting in prison - and his participation in the promotional tour for Reality raised hackles in Italy.
Garrone's real achievement in Reality, amid all the gentle jabs at Catholic piety and fatuous reality-TV stars, is to fashion such a sympathetic portrait, devoid of condescension, of a milieu it would have been so easy to sneer at (and, given the film's ostensible subject matter, I expected plenty of that). It is ultimately a warm, funny and entertaining film with a fairly simple message, delivered none-too-subtly in another virtuoso closing scene. Whatever its faults, Reality is probably the film this year most likely to make you smile.
11. Beyond the Hills - Cristian Mungiu (Romania/France/Belgium)
12. Saudade - Katsuya Tomita (Japan)
13. Amour - Michael Haneke (Austria/France/Germany)
14. I Wish - Kore-eda Hirokazu (Japan)
15.Sauna on Moon - Zou Peng (China)
16. Dream and Silence - Jaime Rosales (Spain/France)
17. Wuthering Heights - Andrea Arnold (UK)
18. In Another Country - Hong Sang-soo (South Korea)
19. A Respectable Family - Massoud Bakhshi (Iran/France)
20. Into the Abyss - Werner Herzog (USA/UK/Germany)
Rengaine - Rachid Djaidani (France)
Las Acacias - Pablo Giorgelli (Argentina/Spain)
The Descendants - Alexander Payne (USA)
Turn Me On, Dammit! - Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (Norway)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Tomas Alfredson (France/UK/Germany)
Margin Call - J. C. Chandor (USA)
Oslo, August 31st - Joachim Trier (Norway)
Killing Them Softly - Andrew Dominik (USA)
Fengming - a Chinese Memoir - Wang Bing (China)
Les Adieux à la Reine - Benoît Jacquot (France)
À perdre la raison - Joachim Lafosse (Belgium/Luxembourg/France/Switzerland)
Magic Mike - Steven Soderbergh (USA)
Cloclo - Florent Emilio-Siri (France/Belgium)
Trabalhar cansa - Marco Dutra, Juliána Rojas (Brazil)
Nana - Valérie Massadian (France)
Avé - Konstantin Bojanov (Bulgaria)
Les Chants de Mandrin - Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche (France)
De rouille et d'os - Jacques Audiard (France/Belgium)
The Angel's Share - Ken Loach (UK/France/Belgium/Italy)
Gebo et l'ombre - Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal/France)
Caesar Must Die - Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Italy)
Journal de France - Raymond Depardon, Caroline Nougaret (France)
Gerhard Richter - Painting - Corinna Belz (Germany)
After Lucía - Michel Franco (Mexico/France)
Argo - Ben Affleck (USA)
The Hunt - Thomas Vinterberg (Denmark)
Quelques heures de printemps - Stéphane Brizé (France)
Stopped on Track - Andreas Dresen (Germany/France)
Skyfall - Sam Mendes (UK/USA)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - David Fincher (USA/Sweden/Norway)
Le Havre - Aki Kaurismäki (Finland/France/Germany)
The Day He Arrives - Hong Sang-soo (South Korea)
Les Invisibles - Sébastien Lifschitz (France)
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