Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

(It took forever to get this post finished. I was worried 2013 would finish before I got this 2012 wrap-up done. Hastily written at any spare moment, I’m just happy that this little list actually exists, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. Also, yay to me for breaking a 5-month freeze on this blog by actually posting something. Is the blog officially unfrozen? I’d like to say yes, but I’ve made loads of promises that have not come to fruition in the past, so let’s say for now it’s still thawing.)  

If 2011 saw a distinct drop in the number of films viewed, then in 2012 this pace dropped to a near standstill. What else could be expected with bringing up a new baby, undergoing a complete vocational about-face, and taking on full-time study as well as full-time work? I’m happy I got the occasional dollop of sleep last year, let alone the chance to watch a few films here and there.

I missed too many films last year, but I’m happy I managed to find ways to see a few great films. Below are my favourite ten films of 2012 that I managed to sink my eyes into.

10. FAREWELL, MY QUEEN (Benoit Jacquot; France/ Spain)

The anticipated tropes and style associated with the costume drama genre are briskly sidestepped in this take on the nascent days of the French Revolution as experienced within the enclosed world of the Palace of Versailles. Stateliness and grace is replaced with disorder, confusion, and feverish hunting for information. History is presented subjectively, through gossip, hearsay, and speculation, and is channelled through the perambulations of the Queen’s reader, from servant’s quarters to royal rooms and back again. Proximity is the key to this film, with the camera often bearing in on faces, arms, and legs and closely following rapid trots through the labyrinthine corridors of Versailles. The manifestation of dual worlds is fascinating, with the outside world barely shown and therefore a constant unseen threat, and the inner world of Versailles split between the ‘front’ of stately royal room and chaotic ‘back’ of servant’s quarters. 

9. TABU (Miguel Gomes; Portugal/ Germany/ Brazil/ France)

 There’s an intense complexity woven within this film’s fabric that is belied by the simplicity of an unrequited love story. Dream interpretation, story-telling, and re-living memories are recurring motifs that elide the two-part structure of the film. While initially feeling rigid and clinically precise, the film slips and melts with graceful sensuality. And, at its beating heart, the film aches for cinema’s own history, yearning for its own paradise lost.

8. STUDENT (Darezhan Omirbayev; Kazakhstan)

Omirbayev should be far more well-known than he is. This somewhat faithful rendering of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment sets the story in modern-day Kazakhstan as a means to critique the soul-less modernisation of his country. Although Bresson appears to be an obvious influence, the close-ups, gestures and quiet pace accumulate to form Omirbayev’s own signature which reflects the friction between the old socialist version of Kazakhstan and the new capitalist version. While the film may be bleak and unemotional, it is also extremely elegant and precise. It also has the simplest yet quietly haunting dream sequence I’ve seen in a long time.

7. KEYHOLE (Guy Maddin; Canada)

Embedding his ‘Maddin-esque’ style deep within the noir genre possibly makes for Maddin’s most accessible work yet. However, ‘accessible’ and ‘Maddin’ don’t exactly live on the same street, and this ties genre conventions in knots from the outset. Ostensibly the film focuses on a gangster boss and his mob returning to his family home to hole up for a while, in hiding from the police. However, the home is haunted, not just with yelling ghosts, but with memories, and boss appears to be committed to nothing other than working out how to remember his past through navigating not just the labyrinth of the house but the layers of memory that still live and breathe within its walls. Here, there does not appear to be mere life and death, or the living and the ghost traces of the dead, but instead a multitude of blurred varieties of mortality. Mundane objects take on a powerful resonance, as placement and movement trigger memory. The protagonist’s own being seems to ultimately be infused with the house, and the film projects not just a poetics of memory but also a poetics of space.


Grant Gee’s film is an attempt to mirror W.G. Sebald’s ‘unclassifiable’ book The Rings Of Saturn, ostensibly a travelogue of the writer’s walk through Suffolk but also a meander through his thoughts on European history, literature, and culture. To do this, the film becomes almost book-like, with grainy images of many places along the route taken by Sebald indexed with a page number. The film thus becomes a travelogue of a travelogue, making a map of the book as much as mapping the places described within the book. The layered quality of Sebald’s work is emulated through an accretion of overlapping layers to the images – shots of quiet and lonely landscapes are inlaid with text, fading images of interviewees, pages from the book itself. And, at last, someone has the sense to score an entire film with music by The Caretaker – the ghostly sounds of records from yesteryear seem to perfectly match the spectral grainy tone of the film. 

5. TOMORROW (Andrey Gryazev; Russia)

This is a deceptive documentary that transcends a mere portrait of the Russian art collective Voina. Gryazev apparently infiltrated the group and recorded their exploits in 2010. These exploits and actions at first appear to be utterly childish – organised shop-lifting and turning over cars make the group appear to be less of an art collective and more a bunch of immature pranksters using the ‘art’ tag to justify larking about. Constant bickering between the leaders, Oleg Vorotnikov and his partner Natalia Sokol, doesn’t help this initial impression. However, slowly the film reveals the group’s plans and plots to be far more cohesive than it first appears, and it leads to an organised action that has serious consequences for the group. As the film progresses, and the group are targeted for criminal conduct, a deep complexity arises in relating to these protagonists. On the one hand, having warmed to over the course of the film, it is easy to feel concerned, perhaps even outraged, at their plight. On the other hand, there is an ever-increasing concern that the leaders are putting their politics and art before being a cohesive family. Their 18-month old son is a strong focus of the film, and may possibly even be the motive behind its title, questioning the ‘tomorrow’ of this boy’s future. Although the leaders are depicted as loving parents, the exposure of this child to their antics is questionable (especially at the climax of the film, where the boy is present at a Voina-instigated riot, and potentially exposed to physical harm). The incremental movement of this film from its first impressions to deeply conflicted and unsettled feelings towards Voina make for an unusually powerful film that stays with you long after it is over.

4. BARBARA (Christian Petzold; Germany)

There is not a single superfluous moment in this film. Petzold has sculpted a lean, poised, and simmering work that is capable of exercising powerful contradictions. East Germany in the 1980’s is visually presented as bleak, cold, and clinical, but also replete with visual warmth, colour and softness. The eponymous protagonist vacillates from aloof to abrasive to cordial to vulnerable and then back again. Within an economically spare visual framework and script, Petzold has performed some kind of magic to engineer a constant push-and-pull of emotional attachment, while steadily tightening the tension to near vice-like proportions.

3. THE LONELIEST PLANET (Julia Loktev; USA/ Germany)

The most devastating split second on film in 2012. This blink-and-you-miss-it decision ruptures the supposed harmony between an engaged couple travelling through the Caucasus Mountains, but what makes the film so powerful is through showing this rupture via wordless treks, haunted expressions, and floundering gestures of rapprochement and mitigation. Loktev opts for having the characters thoughts and emotions locked deep inside their heads, withdrawing them to the loneliest place from each other but also allowing the viewer to make a deeper ‘there-but-for-the-grace-of-God’ connection. Because of this very spartan approach, this film is possibly the most tragic portrait of relationship to hit the screen in a long, long time.

2. HOLY MOTORS (Leos Carax; France/ Germany)

From out of nowhere, Carax pulls out his best and wildest film ever. This is a love poem to cinema’s own history, a vehicle for Denis Lavant’s powers of performative commitment and self-transformation, and a spectral journey through the streets of Paris all rolled into one. But there’s more, so much more. The act of performing takes on an incrementally elegiac tone, with Lavant getting wearier with each appointment. Is it the weight of expectation from an unseen audience, the same audience watching a film (or watching us?) at the beginning of this wild ride? You almost wonder if Lavant’s Mr. Oscar is always aware that we are watching him, that we demand these appointments be kept. Carax seems to portray cinema itself as loaded down with this heavy weight of demands and desires, and has attempted to craft a magnificent vehicle to try and shuck off the weight and fly to freedom.

1. DIFFERENTLY, MOLUSSIA (Nicolas Rey; France)

Rey’s full-length experimental masterpiece operates on totally different plane than any other film of 2012. Composed of 9 reels that can be played in any random order, it exists in a perpetual present, its trajectory never a foregone conclusion. This freedom seems to give the film a mesmeric quality. Rey’s work is an interpretation of a book he has never read (Gunther Anders’ 1936 novel The Molussian Catacomb), in a language he does not understand (German). Grainy and colour-drained footage of ploughed fields, sparse hills, highways, and industrial buildings are wedded with fragments from Anders’ book, but the spoken text is drizzled sporadically over the images, allowing for a hypnotic change in the way the landscape is viewed. The footage, derived from ‘our’ world, eerily becomes another world, the fictional city of Molussia. The novel’s dystopian city of the future is woven into our ‘now’, rendering time, history and verisimilitude as arbitrary concerns. This blending of contemporary Europe into fictional Molussia is almost hallucinatory, a vertiginous magic trick born from celluloidal grain and pockmarks. Truly spellbinding.

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