1) ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (DIR. NURI BILGE CEYLAN, TURKEY)
While Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous offerings left this viewer a little apathetic, his new film adds a new found steeliness to bring to the vivid landscapes and existential angst. Following a troop of detectives and police officers as they seek to find the victim of their recent arrest, the film explores the idea of machismo in a sensitive and penetrating manner. Ceylan paints a portrait of a group of men all stumbling through the darkness, each trying to find a peace of mind in the Anatolian foothills. The serious nature of the crime lends the drama a mournful gravitas, while the landscapes are haunting and beautiful.
2) THE MASTER (DIR. PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, USA)
When it was announced PTA was making a film based around Scientology, many expected a scathing, incisive assassination of the cult. However, the director has foregone that route for a looser, relationship based drama; Joaquin Pheonix’s vagrant loner pitched off against Phillip Seymour Hoffmann’s dapper, cultured leader. The film is a bit of a curiosity- there is no real character arc to speak of for either characters, just a few minor lessons learned, and the mixture of exotic images and elliptical editing gives it an elusive, distant air. It’s the two central performances which elevate it to a higher level, and Pheonix will surely struggle to top this. His twitchy, desperate portrayal of a man too restless to know what he really desires will linger long after the credits have finished.
3) AMOUR (DIR. MICHAEL HANEKE, FRANCE)
Michael Haneke is now so sure of his craft that he can almost turn his devastating gaze onto any taboo subject and nail it in one. This time he has chosen to focus on the ageing process and what that does to our basic human values. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play the elderly couple, two ex-musicians, in their Parisian apartment, as they struggle to deal with Riva’s loss of mental and physical capabilities. Haneke pulls no punches in his depiction, and it is not an easy watch, but there are moments of hope and compassion that break through the Austrian auteurs notoriously bleak world view.
4) HOLY MOTORS (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE)
Maverick director Carax comes back from the wilderness with this anarchic, mind boggling oddity. The film stars his regular conspirator Denis Lavant as a man whose job is to be driven around in a limo to various locations and using different disguises, inhabit a melee of obscure roles, from leprechaun to ninja. There seems to be no obvious reasoning to his exploits, and months after seeing it, I am still befuddled by it, but there are hints of Carax’s masterplan; all of his films have been to some degree been excited by the idea of performance and theatre, so this film has a lineage. But to analyse it too deeply is to miss the cerebral pleasures of the film, from the triumphant accordion band in the church to the beguiling neon ninja.
5) KILLING THEM SOFTLY (DIR. ANDREW DOMINIK, USA)
Australian Andrew Dominik had a lot to live up to after his last effort The Assassination of Jesse James…, but his latest work can hold its own against that masterpiece. Dominik seems to be one of the few directors who can get the best out of Brad Pitt and they strike up their fruitful collaboration again here. Pitt plays a hitman hired to take out two lowlife criminals who have bungled a card game robbery. Killing Them Softly works brilliantly as a piece of genre cinema; there are the lowlifes, the gangsters, the shootouts, the double crossings and a barrel full of tension, but what elevates this from your standard gangster fare is a sense of contemplation, a workmanlike depiction of the trade. Dominik draws shrewd parallels between the US recession and the underworld; the unrelenting desire for money and profit and the fall guys who suffer when it all comes tumbling down.
6) SHAME (DIR. STEVE MCQUEEN, UK/USA)
Steve McQueen’s follow up to Hunger was a similarly icy, visually striking drama, this time honing in on sex addiction. Michael Fassbender plays a wealthy corporate drone in upscale New York struggling to deal with deep seated intimacy issues, burying himself in pornography and meaningless flings. The arrival of his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, brings his problems to the foreground as they both seek to exorcise their demons. Shame is not a warm, emotional drama, but an unflinching, sterile work that nonetheless brings a difficult issue to the wider public. Fassbender and Mulligan give uncompromising performances as the troubled siblings.
7) TABU (DIR. MIGUEL GOMES, PORTUGAL)
Alternating between modern day Portugal and an unnamed colonial era African country, this Portuguese arthouse fantasy drama was one of the smaller gems from this year. An elderly Portuguese woman, Aurora, is doted on by her maid and next door neighbour, with hints of her exotic past life gradually emerging. In the second half of the film, we see a young Aurora living with her husband and expecting, on a colonial farm in Africa. A dashing neighbour arrives to break up the monotony of her homelife and soon she has a decision to make. Tabu, named after the FW Murnau silent film, is both a tribute to the silent era and an exploration of place and memory. Gomes injects the film with a sense of childlike wonder and mystery, leaving the viewer enchanted by the travails of the doomed love triangle.
8) LE HAVRE (DIR. AKI KAURISMAKI, FINLAND)
Sometimes it takes an outsider to really capture a culture, and here deadpan Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki expertly observes both French community and its troubles with immigration. Andre Wilms plays an ageing shoeshiner who takes in a African stowaway who miraculously crosses his path. The film includes Kaurismaki’s customary kitsch mise en scene and dry humour, but the director is reinvigorated by the new locales. There is a genuine sense of local community running through the film, which makes it one of the most upbeat and optimistic of the year.
9) INTO THE ABYSS (DIR.WERNER HERZOG, USA)
The capital punishment system in the US has often been scrutinised, but this time Werner Herzog brings his inimitable ‘truth’ to the subject. This austere, often harrowing documentary, follows various inmates as they recount their crimes and tell their life stories. Herzog steps back from the camera, allowing the tragedies to unfurl themselves, while families of the victims and the law authorities throw their voices into the ring. The mindlessness of the crimes and the inherent violence in the landscape are the two points of the film that will linger in the mind.
10) RUST AND BONE (JACQUES AUDIARD, FRANCE)
Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard deliver knockout performances in this character driven drama by Jacques Audiard. Following up his successes in A Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, Audiard continues his theme of flawed characters with a burning passion; Cotillard is a devoted whale trainer and Schoenaerts a brutal amateur fighter. When their lives are turned upside down, they find solace in their outsider statuses. An offbeat, raw drama.