Favourite Films of 2012

28 December 2012

Hugo

I had a bit of fun this year keeping count of the number of films I watched and discovered that on average I saw six films per week. A large portion of my viewing was of films that received a theatrical release in Melbourne during 2012 and therefore qualify for the parameters in which I select my favourite films of the year. I saw over half the films that had a general release somewhere in Melbourne and while there are about 30 films that I still would like to catch up with, I feel fairly confident that I saw everything that would qualify for consideration for the list below.

I was tempted to not order or rank my favourites, but I changed my mind after another critic encouraged me to do so by saying that if there is one time during the year to be frivolous it is when compiling such lists. Besides, I’m calling these my favourite films – not making any claims about them being the best – so why not have fun?

Favourite ten films with a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australia in 2012:

1. Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

Hugo

Hugo is a perfect encapsulation of Scorsese the artist, film historian and pioneer – a technologically advanced 3D spectacle celebrating the craft and imagination of early cinema.’ Full review

 

2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

‘Everything about this film is economical – dialogue, acting style and visual style – so that from the very opening shot the audience are themselves playing the part of spies, attempting to piece together information and looking for clues.’ Full review

 

3. Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Weekend

Weekend is one of the most impressive films ever made about love. Haigh’s confidence and intelligence as a filmmaker, has resulted in a sincere and emotionally engaging film.’ Full review

 

4. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Holy Motors

‘The very existence of a film like Holy Motors is cause for celebration. It demonstrates that playful can be profound, bewildering can be meaningful and randomness can have precision. It undermines so many cinematic conventions and yet is a loving tribute to cinema.’ Full review

 

5. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2011)

The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea best combines Davies’s representation of memory with a traditional narrative structure. The result is his finest film to date.’ Full review

 

6. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

‘An epic meditation on morality, civilisation, masculinity and how every generation suffers the sins of the one before it.’ Full review

 

7. Beasts of the Southern Wild  (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

(Quvenzhané Wallis), (Gina Montana)

Beasts of the Southern Wild combines big scale ideas about the natural world and how humans relate to it, with a very personal and subjective portrayal of a young girl reconciling what is happening to her father and community.’ Full review

 

8. Lore (Cate Shortland, 2012)

Lore

‘Shortland has done an extraordinary job making such a bleak story into a deeply fulfilling and beautiful film. Lore is an impressionist survival film and an existential war film, and also something truly singular and remarkable.’ Full review

 

9. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012)

Killing Them Softly

‘Incorporating several stunning stylised moments with a grim, gritty reality, Killing Them Softly is an engrossing vision of hell where status, money and image have become the ultimate goal and human life is just another commodity to be traded.’ Full review

 

10. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

Frankenweenie

‘A tribute to the type of cinema and cinematic techniques that originally inspired Burton, while growing up as something of an outsider in suburban California during the 1960s and 1970s, finding solace in monster movies and animation.’ Full review

Honourable mentions:

11. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012)

12. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

13. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

14. The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012)

15. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)

16. The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011)

17. A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

18. The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)

19. The Grey (Joe Carnahan, 2012)

20. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

Favourite ten films not given a full theatrical release

This is where the list making becomes extremely personal since it is based on the films I happened to see out of a very large selection of festival and speciality programmed screenings held for the public somewhere in Melbourne in 2012. I am aware that there are several films that would probably have made this list if I had seen them. It is also worth noting that the top five films on this list are either confirmed or more than likely to receive a general release in 2013:

Amour

1. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)

2. ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012)

3. Broken (Rufus Norris, 2012)

4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)

5. Ernest et Célestine (Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, 2012)

6. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011)

7. Kauwboy (Boudewijn Koole, 2012)

8. Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, 2011)

9. Keyhole (Guy Maddin, 2011)

10. The Legend of Kaspar Hauser (La leggenda di Kaspar Hauser, Davide Manuli, 2012)

Special mention:

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012) – feature length edit of Hertzfeldt’s previous three short films, released on DVD through bitter films.

It's Such a Beautiful Day

 

Favourite retrospective screenings and re-releases

The most personal list of all is this one, where I acknowledge the screenings of older films that brought me the most joy this year. Some of these were revisits of old favourites, seeing them on the big screen for the first time, while many were new discoveries:

Raiders of the Lost Arc 

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) – re-released at The Astor Theatre

2. America America (Elia Kazan, 1963) – The Melbourne Cinémathèque, Elia Kazan: The Outsider season

3. Time Regained (Le temps retrouvé, Raúl Ruiz, 1999) – The Melbourne Cinémathèque, Immortal Stories: The Living Cinema Of Raúl Ruiz season

4. Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946) – The Astor Theatre, David Lean Tribute

5. Solaris (Solyaris, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972) – The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, (ACMI) Space on Film program

6. Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959) – ACMI First Look

7. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996) – ACMI First Look

8. Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006) – ACMI, Nocturnal Transmissions: The Cinema of Guy Maddin program

9. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999) – The Melbourne Cinémathèque, Borderlines: Selected Works by Claire Denis season

10. House (Hausu, Nobuhiko Ohbayashi, 1977) – ACMI, Nocturnal Transmissions: The Cinema of Guy Maddin program

Special mentions:

Seeing Goblin play their score to Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) live at ACMI as part of Melbourne Music Week was also pretty special. Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the re-release of Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986) at the Astor Theatre, especially as it was also the film that the theatre screened on its Protect the Astor day, which was part of a larger campaign that achieved considerable success in 2012.

Labyrinth

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

This list was originally compiled for the Senses of Cinema 2012 World Poll

PS Feel free to comment and add your thoughts and comparisons. Please note that the spirit of this post is celebratory so long rants about stuff you didn’t like or grand declarations of outrage probably won’t make it through the moderation process!

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The Movie Man: Martin Scorsese

4 February 2012

Martin Scorsese

There are few filmmakers who rival Martin Scorsese’s contribution to cinema. The 69-year-old New Yorker is part of the passionate and highly film-literate moviemakers (including Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) that started their careers in the 1970s during the New Hollywood era. These directors created the modern blockbuster and came to define American cinema.

Whether making gangster films, period films or biopics, Scorsese explores aspects of masculinity, identity and violence. His protagonists are often loners in a chaotic world trying to make sense of the madness around them, grappling with issues of guilt, penance and spiritual enlightenment. Nostalgia plays a big part in Scorsese’s films, but so do regret and loss. Many of his films end ambiguously, with a sense of irony or with the main character on the decline. Frequently working with the same crew, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker on almost every film, and the same actors (such as Robert De Niro and, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese is one of the few American auteurs, as his films can be regarded as a personal expression of his author-like direction.

Many of Scorsese’s early films reflected his childhood as the son of Catholic Italian immigrants living in New York. While attending film school in the 1960s he made a handful of short films before making his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). It starred his then-preferred leading actor, Harvey Keitel, as a typically Scorsesesque troubled man. The film contained some hallmarks of his later films with its focus on Italian-American communities, life-on-the-street feel, and a rock soundtrack. Following Boxcar Bertha (1972), which he made with legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, Scorsese made Mean Streets (1973). This film announced his arrival as a filmmaker of note, and was the first time Scorsese worked with De Niro, capturing the stories, characters and atmosphere of Little Italy in New York City, where Scorsese grew up.

After his under-appreciated Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), a rare Scorsese film with a leading female protagonist (played by Ellen Burstyn), he made his masterpiece. Taxi Driver (1976) featured De Niro as an insomniac Vietnam veteran, Travis Bickle, who descends into violent madness. The film coined the phrase ‘are you talkin’ to me’, inspired the 1981 assassination attempt on US President Ronald Reagan and remains one of the greatest cinematic portrayals of paranoid psychosis. More importantly, Taxi Driver established Scorsese’s favourite techniques of using slow motion and fluid tracking shots to convey the subjective experience of his protagonists.

Reflecting his love of different cinematic movements from all over the world, a Scorsese film will often blend cinema-vérité techniques with the dreamlike imagery of avant-garde films. These elements were stunningly combined in Scorsese’s 1980 biopic, Raging Bull, with De Niro as the turbulent boxer Jake LaMotta. This black-and-white epic portrays masculinity at its most violent, reprehensible, pitiful and tragic. Taxi Driver might be the masterpiece, but Raging Bull is the definitive Scorsese film.

Between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull Scorsese made the homage to Hollywood musicals, New York, New York (1977) and a concert film of The Band, The Last Waltz (1978).

Throughout his career, Scorsese’s love of music is expressed on his soundtracks, which alternate between original scores by composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Philip Glass and Peter Gabriel, and eclectic pop and rock compilations. He also produced the 2003 documentary series, The Blues, and has made documentaries about Bob Dylan (No Direction Home; 2005), the Rolling Stones (Shine a Light; 2008) and most recently George Harrison (Living in the Material World; 2011). He even directed the ‘Bad’ music video for Michael Jackson in 1987.

Scorsese’s 1980s films were slightly left-of-field ventures. And, with the forgettable exception of The Color of Money (1986; a sequel to the Paul Newman classic of 1961, The Hustler), they are fascinating. The King of Comedy (1983) cast De Niro as a struggling comedian trying to get the attention of a famous talk-show host, played by Jerry Lewis. It’s Taxi Driver as a critique of showbiz. After Hours (1985) was a low-budget surreal comedy about a man in New York trying to get home one night. Of most interest was The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a highly controversial film that depicted what Christ’s life may have been like if he didn’t die on the cross and lived as a mortal man. Despite accusations of blasphemy, the film remains an extraordinary examination of spirituality and faith.

In 1990, Scorsese made the gangster masterpiece Goodfellas. It’s classic Scorsese: violent, focused on the Italian-American mob, ending with a whimper rather than a bang, featuring De Niro among others, and full of iconic music and visual flourishes. Following his 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, with De Niro playing the vengeful former convict Max Cady, Scorsese made Casino (1995), which functioned as a sort of unofficial but far more violent follow-up to Goodfellas. The final ‘conventional’ Scorsese film of the 1990s was Bringing out the Dead (1999), where he teamed up with writer (and also director) Paul Schrader for the forth and final time after previously collaborating on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation. Dead was an almost black comic retelling of Taxi Driver, this time featuring an exhausted paramedic played by Nicolas Cage.

After Goodfellas, the two standout 1990s films for Scorsese were the less obvious The Age of Innocence (1993) and Kundun (1997). An adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, Innocence did not seem like a typical Scorsese film, but its New York setting and melancholic male protagonist, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), were Scorsese hallmarks. Likewise, a film about the 14th Dalai Lama initially seemed an odd choice, but Kundun displayed Scorsese’s command of using film style to convey the experience of a male protagonist in a world he struggles to comprehend. Just as Scorsese’s other religiously themed film, Last Temptation, attracted controversy, so did Kundun – this time from the Chinese Government, which wasn’t pleased about a film depicting the exiled Tibetan leader sympathetically.

The past decade has seen Scorsese repeatedly collaborate with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, starting with the disappointing period crime drama, Gangs of New York (2002). The director–actor partnership with DiCaprio picked up in 2004 with the impressive biopic, The Aviator, about the notoriously reclusive film producer and aviation pioneer, Howard Hughes. In 2010 the pair worked together on Shutter Island, one of Scorsese’s most misunderstood films (the complex, subjective film style used to signal the true nature of DiCaprio’s US Marshal character was mistaken for giving away the ‘twist’ ending, which was in fact not a twist at all).

Scorsese’s 2000s peak came in 2006 with The Departed, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime drama, Infernal Affairs. Once more full of Scorsese’s trademark crime violence and psychopathic male characters, The Departed was a complex film about identity and loyalty. Some audiences were annoyed that Scorsese had remade a recent and much loved Hong Kong film, while others preferred Scorsese’s less melodramatic and more straightforward version. The Departed finally earned Scorsese an Academy Award for Best Director (he had previously been nominated five times).

The importance of what Scorsese has done for cinema cannot be understated. Not only has he made numerous American classics, he has also long campaigned for the need to preserve older films. He has made documentaries about American and Italian cinema, and is endlessly championing films from all over the world. He co-created the Film Foundation in 1990, and the World Cinema Foundation in 2007 (both organisations are dedicated to the preservation and restoration of films).

The man loves cinema, which is what is so beautifully expressed in his latest 3D family film, Hugo (2011). Not only does Hugo celebrate the wonders of films from a previous era, it introduces a whole new generation to the joys of cinema. Unlike his many protagonists, Scorsese is not about to fade into obscurity. Indeed, he is making films that are as remarkable, inspirational and unpredictable as anything else he has done during his extraordinary career.

The Big Issue, issue 398Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 398, 2012

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Hugo (2011)

9 January 2012
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz)

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz)

Martin Scorsese’s passion for cinema has long been evident. His filmography is filled with titles that not only reference cinema of the past, especially Italian and classical Hollywood cinema, but push the development of contemporary cinema. Scorsese’s ability to look lovingly to the past and excitedly toward the future is further exemplified by his work in restoring and preserving older films while continuing to challenge himself artistically. Hugo is a perfect encapsulation of Scorsese the artist, film historian and pioneer – a technologically advanced 3D spectacle celebrating the craft and imagination of early cinema.

The visual splendour throughout Hugo is mostly derived from its 1930s Parisian train station setting. The light and colour of the production design are heightened to create an expressive fairy tale world, which nevertheless remains grounded in a recognisable reality without ever slipping into overt whimsy or Magic Realism. The true visual flourishes occur when the audience are taken behind-the-scenes of the station, into the hidden passages and rooms occupied by the orphaned boy Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield). In these labyrinthine catacombs, Hugo is surrounded by the mechanics of the station clocks he maintains and the automaton he is trying to repair. Echoes of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis can be felt throughout these scenes while the various mini dramas that play out down on the platforms as witnessed by Hugo evoke Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window.

It is no accident that Scorsese evokes Metropolis and Rear Window since both films are triumphs of how cinematic space can be explored. Like Metropolis Hugo is a spectacle film filled with special effects and like Rear Window the subplots that are literally in the background of the film blend into the principle story. All three films use the technology of the day to explore the boundaries between private and public spaces, and what happens when those spaces are collapsed. In the case of Hugo the technology of the day is the glorious 3D, which creates the best depth-of-field in a narrative film since Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). Illuminated specks of dust floating in the air feel like they are in front of your eyes and in one notable scene Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Inspector Gustav, is given a dramatic close-up where it looks like his head will float out of the screen like a giant blimp.

Hugo coming out from his hidden world to befriend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a stallholder’s granddaughter, is an important collapsing of private and public spaces in the narrative. While working together to first recover Hugo’s confiscated notebook and then to repair the automaton, the pair discover a piece of at-the-time forgotten film history. While most cinephiles will recognise early in the film what this piece of film history is, seeing it slowly revealed and explained for the benefit of the non-cinephile viewers is extremely rewarding, especially as it is based on a true story. The person at the centre of this story has been long overdue for a biopic, but having their life told in a fictional film with them as a secondary character is something they would have no doubt found delightful. They certainly would have adored the wonder, magic and cinematic craftsmanship behind Hugo.

The two images that resonate most throughout Hugo are the clocks and the automaton. The constant shots of clocks and the sound of the ticking on the soundtrack evoke the period of change and progress between the two World Wars, but also the rush away from the past, which runs the risk of forgetting people, events and artefacts that deserve better recognition. The uncanny figure of the lifelike yet artificial body of the automaton is both a symbol of humanity that has been damaged, fragmented and made expendable by war, but also the hope that technology can be a liberating and hopeful force to create a better world. Both are also reminders that we are living in a time where we receive a constant barrage of information, manufactured images and other sensory stimuli to an extent that even cultural theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin probably could not have imagined when he was examining modernity and cinema in essays such as his 1936 ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (which would have been a nice alternative title for Hugo). It’s likely that Hugo’s Rear Window-style multi-perceptive narrative, the use of 3D and production design to represent city spaces as ever changing experiences, and the Parisian train station and arcade setting would have thrilled Benjamin.

In Hugo Scorsese not only tells an important story about early cinema, but delivers a film that is a passionate and convincing reminder of the essential role art and imagination should play in our lives. Hugo also pays tribute to the joys of reading, which is fitting considering it is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Typical of Scorsese it is a nostalgic film, but also a contemporary one. It contains historical commentary on the devaluing of art in times of economic hardship and the damage that war does to the collective souls of a nation – both timeless themes, but particularly applicable to the current era. The best part is that while film buffs will adore it, it hasn’t been made exclusively for them. The main audience that Hugo is intended for is the new generation of filmgoers who may not yet know of a time when cinema wasn’t frequently in 3D and created with computer generated imagery, let alone a time when cinema was silent and in black and white. Being in a theatre filled with young audience members who were engaged with the film and laughing in delight at the early cinema clips, is the final element to what makes Hugo so special. This family film is perhaps Scorsese’s most significant gift back to the art form that he loves so much.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012