Another year ends, another onslaught of “best of” lists ensue. Before I move onto my top ten films of the year – which, as in previous years, are not ranked in any particular order other than the one at the bottom, Cinetology’s coveted annual Best Picture award – let’s have a quick look at a couple of interesting trends.

2012 was a slow year for documentaries and animations and a so-so 12 months for Australian film. It did however mark the first year American films reflected on the Global Financial Crisis in deeply creative ways. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis extended the out-there auteur’s patented ‘New Flesh’ to the identity of enterprise, whittled interpersonal relationships down to a series of transactions. J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call took the unusual route of a “clock is ticking” plotline set over 24 hours and based in the headquarters of the first Wall Street firm to read the writing on the wall. In Arbitrage, an impressive performance from Richard Gere both personalises and impersonalises large scale financial fall-out. John Hillcoat’s Lawless showed how prohibited industries and disdain for authorities ripped the heart — and throat — out of the American Dream during its formative years. And Andrew Dominik’s brilliant Killing Them Softly loudly postulated that America “is not a country, it’s a business.”

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2012 was also a year in which veteran Hollywood rabble-rousers came back firing. When it seemed as if Cronenberg was ‘normalising’ in his middle age, Cosmopolis proved one of his weirdest and most inaccessible films to date. Martin Scorsese subverted expectations with an eye-moistening family feature, Hugo. Ridley Scott once more took off his Alien helmet and sucked in the spectacle of outer-space blockbuster in Prometheus. William Friedkin got down and dirty with a revitalised Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe. Oliver “not a Prozac person anymore” Stone banged out his best film in a decade and a half: Savages.

Now, without further delay, here are…

Cinetology’s top ten films of 2012

Honourable mentions: The King is Dead!, Cosmopolis, Arbitrage, Ted.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

Brooding. Meditative. Reflective. Transcendental. All the pompous words critics like to slap on “acclaimed” films apply hand-in-glove to writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s epic Turkish murder mystery Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which is brooding, meditative, reflective and transcendental. Set largely on Anatolian steppes in the dead of night, Ceylan’s slow-footed screenplay follows a group of men (police, a doctor, a prosecutor, grave diggers and two suspected murderers) as they search for a dead body. The film’s atmospheric values are its most obvious virtues, Gökhan Tiryaki’s moody moonlight cinematography providing a sumptuously dark tone. There is something strange and troubling fizzing like a long fuse at the heart of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a quiet sense of unease in a mystery that runs far deeper than the whereabouts of a buried corpse. There are clues to unlocking the film, but Ceylan keeps his cards close, doesn’t make it easy, and whatever resolution the film has largely plays out in the viewer’s mind.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, USA)

70-year-old veteran Martin Scorsese, who remains at the top of the class of ‘movie brat’ directors — the first generation of formally educated filmmakers — trips the light fantastic with this gorgeous love letter to the transportive powers of cinema. The eponymous character is a poor young boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the roof of a train station and plays a key role in unlocking the past of grouchy toy shop owner George Méliès (Ben Kingsley). The Méliès back-story, part real, part imagined (a selection of his films can be viewed on Youtube), underpins a forgotten visionary’s work with a message about the medium’s capacity to combine artifice and imagination to take viewers to the moon and back.

The Muppets (James Bobin, USA)

The musical of the year wasn’t the one with a bung-eyed Hugh Jackman singing rueful tunes about stealing bread. It didn’t take long for fans of TV’s fabulous Flight of the Conchords to get wind of the strange cross-over in director James Bobin’s The Muppets: somehow distinctly Conchordian comedy had invaded The Muppets universe, and vice versa. Bobin, a Conchords brain trust, enlisted the show’s co-star/composer Brett Mackenzie to pen the songs, chipping in pearlers such as the Oscar-winning Man or Muppet, a three minute smile-stretcher that encapsulates the film’s warmth and humour. A familiar “band back together” plot sees Kermit, new Muppet Walter and human stars Jason Segal and Amy Adams track down faded furry celebrities to perform in a new telethon while Chris Cooper raps about an evil plan to drill for oil under the old Muppet theatre. It should never have worked. Or at least, it should never have worked this good.

Searching for Sugarman (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK)

The legend of long-forgotten American folk singer Rodriguez has been single-handedly resurrected by director Malik Bendjellout’s non-fiction cracker Searching for Sugarman, which tests, in a surprising and immensely enjoyable way, the conventional wisdom that the strength of every documentary ultimately lies in its subject. After two terrific albums in the 1970s, Rodriguez’s career fizzled out, but unbeknownst to him he became hugely popular and influential in South Africa. Rumours of how Rodriguez died are the stuff of legend, most believing he set fire to himself on stage or ended one of his songs, literally, with a bullet. Bendjellout explores what actually happened to the talented never-was-been (at least in America), whose lyrical clean-cut style plays like a mixture of Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly with a riffy, soulful, upbeat edge. What Bendjellout finds is real magic; a heart-warming answer to the riddle of Rodriguez’s death that will leave audiences buzzing as the closing credits roll.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA)

Those partial to an odd spot of grumbling about how the Academy Awards inevitably get it wrong, always ignore the best talent, choose established faces over rising guns a yada yada will find plenty of ammunition in the finely nuanced Oscars-snubbed performance of Elizabeth Olsen in writer/director Sean Durkin’s elusive physiological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene. Emphasis is very much on the “p” word given Durkin and Olsen’s ability to convey the complex conflicted emotions of their eponymous protagonist, who rejoins “normal” society after years living in an Armish-like salt-of-the-earth cult. The film seamlessly cuts between Martha Marcy’s past and present, cult and society, and asks audiences to consider each on their own terms. The beauty of Durkin’s writing and direction is his understanding of what to reveal and what to leave out. At the core of the film is a stubbornly elusive edginess that would go on to shame the year’s other American film about cults and indoctrination: Paul Thomas Anderson’s handsomely inaccessible The Master.

The Front Line (Hun Jang, South Korea)

The DVD cover reads “45,000 bullets fired. 14,000 actors. 150 stunt people. 24,000 explosions.” In other words, director Hun Jang’s spare-no-expense Korean War hair-raiser isn’t a low-fi kitchen sink drama. A film of eye-splitting scope and excess, a carnage mat of intricately re-enacted war-time terror, it’s a crying shame The Front Line never appeared on the big screen in Australia (it’s now available on DVD). Centred around a battle for a dirty splotch of land that would ultimately decide the border between North and South Korea, and told from the perspective of front line South Korean troops, the story literally and metaphorically plays with the concept of shifting sands. One particular hill has been captured and lost by each side so many times neither can count; troops from each army leave presents and letters for the other. A lengthy swirling narrative cross-weaves plot lines and grueling flashbacks, several unforgettable scenes taking the not-so-familiar route of advocating violent forms of treason. At his best, Jang’s mixture of emotional beats and hell-in-a-hand-basket choreography feels like Stanley Kubrick sniffed a vial of old school John Woo.

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, USA)

Adapted from George Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly, Australian-born rising force Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) plays in a sandpit of Scorsese-esque gangster drama and uses it as metaphor for the dangers of unregulated economies. A greasy-smooth Brad Pitt delivers bureaucracy-by-bullet as Jackie Cogan, a hit man who calls in an over-the-hill big shot (James Gandolfini) to put an end to a situation created by a pair of small time crims. Dominik goes for broke with daring moments of atmospheric aplomb, including an astonishing bullet-throw-glass-through-head shot and one of the best POV heroin scenes ever filmed. Set during the tip of the GFC, in the thick of the 2008 US presidential campaign, recurring snippets of Barack Obama’s searing rhetoric juxtaposed alongside gritty street level violence give Killing Them Softly a disarming political edge. Imagine the contemporary backdrops as dusty ranches and deserts, the leather jackets as vests matched with hats and dirty boots, the cars as horses, the bars as saloons and the film suddenly feels a lot like a western — and a piercing commentary on how atavistic values from the old American frontier continue to pervade a violent and sexist society.

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s powerful Iranian drama constructs a tight universe of hard-hitting dilemmas and moral complications, shifting from what appears to be the story of a marriage breakdown into a web of conflicts that wrap themselves like high-powered tentacles around the narrative and squeeze out several moments of gut-wrenching emotional bleeding. Husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) hires a poor pregnant woman to care for his elderly father who has Alzheimer’s, and a situation that arises after she ties him to a bed sets a dramatic chain of events in motion. Farhadi, who cares not a jot who is “right” or “wrong,” might be carrying a message as simple as a call not to rush to judgement. Similar in tone to Vadim Perelman’s House of Sand and Fog (2003), A Separation is a stirring reminder of cinema’s capacity to layer and shift narrative perspective.

Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA)

The words “best performance of Jack Black’s career” may not have great currency, but “best comedic performance of the year” certainly does — and expect nothing less from Black’s brilliant semi-musical turn as Bernie Tiede, a real-life character whose stranger than fiction story caused a stir in his hometown of Carthage, Texas. Fake vox pop interviews show community members reminisce on the story and personality of Bernie, a jolly, big-hearted undertaker who forms a close relationship with a rich old bag (played by Shirley MacLaine, in despicably fine form). Bernie gives her life a second wind but a crucial plot point half way through makes life more complicated. To divulge too much would be to spoil the surprise, suffice to say Bernie extends the talking points of Camus’ The Outsider and throws itself forward as shameless moral pandering to groupthink and mob justice, but with a twist. It’s also a wickedly precise black comedy and a coy character study fuelled by Black’s heart-on-sleeve performance. Director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, Before Sunrise, etc) may not have the in-your-face authorship of a Tarantino or the cross-genre pollination of a Soderbergh, but he remains at the top of the class of US film directors who emerged from the swamps of 90s indie films to infiltrate mainstream Hollywood.

Best picture of the year: The Grey (Joe Carnahan, USA)

The best film of the year came from an unexpected place: the hands of a studio director whose previous feature, The A Team, was little more than a cash-grab about bathtub figurines writ large. Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is a hair-raising two-hander. It can be read as a man-versus-wild action thriller chocked to the gills with B-movie tropes, but under the bonnet the film works on far deeper levels. Based in remote Alaskan wilderness, it charts the psychological and geographic journey of John Ottway (Liam Neeson) and a bunch of men stranded in icy no-man’s land, who are picked off one after the other by bloodthirsty wolves.

The Grey leaps into explorations of mental illness and suicidal tendencies as fearlessly as the “by my cold dead hands” look in Neeson’s stony eyes. Carnahan frames his narrative as the ultimate men’s group: a cathartic film that grapples with the age-old question of what it means to be a man. It’s at once angry and explorative, sensitive and poignant, a mixture of knuckle-busting action and beautiful emotional beats that coil softly around the film’s dialogue-heavy screenplay. This is a blockbuster-sized parable littered with dramatic complexities that belie the stark, wintry simplicity of its setting. The title is not a description of the Alaskan landscape or the colour of the wolves.

Read my complete review of The Grey here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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