In writing up a 'ten best' list or otherwise considering the superior films seen in any calendar year there's always a problem with New Zealand's slightly delayed distribution system. We usually get the award winners a little late. Films like Zero Dark Thirty, a hard hitting account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden which dares to show American audiences the torturous reality of their military actions, or Silver Linings Playbook, a 'screwball comedy" about mental illness, are not scheduled for New Zealand release until next year.
Any accurate 'top ten' list of 2012 would have to include films seen in the first weeks of January, technically 2011 movies long available on DVD. Such titles would include Oscar winner The Artist and its nearest rival Hugo, two beautifully produced meditations on movie history. In the latter Martin Scorsese uses 21st century 3-D wizardry to recapture the joy and excitement of celluloid's first magician, Georges Melies. The Artist is even more daring in its attempts to pay homage to the entire silent era, a black and white, almost dialogue free post modern combination of A Star is Born, Singin' in the Rain and various Hollywood myths and legends.
Other 2011 titles that turned my head in the early days of 2012 include the magnificent feature film revisiting of John Le Carre's spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the fascinating documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's musings on the oldest known human art. Slightly later in the year three powerful dramas finally made their way to Hamilton: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsey's harrowing adaptation of Lionel Shriver's acclaimed book, freshly relevant given the latest American gun tragedy; Shame, a balls-out examination of sexual obsession in the age of internet porn by the equally stylish, British Steve McQueen and Take this Waltz, an emotionally overwhelming portrayal of a women torn between a nice guy husband and an erotically challenging neighbour.
The best of the 2011 movies though were none of these. For me the Iranian film A Separation was the finest of the year, an at once universal account of marital breakdown and disharmony and a culturally specific dramatic thriller about middle class life in the modern Middle East. Almost as memorable was UK auteur Terence Davies' reimagining of Terence Rattigan's play The Deep Blue Sea, a grim yet beautifully cinematic rendering of post-war British depression and romantic frustration full of awe-inspiring tracking shots and Davies' trademark, nuanced use of music.
The latter part of 2012 brought a handful of titles worthy of comparisons to these. Foremost among them was the Palm d'Or winner Amour, Michael Haneke's stunning drama about a sophisticated elderly French couple coming to terms with illness and death. If cinema has ever produced a more direct and honest reflection on mortality I am unaware of it.
Outstanding American movies of the year have included Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson's comic masterpiece about young love and 1960s bourgeois malaise, a visual feast and dead-pan tour de force; Beasts of the Southern Wild, a surrealist delight that defies categorisation; Killing Them Softly, New Zealand born Australian Andrew Dominik's cynical revival of film noir in the era of Bush and Obama and Looper, the smartest time traveling conundrum since 12 Monkeys.
I also have a soft spot for On the Road, an atmospheric if necessarily rambling adaptation of Jack Kerouac's generation defining novel, a lovingly crafted feature that was always unlikely to find a mass audience. Likewise the sleeper hit Safety Not Guaranteed, an independently produced romantic comedy about marginalised dreamers and losers that just edges out the similarly toned Your Sister's Sister for the best so-called "mumble core" movie of the year.
Aside from Amour the European films of 2012 that most impressed were The Hunt and Barbara. The first, a Danish thriller about a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of child abuse, was riveting and relevant from the first frame. Barbara, a companion piece and complement to the modern classic The Lives of Others, examined the hypocrisies of life in the dying days of East Germany.
Finally, the last, pleasant surprise of the year has been the return to form of Peter Jackson. In The Hobbit- An Unexpected Journey Jackson recaptures that magical blend of humour, drama and spectacle seen in all his best work, showcasing his country and his immense talent so entertainingly that all the negative publicity about suspect employment practice and dodgy tax breaks now seems irrelevant.
- © Fairfax NZ News