Filmmaker, writer, dog

The Best Films of 2012 I didn't fall asleep to

Added on by Kenta McGrath.

I managed to watch a lot of films in 2012, but as far as cinemagoing goes - going to the cinema - it was a pitiful year. A lot has to do with my own laziness but there were other reasons. Firstly, Perth is a city starved of the world's films. To give an indication, The Dark Knight Rises played in the arthouse cinemas here, as did the previous Batman films, some of which I quite enjoyed but none of which belonged there. Although I let several films I wanted to see pass by, most of what did come through interested me little. I also travelled a fair bit this year, which allowed me to see films I otherwise would not have (Two Years at Sea at BFI, for example). It also meant that I missed several of the precious few film festivals in our city, and that a lot of my filmviewing entailed staring at a laptop or at worst, squinting at an iPhone (I watched A Woman Under the Influence like this and felt guilty afterwards). Most worryingly, I've developed an odd affliction whereby I often fall asleep at the cinema. It happens regardless of whether the film I'm watching is a masterpiece or a piece of shit, or whether I'm sleep deprived or have had a good night's rest. I fell asleep for significant portions of about a dozen films. These include films (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Cosmopolis, the re-release of The Innocents) that would surely have made it onto my list, but I can't allow myself to claim I saw and enjoyed a film with a chunk missing, just as I can't claim to have read and enjoyed a novel that has several chapters of its pages torn out. So I wasn't able to muster a top ten list, nor even a top five, but a meagre top four. I haven't provided many details on the films - Google will tell you anything you need to know - but here a few thoughts on each.

1. Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers)

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I drifted off for about ten minutes at a BFI screening of The Innocents and was worried I wouldn't last long for the film I'd bought a ticket for afterwards, Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea (which by all acounts was going to be slower, dreamier and more sleep-welcoming). But I stayed wide awake. The film is superficially similar to Lisandro Alonso's films in its matter-of-fact depiction of a lone - but not necessarily lonely - man living quietly and efficiently in nature. It's ostensibly a documentary, but one which accommodates fiction and fantastical elements. Observation and performance, the literal and the abstract, co-exist harmoniously. It's a calm, calming film, shot beautifully by Rivers himself on black-and-white 16mm with only one other crew member present. What I remember most clearly from the film is the overall experience of watching it, which in this case was an overwhelmingly peaceful one. Eighty-eight minutes spent with an old man (Jake Williams) who has found peace and who has probably spent his entire life trying to find it. There's a sublime scene halfway through the film in which the man naps in his caravan in the forest, and wakes to find that the caravan, with him still in it, is stuck up in a tree. It doesn't faze him, of course. I actually thought I was dreaming.

2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

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Asghar Farhadi's A Separation was the most thought-provoking and morally complex new film I saw this year. Despite contrivances that appear in any film so heavily dictated by a plot-driven, tight screenplay, I thought that the power of the film lay in the fact that everything that each character says or does, no matter how harmful and erratic, eventually seems logical, understandable and forgivable. It's a film brimming with conflict and frustration, but it has nothing remotely close to a villain or antagonist, only people from different walks of life trying their best to live. It's impossible to lay blame on anyone because each character's circumstances are vastly different and give birth to a set of unique problems. While many critics have tended to discuss the film in terms of its focus on family, religion and the Iranian legal system, it all boils down to the complex problems arising from the characters' class differences. A Separation may not be particularly daring formally but it's one of the more insightful examinations of class I've seen. It shares with many Iranian films, a tendency to involve the audience to a high degree, allowing them to pursue their own answers and meanings. Critics have also talked about the timeliness of A Separation, how such a film is important in dissolving stereotypes and countering the anti-Iranian images and rhetoric that exist in the wider media. While I tend to agree, A Seperation, like many great films, succeeds because it's not just a portrait of a nation but something more universal.

3. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

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"Pig. Fuck!" I've enjoyed all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, but I was particularly impressed with his last couple. His style is not as bombastic and scattershot as it used to be, and he seems to have unburdened himself by not trying to tell Great Interesting Stories. His last two films have downplayed narrative in favour of a broader, more ambiguous thematic scope, propelled by what seems to be a renewed faith in the performances of his actors. To me the subject matter and narrative content of The Master is of secondary importance, and although I've only seen the film once I've barely spared a thought about the origins of Scientology, which is what the film is supposed to be 'about'. I was content instead to search for meaning in the mesmerising squints, snarls, grins and outbursts of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The Master is not a particularly coherent film and I suspect I won't like it nearly as much on subsequent viewings, after the seductive surprises have worn off. But I know I'll always remember and cherish the amazing faces and expressions. There Will Be Blood, which I think is Anderson's 'breakthrough' film, was camouflaged for many people by the Coen Brothers' infinitely inferior No Country For Old Men, which was released more or less at the same time here (and maybe elsewhere, I don't know). I'm unsure why people used to compare these two films so much ("I liked There Will Be Blood, but I liked No Country more") but there's certainly no film that comes close to stealing The Master's limelight at the moment.

4. What Is It? & It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE (Crispin Glover, Crispin Glover & David Brothers)

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These two films were made a few years ago (2005 and 2007, respectively), but the only way audiences have been able to see them is if Crispin Glover personally accompanied a print of the film to a cinema near you. I'll consider these films 'new' in order to flesh out my list, and given that the universe revolves around me and I only had the opportunity to see them this year. (Glover actually came to Perth several years ago to show the films and I heard a great anecdote about a guy I know vaguely, blurting out to Glover at the post-screening signing session that he'd downloaded one of his films from the internet. Apparently it freaked him out completely.) I got tickets to both nights at the Revelation International Film Festival. While his book readings and lengthy Q&As (both part of Glover's regular screening tour package) knocked me straight to sleep on both occasions, his films were unforgettable. That's not to say they were great, or even that good. It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE, which was made second but screened first, is about a wheelchair-bound man with cerebral palsy (played by the late Steven C. Stewart, who wrote the film and suffered from cerebral palsy in real life) and his eventually nasty, violent sexual fantasies, which the film spends much of its running time depicting. Though it seems exploitative on the surface, it's in fact a compassionate film, giving voice to a severely disabled character/person (and it's a disturbing, unsympathetic voice) and allowing him to dictate the outcome of the entire film, right down to his unintelligible, unsubtitled speech. I don't remember much about What Is It?, which features an extended cast most of whom have Down Syndrome. It's a much more unfocused film, and despite being packed with excessive, confronting images, I can only recall vaguely a small handful. In fact, the overloaded sensory experience of seeing the two films back to back means they've blended into one for me, and I can't remember many precise details about either. But together they form a memorable package so they share the honour of fourth place, having justified their place not so much for their quality but for their irreverence, bravery and giving me much to think and talk about. I do wish Glover would get over this thing with not allowing people to see his films without his being present, which despite the various reasons given still seems to me like a combination of paranoia and a lack of confidence in allowing his films to speak for themselves.

And that concludes my stunted top films list. What I can now present is my ten favourite films I saw in 2012, which weren't made in 2012. Discoveries, if you will. All watched on DVD and in alphabetical order:

  • Café Lumière (2005, Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
  • Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami)
  • Come and See (1985, Elem Klimov)
  • Drag Me to Hell (2009, Sam Raimi)
  • In Vanda's Room (2000, Pedro Costa)
  • Manuel de Ribera (2010, Pablo Carrera & Christopher Murray)
  • Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin)
  • Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr)
  • Sleep Furiously (2008, Gideon Koppel)
  • Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000, Edward Yang)

Honourable mentions: Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (2008, Anders Østergaard), Fantasma (2006, Lisandro Alonso), The Gay Dog (1954, Maurice Elvey), Greenberg (2010, Noah Baumbach), Pistol Opera (2001, Seijun Suzuki), Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001, Imamura Shohei), White Material (2009, Claire Denis).

 Close-Up
Close-Up

It's well known that many great directors have made sub-par films outside their home countries, but Hou's Café Lumière isn't one of them. It's about as beautiful and accurate a depiction of Tokyo as I can think of, the experience of living and being there and feeling your place in the world. One of the many reasons I'll treasure this film is its glimpses of Kōenji, one of my favourite suburbs in Tokyo and where I usually stay when I'm there (it's also where a large portion of my film Three Hams in a Can is set). Tokyo - like a London, New York or Paris - is a city that's been filmed to death, but when you encounter in a film, images of a tiny bookstore that you've admired, a shop sign you've glanced at or an anonymous street that you've trudged down countless times, it feels like the film belongs to you. This year I finally managed to get my hands on a copy of Kiarostami's Close-Up, his much-lauded 1990 feature about a poor man who infiltrates a family by pretending to be famed Iranian filmmaker Mohsen MakhmalbafIt more than lived up to expectations. Like all of Kiarostami's films, it says and asks so much about people, life, films and filmmaking, all of which are inseparable in this case. History classes trying to teach the horrors of World War II should scrap their curriculum and simply screen Come and See, possibly the most visceral, harrowing, and effective depiction of human suffering I've seen. I'm amazed that this film isn't more widely known today.

 In Vanda's Room
In Vanda's Room

It feels weird following Come and See with a film in which I enjoyed every bit of the horror, Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell (it's of course a very different kind of horror, with a very different function). I ignored it when it was released, expecting it to be crap, so I was surprised to find it an absolute joyride. It achieves the precious balance of terror and laughter - simultaneously, not merely flicking a switch and alternating between them - that few other filmmakers today are capable of (those who are capable certainly aren't making horror films anymore). For me, it's the best horror film in years. Pedro Costa was a huge discovery for me in 2012 and In Vanda's Room was the film that left the deepest impression. Almost as moving as the film itself was reading the story behind its production, the way Costa radically simplified his methods to create a more truthful, democratic and ethical cinema (put simply, he abandoned the large-scale, typical production of his previous film Ossos and decided to work alone, visiting his subjects with a video camera to make a film with, and not just about them). Digital video has never looked so beautiful nor felt so right, and it completely restored my faith in the medium. I thought my PhD research was on track until I discovered Costa, now I have to reconsider everything. Antonio Traverso, my PhD supervisor, lent me a DVD of Manuel de Ribera, a fantastic Chilean documentary/fiction hybrid made by young filmmakers Pablo Carrera and Christopher Murray. Roughly in the same vein as Two Years at Sea and Lisandro Alonso's films, it's a quiet, darkly humorous parable about a middle-aged man from Santiago trying to build a community on a remote island, and not getting very far.

 Sleep Furiously
Sleep Furiously

I'm a huge Chaplin fan, obsessed even, but for some reason I'd never delved into his post-Tramp films with the exception of The Great Dictator, which I guess sits at the intersection. I may have been put off by chapters in Kenneth Lynn's biography Charlie Chaplin and His Times, which from memory doesn't say many favourable things about his later films at all, nor about Chaplin's egotistical, tyrannical behaviour during the making of those films (the fact that he was often a complete prick throughout his career is well documented, but anecdotes from those later years stick out very vividly for me). I watched Monsieur Verdoux and didn't expect it to be such a dark, philosophical and relevant film (I did know it'd be funny, however). I found it both poignant and a little creepy to see The Tramp's mannerisms emerge occasionally from the gestures and actions of Chaplin's Henri Verdoux (see the scene on the boat at 1:21:38 for an example). I finally watched the 7-hour Sátántangó with a couple of buddies in the midst of summer, curtains drawn, phones off, and toilet breaks disallowed (except between disc swaps). Like all of Tarr's films, it's grown in stature in the days, weeks and months since viewing. A bleak, dreamy masterpiece. I don't know if I could watch it every year, as Susan Sontag claimed she'd be happy to do, but I'll certainly be revisiting it from time to time. Gideon Koppel's Sleep Furiously was the most beautiful documentary I saw. There's mounting evidence that if you make a tiny, unassuming film set in the countryside where little occurs but little things matter a lot, you're bound to come up with a winner. Finally there's Edward Yang's masterful Yi Yi: A One and a Two. It made me feel so connected to the everyday, dysfunctional, seemingly empty characters, the likes of which can be seen all around us and everywhere in the modern world. I wish I saw this in 2000 because it would've prepared me much better for the decade to come, and I'd probably be a better human being now.

I'd also written about the biggest pieces of shit I saw in 2012, but decided to take it out at the last minute. Let's end on a high. Here's to next year, and whatever's after that.

 Mark Le Cras celebrates a fantastic goal in 2013.

Mark Le Cras celebrates a fantastic goal in 2013.