10) Pain and Gain (Michael Bay)
Michael Bay’s talent for flashy visuals and breakneck pacing finds perfect material in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s darkly comic screenplay. At first Pain and Gain seems like the kind of buddy action movie Bay started out making back in the 90’s until it becomes clear we’ve been spending time getting to know the bad guys. Mark Wahlberg’s regular guy screen persona is subverted here as his likability masks a violent sociopath pumped up on steroids and the advice of self-help gurus. The most under-appreciated of last year’s films based around American excess and criminal activity it’s a shame after this Bay is going back to making films about giant robots and he is taking Wahlberg with him.
9) The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)
Luhrmann’s typically flamboyant take on Fitzgerald wound people up but I thought it worked well as an adaptation of a difficult to film novel and DiCaprio makes for an affecting Jay Gatsby.
8) Il Futuro (Alicia Scherson)
Despite the hopeful promise of the title Scherson’s affecting idiosyncratic coming-of-age tale is about coping with the past. Orphaned teenager Bianca (Manuela Martelli) reluctantly becomes involved in a plan to rob Maciste (Rutger Hauer), a former movie star now retired after losing his sight in a car accident. What begins in poetic realist territory morphs into Beauty and the Beast as the young woman enters Maciste’s world, a mansion sparsely furnished save for memorabilia from the sword and sandals movies he once starred in. Scherson has fun using clips from the old Kirk Morris Hercules flicks to represent the young Maciste, while Hauer’s own screen history of being adept at playing either hero and villain means Maciste is an enigmatic figure, at once beguiling and potentially dangerous. There’s an otherness present too in the light which never stops shining through Bianca’s window, or the colour of the car her parents died in changing colour after the accident emphasising the difference between before and this new grief tinged life.
7) Natan (Paul Duan & David Cairns)
Haunting documentary recovering the reputation of Bernard Natan, a successful film producer France in the 20’s and 30’s written out of cinema history despite his considerable contribution to the industry including owning Pathé at one point. An innovator Natan built his own all-purpose studio which still exists today as France’s leading film school though at present there is no record of his involvement. In-between interviews and archive footage a Natan effigy prowls an abandoned studio like a restless spirit countering the accusations which were levelled against him when he was alive. I saw Natan without knowing anything about the subject matter and that’s the best way to see this strange and heartbreaking story so I’ll say nothing about his downfall except to see this film and remember his name.
6) Mud (Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols has quietly emerged as one of the most distinct voices in American cinema over the last decade. Shotgun Stories (2007) is a small masterpiece though I found his breakthrough movie Take Shelter (2011) hard going. This soulful coming-of-age tale about a young boy befriending a killer hiding out on an island however is his most moving film to date. Nichols sympathy for all sides involved is remarkable as is his feel for small town life. And how pleasing to see one of the great American character actors, Joe Don Baker, back onscreen.
5) Caesar Must Die (Paolo & Vittorio Taviani)
Certain scenes in Caesar Must Die are clearly staged for dramatic effect making this is more of a meta drama, a commentary on the nature of performance and themes in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar than a straight documentary. Most of the inmates in Rome’s Rebibbia prison are inside for their involvement in organised crime so the power struggles and violent betrayal clearly resonate with these men. Just as Shakespeare’s characters reveal themselves in private moments away from the crowd the Tavianis allow these men to talk in their cells about their own experiences and feelings about the play. Caesar Must Die opens with the final curtain being raised on a triumphant production and the journey there proves to be a moving study of the effect art can bring to people’s lives and of what it means to be confined.
4) Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent becomes the latest to exemplify Bigelow’s interest in obsessive loners searching for the ultimate high in this remarkable follow-up to The Hurt Locker (2008). A sober, reflective piece which is only controversial if you believe showing something onscreen be it torture or the deaths of civilians during the harrowing raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound condones it. In which case you’re an idiot. There is no triumphalism here only an acknowledgement of the terrible loss motivating the hunt for Bin Laden and the tempered knowledge by the time they finally caught up with him his death only mattered in symbolic terms.
3) Après Mai (Olivier Assayas)
I really wasn’t expecting to like Après Mai given the trailer made it look like yet another baby boomer hagiography of the 60’s. It’s so much more, a portrait of a filmmaker as a young man and the moment in life where youthful idealism must give way to pragmatism. Olivier Assayas autobiographical movie follows a group of teenagers trying to keep the spirit of 68′ alive at the onset of the next decade. Art and politics are intertwined. These kids are flawed, middle-class, and a little pretentious. They could be insufferable were it not for Assayas compassion towards them. It’s shot through with a hazy feel for lost summers and an increasingly melancholy tone as the reality of finding a place in the world begins to weigh upon them.
2) Under the Skin (Jonathon Glazer)
A pared down adaptation of Michael Faber’s novel ‘Under the Skin,’ Glazer’s film is more opaque, less interested in explanations and owes a fair amount to the work of peak period Nicolas Roeg. A Hollywood star seems as unlikely a visitor to certain parts of Scotland as an extra-terrestrial so there is something quite surreal about seeing Scarlett Johansson at the wheel of a white transit van kerb-crawling for neds. Especially as she’s sporting a bubble perm that would have got her a place in the 1978 World Cup team. The filmmakers designed a lightweight hidden camera so Johansson could move freely amongst people without them knowing they are being filmed. It lends Under the Skin a cinema-verite feel. People are going about their daily lives in the background, unlike in most films where extras are trying hard not to stare at the camera. An unsettling and haunting piece of cinema which oddly enough belongs to the tradition of Scottish-set films (I Know Here I’m Going, Local Hero) suggesting this place can have a profound effect on the lone traveller.
1) The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
Sorrentino’s exhilarating odyssey through Rome follows an ageing writer as he begins to feel a growing sense of unease at his comfortable lifestyle. Jep (Toni Servillo) came to the city as a young man, wrote a great novel (or so his friends say) and threw himself into being a part of the Rome’s extravagant nightlife. The death of an old flame slowly begins to wear down his fastidious public persona. There is a tender relationship with a forty-something stripper, crying at funerals, and the urge once again to write a novel. La Dolce Vita (1962) is an obvious forerunner though Fellini damns his characters whereas Sorrentino loves these people despite their flaws and pretensions. All in their own way are searching for some kind of transcendence. The refrain Sorrentino (a master at finding the right music to accompany the lush images he puts onscreen) uses for Jep’s yearning is somewhat eclectically a song by the Scottish poet Robert Burns with the lyric “My Heart is in the Highlands/My Heart is Not Here,” the lament of a wanderer. Flashbacks of the young Jep’s idyllic youth seem to hold some meaning but are undercut in an enigmatic final sequence which suggests the lost lover would never have been enough. It’s all just a trick.