A detail-saturated 65-mm epic composed most memorably of close-ups, a chronologically vast historical chamber drama, a harrowing portrait of a damage-case stumbling into an immensely peculiar found-family, an essay about the persistent desire for self-made religion in the postwar American landscape: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, about an uneasy alliance between an alcoholic veteran and a new age guru, is haunting. Along with the next few titles it was one of the films that instantly sprang to mind when asked to consider the cinematic highlights of 2012. It’s difficult, at times unspeakably painful. It’s also a masterwork in which every contribution, the photography, the scoring, the writing and acting (from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman most especially), feels at once maverick and rigorously devoted to a collective vision.
Tabu, Portuguese writer/director Miguel Gomes’ inventive diptych slips from drab, ineffective current-day Lisbon to dangerous, decadent and dizzily romantic colonial Africa, from starkly composed scenes of deadpan realism to fluid, florid scenes of semi-silent melodrama, from the lonesome battiness of age to the recklessness and beauty of youth. We meet an elderly woman slowly fading into dementia and then meet that same woman 50 years earlier, precariously bored, pregnant, roped into an affair with a drummer, and handy with firearms. Tabu is formally daring, intelligent, and lyrical.
Writer, director, producer and star Patrick Wang’s quietly audacious In the Family follows Joey, a decent, hard-working and very suddenly widowed father accustomed to accommodating others and keeping his frustrations to himself. The grieving family of his deceased partner attempts to gain custody of Joey’s little boy with the utmost passive-aggressiveness, and Joey’s forced to find the resources to fight back. Did I forget to mention that Joey’s partner was a man? In the Family manages to be fiercely politicized while never even uttering the word “gay.” It is the most startlingly accomplished, tremendously moving American independent debut since Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me (2000). Let’s hope Wang doesn’t have to wait as long as Lonergan to offer a follow-up—Lonergan’s cursed but exquisite character/moral study Margaret never screened anywhere in Canada to my knowledge, but you can find it now on DVD. I strongly recommend the longer, director’s cut.
The Deep Blue Sea
Speaking of follow-ups: Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, based on Terrence Rattigan’s play, seems to begin where Davies’ 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth left off: with a woman alone in a room with suicide. The trajectory is not quite as dire, but the desperation and longing are thick as London fog in this story of reckless transgression: Hester (a particularly brilliant, courageous, and sexy Rachel Weisz) is married to William (Simon Russell Beale), a judge, a mama’s boy, and tender-loving in a way that has nothing to do with passion. Hester leaves William for Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF pilot who happens to be a war hero and, it turns out, a real cad. The film is at once raw and elegant, generous and merciless: people have their reasons, and Davies finds reasons to sympathize with everyone.
Which is a feat that Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo also somehow manages to pull off in Miss Bala, his eerily first-person, claustrophobic, nerve-rattling chronicle of a young woman (a convincingly traumatized Stephanie Sigman) who haphazardly decides to enter the Miss Baja California competition and winds up becoming the pretty pawn for a gang of violent drug traffickers led by the inscrutable yet magnetic Noé Hernández, an actor who, like Sigman, we’ll hopefully be seeing more of soon.
top: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Miss Bala was only one of a trio of inspired, eccentric crime stories to grace screens in 2012: Turkey’s acclaimed atmospherist Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s philosophical police procedural Once Upon a Time in Anatolia begins with a long, maddening search for the scene of a crime, while Winnipeg master-fabulist Guy Maddin’s mythical gangster ghost story Keyhole begins at its familial hearth-crime scene and never leaves. Wildly different in tone and technique as these films are—Anatolia is mostly outdoors, earth-toned, frequently very still and meditative; Keyhole is black and white, gauzy, a happy clutter of objects, and encounters bordering on weirdo-farce—I like how both elide the generic resolutions they initially seem geared toward and how they turn meandering into a kind of beguiling form of narrative motion.
top: The Imposter
bottom: Stories We Tell
Still, no crime story generated more astonishment and post-screening conversation in my house than The Imposter, Bart Layton’s documentary thriller about the very strange case of Frédéric Bourdin, the Franco-Algerian who could barely speak English yet, at the age of 23, convinced a white rural Texan family he was their long-missing 15-year-old boy—or did he? I’ve never seen a film so fully investigate the notion of identity theft as a collective agreement or act of tacit consent. Which is to say that The Imposter is a movie about playing roles and telling stories as a group activity, which leads us directly to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, a sort of memoir about Polley’s attempts to uncover the true story behind old family rumours about her dead mother’s secret life and the possibility that her father might not be her father.
No film more explicitly explored the compulsion toward role-play as Yorgos Lanthimos’ loopy and inspired Alps, in which a quartet of Athenians devise a new business model that involves impersonating recently deceased individuals for the ostensible comfort of their grieving loved ones. (Now there’s a remedy for cataclysmic economic depression!) Likewise, no film more provocatively prompted questions about how the spectator identifies with and/or assigns roles to the figures s/he sees on screen that Quebecois auteur Denis Côté’s masterfully composed and ambiguous Bestiare, which makes its subject the inhabitants/inmates/objects of fascination within the Hemingford Parc Safari zoo. All this talk of role-play also gives me the perfect segue into mentioning the year’s most blessedly batshit magnum opus, Leos Carax’s unholy Holy Motors, in which Denis Levant, surely one of the greatest mutant-level all-round acting wizards in world cinema, is driven to one strange fantasy setting after another, where he transforms himself into one character after another. All in a day’s work, apparently. His job seems to involve nothing so much as merging his able body with the musings of his director’s ferociously fertile imagination.
Holy Motors, like Tabu, is unapologetically a movie very much in love with the movies. But really, what could possible inspire more movie love than Mark Cousins’ hugely ambitious, iconoclastic yet authoritative 15-part documentary The Story of Film? Its understanding of the true scope of cinema’s world history—not just the history of the world’s wealthiest, most stable and shrewdest exporters—is breathtaking. And it makes peering into cinema’s future feel that much more enticing.