Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best of 2012 - ARTHOUSE MOVIES

So here's to the wilfully obscure, fragile, indulgent movies that fought the accountants and got made in the teeth of every sound investment principle. Away from the mainstream formulaic releases, the reason we watch hundreds of films a year is to uncover gems such as these.  In retrospect, I can discern a theme, which is of young naive girls left to fend for themselves when their parents abuse their responsibility toward them.

Matteo Garrone's audacious REALITY
First up, Matteo Garrone astonished me with his visual audacity and provocative take on reality TV. His REALITY was one of those films that leaves you reeling - at once surreal and profoundly familiar. He focuses on a small-town guy desperate to appear on the Italian version to the point where he becomes delusional.  There's a rich seam of black humour, a joy in the grotesque, and a deep truth about how in the world of Facebook and Youtube our lives only have meaning if documented. 

Another Italian director, Daniele Cipri, elaborated on the themes of moral corruption and easy winnings with his similarly ambitious, audacious, darkly comic but ultimately terrifying film, IT WAS THE SON.  The movie stars Toni Servilio as the father of a family in a decrepit mafia-riddled town, squabbling over a windfall to the point of insanity. It shows humanity as grotesque and greedy but never with scorn. 

From Italy to Denmark for Thomas Vinterberg's fictionalised account of an innocent schoolteacher accused of paedophilia, THE HUNT. Mads Mikkelsen visibly shrinks into his role as the quiet, downtrodden teacher, and the movie is all too believable.  It serves as a modern fable about the danger of quick judgements and mob hysteria. 

Mexican director Michel Franco's brutal film about schoolyard bullying, AFTER LUCIA, was perhaps the most brutal watch of the year.  It meticulously shows how an escalation of bullying can lead to devastating result, and hinges on a superb performance from teenager Tessa Ia. Every parent of a teenage daughter needs to watch this flick with their kid.

From Mexico to Chile, where Pablo Larrain's superbly researched NO! tells the story of Chile's referendum to end dictatorship from the point of view of the ad exec hired by the pro-democracy campaign.  Gael Garcia Bernal is compelling as the cynical exec crafting Coke-like ads to woo the youth slowly discovering his political conscience.  I had no clue about this episode before the film, but was utterly riveted and can still remember the ad jingles. 

Next up, two films about teenage girls of no mean courage forced to fend for themselves in extraordinary circumstances, symbolic of their times. Aussie director Cate Shortland recreates Germany at the end of World War Two in this German-language drama about a young girl, LORE, whose Nazi parents are apprehended.  She must take her small siblings across the war-torn, lawless countries, as well as grappling with the enormity of the fact that her parents were on the losing side, and all that they told her may not have been true.  It's a deeply affecting, beautifully made picture. 

The second film is Sally Potter's loosely autobiographical GINGER & ROSA, set in highly politicised 1960s London. Elle Fanning has a perfect British accent as sensitive, intelligent, naive young Ginger whose best friend Rosa sleeps with her father causing an emotional crisis. It's a delicate, fragile movie that drips with authenticity and melancholy. 

As brutal as AFTER LUCIA, Scott Graham's tense, austere drama SHELL was astounding. The British drama featured Chloe Pirrie as a teenager in remote rural Scotland living with her widower father: a relationship in such isolation that it become necessarily unhealthy. 

From Europe to the Middle East for Israeli dirctor Rama Burshtein's visually ravishing, intense, claustrophobic emotional drama, FILL THE VOID. The movie stars Hadas Yaron as Shira, a naive young girl in the Orthodox Israeli community.  She is pressured by her family into marrying her deceased sister's widower, and is repulsed, shocked and entranced by the emotions she feels for him and the impact she has on him.  This was perhaps the movie that prompted the most visceral reaction in me all year.  

Back to the USA, and perhaps my favourite film of the year: the poignant, melancholy, deeply affecting buddy movie, ROBOT & FRANK.  Jake Schreier's drama is set in the near future, and stars Frank Langella as a retired burgler suffering from Alzheimer's, called, Frank, who forms an unlikely attachment to his medical carer robot. This movie poses so many profound questions about the nature of memory, and the duties of family, and what constitutes a "real" relationship, but does so with an admirably light touch.  I'm not ashamed to say it got a little dusty in the theatre. 

Finally, two honourable mentions: movies with art-house sensibilities but mainstream releases: Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI and Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM.  Both movies with particular and beautiful visual palettes that tell seemingly fairytale stories of deep import.  Both among the best films of the year. 

THE HUNT was released in the UK in November 2012 but does not have a US release date yet. REALITY will be released in the UK on March 22nd 2013 but has no US release date.  LORE will be released in the UK on February 22nd but does not yet have a US release date. SHELL will be released in the UK on March 15th but does not yet have a US release date. NO! will be released in the UK on February 8th and in the USA on February 15th. ROBOT & FRANK was released in the USA last year and will be released in the UK on March 8th. IT WAS THE SON, FILL THE VOID and AFTER LUCIA do not yet have a US or UK release date. 

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