Compliance (Craig Zobel)In this terrifically executed provocation, a manager at an Ohio fast food outlet is manipulated into detaining an employee on suspicion of theft, not suspecting that the unseen police officer on the other end of the line is just a sick prankster, exploiting inherent human gullibility and submissiveness. It works well enough as an effectively creepy thriller, but Zobel’s real intent is to position the film more as a social phenomenon (one based closely on documented real-life cases), with almost limitless metaphorical potential, broadly speaking to a wider capitulation in America culture.
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)Stillman’s first film in fourteen years seems to evidence his regret at the time he’s lost, underneath a proud and slightly cranky defiance. It takes place on a college campus, in more or less the present day, with hardly a person over thirty in the mix: for a director who’s somehow found himself hitting sixty, that might be viewed as charming and progressive, or as a sign of denial. The film is considerably strange, and – let’s say – distant from the pressing issues of our times; although I don’t think it’s as strong as his previous works, I was just damn happy to have him back.
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method – depicting some episodes from the birth of psychoanalysis, and the souring of the relationship between Freud and Jung - superficially seems like an anomalous project for him, even for the more “respectable” latter day Cronenberg, but on greater reflection it might be the masterpiece he’s been inching toward for almost forty years: astonishingly tightly controlled and one of the most gripping films of ideas in a long time. It’s thrillingly complex and overflowing with implication and nuance, ultimately surveying a battle over the creation of meaning, taking place at a time when the world was up for grabs.
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)Davies’ first narrative feature film since 2000, set in the early fifties, focuses with intense compassion on a woman (mesmerizingly played by Rachel Weisz) who’s left her husband, a senior judge and knight of the realm, to live in threadbare circumstances with her lover, despite knowing he doesn’t truly return her feelings; at the same time, Davies is also preoccupied more broadly with post-WW2 dissatisfaction and displacement. Throughout the film, in a way that’s rare now, you feel a vital guiding presence alongside the camera, totally immersed in the act of creation, working closely and humanely with his collaborators.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax)The most necessary film I saw this year, even if it’s born out of a melancholy skepticism that we’re entering a time when little or nothing about cinema will reach that bar. It follows Mr. Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, as he’s driven around Paris in a white stretch limo on a series of mysterious appointments, each of which involves assuming a different character and – in general terms - enacting a “scene.” The film has the death of cinema written all over it – Carax has barely been able to work in the last twenty years (triumphant returns after long absences are obviously a feature of this list) - but as he stares into the jaws of apathy and defeat, he finds scintillating proof of life, creating more exhilarating moments than you can process.
The Master (Paul Anderson)The range of responses to Anderson’s fascinating and rewarding film – loosely inspired by the origins of Scientology, and more broadly by America’s post-war confusions and its long history of homegrown religions and cults, sexual gurus and motivational speakers - was unusually stimulating, often hailing it as a masterpiece while leaving it unclear what people actually admired. Indeed, Anderson has crafted a kind of metaphysical quicksand, in which it’s hard to distinguish truth from lies, dreams from reality, black from white; in part though, it seems to me about the firming up of the modern concept of ego, in all its deluded, decaying hypocrisy.
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)In the past, I’ve said that Anderson’s familiar style “has the effect of draining the flavour from everything he looks at,” but I don’t feel that way anymore – maybe because of his ever more exquisite skill at refining his invented environments, or maybe because of reflecting on how much cinema owes to its dreamers. In this jewel of a movie, carrying a rather moving sense of melancholy and regret, an orphaned pre-teen boy runs away from his scout group to hike across some old Indian trails with his soul mate, various scouts and adults on their trail. You wouldn’t want to change a single frame of it.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)Ceylan’s deliberately paced saga of a police investigation – built around a witness who’s confessed to burying a body but is then unable to find it – sometimes feels early on like it might just end up in the middle of the arty “slow cinema” pack, but it pays off strongly with an unpredictable and strangely satisfying final act, one which actually makes something of the somewhat over-familiar theme of the arbitrariness of fate, of how reality and storytelling become intertwined. Along the way the film packs in a huge amount of local information, sensitizing us both to the sustaining and transient aspects of community.
Take this Waltz (Sarah Polley)I was very surprised how Polley’s Toronto-set chronicle of a marriage and a love affair played in my mind afterwards. It seems to me an astonishing advance from her previous film Away with Her – like comparing a short story to a big overflowing, sensuous mixed-media narrative installation. There’s a risk in there too, that at times the film starts to seem like a series of evasions - for example, at the main points where anger seems warranted, Polley cuts around it, or looks away. But how often, Cronenberg aside, does a Canadian filmmaker even demand to be gently critiqued in the highest terms?
Weekend (Andrew Haigh)Haigh’s film didn’t even open here, to our city’s shame, but it’s available on DVD. It’s a British film about a short-lived love affair between two men, carried along by terrific, unforced interactions and observations, not to mention large quantities of sex and drug-taking. It might at various points be seen as a modern gloss on David Lean’s Brief Encounter, even including the use of a railway station as a defining location, but to the extent it has its contrivances, they’re deployed here for radically different purposes than we’re used to, to examine how being gay continues to demand a degree of conscious self-examination and positioning that being straight, the default state, just doesn’t.
Thanks for reading, and see you in 2o13.