Walking In The Light: Illuminating religion in Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER

This article was originally published on Scannain.com

At one point in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix’s drugged-up detective Doc Sportello enters a plush Malibu house, to be asked by his hostess, “Do you like the lighting?” (He responds with a semi-stoned, semi-horny, but quietly emphatic ‘Uh-huh.’). Anderson’s previous film, 2012’s The Master, is all about the lighting. In particular, it’s all about people looking for the light, being bathed in glows and beams, only to wind up darkened and despairing before another light source rejuvenates them anew. One might compare the characters to lizards, but it’s simply too cool a comparison. On a first watch, The Master can feel so intensely cerebral as to seem cold, but rewatches help break the ice. A 70mm rewatch, meanwhile, warms this heady brew until it’s as richly satisfying as any of Anderson’s other masterpieces.

As if you need reminding, The Master is Anderson’s Scientology film, try as it might to sidestep any accusations or similarities. Still, the similarities between Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose preening and oddly-charming gasbag turn here may well be his best) and L. Ron Hubbard are inescapable, while the shadow of Scientology’s auditing sessions looms over the processing used by Dodd’s cultish ‘Cause’. Into the lives of Dodd, his family and closest followers arrives Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran barely maintaining sanity due to PTSD and damage inflicted by his own brand of home-brewed hooch. Phoenix builds on the mania of portraying (a version of) himself in I’m Still Here by playing a man who may never have felt like himself to start. Quell is a neanderthalic hunching Igor to Dodd’s self-important Frankenstein, but they never get to bring a monster to life. The true horror lies in themselves. Their relationship is a cruel symbiosis, at once self-perpetuating and self-destructive. Quell needs Dodd’s guidance, but his basic problems, which are explored to an extent by Dodd’s methods, are never cured, making him feel like a greater failure. This encourages Dodd’s own doubts, whilst strengthening the resolve of his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). A Lady Macbeth in ‘50s garb, Adams brings  a superciliousness and menace to Mrs. Dodd that often gets overlooked in analyses of the film. Her fervour, religious and otherwise, is positively terrifying. It’s been suggested that she may be the real driving force behind the Cause, and there’s nothing in a rewatch to dispel that notion.

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Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in THE MASTER

As if to rope you in right from the start, the film opens with a shot of the sea. The breaking waters indicate it’s being shot from the back of the ship, with the white foam shimmering in the sunlight, marbling the cerulean ocean. There’s nary a foot put wrong in The Master’s production, but its unsung hero has to be Mihai Malaimare Jr. The rays, beams and myriad other manifestations of light the Romanian cinematographer captures in the glory of 70 millimetre film are key to The Master’s success. In turn, The Master is a key argument for 70mm as a filmmaking tool. As explained by Christopher Bonanos over at Vulture, the wider frame of 70mm film (65mm image, plus an additional 5mm for the soundtrack) captures more detail and more depth. The colours are deeper and more memorable (That opening shot of the water being a prime example), but it’s the little details that you truly savour in a 70mm revisit. Those details can be grim (Flecks of vomit in the beard of a man poisoned by Quell’s brew) or beautiful; it was not until seeing it on 70mm that this writer actively noticed the solitary cathartic tear that runs down Phoenix’s cheek after his one-on-one processing session.

Moments like Freddie’s outburst in the processing session are given extra power by Malaimare’s lighting choices. The ironic thing about these choices is they boil down to a most religious dichotomy: light and dark. When we first encounter Quell, he’s in the sun, but hidden beneath an army helmet, squinting in the shade. Whether natural or manmade, light in The Master is a symbol of hopefulness, abandon and joy. Hardly original, but it’s only when you think about how and when it’s used in the film that the symbolism gains potency. After Freddie is forced to flee his odd job as a farm labourer by running off across a misty, newly-harvested plain, we dissolve to a dock at night. Freddie enters the frame from the left, obscuring the bright lights hanging on a ship in the background. As Freddie walks down the dock, the ship comes into focus. It’s Dodd’s ship, named Alethia. It’s the only source of light in the shot, and Freddie is drawn to it like a moth. Music is playing on board, and people are dancing. He stows away on board, and the ship sails off into the Pacific under the Golden Gate Bridge, a brilliant orange sunrise lurking behind the Marin Headlands. The light is coming.

Conversely, shadows and darkness surround the characters at their lowest ebbs. Freddie’s processing scene takes place in the depths of Alethia, in a dingy room. There’s just enough light to see his features and that single tear. Throughout the film, scenes of light and darkness lead in and out of each other, with the use of either lighting scheme underlining each scene’s narrative rhythm. In the final third of the film, Freddie and Dodd dig up the work that forms Dodd’s new Cause handbook in a desert hideaway. The moment is enveloped in sun-scorched yellow sands, a moment of uncovered joy. The next time we see Dodd, however, he is about to launch the book, but hides away from his audience in an ante room. We see Dodd sitting in a narrow beam from a window, but otherwise covered in darkness. It’s reminiscent of the processing scene, but Dodd is alone, and squints into the light as if blinded by it. This launch should be a happy occasion, but the prospect inhibits him, and may prove his undoing. Anderson plays with our expectations, but always in service of his narrative. A scene in which Freddie and Dodd are put in jail could be seen as a dark moment, but it’s shot in a way to indicate sunshine coming in from a source above the men’s cells. It’s the first moment at which Freddie confronts Dodd about the Cause’s methods, with the lighting suggesting Freddie has uncovered a truth. It’s not blinding, though; this is merely the beginning of Freddie’s emergence from the Cause. Using light as a multifaceted symbol means it is not monopolized by the Cause or any one character. It can be manipulated briefly (Most notably, Quell antagonizes a customer of his photography concession with a lamp in an early scene), but the light is not anyone’s to own.

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Amy Adams in THE MASTER

The subtleties of lighting aid Anderson in telling this story, and these subtleties shine brightest in the colours of the 70mm presentation. The inquisitive moment in the jail was spurred on in a previous scene when Freddie talks to Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons, whose resemblance to Hoffman is uncanny, verging on eerie). Val bluntly informs Freddie that Dodd Sr. is making the Cause’s catechism up as he goes. Their chat takes place outside on a sunny day, but under the shady protection of a porch. Between bright light and darkened rooms lie moments of doubt, junctions at which Freddie must question what he’s doing with the Cause. This leads into a bigger question: is The Master critical of Scientology? Val’s upfront confession to Freddie mirrors similar declarations from members of L. Ron Hubbard’s family about Scientology, and it would certainly be in keeping with similar themes of corrupted religion in There Will Be Blood, in which the petty greed of preacher Eli Sunday is completely overwhelmed by the capitalist dogma of Daniel Plainview. Yet, there’s no definitive end point in The Master to suggest Anderson has pointed his crosshairs at Scientology. After all, the Cause gave Freddie an epiphany and a refocused purpose, even if it’s only temporary. Rather, Anderson seems to say that a religion/cult/whatever is only as strong as its most fervent adherents. Kierkegaard posited doubt was necessary to maintain one’s faith; Freddie has doubts, but they never allow him to leave the Cause completely. Throughout the film, he has moments of enlightenment and profound darkness, from sunny deserts to cavernous movie theatres. The film ends with Freddie lying under a sexual conquest, in a ray of daylight and quoting Dodd from their first processing session. By this point, he’s left the Cause, leaving Dodd tearily singing behind a big desk. The Cause will go on (most likely driven on by the insistence of Mrs. Dodd), and Freddie will continue his search for answers, like Thom Yorke going through an endless parade of doors in Anderson’s video for Radiohead’s ‘Daydreaming’. Yet, there he lies, recalling the words of the Master in the warmth of a post-coital sunbeam. Once again, the richness of Malaimire’s 70mm artistry speaks volumes. This light isn’t the dazzling warmth of a desert sun, but it’s enough to illuminate the dark blue surrounds of Freddie’s partner’s bedroom. The narrator in Anderson’s Magnolia says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Like the past, and the Cause, the light shines on Freddie when he least expects it.

What’s the French for ‘binge-watch’? Rivette’s OUT 1

This article was originally published on Scannain.com

So, would you watch a 13-hour film?

That’s the inevitable first question that crops up in any discussion of Jacques Rivette’s 1971 opus Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. But that run time is just one element of a glorious mystique that has built up around this masterwork. The release of a brand new Rivette Collection box set (by Kino Lorber in the U.S., and Arrow Video in the U.K.) with Noli Me Tangere (plus its shorter version, the 4-hour Out 1: Spectre) brings the film to the masses, and demystifies one of cinema’s holy grails. It was not a lost film, rather a film that was difficult to find, its history plagued by bouts of obscurity. That won’t be happening again. Originally conceived as a television series, Rivette eventually made it into a 13-hour feature with an eight-episode structure. Rivette drew inspiration from early serials like Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampyres (1915), which is similarly compartmentalized yet shown in its entirety. He called it Out 1 to show his refusal to be ‘in’; it would ultimately become too obscure to be anywhere near ‘in’. Its blend of length, structure and thematic depth fuelled a cult following; seeing Out 1 became a badge of honour for cinephiles. Now, it’s open to all; given that the film playfully mocks the leftist revolutions of 1968, it’s another layer of irony to be added to this elusive work.

The enigma of Out 1 only deepens when trying to explain what it’s all about. There are characters, but the story in which they’re involved evolves and shifts about very readily, even diminishing in importance from time to time as we switch from one location and one set of characters to another. The film centres on two theatre groups in rehearsal. Each group is rehearsing an Aeschylus play; one’s doing Seven Against Thebes, the other Prometheus Bound. Like a hangover from Rivette’s previous film L’amour fou, we watch the groups engage in prolonged exploratory exercises built on spontaneity, a method favoured by many theatre groups at the time. From one group performing yoga-aping feats with limbs and bottoms, we cut to the other group lumbering and squealing around a dummy, like the apes reacting to the monolith in 2001. As with these actors, there’s a playful freedom to Out 1 that makes the whole endeavour seem quite unpredictable. Unbound to expectation, Rivette captures this latter rehearsal in an unbroken shot that continues for well over half an hour. Plot will come later, as the links between the two groups are revealed to be more personal than a shared playwright. In the meantime, we’re propelled into the workings of these groups, and relationships are laid down that will drive the narrative on when it actually arrives.

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Bulle Ogier in OUT 1

Also in this mix are two con artists, also operating separately from each other. The most recognizable face in the film is that of Jean-Pierre Léaud as con man Colin. At this stage, he had not yet finished playing Antoine Doinel for Truffaut, and is just one of many ways Out 1 ties into film history. The film is riddled with faces and names who defined, and would continue to define, French cinema. Michael Lonsdale became a renowned character actor both in France and beyond. Bernadette Lafont would be known before and after for her work with director Claude Chabrol. Bulle Ogier and Juliet Berto would star in Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, before forging successful partnerships with Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard respectively. And so on. Out 1 teems with the energy of these young actors, who never baulk at the film’s relative lack of narrative. In fact, they embrace it. The narrative flexibility allows them to create memorable characters and moments. One of the defining scenes of Out 1 sees Colin walking down a Parisian street reciting a passage from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, which he believes contains a clue to the theatre groups’ activities. There is a determination to Léaud’s performance that borders on intimidating, especially next to the more naturalistic work by members of the theatre troupes. Rivette’s greatest feat is to have created such a hypnotizing journey from so many disparate elements. The disparities are manyfold, but we’re willing to forgive the odd appearance by a boom mike or a self-conscious extra when the work holds together as a whole so well. It’s like the most cerebral soap opera you could possibly imagine.

Berto plays conwoman Frédérique in Out 1; separately, both she and Colin get mixed up with the theatrical groups by way of curiosity. Both are fascinated by rumours and suggestions of a group (Theatrical? Political? Or otherwise?) called ‘The Thirteen’. It’s a direct reference to Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, to which Out 1 is hugely indebted. It is the primary literary link in a work that is generously suffused with cultural references. The intertextuality at play throughout the film is a treasure trove. From Balzac to Cayette, to Carroll, to New Wave directors, to Rivette’s own filmography, this is full of material ripe for critical analysis. A most delicious example occurs when Éric Rohmer, another literary-minded purveyor of film serials (Six Moral Tales) turns up for a cameo as a Balzac expert approached by Colin for information. It’s no spoiler to say that the mystery of ‘the Thirteen’ is not worthy of either Colin and Frédérique’s efforts; the former seems quite disappointed in the louche organization of their nominal hideout ‘The Corner of Chance’ (a dive run by Ogier’s Pauline). Yet Out 1 is all about that search for belonging. Each part of Out 1 is necessary, and the con artists want to feel needed and necessary, too. Any time either group comes under threat (which is often), the members panic. Out 1 is about a sense of community and definition within a group. Colin’s con act involves him playing a deaf-mute; out of a strange mix of loneliness, curiosity and boredom, he suddenly feels a need to be heard by others. At least two characters in Out 1 are missing, and are never viewed onscreen. Though they prove important through their offscreen actions, there is a pervading sense that these groups could carry on just as well without them. These men may not be islands, but the links that bind them to others are threatened by the men’s absence from proceedings.

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Juliet Berto in OUT 1

The episodic format of Out 1 has worked before and since (Think of Kieslowski’s Dekalog or, more recently, Dumont’s P’Tit Quinquin). Screenings of the film, from its initial presentations up to recent showings in New York, London, Dublin and other cities, tend to spread the film across two days, with four episodes each day. You might say the home entertainment release of Out 1 came at just the right time; with binge-watching becoming the new ‘Tune in next week’, the freedom permitted by the DVDs is a wonderful thing. Out 1’s episodic structure works in tandem with its thematic complexity and richness. It could only be accentuated by the ability to pause and rewind. Rivette couldn’t have seen the age of boxsets and binge-watches coming, but the fact that he’s survived to see the day (He turns 88 in March) may well amuse him. This is the format his chef d’oeuvre has been waiting for.

No Longer In Control: Revisiting Blackhat

This article was originally published on Scannain.com

On a first viewing Blackhat seems, for a Michael Mann movie, uncharacteristically uninterested in its characters. The film opens with a view of our planet defined by its international online connections rather than by borders. It glows bright blue with the voluminous links and transactions traversing our planet. The scope of this tale is laid down; the cops and criminals in Mann’s latest picture are working on a global scale. Considering the damage Mann’s damaged men can cause on a local level, Blackhat is charting actions and distances bigger than we have seen before in his films. It’s a Parallax View-inflected slice of conspiracy, with a body count and danger to match the levels of paranoia.

The actions undertaken by the characters in Blackhat have a wide reach, yet they begin with the tiniest infractions on a microchip. From our blue worldview, we slowly cut to a nuclear power plant in China, and then cut in further and further, and the scale gets smaller and smaller. We eventually arrive at the infinitesimal circuitry of a microchip embedded somewhere in the power plant’s control systems. The grey chips and circuits are suddenly flooded with bright lights, as alternative instructions come flooding in to the computer system. More obstructive instructions pile on the circuitry before the plant’s cooling system breaks down, triggering an explosion. In all of this, we briefly cut to a shadowy figure in a remote location punching in commands on a keyboard. In his crime oeuvre, Mann’s criminals pride themselves on a certain distance. Heat’s Neil McCauley insisted on emotional distance to allow himself a hassle-free escape should it be required. In Miami Vice, the cartel being investigated is located in the Caribbean, far from the reach of the Vice squad in Florida. Blackhat’s antagonist is only glimpsed in the last act, with an ocean and various middlemen separating him from the chaos he created in China with a keyboard and a sturdy Internet connection. His identity doesn’t matter, but his intent and his capabilities do. As Mann’s criminals get further away, the damage they can cause increases exponentially.

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Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis in BLACKHAT

It may be this distance that caused Blackhat to be a costly flop for Mann. For audiences, this dependable chronicler of solitary males driven by basic compulsions/desires to undertake grave actions may have cast his net too wide. Goodness knows why; it’s his typical tale of a leading man (Chris Hemsworth in the role of criminal hacker Nicholas Hathaway) with a basic desire (freedom from prison) driving him to a great task (apprehend the hacker who blew up the power plant). Some of the blame can be pinned on a relative failure by filmmakers to adequately treat the world of hacking and cyber-terrorism with the respect it deserves up to now. The most notable films featuring hacking narratives include Hackers and The Net, which speaks volumes. Most directors will admit it’s tricky to make scenes of people tapping code into keyboards look cinematic or exciting, and with hacking’s onscreen track history, most any analyst of box office figures would have guessed that Blackhat was a risk. Yet, underneath the tech-y guise is a Mann film through and through. Its failure to gain critical traction was a surprise, considering Mann’s relative success in that arena. Mann has almost always come through box office disappointments (Manhunter, The Insider) by virtue of the fact that he had a great many admirers in critical and industry circles. He gained this traction simply by being a good director, and Blackhat is an unquestionably well-directed film. His choices of camera angles, his framing and blocking are elegant, rarely calling attention to themselves but offering up rewards for the attentive viewer. For any gripes about who did what (Blackhat has four credited editors and three credited composers, with contributions from others), Mann is the undoubted auteur of this film.

As with all of Mann’s work, Blackhat’s plot is predicated on an atmosphere of cool distrust. From the anonymous attack on the power plant, to protagonist Hathaway being a convicted criminal, the audience is put on the back foot when it comes to expectations. Before Hathaway is even brought into the mix, the initial investigations see Chinese analyst Chen DaWei (Leehom Wang) seeking assistance from the FBI in tracking the attack. We meet FBI reps Barrett (Viola Davis) and Pollack (John Ortiz) reviewing DaWei’s credentials. Despite DaWei’s Western education, Pollack describes working with their Chinese counterparts as ‘inviting them into the henhouse.’ For all the trumpeting Hollywood may do of increased Sino-American cooperation (see Transformers: Age of Extinction or The Martian for examples), Blackhat sees such cross-border enterprises on a more tactical level. Before achieving a common goal, the two parties must first establish trust; that being said, in the course of the film inter-agency trust is necessarily established and broken, allegiances are scattered and bodies pile up. The film begins in the depths of a corrupted computer system and balloons in size to end on a shootout. Pessimism goes through Blackhat like words through a stick of rock.

The basic requirement of trust sees DaWei enlist the assistance of his sister Lei (Tang Wei), a fellow analyst. In the forms of Hemsworth, Wei and Wang, the protagonists in Blackhat differ from Mann’s stock-in-trade leads. Once, Petersen and Cox talked through iron bars, and De Niro and Pacino had a shootout at a bank. Now, the criminal is a continent away, possessed of different skills and abilities, which can only be countered by a new generation of coders, analysts and investigators. In numerous other films, hackers and hacking is a novelty. In Blackhat, Mann uses his stylish, mature eye to elevate it to a legitimate, awe-inspiring threat. Crucially, the architecture of circuitry and code is not made accessible; it is a foreign, cold world with few trustworthy navigators. Scenes take place with credible discussion of online security systems in rooms with towering servers emitting blue glows (Mann always gets the most of his DoP, and Stuart Dryburgh’s work here is no exception, creating a world of darkness pierced by interloping primary colours). Overseeing all of this is the ever-wonderful Davis as Barrett, a throwback to old-school defence in need of youthful expertise to provide security in a new battlefield. She’s not weak (“Chica? Am I hispanic?!”) but she is tactical, with an attempt at a backstory proving an unnecessary adjunct to the basic foundation of leadership and security she provides. Watch her break a stock market official (Spencer Garrett) in pursuit of information on possible beneficiaries from a stock market spike.

The relationships between countries, and between young and old, are initially chilly. Yet the urgency of the hacker’s threat, as evidenced on a follow-up attack on a stock market to inflate soy futures, ensures the working relationships grow closer quickly, if only out of necessity. The increased closeness of cooperation is emphasized by Mann’s framing, with more single shots of DaWei and Barrett analyzing data together, while Lei and Hathaway try to track down contacts to the hacker on the ground. Their relationship has grown beyond the professional, but the script gives little dialogue to this aspect. Mann conveys their growing closeness through furtive glances and glimpses at necks and arms. Throughout his oeuvre, in the most basic of human interactions, Mann lets body language do most of the talking. Blackhat is all about showing, not telling, not least because telling is ineffective. Why try to explain the transfer of corrupting data through a computer network when you can show it instead? Complicating your script with potentially cheesy dialogue will do you few favours, but showing the desires of the characters works effectively and efficiently. Early on in the investigation, Hathaway asks the crucial question, “What does this guy want?” What he wants hardly matters; it is his want, his desire, that is dangerous, because he can get most anything he wants with a few taps on a keyboard. For all its technical trappings, Blackhat is a paranoid glimpse at desire at its most horrifically manifest. Control, power, money; it’s all there at the click of a mouse. (Not really, but Mann sure makes it feel that way).

Calling the (Gun)Shots: The directorial visions of American Sniper and Selma

*WARNING: This article contains minor spoilers.*

As the awards season rambles on, its controversies add flavour to the otherwise bland backslapping to which these things boil down. Two films in particular have been criticised for their portrayal of historical events. All publicity may be good publicity but, for American Sniper and Selma, their efforts are being given short shrift, particularly from outlets that should probably know better. The debates about historical accuracy and point of view detract from the work done by two talented directors. They may be at different stages of their careers, but Clint Eastwood and Ava DuVernay show their clear abilities in their latest offerings. Their use of history is a reminder that film cannot be treated as completely true reflections of the past, though some people have clearly forgotten that fact.

A lot has already been written about American Sniper, and a good deal of it came before its record-breaking opening weekend. Most of the articles written on the film have centred on the depiction of its leading man, Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper). American Sniper is adapted from Kyle’s memoir of the same name, which details the late Navy SEAL’s four tours of duty in Iraq. The book was a bestseller, but Kyle’s descriptions and opinions on who he fought and why he fought them are not exactly nuanced. His description of enemy fighters as ‘damn savages’ seems ironic considering his kill count (160 confirmed kills, with more unsubstantiated), but it is perhaps more reflective of a mindset necessary to undertake these actions. If there’s one man who knows about putting such masculine hubris on a screen, if only to undermine it, it’s Clint Eastwood.

Bradley Cooper in AMERICAN SNIPER

As discussed by Ronan Doyle at Next Projection, Eastwood is too smart a director to let Kyle’s descriptions and point of view be the be-all and end-all. In American Sniper, we get up close with Kyle in both war and peace. Eastwood has chosen Jason Hall’s adaptation of Kyle’s memoir to function as a journey through the pains of war and its after effects. On the battlefield, Kyle is not a gung-ho hero in the vein of the Man With No Name and ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan. He’s remarkable at his job, one that clearly demands precision. However, at home his once-happy relationship with his wife (Sienna Miller) and their children bears the brunt of PTSD. War films are almost automatically damned/praised for any perceived political stance, so American Sniper was bound to attract attention from commentators. Eastwood is known as a card-carrying, chair-talking Republican, but his criticism of American military intervention and advocacy of gun control go against popular Republican views and the image cultivated by his earlier roles. After all, Dirty Harry’s most famous scene sees him taunting a wounded suspect with a handgun. Eastwood’s views are clear in American Sniper; there is nothing glorious about the war scenes, which are shot with urgency and a muted colour palette. At their height, they come down to simple kill-or-be-killed scenarios, with plenty collateral damage on both sides. Meanwhile, any sight of a gun in the film (which, given the story, is often) comes with a veiled menace. Kyle himself is taught to shoot as a child in early flashbacks, while he shows his son his firearms later on. The boys are enamoured by the weapons, but the guns loom in the shot, eclipsing the children. A late scene shows Kyle holding his own handgun in his home, with wife and children paying it no mind. The gun gleams in the light, drawing attention to itself. It foreshadows Kyle’s own death by gunfire, not in a war zone but near his home at a gun range. Eastwood is fascinated by the threats of war, especially when they are brought home. The fallout from Kyle’s PTSD is the anchor for the scenes when he returns from Iraq. He feels surrounded by the shellshock. A mechanic’s drill can be mistaken for gunfire when exposed to the latter for long enough. Kyle finds some solace with fellow veterans, the only ones who can relate to his traumas. Eastwood is focused on Kyle as a soldier, and what that does to him. It means he’s often battling the script to inject nuance, but the intent is clear.

Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper on the set of AMERICAN SNIPER

The pros and cons of American Sniper can be summed up in one scene, most of which is shown in its theatrical trailer. The opening scene sees Kyle covering a door-to-door raid by US troops in a ruined Ramadi street. A woman and her child emerge from a doorway up the street, possibly carrying a bomb. The scene is incredibly tense, with Kyle considering whether or not to shoot the pair. Pregnant moments pass as he talks to a ranking officer over an earpiece, whilst the ground troops bellow orders at the mother and child. When it comes to killing these potential aggressors, Kyle is told the call is his to make. Eastwood milks the consideration Kyle gives to this call for all the tension he can get. However, the consideration he gives to this call seems at odds with the hunting of ‘damn savages’. As in the book, most of the aggressors get little-to-no character development, and other aspects are based on speculation. Kyle frequently exchanges fire with a talented Syrian sniper who medalled for shooting in the Olympics. In reality, no such Olympian fought in Iraq. Such problems are a basic issue with the script, but it’s clear that Eastwood was drawn to American Sniper by the chance to introduce even a little nuance to a story that seems myopic. It’s Chris Kyle’s story, but Eastwood’s telling gives it its edge.

Selma is not lacking in character, but director Ava DuVernay was faced with a similar problem to Eastwood: overcoming expectations. It’s a retelling of the events that led to the historic 1965 march from the town of Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery. The march was led by Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo in a powerful performance) to demand greater voting rights for African-Americans. A period piece biopic? Despite its relative lack of Academy Award nominations, Selma seems tailor-made for awards glory. Looking at fellow award-seekers The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, one has to consider how Selma avoids the rote perils of fitting a true story into a familiar narrative arc. Crass as it may sound, it helps that Selma touches on a hot topic; a number of high-profile cases involving African-American men being gunned down by police in apparent demonstrations of excessive force have brought race relations in the US back to the forefront of social and political debate.

David Oyelowo in SELMA

The initial attempt to march from Selma was blocked by police, who used tear gas and baton charges to break up the marchers. Their heavy-handed approach was televised worldwide, leaving an indelible reminder of the struggle for integration. Wisely, Selma focuses on a particular series of events over a short period of time rather than attempt to tell King’s life story. The film has a great deal of historical records, footage and testimony from which to work. The question is: how closely does DuVernay cleave to the facts? Like Eastwood, she knows what story she wants to tell, and she knows exactly how she wants to tell it. The truth is adhered to where possible, even acknowledging King’s infidelities, but the minutiae of dialogue always require a degree of supposition. The most shocking changes might be to King’s speeches, which had to be altered slightly as the King estate had already sold the rights to the speeches for another proposed film.

Selma knows its history, and how the effects of that history are still being felt to this day. It knows that progress and recognition in such political and civil struggles come at a cost. An early scene sees King presented with the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize intercut with a depiction of the infamous church bombing in Birmingham, AL the previous year that killed four schoolgirls. The two events are not concurrent, but it pins the audience to the seat early on by declaring intent; subsequent events are framed in a context of violence and desperation. Soon after, the potential ramifications are shown, as Dr. King visits with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the White House. A torrent of controversy has cropped up around the depiction of Johnson in Selma, with the New York Times suggesting Johnson becomes the villain of the piece. In Paul Webb’s script, and in the finished product, the worst that could be said about Johnson is he’s a pragmatist under pressure. The Voting Rights Act that extended the vote to all African-Americans of legal age, as keenly supported by Johnson, had already been signed into law before we meet Johnson in the film. His greatest issue is competing priorities. As he says to King, “You’ve got one big issue. I’ve got a hundred and one!” He has to balance the views and advice of all sides, though he is less than tolerant of the bigoted opposition of Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).

Ava DuVernay directs David Oyelowo on the set of SELMA

If Johnson is a reluctant ally of King’s, a more definite foe is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Rather than displaying dates onscreen to illustrate events, Selma uses extracts from internal FBI reports that demonstrate the determination of J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to disrupt the efforts of the ‘degenrate’ Dr. King. These reports include logs of events, meetings and phone calls, illustrating the covert lengths to which the FBI went. It’s perhaps a blunter portrait of Hoover than Eastwood gave us in his biopic J. Edgar, but it is founded in truth. More immediately dangerous is the local resistance in Alabama. The most memorable scene in Selma sees the first attempt to march thrown into chaos by a police baton charge. Tear gas and blows rain down on the protestors, while television cameras broadcast the scenes worldwide. People were struggling to breathe long before Eric Garner was put in a chokehold by police. DuVernay captures the energy and viciousness of the attack, with a power reminiscent of Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. This scene shows her incredible skill; the horrific nature of the police resistance is clear for all to see, but it never feels reactionary or over the top. When Spike Lee used the real video of the beating of Rodney King in the opening credits of Malcolm X, the lack of subtlety used to make the point is deafening. There’s no such pandering here; DuVernay credits her audience with enough intelligence to link the past events she presents with the strife of the present.

Both Eastwood and DuVernay know what they wish to achieve. They’ve shed light on stories many might have thought they already knew. Eastwood delivers a human story in the guise of a jingoistic war film. Conversely, DuVernay offers a message wrapped in a factually-rigorous biopic. Their skill is the key to their films’ successes, at least at the level of artistry. It is interesting to note that both films are nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but neither has been nominated for Best Director. It’s not a good sign for their chances for the biggest prize, but what does it matter when their directors are the key to the films’ successes? Let the prizes fall where they may.

2014 – the year’s best movie scores

Looking back on the scores of 2014, the diversity of styles and sounds belies a year which (in the opinion of this writer, at least) has struggled to find a voice in any one singular film. In a vainglorious effort to redress this, here are the 10 best scores of 2014 (in no particular order). Even if some of the films aren’t particularly memorable, their soundtracks deserve a mention on their own merit.

 

Under The SkinMica Levi

Was Jonathan Glazer’s third feature – a common feature on many 2014 Top Tens – a gooey horror, a Kubrickian mindbender, or a parable on the nature of humanity? At its best, it works on all three levels, as shown in Mica Levi’s eerie music. The score reflects the juxtaposition embodied in Scarlett Johansson’s extra-terrestrial lead: it’s frightening, but it lures us in with elements that are recognisably human. Levi, previously known as lead singer with Micachu and the Shapes, delivers a debut score of remarkable confidence and character, destined to linger in the mind long after the end credits roll.

 

Nightcrawler – James Newton Howard

Listening to Nightcrawler’s soundtrack, anyone who knows scores will instantly recognise it as the work of James Newton Howard. Playing like a higher-tempoed cousin of his contribtions to the soundtrack of Collateral, there are echoes of his scores for King Kong and Peter Pan However, there are other influences at work here. The electric guitars recall Elliot Goldenthal’s score to Heat, and seedier moments play like Shore (Crash in particular). Like lead character Lou Bloom, it’s energetic, spiky and liable to change its tone and speed in a flash.

 

Cold In July – Jeff Grace

Jim Mickle’s Cold In July aims for the look and feel of a 1980s thriller (see also: The Guest), and it gets a sound to match from composer Jeff Grace. A fully synthisied score is a rarity these days, so it’s refreshing to hear this pulsing, paranoid throwback to the time that fashion sense forgot. At the very least, it’s an effective thriller score in its own right. At its best, the score to Cold In July honours the works of the late Riz Ortolani, and John Carpenter (especially Escape From New York and The Fog)

 

Maps To The Stars – Howard Shore

Howard Shore and David Cronenberg go together like Spielberg and Williams. Adding in some Eastern influences can only make it better. As the Lothlorien themes from Lord of the Rings proved, Shore can use instruments like sitars to mesmerising effect. He uses it again to bathe Cronenberg’s warped image of Los Angeles in an otherworldly glow. This is not the LA we know, or is it?; it’s full of warped tastes and ideas. The score is by turns exotic and poignant; even when the film digs into perversions, Shore’s restraint is unparalleled.

 

The Congress – Max Richter

Ari Folman’s follow-up to Waltz With Bashir, a loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s futuristic novel, was met with an overwhelming critical shrug. The film itself seemed unsure about its message and its method, a split between live action and animation indicative of a film at war with itself. Still, the whole thing was held in place by Robin Wright’s committed performance and a beautiful Max Richter score. Largely strings-driven, the emotive elegance of Richter’s work carried the film through its most chaotic stretches with a grace and heft the rest of the film lacked.

 

The Double – Andrew Hewitt

Richard Ayoade’s sophomore feature (after Submarine) buried Dostoyevsky’s tale of paranoia and self-doubt under too many influences and tics, but one standout element of the production was Andrew Hewitt’s score. Unlike the film, Hewitt settles on one primary influence (film noir) and lets the rest of the score fall into place. Interspersed amongst its more fast-paced elements are moments of genuine emotion and tenderness, resulting in a score that manages to blend tones better than the accompanying film could.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive – Jozef van Wissem/SQÜRL

For Jim Jarmusch’s vampiric lament for times and tastes past, composer Jozef van Wissem takes inspiration from the film’s dual settings of Detroit and Tangiers. The first half is driven by the electronic guitars of Jarmusch’s own band, SQÜRL. Then, the action segues to Africa, and local strings kick in to give a heady, exotic flavour. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s hunt for blood and inspiration is guided by these colourful sounds. Like our leading duo, each piece boasts an underlying tension below their cool elegance as each string is plucked and strummed. Marvellous.

 

Godzilla – Alexandre Desplat

It’s been a busy year for monsieur Desplat. He provided charming faux-Eastern European sounds to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and provided a solid-if-unremarkable score to the even-more-unremarkable The Imitation Game. However, his standout work of 2014 can be found in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. The score pays homage to the sounds of the Tohu originals, whilst still creating a distinct and scary vibe of its own. Pulsing rhythms and errant, far-off horns dominate this score, a slick and well-built slice of dread.

 

Gone Girl – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

For his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, David Fincher directed composers Reznor and Ross to the music played at massage parlours. The underlying creepiness of such pieces is accentuated in this killer score. Like Rosamund Pike’s Amy, the surface calm and reassurance gives way to unexpected darkness, with the composers actively setting the listener on edge with a calculated assault of digital textures and off-kilter soundscapes. It ends up somewhere between Shore in his Cronenberg-ian heyday and Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score, which is no bad thing.

 

Interstellar – Hans Zimmer

With director Christopher Nolan reaching for the stars and beyond, Hans Zimmer elected to treat us to one of those scores he pulls out every few years as a surprise. When he isn’t constrained by superheroics or rote action beats, Zimmer can deliver works of real depth and technical nous. Interstellar is one such work. As Nolan flirts with comparisons to 2001 (They’re ultimately undeserved, but bless him for trying.), Zimmer looks to the great composers for inspiration. The result is an percussive and triumphant score, with organ work echoing Bach and Philip Glass, and a huge scope befitting the themes and narrative with which Nolan grapples.

Cynical Corner: The best of 2013

Another year ends, and all of us in the critiquing world itch to disseminate what has passed. We do this via an unscientific arrangement of the best films of the year. Their subjectivity and haphazard nature is the ultimate proof that critics are not a hive mind. We simply cannot agree on anything. This is but one man’s opinion, but it’s offered in good faith and a simple desire to highlight those films that merit praise. It’s been an odd year (A first-half dearth of quality output has been steadily balanced out since October), but it has always offered fodder for debate and analysis. As we move in to the new year, here’s my take on the year just gone.

Note: this list is subject to revisions. Certain titles have yet to be seen (The Wolf Of Wall Street, Her, etc.), and make me curse the fact I live in Europe. Oh well.

THE FILM CYNIC’S TOP 10 FILMS OF 2013

10. All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)

Robert Redford returns to relevance in J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to Margin Call. A dedicated physical performance from the 78-year-old combined with tight direction and minimal sets and dialogue make this the ultimate challenge for an actor. With no place to escape and no co-stars to bounce off, Redford anchors this thrilling tale of impending mortality and desperation.

9. Night Moves (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

As with All Is Lost, less is more in Night Moves. The tale of three environmental activists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Saarsgard) plotting to blow up a dam is played straight with little flourish, meaning tensions rise naturally and steadily. The cast are uniformly excellent, whilst Reichardt keeps the pressure building to an ending full of poignancy. Superb.

8. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)

It’s been said before, but Woody Allen is well and truly back on form with Blue Jasmine. Cate Blanchett gives a career-best turn as the addiction-riddled Jasmine, a ball of depressive energy who arrives in San Francisco to disrupt the lives of her extended family. The barbs come thick and fast as Jasmine learns some harsh home truths. Its bittersweet brilliance makes this Allen’s finest film since Deconstructing Harry.

7. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)

Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz) openly and admirably airs our her family’s dirty linen in Stories We Tell. This could have been manipulative tosh, a snooty vanity project or a sickly mixture of the two. Instead, it’s an examination of the meaning of family and the subjective nature of storytelling. It’s stonkingly intelligent and surprising in all the best ways. A true gem.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Thematically, Inside Llewyn Davis is nothing new for the Coen Brothers: a roving and isolated   genius searching for an escape from the here and now. Yet familiarity is no obstacle when the story is brought to life with such enthusiasm and style. Oscar Isaac’s performance is star-making, whilst the look and sound of the film are simply sublime. It’s poignant, thoughtful and often very funny. In short, it’s none more Coens.

5. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Another nine years, another reunion with Jesse and Céline. The third chapter of modern cinema’s finest romance takes place against a sun-kissed Greek backdrop, but there’s potential for tragedy here; our central couple are married with children, and even they are not safe from the problems of martial bliss. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy know these roles inside and out, and their script with director Richard Linklater is another genuine and emotive chapter to this lovely saga.

4. 12 Years A Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

In a sea of award-spying biopics, 12 Years A Slave stands out from the pack. The tale of enslaved  Northerner Solomon Northup (a steadily dignified Chiwitel Ejiofor) in the Deep South of the 1840s is well-acted and technically adept, but it’s also necessarily brutal and cruel. It’s a fine testament to a remarkable life story, and a clear example of how to treat such material with the respect it deserves beyond awards hype. Masterful.

3. Under The Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

It wears its influences on its sleeve (playing like Hitchcock by way of Ken Loach, with a little Lynchian nightmare for good measure), but Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy Beast, Birth) latest is something shockingly original. It sounds like Species in Scotland, but Laura’s (Scarlett Johannson) alien mission is more vague and altogether more sinister. It’s not pure horror, but it’s breathtakingly creepy and directed with bravura. Unforgettable.

2. The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)

It hearkens back to La Dolce Vita, but the monied denizens of The Great Beauty aren’t very dolce, whilst ageing insider Jep (Toni Servillo) finds something is lacking in his vita. Accusations of self-importance only highlight the indulgence at the core of the film’s satire. It’s absolutely ravishing to look at, Servillo is an identifiable guide through the Dionysian morass, and the soundtrack’s a cracker. Bellissimo.

1. Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Or: How Dracula Got His Groove Back. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s vampiric couple lament their time apart, whilst writer/director Jarmusch mourns the passing of the past. He surrounds his ghoulish twosome with crumbling cities (Most of the actions happens in Tangiers and Detroit) and memories of times and musics past. It’s haunted and haunting, delving into the dignity of the vampire myth without exploiting it for cheap thrills and gore. Only Lovers Left Alive is funny, thoughtful and elegiac. It may be Jarmusch’s best film yet. It IS the best film of 2013.

The next 10:Computer Chess
Blue Is The Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche): Lovely lesbianism
The Act Of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer): Evil egos
Computer Chess (dir. Andrew Bujalski): Nerdy nirvana
Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne): Lottery lament
A Field In England (dir. Ben Wheatley): Devil’s drug
Tom At The Farm (dir. Xavier Dolan): Saskatoon secrets
The Gatekeepers (dir. Dror Moreh): Israeli investigationsNebraska
Camille Claudel 1915 (dir. Bruno Dumont): Brilliant Binoche
Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass): Shitty shipping
The Selfish Giant (dir. Clio Barnard): Wilde and wonderful

Best actor: Robert Redford, All Is Lost
Honourable mentions:
– Bruce Dern, Nebraska
– Chiwitel Ejiofor, 12 Years A SlaveBlue Is The Warmest Colour
– Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Honourable mentions:
– Adéle Exarchopolous, Blue Is The Warmest Colour
– Juliette Binoche, Camille Claudel 1915
– Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha

Best supporting actor: James Gandolfini, Enough SaidEnough Said
Honourable mentions:
– Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
– James Franco, Spring Breakers
– Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Best supporting actress: June Squibb, Nebraska
Honourable mentions:
– Luputa Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave
– Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
– Alexandra Maria Lara, RushThe Act of Killing

Best director: Jonathan Glazer, Under The Skin
Honourable mentions:
– Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty
– Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
– Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act Of KillingIn A World

Surprise of the year: In A World

Lake Bell’s debut as writer and director sneaked in under the radar, ready to charm. It’s a clever and proudly feministic slant on a male-dominated industry, and is brilliantly funny to boot.

Disappointment of the year: ElysiumElysium

Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9 got too bogged down in social commentary to remember to craft rounded characters or to tie up its plot points sufficiently for it all to hang together satisfactorily.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch HuntersWorst Film Of The Year: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

It can’t decide on a tone. It can’t stop focusing on Gemma Arterton’s cleavage. It can’t make Jeremy Renner look any way interested. It can’t stop throwing blood all over the place. IT. JUST. CAN’T!only-god-forgives-blog-jpg_155528

(Dis)honourable mentions
Only God Forgives
– The Counsellor
– The Hangover, Part III
– Pieta

The Best of 2012

Since Roland Emmerich’s 2012 prophecy did not come to pass, here is my list of the best films of 2012. All told, it was an impressive year, with a mix of drama, horror, action, comedy and documentary all worming their way onto the list. This is all in the name of inspiring debate, but always remember: I’m right. So there.

Rust and Bone

20. Rust and Bone (dir. Jacques Audiard)

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts give two of the year’s most committed performances in Rust and Bone, a typically intense and emotional piece of work from Jacques Audiard. The tale of two cripples, one physical (Cotillard’s Stéphanie), one emotional (Schoenaerts’ Alain), finding each other is an emotional rollercoaster, full of (melo)drama and identifiable pain.

Searching For Sugar Man

19. Searching for Sugar Man (dir. Malik Bendjelloul)

Forget The Imposter; for the best of stranger-than-fiction documentary filmmaking, look no further than Searching for Sugar Man. How could a musician go four decades without knowing he was a massive success? When two South African fans went to track down their musical hero Sixto Rodriguez, they did not expect a jobbing handyman living humbly in suburban Detroit, but there he was. Sugar Man is a touching and warm film, and Rodriguez’s songs are an absolute treat.

the hunt-2

18. The Hunt (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)

The Hunt is Thomas Vinterberg confronting and disturbing his audience as only he, and perhaps Lars Von Trier, know how. Mads Mikkelsen’s terrific performance as a teacher falsely accused of abusing a pupil is a sympathetic anchor around which events unfold with horrible speed and inevitability. The Hunt is one to make you think and to make you shudder.

Raid-300x201

17. The Raid (dir. Gareth Evans)

With The Raid, director Gareth Evans created one of the most original, energetic and simply one of the best action films in years. A simple setup (30 cops tackle a 20-storey apartment block packed with criminals) leads to 90 minutes of adrenaline-amped balls-to-the-wall set pieces. Blood will be shed; sweat will pour; audiences will whoop with delight.

The Dark Knight Rises16. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)

As a beaten and bowed Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale provides a soulful anchor amongst the chaos wreaked by Bane (Tom Hardy) in The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy-capper could barely live up to the bloated expectations surrounding it, but for action on the grandest scale and a surprising emotional gut-punch,  delivered all that the fans were waiting for.

The Turin Horse15. The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr)

Béla Tarr’s talent for hypnotism continues to astound in The Turin Horse. This tale of a farmer and his daughter riding out a strong storm on the Hungarian plain is not much fun, but crisp cinematography, skillful long takes and Tarr’s expectedly esoteric script keep you guessing and keep you hooked to the end.

Skyfall

14. Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes)

Daniel Craig brings Bond back from the brink a second time in Skyfall (Quantum of Solace being a most abhorrent follow-up to Casino Royale). Craig brings the muscle, Judi Dench’s M finally gets an involving storyline and Javier Bardem’s villainous Silva steals the show. Sam Mendes confounds any naysayers by delivering not just one of the best Bonds yet, but also 2012’s most entertaining film.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

13. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

The Turkish Tourist Board could frame most any shot from Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and use it as an advertisement. The rugged natural beauty of the Anatolian steppes combined with naturalistic performances make Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s tale of the hunt for a murder victim more than a rote procedural. Its sights will seduce the eye and its dialogue rings true.

Mea Maxima Culpa

12. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God (dir. Alex Gibney)

In Mea Maxima Culpa, director Alex Gibney pulls back the veil of Vatican privilege and pretense by tracing the history of the current abuse quagmire back to the case of one priest at a deaf school in Wisconsin. Combining the personal tales of the now-adult deaf children with the international scale of the abuses perpetrated by Catholic clergy, Mea Maxima Culpa is riveting, enraging and engaging.

 

Berberian Sound Studio

11. Berberian Sound Studio (dir. Peter Strickland)

Many an unfortunate melon is sacrificed at the altar of Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland’s eerie tribute to the humble foley artist. When Toby Jones’ soundman is enlisted to soundtrack a none-more-bloody Italian giallo, he finds himself unravelling as the screeches and squelches slowly smother him. With a terrifically tormented Jones at its heart and with nods aplenty to many gialli, BSS invades the mind via the eardrum and refuses to leave.

Amour

10. Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

Anyone who ever complained cinematic romance was unrealistic may have their faith restored by Amour. Michael Haneke proves himself capable of surprising tenderness with this tale of a couple (a heartbreaking Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) coping with the encroachment of illness. Sometimes funny, often poignant, yet still packing some Haneke-flavoured shock, Amour is the side of older people in love Hope Springs would never dare probe.

Killing Them Softly

9. Killing Them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik)

Subtext? Bah! Killing Them Softly made the current economic crisis as much a part of the text as the criminal capers being cleaned up by Cogan (Brad Pitt on blistering form). Critics and audiences didn’t appreciate a lecture in political economy being delivered by gangsters, but they missed Andrew Dominik’s slick direction and a uniformly superb supporting cast. Like Fight Club before it, Killing Them Softly bombed at the box office, but is destined for cult status.

Life of Pi

8. Life Of Pi (dir. Ang Lee)

Life of Pi boasts some outstanding special effects, but its story is what stays with you afterwards. A boy and a tiger on a boat becomes the surprising stage for a tale of endurance, self-belief and faith. That said, director Ang Lee makes sure never to force any viewpoints down the audience’s throats. Subtlety is a trait rarely glimpsed in a film loaded with CGI, but Life of Pi is a blissful exception.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

7. Beasts Of The Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)

Beasts of the Southern Wild, the little film that could, combines childlike imagination with genuinely affecting issues to creating a bathtub full of joy. Quvenzhané Wallis is a revalation as Hushpuppy, the little girl trying to save her family, friends and bayou home from a watery grave. Despite the grim material, BOTSW is a bright and uplifting piece of cinema, and a blistering debut from director/co-writer/composer Benh Zeitlin.

Moonrise Kingdom

6. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson’s style will not convert his critics to Moonrise Kingdom, but its sweet tale of teenage romantics on the run makes this his most accessible and arguably best film to date. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward make a sweet young couple, whilst the likes of Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Anderson stalwart Bill Murray infuse the Andersonian kook with laughs and genuine warmth.

Looper

5. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)

Looper could have been a cooler-than-thou sci-fi flick with a cool cast and visuals, and it was. It was also so much more, with a compelling story driven by rounded characters, terrific effects and remarkable confidence on the part of writer/director Rian Johnson. Joseph-Gordon Levitt ages into Bruce Willis with odd believability, and the final act boasts scenes of surprising emotional heft.

Zero Dark Thirty

4. Zero Dark Thirty (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

The hunt for Osama bin Laden is brought to the screen with intelligence and confidence to spare in Zero Dark Thirty. Jessica Chastain is a human face behind the militaristic hubris, whilst Mark Boal’s script doesn’t skimp on detail, making Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker a demanding but well-worthwhile watch.

The Master3. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

The Master is a tease, but in the best possible way. Is it about Scientology? A treatise on addiction? A sequel to I’m Still Here? PT Anderson doesn’t dictate meaning. Instead, with the help of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, Anderson create a mood and atmosphere full of foreboding and possibility, taking both the characters and the audience on a journey to the unknown. Like the drinks Phoenix’s Freddie makes, The Master is a heady brew.

Margaret

2. Margaret (Extended Cut) (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

Margaret suffered a tortured production path (several cuts, lawsuits and a theatrical release last year best described as ‘farcical’), but the emergence of the Extended Cut this year made the effort worth it. This longer cut confirms Kenneth Lonergan’s sophomore feature as some kind of masterpiece, with barbed characters and dialogue to make a confrontational New York film, loaded with post-9/11 relevance and layers.

Holy Motors

1. Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax)

You may not know the name Denis Lavant, but if you watch Holy Motors you’ll never forget him. He is the chameleon channelling multiple personalities in a wonderfully wacky variety of performances in Leos Carax’s tribute to acting in particular and film in general. Holy Motors is an intoxicating filmic experience, acknowledging cinema past and present (and future?) with irreverence, style and confidence to spare.

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Honourable Mentions:
– Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
– Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
– Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt

Best Actress: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Honourable Mentions:
– Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
– Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
– Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone

Best Supporting Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (right), Django UnchainedDjango Unchained
Honourable Mentions:
– James Gandolfini, Killing Them Softly
– Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained
– Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Best Supporting Actress: Ann Dowd, Compliance
Honourable Mentions:
– Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
– Helen Hunt The Sessions
– Amy Adams, The Master

Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Honourable Mentions:
– Ben Affleck, Argo
– Ang Lee, Life of Pi
– Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Surprise of the Year: 21 Jump Street (dir. Phil Lord, Chris Miller) – a stupidly, brilliantly effective piece of entertainment. Did what it said on the tin, and a little more.

Disappointment of the Year: Prometheus (right) (dir. Ridley Scott) – crash-landed with dumb characters, a rushed plot and an Prometheusindecisiveness over whether or not it’s an Alien prequel.

Worst Film of the Year: John Carter (dir. Andrew Stanton) – bloated, unoriginal, bland, convoluted, over-produced and under-developed. Lucas and Spielberg perfected this stuff almost 40 years ago.

Dishonourable mentions:
– The Iron Lady
– The Bourne Legacy
– Project X
– Cosmopolis