David Larsen’s picks:
The elegance of a sonnet, the restraint of a haiku, the power of a great romantic symphony: the Cannes Palme d’Or has had its unworthy recipients, but in giving it to Michael Haneke’s study of an elderly couple facing dementia and death, they gave it to this year’s best film. Not sure I could bear to watch it again. So glad I saw it once.
“The story of the making of this film is as interesting as the film”: possibly the best compliment for Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed, litigation bedevilled second feature is that this isn’t actually true, although the making-of story deserves to be a film itself. Lonergan has achieved a thorny, novelistic masterpiece here, built around a riveting central performance from Anna Paquin.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
The perfect counterpoint to Amour’s classical, polished treatment of old age: a rough-hewn, high-voltage look at youth, with a gobsmackingly good six year-old star and a director so sure-footed it’s hard to believe this is his first full-length film.
You wouldn’t guess it from the films he’s left in his wake but Martin Scorsese has been gearing up for this family-friendly charmer for years. A celebration of everything film can be, delivered with absolute technical mastery and an infectious sense of joy.
It takes courage to slow an action thriller down for a pastoral second act. Rian Johnson gambles on his audience having the wit to stay with him, and the pay-off is substantial: this time-travel self-assassination drama is by far the year’s best action film, and proof that intelligent, original big budget work can still thrive in Hollywood.
Not an easy watch, but of all the films on this list, this offers the most penetrating (and least welcome) insights into human psychology. A chilling, acutely well-observed suspenser, with acting so naturalistic you could be watching a documentary.
7. The Cabin in the Woods
Not just a horror film about horror films: a horror film about the disquieting fact that we enjoy watching horror films. And how I enjoyed watching it. No complaints about Joss Whedon’s work writing and directing The Avengers, but his script for this genre bullseye was his greatest gift to fans this year.
8. Margin Call
After Beasts of the Southern Wild, the year’s most impressive debut. Writer-director JC Chandor marshals a fabulous cast for a quiet, tightly scripted ensemble piece about a Wall Street firm that discovers it’s in very deep water, and decides to let everyone else drown. The first dramatic feature to tackle the financial crisis in a really satisfying way.
9. From Up on Poppy Hill
A gentle, funny, visually gorgeous story about teenage love and the aftermath of war in 1950s Japan. Thoroughly uplifting, and an encouraging sign that animator Goro Miyazaki, son of the great Hayao Miyazaki, may yet grow to match his father.
10. The Raid
The poetry of ultra-violence: this instant martial arts classic from Indonesia develops its characters and delivers its plot beats via nothing but a superlative variety of fight scenes. Believe me when I say that’s all it needs. Choreography and editing to die for. (And so many characters do.)
Helen Wong’s picks:
Having been out of reviewing action for three months this year, I accept there may be one or two important omissions in what follows. As compensation of sorts, I’ve snuck in a few extra titles I admired greatly but that didn’t make the final 10.
HUGO 3D: Whatever we think about the rush to rehash old franchises with the “new” technology, and the mediocre results, the rush we got from Martin Scorsese’s swooping opening sequence confirms we’re right to expect more. And although Hugo had budget and spectacle, New Zealand’s much more modest Yakel 3D demonstrated how subtly the technology can express the themes and ideas behind a story.
Two deep character studies left me wrung out but exhilarated by their humanity. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN employed an elegantly fractured structure to visually express the interrogation of memory and the processing of feelings by a mother wrestling with the reasons behind a child’s terrible act. And in MARGARET, a post-9/11 coming-of-age story perhaps best appreciated by grownups, the confusion and anguish of a New York teenager learning that life is neither fair nor certain was heartachingly true.
MONEYBALL is this year’s sports movie, because it’s so much more than that. About the mystery of individual potential and the effect of being judged a success or a failure, it is universal. So is MARGIN CALL. There have been some great attempts at analysing the global financial crisis (Inside Job, for example) – and the UK documentary Four Horsemen is this year’s intelligent, broader-context addition – but in this Wall Street drama about those responsible for the crisis, what’s being analysed, coolly and empathetically, are the emotions stemming from its moral and ethical dilemmas.
Perspectives on war ranged from the assured and finely acted Lore, in which the daughter of Nazi SS parents comes to maturity in a suspenseful blend of escape story and dark fairy tale, to Argo, another surprisingly successful blend, in this case of satire and hostage drama. But it was the visceral power, clarity of character and contemporary relevance of CORIOLANUS that grabbed my vote.
Most mesmerising film would have to be BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, with its strange, dreamlike, child’s-eye view of survival amid harsh reality. Impossible to categorise, but unforgettable – as is LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB, a tiny film from Finland whose simple tale of the power of faith and forgiveness in no way prepares you for its closing emotional sideswipe.
Documentaries continued their strong run, with West of Memphis’s account of a fight for justice an exemplar of how to make a complex story clear and digestible. It was a rougher, messier look at justice that got my attention, though. In AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, a lively range of visual sources built an intimate sense of the art and personal life of this appealingly eccentric dissident artist from China, in ways both enlightening and entertaining.
It was a big year for local documentaries, too, but I didn’t see them all, so I won’t choose. As for local dramas, Good for Nothing’s look, style and tone was impressive, but I was finally won over by HOW TO MEET GIRLS FROM A DISTANCE – who knew a film about stalking could be such a comic charmer? Or that the sun shines every day in Wellington?