Ally Clow’s January 2012 Film Round-up

“And here’s your starter for 2012, I need your answer before the gongs”

January is usually a golden month for movies yet equally forgotten too. For the critic, January’s Oscar films have been seen at festivals and any December releases that stretch over to January have been reviewed in the previous year. Their end of year lists rarely includes January films for this reason: those films have been included in the previous year’s ‘best of’ lists. For the public, it’s a catch-up month, watching those Oscar films that have been hyped over the previous twelve months and desperately watching the films on others’ best of lists from the previous year they didn’t have the time to watch.

It’s no wonder then that Netflix chose to premiere its services in January 2012 with all the cinematic activity generated in the first 31 days of the year. Last January saw the release of 2011’s biggest films, The King’s Speech, Black Swan and 127 Hours so could January 2012 be as big? In a word, no, but there have been quality releases nonetheless.

The black and white, silent, French film The Artist opened on Friday December 30th 2011 in the West End for one week then grew to 100 screens the following Friday. This mirrored the pattern for another unlikely Oscar contender Brokeback Mountain (a film not about two gay cowboys but two gay shepherds, lessening it’s potential even more) in 2005/06.  The Artist was the first great film of 2012 (or last great film of 2011, I don’t mind which) and its story of two movie stars’ rise and fall delivered on every count.

This was no 23-frames-per-second piano-scored paean to the silent era, rather a modern take on a beautiful story that happened to use silent film as its form.  It was actually filmed in colour so that there would be a greater number of grey tones on display and it subverts its form on more than one occasion.  For a film like that to live up to its reputation was no easy feat and those in the know saw it at Cannes and raved about it every month until its release. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, the film’s stars, are utterly charming and John Goodman and James Cromwell deliver a flavour of sharpness and warmth as the film skips along.  It deserves the Best Picture at this year’s Oscars for sure.

Another film hyped from the 2011 festival circuit was Steve McQueen’s Shame. This New-York set film about Michael Fassbender’s sex addict Brandon and his whimsical yet tragic sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), played its themes as dark as the nights which Brandon inhabits. Fassbender’s performance is utterly convincing as a man who lives a hollow existence, substituting the love of another for instant, sexual gratification. He shuns love because he says he would lose control of his life but we see him losing this control anyway with his forays into the dark, sexual wasteland of the city. The film is similar in tone to Mike Leigh’s Naked and paints New York as a petri dish which allows his destructive tastes to breed and grow resulting in the annihilation of his self and to a place of near destruction. This is a gigantic performance from Fassbender but the film as a whole doesn’t quite live up to his acting, Mulligan’s character playing crucial parts but perhaps having too little impact until one scene where she has too much. A naked, cold film, but an important one too.

Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams are the favourites in a rather weak Best Actress category at the Oscars, but Tilda Swinton and Anna Paquin put in far better portrayals of their characters in We Need To Talk about Kevin and Margaret respectively. The Iron Lady was a disappointing film, neither in-depth political film or in-depth biopic, indeed the whole film was rather light on everything except Meryl Streep’s impression of Thatcher. At times, the make-up of Thatcher in her dotage looks less convincing than her Spitting Image puppet from the eighties and although Streep’s accent and mannerisms seem spot-on, there is no intensity in the performance which should be rewarded other than by the ceremonies that recognise Rory Bremner and his colleagues.

Michelle Williams on the other hand, pulls of the impossible feat of playing Marilyn Monroe, precisely because she doesn’t play it as an outright impression. In My Week With Marilyn, the story of Colin Clark’s experience with the world’s biggest movie star during the filming of Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl, we are presented with Michelle Williams rather than Marilyn. Although the film was not compelling enough, (who cares about the Eddie Redmayne character, give me more Olivier and Monroe), I thought Williams did a really good job with a difficult role.  Kenneth Branagh hams it up delightfully as Larry Olivier and is obviously having much more fun than Larry did in the original shoot.

January also had a blink and you’ll miss it gem from Uruguay in the shape of Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life. The film is set in Montevideo’s version of the ICA or BFI but on the brink of ruin, both in terms of its finances and infrastructure.  The film follows cinema manager/programmer/projectionist Jorge (played by real-life film critic Jorge Jellinek) as he tries to stave off the reality of the cinema’s imminent closure. Dryly comic scenes in the cinema include Jorge translating the inter-titles from a silent epic into Spanish for the few patrons that have bothered to attend and a scene showing the radio show he presents whereby the cinema’s director, Martinez drones on about cinema for about ten minutes, probably broadcast to as many punters as were watching the silent film earlier.  When the cinema eventually closes, Jorge is released from his cinematic shackles and the film changes tone and becomes a love story, quoting films both visually and in its soundtrack as Jorge tries to bag his girl that has evidently eluded him in his 25 years at the cinema. This is a heartwarming film which I was touched by very much.

As I said at the beginning, January is a time to reflect on those films cited as being among the best of the previous year so I sought out the three films I wanted to see the most, A Separation, Kill List and Animal Kingdom.

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is an Iranian film about a dispute in a middle-class man’s (Peyman Moadi’s Nader) home when his home help (Sareh Bayat’s Razieh) neglects Nader’s senile father. When Nader discovers what she has done, he aggressively kicks her out of his home and she has a miscarriage. The resulting trial between these two families takes in an extremely complex amount of accusations, counter-accusations, witnesses and reliable or unreliable testimonies. Someone described it as Rashomon-esque and I will go one step further to say it is Hanake-esque in its treatment of the power struggles within class systems and how that power can be used to gain social footing.  It is a remarkable film and one that has been rewarded with awards and will hopefully win Best Foreign film and Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. If it does not, it will matter not a jot because this is a film that will be remembered for a long time to come.

Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is an ice-cold, British film about two hitmen who are hired by a mysterious firm of men to do a job that they cannot refuse. All I’ll say is the first three quarters of the film is brilliant before moving in an unexpected direction. Although I don’t particularly like the ending, the whole film is executed brilliantly so I forgive the director’s joke in the final reel.

David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom sits alongside Snowtown as 2011’s best Australian crime thriller but I believe just gets the better of its counterpart with a gripping storyline and more varied performances.  It centres on seventeen-year-old Josh played superbly by James Frecheville, who, when his mother dies, is taken in by his grandmother and her sons. From the start, we learn Josh’s new family are armed criminals who are in a battle with the police and that blood will be shed. The characters in Animal Kingdom are very well written and created, especially Jacki Weaver’s butter-wouldn’t-melt matriarch ‘Smurf’, Ben Mendelsohn’s chilling ‘Pope’ and Guy Pierce’s cool Sgt Nathan Leckie. Its great ensemble cast reminded me of last year’s The Fighter another story about sibling loyalty under a determined matriarch and it is certainly as good although a little less stylised.

As always, I caught up with some golden oldies in January including Touch Of Evil, Soylent Green, Smiles of a Summer Night. Orson Welles’ 1958 noir, Touch Of Evil was given a Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu-Ray release including five versions of the master’s finest foray into noir territory. I saw the original theatrical version (in 1.37:1 for all you ratio buffs out there) which a lot of people deride in favour of the 1998 version where Welles’ annotated notes he made after 1958 were finally adhered to. I don’t care which version you watch, Touch of Evil is a brilliant film with one of the best performances by an actor/director (only John Cassavetes and Woody Allen come close to Welles in this category) in cinema history. Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston have real chemistry as newly weds and the film’s cinematography is breath taking.

Richard Fleischer’s 1973 sci-fi Soylent Green also stars Charlton Heston and was a film mentioned as the future of noir in a later edition of Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s book A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941–1953. The film is a chilling reminder of humanity’s barbarism and moves in tone from portraying the pleasures of the senses to how easily the denial of those pleasures can result in revolution. Heston is superb but the real star is Edward G. Robinson’s Sol who is the link between the current degradation of Earth and its literally fruitful era.

Smiles of a Summer Night was a wonderfully bawdy romance, unusual in the canon of Ingmar Bergman who is known more for his films about existentialism, God and the lack thereof. Indeed although this isn’t exactly Carry On Bergman, it gets damn close to scenes reminiscent of Barbara Windsor leading all the men on with a nod and a wink.  Good fun, but give me the saints and sinners of the Swede any day.

Ally Clow