The Act of Killing could have been extremely dangerous if mishandled. When director Joshua Oppenheimer was unable to tell the story of Indonesia’s 1960s genocide from the perspective of its survivors due to the danger in which he would place them, he instead chose to tell it from the perspective of its perpetrators: the death squads that murdered as many as one million so-called communists between 1965 and 1966, and who Indonesia now celebrates as war heroes. Focusing on a handful of movie-obsessed gangsters and finding that they were more than willing to divulge every detail of the atrocities they committed, Oppenheimer suggests he gives them the means to make a film of their deeds/ The result is one of the most surreal, dizzying, and, eventually, harrowing making-of documentaries ever recorded.
I didn’t want to write about Zero Dark Thirty. Whilst I’m a modest admirer of Kathryn Bigelow’s previous work, the conversation surrounding it, even before it was released over here, was so contentious to me that I found it offputting. One camp says it’s pro-torture, the other says it’s anti-torture, Bigelow announces that it takes a neutral stance while Zizek calls it “Hollywood’s gift to American power”, to the point that opinions on all sides become so thorny that I had decided to just opt out and not worry about it. In the end, though, curiosity got the better of me, I decided to give it a go, and now I see why so many were compelled to have a point of view about it. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, reuniting after the relatively colossal success of The Hurt Locker, have made a film that is infuriatingly hard to pick apart, not due to its density but due to its elusiveness – this “neutral” approach taken is loaded and hard to unpick, at times seeming to justify ignorance of the underlying politics of its subject matter and other times feeling totally apathetic.
2012 in film was a year defined by ambiguity and ambivalence. I don’t mean that to sound disparaging – on the contrary, some of the most engaging films of the year are defined by their elusiveness, their unwillingness to define the statements they are trying to make. Thusly many of the year’s biggest films have been met with considerable divisiveness amongst critics, and have left me perplexed. Whereas last year there were four or five films that blew off my head, more often than not this year I’ve left the cinema scratching it. It’ll take me a couple more viewings of Holy Motors and The Master and The Turin Horse before I can really feel that I can say definitively if they are the masterpieces that so many people see in them, but that’s a good thing – film should challenge and defy expectations, it should encourage dialogue and discussion.
It has also been one of the finest years for documentaries I can remember, taking on subjects as diverse as the economic crisis, Iran’s censorship laws, Chile’s painful history, and filmmaking itself, whilst still finding time to tell gripping real-life yarns like that of The Imposter with flair. It was a great year for genre film too, with The Cabin in the Woods, Premium Rush, The Raid, Sleepless Night and especially Dredd 3D all deserving honorable mentions. And while I thus far missed many of the films that have made other people’s lists – I am particularly sad about having missed Tabu, Barbara, Laurence Anyways, Sightseers and The Hunt - the films that do make it are all of them bold and daring efforts, many of them from first-time directors. Film may be dying, but cinema isn’t.
You know, I’m not sure about Michael Haneke. Popular opinion will cast him as one of the most important directors working today, a renegade intent on upsetting the status quo whose genius lies in his ability to get under people’s skin and really question the roots of the violence that seems so deeply ingrained in modern society. More often than not, though, I find him shrill and more than a little crass. He’s made some interesting films, in particular Hidden and Code Unknown, but at his worst, he wags his finger like a sneering headmaster, sometimes even chastising his audience for wanting to watch the film he’s made.
Amour is a marked departure for him, then, as there is no one to blame for what transpires between its elderly couple facing their mortality beyond the fragility of human life. Although the word is never uttered, Amour is, as the title suggests, a film about love and how it ages, how its roots get set in deep and what happens when that inevitably must end. It’s much smaller in scale than many of the big arthouse titles of the year, set almost entirely in one Parisian apartment and starring only a handful of actors beyond the central couple, but in it’s own way it’s as grand a cinematic statement as they come, standing alongside Anderson and Carax as one of the year’s defining films.
Jean-Louis Tringtignant and Emmanuelle Riva play the couple at the film’s centre with a lived-in, contented intimacy that at first is only barely shaken by her suffering a stroke. She’s left paralysed on her left side, leaving her to suffer the indignities of not being able to clean herself or cut her own food or to get around. These scenes are played with realistic tenderness, her stubbornness and frustration balanced by his patience and compassion. However, after she suffers a second stroke that leaves her unable to move or speak, the film asks whether living is really worth it when one’s love for another only makes you both more miserable.
It’s a daring approach to take for such an emotive subject, and Haneke has gone to great lengths not to make a tearjeaker. He applies alienating techniques all over the shop, most noticeably cutting between scenes abruptly so we’re never given the time to let our emotions breathe, as well as cutting out certain key moments entirely. Early on in the film, Trigtignant talks about a time when he wept more at the memory of a film than he did when he actually saw it, and it seems like this was Haneke’s intention with Amour – in retrospect, certain moments seem intensely moving, but the experience of actually watching it is hard and grueling and, even at its most heartbreaking, cold. It’s a very Haneke approach to take and for all its difficulty it’s most definitely the right one. Such sensitive topics are more often than not reduced to cliché and platitudes, and by keeping his distance from the intensity of the couple’s shared grief he depicts it was a refreshing frankness.
That’s not to say Haneke’s direction is not without grace. He takes great care to depict the indignities of Riva’s condition without sacrificing it, and certain choices he makes are just beautiful- I was particularly struck by how when Trigtignant holds her to help her into her chair he does so as though they are dancing. The scene in which she suffers her first stroke is Haneke at his most sensitive, a perfectly pitched sequence in which is tense and tragic without ever seeming dramatic or unrealistic. It’s exactly how such everyday tragedies evolve in reality, where there are no thrilling dashes through A&E or breathless confessions and tearful embraces – it’s simply quiet, and confusing, and scary.
It’s a shame, then, that he doesn’t maintain such subtlety throughout. Towards the end, there’s an entirely-too-symbolic pigeon and the ending takes a disappointing turn into sensationalism. However, that doesn’t prevent it from being one of the finest films of the year, and certainly the finest film Haneke has ever made. In Amour’s central couple we can see, for the first time, that Haneke is capable of grace, and an understanding that when it comes to such death, no one is at fault. It may be the boldest statement he’s made to date, and he’s done it without ever raising his voice.
The opening scene of Excision is one of the most unsettling things I’ve seen in recent years: in a florescent lit blue room sit two images of lead actress Annalynne McCord, both identical aside from the fact that one is beaten to a bloody pulp. As she sits there spitting blood and starts convulsing, her counterpart watches, becoming more and more aroused, until they both reach fever pitch and our lead character, the disturbed and confused Pauline, wakes up. As we return to this dream room again and again throughout the film, the images become more and more shocking, but they’re not meant to be nightmares: Excision is, above all, a portrait of a mind that is far more broken than the people around it realise, and these are her sex dreams.
Played with intense awkwardness by AnnaLynne McCord, Pauline is a mess of contradictions and impulses wrapped up in the body of a teenage girl going through one bitch of a puberty. Her domineering mother (a fantastic Traci Lords) is insisting she goes to cotillion; her father is passive to the point of barely existing; they’re forcing her to go to counseling sessions with their priest who is telling her she’s going to hell; and her sister, who she loves, has Cystic Fibrosis and is slowly becoming more and more ill. On top of this, her obsession with bodily functions - blood, germs and STDs and the like – are alienating her from people at school, and her career plans to become a surgeon are starting to take on a more sinister edge.
In case you couldn’t tell from that synopsis, Excision is a bit of a mess. It veers wildly in tone from scene to scene, has a hyperreal brightness to it that makes scenes that should be delicate and sensitive seem garish and crass, and the aforementioned dream sequences that punctuate the film seem to exist for no reason other than to provoke. At its best though, all these elements work quite miraculously in the films favour, and for one simple reason – writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. cares deeply about the story he’s telling. Pauline is sick, fucked-up, and possibly beyond saving, but Bates loves her anyway, and he instils every scene, and particularly those with her family, with an emotion that’s rare in such films.
The genuine feeling in the family scenes is aback-taking – one scene in which her mother tells her sister that one of her best friends has died of the disease that will eventually kill her completely floored me. Bates wields emotion like a blunt weapon, but when it does hit, it’s hard and ugly, and extremely effective. Pauline wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as she is if she was a typical moody teenager who hated her family and needlessly provoked people at school and had gross skin – instead, her deep love for her sister and her desperate need for her mother’s approval are her main motivators.
That’s not to say it’s a delicately drawn family drama disguised as a horror movie. Nothing is delicate here, and more tender moments wrestle for screen time with scenes of dead pigeon surgery, ipecac chugging, and John Waters, Ray Wise, and Malcolm McDowell camping it up. In both look at feel, it reminds me of Lucky McKee’s underrated 2001 horror May, which told a story about a lonely girl so obsessed with finding a friend that she decided to make one. It was a sad, downbeat sort of horror film, but continually interrupted its pathos with Anna Faris being a hilarious lesbian horndog. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Both those films find a groove in never quite finding a groove, and both those films ask you to care about a character who at first seems deeply unlikeable. It won’t be for many, but those who can stomach it might find something to love buried amongst the gore.
Both About Elly, made in 2009 but released here only now, and the more recent A Separation, are perfect examples of the power of the plot. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi not only knows how to craft perfectly formed cinematic worlds filled with characters that look and feel precisely life-sized and human, but he knows how to structure a story better than any director living today. Both films hinge on a central mystery that wouldn’t be a mystery if all the characters would just confess the full truth to each other – a conceit that would feel like a poor sitcom plotline from a lesser writer – but Farhadi makes the reasons behind each characters actions so clear and inescapable that the situation never feels forced and no piece of information feels withheld for any longer than it should be. About Elly is a chamber drama that grips like an action thriller.
The Dark Knight Rises is a film that diminishes in quality the more time you spend away from it. I remember upon leaving the cinema feeling it was fine – that there were huge problems with it, sure, but Christopher Nolan had more or less succeeded in creating the awesome spectacle he had intended to. The Dark Knight Rises is nothing if not grand – in an attempt to outdo The Dark Knight he has piled on a huge cast of players, an entire army of antagonists led by Tom Hardy’s Bane, a score even more seat-rumbling than Inception’s and more wheeling shots of Gotham’s skyline than you can shake a stick at. But the effect is somewhat blinding – you end up overlooking the small details because you’re constantly having the epic sweep shoved in your face. Spend some time thinking about the film afterwards, though, and the cracks start to appear, and eventually send the whole thing crumbling to the ground.