While an always interesting director, Sion Sono has a habit of being a bit hit or miss in regards to his features. A great illustration of this was in 2011 when I saw both “Cold Fish” and “Guilty Of Romance” at MIFF that year, with “Cold Fish” being every bit as good as “Guilty Of Romance” was bad. I’m very happy to report that Sono bounced back big time with his next feature “Himizu”, arguably the best of his career. The film is most known for its adaptation, which was originally going to just be a straight adaptation of the manga it is based on, however after the March 11 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami occurred, Sono felt that he couldn’t ignore the situation and subsequently re-wrote the script to incorporate elements of the aftermath from that tragedy. The films of Sion Sono are known for their darkness and he never appears to have a positive outlook in regards to humanity, so I was pleasantly surprised to see such a positive message incorporated into “Himizu”. It is his most optimistic film to date, and the message to never give up is an important one especially for the tragedy struck Japanese. Do not get me wrong though, “Himizu” is still full of the trademark darkness, violence and weirdness of a Sono film, it is just that the film’s ultimate message is a positive one. The film is about a young fourteen year old boy who through a series of events loses everything that is important to him, to the point that he loses himself too. The future doesn’t look bright for the young man until a group of his friend’s band together to get him back on his feet. Man, if that isn’t the most simplistic description of “Himizu” I have ever read, but really all you need to know is that it is a great film, full of intensity and that Sono weirdness, that ultimately becomes Sono’s most mature film to date. Click here to read my original review.
I have never been a massive fan of William Lustig’s original 1980’s version of “Maniac”, so the idea of a remake of it, didn’t inspire much enthusiasm in me. Once I heard who was directing the remake whatever enthusiasm I did have for the project evaporated entirely, because the only film I had seen from director Franck Khalfoun was the terrible and paint-by-numbers “horror” film “P2”, which was a disaster. However once Elijah Wood was cast as the titular maniac, I will admit that the against-type casting piqued my interest again. The film showed up at MIFF and I decided to see it, but I was not prepared for just how much I would adore this film. My favourite thing about the original “Maniac” is that down and dirty atmosphere that seems impossible to duplicate in today’s cinema. Well, Khalfoun got this type of atmosphere spot on here. This new version has such a dirty old school feel to it and the weirdness and depravity that is present throughout the entirety of the feature is such a positive. It makes “Maniac” stand out from the horror pack of today, which is full of overly glossy and “pretty” yet hollow films. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with “Maniac” as the opening murder is one of the best in recent years, and the electronic score that played over the top of the scene made me realize that everyone involved in the making of “Maniac” knew exactly what they were making and what made the story tick. While I have still only had the one viewing of this film, my opinion of a stylistic decision in “Maniac” has softened slightly. The entire film is shown through the eyes of Elijah Wood’s character, which I initially thought was a big mistake mainly because it involves Elijah passing mirrors constantly just so we get a glimpse of the actor. It seems unnatural, as does Wood’s “off camera” performance, but when I think back on “Maniac” these days, I don’t think it was as bad as I initially thought. What is unmistakable is the quality of filmmaking in regards to using the “point of view” style. It is extremely well done and camera moves are beautifully choreographed. For a horror film, I feel I have to mention the gore scenes, and again these are so well done. The majority of them are done practically and are as bloody as anything you are likely to see. I loved this film so much and look forward to watching it again when it is officially released in cinemas. Oh and one more thing, man, how creepy are mannequins with blood dripping down their faces? Click here to read my original review.
8. KILLER JOE
Here is another film that I just adored at MIFF this year. It is also the best film director William Friedkin has made since his seminal “The Exorcist” which is another reason worth celebrating. “Killer Joe” is a hilarious black comedy / thriller hybrid about a detestable family who hire a killer in an attempt to secure the life insurance money of the family member they are paying to have killed. To say things do not go as planned is an understatement, as people double-cross each other and it all comes to head at one of the funniest and most brutal family dinners you are ever likely to see. The film has a sensational central performance from Matthew McConaughey as the titular killer, who in my opinion gives his best performance to date. He is someone you know you do not want to mess with, but he does so in such a quietly menacing manner, to the point that he is almost charming while he is threatening you. The other performance that needs to be singled out is that of Gina Gershon who is so brave here. The most infamous scene of “Killer Joe” revolves around her character and if Gershon had not committed 100% to this scene, it would have failed terribly. While I have singled these two out, the whole cast of “Killer Joe” is excellent. This is a brutal, brutal film (the violence contained within, although brief is incredibly intense) but it is also a hilarious film. You will be shocked (and maybe disgusted) at some of the things you will laugh at while watching “Killer Joe” but it really is just so funny. The ending particularly is hilarious and McConaughey’s performance during this moment is spot on. Click here to read my original review.
7. FACING MIRRORS
This was my favourite film of MIFF this year but as you can see it has dropped to my seventh favourite of the entire year. This has less to do with the quality of the film, and rather the fact that I have not been able to watch the film again since the film festival. As a result, its details are fading from my memory. What I loved about this Iranian film was the sensitivity shown about a topic that you would assume would not be well received in its home country. The film is basically about the unexpected friendship between two women. One, a taxi driver forced to drive while her husband is incarcerated in an attempt to pay all her bills, while the other is a young female to male transsexual woman who is attempting to flee Iran so she can have the necessary operation. When the taxi driver finds out the truth about her passenger, she is disgusted and outraged and in an attempt to flee from her as quickly as possible, she turns into the path of an oncoming bus. She is hospitalized due to the accident, but is touched to find that the passenger that she so easily dismissed had been sitting by her bedside, waiting for her to awaken. From here, a beautiful friendship develops as both girls learn more about the other’s situations, as the two realize they are more alike than what they initially figured. As I said, this is a beautiful humanistic film full of stunningly honest performances that never once delivers a false note. The film is complex in its themes but simple in its emotions and writer / director Negar Azabayjani understands that her story is the strongest aspect of the film and as such does not impose any sort of style that could take away from its emotional impact. Although not quite as good as “A Separation” (my #1 film of 2011), I hope that it gets the same kind of release that that film got and that just as many people see it. It is fantastic cinema and a film I really hope I get to see again soon. Click here to read my original review.
Gone are the days where Ben Affleck is the butt of everyone’s jokes in Hollywood. Instead, he has amazingly reinvented himself into one of the best directors that is currently going around and “Argo”, his third film as director, is his best film yet. It is the true story about how six American officials were smuggled out of Iran after escaping from a situation that saw the American Embassy raided and hostages taken. The incredible way these six were smuggled out of the country was under the guise that they were filmmakers on a Canadian production, location scouting in Iran. It is an amazing story that Affleck has told beautifully and suspensefully. The highlight of the film is its complex and incredibly well written script that for once sees characters talking about things as if they were human. I also really enjoyed the in-jokes about Hollywood and the filmmakers working there. “Argo” is full of well rounded and realized characters and all have been expertly acted by some great actors the likes of John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Bryan Cranston. Something that Affleck knows really well is his own strengths as an actor and he is magnificent here. The period production design of the 1970’s is spot on also, to the point that Affleck was able to integrate real news footage of the era into his film and it doesn’t look out of place. While I understand that this is not their story, my only problem I have with “Argo” is that I would have liked to have known more about the people they were trying to save. The white knuckle finale of the film has some of the best suspense generated in a Hollywood mainstream film for ages and while Affleck loses some of the “reality” towards the end to create this suspense, it ultimately works for the better of the film. Click here to read my original review.
5. THE RAID
Best action film for at least a decade! That pretty much sums up how I feel about “The Raid”. This Indonesian production directed by Welsh director Gareth Evans is so adrenaline pumping amazing, that you will be stunned by what you are witnessing. The plot (which as I have mentioned above is very similar to “Dredd 3D”) is as simple as they come as it is about a S.W.A.T team that gets lured and then trapped in a thirty storey apartment block that is owned by a local ganglord. With hundreds of criminals living under the roofs of these apartments, the chances of these cops coming out alive are very slim, but there is one rookie cop who refuses to give in and just die and takes the fight to the criminals, giving every bit as good as he gets. What is so exciting about “The Raid” is that it has the kind of energy that was so prevalent in those classic late 80’s / early 90’s Hong Kong action films, back when Jackie Chan and John Woo were both in their prime. The film just moves at an awesome pace and once the action kicks in, it does not let up. The very intricately choreographed (and perfectly lensed) fight scenes are truly stunning and incredibly brutal. With the stakes so high, and death around every corner, every martial arts move is there to either defend or kill. There are no superfluous moves here and for once whenever a knife makes an appearance in a fight, it is used to very bloody effect. Gareth Evans is a huge fan of those old Hong Kong martial arts films and it is obvious too. He even shot the fights like they did back then, taking weeks at a time for just one fight. His choice of angles when shooting the fights are also perfect as he knows how to give each move its greatest impact, but he just knows how to stage a fight. Good news for fans of “The Raid” is that the film is the first part of a planned trilogy with part two, titled “Berandal” (or “The Raid: Retaliation” for the English markets), shooting right now as I write this. I cannot recommend “The Raid” enough. Click here to read my original review.
It has been a long time since a film has disturbed me as much as “Excision” did on my first viewing. With the large amount of horror films that I watch, I am pretty much desensitized to violence and gore, so it takes something special to create an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach which is something “Excision” was successful at doing. I was so disturbed by the film, in fact, that I wasn’t even sure that I liked the film after that initial viewing. However, the film never left me and I constantly thought about it, which is the sign of at least an effective film. Anyway, I have since watched the film another two times and it is safe to say that I adore the film. It is such a bold and brave film in the topic it attacks, but it is also a very sad film. It is about a high school student named Pauline who is seriously disturbed and who has aspirations of becoming a surgeon. Her sister suffers from cystic fibrosis and although appears well, will soon need a lung transplant. Pauline and her mother have a very antagonistic relationship, and the two do not get along. They are always at each other’s throat, antagonizing one another, although all Pauline wants is her mother to notice her and to love her. In an attempt to secure this love, Pauline goes to the absolute extreme. “Excision” is home to a pair of very impressive performances from AnnaLynne McCord (who plays Pauline) and Traci Lords (who plays Phyllis, Pauline’s mother). I was not aware of McCord’s gorgeous looks before this film as I am not a fan of her television show “90210”, but she has certainly made quite the transformation here in becoming the ugly and sickly looking Pauline, full of odd quirks and ticks. Lords on the other hand plays Phyllis perfectly as a domineering, uptight and repressed mother who also has some amazing emotional beats to portray too. One of the most disturbing parts of “Excision” has to do with Pauline’s fascination with blood (all kinds of blood), which reveal themselves in her very beautiful but gory dreams. The imagery in these dreams are all kinds of disturbing, so buyer beware. I was blown away by Richard Bates Jr’s “Excision”, and I cannot wait to see what he does next. Click here to read my original review.
This is another film that came out so early in the year that I had forgotten it was a 2012 release. In case you are not aware of this, I am a huge fan of silent cinema. There is something just so beautiful about a story being told in mostly images. In my eyes, it was a tragedy that the “talkies” hit as early as they did because storytelling had reached the most beautiful artistic peak in silent films just as they were to become extinct. Since then a few people have tried to create an homage to the lost art but they always seem to get it wrong. They always break it down to its lowest common denominator with silly slapstick action that is over-cranked and acting that is over the top in its melodramatics. While it is true that some silent films were like this, there was a wealth that was anything but. When “The Artist” started making headlines, I was worried that this was going to head down the same path, but to my surprise the film turned out to be a beautiful and fitting homage to silent films and their untimely demise. What I was most surprised about was the amount of drama that unfolds in the film where it actually goes to quite a dark place with our main character even contemplating suicide. The film is about George Valentin, a big silent movie star who doesn’t heed the warning about the coming of sound film and as such quickly becomes a has-been and in the process loses everything he worked so hard for. Meanwhile a young girl, Peppy Miller, who happened to become famous upon a chance meeting with the silent star, sees her fortunes reversed as she becomes the biggest star of the “talkie” era. Feeling bad for the past star and knowing she wouldn’t have what she has if not for him, Peppy tries to get work for George but being the star he once was, his ego will not allow it and as such his downfall continues. This is a story that you hear regularly about of that time; silent stars who couldn’t handle it when talkies took over and they lost their popularity, so the film has a poignant quality to it also. The film is perfectly acted by both Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo who play George and Peppy respectively, and there is also a fine performance from Uggie as George’s woofer. Director Michel Hazanavicius has got the look and feel of the time just right and he has also come up with some unique uses of sound in this silent film (you will know the scene when you see it). My only problem with the film is the strange use of a huge chunk of the “Vertigo” score towards the end. While I love the piece of music, it just does not seem to fit the action on screen. Other than that I love “The Artist” and hope that it ushers in a new age of silent features but hopefully ones that do not need the background of silent films as part of their plot, rather they be independent of it.
Rian Johnson’s “Looper” was the most entertaining and intelligent mainstream film I had seen in a long time. Even though the film has been released for some time now, I am still reticent to reveal all of its secrets. I will say that if you are going into “Looper” thinking you are getting some kind of film about time travel with a thriller aspect thrown in, well you are right, but there is a whole other thing going on in the film that isn’t even hinted at in the trailers, and this is what makes the film so special. The film has a moral question throughout very similar to the age old question about if you knew what atrocities Hitler was capable of doing back when he was a child, would you be able to kill him there and then even though he was innocent of any crime at that moment. “Looper” has much more heart and emotion than I was ever expecting, but then I was expecting your usual sci-fi thriller, wasn’t I? Something that I really liked that Rian Johnson did was at two times in the film he has characters state about not letting yourself get confused with the whole time travel thing. He understands that this part of it is convoluted and by wasting your time worrying about it, you will miss what the film is truly about. The basic premise of “Looper” is that it is set in 2044 and fifty years from then, not only has time travel been invented but also outlawed. The only people using it are criminals who when they want to get rid of someone they send them back to 2044 where a specialized assassin known as a “looper” is waiting ready to dispose of them. The only rule a looper has is never to let their target escape even if it is their future self. This is ultimately what happens to Joe (played by a facially altered Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when his older version comes from the future in an attempt to alter something that happened to someone he loved in the future. After the older Joe (played by Bruce Willis) escapes, the young Joe must hunt him down before he is killed himself by his employer for failing in his duties. That is all I am going to say about the film except I will also mention that Emily Blunt turns up about halfway through the film and she is, as usual, great in her role (which will remain secret here). Everything about “Looper” just seemed to work, the film was complete and as such, I was mesmerized by it for its entirety of its running time. I think it will be a rare sci-fi film I will regularly re-watch in the future. Click here to read my original review.
No other film devastated me as much in 2012 as Steve McQueen’s “Shame”; a film about sex addiction and depression. This is such an emotional ride that is downright painful by its end as we watch Brandon, a successful businessman slowly self destruct via his obsession with sex after the unexpected arrival of his sister Sissy. As sad and painful a film “Shame” is, it is as equally beautiful from a technical standpoint. Every part of the making of this film seems to be perfection from Sean Bobbit’s gorgeous cinematography (some of the long take shots he performs are mind blowing), to Harry Escott’s haunting score; it all combines to create this exquisite piece of cinema. The two lead performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are some of the best in years and the fact that Fassbender wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for his performance illustrates just how much of a joke they have become. What I truly love about “Shame” is the story happening between the lines. It is my opinion that both Brandon and Sissy are victims of abuse from their childhood and this is the reason for their problems. It isn’t until Sissy shows up on his doorstep that Brandon’s repressed memories resurface and he begins his descent down into hell until he hits rock bottom, while Sissy obviously is trying to get her brother to talk about it (maybe she needs to talk about it) but when he refuses, she finds herself slipping further and further into a depressive state until she feels she has to do the inevitable. I should explain this is never explicitly referenced throughout the film but in my eyes it is implied in a number of places. Even the fact that Brandon doesn’t find the act of sex a pleasurable one (rather the opposite), is a hint or sign. Although we know his character regularly gets what he wants from these sexual encounters, do we ever see him enjoy one? In terms of classic scenes, Carey Mulligan sings a rendition of “New York, New York” in a club that once you see it, trust me, you will never forget it. Also the two scenes set on trains that bookend the film are so amazing in the fact that the same situation is set up, but we get to see Brandon’s reactions to both at different points in his life, seeing how his character has grown or if not grown, changed. It goes without saying that “Shame” is a spectacular film, it is a painful and sad experience, but it is done with such honesty that this is why it was my favourite film of 2012. It is a truly amazing and magical experience. Click here to read my original review.
Well there you have it, that was my very extensive round-up of the year that was 2012. Hopefully you got some enjoyment out of it, but before I finish, lets have a brief look at the upcoming year and my most anticipated films of 2013.