29 December 2012

Best Female Performances 2012

Here are the 10 selections (plus another 10 honourable mentions) that make up what I thought were the very best female performances of 2012.

Marion Cotillard  
Rust and Bone 

For: damn well breaking my heart in a multitude of new places, and in innumerable ways. Everything about Stéphanie – every glance, smile and, particularly, arm movement (man, that balcony scene...) – was conveyed with effortless emotion and exemplary skill. Cotillard was spellbinding here. A rich, rewarding performance that will stay with me for a very long time.

Cécile De France  
The Kid with a Bike 

For: the simple, subtle ways in which she made unshowy, deeply felt warmth and decency a grounded and inherent virtue. De France's hairdresser Samantha was one of the best, fascinating and most giving characters of the year. In terms of sheer, fuss-free human commitment, she shone bright in a singular fashion. And the way her face beamed...

Charlize Theron  
Young Adult

For: daring to play such a complicated and hard to like bitch of, equally, confounding and compelling proportions. Mavis was a fascinating creature who earned genuine sympathy. This is a true one-off performance: she's someone who we rarely get to see on screen. A clever, precise piece of acting. Theron’s best performance to date.

Nadezhda Markina  

For: keeping a cast-iron poker face throughout the pain-ridden, desperate entirety of Zvyagintsev’s masterful film. And for carefully letting us in on the intimate workings of Elena's actions and troubled psyche. Markina displayed such exquisite poise and pensiveness as to be almost like a statue made flesh. She's a housewife in a Hitchcockian quandry.

Greta Gerwig  
Damsels in Distress

For: her “tailspin”, her Sambola, her dishing out of doughnuts, her politely flippant turn of phrase in every scene, her suicide prevention techniques, her good-natured side that masks a humorous spikiness, her adroit way with making Whit Stillman’s words sing, and zing. This is Gerwig's best role so far.

Emmanuelle Riva  

For: making stillness feel integral in a fragile display of suffering that never once resorts to a needless simplicity. Riva is a one-woman futile barrier against inevitable defeat. Her performance was quietly, integrally heartbreaking – even terrifying in a vast and utterly human way. It's her face, lost in her husband's hands, that I remember most about Amour.

Elizabeth Olsen  
Martha Marcy May Marlene

For: arriving out of nowhere, pretty much, and creating a deft balance of mystery and mania with both grand and minute subtle shifts in personality. Martha, Marcy May, Marlene? Whoever this girl is – and we’re better off being left in the psychological fog – Olsen made sure she was evasive and confounding enough to vividly hold our attention.

Kate Winslet  

For: her spot-on manic fluster in playing a woman so backed-up with forced social niceties that her outburts teeter on the cusp of absurdity. Winslet flirts with farce, but never lets the icy precision of this embittered, well-heeled class obsessive free of her grasp. She's spiky, vomitous, brilliant. The flower throwing was a great bonus.

Yeo-jeong Yoon  
The Housemaid

For: being the slyly magnetic force – in a film full of untrustworthy and alluring figures – that makes The Housemaid tick. Yoon shows older housemaid Byung-sik’s years of experience and inner workings without so much as a flicker of hesitation. She's the key figure here, and the film's secret weapon.

Aggeliki Papoulia  

For: the way she kept back everything intrinsic about the performance, but let tiny slivers of disturbing unbalance creep incrementally through until... the Alps "act" broke spectacularly down. A feat of withholding that results in a fractured whirl of pitiful sadness.

11-20, or Honourable Mentions:

Noomi Rapace Prometheus / Gina Gershon Killer Joe / Deannie Ip A Simple Life / Julie Sokolowski Hadewijch / Nina Hoss Barbara / Ari Graynor For a Good Time, Call... / Hannah Herzsprung Hell / Anna Margaret Hollyman Small, Beautifully Moving Parts / Nicole Beharie Shame / Jemima Kirke Tiny Furniture

Next: male performances and best films of the year.

26 December 2012

Ten Worst (or, 'Not for Me, Thanks') 2012 Films – Plus 10 Disappointments

First, here's a brief list of 10 disappointments in 2012. Essentially, these are films that I thought might have had a chance of perhaps taking a higher spot in the films of the year, but ended up being less than the sum of their parts: A Useful Life, The Descendants, Vanishing on 7th Street, La Havre, Room 237, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Silver Linings Playbook, The Turin Horse, Like Crazy, The Loneliest Planet.

But here are 10 films which, let's say, didn't do much for me in 2012. I hesitate to say that these are the very worst of the year, as there were a great many films (mostly starring Adam Sandler) that I didn't get around to seeing that may very likely have made the list. But these films were the pits as far as I was concerned. But – however ropey, derivative or downright ill judged, in my view – all had at least one or two aspects that were somewhat memorable (here's to diplomacy!), hence the 'on the plus side' section at the end of each write-up. So, in no order:

Ethan Hawke in Sinister

Sinister, another in the current run of single-scary-word horrors (Insidious, Livid etc), was a creepy treat for a fair few people this year, but it did very little for me. The limp dialogue, am-dram arguments between the main leads and barrel-scraping jumps – not to mention the influx of SUDDENSCARENOISE every five minutes – made it a drab trudge. I did keep my eye on Ethan Hawke’s continuity-proof cardigan, however; he wore it in every scene as, I’m guessing, a guarantee that director Scott Derrickson could reedit scenes into any order as he saw fit. I wished he’d edited scenes into another order he saw fit. On the plus side: I enjoyed James Ransone’s turn as the local deputy.

The Iron Lady: did we really need this soft riot of ham-fisted prestige filmmaking? Who asked for another seasonal rotisserie award-grabber with acclaim on the brain and worthiness seeping out of every scene? This is a copper-plated dud that fills the same gap in the market as The King’s Speech, The Queen... The [Insert Significant Figure They Want Us to See in Another Light]. Streep’s performance as ‘middle’ Maggie was pure panto: all haughty grimace and dominant bouffant. I swear at one point director Phyllida Lloyd put her on castors and told someone to shove her toward the camera, Nosferatu-like. On the plus side: I quite liked Streep as old Thatcher. She was convincing, heartfelt and committed in these scenes.

Frank Hvam in Klown

I guess you can sort people into those that liked The Hangover movies and those that like cinema. Ditto Klown – an inept, wearisome retread of the kinds of ideas the Hangover films already explored over two laborious movies. Klown was heralded by some as an undervalued gem: I’d like to have words with these people. Like reduced goods well past their sell-by-date, it’s as unappealing as it is fit for the scrap heap. Nagging wives, gay panic, charmless forty-something blokes pestering girls for sex in a manner less “hilarious” and, frankly, more worrying. No thanks. On the plus side: I got to test out my new Best Ever Bored Face. (My old one tired itself out after watching the film at the bottom of this write-up earlier in the year.)

It seems Julie Delpy is following the portmanteau relay-romance films Paris, je t'aime (2006) and New York, I Love You (2009) with her own feature-length city-for-city segments: 2 Days in Paris (2007) and this year’s 2 Days in New York. The newer film certainly feels overlong, as if she’s stretching a point better made in a short film and indulgently laying it out across 96 dishevelled minutes. I was rather taken with Paris, but New York was awkwardly insular and lacking in the kind of joyful exuberance of its predecessor. The cast mugged desperately for comedy that I searched long and hard to find. The cheaply-made 2012 US indie Small, Beautifully Moving Parts shared some thematic similarities with Delpy’s film, but did everything with quiet charm and zero mess. It’s worth checking out over this smug farrago any day. On the plus side: Chris Rock cut a comically baffled path through the general smarm to be the film’s stand out.

Cocco (and red-faced friend) in Kotoko

In Kotoko director Shinya Tsukamoto succeeds in turning gory subversion into utter tedium. It’s a film filled with purposeless frenetic direction with a plot that grapples feebly with issues of mental illness. Its dreary illogic in this regard was unfortunate, especially when it had the ingredients (and directorial talent) to explore the subject with stark vigour, introspection and well-pitched humour. It required a surer touch, not self-conscious, heaped-on zaniness. Lead actress Cocco is in every scene and she's terrible – all blankness and wailing. She isn't directed as much as left to wallow. The whole thing felt like a clueless stab at reconfiguring Repulsion for a contemporary audience. On the plus side: Indeed, the best scene is a Science of Sleep-like cardboard-world-of-whimsy take on that Polanski film. However baffling that sounds.

What to extract when you're watching What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Eyes. Definitely the eyes. Kirk Jones’ faddish rom-com shows such an unreal world full of "perfect" types that it's almost science-fiction. Horrible, terrible science-fiction. The affluent characters seem to have issues with anything that doesn't handily slot into their narrow, idealised Utopian landscape of quirky, Stepford-like parenting duties. I certainly wouldn't want to meet any of these characters in a dark alley. Or in broad daylight. And certainly never on a screen ever again. It’s not only offensive to new parents, it's offensive to anyone currently alive. It’s contraception in celluloid form. On the plus side: being grateful that Matthew Morrison didn’t have a big role.

Project X received its fair share of hate since its release. And then some. Indeed, it’s a rotten affair, already well derided (so I won't add too much to the pot). It was a wearing, feebly unfunny and unentertaining audio-visual plod. It so desperately wanted to be 2012's black sheep: look how unruly – how bad – I am, it seemed to shout. I didn't realise how mirthless, anchored to convention and keen to be, like, cool, man it wanted to be. It rumbles on futilely beating its chest, trying to ceaselessly shock. But it fails to be truly risky, offensive or gross. It's ultimately too weak minded. Divine ate real dog shit on film 44 years ago; it still hasn’t been topped. Take note Todd Phillips, Nima Nourizadeh and pals. On the plus side: the reviews for it, both pro and con, made for fascinating and/or hilarious reading.

Michael Fassbender in Shame

Shame So, it’s all classy, warmly lit restaurants for Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) numerous sophisticated hetero hook-ups, and SEEDY, DEVIL-RED, NIGHTMARE CLUB-BACKROOM ENCOUNTERS for a desperate, last-ditch homo jaunt, is it? Lovely. As if I needed another reason to roll my eyes at this blank, corporate NY dullard’s self-regarding sex travels. Between watching Fassbender jog off a hard-on and indulging in artfully over-directed and grim-faced coitus of the most awkward kind – and then seeing him staring mournfully into the Hudson in a moment of clichéd facileness – I was perplexed as to Shame’s appeal. There may be no (deliberate) connection to Brandon found here, but that didn't have to mean vapidity was the answer. The Last Seduction’s Wendy Kroy (Linda Fiorentino) would have had Brandon for breakfast. On the plus side: that dinner scene with Nicole Beharie. Or just Nicole Beharie’s role in general. Also, Fassbender’s warped reflection in a subway train window was an indelible image and an example of DoP Sean Bobbitt’s deft eye for photographing surfaces with sublime fluency.

Northeast made for an entirely apt companion piece to Shame. So much so that I thought including both here might simply cancel each film out. But, despite similarities (bored/dull guy mopes from one sexual conquest to the next around NY), Northeast deserves mention for its sheer singularly vacuous nature. There’s so much posing, but so little to care about. One self-pitying "dude" listlessly lives, loves... meanders. For 76 crushingly tedious minutes. And without any competent characterisation – in what is essentially a character study. I needed minute-by-minute reminders of why was I supposed to care about this characterless man. Not a good thing. On the plus side: the balance between handheld tracking shots on the NY streets and the often delicate stillness of the interior scenes was nicely accomplished.

Lastly, I won’t waste much of my time or yours on The Dictator: it’s an exercise in seeing if one laugh* can be extracted from the meat of anybody’s funny bone, and be sustained across 83 minutes. *I say ‘laugh’. I mean smirk. On the plus side: I’m always willing to watch Anna Faris in any film. Any film.

10 dishonourable mentions: Dark Tide, Venus in the Garden, The Divide, Entrance, Mother and Child, The Five-Year Engagement, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, Uncle Kent, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Columbus Circle.

Next up, the brighter side: 10 best films of 2012 and male and female performances.