For the first time since the earliest days of the site, I seriously debated whether to do a review of the year at all this year. Just as my lack of religious belief and aversion to conformity have seen me cease to mark Christmas, I also attach no significance to dates or times simply for where they fall in the Gregorian calendar. It has for some time struck me as odd that on 31st December, people work themselves into a frenzy over the countdown to the split second when one minute ends and another begins. But that's just me.
It probably didn't help that this year I spent my winter break swathed in illness. This should have provided me with the time I needed to reflect on the film pleasures of the past twelve months and select the titles that most tickled my fancy, but actually typing anything proved job and a half. Usually I treat illness the same way I would an unwelcome invader and do battle with it accordingly, but this bugger arrived at the one time of year when it's hard to get legal access to antibiotics, and then hung around for so long that I ended up just giving into it, wrapping myself in sizeable duvet and coughing into my soup. It's for this reason, perhaps, that the article is being posted at the end instead of the start of January, the traditional slot for lists of this kind. A day later than last year's was posted, in fact. This is becoming a habit.
In 2012, film provided a welcome escape from what was otherwise an often tiresome year, one peppered with weary distractions like the Olympic Games (my disinterest in which backfired in a manner that saw me clobbered by the Metropolitan police), the royal Jubilee, and speculation on just how many unfortunate people had fallen prey to the wandering hands of Jimmy Saville. The government stepped up its attempt to return us to a system of masters and slaves by rewarding the obscenely wealthy and relentlessly butt-fucking the poor, in the process condemning everyone from the unemployed to pensioners in a cynical attempt to twist public opinion in preparation for their unjust and ideologically driven cuts in rights and benefits. Their strategy has been repeated so often now that it's become embarrassingly transparent, and varies about as much as a Hollywood plotline: identify a group you want to screw over, publicly demonise them or suggest that they've had it too good for too long, have your spin doctor come up with a rhyming catch-phrase (the latest being the hilariously awful and criminally deceptive "strivers versus skivers"), then whip up some press support by feeding them unrepresentative or inaccurate stories, the hope being that by the time the spiteful bill in question is debated, everyone will be nodding and saying, "yeah, it's about time the terminally ill paid their way like the rest of us," and suchlike. Bastards.
Fortunately for my sanity, it's been an interesting year for films, but being located so far from the metropolis, I've struggled to see even a fraction of the seductive collection that made up my esteemed and London-based colleague Tim's list. And as ever I'm a bit of slave to the film society I co-run, which tends to screen films long after their initial cinema release, which sometimes means I get to see them on the preferred big screen after they've been released on home video.
As far as disc releases go, 2012 was effectively owned by Eureka's Masters of Cinema label, whose varied and consistently excellent output confirmed beyond doubt that they are now to the UK what Criterion is to America. As it happens, they are now releasing some key titles on Blu-ray and DVD several months before Criterion do likewise in the US. MoC had so many great releases in 2012 that, as the site's primary disc reviewer, I was unable to keep up with them. This is partly my own fault, unable as I am to reign in the length of my reviews (we're all guilty of that here, but that's just how we are now) or effectively organise my free time, which tends to mean that less films get covered than would if we were knocking out two-paragraph pieces. What I need is one of those watches from Trancers that slow time down, which would allow me to fit more watching and writing into my evenings and weekends. Making matters worse is that all every one of the discs that we failed to cover are absolutely worth hunting out. Titles not reviewed but I recommended anyway include the Pasolini double of Hawks and Sparrows and Oedipus Rex, the multi-director RoGoPag and Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise. I was a little less taken with Cecille B. DeMille's silent version of Cleopatra, but it's still rather fun and the transfer, as ever, is absolutely first rate. There were many MoC discs we did cover that didn't quite make my list (limiting yourself to ten titles does cause some anguish), yet still deserve all the hugs you can spare include Pasolini's remarkable The Gospel According to Matthew, Sam Fuller's marvellous Park Row, Pasolini's Pigsty, Billy Wilder's classic Double Indemnity, Fritz Lang's silent delight Die Neibelungen, the Imamura Shohei double of The Insect Woman and Nishi-Ginza Station, Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Francis Coppola's Rumblefish and Kinugasa Teinosuke's gorgeously restored Gate of Hell. The reasons why the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release of Carl Dreyer's cinematically striking The Passion of Joan of Arc didn't quite make the list are long and complicated, and it seems a little mad that we haven't reviewed it. This will be put right in the next few days when Jerry Whyte's detailed analysis of the film, its director and the MoC Blu-ray will appear on the site.
Eureka also handle the releases by Monster Pictures, who are doing rather well on the cult modern horror front with quality Blu-rays and DVDs, the highlight this year being Richard Bates Jr.'s debut feature Excision. Again we've not covered as many of their releases as we hoped we would this year, but fellow reviewer and genre specialist Gort is looking to up his coverage in 2013, which will hopefully put that right.
Second Run continued to delight and enlighten us by releasing little seen works from Europe and beyond on excellent quality DVDs, many of which boast bar-setting transfers. Their output this year included Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Man of the Story, István Szabó's Confidence, Anocha Suwichakornpong's Mundane History, Andrei Wajda's Innocent Sorcerers, Pedro Costa's Casa de Lava and Jerzy Kawalerowicz's extraordinary Mother Joan of the Angels, a disc I would still like to cover in detail, even all these months after it was first released.
Artificial Eye's output was as intriguing as ever, and their DVD and Blu-ray titles this year included Michael, Corpo Celeste, Polisse, The Deep Blue Sea, and Lars von Trier's arresting end-of-the-world drama Melancholia. For no good reason, this label suffered more than anyone else from our shortage of disc reviewers, with discs always seeming to arrive when no-one here had the free time to cover them. Somewhat inevitably, the discs stopped appearing, then for reasons known only to those involved, they appear to have switched to another PR company. A real shame, that, as you'd be pushed to find two more accommodating people than Sue Porter and Lizzie Frith, who had been handling their disc releases for as long as we've been covering them. Anticipating I'd have some time on my hands over the Christmas break (this is before I was hit with that bloody virus), I asked the new people for a review disc of Berberian Sound Studio, which I was keen to cover, but the disc that arrived was single-layer DVD containing a possibly compressed version of the film with a stereo-only soundtrack and none of the extras, making it impossible to accurately evaluate the release.
Arrow have continued to bring cult movies from past years to DVD and (increasingly) Blu-ray, often with excellent packaging and extras. And personally I'm prepared to put up with British action twaddle like Who Dares Wins and The Wild Geese if it also means we get Frankenhooker, The Basket Case Trilogy, The King of New York and Zombie Flesh Eaters on fully featured Blu-ray. They've also expanded their remit in the past couple of years with the Arrowdrome and Arrow Academy strands. I've yet to see any of any of the Arrowdrome discs, but earlier this year did get my hands on the 2011 Arrow Academy release of Jules Dassin's noir classic Rififi and was genuinely stunned by the picture quality.
Another favourite distributor is Third Window Films, who specialise in modern Eastern cinema and have had some splendid releases this year, both in the cinema and on disc. I was going to list here which of their DVD and Blu-ray releases I've enjoyed most over the past twelve months (the only Third Window film I caught in the cinema was Ishii Yûya's engagingly offbeat Mitsuko Delivers), then realised that three of them had made it onto the list below. And while I'm rounding up, let's here it for Peccadillo Pictures, whose consistently interesting LGBT output is the very essence of outsider cinema and whose staff are some of the nicest people in the business.
Other films that didn't quite make the list that I'd still happily recommend include Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), Michael McDonagh's hilarious The Guard, Aktan Arym Kubat's gently entrancing The Light Thief (Svet-Ake), Paddy Considine's emotionally punishing Tyrannosaur, Ben Wheatley's dark and violent Kill List (which although falls apart a bit by the inconclusive end, for my money was way better than his debut Down Terrace), Gerardo Naranjo's discomforting Miss Bala, David Cronenberg's look at the birth of psychoanalysis A Dangerous Method (I've yet to catch Cosmopolis), Pablo Giorgelli's gentle human drama Las Acacias, Jan Svankmajer's lively and inventive Surviving Life (Theory and Practice), Ralph Fiennes' gritty modern Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus, Sean Durkin's gripping cult community drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, Aki Kaurismäki's delightful La Havre, Ann Hui's moving A Simple Life (Tao jie), Ken Loach and Paul Laverty's smart, funny and surprisingly optimistic The Angel's Share, Gareth Evans' breathless martial arts head-buster The Raid, Aleksei Fedorchenko's captivating peek into the world of Merjan funeral rituals Silent Souls (Ovsyanki), Rebecca Thomas's entrancingly performed Electrik Children, and Reha Erdem's offbeat and symbolism-heavy Kosmos.
Discs that didn't quite make the cut include the BFI's long-awaited first ever DVD release of Ken Russell's masterpiece The Devils (which was omitted only because we're still hoping for the director's cut and a Blu-ray release), Studiocanal's Blu-ray of John Flynn's too little seen cult favourite Rolling Thunder, and Second Sight's welcome Blu-ray release of Walter Hill's Southern Comfort. I'm sure I've missed loads, but a few others will get a mention in the list itself.
So, personal favourites then. I've decided to nail myself down to ten films (oh alright, nine films and one TV series) and ten discs. I'm not going to claim that these are the greatest films, DVDs and Blu-rays of the year, they're just ten of each that I personally enjoyed. There are, I'll admit, a few rather obvious choices here, but I'm not going to vary my selection just because they've been applauded elsewhere; if a film delivers, I'm happy to be part of the metaphorical crowd. As ever, the films are not necessarily all 2012 releases, just ones I saw for the first time last year.
And so, in absolutely no particular order...
|the films (and one TV series)
We Need to Talk About Kevin
One of the best books I've read in recent years made a captivating transition to film. You need to read the book to realise just how difficult a task this was, with almost five-hundred pages of densely-packed, first-person recollections and observations compressed into a economic and haunting two hours of screen time. The first feature in ten years from the supremely talented Lynn Ramsay was remarkably faithful to the original novel in many respects (although a key element that was revealed up front in the book is deliberately withheld until the climax of the film), and was built around a superb central performance from Tilda Swinton as Kevin's mother and a suitably creepy turn from Ezra Miller as the eponymous Kevin. As those who know the film or the book will be aware, real world events and the astonishing response of a particular organisation (look, I'm trying not to spoil things for first-timers here), have reinforced the story's continuing relevance.
Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz)
It's been a rather a good year for feature documentaries, and choosing a favourite was actually quite tricky. The Queen of Versailles proved a popular choice elsewhere, but fascinating though it is, being asked to sympathise with an obscenely wealthy family as they are rendered less wealthy by the 2008 crash was a bit too much for this political animal to swallow. Altogether more engaging was Alison Klayman's intimate portait of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and in spite of its omissions, Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man really was the feel-good story of the year. But it was Patricio Guzmán's hypnotic melding of astronomy and political history that captivated me the most, a film that simultaneously looked upwards to the stars, downwards to what lies buried beneath the earth and inwards to the country's own political history. Visually and aurally striking, it felt simultaneously scientific and philosophical, evoking a sense of wonder at the scale and make-up of the universe and providing a sobering reminder of the dark deeds carried out by the Pinochet regime.
The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae)
Na Hong-jin's violent but consistently riveting second feature kicks off in the manner of a Chinese social drama, then in the space of a couple of electrifying minutes is transformed into a breathless crime thriller that just doesn't let up. Briskly plotted and peppered with smartly sketched characters, it only really slips up in a messily constructed wobble-cam car chase and the almost cartoon incompetence of the security forces. It does have its detractors, with some fans of Na's remarkable debut The Chaser disappointed that his follow-up film was not The Chaser Part 2, while the nature and intensity of the violence on display proved too much for those who would probably have been fine if the conflict had involved guns instead of knives. Which, of course, was precisely the point. In an age where victims are dispatched willy-nilly on-screen with firearms and a verbal quip without raising audience eyebrows, the knife fights here graphically bring home what it means to inflict lethal violence on your fellow man.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
On paper at least, everything about the latest film from Uzak, Climates and Three Monkeys director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's suggests it shouldn't work. It runs for 150 minutes, moves at a crawl, and not all that much actually happens. But in common with this distinctive filmmaker's previous films, it's a strangely mesmerising experience, documenting a murder investigation over the course of a single night as the police accompany the two men who have confessed to the crime on an initially fruitless search for the location of their victim's body. Comparisons have been drawn to the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, as those involved in the hunt begin questioning aspects their own lives and the world in which they live. While the unhurried pace and paucity of incident will frustrate the impatient, for those willing to submit to Cylan's singular approach, this is definitely one of the year's richest films.
Breaking Bad series 4
I don't see a lot of TV at the moment, and the few programmes I do catch tend to be downloads or DVD box sets, many of which originated on American cable TV. Surprisingly, perhaps, my personal front runners this year are the same as they were in 2011, save for Game of Thrones, which for some reason I failed to catch when it was shown and will probably watch in sequence when I buy the box set. AMC's The Walking Dead has continued to impress, but it was it was season 4 of Breaking Bad (also AMC) that really delivered, picking up immediately where season 3's cliff-hanger left off with a terrifying show of strength on the part of Gus (a brilliant display of controlled malevolence by Giancarlo Esposito), one of the most compelling criminal masterminds ever to grace a television series. It was also he that provided the series with a climax that was more genuinely startling than anything I saw in a feature film all year. As morally challenging as ever – this is a series, after all, where the (anti-) hero manufacturers the world's best crystal meth and kills to protect himself and his interests – by building on previous storylines and taking its characters in unexpected directions. It also allowed Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Dean Norris to really show their acting metal as Walter, Jesse and Walter's crippled DEA brother-in-law Hank, and gave a more substantial role to Jonathan Banks as Gus's simultaneously cool and world-weary right-hand man Mike. Season 5 is already well under way, but season 4 came to such a satisfying conclusion, one that would have allowed the show to bow out without leaving story threads dangling, that I've yet to start watching the new episodes.
It's hard to make a case for Daniel Nettheim's Antipodean wilderness drama as a landmark film, but it's on the list anyway because it's one of those movies that just clicked for me in a way I wasn't prepared for. Solidly made and impeccably performed, it tells the story of an American mercenary who is hired by a shady biotech company to hunt out the last surviving Tasmanian tiger, should it actually exist, and to bring back biological samples from the creature. Seemingly familiar situations are given an enthrallingly fresh spin by Nettheim's low-key direction, his focus on character and his deft side-stepping of cliché. The always impressive Willem Dafoe is at the top of his game as mercenary Martin David, and he gets solid support from Frances O'Connor as Lucy, the drug-addled woman with whom he lodges and helps get back on her feet, and Sam Neill as a suspicious local guide. Oh, and Lucy's young daughter, played by Morgana Davies, is a blast.
It's as frustrating as hell when the work of one of modern cinema's most important and talented filmmakers either goes unreleased in the UK or shuffles out late on mediocre quality DVDs. Such has certainly been the case with Tsukamoto Shinya, a firecely talented and uncompromising writer, director and actor who is the very definition of an outsider filmmaker. Thus we get Haze on DVD, but the transfer's so poor you can barely make out what's going on, and we're still waiting for the 1999 Sôseiji and both of the Nightmare Detective films (2006 and 2008) to land a UK release of any sort. But in 2012 Third Window reversed that trend and how, with a Blu-ray double-bill of the first two Tetsuo films (more on that below) and a cinema and a pristine Blu-ray and DVD release of Tsukamoto's latest, Kotoko, whose story of a single mother's descent into psychosis may well be the director's most emotionally involving and powerful film yet. Built around a gut-wrenching central performance from folk singer Coco,whose own past psychological issues were the basis for the film, this is intense, punishing and haunting cinema, a dark subjective journey that concludes on a welcome and perfectly timed final glimmer of hope.
This Must Be the Place
On that short list of filmmakers who seem to be able to do no wrong, Paolo Sorrentino occupies one of the primo slots. He's only got a handful of features to his name, but I've been thrilled by each of the four that I've seen, and if you're looking to play catch-up, then I urge you to hunt out the varying pleasures of The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo. In the mean time you could do a lot worse than to sit down with his first English language film, This Must Be the Place, a joyously offbeat journey from Ireland to America in the company of retired and perpetually dazed rock star Cheyenne. Deliciously played by Sean Penn, his Robert Smith hairdo and single-speed, croaky, monotone delivery take a little getting used to, but get funnier as the story progresses. The film has an unexpectedly serious side and proves surprisingly moving, but it's the outsider's view of the quirkier side of American life, together with regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi's eye-popping camerawork, that really stays with you.
The Cabin in the Woods
With the modern horror film still floundering in a sea of piss-poor remakes and witless rip-offs, small signs have appeared of better things to come. American indie horror gave us Richard Bates Jr's Excision, and two very different British genre works – Ben Wheatley's Kill List and Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio – helped to wipe away that nasty taste that used to come when you said the words "British horror film". Indeed, had I managed to fit in a second viewing of Berberain Sound Studio with the intended surround soundtrack (we're screening it in March at our film society) then it may well have made it onto this list. For now I'll happily settle for Cabin in the Woods, a knowing, post-modernist game-play with recent horror trends that instead of lamely sending them up in Scary Movie fashion, has the wit, imagination and balls to embrace and justify almost every genre cliché in the modern horror book. It's perhaps a little to smart to be scary, but as scripted by Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard, it understands, respects and plays clever games with the genre, and for us long-standing horror fans is a whole barrel of fun.
Plague of the Zombies / The Reptile [Blu-ray] Studiocanal
As a long-standing fan of Hammer horror movies, Studiocanal's project in partnership with Pinewood Studios to restore studio classics to their former glory has had me all excited from the moment it was announced. And the exceptional quality of the restorations and HD transfers has made each disc a must for fans of the studio's glory days, albiet with the occasional caveat. The reason John Gilling's splendid Cornish double made it onto the list in preference to their esteemed companions has as much to do with the technical quality of the discs themselves as the strength of the movies, unafflicted as they are by by the brief sound sync issue of Dracula Prince of Darkness or the redone visual effects of The Devil Rides Out.
Repo Man [Blu-ray] Masters of Cinema
Masters of Cinema got the year off to a glorious start with a title you'd never have predicted they'd take on a couple of years back. Alex Cox's superb, genre-melding debut has over time rightly become one of the all-time great cult movies, and receives a stunning HD transfer on a disc that also boasts a slew of fine extras, including what may well be the coolest-ever booklet yet to accompany an MoC release. In a year of brilliant releases from Masters of Cinema, this could well be my favourite.
The BBC Ghost Stories Collection [DVD] BFI
The BFI have continued to release collections of rarely seen documentary and public information films throughout 2012, but a highlight has to be box set containing all of the films from the BBC's Ghost Stories (aka A Ghost Story for Christmas) strand. Bookended by two very different adaptations of M.R. James masterful Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad, the effectiveness of the individual films did vary a little, but all are worth seeing and a few make for compelling and unsettling television. Several were making their DVD debut, and a couple of the others saw their picture quality upgraded, and the extra features, though not great in number, are nicely targeted.
The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection [DVD] Fabulous Films
I debated for some time whether to put this one on the list, as while it's a series fellow reviewer Camus and I both grew up with and were impacted by as kids, it hasn't stood the test of time anywhere as well as the likes of The Prisoner and Star Trek. But if you're going to release a classic TV series on DVD then this is how to do it. The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection is true to its title, a 40-disc set that includes all of the episodes, the three pilot movies, the three reunion movies, episode commentaries by the original directors and writers, interviews with the cast and crew, and a smorgasbord of fascinating featurettes. If you are a fan of the series then the only thing that's likely to stop you running out and buying it is the asking price, which was £200 on its initial release and even nine months later is still well over a ton.
Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] Universal
While Universal's Blu-ray box set of David Lynch films was the prime contender for let-down of the year (the discs were peppered with audio and freezing glitches, and what the hell was going on with the colour timing on some of them?), their Blu-ray collection of restored and remastered horror classics was a joy to behold. Containing nine all-time genre favourites – Dracula (both the US and Spanish versions), Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera and The Creature From the Black Lagoon – the restoration work done here is very impressive and each disc is awash with extra features. The Creature From the Black Lagoon can even be watched in 3D, if have the equipment and you like that sort of thing (I actually saw it in 3D many years ago at the very cinema featured in the climax of An American Werewolf in London). For devotees of old school horror, an absolute joy, and spanking value if you shop around.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer [Blu-ray] Third Window Films
The two films that put cult director Tsukamoto Shinya on the international map on one splendid Blu-ray, boasting HD restorations by Tsukamoto's own Kaiju Theatre production company that saw both films looking better than we could have ever dreamed they would. If owning primo quality transfers of two of the best and most influential body horror films wasn't enough, Third Window have also included The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy (Denchu Kozo no Boken), a micro-budget 8mm early work from the director in which the techniques and themes of the Tetsuo films are given a fascinating trial run. There's also a revealing interview with Tsukamoto himself. Easily one of the cult disc releases of 2012.
The Czechoslovak New Wave: A Collection [DVD] Second Run
As they always do, Second Run have continued to restore and release on DVD examples of excellent but often little-seen Eastern European cinema, several of which I've yet to catch up with, in part because the reviews have been undertaken by my esteemed writing colleague L.K. Weston. It was when I was asked to share the review duties on the this box set that I made time to see what I'd been missing. The Czechoslovak New Wave: A Collection should prove a fine intorduction for anyone new to the unique pleasures of Czech New Wave cinema, and includes Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night (Diamanté loci), Ivan Passer's Intimate Lighting (Intimal lenitive) and (by a whisker) my personal favourite, Juraj Herz's The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol), a brilliantly handled portrait of one man's gradual descent into madness during Nazi occupation.
Which brings us nicely to...
Tuesday, After Christmas [DVD] Second Run
As well as restoring lost classics from years past, Second Run also showcase a few newer films that are always worth seeing and often essential viewing. That was certainly the case with Boogie director Radu Muntean's beautifully performed and acutely observed study of the emotional impact of an extra-marital affair on the wife and the girlfriend of an easy-going family man. Unsurprisingly for Second Run, the transfer is top notch (save for a slight oddity in the stereo sound mix) and the extra features, though small in number, are precision targeted.
The Lost Weekend [Blu-ray] Masters of Cinema
One of the great films about alcoholism (it was also one of the first to treat the subject seriously), Billy Wilder's searing drama proved a near-perfect showcase for the acting talent of Ray Milland, at his absolute peak as self-destructive long-term alcoholic Don Birnam. The reason this made the list instead of the simultaneously released Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of Double Indemnity, another Billy Wilder classic and probably my favourite of the two, is the inclusion of what has to be the best extra feature I've seen on a disc all year, Volker Schlöndorff's three-part, three-hour documentary Billy, How Did You Do It?, a superb one-on-one between Schlöndorff and Wilder that explores the latter's career in hugely enthralling and entertaining detail.
Adrift in Tokyo [DVD] Third Window Films
The award for offbeat surprise of the year just has to go to Miki Satoshi's sublimely offbeat road movie. Directionless law student Takemura is offered the chance to clear a substantial debt if he accompanies gruff debt collector Fukuhara on a walk of unspecified length through the quirkier corners of Tokyo, at the end of which Fukuhara aims to turn himself in for an initially unspecified crime. Peppered with engagingly oddball encounters and walking a fine line between reality and surrealistic whimsy, it's the just sort of film that would sit on my "must watch some time" list for ages had the review disc not landed on my doorstep at the right time.
And that's about it. A big thanks to all those who have continued to read and support us and particularly those who have sent us kind or helpful comments over the past year. It's worth noting that it’s now a whole year since we changed our name from DVD Outsider to Cine Outsider, and that December 2013 will be the tenth anniversary of the site's inauguration. Hopefully we can do something later this year to mark that tenth anniversary. I'm open to suggestions...