Films of the year

The best movies of 2012.

You didn’t ask for it, you may not even have wanted it, but it would be remiss of us not to provide it anyway: yes, it’s the New Statesman’s film awards 2012, packed with intrigue, wonder and rash or contradictory judgements. You’ve read the rest, now read… another one.

Films of the year

1. Nostalgia for the Light

Patricio Guzmán’s eloquent documentary interweaves two apparently unrelated subjects - astronomy, and the search for the remains of those “disappeared” by the Pinochet regime - so that they become mutually enriching metaphors for one another. The testimonies of astronomers and bereaved families alike create a searching philosophical reflection on the mysteries of heaven and earth. This is a film about illumination that is itself profoundly illuminating. 

2. On the Road 

There wasn’t much love around for Walter Salles’s years-in-the-making film of Jack Kerouac’s definitive Beat novel. But I maintain it’s one of the most intelligent and cinematic literary adaptations in recent years—not least for its determination to use film language to interrogate the ambiguities and elisions of the original novel while still evoking the spirit that drove the Beat generation.

3. Amour 

Some admirers of Michael Haneke’s film, about an elderly married couple staring mortality in the face, valued its power to squeeze the tear-ducts. Am I a brute for not crying? I felt the picture’s classical and sometimes disorienting storytelling style headed off at the pass any overtly emotional response. Not that it isn’t a moving film - but Haneke seems to apply an analytical framework to a traditionally emotive subject. It’s as though he’s musing aloud on the logistics of old age and dying.

4. Beauty

I hadn’t seen the previous work by the South African director Oliver Hermanus, but on the evidence of Beauty - a chilling, controlled study of a closeted man’s obsession with his daughter’s male friend—he is a master filmmaker.

5. Elena

Some of the promise of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2003 debut, The Return leaked away with its contrived follow-up, The Banishment, but he was back in full control this year with Elena, a tense story of marital discord and class tensions.

Honourable mentions

This Is Not a Film; The Myth of the American Sleepover; Tabu; Faust; The Imposter; Holy Motors;  Moonrise Kingdom; The Raid.

Comedy of the year

When I canvassed friends on the subject of this year’s truly hilarious film comedies, many of them singled out the comic reboot of the old TV high-school/cop show, 21 Jump Street, which I am informed is a fountain of merriment. I’m a promiscuous laugher, but only three films really tickled me this year: Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and the Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle, The Dictator. The latter featured a brilliant sustained monologue on the apparent wonders and liberties of America.

Actors of the year

Jérémie Renier as the singer-songwriter Claude François in Cloclo; Denis Lavant in all his various guises in Holy Motors; Kylie Minogue, in a magnificent raincoat, bringing extra class and poignancy to the same film; Greta Gerwig turning the simplest reaction shot into a showcase of comic genius in Damsels in Distress; Mads Mikkelsen as a man accused falsely of child abuse in The Hunt.

Unnecessary cosmetic work of the year

The eye-job, be it digital or prosthetic, given to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper. Look, if we can be trusted with the convoluted time travel plot, I think we can buy JG-L as a younger version of Bruce Willis’s character without the distracting makeover.

Michael Fassbender Performance of the Year

Michael Fassbender is so prolific that it would be unfair to lump him in with a run-of-the-mill Best Actor category, so this special award has been established in his honour. Am I alone in preferring him when he’s in a more comical mode? He has a gift, rare among heavyweight performers, for a dandyish lightness. That’s why the Michael Fassbender Performance of the Year award for 2013 is a tie between two elegantly amusing turns: as a dashing killer in Steven Soderbergh’s jazzy thriller Haywire and as a beautiful, as-good-as-gay robot in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his own Alien.

David Cronenberg film of the year

Fassbender also cropped up in the best David Cronenberg film of the year, A Dangerous Method, a bittersweet film about the Freud/Jung smackdown in early-20th-century Vienna. More complete and finely-textured, I felt, than the same director’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.

Most overrated film of the year

Shame. Michael Fassbender yet again. His second collaboration with the artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen (after Hunger, and ahead of 2013’s Twelve Years a Slave) has been called uncompromising. Flash forward a few years and I wager it’ll be seen for what it is: a po-faced 1950s-style public information film in chic clothing.

Opening credits sequence of the year

Berberian Sound Studio - not the film itself, though Peter Strickland’s eerie thriller about a shy sound effects maestro (Toby Jones) is accomplished in its own right, but the batty credits of the film-within-the-film, a giallo shocker called The Equestrian Vortex.

Best use of food in a movie

Berberian Sound Studio again: for the pulverised melons and the stabbed cabbages. Runner-up: fried chicken in Killer Joe.

Best use of pre-existing music

Young Adult for playing Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” over and over again as a key to the precarious mental state and arrested devlopment of its main character.

The WTF? award for repellent and extraordinary outlandishness

Headhunters: for the scene in which the hero, covered in raw sewage, drives a tractor with a dead dog as a hood ornament. Don’t ask - but do see the film. It’s a riot.

Good performance, shame about the movie

Sean Penn as a dazed Goth rock-star in This Must Be the Place.

Ending of the year

A tie between The Hunt and Shadow Dancer, which starred Andrea Riseborough as an IRA informer. Both endings pulled off the tricky combination of being genuinely surprising, emotionally open-ended but also poetically final.

Groundbreaker of the year

ParaNorman: a breathlessly inventive horror movie for children but also the first mainstream animated feature to include a gay character among its main protagonists.

Director of the year

I was thinking of giving this title to a film director, Danny Boyle, for his work outside cinema - namely, the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. I have always been slightly underwhelmed by Boyle’s films, slick entertainments with a populist component but little of that complex, lingering after-taste that comes with enduring art. His directing job on the opening ceremony, though, was both heartfelt and stimulating - the best Danny Boyle movie never made. Another contender would be Leos Carax for his equally ambitious Holy Motors. It shared with the opening ceremony a historical breadth, though in this case it was the history of cinema and performance that was being celebrated, rather than that of a nation. Boyle and Carax also impressed in their marshalling of spectacle. Both the opening ceremony and Holy Motors could have been unkempt and incoherent but both adhered more closely than you might think to their own jubilant narratives. I watched them in a state of rapture. In the final analysis, though, the title of director of the year should go to Jafar Panahi, the persecuted Iranian filmmaker, for making the extraordinary and defiant This Is Not a Film while under house arrest - with a special mention to all who played their part in smuggling the picture out of Iran and into cinemas across the world.

Stars of Holy Motors Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era