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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge