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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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear