1 Blue Jasmine
The mercurial Woody Allen (like Martin Scorsese) has never been shy of paying homage to the classics that informed his own art. In Cate Blanchett he could not have found a more convincing latter-day Blanche DuBois. Jasmine’s marriage has failed, her glittering New York lifestyle is in tatters and she is on the turps – but worse than that, Jasmine is self-deluded. Seeking sanctuary at her sister’s in San Francisco, she will career headlong into a void of her own making. Bobby Cannavale’s take on Stanley Kowalski is pretty good, too.
2 Song For Marion
Sometimes it takes the deepest, most heart-breaking loss for a man to discover that there is a better person within waiting to be freed from its emotional straightjacket. As Arthur, the miserable, widowed misanthrope, Terence Stamp is drawn softly softly by Gemma Arterton into a choir of old fogeys, among whom he experiences a catharsis through song. It is as corny as all get-out, with a plot point that appears entirely implausible under the mildest scrutiny, but I fell in love with Gemma and bawled my eyes out.
3 Zero Dark Thirty
Free of polemic, pea-brained conspiracy theories and Islamophobic ranting, Kathryn Bigelow was unabashed and clinical in her reconstruction of the ten-year hunt for and execution of Osama bin Laden. The woman who heads the operation is at first conflicted by the CIA’s brutal methods of interrogation, but she is committed to getting the job done and her task becomes personal when a close friend is killed in a terrorist explosion. As the title suggests, the end game is darkly enthralling. Bigelow won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, but this is much better.
4 Frances Ha
The world is full of other people. The trick is to navigate a passage through myriad comings and goings without losing oneself along the way. New York is no place for a gal who is ill-equipped to handle the hassle, but Frances is an idealist without knowing it. Shot in dreamy black and white and illuminated by a beautiful performance from Greta Gerwig as a dancer who will not let go of her dreams, Noah Baumbach’s little gem is wrapped in a masterly 86 minutes. Weightless and quiet, but empowering ‘for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe’.
Winner of the Palme d’Or and Academy Award for best foreign language film, Michael Haneke’s study of attachment and devotion is confronting but, in its discomfiting, often claustrophobic way, liberating when it is the last thing you expected. There’s hardly any story to speak of – Georges and Anne, a couple who have been married forever, attend a recital of classical music, and the next day Anne suffers a stroke at the kitchen table of their Paris apartment. Her condition worsens and the world closes in on the octogenarian lovers. We’ll all go there one day.
To thine own self be true. Owning up to others, especially after you’ve been found out, is the easy part. Confronting your demons and admitting that they have got the better of you is another kettle of fish altogether. Denzel Washington never fails to find a character’s pulse and as the boozing, coke-snorting commercial airline pilot who has been flying high for years without incident, he typically manages to elicit sympathy for the reprobate when a crisis, both personal and professional, arises. A tightly scripted morality play, with a fab appearance by John Goodman as Denzel’s flamboyant drug dealer.
Easily the best local movie of the year, this low-budget reminiscence of the way we were in the early surfie and hippie days was a much-needed reminder that you don’t need to go to the red-dirt Outback to tell a story that speaks to Australians. Simple in ambition and true in its telling, it follows the fortunes of the Kelly brothers – sober Andy and younger wild-boy Jimmy – as they strive to establish their board-shaping business in sleepy WA while having their minds blown by an acid-head in a magic bus. Some terrific waves, too.
8 Promised Land
Gus Van Sant might not win the slavish praise that is showered on some cult directors, but he is always on the money when it comes to making a movie that addresses head-on an issue of the moment. Abandoning the detached minimalism of Elephant, his story of how CSG mining impacts on a community is threaded through the activities of Matt Damon who, as a company man, is an advocate who will be turned. Down-home and real.
9 What Maisie Knew
Adapting a fiction from the latter part of the nineteenth century and making it fit with the lifestyles of twenty-first century New York City types might so easily have been nobbled by clanging anachronism. But Henry James’s novel arrives on the screen as perceptive, poignant and fresh as the day it was written. Rarely does a character so passive dominate, but thanks to an extraordinary contribution from Onata Aprile, self-serving adulthood is seen in sharp focus through the child’s eye.
10 The Conjuring
An honest-to-God, old-fashioned scary movie. Based on ‘actual events’, whatever that might mean when called upon to validate a ghost story, it’s got it all, in spades – the helpless family, the creaky timber house, the cellar, the spooky marshy lake, the effects, the noises, the music. It’s also something of an indictment of the boffins who run the Australian film industry and look down on such productions. Director James Wan couldn’t get a look-in in Oz, so he took his creative talents to LA, where he has brained it.