September 1, 2013

MIFF 2013 (Or, holy fuck, how many movies did I just see?!?)

It's not exactly breaking news for me to admit that I love movies. I love watching them, I love talking about them ... hell, on the good days I even love making them. So, with that in mind, and remembering how exhausted and sick I get trying to fit the Melbourne International Film Festival around work, I took a few weeks off from the bookshop this year to do it right. And by 'do it right' I mean ...

During MIFF I saw sixty films in seventeen days.

It was awesome.
(Not pictured: John)

If you're an obsessive completist (like me), you'll be able to find my itty-bitty reviews of every single one of them in the archive right here.

Here's what I learned:
  • Either MIFF is the best festival in the world, or I'm starting to get seriously good at picking movies based on a three-sentence write-up in the guide. I saw a ton of great films, and even the stuff that didn't quite work was interesting. There were hardly any films I regretted seeing. At a Festival there will always be some duds, that's just the way of the world, but this year I kept those to an absolute minimum. Yay me!
  • Once you get into a groove, it really is possible to do nothing but watch movies. My schedule: Wake/shower/head into the city/watch movies/grab food when I could in between films, eating standing up/go home/sleep/repeat. I had one day in which I went from session to session from 11am until 1am in the morning. I did six movies that day ... and didn't even nap in any of them!
  • I might be the only person in Melbourne who finds both the ancient, falling apart seats at the Forum and the loud leather monstrosities at Greater Union to be much more comfortable than the modern, spacious, ergonomically designed seats at ACMI. I had a couple of really long films at ACMI, and those seats murdered my back ... but pulling three movies in a row at Greater Union was fine. My spine wants to be a rebel, an iconoclast, dangerous ... in truth it's probably just a hipster or something.
  • Coming of age stories are the flavour of the month in indie circles. Fully twenty-five of the films I saw had protagonists that were teenage or younger (and the standard of performance from the young actors I saw was remarkable pretty much across the board). Want to make a festival darling? Consider mining your teenage years for inspiration.
  • This might seem contradictory, but from a writing stand-point specificity equals universality. If you write a unique character, and have them inhabit a really specific milieu, your story will burrow deeper into your audience's brain than it would if you showed us a more 'normal' situation. Some of my favourite movies at the festival featured: a Belgian banjo player falling in love with a tattooist; a murder at a gay cruising ground in rural France; the most obstinate student at a Saudi Arabian girl's school; and a farm full of psychic pigs (yes, you read that right).
  • I grew up with a bit of country music (particularly in our van on long car-trips), and there's a definite love of the genre lying dormant deep in my genes. The amazing bluegrass that peppered The Broken Circle Breakdown's soundtrack lifted it from very very good to absolutely brilliant. Devoid of context you won't be able to see it, but this song absolutely destroyed me (it's the moment he reaches out for her hand and she doesn't take it ... just trust me, it's fucking heartbreaking):

  • The other film I saw that I thought was a masterpiece was Stranger by the Lake, and what really blew me away was the way it managed to be incredibly romantic and erotic, yet also edge-of-the-seat tense, all at the same time. After a murder takes place at a gay cruising ground, the anonymous trysts in the woods don't stop, but they take on a menacing, stomach-churning air: every time Franck, the lead, goes into the woods we are terrified it could be for the last time. As he falls head over heels for a new regular, the sexual tension and the 'is-he-about-get-stabbed-in-the-throat' tension are happening simultaneously. It makes for a really queasy, unsettling experience, and one I won't forget in a while.

As well as those two, there were a whole bunch of fantastic films, including WadjdaThe Selfish Giant, The Past, A Hijacking, Foxfire, Ginger and Rosa, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, the documentaries Blackfish, Stories We Tell, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and The Act of Killing, and the now-out-in-cinemas-go-see-them Stoker, Upstream Color and Frances Ha.

Even if we get some exceptional commercial releases in the back end of this year, my best-of list for 2013 will be filled with MIFF movies (and there were plenty more flicks that were very very good). It was seventeen days well spent, and taking the time off to 'do it right' could well become a new tradition of mine.

Cheers, JC.

How the Light Gets In (#70)

How the Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland

What I said then:

Debut from an interesting Aussie author about a girl on exchange in America.

What I say now:

Lou Connor, a stroppy teenager too smart for her bogan Sydney family, plots an escape from their stultifying home and heads to suburban Chicago on a student exchange. The Hardings, her host family---affluent, fashionable, pampered---try and make her feel welcome, but Lou's self-destructive habits continually drive a wedge between them. Soon her presence causes cracks to appear in the facade of the Hardings' laundry-commercial lives, and the differences in temperament prove insurmountable.

Lou is a fascinating character, and Hyland nails her tone of voice, giving us a complicated, flawed teenager. She's super smart in some ways but kind of clueless emotionally (the way all teenagers are), and she constantly thinks she can get away with more than she really can. She reads way above her level, but drinks way above her level too, using alcohol as a crutch any time things get tough. She looks down on her low-rent, unambitious family in Sydney, but seems to do everything she can to sabotage her chances of leaving them behind. It's a tour de force performance from Hyland.

The other thing that makes the novel memorable is its depiction of the Hardings and their milieu. It's a vision of a suburban Americana that is too perfect to actually exist, but nobody will admit that their lives aren't as picture perfect as they appear. It's like the whole family is trapped inside a staged photo portrait, their shiny white smiles fixed in place for all eternity. Lou's sulking, snarky presence invades the Harding home like a rank smell, and she wears them down until each member (except for the shopping-obsessed teen daughter) eventually admits to her their secret dissatisfactions.

Plot-wise, it meandered a little too much for my taste. When Lou's at the Hardings the book falls into a distinct pattern: she tries to fit in, the pressure to act a certain way gets to her, she acts out (boozing, smoking, falling for a ne'er-do-well who talks her into taking speed) then gets caught, and she vows to try harder to fit in. This pattern repeats a few times, and (as enjoyable as Lou's voice is), I thought it needed more variation. There's also a couple of late-book swerves (into a rooming house for failed exchange students, then into a placement with a secondary family) that were interesting, but didn't quite feel properly integrated into the whole narrative.

Those were pretty minor complaints, though, and How The Light Gets In is worth a read for Lou's brilliantly constructed voice: she's bitter, insouciant, troubled, intelligent, emotionally stunted ... and fascinating company.

Cheers, JC.

August 28, 2013

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior (#71b)

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior by Paul Strathern

What I said when I got it:

I've been really interested by the concept of this one since it first arrived: basically, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia all knew each other, and at a certain point they all travelled together. This non-fiction book examines that moment in time and what it meant to each man's career. Now it's out in a paperback, there's really no excuse to put off having a look.

What I say now:

I was reading this at basically exactly the same time as the enclave in the Vatican was choosing the new pope (yes, that's how far behind I am with my book reviews), and the timing was perfect. Reading about how Cesare's power-hungry father Rodrigo shamelessly bought the papacy and used its power in a grab for real estate made the rituals and solemnity of the modern Vatican seem absolutely ridiculous. I can't imagine anybody learning about the sordid history of middle ages Catholicism and remaining devout (sorry, Dad).

That aside, this was a fascinating peek into an era of history which is hugely important (in so many ways, Renaissance Italy shaped the history and culture of Europe, and thus had effects still being felt today), yet about which I knew very little. The book rotates chapters, focusing in turn on da Vinci, the brilliant artist and engineer who designed increasingly elaborate instruments of war; and Machiavelli, the young diplomat who would become the most radical political thinker of his age; and Borgia, tyrant and murderer, rampaging through Italy trying to claim a Kingdom with the sword.

Luckily for Strathern, Machiavelli kept meticulous journals, and his notebooks lay out exactly how the men met, and how they reacted to each other. Borgia loaned da Vinci from his Florentine masters to aid him militarily; Machiavelli was sent by the same men to divert Borgia's attentions away from defenceless Florence; the two Florentines (da Vinci nearing the end of his career, Machiavelli at the beginning of his) met in Borgia's train and struck up a brief friendship.

Strathern charts their time together during Borgia's campaign, and how their meeting affected each of their subsequent careers, in particular the effect that the charismatic (yet psychotic) Borgia had on the other two. Da Vinci, horrified by the realities of war, stopped designing weapons. Machiavelli, inspired by Borgia's ruthlessness, applied that ruthlessness to the world of politics, writing his famous tract The Prince using Borgia as an inspiration. Strathern's writing is clear and succinct, and doesn't have the grinding density of some non-fiction.

But despite Strathern's best efforts, it's da Vinci who makes problems for his book, remaining stubbornly a mystery: the man himself didn't keep any journals of his own, and the scraps of thought left in his notebooks are more likely to be shopping lists or reminders of chores than anything else. Whenever he and Machiavelli are apart, Strathern is left in the field of conjecture, prefacing a lot of his statements with phrases like 'da Vinci must have felt ...' or 'da Vinci surely saw ...' or 'da Vinci certainly would have been aware of ...' It lends those portions of the book an insubstantial air, which is unfortunate. That's a pretty small quibble, though, in a thoroughly researched and extremely readable history.

Cheers, JC.

August 27, 2013

'Emilia, Perhaps' --- short story

As promised, to serve as my penance for being the slackest blogger in the world, here's an old short story that I find really embarrassing. Back when I was in a writing group, one month our theme was given as 'Romance'. And this is what I came up with. I never posted it back then because it's (probably) the schmaltziest thing I've ever written---it's got an amnesia plotline for fuck's sake. What was I thinking?!? 

Emilia, Perhaps

He opened the door, allowing the corridor’s weak light to slice into the darkened room. The woman in the bed could not see it, but she lifted her head all the same.

‘Doctor Cuthbertson?’
How did you know it was me?’

‘You always hesitate rather charmingly on the threshold. The rest of them simply come barging in as they please.’ Julian, his hand still on the porcelain doorknob, swallowed nervously. After a moment’s wait, she beckoned him in. ‘You may enter, sir. You have my permission.’ He thought he could sense a smile in her voice. With her head completely swathed in bandages, he was having to rely on his ears to a greater degree than he was accustomed. But then, of course, so was she.

When the door closed behind him, the darkness of her room was absolute. He pulled a box of matches from his pocket and lit a candle.

‘So it is night, then,’ she said. ‘I have trouble keeping track. Sometimes, when nobody comes in to check on me for a time, I can’t even tell if I have slept or not. Sleep and waking have more in common than they used to.’

‘I’m sure.’ He carried the candle across to the windows and made sure that the heavy black-out curtains were fastened securely.

‘One certainly couldn’t tell the time from the temperature. It is so stuffy in here!’

‘It gets more stuffy at night, because we have to keep the curtains closed.’ He took a deep breath, and asked the question that he dreaded so much: ‘Has any more of your memory returned?’

Every time he asked, the brief moment of silence before she began her reply stretched wide, transforming into an eternity of hope and regret, of love found and love lost.

‘Yes,’ she said, and his shoulders slumped. ‘I believe, as a girl, I used to ride. I had a white pony, a mare. I plaited her mane. Her name was … was … Sylvia, or Sybil … or Susannah.’ She threw up her hands. ‘The name won’t come. Yet. But I can see her. She was beautiful.’

‘Where do you see her? There may be elements in the background that will provide us with a clue to your origins.’ He did his best to regulate his voice, to give all his words a professional veneer, no matter how much his heart was breaking.

‘It is a country house, a very large one. There are servants. A humbly dressed man hands me the reins and touches his cap as he does so. It is all horribly opulent.’

‘Ah! You are wealthy, then.’

‘My accent ought to have told you that long ago.’

He smiled. ‘You might have been an actress.’

‘What a scandalous suggestion! Can you really think so poorly of me as that?’

‘I have no frame of reference. I could think anything of you. That is the problem.’

She sighed in frustration. ‘Well … tell me what you do think.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘I am sick of being nobody,’ she cried. ‘Tell me my story, even if it is a fiction. I am sick of being a blank canvas. Paint a picture with words and fill me in. Even a made-up life is better than no life at all. Please, doctor. I beg you.’

Julian was taken aback by her request. He poured himself a glass of water from the jug next to her bed to give himself time to think. For, of course, inventing this mystery woman’s past had occupied every moment of his waking hours since he had first heard her remarkable voice. He saw, now, that those imaginings had been the rehearsal for this shining moment.

Her hand lay upturned upon the coverlet, as though she was inviting him to take it in his own. He did not.

He thought of all the names he had imagined for her and tried to decide which would suit her best. ‘Your name,’ he began softly, ‘is Emilia.’ She gasped with joy and clapped her hands together.

‘Emilia,’ she repeated, and her voice was beaming. He smiled.

‘Everyone in your family calls you Ducky, however, because as a girl your greatest joy was to explore the ponds and streams and fountains on your father’s estate. You had a pet frog named Gerald, and your nanny despaired of keeping your skirts free of grass and mud for even a single hour. You must have had more baths than any other child in England.

‘Your father was a stern man with a red beard. In your earliest years you were fascinated by his watch and chain. He was loving but distant, trusting your nanny—and later, your governess—more than he trusted himself. He loved you very much but didn’t know how to show it.

‘You were an only child, and your mother died giving birth to you. There was a portrait of her on the mantle in the sitting room. You would sneak in sometimes and look at it for hours at a time, trying to puzzle out just which emotion was being conveyed by the flakes of blue paint that were her eyes.

‘You had a white pony, a mare, named Sylvia. You plaited her mane. When you grew too long in the leg for her, your father bought you a beautiful chestnut horse with snow-white legs. He liked to watch you ride, calling advice and encouragement from outside the yard. It was the thing that brought you closest.

‘You had no friends, but you weren’t lonely. You read voraciously, and imagined a thousand adventures more spectacular than those of Mr Carroll or Mr Barrie. You charged around the estate as you pleased.

‘As you entered your teenage years, you learned how to sit, and how to serve tea. You learned French and German, how to play the harp and sing, and how to paint. Though you submitted to your lessons, you realised in your heart of hearts that it was all quite ridiculous.

‘When you first began to get your womanly discharge, nobody had enlightened you to expect it. You were mortified. You tried to steal down to the laundry and wash your own sheets. It was the scullery maid, Rhona, with her red face and red hands, who found you out and kindly explained the facts of life to you. She became your greatest friend, until—

‘Your father had invested heavily in stocks, and the depression was not kind to him. Rhona was let go, along with all the rest of the servants. Your father was forced to sell off your horses, and let the great house. “I am so sorry, Ducky,” he said, and it was the only time you ever heard his voice catch.

‘His friends in government secured him a paid diplomatic post, as ambassador to Tanganyika. The two of you repaired to the consul house in Dar Es Salaam, and you spent the remainder of the time before the war in Africa.

‘The fauna of East Africa, the lions and zebras and hippopotami, made the change in circumstances delightful to you. Even the snakes were something to be exclaimed over, rather than feared. You once saw a giraffe giving birth, and you rank it as the most wondrous, beautiful thing you have ever seen.

‘You had a sharp wit, and a keen eye for the ridiculous. Your pith had never sat well with the stuffy ladies of English drawing rooms, but the wilder sort who forged a path at the very edges of the Empire were delighted by you. For the first time in your life, you tasted popularity, though your father made damn sure it didn’t go to your head.

‘And that wasn’t all: by now you were beautiful. Your negro maid Hebe marvelled at your hair every morning as she brushed it. Your attendance at a soiree given amongst the colonials would swell the attendance as young men drove in from all across the territory for a glimpse of you. You remained happily modest and unassuming, but also had the strength of mind to resist the overtures of countless men. You were determined to fall in love, but—a romantic at heart—you did not believe in picking the best of a bad bunch. The right man must be out there, you reasoned, and you would find him eventually.

‘Even as far from Europe as that, the coming war began to loom over all. At the outbreak, your father sent you back to England on the steamer, to live with your Aunt Dulcie. Changing boats at Suez, you made it as far as Alexandria. Your boat’s arrival coincided with a German air-raid. A bomb hit the boat.

‘You thought you must be dead. The noise was immense, the pain unbearable. You were flung, burning, into the water. But still you lived.

‘Only one person escaped from that wreckage, only one person made it to the Alexandria Hospital still breathing. You.

‘When you finally woke, after three weeks in a coma, you had no recollection of who you were. Exploring with your hands you discovered that both your legs were broken and your entire head was wrapped in bandages. When the nurses discovered you moving, they ran for a doctor.

‘And here, in the most unfelicitous of circumstances, you found the man you had waited so long for. At first the callow young doctor was nervous, reticent and shy. You spoke warmly and put him at ease. His voice grew stronger, more confident, and kept you company in your cage of darkness.

‘You fell in love with him.

‘But at the back of your mind was a lingering doubt. You might love him, but how could he love you in return? Your famous beauty was surely no more, and what could you offer instead? A life of pushing a wheelchair, of changing bandages? Whenever he left your bedside, you imagined it was for the last time, and cried.

‘What you couldn’t know was the effect that your voice had on him. He had always been frightened in society, terrified of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. So for most of his life, he had stayed silent. When he did speak, it was with a stutter. It was only with you that he could be the man he always knew he was inside. You brought him out of his shell.

‘Every moment he was apart from you was spent in thinking of you. Nothing else occupied his mind. He spent hours at night, lying awake and imagining your past, piecing together in his fevered brain just who it was that he was falling head over heels in love with.

‘At last, the moment came. He arrived in your room in dead of night. You recognised him before he opened his mouth, because of the charming way he hesitated on the threshold. Sick of being nobody, you implored him to fill you up with a story, with your story. As he did so, you began to weep with joy.’

She was weeping, though she had done her best to hide it. Wet patches had appeared on her bandage, right above her eyes.

Julian continued: ‘He took your hand …’ Her fingers had lain on the sheet through his recitation, inviting him to grasp them, but until this moment he had held back. When they touched, he felt delirious with pleasure. It was some moments before he could continue. ‘And … and he lowered his lips to kiss it.’ He did so. ‘And he told you that he loved you, and would love you always.’

‘Julian,’ she whispered. ‘You have seen me without these bandages, haven’t you?’


‘And was I horrible to look at?’

Internally, he debated the merits of a lie, but he could not do it.

Under her dressings, she smiled sadly. ‘Do not fret: your silence is all the answer I need. And yet … somehow ... you love me regardless?’

‘Yes. Good God, yes. Of course.’

It was the most perfect moment in either of their lives.


Behind the Alexandria Hospital is a small cemetery reserved for Englishmen and women, and other Christians. When she was buried there two weeks later, having died of an infection, he insisted that her tombstone read Emilia Cuthbertson.

He never married, and never forgot her.

Story notes:
  • There is NO FRIGGIN' WAY that a giraffe giving birth would be pleasant to look at.
  • Looking back, the gender politics of this weirds me out: the man is literally proscribing the woman's life (and, even more troublingly, her personality) to her. 'Emilia' has no agency whatsoever, and isn't even allowed to discover her own past. I know she asks Julian to tell the story, but still. Given it's set in WWII, surely the more obvious thing would be to have a wounded soldier in a hospital, being tended by a nurse. The fact that didn't occur to me until two years later is a bit strange.
  • As dorky as it is, I quite like the structure of it, where Julian's story catches up to the beginning of my story, re-casting the earlier events in the light of his undying love.
  • Easter Eggs: 'Cuthbertson' is the name of a now-retired footballer who played for my favourite team; the negro maid Hebe is lifted straight from the Hornblower books; the business about a girl not being told about her period and not understanding when it happens for the first time is borrowed wholesale from Michel Faber's brilliant 'The Crimson Petal and the White'; Tanganyika as a setting is a deliberate homage to Roald Dahl's 'Going Solo'.
  • When we did the group reading, everyone in the room gasped in shock when I killed 'Emilia'. It was a brilliant moment: the looks on their faces were priceless. Even in a romance, happy endings are for suckers.

Cheers, JC.

May 15, 2013

Dracula (#71a)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

What I said then:

The original, but is it the best?

What I say now:

Dracula, I'm sorry to report, is most definitely not the best. In fact, it's not even very good.

Jonathan Harker, a young real estate agent, travels from London to Romania to help settle the purchases of some land in England for a mysterious Transylvanian nobleman, Count Dracula. Once there, it slowly (too slowly) dawns on Harker that Dracula is creepy as fuck, that weird happenings are afoot, and that he, Harker, is now a prisoner in Dracula's ancient, crumbling castle. Once Dracula sets off for England, Harker's wife Mina and occult expert Abraham Van Helsing gather together a small group of monster hunters to counter his plans to take over the world, one innocent English neck at a time.

The book's got a heap of problems, but the main one is the simplest: there's not enough Dracula in it. The Count's eminent position in pop culture makes obvious that he's by far Stoker's most interesting/original/captivating creation. The novel's first section, involving Harker trapped in the Count's castle and slowly realising the horrifying truth about his host, is actually pretty good. Unfortunately, once the action moves to England, Dracula basically exits the book, never to return. From that point on we hear about his actions, but never really see them; we see how much other characters fear him, but never see anything that makes us fear him ourselves. It's a genuinely strange choice on Stoker's part.

In some respects he's hamstrung by his choice to make the novel epistolary(ish) --- that is, it's constructed entirely of letters, diaries and journal entries. Dracula isn't one of our correspondents, and as he spends most of the novel hiding from the characters whose point of view we're getting, we just don't see him. Still, there had to be a way to give us more blood-sucking action.

The other big issue Stoker has with his letters/diaries style is that almost every single character speaks in exactly the same tone of voice. Even Van Helsing, who has a few 'foreign' mannerisms to his speech, still speaks in basically the same manner, and with the same vocabulary, as everybody else. The other members of the anti-Drac league might as well be the same person, for all the personality that comes through their voices.

The other major issue I had with the book was the nature of the action: Stoker seems to have no idea how to structure his story to make the most of its inherent drama. The vast majority of the book is spent having theoretical discussions. When the anti-Drac league does take action, it's most often through waiting in doorways, or writing letters to shipping agents, or looking up train timetables. Even in the final denouement, which should be super-duper satisfying after we've waited so long for it, they kill Dracula without actually having to confront him! I mean, surely that's a no-brainer, right? I couldn't believe it.

Obviously the book is super famous and continues to be read widely, and it's not for no reason. And in some ways I can understand the appeal: not only would the text itself have been pretty daring for its time, but the subtext is absolutely, positively drenched in sex (or, more specifically, the fear of sex). I have no idea what Stoker had going on in his personal life, but I suspect he was pretty hung-up about a lot of things, because a hell of a lot of psychological weirdness seeps through the edges of the novel. Unfortunately, in my opinion he wasn't in control enough of that psychological stuff to make it focussed and thematically coherent, and he certainly wasn't able to marry it to a well structured story. This ended up a pretty major disappointment for me.

Cheers, JC.

May 5, 2013

The Glass Bead Game (#72)

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse

What I said then:

Weirdly, this seems to have the same basic plot as Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games. Maybe I’ll read them back to back.

What I say now:

Haha, wow, they're not very similar at all. I think I was fooled by the word 'game' appearing in both titles. Where Banks' novel is an enjoyable romp, Hesse's is a stately, philosophical, largely plotless examination of life, spirituality, art, and the meaning of it all.

One of the reasons I've been absent from this blog for so long is that this review was the next I had to write and I have no idea how to go about it, because I simply lack the vocabulary to follow Hesse into the never-ending abstractions of thought that he leads us. I'm no philosopher; I'm just a guy.

In the 23rd Century, all intellectual and artistic production has ceased: at some point along the way it was decided that, with the music of the great classical composers, art had reached its highest apogee. In this future, a caste of 'game-players' have synthesised all knowledge into its root concepts, concepts that the 'game' (which is part music, part mathematics, part performance) then states and recombines in ways which give intellectual pleasure to the audience. Here's Hesse himself: "The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colours on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property --- on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ." It's an incredibly ambitious concept, tying the entirety of the arts, of science, and of religion together into one great attempt to perfectly understand humanity.

So that's the background. Hesse's novel has us follow the life of Joseph Knecht, who begins as a passionate but unfocused student and ends up as the Magister Ludi (the supreme Glass Bead Game player in the world), which allows the author to expand on his concepts one piece at a time, the reader gaining knowledge and understanding as Knecht does. And that's basically the book: Knecht wrestles with philosophical ideas and with his own place in the world, and we watch him do it. It's dense and difficult, with barely any story to speak of, but it's also kind of amazing (it's hard not to be dazzled by the breadth of knowledge Hesse displays).

The book ends with three short stories that are linked to the main body of the novel, and those stories were probably the highlight of the novel for me: they managed to combine their exploration of Hesse's philosophical concerns with more rigorously focussed storytelling, and I felt they were more successful as a result.

The Glass Bead Game is a really unusual book, and though I can't honestly recommend it (it's just too likely to bore people, I think), I can say without reservation that I'm glad I read it myself, and if you approach it like it's a philosophical tract rather than a novel, I think you'd find much to admire in it.

Cheers, JC.

March 6, 2013

Last Year at the Movies

Holy shit, what a year of movies we just had.

Like last year, I decided to hold off on my 'Year in Film' wrap-up post until after the Oscars (the theory being that movie years don't follow the calendar, they run from statuette to statuette), and given the high quality of some of the films I've seen in January and February, I'm more convinced than ever that it's the right move.

The last couple of times I've sat down to write a post like this, I've gone back over what I've seen, picked my five favourite movies and done a paragraph or two on each of them ... this year I came up with a list of fifteen movies I want to talk about, and I did it without even blinking. That's how good a year it's been.

(As is always gonna be the case when you live in Australia, there are some oddities due to the timing of release dates. A Separation won an Oscar last year, but we didn't see it until April; while at the other end of the spectrum, I saw The Hunt, War Witch and Sleepless Night at the Film Festival, and none of them have actually come out yet. To keep it simple for myself, I just stuck to 'Did I see it this year? Yes? Then it bloody well counts.')

So, to business ...

Watching Amour feels kind of like having a spike driven through your heart ... and I swear I mean that in a good way. I have rarely seen/read/heard/experienced in any art form, a more sympathetic, clear-eyed, honest, and fucking heart-breaking depiction of what love truly is. It's so beautiful that it hurts, and so painful that it becomes sublime. This is truly an extraordinary work of art.

The vast, vast majority of films about love are about the first initial passion, the time when you've just met and you can't get enough of each other, and the heat and excitement are still there. There's a quote from one of my favourite novels, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which runs thus: 'Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body [...] That is just being "in love", which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.'

Amour examines the meaning and consequences of true devotion in a way I've never quite seen before. It's a very small, limited film (with very few exceptions we never leave the apartment shared by Anne and Georges, the elderly couple at its core), but that microscopic nature means that every detail is freighted with meaning. When Georges helps Anne off with her coat, when Anne fetches Georges a soft-boiled egg, it's recognisably part of the to and fro of forming a life together. Then, when Anne becomes unwell, suddenly the tiny details of their life become difficult, become less serene and more painful: Georges helping Anne hike up her underwear after she's gone to the toilet, or Anne sending Georges from the bedroom once she's settled because she doesn't want him to feel responsible for her 24/7. And as Anne's body slowly succumbs to illness and her indignities mount up, their devotion to each other doesn't lessen. What starts as Georges cutting up Anne's food because she can't use a knife and fork, becomes learning how to roll her to put on a diaper, becomes ... well, I won't say. Their devotion is tested, yes, and there are moments when it is found wanting, but always their love for each other brings them back into harmony. Even at the outer extreme of pain and suffering, Georges can calm Anne down and stop her crying simply by holding her hand.

Michael Haneke's previous films have often left me a bit cold. They're too cerebral, too clinical. Here that wasn't a problem, and I think it's thanks in large part to the simply astonishing performances of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. It is difficult to convey just how good they are in these roles. And Haneke, as both writer and director, exhibits a humane and compassionate care for the subjects of his film that he's often disregarded. Amour is still around in cinemas at the moment, and I urge everybody to see it. I shouldn't say this kind of thing ahead of time, but I have no doubt that this will stand as Haneke's masterwork, and will be remembered as one of the key films of this, or any, time.

Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt is an incredible film, but defining its genius is quite hard: it tells a fairly simple story incredibly well. It's not a film with obvious bells and whistles, and it's not a film with a strong directorial style: one of my comments coming out was that one of the masters of 40's or 50's cinema could have made exactly the same film in exactly the same way. Vinterberg takes a kind of classical approach, using great camera positioning, great lighting and great editing to allow his suite of magnificent actors to shine. Sometimes that's all there is to it (ha, I say 'all there is' like that's easy!).

Mads Mikkelsen (who is seriously one of the best actors in the world; if you only know him as Le Chiffre from Casino Royale then do yourself a favour and look him up) is Lucas, a kindergarten teacher in a small town in rural Denmark. He's separated from his wife, and doesn't get to see his teenage son as much as he would like. He knows everybody in town, and they all know him. Among his students are the children of some of his best friends. It's a quiet, comfortable life, one where every day is much like the last, and where Lucas' routines carry him through his moments of sadness or loneliness. Until the daughter of his best friend falsely accuses him of molesting her (there is no doubt the accusation is false, but Vinterberg is clever enough to give the girl clear psychological reasons for her lie) and all fucking hell breaks loose.

The way the fallout is handled, and the way that every character, from the most vicious to the most (seemingly) well-meaning deals with it, make up the bulk of the film. Slowly, as word filters through the town, Lucas becomes a pariah. All his relationships, everything he thought he could rely on, it's all slowly beaten down and destroyed. He tries as hard as he can to remain upright, to keep his chin in the air, but as events spiral down and down this becomes impossible. It's one of those incredible movies in which everything that happens is both A) the only thing that could have happened, but also B) a surprise. When a plot point is both unexpected, but also retrospectively inevitable, I consider that to be screenwriting of the highest order. And The Hunt does it again and again and again. Without giving too much away, the film's ending is absolutely devastating, though not in a way I ever could have predicted.

It's finally coming out in Australia in May, apparently, and I'd urge everyone to see it if they can. It's not exactly a pleasant time at the movies, but it is a brilliant film.

Like the two films above, A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, is a fairly small-scale, intimate drama. I love movies that simply take strongly-defined characters, put them in a complicated situation, and then sort of sit back and let all the drama come from the way different people react to their shared circumstances. A Separation is a brilliantly structured script, because everything about how it plays out is present from the beginning, yet it manages to be endlessly surprising, and genuinely tense. Like The Hunt, it manages that trick of being unexpected, but also having the way things turn out feel like the only way things could ever possibly have turned out.

Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are still in love with each other, but she's desperate to emigrate to the U.S. to give their daughter a better chance in life, while he's devoted to his ailing father and refuses to contemplate it. When they are denied a divorce and remain stuck in Tehran, Simin moves out. To help look after his father, Nader hires a nurse/cleaning woman who is lower class, and also intensely religious. Slowly, but with horrible inevitability, the characters pull in different directions and the story becomes an ever-tightening downward spiral of confrontations and lies and contradictions. It's remarkable how much drama Farhadi can wring out of a small handful of people acting at cross-purposes ... but given that's the very basis of drama, maybe it's not so remarkable after all.

The other thing worth mentioning about A Separation is the way that, even though it barely ever interacts with a larger Iranian society outside the family's apartment (and never makes mention of Iranian politics at all), it still presents a compelling and critical portrait of present-day Tehran. The whole film is drenched in an atmosphere of tension, double-dealing and religiosity (both genuine and purposefully feigned), and manages to give extraordinary insight into the character of Iran without ever making that the film's focus. All the performances are brilliant, and Farhadi's use of his camera is fantastic as well, slinking around Nader's apartment and always showing us just a little less than we want to see.

Look, I love Point Break. But if you'd told me back then that Kathryn Bigelow would evolve into a filmmaker of such mastery and subtlety that she could make Zero Dark Thirty, I doubt I'd have believed you (I also would have been about ten years old, and you'd be a time-traveler, so whatever...). Here all her skills with genre and action are present, but they're at the service of a story that's deeply ambiguous and (however much the characters try to hide their feelings) that's emotionally fraught.

Telling the long, slow story of the search for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't flinch from detailing the horrors of its time. Scenes of torture, locations that don't officially exist, prisoners who are too valuable to be on any manifest: the moral black holes that America's intelligence services fell through in the years after the World Trade Center attacks are portrayed with a refreshingly dispassionate eye, forcing the audience to examine how complicit we are as we watch these characters work. Aside from the interrogation scenes shared between Jason Clarke and Reda Kateb, which are both extraordinarily well done and painful to watch, there's a brilliant moment, more than halfway through the film, in which a handful of characters (including Jessica Chastain's Maya, the forceful, obsessive protagonist) watch President Obama give a TV interview. In his answers, Obama condemns the use of torture, saying he wants America to regain its moral standing in the world ... and our characters are watching him with looks of utter disgust on their faces. Which is confronting as hell, because you find yourself thinking "I was rooting for you people ... who the fuck are you?"

Bigelow doesn't let her characters off the hook, and she doesn't let us off either. Another example comes in the final raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. The marines involved don't take any chances: standing over a wounded enemy, they shoot them repeatedly to make sure they stay down. Again, it's confronting as hell: however much you understand the logic, people in movies aren't supposed to behave like this, and we'd all like to believe that people in real life don't behave like this either. Though the marines take this act as a given, there's one brief shot of one of the marines letting his emotions play across his face after shooting a man to make sure he's dead. It's the briefest of moments, but it speaks volumes about the horrible compromises America (and its allies) were willing to make.

A lot of people will dislike Zero Dark Thirty because it doesn't mesh with their political views. I think it's pretty telling that both liberals and conservatives have condemned it (for different reasons, obviously): when you're pissing off both sides of politics, you must be doing something right. Right? Personally, I loved following the intricate web of half-facts and suppositions, I loved the way a lot of the more surprising and 'un-movie-ish' elements just had to come direct from real life, and I loved the way it didn't talk down to us. Its critique of the America it's depicting is subtle, but it's certainly there (the very last scene makes that abundantly clear, I'd have thought).

If the plots of those first four movies all follow a relentless, remorseless logic, Holy Motors is the joker in the pack. It's a wild, surreal ride, one in which you need to work hard to discover your own meanings, and make your own connections. A mysterious gentleman, played by the incredible chameleon Denis Lavant, travels across Paris in a limousine, on his way to nine appointments. At each stop, he must become a new character and play out a scene. He begins as a banker, and becomes in turn an elderly female beggar, a motion-captured monster, a diabolical green-suited nutcase, a scuzzy hitman and his victim, a bewildered father to a teenage girl, an accordian maestro, a dying uncle, an old lover, and a father to a family of apes.

Almost all the segments deal in some respect with death and grief (and those that don't are all about parenthood, and responsibility). After my first viewing I found out that Leos Carax, the writer/director, had made the film in response to the death of his long-term partner, who was also the mother of his child. Seeing it a second time armed with that knowledge, the entire film suddenly clicked into place for me. Don't get me wrong, I'd loved it first time around, but now I felt I could grasp, not just what I was projecting onto the movie, but what Carax's intentions may have been. The prologue in particular (which features Carax himself waking up in an exitless room, discovering a hidden door in the wall, and going through it to find himself in a cinema, where he can watch what is about to unfold) suddenly seemed a vital component of the whole, rather than simply a brief introduction. Oh, and I just realised: Lavant's character (when he's in the limo, between assignments) is named M. Oscar ... which is a corruption of LeOS CARax. Shiiiiiiit ...

Ordinarily, I'm a guy who is drawn to narrative. The machinations of a well-constructed plot are usually where I get my cinematic pleasures. Holy Motors flies in the face of that: it operates with dream logic, with symbolism, with imagery loaded with meaning that remains undefined and impossible to describe ... yet it manages to make perfect emotional sense. Walking out I was humbled, and exhilarated, but somehow not confused (and seriously, I should have been confused). I'm not sure exactly how Carax pulled that off, but I know I'll watch Holy Motors many more times trying to figure it out.

Margaret begins with one of the most harrowing scenes I've ever seen: Anna Paquin's Lisa sorta kinda causes a woman to get hit by a bus. As the woman bleeds to death in her arms, and a crowd gathers around them (some trying to be helpful, some trying and failing, some just gawking), the fact the woman's daughter is also named Lisa leads to confusion, angst, and a profound moment of emotional connection.

How Lisa, a pretty ordinary teenage girl, smarter than most but still young and wilful and convinced of her own righteousness, deals with the emotional fallout of that experience constitutes the bulk of the movie. We see her at school, arguing politics and literature in her classrooms and crushing on one of her teachers; we see her at home, chafing against her mother and investing too much hope in her absentee dad; we see her investigating the life of the woman who died, and getting to know her friends; and we see her decide the bus driver should be brought to justice.

This film is a huge, sprawling beast, sending tentacles of subplots out in all sorts of unusual and unexpected directions, but it works because it's still ultimately following Lisa's emotional path. Unable to deal with what happened, she lashes out in every possible direction, sometimes in ways that seemingly have nothing to do with the accident. But it's always, always about her guilt, and about her futile and misguided attempts to come to terms with what she saw, and heard, and said. The very non-logic of her actions is somehow the most realistic thing about the film: Lisa might be the most psychologically real character I've ever seen in a movie. It's an incredible tightrope that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan walks: Lisa's actions make no logical sense, but in a way that makes perfect psychological sense. It's really a great movie, but not one that's easy to watch, or to describe. Instead I'll just say: watch it!

One of my pet theories that I've had for a while is that there's no reason why the only kinds of movies (and books) we ever get in fantasy settings are adventure movies. In literature there's a tradition of what's called 'Magical Realism', which is basically a hoity-toity way of saying 'wacky, fantastical shit happens, but it's still serious, you get me?' Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the best realised examples I've seen of a cinematic equivalent to Magical Realism.

It's set in The Bathtub, a bayou landscape that is both powerfully original and obviously inspired by the swamps of rural Louisiana. A levee wall divides the haves, with their industries and cities and smoke, and the have-nots, content to fish and drink and throw raucous holidays for no damn reason. After a massive storm, The Bathtub sinks beneath the water and the few remaining residents struggle to survive; meanwhile a group of Aurochs have unthawed from the South Pole and are slowly making their way North.

But honestly, all of that is merely background to the real story, which is about the relationship between Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her proud, defiant father Wink (Dwight Henry). Director Benh Zeitlin dares to give us a parental relationship that isn't honey and roses: Wink is an angry alcoholic, he disappears for days at a time, and he teaches Hushpuppy about the world in a way that really only ever swings between being rough and being harsh. They are two fierce characters, and their bond is just as ferocious as they are. They live on the same parcel of land, but in two separate trailers, only coming together for meals. When Wink goes missing, Hushpuppy fends for herself, and it isn't too different from her life when he's around. In one fantastic sequence, she deliberately sets her trailer alight and hides, watching her dad frantically search for her, as if testing how much he cares. Later, after they've been forcibly evacuated to a shelter beyond the levee, Hushpuppy's been forced into a freshly laundered Sunday School dress and had her hair combed: when Wink sees his daughter tamed it's the final straw for him, and he plans an escape.

Beautifully acted (Wallis gives one of those child performances, on a par with Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider; Henry matches her, rippling with anger and frustration, but also able to draw on deep reserves of joy and love), and featuring some stunning imagery, the thing that really sends this film over the top is the score. Some of the music, inspired equally by New Orleans jazz and the finger-pickin' country and western of the swamps, is absolutely stunning.

It takes a brave, brave man to make Django Unchained, and Quentin Tarantino is seriously as brave as they come.

Django is definitely a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, but to my mind it's more successful because it has more of an emotional kick. If I was guessing, I'd suggest it's because, as an American, race relations in the U.S. is a topic perhaps closer to his hear. Either way, after spending the Kill Bills and Death Proof learning a whole bunch of kick-ass genre skills, the way he's now deploying those skills to make art that is both deadly serious and wickedly entertaining makes him one unique motherfucker.

All the cast are superb: Jamie Foxx manages to seem of the time, then comes into his own as a modern man over the course of the film; Christoph Waltz charms our boots off; and Leonardo DiCaprio makes his plantation owner both evil and sinisterly charming. But the standouts are Samuel L. Jackson, having the courage to give a nuanced portrayal of a particular kind of weakness, and Kerry Washington, who manages to give Django something worth fighting for (and the audience something to root for) in very little screen time.

It was a bit wooly around the edges, for sure (we really could have done without the LeQuint Dickey employees, I think), but it's still the bravest, most audacious movie about race in America that I've seen in a long while. That it's funny as fuck is a bonus, and that it manages to be quite moving as well makes it, honestly, one of Tarantino's very best. With his filmography, that's a hell of a compliment.

Occasionally a film is so enigmatic that I find it difficult to write about. The Master defies easy categorisation, or easy anything, really. When Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, giving an incredible, close-mouthed, hunch-backed performance) leaves the army at the end of World War II he's clearly suffering from what we today would know as post-traumatic stress disorder. There are only two things on his mind: women, and turning any god-damn thing he can find into booze and drinking it until he passes out. When he comes into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man intent on starting his own self-help style religion, Dodd takes him on as his ultimate project. Dodd spends the rest of the movie trying to heal Quell, whose issues are so primal that they remain stubbornly un-heal-able.

The intricate, complex dance that these two characters weave between them is something to behold. Paul Thomas Anderson went all the way down the rabbit-hole on this one, never for a second deigning to give his audience an easy, or even comfortable, moment. It's dark, and darkly funny, and oblique, and absolutely beautiful. Some might have wanted it to be more critical of Scientology (Dodd is clearly based on L. Ron Hubbard), but Anderson remains fairly even-handed because, frankly, I don't think that's what he was interested in. It's the way that Quell's primal mind can't be tamed that fascinates him, and the way that the challenge of that is at once so necessary and so hurtful for Dodd and his ambitions.

Look, it's coming out on DVD next week, so maybe I'll have a better understanding of it (and be better able to discuss it) soon. Until then, I'll just say that it's a brilliantly made puzzle, and months after my one and only viewing, it's stayed right at the forefront of my mind.

War Witch was one of those MIFF movies that I was worried would disappear without a trace, and which I'd never have a chance to see again. Happily, it got nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which usually means we'll see it at cinemas sometime soon, or at the very least that it'll get a DVD release.

Though written and directed by a Canadian, it's set in an unspecified African nation that is being torn to pieces by a civil war. When rebels destroy her village and kill her parents, Komona, a girl of about twelve or thirteen, is taken and forced to become a soldier. Soon after, she realises she can speak with the dead (some of the sequences when she does are spooky as hell), and use what they tell her to aid her cause. Eventually the rebel leader starts consulting her like an oracle, but all she wants to do is escape, along with the albino warlock she's fallen in love with.

The supernatural/spiritual elements are presented totally straight: there's never any suggestion that Komona isn't seeing what the film shows her seeing. What's great about it is that despite that, there's still an inner, psychological explanation for why she's been granted her gift, and the denouement works perfectly on both levels. When Komona stops being a pawn and takes action in her own right, it's as both a witch and a lost and frightened girl, and her action heals her in both ways.

The structure of the film feels kind of meandering and plotless, until a revelation with twenty minutes to go makes you understand why it's been presented in that way. The film is about Komona discovering what she has to do to bury the ghosts of her past (and literally bury the ghosts that she's seeing): it's only at that moment of discovery that we in the audience come to know where she's been heading this whole time. I could see people being put off by the slow, oblique way that it plays out, but it worked perfectly on me.

The Cabin in the Woods is kind of a miracle: who knew there could be more to say about the whole 'slasher movie featuring teens in a remote locale' thing? The script is breathtaking in its chutzpah, not just deconstructing the entire genre of American horror movies, but actually tying every American horror movie into one grand tradition and one ultimate story (we also briefly get a glimpse of deconstruction of horror flicks from all over the world, and it's hilarious). If you don't know the film's genius conceit, I'm not sure if I should give it away or not. So, look, I urge you to see this movie if you haven't already, and if you want to go in unspoiled, scroll down right now to the next photograph. Deal?

Okay, so Cabin basically reveals that every horror film we've ever seen has been orchestrated by an underground government department responsible for sacrificing innocent blood to appease endlessly slumbering 'Old Gods'. As we watch, we get two movies: the first is a fairly standard, by the numbers 'zombies attacking kids in a cabin' movie, but it's made fresh because we also see the bored, bickering civil servants who are pulling the strings (played by the perfectly cast Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford). The underground segments are dryly hilarious, and the running commentary they provide on the above-ground horror story is note-perfect.

Where the film truly lifts into all-timer territory is in the last fifteen minutes or so. Once our last couple of teens figure out what's going on and penetrate the underground facility, all hell breaks loose in one of the most fun (and also most batshit fucking insane) sequences I've ever seen. It is seriously extraordinary that a film can be so intensely pleasurable, but also keep giving pointed commentary about how and why we watch horror movies, and the way we react to the characters within them. I'm not particularly a horror aficionado, and since Shaun of the Dead I kinda figured the horror/comedy thing was played out. I was delighted to be wrong.

If for no other reason, Sleepless Night deserves a spot on this list for featuring by far the best hand-to-hand fight scene I've seen in a movie in years (since, maybe, Matt Damon and Marton Csokas in Bourne Supremacy? Can anyone think of a great one that's more recent?). It takes place in an industrial kitchen, and it's fucking brutal. The best thing about it, though, is that the guys actually get hurt. Over the course of the fight they slow down, their breathing comes harder, they get groggy and they weaken dramatically. I highly recommend it for any lover of action cinema: I know it's kind of shallow to say this, but ... it's awesome.

Thankfully, the rest of the film matches that sequence by being a taut, pacy, clever little thriller. Set in one location, a gigantic nightclub, over a well-defined period of time, one night, Sleepless Night uses those (seeming) limitations to its advantage. All the characters have hidden depths and secret agendas, the interpersonal relationships are complicated and ever-evolving, and (until the kitchen, anyway) it's much much more about smarts than about brute force. An American version (which is apparently already on the way) would undoubtedly feature a heap of automatic weaponry, and bullets flying all over the place. Here, there are only a handful of guns in the entire thing, and each individual bullet fired is a huge moment. Makes all the difference.

Polisse was another absolutely cracking French cop movie, and it succeeded by having the audacity to be almost purely a drama, rather than a thriller. To portray just how hectic and brutal it is being a part of the French police's child protection unit, the writer/director Maiwenn doesn't let any one storyline sink in before the next one arrives. There's hardly any children (or parents) who feature in more than one scene: we meet them, get a tiny glimpse into their lives, and then they're gone. This has the effect of making the movie much more about the cops than about their cases, and lets us understand how difficult it is to keep caring, case after case, day after day. When, late in the film, the unit cracks and starts laughing their heads off at a particularly dimwitted teenage rape victim, you can totally understand why.

The episodic nature of the film, coupled with the large ensemble cast, mean that inevitably some segments work better than others. Joeystarr (pictured above, who was also in Sleepless Night) and Marina Fois were the stand-outs, while a couple of the more bland, handsome young white guys had their characters' kind of disappear into the wall. When it was at it's best, though, it was completely riveting. By the end you're exhausted by the never-ending parade of sadness, just as the characters are. It's not an easy film, particularly, but it is a great one.

A new Wes Anderson movie is always an event for me, I friggin' love the guy, and Moonrise Kingdom didn't disappoint. It featured all of his hallmarks: whimsy and quirk, symmetrical compositions, a retro soundtrack, and painstaking and particular design work. But it was the true beating heart underneath it all that made Moonrise special. Despite all his stylistic tics, it's the generous, big-hearted nature of his movies that makes them special in my opinion. They're as gorgeous in their themes and messages as they are in their look, which is saying a lot.

Some people can find Anderson's work too full of affectation to be moved by it, but honestly, I've never had that problem. Even The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited worked beautifully for me (those two, in my completely unscientific poll of friends and family, seem to be the ones that least struck a chord with audiences). Anderson making a film about first love? Perfect.

Jared Gilman and Kara Heyward were fantastic as the kids, being cute as heck without being cutesy, and completely selling their (puppy) love. The rest of the huge cast do fantastic work throughout, with Bruce Willis and Edward Norton the stand-outs. Willis nails his character's world-weariness (but seemed in control of it, unlike most of his recent action movies, when he's just seemed weary), and Norton did well to convey the sadness and loneliness at the heart of his (essentially comic) obsessed scoutmaster.

The backlash against Argo has been building for a while, and now that it's won Best Picture at the Oscars it will certainly come to be reviled in certain quarters. That's just the way shit goes. But fuck 'em: Argo is a really good film, the kind of canny political thriller that Hollywood seemingly forgot how to make sometime around 1978. All the cast (yes, even Affleck) do good work, but I want to give special mention to Scoot McNairy, who's fast becoming my favourite character actor of his generation, and to Bryan Cranston, who is surely now the ultimate 'wear a suit and deliver exposition' guy working. Seriously, he could find a way to turn reading the phonebook into an interesting character.

Those criticising the film for ignoring Iranians aren't giving enough weight to the opening credits, which resonate through the rest of the movie, and to the character of Sahar, the housekeeper. She only had a handful of scenes, to be sure, but the climax of her story was a massive gut-punch, pulling the rug out from under our happy ending.

One of the real joys for me with this film was some of the tiny details, the kind of thing that must have been true because you'd never have thought of it otherwise. Smashing visa plates with a hammer. Orphans being tasked with piecing together shredded documents. The guy at the Iranian embassy not having new visa stamps yet, and crossing out the word 'Kingdom' to write in 'Islamic Republic'. The alcohol service on the plane being stopped when you enter Iranian airspace, a detail that pays off big time in the finale. All those little things helped the whole movie ring true, and if there were occasional sour notes (cop cars on the runway chasing a plane? Really?) they were more than overwhelmed by what the film did well.


Whew! When you throw in the various charms/delights/gut-punches/horrors/freak-outs of: Sound of My Voice, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Intouchables, Monsieur Lazhar, Coriolanus, Anna Karenina, Margin Call, A Royal Affair, Lincoln, Killing Them Softly, The King of Devil's Island, Looper, Safety Not Guaranteed, Compliance, 50/50, Robot and Frank, A Dangerous Method, The Grey and 21 Jump Street (yes, really), you've got yourself a hell of a year at the movies. Any of those could easily have found themselves on the fringes of my top five in a weak year, in 2012 they're sadly reduced to being meat and potatoes. They're all worth a look if you find the time.

To cap it off in even more spectacular style, I had a great MIFF this year too, and as well as the films I discussed in depth above, if the opportunity to see any of Ace Attorney, The Ambassador, Flicker, Carre Blanc, Chicken With Plums or Caesar Must Die comes your way, take it.

If 2012 was missing anything, it was probably a really kick-arse animated film: I rate Wreck-It Ralph the best of this year's crop but it's merely good, not great. After the pretty so-so Brave I'm hoping Pixar can return to form soon. It's harsh to demand Wall*E or The Incredibles every time, but the bar's only that high because they set it there.

Also, while we all know 95% of action blockbusters are unmitigated crap (I was gonna list all the dreadful ones I saw this year, but just looking at the titles started to depress me), a truly great one does come along every so often. If The Avengers hadn't started so sluggishly, or if The Dark Knight Rises hadn't been so oddly, thoughtlessly half-arsed at critical moments, they could have been it. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed watching both of those as part of a packed, enthusiastic opening night audience. At home on DVD, however, the flaws in each become much more noticeable, and I won't be returning to them the way I do Die Hard or Aliens or The Matrix or Inception or Spiderman 2 (fuck you, Sam Raimi rules). Sorry superhero fans, but The Hunger Games was probably the best big-budget action-adventure of the year.

Whew again! Without wanting to be too mean about it, good luck topping that, 2013!

Cheers, JC.