Honourable Mentions: Poetry; Hugo; Mysteries of Lisbon; Weekend; Cave of Forgotten Dreams; A Separation.

10. The Salt of Life

Gianni Di Gregorio wrote the much-loved Gomorrah [2008], and used his new found film-world clout to finance and produce his own personal projects. His first, Mid-August Lunch, was entertaining but hamstrung by an uncomfortable and claustrophobic premise: a fifty-something Italian gent with the quizzical expression of the Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man is forced to set up a fancy dinner for his 90-year-old mother and her haughty, similarly over-reliant friends. The Salt of Life broadens the scope to focus on Gianni (playing a fictionalised, unemployed version of himself) voluntarily separated from his wife, jonesing for a shameless fuck with a succession of the women he comes across, including but not limited to the babysitter, a little-seen family friend, the fetching neighbour from across the doorway. Imagine Fellini, with a brilliant hallucination sequence in tow, filming a more sexually overt episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm in sun-crusted southern Italy.

9. Post Mortem

This is another film which feels inextricably tied to its country of origin and its own signature filmmaking style that has emerged in the past decade. Alfredo Castro, who may have the most amazing, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it mug in current world cinema reunites with emerging Chilean director Pablo Larraín for this creepy and very unnerving political drama following a few days in the life of a solitary morgue worker at the height of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Larraín uses Castro’s misanthropic lifestyle as an askew personal window onto this specific historical event, and the film takes on the feeling of an apocalyptic nightmare, with the certainties and prejudices of the past regime crumbling away into insecure fear.

8. Archipelago

Archipelago is indeed about a holidaying upper-middle class family ensconced in an extremely pretty island off the coast of Cornwall, but the title also seems to comment on the film’s unusual structure. Impressionistic images of the surrounding location and Altmanesque tableaus of the characters moving in and out of the frame in a domestic setting are divided up, fragmented almost, by these very calculated and precise group conversation sequences, often taking place at a mealtime. In these moments, mundane domesticity proceeds with the nerve-juddering tension of a psychological thriller- every movement and perfunctory turn of conversation laying bare the emotional inarticulacy of an English bourgeoisie that the film documents with a knowingly cocked eye.

7. Melancholia

Only a lovable prankster like Lars von Trier – not to deny that his films always have a kind of beauty and sincerity – might have the gumption to make us gawk at and anticipate the destruction of Planet Earth. A superb companion piece to Antichrist, which posited that life on earth was created by the Devil and pure unsympathetic evil as opposed to a benevolent God, Melancholia dramatises the catharsis and pain of feeling so low and so inescapably helpless that waking life itself appears as weightless and arbitrary as a planet awaiting imminent annihilation. Here, the apocalypse is at once wrenchingly painful and yet a beautiful, transcendent kind of catharsis.

6. Margaret

Margaret was the great DIY critical success story of the year: an excellent film bound up in still-ongoing legal settlements about financing and ownership is dumped into a very limited release here and in the US, only to command all of its support from enthusiastic critics convinced of its masterpiece status. I do wonder how an alternative narrative might have played out had Margaret been released as expected, in a final cut its makers could have faith in. No matter however, because the work that emerges, free of the deafening hype, shrugs off all its baggage and seems to encapsulate all the nagging anxiety and paranoia of the tragedy-strewn, fragmented age we live in, at least from the perspective of a certain sector of the societal ladder.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This is the one film on my list that I’ve struggled most with in the months after I saw it. For all its subdued exegesis on Cold War gamesmanship and Werther’s Originals-sucking, waistcoated espionage experts, I wondered whether it lacked that crucial element of provocation that defines many of the very finest films. Was it just an immaculately produced, faithful and tasteful literary adaptation to group alongside this year’s also-very-fine Jane Eyre? But conversely, bar perhaps the next entry on the list, it was certainly the most uncommonly thrilling new film I saw this year, summoning beads of cold sweat and sympathy for these poor, terminally undersexed (term cf. Kathy Burke’s terrific cameo) but often fundamentally decent men’s solitary fates.

4. Drive

One of the most common complaints from the quite-vocal group of Drive agnostics was on the thinness of the characterisations. Yes, Drive traffics in some of the most hackneyed archetypes in all of pulp fiction and crime cinema, but that really only counts for their more impressionable outer shells. Like Alain Delon’s Samourai or Lee Marvin in Point Blank, the defining feature of the Driver is hollowness – his professionalism and clarity of focus translating to me as a fascinating kind of zen single-mindedness. Nicolas Winding Refn’s defining narrative aim in Drive is forcing this blank Driver, when faced with real tragedy and chilling danger, to unveil his human warmth and empathy – to become, as the great theme song goes, ‘a real hero’.

3. This Our Still Life

This Our Still Life is the latest work from idiosyncratic British filmmaker Andrew Kötting, virtually a home-movie style documentation of family holidays spent in a Pyrenees mountain retreat. Many would likely classify and possibly pigeonhole Kötting as working within the ‘artist’s film’ realm, but to me, his rag-tag, improvisatory video-collages seem far removed from the austerity and formalism of what one tends to see in those gallery environments. This film is sensorily exciting, yet soothingly gentle psychedelia, like glimpsing bucolic home-life through the tint of a kaleidoscope. I don’t take in as much video art and artist’s film as I’d like to – the environs of narrative and non-narrative experimental film are sadly too segregated anyway – but this was a tantalising secret pathway beside the multiplex and the Curzon.

2. The Portuguese Nun

A very, very peculiar, but entirely brilliant film, The Portuguese Nun exists in an intellectual climate amongst the most rigorous auteurs of European art cinema (Rivette, Rohmer and Bresson). A relatable comparison would be to define it as a more studied, scholarly permutation of what Lynch was up to in Inland Empire: an autopsy of the artist’s infatuation with understanding his or her own creativity, where the source material of 17th century Portuguese author Comte de Guilleragues’ novel becomes less a blueprint for the film itself than a sacred, holy, life-defining scripture.

1. The Tree of Life

Okay, this could get messy and emotional. I had more conversations and arguments about this film than any other this year, enough to make me doubt whether I’d completely misinterpreted it. Had my mind, desperate for such an ambitious premise to fulfill my wildest dreams, fabricated and fantasised a brilliant film that made perfect sense? I may be confessing my fallibility here, but looking back, almost every controversial gesture, from the birth of the universe overture to the dinosaurs to the closing beach sequence was a gobsmacking, audacious turn of phrase in a film structured like the most uplifting religious ceremony one could know, even if you preferred to view that aspect from afar. Doubters may have sneered, throwing parallels to life insurance adverts, door-to-door missionaries and The Land Before Time, but you couldn’t balk at Malick’s heartbreaking, sincere passion, and his desire to celebrate life and memory as lived.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy illustration by JMC