This year we've seen a bumper crop of books, music and film and over the next few weeks we'll be presenting a series of our favourites, voted for and selected by Readings staff.
Here, our film specialist Gerard Elson shares his top ten DVDs of 2012.
Self-styled sub-aquatic adventurers Val and Ron Taylor wrote the book on vanguard underwater photography. In this incredible documentary series, they get closer than anyone before – and, in the case of some bathyspheric oddities, since – to some of the sea’s strangest and deadliest inhabitants . Shot mostly in the waters of Sydney circa-1973, this is classic Australian television .
Pythagorean doctrine is the unlikely inspiration for this near-masterpiece shot in and around a rustic community in modern-day Calabria. Transmigration – the soul’s passage through the various stages of worldly being – unifies a series of droll and surprising vignettes, involving an elderly farmer, a flock of clownish goats and more. One of the year’s very best.
Set largely over one long, dark night for a group of policemen, this enigmatic reworking of the crime procedural memorably offsets the indifference of the Anatolian steppes with the faces of the somnolent men combing them for answers. Possessed of a dirt-dry gallows humour, this film carries the indelible tenor of a classic-in-waiting.
Stellar performances are put to the fore in Todd Haynes’ adaptation of James M. Cain’s depression-era novel. Kate Winslet has seldom been better than she is here, playing the titular scorned-homemaker-turned-enterprising-restaurateur with empathy and nuance, navigating the giddy vicissitudes of romance with a spendthrift playboy (Guy Pearce) and a fraught relationship with her prima donna daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).
A masterful adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestseller about a mother whose son has perpetrated the unthinkable. Tilda Swinton is remarkable as Eva, the shell-shocked woman struggling to absolve herself from the sins of her progeny. Director Lynne Ramsay brilliantly reworks the novel’s epistolary format for the screen as a complex mosaic of Eva’s vividly subjectified memories, making this a film that richly rewards repeat viewing.
Werner Herzog’s most vital work in years (and his second release of 2012, following the wonderful Cave of Forgotten Dreams) finds the maverick German filmmaker canvassing inmates interned on Death Row in American prisons. This release collects both the feature documentary Into the Abyss and the television miniseries Death Row, which recently screened on SBS.
Terence Davies’ latest evocation of the post-war British milieu of his youth, based on the classic play by Terence Ratigan, boasts what’s arguably Rachel Weisz’s finest performance to date. Davies’ gorgeous The Long Day Closes finally made its way onto local DVD earlier in the year too; paired, they make for a splendid double feature.
Each of these four films from the legendary filmmaking partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a towering classic. The Red Shoes is the backstage/performance film , while the re-awakened sexuality of a convent of nuns in The Black Narcissus is both destabilising and brilliantly executed. Meanwhile, The 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp are two of the finest films set during wartime ever made.
The late, great Rowland S. Howard, elegant gloom poet of Melbourne’s early post-punk scene , is given worthy valediction in this documentary. A cast of alt-cultural luminaries including Nick Cave, Wim Wenders and Henry Rollins all intone their honour, but what really distinguishes this from other commemorative rock docs is the living presence of Howard himself, caught on film before his death from liver cancer in late 2009.
Sylvain Chomet’s charming follow-up to The Triplets of Belleville centres on a senescent travelling stage magician and the fatherly friendship he forms with a young woman. Adapted by Chomet from an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, it’s a largely dialogue-free, ink-and-paint animated eulogy to the great golden age of analogue entertainers. Feature animation rarely comes more stirring than this.
Gerard Elson works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.