Picturing the political

Why 2012's best American films were so relentlessly downbeat

Writing a film-centric "year in review" article, it is tempting to focus on the disappointments and rehash tired laments over the death of cinema as an art form. But 2012, cinematically speaking, was like any other year in the last several decades of the medium: 10 per cent superlative, 90 per cent decent-to-execrable. Happily, the superior 10 per cent hit some peaks worth revisiting.

It was an excellent year for international cinema. Leos Carax out-lynched David Lynch (so to speak) with Holy Motors, Jafar Panahi circumvented Iranian authorities with This Is Not A Film, Nuri Bilge Ceylan wrote another tone poem of existential dread with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. But Hollywood, that eternal whipping boy for the high-minded critic, had its own quietly solid year. There were the obvious highlights, films that will mint Oscar nominations and have already garnered countless column inches of praise Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty. Then there were the ones that slipped through the hagiographic net, marginalised but no less worthy of viewing; disreputable genre pieces like Killer Joe or niche dramas like Ira Sachs's underseen Keep The Lights On.

The thematic preoccupations of American cinema's best of 2012 tended to run dark and introspective. Commercial and independent cinema alike struggled with the class and political warfare, economic instability and general moral wrangling that have characterised American society in the last few years. Historical parallels were drawn with great creative ambition (if slightly less lofty standards of accuracy), straying far (Lincoln, The Master) and near (Zero Dark Thirty) in chronological proximity, but uniformly close to home in terms of cultural relevance.

Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is the most accessible, its value as political text enhanced by its stubborn refusal to do any actual politicking. Its expertly directed procedural scenes hum with tension, a succession of incendiary political Rorschach tests, canny enough to inspire debate even before release. Often frustratingly opaque, The Master is still full of powerhouse performances and terrifying topicality; not just about the pitfalls of organised religion, patriarchy and war but the inherent incompleteness of modern life. Lincoln is no dramatic slouch either, boasting unsurprisingly impressive acting from Daniel Day-Lewis and tight scripting by Tony Kushner that manages to transcend Spielberg's unsubtle direction. It celebrates the progress made in racial relations but stops short of acknowledging the illusion of a post-racial America. Quentin Tarantino takes this one step further, shooting that illusion full of bloody holes in his latest masterpiece Django Unchained, a revenge fantasy set in the slavery-era South and a provocative, thematically loaded picture if ever there was one. Replete with crackling dialogue and beautifully lensed in tribute to the Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, it is also a sophisticated bit of cultural commentary.

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