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October 2012

Carry on Spying

Skyfall (2012)

Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures

Recalled by mutual agreement from that unhappy period sorting out Bolivia's tap water in "Quantum of Solace," James Bond spends most of "Skyfall" on more comfortable ground, safely back in a Neverland Britain of slick intelligence, government Jaguars and Pax Britannica. Not that the outside world really gets much of a look in: Sam Mendes's epic-length journey to the center of the spy is mostly concerned with the inside mechanics of MI6 and the inner workings of Bond's head, and especially with the mother figure perched at the hinge of both. The first half of the film practically sighs with relief at the prospect. Who cares, it says, about all the similarities between Bond and the other damaged law-enforcement orphans now wandering the screen? Who needs a niche for its hero other than the one Daniel Craig provides just by turning up in the morning? For a Bond, "Skyfall" is almost unselfconscious, which accounts for many of the striking things that happen in the film's early stages, as well as some of the wayward stuff that turns up later on.

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Madame Strangelove

In Another Country (2012)

Kino Lorber

As regular as returning film festivals is the output of Hong Sang-soo, the hugely prolific South Korean writer-director. “In Another Country” conforms closely to his previous efforts, so familiar viewers will know what to expect; but the added difference this time is the presence of a major Western star in the cast, Isabelle Huppert, which may bump the film’s profile a little.

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A Romantic Getaway, With Murder

Sightseers (2012)

Ben Wheatley/IFC Films

If an Englishman’s home is his castle, then it follows that the English countryside is his kingdom. His enjoyment of the countryside is his democratic right, but this is made much, much more difficult when other Englishmen get in the way. “Sightseers” explores one way of solving this problem in the least pleasant possible way.

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Praying the Gay Away

Beyond the Hills (2013)

Sundance Selects

Cristian Mungiu’s third full-length film divided opinion when it premiered at Cannes in May, where it won some enthusiastic admirers it but failed to achieve the consensus of critical appreciation that coalesced around “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” a few years earlier.

It’s not hard to see why, because it doesn’t quite satisfy the distinct requirements for Cannes’s respective core crowds. Although it’s long and foreboding, it doesn’t quite display enough fanatical austerity or philosophical rigor to appeal to hard-core slow cinema adherents. But neither is it the relatively accessible and salable arthouse product that might appeal to buyers and distributors, unlike Mr. Mungiu’s previous film. Lying somewhere between these two dominant schools of art-cinema appreciation, the film may fall between the cracks when it comes to 2012 retrospective lists, but there’s still much to admire about Mr. Mungiu’s filmmaking.

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A World on the Brink, a Friendship Tested

Ginger & Rosa (2012)

Nicola Dove/56th BFI London Film Festival

Sally Potter has always been famous for making movies considered unmakable. “Ginger & Rosa” is her determined attempt to enter the mainstream by telling a straightforward story in a straightforward — albeit minimalist — way. Her instincts as a filmmaker for style, sound and faces are as sharp as ever, but she seems to have forgotten that sometimes the most direct way of making a point is by going in a roundabout way.

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Lost Horizon

On the Road (2012)

Gregory Smith/IFC Films

The urge to make movies out of things never intended to be movies — to put every cultural artifact with any potency through the moving-picture mincing machine and see whether what comes out of the other end, can reach the parts the original never managed to in some meaningful (or profitable) way — is a thoroughly mixed blessing. "On The Road," Jack Kerouac's freewheeling jazz symphony of youthful dislocation and post-war America reformation, lends itself to cinematic presentation not at all, so Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera make some eminently reasonable compromises trying to squeeze the author's squirming text into a tidy box and sit on the lid. But one of them was to not actually use the roads that Kerouac's characters worshiped, instead forced by logistics to film in Canada and South America, and so depriving the characters and the rest of us of the chance to chase the same horizons that Kerouac had in mind. Of all the gifts that a film version could have brought to this particular story, forgoing that one leaves a dent in the grand plan: The America in this American myth has gone missing.

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In Sickness and in Health

Amour (2012)

Sony Pictures Classics

It’s long been argued by social commentators that advanced Western societies have yet to come to terms with the moral and philosophical implications of our rapidly aging populations and the subsequent issues around longevity, euthanasia and death. Symptomatic of this avoidance is our cultural neglect of these issues, with very few films and artworks examining themes of infirmity, dementia and the often ignoble circumstances in which many live out their final days. While no subject is too taboo for a cinematic culture that’s willing to parade all manner of unimaginable graphic imagery in front of us, it seems some matters are just too damn depressing to contemplate.

Luckily a filmmaker as intrepid as Michael Haneke is at hand. His new film — about an elderly couple’s valiant attempt to retain their dignity at all costs in the face of inevitable physical deterioration — feels like as timely and necessary film for our wider cultural discourse. Hopefully it will have enough impact to make its own meaningful contribution to the debate.

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Presumed Guilty

The Hunt (2012)

Per Arnesen/TrustNordisk

If it’s not too unfair to say it, Thomas Vinterberg’s films often convey the uncertainty of an artist casting around for a directorial identity. The enormous critical success of “The Celebration” in 1998 was followed by the flashy sci-fi ambition of “It’s All About Love,” an attempt to distance himself from both the artificial austerity of the Dogme regime and the work of his compatriot Lars von Trier.

Despite the signs that he wanted to escape the shadow of his former collaborator, the next few films followed an inarguably Mr. von Trier-like trajectory, with “Dear Wendy” being a “Dogville”-esque slice of subverted Americana and low-key parochial comedy “When a Man Comes Home” mirroring Mr. von Trier’s simultaneous diversion into chastened backtracking, “The Boss of It All”.

Following the partial return to form of “Submarino,” Mr. Vinterberg is firmly back on track with “The Hunt,” a film that satisfies his interest in hard-hitting taboo issues while retaining flashes of the old Dogme-era mischievousness. It’s a film that’s truly cinematic and refuses to be hidebound to earthy realist roots simply because of its gritty subject matter, while also displaying a structural cohesiveness and maturity often absent from the work of his more famous cohort. Thankfully it’s a balance that Mr. Vinterberg finally seems comfortable with.

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The Auteur Brood

Antiviral (2012)

Caitlin Cronenberg/IFC Midnight

Following in a parent’s creative footsteps in far from uncommon in Hollywood circles, but children of famous directors usually progress to become successful actors (think of the Minnelli, Rossellini, Huston and Downey clans). In the rarer cases where the progeny decides to take up directing themselves, they often go to great lengths to distinguish their output from the style and preoccupations of the parent. So Marcel Ophüls gravitated towards dissecting documentaries that were the antithesis of his father’s swooping melodramas, and the younger Coppolas favor intimate quirkiness over the grander follies of father Francis.

Only in Canada do they do things differently. The deadpan humor of Jason Reitman’s films could reasonably be characterized as coming from the same stable as his father Ivan’s. And now Brandon Cronenberg follows the template initiated by his father David so closely that comparisons will inevitably be included in any review of the film.

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