The January 2012 issue – on sale 29 November

January 2012

Our January issue closes out the year with the customary pause for reflection on the year gone by. This time, we polled an unprecedented 100 critics and curators about their highlights and most impressive films of the year, the full results of which will be here online on Tuesday 6 December.

It’s no huge spoiler though to reveal that our survey’s easy favourite was Terrence Malick’s epic The Tree of Life. Introducing the poll, Nick James agrees that Malick’s awe-inspired epic constitutes “something new in cinema”, even as he worries about an absence of critical distance in many professional critics’ reception of the film.

It’s not just the past year we revisit, though; inspired by Malick’s springtime poem, and led by two of the month’s best new films, we journey right back to the early days of cinema, to the worlds of classic silent Hollywood and to Georges Méliès’s pioneering, magical trick-film experiments at the birth of cinema.

“When I spoke to producers about my desire to make a silent film, they didn’t take it seriously,” French director Michel Hazanavicius tells James Bell. Yet the resulting pastiche-cum-homage, The Artist, notes Bell, has proved “a consummate and charming crowd-pleaser” – one that may prove a hit with audiences unfamiliar with the art form it describes. Hazanavicius discusses the rules of silent filmmaking, the revelations of silent film watching and his sense that the foreshortened late silent era was “a utopia of a sort”.

The Artist’s rise-and-fall fable recalls not only the paradigm of fickle film fame minted by classics like What Price Hollywood? and A Star is Born, but also the larger historical claim retailed by Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Blvd. that the talkies sounded the death knell for silent movie stars en masse. Don’t you believe it, argues Bryony Dixon – it’s pure myth. And we pick out five other great sound explorations of the silent era.

Martin Scorsese has long worn a second hat as a cinema historian and sponsor of the film archive. His new Hugo surprises not only as a maiden voyage into the world of children’s adventure filmmaking; it’s also a movie that pushes the envelope of digital 3D cinema to tell the story of Méliès’s true-life rise, fall and rediscovery. “Certainly the most expensive and elaborate attempt ever to dramatise the birth of the movies,” writes Ian Christie, it’s a film that translates “the kind of impact that Méliès’s films had for early spectators” into the modern multi-media world.

The BFI is currently celebrating another favourite historical film form, the MGM musical. Richard Dyer looks at its centrepiece, the Christmas classic Meet Me in St. Louis – both “the most blissful of films”, proposes Dyer, and “the most bleak and miserable too. Can it be both so perfect and so contradictory?”

Kay Dickinson meanwhile explores the late Ken Russell’s 1965 The Boy Friend, one of the last MGM musicals that paradoxically paeans the classics of the studio’s rivals, Warner Brothers. It’s also made British by its “kind-hearted spoofing of Johnny Foreigner.”

From silents to musicals to the art of documentary (and dramadocs), we also look at the careers of two contemporary British masters of the form, and one festival hit that even before its release features prominently in our critics’ year-end poll submissions.

Since 1982, “left-of-centre iconoclast” and challenger of orthodoxies, Peter Kosminsky has directed hard-hitting studies of subjects from wars in Palestine, Afghanistan, the Falklands, Bosnia and Liberia to child abuse, teen suicide and medical negligence, making particular waves with his dramadocs about state-sponsored assassinations in Northern Ireland and the controversial death of government weapons analyst David Kelly. Mark Duguid profiles the crusading dramatist, subject of a current BFI retrospective.

His near peer Molly Dineen meanwhile has made her reputation with an involved observational style of documentary that draws out the “sides that people don’t normally see”, across portraits of homecoming expat colonels and demobbed hereditary peers, London Underground and London Zoo workers and Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. “I think audiences are capable of having real lives shown to them without all the trousers dropped or the people humiliated or the exposés,” she tells Poppy Simpson.

London Film Festival find Dreams of a Life is certainly no observational or fly-on-the-wall documentary, probing as it does the eerie story of Joyce Vincent, a beautiful, vivacious and popular woman who died alone in her North London flat at 38, wrapping Christmas presents in front of the TV, and was only discovered three years later. “I wanted to create someone that most of us could know, or have known, or will know,” director Carol Morley tells Nick Bradshaw of character she both investigated forensically through interviews with acquaintances and recreated through found recordings and dramatic reenactments.

Also hot off the London Film Festival – where it won the Sutherland Trophy for first- and second-time movies – comes the superb Argentinian road movie Las acacias, standard-bearer for the ‘new new Argentine cinema’ and a film of deceptive minimalism. “Somebody assumed that my script was only 12 pages long, but it’s actually 85,” writer-director Pablo Giorgelli tells Mar Diestro-Dópido. “The scenes in which the characters don’t speak are a page and a half long.”

And Nanni Moretti talks about his latest, We Have a Pope, a film that resists satire to depict what Moretti calls the sense of “unworthiness” that afflicts newly elected popes. “I have a total detachment towards the Catholic church, so I can allow myself to give the pope a humane character,” he tells Nick James.

Elsewhere, Vadim Rizov profiles Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable Margaret, six years in the gestating; Peter von Bagh spills the beans on his compatriot, local-secret Finnish melodramatist Teuvo Tulio; archivist Ross Lipman recounts his discovery of J.L. Anderson’s Appalachian love story Spring Night, Summer Night, part of “an unknown and completely accidental – but surprisingly coherent – body of American neorealism”; Kieron Corless reports on the Viennale, his favourite film festival; and Charles Gant looks at how Weekend broke out of the British gay drama niche.

We’ve reviews of 29 new cinema releases – including the late Raúl Ruiz’s magisterial saga Mysteries of Lisbon, our film of the month – and 19 DVD releases, including features on Hungary’s Miklós Jancso, Stuart Cooper’s 1974 student satire Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs and the camp melodramatic collaborations of Maria Montez and Jon Hall at Universal.

Lastly, our Books section features a special section on the writing of – and a new biography about – the doyenne of American film criticism, Pauline Kael, as well as Roger Ebert’s autobiography and a study of Transformational Moments in film. Dive in!

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See also

Early morning medicine: Nick James sees the premiere of The Artist at Cannes (May 2011)

Time after time: Charles Musser on the storytelling achievements of editing pioneer Edwin S. Porter (March 1999)

A brief history of cinematography: Barry Salt charts a century’s technical and artistic developments in film lighting (April 2009)

They live!: James Bell on treasures from the archive – from Méliès to the Ross Lipman-introduced Wanda and Point of Order! – at the London Film Festival (October 2011)

The new new Argentine cinema: Mar Diestro-Dópido on six new films at the London Film Festival that suggest the rise of a new generation of filmmakers (October 2011)

No sex please, we’re Italian comedians: Nanni Moretti talks to Geoffrey Macnab about his starring role in Quiet Chaos (November 2008)

Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011