Monday, 31 December 2012

Top Ten Films Of 2012

This list represents the best new films I saw throughout the year and includes feature films that received a UK general release between January 1st and December 31st 2012, on any format, but doesn’t include festival-only showings.

It also includes the 11-20 spots, for context:

20. The Hunter (dir: Daniel Nettheim)
19. Skyfall (dir: Sam Mendes)
18. War Horse (dir: Steven Spielberg)
17. Life Of Pi (dir: Ang Lee)
16. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (dir: Matthew Akers)
15. Moonrise Kingdom (dir: Wes Anderson)
14. A Royal Affair (dir: Nikolaj Arcel)
13. Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir: Sean Durkin)
12. Jeff, Who Lives At Home (dirs: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass)
11. 21 Jump Street (dirs: Phil Lord, Chris Miller)

The Dark Knight Rises (dir: Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan rounds off one of the greatest blockbuster trilogies of our time with a film that’s grander in scope than either of the previous entries. It’s a rousing finale that provides resolution to every aspect of the series with epic finality. Tom Hardy’s Bane belies his lesser status in the canon of Batman villains with unexpected eloquence and baffling vocal gymnastics while Anne Hathaway remodels Catwoman as a technologically advanced noir femme fatale. Christian Bale imbues the eight-years-older Bruce Wayne with a sense of emotional and physical damage that’s rarely seen in this genre. More often than not it’s when Wayne is onscreen, rather than Batman, that the most profound moments play out. It’s not entirely cohesive but the spirit is there and Nolan’s anchoring of potentially silly aspects in a heightened form of reality is satisfyingly handled.

The Imposter (dir: Bart Layton)

This documentary with the qualities of a whodunnit skilfully weaves a tale of true-life intrigue with genuine cinematic flair. It tells the most fantastically preposterous story of identity theft - if only it weren’t for the fact it all actually happened. As revelation is heaped upon revelation it twists and turns, leaving your heart pounding and breathing shallow. Frédéric Bourdin’s recounting of events makes for chillingly compelling viewing and forms an equally fascinating psychological study that’s never overplayed in the narrative. There’s artistry in the way the film has been assembled with such precision in its balance of reconstructions, talking heads and archive footage. Director Bart Layton offers the opportunity to question the sources and accuracy of the words and story as they are presented on screen and ultimately leaves you to form your own conclusions.

Dredd (dir: Pete Travis)

Dredd’s strongest suit comes as a result of its limitations. With a low budget, in relative terms, for a comic book movie it takes an approach which doesn’t see it make a hash of doing grand scale on-the-cheap, but instead limits the action to one superbly realised location. That allows the film to focus on creating richer characters with a truer sense of purpose. It features not only two genre-defying, well rounded female characters in rookie Judge Anderson and the villain, Ma-Ma, but also allows for some nuance in the Judge Dredd character himself. Mega-City One is given a grounded aesthetic and a visually revolutionary use of slow motion imagery which has rarely looked as good, or made as much sense, as it does here. With a lean running time that fits its story perfectly it is brutal, confident and streamlined.

About Elly... (dir: Asghar Farhadi)

What begins relatively sedately, following a group of Iranian friends visiting a remote villa, gradually shifts to something more uneasy as the eponymous Elly disappears. Simmering tensions and questions of honour are brought to the surface. It never comes to a head in the way that might be expected but the power of the film comes from the sense of dread created through characterisation alone. As blame is apportioned and human frailty is exposed, the ratcheting tension is palpable. The dynamics between the different couples which make up the party are enthralling. It has more to say about domestic life in Iran than it does about the missing person and so while not a thriller in a traditional sense, it has enough textured elements to make it thrilling. Emotionally mature and occasionally agonising, it's a work of quiet tragedy that rarely sets a foot wrong.

Magic Mike (dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Among the chiselled abs, glistening buns and thrusting phalluses there's a fantastic central performance from Channing Tatum that manages to convey the internal struggle of reconciling his career as a stripper against his artistic ambition. The sense of a look behind the scenes at an interesting industry works well. In that respect it is most reminiscent of The Wrestler and the backroom scenes of oiled-up badinage are a lot of fun. It manages to be both moving and funny when required and individual performances have a naturalism that includes fluffed lines and awkward silences. Alongside Tatum’s central role, Matthew McConaughey is particularly impressive as the club frontman. There's a real sense of location both interior and exterior and it’s a sodium yellow joy to look at, with some fascinatingly structured shots. The choreography is great and, regardless of your views on male nudity, captivatingly handled. It’s an excellent character piece from Steven Soderbergh that sits alongside, and completely outclasses, his thematically similar The Girlfriend Experience.

Barbara (dir: Christian Petzold)

Set in East Germany in 1980, it beguiles as it unravels with emotion conveyed through unspoken interactions rather than overtly dramatic exchanges. Intrigue and untold stories lie at the heart of this tale and it mesmerises and captivates with every frame. Barbara is a character at odds with her surroundings; a flash of sultry glamour among the drab surroundings of the rural GDR, where she’s been forcefully relocated. The entire atmosphere of the film, from windswept landscape to costume, is so precisely handled that every element feels like a piece of Barbara’s psyche, adding to her outsider status. While dealing with a political situation it’s not a political film as much as it is a human story about an individual and her own inner turmoil. At its heart it’s a relationship drama where the air is thick with mistrust. Nina Hoss gives a central performance which is a wonder of silent intensity culminating in a quietly devastating final scene.

The Kid With A Bike (dirs: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)

Featuring one of the finest ever performances by a child actor, the Dardennes paint a picture of the underclass of Belgian society with an air of grim authenticity and eminent humanity. They place the perspective of the film with that of the kid of the title, Cyril (Thomas Doret), who is a mess of emotions, not least of which is stoicism in the face of abandonment by his father. Cécile de France gives an equally impressive performance as the hairdresser who takes him under her wing at the expense of her own comfort and struggles to adapt to his problematic behaviour. It never quite plays out in expected ways and doesn’t offer easy solutions to societal problems. The characters might not always be likeable but they’re never less than fully formed human beings. Functioning as both a hard-edged social realist drama and verging on pulse-quickening thriller at times, the sense of balance it maintains is masterful. Uplifting without being saccharine and with enough sociological bite to keep it focused.

The Avengers (dir: Joss Whedon)

The Avengers is quite simply a heroic feat that pulls together the disparate elements of four other franchises and fashions them into a coherent, delirious whole. Not only does it work in its own right but it serves as an excellent punctuation point and umbrella third act for each film that lead up to it. It gets as close as cinema has come to capturing the spirit of comic books on the big screen. Every character is given a moment to shine so no one part feels bigger than the ensemble. Joss Whedon’s script is smart enough to know exactly what elements are required to make a film as ridiculous as this fly and that characterisation is the most important of the lot. No concessions are made to grounding this in reality as to do that would be unnecessary padding in this universe. In spite of the film’s greatest successes occurring in the dialogue scenes it doesn’t forget that spectacle counts. The maxim ‘the bigger the better’ is clearly at the forefront and the visually stunning tour de force finale exemplifies that completely.

The Master (dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)

More demanding than any of his previous films and certainly more discordant, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is Hollywood filmmaking which takes delight in confounding. This is not a film which concerns itself with grandiose character arcs so much as it prefers to linger on the shifting sands of the relationship and power struggle between not only Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, but also Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife, Peggy. The question of the nascent religion which the film is centred around is only a defining factor inasmuch as it raises the question of just how key the positions of master and follower are in these characters’ lives. There is a real sense of development in the characters and they feel lived-in. Quell is petulant and infuriating but there’s a depth to him that cements this as a frankly remarkable performance from Phoenix. From the avant-garde editing and stunning cinematography from Mihai Malaimare Jr to Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score, it’s a visual and aural joy. It’s a rich, heady mix which simultaneously invigorates and numbs the senses, exuding a sense of otherness in every frame and requiring that you invest in the world and its minutiae.

Young Adult (dir: Jason Reitman)

As bland as the film’s hook sounds this pitch black comedy about facing up to your past and whether it should, or could, be recaptured is a dark delight with a smart script from Diablo Cody. Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, an author of young adult fiction who returns to her hometown not as local hero but just another relic of the past for people whose lives have moved on. It’s that dynamic that makes her mission to rekindle a relationship with her high school sweetheart all the more depressingly tasteless. It's in the Grosse Pointe Blank vein but it doesn't ask us to accept that she’s seeking redemption of some sort. It's an exposé of just how venal and shallow people can be and that no matter how much water passes under the bridge, people rarely change. At its core is a refreshingly brave performance from Theron who's not afraid of looking unflattering and playing an emotionally ugly character. Its beauty hinges on the fact it’s a psychological drama masquerading as comedy. From the subtlety of Cody’s characterisation of Mavis (not least in the things left unsaid like her owning one dog named Dolce), it’s a career best from both her and director Jason Reitman. At an absolutely lean 95 minutes of thoroughly unrepentant behaviour it pitches everything perfectly, right down to the unexpected, but thoroughly fitting, ending.

1 comment:

  1. Places 10 - 1:
    The Raid Redemption.
    Best action film since Robocop.