Friday, 4 January 2013

Films of the Year 2012

This year saw the release of some great movies, just not the ones I was expecting. My highly anticipated films often let me down (mostly due to my own high expectations), but thankfully there was plenty of quality to fill the void.  Quite a few of the titles on the list came as a complete surprise to me - at least three of the movie on my list I originally wasn't even going to bother watching.
As usual, my decisions have not been made particularly objectively, just judged in terms of my own personal enjoyment or the emotional impact they had on me. Any feedback is of course welcome, even if you feel the need to ridicule my choices... 

So, in a very loose order here's the list -

(Disclaimer! - U.S. films of the year lists may include Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, The Sessions, This is 40, Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, Wreck it Ralph and Les Miserables. However none of these were released in the UK in 2012, so aren't featured on this list. The need to delay these films for so long after their U.S release seems crazy to me, but ah well, what can you do)
Top 12 for 2012

12. Life of Pi

"Life of Pi" was a film that I had little interest in when I first heard about it. I'd been told great things about the novel, but the concept seemed better left to the written word and the trailer failed to grab me. However, great reviews piqued my curiosity, so I gave it a try and I'm glad I did. While I don't think this is a great film throughout, it culminates brilliantly enhancing the preceding bulk of the movie. It offers a very interesting look at both religious faith and atheism that I feel both groups can read into in their own way and gain some appreciation.  It's also stunning visually, with the best use of 3D I saw this year, which is all the more impressive considering that a large chunk of the film involves just one actor (the convincing Suraj Sharma) and a CG tiger on a boat.

However, as a note of caution, this is the film on the list I'd seen most recently and I think it's better to decide on your favourites once you've had time to mull them over for a bit.  Maybe I'll think "Life of Pi" is just as good in six months time, but there's a chance I won't and I'll regret leaving out another of my favourites. I watched "Killer Joe" the week I wrote this list and was tempted to include that too, but excluded it for that very reason.

11. Amour

The most emotionally involving film I saw all year, they'll be few people who don't shed a tear during it's running time. The film has a quiet personal quality, with many raw emotionally difficult scenes. Set only within the walls of an elderly married couple's home, it depicts the difficulties they encounter as they struggle with the effect of dementia on their relationship.  Importantly, rather than tricking the audience into feeling for the characters by using techniques like an overly manipulative soundtrack, director Michael Haneke uses a stripped back approach that relies on the brilliance of the actors.  This creates a real, personal and intimate portrayal that is hugely effective.  

10. Room 237

Room 237 is a fascinating look at the conspiracy theories that surround Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining". Fans of the film describe in detail the hidden meanings they've found layered within the movie and offer a wealth of evidence to support their views.  Varying from plausible to crazy, the documentary cuts back and forth between these different readings of the movie and manages to be highly convincing throughout.  Whether any or all of the theorists are right, which is highly doubtful, it highlights Kubrick's genius and immense attention to detail and breaths new life into re-watching "The Shining" again and again. 

9. The Raid

Easily the action film of the year, with fight sequences that are the best I can remember in a long time.  Director Gareth Evans manages to create a highly tense but frenetic tone that sets your heart pounding and doesn't let up until the very end.  The film follows an Indonesian S.W.A.T. team who become trapped within a tower block controlled by the druglord they have been sent to bring down.  Every punch and kick are felt, with brilliant set pieces punctuating the martial arts mayhem. The story may not be that original, but taken as a piece of breathtaking action spectacle it's hard to beat.

8. Seven Psychopaths

Much like McDonagh's previous film "In Bruges", "Seven Psychopaths" is another example of his mastery of balancing conflicting tones to create memorable atypical crime films. The movie combines humour, violence and existential soul-searching to great effect, with brilliant performances from one of the best ensemble casts of the year. As usual Sam Rockwell steals the limelight, this time as an unstable dog-knapper, but Christopher Walken runs him extremely close. Going into too much detail about the plot would ruin the surprising twists and turns, so I'll leave it at that.

7. Killing Them Softly 

Much like "Life of Pi", this film properly clicked with me in the final minutes and it has my favourite ending to any film this year (it's wonderfully blunt).  Some might find the political overtones too overt and they are constant throughout the film, but I can't say it bothered me particularly and I felt it gave the story more weight. What you get alongside the politicking is great set pieces involving a range of very different criminals. The film introduces us to a pair of inept thieves played by Scoot McNairy (also impressive in Argo) and Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) who's amateur efforts bring them to the attention of Brad Pitt's professional killer. 

Pitt uses his weary assuredness to great affect in the film, especially in some very memorable scenes with James Gandolfini's drunken hitman. Many of the best scenes are dialogue heavy discussions, but the film also delivers some of the most brutal violence I've seen in a long time.  It's not gory or excessive, just a crunching reality to it that makes you feel every strike and shot.  It's hard to watch, but violence should be, and it steers away from glamourising these acts of aggression.  

6. Marcy Martha May Marlene

Unfortunately "Marcy Martha May Marlene" has suffered the fate of many early releases in that it's the least fresh in my mind, having seen it around a year ago. It perhaps should be higher, as I was incredibly impressed by the movie, but recent films fresher in my mind are proving hard to dislodge. Despite this, the story and characters linger with you long after you leave the cinema, reflecting the effect of the film's fictional cult on Elizabeth Olsen's central character. 

Olsen is highly impressive throughout, reflecting the many different sides of her character as we see her both within the cult and afterwards when she has rejoined her family.  It's astounding that she wasn't at least nominated for an Academy Award and the same can be said of John Hawkes cult leader. His mix of malice and kindness creates a sense of unease whenever he's present on screen, something I think few actors could pull off so subtly  Praise must also go to the director Sean Durkin who has made a beautiful, dreamlike film, whilst also maintaining a feeling of edgy danger and paranoia throughout. 

5. 21 Jump Street

I can't believe I've placed it so high, but even after multiple viewings, there are few films that I've enjoyed this year as much as "21 Jump Street".  It perhaps shouldn't come as such a surprise, as it's from the same directorial team that created the highly underrated "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." They bring their brilliant pacing, vibrant visual flair and sense of fun throughout, with genuine chemistry between the two leads Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.  

They form a brilliant double act, with a real bond that holds the film's central concept together. "21 Jump Street" also provides a modern take on high school life as it is today, avoiding the kind of John Hughes inspired cliches that often haunt teen high school comedies,  and instead subverting the jock/nerd relationship to great effect. This subversion is also apparent in the way it plays with action film tropes and pokes fun at it's own status as a 80's TV show remake. Overall it's the funniest film I saw this year.

4. Robot and Frank

"Robot and Frank" is a touching film that blends family dramedy with sci-fi perfectly.  The film finds a retired jewel thief struggling to come to terms with his ageing and the world's rapidly advancing technological changes, a problem that is exacerbated when his son brings in a robot carer to look after him.  The evolution of their relationship is handled brilliantly, bringing both laughs and touching moments of affection.  A great performance by Frank Langella anchors the film, with all-star support from Peter Sarsgard, Suzanne Sarandon, Liv Tyler and James Marsden.  This all plays out in a wonderfully subtle sci-fi future, with understandable and useful advances in technology, rather than hover cars and laser guns.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson's foray into animation with "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" certainly seems to have rejuvenated him, as "Moonrise Kingdom" seems far more focused than his last few live-action movies.  Bringing the economy of storytelling essential for time consuming animated productions into his live action work has produced a tighter film. Charming and amusing in Anderson's usual manner, "Kingdom" also has stakes and growing tension, as you fear for the future of a runaway young couple as a great storm looms.  Not that this detracts from the fun, as it's still very funny and inventive throughout, with great turns from Ed Norton and Bruce Willis, proving fantastic additions to Anderson's regular troop. 

Youngsters Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are also very good, bringing to life the central romance that fuels the plot. These scenes involving only the children highlight Wes Andersons eye for recreating childhood memories, remembering that as kids we always think we're older and more capable than we are.  This is something that was present throughout my favourite Anderson film "Rushmore" and is also crucial in the way this story unfolds.
2. The Master

The Master wasn't the harsh expose of Scientology that many had hoped for, but then again, Paul Thomas Anderson never said it would be.  Instead it's a entrancing look at two flawed men and how they feed off each other's problems. Despite being very different characters they both crave the adulation of others, but the way they go about this forms their symbiotic relationship.  Joaquin Phoenix's war veteran drifter Freddie Quell is an alcoholic outcast looking for a place to call home, and finds acceptance with Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd (The titular "Master") and his extended family of followers. Dodd is also looking for acceptance, but is more needy than the erratic Freddie. One man's adoration is not enough for "The Master", he needs the world to follow his lead. Hoffman is brilliant in this role, entertaining and berating his followers whilst shouting down and intimidating his enemies. Joaquin Phoenix, in a startling return to form, is perhaps even better as Freddie, the most watchable screen presence this year. 

Anderson acknowledges these great performances with copious close ups of the actors faces, trusting both actors to imbue their roles with complete depth. The differing characters portrayed offer a fascinating look at what impulses drive people to control others or be controlled and how faith can be built and destroyed.  I could write a lot more and I should at least mention the strong role played by women in the men's lives (exemplified by Dodd's strong wife played by Amy Adams), but feel I should probably just move on to the number one spot and leave you to watch it for yourselves

1. Avengers Assemble

Placing a huge Hollywood blockbuster at number one seems a little wrong, but director Joss Whedon really did achieve the impossible with "Avengers Assemble". He brought together various Marvel franchises of varying tone and quality and created what I think is the best super hero film ever made. Christopher Nolan set a high benchmark with the "Dark Knight", but I always felt that his film was at it's best as a thriller, more comfortable with "Heat" style heists than goofy bat-goggle gadgets.  

While Nolan's Batman seems embarrassed to be a superhero, "The Avengers" (it's title everywhere else other than the UK) embraces the genre's brightly coloured costumes and theatrical villains allowing it to be light and fun whilst maintaining high stakes with an epic scale.  Like Spiderman 2, it realises taking time out for small character moments is well worth the effort. The fact that Agent Coulson's trading card collection not only adds depth to the character while being vitally important to the story is a great example if this. 

This is apparent throughout the film, with each character given their time to shine and prove their worth. Even if Downey Jnr's Tony Stark still dominates, he at least get's some worthy opposition, which comes chiefly in the unexpected form of Mark Ruffalo's re-imagined Hulk. Gone is the whiny self loathing of old and in it's place Ruffalo provides us with an agitated genius who may not have learnt to accept his fate, but is moving towards understanding it. The Hulk's big-screen improvement extends to his big, green CG monster side, with a more convincing look and some of the best scenes in the film ("Puny god" and the unexpected sucker punch in particular). The new Hulk's arrival is also an example of how "The Avengers" improves on any previous Marvel movie.  

Strangely for a company that deals solely in superhero film's, Marvel Studio's output often delivers more on character than action, with many final acts failing to impress in the action stakes.  Whedon manages to avoid this in "The Avengers" by bringing back Tom Hiddleston's charismatic Loki from "Thor" and surrounding him with a whole army of inter-dimensional alien invaders.  This ups the stakes sufficiently to require this super-team-up and Whedon manages to convince us that each character has their role to play, despite their varying power levels. Captain America in particular works well in these scenes, where his relative lack of power allows his experience and organisational skills to instead be employed. 

This balance allows "The Avengers" to succeed where many blockbusters have fallen before, providing a blockbuster with laughs, tears, action and fun aplenty.

Worthy Mentions
Not quite on the main list...
Jack Reacher (to my surprise, very close to making the the top twelve. A fun old-school action/thriller)Killer Joe (again, very close to being in main list)Magic Mike, ChronicleHoly Motors, Cabin in the Woods, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Argo, Ted, Sightseers, Young Adult, The Muppets, Headhunters, Looper, Skyfall (If the whole film had been like the mid section, it would have definitely made the list)

Worth a watch
Films worth a look -
End of Watch, Brave, Wanderlust, Dredd 3D, SafeParaNorman, Another Earth.

The Dark Knight Rises - It has it's moments (many of them brilliant) but overall I felt it was narratively messy. Why wasn't it split into two films to gives it's characters and ideas time to breath?
Looper - I enjoyed Looper, but my expectations were probably a bit too high. I was expecting more time travel trickiness then the film delivered.
The Amazing Spider-Man - The first half got me involved and excited, but the second half crumbled into a series of absurd set pieces that barely made sense. The crane section left me aghast. 
Prometheus - Much like Looper my expectations were very high. I came out of the cinema having enjoyed Prometheus, but the more I thought about it the more it fell apart.  Has there ever been a more inept group of scientists?  
Cosmopolis - It was always going to be wordy, but I didn't realise how dialogue heavy this movie would be.  It never really escaped it's source material and I wish I'd read the book instead. 
Rust and Bone - Not at the same level as director Jacques Audiard's previous effort "A Prophet" but still has powerful and very touching moments. The story didn't quite grab me though and seemed a little uneven.
The Hobbit - I'm not familiar with the book, but it seemed far sillier than the original trilogy and I had trouble buying into the central quest.  The high frame rate was interesting, but I didn't feel it added much to the film once I'd got used to it. 
Shame - Not as good as director Steve McQueen's debut "Hunger", but still has great sequences.
Carnage - A bit uneven and stagey, but still entertaining with Christoper Waltz giving another great performance.
Coriolanus - Worth watching just for Ralph Fiennes portrayal of the titular character in his directorial debut, but few of the other actors reach his level, which is why I think I found the Shakespearean dialogue jarring within the modern setting.
The ones that got away...
I'm still annoyed I missed these -
Safety Not Guaranteed, Lawless, Sinister, Anna Karenina, The Campaign, The Bourne Legacy, Ruby Sparks, Resident Evil: Retribution (I'm a sucker for these films - I don't know why), Iron Sky, Frankenweenie, Ill Manors, Compliance, "I, Anna", Haywire, Wrong (when will this get a UK release!!?), This is Not a Film, Monsieur Lazhar, The Imposter, Bernie, The Hunt, The Kid with a Bike, Berberian Sound Studio, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Margin Call, Sound of My Voice, Your Sister's Sister, Damsels in Distress, Silver Linings Playbook, Alps, Rise of the Guardians

Trends of 2012
Dog-knapping, explorations of faith, existential criminals, superheroes, subtle sci-fi, crunching painful violence, ageing and dementia

Hope you enjoyed reading my breakdown, Happy New Year!

2011 Update
The ones I caught up with that I missed last year...
The Interrupters, Weekend, Sleeping Beauty, The Guard, Rubber, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Troll Hunter, The Inbetweeners Movie

The ones I didn't..
A Separation (but LoveFilm have finally deemed to send me it), The Deep Blue Sea, Margin Call, The Descendants, , Beginners, Jane Eyre, Tangled, Biutiful, Meek's Cutoff, TT: Closer to the Edge, Neds, Moneyball, Crazy Stupid Love, Incendies, 50/50, My Week with Marilyn, Senna

Last Years Top Eleven
11. Hugo
10. Tree of Life
09. Black Swan
08. The Artist
07. Bridesmaids
06. Captain America
05. Drive
04. Blue Valentine
03. Submarine
02. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
01. Hanna

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