Reviews

Year in Review: Best Films of 2012

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2012 has drawn to an end and so I look back at the cinematic year.

As a Brit, 2012 has proven to be an enormously exciting year, one in which Olympic fever gripped the green and pleasant land. It even stirred some patriotic fervour – and believe me that never happens. There is a movie connection here: director Danny Boyle did a magnificent job with the opening ceremony, elevating proceedings with his remarkable visual flair, and composer David Arnold weaved the ceremony together musically with his assortment of soaring melodies.

But what of the movies themselves? On reflection, it would appear to be all doom and gloom: 3D continued to exert an insidious, creeping influence (we do not need Beauty and the Beast in 3D, thank you!) and many pundits bemoaned the rise of digital, another step towards the decline of expensive celluloid. The latter was reflected upon in the terrific documentary The Last Projectionist.

Yet amidst the turbulent cinematic landscape, loads and loads of terrific movies were released this year. In spite of all the background changes, cinema still has the ability to surprise, excite, irritate and hypnotize me. It was another outstanding year for documentaries, Christopher Nolan brought his groundbreaking Batman trilogy to a close with The Dark Knight Rises, Bond returned in style and there were several brilliant stop motion releases, Paranorman and Frankenweenie among them. It was also a year in which a boy and a CGI tiger shared a more convincing relationship than 90% of crappy comedies.

My Year in Review comprises my 10 best and 10 worst films of the year, followed by my 10 favourite film scores of the year (defined as original musical scores, not collections of pre-existing songs) – all of which were released between January 1st and December 31st 2012 in the UK. Finally there are my discoveries – both film and musical score. These are defined as films and scores which I have only just come across in 2012.

The list below comprises my 10 favourite releases of the year, the result of much wrangling and sacrificing. Noteworthy omissions include Aardman’s brilliant animation The Pirates (which came *this* close to inclusion) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s confoundingly weird drama The Master. Read on and enjoy – here’s to 2013!

Argo

1. Argo (Ben Affleck)

The most confident, muscular and witty release of 2012, Argo solidifies Ben Affleck’s reputation as a director of outstanding skill. Based on the so-incredible-it-must-be-true story, in which the CIA pretended to be scouting locations for a Hollywood sci-fi movie in order to rescue American hostages from Iran, it’s enormously entertaining. Blending authentic period production values with lucid political insights into the Middle East and hilarious jabs at the movie industry (‘You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA’), it’s emotionally resonant and agonisingly tense. The artistic licence in the final third of the movie is forgivable seeing as Affleck’s intention is to evoke the emotional trauma of what the hostages went through, a feat he pulls off brilliantly. With scene-stealing supporting performances from the likes of John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston, it’s a multifaceted triumph.

Bombay Beach

2. Bombay Beach (Alma Har’el)

Much like the characters whose existence it documents, Bombay Beach is stranded in an eerie, surreal hinterland. In the end, Alma Har’el’s compassionate debut feature defies easy labeling and is a compelling experience because of it. On the surface, it’s an account of life on the fringes of society in the desolate ghost town of California’s Salton Sea, a former tourist resort which, since the 1950s, has slipped inexorably into decline. The film follows several individuals from the community, among them a young boy on medication, a weathered old-timer and a teenager seeking a football scholarship. However the objective reality is frequently complicated by impressionistic tableau’s and dance numbers, transforming the film into a haunting meditation on broken dreams and the American landscape. What is Bombay Beach? It’s completely original – and that’s something worth shouting about.

Shame

3. Shame (Steve McQueen)

Michael Fassbender is, quite simply, one of the finest actors working in movies today and the soul-baring performance he gives in Steve McQueen’s sophomore movie Shame is disturbingly raw. As sex-addict Brandon, Fassbender is magnificent, exposing not just his body but the cavernous spiritual abyss on which his character is perched, a life of simple gratification but no pleasure. The second collaboration between actor and director following the acclaimed Maze Prison drama Hunger, Shame is an enormously perceptive and challenging  film in which long takes and inscrutable close-ups speak volumes about human loneliness. The scene in which a desolate Brandon listens to a moody rendition of New York New York by his equally troubled sister Sissy (a dynamite Carey Mulligan) is the most moving piece of acting this year.

Berberian Sound Studio

4. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)

Toby Jones gives yet another wonderful performance in Peter Strickland’s darkly amusing oddity. Jones is a meek British sound engineer named Gilderoy who travels to Italy to work on a movie called The Equestrian Vortex. Little does he know it is in fact a grisly slasher film! On the one hand a loving homage to the classic Giallo horrors which Strickland clearly adores, Berberian Sound Studio is resplendent in witty touches, both visual and verbal (a black-gloved hand flicking switches; a piece of dialogue referring to the ‘aroused goblin’). Yet the movie hits all new heights of weirdness in the third act when Strickland starts playing around with the relationship between sound and image, destabilizing not just Gilderoy’s position in the world of the drama but also that of the viewing audience outside it, in the process making a powerful statement about authorship in cinema.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

5. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

A chilling look at cult mentality, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a story that feels both peculiarly American and globally relevant. Elizabeth Olsen is outstanding as Martha, a girl who has escaped the malevolent influence of a group headed by Patrick (a deeply sinister performance from the brilliant John Hawkes). But how much can she trust her own memories? A frightening expose of the twisted communities that can thrive in the great American wilderness, and a perceptive examination of how fragile minds are subject to cold-blooded manipulation, Sean Durkin’s film exercises a steady, unsettling hold that’s hard to shake. More disturbing are the questions it refuses to answer, namely why did Martha join the cult in the first place? The film both grants and holds back information, in the process attaining a creepy power.

The Avengers

6. The Avengers (Joss Whedon)

2012 was the year in which Joss Whedon was vindicated. Responsible for much of the material I watched in my formative years (he wrote the script for Toy Story and created Buffy the Vampire Slayer), many of Whedon’s projects have been cancelled or fiddled with by Hollywood. But The Avengers, the culmination of several years of Marvel blockbusters, proves one thing absolute: he’s a brilliant writer and director. Whedon balances the ensemble brilliantly, allowing each superhero their moment in the sun and establishing enough sense of character to ensure that we care during the explosive action scenes. Walking a fine line between witty self-mockery and sincere respect for the Marvel mythology, it’s the most entertaining blockbuster of the year, one that never forgoes a sense of fun.

Searching for Sugar Man

7. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul)

You may never have heard of obscure 70s musician Sixto Rodriguez. But that’s OK as approximately 10 people in America knew about him. So begins the story of joyous documentary Searching for Sugar Man. An amazing true story that crosses global, political and racial divides, Malik Bendjelloul’s film looks at how Rodriguez’s music thrived in Apartheid-era South Africa, even when no-one in America had heard about him. But then a record store owner and music journalist set out to track him down… Even if you know the outcome, it’s a beautiful and uplifting account told with invigorating cinematic verve, and a powerful reminder that one’s twilight years can often bring the greatest success. Heartwarming and poignant, one needn’t have an appreciation of the songs to connect with this deeply humane story.

Life of Pi

8. Life of Pi (Ang Lee)

A cinema version of Yann Martel’s brilliant novel Life of Pi was a nerve-wracking prospect. But we needn’t have worried with director Ang Lee at the helm. Lee’s track record in bringing esteemed literary works to the big-screen pays dividends, securing Life of Pi as a provocative and visually extraordinary adaptation that, mercifully, stays true to the philosophical and spiritual undercurrents that course through Martel’s book. Both a bracing adventure story and a commentary on storytelling itself, Life of Pi is a powerful reminder that, as with many fables and parables, an apparently fantastical version of the truth can still teach us a great deal about human nature. Brilliantly acted, funny and poignant with a lovely score from Mychael Danna, it’s yet another triumph for this fantastic director.

A Royal Affair

9. A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel)

Many costume dramas are shallow experiences defined only by their costumes. However, A Royal Affair more than lives up to its illustrious title, delving beneath the corsets and bonnets to blend romance and historical intrigue together in a sumptuous, confident whole. The period trappings of 18th century Denmark are beautifully conveyed – but the personal dimensions are what really resonate in this compelling film based on the true story of the relationship between Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) and royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). Boasting superb performances and a narrative that eloquently expresses the political dimensions of the Enlightenment, it’s also another fine showcase for Mikkelsen who, like Michael Fassbender, is one of our great contemporary actors.

Skyfall

10. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)

‘James Bond will return’ runs the familiar credit teaser… But after the disastrous Quantum of Bollocks, many were worried about how exactly James Bond would return. Thankfully, Skyfall boasts the precision aim of a Walter PPK: a confident, smart and exciting return to form that’s exactly what was needed for Bond’s 50th anniversary. Taking us deep into Bond’s past and his relationship with mother figure M, director Sam Mendes both celebrates and deconstructs this iconic British institution. Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Javier Bardem as the vengeful yet surprisingly sympathetic villain Silva are all outstanding, the film is visually ravishing and the action sequences are crisply shot and exciting. Not simply a facile action movie, it’s an important addition to the Bond canon. All in all, plenty of reasons to anticipate Bond’s return.

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