Well, the dust has finally settled on 2012 and now that the traces of left over turkey from Christmas and hangovers from New Year’s Eve have gone, it’s time to cast our eyes back over the year that was.
I asked all of our writers to send me their lists of the 10 films they most loved from 2012 and below are all of those that I received. The dates can get hazy as some readers and writers live in different countries or catch early screenings of films at festivals, but I’m open to interpretation. So long as they could come up with an excuse to why they’re classing it as a 2012 film then I was ok with that.
As always let us know your thoughts in the comments section and feel free to include your own top 10.
10 – Beasts of the Southern Wild
This debut feature from Benh Zeitlin occasionally gets a bit sentimental and many of the supporting adults are annoyingly caricatured but overall it’s a fantastically original and beautiful work so it deserves to be on this list. The lead child performance from Quvenzhané Wallis is exceptional and watching the world through a child’s eyes is brilliantly achieved through some nicely integrated fantasy elements, great sound design and a memorable score.
9 – Shadow Dancer
An admirably sparse, economic thriller. An impressive cast (other than a slightly wobbly Gillian Anderson sporting a dodgy British accent) add emotional punch to the quiet but potent story of a female IRA soldier, struggling to carry out her murderous duties, who is forced into becoming an MI5 informant. Brilliant stuff.
8 – The Innkeepers
Ti West continues to impress as the old-fashioned slow-burn horror director to watch. By adding more humour and heart to his style and to the haunted house genre in general, he has created a film that is as likeable as it is tense. Plus it made me fall in love with Sara Paxton, whose character Claire is the cutest to have graced the screen in 2012 for me.
7 – Life of Pi
Ang Lee does an immaculate job of bringing this ‘unfilmable’ novel to the big screen. Visually it is utterly breathtaking, with some of the year’s best cinematography and incredibly good special effects to bring the story to life. Its theme of faith and storytelling is a fascinating one too, making it one of the best ‘conversation-starting’ big budget movies of the year.
6 – Berberian Sound Studio
A technical marvel of a film which is a love letter to the surreal nature of sound design as well as to the world of giallo in which it is set. The plot is threadbare and its cyclical structure and baffling finale will put off some, but I was utterly entranced by the style, mood and cinematic artistry on display. Watch it on a big screen with the sound turned way up for full effect.
5 – The Kid With the Bike
The Dardenne Brothers’ latest took me by surprise. I’d heard good things about it, but I didn’t really know what to expect, not having seen any of their previous films, and presumed it would be something a bit dull or overly ‘worthy’. I couldn’t be more wrong. Reminding me of early Ken Loach, this tells a touching story taking place in a socially deprived setting that never feels melodramatic or politically preachy. There’s a wonderful balance of naturalism and tightly structured writing that works perfectly together, keeping things engrossing as a film, yet totally believable as a human drama. The finale threatens to get cheesy when the core elements are tied together very nicely, but an unusual and at first quite shocking coda makes up for this.
4 – The Avengers Assemble
I enjoyed the hell out of The Avengers after not expecting a lot from it so it had to be up here, screw the haters. From start to finish it had me hooked and had a healthy amount of humour, drama and action, without leaning too far towards any of those aspects. To me this is how superhero films should be done – fast paced and fun without taking themselves overly seriously. I was a fan of Dark Knight Rises, but this was the blockbuster of the year for me.
3 – The Raid
Even with the ludicrous levels of hype this rode in on (especially for an action junkie like me) this still blew me away. It’s hands down the best new action movie I’ve seen for a good ten years. The pace is blistering and never lets up. Any hint of down time is put to good use with some extremely tense moments (the knife in the wall) or concise narrative development. The action is superb too, with a huge variety of destruction and violence from bone-crunching fist fights to vicious knife and gunplay to an exploding fridge. It’s insanely violent too – you really feel every hit and there’s no shortage of blood and gore. In terms of arse-kicking excitement, nothing came close this year.
2 – Looper
This may have had narrative flaws that many bloggers and film fans have anally picked apart since its release, but this was the most satisfyingly fresh and exciting mainstream release I saw this year. What impressed me most was the fact it constantly surprised me. I rarely saw what was coming next, yet it flowed beautifully and gripped me throughout. Add to that some excellent set-pieces and you’ve got yourself one hell of a good time at the cinema. Fuck narrative logic – it’s a time travel movie, it’s going to have flaws.
1 – Mark Cousins’ Story of Film: An Odyssey
This is probably a controversial choice for UK readers as it was screened on TV as a series beginning at the end of 2011, so some may not class it as a film and some may argue it was a 2011 release. My argument is that the series didn’t end until 2012, Mark Cousins himself has expressed anger at the IMDB for listing it as a TV series rather than a film and other documentaries end up in these types of list all the time. The biggest factor for my inclusion of Story of Film: An Odyssey in this list though is that nothing came close to getting me as excited about film this year as this epic 15-hour documentary did. Cousins’ passion for cinema is infectious and he clearly and concisely (despite the length) puts the true timeline of film history (not Hollywood dominated) together with a simple presentation style, effectively dominated by clips of the films he is discussing. It made me appreciate the importance of some old favourites as well as opening my eyes to a wealth of cinematic genius that I either hadn’t heard of or had previously passed by. It’s an absolute joy to watch for a film lover like me and I actually think it’s one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Honorable Mentions: The Turin Horse, The Dark Knight Rises, Headhunters, Tatsumi, Argo
Haven’t Got Around to Watching Yet (or they haven’t been released in the UK): Amour, The Imposter, The Master, Frankenweenie, Les Miserables, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained
10. The Cabin in the Woods
7. The Impostor
5. The Impossible
3. The Hunger Games
1. The Hunt
10 – Margin Call
The film to which Scorsese’s forthcoming Wolf of Wall Street will have to measure up, AC Chandor’s sharply scripted, morally and terminologically complex chamber drama looks set to be the quintessential film concerning the precipitation of the recent Banking crisis and the ensuing economic recession in the Western world. Similarly to my favourite film of last year, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film sees a razor-sharp, pitch-perfect ensemble cast of variously odious and sympathetic characters engage in clandestine verbal fireworks which gradually, and with palpably increasing portent, edge the drama towards the doom of a certain facet of capitalist culture. Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto all give unselfish, committed performances, but a slimily omnipotent Jeremy Irons walks away with the show in a gleefully demonic turn as the man who pulled the trigger on the global economy.
9 – Life of Pi
Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel of faith, survival and the miracle of love and nature seemed like an un-filmable prospect, but Ang Lee delivers his most playful, joyous and visually sumptuous film to date. The lengthy eponymous preamble captures the novel’s earnestness about the positivity of faith without conceding to preachiness, and the surreal aspects of Pi’s charmed life whilst evading whimsy and sentiment. Following a breath-taking, spectacular ship-wreck the film’s “Robinson Crusoe on the sea” narrative proper relies upon the visual rapture of Pi’s oceanic situation, the believability of his Tiger companion, and the engaging plight of the lone protagonist: and all three are stunningly well-executed. Suraj Sharma gives a delightfully confident and riveting performance, often acting against nothing; the film’s accomplishment of realising the tiger Richard Parker is perhaps the most sophisticated and imaginative use of CGI I have ever seen; and the film is never less than achingly beautiful in an often painterly way. A triumphant opus about the duplicity of narrative and belief, which being in some ways concerned with the suspension within infinite space justifies, though unfortunately doesn’t explore, the use of 3D.
8 – Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson has never been a particular favourite director of mine: his whimsically surreal worlds and droll, offbeat humour occupying a place which, whilst impressively idiosyncratic, often felt self-absorbed and flatulent. Not so with Moonrise Kingdom, a tender and warm-hearted ode to first love and the infatuation of discovery that combines a resplendently colourful and nostalgic visual aesthetic in its photography and art direction, nodding clearly to Nouvelle Vague and Godard at his most unabashedly exuberant, with an inspired use of rousing classical music written for children. Concerning itself less with melancholic adults yearning for an idealised past than with two young protagonists intent on flouting their elders to create a highly personal and idyllic present, both played with an affecting balance of maturity and vulnerability by the young actors Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, the narrative blusters first dreamily and later thunderously through masterful comic set pieces and touching moments of innocent lust and tenderness. A quirky but deeply affecting and riotously funny film.
7 – Killing Them Softly
The only place for Andrew Dominik to go after the oneiric magnificence of his ephemeral, elegiac Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was down, but perhaps nobody could have predicted that he would specifically go down into the grungy low-life world of petty gangland crime. Aware of the inherent historical mythologizing and exposure of America’s dark soul in the Western and Gangster genres, Killing Them Softly once again sees the great director overtly concerned with the corruption of American ideals and its pioneering settlers’ fall from grace by creating a seedy evocation of inchoate violence and criminal aspirations. The relatively simplistic plot is set against the backdrop of the economically charged Obama/McCain presidential election, and the audience becomes privy to another economy unbalanced by rogue traders and fraudsters, albeit associated with a mafia poker game and who will ultimately be brought to justice by Brad Pitt’s charismatic drifting trouble-shooter. The film’s final scene hammers home Dominik’s message equating bankers with gangsters, but not after a characterful dramatic symphony of greed, sleaze and thoroughly grotesque and grittily realistic masculine criminals.
6 – The Turin Horse
Bela Tarr was perhaps the most challenging, audacious and hypnotic filmmaker of his generation, and in The Turin Horse he may not have reached the spellbinding, miraculous heights of Satantango or Werckmeister Harmonies, but has nonetheless crafted a desolate and appropriately pessimistic work of art which serves as a fittingly apocalyptic finish to his career. Set entirely on the wasteland occupied by an old farmer, his daughter and their famished horse (who may or may not have been flogged in the presence of Nietzsche), a trio whose well has dried up and whose diet has already become dependent upon dangerously under-cooked potatoes, the film chronicles the unwavering, rigorous daily routines in the slow lives of the protagonists as the world around them creeps into the ashes and darkness of an unspoken Armageddon. Only when the torpor of routine is affected do the symbiotic trio attempt to escape their doom, but by that time perhaps their fate has become inextricable with that of the dying land beneath them. Comprising of only twenty seven shots in total, Tarr’s direction is mind-blowing in its austere, minimalist majesty, and the grainy black and white photography is astonishing. As an inheritor to his mantle remains to surface, we can only rue how sorely missed a presence Tarr will be in world cinema.
5 – Seven Psychopaths
Martin McDonagh self-consciously casts aside the influence of Tarantino and the shadow of his own much lauded film debut In Bruges to return to the experimental narrative interrogations of his theatrical masterpiece The Pillowman, in a film which is nonetheless firmly, sensationally cinematic in its metaphorical deconstruction of film violence and Hollywood clichés. Colin Farrell anchors the tremendously free-wheeling anarchy of the numerous psychopaths that swirl around him, all of whom represent totally unique masterstrokes of characterisation with clever philosophical undertones: from Tom Waits’ “serial killer” killer stroking a viciously pink-eyed white rabbit, to Harry Dean Stanton’s stoic and unwavering Quaker stalker, to a Vietnamese Buddhist assassin who may just point the way towards Farrell, as a clear doppelganger for McDonagh himself, realising his ambition of writing a violent story about peace and pacifism. McDonagh’s screenplay is a delightfully delirious cacophony of self-reflexive and savagely arch and provocative humour, his direction effortlessly and vividly immerses us in the sun-baked superficial sheen of Los Angeles and the contrastingly dark and shadowy psychopathic enactments in a way which makes us question the permeability of fiction and reality, and Christopher Walken delivers a performance of vintage bizarre intensity that ranks alongside the legendary actor’s greatest work.
4 – The Master
Following the magnum opus of oil, religion and capitalist individualism that was There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson provides something completely different, but just as densely layered and radiating the same eerie strangeness through its every pore as its predecessor, with the part novelistic and part allegorical homo-erotic love story that is The Master. It’s a film of such draining, relentless ambiguity and surprising directorial simplicity that it doesn’t ultimately measure up to Anderson’s aforementioned masterpiece, yet it is still unquestionably light-years ahead of anything else in American film. On a technical level it is nothing short of exquisite; Anderson’s screenplay is borderline literary in its imaginative fecundity and his directorial eye, whilst showing deliberate restraint compared to his usual extravagant kineticism, is austere yet charged with dynamism; Jack Fisk and David Crank create an impeccably and subtly detailed evocation of kitsch fifties Americana in their production design which also hints at the brooding malaise beneath the achingly photogenic surface; Mihai Malaimare’s cinematography is hauntingly gorgeous; Jonny Greenwood’s music is electrifying in its avant-garde unpredictability; and the titanic performances of a contorted, simian Joaquin Phoenix and avuncular showman/charlatan Phillip Seymour Hoffman are revelatory even by these actors’ high standards. The film promises to be an endlessly fascinating meditation upon the Apollonian versus the Dionysiac, the fierce wills of instinct and intellect, and of the true effect of faith and belief in the face of genuine trauma.
3 – The Imposter
Bart Layton’s documentary thriller proved to be the most exhilaratingly original and truly disturbing film of the year, broaching as it did a morally disquieting enquiry into the nature of identity, the blind force of love, and the power of deception. Allowing the actual agent provocateur Frederic Bourdain so much free reign in relating the story of how he successfully convinced an entire family, and later a town and indeed a nation, that a young adult dark-haired French Algerian was a long-lost early teenage Texan blond threatens to transform the film into a contemplation of the duplicitous effects of performance, were it not for Layton’s equally rigid focus upon the family of the missing boy who were, supposedly, duped by the confidence of the trickster. The potential glorification of a criminal and emotionally traumatic act of impersonation is starkly offset by the sickeningly languorous unveiling of a quasi-conspiracy implicating certain members of the family in the original disappearance of Nicholas Barclay, and the audience’s personal detective skills and moral compass is ultimately left as the only method of navigating a situation of labyrinthine complexity. Layton’s heavy reliance of dramatic reconstructions may be seen as problematic by some documentary purists, but it ultimately only strengthens the Hitchcockian pleasures of a suspenseful, superior entertainment which intelligently poses how far we are willing to trust the power of familial love.
1 = The Dark Knight Rises
Two mainstream blockbusters of supreme ambition, superlative technical craftsmanship and astonishing creativity share my number one spot this year, and aptly share numerous thematic distinctions: both are about the decomposition of orphaned supermen, questioning their every virtue and weakness, and re-assessing their relationship with the society they defend, in order to decide whether they should let it fall or rise to greater heights armed with new-found fortitude and determination. The first of these supermen is Batman, or rather Bruce Wayne, awakened from his Howard Hughes torpor only to be consigned into a pit where he must defeat the demons of a shared past with Tom Hardy’s ferocious, terrifying apocalyptic revolutionary in order to rise, spiritually and physically, to ascendance in preserving a corpulent society which has given him only pain in return…and may even demand the ultimate messianic act of self-sacrifice. Nolan’s bruising finale to The Dark Knight Trilogy is a bountifully colossal undertaking, drawing specifically from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to portray every level of a decadent society anticipating its own fall from grace, and the heroically selfless martyrs who would defend it from far greater evil, whilst visually it is a mammoth spectacle owing a debt to such stupendous cinematic cityscapes as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and other quixotic epics of the silent era. The performances are heart-breaking and nuanced, the set pieces gargantuan and heart-pounding, and Wally Pfister’s breath-taking IMAX photography and Hans Zimmer’s cascading music are highlights in a tremendous, unrepeatable work.
1 = Skyfall
Those who, in the fifty year anniversary of his first screen incarnation in the form of a suave and ruthlessly assured Sean Connery in Dr No, felt that James Bond had become moribund and superfluous in the post-Bourne cinematic landscape of the twenty-first century were surely stunned into silence by this eloquent, intelligent and thrillingly celebratory grandstanding opus from Sam Mendes. The superb and richly contemplative screenplay centralises the very notion of Bond as a washed-up relic and MI6 as an ineffectual embarrassment in a modern world of cyber-terrorism and amoral anarchy: never before have we seen Bond so vulnerable, so frightened, so human…and Daniel Craig’s scintillating performance captures every facet of a character whose many depths have never been so rewardingly probed. Judi Dench is a bastion of resilience and strength, advocating by way of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” a commitment to fighting the unseen enemy at the heart of a film which conveys a particularly British roar of magnificent pride. Roger Deakins’ extraordinary talents lift Bond into the stratosphere: never has a film in the series looked so elegant or stunningly cool. Mendes brilliantly marries the thematic drive, narrative complexity and depth of character of Casino Royale back into the winning epic formula of vintage Bond excellence, allowing him to pull off a cinematic feat that is both spectacular and deeply emotional. After a typically lucid narrative powered by barnstorming set pieces involving a golden-hued Macau casino, an electric Shanghai cityscape, a tragically beautiful Berenice Marlohe and even the classic Aston Martin DB5, Skyfall raises the stakes to poetic new levels by plunging Bond and his adversary (Javier Bardem playing a waspish and frighteningly unnerving doppelganger of Bond himself) into the literal and figurative darkness of the past. Albert Finney is the icing on an exciting, sumptuous cake which nonetheless ventures courageously into the bleakest Bond climax since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: an action masterpiece Skyfall proudly stands toe to toe with.
Top 10 (in alphabetical order)
American Mary – The Soska sisters are back with another dose of grindhouse weirdness with an amazing performance by lead, Katherine Isabelle.
Before Dawn – Excellent little UK zombie flick, which is more about relationships and the nature of love than about ravening zombie hordes.
The Butterfly Room – Barbara Steel is magnificient in this darkly humourous melodrama that has guilty pleasure written all over it. A hoot!
Citadel – A slow burn chiller, which puts agrophobics and Glasgow on the map – really unsettling, disturbing and well acted.
Excision – An excellent black comedy about an extemely dysfunctional teenager that just keeps giving – check out the original short on Youtube.
The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh – Another slow burn chiller, which will really freak those out who think angels are just a little bit creepy.
The Raid/Dredd – Basically 2 very different films that essentially share the same plot – both are awesome – make sure you catch Dredd in 3D.
Sightseers – Ben Wheatley does it again and has produced a fun slice of very black comedy in a film that is highly rewatchable.
Sleep Tight – Jaume Balaguero’s uber disturbing essay on voyeurism which really has to be seen to be believed. Your jaw will drop!
Attack of the Werewolves that I saw at Dead by Dawn, which was a very entertaining Spanish Language werewolf flick and is now out on sell through video. Another notable DVD release this year is Bad Cop, previously known as Sinners and Saints, which is an excellent cop action/thriller – well worth a look.
And finally some retro stuff I’ve enjoyed this year:
The Mad Magician 3D (reissue) – Vincent Price is ace in one of the best 3D movies I’ve ever seen. Check it out if you can at your nearest arthouse.
The Klansman – with Lee Marvin facing up against the KKK, with devastating consequences for everyone around him.
Run – Geoff Burrowes’ excellent action comedy – they don’t make them like this anymore.
Night of the Running Man – Mark Lester’s excellent action thriller about a taxi driver on the run from the mob.
Switchback – with Danny Glover in an excellent cat and mouse action/thriller.
Top 10 (alphabetical order)
Dark Knight Rises
10. Ted – Because a bear comes to life, drinks beer and supports the Red Sox.
9. The Hunger Games – Almost no soundtrack evidenced strong story of survival, and child perspective curio well presented. Sequel hard work starts here.
8. Seven Psychopaths – The makers of In Bruges create complete nonsense, but somehow it is hugely enjoyable.
7. End of Watch – Liberal, but not 100% loyal, use of “home camera” style provided close ride-along experience.
5. Life of Pi – A similar pressure, wonderful story. Most visually cinematic story of several years.
4. Skyfall – A Bond film that didn’t always seem like a bond film. Flawed but franchise rescuing and trod new ground. Success under immense expectation.
3. Shame – Slow and simple but arrestingly honest.
2. Silver Linings Playbook – A surprising gem, if cheesy in spots.
1. Argo – Most consistent experience of a good but not exceptional year. Superb, realistic tension.
(Calculated by placement, so 10 points for 1st, 9 for 2nd etc. Plus alphabetical top 10 listings got 5 per film)
9/10 – The Avengers Assemble/The Dark Knight Rises (joint with 15)
8 – The Imposter (16)
7 – Shame (17)
6 – The Hunger Games (19)
5 – Skyfall (22)
4 – The Raid (23)
3 – The Hunt (25)
2 – Argo (35)
1 – Looper (40)
Congratulations to Looper, which was our favourite film of 2012 by a fair margin.
Be sure to listen to our end of year episode of the Blueprint: Review Podcast too to hear a more detailed discussion of some of our favourites (and least favourites).