Here we are guys. The top ten of 2012. It all feels so final, doesn't it?
For general housekeeping please refer to my previous entry, but otherwise let's get right to it.
(I will say this though - THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was initially in my top 5, before I had a change of heart and dropped it down to #11 for some reason. In between these two posts I've rewatched it and realised I was wrong to do so. For the sake of completists at home, slot DKR in at #6, and shift everything below it down one. Or do whatever the hell you want, it's just a dumb list anyway.)
THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2012
10) SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
"It can still be a date even if you order Raisin Bran."
An absolutely perfect match between director and source material, I wrote this about SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK on Grolsch Film Works just recently, and it sums up my thoughts nicely:
An archetypal example of a film that transcends the sum of its seemingly disparate parts, Silver Linings Playbook was possibly my biggest surprise of the year. Bradley Cooper, an actor who had never suggested the ability or willingness to inhibit anything other than pretty-boy roles, playing a bipolar thug in a screwball romantic comedy directed by the notoriously “difficult” David O. Russell sounds like the kind of pitch that would have Hollywood execs releasing the hounds before you could say “marketing nightmare”, but somehow it got made and we’re all the better for it.
O. Russell’s characteristically capricious directorial style is a perfect fit for the story of two people helplessly living their lives from one violent impulse to the next, and in doing so the ‘kooky’ mannerisms of countless rom-com characters were suddenly reframed in my head, possibly permanently, as clear signifiers of mental illness. Wry subversiveness aside, it’s a film I’ll remember for its performances: Cooper absolutely seizes his big moment, and it’s a measure of how bad Robert De Niro’s career choices have been recently that his turn here felt revelatory. It’s Jennifer Lawrence’s film, though – exuding sex and anger, so powerful yet so fragile, her compelling portrayal of frustrated humanity deserves every one of the awards it will inevitably accrue.
Can't really elaborate much more on that, other than SLP has been this year's cinematic earworm for me; certainly very impressive and enjoyable on first viewing, but with riffs and scenes that have refused to leave my head for days and weeks afterwards. Comfortably the best date movie of the year, and its reputation will only grow now there is some daylight between the film and its (somewhat understandably) atrocious marketing campaign.
BEST SCORE OF THE YEAR:
Runners-up: COSMOPOLIS, THE MASTER, ROOM 237, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
9) THE RAID
"This is the thing. This is the pulse. This...is what I do."
If I based this top ten solely on the amount of fun I had while watching a film in the cinema, THE RAID would be top of this list and safely nestled in my top ten of all time.
We'd all heard how great it was, after the phenomenally successful festival screenings at Toronto and Fantastic Fest, the frenetic and spectacularly violent trailer that compresses what feels like a lifetime of graphically-realised head injuries into two minutes, and of course the brilliant tagline: "1 minute of romance, 90 minutes of non-stop carnage", which of course is grossly inaccurate, seeing as the 1 minute of romance seems to refer to a scene where our hero glances over at his wife whilst kicking the shit out of a punch bag.
I was so eager to see it that I watched it in a matinee screening on the day of release with about four other people (despite adoration from action junkies, THE RAID significantly underperformed at the UK box office). I loved it, obviously, and started immediately enthusing about it to anybody unlucky enough to have been cornered by me in the succeeding few hours.
After probably getting sick of me acting out stunts from the film replete with wide-eyes and "BANG" "WHOOSH" and "KRUNK" sound effects, someone eventually mentioned that a midnight screening was happening around the corner, with free entry for anybody who happened to have a copy of the Metro. So obviously - obviously - I went along, for my second viewing in eight hours or so, and it was a rare brilliant decision by me, as it quickly revealed itself to be comfortably one of the most effective and entertaining midnight movies ever.
The plot is a masterpiece of economical suspense (obligatory reference to its similarity to the also-excellent DREDD) - like DIE HARD, THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, HARD BOILED and all the great movies THE RAID has been compared do, it absolutely does not stop moving at any point, driving forward from one remarkable setpiece to the next with a muscular intensity that is genuinely breathless. No time for exposition, Dr Jones! The athletic pace is appropriate, seeing as the film has some of the most awe-inspiring physicality seen on screen since at least ONG-BAK, but with a brutality that is uniquely its own. The crowd I watched it with cheered every punch, every horribly splintered bone, every outrageous arterial spray, with an ever-increasing intensity and fervour until the final three-way showdown was accompanied by an almost constant roar. People were out of their seats, screaming encouragement and abuse at the screen like grannies on World of Sport. It was primal, gladitorial. It was fucking. Incredible. And while compared to the art-house and prestige heavy-hitters of the year there may be precious little meat on the bones of THE RAID, that kind of thing tends to not matter when they're snapping with this kind of ferocity, ingenuity, and regularity.
DUDS OF THE YEAR:
A DANGEROUS METHOD, THE POSSESSION, SAVAGES, THE RAVEN. All had the potential to be good, all demonstrably were not.
8) MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE - review here.
"I am a teacher and a leader."
This gloriously disturbing pyschodrama is another film I saw well over a year ago. After revisiting it earlier in the year I was pretty delighted to find that not only had it retained its power, but it actually improved on a second viewing. It's a remarkable debut feature from Sean Durkin, made for a pittance but absolutely transcending its micro-budget origins, although he was lucky in the sense that he was able to attract two remarkable actors in John Hawkes, probably the most reliably excellent character actor currently working, and Elizabeth Olsen, who absolutely establishes herself here as a credible rival to Jennifer Lawrence's crown as The World's Greatest Actress under-25.
But it's the expertly judged tone of creeping insidiousness that makes MMMM one of the best examples of its genre: Durkin is heading up a reboot of THE EXORCIST, and as heretical (arf) as that may seem, he certainly demonstrates an aptitude for horror, with Marcy May's calm indoctrination of a new recruit to Patrick's harem particularly and memorably terrifying. There's also a density to the film's visual composition that feels sophisticated beyond Durkin's years, with some clever recurring visual motifs that only begin to reveal themselves after multiple viewings. He also borrows from the best, with elements of Sayles, Kubrick, Malick, and Polanski all combined into a new whole that feels both familiar and unique. The ending is unsatisfying, to be sure, but like many films in this top ten frustration is hard-wired into MMMM's DNA; placating you most definitely isn't. It wants to burrow under your skin and give you an itch you can't quite scratch - it's a painfully, uncomfortably, mesmerising experience.
DOCUMENTARIES OF THE YEAR:
1. FROM THE SEA TO THE LAND BEYOND 2. NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT 3. INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE 4. SEARCHING FOR THE SUGAR MAN 5. ROOM 237 6. PLANET OF SNAIL 7. THE IMPOSTER 8. BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK 9. PING PONG 10. PERSONAL BEST
7) MAGIC MIKE
"Laaaadies of Tampaaaa......"
By any criteria you care to name, one of the most important films of the year. A completely unexpected box-office hit, casually pointing out to executives that the promise of kickin' male bods is enough to power an eyebrow-raisingly large opening weekend; starring two of the Men of the Year in Channing Tatum (who went in the popular imagination from hunky vaccum to certified Mr Charisma after this and 21 Jump Street) and Matthew McConaughey (a remarkable career reinvention and rejuvenation with this, KILLER JOE and BERNIE); and a film that genuinely taps into the zeitgeist , firmly ensconsing its story in the squeezed economic climate of 2012 America without ever hammering the point home (sorry, KILLING ME SOFTLY).
What surprised me the most about MAGIC MIKE is that it feels at heart like the kind of 70s men-at-work-comedy-drama that seemed to die out with the decade, in the vein of films like THE LAST DETAIL, BLUE COLLAR, and SLAP SHOT (with a sprinkling of MIDNIGHT COWBOY and a splash of BOOGIE NIGHTS), even if the tone is considerably lighter than those films. What's arguably most fascinating about MAGIC MIKE though is how it takes a genre which is specifically about how masculinity is defined by the period, then stealthily re-packages it as brainless eye-candy for hen parties. I'm now going to ruin Bret Easton Ellis's day by agreeing with him (sort of): if MAGIC MIKE isn't the best American film of the year, it's probably the most important. For all the heavy-hitting cinema on this list, more papers and words will be written about MAGIC MIKE and what it tells us about where America, or more specifically, we are now, than any other film on the list. But it's no po-faced State of the Union address - it's a a seriously fun movie. McConaughey is beyond fantastic, the dance sequences are genuinely pretty amazing. And the bods, man. The bods.
And let's hear it for Steven Soderbergh, who continues the streak of really interesting movies he has maintained since saying goodbye to Danny Ocean et al in OCEAN'S THIRTEEN. Like Ang Lee, he's a hugely underrated film-maker who may be cursed by his own astonishing versatility, but with the likes of this, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, THE INFORMANT, CONTAGION, and the upcoming SIDE EFFECTS, he is also subtly becoming one of our most vital and interesting cultural commentators, all done through the prism of mainstream Hollywood.
ACTOR OF THE YEAR:
Matthew McConaughey. By a mile.
Runners-up: Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
6) LIFE OF PI
"Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested."
When having the Greatest Living Filmmakers debate, while the Fincher fanboys face off against the cult of PTA, the De Palma apologists grope the Scorsese acolytes, and the Almodovar buffs flick Vs at the Coen bores, poor old Ang Lee barely gets a mention. The fact that he occasionally/frequently makes aggressively mediocre fare like RIDE WITH THE DEVIL or TAKING WOODSTOCK probably doesn't help, but a new Ang Lee film somehow doesn't feel like an event.
But can you name another director who has made three genuine masterpieces in the new millenium? First CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, then BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and now LIFE OF PI. Look at the breadth and scale of ability on display in those three films. He's remarkable, and his achievements in LIFE OF PI are right up there with with any his peers have made in the past decade.
Firstly, nobody appeared to tell Lee of the book's fearsome reputation as unfilmable - this is a pulsing, thrilling, riveting adaptation, and a demonstration of one of the hardest literary devices to translate - magical realism - executed on screen to perfection. You only have to look at the flatulent MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN to see how easy this trope is to balls up on screen - and Rushdie's book is genuinely regarded as far superior to Yann Martel's (full disclosure: I haven't read either).
Then there's the 3D - it's hard to articulate exactly why Lee's 3D compositions are so much richer, and feel so much more apposite in terms of theme and atmosphere than pretty much any other film to use the technology, but I can't improve on Robbie Collin's words here: "With enough money and technology, any studio-backed hack can make objects jump out of the cinema screen. Lee makes us yearn to jump into it."
LIFE OF PI strings one flat-out stunning setpiece after another, wowing with their visual invention and sheer scale (the boat crash is something else). And it's all threaded together by one of the most unsentimental yet openly, unapologetically spiritual storylines seen in a big Hollywood movie since, oh, let's say, MAGNOLIA. One point though - the framing device is flat and the last five minutes are a total, total dud. But overall, what an experience. What a film.
SCREENWRITER OF THE YEAR:
Runner-up: Diablo Cody
5) RUST AND BONE - review here.
“I liked it when men looked at me, when they found me tempting. That they got excited by me. But I quickly became bored.”
I'm not sure I even liked RUST AND BONE on first viewing. I knew I liked things about it, I knew that it had left me emotionally exhauster, but there were still things about it that I felt strongly against. Like the next film on this list, at first glance I couldn't get a grasp on what it all seemed to be about. It certainly didn't wow me in the way Jacques Audiard's A PROPHET had done on first viewing. The ending didn't seem to work. And Matthius Hoeenarts' character, I think we can all agree, is an oafishly unlikeable protagonist.
But more than any other film this year, RUST AND BONE refused to leave my head, and as many film critics began to call it out for being bloated, unwritten and unfocused, my feelings for it only calcified in opposition. I love RUST AND BONE for its messiness, its rough edges, and, particular, its raw bleeding earnestness in an era where irony is a default setting. And even if the film effectively boils down to simple melodrama, the sheer breadth of emotion on display is remarkable: it features two scenes as horrifying as any horror film this year, the sex scenes are incredibly sexy (Marion Cotillard is just painfully alluring), the fighting is appropriately brutal, and the Katy Perry scene is already justly celebrated.
Here's what I said about it over at Grolsch Film Works:
...while stripping out a lot of backstory and abandoning many of its myriad ideas seemingly in mid-flow mean may feel borderline schizopheric, it also means there’s barely a second that goes by where Audiard fails to administer an intravenous jolt of undiluted emotion by utilising the considerable dual weapons of Cotillard’s staggering performance and his own technical mastery.
It’s no coincidence there’s an abundance of animal symbolism here – this is a sensory overload of grief, fear, fury, and lust that is both aimed at and about selling the concept of romance to our raging ids. As such, it feels genuinely passionate while never slipping into cliché or faux-earnestness like other melodramas. Yeah, it’s a little rough-hewn, but if the trade-off for some slip-shod characterisation are some of the most indelible screen images of this or any year - I’ll take that deal.
And I will, you know.
ACTRESSES OF THE YEAR (joint):
Jennifer Lawrence and Marion Cotillard
Runners-up: Elizabeth Olsen, Charlize Theron
4) THE MASTER
"This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all."
I have about a thousand things to say about THE MASTER, and nothing to say. It is what it is. But what is it? Let's break it down.
It is, overall, the best acted film of the year. It features the most stunning photography of any film hitherto mentioned, better even than ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA. The writing and direction is, for the most part, as good as PTA's previous THERE WILL BE BLOOD (probably the best American film of the new millenium).
It's also maddeningly, intimidatingly abstruse. It's not that it isn't about anything; rather, it seems to be about everything, even if those things immediately contradict one another. It's about Scientology, clearly, but it's also about post-war ennui, co-dependent friendship, con-men, nascent homosexual relationships in an era where they could never develop, alchoholism, sexual addiction, and, like all of PTA's films, fuckin' America, man.
The reason I think I and many people can't commit to THE MASTER as much as we woud like is that it changes what it's about on a scene-to-scene basis. It never sits still long enough for you to settle. It feels like an attempt at the Great American Novel on screen, packing in every grand theme and Issue with a capital 'I' that a novelist of repute would be expected to tackle. Ironically, given his mastery (hey!) of cinematography, mise-en-scene, editing, screen performance et al, it no longer feels like PTA is writing specifically for the screen. This both has its advantages, and its drawbacks: in many ways, it's the logical extension of the unusual narrative approach PTA took with THERE WILL BE BLOOD, only it feels much less immediate than that film, which was clearly a masterpiece on first viewing and only improved with subsequent ones.
THE MASTER does feel like a masterpiece on first viewing, but it won't tell you why. Like its hero Freddy, it's too prickly, too resistant, too recalcitrant to be easily categorised. Even with THERE WILL BE BLOOD there were clear spiritual forebears in CITIZEN KANE and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. With THE MASTER, we're pretty much in uncharted territory - another reason perhaps why it ultimately still feels elusive.
tl;dr - I wouldn't be surprised if one day I would put this on top of this list, but right now it doesn't feel like the right time. It feels like my favourite film of the year is buried in there - with constituent elements as good as THE MASTER's, how could it not be? I just wish I had found it by now.
BEST POSTER OF THE YEAR:
Speaking of which...
3) SHAME - review here.
"We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place."
SHAME really got treated badly. Coming out in the US at the arse-end of awards season, this bleak, defiantly unsexy sex film was always going to be a tough sell to Academy voters (resulting in a laughable snub for Michael Fassbender as Best Actor - I love Jean Dujardin in THE ARTIST, but fucksake) and even film critics, and the film's death knell was sounded by its award of the dreaded NC-17 stamp and all the pornographic connatations that the rating implies.
It's a real, erm, pity. Because SHAME is clearly one of the best and most important films of the year, and, crucially, not even really about sex, if it bothers you so much, America. I've always seen it as first and foremost being a study in big-city loneliness, one that's as important and as timely as TAXI DRIVER was back in the seventies, and also, while Brandon could ultimately be living in any urban metropolis and the spine of the film would be the same, it also has to be classed one of the great New York films: the shot where he jogs along the rigidly grid-planned streets of the city as glimpses of glittering early-morning activity flash behind him is one of the most thrilling and poignant of the year.
This seemed to set up the year of the Fassbender, but other than an entertaining cameo in HAYWIRE his other two big roles were in A DANGEROUS METHOD, one of the worst films of the year, and PROMETHEUS, which he admittedly was a highlight in. But his work here alone has cemented his place in history, and not just because he gets his noticeably above-average-sized cock out - he's totally convincing as this anti-lothario, a bored predator whose meticulously crafted array of personas only just about mask a core of confusion and loneliness. Mulligan is just as impressive as the dangerously capricious Sissy.
This is a serious film, emotionally draining in a way that means it's not one you can just throw on in the background while writing Christmas cards. But it is visceral, vital, essential, and inspired.
DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR:
Runner-up: Ang Lee
2) YOUNG ADULT
"That's genius. 'KenTacoHut'. You sound like one of your crazy characters."
Another huge surprise. I think Jason Reitman is OK, sure, but I actively dislike JUNO, and the promise of him reuniting with Diablo Cody for this didn't exactly fill me with anticipation. But I think this is pretty much a perfect movie, a stone-cold classic that will be held dear to the black hearts of those who respond keenly to its unusually cynical core.
This is the best character study of the year because every word is clearly so deeply-felt by Cody, wrenched out of a deep and dark place that stands in marked contrast to the affected ironic nonsense of JUNO. The monstrous Mavis is a character borne out of genuine anger and no small degree of self-loathing: consider the fact that some of YOUNG ADULT's most teeth-grindingly awkward moments involve Mavis smugly re-appropriating overheard teenage conversations, or, even worse, using her fictional teen dialogue to reinforce her own world view and put right wrongs in her own life. Then consider the career of Diablo Cody thus far.
While YOUNG ADULT's ruthlessly acerbic script is perhaps the film's most striking asset, the film wouldn't work half as well if Cody's vision wasn't matched every step of the way by Reitman and Charlize Theron. Reitman is seriously impressive here - there is the potential for a fatal tonal mistep in just about every scene of this consistently tricksy story, but he never once botches things. It's sad but never sentimental, cringeworthy but never repulsive, genuinely funny without resorting to cliche, or forced punchlines.
And what can you say about Charlize Theron? This is by far the most best performance of a pretty great career - sure, her turn in MONSTER was remarkable, but what she does in YOUNG ADULT is way more interesting than just uglying it up: she actually warps and perverts her own staggering beauty in a way that makes it feel both sinister and aggressive, a carefully-maintained and pointed aesthetic fuck-you to mere mortals everywhere.
Patrick Wilson and, particularly, Patton Oswalt, are both fantastic, as are all of the supporting cast. Everything about YOUNG ADULT just works. I love it with every bit of my black heart.
And the number one film of the year is...
1. PROMETHEUS - review here.
"Blah blah blah exposition blah blah technobabble blah blah crude philosphizin' blah blah blah...FATHER!"
The real number one film of the year is...
1. HOLY MOTORS
"Douze! Trois! Merde!"
HOLY MOTORS tops this list because of course it does. I think that in an age of recycled ideas and supposed cultural bankruptcy, when assigning 'value' to something you ultimately have to prioritise uniqueness: in cinema, this boils down to basically being shown things you have never seen before.
This is something HOLY MOTORS pretty much does every second it is onscreen. Unless of course a veiled Eva Mendes wearily disregarding the naked, unsimulated erection of a feral flower-eating tramp is something you 've seen before. Because I can tell you right now that that you will not find that shit in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS.
HOLY MOTORS' cinematic brio and invention at times seems limitless, steadily ratcheting up the insanity with every limo stop. During a first viewing there's the nagging thought, "Surely there'll be a lull soon? There's no way they can keep this up?" And so you watch, waiting for the air to go out of the film, or for it to drown in its own wackiness.
But it never happens. It hits the ground sprinting, following the brilliant prologue of Carax himself awakening underneath (tellingly) a cinema with the incredible motion capture sequence, then moving on to the adventures of 'Mr Shit' and never looking back. It's thrilling to see a genuinely surreal film, one that eschews 'LOLrandom' whimsy in favour of an illogicality that feels intellectually rigorous whilst also, most crucially, being amazing fun. It's a rarified field indeed of filmmakers that have managed to make surrealism appealing on screen (Luis Bunuel, obviously, and David Lynch), and Carax absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as them.
Perhaps hat's most surprising about HOLY MOTORS is ultimately how moving it is: in between the musical interludes and CGI pornography there are moments of real poignancy, from the sensitive depiction of turning point in a father-daughter relationship to the unforgettable coda, which, while cartoonish and hilarious, also feels genuinely mournful.
To call HOLY MOTORS a love letter to cinema feels trite and reductive, but I'm going to do it anyway as I'm dumb and this is long enough as it is. In HOLY MOTORS Carax both literally and figuratively looks out at the cinema audience and is depressed by what he sees; blunted and weary figures, with rapidly decreasing attention spans and decreasing tolerance for having their thoughts provoked, happy to watch cookie-cutter entertainments that only serve to fitfully amuse and placate. In HOLY MOTORS, he tells us firmly: this is what cinema can do. This is what the medium is capable of.
Of course, if this list demonstrates anything it's that in 2012, Carax's pessimism about artistry in cinema is ultimately unfounded. But even in a vintage year this film stills stands out, both as an example of how far cinema has come, and how much it still has left to offer.
Thanks for reading. See you in 2013.