By Roderick Heath
Wait, let me get the familiar motifs of my yearly confession out of the road. Many films overrated, blah blah. Many good films vilified, blah blah. Bloody distributors, blah blah. Okay. Let’s go.
Several critics this year took the time and effort to declare this the year cinema died. This suggested, in part, a symptom of solipsism, as what’s much closer to the truth is that film criticism as a tenured profession with major newspapers and magazines is fading, if not dying. So it’s tempting to do as the Vikings do and burn the ship along with the corpse of the fallen warrior. The proposition that because more people watch certain TV shows than certain well-reviewed, but aesthetically difficult films and that, therefore, the art form is dying, could well have been clipped verbatim from a newspaper column in 1962. Granted, film is going through an upheaval at the moment in terms of the nature of the medium itself and the kinds of audience it can draw out of their homes. Like every other art form and entertainment at the moment that isn’t Xbox or You Tube, it has to fight for its survival and status.
From a personal perspective, 2012 did not prove a repeat of 2011, a vintage year for cinema. It seems like I spent most of this year waiting—waiting for good movies. I beat my own record for viewings of films released in the calendar year, which entailed increasing the amount of mediocrity and missed opportunities I willingly exposed myself to. Of course, several of this year’s most “important” films have been held back until the very last moment, or have received such listless distribution (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master‘s cursory Australian release), that I find myself genuinely bereft for not being able to comment here on several (but the lists are updated as time progresses). Only sheer luck and a helping hand allowed me to catch a couple more that grace my lists below.
I had hoped this year I might be able to curb my contrarian tendencies a little, but I instead find them stronger than ever. A lot of highly regarded films left me frigid if not bored, many quality works carried a distinct and quietly disturbing aspect of déjà vu or ambition without the strange heat of real creativity, and several of the handful of films I felt any true affection for have been treated with outright contempt by the cultural apparatchiks. There were many films I anticipated watching enthusiastically, perhaps too much so, like Holy Motors, The Deep Blue Sea, and Oslo, 31 August, where I admired them and saw their specific beauty, and yet in the end felt something lacking; perhaps it was the lack of true penetration of the inner life of the dramatic protagonists or, in the case of the occasionally very brilliant Holy Motors, a final sense of the often strained conceptual stunt truly adding up.
After watching the diptych of Australian-directed, American-set gangland dramas, Killing Them Softly and Lawless, I became afflicted by the knowledge that I’ve been watching the same scuzzball crime flick in variations since about 1990, a blend of detailed criminal argot, showy grit, method-inflected overacting, and gunshots to the head. This sensation sharpened to a point where both films proved to have one particular moment in common, a thug getting pissed off and delivering an even worse beating when the victim has the temerity to get bodily fluids on the thug’s clothes. Many films with potential seemed to lack that extra inspiration to break themselves out of the ruts of Good Little Movie or Nice Try, to whit Liza Johnson’s Return or Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister. It was sad and frustrating to watch a film brimming over with unruly life like Bachelorette take refuge in the cosy clichés of the chick flick brand it seemed to be attacking.
Others, like Rian Johnson’s Looper and Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, tried on the other hand to be a bit too clever, failing to juggle all of the many balls they threw in the air. Looper also exemplified a breed that includes films like Sleepless Night, The Grey, and Haywire in setting up magnificently and failing to bring it all home. 2012 was overloaded with self-serious action films and spectacles with pretensions to substance, films like Looper, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Cloud Atlas, The Grey, Chronicle, The Hunger Games, Haywire, and The Bourne Legacy. These often received glowing reviews and filmgoer enthusiasm, and some of them were genuinely good films. But there must be something wrong with me: most of these felt half-baked, failing to measure up to what a good craftsman, like Joseph H. Lewis, Andre De Toth, or Richard Thorpe, could invest in a pulp narrative 60 years ago. Skyfall was a case in point, sporting a great and intelligent core idea: to walk James Bond back through his half-mythical past only to bring him to a new beginning. But the idea was squandered through a listless and derivative story that finally left the film exposed, stripped of the pop-art exuberance that made the series interesting in the first place. By comparison, I found myself responding far more to the buoyant inanity in films like The Avengers, Wrath of the Titans, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, films that do not try for a second to fake meaning. And there are few words fit for polite company I can think of to address those critics who have put the marvellous John Carter on their worst-of-year lists.
Yet, after all this, cinematic excellence still accumulated, like the gentle rain from heaven, as a better writer than I said about something completely different. In films of 2012, characters seem splintered off from the bulk of humanity like rubble flung off from some great collision. And indeed that’s how many people at large feel—I know I do. Look at the protagonists of films like Cosmopolis and Holy Motors, contained by their universe-unto-themselves limousines, travelling the cityscapes in search of a moment of transcendent creation/destruction, their immediate psychic and physical reality redesignated as an extended piece of performance art. Their bond with the actor-therapist heroes of Alps was inescapable: the Alps troupe filled in as simulacrums of the dead, as their own existences become voids to be fled no matter how painful the consequences. The wandering nonhero of The Day He Arrives, a film director entrapped by those long, improvised takes known as life, was surrounded by doppelgangers and numbing repetitions, elliptical events, and hazy, half-remembered epiphanies. The aged, haggard, aching characters share a dolorous existence in contemporary Portugal in Tabu, and the revelation of a past finds an exotic netherworld where melodramatic passion flared and died and led them to this end, the former colonial tended to a bitter grave by the former colonised. The alienated protagonists of the great diptych of unabashed horror films released early in the year, The Innkeepers and Kill List, were driven to distraction and despair by looming financial crisis and finding avatars for their own folly in the strange id-emanations that torment them. The ragged and bloodied survivors of The Grey fended off armies of wolves and the perishing cold, poised as onanistic avatars for the reality of trying to retain masculine self-respect in modern working-class life. The intergalactic swashbucklers of The Avengers had one of the most amusing and telling single shots of the year’s cinema, coming after the end credits of their own movie and added like a little supernal signature flourish by mastermind Joss Whedon, showing them exhaustedly and silently chewing over ethnic cuisine: saving the world is just another shit job.
Speaking of shit jobs, the victims and abusers of Compliance swam in the same reeking, overused frying fat. The physically broken and fiscally pummelled lovers of Rust and Bone hung off the edges of their society with what was left of their bodies and wits. The aging, exhausted cops trudging around the wastelands of rural Turkey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia were haunted by the broken idols of the past and the accusing eyes of the living. The readily brutal heroes of Sleepless Night, The Grey, Kill List, Haywire, and Savages fought tooth and nail to keep their narrow foothold in the prosperous human community above chasms of existential fear. Hell, even the dwarfish band of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were looking for a way to get their home back off the dragon/finance company. Miss Bala’s titular wannabe beauty queen attempts to use her looks and body to escape poverty and gains her prize through the most ironically horrifying of entrapping nightmares, her body turned into a far more immediate commodity, peeling off the skin of her society and discovering the chaos and hypocrisy beneath.
Batman found himself the thin black line between pseudo-revolution and toothless authoritarianism in The Dark Knight Rises, the richest vigilante in town engaged in a tango of toey flirtation with the most supine of criminals and recovering from having a back snapped by the most uppity of plebeian radicals. The übermensch antihero of Cosmopolis could be a distant relative of Bruce Wayne’s but without the altruistic delusions, glimpsed at one point splayed on all fours whilst receiving a rectal examination, gilded by sweat, and flirting with an employee. Later he casually shoots his bodyguard and revisits his childhood in a seeming quest to pull apart the fibres of his life one by one, before eagerly finding his opposite in life in Paul Giamatti’s pathetic assassin, luckless agent of a devoutly wished extinction. Even in the gentler parts of town, eccentrics had to fight to claim their space and right to exist. The protean boy and girl of Moonlight Kingdom, the collegiate, depressive do-gooders of Damsels in Distress, the Norwegian teens of Turn Me On, Dammit!, the bizarre family of Dark Shadows: all looked for redemption in love and fellowship, but still always faced the oncoming day when anomie would turn to crisis.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
Heroes exhumed from classical texts and history for this year’s films seemed to share this outsider-looking-in quality: the hopped-up holy anarchists of On The Road, rushing at a hundred miles per nowhere, were the characters in Moonlight Kingdom a few years older and a bit more damaged. The final day in the life of the protagonist of Oslo, 31 August, wandering the city disgusted with his failures and himself. Anna Karenina’s eponymous heroine alternating between stage and audience in wrestling between her moral and sensual sides. The princess of Snow White and the Huntsman, the living lodestone for a natural order degraded and exiled by a grotesque caricature of celebrity culture. Even Abraham Lincoln, in Steven Spielberg’s crucial film, attempts to leaven a great good at the price of surveying the wasteland his efforts wreaked, a sense of the moral cost of even supposedly moral struggle accounted for by corpse-strewn battlefields, blazing cities, and piles of rudely amputated limbs—and that’s to say nothing of his vampire-hunting sideline.
But for many, the unceasing battery of a world gone wrong gave way to moments of grace and epiphany: even the doomed hero Anders of Oslo, 31 August found fleeting moments of joy and beauty in his odyssey, even if he remained as repelled as he was compelled by things from which he felt himself eternally severed. He represented a striking inversion of last year’s number of peacefully conceding heroes, unable to escape a downward spiral that finally announced the rupturing of logic in the jarring cessation of a beautiful piano tune. Anna Karenina’s similar self-induced end came at the end of a life lived as a headlong rush of pleasure and pain. The triumph of the last seconds of Alps finally sees life and performance converge in a moment of perfection. Eruptive celebration momentarily breaks the mood of oppressively weighty and corrosive choices in Lincoln. There was surreal beauty in Rust and Bone, as Marion Cotillard’s character went from broken remnant to the carnal ferocity of her self-induced reinvention as a tattooed, hard-rutting fight promoter.
And everywhere were fragments of insane beauty—images, images, images, the soul of cinema, laced with the muscle of sound, and sculpted by the edit. The ecstatic abandon of On the Road’s uncouth scallywags, their momentous dawns and fraying nocturnal revels. The dawn-light epiphany of Levin in Anna Karenina and the obscene beauty of Anna’s death, the thunder of the horses riding through the theatre and the abandon in her dance floor surrender to physical ardour. The swooning drug-dreams and hideous violence of Savages. The raging protest outside the limousine whilst within savants converse about how the external chaos is governed by mathematical certainties and inevitable defeat. The cross-edited visions of the equally phony Victoria Winters and Alice Cooper in straightjackets in a lucid game of accusation and anger essayed in playful pop cultural terms in Dark Shadows. The insane smile of Angelique Bouchard in the same film, still planted on her face even as she plucks out her heart and hands it over to the man who disdains her amour fou and collapses from within, revealing the lacquered mannequin her obsessiveness made of her. The teeming magnificence of the alien cities and the gorgeous desolation of Mars in John Carter, captured and contained in the redemptive lustre of Dejah Thoris’ sea-blue eyes. The awesome one-shot survey in The Avengers of the team in action that crossed the breadth of the city. The dawn-light swim of Oslo, 31 August where Anders watches his young and pretty companions with the descending pall of a man with no sense of the future. Cotillard saluting the whale that crippled her and the mammal gesturing back in Rust and Bone, and Matthias Schoenaerts punching the ice over his drowning son with raw, injurious desperation. The perplexingly magnificent dread landscapes of Tartarus and the Labyrinth in Wrath of the Titans. The sight of the duelling hero and villain of The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate being sucked up into a hurricane to continue their battle whirling in the eye of the storm. Valérie Donzelli’s distraught run through the hospital in Declaration of War.
The ecstatic thunder of the accordion band in Holy Motors’ entr’acte and the mystique of Edith Scob donning her Eyes Without a Face mask. In Tabu, the black-and-white, soundless sex scene that ruptures the film’s air of physically manifest decay and remoteness, the prayer shot through with rapturous poetry that punctuates the stolid modern pieties of a protest march, and the idiot enthusiasm of the frontier pop band. The egglike, bloodied remnant of the once-smug physiognomy of Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, touched by the grace of his wife’s forgiveness. The perpetual motion machine that is the hero of Sleepless Night eluding his pursuers by diving into a cotillion of clubbers grooving to Queen, enacting a primal drama against a backdrop of entitled hedonism. The racing intercut stories of Cloud Atlas, that incredible, pounding cyberpunk chase of the futuristic lovers, and the beatific suicide ritual of the young composer. The stone idol, carved by a forgotten society in the midst of a wilderness illuminated by lightning to shock a man into sudden awareness of his mortality, in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the hovering, mysterious, marvel-provoking beauty of the peasant girl who astounds the tired, dessicated menfolk. The lost beatitude of romantic haven in the sight of Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in tipsy ebullience before the inevitable fall in The Deep Blue Sea, and the communal nostalgia dream of the sing-along in the tube station. The sinking ship and springing whale of Life of Pi, twinned moments of gleaming leviathans depicting the folly of humankind and the power of nature. The characters of The Day He Arrives shivering in a snowy, slushy dawn after a night of revels, departing to their separate, lonely abodes.
That moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Bilbo stands in his house, suddenly bereft, before his charge to join his new friends in an adventure; the swashbuckling charge of the dwarves through the kingdom of the goblins; and the gang’s dangling cliffhanger peril, saved by a feathered deus ex machina. The dazzling, terrible whirlwinds of violence that Miss Bala has to charge through repeatedly, and the strange semi-rape that sees her awkwardly trying to mount an injured, saurian beast of a drug lord who is both her protector and tormentor. The dark god’s hand erupting from the earth as the apocalyptic punchline of The Cabin In the Woods’ jokey generic play, after a menagerie of horror cinema’s icons have been released to commit gorgeous carnage. The liberated teens spinning high in the sky in Chronicle. In Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and his black housekeeper/lover reading the 13th Amendment in bed together in celebration of a future made possible; the blazing buildings of Confederate cities; the arcane melodrama that evokes Manichaeistic struggle just before a titan’s death is announced to his son. The dying Goody of Vamps standing amidst Times Square, aging by the second even as she passes through a rapturous peeling back of the years and transformations of the beloved space to its once-quaint, cobbled self. The rage of the killer paterfamilias in Kill List, stoked to a world-melting heat by obscenity revealed, pounding in a paedophile’s head with a hammer, only to later be chased through stygian woods and hellish tunnels by masked demons determined to implicate him in the reckoning he thinks he can buy off with too-late righteousness.
Cinema is dead, my arse!
I don’t know if I saw a better-acted film this year than The Day He Arrives, purely by dint of the fact that the human behaviour it depicted seemed to flow with the happenstance energy and gestural concision of real life. This quality of extreme, almost invisible naturalism was shared by the cast of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, who all seemed to have been born in the clothes they wear and in the space they inhabit. But, of course, that’s not the only standard for great acting, which can also be the alchemical art of display that sometimes risks excess for the sake of finding something more finite and compelling. In that regard, one of the year’s most inevitably well-regarded acting efforts, Daniel Day-Lewis’ incarnation of Abraham Lincoln, was a surprising pirouette for the actor who had delivered two of the last decade’s greatest performances in a grandiose key (Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview): Day-Lewis offered not just the eloquence and folksiness of Honest Abe but also the shrewd lawyer, dry, bordering on parched, struggling against a subtly conveyed terror to hold together the remnants of his family and self-respect even in the throes of being transformed into an icon by his final successes, even reduced at one point to glaring out of the shadows of a window bay with baleful anger and sorrow at his accusatory wife. The incredible roster of support Day-Lewis has in Spielberg’s film emerged as a Dickensian roster of precisely illuminated, ever-so-slightly magnified portraiture, including Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, brittle and intelligent and tragic in her self-crucifying anxiety, Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, the most unprepossessing of ideologues revealed as a brutally witty moral swashbuckler, Gloria Reuben’s careful, but crucial, small part, and David Strathairn’s dusty, crafty William Seward. Michael Stuhlbarg, who helped fill out Lincoln’s cast with a memorably John Ford-esque, timorous congressman, also contributed the only performance in Sacha Gervasi’s lamentable rubbish Hitchcock, as crafty agent extraordinaire Lew Wassermann, that didn’t look like a mobile waxwork exhibit.
Well, all right, Scarlett Johansson made for a tolerably perky Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, too. She also continued her recent run of films suggesting she’s finally growing into the movie star zone into which she was thrust prematurely after Lost in Translation (2003) with her contribution to one fairly popular film this year, which sported a generally marvellous collection of character turns by actors playing emotionally crippled, physically misshapen, neurotically talkative misfits engaged in group dysfunction and rampant physical comedy. Wait, was The Avengers a Woody Allen film and nobody told me? I always grudgingly enjoy being forced to change my mind about an actor, and one I had dismissed as an asinine pretty boy quite genuinely impressed me with his gall this year in a diptych of roles: Robert Pattinson’s performances in Bel-Ami and Cosmopolis were received with disparate levels of interest and recognition, but in both, he cleverly played off his signature role as a beautiful bloodsucker, as the former film allowed him to play a conflicted and frightened man lusted after and idealised by the women around him in a fashion usually reserved for the opposite situation, and the latter let him play a smarmy billionaire driven by forces within to try to smash apart his own pharaohic hegemony as part of a masochistic experiment in system decay. In both films, Pattinson was nimble enough to depict the turmoil, even foolishness, under the surface of superficially purposeful cads. His Twilight costar, Kristen Stewart, weathered storms of scandal and popular opprobrium to expand her increasingly impressive resume with a lead performance in Snow White and the Huntsman that was sturdy and restrained until it finally bloomed in butch glory. Charlize Theron was splendidly arch playing Stewart’s wicked queen enemy. Stewart was also an affecting addition to the vigorous cast of On the Road as the blazing-eyed, jailbait bohemian Marylou. But the film properly belonged to Sam Riley, all doe-eyed naivete mismatched to a prematurely lived-in voice, and Garret Hedlund, the garrulous, but shark-eyed rough trade byproduct of a juvie hall education in a rougher, bleaker, but paradoxically freer America.
Denis Lavant was the glue that held the fractured pieces of Holy Motors together, at once a study of acting itself whilst sustaining a coherent characterisation of an actor as a character: it was impossible, of course, to miss Lavant’s physical dynamism and chameleonic talents, because the film was about those very talents so long in need of a vehicle, and the result was very much an exploration of the traditional symbiosis of filmmaking talent behind and in front of the camera. Kylie Minogue’s beguiling cameo and song likewise buoyed the film’s flagging second half like a visitation from another, classier planet. Aggeliki Poupolia led the cast of Alps, equally multitudinous, except, of course, where Lavant was playing the epitome of acting talent, the Alps team were the opposite, deliberately awful actors filling in for real people: as in Dogtooth (2009), but essayed in a subtler fashion, Poupolia’s genius at slow burns arriving at incendiary climaxes shook continents with its force. Amongst the manifold offhand pleasures of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, with the customary Johnny Depp grotesque front and centre, the real battle for acting honours fell to Michelle Pfeiffer as haughty matriarch and Eva Green playing her cabalistic minx as an undead Joan Crawford heroine. Green shifted to completely different register of soulful resignation opposite Ewan McGregor in David Mackenzie’s odd but occasionally striking parable Perfect Sense. Jennifer Lawrence underplayed her lead role in a film that made her exponentially more famous, The Hunger Games, to an extent that inspired some internet mockery, but it was a performance consistent with her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone (2010) in trying to embody a heroine given to simply accepting the evil inherent in any situation and proceeding for the sake of survival.
Greta Gerwig’s star turn in Damsels in Distress was very much the key to the film’s seemingly insufferably arch, blithely self-impressed façade, cleverly shading into modes of honest pain, sly self-critique, and finally, pure goofy charm. Brit Marling might have committed the ultimate actress-writer faux pas in having someone else in the film she wrote describe her as beautiful, and yet her capacity to animate her character in Sound of My Voice as both radiant and yet, with suggestions of serpentine evil constantly lurking behind an ambiguous smile, was the work of someone who knows her stuff, and Christopher Denham was as impressive opposite her as he was wasted in Argo. Anne Hathaway may well get herself an Oscar this year for Les Misérables, but the role most people saw her in this year was, of course, Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, a ringer who successfully kept the ball in play with sufficient insouciant wit and poise to make up for the turgid, incoherent pseudo-epic around her. Her costar and rival for the listless affections of Bruce Wayne was Marion Cotillard, wasted in her second Christopher Nolan film. But Cotillard’s superlative performance alongside the equally impressive Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone was her artistic compensation, and much more than just the mischievously clever CGI that made her look like a double amputee: rage and grief and erotic force have rarely been presented together and with such force, especially without a trace of actorly showboating. Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina was, on the other hand, showboating with careful and compelling modulation, playing a self-dramatist for whom everything is, on some level, a theatrical gesture. Her befuddled, tortured husband was played with career-best pathos by Jude Law, who turns his fading matinee idol looks into an aesthetic weapon.
Another star who, like Law, emerged in the late ’90s and whose career had seemed to be slowing, had a suddenly incandescent year: everyone’s talked about the second coming of Matthew McConaughey, and I can’t really argue with it, though I wish it had been in better films. The best of the bunch was William Friedkin’s broad and excessively theatrical, but impressively seedy Killer Joe, which, of course, culminated in his forcing Gina Gershon to fellate a chicken drumstick, one of the most memorable single moments of 2012: Gershon’s own feral force, finally tamed by the cruellest of methods, was equally impressive. In Magic Mike, McConaughey provided the meaty, muscly, wolfish smarm to offset Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer’s well-exploited physiques and pleasant lack of acting talent. Bruce Willis, still an unflappably laid-back presence, was affecting as the dopey, but affectionate sheriff in Moonrise Kingdom, and sported an amazing manga hairdo for a couple of minutes in Looper. His confrontation with a weirdly convincing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his youthful alter ego in Looper saw two generations of male movie stars share a diner breakfast in by far the best moment in the film, presenting the amusing conceit of the older and younger versions of the same violent dipshit in different phases of self-deception. Emily Blunt, who backed them up, was the year’s most accommodating female movie star, handling thankless roles with class, including being surprisingly convincing as the besotted third wheel in Your Sister’s Sister, opposite Rosemarie DeWitt, who was, in turn, the only thing worthwhile about Promised Land. Their male costar in Sister, Mark Duplass, was also in Safety Not Guaranteed, playing exactly the same character in each, a slightly more lunky, blue-collar version of the smart, loquacious, but fragile boy-men so popular in modern comedy. Two films provided more than enough of that, so, of course, now he’ll be in everything.
Indie veteran Ann Dowd was the engine of Compliance, communicating middle-aged anxiety and quiescent vindictiveness without entirely losing her façade of amiable managerial politeness; full marks as well to her costar Dreama Walker for playing the year’s most hapless character. Pat Healy, as the villain of the piece, ably sustained the necessary, slippery, verbal wit and also appeared, completely unrecognisable, as the feckless coworker of Sara Paxton’s assailed, flaky hero/victim, one of the year’s most underappreciated lead turns, in The Innkeepers. Similarly strong in a low-key, quietly engaging indie film was Linda Cardellini in Return as a returned servicewoman beset by alienation and unable to live in the present; Michael Shannon and John Slattery gave her good support. Stephanie Sigman as the human ping-pong ball who temporarily becomes Miss Bala was a study in sustained terror, with gifts of bravery and loyalty occasionally showing through an otherwise wisely maintained mantle of acquiescence. At the other end of the scale, Cloud Atlas was hurt almost irreparably by its excruciating conceit of using its actors in recurring roles, with Tom Hanks delivering two or three of the worst performances of his career. But Jim Broadbent held his own in two segments, particularly in a peerless comedic turn as the editor stranded in an old folks’ home by his brother’s conniving. Doona Bae managed to imbue her part as a sagacious clone with sensuality and suggestions of spiritual grace that transcended the compilation of stereotypes and clunky axioms she represented. Ben Whishaw’s perpetual air of spidery intelligence likewise buoyed the film, as did his brief appearance in Skyfall as a Q for the new millennium. Noomi Rapace was intelligent and gutsy in Prometheus alongside the impressive, but extremely ill-utilised Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba, providing, in that immortally queasy robotic abortion scene, the only real reason to watch that unholy mess of a movie. Although they did not say a word, Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta as the doomed lovers in the flashback sequences of Tabu, proved you don’t always need dialogue to deliver hypnotic performances, and Teresa Madruga as the saintly but solitary Pilar was the soul of the film’s first half.
I know that Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale were very good in The Deep Blue Sea; in fact, it was impossible to miss, as if heavyweight dramatic acting had been included as an event in this year’s London Olympics. Come on, Rachel, one more sobbing moan for Britain. By contrast, Anders Danielson Lie’s excellence in Oslo, 31 August was predicated on a difficult part, as his namesake character only occasionally emerged from his position as melancholy observer to reveal his anger and despair, as well as self-mortifying impulses. Eddie Redmayne, also getting good notices for Les Misérables, offered a startling performance cast against type as a sociopath slowly but inevitably giving in to his worst impulses in weird and uneven Hick, which also featured another of Chloë Grace Moretz’s protean turns as the teenaged heroine who finally and fatally could not get out of his clutches. Blake Lively backed them up and also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages, cumulatively making a case for herself as a bonafide actress playing characters easy to dismiss as airheaded parasites who prove to have hidden depths and reefs. Amidst the wobbly satire and shenanigans of the chicks-behaving-badly epic Bachelorette, the key threesome of Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and particularly, Isla Fisher were game in inducing hilarity, empathy, and convulsive vomiting. In a similar vein, Alicia Silverstone was smart and endearing as the vampire long past pop culture expiry date fed up with playing the modern game of feigning eternal youth in Vamps. I dare say more people feel sympathy with her character’s plight than are willing to let on.
Favourite Films of 2012
Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Alps feels, at first glance, too much like another entry from the now familiar school of mordant Greek absurdist cinema exemplified by Lanthimos’ first film, Dogtooth, and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011). Like those films, it’s a through-a-glass-darkly portrait of socially normative behaviour studied like an alien scientist watching humanity through a telescope held the wrong way around. But it holds together with greater integrity as both a story—though still infused with jolts of surrealism and enigma—and as a personal odyssey for its disintegrating heroine’s efforts to slot herself into other people’s realities. In other words, a distinctive filmmaker retaining his distinction whilst visibly and intelligibly evolving.
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
Joe Wright’s second appearance in two years on my list confirms me as a resolute Wright fanboy, I suppose, but Wright seems to me to speak in a cinematic language once fairly commonplace but now almost freakish—poised, yet expressive; smart, but emotional; showy and semi-experimental, but rooted in a passion for the material and a desire to engage the audience. Few others directors on the scene seem able or willing to be as formally animated and innovative without being precious to the point of irritation. The result shakes up a moribund subgenre, but also realises the inherent beauty and brilliance of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg continues on his recent roll, recasting Don DeLillo’s admired novel as his late-career critique of his very first movie, Shivers (1975), substituting the immobile trap of an apartment building for a self-sufficient limousine, and humans threatened not by parasites, but humans turning into parasites, feeding off larger, incorporeal organisms. Eric Packer, well-played by a cleverly exploited Robert Pattinson, is the wizard of high finance who’s conquered his piece of the world, but, now bored, does not so much give himself up to fate or primal experience as conduct another of his studies in systems, being this time the dynamics of disintegration, observing and even creating his own downfall with the same bewildered, semi-human fascination.
Dark Shadows (Tim Burton)
A delicious, if uneven emporium of droll absurdity from Burton, Dark Shadows did not escape the stored-up disdain for some of Burton’s profitable, but weaker recent efforts. Nonetheless, this was one of the year’s liveliest mainstream releases, a blend of retro psychedelia and good-natured satire at once deeply acerbic and perversely earnest in its investigation of retro obsessions, familial bonds and maladies, post-’60s liberation, and the joys of hate-sex on the ceiling. (See also Amy Heckerling’s delightfully screwball, accidental companion piece, Vamps.)
The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong)
Some people complain that Sang-soo Hong makes the same movie over and over again, and that could well be true, but so do a lot of other directors, and very few with the same beguiling mixture of formal artistry and improvised elan. Hong digs so cleverly and yet subtly into the more melancholy aspects of modern life with its stripped illusions, trashed niceties, and collapsed hierarchies.
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark)
Less beautiful and controlled than Hark’s comeback film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), this follow-up nonetheless saw Hark perhaps surpass it by going totally for broke, in a breakneck ride of multiple factions, heroes and villains, deceptions, double-crosses, sand-dancing battles, and sky-riding duels. Result: Hark proves he still has a capacity to make even close Hollywood avatars like The Avengers look nearly anaemic by comparison.
The Innkeepers (Ti West)
Ti West’s bare-boned, classical horror aesthetic builds on the intoxicating minimalism of The House of the Devil (2009) for a slightly more traditional, but no less sustained tale of factotum depression shading into supernatural terror.
John Carter (Andrew Stanton)
This year’s Sucker Punch (2011), with a twist: whereas Zack Snyder’s film from last year was flagrantly postmodern and cool in its take on CGI spectacle, John Carter is a reinvention of the yarn-spinner’s wheel, resolutely traditional cowboys vs. aliens stuff realised with more class, visual spectacle, and actual entertainment value than 50 dark knights rising. The big multiplex screens were bathed in all the lush, absurd splendour of turn-of-the-century scientification; just a pity so few people were sitting in the audience to see it. (See also another critically underrated spectacle, although likely in the end to be a far bigger popular success, Peter Jackson’s simultaneously grand and mischievous The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
A restless, unsettling, mercilessly potent vision of contemporary angst, be it financial, military, or familial, churning the uneasy mindset of the millennium’s first decade into a great British horror film. Images as stark and appalling as any in classic genre cinema rub against a hazy, paranoid parable for the cost of maintaining a prosperous western lifestyle, whilst everywhere, demons wait.
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Lest things get too grim in a time in which the political venality on display across the world will echo in infamy for decades, Lincoln reminds us of the potential nobility of the human condition, as manifest both in leaders reputed, like the title character, and in the lesser, or merely less-remembered, mortals around him. The way politics is an accumulation of, rather than a force upon, individual feeling and perspective has rarely been described with such ardour and intensity, nor stuffed historical countenances reanimated with such relish for the expressivity of words and the concise power of images. (See also Timur Bekmembetov’s trash-mash edition of the same tale.)
On the Road (Walter Salles)
Cruelly but not surprisingly received with dismissal by many critics, this is youth culture mythology’s bleary awakening and its night-after hangover and self-critique. Walter Salles’ film of the Beat bible strips the material of legend and finds human foible, failings, and hope still rudely alive. It’s a film for people who both fondly regard the novel, but also hold it in perspective, and for people who know that life often requires looking disaster dead in the eye and then looking past it.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
What was perhaps most impressive about this work by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the way in which it manages to bridge several different kinds of movie-making without apparent effort or violating its quiet, ambling, deceptively deadpan façade. It’s an historical rumination. It’s as realistic a portrait of police and policing as you’re ever likely to see. It contains fragments of magic realism and eerie, almost expressionistic beauty and dread. It’s an oft-hilarious situation comedy. It’s a desolating study in time, age, and fate.
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)
Jacques Audiard has a cunning capacity to make far-out melodrama tropes and weird afflictions for his characters work in deceptively realistic, everyday contexts, which makes him often seem like the last of the great Victorian Naturalist novelists, the Zola of the banlieus. In part a nongenre remake of his romantic thriller Read My Lips (2001) as a raw, modern epic of sex and money, with damaged souls rendered literal in limited and injured bodies, Rust and Bone swerves a couple of times too many, but its boldness and vivacity linger large.
Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
Tabu also directly contrasts the pettiness of modern life and the way age reduces everyone to less than they truly are with the outsized passion of yesterday’s youthful folly, with everyday depressive longing segueing into period melodrama, but with a constant, morally serious eye on the shifting vicissitudes of history and personal nature. Gomes’ masterful formal conceits constantly evoke another phase in cinema and life—black-and-white photography and a long, semi-silent segment—and yet avoids any hint of self-satisfied stunt.
Would Be on This List If I’d Seen It in Time
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
Frankenweenie (Tim Burton)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson)
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo)
Oslo, 31 August (Joachim Trier)
Savages (Oliver Stone)
Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin)
Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders)
Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij)
Vamps (Amy Heckerling)
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmembetov)
Bel-Ami (Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod)
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
Cloud Atlas (Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer)
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Declaration of War (Valérie Donzelli)
Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Return (Liza Johnson)
Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)
The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb)
Argo (Ben Affleck)
The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy)
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
The Grey (Joe Carnahan)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Lore (Cate Shortland)
Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve)
Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi)
Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
Lawless (John Hillcoat)
Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)
Significant Blind Spots
Almayer’s Folly, Amour, Bernie, Detachment, Keep the Lights On, The Loneliest Planet, Monsieur Lazhar, Seven Psychopaths, Sister, Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse
My Year of Retro Wonders: Great Older Films I Saw First in 2012
All The King’s Men (Robert Rossen)
A Bell for Adano (Henry King)
Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur)
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
Countdown (Robert Altman)
The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kolatozov)
Dark Waters (Andre de Toth)
The Day the World Ended / Not of This Earth (Roger Corman)
Die Nibelungen / The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
The Earth Dies Screaming / Revenge of Frankenstein / Frankenstein Created Woman / Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher)
Elevator to the Scaffold / Viva Maria! (Louis Malle)
Farewell to the King (John Milius)
Faust / Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau)
Flowers of Shanghai (Hsiao-hsien Hou)
Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Gilda (Charles Vidor)
Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding)
Hercules in the Haunted World / I Tre Volti Della Paura / Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava)
Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack)
Judex (Georges Franju)
The Knack…and How to Get It / Royal Flash / Robin and Marian (Richard Lester)
La Frissons du Vampires / Les Démoniaques (Jean Rollin)
Laura (Otto Preminger)
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner / The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz)
The Looking Glass War (Frank R. Pierson)
Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey)
Mountains of the Moon (Bob Rafelson)
Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)
No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer)
The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöstrom)
The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson)
Phantom of the Paradise / Obsession / Blow Out / Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma)
Sorcerer / Cruising (William Friedkin)
The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed)
Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto)
Tattooed Life / Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki)
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk)
Torment (Alf Sjöberg)
Track of the Cat / Blood Alley (William A. Wellman)
When a Woman Ascends a Staircase (Mikio Naruse)
Young and Innocent / Under Capricorn / Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock)
Young Mr. Lincoln / Three Godfathers (John Ford)
Zatoichi Monogatari (Kenji Misumi)
19 thoughts on “Confessions of a Film Freak, 2012”
The two films on your favorites list that made mine, too, are Anna Karenina and John Carter. The rest I have not seen. It appears we had very different years at the movies, with my lapses far greater than yours. Where we intersected, we generally agreed, though I think Goodbye First Love is far from crap and Hitchcock was a silly fiction that was actually very enjoyable to watch. As for Holy Motors, I actually see it as a popcorn movie for arthouse film fans. Aren’t we entitled to a little mindless shock and awe? And I wish I had been so blinded as not to have seen The Impossible.
I agree with Marilyn that GOODBYE FIRST LOVE is far from crap, but then again my strongest disagreement with you on this entire presentation is your similar dismissal of THE LIFE OF PI, which is my #2 film of the year behind THE TURIN HORSE. But looking throughout this remarkable post (there will not be another as gloriously opinionated nor as comprehensive, not as as engagingly written) I am simply astonished at how far apart our tastes are. Sure I liked JOHN CARTER and applauded your original brilliant and defiant review, and I am most assuredly a huge fan of LINCOLN, THE INNKEEPERS, ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, and especially Joaquim Trier’s superlative OSLO, AUGUST 31ST, which made my Top 5 of the year.
I have little use for these:
Rust and Bone
Damsels in Distress
and I especially deplored DARK SHADOWS, but heck you had displayed admirable chuzpah to include it, and wrote a remarkable defense months back at this site.
My huge disagreement with my dear friend Marilyn is with THE IMPOSSIBLE, a wrenching film about separation, which ranks among my very best films of the year. The young man who plays the oldest 14 year-old son, Tom Holland gives one of the best performances of the year. I went in to THE IMPOSSIBLE wanting and expecting to hate it based on my perception of the trailers, but I was blown away by committed direction, extraordinary acting and and one of the most emotional story arcs of the year. I did read Marilyn’s excellent takedown, but I am coming there from a completely different direction.
Speaking of performances again, I do agree wholeheartedly Rod, with your highest praise for Day-Lewis celebrated turn as Lincoln, following his brilliant work in GANGS and BLOOD, and I couldn’t agree with you more on Denis Levant and Anders Danielson Lie, both who gave extraordinary performances. Sally Field was excellent too, but in that category for me the slight edge goes to Anne Hathaway in LES MISERABLES. In lead performances for the women for me it’s Rachel Weisz for THE DEEP BLUE SEA, Jessica Chastain for ZERO DARK THIRTY, Naomi Watts for THE IMPOSSIBLE and Emmanuele Riva for AMOUR.
I neither found the impressively crafted ARGO as disappointing nor overrated (and I am not remotely an Affleck fan) and I am surprised you were so down on LOOPER and SKYFALL, both of which I though were well-done. I do agree with you on HYDE PARK and MAGIC MIKE (both very poor) and am no fan of CLOUD ATLAS.
As far as your “Year of Retro Wonders” I can say without any second thoughts this presentation was staggering. Some of the cinema’s greatest masterpieces are included, and many others in the category of ‘great.’ You would be counted as having an astounding year just on that list alone.
I am still trying to tweak my own list and won’t have it finalized until I make a decision of whether to include the masterful Canadian film WAR WITCH, a film I saw at Tribeca, but won’t open until March in USA theatres. I may opt to hold it for 2013, but for now I’ll included it on this temporary list:
1. The Turin Horse
2. The Life of Pi
3. War Witch
4. Les Miserables
5. Oslo, August 31st
6. Zero Dark Thirty
7. The Impossible
9. Django Unchained
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Deep Blue Sea (tie)
My runners-up that just missed:
The very close runners-up list of films that barely missed are:
The Kid with a Bike
Planet of Snail
A Royal Affair
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
This is NOT a Film
The Central Park Five
Anyway, a marvelous, marvelous post that may indeed point to some serious differences in taste, but is nonetheless the impressions of a master.
Sam – I actually published my favorites list on Fandor, as follows:
1. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
2. Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Rania Stephan)
3. In the Family (Patrick Wang)
4. After Lucia (Michel Franco)
5. Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
6. John Carter (Andrew Stanton)
7. Tey/Today (Alain Gomis)
8. 2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy)
9. Night Across the Street (Raoul Ruiz)
10. Jai Bhim Comrade (Anand Patwardhan)
Not wishing to be limited to just 10, I would add Kore-eda’s I Wish to the list, as well as This Is Not a Film. I quite liked The Invisible War and Marley as well. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was also very engaging.
We have a number of areas of disagreement, Sam, as you have pointed out. In general, I thought 2012 was a fairly poor year in film, so I’m not surprised that some films have made it onto your list as well as those of others, as the pickings were a bit slim. I’m not that surprised you loved The Impossible, because you respond very emotionally to films. I’m more the cool professor, and I felt bored and manipulated by the film, the tsunami special effects aside.
Here’s hoping we have a terrific 2013 in every way, my friend.
What!?? You didn’t like Skyfall? That makes me a sad panda.
I didn’t think it had a listless story. It’s about Javier’s revenge fantasy to get back at M. That’s what I found refreshing about it: it’s a Bond film in which the *villain*, not Bond, wants revenge. Eventually, it all becomes M’s movie. Judi Dench was wonderful, don’t you agree? And that Scotland sequence… come ON! I had forgotten how good Mendes can be with action; Road to Perdition is a personal favorite.
Love your enthusiasm for Lincoln and, yes, John Carter.
Despite reservations, I sort of liked Lawless, but I know how much you guys hate John Hillcoat over here, so I won’t defend it. Next time you guys wanna debate The Proposition and The Road, however, gimmee a call.
Argo for me was two movies, or a rough draft of one good movie. It was very uneven. I think if someone like Steven Soderberg sat in with Ben to curb some of his leaden tendencies, it would have been more successful. All the talk government/hollywood bullshitting parts and some of the tension parts were enjoyable, but anytime Affleck’s character was being quiet or thoughtful, the film was extremely flat. The score was extremely on the nose and the soundtracked songs were less imaginative than they could have been.
I think the only other 2012 film I saw was Haywire, and I completely agree- the setup was great- especially the language and its opacity- Michael Douglas was very good.
@Rod- We do have a lot of disagreements…..I for one loved The Deep Blue Sea……and really disliked Oslo (it’s just a retread of The Fire Within and doesn’t enlighten anything). What I will agree on is the overabundance of “highbrow” actioners. This is not a good trend. I absolutely despised The Dark Knight Rises. Total ponderous crap. Overall I also found 2012 to be a very weak year for film….now granted I have not seen Amour or Zero Dark Thirty yet. Even then, I will have a hard time even compiling a top 10 list of films made up of ones that I view to be at Masterpiece or Near-Masterpiece status. However, there are at least 3 films in the list of ones you missed that would vie for top 10 status for me: The Loneliest Planet, Silver Linings, The Master.
@Marilyn- I am very, very, very excited to see you placed Delpy’s 2 Days in New York on your list! I too saw it as a wonderful film and it would right now be very much in contention for my top 5.
Adam – I don’t want to go a round with you on Hillcoat. He’s not worth the pain!
Jon – I thought Delpy’s film was the best comedy I saw last year, and in many a year, for that matter. Light years ahead of 2 Days in Paris, with the genuine love and warmth that film lacked. I’ve had The Loneliest Planet here for ages, but haven’t gotten around to watching it yet. I must do so before the week is out.
Marilyn….I was in stitches while watching 2 Days in New York. It was a tremendous surprise, even though I really like Delpy….I just wasn’t expecting quite the charm there.
The Loneliest Planet is similar to me to Gus Van Sant’s Gerry and his films of that ilk….as well as the stuff from Kelly Reichardt. If you don’t like those….then I wouldn’t expect you to like this one.
Not a fan of Gerry, but for an odd reason. I couldn’t forget that there was a camera recording the solitary figures in it.
Well, another great year-end read from Rod. I am in total agreement with you that 2011 was a vintage year for cinema, and I was long into 2012 before I started seeing anything remotely as good.
But mostly this post just makes me realize how far behind I am on this year’s releases. Just this morning , I’ve jotted down a list of 19 films that I feel are essential to see before I can make any meaningful “year’s best” list. So expect to see my 2012 wrap-up post sometime around Valentine’s Day! Ha!
I’ts nice to see someone else who enjoyed SOUND OF MY VOICE. I thought DARK SHADOWS was pretty entertaining, too – it won’t make my best of year list, but unlike most of my generation, I didn’t rush home from school to watch the original TV series so I have no sentimental attachment to the source material.
I ‘ll put in another good word for THE LONLIEST PLANET – and I was no fan of MEEK”S CUTOFF, although I can certainly see the similarities.
Marilyn: I found TWO DAYS IN NEW YORK enjoyable enough, but I was puzzled by it more. Its very existence seens to deny the ending of Delpy’s previous film TWO DAYS IN PARIS, which concluded with a realization that love is never perfect, partners are always flawed and part of growing up is learning to commit and work through the difficulties. The fact that the couple from that film are divorced at the start of TWO DAYS IN NEW YORK, and that Delpy and Rock are working through all the same kinds of stuff (just in a different city ) seemed kind of redundant and pointless to me – I didn’t think it offered any insights that TWO DAYS IN PARIS hadn’t already covered.
Pat – I don’t think I was looking for any takeaways from 2 Days in New York. It just made me laugh my ass off. For me, this year has been about the pleasure of watching movies for themselves, with how they do what they do and not about whatever messages they seem to be telegraphing. Holy Motors was an unqualified success for me, whereas it wasn’t for Rod, simply because I enjoyed the moments presented to me. This world has gotten so crazy that it seems reason is a crazy-making response to it. Let’s just say I’m going with the flow for the time being.
Marilyn – I can appreciate that attitude. Last night, I watched PITCH PERFECT, which is a dumb and crass little movie on many counts, but I found myself thoroughly loving a scene near the middle of the film : nothing more than an improvised “sing off” between various a cappella groups, but it had an innocent, infectious joy that I wish I felt more often in the movies these days.
Great to see you championing ON THE ROAD, Rod. A film that has been roundly chastized by critics but loved it. Maybe you need to be a devotee of the source material but I thought Salles and co. did a great job and we finally got to see Kristen Stewart act outside of her comfort zone and drop her acting tics and affectations.
Your list reminds me that I need to see JOHN CARTER. I will admit to being swayed by the overwhelming negative reviews but a few key bloggers that I admire (including yourself) have given it the thumbs up which is all the recommendation I need.
Hi, folks. Thank you, firstly, for your readership both for this post and throughout the past year; it’s all for you, Damien! *jumps out window, snaps noose tight*
The first thing I always want people to keep in mind about my “confessions” is that they are entirely based purely in personal, reactive opinion, no matter how ill-advisedly exposing or purely tendentious, and thus it’s really taken for granted that people will agree sometimes strongly with choices and disagree vehemently with others. I really can’t argue the ins and outs of every single opinion voiced above here, as that demands levels of argument best reserved if possible for in-depth posts, most of which will never be written. It is my confident opinion that as has been true in many years past most of the much talked-about films of a given moment will be forgotten or fade to more reasoned evaluations of their merits, and the ones that are remembered likely to be surprising and perhaps even embarrassing. I know it’s a heresy to say that would-be great art might not be as well-remembered as popcorn throwaways, but I kind of expect that, much the same as how for people my age the ‘80s mostly mean Star Wars movies, Footloose, and Back To The Future rather than Christiane F or Kiss of the Spider Woman, so too in twenty years many will still be watching The Avengers, and possibly with John Carter inhabiting a space like The Dark Crystal or Krull or Big Trouble In Little China, the “yeah, I watched that all the time as a kid on DVD, back when those were still around, I had no idea until much later that it was a flop” zone. So in that regard all our efforts are sandcastles, anyway. I do however always feel, in regards to my jibe above about filmmakers like Joseph H. Lewis and Andre De Toth doing easily and casually what many modern filmmakers strain to do, that the contemporary equivalents of such filmmakers do exist but are rarely given such due, partly because it’s their job, like their predecessors, to try and make solid artefacts but without drawing attention to themselves.
Mare; I’m glad we had John Carter and Anna Karenina in common, and that’s enough by me; most of the rest on your list seem to be festival viewings. I must be sure to try and see 2 Days in New York; I never saw the first instalment of Delpy’s semi-series, and I also read a lacerating putdown of it at another source, which goes to show I’m as adversely affected by such things sometimes as anyone else.
Sam: Yeah, we certainly had diverging tastes this year, boy and howdy, although I can’t comment on half the films in your top ten list as they have not been released here, nor did the gods of screener discs deem me worthy of sending me copies of them. As for the ones you liked and I didn’t…well, let’s remain polite and talk about the Year of Retro Wonders list, the quality of my viewing in that regard was in part the result of my desire to fill some of the egregious holes in my film canon viewings, enabled by the wonders of modern technology, those weird, irritating little gaps in one’s viewing that happen for one reason or another. It’s funny how it’s often much easier to agree on the quality of older artworks than modern ones, and a question that compels my rumination. Either way, I did a helluva lot of film viewing this year. I suspect next year will be…less so.
Adam: yes, Skyfall had a listless story; since when has a bad guy wanting revenge been any kind of different plot pattern in an action film? Revenge isn’t a particularly marked trait of Bond’s; only in Diamonds Are Forever, Licence To Kill, and Quantum of Solace does it strike me as particularly stand-out motif on Bond’s part. Oh, but of course, Quantum of Solace was the last one. The middle third was sluggish and flimsy, nearly as distended and limp as the worst habits of the later Moore films, throwing away its pretences to being a tougher, more realistic Bond for silly throwaway bits like the train sabotage, and the plotting was a tired and opportunistic pinch on The Dark Knight’s “let’s capture the super bad guy only to have this prove to be what the bad guy planned for” bit (admittedly, The Avengers did the same thing, but that did so with all the colour and liveliness that has been stripped away from Bond). The number of plot holes contrived to make the finale happen was simply staggering; an entire fucking modern security service on hand and they have to hide in an old house playing Straw Dogs? Laboured. Although I will admit the finale was well-done in itself, and that the fight scene in Shanghai against the city lights was pure old-school Bond-as-pop-art stuff, and I should’ve mentioned it in the above section in great imagery. It’s uncanny that you mention Road to Perdition, because it too was superficially meaningful and became inert and clumsy on a story level in its middle third too; Mendes has no touch with graceful exposition and transition.
Pinko: Argo was one whole piece of shit to me, albeit one that could’ve been good if it had been less determined to be a successful thriller film and actually engaged with the peculiarities of the story it was telling. As for Haywire, yes, it started marvellously, and, like many if not most of Soderbergh’s films, finished limp as a wet noodle.
Jon: well, I don’t know whether you know this or not but Oslo, 31 August was based on the same novel as The Fire Within. I finally ended up including it in on my honourable mention list because some parts of it really did strike me, and the film’s attempt to dig into the listless aspect of being around the age of 30 in the contemporary world hit some paydirt of reportage, and hints of real poetry in moments like the dawn swim, and I couldn’t help but dig the last image of Anders, a pinch on Henry Wallis’s portrait of Chatterton. But in the end I found it kept its protagonist’s headspace at arm’s length and felt a bit laboured in its attempt to translate the novel, ‘20s proto-existential angst, into contemporary druggie slacker angst without getting into the meat of the philosophical and spiritual perspectives of Anders; instead his situation kind of seemed to boil down to, “I don’t want to be nearing middle-aged being pathetically normal like my married mate.”
Pat: Yes, Sound of My Voice does seem to be a divisive experience for some – I know a friend of a friend who put it on a worst-of list by comparison, and I get the feeling it’s for similar reasons to why I liked it. Indeed, I’m often struck by how close the reasons for one person hating any film and another person loving it are, as both tend to lie in whatever points of distinction the work has. I actually do mean to see Pitch Perfect some time, as it’s made a few top tens and as you say, it sounds like fun.
JD: Aye, I’m quite bewildered by the negative responses to On the Road, and I sense a lot of semi-concealed antipathy for counterculture past is involved, which a lot of the types drawn to the critical profession instinctively despise in spite of what they owe in terms of cultural conversation to it; there’s a querulous-sarcastic tone to a lot of the critiques of the film which confirms most have never read the novel and only understand the Beat movement as a mystique, saying essentially to the film, “explain it all to me, toots,” rather than actually looking at what’s going in the fucking film between the characters. And Stewart was excellent in the film, but actually in her indie film work she usually is; her part in Welcome to the Rileys was certainly a warm-up for this.
That must be a production still from Rust and Bone, which answers the question, “How’d they do it?”.
The secret to Tsui Hark is the actresses. Have you seen the Hark produced (New) Dragon Inn? Flying Swords is a kind of loose sequel.
Hi Peter. Yeah, that pic certainly gives some of the game away, although I do wonder if in some other shots the filmmakers did the opposite and matted Cotillard’s face onto a real amputee. Either way the effects are the most convincing I’ve ever seen, and not in an oh jeez wow fashion, but simply, casually convincing; a friend I watched it with, not knowing Cotillard very well, thought she really was an amputee. I compare to the awful missing arm Rhys Ifans was afflicted with in The Amazing Spider-Man, where I could see the digital fuzz in some scenes.
And this: “The secret to Tsui Hark is the actresses.” = bingo. When I revisited Detective Dee recently I was struck at how much steam left it after Bingbing Li is killed off. In Flying Swords he wisely keeps them all on board until the finale. No, I haven’t seen New Dragon Inn yet, although I have been intending to chase it down.
I like this blog and I think you have some terrific writers. But the ‘contrarian tendencies’ quip you made is one that makes me want to question your motives as a critic. I would hope that after so many years of reviewing movies you could look beyond the hype, marketing and awards – as well as your own expectations and instead just see a movie for what it is. Remember that filmmakers make films. They don’t make hype. I would hope you could just flat out rate a movie as a movie and nothing more. I would hope you would like John Carter because it is good – not because all the big critics deemed it a fiasco. Similarly I would hope you would like Argo or not like Argo based on it as a movie rather than as a movie directed by Affleck or one that won awards. All that extra info about a movie is b.s and distracts from what is on screen. A movie either works or it does not. Pretty simple really. That said, I DO understand the tendency to highlight movies that did not get the respect they deserved. That makes sense but it doesn’t mean that, conversely, a more hyped movie should get criticized. It’s a game critics shouldn’t play because there will always be overhyped movies. So why play that boring game? Thanks.
Two more films that deserve a little more attention, in my mind, include Sound of My Voice and Red Lights . Sound of My Voice ran into similar problems to that of Compliance in that the audience is never convinced people would do what the people in these movies do, while Red Lights ran into back-and-forth debates over its ending, which I found to be quite fascinating .
This was such an extensive post about the cinema and the films of 2012 and although it can be quite draining to read as it was pretty lengthy, I found myself appreciating your thoughts about a lot of things and I do agree on several points that you have clearly explained in this entry. As I am the type who can easily enjoy mainstream movies but who also takes time to watch films that are rather on the artsy side or more commonly known as those that most audiences dismiss, I wish that 2013 would bring more quality ventures instead of the typical bombastic and CG-filled movies.
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