Yes, it’s that time of year once again: the time when I spend a week and a half writing 10,000 words about my favourite movies of the year and you spend 10 seconds scrolling through them to see what’s at number one. As 2012 comes to a close, a wide range of films are claiming their places atop the critics’ lists, with The Guardian choosing The Master as their film of the year, while A.V. Club plumped for The Master, Slate chose The Master, Sight & Sound went for The Master, Total Film selected The Master and the Village Voice opted for The Master. I hope you’ll find my selections equally distinctive.
Whatever else, they are at least a diverse bunch: one grossed 24 times its production budget, while another has so far failed to make back even 4% of what it cost to produce; one was officially banned in at least three countries, while another has won awards in four; one received the BBFC’s highest theatrical certificate, while two passed at just 12A.
One honour did unite all of the films on my list, however: none of them had the misfortune of being The Dark Knight Rises.
dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris / writ. Zoe Kazan / 104 mins / 1.85:1
UK release: 12 October / 20th Century Fox / Rated 15
In a year of general consensus (only one entry on my list sits below the 60% mark on Rotten Tomatoes) I felt it worth including at least one film that provoked some measure of debate, not just amongst differing critics, but WITHIN MY VERY SOUL. I was about 45 minutes in to Ruby Sparks when I decided it was a masterpiece, at which point I had to reassess all the bits I’d hated up until that point, retroactively justifying my own admiration for the film. Suddenly I was forced to explain to myself why it kind of made sense that Paul Dano’s character was such an insufferable prat, and why it was only right that he pen his work on a typewriter, rather than a laptop like every other person in North America who isn’t Woody Allen.
‘Clickety-clack’ is movie shorthand for ‘inspiration strikes’, after all.
And I’ll admit, some of my reassessments took every ounce of my willpower to swallow. But once I’d made that leap, I was free to bask in one of the sharpest, frankest films of the year, with plenty to say about power, misogyny and the all-encompassing egomania of certain male writers.
Viewed in the right frame of mind, Zoe Kazan’s first feature is a stinging indictment of the lazy male bias of today’s Sundance set, ingeniously disguised as exactly the kind of film they’d eat right up. Its protagonist, the brooding-but-brilliant young novelist Calvin Weir-Fields, is exactly the sort of prodigious introvert you’d see Indiewire interviewing on a ski slope one fresh January morn, but to mistake him for the film’s hero is to misunderstand Ruby Sparks entirely.
Identify that he’s a total bastard, and soon the film’s only truly sympathetic character — Ruby, his powerless creation — becomes a tragic heroine to rival any 2012 had to offer. Perpetually at Calvin’s mercy, his every whim translating into her direct actions, she’s a malleable puppet not unlike the ones Kazan herself has — on occasion — wound up being for so many real-world Calvins during her time as an actress.
d. Thomas Vinterberg / w. Thomas Vinterberg & Tobias Lindholm / 115 mins / 2.35:1
UK release: 30 November / Arrow Films / Rated 15
A few years ago I tried in vain to popularise the concept of each movie having its own unique ‘heartbeat’. Think of it as the filmic equivalent of a song’s BPM — the average energy a film maintains across its runtime. For example, Crank would be somewhere near the top end of the heartbeat scale, while Quartet would be immediately marked down as dead on arrival. Yet heartbeat is not innately linked to genre, as evidenced by the fact that this year’s highest reading wasn’t to be found in a Joss Whedon superhero romp, a Denzel Washington spy thriller or an Indonesian martial arts spectacular, but a meditative Danish arthouse drama about social ostracism.
Fig. 1 — A cross-section of 2012 cinema, measured by heartbeat
Thomas Vinterberg’s most high-profile film since his 1998 Cannes smash Festen is essentially the antithesis of that film — this time the guy’s not a paedophile but everybody thinks he is. What The Hunt does share with Festen, on the other hand, is an understanding that what doesn’t happen on screen is often as important as what does. This knowledge gives Vinterberg plenty of space to exploit the talents of editors Janus Billeskov Jansen and Anne Østerud, not to mention star Mads Mikkelsen, who brings unshowy depth to a character lesser actors might have rendered an uncomplicated saint at the mercy of his surroundings. Together, the group lend The Hunt a heartbeat that most action directors could only dream of.
Each and every scene seems suspended on the edge of disaster, with the few moments when the tension does boil over (in a pair of standout scenes at a local grocery store and a Christmas church service) all the more powerful for the restraint exercised elsewhere. In a year when the subject of child abuse has rarely been far from the headlines, the film’s feverish atmosphere could hardly have been more apt.
dir. Xavier Dolan / writ. Xavier Dolan / 168 mins / 1.37:1
UK release: 30 November / Network Releasing / Rated 15
Earlier this year, I was asked to review Laurence Anyways — the third film from 23-year-old Canadian wiz-kid Xavier Dolan — for Little White Lies, which also meant subscribing to their insane rating system, which gives a trio of marks out of five for ‘anticipation’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘in retrospect’. Normally, I’d be the first to argue that — at most — only two of those categories matter in the slightest, but in this instance, I was forced to admit that they might be on to something. Because Laurence Anyways, much as I genuinely believe it to be one of 2012’s best films, is a right headache to actually sit through.
As though a 168-minute, 1.37:1-aspect-ratio, mostly-episodic transgender relationship drama set across an eleven year period wasn’t already guaranteed to alienate the vast majority of audiences, Dolan goes out of his way to test a viewer’s patience, filling Laurence with mumbled car journeys and meandering tangents with little bearing on the film at large. And yet, the bits that do work in this sprawling, melodramatic shambles, work spectacularly, not least because Dolan knows how to raise them to the level of high art with the deployment of some carefully chosen electropop:
(For the full effect, listen to the first minute of ‘If I Had A Heart’ at a volume loud enough to deafen a small infant while you stare endlessly into this beautiful bastard of a title card.)
Moments like these are all you’ll remember a day or two after working your way through Dolan’s uncompromising magnum opus, and — as with over-ambitious epics a little more centre-field — maybe that’s enough.
dir. Steven Soderbergh / writ. Reid Carolin / 110 mins / 2.35:1
UK release: 11 July / Lionsgate / Rated 15
With Steven Soderbergh’s two remaining movies set to be a Contagion-style medical thriller and an HBO movie on Liberace, it seems entirely possible that Magic Mike will be the director’s last great work — or at least his last attempt to create something definitively Soderberghian. All of the grumpy auteur’s signature moves were in full effect here, from his exemplary use of digital cinematography, to his blurring of the line between fact and fiction, to his schizophrenic approach to tonality: located somewhere near the intersection of À bout de souffle and a Hype Williams video, the film blended Soderbergh’s twin filmmaking instincts — extreme subtlety and deafening extravagance — to surprisingly appealing effect.
But the most Soderbergh touch of all was Magic Mike‘s reappropriation (and rejuvenation) of Hollywood actors who most audiences had long ago written off as typecast, over the hill, or plain shit. I’m talking respectively about Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer, incidentally. If you’d told me back when Wild Child came out that this guy…
… would be delivering one of the best performances of the year in a Steven Soderbergh male stripping movie, I’d have said that was about as likely as Jonah Hill getting an Oscar nomination for a Bennett Miller movie.
His stubborn refusal to accept Hollywood ‘truths’ is perhaps the main thing that makes Steven Soderbergh one of America’s most fascinating directors, and his films so utterly unpredictable — few would have guessed that Magic Mike would be so much fun, fewer still that it would break $165 million at the box office. His imminent retirement is good news for the status quo, which will have one less person railing against it from now on, but a devastating development for the rest of us.
dir. Benh Zeitlin / writ. Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin / 93 mins / 1.85:1
UK release: 19 October / StudioCanal / Rated 12A
Putting aside the potentially thorny issues of Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s romanticisation of poverty and borderline animalistic portrayal of its central characters (eloquently detailed in FilmDrunk’s case against the film here), the fact remains: Benh ‘Unnecessary H’ Zeitlin’s rousing, boisterous ode to being free and staying wild was invigorating in a way that no other film in 2012 quite managed. From the moment a surge of staccato strings rise up beneath Quvenzhané Wallis’s mellifluous tones at the launch of the film’s transcendent fireworks-laden prologue, Beasts makes clear exactly what it wants to achieve over the subsequent hour and a half, then throws all its efforts into getting there. Plot be damned.
The film has plenty of chances to lose its audience as it takes six-year-old Wallis on an odyssey through fires, floods, interventions and even long-extinct land mammals, but outlandish as it gets, she keeps the film (wait for it) above water, effortlessly selling any and all stretches of plausibility with a single word from her impossibly cute little face. Especially if that word happens to be…
Watch Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s bonkers final act in isolation and you’d never believe the film could have primed its audience for the extreme flights of fancy it so casually takes — a mark of the faith the film demands, and receives, from its audience.
dir. Markus Schleinzer / writ. Markus Schleinzer / 96 mins / 1.85:1
UK release: 2 March / Artificial Eye / Rated 18
The second best Michael Haneke film of 2012 wasn’t the work of the Austrian bleakcore pioneer at all, but the feature debut of his regular casting director Markus Schleinzer, who strayed little from his mentor’s cruelly restrained approach to storytelling for this grimmer-than-grim look at the relationship between a mild-mannered insurance broker and the 10-year-old boy he keeps locked in his basement. Remaining disconcertingly impartial throughout, the film observes these oddest of housemates with the same disillusioned but uncomprehending eye that Michael’s young detainee casts on his captor.
Schleinzer’s master stroke is its complete lack of activity he offers the audience through the bulk of Michael. The first two thirds of the film can be effectively summed up in three points:
Paedophile goes to work.
Paedophile goes on holiday.
Paedophile meets a lady.
(Great titles for a trilogy of Ernest-style farce comedies incidentally.)
Tellingly, the film gets more and more interesting (and more and more horrific) the less that happens. As Michael trawls the slopes of an Austrian mountain town on a winter getaway, pausing occasionally for a beer with friends or a covert midnight fuck with a local waitress, we watch on with inordinate fascination, because we and we alone know the context of his trip. As his story progresses, our sense of quiet dread only worsens.
If the film’s elliptical ending refuses to disclose the full extent of its horror, we should think ourselves lucky — by then we’ve had about all we can take.
d. Larry Charles / w. Sacha Baron Cohen, Schaffer/Berg/Mandel / 83 mins / 2.35:1
UK release: 16 May / Paramount Pictures / Rated 15
It’s been eight long years since the holy trinity of Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg and David Mandel brought EuroTrip — their incendiary mash-up of teen comedy and social satire — to the big screen, and for a long time it seemed a follow-up might never be forthcoming. Then came The Dictator, which was not just a worthy successor to their 2004 masterwork, but the most logical step forward for the group I could ever have hoped for.
Their throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to scriptwriting found a perfect soulmate in Sacha Baron Cohen’s confrontational brand of character comedy, especially as it transitioned out of mockumentary and into traditional fiction. And as their satirical target expanded from the idiocy of a certain subsection of high school graduates to American exceptionalism at large, their exactitude remained unchanged. Just as the European cities featured in EuroTrip were knowingly skewed to reflect the expectations of the film’s horny teen protagonists, so too is Cohen’s eccentric leader Admiral General Aladeen less an authentic parody of contemporary dictators than a composite of all the US’s worst fears about the Middle East, terrorism and Islam. He is, after all, a despot who rules for the sake of ruling, finds America laughable rather than intimidating, and — to paraphrase George Bush’s immortal words from his 2001 declaration of the War on Terror — quite literally hates our freedom.
It wasn’t all gold, and certain portions of the film were outright indefensible (I’m talking about the John C. Reilly cameo here, not the rape jokes), but without the willingness to risk going wide of the mark, the film wouldn’t have hit it with anywhere near the frequency it did. Nor would it have had the freedom it does to satirise such a vast range of subjects, taking down Islamophobia and veganism with equal aplomb.
Like their masterful debut, The Dictator finds Schaffer, Berg and Mandel putting all their eggs in one big, mad basket — and barely comprehending the scale of their achievement.
dir. Miguel Gomes / writ. Miguel Gomes & Mariana Ricardo / 118 mins / 1.37:1
UK release: 7 September / New Wave Films / Rated 15
Like last year’s Margaret, Miguel Gomes’s Tabu was a critical darling that found itself all but buried when finally granted a quiet Autumn release in the UK. Unlike that film however, it didn’t have a Twitter campaign (or a catchy hashtag) to rescue it from obscurity. And — though partially silent, entirely black and white, and presented in the Academy 1.37:1 ratio — Tabu was never going to find the crossover success of its stylistic cousin The Artist, not least because the Weinsteins didn’t take an interest. No, this was a niche a prospect however you looked at it, but those who did take a chance on Tabu were in for a madly idiosyncratic, yet remarkably universal, experience.
While most of the films on this list impress on either an intellectual level or a gut, emotional one, Tabu excels equally in both areas. Its first half, a dour portrait of an elderly woman grappling with dementia and her put-upon Catholic neighbour, ambles enigmatically from scene to scene — its broken lines of dialogue hinting at a mystery deep within the narrative.
Part two, which eases soothingly into 16mm, takes us back to the woman’s youth in 1970s Mozambique, and is presented in near-silence — its aural void permeated only by foley, voiceover and the occasional Phil Spector record.
This should give you some idea:
It’d be easy for such a formal exercise to feel cold (especially when you add in Gomes’s sly commentary of colonial complacency) but instead Tabu is unexpectedly affecting, its wistful tale of a doomed romance all the more heart-wrenching for the fact that we’re denied the lovers’ words.
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson / writ. Paul Thomas Anderson / 144 mins / 1.85:1
UK release: 16 November / Entertainment Film Distributors / Rated 15
Were I to write my Ten Best Movies of 2012 five years from now (and that might actually be quite an interesting exercise) it’s entirely possible that The Master would find itself top of the list, rather than resting down here, in the slums of third place. Of all the films on this list, Paul Thomas Anderson’s fierce, fighty follow-up to There Will Be Blood is the one I still feel I have more to learn from. After two viewings (one in PTA’s hallowed 70mm format) I’m doubtful I’ve taken in even 50% of what The Master has to offer.
Two and a half hours of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman very nearly kissing while Amy Adams hovers in the background — like the ‘master’ of the title that she so clearly is — might not sound like the sort of viewing experience that merits multiple visits, but the sheer wealth of ideas in Anderson’s film defies immediate comprehension. Any movie that starts with a man fucking a sand castle and ends with the line ‘stick it back in, it fell out’ can pretty unequivocally be said to be about sex, but where does that leave Freddie’s aptitude for photography, his abortive romance with a gigantic ginger schoolgirl, or his vision of a fateful telephone conversation in an empty movie theatre?
The film’s saving grace is the sense that these questions remain unresolved (by me at least) not because the answers aren’t present in the film, but because they demand a few more 144-minute investments to finally reveal themselves. For now, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.
dir. Drew Goddard / writ. Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard / 95 mins / 2.35:1
UK release: 13 April / Lionsgate / Rated 15
Many reviewers were quick to brand The Cabin in the Woods a ‘game changer’ when it finally premiered at SXSW earlier this year after three years in distribution limbo, but those two words — so often wheeled out by poster-quote-happy critics — do a disservice to Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s self-reflexive slasher movie, which strove not to revolutionise the horror industry, but to encapsulate everything that it has become.
Cabin was not groundbreaking (Scream came out in ’96, y’all), nor was it a game changer (the most popular horror franchises of the last ten years are Paranormal Activity and Saw, neither of which have anything to fear from even the most sharply penned Joss Whedon script). What it was, was a definitive statement, a complete thesis on the mechanics, archetypes and conventions of slasher cinema with footnotes on geographic variations, character dynamics and countless other horror formulas normally reserved for only the most academic of film theory essays. It was also the closest thing to a perfect horror film we’ve had in years.
Tellingly, the film would have made just as much sense in 1982 as it did in 2012, and — barring a sudden insurrection in the habitually formulaic world of the horror genre — it’ll still have plenty to say in another thirty years. Labelling The Cabin in the Woods a ‘game changer’ reduces it to the level of a catalyst, and denies it the acclaim it deserves in the here and now.
dir. Michael Haneke / writ. Michael Haneke / 127 mins / 1.85:1
UK release: 16 November / Artificial Eye / Rated 12A
Like the majority of Michael Haneke’s films, Amour went out of its way to see the audience squirm. No undignified bathroom trip was cut short, no moment of grim reckoning un-dwelled-upon. A near-unendruable study of an ageing couple (played magnificently by hot young octogenarians Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) coping with the effects of dementia, the film held every pause and pressed every point until its viewers could take no more.
… unlike earlier Haneke punish-em-ups The White Ribbon, Funny Games and (most crucially) The Seventh Continent, his twelfth film as director betrayed a sincere warmth for its characters that made the whole torturous experience not just bearable, but perversely uplifting. When Anne and Georges (names recycled from most of Haneke’s previous films, incidentally) share a heartfelt moment over breakfast, even in the pit of their deterioration as couple, the depth of feeling Haneke evokes can carry the audience through at least six subsequent scenes of abject hurt and degradation. It’s an astonishing achievement.
Ultimately, choosing between the three films at the top of this list came down to a preference between three discrete cinematic reactions: awe, admiration and pure, unfettered emotion. The decision was an easy one.
There’s a story Georges tells Anne some way into Amour about a youthful trip to the cinema, after which he became so overcome with emotion that he broke down in the street and wept. “I don’t remember the film, but I remember those emotions,” he explains. I suspect the same will be true of Amour, when I’m all old and crusty.
Agree? Disagree? Whinge all about it in the comments box below: