Step into my limousine and let’s drive around in the dead of night trying to find the corpses of 2012’s best films, shall we? Our journey will take us to the cornfields of Kansas, to tiny New England islands and to an explosion in a restaurant in Tel Aviv. We will talk to murderers and movie directors, we will celebrate friendship in Barcelona and suffer despair in the Phillippine jungle; we will get punched in the supermarket and mourn Phil Coulson. And then, just as we are sipping Fernet Branca in an Italian café, mercifully the apocalypse will arrive from below and that will be that.
Yes, that was my Best of 2012 list in a single paragraph specially designed for the time-pressed or those of you sick of reading Best of 2012 lists. Everyone else, read on...
First, a few notes: due to the vagaries of international release dates, there are quite a few films that I haven’t had the chance to see -- “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Master” are not on release in my territory yet, so those titles not being on my list should not be seen as pointed omissions. Also, and more just because of laziness and/or bad timing, I’ve yet to see Haneke’s “Amour,” Jafar Panahi’s “This is not a Film,” Terence Davies’ “Deep Blue Sea” and John Hillcoat’s “Lawless.”
Conversely, a lot of the great stuff I did see was at film festivals and so some of the below will be 2013 U.S. releases, if they get U.S. releases at all. It all makes for a slightly uneven playing field if you’re the type to compare list against list (and seriously, I hope you’re not), but there’s really no other way to properly convey my personal 2012 highlights.
I honestly am not sure "Looper" (review here) belongs on this list at all, but in the absence of some sort “film that improved the most while I was watching it” category, here it is. The truth is, I love me some Rian Johnson, and I love me some time travel bunkum, grandfather paradox and all, so I was really looking forward to "Looper." Which then led to me feeling very disappointed in the first half, which was just as silly as the premise suggested (really, the only use for time travel in the lawless future dystopia is for the mafia to get rid of bodies? Whatever happened to bathtubs of lye?). So by the halfway point I kind of hated it, and then it just… got really good. The second half of the film was suddenly pure philosophy, like the best sci-fi, and I found myself completely absorbed by its humanism, and totally sold on the emotional stakes. Now my quandary here is, did I only like the second half because of the work that had been done in the first? Or could the film have been much better if Johnson had shorn out some of the unnecessary extra genre flourishes from the beginning? I really don’t know, but I can say that at least half of "Looper" was one of my favorite films of 2012.
12. "The Cabin in the Woods"
Was any film last year more gonzo and oddly shaped than Drew Goddard’s Joss Whedon-co-written horror-comedy (review here)? I mean that in the best way possible -- the film starts as one thing, morphs into another and ends up a completely different animal (possibly a Merman), but at no point is it ever less than great fun. Basically a series of increasingly eccentric and bizarre rug-pulls, the film careens along from one gotcha to the next, powered purely by giddy inventiveness and a delight in its dark, dark mean streak. In its colliding genres and general balls-out loopiness it does sometimes lose its footing, but perhaps most impressive is that it does generally follow some kind of insane high-concept chain of cause and effect to its logical, ludicrous conclusion -- with plenty of quotable Whedonisms along the way. Special mention has to go to Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford who turned in my absolute favorite double-act of the year, and to that stupid/genius, funny/awful audacious/cop out wtf/are you serious? ending.
A terrifically enjoyable documentary presented by Keanu Reeves on the subject of the conversion of all aspects of the film industry from celluloid to digital? Yes, I know how unlikely that sounds. But it really is a great film for cinephiles, featuring top-name interviewees dissecting the pros and cons of the most revolutionary change in cinema since the introduction of sound. It’s a great primer in the subject but also pulls off the neat trick of giving us flashes of insight into the characters and personalities of some of our favourite directors, zipping along at a pacy clip, but still doing a thorough job of educating as it entertains. Of course the newer technologies mentioned were probably obsolete before filming even wrapped, but already you can feel the film’s value as something other than an up-to-the-minute look at the digital vs. celluloid debate: in fact it’s a lovely sort of caesura moment, a brief press-pause where the biggest American filmmakers of their day talk for a moment about the medium they have helped make us love.
10. "The Avengers"/"The Dark Knight Rises"
Can’t believe I got beaten to the punch of having these two films share a joint position (damn you, Lyttelton!) but yes, I too want to build bridges across the great DC/Marvel divide and show that it is perfectly possibly to enjoy both of these films equally, if differently.
I’m a Whedon fan anyway, and thought that in 'Avengers' he delivered the funnest, brashest, popcorniest, comic book confection we’ve had in years. Retrospectively it’s easy to think ‘Avengers’ was always going to be a home run, but whatever about Marvel’s ambitions and the built-in box-office, delivering on the sky-high expectations of fans and against the pre-sharpened critical knives of detractors while uniting a bunch of different franchises and narratives and egos into a coherent whole was never going to be easy, but Whedon made it look like falling off a log with a log-related quip. Oh, and as an extra flourish he decided to make the best Hulk movie we’d never seen and incorporate that in there too.
And as for “The Dark Knight Rises,” for me it played as a hugely satisfying conclusion to Nolan’s massive achievement with his Batman trilogy, and if, in Bane, it didn’t have a villain quite as memorable as Ledger’s Joker, well, not very many films do, now do they? As a film, in fact, I preferred it to "The Dark Knight" (I’m aware I’m in a tiny minority here), because it felt like all of the pieces were in a more harmonious whole, almost like a choral finale in which everyone gets their moment, and all of their moments feel earned. A graceful farewell to a defining period in Nolan’s career, we’re excited to see him move on to new things. ‘TDKR’ ensures he can do that without looking back.
But having said all that, the other purpose of the shared spot is also to lend a little perspective to my list, because as different as these films are, they also share a great deal of DNA. So it gets kind of depressing (in a “the marketing guys have won” kind of way) to have so much of the discourse around the big movies of the year be given over to whether the bright colours and quips of ‘Avengers’ are inherently better or worse than the grey realism and grit of ‘TDKR’. After all, the rival fanbases of these two comic book movies represent only a tiny sliver of the spectrum of contrasting opinion and disagreement that cinema affords us. Vive la difference -- let’s argue about something more fundamental next year.
I saw Brillante Mendoza’s Isabelle Huppert-starring film at the 2012 Berlinale (review) and have to say I think it’s been as unfairly overlooked as some of his films (I’m looking at you “Kinatay” or rather, I’m not, ever again) have been overpraised. It’s the taut, contained story of a kidnapping in the Philippines, which follows in unflinching, merciless detail the ordeal of a group of holidaymakers abducted and ransomed by Islamist separatists, which goes on for over a year. Some have their ransoms paid and are released, some die or are killed, some form tenuous friendships amongst themselves and with their captors, but what sets the film apart is the rigor of its unsentimentality. There is a deliberate eschewing of characterisation, no backstories, no cutting away to worried relatives at home or anything so manipulative. It’s not high-octane by any means, but I found it completely compelling over its 2-hour running time, and in its strict formal severity found it a more interesting film than the similarly themed but more classically arranged Danish film “A Hijacking,” which won a lot of plaudits. “Captive” is less a film to enjoy than to experience and the dispassionate objectivity of its approach will turn off many viewers, but I found it urgent and bruising, with a typically honest, unadorned central contribution from Huppert.
7. "A Gun in Each Hand"
Cesc Gay’s brilliantly acted, brilliantly scripted, funny, sad and insightful look at modern masculinity was one of the standout films of my Rome Film Festival (review here). The cast is a virtual who’s-who of contemporary Spanish acting talent, and they fire on all cylinders, working off a script that rings true to both the specificity of these characters and their idiosyncracies and to the universality of the film’s themes: ageing, trying to connect with old friends and lovers, realising that there is a difference between who you think you are and how the world sees you. It’s really a very wise and compassionate film, but it hides its good heart well under witty, sometimes acid dialogue, and the kind of conversations in which one person is making out a shopping list while the other person’s heart is breaking. As ever with a segmented film like this, some parts work better than others, and they are only loosely connected in a not-terribly-enlightening way, but here the journey is joy, not the destination, and what it may lack in startling, unifying third-act reveals it more than makes up for in tiny, enormous revelations along the way.
Certainly the most dialogue-rich film yet from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, ‘Anatolia’ is for me by far his most compelling (full review here). His trademark languid pacing, long takes and beautiful compositions are given added dimension by the dialogue, with allusion and symbolism now having other points of reference in the stories, jokes, chit chat and recounted memories of his characters. In fact, Ceylan’s talent for dialogue here (he’s a co-writer) seems equal to his facility with images (high praise indeed), with the exchanges perfectly modulated to color in, deepen or dance around his themes, while never feeling anything but real. Perhaps it’s a slight move away from the ultra-enigmatic nature of some of his other films, and perhaps he reveals himself and his intent a little more than he has done to date. But it is done with so much truth and compassionate insight that the effect of the film’s slo-motion revelations is deeper, and resounds for longer. And it means that the silences, when they do come at strategic points during the film, become almost holy in the weight of their import. A beautiful film shot through with empathy for the kind of ordinary, day-to-day heartbreak that has few better observers than Ceylan, with ‘Anatolia’ never has the ‘slow and boring’ movement felt so dense and interesting.