By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 31, 2012 at 12:22PM
I think it was only as I sat down to write this list that I realized what a terrific year for film 2012 was. Not so much in the narrowing down of the list -- I'd over-extended my Top 10 to 15 last year, and it was relatively simple to pare it down, although there's still a few heartbreakers that didn't make the cut. It was more the way that, as I wrote each capsule up, the films themselves seem to make the case that, actually, it was the very best film you saw in the last twelve months. So what is it doing all the way down at number 12?
As such, the order should be taken with something of a pinch of salt; I love everything here very dearly, and the final tally is more of a gut feeling made at the last minute. Also worth noting; as I'm based in the U.K, I'm at the mercy of wandering release dates, and as such, there are a few key films that might well end up being contenders -- "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Lincoln" first among them -- that I haven't yet seen. Conversely, having been at Venice and the London Film Festivals this year, I've also seen a fair amount of films that won't hit theaters until 2013.
As such, as with last year, and more for my own sanity than anything else, I've decided to just stick to (new) films I saw in a cinema in the last twelve months, regardless of its U.S, or U.K release dates. If you're a stickler, feel free to add "Alps," "Wuthering Heights" and "Oslo August 31st" from my Best of 2011 list last year and insert them wherever you'd like in the running order. But hopefully, it'll encourage you to check out those that haven't been seen more widely yet. So, with no further ado, the list is below. You can yell at me in the comments section below, or on Twitter @olilyttelton
There seems to be a certain disproportionately noisy section of the internet that seem to think that picking between the hit superhero films of 2012 is like following a Glasgow football team or an American political party -- you're either with Marvel or DC, and as such, you either like "The Avengers," or "The Dark Knight Rises," with the other automatically becoming the worst thing in the history of mankind. The rest of us were happy to enjoy both as two sides of the super-powered coin, and as two quite different examples of a high-watermark in modern blockbuster filmmaking. "The Avengers" proved the benefits of putting a fan in charge; Joss Whedon knew those characters backwards, knew how to put a new spin on them and how to bounce them off each other, and as a result, the action-free scenes were as entertaining as the battling (he had one of the toughest screenwriting jobs of 2012, and pulled it off with aplomb). And the action, when it does come, has a from-the-pages-of-the-comics feel that's unmatched by anything else in the genre. Meanwhile, while "The Dark Knight Rises" might lack a single invention as spectacular as Heath Ledger's Joker, I actually found it the most accomplished and satisfying of Nolan's Bat-trilogy; the director's wroking with a scope and confidence that few directors attempt, David Lean by way of "The Wire." Again, the quieter moments were among the more memorable, thanks to the stalwart cast (including terrific new additions Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and, best of all, Anne Hathaway), the drama packs more of an emotional punch than ever before. Does it, like the Marvel film, transcend the inherent silliness of the superhero flick? Probably not. But the two, for me, sit side-by-side at the top of the pants-over-tights genre to date
For various reasons, I ended up reading and re-reading a fair amount of children's literature this year, and it ended up being reflected in quite a few of my favorite movies of the year. It wasn't a great surprise to discover after seeing "Beasts of the Southern Wild" that director Benh Zeitlin is the child of a pair of folklorists; his magic realist bildungsroman, displaying an apocalyptic New Orleans-style landscape through the eyes of young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, in a truly astonishing turn), displays a sense of myth and legend that's a rare quality in American cinema, let alone in a first time feature. It's a curiously literary, novelistic picture, but one that also displays that Zeitlin is a serious directorial talent, with a gift for capturing staggering performances from non-pros, and lensing (aided by cinematographer Ben Richardson) something gorgeous and distinctive in the process. Keeping the film entirely from a child's eye view (lesser filmmakers would have broken from that perspective) helps to ground both the wonder and the deep melancholy of the film. Thanks to all of that, plus the most memorable score of the year, it seems to indicate the birth of a major filmmaking talent, one not content to make something autobiographical about the love lives of twentysomethings for his debut, and that's something to be excited about.
It wasn't really a banner year for comedy (bar the inventive and consistently funny "21 Jump Street"), but the closing weeks of 2012, in the UK at least, came to the rescue with the arrival of "Sightseers." Anticipated by many as director Ben Wheatley's follow-up to the deviant and brutal "Kill List," a smaller group (including, and possibly consisting only of, me) were looking forward to it because it was written by and starred comedic hidden gems Alice Lowe and Steve Oram; the former a veteran of the great "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace," the latter a live circuit favorite I last saw performing in a pub in Clerkenwell, wearing a dress and howling like a wolf. In "Sightseers," the pair play an oddball Midlands couple, seemingly in the first flush of love, who head out on a caravanning holiday together, only to find their respective murderous impulses unlocked by various strains of aggravating people they come across along the way. Wheatley beautifully blends the freaky sound design and unsettling atmosphere of his previous picture to a comedic sensibility that owes a little something to Julia Davis ("Nighty Night") and Mike Leigh, but the real genius of the piece comes in the way that Lowe and Oram's script (and the hopefully-star-making performances from the duo) is really a trojan horse; underneath the glam-free "Natural Born Killers" overtones, it's a beautifully observed drama about a dissolving relationship -- a blood-spattered "Blue Valentine," if you will. Spectacularly shot, flawlessly performed, and possessing one of the best endings in years, U.S. audiences are in for a treat when the film opens early in 2013.
Honestly, five or so months on, I'm still trying to work out what I made of "Holy Motors." I wanted to rewatch Leos Carax's long-awaited comeback picture a second time, but wasn't able to squeeze it in in time. It's one of those films where a second viewing might have seen it shoot up this list, or plummet right off it again. But whatever happens, I'll certainly cherish that first glimpse of Carax's bonkers, probably-brilliant mind-fuck. The director famously hadn't made a feature for thirteen years, but makes up for lost time here, giving regular muse Denis Lavant (in the performance[s] of a lifetime) a dozen or so alter egos to incarnate during one long Parisian day and night, from accordion-wielding band leader and performance-capture artist to alienated father and lovelorn mystery man. The level of invention and imagination is like nothing else we saw this year, and it feels like an enormously personal piece of work, not least because Carax puts himself in the decidedly Lynchian opening sequence. Is it about stories? Or audiences? Or the life of an actor? Or is the director, as suggested by the ending, complete with monkey families and talking limos, just messing with his viewers? I honestly don't know. As dazzled as I was, I was left a little un-nourished by the final product. But that final product is so dazzling that I don't mind too much if the parts don't add up to a proper whole.
As the follow-up to "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford," more or less my favorite film of the last decade, I was pretty amped to see Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly," his adaptation of George Higgin's "Cogan's Trade." And while the film proved to be divisive to many, it fortunately landed right in my sweet spot, even if it isn't quite up to the greatness of his 2007 Western. The film sees the Australian filmmaker uses the frame of a crime story -- about two low-level criminals (Scoot McNairy & Ben Mendelsohn) who rip off a mob card game, and the enforcer (Brad Pitt) tasked with taking them out -- to tackle the 2008 financial collapse and bailout, and many took issue with a perceived unsubtlety in his approach. Which would be fine, except Dominik never really makes any pretense at subtlety; it's a blunt instrument of a movie, cynical and unashamed polemic, and it's glorious to watch. By looking at organized crime as a business first and foremost, stripped entirely of glamor and excitement, Dominik gives the genre an approach that feels fresh (even if he's not the first to do it), with proceedings taking on both an understated, wry humor, and a fierce, fiery anger at the rotten heart of America (one of the reasons, I suspect, that it's not been taken to the hearts of many). And he assembled a hell of a team to do it with, both below the line (DoP Greig Fraser is fast making the case that he's the most exciting cinematographer working) and above it -- the cast, from veterans like Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini to fresher faces like Mendelsohn and McNairy, are smashing. By the time Pitt closes the film out, at only the 90 minute mark, by unleashing his terrible anger ("Pay me my fucking money"), it's one of the few movies this year I could have done with seeing another hour of.