Oliver Lyttelton's Favorite Films Of 2012

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by Oliver Lyttelton
December 31, 2012 12:22 PM
29 Comments
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10) "The Hunt"

In the fourteen years since the release of his masterpiece "Festen," Thomas Vinterberg's follow-ups have been, to varying degrees, disappointments. So in a way, it makes sense that his storming comeback comes from a film that looks again at the subject matter of sexual abuse, albeit from a very different perspective to that of his 1998 Dogme picture. Mads Mikkelsen, in a career-best performance, plays Lucas, a teacher in a small Danish town, left lonely after a poisonous divorce, and working as a classroom assistant after his old school shuts down. Things start to look up after he strikes up a romance with his co-worker, but suddenly, his world is up-ended when Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of his pupils and the daughter of his best friend, accuses him of inappropriate behavior. It's the thoughtless and mostly unknowing act of a little girl -- we know from the start that Lucas is blameless -- but like a 20th century melodrama (the film's reminiscent of both Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's "The Visit" in some respects), the townspeople can't believe that a child would lie, and so Lucas becomes ostracized and untouchable in the community. Vinterberg makes the smart move and simply gets out of the way of the story, letting the script (co-written by Tobias Lindholm, writer-director of the equally great "A Hijacking") and phenomenal cast do the heavy lifting. And at the center of it all is Mikkelsen, giving an absolutely titanic performance as a man so confounded by the idea that people might think he could do such a thing that he can never bring himself to deny it. It's something that aggravated some viewers, but in Mikkelsen's hands, it's understandable, and deeply, deeply moving.

"Argo" Warner Bros.
9) "Argo"

Some have tainted Ben Affleck's "Argo" with the faint praise that, once upon a time, all commercial movies were as smart and well-executed as this, so really "Argo" is nothing special. Well, I'm not sure that it was ever the case that films like this arrived like they grew on trees, and if it was, it certainly isn't the case now, so we should certainly cherish an "Argo" when it does come along. Affleck's first two films as director, "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," were promising without quite sticking the landing, but even this marks a real leap up; a thrilling, breathlessly tense picture with plenty of wit, style and feeling. Affleck surrounds himself with a cast stacked with character actor greats (Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston being particular stand-outs), putting flesh on the bones of Chris Terrio's screenplay which is terrific, but perhaps drew the characters a little thinly. It's just one example of the way that Affleck makes all the right choices from here, from never leaning too heavily on sentiment with his own character, to a clear, concise storytelling. And some of the filmmaking here -- the way he juggles the tone from life-and-death-stakes to the Hollywood fun-and-games and back, the breathlessly tense editing of the final act -- is pretty much world class. It's absolutely a mainstream crowd-pleaser, but an impeccably executed one, and I must have missed the memo that declared that was a bad thing on either count.

8) "No"

In an especially strong year for political cinema, my favorite came from a relatively unlikely source; Chile, and rising director Pablo Larrain. I'd been a big fan of the director's previous two pictures, "Tony Manero" and "Post Mortem," dark, but quite different pictures that both looked at his nation in the years when it was being ruled by General Pinochet's dictatorship. To close off this trilogy, Larrain naturally looked at the final days of the regime, doing so with "No," a film that marks both his most formally audacious, and yet his most commercially accessible, picture to date. The film follows Rene (the best performance yet from Gael Garcia Bernal), a trendy, skateboarding ad executive with a collapsing marriage, who's asked to run the advertising campaign for those asking the people of Chile to vote 'No' on the upcoming referendum, and oust Pinochet from power. His boss (Alfredo Castro) is meanwhile fighting for the 'Yes' side, but that's almost the least of his problems, as the previously apathetic Rene attempts to use American ad techniques to sell the idea of freedom to the people. Funny, gripping and as perceptive as anything ever made about the power and process of advertising, it was also one of the most visually bold films of the year, thanks to Larrain's decision to shoot on bona-fide 1980s-style video. You feel like it shouldn't work, but he finds a strange beauty in the format, and it helps him blend contemporary archive footage in with what he shot seamlessly. In short: Yes.

7) "Moonrise Kingdom"

Speaking (as we were at the start of this piece, if you've made it this far...) of children's literature, "Moonrise Kingdom" makes a good claim for being Wes Anderson's first children's film. His last, "Fantastic Mr Fox," might have a more obvious claim to the title, but that was essentially an urbane, if unusually zippy early Woody Allen picture that happened to be made in stop-frame animation. "Moonrise," however, taps more than anything else the director's ever made into that innocence of youth (complete with nods to classic children's literature along the way), and in the process turned out to be certainly the director's best film since "The Royal Tenenbaums," probably his best since "Rushmore" and maybe even his finest work ever. Obviously of a piece with the immaculate tableaux of his earlier films, Anderson feels looser and more playful here, formally at least, freed up by his fresh-faced protagonists (who are both excellent). Perhaps more importantly, the script (co-written by Roman Coppola) tones down the more arch qualities, and plays up the feeling that had often been lacking from his more recent films, thanks to beautifully drawn performances from the adults, including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. Despite the coming-of-age subject matter, and evocation of hazy endless summers and scouting adventures, it also feels like Anderson's maturing, somehow. If nothing else, worth watching for those glorious end credits.

6) "Life Of Pi"

I have to admit, I'd been something of a "Life of Pi" grinch around the Playlist water cooler in the run up to release. I wasn't sure that the novel could ever be adapted, I'd been unimpressed by Ang Lee's last few films, and the trailers had left me unmoved. But lo, when I caught up with the film just before Christmas, my heart grew two sizes too big, and I fell seriously in love with it. It's obviously a visual marvel. Even a 3D refusenik like myself was left positively evangelical by the format after the way Lee uses it, and Richard Parker (and the other animals) are pretty much the best visual effects I've ever seen. And the way that the filmmaker manages to find endless and imaginative ways to lens his hero (Suraj Sharma, in perhaps the most undervalued performance of the year), his tiger, and his boat, which could easily have become repetitive after about ten minutes, further cements that he's truly one of the greats. But it's far from just empty spectacle either; the director, and his script (by David Magee) engages intelligently and wholeheartedly with the novel's themes of religion, fate and storytelling, without becoming overbearing or tiresome -- in fact, it's arguably more successful than the novel in that respect. That Lee was able to make a $100 million dollar movie about these themes at 20th Century Fox was impressive enough, that he turns it into something of a Rorschach test for the audience (I felt that the film was suggesting that belief in God is a comforting fiction, religious friends took it as an affirmation of their faith) even more so. In a year full of idiotic 'cinema is dead' op-eds, Lee basically refuted themacross the space of two hours here.
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29 Comments

  • Joe Sotham | June 26, 2013 2:55 PMReply

    Sorry, you lost me at bildungsroman, and I know what it means. That falls into the elitist 'look at how smart I am' category and you completely loose touch with you audience, unless your audience is comprised of intellectuals like Justin Erik Halldór Smith.

    Note to Justin, no offense intended, I find you writing very challenging and enjoyable.

  • Candid | January 2, 2013 1:48 PMReply

    Still can't understand why you are championing Anna Karenina so much, especially over the other much more complex brilliant and challenging films that came out this year. Style over substance as opposed to what you argue as "inventively cinematic".

  • Alan | January 3, 2013 6:11 AM

    "complex brilliant and challenging films". Like what? What is your barometer for "challenging" cinema? It just seems like AK was a film you didn't like.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | January 2, 2013 1:56 PM

    Well, you know those times when a person doesn't necessarily share your opinion? This is one of those.

  • Klaatu | January 2, 2013 9:33 AMReply

    Great list, only one I expected to find was The Imposter - the more I think about that film the more it pushes into my top 5 of 2012. But yeah, any list that has Wadjda and Tabu in the top three is awesome by anyone's standards.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | January 2, 2013 1:57 PM

    I wasn't that crazy about The Imposter, but keep meaning to give it a second look.

  • Mike | January 1, 2013 8:59 PMReply

    I suffered through Moonrise Kingdom last night. Can't believe it's making top ten lists this year. You say its a children's film, Oliver? I'll give you fifty bucks if you can find a kid that will watch it all the way through!

  • Mike | January 1, 2013 8:55 PMReply

    I suffered through Moonrise Kingdom last night. Can't believe it's making top ten lists this year. You say its a children's film, Oliver? I'll give you fifty bucks if you can find a kid that will watch it all the way through!

  • d | January 1, 2013 10:43 PM

    air-tight argument.

  • jimmiescoffee | January 1, 2013 8:54 PMReply

    about time 'Anna Karenina' got some credit. wonderful film.

  • Alan | January 1, 2013 6:59 PMReply

    I was suprised to read Oliver's about-turn on the Taylor-Johnson performance in Anna Karenina. Now, I haven't seen the film (it won't be released in Australia for another month), but I was a little bewildered that many critics referred to his performance as callow or out of depth. That's the character, or at least it was my interpretation of the Tolstoy character. The actor is not playing a Rochester or even a Heathcliff: he's meant to project shallow charm and a growing insensitivity to his on-screen partner. I am looking forward to the film and seeing how the filmmakers have interpreted the characters, but it makes me wince when a film critic talks about how shallow Taylor-Johnson seems: have these guys read the book at all? And, if they did, did they understand it?

  • john | January 1, 2013 4:53 AMReply

    Are you NUTS! Ted the Worst film of the year. Everyone can have there own opinion but that was just pure funny.

  • Zack | January 1, 2013 9:27 AM

    "Everyone can have 'there' own opinion, but also yours means you are nuts."

  • George | January 1, 2013 12:40 AMReply

    So nice to see someone actually state what a truly horrible film Ted was. Weak and manipulative crap regardless of Mark Wahlberg.

  • George | January 1, 2013 12:40 AMReply

    So nice to see someone actually state what a truly horrible film Ted was. Weak and manipulative crap regardless of Mark Wahlberg.

  • anonymous | December 31, 2012 7:26 PMReply

    The Master is awful thats why you didn't see greatness. It will ruin Andersons carer. Nobody will give him money for Inherent Vice.

  • Oogle monster | January 1, 2013 12:48 PM

    Yeah totally will ruin his career by landing on the majority of top 10 lists, remain a critical darling for decades to come, and likely top the decade's best lists. Anonymous, it's a shame you are a coward and unoriginal... or else your humor would be a little more entertaining.

  • Brad | January 1, 2013 11:29 AM

    Someone already has, and I believe her name is Megan Ellison.

  • AE | December 31, 2012 8:05 PM

    It won't. They will.

  • anonymous | December 31, 2012 7:25 PMReply

    You didnt find greatness in The Master becuase its awful. It will ruin Andersons carer. Nobody is going to give him money for Inherent Vice to make another stupid movie.

  • Christopher Bell | January 2, 2013 2:06 PM

    @Zack
    <3

  • Zack | January 1, 2013 9:28 AM

    You posted this twice and you thought that's how "career" is spelled both times?

  • anonymous | December 31, 2012 7:25 PMReply

    You didnt find greatness in The Master becuase its awful. It will ruin Andersons carer. Nobody is going to give him money for Inherent Vice to make another stupid movie.

  • Oogle monster | December 31, 2012 4:14 PMReply

    Great list! I love that The Playlist is such a champion of my favorite film of 2011- Young Adult. Wish the Academy had followed this trend.

  • cirkusfolk | December 31, 2012 3:52 PMReply

    Big props for listing Ted as worst film of the year. I completely agree dispite us somehow being in the minority.

  • tin | December 31, 2012 12:49 PMReply

    You are my fave Playlister, Oliver! Love your championing of Anna Karenina, most underrated film of the year imo.

  • yer | December 31, 2012 12:32 PMReply

    Who is Oliver Lyttelton?

  • Edward | December 31, 2012 12:51 PM

    Yer, I've been meaning to tell you this and I hate to do it in such a public forum, but: he's your real, biological father.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | December 31, 2012 12:38 PM

    Very good question.

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