2012: My Top 20 Of The Year

With most cinematic years; the best Bond in decades, a spectacular juxtaposition of fantasy and reality (Beasts Of The Southern Wild), an exciting new franchise fronted by Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) and the new films by Wes Anderson, Ken Loach, Rian Johnson, Ben Wheatley and Andrew Dominik would have graced my top twenty of the year. 2012 however, was no ordinary year; with everyone from the little-known independents to the big-budgeted behemoths delivering sustained examples of film-making excellence. The following twenty represent my favourite in what has been an outstanding year for cinema in all its forms and is (as ever) in descending order for dramatic effect. Enjoy!

AVENGERS

20. THE AVENGERS  (USA, Joss Whedon)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Under the leadership of the elusive Nick Fury; Marvel big-hitters Iron Man, Thor, Captain America & The Incredible Hulk  join forces to combat an enemy which threaten the entire existence of mankind.

WHY IT’S GREAT

In less talented hands, this could have descended into a turgid incumbent mess that spectacularly failed to juggle a significant number of very big egos. The fact that it doesn’t is in itself is a triumph, yet The Avengers (none of this assemble nonsense – despite the potential confusion with the atrocious mid nineties Steed & Peel British TV series adaptation) is so much more than just an act of defiance. It’s a deliriously entertaining and extremely fun superhero romp, offering the perfect antithesis to the serious undertones of Nolan’s Bats universe. The inspired choice of Whedon as director ensured it was also one of the funniest works of 2012 (puny god, any one?) and promises that the inevitable sequel released in 2015 (with him on board once more) should be nothing less than a complete riot (the suggested inclusion of Marvel big bad Thanos will certainly raise the stakes). How DC’s much muted Justice League compares is anyone’s guess, yet it goes without saying they have an enormously high bar to meet.

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THEMASTER

19. THE MASTER (USA, Paul Thomas Anderson)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A honourably discharged, PTSD-suffering soldier encounters the charismatic leader of an ideological movement, and through correspondence with one another, both attempt to understand and rationalise their place in post-war American society.

WHY IT’S GREAT

For what it lacks in conventional narrative it more than compensates with characterisation. In the shape of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, we have two extraordinary performances portraying angry, confused individuals completely lost in their sense of belonging – both trying to make sense of a world recently engulfed in mass murder and only “healed” by the devastation of two atomic bombs. It’s a film which also addresses the concepts of truth and belief – whether they conform to an individual or a group mirroring concepts of Scientology. It’s by no means for everyone, yet those who are prepared to be entranced by the contrasting approaches of Freddie & Lancaster will be richly rewarded on repeat viewings. And if that doesn’t rock your boat, there’s always the lasting image of Amy Adams tossing Hoffman off into a sink.

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MARTHAMARCYMAYMARLENE

18. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (USA, Sean Durkin)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young woman is reunited with her family after a sustained period of time living with a cult, yet as she attempts to readjust to normality, the psychological impact of her experiences begin to surface.

WHY IT’S GREAT

The last couple of years have seen a number of impressive American independent débuts,  yet Durkin’s is arguably the strongest. Its usage of evoking flashback into its narrative to portray memory and its affect on the present is extremely unnerving – impressively mounting the dread as the film progresses. Yet despite its excellent aesthetic, it is the performance of Elizabeth Olsen (stepping out of the shadows of her older sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley) which truly sells the constant sense of unease. For those who like their dramas to be seeped in psychological trauma, MMMM is essential viewing.

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KIDWITHABIKE

17. THE KID WITH A BIKE (Belgium, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Profoundly affected by parental negligence, a young boy from a foster home is taken into care by a sympathetic woman. Yet his volatile nature make him difficult to deal with, inadvertently luring him into the clutches of a local underbelly.

WHY IT’S GREAT

The Dardenne brothers tradition of portraying a story so accustomed to melodrama in a realist form results in another occasionally heart-breaking yet ultimately uplifting experience – orchestrated by an incredibly moving performance by the youngster Thomas Doret who wonderfully portrays that no child (no matter how troubled) should be absolved from the promise of a second chance. Do not be put off by the bland title, particularly if dramas centred around child neglect are of interest.

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AROYALAFFAIR

16. A ROYAL AFFAIR (Denmark, Nikolaj Arcel) 

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A princess disillusioned with her loveless marriage to the King of Denmark falls in love with her husband’s physician – whose social and political beliefs are instrumental in reforming Danish society. Yet as his influence over the king increases, the perils of their infidelity become greater.

WHY IT’S GREAT

It’s one of those period dramas which avoids the derivative nature of royalist tales; managing to combine an emotional story, historical insight and thematic subtext without ever feeling like the history lessons or weighty issues overwhelm the drama – showing that even modestly-sized countries comparable to Scotland can create compelling cinema rich in production values.  Additionally, it also contains one of the finest actors in cinema working today (Mads Mikkelsen) at the absolute top of his game. Naturally, there’ll be more on him later.

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YOUVE BEEN TRUMPED

15. YOU’VE BEEN TRUMPED (UK, Anthony Baxter)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Donald Trump; multi-billionaire and eccentrically-haired chauvinist, declares his intention to construct a golf resort on the Aberdeenshire coastline – with complete disregard for the potential environmental issues and the locale directly affected by his proposal. This documentary charts  the role of the local and national authorities in Scotland who green-lit the project, as well as the community who dared to object to it.

WHY IT’S GREAT

In an off-kilter kind of way, it’s a parable with Scottish cinema (possibly even industry) in the sense that we always seem to team up with external forces (typically from America) at the expense of strengthening or preserving our own resources (even in times of the national question). In the run-up to the recent American Presidential elections, Trump proved himself to be a reprehensible figure of nausea through his twitter account alone, yet this documentary illuminates this ‘figure of hate’ idea even more – and for good reason. However, rather than just a shameful expose of the Trump organisation, Grampian Police and the Scottish Government’s depressing ability to cave into the seduction of the American dollar; YBT is also an uplifting portrayal of community spirit in the face of corporate greed and institutional complicity  One of the most important works to emerge from Scotland in recent times which everyone living in or from here should take the time to watch.

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YOU’VE BEEN TRUMPED WEBSITE

ARGO

14. ARGO (USA, Ben Affleck)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In the outbreak of the Iranian revolution of 1979, staff from the American embassy are trapped in the hostile Muslim uprising. In an attempt to facilitate their escape, a faction of the American government create a false science fiction film production – citing the six isolated individuals as Canadian members of the crew.

WHY IT’S GREAT

It’s astonishing to think that less than a decade ago; Ben Affleck was better known for wooden turns in Michael Bay crapfests, being one half of a couple resembling a business arrangement more than an intimate relationship and was a key ingredient in a song from Team America:World Police explaining why Pearl Harbour was utter cack. Well the times they are a’changin’, because with three directorial features Affleck has gone from a figure of ridicule to a force to be reckoned with – Argo being the clearest signifier of this remarkable transformation to date (so much so that it could well be on its way to Oscar glory). Putting the “Hollywood saves the day” issue aside, it’s an expertly crafted mainstream thriller with genuinely inspired moments of finger-nail tension and belly-laugh comedy (look out for arguably 2012’s best line), wisely tiptoeing around the volatile political backdrop to concentrate on the unbelievable true story of a planned attempt of escape from a diabolical situation. Almost everything you could hope for in a commercial thriller.

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SHAME

13. SHAME (USA/UK, Steve McQueen)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A New York-based high-flying business-type leads a life dominated by casual intercourse and pornography. Yet after his younger sister is reintroduced into his life, he attempts to address his form of addiction and develop a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex.

WHY IT’S GREAT

Addiction is known, yet rarely understood – and McQueen’s portrayal of one of the most taboo (and dismissed) of conditions paved the way for an exemplary character study. Like The Master, it’s not necessarily a film driven by a conventional plot; yet those unconvinced by this circumstance will still be able to acknowledge a mesmerising turn by the consistently excellent Michael Fassbender, ensuring Shame to be one of the most thought-provoking and provocative features of 2012.

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BERBERIANSOUNDSTUDIO

12. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (UK, Peter Strickland)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A quietly-spoken English sound engineer finds himself working on the post-production of a flamboyant Giallo Italian horror film, and as the process continues further, the psychological effects instigated by the graphic project gradually take its toll.

WHY IT’S GREAT

An Anti-Horror film which is both a tribute to the genres construction as well as a critique of its intent. For anyone familiar with the works of blood-splattered European fare or have endured the claustrophobia of being stuck in an editing suite for hours/days/weeks/months on end, there is much to admire here – none more so than a superb central performance by Toby Jones (a thoroughly lovely guy, as discovered during my incoherent ramblings to him during BSS’s première at 2012’s EIFF).

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HOLY MOTORS

11. HOLY MOTORS (France, Leos Carax)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

An actor of sorts is chauffeured across the streets of Paris in a limo; embodying the roles of different individuals as the journey progresses – whether a tramp, a concerned father, a dying man, a murdering gangster, a mocap performer, a former lover of Kylie Minogue, a husband of a chimp or a hideous sewer-dweller with a constant erection.

WHY IT’S GREAT

Is it Carax’s own personal tribute to cinema in all its glory & grotesqueness? Is it (like he claims) a critique on the nature of performance? Or is it a portrayal of angelic figures embodying the roles of the disenfranchised throughout the streets (and sewers) of Paris? God only knows; but this batshit insane, multi-genre experience is unlike anything you’ll have seen in a cinema last year. A truly unique work completely devoid of definition, with Denis Levant delivering an incredible metamorphic showing – arguably the very best of 2012.

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THEMUPPETS

10. THE MUPPETS (USA, James Boban)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A muppets obsessive encounters his idol Kermit the frog, and through a series of contrived events, inspires the iconic green individual to round up the old gang for a comeback.

WHY IT’S GREAT

Even if (like me) you would have preferred slightly less Walter and significantly less promotional hogging by the house of mouse PR machine (Cars, Selena Gomez); it still can’t quite dampen the joy the inner child feels in seeing Kermit and co back together again. For anyone with fond memories of the television series or their feature films, this is a lovingly created celebration of what made them utterly wonderful in the first place and even how they fit into the world of today – with the icing on the cake the glorious (and Oscar winning) songs of Flight Of The Conchord’s Bret McKenzie. Apart from Matthew McConaughey and his fried chicken enthusiast in Killer Joe, the comeback of 2012!

FANTASTICALLY AWESOME TRAILER LINK

THERAID

9. THE RAID (Indonesia, Gareth Huw Evans)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A SWAT team are sent to a high rise tenement block in order to flush out an odious crime lord. Yet through his stranglehold over the residents, they encounter relentless violent opposition in the locked-down building – ensuring that the only way out, is up.

WHY IT’S GREAT

It’s been hailed as the finest action film since Die Hard or Hard Boiled, yet the only meaningful comparison with those two classics come in its high rise location or Far Eastern region. First and foremost, The Raid is a martial arts film and consequently a complete triumph of the expression and discipline of the human body – with the jaw-dropping choreography creating a series of breathless and memorable fighting sequences which are as painstakingly constructed as the most eloquent of dance pieces. It may share an unfortunate plot resemblance to the very respectable Dredd, yet the physicality of the set-pieces and the brutality of honourable nutter Mad Dog will leave more of a lasting impression. Violence has seldom looked as beautiful.

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INTOTHEABYSS

8. INTO THE ABYSS: A TALE OF DEATH, A TALE OF LIFE (USA/EURO, Werner Herzog)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Film-maker and god-like genius Werner Herzog meets of group of individuals directly or indirectly linked to a set of murders, death row and the concept of capital punishment itself.

WHY IT’S GREAT

If there’s anyone who has demonstrated an understanding of the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition, very few would be able to match the application of Herzog courtesy of his ever-increasing back catalogue of documentaries. His ability to find the most humane of characteristics in the darkest corners of existence not only conjure up a set of ideas and emotions, but manage to take the very individualist story and transcend them into a universal truth which embodies us all.   With Into The Abyss, he has taken perhaps the most morbid concept of humanity and turned it into a statement of what it means to be alive. His finest work since Grizzly Man and another milestone in the work of one of the worlds great directors.

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TABU

7. TABU (Portugal, Miguel Gomes)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A love story told in two distinctive halves; the first involving a Polish woman living in Lisbon caring for her elderly neighbour. The other; the recollection of a tale regarding a pair of star-crossed lovers situated in Africa decades before.

WHY IT’S GREAT

With the exception of Pixar’s Up, few (if any) contemporary works have managed to evoke the magic of romance in wordless form similar to the likes of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise. Miguel Gomes’s Tabu is such an example, whose second half reverts to a portrayal of a love story told only through its visuals, ambient sound design, the music of the Ronettes and a poetic voice-over which accompanies the technical construction beautifully. Yet it is so much more than a playful subversion in narrative, it’s an emotionally captivating tale of romantic tragedy told over two generations and is far more profound than a cynical exercise in manipulation such as The Notebook can ever be. The second best love story of 2012.

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ONCE

6. ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Set over the course of a night; a group of policemen, a prosecutor and a doctor attempt to locate a body amongst the Turkish wilderness – assisted in the search by the two perpetrators.

WHY IT’S GREAT

Sometimes the mark of a great film is not necessarily the experience you have of watching it at the time, but of the lingering effect it has on the both the conscious and subconscious weeks and months later. Anatolia is one such film; an unconventional work that turns the crime drama on its head, is constantly one step ahead of its audience in terms of who or what it’s about (whether it’s male desperation, female absence or something else entirely) and is enriched with moments, conversations and images that stay with you long after the credits roll. Certainly not a film for the masses, but its appeal and recognition will outstay most of the general multiplex releases in the decades to come.

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TDKR

5. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (USA, Christopher Nolan)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Nearly a decade on from the events of The Dark Knight; a retired and reclusive Bruce Wayne decides to reawaken his alter-ego after coming face to face with a particular jewel thief and through learning of a new threat to Gotham City emerging from the sewers.

WHY IT’S GREAT

It’s easy to forget the landmark effect Batman Begins had on not just superhero ventures, but films of a big-budgeted persuasion as well. Where this area of film-making was once deemed by the general consensus to be little more than a vessel for dumb escapism, Christopher Nolan proved that you don’t have to treat your audience with contempt  in order to grip both the imagination and attention of the mainstream – from his Batman reboot all the way to Inception. The concluding part of his Dark Knight trilogy, whilst not immune from problems (the suitability of Bane’s voice on occasion, Wayne being stuck in a hole with Tom Conti, a near ending not too dissimilar to the inspired farce of Batman The Movie), continues the trend in offering breath-taking scope and story-telling ambition, whereas its conclusion brought the ideas laid out in BB  full circle and gave the fans of the Frank Miller graphic novels or the darker psyche of Batman exactly what many of them have always wanted; a trilogy of films which truly get under the skin of a human-being motivated to do something extraordinarily extreme (even psychopathic) in reaction to personal tragedy and social injustice – something which never threatened to materialise during the times of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. What happens next with the Caped Crusader remains to be seen,  but many can now rest safe in the knowledge that Nolan successfully brought a vision of Batman to the cinematic fore that had been desired for so long – something which this self-confessed fanboy will always be grateful for.

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THEHUNT

4. THE HUNT (Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A well-liked nursery assistant finds himself wrongly accused of child molestation. Yet as the accusations intensify, so does his inability to lead a normal life.

WHY IT’S GREAT

For many, 2012 will be a year remembered best for some rather shocking revelations regarding a deceased television presenter and the absolute failure of his management in not acting on his despicable behaviour for so many years. But  even with a subject as sensitive as paedophilia (and as demonstrated by the  former “news” publication The News Of The World’s  ‘Name and Shame’ campaign in the wake of the tragic Sarah Payne story in the early noughties),  one must always remember the flip side of such a distressing scenario – when innocent people are shamefully accused of a crime that once associated with, is almost impossible to escape from. As a kind of opposite to his Dogme effort Festen, Thomas Vinterberg explored this scenario in his gut-wrenching drama; a film which demonstrates the devastation caused when hearsay mutates into hysteria, or even the most saddening idea of all that the panic over paedophilia has created – that many adults in modern times are almost terrified to interact with kids which aren’t their own in the fear that their sincere intentions might be deemed sinister by others. These powerful concepts are heightened further with a stunning performance by Mads Mikkelsen, who along with Denis Lavant in Holy Motors, is a strong contender for the best showing by any performer in a film last year.

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ABOUT ELLY

3. ABOUT ELLY (Iran, Asghar Farhadi)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A group of friends head off for a seaside holiday, carrying along with them a slightly enigmatic and unfamiliar acquittance of the group named Elly. After a particular incident, she disappears – leaving the anxious collective to speculate over her location and well-being.

WHY IT’S GREAT

After the success of A Separation (my favourite film of 2011), Asghar Farhadi’s 2009 feature achieved a proper UK cinematic release in 2012 and whilst not quite on the same level as his masterpiece of 2011, it once again demonstrated his remarkable ability to create an assemble of truly believable, three dimensional characters. These individuals are deeply flawed yet they’re constantly sympathetic, whilst their experiences or concerns never fail to address aspects of contemporary Iranian society and its balancing act between casual secularism and fundamentalist Islam. Yet ultimately it is a riveting and emotionally-charged drama completely orchestrated by the performances and character nuances achieved by Farhadi’s direction. If Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense thanks to his placing of the camera,  he is doing the same in regards to performance.  And in terms of  an actors’ director (with the possible exception of Mike Leigh) there are very few in the world working right now better than this extremely gifted Iranian film-maker.

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LIFEOFPI

2. LIFE OF PI (USA, Ang Lee)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A Canadian novelist meets an Indian immigrant alleged to have a remarkable story – going straight to heart in the pursuits of faith and belief. His recollections entail his family upbringing and their ill-fated voyage to seek a new life.

WHY IT’S GREAT

Having taken a highly regarded yet supposedly unfilmable novel, Lee (like Lynne Ramsay managed with We Need To Talk About Kevin in 2011) has proved that with the appropriate care, consideration and craft; there is no source material in existence that cannot be successfully adapted into something which works on its own terms. Carrying over the books musings regarding faith and it’s tale of human endurance, Life Of Pi is an astonishing package of technical bravado, captivating story-telling and thematic resonance. A work which is emotionally engaging yet never sentimental and deeply spiritual without being aggressive in its religious position. See it on the biggest screen you can (and if you must witness it in 3D, it is widely claimed by many to be the best usage of the format to date).

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AMOUR

1. AMOUR (France/EURO, Michael Haneke)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

An elderly man faces up to the reality of his other half succumbing to physical and mental deterioration, and out of pure unconditional love for his wife, refuses to allow the terrible circumstance to demean her.

WHY IT’S GREAT

Commonly, cinema likes you to believe that love is all about grand gestures or magical moments. Locking eyes with that desirable object of affection for the first time in a ‘love at first sight’ manner. Orchestrating lavish marriage proposals to the backdrop of a beautiful skyline sound-tracked by a conveniently placed travelling band of musicians. Or running after them through a crowded street/train station/airport terminal/ the pouring rain (add/delete as appropriate) before proclaiming their declaration of love as if the words were agonizingly rehearsed to achieve the maximum out-pour of emotion from both parties (Andie McDowell however, remains unmoved). The truth is, whilst all these notions can certainly be considered romantic (and have resulted in some genuinely magical moments in cinema), they do not constitute as genuine portrayals of love. There’s a reason martial vows commonly include the lines “in sickness and in health” and “til death do us part” , as when you are in love with someone, it is these two ideas within companionship that overrule everything else. Michael Haneke – a film-maker considered by many as a pursuer of psychological essays rather than pieces of drama – has delivered such a film which conforms to this belief; a devastating yet strangely life-affirming and honest portrayal of a situation far too many of us will inevitably have to contend with in our senior years. My best film of 2012 is not just one of the greatest films about old age ever devised, but also one of cinema’s most genuine and affective love stories to date. It might not be considered as escapist Friday night entertainment, but no other work of last year deserves your attention more.

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