Films of 2012

The title of this post is self-explanatory, but needs a few words of definition. So here they are…

1) I am not a professional film-critic. Film-going and writing about film is a hobby and self-indulgence for me. I can’t therefore claim my list is a ‘best of’ 2012′ list. It’s a list of the films that stay with me, haunt me, continue to come back to me (in a good way) long after I’ve seen them. It’s got nothing to with ratings out of 10 or 5, which are by their nature arbitrary and only a very general guide to a reaction in the moment of writing.

2) As I’m not a professional film-critic I also limit what I see, by and large, to what I’ll enjoy given what I can glean from my reading, listening and know about the films in advance. So I don’t do a ‘worst of’ list at all.

3) I’m living in South Africa these days. This means I’m basing my list on films I’ve seen here in the cinema in 2012. Release dates are not always the same in South Africa as in Europe, UK and USA – some films don’t get a cinema release at all, and some are very much delayed into the next year. Some of them get very brief cinema releases – so I miss or am very delayed in seeing many of the films I’m interested in seeing on the big screen (DVD/TV/trips to UK help occasionally). So here’s a non-exhaustive list of stuff I know may well have been contenders for one of my films of 2012 (bearing in mind they may pop up in 2013 … ): Cabin In The Woods, Berberian Sound Studio, Argo, Amour, Holy Motors, Rust And Bone, The Raid … As I said, that’s not an exhaustive list. I look forward to all of the above, and SO many more, at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.

4) Where I’ve seen a film since restarting blogging, I’ve linked to the post (click on the first mention of the film’s title) and said only a few things about a film; where I saw it before the blogging reboot, I’ve said a bit more.

5) This, as many have said, has been a really good year for cinema. Not just the small, critically acclaimed films which only enthusiasts like me enjoy; but also for some big, expensive films made with some real thought and craft. There’s no longer an excuse for making a brainless blockbuster – as you’ll see, I’ve included a few hugely successful films which have also garnered a fair share of really positive acclaim, provoking thought and opinion. Making commercially successful, well-crafted and intelligently constructed films is a tough ask and needs to be encouraged.

6) I plan to see The Master in the next couple of days; this film may well make it into the list. In which case, I will add it in. My game, my rules. (2/1 I’ve now seen The Master. It’s on the list. A full blog will follow.

7) Enough qualications. Here’s a list, in no order at all, of the films I’ve seen in the cinema in 2012 which continue to haunt me, stay with me and provoke me in good ways. Wade in with your thoughts.

The Angels’ Share A great big warm glow of a film, with an edge of social commentary that won’t leave you alone. British director Ken Loach tells a simple story well and does it with depth, coaxing some subtly brilliant performances from his actors. In a year of pitifully few good comedies, this stands out.

The Dark Knight Rises Yes, I mean it. One of the aforementioned blockbusters with a brain. Inception director Christopher Nolan completes his Batman trilogy, and it’s a rare trilogy without a weak film in it. I do need to watch all 3 again, but at the moment this stands as my favourite of the 3 (Batman Begins 2nd, The Dark Knight 3rd, since you ask). It’s a brave choice to give a superhero a villain who seems to be his equal. Bane is that to Batman, and more – he’s a hint of what Batman could become – and as a result this is a franchise blockbuster which asks you to think, presents moments of genuine tension and even manages to take Batman out of the narrative action for significant periods without the film unduly suffering. I know many people struggled to hear what Bane was saying. That wasn’t my experience, so I have a hard time finding much wrong with the film.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild A truly memorable film, which months on I can still remember individual shots, moments, and feelings from. The central performance from the child actor Quevenzane Wallis is nothing short of staggering; this is awarm, subtle, wondrous, funny film that can lead you to real, righteous anger as well.

End Of Watch Not just the best police film of the year, but the best police film for many years. Uses the over-familiar found footage style to good effect, with brilliant and committed performances from the main players. Thrilling, involving, emotionally affecting.

Ruby Sparks A (kind of) romantic comedy with a dark edge – at the centre of which is an incredibly brave performance from Zoe Kazan. That she also wrote the script suggests we will see much more from her in the future; in my book, that’s ‘a good thing. If you summarise Ruby Sparks it sounds pretentious; if you see it, you laugh, cry and can’t forget it.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Well, I thought so anyway. Is it perfect? No. Did it make me almost ridiculously happy? Yes. Is Martin Freeman fantastic in it? Of course.

Searching For Sugar Man A compellingly told documentary/musical detective story, this manages to wring a good bit of suspense out of a story that you can guess the ending of even if you don’t know it for real. If one film in 2012 is going to convince you never to give up on the chance of a change in direction, then this it. Joyous.

The Hunger Games Another of those which will surprise some – but months on I can’t shake this from my head. I haven’t read the books, so I came to this fresh. If I had read them, maybe it would have felt too much like the plot was ‘on rails’ out of a need not to alienate the teenage/young adult fan-base from the books; but none of that was an issue for me. From the director of Pleasantville (another film which does a lot with an apparently slight and light story), The Hunger Games is a good action movie with a well told story, at the heart of which is strong, independently minded female character. We need more of those, don’t we? Confirming the star status of Jennifer Lawrence, whom I’ve enjoyed greatly since Winter’s Bone (one of my films of 2010), it’s quite an achievement to tell a story about such dark subject matter (children being forced to kill children at the hands of a totalitarian state) with such wit and intelligence and excitement. That the film also asks questions about poverty and justice on such a big canvas only adds to this film’s value. This is the sort of choice I’ll get mocked for. I don’t care. I have no idea what happens next in these stories, and I can’t wait to find out.

Skyfall Surely the only Bond movie to have made quite so many year-end ‘best of’ lists, this is proof of what happens when you entrust a national and international institution to an artful director. Not just a very good James Bond film, probably one of two or three best; not just a good film, it’s one of the year’s best. Intelligent, funny, superbly acted and very, very well shot.

The Master A full reflection will follow … For now, I liked this, I think, less than There Will Be Blood, but this is still a strange, memorable, mood-piece which defies just about all the standard narrative rules. Brilliantly acted by the two leads, and as usual a bizarre and brilliant score and beautifully shot.

There you go, then. A small handful of films deserve a mention and brief word for not quite being in my most memorable of the year, but nevertheless still very good…

Prometheus I was one of the few who really liked this – I would have put it in the main list but such was the expectation around the film and such was the virulence of the general response to it after release that I think we all need a little distance from it in order to assess it properly. My personal sense it that it will stand up well especially when we get the whole sweep of the films to follow it.

The Descendants 2011 in most of the world, seen in the cinema in 2012 by me in South Africa. Many people said that this that is one of those films they didn’t expect to love but did. It creeps up on you, more than the sum of its parts, making you laugh, cry and consider buying a Hawaiian shirt.

The Avengers (released in some places as Avengers Assemble) Another really good super-hero movie in 2012, of a totally different tone to The Dark Knight Rises. This has a light touch, and Joss Whedon does a really good job of directing a film with so many different characters. Great fun.

That, is that. That’s 9 – 10 if The Master makes it in, and 11 if you count Prometheus.

Life Of Pi

Here we are again. Another film adaptation of a supposedly un-filmable book. One day we’ll learn that such a category no longer exists  – if it ever did. Ang Lee is the director for this take on the best-selling book which tells the story of Pi, the esoteric son of an Indian zoo owner. When the family and animals all board a ship for a new life in Canada and encounter a vicious storm, Pi finds himself in a life-boat with only a handful of surviving zoo animals for company – including Roger Parker, the Bengal tiger. So unfolds a story of the fantastic adventures and the mundane business of survival at sea, as told in flashback by an adult Pi to a Canadian author who’d been told that Pi’s story would free him from writer’s block. As the tale begins, Pi tells him that it won’t merely enable him to write again; it will make him believe in God.

Ang Lee is a great choice to direct this sort of film – since the dazzling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon he’s been a master of using technology to further a story without dominating it. That’s essential here, and the 3D CGI with which the film is laden is breathtaking, beautiful and in service of the story as opposed to drawing attention to itself. Personally I’m not sure how much benefit there is to it being in 3D  – but that’s personal taste.

The director is a good choice for another reason. Most of his films have at some level been about issues of identity and self-discovery. Whether it’s Lust, Caution or Brokeback Mountain or the career low-point Hulk, his dramas are about people finding out who they really are. This story couldn’t flag that theme much more obviously; as a schoolboy Pi takes his identity in his own hands by shortening his name to escape playground mockery; the tiger’s name is a result of an administrative confusion with the name of his captor. So the story continues, the quest for survival revealing in Pi things he didn’t realise about himself  – confronted with hunger, thirst and the need to simply exist he finds a sense of himself which had previously eluded him. The film is at its strongest on this and the simple act of story-telling; it’s an engaging, charming, story where the necessary suspension of disbelief is aided by the deft visual effects.

Where the film has more trouble is similar to the book itself – when it tries to move towards some sort of spiritual enlightenment. Pi describes himself as a Hindu, Christian and a Moslem – falling back on the maxim that all faiths have some truth in them and are different pathways to the same god. It sounds appealing, but what it really  means is that the film’s spirituality – like Pi’s  – is a mish-mash of lots of things which in reality ends up being a watery soup of feel-good wisdom with little taste. That’s not to say such a world-view doesn’t have power to help in some circumstances  – people of all religions and none have been sustained through all sorts of horrendous experiences by all sorts of belief systems. The weakness comes through the film’s ending – effectively asking the viewer to decide if what has gone before is true or if another version is closer to reality. It’s true that one  version may be more appealing – but if it’s not true, it’s meaningless. Similarly it’s appealing to suggest all religions are ultimately the same; but that doesn’t do justice to one religion claiming that God has a Son who’s lived and died and been raised back to life as a human; other religions consider it abhorrent to suggest that God’s incarnation could be killed. There’s no middle ground there, no matter how tempting it is. It’ll get you so far, but ultimately it doesn’t do justice to any of the parts you’re cherry-picking from. The film’s spiritual quest is as ultimately satisfying as a cappuccino which is all froth and no espresso or water. Looks good, but does nothing.

See it, but stay with the story. Life of Pi is an engaging and entertaining piece of story-telling; but it’s no guidebook for life.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

End Of Watch

Sometimes a simple description of a film’s essentials doesn’t help you feel the impact of what you  actually see. End Of Watch is in that category. Simply put, it follows two Los Angeles policemen through everyday shifts; in the course of some routine enquiries they stumble unwittingly across something much bigger and the story changes gear into police action movie territory.

None of which does justice to the film’s visceral power; it’s sharp and intelligent script; the depth of emotional engagement with the main characters and the raw emotional punch of the film’s devastating finale. It’s all shot ‘found footage’ style – the characters are all filming themselves or others for a variety of reasons. Inevitably this leads to some  convoluted devices, but for once it does what found footage movies are meant to do but have often failed to thanks to unthinking post Blair Witch overuse – the viewer is right in the middle of the drama. You feel intimately caught up with the central characters (brilliantly played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena), aided by as much time spent listening in on run of the mill, everyday conversation as on plot development. That may make parts sound dull – far from it. These are people you start to share life with; if the film had been two and a half hours of their everyday conversation, you wouldn’t feel short-changed. It isn’t all that, though; what it means is that the sense of threat and danger, when it comes (and it really comes) is all the more palpable; fear, physical pain, the real possibility of death – all creep up and engulf you with the central characters.

It ends with the sort of emotional finale which leaves you sitting silent, open-mouthed and slightly shaken. As you sit, letting the last bars of a brilliant soundtrack wash over you, it’s tempting to think that this is partly a simple hymn to the ordinary bravery of the police and their families – if so, it’s a successful one. It’s also as good a police thriller and human drama as you’ve seen in a long time.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Looper

Looper is a new science-fiction film which essentially tries to deal with an age-old moral teaser: ‘if you could go back in time and kill Hitler before he did what he grew up to do, would you?’. It isn’t about Hitler – it’s about a future in which time travel is both possible and outlawed. Illegal – thus over-taken by organised crime: ‘loopers’ are highly paid assassins who kill the targets of the future sent back in time by the gangs to meet their death. Loopers ultimately, can have their loop closed – discovering they’ve killed their own future selves, leaving them with 30 years of life before they meet their own execution.

So the story of the film goes – one looper escapes his fate and events are set in motion which lead to the question – one looper has the chance to kill the future’s criminal mastermind before he’s a grown adult, thus erasing the deadly trade for good. The film has noir-ish overtones, and occasionally a cheeky sense of good fun. It’s absurd, but largely conscious of its own absurdity. There’s a couple of unnecessary sub-plots, and a gratuitous, unconvincing strand involving tele-kinetic powers which lead the film into misplaced horror-lite territory.

All of which would leave the film as diverting but unremarkable if it wasn’t for one thing. The aforementioned moral dilemma leads to one character hunting down 3 children who may or may not be the future’s criminal mastermind and shooting them. It fits with the story of the film, and the moral dilemma is at least given some kind of recognition by the film-makers. It’s not a mis-step in terms of the film  itself – but given that it was released here on the day of America’s Sandy Hook school shootings, the film does have a big problem. It’s surprising that the cinemas showing the film  or the film company or  journalists or somebody haven’t done something – pulled the film to a later date, warned people, or at the least stopped to think if this is the best time.

This isn’t about censorship – there really shouldn’t be issues which can’t be dealt with in film; but timing and sensitivity matter. Someone has got this badly wrong, or at least not thought enough. Looper is, ultimately, an interesting but inconsequential film released in some territories at just the wrong time. What’s more worrying is that no one seems to have spotted that.

I rated this film 3 out 5 on rottentomatoes.com & 6/10 on imdb.com

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson, director of this new set of Hobbit films as well as the Lord of The Rings films, seems to like to make life difficult for himself. Lord Of The Rings had long been considered an un-filmable book; technology allowed Jackson to have a good go, but even the trilogy of extended editions had to leave large chunks out. There’s only so long a film can be, really. I loved those films, and I love the books, but I know the detail and the style can alienate. Popular as these films were, it’s hard to imagine they won over any new fans to the genre. Now he’s taking on The Hobbit; a much shorter text, aimed at children, written and set long before Lord of The Rings. So it will be a short film, right? Wrong. Three parts, each around 3 hours in length. In 3D. A lucky few with access to compatible cinemas will see it at the revolutionary High Frame Rate (HFR), supposed to enhance the 3D experience considerably. I didn’t have that option, so I saw this first film in regular 3D – a format I don’t like.

There’s a huge risk in taking what will amount to 9 hours to tell a less than 400 page story; that the plot will feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread (as someone once said). It’s an inescapable accusation – with back story filled in, songs sung at length, battles re-enacted instead of just described by characters – all the meanderings and details mean we don’t always feel tension. The story loses some dramatic momentum for the sake of painstaking detail. Add to that the dashes of childlike humour, even at crisis moments in the narrative, and the film often lacks a sense of danger  – something you could never accuse the Lord Of The Rings films of in their action set pieces.

Much of the film could have been lost, probably at benefit to the story. Did we need so much set-up to the conference in Bilbo’s home? Did the songs really have to stay? Did we need so much flashback?

With this in mind, I had a dawning realisation as I watched this film. It was this: I was very, very happy. Why? Many reasons. In no order … there are moments of genuine visual beauty, even with ‘normal’ 3D’s usual loss of light. There was one shot of a battle of such clarity, such involvement, such depth that I suspect I audibly gasped; another shot of characters walking through a forest in the rain was similarly beautiful – in that case I know I said so aloud. Another reason for my happiness was the acting – which was more consistent than in the previous trilogy. Special mention must go to Martin Freeman as Bilbo: his craft learned on British television (most notably The Office and Sherlockhe can suggest much very economically. He has brilliant comic timing, and can move from farce to pathos without breaking stride. He’s brilliant, and he owns the film. Equally brilliant is, of course, Andy Serkis as Gollum. He and Freeman share a long scene together, and it’s hypnotically enchanting – you could watch twice as much of them together and still not have enough. Ably backed by a largely British collection of primarily television actors, the ball is hardly dropped – which couldn’t always be said of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy (Orlando Bloom, I’m looking at you.).

My happiness was really all about one thing: grace. It may seem an over the top word, but I felt I was being given a treat I didn’t deserve or expect in an adaptation of  a children’s book. This is made with care and love – it could be shorter, and that would have benefits … but it would forfeit so much. The sense that this has been poured over and crafted by a team who care, deeply; the visual gags that keep surprising – the animals in the forest scenes, the insects rising and falling from a beard as a character sleeps, the careful lighting drawing the eye to the otherwise unseen nooks and crannies of a shot. This is a grace dusted film – inessential details lifting the heart and soul, inessential but there to make the heart and spirit sing if you have eyes to see. All meaning, that with all that detail the plot (though lacking momentum) never has the sense of being ‘on rails’ as it does so often in adaptations of poured over texts (see the early Harry Potter films especially, and the Twilight ones). It feels free, loose, unstructured where it could have felt controlled and predictable.

It’s far from perfect – that was inevitable, really, given the limitations of the story. A shorter adaptation would have garnered more praise, and been a safer bet. Peter Jackson, though never wants to play it safe; he even risks an unhelpful comparison by echoing Fellowship Of The Ring‘s structure – narrated flashback, arrival in the shire, feasting, decisions, sudden leaving, opposition, Elves, underground battles, final battle outside, finish on the brink of a new stage. In fact there’s more similarities than that suggests; in doing so it risks unfavourable comparisons, pointless repetition and short attention spans. What it ends up being, though, is like a symphony echoing an earlier musical theme – drawing, even subconsciously, associations in the mind which give depth and weight to the sense of building history to the world and the characters.

Maybe a film regarded as more faithful would be more child-friendly. That’s no doubt true. Instead, it’s more than that – child like in ambition, fun, wonder and a sense of what could be. If it fails to be what some long for it to be, it does so magnificently.

I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com & 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

A quick mention of a novel I’ve finally finished. I say ‘finally’ for a few reasons. I first heard of this years ago when I heard a review of it on the radio in the UK; it took me a few years to buy it. I then started it once, and gave up 150 pages into the 900. I then got it again on my kindle a while back (e-books are certainly easier to carry around than dead tree formats). It still took me a couple of months to finish. I’ve read longer books quicker than that – but not because Sacred Games is dull. Far from it. It just requires attention and deserves lingering over. An Indian set thriller about gangs and police corruption and nuclear plots it may be, but it’s also a character piece and an attempt to capture on the page the teeming, seething variety of Indian society. It switches back and forth in time, focus switching from one main character to another – chiefly a gang leader and policeman, as well as several side characters who slip briefly into focus and back out again.

The plot compels, but really we’re learning about people, here – motivations, why people get corrupt in positions of responsibility and what it means to lead or follow. You need time and commitment for a book like this; it’s also graphic at times – there are sections, sometimes quite out of the blue that aren’t for the faint of heart or prone to blush. You could, though, do a lot worse if you want a big fat thriller which to ask you stop and think  a while between page turns.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

Finding Hope and Meaning In Suffering by Trystan Owain Hughes

It’s often said that it’s easier to be creative about sadness and suffering than it is about joy and happiness. It’s also often said that for those who follow Jesus, the fact and presence of suffering in the world presents the most significant philosophical, ethical and practical challenges. Those two statements may be cliches, but they are cliches with a weight of truth and experience behind them; tragedies are considered higher art than comedies, and Christians have spilt a lot of theological ink confronting the issue of suffering.

Trying to explain or understand suffering, whilst it may be valuable, can obscure something important. How do we live in it and through it? How do we it do it ‘well’ as people who call themselves Christians? We may accept that it poses us theological and other types of questions, but that doesn’t necessarily help us deal with tragedy and pain when it hits home. Understanding can get us so far – but what we need alongside that are tools to help us live well through it all. That’s where a book like this one, Finding Hope And Meaning In Suffering by Trystan Owain Hughes comes in. It’s a short book, clocking in at 101 pages which seeks to do just that.

As for us all, the author has experienced his own measure of suffering and it’s from that space which he writes – he’s the Anglican Chaplain at Cardiff University who was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition at the age of 34. Those two realities – exercising a pastoral ministry and his own experiences of suffering – have caused him to reflect deeply on what God gives us that may enable us to flourish and grow in even the most hostile of environments. It’s a short – and brilliant  – book, which really should be required reading for anyone who suffers, cares for someone suffering or desiring to grow as an effective disciple of Jesus. I’m not sure that anyone’s left out by that. This book is a prime example of how depth and weight can go hand in hand with readability and brevity.

The structure is simple. There’s an introductory chapter on the fact of suffering itself. He then, in two chapters lays two simple but profound foundations for living well in suffering. First comes awareness: living in the present moment in such a way that we are alive to the presence of God around us. Second comes acceptance: not resignation to suffering, but the radical acceptance of God’s goodness in even the darkest of places. There then follow a series of ‘building blocks’ – chapter by chapter reflections on aspects of life which create the space for life to grow in tough contexts: an awareness of and interaction with nature, the gift of laughter, the place of memory,  the significance of art, the call to keep on helping others.

Every chapter engages with a variety of sources: these may be Biblical, more generally Christian, other faiths, or a variety of artistic expressions – from Jewish Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl to the TV show Heroes and onwards to Kylie Minogue. That’s one of the book’s real strengths – that even in such a well and concisely written book, there’s enough different perspectives for all of us to find something we ‘get’; this book may be the result of much thought, prayer and study – but it’s there to be read on the commute to work or lying lazily on the couch on a Sunday afternoon. This is a book which actively invites you in with its breadth of sources, the author’s own experience and the fact that it doesn’t so much try to explain as to give you something to go away and work into your own pattern of life and discipleship. One point on that – there’s a few spoilers in here about books and films. Place the reading of this book on hold, for example, if you’re are reading or planning to read Ian McEwen’s book Atonement or you’re saving up the DVD for a Christmas treat. You don’t want that surprise ruined.

That’s a minor quibble, really. Here’s another one, of a very different type. There’s so much richness here that to limit the book to the topic of suffering may be selling it short, limiting the impact. The suggestions – the foundations and building blocks – are valuable for living through suffering precisely because they are valuable for all of life. In other words they  (along with other practices) help us live life as God intended it to be lived – to the full. This isn’t just a book about how to live well in experiences of suffering – it’s a book about how to live life well for God in the world to which He calls us.

So this is a book to read, re-read, practice and digest, to buy and to give. Even if – or perhaps especially – you’re not really suffering. Because, as a book like this shows us, it’s worth living life well, whatever the scenery.

I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com