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