Oblivion wants to a big science-fiction epic with things to say about the human condition. Whilst it does have that – the film touches on some very contemporary fears in the shape of drones, genetics, artificial intelligence, the trustworthiness of God and the ubiquity of Morgan Freeman – it’s let down by one big problem. I call it the Return Of The King problemPrecisely: the film appears to end at least three times before it actually does. In the case of the third film in the Lord Of The Rings, I was able to forgive that because I’d been so richly entertained over the previous two and half films. Peter Jackson had by then earned some self-indulgence (someone tell him, by the way, that he has to earn that all over again now). By the time Oblivion tricks you into thinking it’s ending for the third time, it hasn’t done quite enough to buy you off. Nearly, but not quite.

It’s a Tom Cruise film. I’m not averse to him as a leading man and with the right director or the right material he can be really good (Mission Impossible franchise, Magnolia are my first exhibits for the defence); he doesn’t have enough direction or material to do that here. What he does have is a plot twist which buys him and the under-used Olga Kurylenko out of what could be thought of as some lazy acting. Halfway decent genre-films like this need to demonstrate an awareness of the genre’s classics first, and Oblivion does that. It’s a science-fiction movie set on a ravaged earth in a future where earth’s inhabitants have won the war but lost the planet. Tom Cruise and his partner are on clean-up and security duty. So, duly invoked we have – in no order – Moon, Forbidden PlanetSilent RunningTerminator and a whole load more. Unfortunately it pales by comparison because there’s no energy to the direction, no shock, no fear, no convincing self-doubt when it’s needed. The big twists may be fairly unexpected, but they’re also unconvincing; all shown up, and not in a good way, by the problem of the three endings. By then, two hours had felt like a lot more.

This is not a bad film; there’s enough in here to divert, provoke and entertain (and, if you’re a preacher, provide a handful of illustrations). It’s just not good enough to really stay in the memory and let you explore those thoughts more deeply. Which makes your realise, ironically, that Prometheus was a much better film than many realised.

I rated this film 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 6/10 on imdb.com

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.