Here I am, living in the past as usual. It’s 2013 in London, but I’m still writing about 2012, a year that was in general better than the last (which was pretty crummy) but not particularly amazing. No lottery wins, no late-blooming development of psychic powers; just The Grind. Sadly that malaise spread to my enjoyment of films. No fear; this isn’t another end-of-year “crisis in cinema” posts, filled with dire warnings about piracy or 48fps (which I’m still undecided on) or how the kids these days don’t enjoy proper entertainment like The Dambusters or any of that shit. All that happened is that I built up a bunch of movies in my head and they didn’t live up to those expectations. No biggie, and it’s all on me, but by the end of the year this disaffection was becoming a real pain in the arse. Do I ever dare look forward to a film again? I’m gonna find that hard to do.
I’m not gonna fart around like I normally do; it’s late and I just put Anchorman on so I’m only half-paying attention to this semtance. Here’s where I traditionally complain about cinema release dates and how punitive they are if you live outside the US, so here goes: five months for Cloud Atlas? Four for Wreck-It Ralph? Dozens of other movies have been delayed this year, and to be honest I feel stupid writing up this list before seeing Zero Dark Thirty or Lincoln or especially Django Unchained. How can I think of this as definitive when films by my favourite filmmakers remain out of my reach? Will this list be invalid by the end of January?
And yes, I know, the ways in which studios are attempting to capitalise on increased revenues from overseas mean films are now starting to come out in Europe before the US, but this year the biggest examples of that were The Avengers and Skyfall, both of which were out over here a couple of weeks before the US. I hear some say there’s an equivalence here but two weeks is frustrating while a four month delay is absolute bullshit. I thought I was the only person who ever moaned about these things but even Cory Doctorow got in on the action (thanks to @catvincent for the heads-up on that piece). Everything in that makes so much sense to me but still we put up with the old ways.
Okay, moaning over. Here’s the (sadly incomplete) list. No disrespect to any of these films. Naturally, if I didn’t like them I wouldn’t have included them.
25. Your Sister’s Sister
This year Sundance came to London, complete with overpriced tickets, interesting documentaries, and a handful of fiction movies that sounded less so. As ever Shades of Caruso finds itself struggling to love the output of the US independent scene when compared to the bigger studio releases, especially when the new voices showcased at Sundance often seem to provide films as formulaic as their derided big-budget brethren. Lynn Shelton’s chamber-piece Your Sister’s Sister, in which a grieving man becomes dragged into the dramas connecting two sisters, was not on the Sundance list; more’s the pity. At times this looks and feels like every other movie of its kind, right down to casting the seemingly ubiquitous Mark Duplass as the feckless interloper, but Shelton’s a better filmmaker than most, and here does wonders with limited means, supplying all the quiet character work of the best of this genre, but with a populist’s touch for the dramatic. Seemingly sedate for the most part, Shelton saves the fireworks for a startling end-of-second-act blowout, aided by magnificent work from Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt. Only an underwhelming third act prevents this from getting higher in the list, yet after the dramatic lull we at least reach a sweetly satisfying denouement, a gentle sigh of resignation and love you don’t see often enough. It left me with a glow that lasted for days.
24. Killer Joe
The one thing you can count on with a late-career William Friedkin film is that it’ll be muscular, and will likely feature at least one scene that makes your hair stand on end. Killer Joe goes one better than that; it features a final act so full on that when it was over I literally didn’t know what to think or do. To be fair the whole movie, adapted by Tracy Letts from his first play, is pitched at such a weird level of energy that the viewer should know all bets are off. As a filmed play the performances from almost everyone are heightened and emphatic in a similar way to David Cronenberg’s stagy Cosmopolis, but while that was bloodless, Killer Joe is almost dementedly provocative. Performances like this can carry a movie away into quirky irrelevance but thankfully there is a rock to hold it down; Matthew McConaughey continues his campaign to become the most interesting actor in Hollywood with a riveting portrayal of a malevolent scumbag with a baffling sense of dark morality. His final acts turn this from a neo-noir into a macabre spoof of family life, or a satirical depiction of the terrible things we would do to our loved ones to survive in a brutal world. I’m not sure I can even call this worthy of inclusion here, except that it got my pulse pounding like nothing else this year.
23. Moonrise Kingdom
Fantastic Mr. Fox might have been Wes Anderson’s children’s film, but it’s arguable that his follow-up is likely as much in tune with the viewpoint of a child as his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s tale. Like some kind of gaudy yellow reworking of the stories of Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton, Anderson throws his two very young lovers into an adventure across a humdrum island devoid of any magic or mystery until their imaginations and new-found optimism transform the claustrophobic environs into a wonderland. It’s the clash between their defiant enthusiasm for life and the beaten-down and jaded adults that provides this film’s highlights, with Bruce Willis and Ed Norton on especially good form as two men trying to make the most of a pretty crappy hand, before finding a spark of life in their attempts to help the lovestruck couple. And yet this is the least sentimental of Anderson’s movies, while also serving as his least cynical; a miraculous juggling of tone and intent from a director whose eyebrow often seems perpetually arched. It’s also another piece of evidence for SoC’s argument that Anderson is the finest and most intuitively brilliant comedic director of the current generation. Yes yes, I know, no one agrees, whatevs. But seriously, for your consideration, the trampoline shot. Come on!
22. Premium Rush
How frustrating it must be to be seen as merely “competent” by a critical monolith that doesn’t have time or patience to appreciate the craft of a filmmaker who instinctively knows their shit. David Koepp has been writing deceptively elegant populist screenplays for years, in addition to honing his directorial skills with a number of interesting films that almost hit the spot. Premium Rush is his first directorial effort that absolutely nails it, with a confident visual style, an intoxicating sense of momentum reminiscent of Speed, and the ability to pull sprightly and appealing performances from a well-chosen cast. There’s little else to it than the thrill of a chase, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cocky bike messenger pursued by a magnificently, hypnotically unhinged Michael Shannon, but Koepp manages the action brilliantly and has fun filling in the margins of the tale, capturing the edginess of a dangerous but vibrant New York while portraying the community of the couriers as a sub-culture with its own rules and priorities. Mid-movie pacing problems can be forgiven when everything else in this exuberantly kinetic thriller is handled so deftly. And Shannon’s work cannot be praised enough. This should have attracted a bigger audience just for him alone.
21. Killing Them Softly
Everything’s going to hell in a handbasket; that much we know for sure (even though it possibly isn’t). Andrew Dominik is more sure than most. His follow-up to the magisterial The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not about to hold back in its portrayal of America as a morally bankrupt, soul-deadened wasteland populated by venal opportunists, depressed to the point of inactivity, educationally backward and entitled, and he certainly isn’t about to miss an opportunity to drive the point home by including footage of the 2008 election campaign. It’s the kind of point-hammering that would normally drive SoC away, but perhaps I was particularly receptive to those sentiments on the day of viewing, or perhaps I was swayed by the bravura setpieces – such as the brutal, degrading beating and murder of one character, no spoilers – or the slow descent into numbness of James Gandolfini’s morbidly depressed hitman, or Brad Pitt’s increasing frustration with a culture that doesn’t value talent and instead seeks a quick buck. The sentiment expressed in this excoriating blast of fury at a broken society might be delivered with the smugness of a disgusted outsider, but to see Pitt’s electrifying delivery of his key speech is to feel like you just got told, son. It’s the kind of electrifying scene that becomes legendary.
20. Berberian Sound Studio
As with a number of films on this list, there’s a good chance this would rank higher after a few extra viewings, certainly to see if there is some sense to be made of the exasperating third act. If you can even call it that; writer-director Peter Strickland’s fealty to the weird atmosphere conjured up earlier appears to have taken over his mind as completely as the terrifying events in the in-movie movie The Equestrian Vortex do to poor sound engineer Gilderoy, leading to a dereliction of duty right before the end. But what menace, what madness, what delirious berserk horror he provides before that. Cleverly keeping The Equestrian Vortex offscreen, we’re forced to see this film through the eyes and ears of Toby Jones’ horrified technician, a man out of his element and soon unable to cope with the unfamiliar and hostile world he has been thrust into; the typical quiet middle-Englander who thinks of Europe as being the home of insidious decadence. Strickland ratchets up the tension with all sorts of visual and aural trickery, creating a disturbing world with a few sets and well-utillised darkness; this is one of the most technically accomplished films from a British director in a long time. Kudos to all involved, but special praise for Jones, who gives one of the performances of the year, all repressed rage and confusion, sympathetic and infuriating in equal measure.
It’s hard to think of another movie in recent years that oozes Britishness as much as this one. As with Berberian Sound Studio, Ben Wheatley has made a character study of what makes the classic British underdog tick, but whereas Peter Strickland’s film isolated its protagonist in Italy and made him weak, Sightseers gives us a murderous, gradually empowered couple to rival Malick’s Kit and Holly, or Tarantino/Stone’s Mickey and Mallory. Two old-at-heart lovers find themselves on the road, travelling north through England, killing those who break their unwritten but familiar codes, becoming emboldened by their love for each other and their transgressions. At first this seems like a simple translation of American homicidal road movies into a British vernacular but by its magnificently unhinged finale it feels like its own thing; a snapshot of everything that is ugly about our nation’s soul, with resentment aimed at those around us and at ourselves, all taking place against some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. It’s also hilarious, and as quotable as that similarly bleak national self-portrait Withnail and I. With luck this clever and strangely lovable two-hander, deftly written by its stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, will find as large an audience.
18. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson’s urge to turn every project into some kind of epic has worked against him before, which is why even the idea that he was going to transform JRR Tolkien’s relatively slender children’s tale into a trilogy created such a backlash. Seeing the first installment places that decision into context; this is no longer a six movie adaptation of four books, more a world-building exercise for the confident New Zealander as he expands upon Tolkien’s tales. There’s a persuasive argument that that’s hubris but these projects are beginning to feel like a compilation of decades of visual and emotional reactions to Tolkien’s complex world, a smorgasbord of interpretations from readers and designers that brings something new to life; a fusion of literary work and fan appropriation that lives and breathes in a way even Tolkien never imagined, reminiscent of the mix of Burroughs and Cronenberg that gave us the movie Naked Lunch. The alterations to the original text are once more shrewd and exciting, his casting insights have again paid off, and even though even this fan can see that some trimming might have helped, what we’ve been given is yet another thrilling demonstration that Jackson is the pre-eminent fantasy filmmaker on the planet, and a persuasive argument that he should fight for the rights to The Silmarillion and keep making these films for the rest of his life. I’m sure he’d hate that, but some of us would be well chuffed.
17. Rust and Bone
You can’t go from making the greatest prison drama of recent times to a love story without bringing some of that grit with you, and Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of Craig Davidson’s short story is simultaneously tender and abrasive, like its beaten-down lovers. Bare-knuckle boxer Ali and gravely-injured Stéphanie seem like they’ve never even understood love before; their slow awakening to its possibilities, in a world of distrust and casual cruelty, would seem trite were it not for Audiard’s sure hand and the remarkable work from Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard. Their commitment to rehabilitate the critically derided love story genre and their low-key performances yield surprising dividends. Rust and Bone achieves moments of astonishing beauty amidst the grime of lives poorly lived; shadows like bruises pushed back by rays of blinding light provided by cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine. There’s even beauty in the brutality that galvanises and saves our protagonists; our rubbernecking fascination in the awful things people do to survive cheekily justified by Audiard’s eye for the transcendental, and the luminous Cotillard’s triumphant, well-earned return to life. This can be dismissed as mere melodrama, but those crimson brush-strokes, and the conviction of all involved, turn it into something more than mere potboiler, a romance for the austerity age.
It’s hard to shock an audience these days, but Craig Zobel has managed it with this simple but horrifying account of the Mount Washington prank call crime of 2004. The writer-director handles the slowly escalating tension with commendable confidence, his bravest choice being to pace this movie so deliberately, taking the time to let the horror of the events (the TRUE events, don’t forget) sink in and percolate in the nerves of the audience. Watching this with a crowd of people was the most startling cinematic experience of the year, with numerous walkouts and furious tirades aimed at the screen from viewers who couldn’t handle the slow degradation of the protagonists. Very little in recent years plays on our expectations as well as this, but while some critics have attacked it for being a purposeless exercise in baiting the crowd, this remarkable thriller’s only real fault is to have come out now and not during the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, when Zobel’s points about the ease with which people can be manipulated into doing terrible things might have seemed more timely. As it is, this is a memorable achievement, an experiment in which the events on screen are symbolically acted out by those who watch it; the ultimate in meta-narrative trickery, with our horrified reactions becoming part of the story. Seeing it at home defeats this film’s bold purpose. If you can see it in a roomful of disgusted co-voyeurs, you’ll understand its impact.
Juan Carlos Medina’s directorial debut, the tale of a village torn apart by the birth of several “painless” children, and a family hiding a dark secret, does many things brilliantly; it captures the agony of a country tainted by its terrible past, exorcises that pain by channeling it through metaphor, and offers hope that forgetting these terrors can lead to a new future for a generation now free of the experience of the Civil War. Just for achieving those things it would be remarkable, but for making something with such serious intent in a genre that has, for a few years, seemed to be coasting on found-footage exorcism movies and endless repetitive zombie rampages, Medina’s ambition shines even brighter. That’s before we get into his mastery of atmosphere, his skillful manipulation of the audience –especially during the almost unwatchably tense middle-section — and the bold creation of Berkano, a character surely ready to join the pantheon of horror greats. The bravura, operatic finale is a flourish well-earned; this is the best horror movie of the new decade – emotional, intellectual, and unflinching, made with an elegant touch that is easily a rival to new horror masters Del Toro and Bayona.
14. Jack Reacher
This kind of hoary thriller, based on the questionable novels that target armchair libertarian gun nuts who distrust all forms of authority except that which is dispensed by uncomplicated common-sense killing machines, is exactly the sort of thing that makes Shades of Caruso want to vomit up both lungs, and Chris McQuarrie’s adaptation of Lee Childs’ One Shot is no exception. Our hero is a macho force-of-nature full of old-fashioned values, with a dash of slut-shaming and a damsel-rescuing fetish thrown in for good measure. Everyone wants to fuck him or be him; Jack Reacher is a MAN’S MAN. This is the bad bit of the movie. The good bits? Almost everything else, from the shrewd casting (Rosamund Pike aside), to the attention to detail, to the exquisitely choreographed setpieces. The action is believably messy, the central mystery is intricate but comprehensible, and the inevitable pro-capital punishment argument is arguably tempered by the final scene. The retrograde politics repulse, but the old-school sharpness and focus of the filmmaking is undeniably thrilling to behold. To go back in time to a world of starkly shot and constructed thrillers of this calibre entails taking the rough of the past with the smooth, but considering how rarely we get smooth these days, McQuarrie deserves credit for at least taking the time to transform macho lead into cinema gold.
For those of us who have eagerly followed Ben Affleck’s career since he began to show promise, for those of us who pooh-poohed all of the mean gossip about how he and Matt Damon’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting was really the work of William Goldman, for those of us who loved him in Changing Lanes and Hollywoodland and even Daredevil (God help us), oh my, this has been a long time coming. After Gone Baby Gone and The Town were described as being “surprisingly well-made considering it’s by Affleck”, the great man returned with his strongest and most confident movie yet and finally, FINALLY, everyone started giving him a break. To be honest this incredible tale of the rescue of six Iranian Embassy staff would be hard to screw up, considering the astonishing details about the fake sci-fi movie Argo and the crazy plot to fool the hardline regime of Iran, but Affleck goes above and beyond, offering up a riveting piece of big-screen entertainment, maintaining suspense from the first scene right through to the end while modulating the tone with a light touch. Add to that a cast packed full of beloved character actors — with special attention to lovable Bryan Cranston — and you’ve got the cheekiest film of the year; part heavily-detailed period piece with modern relevance, part adventure, with a touch of Wag The Dog thrown in.
12. The Bourne Legacy
Skyfall, and the two films before it, impressed Bond fans by taking the popular hero back to his beginnings and recasting his historical failings as consequences of his adventures, with a good man broken down and rebuilt in new form. The first three Bourne movies followed a similar path, with a lost man finding himself, ending with a journey back to the room in which he was “born”, followed by a metaphorical rebirth. The fourth Bourne movie reverses this trend, with a new character given a new lease of life by evil men, made to do evil things, but terrified of returning to his original self. As with the previous films the enemy here is the banal self-preservation instinct of venal bureaucrats, but for once they have done one good thing; delivering a man from oblivion, giving him the tools to make a future for himself; yet another example of how the Bourne movies defy expectation and complicate what could have been simple. That is pleasure enough, but Tony Gilroy also provides a masterclass in writing suspense, withholding information skilfully to build tension in the early scenes, keeping characters in the dark about others’ motivation (another convention of the series), before laying all the cards on the table with a breathtaking finale on the roads and rooftops of Manila. Dismissed as a misstep by critics during the summer, this espionage classic is due a revisit. Hopefully we’ll have time to realise that Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross is a worthy replacement for the franchise’s titular hero.
11. John Carter
Could it be SoC’s reflexive love of the underdog that saw this blog go out of its way to defend Andrew Stanton’s obscenely expensive love letter to pulp sci-fi? Was it sympathy that triggered a million tweets of desperate pleading for audiences to give this instantly dated old-school adventure a chance? Or was it a sense of injustice that something crafted with such affection for the source material and – at times – such storytelling skill could be dismissed with such ease by reviewers who likely got the scent of an easy kill in their nostrils? Perhaps it was just relief that, in a year where big-screen entertainments, for the most part, delivered so little, there was someone out there who was willing to put their reputation on the line to tell a tale that they loved and to do it with brio and enthusiasm and crowd-pleasing confidence. John Carter might have ended up the punchline of a million shitty jokes, but for a growing legion of fans this was the real deal; space opera with scale and imagination and spirit, light and uncynical and emotionally honest. It’s everything critics have been complaining has been missing from cinema, done with an open heart and the buccaneering spirit of the Golden Era of film; a Burt Lancaster carouser in a digital shell. This should have been loved from the moment it came out, but no matter. That love will come in time.
10. Dans La Maison
Storytellers prone to agonising over the conventions and expectations they need to consider as they practice their craft will likely find Francois Ozon’s dizzying adaptation of Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy In The Last Row a difficult film to watch, but they should swallow their pride and do it anyway. Much of this tale of a soured marriage, and how it is enlivened by tales spun by a mysteriously-motivated schoolboy, focuses on satirising the class prejudices of its smug middle-class characters, and treating the film as such is rewarding in itself, thanks to Ozon’s deft touch and witty approach. Nevertheless this is also about how we view life through the prism of expectation, either through the rigid rules of storytelling taught by Fabrice Luchini’s amusingly humourless protagonist, or the eagerness to treat the outside world as a display to sate our voyeurism; the world as stage, filled with people who forget that they are players as well as participants. If Haneke had directed this it would have been a gloomy parable; maybe better, maybe worse. Gratitude is due, then, to Ozon for whipping up something lightly entertaining yet multi-layered, critical but hopeful, cautionary but compassionate. It will reward repeat viewings for years to come.
9. Seven Psychopaths
You could see this as the typical balls-out, unrestrained debut of a director with more ideas on his mind than he knows what to do with, and in a way you’d be right. Martin McDonagh wrote this before In Bruges, before a number of his plays, and the feeling that he was running riot in his study, cramming jokes and setpieces and thoughts about writing into a screenplay that barely has time for it all. But if this doesn’t have the focus of The Pillowman or In Bruges, it does have the charm of an eager puppy. The way McDonagh picks at the mindset of the writer, the laziness of the mainstream story factory, and the process of transforming reality and previously-absorbed stories into a new form is endearingly frank; anyone who has ever written for a living would probably recognise the desperation and egotism of Colin Farrell’s brilliantly played anti-hero. Even more pleasing is the cast, all of whom are on top form, especially Shades of Caruso favourite Sam Rockwell at his very best, and Christopher Walken, here giving his strongest and most moving performance since Catch Me If You Can. McDonagh’s games with genre and narrative are a pleasing puzzle for the mind, but his craft as a director is improving; no one else could pull off the film’s surprisingly powerful final scenes while still keeping the tone this light.
8. The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s ambitions from one movie to the next have increased so much that surely the only thing he could do to top the scale of The Dark Knight trilogy is to cram the rise and fall of the Roman Empire into one four-hour epic. What makes The Dark Knight Rises a success, however, is not the eye-popping shots of a city at war with itself, or the image of the Bat soaring above the streets through concrete canyons, engines and rockets booming. The masterstroke is grounding the trilogy, turning what could have merely been a story about heroes and villains into the tale of a boy getting over his grief, locating the source of his unhappiness and overcoming it through sheer force of will. This simple arc would be satisfying enough, but it also serves as a warning to the audience about the consequences of giving in to despair. Bane represents a lie that the society we have built for ourselves is only a prison, a lie easily believed when the institutions we have built become corrupted by human venality. The Dark Knight trilogy has shown the people of Gotham inspired by a symbol to say that they can do better, if they say no loud enough while never losing their humanity to despair. If superheroes are meant to show the nobility of the hero, and the possibilities created by courage, then The Dark Knight Rises is possibly the ultimate example of this message.
7. Cabin in the Woods
Whoever thought Scream had the last word in deconstructing the horror genre ::says nothing but points at own chest with a look of regret:: was wrong. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon managed to do it with even more wit and energy than we had hoped. But their greatest achievement was to take a clever idea and run with it, to run so damn far that you never think they’ll stop. For a writer to see an explosion of ideas this extreme, and yet so grounded in honouring a single core concept – that this film will link the repetitive and necessary conventions of a subset of genre to every other subset you could imagine, creating an ur-myth of horror that accepts that genre is about honouring conventions because of our psychological make-up as well as in a completely fantastical made-up sense that explains the plot of this specific story – is to fall in love with the telling of stories all over again. They put SO MUCH STUFF in this movie, you guys, and it ALL WORKS COHERENTLY. Watching this is like being a part of the greatest and most satisfying brainstorming session ever, with the bonus that the finished product is not only clever but effective as a horror movie and also still hysterically funny. It’s the complete package; a story about story that’s also just a really good story. In a year in which meta-fiction proliferated, this was the most deliriously enjoyable example.
6. Cloud Atlas
As a fan of David Mitchell’s ambitious multi-layered novel this adaptation by Tom Tykwer and Wachowskis Lana and Andy had a lot to live up to, and for the most part it succeeds. Certainly this is a masterclass in editing, penny-pinching and thematic ambition, going all out to honour the book’s ideas about pan-temporal connection by using the same actors in each of the film’s six timeframes. Perhaps on first viewing this can be seen as a mistake; picking out familiar faces obscured by layers of make-up can be distracting. But then this is a movie not afraid to risk failure, and so we swing back and forth from one tone to the other, from farce to high drama, and all the while with the same disarming, open-eyed sincerity. Anyone with even a grain of cynicism will take nothing from this film, citing its simple message of love and hope as the kind of thing a fool cherishes. But a simple idea, told with this level of narrative complexity, deserves all the praise it can get. Ignore the idea of souls passing through the ages; this is a story that heralds the accretion of ideas across the ages through the narratives of our lives, passed on to those around us, and with those ideas the possibility that courage is transferable, and goodness cumulative. To do this Tykwer and the Wachowskis had to create a story like a web, one whose connections will only become completely apparent with further viewing; a perfect film for our connected and complicated age.
5. The Grey
Marketed as part of Liam Neeson’s late-career action renaissance, audiences must have been mystified at Joe Carnahan’s survival tale, in which the actual act of enduring horrors is secondary to exploring the idea of whether it’s even worth fighting against impossible odds. There’s no wolf-punching here, merely the struggle to squeeze the last few drops out of a life before death wins; a message far less palatable than the bluntly Manichaean battles Neeson usually fights. This high-mindedness has drawn its own criticisms; how dare this pulpy B-movie try to address the most important issues facing every human? But the disparity between the macho natures of the characters and the vulnerable, terrified survivors they become is arguably the ideal way to show how imminent death can humble all of us, leading to a final act of devastating power. Mamet may have given us a similarly symbolic tale of man vs. nature in his survival epic The Edge but even that most perceptive of masculine dramatists doesn’t approach what is accomplished here. Neeson has been great value in recent years but this remarkable, grueling movie represents his finest hour. We expected an ironic diversion, but Joe Carnahan and his star managed to achieve a kind of brutal, startling profundity. It’s a game-changer for both of them; let’s hope it leads to more ambitious work in the future.
4. Wolf Children
Pixar’s Brave was an interesting attempt to dramatise the love between a mother and her child within a magical framework, at times achieving breathtaking beauty and insight, but notably complicating an otherwise simple tale with anthropomorphic transmogrifications and such like. Your opinion of the movie may vary depending on how you take such things. Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children does similar things to Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews’ Highland tale, showing the bond between a mother and her children, whose animal nature makes bringing them up even more challenging than usual. It also strikes right at the heart with a directness to equal the opening scene of Up, except stretched out to two hours. The result is exhausting; an assault on the senses and the emotions that left SoC weeping as if bereaved. With admirable honesty Hosoda — aided by a glorious score by Takagi Masakatsu — presents young motherhood as a struggle that can only end in loss, bringing pain leavened by the love and joy of family and community, while also taking time out to honour the fantastical nature of his protagonists without ever losing sight of the story’s emotional core. The delicate skill with which Hosoda dramatises young Hana’s trials is beyond doubt; whether we will ever recover from this lachrymose onslaught, this instantly cherishable masterpiece, remains to be seen.
3. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson’s spiky movie expands on There Will Be Blood‘s loose narrative structure, presenting a tale of healing in which no one is healed, a tale of education in which no one learns anything, a tale of love in which no one finds love; a choice that has inevitably frustrated many. Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd’s peculiar rapport is less a meeting of minds, more the desperate embrace of two men lost in a storm, turning this into a tale of disappointment, both men holding onto a doomed relationship for selfish reasons, almost to the point of destroying each other. To tell that story, Anderson has created a drama that deflates as their friendship dissolves, a platonic love story where happy endings come from the characters realising they’re wasting each others’ time. How fitting that their only talents are for obfuscation and intoxication, in a movie that hides its purpose – the empty life of the charlatan – within scenes as brilliantly baffling as Dodd’s seemingly endless and ineffective deconstruction of his charge, or in a mise-en-scene so perfectly rendered by David Crank, Jack Fisk and Amy Wells, so luminously lit by Mihai Malaimare Jr., so energised by Phoenix and Hoffman at their very best. If There Will Be Blood is the tale of a man who loses his soul and doesn’t care, The Master is a story about two men who have lost sight of their souls but are too stupid and proud to realise it. Such desperation is rarely dramatised, and never before has it been done with such mesmerising and unpredictable immediacy.
2. Holy Motors
Is it possible to like a movie without having a concrete idea of what its intent actually is? Leos Carax’s critically adored festival crowdpleaser is a million mysteries at once, an anti-narrative sunburst of imagery, a handful of short stories that play with audience expectation in the most playful of ways. And that’s the key to appreciating Holy Motors, at least for this viewer. Carax sets his muse, the magical Denis Lavant, loose on Paris in a series of vignettes that set out to play to our expectations before dancing away in bizarre directions, all of which make a perfect dream-like sense, like an image caught at the edge of our vision. So is it a paean to the imminent death of cinema? Does it embrace the digital future? There’s enough in the movie to argue for either case, but also enough for interpretations that Carax is as interested in the stories we all live as in the ones we see on the screen. Lavant’s protagonist is a performer dancing to the tune of an unseen, possibly celestial organ grinder, but is he also just a human, transforming through a number of personas each day as we all do? Is Carax paying homage to the medium of cinema, or is he drawing attention to the audience, and how we live our lives in the light of stories remembered, where we find ourselves lost when real life takes unpredictable turns untold by our cinematic gods? Holy Motors will inevitably flourish upon further viewing, to be plundered for new ideas and interpretations, but this isn’t a barrier to immediate enjoyment. Carax’s joyous melange of image and sound, idea and mood, is welcoming, filled with a warmth and wit rare in art cinema, offering dreams within dreams within glorious dreams.
1. The Avengers
Shades of Caruso knows what it likes, and it rarely feels the urge to apologise for those likes. Yet this may be the most defensive entry in this list, simply because with all the will in the world I cannot argue that Joss Whedon’s superhero epic is a better film than Holy Motors, or The Master. It has a clumsy first hour or so. The plotline in which the team rebels against the machinations of SHIELD is underpowered. Whedon’s eye as a director is not the most reliable. The shady guys on the other end of Nick Fury’s phone feel like artificial obstacles and particularly stupid human beings. And so on, and so on. But my god, look at what it gets right. Look at the ambition of the Marvel Studios project, making these huge, gallumphing movies line up so that we could get this unifying vision at the end of it. Look at the wit on display, the dedication to bringing an entire universe of possibility to life, the effort to understand these icons as distinct and exciting viable characters. I mean, it’s like we got a movie with seven Indiana Jones’ in the lead, they’re that well drawn and likeable, and yet we take this incredible achievement for granted. Okay, I’m getting overexcited here but honestly, to most people this might be little more than a big summer event movie, one with a few nice jokes and some cool action. But to a few of us, this is the electrifying depiction of a childhood fantasy. It’s here! It’s really here! They did it!
It’s impossible to overstate how happy this movie made me. Last year I chose Jeff Nichols’ remarkable but troubling Take Shelter as my movie of the year because it perfectly captured my state of mind; desperately fearful of what is to come. This is the flipside. In times of strife we look back to the things that made us feel safe when we were children, and part of the success of The Avengers is down to its ability to make the audience feel young again, to give us unambiguous goodness and heroism versus unformed but undeniably nefarious threats and, most importantly, not to apologise for it. This is possibly the least complicated movie on this list, but for that reason I love it all the more. It’s “merely” well-wrought escapism, but the very best example of this since Back to the Future, maybe even earlier; a huge, unifying blast of populist joy that turns packed cinemas into some kind of communal dream palace cum stadium. Film lovers worry about the future of the medium, but should resist their negativity, even if it means accepting “hokum” as the solution. Whedon and Marvel Studios brought fun back to cinema this year in the most overwhelming, exhilarating manner imaginable. Nothing in 2012 has made me as euphoric as this delirious display of optimism and spectacle, nothing else left me reeling in this way. So screw the apologies, cancel the equivocation. The year belongs to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and so does my heart.
Chronicle: The only film this year to make the increasingly miserable found-footage genre seem like a viable option. Josh Trank and Max Landis’ superhero movie is actually more a supervillain saga, with Dane DeHaan’s unhappy and sympathetic lost soul becoming a force of darkness upon discovering great power. His increasing instability leads to an ending that evokes memories of Akira. Thrilling, imaginative, emotionally resonant; this is a superb debut, and an instant classic of the genre.
The Pirates: In An Adventure With Scientists!: Finally, Aardman Animations lives up to its potential as an animation powerhouse with this inventive and joke-packed crowdpleaser. For too long they’ve coasted on affection for their endearing shorts, but screenwriter Gideon Defoe, adapting from his popular children’s novel, has brought a necessary sly and snarky wit to a studio whose output can sometimes seem a little too polite. Aardman are looking for backers to fund a sequel; if I had the money I’d fund it myself.
Magic Mike: Congratulations to Steven Soderbergh for making a movie that is defiantly harder to love than the garish good-time movie promised by the ads and yet still made money and generated good word of mouth. That’s how smart and absorbing this story of thwarted entrepreneurial spirit and economic difficulty is; come for the gyrating and greased-up abs, stay for the low-key character drama. And some more abs, cuz seriously, there’s a lot of them, mostly flexing on Channing Tatum’s belly.
21 Jump Street: Regular readers will know that we’re the world’s biggest fans of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which dissects movie cliches with the precision of a coroner. This adaptation of the ludicrous 80s TV series looked and sounded like a misfire for Cloudy‘s directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, but even if it’s not as good as their animated masterwork, it’s still sharp, silly, and perfectly judged, with a stand-out performance from the increasingly lovable Tatum.
The Man With The Iron Fists: If there’s a place in the world of cinema for movies made with precision, sobriety and emotional complexity, there should also be a place for balls-out enthusiasm and goofiness. The haphazard style of The Man With The Iron Fists betrays RZA’s desperate attempts to cram in as many homages to his beloved martial arts genre as possible, but goddamn it, at one point Lucy Liu kicks a guy’s head off, and later RZA punches someone’s eye out. Sometimes this is exactly what you need in your life.
And sometimes what you need in life are SHIT MOVIES and that’s what’s coming up next: my worst movies of the year list.