The best films of 2012

Discussion of whether or not a particular year has been ‘good or ‘bad’ for various art forms is, generally, superficial: the deeper you look for art, the more you will find and be rewarded by continual reinvention of content and form. In 2012, the year’s biggest cultural events – from the Olympics opening ceremony to Skyfall and The Avengers Assemble – were made with the aim of pleasing their audiences without cynicism, without patronising them and, in so doing, achieved true mass appeal. Whilst it was a great year for blockbuster releases – Skyfall became the most financially successful film ever at the UK box office, hitting £100m at time of writing – the documentary form enjoyed a great year too.

Documentaries such as The Imposter and This Is Not A Film enjoyed great critical success, but the film which I found the most rewarding documentary of 2012 was Searching For Sugar Man, the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter who played the bars and basements of Detroit and released two albums of beautiful acid folk-rock at the beginning of the 70s before disappearing into oblivion. In culturally isolated South Africa, however, his songs struck a chord with the anti-apartheid movement and Rodriguez – especially his Cold Fact album – became as important to the South Africans as Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones. The documentary’s strength lay in its pacing: gradually uncovering the protagonist’s story whilst holding back enough to surprise the viewer throughout. When and how did he die? Why did the success of his albums in South Africa not translate into financial reward? The documentary answers these questions, revealing along the way a man so full of warmth and humanity to be truly inspiring.

Another rock doc worthy of a mention was Beware Of Mr Baker, an eye-opening look at the rock (or, as he would like to be more known, jazz) drummer Ginger Baker. Director Jay Bulger reveals Baker to be an extremely angry yet cultured individual. In a sense, Baker is the quintessential rock and roller: someone who has abused their body to the point of extinction but yet has an absolute delicacy and passion when talking about their art. His clear love is jazz: he is genuinely emotional when talking about being accepted by the jazz drummers Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Art Blakey. Light is balanced by dark, however; Baker chain smokes his way through the interviews and reacts violently when Bulger informs him that he’ll be interviewing former band mates Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton: “Keep them out of my fucking film,” he shouts. An engrossing documentary and unmissable for 60s/70s rock and jazz fans alike.

From an unhinged drummer to an unhinged use of a drumstick as Matthew McConaughey hams it up in fabulous style as the titular Killer Joe in William Friedkin’s hellbent crazy B-movie about a bent cop falling for a teenager caught up in a heist gone wrong. The plot is merely a vehicle for McConaughey, his prized muse Juno Temple and her fucked-up family to chew the scenery in an oppressive and violent deep-southern American town. The violence is bloody and there’s a memorable scene with McConaughey, Gina Gershon and a chicken drumstick which would be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t for the horror of the situation. The best exploitation movie of the year. Another violent commentary on America came in the form of Andrew Dominik’s superb film Killing Them Softly. Set against the initial stages of the current worldwide economic crash, the film shows the impact of the recession on some of America’s gangster population. Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins star as different sides of the mob in a film that can stand with Boardwalk Empire, The Godfather and Goodfellas as a work of art which shows the dark side of the American dream: crime indeed paying, at least for a while. All the cast are great and Pitt delivers one of cinema’s finest closing monologues about what the American dream looks like in the wrong hands.

If Killing Them Softly was the year’s best film about America, the best American film came in the form of a family drama set in its 50th state, Hawaii. Alexander Payne’s The Descendants stars George Clooney as Matt King, the main trustee of the portfolio of land on Hawaii which has been in his family’s possession for generations. He has to make a decision whether or not to sell this land for development whilst his family life is falling apart: just after she falls into a coma after a boating accident, he learns his wife had been having an affair. Clooney plays this dual role brilliantly but his two daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, support him with great skill in the difficult role they are placed in. The film’s soundtrack (traditional Hawaiian music from Gabby Pahinui, among others) suits its subject matter so perfectly that I was reminded of another of Clooney’s films, O Brother Where Art Thou. The Descendants doesn’t look like it will do for Hawaiian music what O Brother thou did for bluegrass music, but it is no less apt. The film has a great heart and Clooney proves once again his status as a star for the ages.

Hollywood had a fine year thanks to the appearance of films such as The Descendants, and also to those film franchises which remained wonderfully silent in 2012. We were spared the tumultuous barrage of metal on metal that is Transformers, nor did we have to put up with any swashbuckling nonsense from Johnny Depp and his Pirates of the Caribbean crew. The four best blockbusters of the year were Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers Assemble and, most interestingly of all, The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence starred as Katniss Everdeen, a participant in the dystopian Games, which pit teens against each other in a fight to the death, ironically to maintain the peace in the wider society. The film deals with mature themes for its teenage audience in an honest way, and provides both an allegory of fascism and a warning of the possibility of the state pacifying its inhabitants through the threat of violence.

Jennifer Lawrence proved she was here to stay by starring in another excellent film, Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell and also starring Bradley Cooper of Hangover fame. While we had already seen Lawrence’s acting chops in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games, it’s Cooper who surprises with a great performance portraying Pat Solitano. When he walks in on his wife and her lover in the shower one day and nearly beats him to death, he is incarcerated in a Baltimore penitentiary, diagnosed with bipolar disorder. On his release, he meets Lawrence’s character, Tiffany, whose husband has recently died. A tremendous variation on the traditional rom-com ensues. As with Russell’s previous film, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook has a magnificent ensemble cast and a tight script but is no Play For Today, and Russell directs with economy and skill. Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are great as Pat’s neurotic parents and the setting, Philadelphia, becomes a character in itself. This film deserves plaudits and may even collect a couple of Oscars come February time.

Other notable Hollywood films were Snow White and the Huntsman, with a wonderfully over-the-top Charlize Theron as Ravenna, Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth as the hunter and Kristen Stewart as Snow White. It may be a bit lazy to say this was a fairy tale for the Twilight generation but there was a hardness to the film that surprised me and it was very well handled by debut director Rupert Sanders. Theron appeared on our screens in another excellent film this year, Young Adult, directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) and written by Diablo Cody. Theron plays Mavis Gary, a relatively successful author of young adult fiction: financially well off but almost as soulless as Ravenna in Snow White. She returns to her childhood home and spends the entire film trying to steer her high school sweetheart away from his new family in terrifyingly cringing ways. There is, in this film, no great revelation, no see-the-light moment. She is what she is, an alcoholic loner who uses her looks to get what she wants. The joy in the movie is to see how far she gets in doing so.

The year’s first big film was Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s ‘prequel’ to Alien. Despite its huge marketing campaign, I was not particularly looking forward to it. When I did see it (in the massive Sky Superscreen at the Cineworld O2) I was completely absorbed in it from beginning to end, particularly by the visuals, and by strong performances from Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, and forgave the film its ridiculous plot twists (although many Scott fans didn’t). If Prometheus was the year’s best sci-fi film, the year’s best horror was the schizophrenic Cabin In The Woods. Written and produced by Joss Whedon (who magnificently helmed The Avengers Assemble), Cabin in the Woods stopped being a generic teen horror at the point we realise the horrific cabin and the woods themselves are being controlled by a mysterious team of people led by Richard Jenkins (Killing Them Softly, Six Feet Under) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). I loved its crazed narrative and its nods toward horror films in general and the title and end sequences were fantastic.

Another beautiful film with great performances was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Have we been witness to a more gruesomely sympathetic character in 21st-century cinema than Freddie Quell, a hooch-making sociopath played by Joaquin Phoenix, who desperately falls in with father figure Lancaster Dodd? Dodd, played with restraint by Philip Seymour-Hoffman, takes a supporting role behind Phoenix and his on-screen wife-cum-matriarch Amy Adams. One of the year’s best scenes comes when Dodd takes Quell for his first ‘processing’ session and psychologically peels off Quell’s psyche layer by layer until he breaks down fully and submits to Dodd’s will. Only this scene will remain with me and The Master is my least favourite of PT Anderson’s work, but even so I’d rather see films made by him than most other directors.

America’s indie scene produced some great films, but three in particular stood out for me. The breakthrough of the year came in the form of Lena Dunham, writer/director of short films that found immense audiences on YouTube and more recently of HBO’s Girls. Her debut feature, Tiny Furniture, is a well observed of the lives of affluent young New Yorkers. They ask where their lives are going, what it’s like to have sex with random strangers and how long they can stomach a minimum wage job. It may sound a little obnoxious, but why should these characters apologise for the situation they find themselves in? It’s this lack of apology that makes the film work and it has a confidence in the fact it doesn’t clearly answer any of the questions because life doesn’t truly answer any of these questions either.

Another US indie that impressed me was an excellent and controversial film from director Craig Zobel. Set in a fictional Ohio fast food chain Chickwich, Compliance tells the story of a young worker who is accused of stealing money from one of her customers. Her manager is alerted by a policeman over the phone and proceeds to undertake an investigation under his guidance, including a strip search. It soon becomes clear that the policeman is not all he seems and the film gets the audience to question what they would you do in a similar situation. It’s a great chamber piece and Dreama Walker’s portrayal of the victim, Becky, is so persuasive that it provoked walkouts on its initial festival screenings in protest at her apparent exploitation.

The best of the lot was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which premiered at Cannes and delivered a knockout trailer promising an all-star cast including Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. The film had the second best soundtrack of the year (behind The Descendants) and had the typical cuteness and quirkiness of Anderson’s films. It took me a while to properly get into it because I kept being distracted when I recognised sequences from the trailer (I had seen the trailer a lot), but around halfway through I relaxed into the plot and enjoyed the movie thoroughly. The two young lead characters, Sam and Suzy – played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward – were the coolest screen couple of the year by far and they produced a perfect portrayal of awkward but passionate first love.

Once again, the London Film Festival brought some highlights. The Taviani brothers (Padre Padrone) this year showed Caesar Must Die, a film that came to London on the back of a Golden Bear victory in Berlin and a host of other festival awards and nominations. It is set in a Roman prison among the inmates who audition and then act in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as part of a rehabilitative drama program. It’s easy to predict that the tensions of the play will spill out into the real lives of those acting out the characters but what is fascinating is how these tensions play out, who can deal with them and who cannot. At an extremely lean 76 minutes, the film plays its three acts out in a surprisingly slow manner, but the expertise of the brothers, who also wrote the screenplay, was to give the characters in the film real depth.

The film I was most looking forward to at the LFF was Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux. Reygadas makes beautiful films with difficult subject matter (Battle in Heaven, Silent Light) and Post Tenebras Lux (‘light after darkness’) deals with the spiritual and physical relationship of a Mexican family in a remote country town. Filmed in academy ratio with the edges of the frame almost always blurred, the film’s images are a revelation. Indeed, the film contains the most incredible opening scene I can remember since A Touch Of Evil. A toddler runs in the foreground of an immense valley as dusk sets in while a flurry of horses gallop in the background. These images proved the greatest example of pure cinema all year and would take a greater writer than I to do justice to them with words. A lot of the rest of the film is stuff and nonsense, but like another director concerned with the spiritual world, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the ambition of the project makes up for its few shortcomings.

Although Reygadas’s film was the one I was most anticipating, my favourite film at the festival turned out to be Pablo Larraín’s No, the final part of his trilogy about Chile’s dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. The film deals with the 1988 referendum enforced on Pinochet through international pressure. The film focuses on both the ‘Yes’ campaign to keep Pinochet in power and the ‘No’ campaign run by the leftists who suffered in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup d’etat in 1973, when many dissenters were kidnapped and killed. The campaigns are played out as advertising spots on Chilean television and the executive in charge of the No vote is René Saavedra, performed by Gael García Bernal, an ad man who makes fun, capitalist adverts appealing to the Chilean youth. His sunny style is opposed by the traditionalists who want to remind the country of the horror Pinochet has done to them over the last 15 years of power. Here lies the crux of the film’s story: the dichotomy between those whose lives have been destroyed by Pinochet’s rule and want to put that point across and Saavedra’s belief that horror and sadness won’t win the campaign. Larraín shot onto original 80s videotape thus matching his footage with the original TV adverts from the time. But it’s the performance of the actors, the tight script and the extraordinary story that lift this into classic status.

This was another good year for cinematic re-releases of classics. Top of the tree were Max Ophuls’s Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie; Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des Brumes, Powell & Pressburger’s magnificent The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

French cinema had two standout films in 2012: one showing the gritty side of its capital, the other a glitzy side to cinema’s capital, Hollywood. The Artist was released in one cinema only on the final day of 2011, but I’m including it in 2012’s list. The hype surrounding it was immense, some critics claiming after its premiere in Cannes that it would prove a frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar the following year. Any film fêted almost universally by the critics should be taken with a little caution as the burden of expectation weighs heavy, but The Artist lived up to its reputation magnificently. The film, directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin, is set during the transition between silent and sound movies. It was a tumultuous time for cinema with dozens of great stars being made redundant through their inability to adapt to the new medium. The Artist tells the story of silent star George Valentin (Dujardin) slowly being replaced in popularity by newbie Peppy Miller (Bejo). So far so A Star Is Born and, in many respects, there is nothing new about The Artist. What is different is that the film contains almost no spoken dialogue although it’s rarely ‘silent’. Hazanavicius inserts some brilliant gags concerning Valentin’s fear of the coming sound revolution as well as some great visual jokes of the type perfected during the silent era. John Goodman and James Cromwell are excellent in supporting roles as a movie producer and George’s right hand man, and the various sub-plots work well throughout the main arc of the story. The film did indeed sweep the boards at the Oscars, winning Best Director, Best Actor for Dujardin and most importantly of all, Best Picture.

France’s second best picture of the year was Polisse, directed by and starring Maiwenn. This tells the story of a journalist (Maiwenn herself) covering the child protection unit of an inner-city police force. The narrative is an Altmanesque sprawl but is no less involving for it. The characters in the force all have their demons but their camaraderie is engaging and I thought the film had the best ensemble cast of the year. Even with the problematic ending, I forgave it its imperfections and went with its absorbing story all the way through.

The best British film of the year was Ben Wheatley’s follow up to 2011’s Kill List, Sightseers. This is a gloriously dark comedy about Tina and Chris, a couple in the initial stages of romance who go on a caravanning holiday around rural England. This would be an idyllic setting for a road movie but Chris (swiftly followed by Tina) begin to kill fellow tourists in imaginatively gruesome ways which recall the devilish Louis Mazzini in Kind Hearts And Coronets. Wheatley demonstrates his skills behind the camera with varying styles including montage editing, dramatic death sequences set to music and underlying all of it, a unique brand of humour which has to be credited to the two leads Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who also wrote the screenplay. I look forward to future projects involving Lowe, Oram and Wheatley, whether together or separately.

If Ben Wheatley showed in 2012 that he is becoming a director making unmissable films, an established auteur showed he is at the peak of his powers. Michael Haneke won first prize at Cannes with Amour, a sombre portrayal of old age and death starring the phenomenal Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Riva plays Anne, a retired piano teacher who has a stroke which she never recovers from. This is not a spoiler: in the first scene of the film, we see her dead body lying on a bed surrounded by flower petals. This enigmatic scene, explaining all and nothing, immediately makes the audience ask how she died and why the room was deliberately closed off. The answer of course lies in Trintignant’s character Georges, Anne’s loving husband. Their relationship throughout the film has a piercing truthfulness about it and almost all their actions, motivations and reactions play out in an almost fatalistic manner. Anne refuses to be defined by her mortality and when others only see this, she reacts angrily. The casting of Trintignant and Riva as the elderly couple is a masterstroke as their youthful faces are familiar from films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour, Z, The Conformist and dozens of others over the past 50 years or so. Their mortality in this film is charged with the audience’s memory of their youth in the movies, but the performances are so strong that even if you’ve never seen one of their earlier films, you still feel pain at the decay of their lives.

All the films I’ve mentioned were excellent, but my film of the year came from another auteur who, like Haneke, is operating at the top of his game. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is, on the surface, a slow-paced police procedural film about a dead body. The body is, of course, a Hitchcockian MacGuffin around which the real plot unfolds. Taner Birsel plays a police prosecutor whose job it is to persuade Firat Taniz to tell him where the body of a man he has been accused of murdering is buried. Taniz takes Birsel and his entourage to different areas of the Anatolian countryside while trying to remember where the body is buried. They travel in a cavalcade of cars and jeeps: police, army and forensic officers, each with specific jobs to do, bound by a hierarchy that gets tested throughout. The search is long and slow and at night, they stop at a remote village headed by a mayor who is pleased to invite his hosts in for food and drink. There comes a beguiling scene where the mayor’s daughter serves her guests by candlelight and she is the centre of attention not only for the audience but for those on both sides of the law. During these scenes, a story emerges of a woman who predicted the time and date of her death. The film’s narrative folds over itself and plays out unlike any other film I’ve seen. Indeed, only The Master cared less for a traditional Hollywood three-act narrative and, at over two and a half hours, Ceylan lets his movie trundle along with revelations slowly bubbling beneath its surface right to the end of the film. It’s a beautiful picture and for me, cements Ceylan’s reputation alongside Herzog, Scorsese and Haneke in the pantheon of today’s finest living directors.

8 comments on “The best films of 2012

  1. Great, extensive list Ally.

    I guess I could take some pride in Ceylan delivering the film of the year for you but a tiny note on contemporary Turkish cinema: I quite enjoyed “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”, too, but I have some issues with the attention Ceylan has been receiving from, particularly Western, audiences and critics, at the expense of other great Turkish filmmakers around at this time, i.e. Yesim Ustaoglu, Semih Kaplanoglu, Reha Erdem, Dervis Zaim, Zeki Demirkubuz. If you have the chance, try to see “Tepenin Ardi” which won awards at the Berlinale, Karlovy Vary and Sarajevo this year — but it only came out anyway, so it would probably never make any meaningful list for 2012. I suppose Ceylan’s resonance with international audiences is for exactly that perfect comparison you made, how his auteur-ship compares with that of Haneke.

    For me, one of the highlights of 2012 was Beasts of the Southern Wild which I would have loved to see in this comprehensive list. Pieta is a film I really wanted to see, Kim Ki-duk being one of my favourite filmmakers of the time, were you able to see it?

    You haven’t mentioned Looper or Argo – I only saw the latter and it would not make a “best films” list at all, but I know a lot of people enjoyed the former, so I wonder what your view on it would be…

  2. Great points about Turkish cinema – I would love to see works by those you mentioned although how many were given a British theatrical release in 2012? I still regard three out of the four Ceylan’s I’ve seen (Uzak, Climates and Anatolia) to be masterpieces regardless of the state of Turkey’s cinematic output

    Regards Beasts Of The Southern Wild, unfortunately it was omitted as I didn’t like it and struggled to see why lot’s of people looked on it so fondly. Likewise Life Of PI though perhaps if a story becomes too far fetched (no matter how allegorical) I struggle to go with it

    • You are right, I doubt many of the others were given UK theatrical release; in fact some of the names I mentioned didn’t produce in 2012, I just wanted to say I always wonder whether Nuri Bilge Ceylan is stealing the scene from the others, although I do like his films on their own rights. I still haven’t seen Three Monkeys which is often regarded as many people’s favourites. If you like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, you may like these in particular (I saw Honey at the London Turkish Film Festival):

  3. Prometheus best sci-fi film??? First 40 minutes – fantastic. Final hour or so – shambolic. I was a big fan of The Campaign which I can’t find on your list.

  4. An extensive list Ally, made for a very absorbing and interesting read. Looking forward to watching my recently acquired DVD of Searching For Sugar Man and Beware of Mr Baker very soon. Keep up the good work!

  5. Great effort Ally. Made me feel guilty that I don’t get out to the cinema often enough. Living in the shires there’s a dirth of cinemas we wish to attend. So our viewing is mostly based on Frances’ LoveFilm selection.

    One from 2012 we did see recently reminded me of you Ally. Angels’ Share is a Scottish based film directed by Ken Loach (he of Kes). A light hearted feel good film illustrating some of the grim realities of Glasgow its all to easy to forget living where I do.

    PS Owen – Ken Loach also directed Z-Cars.

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