Sunday, 30 December 2012

Films of 2012

It’s been a strange year in film for me, with various commitments causing me to miss major releases like The Master and Rust & Bone – as well as smaller titles like Berberian Sound Studio which I know I will love. My series of reviews on the IMDB’s top fifty films was a roaring success with readers but sadly ground to a halt as work consumed my time and a press pass for Leeds International Film Festival went largely unused.

Thankfully, as the year progressed I managed more cinema trips, the IMDB series creaked back into life and the estimable recovered from some financial difficulties, re-opened its reviewing arm and starting commissioning more of my writing.

Of course, there were major disappointments in 2012. Ridley Scott’s re-visiting of the Alien franchise was a damp squib, Great Expectations was woeful and The Hobbit was the bloated behemoth we (sadly) expected. There is much to look forward to in 2013 – not least Tarantino’s apparent return to form in Django Unchained and adaptations of two truly great novels: Cloud Atlas and The Great Gatsby.

But as the year draws to its end, here’s my pick of the films of 2012 (click the hyperlinks for my full reviews).

The Angel’s Share
A delightful film which blends Ken Loach’s trademark gritty realism with a streak of warmth and good humour. The tale of a rag-tag bunch of community-service serving Scottish criminals attempting to steal valuable scotch is a decidedly old-fashioned caper which warms the heart through its wonderful characterisation and the single malt whisky which forms the basis of its plot. Not enough people saw The Angel’s Share at the cinema, but it’s now available at home and you’d be a fool not to fork out a few quid now…

The Dark Knight Rises
The final part of Chris Nolan’s genre-changing trilogy is huge in every sense. Shot using iMax technology, the film was epic in its size and ambition. Perhaps the bravest decision of the director’s career was to marginalise Batman himself, with the Caped Crusader barely appearing on screen at all. There were plot holes a-plenty, too, but to pull a superhero movie apart for being slightly implausible would be churlish. This is the greatest film of its genre, and vastly superior to the cartoonish frippery of 2012’s other big comic book franchise, The Avengers.

Life of Pi
Long considered unfilmable, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi finally made it the silver screen in December 2012 – and it was worth the wait. Until the technology existed which could accurately set a teenage boy adrift in the ocean with a Bengal tiger, the novel remained on the shelf. But Ang Lee’s superb use of computer generated animals and 3D filming techniques breathed life and beauty into a fantastical, poetic story which explores religion and the human spirit without ever beating the audience over the head with ‘a message’.

The Imposter
A true-life story so implausible that it could only be a documentary – it’s too far-fetched to be fiction. The titular imposter is Frederick Bourdin, a French Algerian who inveigles his way into the family of Nicholas Barclay – a blonde, blue-eyed Texan who went missing some years before. That Bourdin bears no resemblance to Barclay is an irrelevance to a family desperate to welcome back their lost son. But why are they so willing to embrace a stranger? Bourdin is a wonderfully charismatic man, but the real interest here is in the dark secrets hidden by the family he infiltrates.

Ben Wheatly’s jet black Kill List was one of last year’s best releases. Here, he takes that streak of violent horror and injects it into a hilariously small-scale comedy about an oddball couple caravanning across the north of England. Their journey to railway museums and campsites is spoiled somewhat by litterers and middle-class snobbery, so they do what any put-upon couple would do – and engage in a murderous rampage of Daily Mail readers. A hilarious film with a truly nasty heart.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
In a partially flooded Louisiana bayou, six year old Hushpuppy lives with her alcoholic father Wink in a pair of collapsing shacks. He is desperately ill and angry at himself and the world. She is simultaneously fiercely independent and vulnerable. When a horrendous storm hits, their community is destroyed, turning their story into one of survival. This is a beautiful, elegiac film of enormous power and lyricism featuring one of the greatest child performances ever given. A wonderful film.

Despite massive fame and a huge legacy, Bob Marley has managed to remain a rather mysterious figure. Although his voice is one of the world’s most famous, he was rarely heard talking to the media. Here, Kevin McDonald gives Marley and those who knew him centre stage, focusing on the man rather than the music. At times it’s a little easy on a man whose extra-marital affairs and dubious family life could be easily criticised – although even those he wronged show nothing but warmth and love to a man who preached exactly those qualities.

A tiny documentary about a massive character, Wavumba concentrates on Zimbabwean fisherman Masoud as he struggles to reconcile his legendary status with his fading physical prowess. He’s a man who has constructed his own myth, telling tall tales of wrestling sharks and huge catches, but who now relies entirely on his muscular nephew Juma. Their bickering belies a genuine affection and forms the heart of this understated yet powerful character study.

Ben Affleck is not universally liked, but his directorial career is causing the doubters to reassess their views of his talents. Here, he takes the little known story of six Americans trapped in 1979 Iran and their startling rescue – achieved by posing as a film crew scouting locations for a fictional sci-fi film. Made with verve and skill, Affleck takes a beguiling story and creates a stylish movie which captures the mood of the time perfectly and builds to a buttock-clenchingly tense climax. It’s a real Oscar contender.

Holy Motors
An idiosyncratic and episodic film which beguiles, bewitches and repulses in equal measure. There is no traditional sense of narrative at all. Instead, the camera follows Monsieur Oscar for a full day. He’s some kind of actor or performance artist, fulfilling a series of appointments in which he plays various parts: a motion-capture artist, a dying man, a hitman and many more. It’s worth seeing this film for Dennis Lavant’s performance(s) alone, as he undergoes amazing physical transformations in front of the audience’s eyes; it’s so spectacular that the film’s exasperating strangeness becomes secondary.

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