Films of the Year – 2012

If there was one word to best sum up 2012 in film, chances are it would be “disappointing”.

Everything seemed to disappoint this year, whether it was Ridley Scott’s muddled Prometheus, Christopher Nolan’s nonsensical The Dark Knight Rises or Peter Jackson’s endless The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Of course, when anything is as hyped as these tent-pole releases tend to be, they are unlikely to ever meet audience’s towering expectations, let alone surpass them. They are only films after all.

But when you look back over the cinematic landscape of 2012, it is surprising just how many movies came close, or bypassed hype altogether. Here, then, are my films of the year.

10. Ill Manors

10. ill ManorsConsidering that I dislike gangster movies, hate rap and have only the basest understanding of who Ben Drew actually is, I think it’s safe to say that I was not expecting to like Ill Manors. In actual fact, the movie is one of the most powerful and affecting of any I have seen this year, with an array of incredible performances and unforgettable characters weaving the various plot threads into one heart-stopping whole.

9. Rise Of The Guardians

9. Rise Of The GuardiansWhile Pixar continue to fall from grace at a pretty staggering pace, DreamWorks Animation have been steadily rising from the ashes ever since they laid Shrek to rest. While Madagascar 3 entertained and impressed, it was November’s Rise Of The Guardians that showed the full extent of the studios abilities. Like 2010’s triumphant How To Train Your Dragon, Guardians combines the talents of a master filmmaker, a celebrated cinematographer and an accomplished composer to truly dazzling effect.

8. The Imposter

8. The ImposterHaving unfortunately missed The Imposter at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, I eventually caught up with it later in the year — and I’m incredibly glad that I did. Treating the true story at its centre like a bona fide thriller, director Bart Layton ramps up the tension to near-unbearable levels as the unfolding events continue to get stranger and stranger. It is not only the story itself, but the expert combination of archive footage, talking heads and dramatisation that set this apart of any other documentary released this year.

7. A Dangerous Method

7. A Dangerous MethodFor many, 2012 has been something of a lackluster year for David Cronenberg. Removed from the body horror from which he has made his name, A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis were far more cerebral affairs that many found turgid and uninvolving. I found A Dangerous Method to be anything but, as a triad of amazing performances from Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender bring to life one of the most interesting and important relationships in all of science.

6. Skyfall

6. SkyfallAfter twenty-two months and twenty-two Bonds, I was all but ready to put Ian Fleming’s secret agent behind me. After the forced fierceness of Casino Royale and its infamous footnote Quantum Of Solace, the franchise had apparently run out of steam just in time for its fiftieth anniversary. Not so, as it happens. Instead, Sam Mendes has produced the definitive Bond movie, one that does away with the threads left dangling at the end of the previous film, re-embraces the various series tropes and sets the scene for what looks to be a bright and brilliant future.

5. The Paperboy

5. The PaperboyI realise that Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy is not slated for UK release until March of next year, but I couldn’t help include it as one of my own cinematic highlights of 2012. A scuzzy and slightly surreal crime drama that puts the case of a potentially innocent prisoner in the hands of the Jensen brothers (as played by Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron), The Paperboy is a film that really must be seen to be believed. Not only will it change forever the way that you look at its leading men, but it coaxes a career-best performance from Nicole Kidman and a turn from John Cusack that suggests that he might even be able to act.

4. ParaNorman

4. ParaNormanFrom Laika, the studio that brought us 2009’s Coraline, ParaNorman is one of three stop-motion animations (and, incidentally, three Halloween-themed children’s movies) released this year. It is also the fourth best film of 2012. Combining a great voice cast, a witty script and some surprisingly adult subtext, ParaNorman goes far beyond simply being a great animated children’s movie. It’s just a shame that more people didn’t see it.

3. Marvel’s Avengers Assemble

3. The AvengersWhile the surprisingly staid opening twenty minutes might rob Marvel’s Avengers Assemble of first and second place, the remaining two-and-a-bit hours are so utterly wonderful that it ceases to be a problem. Uniting four separate film series into one mega-franchise, Marvel have potentially revolutionised the way blockbusters are made. The most fun that you are likely to have in the cinema this year, Joss Whedon’s film (the third highest-grossing OF ALL TIME) showcases the superhero genre at its very best.

2. Life  Of Pi

2. Life Of PiAng Lee — never one to back away from a challenge — this year filmed the unfilmable to bring cinema audience Life Of Pi, the astonishing story of a young Indian boy stranded at sea with a Bengal tiger. Although it has (rightfully) made headlines for its luscious visuals and unparalleled use of  3D, it is the films core narrative — along with its meditations on life, faith and nature — that make it such a resounding success. Oscars take note, newcomer Suraj Sharma delivers the year’s best performance as Piscine Molitor Patel: Christian, Hindu, Muslim, survivor.

1. Chronicle

1. ChronicleWhile Joss Whedon’s The Avengers combines smarts, spectacle and spirit in what must surely be the ultimate superhero movie, Chronicle‘s Josh Trank takes a different track with his own super-powered teens. A low-budget, found-footage genre piece, Chronicle instead focuses on the relationship between two contrasting cousins following their inexplicable acquisition of telekinetic abilities. Darker even than Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Trank’s film — written with verve by Max Landis — is also moving, funny, inspiring, entertaining, honest, insightful, brave, disturbing and utterly, utterly compelling.

11. The Hunger Games 12. The Cabin In The Woods 13. Grabbers 14. Cloud Atlas 15. The Amazing Spider-man 16. Margaret 17. Dredd 18. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower 19. Premium Rush 20. Liberal Arts

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January 2012 – Your Mom Got Chased By A Shark Once

2012 began like any other, with a look forward to the year at hand and lists of the most and least anticipated movies of the coming twelve months. With neither producing a movie until February, I tuned into Watchmen on TV, bought The Tree of Life on DVD and waited for the first set of releases to arrive in cinemas.

This month I set about catching up on all of the awards contenders that I hadn’t yet seen, falling instantly in love with Michel Hazanavicius’ exceptional The Artist, Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited Margaret, Steven Spielberg’s emotional War Horse, Steve McQueen’s impressive Shame and Alexander Payne’s Oscar-tipped The Descendants.

Also released this month was toothless Meryl Streep vehicle The Iron Lady, nonsensical alien invasion flick The Darkest Hour, unwanted Underworld fourquel Awakening and the brutally botched Haywire. For The Darkest Hour, I prepared a brief criticism for Moviejuice, STV’s film review programme. Invited to join fellow Edinburgh-based movie lovers, we spoke our pieces to camera and found ourselves united in dread of the inevitable broadcast.

Elsewhere this month, I contributed a number of reviews and a list of my most anticipated animated features to BestforFilm, alongside a defensive piece in support of director Richard Kelly and a showcase of my favourite video game for HeyUGuys. Just in case you’re interested (the cinema adaptation is probably already on the way), it’s Banjo-Kazooie.

As with the last twelve months, I ended this one with James Bond for Blogalongabond. January was the month of Octopussy, and, you know what, it was alright.

Film of the month: Margaret

Listen, The Academy…We Need To Talk About Kevin.

As you may or may not have noticed, it’s awards season, and earlier today The Hunger Games‘ Jennifer Lawrence took to the internet to reveal the 84th Academy Awards’ prepared list of Oscar nominations.

While The Academy tip their hat to a number of the year’s finest pieces of filmmaking – with The Artist, War Horse and The Decendents walking way with several awards apiece – there were the usual array of glaring omissions and truly staggering misjudgements.

Let’s take the Best Film category, which forsakes its potential ten places in favour of the aforementioned three, along with Moneyball, The Tree of Life, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Hugo and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Having not yet seen Moneyball or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close it is impossible for me to pass judgement (even if the latter looks too saccharine for words), while nobody in their right mind could question the right of The Tree of Life or Hugo‘s place on a list of the greatest movies of last year. But The Help, really? Sure, it was enjoyable enough, and nobody’s claiming it doesn’t carry an important message, but it is one that is seriously undercut by a black and white script in addition to the gigglesome whimsy of the central performances. And then there’s Midnight in Paris, a perfectly charming slice of confectionery nostalgia, starring Owen Wilson as Owen Wilson. But film of the year?

Where’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lynn Ramsay’s devastating adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel that earnt a poster quote from the latter? Where’s Melancholia, the clue-is-in-the-title film of the year from walking headline Lars von Trier? What about Super 8, a film just as nostalgic as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but with the added bonus of great performances and an escaped alien? However much I adored the above, however, there is one film that stands out from the competition as the finest piece of cinema released last year: Margaret. Five years in the making, and boasting a career-best performance from Anna Paquin (that’s right, Best Actress category, I have a bone to pick with you, too), Margaret is a film which actually has something to say. You know, other than racism and flying planes into buildings are bad.

My next bone of contention are the nominees for Best Documentary. Having broken my own personal record for documentaries seen in a single year, I had high hopes for actually having seen the Oscar winning film. I – along with the rest of the sports-ignorant world – fell in love with motor-sports this year, having watched a slew of young men either die or injure themselves doing something that they love. Both Senna and TT3D: Closer to the Edge were outstanding pieces of filmmaking, both informative and evocative as they shone a spotlight on two worlds little known out of their own fanbases. Heck, even Never Say Never opened my eyes to the undeniable talent of Justin Bieber, even if it has by now been marketed it out of existence by his record label. And I haven’t even mentioned Jane’s Journey, Project Nim, The Green Wave or LIFE IN A FREAKIN’ DAY.

The omissions wouldn’t have even been so bad if it weren’t for the clunking atrocities that have become Academy Award nominees in their place. What business do Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, Rio, W.E., Puss in Boots and Anonymous have being shortlisted for Oscars, when the likes of Shame, Troll HunterThe Skin I Live In and Take Shelter haven’t been nominated for anything? I didn’t think much of Winnie the Pooh but I’d rather see it an award winning animated movie ahead of Kung Fu Panda 2. Does Zooey Deschanel’s work on the soundtrack not count as Music then, The Academy?

I bloody knew this would happen.

Margaret (2011)

Lisa (Anna Paquin) is an opinionated, articulate teenager who thinks she knows it all. Brash, obstinate, and an indomitable force during class debates, she is unaffraid to tell her peers, teachers and single mother exactly what she thinks of them and the attitudes that they hold. Deciding to track down a cowboy hat in preparation for a weekend of horse-riding with her father following one such incident with an exasperated maths teacher (Matt Damon), Lisa’s shopping trip is cut short when she indirectly causes a traffic accident which kills an unsuspecting pedestrian (Allison Janney – who nobody kills without serious repercussions).

Racked with guilt over her part in the tragedy, having distracted the driver (Mark Ruffalo) and therefore caused him to drive through a red light, Lisa proceeds to make matters worse by misinterpreting a glance during questioning and subsequently lying to police in order to corroborate his story. Driven to make contact with the dead woman’s only relative by her overwhelming grief, she builds up a relationship with the deceased’s best friend and convinces herself that in order to atone for her perceived sins she must come clean to the police and remove the responsible driver from the roads.

Tell someone you are going to see Margaret at the cinema and they will invariably turn to you and ask why the hell anyone would want to watch a movie about Maggie Thatcher in the first place. While The Iron Lady has enjoyed a truly astonishing amount of publicity in the run up to its release, Margaret has received almost none. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Margaret has been in production for nearly five years, delayed due to multiple set-backs arising from Lonergan’s stubborn pursuit of the elusive perfect cut (and further exasperated by multiple ongoing law suits), concluding in a limited release orchestrated by Fox Searchlight Pictures. With only a handful of showings across the country, Margaret may be the best film you never see this year.

But there is more to Margaret than a straight-forward tale of right and wrong. As Lisa includes more and more people in her own personal dilemma – in either an attempt to form a moral consensus or satisfy some egocentric pursuit of drama – she inevitably finds herself doing more harm than good, often reacting to her feelings in unhealthy and unexpected ways. With such an under-formed and unreliable ethical grounding, Lonergan has the perfect medium to explore not only the impact of 9/11 on modern America but also such extraneous topics as puberty, family and the very nature of justice itself – whether legal, moral or arguably pathological. Who is at fault? What is grief? How, when the case is supposedly closed, is it possible to achieve absolution?

At the very centre of this sprawling meditation on responsibility is Lisa herself. For Anna Paquin, it is the performance of a career. She doesn’t play a character, Lonerman’s film is not populated by impersonations, but inhabited by people – beautiful, flawed, well-meaning people. As infuriating as she is inescapably compelling, Paquin’s Lisa is one of the most well-rounded and complex protagonists ever committed to film. She commits entirely, as do the rest of the cast, and the end result is nothing short of revelatory. With characters drifting in and out of her life with little thought for traditional drama, the narrative follows no laws other than those set by Lisa herself.

The movie Margaret most reminded me of was Southland Tales. While Lonergan’s movie might be superior in almost every sense, it is one of those over-reaching movies that is held together not by convention and cliché but by the director’s sheer force of will alone. The five year production has taken its toll on every frame of the finished movie – even at 150 minutes, Margaret is a shadow of its former self – but Lonergan’s determination and resolve has resulted in a movie which nevertheless survives as one of the finest films of the year. Audacious, ridiculous and utterly compelling, Margaret is a frustratingly naturalistic movie which will leave you almost as confounded as the inhabitants of its own universe.

This is unlikely the last review of Margaret I will ever write – like the film itself, my own understanding of it is a bit of a work in progress – but one week on from my first viewing I am still as yet unable to stop thinking about it. If you only see one Margaret this month, make it this one.