2012: The Year in Film (Part 1)

Southern Wild

With Oscar season coming to a close, I feel it’s the perfect time to look back on the films of 2012 – only a month and a half late!

2012 ended up being a fantastic year for wide-release films. It got off to a shaky start, with a mid-year raft of disappointments (led by the much-hyped Prometheus and Dark Knight Rises), although the jubilant extravaganza of The Avengers buoyed the season. The 2nd half brought a hell of a lot of auteurs out to play – new films from Tarantino, Anderson (both Wes and Paul Thomas!), Spielberg, Lee, Haneke and Bigelow. Megan Ellison redrew the rulebook with the sudden intrusion of patronage into the insular, profit-driven world of producing – I hope someone willing to throw money at controversial films like The Master and Zero Dark Thirty is going to remain in the industry for a while yet. We saw the line between film and digital fade, to the point of seeing Roger Deakins handling an Alexa and creating some of the most beautiful images of the year in Skyfall. There was a stellar run of films that cast a critical eye back on key scars on American History – Katrina, the Civil War, Slavery, the War on Terror – and made their concerns feel vital and immediate.

But onto the lists! Here in Part 1, I’m featuring my Characters of 2012 and Scenes of 2012. Part 2 will count down my Top Ten Films of 2012.

The usual disclaimer – my choices aren’t necessarily a measure of ‘best’, as they are a mark of what I responded to. I’m not a huge fan of accolades like “best director” or “best actor” (especially given I don’t have any trophies on hand to dish out). How, after all, can the director’s work be separated from the finished film, the fruit of dozens of collaborators? A screenplay’s effectiveness is tempered by how it’s rendered on the screen. By the same token, I prefer to single out Characters rather than actors – the most memorable and indelible figures of light and shadow up on screen this year. A great character is the product of an actor, script, direction, make-up, wardrobe, editing and sometimes even VFX. Better to celebrate the work than the individual.

Characters of 2012

5. Bruce Banner / The Hulk (The Avengers)

The Hulk

In the year’s great superhero team-up, one character stood head and shoulders above the rest. Joss Whedon clearly loved the Hulk, enough to give him the most triumphant action beat of the year and the hilarious take-down of the film’s villain (“Puny God”). But Ruffalo makes the character just as compelling in human form, a man terrified of the power that he holds and wearied by the years of fighting it. The “I’m always angry” moment works so well because it marries the culmination of a swift character arc to, well, punching a giant space monster in the face. Ruffalo’s chemistry with Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was a wonderful surprise, and, if there’s any justice, should spawn a spin-off or two of the geniuses hanging out and doing science.

4. Joe (Looper)

Joe

It’s a testament to the skill on show in this film that you can buy Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis playing the same man. Yet there’s a profound enough difference between the two incarnations to speak volumes about the journey Old Joe has endured. Johnson uses our presumptions about Willis’ star power to devastating effect, creating a moral quandary at the heart of what was, at first glance, an action film.

3. Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln)

Lincoln

This on-screen Lincoln is riveting not just for the miraculous re-incarnation via Daniel Day Lewis, the best medium in the business, but for how he brings to life the complexities and travails of leadership itself. The film revels in the trapping of Lincoln’s charisma – the folksy storytelling and gentle affability and moral zeal – but it never loses sight of his calculating mind and sly manipulation of every person in his life, from wife to cabinet (ever a lawyer). Day Lewis’ speeches, littered with anecdote and parable, are entrancing. And the film never builds a monument of him, dwelling on his failings as a father and personal uncertainty on questions of race and equality.

As a fantastic counterpoint, the film offers up Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a man whose views on race are far more modern, but who must fight a personal war between the absolutist ‘right thing’ and political expediency in order to see the amendment he has spend decades fighting for survive in the cesspool of congress.

2. Freddie Quell (The Master)

Quell

It’s great to have Joaquin Phoenix back. Freddie is his most spellbinding work – a wreck of a human being, a collection of lurches and violent tics fueled by poisonous moonshine, given new purpose by “The Cause”. We are never shown what, beyond ‘the war’, so destroyed Freddie, nor whether he really can be helped. But it is riveting to see him fall into the circle of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and chafe against the restrictions of his new life, susceptible to being used and yet incapable of being controlled. There is a man beneath that collapsing facade, one desparate for love, for acceptance, for meaning. It’s hard to imagine he’ll ever find them.

1. Maya (Zero Dark Thirty)

Maya

While I discussed Maya and Zero Dark Thirty in details in my last post, it still feels odd to celebrate a character who we only see pieces of. Maya is a half-formed human being, with her backstory and inner life communicated only in fragments, but I found this indirect road made her only more fascinating. You search for who she is beyond her identity as “the motherfucker who found this place” in the small moments – the way she messages her colleague or scoffs her oversized burger. The disturbing thing is that, ultimately, there isn’t much else to be found. It’s been stripped from her. And once Bin Laden is on the slab, she has nothing left.

A bonus mention to Michael Fassbender as David in Prometheus. Want to see a great actor fighting to stay above a poorly written part? Fassbender manages to make a character whose motivations are left in a muddle utterly captivating.

 

Scenes of 2012

10. The Klan (Django Unchained)

I confess, in a film full of cathartic bloodshed and some of Tarantino’s finest drawn-out suspense sequences, I got the most joy from its biggest lapse into all-out comedy – the Klansmen arguing over their impractical uniforms, with the eyes cut into the wrong spot in the bag. As Tarantino will do later with DiCaprio’s southern dandy, this hilarious scene (and its appropriately explosive climax) makes the racist purveyors of this wound on the American psyche not only feeble, but patently ridiculous.

9. The Assault (Zero Dark Thirty)

For all the virtuousity of the procedural bulk of Zero Dark Thirty, there’s no doubt that the most powerful, visceral moment is the sustained Navy Seal assault on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. Rather than heroic derring-do Bigelow shows us a stark, clinical assassination conducted in whispers. Haunting for its small details – the way the team members whisper the names of their victims, or a glow stick in the hands of a crying little girl.

8. The Hallway Fight (The Raid)

The most impressive action film of the year. I’ve never heard so much applause and hollering throughout a screening – and the theatre wasn’t even half full. The Raid is almost on-stop action after the 5 minute mark, but if I have to pick one sequence, it would have to be the hallway fight. Death via fists, a baton and a jagged piece of wood in a door-frame.

7. Taken to Pieces (Looper)

A man on the run is slowly taken apart via his younger self. As he tried to traverse the city, first an address appears, carved into his arm. Then fingers begin to disappear. Then his nose. Then… It’s some mortifying body horror and certainly the scene most likely to have given me nightmares. A great example of a film using its confounding time travel conceit put something I’d never seen before on the screen.

6. The Opening (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

“One day, the storm’s gonna blow, the ground’s gonna sink, and the water’s gonna rise up so high, there aint gonna be no Bathtub, just a whole bunch of water. But me and my daddy, we gonna stay right here. We’s who the earth is for.” A magical rush of music (huge props to Behn Zeitlin and Dan Romer), voice-over and jubilant imagery, creating an entire world in a few short minutes, and ensuring we care about this little girl and her mad, dysfunctional community before the forecast fall.

5. Nightmares Unleashed (Cabin in the Woods)

Absolute, hilarious madness. With the push of a rather conspicous red button, Drew Goddard unleashes a tsunami of iconic movie monsters to wreak utter havoc on the buttoned-up workers of the underground bunker. It’s delirious in its excess, offering up dozens of references whilst never buckling under the weight of the bloody frenzy on screen, and littered with hilarious tangents – I’ll never look at unicorns the same way again.

4. Dreamed a Dream (Les Miserables)

Whereas the closeups and lurching camerawork manage to diminish a number of the riveting musical numbers in Les Mis, for the iconic “dreamed a dream” Hooper captures Hathaway in a single, locked-off closeup. It’s a gutteral, animal cry of a number, with an wounded ferocity that is impossible to resist.

3. Legalities (Lincoln)

Spielberg’s restraint in Lincoln is laudatory, and never more impressive than when he fixes the camera on Day Lewis and ever-so-slowly pushes in over the course of an astounding monologue, as he tries to unwind the legality of his Emancipation Proclamation, teasing out the limits of his own war powers against the political realities of the day with a transfixing deployment of circular legal logic.

2. Shanghai Skyscraper (Skyfall)

This is why you hire Roger Deakins. Bond ascends to the bare floor of a Shanghai skyscraper lit by the neon of adjoining buildings, and silently watches an assassination unfold. The subsequent fight scene takes place largely in silhouette, in a single shot. It’s lyrical in a way that is wholly without precedent for a Bond film – exhilarating, gorgeous and alien.

1. The Audit (The Master)

No other scene last year came close. Anderson keeps his camera right in the faces of Dodd and Freddie as they lean in over a small card table. Dodd hits Freddie with a barrage of increasingly personal, loaded questions, drawing him in closer and closer, tearing down the man’s defences and perceptions of himself. He pulls us in too. And, like Dodd, we are only inches away from Freddie’s face when he’s given the instruction to answer again without blinking once, watching for the slightest movement. The climax is euphoric, but terrifying. We just saw a snake worm its way into a man’s psyche.

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