2012: The Year in Film (Part 2)

And we’re back for Part 2 – the countdown of my Top Ten Films of the 2012!

There’s a huge American/British slant to my choices this year. It’s not a reflection on world cinema, as much as it’s a reflection on what I have and haven’t seen. I’ll blame Australian release dates for films like Armour, still yet to screen. Others, like Holy Motors, I’m just flat out ashamed about. But nonetheless, I feel like I saw a hell of a lot of great films – enough to make whittling down ten its own struggle.

10. The Master

The Master

“I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”

I debated long and hard about whether I should put The Master on this list. Simply put, as an entire experience (on first viewing at least) I didn’t feel the film added up. Towards the end it loses focus and meanders, fading away rather than finding its climax. And yet, I appreciated the idiosyncratic pace, and each of the film’s parts – the performances, the cinematography, the production design – are flawless, and often quite brave. The Master felt like the work of a great artist, but one who hadn’t quite settled on what he wanted to say.

9. Argo

Argo

“You need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. Somebody respectable. With credits. Who you can trust with classified information. Who will produce a fake movie. For free.”

I’d say Affleck is now three for three. He’s chosen a fantastic story, and pulled it off in such a way that you’re clutching the armrests despite the ending never being in doubt – the surest test of a great historical thriller. The shifts in tone and location are deftly handled, with a script that jumps spryly from the easy-going comedy of the Hollywood build-up to the oppressive, set-piece heavy final stretch as the astounding rescue scheme is carried out.

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts

“For the animals that didn’t have a dad to put them in a boat, the end of the world already happened.”

Beasts boasted some of the most euphoric moments I experienced in a cinema last year. I haven’t quite parsed out how I feel about the film’s politics yet, but I feel they’re less important than the weird, often magical journey of Hushpuppy in her upended world. And what a world. Zeitlin builds a stunning sense of place, and a warm, if alien, sense of community in the Bathtub. Cannot wait to see what he does next.

7. Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

“That’s very eloquent. I can’t argue against anything you’re saying. But then again, I don’t have to, ’cause you’re 12 years old.”

Another film that tackles the gulf between the expectations of childhood and the world beyond, marrying Wes Anderson’s undaunted, singular style to a story that welcomes it. The two young lovebirds spend the film attempting to construct a relationship with all the trapping of intimacy gleaned from the adult work, whilst endearingly defiant in the face of practicality – the perfect subject for Anderson’s own over-composed aesthetic. I’m still floored by how many laughs the man can wring from framing. I loved the cast of fundamentally good-natured characters, peopling Anderson’s most earnest and heartfelt work since Rushmore.

6. Skyfall

Bond

“What makes you think this is my first time?”

I’d rate it amongst the best Bond films ever made – deferential to the franchise’s history even as it deconstructs it. The loaded, ‘this-time-it’s-personal’ story is anchored by fantastic supporting turns by Barden and Dench and gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins. It’s a Bond film that actually aspires to be about something, whilst still remembering to throw an insane chase sequence and sultry theme song our way.

5. Looper

Looper

“This is my life now. I earned it. You had yours already. So why don’t you do what old men do and die?”

I loved Looper because it had genuine balls, and played its hand so superbly close to the chest on what it was really about. Although I know some viewers didn’t embrace the film’s brazen shift at the midpoint, its transformation from cat-and-mouse chase film to mediation on the legacy of violence gives the narrative purpose and soul. It’s also the best use of Bruce Willis in many, many years (well, apart from Moonrise Kingdom – man has had a good 2012), using his star power to make a troubling character shocking, whilst still letting him loose with a machine gun in the final act to do his thing. The time travel mechanics are deployed adroitly – enough to fire the plot and inspire some astounding sequences, but without letting the mechanics overwhelm the story. And an inventive, clever piece of work that goes towards confirming the promise Rian Johnson and Gordon Levitt showed in Brick nearly a decade ago.

4. Django Unchained

Django

“You silver tongued devil, you.”

Django sees Tarantino on the attack. Whereas has last visit to the past, the stunning Basterds, is an almost hopeful revisionist jaunt, convinced in the power of cinema to alter the past, Django embodies a profound anger at the injustices of the past, on and off-screen, and manages to confront it with a stunning combination of rage and humour. In spite of the subject matter, this may be Tarantino’s funniest script. His handling of the tonal shifts in this film are extraordinary, weaving between the horrific physical and emotional violence of slavery to the zany, triumphant violence of Django and Schultz’s quest at the drop of a stetson. He manages to both viciously lampoon slavery’s champions – stupid klansmen and faux-cultured southern ladies and gentlemen – whilst making the insidious system and the ideas that underlie it utterly terrifying and immediate (take the phrenology speech by DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, or power consolidated by the reprehensible Stephen). Tarantino delivers his message with overwhelming force, but ensures that along the way we can delight in the iconic partnership of Django and Dr King Schultz roaming the south, collecting bounties and dolling out justice.

3. Cabin in the Woods

Cabin

“An army of nightmares, huh? Let’s get this party started.”

Cabin was easily the most fun I had in a cinema last year. Joss Whedon may have catapulted into the blockbuster firmament with The Avengers, but his greatest achievement this year was writing and producing this brilliant paean to the horror film, directed by Drew Goddard. The film doesn’t hide its revelations behind a shock twist, but rather parses out its reveals, slowly drawing back the curtain on the operation that has brought five teenagers to an isolated cabin to act out a very familiar story. What initially feels like a satire of the genre (and it is rarely anything but hilarious) shifts into a reconstruction and reevaluation of the form, growing more and more expansive with every minute until an astounding, mad climax.

2. Lincoln

Lincoln

“I wish He had chosen an instrument more wieldy than the House of Representatives.”

Spielberg and Kushner should never be separated. Between this and Munich, their partnership seems to be pulling the best out of Spielberg, while reigning in its excesses. Lincoln is a film about democratic leadership, and its action is all talk talk talk, but it offered up some of the most thrilling hours of film last year. Lincoln’s stories and monologues are magnificent, and his calculated confrontations with friends and opponents in hope of passing his Constitutional amendment reveal a brilliant, calculating political mind. And what a cast – even the walk-on parts are stacked with some of America’s finest character actors. It also feels like a film for this very moment – it’s no accident that Spielberg’s long-gestating project at last came together with a script in which a divided, obstructionist congress struggles to pass a major civil rights reform. It re-enforces that politics has always been a messy, difficult business, a personal business, and yet carries the hope that, with leadership married to a strong moral vision, change can happen.

1. Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark

“You can help yourself by being truthful.”

I struggled long and hard over my top three – all exceptional films, maybe even masterpieces. Ultimately, I gave the top slot to Zero Dark Thirty, for the simple reason that no other film from 2012 has inspired me to argue quite so often, or quite so passionately. The procedural style recalls Fincher’s Zodiac, but its visceral power is all Bigelow, and I fell hard for this problematic portrait of a country sacrificing its soul for a quest for revenge.

Runners Up: Wuthering Heights, The Raid, Wreck-it-Ralph, The Avengers, The Sapphires.

That’s it for me on 2012. Now onto Oscar Night!

What were your favourites for the year?

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