Talking critically about films can be more than simply analysis of what’s up there on the screen – it’s a constant exposure of what’s going on inside the person doing the talking as well. And that’s rarely more evident that when the end of the year rolls around and the rush to reveal your choices of the best, the worst, the underrated, the most disappointing and the like gets underway.
Looking through the list of the movies I caught in 2012, cataloguing what worked for me and what didn’t, I realised that I was tempted to include or exclude certain titles to distinguish myself from the pack or con readers into thinking my interests are more diverse than they appear. I mean, let’s face it, my choices are pretty dude-heavy. That said, j’accuse, Hollywood! The fault lies in your system, not my selection process! (Think anyone bought that?)
I also got to wondering if I was including various films because I’m a notoriously easy lay when it comes to their directors. Was I considering Cosmopolis because it clinically but compellingly depicted a fruitless search for genuine meaning and authentic sensation in a world moving too fast to allow either to take hold…or because I’m down with David Cronenberg? Ah, but if that was the case, why wasn’t I showing A Dangerous Method a little more love?
Maybe I’m overthinking this. But that’s kind of in the job description, innit?
So here it is, a rundown of my cinematic highlights, lowlights and other whatnot from the last 12 months. (I’m going in alphabetical order rather than ranking them numerically, by the way.) And to people taking issue with possibly notable omissions, let me just say The Master came close to making the cut but Holy Motors was never really in the running. I recognise what it’s doing – and will give the remarkable Denis Lavant his props – but I’m just not feeling it, people.
As much as I dig certain artists and auteurs, I’m a sucker for a solid craftsperson behind the camera, someone who displays intelligence, empathy and good taste in their creative choices without necessarily leaving a distinctive signature all over the shop, and that’s maybe why I’ve been so pleased with the career rehabilitation of Ben Affleck. His third directorial outing – a white-knuckle thriller about an unorthodox and top-secret CIA mission to smuggle six American embassy staffers out of revolution-torn Iran circa 1979 – kept the tension simmering from beginning to end while deftly weaving in dry, winning humour and layers of smart subtext.
The culmination of Marvel Studios’ ‘Phase One’, which gradually brought a collection of comic-book superheroes to the screen in various stand-alone adventures before uniting them for one big-ass blockbuster, paid off better than anyone could have anticipated, really. Joss Whedon brought just enough of his trademark rhythms and sensibilities to the table, all the while staying true to the traits and quirks that make the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk (especially the Hulk) so memorable and adored. And it was just plain fun, man, mainly because the filmmaker tapped into his inner 12-year-old by having these characters face off in various brawls and squabbles, just like you did with your action figures back in the day. Oh, and for those taking issue with the notion that the movie was too ‘Whedonesque’, it might be prudent to remember that Whedon is actually really good at this kind of thing. Name some other filmmakers who would have deployed Black Widow so effectively.
Martin Scorsese smuggled a heartfelt love letter to the early days of cinema and a passionate plea for the preservation and restoration of old films into this moving story of a young Parisian orphan’s quest to keep hold of his past while creating his own future. Visually Hugo is a treat (Scorsese really took to 3D), thematically and emotionally it’s just as wonderful. “Come dream with me”, indeed.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY
A poll conducted by US market researchers CinemaScore saw moviegoers give Killing Them Softly the rock-bottom grade of ‘F’. That makes sense in a way, because this is not a likeable movie. But screenwriter-director Andrew Dominik, adapting George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, knew exactly what he was doing, and playing nice wasn’t high on his list – telling a tough, unflinching tale of how hard times affect even hardened crooks was. With this film, the gifted Dominik displayed an aptitude with actors (props to James Gandolfini for being unremittingly, unrepentantly pathetic and vile), an assured technical know-how (the sound design on this was incredible) and, best of all, an ability to stick the landing – this had the best ending of any film I saw this year.
Looper could have gone wrong a dozen different ways. But writer-director Rian Johnson, taking quite the leap forward from his first two features (both terrific, by the way), sees every hazard coming and dextrously sidesteps them. Or he acknowledges them and waltzes right on by. (Get a load of both Bruce Willis and Jeff Daniels refusing to delve into the intricacies of time travel.) Confidence is a key quality of a good filmmaker, and while Johnson may seem a little more subdued than some of his compatriots there’s no denying he has a clear vision and the skills to bring it to fruition. Damn, it’s good when someone knows what they’re doing.
Channing Tatum had one of those years in 2012. True, The Vow wasn’t great (two words: hipster wedding) but it did pretty well at the box office. 21 Jump Street, however, established him as Wahlberg 2.0, a charming, capable lunk with unexpectedly awesome comic abilities. And in a very promising development, Tatum made a buddy in Steven Soderbergh – when the director’s pharma-drama Side Effects comes out next year he’ll have appeared in three of the filmmaker’s movies in a row. Their collaboration Magic Mike, inspired by Tatum’s early career as a stripper, was one of the most welcome success stories of the year, both commercially and critically. A candid, insightful and sexy character study executed with Soderbergh’s usual style and eye for detail, it was not only a great showcase for Tatum’s skill set (the boy can dance) but also gave Matthew McConaughey – speaking of great years – the role he was born to play. By the way, Magic Mike, nice try but Alex Pettyfer and stardom are just not meant to be. Still, his Schwarzenegger impression was the only time this guy has ever been vaguely likeable onscreen, so well done you.
Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson at his most Wes Anderson-y. This may cause you to jump for joy or run a mile. (Me, I’ll take the former.) I have to admit it, I was a little nervous going in that the idiosyncratic filmmaker might have started running on fumes, having exhausted both his usual dysfunctional-relationships material and his stylistic bag of tricks. Not likely, it turned out – making great use of some repertory players (Bill Murray!), some welcome ring-ins (a surprisingly apt Bruce Willis!) and two fascinating newcomers in Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, Anderson sweetly, soulfully explored the contradictory needs to escape and to belong in this bracingly honest, beautifully evocative story of first love and emotional awakening.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
The minute this vibrant documentary ended, I went back to the beginning and watched it all over again. Then I spent the next week or so recommending it to all and sundry. This story of Sixto Rodriguez, a talented singer-songwriter whose influence stretched far, far beyond his short-lived, two-album career in the early 1970s, is not just about expressing oneself through art, it’s about expressing oneself through life. Watch the movie, listen to the music.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
There was nary an explosion and barely any gunplay in this adaptation of John le Carre’s classic novel of espionage and intrigue. Luckily, it did have a sense of elegance and understatement that disguised its ever-escalating tension, not to mention a collection of best-of-British actors delivering sterling work (Gary Oldman as the cagey George Smiley was first among equals but Colin Firth did some tremendous stuff here). I was worried that the great 1979 miniseries might render this new version redundant; I’m happy my fears proved to be unfounded.
Yes, it borrows liberally from the Toy Story movies and, yes, one of its climactic moments borrows very liberally from The Iron Giant. But in a banner year for big-screen animation (Rise of the Guardians was an underrated gem, and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted was giddy fun), Wreck-It Ralph showed more imagination and heart than many of the other fine films out there. Plus, just try leaving the cinema without muttering “I’m gonna wreck it!” or humming “S-U-G-A-R! Jump into your racing car! Sugar rush!” Can’t be done. (Paperman, the short film that precedes Ralph, is a marvellous little movie that contributed greatly to its inclusion on this list.)
Honourable Mention: JOHN CARTER
I can’t in good conscience include this one in my top ten; I recognise that it has too many flaws for me to recommend it unreservedly. For me, though, many of those faults are outweighed by the virtues evident in the film but perhaps more so by director Andrew Stanton’s clear desire to make a rollicking, rip-roaring science fiction melodrama, an Indiana Jones flick with fantasy elements, while enthusiastically and respectfully bringing from the page to the screen the worlds dreamed up by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yes, I know we’re supposed to judge the outcome rather than the intentions. But I feel that even the awkward, ungainly aspects of John Carter ring with the passion and excitement felt by the people making it, and that’s why I love it.
Here’s how you kill a potential franchise reboot: Hire Tyler Perry, pleasant enough but unimposing in every respect, to play your police officer/psychologist hero. Hire Matthew Fox, 2% body fat but 100% crazy intensity, to play his adversary. Hire the ever-hacky Rob Cohen to direct. Hire a screenwriter who actually allows lines like “I’d rather take advice from a ham sandwich” to make it past the first draft. Sit back and watch the whole fucking thing implode.
Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie was a fun little grab-bag of everything we used to dig about the filmmaker’s offbeat sensibility. Dark Shadows, a who-asked-for-it remake of a cult-sensation ‘70s soap opera, was the polar opposite, a pointless, charmless disaster that drove a final stake into the heart of the once-fruitful creative partnership shared by Burton and Johnny Depp.
P.J. Hogan unleashed the evil twin of Muriel’s Wedding with this shrill, strident excuse for a boisterous, anything-goes comedy. A handful of good performances and one or two enjoyably nutty moments couldn’t compensate for how misguidedly mean-spirited and hateful this movie felt, epitomised by Toni Collette’s grating performance.
Or: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: The Movie.
THIS MEANS WAR
A potentially fun and interesting concept – two alpha-male spies using the dirty tricks of their trade to gain the upper hand as they vie for the heart of the woman they both love – was botched at every turn by the notorious McG, once again proving he’s not really cut out for this ‘making movies’ caper. Watching Tom Hardy trying to retain his dignity throughout was one of the most excruciating spectacles of the cinematic year.
Honourable Mention: TAKEN 2
Everything you need to know about this balls-ugly sequel is summed up in the scene where Liam Neeson actually counts his money onscreen.
THE UGLY (…but loveable in their own weird way)
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER
At first glance, this appeared to take itself too seriously for a movie with such a title and concept. But on second viewing I realised that was its masterstroke. This movie is utterly absurd – I mean utterly – but it plays it all so straight that it achieves a kind of deadpan-comedy genius. (I was reminded of Highlander, another movie that deftly combined nuttiness with sincerity.) Of course, I was, shall we say, mood-enhanced at the time, so you may wish to take this opinion with a grain of salt or a gram of something else.
GET THE GRINGO
Mel Gibson is a troubled, troubling individual, and it seems as if all the poison inside him is starting to manifest itself externally. Or that could just be the natural toll of time. I dunno, I’m not a scientist. But the ravages of age have also transformed him from awfully handsome to craggily interesting, and to his credit he’s embracing that. In the sweaty, grimy B-movie Get the Gringo – which energetically plays like the bottom half of a drive-in double feature circa 1976 – he has the rough-edged appeal of a latter-day Robert Mitchum. And for better or worse, Gibson doesn’t give a fuck about being in anyone’s good books anymore. He may be a mess in all kinds of ways but he’s beholden to no one. It’s as fascinating as only the finest trainwrecks can be.
There’s nothing all that epic about Haywire. It’s your run-of-the-mill espionage potboiler, really, but the way it’s put together by the Limey team of director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs kicks things up a notch or two. (Let’s not forget the sinuous score by the cooler-than-you David Holmes.) A supporting cast that brings together the likes of Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas and Channing Tatum adds even more flavour. And it’s topped off by mixed martial arts goddess Gina Carano, bringing the pain in the most delightful ways. No, it’s not epic. But it is awesome.
GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE
The only way was up after Mark Steven Johnson botched the fuck out of the flame-skulled, chopper-riding Marvel Comics anti-hero with that made-in-Melbourne mediocrity that was inadvertently responsible for unleashing Rebel Wilson onto the world stage (remember she was in it?). Its lack of quality aside, it made enough bank to ensure a sequel…but everyone behind the scenes realised they never again wanted to be associated with something so lacklustre. So they rebooted, keeping only Nicolas Cage as the titular demon but adding some much-needed spice behind the camera in the form of Crank crazies Neveldine/Taylor. The result? A tricked-out, hotted-up B-movie full of groovy visuals, self-aware humour and awesome scenery chewers, with Cage leading the parade. Seriously, it was worth the price of admission to see him freak out a bad guy by screeching that his evil alter ego was “SCRAPIN’ AT THE DOOOOOR! SCRAPIN’ AT THE DOOOOOR!”
Everyone’s favourite soccer hooligan Jason Statham had a great moment in the generally lacking Expendables 2 when his wicked grin sold the shit out “I now pronounce you…man and knife”. (He then, you know, knifed a man.) But for pure, uncut Statham, may I recommend the marvellously pulpy Safe, in which he played the baddest motherfucker alive. Of course, he displayed his softer side by coming to the rescue of a little girl in possession of info that could take down crooked cops, corrupt politicians and at least two crime syndicates. But he also kicked the shit out of a lot of people in the process.
Honourable Mention: THE WATCH
Yeah, this was a bit of a mess. But it reminded me of those high-concept action-comedies from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to such a degree that I found myself giving it a pass more often than not. Plus, Vince Vaughn’s ad-libs were sharper than they’d been in years, Richard Ayoade’s droll vulgarity was a hoot and the uncredited appearance by Billy Crudup was a welcome shot of wry weirdness.
That’s it, people! We’re done for another year! So relax, kick back and in the immortal words of Rodney Dangerfield…