29 December 2012

My best films of 2012

2012 has been a solid year of cinemagoing for me. My intake of new films has been somewhat curtailed by regular attendances at the Monday night Film Society screenings, which cuts into other cinema-going opportunities because I'm not always keen for two movie outings in a single week. But there's been some great entertainment on offer amongst the 10 films I've chosen as my best of the year. This year I've restricted my list to 2012 releases only, which omits some memorable high quality films released last year but seen by me in 2012, like The Artist, The Adventures of Tintin, Hugo and A Separation, and several above average film festival offerings like the Israeli academic drama Footnote and the Korean medieval actioner War of the Arrows, which were also 2011 releases.

In reverse order of preference, here's my top 10 for 2012.

10. Damsels In Distress (dir. Whit Stillman)
An enjoyable slice of deadpan whimsy, Whit Stillman's college-based comedy is wordy and increasingly scatty, and builds to a satisfyingly daft song-and-dance finale, complete with a safely out-of-copyright Fred Astaire number. I was most looking forward to seeing rising hipster star Greta Gerwig in the lead role, but her performance is curiously stilted - perhaps intentionally so, given the curious character she's playing. The supporting cast are more dynamic, and special mention should go to the two 'doofi' - the plural form of doofus - who offer winning performances of Keanu-esque moronity. Damsels In Distress also deserves plaudits for being perhaps the first motion picture to successfully deploy the philosophy of the French medieval breakaway Cathar sect as a comedic device.

9. Side By Side (dir. Christopher Kenneally)
This interesting doco about the aesthetic and technical considerations of the shift from film to digital movie-making involves the afore-mentioned Keanu Reeves talking to a who's who of Hollywood names, and he does a surprisingly good job of asking pertinent questions and trying to get closer to why film has such strong devotees, even as digital film-making grows ever larger. A niche topic, certainly, but for those interested in the history and the future of cinema, this is quality stuff. Particularly the bit where a director says the advent of immediate on-set digital playback revealed that most actors were less interested in their performances and more concerned about how their hair looked.

8. Le Prenom / What's In A Name? (dir. Alexandre de La Patellière, Matthieu Delaporte)
This deftly-handled film version of a hugely successful French stage play zips along with an assured cast boasting chemistry and timing born of years of practice. In the course of an evening old friends find out more than they expected about each other when they start an wide-ranging argument about one of their number's choice for their imminent baby's name. More and more emotional baggage emerges and it all gets built into a colossal barney. This is no grim Secrets & Lies tale though - it's all strictly played for wry laughs, and there are many, along with a few surprises. Try not to read too much about it, because some reviewers will be bound to give away the best bits.

7. Searching for Sugar Man (dir. Malik Bendjelloul)

Do: See Searching For Sugar Man, the story of Rodriguez, a talented, lyrical Detroit native who became an insightful singer-songwriter in the mould of Donovan and recorded two superb albums in 1970 and 1971 before fading into complete obscurity. Do: Be intrigued by the impact these records went on to have in faraway South Africa, where Rodriguez became a cult figure and sold hundreds of thousands of records. Do: Buy the soundtrack to admire the songs that should have stood alongside those of Bob Dylan, Don McLean or Scott Walker, as the minor gems that they are. But DON'T: Watch the idiotic official trailer, read any reviews or search for online details about Rodriguez beforehand, because the best aspect of the film is watching the story unfold before you. Seeing the impact that one man's music had upon a nation on the other side of the world is a special experience, and you shouldn't let today's ridiculous insistence on fun-sapping full and total disclosure ruin the film's unexpected twists. (Incidentally, the film's focus on South Africa is understandable, but Rodriguez was also reasonably popular in the 1970s in Australia and New Zealand). 

6. Farewell, My Queen / Les Adieux a la Reine (dir. Benoît Jacquot)
Farewell My Queen's glimpses into the final days of court life at Versailles in 1789 are expertly rendered, capturing a highly believable atmosphere of faded decadence, imperial hauteur and an increasingly desperate sense of rising panic as the regime totters towards oblivion and the new bloodthirsty Republic. Servant Sidonie (Lea Seydoux from Inglourious Basterds, Mysteries of Lisbon and Midnight in Paris) is Marie Antoinette's devoted reader, who finds the entire world of Versailles crumbling around her. Diane Kruger fills the role of the capricious, obsessive Queen with aplomb, and Virginie Ledoyen is her glamorous favourite de Polignac, loathed by the masses and loved by the Queen with an equal fervour. Filmed on location in Versailles itself, this is a well-crafted glimpse into what life might have been like - fleas, rats and all - in the dying days of the French monarchy.

5. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)
Seasoned with just the right levels of whimsy, Wes Anderson's new film is finally broadening his appeal beyond his devoted band of adherents, and enhances his reputation as one of the most reliable and watchable film-makers working today. Perhaps it's the likeable young lead actors - ultimate scout Sam and the scowling, bookish Suzy - or the array of sight gags and hard-bitten lines delivered by the children a la Rian Johnson's Brick. All the Anderson traits are still evident - a cast of actor pals (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), brilliantly composed shots, oodles of tracking, judicious use of slow-mo, hand-written correspondence, and a pronounced fondness for binoculars and record players. Cynics will say Moonrise Kingdom is another example of a film designed solely for hipsters and film society tragics. They'll be missing out on a solid and enjoyable film that builds on an already impressive body of work.

4. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)
Yes folks, it's this decade's Bruce Willis time travel blockbuster! It is my ambition to one day produce a movie in which Bruce Willis travels back in time to tell Young Bruce Willis that in the future he'll appear in a lot of movies about travelling back in time to tell himself that he will appear in a lot of time travel movies (etc.) ... Actually, Looper exceeds expectations in that I was expecting a half-baked homage to Inception, but it turns out to be a well-put-together, solidly acted and interesting take on the time travel genre that had me thinking and re-thinking over the plot developments for days afterwards. I should've expected nothing less from the talented Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) - hopefully the entertaining and exciting Looper is his ticket into blockbuster territory.

3. A Royal Affair (dir. Nikolaj Arcel)

While the story may be relatively predictable, the quality of this late 18th century Danish royal court drama stands out, as do the performances of the excellent cast. Mikkel Folsgaard is particularly strong as the capricious and often obnoxious King Christian, forever flirting with the boundary between immaturity and insanity. The titular affair between the young Queen (Alicia Vikander) and the reformist royal physician Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is made more interesting by the political machinations that ensue, as the doctor gains more and more power through his friendship with the wayward king and implements liberalising policies espoused by his Enlightenment heroes. This naturally earns the enmity of the Machiavellian Danish aristocracy, who liked things just as they were. So the moral of the story is probably: never trust a toff.

2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (dir. Peter Jackson)
Quite simply, this is splendid entertainment. Freeman is perfectly cast, the adventure is suitably thrilling, and the visuals are both sumptuous and engrossing. While I mightn't want to see every movie in such pin-sharp clarity, when it's one as keenly anticipated as The Hobbit I'm glad of the painstaking detail. There really is a lot going on in every scene, and I found this exciting rather than distracting. The famously slender source material didn't feel particularly stretched in this instalment - well, maybe in one or two places - but who knows how it will fare in the 2nd and 3rd chapters. While the first Hobbit film may not quite be the equal of The Fellowship of the Ring, it successfully taps into the spirit of the earlier trilogy, which is a very fine legacy to invoke.

And my best film of 2012...

1. I Wish (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

There is nothing particularly complex about this Japanese film - two young brothers, living in different cities due to their parents' breakup, conspire to meet mid-way at the bullet train tracks, where the meeting of two passing trains at a collective 520km/h is rumoured to create a mystical wish-granting power. Their plan is to wish for their family to be reunited, but along the way they accumulate a posse of other children seeking their own wish-granting magic opportunity. The real pleasure is in the utterly charming and naturalistic performances of all the children in the film, but particularly the two real-life brothers at the heart of the story. Like the Studio Ghibli films (Spirited Away being the most prominent example), I Wish is so refreshing because there are no antagonists - no deadly rivals, no bullies, no mean parents or sadistic teachers; everyone is kind and generous to one another (particularly the children), and while there's plenty of humour there's none of the tiresome old-beyond-their-years wise-cracking that ruins so many American onscreen kid roles. I Wish is a great watch and an unassuming cinematic treat for audiences of all ages.


See also:

Blog: Jess' film highlights of 2012
Blog: My best and worst films of 2011
Blog: My best and worst films of 2010
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