Sunday, 20 January 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

1. Barbara (Christian Petzold)

2. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

3. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)

4. Drug War (Johnnie To)

5. Bullet to the Head (Walter Hill)

6. Dredd (Pete Travis)

7. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

8. Persistence of Vision (Kevin Schreck)

9. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosoda)

10. Passion (Brian De Palma)

Honourabe Mentions: 
Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)

Prometheus (Ridley Scott)

 Thursday Till Sunday (Dominga Sotomayor Castillo)

John Carter (Andrew Stanton) 

Boxing Day (Bernard Rose)

American Mary (Jen Soska & Sylvia Soska)

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams)

Resident Evil: Retribution (Paul W.S. Anderson)

Ernest and Celestine (Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar & Benjamin Renner)

In Another Country (Sang-soo Hong)

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton) - I feel slightly less guilty about enjoying this since discovering that Marina De Van liked it as well.

The Legend of Kaspar Hauser (Davide Manuli)

Standout Performances:
Nina Hoss in Barbara
Santi Ahumada in Thursday Till Sunday
Michael Fassbender in Prometheus
Eva Green in Dark Shadows
Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer
Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone
Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt
Katharine Isabelle in American Mary
Emily Hampshire & Sarah Gadon in Cosmopolis
Jean-Louis Trintignant & Emmanuelle Riva in Amour
Toby Jones & Cosimo Fusco in Berberian Sound Studio
Lea Seydoux in Sister
Denis Lavant in Holy Motors

Abysmal Performances:
Shia LaBeouf & Tom Hardy in Lawless
Jesse Eisenberg in To Rome with Love
Paul Dano in Looper
Vince Vaughn in Lay the Favourite
Joaquin Phoenix & Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
Ernst Umhauer in In the House
Theo James in Underworld: Awakening
Paul Giamatti in Cosmopolis
Stanley Tucci in The Hunger Games
Francisco Barreiro & Laura Caro in Here Comes the Devil
Liam Hemsworth in The Expendables 2
Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
Jeremy Renner in The Avengers
Joseph Gordon Levitt in The Dark Knight Rises
The entire cast of Something in the Air
Marius Jampolskis in Vanishing Waves
Ben Whishaw in Skyfall
Dominic West in John Carter
Edward Norton in The Bourne Legacy
Paul Anderson in Passion

Films of 2012 I'd still like to see:
Two Jacks (Bernard Rose), The Last Sentence (Jan Troell), From the Sea to the Land Beyond (Penny Woolcock), Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley), Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl), Paradise: Faith (Ulrich Seidl), Dracula 3D (Dario Argento), Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine), Lore (Cate Shortland), Promised Land (Gus Van Sant), Lincoln (Steven Spielberg), Outrage Beyond (Takeshi Kitano), Romancing in Thin Air (Johnnie To), The Playroom (Julia Dyer), Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh), The Capsule (Athina Rachel Tsangari), Leviathan (Verena Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor), Flight (Robert Zemeckis), Beauty is Embarrassing (Neil Berkeley), Do Not Disturb (Yvan Attal), Price Check (Michael Walker), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson), Ginger & Rosa (Sally Potter) and many, many others.

Films I'm looking forward to in 2013:
Dark Touch (Marina De Van), The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki), Sunset Song (Terence Davies), Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen), The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata), Zama (Lucrecia Martel), Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro), The Counselor (Ridley Scott), Upstream Colour (Shane Carruth), Before Midnight (Richard Linklater), Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick), Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick), Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski), Spiritismes (Guy Maddin), The Unknown Known (Errol Morris), The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam), Haunter (Vincenzo Natali), Goodbye to Language 3D (Jean-Luc Godard), Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch), The Fast and The Furious 6 (Justin Lin), The Last Stand (Kim Jee-Woon), Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn), The Grandmasters (Wong Kar-Wai), Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh), The Rover (David Michod) and so forth.

2012 R.I.P.
Theo Angelopoulos, Neil Armstrong, R.G. Armstrong, Ernest Borgnine, Ray Bradbury, Harry Carey Jr., William Finley, Dennis Flemion, Ben Gazzara, Tonino Guerra, S. William (Bill) Hinzman, Davy Jones, Erland Josephson, Gunther Kaufmann, Jack Klugman, Herbert Lom, Susanne Lothar, Ralph McQuarrie, Chris Marker, Carlo Rambaldi, Rudy Ricci, Andrew Sarris, Tony Scott, Josephine Streiner, Susan Tyrrell, William Windom, Adam Yauch

Further Thoughts:
It's been nice to see one of my favourites of 2011 (The Deep Blue Sea) appear on several 'best of' lists across the Atlantic a year later - John Waters clearly liked it - after it got largely ignored in the UK. Seeing some of the end of year lists published online recently I somehow don't feel like there's been too much that I've missed out on from 2012. Hopefully the next few months will prove me wrong.

I have my doubts about Amour because I hold the director to incredibly high standards for each new film. I'm not sure it deserves to be showered with so much praise when other films of his such as Time of the Wolf and 71 Fragments have got far less recognition.
Probably the most acclaimed and discussed title of 2012 was The Master. A vague, overlong and unfocussed film that had one or two striking moments, but there was not nearly enough to justify the hype in my view.

After the rapture that greeted The Tree of Life, To the Wonder got a somewhat muted response and has unfairly been relegated to the status of a companion piece or B-Side to Terrence Malick's previous film. It seemed to me a far superior work that fixed some of that films problems by scaling back its ambitions and exploring the grand themes on a more delicate scale. While it tries your patience at times and the narration feels like an overused and often unnecessary intrusion, the rhythm and mood that Malick establishes here is sublime.

As you can probably tell, this year I’m on the defensive a little. I do feel a bit cut off from popular and critical opinion (not necessarily a good thing), so much so that one of my favourites of the year is the one that many would count as their most disappointing. I realise I'm probably in a minority that loved Prometheus but what can I say? The film stuck with me for weeks afterwards and I couldn't wait to see it again. Meanwhile I'd pretty much forgotten about 2012’s biggest crowd pleaser (The Avengers) within 20 minutes of the film ending, except for how much the whole thing reeked of desperation and overkill. All that plus a Tim Burton film which I fully expect to get grief for admitting I actually quite enjoyed. I will concede that both of his 2012 films suffered from terrible final acts but Burton isn't exactly the only one who has trouble ending a film these days.

I’m almost relieved to see that there are a few consensus favourites in my top 10 as there were lots of recommended titles that I went to see which left me cold (notably Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, The Imposter, Room 237 and the half baked sci-fi Looper). My main worry is that cinema is becoming either too droll or too predictable. Self-conscious cinephile fluff like Tabu and Holy Motors just doesn’t cut it for me. Am I supposed to be impressed by the sledgehammer subtlety of Killing Them Softly? Rather than rekindling my love of films they make me feel the form has become old and stale. The highlights of 2012 for me were genuine surprises, not perfect by any means but blessed with some sublime moments. I'm pleased to see that most of my top choices are films that seemed urgent, ambitious and challenging.
I wouldn’t say there were any major disappointments for me this year, at least nothing on the same level as We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) or The Ward (2010). In this category the biggest letdown was probably Lawless. I like John Hillocat's directorial style and after skilfully playing with the conventions of the Western (The Proposition) and apocalyptic subgenre (The Road) his Prohibition Gangster flick felt terribly misconceived. The casting, the music, the period detail, the violence and the humour all seemed wrong and never for a minute did any of the elements of the film begin to gel, even though it was quite nicely shot.

Although my expectations for it weren't exactly sky-high |REC|3: Genesis unfortunately adopted a kind of campy humour, moving away from the visceral impact of the first film. It left us with yet another run-of-the-mill zombie film. Hopefully the fourth (and final?) entry will get the series back on track. Unfortunately I had to wait for the rental of 2 films I very much wanted to see (Resident Evil: Retribution and Dredd) as they were only being shown in headache inducing 3D versions at my local multiplex, which prevented me from watching them. Both were well worth the wait.

Wolf Children was a rare gem in what was otherwise a very unsatisfactory year for animated films. Pixar's Brave was a feeble 'fairy tale with attitude' of the Shrek variety. As a fan of stop-motion animation I was unimpresssed by Pirates! In an Adventures with Scientists!, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania. Despite great craftsmanship they all floundered due to overly knowing and referential scripts. Characterisations were weak, humour and sentiment were awkwardly placed and worst of all, they didn't have much of a story to tell. None of these stands up to much scrutiny. It also emerged that Disney stopped production on Henry Selick's $50 million project ShadeMaker, although he will hopefully get a chance to finish it at another studio. With all that going on it is perhaps appropriate that a documentary about "the greatest animated film never made" (Persistence of Vision) was amongst the best films I saw all year.
It tells the story of how Richard Williams' doomed project 'The Thief and The Cobbler' evolved over a quarter of a century. As someone who frequently leaves things unfinished I find these chronicles of artistic ambition turned sour fascinating.

Of the major release films of 2012, the colossal box office failure of John Carter seemed to be a timely reminder of how it's a very fine line between a mega hit and a mega flop these days. Where the film went spectacularly wrong seemed to be a massive marketing blunder by Disney but in terms of actual content I fail to see how it's any worse than most of the year's big successes. I got far more enjoyment out of it than I did watching The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Hunger Games or (shudders) The Avengers.
James Bond was back in Skyfall, which found great favour and seemed to be a case of perfect timing but I found it considerably more solemn and less gripping than the two previous 007 outings with Daniel Craig. It felt closer at times to Tom Clancy than Ian Fleming. The Expendables 2 seemed to be plotted around the availabilty of cast members, most obviously in Jet Li's case. The weariness of several of its characters seemed like an honest reflection of the whole enterprise. It was like being at a party where all the guests have other plans and places to go to. Almost everyone turned up, but there was little enthusiasm. It is certainly worth mentioning at this point that among all the disenchantment there was also some better than expected offerings such as The Bourne Legacy, SightseersJohn Dies at the End, Rust and Bone, A Royal Affair, Argo and The Woman in Black.

There was two very welcome comebacks from seemingly semi-retired veterans Walter Hill (Bullet to the Head) and Brian De Palma (Passion). Both returned to familiar territory and it was a joy to see the old craftsmanship at work. Boxing Day was probably the year’s most draining film, but in a good way. I hope Bernard Rose continues to make these digitally shot, modern day Tolstoy adaptations. Like Cosmopolis, another recession era odyssey, it makes great drama out of contemporary woes and anxieties without straining for relevance. With these two and Thursday Till Sunday gracing my list it was quite a year for road trips. Tensions in small communities figured in both The Hunt and Barbara, both carefully observed and compelling films that drew their interest from quiet moments and seemingly minor details. These were all a welcome relief from the more flashy offerings that garnered much of the attention in 2012.

It won the best director prize at Cannes and had decent press coverage so I can't fathom why Post Tenebras Lux has been so overlooked in discussion of the highlights of the year. Perhaps it will win more admirers in 2013 when it gets a wider release and is seen outside of the festival circuit. It's probably the first film since The New World to win me over completely in the first 5 minutes. It has its own jarring aspects, for instance the bright red devil that stalks the house at night, the rugby team and the piano cover of a Neil Young song were all things I could have done without but it's still the most naturalistic and exhilirating piece of cinema I caught all year. Let's just hope that Carlos Reygadas doesn't feel the need to make a film in 3D any time soon.


Sunday, 13 January 2013

Film Highlights of 2012

A resolution to catch at least one film a week at the cinema meant that I managed to see far more new releases in 2012 than I have done in previous years. It also left me more out of pocket than ever before. While I’m happy to have succeeded at this resolution it proved to be costly and often frustrating. Cinema tickets have been overpriced for a while now but it is probably the first time I’ve become fully aware of just how time consuming and expensive a hobby filmgoing has become. As a result the duds hurt just that little bit more than they used to. Still there was certainly plenty of rewarding activity going on in the world of cinema to make it all seem worthwhile. Here are my personal highlights of the year:

- Leeds International Film Festival (01/11/12 - 18/11/12). My film festival pass was great value. It allowed me to see several classics on the big screen (Persona, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Passion of Joan of Arc), UK premieres, retrospectives, plenty of oddities and curios and more than half of the films that made up my top 10 of the year. I shall post my top 10 on here at some point in the next week or so.

- The Centenary of Cottage Road Cinema (1912-2012)

- 'Torn Music' by Gergely Hubai - an excellent book on rejected film scores.

- Film Discovery of the Year: A Nest of Gentlefolk (1969, Andrei Konchalovsky)
This beautiful Ivan Turgenev adaptation was my personal favourite of a mini-season of Konchalovsky's early Soviet films in November. Also screened were his debut The First Teacher, Asya's Happiness (introduced by the director), Uncle Vanya and Siberiade. I hope BFI at some point do a DVD release of this, as it really deserves to be more widely seen.

- Sight and Sound's once-a-decade 'Greatest Films of All Time' poll was published in August. It always provokes some lively discussion and this was no exception with Citizen Kane finally being knocked off the top spot by Vertigo. Although Vertigo is not one of my favourite Hitchcock films I've always admired it and find it gets better with every viewing. As much as I love Citizen Kane it's nice for there to be a change in first place. If nothing else it could prevent Kane seeming like too much of a dull museum piece for scholars.

- A new expanded 2 CD edition of The Fog soundtrack by John Carpenter from Silva Screen Records. Disc one contains the 2000 remixed soundtrack album and disc two has the original 1980 score cues. I hope they have something similar planned for Escape from New York.

- Two highly rare early films by Tobe Hooper - The Heisters (1963) and Eggshells (1969) - got shown online on

- John Kenneth Muir's in-depth review of Prometheus in June.  

- UK DVD releases of two superb and underappreciated Rainer Werner Fassbinder films - I Only Want You to Love Me and Despair - both courtesy of Park Circus.

- I stand corrected: In last year's round-up I guessed that, after all its troubles, 2011's compromised theatrical cut of Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret would be the final version. Thankfully a longer 3 hour cut did surface on DVD in July.

- Best filmgoing experience: Roll Out the Barrel: The British Pub on Film at Hyde Park Picturehouse, with a pint of Kirkstall Pale Ale to accompany the screening (14/08/12).

- Re-release of the year: Lawrence of Arabia (50th anniversary)

- Screening of Tod Browning's Dracula at Birmingham Symphony Hall with Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet performing the live score (29/05/12).
On a related note, the Non-Event of the Year was a screening of Dark Star...with a live musical accompaniment? I've never had much luck seeing John Carpenter's films on the big screen. Despite being one of my favourite filmmakers I've only managed to see The Ward at the cinema, and I keep trying to forget that one exists in his filmography. This year I managed to miss late night showings of Halloween, The Thing and They Live. I was enthusiastic about seeing a screening of his debut feature in August until I learned that Carpenter's early synth score and the country tune 'Benson, Arizona' would be removed from the film to be replaced by a live score from Animat. Heresy. I've also heard of similar kinds of screenings for The Last Man on Earth and Carnival of Souls (removing Gene Moore's eerie organ score, which is integral to the film!). I think this kind of thing works very well for silent pictures but films from the sound era with perfectly good scores are perhaps best left alone in this context.
As for Dracula, a primitive and at times stagy early sound picture, it was arguably a more worthwhile undertaking than those mentioned above. I'm not a fan of the Glass score as I feel it detracts from the power of Bela Lugosi's performance and the incredible imagery. Many of the film's most effective moments are nearly silent in the original version anyway, but seeing Lugosi in his career defining role on the big screen, in a symphony hall no less, is really quite something.