Movies: The Best Films Of 2012
We’ve had some stellar celluloid offerings this year, from both the usual suspects and those filmmakers who came roaring in from left of field. Here, Ramp.ie’s movie writers pick their favourite films of 2012, all of which you should try to catch some time over the Ramp.ie Christmas break. We don’t think you need much more ado than that.
Holy Motors is an utter marvel. As an actor (Denis Lavant) travels across Paris to take on the guise of all manner of odd characters, director Leos Carax checks practically all possible film genres off his list. Though it’s all one big homage, Holy Motors is so off-kilter, energetic and brilliantly realized that it’s also staggeringly original. Lavant is a master chameleon, whilst Carax’s love for all things cinematic radiates from every frame. All that, and it makes Kylie Minogue look like a proper actress! If that’s not the best film of the year, I don’t know what is!
After seven years, several cuts, just as many lawsuits and a botched theatrical release, the extended cut of Margaret finally emerged as a bruised and battered masterpiece. A precocious Manhattan teenager (Anna Paquin) has her world turned upside down after witnessing (and possibly causing) a traffic accident. With a magnificent cast (including Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno and Matt Damon) and a literate script capturing the messiness of its characters’ lives to a tee, director Kenneth Lonergan has the last laugh with a brilliantly realized slice of prime post-9/11 American cinema.
The Master is a film that demands repeat viewings. Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow up to There Will Be Blood is so layered with meaning and nuance that casual viewing is not an option. This is far from a criticism. Joaquin Phoenix’s Navy veteran-cum-bootlegger falls under the spell of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader, and The Master casts a similar spell on the audience. The only thing more admirable that the intense performances is Anderson’s refusal to guide the audience by the hand. The Masteris not flippant. It is layered with meanings, but it is down to the audience to draw their own conclusions. The Master is filmmaking at its most intelligent and skilled.
It’s no real surprise that Aleksandr Sokurov’s Golden Lion-winning Faust wasn’t officially released in Irish cinemas (its sole appearance on these shores was at the Dublin Film Festival). From its opening, in which the disembowling of a corpse is shown in vivid detail, the film practically implores audience members to walk out of the cinema, owing to its predilection for provocation. Moreover, it is an overtly surrealist take on Goethe’s theatrical adaptation of the story about a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, meaning traditionalists will likely baulk at its liberal interpretation of the original tale’s implications. Nevertheless, nine months after seeing it, its imagery – which is in equal parts dazzling, confounding, idiosyncratic, haunting and utterly repulsive to behold – continues to persistently pervade my dreams and nightmares to boot.
The Kid with a Bike
People, at times, can be incredibly self-serving. And no film in 2012 conveyed this truism better than the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike, a sociological-examination-of-the-effects-of-child-abandonment-cum-heart-wrenching-fable, about an emotionally vulnerable but sweet-natured young boy who has been abandoned by his painfully feckless father. He is subsequently, somewhat reluctantly, adopted by an altruistic thirty-something woman who lives alone and works as a hairdresser. Yet despite this surrogate mother’s clear devotion towards him, the boy remains disillusioned with life and bloody-mindedly determines to track down both his missing bike and absent father. The movie, with its deceptively simplistic plot and indomitable young protagonist, invokes similar-minded classic art-house films such as The 400 Blows and Bicycle Thieves. It also shares the unflinching morality of these movies, as well as a perfectly judged narrative rhythm and seamlessly compelling nature – assets which are unmistakably identifiable as the characteristics of seasoned filmmakers at the top of their game.
Michael Haneke films invariably come across as conscious reactions to mainstream Hollywood entertainment. Funny Games, for instance, was an indictment of the disconcerting levels of systematic graphic violence that infiltrate American movies (and this was before the rise of torture porn, ironically), and which consequently sought to portray acts of brutality in a much more forensic and unappealing manner compared with its more sensationalist contemporaries. Amour – the story of a an old woman who is slowly dying amid her equally elderly husband’s increasingly futile attempts to alleviate the pain and alternate ill-effects which this experience prompts – is similarly a reaction to the archetypal Hollywood love story. As tales about big themes go, it’s just about as conspicuously understated as possible; and such verisimilitude ensures that copious scenes of an emotionally unforgiving nature are inevitable. Yet those viewers that can get past the movie’s uninviting premise will discover a level of overriding warmth, notwithstanding the film’s harsher elements, that merits comparison to Ingmar Bergman’s most venerated and endearingly complex chamber dramas.
Honourable Mention: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Resembling a darker Mean Girls or a less improbable Heathers, The Perks of a Being a Wallflower – a high school movie about a middle-class teenager named Charlie whose perpetual struggle through adolescence and the harsher realities of high school is exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that his best friend has recently committed suicide – does not exactly delve into unfamiliar territory. Yet in spite of its less-than-original storyline, it works. It works because you are made to feel Charlie’s pain. And consequently, you shudder along with him when he disingenuously agrees to date a besotted would-be girlfriend, and you cheer when he eschews his awkward demeanour and resolves to bop along to the sounds of ‘Come on Eileen’ at a high school dance. In short, you root for him with a level of passion befitting of the movie’s unusually sincere outlook on life, as emphasised by its naïve, well-meaning narrator and earnest indie soundtrack. So, in crude terms, it’s essentially the teen coming-of-age equivalent of Rocky, with its quintessential highly troubled, simple and entirely likeable protagonist, though it’s executed in a far more nuanced and elegiac fashion than its Oscar-winning counterpart.
Rust and Bone
Rust and Bone is powerful, raw and pitiless. Several things worked heavily in its favour that would have detracted from a lesser film. The relationship between Stephanie and Ali isn’t easy to believe, but Cotillard and Schoenaerts make it work. Scenes from Stephanie’s recovery that might have read as Hollywood trite were inspirational – oddly so in the case of the Katy Perry backing music. The sex scenes must be some of the best committed to film this year. The plot wanders and peters out towards the end, but you’re still left feeling like you’ve been through a complete emotional wringer.
The Dark Knight Rises
The reasoning behind this one is simple; after three viewings it still holds great appeal. The theme of economics as a weapon, the grandiose scale of the plot and the more superhero than street-level avenger side of Batman that was showcased, were all the right choices for a script that serves as a bookend to the trilogy that began with Batman Begins. Not to mention the single best interpretation of Catwoman on screen, or in a lot of comics for that matter.
In a word: tense. Obviously it helps if you don’t know the historical outcome to the story being told in Argo, but even then the tension is masterfully apportioned to have you on the edge of your seat. The attention to detail in evoking ‘70s era Hollywood is fantastic. The film is plot driven and doesn’t devote any great depth to any of the characters, but they are all used effectively to re-engage us at the right moments, and all are superbly cast. Argo is sparse, but all of the elements are used in just the right amounts and at the right pace.
In a year when Avengers Assemble, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall all sought to make franchises the cleverest action film out there, they were outdone. Looper was a time travel blockbuster which surprised and intrigued, combining solid action sequences with an intelligent story and a series of superb performances from Joseph Gordon Levitt, Bruce Willis and Jeff Daniels. In the end, Rian Johnson’s thriller asked one classic question: How far would you go to save the person you love? Props also go to the makeup department for making Joseph Gordon Levitt look like Bruce Willis. Good work, makeup nerds!
Leos Carax’s bizarre, baffling and brilliant fantasy film brought the viewer through assassins, gangsters, death and humour in one blindingly original work. The Cannes-bothering masterpiece managed to be both irreverent and intelligent with cameos from Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue and a standout lead performance from Denis Lavant as Oscar. As Oscar hops from role to role, he inhabits various new people in variously thrilling and hilarious circumstances, and gives us no answers to any of the questions it supposes. An absolute must-see.
Shut Up And Play The Hits
Realistically, I could have populated my list entirely with music documentaries, as the excellent Searching for Sugarman and Under African Skies also graced our screens this year. However, for me, Shut Up And Play The Hits just hit all the right buttons at the right time. This is not the best film of the year – it’s probably not even the best documentary of the three – but as Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace track the controlled demolition of one of the truly great bands of a generation, LCD Soundsystem, they did what the best documentaries do; captured a moment in the development of an artist. The DVD package also comes complete with a 2-DVD package of LCD Soundsystem’s final gig in Madison Square Garden. Touching, poignant, beautiful.
Whoever took the cautious step of adding the ‘Assemble’ to ‘Avengers’ really over-thought our level of exposure to the 1998 same-named turkey starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, but more reasonably this might have been a symptom of the tenterhooks around this big, brave movie. Well, it achieved bucket loads – in money form, and in praise, but so too it served to be the almighty vehicle to demonstrate the ability of one Joss Whedon. The laconic and loquacious dialogue, the imagery, the pure pop, the respect for characters, the adventure – this is movies.
Cabin In The Woods
Drawn from the same ripple of flavour and casting pool as it turns out, Cabin in the Woods is the movie you haven’t heard of yet, but one that needs to be part of your life. The Horror genre with a new sidebar; with the second act unleashing Hell (literally, and in a good way), you will sit, gobsmacked, at this little movie that could. An alumni of Buffy and colleague of Whedon, Drew Goddard and his more-than-respectable cast make this the hell-dog underdog of the year.
What Richard Did
It’s such a grandiose statement to link a film to a mood, or a generation, or a mindset but there is something unsettled and unsure about modern Ireland and What Richard Did is an uncomfortably raw microcosm of this. Simply put, the movie moment of the year is set in a back garden in Donnybrook as a son makes a confession to his father and tragically no peace comes to him. Through simple, confident strokes, steeped in a wonderful central performance, What Richard Did isn’t just the best of what Ireland produced this year, but one of the best – full stop.
Did you miss this one in the cinemas? I’m not surprised, it was hiding on the dark side of the box office. In what was one of the worst (or best) marketing moves of the year, this movie was all but abandoned by its distributer, who decided to release it for just one day in a handful of cinemas across the UK. The fans kicked up a fuss, and its release was extended. Publicity achieved! The plot is beyond insane: Nazis escaped to the far side of the moon after the WW2, where they’ve been hiding and plotting their revenge. A US publicity stunt discovers the secret Nazi Moon Base, and the Nazis invade, using an iPhone to power their space ships. Oh, there’s also a black guy in whiteface, and the Downfall meme, and clothes getting gratuitously torn off in an airlock, and – well, suffice to say that if it’s in bad taste, this film has it in spades. The humour is irreverent, nerdy, on the nose and interestingly European. You must see this film. Das ist eine Örder!
Curiously, this is easily one of the most touching films of the year. It tells the story of a French aristocrat, paralysed from the neck down, who is looking for a new carer. Enter Driss, a wise-cracking young man, still embroiled in ghetto life. Oh what whacky hijinks will ensue? Turns out, whacky hijinks include: going paragliding with a guy in a wheelchair, racing Segways with a guy in a wheelchair, and me sitting in the middle of a packed cinema muttering ‘I’m not crying, I’ve just got something in my eye’. That’s the thing about Untouchable: it’s a comedy-drama, and while the comedy gets belly-laughs, the drama will play your heart-strings like a banjo. It’s a film of exhilarating highs and crushing lows, and is a phenomenal portrayal of two rich, deep characters trying to play the hand that life has dealt them.
Marvel Avengers Assemble
Look, let’s not beat about the bush here: if you’re looking for unadultered fun, then this is the film of the year. It’s just obvious, isn’t it? Maybe you liked Batman because of the grit, or you thought Spiderman was great because… um… look, the point is, Avengers is a towering monument to the superhero genre. Joss Whedon managed to take disparate story lines, tie them together into a reasonable plot, give everyone enough screen time and didn’t let any one character in this ensemble dominate. It’s a phenomenal cast and everyone brings something to the table. The effects are spectacular, the characters are strong, the one-liners are zingtastic and the plot… well, it’s alright. It’s not a perfect film, but it could have gone wrong in a million ways, and they pulled it off with pizazz and lightning bolts.