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A Savagely Partial Look At The Films Of 2012

December 31, 2012

Here once again is a review of the year in film which is limited to the things I’ve been able to see in between having a job that doesn’t require me to watch films, raising two children and drinking enough coffee to fill the warmest, scariest lake in the world.

Michael-Fassbender-in-Shame3So, January, which had the benefit of being Oscar hangover month for the UK which caught up on the awards-angling pair of The Descendants, a family drama by Alexander Payne which was good even though the most exciting thing that happens is George Clooney running in loafers, and Shame, which was much more than its “pean to a penis” tag suggested and not too far off an internet pornography-age Taxi Driver. There was also The War Horse, which I didn’t watch because. In less gilded quarters The Darkest Hour was an alien invasion movie interesting for being set in Moscow and boring for every other reason including the fact its aliens were invisible, while Haywire was a spy story in which Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum made a deal with Gina Carano where they did all the acting and she punched them all in the face. Finally there was The Grey, in which Liam Neeson was supposed to elbow drop a pack of wolves for an hour and a half to amuse sniffy critics but instead snarled, survived and meditated on death in a way which was meaningful if you can swallow great snowy mouthfuls of received Hemingway.

The-Muppets-2011-CastThe bitterly cynical Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close was a pretended cry of innocent profundity, a glib, mawkish fuck of a film that, if it were a man, would deserve death at the corner of a brick. Thankfully the rest of February was less awful: Freud and Jung drama A Dangerous Method was a David Cronenberg pilgrimage to the monocled font of all his knob-based neuroses and sex wounds, while Chronicle was a lo-fi superhero story strong on character and blissfully weak on capes, super-sized budgets and things that may or may not be CAAAAARRRs. The Woman In Black was a coming together of two great British institutions – Hammer Films and Harry Potter – which put enough fog and Ciaran Hinds on the screen to obscure the fact that Daniel Radcliffe isn’t ever going to be very good at acting. Conversely Woody Harrelson was a perfect James Ellroy hero in Rampart – a difficult mix of domestic fascism and obdurate intelligence – though the movie couldn’t keep pace with his performance, and there was no pace at all in Man On A Ledge, a film notable for being the moment we all realised Sam Worthington is the most boring man ever to accidentally become a Hollywood star. The film I enjoyed best all month was The Muppets, which was not only a joyous and skillful resurrection of past stars, but a brilliant film about the past (Eighties robot, Amy Adams and Jason Segel’s out-of-time couple, this glorious bit of dialogue) that pulled off the not inconsiderable trick of conjuring nostalgia without succumbing to it.

this-is-not-film-02-1March cheered me up with John Carter, not because it was good, but because the way in which it was nearly good but also ridiculous, self-defeating and full of sand reminded me of David Lynch’s Dune, which is always an excellent thing. There were genuine disasters too – Wrath Of The Titans vied for least distinctive sequel of forever, earning a reprieve from oblivion thanks to the few seconds during which Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes beat the godly shit out of everything, and Act Of Valor might have had good intentions but also might as well have been a 90 minute shot of an erect penis wearing a marine special forces hat. Like this one. Drab smuggling thriller Contraband was further, tediously plotted proof that Mark Wahlberg is a better comedian than he is action star, something that fellow meat-lump Channing Tatum seemed to figure out for himself in the remake of ‘80s TV show 21 Jump Street, which had no business being as good as it was. Victim of an even bigger miscasting was the ever-intense Tom Hardy, who didn’t so much look uncomfortable in romantic comedy This Means War as like he wanted to tear the skin from the faces of everyone else in the film with his teeth, which lent the bantering courtship scenes an odd rhythm. I enjoyed that The Hunger Games was a movie aimed at the post-Twilight teenage market that had a capable female lead instead of a simpering leaf, but weirdly didn’t enjoy all the bits where kids killed each other, although I did enjoy the thrill of Aardman in full flow in The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! even though the speed and imagination were compensating for a plot as messily constructed as that rubbish title. Lastly, Project X was basically Risky Business with a found-footage gimmick and a steady conviction that throwing up is funny, and on that basis couldn’t provide more of a contrast with This Is Not A Film, a poignant documentary from banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi that touches on the frustration of his forced retirement, but also on the magic of collaboration and hope for the country’s future.

delicatesseApril was good but also included Battleship. I’m generally forgiving of Hollywood’s moneymaking foibles, but there’s a biting emptiness here – even Transformers has a glued-on storyline about bad robots, but licensing Battleship, an archetypal game of chance based upon the existence of war rather than any specific instance of it, is no more narratively meaningful than adapting a roll of dice. Things improved marginally with Guy Pearce doing a Liam Neeson in sci-fi prison thumper Lockout, which must have been OK because all I can remember of it is the lopsided smile Pearce did every time he was punched in the face, then got actually good with Headhunters, an authentically Hitchockian manhunt grounded by practical set-piece panic but also stretched to dramatic extremes. The Cabin In The Woods was the kind of wry meta-take on the teen slasher genre you’d expect from writer/producer Joss Whedon, though the film’s best moment was Bradley Whitford being allowed to say “Oh COME ON” as sarcastically as possible. A mainline of Whedon arrived with The Avengers which it’s difficult to credit as anything but a triumph – a stable of stars and super-characters marshalled with unifying self-deprecation, a deftly managed set of character interactions and a fine way with pomp-nixing one-liners (“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that”). The month was rounded off wonderfully, as things often are, by Audrey Tautou in La Délicatesse, which I enjoyed as an “after the fairy tale” follow-up to Amelie in which her Kassovitz-esque soul-mate dies suddenly and she’s cast into a world of imperfect second choices. It revels in the clumsy and the unappealing, and at least tries to get at the truth of caring for people.

TheRaid-1For my birthday in May I got a Wes Anderson film I didn’t love very much in the shape of Moonrise Kingdom. Seeing as everyone is currently complaining about Brad Pitt’s ubiquitous perfume ad here’s an example of him selling something gloriously, the point being this kind of meticulously controlled joy explosion is what Anderson’s capable of at his best and nowhere to be seen in Moonrise Kingdom which reminded me of Max Fischer’s high school plays in Rushmore, a drama pretended by kids and at one ironic move from anything heartfelt (also Pitt should maybe do a Tati film). It was loads better than The Dictator, though, which without the outrage and explosive potential of unwitting collaborators felt overly scripted and trite. Getting worse before we get better, Piranha 3DD wasn’t so much a film as a flock of tits being dragged underwater in the company of David Hasselhoff, and American Pie: Reunion was a failure to let go which, even as someone who went to university the year American Pie was released, bored me to bastard tears and I only saw it because the stupid digital print of The Cabin In The Woods wouldn’t work at the local Odeon. Men In Black 3 didn’t need a smart plot or script because it had Josh Brolin doing a sinew-perfect Tommy Lee Jones impersonation and Will Smith, who is the most natural film star currently barely working. Romanian prison drama If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle… was controlled and angry, but the month’s best film was the breathless invention of The Raid, which turned a story about a policeman who’s good at kicking and walks up a tower block into a ballet of snapped shins and horrid landings.

friends-with-kids_11Things slowed down a little in June. George Lucas showed why it was a good thing he’d sell LucasFilm to Disney at the end of the year with World War Two drama Red Tails, which proved once and for all that despite the vast technical resources at his disposal he’d become SOMEHOW INCAPABLE OF MAKING FILMS, while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wasn’t half as awful as everyone complained, sadly leaving it plenty of room for still being quite awful. Friends With Kids was a modern-day When Harry Met Sally blessed with a splendid cast (mostly, the cast of Bridesmaids) led by Jennifer Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed the film and probably smells really nice too, while Rock Of Ages drew a frankly unnecessarily good turn from Tom Cruise as a slow-moving Axl Rose-shaped monument to excess and was quite good fun, though this might be because I’m increasingly sure Don’t Stop Believing is the pinnacle of Western civilisation. Even this version. William Friedkin’s southern gothic Killer Joe was greasy and sickening like eating a bucket of cold chicken wings, and finally, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus arrived, and was almost a delicately constructed bridge between the rich universes of his past classics Alien and Blade Runner, but then, for reasons I’ve sworn about at length, wasn’t.

Bane-the-dark-knight-rises-30411120-2560-1600In July I found the world of Dr Seuss adaptation The Lorax generically right-on and a little threadbare, and then the month was given over to two giant superhero vehicles. The Amazing Spider-Man did a perfectly fine job of retelling the Peter Parker origin story, the more interesting thing being how soon it did so after Sam Raimi’s mostly-good series had stumbled, which says something about audience appetites for consuming the same superhero tales dressed in new costumes and the genre’s similarities to old Western cycles, but not nearly enough about how awesome Emma Stone is in this and everything else. Then there was The Dark Knight Rises, the biggest and somehow also smallest of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Nolan might be the only filmmaker working in superhero films to think of them consciously as myth, which makes his Batman movies rewardingly elaborate and serious but also tips them towards pretension, by which I mean the film was good but let’s all agree Bane’s voice wasn’t an example of the Emperor’s new clothes so much as the Emperor nakedly crotch-chopping his way down the high street (it’s also more or less unwatchable after you’ve seen this dead-eyed parody).

"BRAVE"   (Pictured) MERIDA. ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.August threatened to be unbearable thanks to The Watch, a urban sci-fi comedy which relied on Richard Ayoade deadpanning about his balls for its only two laughs, and veteran action slog The Expendables 2, which felt like plugging electrodes into a dead muscle and watching it convulse uselessly. Mark Wahlberg was good in Ted, though the dry-humping cuddly bear concept become a friction burn all too soon, and Jeremy Renner was good in The Bourne Legacy, which was stripped, spare, and about the best anyone could have hoped for from a Matt Damon movie without Matt Damon. The best film of the month was Pixar’s Brave, which redrew Scotland as a paradise of lush green hills and tumbling red hair. I loved that it featured another crafty, self-assured female lead, and that the film was about a nuanced relationship with her mother and not drab daddy approval issues, but ever so slightly disappointed it didn’t come together as magically as it might.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Bruce WillisSeptember inadvertently offered a selection of films about masculinity. The Sweeney was a nasty film about men who breath frantically through their nose before headbutting something – impressive for £2 million, in the same was as making a bomb packed with shit in your kitchen is impressive – while Depression-era standoff Lawless was huskily acted but never coherent enough to be powerful, and Dredd was a purposeful science fiction success that dealt efficiently with all the big-city-in-the-future essentials in order to better spend its time beating the shit out of criminals. I enjoyed it so much I barely had time to think about how fascist it was. Elsewhere The Babymakers was a sub-Atapow life comedy about an infertile man stealing his own sperm from a fertility clinic that might have had a wry point to make if it wasn’t so focused on making wank gags instead. Fnally there were contrasting Joseph Gordon-Levitt films: Premium Rush, a shallow thriller about fixie-bike couriers in New York with some fairly unforgivable “Wow, X-Games!” moments, and Rian Johnson’s fantastic film about time-travel and hitmen, Looper, which is my favourite of the year thanks to its economically constructed near-and-further futures, and thanks to a dazzling set of ideas that contract to a cold kernel of truth: that the time we have is limited and this gives our choices meaning and weight.

SkyfallOctober was somehow the most consistently enjoyable month of the year despite including Madagascar 3, a film which opted out of unbearably smug Dreamworks franchise building, hired Bryan Cranston, and did a nightmarish/brilliant remix of two of the worst songs of all time to somehow become my favourite animated film of the year. Ruby Sparks offered just enough unpleasantness in its cosy intellectual story of a trembling boy-genius writer and the perfect girl he accidentally invents, Skyfall explored the interesting things that can happen if you make Bond human again – in weakness he’s restored the half-century-old series to strength – but far and away the best film of the month was Beasts Of The Southern Wild, an out-of-time tale of American disenfranchisement that’s really about the joy of being alive, and holding close all those who get to share it with you. It’s a near-miracle of communal filmmaking and untrained performances, and you should see it without reading another word about it.

End-of-Watch_05I’m a fan of Ben Affleck but Argo, which came out in November, isn’t his best film – it’s rich in the political buzz and New Hollywood style that make him so interesting, but over-amplifies its true story through manipulation and cliché when it’s strong enough to stand on its own. Happily the only other film I saw all month was End Of Watch, an escalating drama surrounding a pair of patrol cops in LA which derives all its strength from the touching, unforced friendship of Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal.

HBT_fs_200495.dngThen, in December, I saw just one film – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Speaking as a man who grew up thrilled at glimpses of even the most stilted fantasy worlds on the big screen, this was a huge, belting version of one of our most important stories, and all those who say otherwise haven’t lived a life desperately convincing themselves the fucking Rankin/Bass animation was watchable, even though Gollum was a frog.

And that’s everything. The things I feel most ridiculous for not having seen yet are Berberian Sound Studio, The Master and Rust And Bone. The best films I’ve caught up on from previous years are Night Moves and A Matter Of Life And Death, and the best television series I watched were the BBC Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People (having caught up on the fine film version of last year, it still has nothing on Alec Guinness) and Breaking Bad, season three of which is probably the best television I’ve ever seen.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. SolidChris permalink
    December 31, 2012 3:32 pm

    I miss our conversations about films more and more each year. I wish you wrote more about them, or lived round the corner and invited me to watch them. As it is, I’ll settle for your economic cruelties and creative swearing because your belittling of shit films and angrily singing the praise of others will always be a pleasure to read.

  2. admiralneck permalink
    January 1, 2013 4:58 pm

    I’m concerned that my list’s lack of Looper but inclusion of Premium Rush may be the thing that makes you reject me wholesale. Either that or the “imminent” publication of my worst list featuring one of your favourites. 😦 But it is what it is, N-Dit. It is what it is. If it makes a difference, excellent post. Just excellent. #TeamTheHobbit

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