Monday, December 31, 2012

My Five Favourite Films of 2012

I daresay I’m a bit late for the usual end-of-year lists period, but I’m a busy man (sort of) and I don’t have time to see every film that’s out. Nevertheless, I saw lots of films in 2012 more than ever before (I’m sad, I keep track of that sort of thing). Some of them I liked and some of them I hated (The Hobbit – just awful, like expensive fan fiction).

Just a few, I really, really, liked, and out of the really-liked category, here are my favourite five. In no particular order this year, because I couldn’t think of one.
The Hunt
Considering the revelations, mis-accusations and arrests of the past four months, its unsurprising that The Hunt’s distributors wanted to get it out in the UK quick, faster even than  its native Denmark when it comes out next year. This all-too-true tale of a man whose life is destroyed after an accusation of paedophilia couldn’t be more prescient.
Mads Mikkelsen is a nursery school teacher, a lonely divorcee who is accused of the unspeakable. We know from the start the story is fiction, told by a girl with confused feelings for him, due to an attachment borne, ironically, from her own father’s neglect, as well as exposure to her brother’s pornography. When a colleague hears the girl describe acts that never took place, things quickly spiral out of control. The parents not only refuse to believe their children could be lying, but are quick to putting words into their mouths that exacerbate.
The scenario, in which a lack of proper procedures and escalating hysteria condemn a man without trial, is all too plausible. If anything, in real life, the situation might well be worse and even more hysterical. Mikkelsen might be a little too-good –to-be-true in his mostly quiet martyrdom. But besides it’s timely believability, it’s also superbly made, beautifully shot in appropriate cold, foggy surroundings with suspense sequences that are heart-poundingly unsettling.
One of the rarer pleasures of 2012, and amongst its most original, Berberian Sound Studio sees the unfailingly perfect Toby Jones take a job as a sound engineer. His job is the dubbing of a 70s Italian giallo horror, The Equestrian Vortex. Shy and awkward, he’s easily intimidated by the film’s seedy and ruthless producer and director team. And as he creates his grizzly sound effects - breaking celery, assaulting cabbages - he begins to lose his mind and get consumed by his work.
Movie fans love films about films and Berberian Sound Studio offers a double treat; a nostalgic trip to the golden dirty-days of Italian giallo moviemaking, as well as an exploration of how films work, horror specifically. We never see a single frame of the Equestrian Vortex (besides a spot-on title sequence pastiche) but as Jones beats cabbages with a hammer we can’t help envision acts of brutality and interpret his actions as an expression of his repressed anger.
Sound, editing, perspective, POV are all utilised to transfer a rather bland studio (where almost all action takes place) into a place where anything can be possible. Through the power of suggestion any image can be created, with the worst left purely to our imagination. Berberian Sound Studio might not cut it for horror fans looking for something bloody, but it’s an incredibly smart, funny, dissection of movie-making with a clear love for all its cogs and frames (the camera positively drools over film reels and mix tables).
In the end, like its giallo inspiration, style and effect takes precedent over logic, culminating in an entirely ambiguous conclusion where Gilderoy seems lost within his own movie. Suitably, we are left to make of it what we will…
It’s been a good year for Mikkelson, putting in another impressive performance in this multi-layered historical drama. Mikkelson is a provincial Danish doctor, Struensee, who becomes court physician to mad King Christian with whom he appears to be a positive influence. While trying to balance out the King’s behaviour, he becomes close to his Queen. Much too close. And when he becomes frustrated with the court’s inability to deal effectively with plague, he begins to abuse his position to push through new health reforms.
Transcending the usual bodice-ripping tropes, it deals with politics and reform and rather more complicated emotional dynamics. Struensee, a basically morale man, gets in over-his-head and finds the pressure mount as he finds himself not just pushing further and further for reform, but becoming the de-facto ruler of the country. Something which puts him at odds with the orthodox religious court who are most certainly not in favour of modernisation.
Furthermore, the betrayal of his King comes to weigh down hard on his shouldesr. Christian is gradually revealed to be a vulnerable, lonely, emotionally-scarred man-child who has come to look at Struensee as his only friend and the only person he can trust. As he continues to manipulate him, Christian’s guilt mounts, but he is unable to relinquish power. He’s even willing to talk his Queen, the woman he loves, into returning to the King’s bed when the inconvenient matter of pregnancy rears its head.  A Royal Affair is absolutely riveting drama, and shines a light on a startling, little-known period in European history.

Lift-affirming is usually a label that suggests over-earnest, over-done and over-desperate for an Oscar. Nostalgia for the Light isn’t just a philosophical film that can actually make a decent, honest claim to the label, but it’s a solid argument that science and belief needn’t be mutually exclusive.
The launch point for director Patricio Guzmán is the Chilean Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. This makes it the perfect location for astronomers, and at a huge new observatory scientists research and probe the mysteries of the universe. But while they look at the skies, others visit the desert for darker purposes. Thousands of people, disappeared by General Pinochet’s regime, were buried there, and now their relatives search through the well-preserved bones to find traces of their loved ones.
At first the film presents the gulf between the scientists and the widows as representative of a country that can’t come to terms with its own past. The widows are treated dismissively by many Chileans as chasing the past, but the past is everywhere. The ruins of prison camps remain amongst the desert sands, abandoned but very much part of the landscape.
Yet the film’s message is ultimately positive. Within the observatory, the scientists discuss the big bang and the coming together of life. They hypothesise that every element, from the hairs on our head to the grains of sand beneath their feet have all come from this event, inextricably linking everyone and everything together. Some involved in the observatory’s work lost relatives to Pinochet’s regime, but they take comfort in that sense of being part of something greater, and that this life is only part of a much larger journey. You can keep your Brian Cox, explorations of life, the universe and everything are rarely this beautiful and uplifting.

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan has a habit of stuffing his films with so much plot they’re almost bursting at the seams, and admittedly, Dark Knight Rises is the one that finally pops the seam once and for all. There’s a lack of discipline definitely – did we really need the story of the not-so-brave Police captain, or to follow the fate of the henchman of a minor villain from the first act?

Nolan’s third Batman is BIG, so big it could’ve completely fallen apart. But ultimately it hits all the right notes and leaves you exhausted not by the action, the effects or the plot lines, but by sheer investment in the characters and their story. Frankly, the flaws don’t matter: did you feel the rush when Batman reappears for the first time? Or get genuinely choked up when Alfred leaves Wayne Manor?

Dark Knight Rises is big, but never dumb, and the stakes have never been higher. It might be over-stuffed, but the plot is more even and satifsying than the tiring rug-being-pulled-from-under-you back-and-forth of The Dark Knight, even if Bane isn’t quite as charismatic as the Joker. Hardy still does good work as the muscular mastermind, and indeed, not a single member of the cast doesn’t impress. And unlike Dark Knight, it deals with more contemporary material in its attack on Wall Street and its referencing of the 99.9% movement (if not exactly adding to the debate)
And if you compare it to the other the Hollywood effects-laden bohemoths, its achievements seem positively stellar. It’s intelligent and exciting, directed with vigour and the rich cinematography is not harmed at all by the move of most of the action to daylight. It’s got pretty everything you could ask for in a blockbuster movie, with a leather-clad Anne Hathaway the gorgeous icing on the cake.

Honorable mentions go to Sightseers, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Headhunters and Ted.


John Gray said...

The hunt sounds like a real must....god knows when I will have a chance to see it in dark wales

Dave Paul Nixon said...

Probably DVD or download I'm afraid. I managed to see it because it played at one Cineworld in London for one week. That's better than not at all I suppose.