Friday, 21 December 2012

My Top 30 Films of 2012: 10-1

Here comes the final part of this year's epic list. If some of the entries seem shorter than in the last two articles, as it comes down to the very best films of the year, then that's probably because I find it harder to talk about the films I really love. It's intimidating and you want to do them justice. In some cases you don't want to spoil anything about them and in others it feels like there's little more that needs saying than "every single aspect of this is perfect".

Here is the top 10:

10) Dredd, dir Pete Travis, UK/SA

What I said: "Where the movie really shines is that this high-minded and timely political commentary is ever-present without being heavy-handed or suffocating how much sheer fun the movie is. The action is brutal and bloody in a way you really don't see any more - even in stuff like 'The Expendables', which exists solely as a throwback to that 1980s action era. It's handled imaginatively, never gets repetitive and there are plenty of clever twists along the way."

A film I wasn't looking forward to at all before it came out - I think I had possibly seen one trailer (or half of one) and been uninspired - 'Dredd' is without doubt the year's smartest comic book movie. In fact it's the year's smartest and most satisfying action movie of any stripe: packed full of bone-crunching violence and spectacle, but also neatly satirical - critical of its main character and the horrid dystopian future he inhabits. Judge Dredd, born of comic books from British publisher 2000AD, is not a character who has ever appealed to me before, perhaps due to a combination of the awful mid-90s Stallone movie and an assumption that its fascistic protagonist represented the world view of the book's authors and/or intended readership. However, it's apparent watching this adaptation that there's far more to the character than that. British TV director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland manage to get a lot of mileage out of using Dredd's uncompromising form of justice as a way to critique knee-jerk right-wing concepts of law and order, whilst also telling a really tight story. Not bad for a low-budget Brit-flick.

9) Everybody in Our Family, dir Radu Jude, ROM

What I said: "'Everybody in Our Family' could obviously be seen as a call for increased father's rights (a hot contemporary issue), with the heartbreaking reality that Otilia could stop Marius from seeing his daughter at the forefront of the drama. Yet it's equally the story about how otherwise quite gentle people might suddenly snap if pushed too far. The fact that Marius' actions, born of increased distress, are only adding to the likelihood that he'll never see his daughter again creates a sense of deep, inevitable tragedy."

Radu Jude's debut feature, 'The Happiest Girl in the World', was near the summit of this list back in 2010 and his follow-up proves that was no fluke. 'Everybody in Our Family' is every bit as naturalistic and maddening in its representation of a frustrated protagonist who seems incapable of articulating themselves. Here we follow a father as he attempts to visit his daughter at the home of his ex-wife. But a combination of the stubbornness of his ex-wife's new boyfriend - who refuses to allow him to take his daughter out - and his own obnoxious behaviour sees the situation escalate to a point where you can't see a clean way out for any of the characters. An extremely tense film, characterised by its boundless empathy and compassion.

8) Killing Them Softly, dir Andrew Dominik, USA

What I said: "It's a phenomenally violent film in short bursts, though the emphasis is on characters having conversations - about sex, money and business - against the backdrop of the 2008 recession and Obama/McCain presidential election. The whole thing is, as you might expect from the man behind 'Jesse James', shot incredibly stylishly, though without fetishising violence - again, like a Coen movie, there is an abiding humanism. There are no strictly good or bad people, just opportunists, idiots and dispassionate businessmen for whom hiring a contract killer is greeted with a world-weary sigh. Here murder, adultery and theft are just good capitalism. 'Killing Them Softly' is a modern American fable."

Smart and stylish in a way that shouldn't surprise anybody who saw Dominik's previous films - the anarchic and irreverent 'Chopper' and the elegiac, lyrical 'Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' - this is the best Coen Brothers movie the Coens never made. It's very funny, with the humour coming from the repeated use of certain phrases or peculiar words rather than gags, and a really tight crime thriller to boot. There's a Coen-esque quality to the story too, as it follows bundling criminals out of their depth, pursued by Brad Pitt as an ice-cold hitman (this is a great companion film to 'Killer Joe'). But this isn't some pale imitation without any style of its own, Dominik has his own visual style, whilst the film's heavy political subtext and running critique of the American dream sets it apart.

7) ParaNorman, dir Chris Butler & Sam Fell, USA

What I said: "The stunning character animation, detailed (and gloomily lit) scenery, clever script and well-cast voices would be enough to recommend the film, but the fact that it has such a delightful message - with the baddie ultimately being intolerance and fear of difference (rather than a nefarious person) - is what sets it apart. Especially as it has the strength of its convictions and seemingly none too worried about causing offence. The film is also terrifically well paced, with an economy of storytelling reminiscent of vintage Pixar."

Coming from Laika, the animation studio behind 'Coraline', it's no surprise that 'ParaNorman is good. What did surprise me though is just how good - how funny and unexpectedly moving it is, carried off with genuine maturity and respect for its intended young audience. One early sequence depicting Norman's walk to school is so beautiful and bitter-sweet, not least of all due to Jon Brion's score, that you'd have to be some sort of black-hearted cynic not to swoon. And for a kids' horror movie with the emphasis on comedy and kooky characters, there are some really scary things at play here psychologically. Clearly the best animated film of 2012.

6) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, dir Nuri Bilge Ceylan, TUR

What I said: "An honest-to-gods masterpiece, this Turkish drama from Nuri Bilge Ceylan has a lot in common with the almost equally excellent 2009 Romanian film 'Police, Adjective'. Both share the same fascination with the banal side of police work not usually explored in cinema, as ordinary cops perform quite boring duties. Both films have patience in common, allowing us to observe these men at work without any embellishment. But whilst the Romanian movie explored whether the semantic definition of law should hold more weight than our own understanding of morality, this feature ponders how such men can maintain their humanity when forced so often to encounter acts of barbarism."

That rare piece of European slow cinema that exceeds two hours without causing me to check the time, this is a captivating instant masterpiece. A police procedural, much of it taking place in real-time, in which you simply observe quite a lot of mundane stuff - a lot of it unrelated to police work, as colleagues chat about their home live's and whatnot. The photography is the year's most stunning, capturing natural light and Turkish landscapes in a way that leaves you in awe from the first shot.

5) The Avengers (AKA Marvel Avengers Assemble), dir Joss Whedon, USA

What I said: "'The Avengers' succeeds on every level it's trying to and gets everything right when it comes to making the ideal comic book movie. The various superpowers are used (and combined) imaginatively, the balance between action and dialogue is perfect, and Hiddleston's villain is deliciously charismatic, every bit as entertaining as the heroes. The gags work and even moments of pathos find the target when they arrive. It's a very different beast to Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight'... being unabashed, escapist fun rather than a rumination on The Patriot Act or an exploration of how a costumed vigilante might really be viewed by the world as we know it. But in being so proud of its pulpy routes, giving us daring deeds painted broadly and in bright colours - as Norse gods battle men in Star-Spangled spandex - it's arguably a far braver and much tougher movie to get right. And Whedon gets it completely right, painting this epic battle on a suitably large canvas."

I don't think I've ever sat in a cinema with a bigger grin on my face than I did during this one, even on my third viewing. 'The Avengers' is the most fun I had this year doing pretty much anything, let alone in a cinema. It looks easy and straightforward now, but how Joss Whedon managed to combine characters from a half-dozen previous films without making a cluttered and uneven mess is a cause to wonder. This could so easily have been a car crash, with egos, audience testing and box office figures dictating what percentage of relevance each member of the ensemble would have - but instead we get almost equal amounts of Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) combing and playing off each other in ways both humorous and exciting. The perfect super hero movie.

4) About Elly, dir Asghar Farhadi, IRN

What I said: "We follow a group of middle-class friends from Tehran as they go on a weekend getaway to the seaside, bringing along a relative stranger - Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) - in order to introduce her to their recently divorced friend. However, when Elly goes missing (presumed drowned), the group is forced to confront how little they really knew about their guest. There are moral dilemmas and grave twists that will be familiar to those who saw 'A Separation' (in a good way) and, like much contemporary Iranian cinema, the film is rich with social critique for those willing to look below the surface."

Released in Iran in 2009, Asghar Farhadi's film prior to the sensational 'A Separation' (2nd on last year's list) only received its UK release earlier this year. There's not a lot I'd like to say about it because, like that previous film, the less you know the better. But I will say that it's every bit as immaculately acted and written as that more famous follow-up. A supremely humanist film of ideas populated by characters of stunning depth.

3) Moonrise Kingdom, dir Wes Anderson, USA

What I said: "Though I personally loved 'The Life Aquatic' and 'Darjeeling Limited', those films seemed to represent Anderson's movies becoming bigger and, to some extent, less tightly focused. The star-studded ensemble is no less eclectic here but 'Moonrise Kindom' instead feels stripped back somewhere closer to the simplicity and economy of 'Rushmore'. It's a change that's kept the director's formula from wearing thin, coming at the right moment. It's a film that makes Wes Anderson exciting again, as opposed to the master of an increasingly predictable framework (however lovely). I used to say that 'Bottle Rocket' was my favourite but conceded that 'The Royal Tenenbaums' was Anderson's most mature and accomplished film. 'Moonrise Kingdom' calls into question both ends of that statement."

Anderson's style changes just enough so that it's still recognisably there but it feels fresh, whilst his recent excesses have been toned down to make something that still feels ambitious and imaginative but also uncharacteristically tight. It's also perhaps his best looking movie to date and one of his most touching, as it deals with young love. The gathered ensemble (including Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) is perfectly cast and the young leads (Jared Kilman and in particular Kara Hayward) are revelations. Anderson's near-obsessive attention to detail and penchant for naive and wholly non-cynical characters have not been this inspiring since 'Rushmore'.

2) A Royal Affair, dir Nicolaj Arcel, DEN

What I said: "Everything about 'A Royal Affair' is stunning. Its ambitious scope in terms of subject matter, its intelligence, its brilliant cast of actors (I'll now happily watch anything with Alicia Vikander in it), and its lavish production values. I cried at the end... and I laughed far more and far harder than I have at the last dozen or so comedies. The story of a doctor who gives a king new confidence and inspires him to greater things, it could easily be billed as Denmark's answer to 'The King's Speech'. It's far better than that."

I don't know if this is any indication of how they make period movies over in Denmark, but 'A Royal Affair' is lightyears away from the staid, conservative, heritage bollocks we serve up here in the UK. If the sight of monarchs wearing ruffled shirts and extravagant ball-gowns is - not unreasonably - enough to put you off a movie by this point then you'll really be missing something special here. Along with the titular story of forbidden love, and the visceral sense of heartbreak and tragedy that goes along with it, 'A Royal Affair' is at heart a film about ideas: about compromised idealists and revolutionaries ahead of their time. It's about social change and how difficult it is to impose lasting improvements to the lot of the rest of us as long as they run counter to the wants of the super rich. It may be set in the 18th century Danish court - where it tells a sensational and scarcely credible true story - but this is a film of 2012.

1) Tabu, dir Miguel Gomes, POR

What I said: "Despite the fact the entire film is black and white, framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, a lot of it reminded me of the hyper-colourful films of Wes Anderson: with Portuguese language cover versions of 60s popular songs, childlike romanticism of the colonial spirit of adventure, characters with obscure quasi-celebrity status, and a highly precise sense of composition. Funny, bizarre, imaginative, unique, and emotional in that way that hits the hairs on the back of your neck - I'll be surprised if [this year's Berlin film festival] goes on to present a better film than 'Tabu'."

Wow. A work of genius and a probable future contender for film of the decade. A tale of love and loss which begins in Lisbon, showing us the final days of a bitter and extremely infuriating old and lonely widow - estranged from her daughter and a drain on her neighbours - only to then spend the second portion with the same woman as an impossibly beautiful and accomplished person in her 20s, living a romanticised colonial dream in Africa. The decision to follow a different protagonist in the first half (a well-meaning, busybody neighbour), with the elderly woman seen through her eyes, is especially interesting as it positions the main character as less relevant in her old age, making the subsequent flashback tale even more interesting - and perhaps saying something about our attitudes towards older people. The vibrant and ultimately tragic second half of the film makes the first half even sadder. It says a lot that whilst 'Tabu' is entirely shot in black and white (with the second half free of dialogue save narration from an estranged lover), in my mind it exists in full colour - so evocative and powerful the imagery, so ingenious the storytelling.

If you missed the earlier parts of this list, here they are: 30-2120-11

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