Wednesday, 19 December 2012

My Top 30 Films of 2012: 20-11

This is the second part of my top 30 films of 2012 run-down. The first part can be found here.

Here are films 20-11:

20) Searching for Sugar Man, dir Malik Bendjelloul, SWE/UK

What I said: "Undoubtedly one of the film's that's effected and fascinated me the most this year, 'Searching for Sugar Man' is a great and stylishly put together documentary about a mysterious 1970s singer-songwriter whose unjust obscurity in the US is made all the more strange by his rock god status in apartheid South Africa. The bizarre and moving story of Rodriquez is probably best left for the film to tell in detail, but rest assured it's a compelling tale about a humble man of immense charisma. It's a less comic yet far classier version of 'Anvil', to sell it in crass marketing terms."

An interesting story told very well, 'Searching for Sugar Man' inspired me to seek out both of Rodriquez's albums soon after leaving the cinema. The subject himself is an inspiring individual, without pretension and showing no signs of bitterness after his early "the next Bob Dylan" tag never translated itself into record sales or success in his home country. It's also provides a rare and interesting look at youth counter-culture in white South Africa during apartheid, as young people sought alternative ideas and art to that provided by their conservative state.

19) Sightseers, dir Ben Wheatley, UK

What I said: "Like the two Ben Wheatley films that preceded it, 'Sightseers' could appear cold, cynical and nihilistic to some. However, the unease the director makes you feel at each killing, quickly making you question each knee-jerk laugh, shows to my mind a sort of humanism that elevates the material even further. The characters themselves maybe glib about killing and dismissive of their victims, but Wheatley's handling of each act is certain to have you torn awkwardly between horror and laughter - with no act of violence seeming to lack consequence (on friends and loved ones, if not the happy murderers)."

Very droll, as one might expect from Wheatley, 'Sightseers' is a near-perfect pitch-black comedy which should achieve long-lasting cult success. Especially given how many quotable one-liners and strange turns of phrase there are here, my favourites being "he's a pig in clothes, Chris" and "he's not a person, he's a Daily Mail reader". Very British in terms of its references and social-class based humour, it's great to see some UK filmmakers catering for the domestic audience rather than chasing the (much more lucrative) export market.

18) Amour, dir Michael Haneke, AUT/FRA/GER

What I said: "It's an accomplished film, perhaps slightly over long, but boasting terrific lead performances and painting a very complex and non-judgemental picture of both a terminally ill woman wishing to die and her distraught, occasionally rash husband - who, in one tough scene, is driven so angry by her refusal to take food that he strikes her frail and immobile body. Yet this is overall a story about love, or rather which seems to redefine love or at least view it through a different lens. It's the final days of a couple who, it seems safe to assume, have lead happy and successful lives together, and yet we focus on a man caring for his sick wife and dealing with uncaring nurses and unwanted visitors (including the couple's demanding daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert). Haneke seems to be saying this is what love is, that everything else is perhaps the build up to this the greatest test of affection and, in a sense, romance."

Is it a pro-euthanasia film or merely an extremely compassionate account of why people are driven to that measure in desperation? I'm not sure - and it probably doesn't matter. 'Amour' is a film that sticks with you, putting you in a very dark place and leaving you there to think for a while. I haven't been forced to watch the slow deterioration of an elderly couple on film in this way since 'Where the Wind Blows' - and at least the characters in that film were killed by nuclear fallout! By comparison this is an all too relatable and frightening story, given that a similar fate to that of the old timers here quite likely awaits us all. I told you it was bleak.

17) Cabin in the Woods, dir Drew Goddard, USA

What I said: "An incredibly funny and whip-smart take on the horror genre from producer/co-writer Joss Whedon and writer/director Drew Goddard. It's got the splatter horror humour of 'Evil Dead' and is similar to 'Scream' in that it deconstructs the slasher genre and subverts its tropes. But unlike 'Scream' it does this without ultimately becoming just another slasher movie: it goes much further than that, delving into what makes such movies work and questioning why they satisfy audiences in the first place. It grapples with such concepts as audience complicity in movie violence and the way young people are portrayed in American movies, as well as being hilariously funny, incredibly gory and full of imagination. When it all kicks off in the final third, I can promise you there is nothing quite like it."

Completed years ago and only belatedly released this year to cash in on writer/producer Joss Whedon's Avengers success, 'Cabin in the Woods' was left to a fate usually reserved for major duds. Yet it's genuinely one of the most surprising and inventive films of the year. One of those "Christ, I never saw any of this in the trailer" types of movies that are so rare in the post-internet world. Perhaps the fact that it lingered in a vault, seemingly forgotten for a few years, actually helped cool interest in this project enough for nobody to bother spoiling it? In any case, it's a really entertaining horror that subverts genre cliches and comments on the very existence of such movies in our culture (whilst also being a dammed good one). And comic actor Fran Kranz is exceptional.

16) Haywire, dir Steven Soderbergh, USA

What I said: "In what seems like a direct challenge to the modern action movie, Soderbergh shoots his hyper-realistic fight scenes with an unfashionably immobile camera - give or take a few lengthy tracking shots. He allows action to unfold within the frame for long spells, giving us an unobstructed view. This decision is no doubt influenced by the fact that he's not having to play tricks in the edit to convince us that Carano can kick ass: she really can and we're allowed to see that."

I fell a little bit in love with Gina Carano earlier this year, with the former MMA fighter demonstrating extreme physical skill in Soderbergh's brisk thriller - and a surprising degree of acting talent. It also doesn't hurt that she's beautiful without having a traditional Hollywood physique. By which I mean she isn't skinny. If it sounds like I'm going off on one about Carano (and I am) rather than talking about the film, that's only because Carano IS this film. 'Haywire' is really only a vehicle for her powerful and energetic fight moves, with the star-studded (mostly male) supporting cast existing chiefly to have the crap beaten from them. It's brilliant and Soderbergh really shows the rest of Hollywood how to shoot action coherently and excitingly.

15) 21 Jump Street, dir Phil Lord & Chris Miller, USA

What I said: "Hill and Tatum make for a funny and charismatic double-act, whilst the film's many in-jokes at the expense of formula cop series (like the original) and tropes of the high school comedy allow for a disarming bluntness about the stupidity of its own premise.There are perhaps too many action scenes, with car chases and gun battles now a staple of the Hollywood "dude comedy", and these do drag the film down for long spells. But when it's funny it's funny enough that you more or less forget all the bits you didn't like... and it's funny about 50% of the time."

On paper it looks like this one would be as dumb as its wannabe cop protagonists, yet '21 Jump Street' is a lot of fun thanks mainly to the chemistry of the leads. It's the film that made me laugh the most this year and I was delighted to discover, after watching it, that its co-directors are the duo behind the equally funny animation 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs' - so perhaps it wasn't a fluke. This one will have you tripping major ballsack long into the credits - which, by the way, are possibly the funniest part of the film by virtue of their sheer preposterousness.

14) The Master, dir Paul Thomas Anderson, USA

What I said: "'The Master' is not, at least to my mind, an immediately gratifying film. There are immediately gratifying elements, to be sure - the cinematography and Anderson's use of camera is one of the most obvious, as are the two central performances - but this story-light script is much more of a character study and exploration of various themes (such as religion as institutionalism and whether it is truly possible to be your own master). There's nothing wrong with that at all, and in fact the most interesting films are usually about characters rather than a narrative sequence of events, but 'The Master' takes this to an extreme, with very little happening outside of its broader exploration of themes."

I'm fairly certain I'll look back in years to come and wonder why I didn't place this higher on the list, for I've only seen 'The Master' once at the time of writing and have a strong feeling it's one that will improve with repeat viewings. Not least of all as I begin to properly understand what the point of it all is. At the moment though it's here by virtue of how beautiful the cinematography is and how stellar the two lead performances are. I bow to no one in my appreciation of Paul Thomas Anderson, so when I say that several of the scenes between Jaoquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman rank among the best things he's ever filmed, you better believe that means something.

13) The Descendants, dir Alexander Payne, USA

What I said: "It's as much about quirks of fate as it is coming to terms with loss or taking responsibility. Why should Clooney have inherited all this land through no work of his own and why should he decide what happens to it? Why did Elizabeth decide to jet ski on that day rather than drive the boat as planned? Why should Alex have stumbled upon her mother's indiscretion by chance? When Clooney finally confronts his wife's lover he is told that the affair "just happened". "Nothing just happens" is King's response, giving rise to perhaps the film's definitive line: "Everything just happens.""

Sometimes the films you see at the start of the year get lost by the time all the lists are being made and awards are being handed out, but Payne's 'The Descendants' overcomes this obstacle quite easily. A bittersweet and introspective movie about forgiveness, loss, entitlement and a whole lot more, this one is deceptively light and breezy on the surface but yields a whole lot more on closer inspection. Clooney is ever superb as the wounded male lead and the scene's featuring his comatose wife verge towards harrowing as the film reaches its end. A beautiful piece of work, not least due to its non-judgemental humanism and Payne's understanding that bleak and serious drama is not incompatible with a sense of humour.

12) Killer Joe, dir William Friedkin, USA

What I said: "Director William Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts - author of the original stageplay - deliver a memorable and disturbing little picture, which culminates in a masterful third act which plays out as one scene set around the family dinner table - one which won't help drive sales of KFC and may serve as a cold shower for any ladies still breathless from seeing the lead actor parading about as a male stripper the week previous. The whole thing plays as satirical, especially in its darkest moments, though it isn't entirely clear what the target is. That would ordinarily leave me struggling to justify the ultra-violence, but 'Killer Joe' is too well crafted and cast for that to present much of a problem."

I don't know where Friedkin has been since his 'Exorcist'/'French Connection' heyday, but 'Killer Joe' is arguably right up there. Along with the aforementioned 'Carnage' - also based on a stage play - as well as the likes of 'Haywire' and 'Sightseers', there is a theme on this year's list of films that manage to go by a decent clip and come to a satisfying end in well under two hours. 'Killer Joe' is one of those, being economical and well plotted, driven by eye-catching performances (notably from McConaughey) and culminating in a scene of mind-melting tension that will linger long in the memory.

11) Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, dir Lorene Scafaria, USA

What I said: "Perhaps the year's most pleasant surprise, this apocalypse dramedy sees Steve Carell and Keira Knightley forming an unlikely friendship with only days to go before an asteroid destroys the planet. It's a sublimely sweet little movie from 'Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist' scribe Lorene Scafaria, which skillfully combines genuine heartfelt emotion with black comedy. There are some really profound musings on love, life and regret here, but also some of the best comic moments of the year as people react to the end of days in a myriad of psychotic and self-deluding ways."

Sometimes how good a film is has more to do with your own mental state going in, and I saw this one days after being dumped out of the blue by my girlfriend of seven years. I quite honestly would have welcomed the end of the world and - like many of the characters here - would probably have taken a lot of heart from a mutual sense of misery at the futility of existence. It's all better now and I don't feel anything like that bad about the whole thing, but it was during this time that I saw and loved 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World'. A film that was, for me, the right amount of sweet and bitter - and a disaster movie that had the strength of its convictions. It also doesn't hurt that the first half is extremely funny, depicting the mass hysteria of an oncoming apocalypse in a way I've never seen on screen before.

Check back later for films 21-11. If you missed them, check out entries 30-21.

1 comment:

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