2012 WASN’T BY any means a stellar year for the movies. The usual suspects dominated: big budget, overly operatic action-movie excesses, (“The Dark Knight Rises”) the usual (thankfully dwindling) crop of Rom-coms, blood splattered gore-fests (and nowadays I see they’ve combined them to lead to ZomRomComs – or zombie romances) and imitative, dull animations (“Pirates”) headlined the offering. Thankfully the Twilight Saga has slipped into the twilight; alas not so much so for Tom Cruise. But there were a few specks of silver to line some of the clouds.
Here is my list of the good, the bad and the ugly (and with apologies for not having seen either “Silver Linings Playbook” or “Amour” … yet).
Those movies that helped define cinematic art for 2012. These are my bests (the movies I’d see again in a heart-beat):
“Lincoln”. Spielberg’s Saving Private Abe. It’s his serious, but not ponderous take on the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency. The movie makes us really care about Lincoln’s Hobson’s choices without ever slipping into melodrama or Spielbergian sappiness. Tony Kushner has done a wonderful job of converting political wrangling into gripping drama and Daniel Day Lewis is a shoo-in for Best Actor – he manages to be both iconic and human at the same time.
“Argo”. Ben Affleck, fresh from his successes of “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone” is emerging as this generation’s Clint Eastwood – a gifted actor turned brilliant director. (Fortunately he isn’t a right-wing loonie like Clint). “Argo” carefully balances absurdist humor with nail-biting tension and a cast of characters who make you actually feel for them and shiver at the terror they faced (Kathryn Bigelow should take notes)
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”. The newcomer Benh Zeitlin plunges us into the strange world of a decrepit bayou community teetering on the brink of a civilization destroyed by floods and melting ice caps. It’s a moving, tender movie which manages not to get bogged down by its menagerie of metaphors and symbol-laden sub-text. The impossibly named Quvenzhané Wallis well deserves her Oscar nomination. As do others for just learning how to pronounce her name
“Django Unchained”. This is the very best of Tarantino – so much more than a piece of pulp fiction, this is a wildly entertaining, often hilariously funny, vulgar, yet deeply serious meditation on racism in America. As you’d expect, it’s deliciously well-written by someone who has the best ear for dialogue in modern screen-writing. Christopher Waltz as the travelling bounty-hunter, Dr.King Schultz and Samuel L Jackson as the Uncle Tom, Stephen are worth the price of admission…and should have been there in the Oscar lists.
“Life of Pi”. Ang Li’s incandescent look at the oft-told (i.e. clichéd) clash between reality and legend, is an engagingly lovely adventure story. Newcomer Suraj Sharma as Pi gives us an unselfconscious and convincing portrayal of a man lost at sea…lost in a fantasy. The real stars of the show are David Gropman and his production designers who gave the whole thing a richness of texture that lifted it above mere fancy cinematography. And then there’s the tiger. This wondrous piece of CGI work makes the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park seem like Ray Harryhausen’s creatures.
Those Happy Surprises that may not be ‘art’ but certainly are the filmmaking craft at a very high level:
“Skyfall”. Whew, after the mess of “Quantum of Solace” it’s so great to find 007 in fine form once again and not mooching around shaken and stirred for lost love (although in “Skyfall” he loses his real love, M). Sam Mendes gives us a lesson in how to deliver heart-stopping action sequences, especially in an opening chase that isn’t quite a brilliant as the opening chase of “Casino Royale”, but will make the all star list of great chases. The cast he assembled – especially Javier Bardem as the creepy, Hannibal Lecter-ish Silva, and Ralph Fiennes as the steely no-nonsense M – add a level of clout and gravitas to help make this the best Bond, James Bond ever. I just wish he hadn’t backed away from the sex. After all, this isn’t Jason Bourne, it’s Bond.
“End of Watch”. This opened and closed in London in the blink of an eye. Pity, it’s a great cop movie with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two decent cops suddenly thrust into a deadly drug war. Director David Ayer overworks the cine verite/documentary style format, but, despite that, he really forces the viewer away from the comfort of watching two well know actors performing their craft, to immerse him or her in their story (with brilliant, genuine sounding dialogue) and into the action.
“A Royal Affair”. Who says Denmark was only Vikings? From the country that brought us “Borgen” and “The Killing” comes this (true) tale of infidelity and love. Mads Mikkesen (Le Chiffre of “Casino Royale”) is Dr. Johann Streunsee who helped bring the Elightenment of Rousseau and Voltaire to the Danish Court. He also brought hot sex (well, Danish hot sex anyway, which always seems brooding and introspective) to King Christian VII’s English queen, Caroline Mathilde. Mikkesen is an interesting actor, who can turn from good looking charm to nasty in a twitch. Watch for him in the future.
“Amazing Spiderman”. I was very dubious whether we really needed another Spiderman so soon after the last one. Would this simply be a web of a different actor? But the team of director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) and Englishman Andrew Garfield successfully reinvented the sheer boyish joy of Spiderman’s discovery of his super-powers. Fortunately the transformation from Peter Parker to Spiderman occupies much of the movie, which helps it feel character-rich and genuinely angst ridden. Once he – Spiderman – sets out to do battle with evil nemesis Rhys Ifans (as the Lizard), it’s business as usual.
“Flight”. A better than expected Denzil outing. As usual he plays a flawed man coming to grips with and overcoming his flaws. Here he’s an addict whose moment of unmatchable heroism is overshadowed by his drug and drink addictions. It’s a story of a man at war with himself that director Robert Zemeckis (“Cast Away”) serves up in user-friendly portions sugar coated with the grippingly told drama of Denzel Washington’s watchably dashing captain’s fall from grace
Movies I really looked forward to and left the cinema with a shrug and a question – “really?”
“Hunger Games”. Director Gary Ross took a thrilling book about kids trained to kill each other and defanged it. I think he thought he was still making “Seabiscuit”, his last feel-good outing. Even the usually compelling Jennifer Lawrence was less than convincing. She couldn’t outwit or outfight anyone if her life depended on it…as it were. Maybe the sequel will be better…in better hands
“Killing Them Softly”. What a great combination this offered: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins… all enforcers from the Mob. You’d expect tension, excitement, the idea of men living on the edge as some sort of metaphor for LIFE. But all you got was a dull, method acted wet blanket of a movie, with as many thrills as shopping at The Gap.
“The Master”. Here again were some of the finest actors around, going head to head at each other: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. This was a movie reviewed with praise so glowing, it often bordered on adulation, for director Paul Thomas Anderson. Added to this was the potential roman a clef intrigue that it was based on the life of Scientology founder, L Ron Hubbard. Instead what emerged was an excess of artiness that left one with the overwhelming question, “does anyone really give a shit?”
“Moonrise Kingdom”. I keep trying with Wes Anderson, the auteur darling of Hollywood, but the only thing his movies have offered me is boredom. Look at the list: “Fantastic Mr Fox”, George Clooney’s worst movie (and that includes his Batman), “Hotel Chevalier” (or huh?), “The Darjeeling Ltd” (white people rediscover India). I could go on, but why worry. I’m just not his type.
“Les Miserables”. Director Tom Hooper’s takes the stage musical to the big screen and makes it look, well, like a second rate version of the stage version.
These were the ones that really stunk… including some big names who should have known better
“Haywire” Steve Soderberg somnambulates through this failed ‘kick-up’ slug-fest featuring newcomer (who you won’t see again), real-life Karate/kick-boxing champion Gina Carano. Not just over the top, but out of the ring.
“Pirates. Band of Misfits” Directed by Wallace and Grommit’s Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt. A clay-bound Claymation catastrophe
“Rust and Bone”. Jacques Audiard’s excruciating and largely incoherent story of a crippled Marion Cotillard. Like her, this movie doesn’t have the legs.
“Prometheus” Ridley Scott’s decision to make aliens a ponderous and pretentious manifestation of his bizarre creationism philosophy
“Total Recall” with Colin Farrell. Makes you recall with fondness, Schwarzenegger. Now that’s an achievement