Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

My favourite films of 2012

Simple rules: these are the movies I enjoyed most (or otherwise got something out of) out of those that had a British cinema release for the first time in 2012 – so no re-releases, no festival films, no award-season bait that won’t be in our cinemas until some time in 2013. I make no claims that this list is any way comprehensive. There were a lot of films I didn’t make it to by choice or by circumstance - for instance, I made a number of ill-fated attempts to see Berberian Sound Studio. Incidentally, the worst film I saw, by some considerable distance, was the Colin Farrell/Kate Beckinsale remake of Total Recall…


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1. 2 Days in New York

Mildly smug couple get invaded by relentlessly crass in-laws from out-of-town (in this case, France). That’s often been the stuff of sitcoms and bad farces, but this is touching and funny and has lots of good jokes at the expense of both the French and the Americans. Julie Delpy (still hated by many for playing the singularly most irritating character in the 15-year run of ER) directed and stars with Chris Rock, as her long-suffering partner, Mingus. This is by a long chalk his best film outing (admittedly, no great claim) – his beard alone is a thing of joy. Daft and a bit self-indulgent but ultimately properly endearing.


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2. Damsels in Distress

The best surprise of the year – Last Days Of Disco director Whit Stillman returned with his first movie since 1998, an unlikely campus comedy starring the brilliant Greta Gerwig. It’s infused with the spirit of Fred Astaire yet laced with sneakily filthy jokes. A lot more about it here…


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3. Shame

On all the serious critics’ lists for 2011, but director Steve McQueen’s unblinking portrait of sex addiction wasn’t unleashed on the paying punters until January. You’ve got to respect at film that can literally silence a bunch of kids in south London. They should show it on the No3 bus. No one’s idea of fun, exactly, but contains some astonishing moments of cinema.


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4. Moonrise Kingdom

I have little truck with the notion that something that is highly stylised can’t also be moving, which seems to the main charge laid against director Wes Anderson. On the surface, Moonrise Kingdom is a (clever, amusing, derivative, unabashedly twee) film about a couple of precocious kids running away on a quaint New England island. But it seemed to me much more about the adults caught up in it all. The sadness lingered with me for days – Bruce Willis is heart-breaking. I kid you not.


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5. Avengers Assemble (aka The Avengers aka Marvel Avengers Assemble)

It could have been a horrible mess – a film cramming together a sackful of superheroes. But in the hands of Buffy creator Joss Whedon, Avengers Assemble was the perfect balance – fan-friendly but uncluttered by backstory, funny and with the right amount of people/ancient deities getting clobbered. Top marks for the casting of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk.


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6. The Master

There is no film this year I am looking forward to seeing again as much as The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s account of the strange pupil-guru relationship between a damaged WWII veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) and a charismatic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It’s a movie full of incredible stuff – not just the two-handers with Phoenix and Hoffman, but also the department store scenes early on, and every second Amy Adams has on screen. And yet, it can also feel like a big beautiful film with not a lot in it. There is an argument that Anderson covered much of the same ground more economically and with more heart in his debut film Hard Eight (aka Sydney), and I have some sympathy with that* Consider this a provisional judgement.

*The counter-argument to that is that The Master takes the best bits from all of Anderson’s previous movies and creates something even better.


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7. Argo

Ben Affleck’s retelling of a little-known incident during the 1980 Iran US hostage crisis is just a really satisfying film, managing a difficult balance between comedy and a sombre thriller about a group of trapped, terrified people. Credit to the costume and make-up department – a couple of high-profile critics assumed total unknowns had been used to play the hostages.


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8. The Muppets

There are basically two halves of the plot – the first concerns Jason Segel and his muppet brother(?!?), who gets all jealous when Jason hooks up with Amy Adams, and I wasn’t too fussed about that. The second bit, your basic let’s-get-the-gang-back-together to put on a show to save the theatre, was terrific. But then, I love the Muppets.


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9/10: Tiny Furniture/Blank City

Post-college meltdown and the lives of second-generation Manhattan loft-dwellers are lovingly depicted in Lena Dunham’s autobiographical comedy, a calling card that led to her HBO series, Girls. An earlier bunch of no-budget filmmakers living in the smack-ridden, rat-infested, crime-plagued downtown of old are celebrated in the entertaining, if outrageously lax with the facts, documentary Blank City.


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11. End Of Watch

It has its limitations as a cop movie, but as a portrait of male friendship, this is tough to beat. More here…


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12. Sightseers

A caravan holiday around Northern tourist attractions (a tram museum, a pencil museum) turns into a killing spree in this Mike Leigh-ish comedy by Ben Wheatley, who a lot of sensible people reckon is the most interesting young director in Britain. I’m not 100 per cent sold on that notion, but this turned out to be the perfect thing to watch after a day’s Christmas shopping.


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13. Skyfall

What has been underdiscussed is how dim Daniel Craig’s Bond is. I can only assume this is deliberate and possibly intended as slightly subversive. Craig is a clever bloke who normally plays fairly clever blokes, but his Bond is far thicker than any previous incarnation, and hopeless at his job when you think about it.


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14. Le Havre

Aki Kaurismaki decamped from Helsinki to the tough French port to make this sweet, sad film, an improbable mixture of 1950s melodrama, 1970s French crime flick and social realist examination of the refugee crisis. I’m not sure it added up but it was touching and surprising.


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15/16. Bombay Beach/Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Two films digging around America’s rusty margins, looking for unlikely beauty. Bombay Beach, filmed on the shores of the Salton Sea in California, is a documentary of sorts, but contains sequences of dancing interrupting ordinary life choreographed by the director. Beasts… explores a similarly resourceful community on Louisiana’s easily flooded edge, and can seem like a bit of factual film, at least when rampaging prehistoric creatures aren’t around. Both movies have mesmerising moments - both also have times that could be accused of fetishising poverty. Bombay Beach is the more easily defensible - with Beasts I felt I completely understood both what its supporters and critics felt about the film.

Plus…


My favourite films from the past that I saw the big screen and for the first time

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Quai Des Brumes (1938)

The BFI is always great, but there is usually one season there a year that in particularly excited about. This it was there retrospective of films starring Jean Gabin, the broken-nosed anti-hero of French cinema. Quai Des Brumes is one of the early ones, just pre-World War II, when he was rough-edged romantic lead. It’s on Le Havre’s seafront, among the desperate, would-be dangerous and on the run. It’s all atmosphere and moodiness, and stays just on the right side of cliché. There’s a terrific dog in it, too.


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Maigret Tend Un Piege (1958)

I love George Simenon’s Maigret novels, and Jean Gabin (older now) is in his element as the unruffled inspector slowly nailing a serial killer who’s been terrorising young women in the centre of Paris.


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Melodie En Sous Sol (1962)

This Riviera heist movie is a sort of passing-of-the-baton moment in terms of classic French crime cinema, with veteran mastermind Jean Gabin teaching pretty-boy newcomer Alain Delon the tricks of the trade (in some ways, in fact, it’s reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight).


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Something Wild (1962)

This year’s big bit of London Film Festival vault-digging, a restored version of Jack Garfein and Carroll Baker’s bold film about a rape survivor. More on it here…

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