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2012: The Year in Film

James Searle

2012 has been a fine year for cinema, producing an impressive number of quality films. In celebration, here’s one take on the top films of the year. A few caveats before we begin: first, this list is purely subjective and personal, meaning it is vulnerable to both personal bias and the fact that there are plenty of films I missed. Secondly, it is based on films first released into British cinemas this year, which is why some festival favourites from last year have snuck in. That said, let’s start the countdown…

15. Monsieur Lazhar

A fairly straightforward inspirational teacher story, but done with tact and surprising grace. This Montreal-set drama does little new and most of its plot points are predictable, but it tackles them with a happily minimal level of sentimentality, aided by some unmannered performances. It also gets points for including themes of bereavement and immigration without becoming an issues movie.

14. Looper

Rian Johnston’s latest effort is one of the year’s more frustrating and uneven films, yet it remains absolutely thrilling when it works. Its furiously smart premise and plotting are admirable, and Bruce Willis is absolutely terrific. Although the movie is let down by distracting CGI and an almost laughably overblown final half hour, it at least has the best opening scene of this year and is directed with flair and élan by Johnston.

13. The Dark Knight Rises

While I didn’t see The Avengers, of the superhero flicks I did make it to this year this was the most assured, exciting and ambitious (though I did also like Marc Webb’s light, zippy Spiderman reboot). While this film misses the dynamism Heath Ledger brought to its predecessor and thus is sometimes a little too caught up in its own grandeur, the set-pieces are stunning and the ensemble cast impressive. If nothing else, it’s incredibly refreshing and important to have a mainstream blockbuster with so much thoughtfulness and noble intent behind it, even if the film cannot quite live up to its own vision.

12. Rust and Bone

While it would be hard to call Jacques Audiard’s melodrama an important or zeitgeist capturing film, there’s no doubt that it is one of the most outstandingly directed and acted movies of the year. Impressively, it manages to take on a collection of abhorred clichés and rehabilitate them almost completely, making its characters feel like real human beings and refusing to back away from the extent of their flaws. It does suffer from an emotionally manipulative and rather too convenient climax, but overall this is a satisfying and compelling watch, and also gets points for having a key plot point revolving around expired yogurt.

11. Shame

Shame is rather hard work, but there’s no doubting its forcefulness of intent. Anchored by Michael Fassbender’s intense, impressive performance and bolstered by great supporting work from Carey Mulligan, this sex addiction drama is almost overwhelmingly emotive and powerful. Some of the scenes suffer from try-hard direction, as if Steve McQueen is focusing on making the film as impressive as possible rather than putting the story first, but in the main this is an effective and affective film. A gruelling watch perhaps, but certainly a captivating one.

10. Silver Linings Playbook

A screwball comedy about mental health sounds like a recipe for disaster, but this winning effort from David O. Russell focuses the comedy on the characters rather than the conditions for the most part. As with The Fighter, Russell gets notable performances from his all-star cast, but while Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro are great it’s Bradley Cooper who is the real revelation here. The film gets better and better as it rumbles along to a delicious climax, though the very end might be a little too pat. There’s no doubt that this is one of the year’s most rollicking, tender and enjoyable films.

9. The Muppets

While I would never take a child to see this perhaps overly affectionate reboot of the classic franchise, for anyone with Muppet-nostalgia its endless sentiment for the characters is infectious. Even for those who don’t get a little weepy at the opening lines of ‘Rainbow Connection’, this film still has plenty to offer. It’s potently funny and witty when it takes a break from mooning over the history of the brand, and moreover is perhaps the best musical in what feels like forever. Despite the floods of celebrity cameos, it’s hard to see the film dating badly, and it’s a shame that a really terrific picture has been so underrated on account of being a family film. I’d be surprised if Les Mis is better.

8. The Cabin In The Woods

Another unfairly ignored film from this year was Joss Whedon’s horror effort, which is far less straightforward and far more ambitious than advertised. While I wouldn’t want to reveal any of the movie’s twists and surprises, I will say that this is the year’s smartest and most subtly inventive film, constantly subverting expectations until the astonishing last act. Considering the mishmash of tones and rampant explosion of ideas, the film largely succeeds admirably, though it perhaps could be a little scarier.

7. The Artist

As with any film that captures mainstream attention and pleases crowds in the way this one has, it has become regrettably fashionable to knock The Artist. This is a shame because the film really does have a lot to offer despite its flaws. While the movie does struggle to balance comedy and tragedy in its second and third acts, and it struggles with pathos generally, the first hour is a sheer delight, powered by peppy performances and a clear love for cinema. Some of the ideas are borrowed, but there’s no denying the flair, humour and romance at the core of the experience.

6. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s latest perhaps presents little new, but his idiosyncrasies remain charming. It helps that I have a weakness for all things twee but I found this one of the most pleasurable and lovely cinematic experiences I had this year, by turns sweet, darkly hilarious and sad. Predictably good turns from Anderson’s regular collaborators help, as well as delectable work by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the two leads. The adolescent story of young love and dysfunctional families is predictable, but is still full of delight and pathos.

5. Martha Marcy May Marlene

This slow burning drama following an ex-cult member attempting to move on and reintegrate into society is almost unbearably tense, with creeping dread building up all the way until the final shot and beyond. Key to this is writer/director Sean Durkin, whose understated approach to both narrative and direction pays dividends, making the eventual plot revelations (or lack thereof) even more quietly powerful. It goes without saying that Elizabeth Olsen’s lead performance is stunning, suggesting that she might be the best young talent since Jennifer Lawrence. Like Lawrence’s Winter’s Bone performance, Olsen doesn’t act the role, she just inhabits it.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild

If many of the films above are standard genre pictures executed to a high level of competence, this dazzling parable set in an imaginary bayou near New Orleans feels much more unique and personal. It’s directed with refreshing sincerity and earnestness, and elevated by the untrained actors and buoyant score that give it such gusto and blazing energy. Perhaps the pacing is a little slack and some of the visual metaphors are occasionally clunky, but there’s no doubting the emotional clout it packs and the sheer joy of its best sequences.

3. Holy Motors

If Beasts is unique, this confounding piece is truly exceptional, a bizarre cocktail of ideas that more or less coheres into a movie. Leos Carax’s return to the international film scene after decades of increasing obscurity bulges at the seams with concepts. I was bemused as often as I was entertained by the tale of Monsieur Oscar, played by Denis Lavant in what must surely be the year’s best performance, but the overall experience is simply unforgettable. The less you know about the movie’s treats the better, but rest assured that you should prepare to be amazed by the film’s bravado and touched by the vein of sadness running through it.

2. The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest had high expectations to meet and just about makes it. An intense and darkly funny tale of an alcoholic finding solace of a sort in a cult lead by an incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film reverberates with purpose and intent. Every shot and every moment add something, even if they just increase the sense of unease and wooziness that overpower the viewing experience. This film may not be as satisfyingly ‘understood’ thematically as others released this year, which might explain its polarising effect on critics and audiences, but there’s no denying its power and effectiveness. A great score, convicted performances and virtuoso direction make this a hypnotic, occasionally essential watch.

1. The Kid With A Bike

The latest from the Dardennes seems to have been almost forgotten by the critical community, with reviews and commentary at the time of release almost sighing at the way the film continues the brothers’ run of excellent pictures. While the film, about the struggles of a child abandoned by his father, doesn’t represent a major departure from their previous work, brilliance is brilliance no matter how predictable it might be. What makes this film stand apart from the others released this year for me is that it feels less like an imagined experience and more like an authentic recreation of reality; no suspension of disbelief is required. Of course, this makes the emotional catharsis all the more potent; I’ve had few more moving experiences this year inside or outside of a cinema.

James Searle is reading for an MPhil in Political Science at St Anne’s College, Oxford.