In a year where The Avengers assembled, Batman ended, Spider-man rebooted, and James Bond did a little of both, it wasn't the tent pole films that blew me away. More often than not, it was the small film with a big heart which won me over in 2012.
And yet, I'm sad to say, my Top 10 features no documentaries or Australian films, and only one foreign language film (two make an appearance via my Honourable Mentions).
So here then are my Top 10 Films of 2012*, in alphabetical order save for #1, and featuring a wallflower, an angel, a damsel and a knight; a boy scout, a Goth rocker, a time traveller, and a silent movie star.
Oh, and feel free to let me know what you loved at the movies in 2012.
*Note: Given Australian release dates, and my seeing some 2012 films in 2011, and a few 2013 releases now, this list is compiled of films released in Australian cinemas between January 15, 2012 and January 15, 2013.
The Angels' Share
A kitchen sink drama about down-and-out Glaswegians is nothing new for director Ken Loach, but about halfway through The Angels' Share the film becomes a Highlands heist comedy as a quartet of minor offenders attempt to pull-off a whiskey sting. By turns dramatic and comic, the third act of Loach's film, penned by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, is as tense as any thriller, and not for ages have I been so invested in the outcome of a film's protagonist. By no means a perfect drop, it's a damn near irresistible tipple.
Damsels In Distress
Not the best comedy of the year but possibly the most (and loudest) laughs I've ever heard in a theatrette media screening, Whit Stillman's first film in 14 years is a hoot. A delightful Greta Gerwig leads a clique of reverse-Mean Girls who operate a university campus suicide prevention centre armed with donuts and dance lessons, and who has very particular ideas about dating and posterity. It may not always make sense, but Damsels is never in danger of being dull.
The Dark Knight Rises
By no means a perfect film but perhaps a perfect end to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, TDKR touches base with its predecessors as it brings in new characters - Tom Hardy's Bane and Anne Hathaway's Catwoman the notable two - as, eight years after The Dark Knight, we find a city, and a superhero, under siege. Christian Bale gives his best performance yet as Bruce Wayne (perhaps as he spends less time in the suit), and Michael Caine's Alfred gets to carry the emotional load like the trooper that he is.
Named for the French port town, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre is fablesque but heartfelt and political. When an elderly shoe shiner's wife is diagnosed with a tumour, he distracts himself by taking in an "illegal" immigrant boy from Africa in the hopes of getting him to family in London. Le Havre is a gentle rebuke to the 'stop the boats' rhetoric our politicians like to shout about come election time, too easily forgetting that refugees are people.
Oh, the joys of young love but oh, the tyranny of distance. When post-post grad lovers Anna and Jacob (Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, both excellent) are separated by a Visa snafu - she in London, he in L.A. - they determine to stay together, giving long distance romance a try. But time, the Atlantic Ocean and reality seem determined to work against them. In the best tradition of lo-fi, bittersweet romance, Drake Doremus' film won my heart just as easily as it broke it.
A Boy Scout and a local girl runaway across the small isle of New Penzance in 1965, sending the adult population (including Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton and, of course, Bill Murray) into a frenzy in Wes Anderson's delightful coming of age tale. With the writer-director's distinct look and characters, Moonrise Kingdom breaks through its deliberate artifice to connect with the young hopeful in all of us.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower
The coming of age film is a tried and true genre yet Stephen Chbosky, adapting his own book in an impressive directorial debut, manages to bring a freshness to the tale of high school outsider Charlie (a terrific Logan Lerman), and his discovery of life's joys through his adventures with fellow 'wallflowers', Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). Amusing, heartfelt and emotionally affecting 'Wallflower' is top of the class.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Kenneth (Mark Duplass) is a supermarket employee with no friends and a fake ear who may also possess the technology to time travel. Darius (Aubrey Plaza), fellow magazine intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and their "superior", Jeff (Jake johnson), head to his coastal home town to find out if the man who posted the advert requesting a travel companion ("bring your own weapons, safety not guaranteed") is a real whack job or the real deal. Colin Trevorrow invests this small film with such heart that the truth is beside the point. Still, it's the best time travel film of the year (and yes, I saw Looper).
This Must Be The Place
Two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn can do just about anything, and his turn as a former Goth rocker cum Nazi hunter pretty much confirms it. Italian Paolo Sorrentino's first English language feature is by turns comedy, drama, road movie and Holocaust film. It may even be a dream, but it's Penn's Cheyenne (think The Cure's Robert Smith with a touch of Ozzy Osbourne) that makes it a real gem.
#1 The Artist
Black and white. Silent. Oscar winner. But The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius' love letter to the silent era of Hollywood and filmmaking generally, wasn't made in the 1920s but 2011. And I think by the time the Oscars rolled around, and The Artist delivered on its tag as favourite, people forgot just what an achievement a black and white silent film in the 21st century was. Without sound the film manages to hold audiences spellbound, thanks in no small part to the charm-filled performances of Berenice Bejo and Best Actor Oscar winner, Jean Dujardin. I actually saw The Artist in late 2011; released in Australia in February 2012, nothing could surpass it for me.
A Separation, The Avengers, The Grey, King of Devil's Island, Life of Pi, ParaNorman, The Raid, Take This Waltz, Weekend, Your Sister's Sister
AND THE WORST:
In lieu of a Transformers film (sadly, a fourth is on its way), Battleship was the next best thing. And by best I mean worst. And by worst I mean a steaming pile of IQ (and will to live) destroying shit. Peter Berg's 131-minute US Naval recruitment video was akin to being repeatedly hit in the face by a house brick, all the while having the director and cast yelling at you; "Can you feel yourself getting dumber? Can you?" To those who sought to somehow defend the "film" by saying "at least it was entertaining", I say, FUCK YOU!
Saturday, 15 December 2012
Opens Boxing Day
The King Speech director Tom Hooper's film version of the stage musical Les Miserables had been one of my most anticipated films of the Australian 2012-2013 summer ever since seeing the first teaser trailer which featured Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed A Dream, the song non-musical people will know as the one made famous by Susan Boyle when she appeared on Britain's Got Talent.
I'm not a stage musical aficianado, don't see that many stage musicals (I haven't seen one in over 18 months), and I've never seen Les Miserables. But I was prepared for a film epic in scope and intimate in emotion. I was also prepared for a musical.
But Hooper's Les Miserables isn't just a film musical, it's a 'MUSICAL!'. Everything is big, loud and sung. Every word, every sentence, every dying gasp is sung. And every song is sung live. The marketing for this film adaptation of the popular stage musical has been at pains to inform and remind us of this fact: the actors did not lip synch, they sung live.
Hooper's intent with this conceit was to capture the raw emotion of each performance in the moment yet for me, that is exactly what Les Miserables lacks: any real emotion. The film never broke through the fourth wall for me; not even the highly praised, one-take rendition of I Dreamed A Dream by Hathaway, malnourished and crudely cropped as the tragic Fantine, could squeeze a single tear from my eye (honestly, I'm more moved watching Ms Boyle's YouTube clip).
Opening in the years following the French Revolution, and spanning the decades until the student uprising in the mid 1800s, Les Miserables follows the journey of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). Imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, he's granted parole in the opening scene of the film but warned by his captor, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), that he be on his best behaviour for he'll be watching.
Valjean does indeed break parole but also has a religious epiphany when a priest shows him kindness. Cut to eight years later, and Valjean, with a name change as well as a change of heart, is now the respected and beloved Mayor of a northern French town. But the arrival of Javert unsettles Valjean, and with good reason. A cross between a bloodhound and the Terminator, Javert recognises Valjean and is not about to let him get away again.
Valjean's preoccupation with Javert sees one of his factory employees, Fantine, a single woman working to pay her daughter's keep with a local innkeeper, dismissed from her position. After selling her hair and teeth, Fantine is reduced to selling her body to get by (cue I Dreamed A Dream). When Valjean discovers her, it's too late for Fantine but not her daughter, Cosette, whom he promises to care for.
Jump forward another nine years and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) is a beautiful young woman but one who lives a cloistered life with her parole-jumping guardian in Paris. Still she manages to catch the eye, and be still the heart of the young radical, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who, along with his fellow students, is planning a revolt against the government and the crown.
At the same time that young romance blossoms, helped by Marius's intermediary, Eponine (Samantha Barks), who secretly loves the bourgeois radical, Javert arrives in Paris; the student rebellion will bring he and Valjean face-to-face once more and decide the fates of each of the main characters. Not that I cared.
Having felt very much on the outside looking in for the most part of Les Miserables, by the time events reach their climax - and that takes 157 minutes - I was relieved more than moved. Not that it's all bad. Les Miserables is by no means a terrible film or anywhere near worth being considered one of the year's worst. Disappointing, yes. Diabolique? Non.
Unsurprisingly, Hooper has mounted a handsome production and his cast are uniformly good. Jackman, no stranger to a show tune, is solid as Jean Valjean but if I were an Academy voter, I'd not be ticking his box on my ballot. Ditto Hathaway. Fantine really only has that one big moment and like I said, it didn't move me. Hathaway's Oscar favouritism for Supporting Actress baffles me.
Crowe makes a good fist of Javert, and the one-time part-time rocker puts a bit of gravel into the vocals, while Seyfried lends Cosette a nightingale-like quiver. Barks, a film debutant who has performed the role of Eponine on stage, is effortless though under served, but the real revelation is Redmayne. Star of My Week With Marilyn, and several BBC television productions in the last few years, Redmayne sings with such emotion and gusto that his head shakes.
Ultimately, and unfortunately, Les Miserables is less than the sum of its parts; Hooper's attempt to revolutionise the movie musical falling short like the ambitions of so many student radicals. For all its ambition and effort, it left me with very little to sing about.
Wednesday, 12 December 2012
As a love letter to Woody Allen, writer-director Sophie Lellouche's feature debut is more enthusiastic than articulate as it tells the tale of Alice (Alice Taglioni), a Parisian woman who now in her 30s is both single and childless (sacre bleu!) because no real man can compete with her ideal: Mr. Allen.
Alice has imaginary conversations with the director, that is the larger than life poster of the bespectacled auteur which occupies a wall in her bedroom like she were still a teenager and he her pop idol. He talks back to her, too, albeit in neatly chosen sound bites from various Woody Allen films, and which only serve to reinforce what Alice is already thinking (not to mention what Lellouche legally had copyright access to).
But then Alice's romantic fortunes take an upward turn. She starts dating a handsome doctor (sensible given Alice is a pharmacist), and around about the same time Victor (Patrick Bruel), a locksmith and alarms expert, comes into her orbit.
Alice doesn't feel any attraction to the handsome older man but her parents, particularly her father, certainly do, and the pair end up spending a lot of time together, albeit platonically and mostly whilst tailing Alice's brother-in-law whom she is shocked to learn is cheating on her sister.
All of this plays out charmingly enough until its predictable although somewhat logic-free denouement but I found Paris-Manhattan to be increasingly frustrating and annoying. Like Romantics Anonymous, another Gallic rom-com from earlier in the year, I suspect we're supposed to be charmed by the whimsy while the French subtitles are to distract us from the gaps in both logic and reality.
Still, Paris-Manhattan didn't anger me in quite the same way that Romantic Anonymous did. But I maintain that like that film, if Lellouche's debut were to be made by Hollywood – scene-by-scene and word-for-word – reviewers and critics would savage it.
And in spite of the appealing leads and a "surprise" cameo, I think even those with a woody for Woody will find little to be enamoured by. Paris-Manhattan is no Midnight In Paris.
Sunday, 9 December 2012
Icon Film Distribution
If school was supposed to be the best years of your life, than for an A-grade education junky like myself, university could only be bigger and better, right? In my case, not so. With a mere 12 hours of class a week and no partaking in extracurricular activities – no sex, drugs and rock n roll for this off campus co-ed – my college experience was one of disappointment.
But not so for Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), where college – which saw him indulge more so in literary classics than class A drugs – was indeed the time of his life. The 30-something New York admissions officer now longs for the days when he could sit around doing nothing but reading books and discussing ideas (nobody does that in the real world, he laments).
So when he's invited to return to his alma mater to attend the retirement dinner of one of his favourite professors, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse jumps at the chance, hire car-ing it to Ohio. And Jesse is instantly as happy as a kid in a candy store when he's once more walking (gambolling even) the green, leafy campus of Kenyon College.
He gets even more of a spring in his step when he's introduced to Zibby (a radiant Elizabeth Olson), the daughter of Peter's friends and a current student. Despite the 16-year age gap, there's chemistry between the two and after a couple of dates over the course of the weekend, Jesse and Zibby agree to write handwritten letters to each other.
It's at about this point – with Jesse and Zibby reading aloud each other's letters discussing their love of all things literary to the soundtrack of a mixed CD of classical music Zibby compiled for Jesse's enjoyment and enlightenment – that Liberal Arts, also penned and directed by Radnor, is in danger of disappearing up its own smugness.
I would hate to think that my resistance to Liberal Arts (I've now seen it twice, and I liked it a little more on second viewing) was due to the presence of characters who actually discussed things – books, music, ideas – rather than merely saying (inane) things which progressed the plot from Point A to Point B, for films about adults – for adults – are rare.
But Radnor's film, for all its intellectualizing, is more about a man-child stuck in the past; he's grown up but he hasn't moved on. The film's best moment comes when Jesse is given a post-coital dressing down by Professor Fairfield (Allison Janney), the Romantics professor whose class Jesse adored in his time at Kenyon, but who calls bullshit on his romantic notions about literature and life.
Kudos to Radnor for the writing but all power to Janney for making the words zing and sting. Like Jenkins (who can do pathos and gravitas as easily as breathe), Janney's mere presence can enliven any film, and here she (and credit to Radnor) successfully lets some air out of the smug mobile's tyres.
And were it not for Janney (and Olsen and Jenkins), Liberals Arts would not earn its passing grade.