The Best Films of 2012
This list (necessarily abbreviated for print space) first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 16th December 2012
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher version)
“Why do the Americans have to make their own versions of European films?!” we railed. Because David Fincher is at the helm, and he’s a masterful director. His take on the nasty tale of Lisbeth Salander’s revenge pitted a supporting actor from The Social Network against Daniel “Bond” Craig, and produced a much more enjoyable but just as harrowing two and a half hours of cinematic gold. Rather than “unnecessary”, this remake proved an exciting and impressive tribute to the original.
Some said it wouldn’t work, but this joyous romp back in time to the days of black and white, silent cinema made a household (if unpronounceable) name of its French director, Michael Hazanavicius. Its photogenic stars mugged and gurned their way through the enchanting story of one actor’s declining career as his co-star’s rises. Beautiful set design, costuming and a pitch-perfect orchestral soundtrack won millions of hearts and copious awards. It was a one-trick pony that thankfully hasn’t signalled a new wave of silent films, but what a ride.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
This superb adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling, gut-wrenching novel cemented Tilda Swinton as a leading lady who can carry the most challenging of movies with jaw firmly set. Director Lynne Ramsay managed the presumed impossible task of bringing to the screen the harrowing first-person narrative of a mother’s response to her teenage son’s role in a high school massacre. Your stomach knotted tighter as the minutes passed, but this was exemplary filmmaking about a powerful subject, acquitted by brilliant actors.
Quiet, private Russell stops into a nightclub where he picks up the spirited Glen. The pair spend the weekend in each other’s company, sharing stories, getting high and having sex. A gay love story, yes, but not just a gay love story, for Weekend presented one of the most honestly portrayed accounts of burgeoning love in any relationship we see on the contemporary silver screen. More universal and touching than any Hollywood rom-com, it was beautifully nuanced in its study of the human condition.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The titular heroine makes a dash for freedom having been subsumed into a strange cult, and attempts to be reintegrated into her sister’s family. Talented newcomer Elizabeth Olsen played her cards close to her chest, and the audience hung on every eked-out word, expression and nuance in piecing the puzzle together. Eschewing the easy-out of hysterical cult-related clichés, the movie showcased brilliantly ambiguous performances and a terrific debut by its young director.
An Indonesian grindhouse, mixed-martial arts movie made by a talented young Welshman, The Raid had my audience in pieces, exclaiming and laughing in horror and disbelief. Set in an impoverished housing estate in a Jakarta slum, a police SWAT team hunts out a drug lord and his gang, gets into trouble, and then tries to fight its way out. Taking the idiom “There are many ways to skin a cat” to a new extreme, the relentless, non-stop madness was basically 101 minutes of thrilling, shocking, imaginative violence.
Iran’s entry was the winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film. A couple argues about which country to live in, torn between the best interests of their daughter or father. This simple set-up pitches the characters against one another in surprising ways, swiftly spiralling into a game of he-said-she-said, a maze of secrets and withheld truths, of context and opinion. Every single performance was faultless and the cleverly subtle revelations had us gripped to the final, enigmatic moments.
The Dark Knight Rises
The legend ended with a hiss and a roar as Christian Bale’s Batman hobbled around Gotham, spent some time in a mountain prison and dallied with a Catwoman (a scene-stealing Anne Hathaway). Director Christopher Nolan took his responsibilities seriously, casting an excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt and an unrecognisable (and inaudible) Tom Hardy as the villain, Bane. Some said the plot didn’t make much sense, but the film was nonetheless exhilarating, with a relentlessly exciting soundtrack and some sensational set-pieces.
Take this Waltz
Michelle Williams followed up last year’s winning relationship drama (Blue Valentine) with more of the same but just as good, playing a fickle young woman caught between her benevolent hubby Seth Rogen (straight-faced and surprisingly poignant) and the temptations of an extramarital affair. Spot-on dialogue and multi-layered characterisation from writer/director Sarah Polley proved her consistency of talent, while comedian Sarah Silverman’s alcoholic sister-in-law added equal parts humour and pathos to this well-acted ensemble.
The Bourne Legacy
Despite being the biggest fan ever of Matt Damon’s The Bourne Ultimatum, I was swiftly converted to the charms and abilities of Jeremy Renner in this reboot of the franchise. It helped that Renner played a fellow Treadstone agent, Aaron Cross, rather than pretending to be Bourne, and that his pairing with scientist Rachel Weisz garnered some of the best talkie scenes you’re likely to see in an action movie. If we can’t have any more Damon, then Renner is a worthy successor to the throne.
NT Live Curious Incident of Dog in Night time
Mark Haddon’s bestselling book about a young autistic boy who goes on a mission to discover who killed his neighbour’s dog is not an easy story to bring to the screen, let alone live theatre. Trust the National Theatre in London to assemble a superlative cast (including terrifying brilliant Luke Treadaway as young Christopher), jaw-dropping production design and deliver an utterly enthralling couple of hours. Theatre is intended to be visceral and intimate, and this extraordinary production delivered in spades.
Searching for Sugarman
This unexpected festival hit was exactly what a great documentary should be: a story about someone you’ve never heard of, achieving something they never dreamed of, and becoming a legend without even knowing it. 1970s musician Rodriguez sang a few clubs, made a couple of albums, then disappeared without a trace. Decades later, half a world away, two South Africans seek to find out what happened to him. What unfolds is truly remarkable, and unimaginably heart-warming. The adage “truth is stranger than fiction” was written for a tale like this.
Another from the “stranger than fiction” files – Ben Affleck directs and stars in this dramatisation of the CIA’s daring and utterly bonkers rescue mission in Tehran in 1980. In order to save the lives of six Americans in hiding, the agency bands together with a Hollywood producer and make-up artist, to smuggle them out under the guise of film crew. Laugh-out-loud funny mixed seamlessly with heart-in-mouth suspense, and Affleck proved yet again he’s got directing chops.
A huge hit here and in its native France, The Intouchables could have been just another saccharine tale of an unlikely friendship, here between a rich, white Parisian and his poor, black carer. Thanks to a stunning performance by Omar Sy as the streetwise hooligan who gets to taste how the other half (Francois Cluzet) lives, and a lively, witty script peppered with politically-incorrect humour and touching moments, the predictable story arc is completely exonerated.
An Algerian immigrant to Montreal volunteers to take on a class in the local school where the children and teachers are reeling in the wake of tragedy. Subtle plotting, exquisite photography and the sensational performances of its largely novice cast contributed to the magic. Monsieur Lazhar missed out on the Best Foreign Film Oscar but has earned multiple accolades as a gently touching, painfully authentic picture of one of the most noble of professions.
Bond came back, and he was terrific. Audiences have loved every minute of Daniel Craig’s icy blonde assassin joking about with a sassy Naomie Harris, trading affectionate barbs with M (Judy Dench, wonderful as always) and feeling the fear but doing it anyway against Javier Bardem’s monstrous haircut – sorry, villain. Skyfall proved that the Bond franchise has years left in it, as long as they keep employing directors like Sam Mendes who can spin a good yarn, direct a good motorcycle chase, and still keep it fun.
Nah, just kidding.