What were the cinematic highlights of the year? Did your favourite make the cut?
Well, what a whirlwind that was. 2012 was a motion picture gangbang. Has there been another year so dominated by geek culture ever? 2012 saw Ridley Scott return to science fiction, Christopher Nolan complete a cinema-redefining trilogy, and Joss Whedon direct the third highest grossing film of all time. I’m still wrapping my head around that last one. In short, it was a landmark year replete with movies both big and small, most of which matched expectations. Therefore, it is remarkably hard to do a top ten list. It can’t possibly do justice to a year with so many filmic delights, can it? But I will bloody well try.
Oh, and had they not received January 2013 release dates in the UK, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty would have likely made the list. So, sorry about that.
Look out for our QT marathon next month.
10) The Grey
Like the rest of you, I sniggered at the trailers for The Grey (released last year in the States). It was Liam Neeson, taking time out from killing Albanians, wrestling wolves in the middle of nowhere. That couldn’t be good. A survivalist tale with fangs, it didn’t promise anything but a routine action-thriller. Its release in January was also troubling… the month where studios dump their least likely box office contenders. Yet the resulting picture was a real sleeper hit. The fact it clawed its way into my top ten eleven months later should tell you something. Sometimes, you just can’t trust the marketing.
The trailers didn’t sell the fact that The Grey is a grade-A action-thriller as well as a fascinatingly multi-layered character drama. It is sobering, adult stuff whilst functioning as mass entertainment. It is therefore a return to form for director Joe Carnahan, who displayed immense talent with my favourite modern cop film, Narc (2002). He followed that bleak mini-masterpiece with disappointments Smokin’ Aces (2006) and The A-Team (2010). Well, okay, The A-Team was a guilty pleasure. Long story short, no one was expecting his second collaboration with geriatric ass-kicker Neeson to be as good as it is. Carnahan took a film about the survivors of a plane crash being picked-off by territorial wolves and turned it into an allegory on life and death.
Neeson, who recently suffered the tragic loss of his wife, Miranda Richardson, plays the morally conflicted widower Ottway with a great deal of compassion and intensity. He’s a man at the end of his rope, even contemplating suicide; reduced to sniping animals preying on the workers of an Alaskan oil refinery. To Ottway, the fateful plane crash was an inevitability. A reason to live. He’s going to do his best to lead the survivors to safety, tackling the harsh Alaskan landscapes, mutiny in the ranks, and those razor-toothed predators every step of the way. You see, Ottway is a man with a special set of skills…
The Grey is old-fashioned filmmaking produced with consummate professionalism that never cops to Hollywood formula. It is frequently brutal, nerve-shredding, and features an ending that is beautifully ambiguous. Throw in Neeson’s finest performance in years and you have a film that deserves far more than the 6.9/10 awarded it on IMDb. The Grey will be ranked as a classic in years to come, mark my words.
I wouldn’t be the first to admit that Prometheus has problems. It puts visuals over story and plot mechanics over characterisation, but it’s also one of the most visually stunning films of the last decade. Whilst the ties to his own sci-fi masterpiece are tenuous at best, director Ridley Scott deserves kudos for trying something different with his Alien prequel, and for fashioning a big-budget blockbuster powered by weighty ideas. Most of these ideas are thrown at the screen rather haphazardly, of course, but when you get images as pretty as this, does everything need to make coherent sense?
Prometheus is beautiful filmmaking and a densely layered thesis that just about overcomes its corny scripting and paper-thin characters. Why are we here? Who created us? And just who was the “Space Jockey” from Alien? Lost hack Damon Lindelof ensures that we only get an answer to the last question, but then I didn’t want the Alien franchise to be demystified entirely. Not only would it have made potential sequels redundant, but fanboys wouldn’t have much left to talk about if Scott had tied everything up in a nice little bow. Fear lies in the unknown and Prometheus understands that another spaceship crew being terrorised by xenomorphs would have been dramatically unsatisfying. Scott wasn’t content to repeat himself, so the film was already fighting a losing battle in some people’s eyes.
Yet there is a lot to love here, from the astounding special effects and production design to the unforgettable twist on the old chest-bursting, to the intriguing performance of Michael Fassbender as dastardly android David. This film is far from the failure many have written it off as.
Prometheus is a flawed but engrossing blockbuster. It is also a film that gets better with repeated viewings, allowing you to overlook those initial disappointments and just accept the movie for what it is (something that has not been possible for me with The Dark Knight Rises). Ultimately, it is a well-shot blast that at least aimed to be something special, proving that Scott is still one of our most gifted visual technicians in the process. And the 3-D wasn’t bad, either.
Chronicle has edged out David Ayer’s excellent End of Watch as my favourite Found Footage film of the year. Granted, anything with superpowers is more likely to gain my affection, but Chronicle really did make inspired use of the gimmick whilst doing something different with stale comic book archetypes.
Three teens who are exposed to a glowing rock in the ground begin to exhibit abilities like telekinesis and flight, but rather than become costumed crusaders, they indulge in the sorts of things teenagers would in the real world. Their shenanigans include playing football thousands of feet in the air, in one of the more memorable effects sequences of the year. Yet their new-found powers come at a price when our protagonist, the troubled Andrew (an impressive Dene DeHaan), spirals out of control and puts his friends in danger.
Chronicle is a sure-footed feature debut for director Josh Trank, who may be directing the reboot of Fantastic Four, and Max Landis (son of John) makes good on his years of comic book reading to twist the conventions and produce something resembling originality. On a paltry $15 million budget, no less. No doubt there were better films to include in this spot, but for visceral entertainment, I feel Chronicle was one of 2012’s most underrated highlights.
Casino Royale remains my favourite of Daniel Craig’s Bond pictures, but the character’s fiftieth anniversary release sees the spy returning to the screen in style, acting like 2008’s Quantum of Solace never happened. Audiences agreed too, and as I type this Skyfall has surpassed $1 billion worldwide. Quite a birthday present!
Director Sam Mendes must take most of the credit, managing to take the grit of the modern Bond whilst reinstating a little of the old charm, too. It never devolves into farce or camp like some of the old films, yet there is a lightness of touch here that takes us back to the period of passenger ejector-seats and ludicrously disfigured baddies. That’s the ideal playground for some fantastic action sequences, and Craig completely owns the role this time out, shaming his detractors with supreme confidence. He’s becoming your Dad’s Bond, slowly but surely.
The villain here is also one of the best the franchise has seen, with Javier Bardem’s wronged MI6 agent given more depth than many of his predecessors. My only real beef was the lack of a climactic fight between the two.
Complimented by Roger Deakin’s wonderful cinematography, Adele’s belting title number, and a fine swan song performance from Judi Dench as M, Skyfall is everything Bond’s fiftieth should have been.
6) Killer Joe
William Friedkin’s concussive crime drama could be the bleakest black comedy I’ve ever seen. The MPAA seemed to concur, awarding it the dreaded NC-17 rating in America. Make no mistake, this tale of matricide, under-age sex and fried chicken makes for disturbing viewing in spots, making it the kind of film you shouldn’t watch with your mother. But it’s also side-splittingly hilarious if you’re in the right frame of mind.
Based on a play by Tracy Letts, Killer Joe follows the exploits of a trailer trash family from hell. Conniving little shit Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in need of some fast cash, cooking up a plot to murder his own mother for her life insurance policy. It is an idea that interests his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his scheming wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). They pass the task on to the enigmatic Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a police officer moonlighting as a hitman. When Chris and Ansel can’t come up with the advance, Joe takes on a “retainer”… Chris’ virginal sister Dottie (Juno Temple).
There is no political correctness in Killer Joe, but that’s what makes it so fiercely original. Our lead characters are despicable and unbelievably stupid, yet you could imagine seeing them on Jeremy Kyle USA. It will be a film you either love or hate, but at least you’ll have a strong opinion on it. Friedkin, who hasn’t been this alive since he directed The Exorcist in 1973, cranks the tension up masterfully and works toward an ending that you’ll never forget as long as you live. That’s a promise.
Killer Joe is also proof that no one should dismiss McConaughey as a serious actor. It really is a miracle.
5) The Cabin in the Woods
The first of Joss Whedon’s successes this year, The Cabin the Woods is a full-blooded redefinition of horror movies from first-time director Drew Godard. As you might be aware, the script by Godard and Whedon is incredibly easy to spoil, making it one movie horror fans should seek out with care (and if you haven’t seen it by now, what the hell’s wrong with you?).
Best described as Evil Dead II meets Buffy, The Cabin in the Woods attempts to make all subsequent horror films (including the Evil Dead remake) obsolete. And you know what? It pretty much gets there. Clichés are embraced and then turned on their heads, leading to an enjoyably unpredictable experience. The Cabin in the Woods is a gory pleasure with a great deal of intelligence, and a final fifteen minutes of jaw-dropping chutzpah that you need to see to believe.
Seriously, Cabin does post-modern horror better than the Scream franchise ever did.
Rian Johnson is one name I never expected to see attached to an ambitious sci-fi film. His intriguing neo-noir debut, Brick, signified the arrival of a fresh voice in indie cinema. Credentials that were confirmed with his obscure follow-up, The Brothers Bloom. It’s therefore no surprise that he needed a star to get a film as intricate as Looper on the screen. He had worked with Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Brick, a film that many perceive as his star-making performance. Now he’s becoming box office gold, Levitt has paid his dues and executive produced Johnson’s most daring exploit to date.
Looper is the perfect film for a sci-fi nut like myself. And, make no mistake, this is real science fiction. The kind where the central conceit is done full contextual justice without relying on action scenes. Time-travel is a tricky one, and many films have succumbed to the inherent plot holes introduced by such a scenario. Looper has them… it’s impossible not to, really, but it is pulled off so artfully that such things become mere quibbles. I’d argue it was the best film to tackle the subject since Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995).
That classic is significant for another reason, of course: Bruce Willis. It’s sort of crazy that Johnson would picture Levitt as young Bruno, but thanks to some incredible prosthetics, you buy it. The young star also has his mannerisms down pat, and certain moments are eerie in their precision. Levitt is truly fantastic in this. And so is Willis. The man used to churn out greats by the bucket load, and Looper marks a return to quality that I hope continues (yes, even in A Good Day to Die Hard).
Oh, and that scene after Paul Dano “lets his loop run”? You can safely say you’ve never seen that in a movie before. Johnson, you’re a talent to watch.
Argo begins with the year’s most suspenseful opening and takes off from there. Ben Affleck’s hat-trick as the world’s greatest director no-one saw coming, Argo is a blazing account of a true life story that defies belief. You’ll know the details from the fantastic trailers, but even going into Argo with knowledge of the outcome never dissipates the tension. This is white-knuckle stuff.
All Affleck had to do was begin the movie with the 70’s Warner Brothers logo and he had me grinning from ear-to-ear. This is a delightfully authentic throwback to a bygone era of classy Hollywood thrillers, and Affleck as well as his co-stars John Goodman and Alan Arkin knock it out of the park. Or, should I say stratosphere? Argo has a few great sci-fi nods that never feel out-of-place, including actors in Cylon costumes on the Universal backlot. It didn’t take much to hit my geek spot, but the bastard did it.
Biases aside, this is an amazing follow-up to Affleck’s previous hits, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010). At this momentum, he is becoming an actor/filmmaker on par with Clint Eastwood. That’s really saying something.
2) Dredd 3D
Here’s a segment from my review of the sorely mistreated Dredd:
“[It] is a love-letter to fans of 2000 AD who have waited patiently for a motion picture to do the material justice. It’s an exciting, straightforward blast of escapism that isn’t profound but delivers everything its target audience expects with welcome artistry. Travis and Garland didn’t compromise their vision to make something commercial, and it’s proof positive that giving comic book readers what they want is the way to go.”
My feelings haven’t changed in the meantime. Dredd was about as perfect an adaptation of the comic strip hero as possible on a tight $45 million budget. Yes, films in this list are superior, but as a stripped-down bit of un-demanding entertainment, this is sensational stuff. First-rate visuals, an R-rated swagger, and a pitch-perfect performance from Karl Urban make this a very enjoyable cult film. It’s all but guaranteed to see heavy rotation in a million Blu-ray players next month. It leaves you praying for a sequel that may never come thanks to the disappointing box office. For everyone who didn’t see this at the cinema: shame on you!
1) Avengers Assemble
This says more than words ever could… You did good, Whedon.
Honourable mentions: The Dark Knight Rises, Sightseers, Berberian Sound Studio, Ted.