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My 2012 film highlights

Throughout 2012 I watched approximately 262 films, which I don’t think is an unreasonable amount. What follows are 20 films from that list that I felt deserved a special mention for a variety of reasons. Not necessarily what I’d consider to be the best films I saw last year, nor even limited to films that were released that year either.

I’ve also cheated and stuck a boatload of others at the bottom of the list for people to trawl through.

The Avengers


I had my doubts that the Marvel project would ever amount to anything given how many moving pieces seemed to be involved, but the shockingly sensible move of putting ensemble virtuoso Joss Whedon in charge of script, story and direction made The Avengers everything I’d hoped for and more. While much of my enjoyment came simply from the giddy, dumbfounded realisation that the five year plan had worked, the film itself is magnificent with the lengthy finale almost pure pay-off. Packed with memorable moments, from the Hulk’s sucker-punch of Thor to a cameo from Harry Dean Stanton, The Avengers is a gift that keeps on giving.

My review of The Avengers

John Carter


Torn apart by a hostile pack of mainstream critics who smelt blood in the water after a poor marketing campaign and juicy inside gossip of directorial arrogance, I nonetheless enjoyed John Carter a lot. While it’s true that there are structural flaws and some strained dialogue, the positives by far outweigh the negatives. Taylor Kitsch puts in a strong lead performance and is supported by an equally-great cast, the film looks stunning and the score by Michael Giacchino has become one of my favourites. A positive response from the film blogging world won’t be enough to get a sequel, but does mean the film will remain a cult classic for the foreseeable future.

My review of John Carter

Chronicle


The directorial debut of Josh Trank took the tired found-footage style and made it feel new in this low-fi, real-world superhero story that’s the closest we’re likely to see to a life-action adaptation of Akira. Dane DeHaan gives a standout performance and launches what will presumably be a Buscemi-like character actor career while co-star Alex Russell is noteworthy as the white-bread athletic kid forced to fight his cousin and friend. Where the mediocre Kick-Ass purported to show real-life super-heroism, Chronicle is far more believable; boyish pranks and larks descend into a convincing nerd-rage power struggle.

My review of Chronicle

Griff the Invisible


Ryan Kwanten of True Blood remains one of my favourite lesser-known actors. His performance as a young police officer in 2010′s Aboriginal revenge tale Red Hill was understated and convincing, and his turn as Griff the Invisible is one of the sweetest characters I saw on screen during 2012. While the film doesn’t do much with the idea that hasn’t been done before, the love story running through it makes the film something special.

Trailer for Griff the Invisible

Cosmopolis


Robert Pattinson has never been better than here as a man who causes a worldwide economic disaster in the space of a day, perhaps out of overconfidence but maybe also simply out of boredom. The script quotes Don DeLillo’s 2003 source novel almost verbatim; Cronenberg just puts the players in place and lets them get on with it. Soulless, nihilistic and utterly compelling.

Trailer for Cosmopolis

Margin Call


A more-grounded counterpart to Cosmopolis as a Lehman Brothers-style corporation discovers that their assets are junk and hurriedly sells them off before they can be found out. Feels like a contemporary Glengarry Glen Ross; there’s not a single actor here who doesn’t shine including Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore. “Maybe you could tell me what is going on. And please, speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever.” is one of my favourite lines of 2012, delivered here by the company’s CEO, a disturbingly disconnected Jeremy Irons.

Trailer for Margin Call

Hunky Dory


This story of a hip music teacher trying to put on a rock opera version of The Tempest in an impoverished Welsh town during the ’70s is charming. The young cast fizzes with hormones and teenage rage while the opera itself, covering Venus in Furs, The Man Who Sold The Earth and Life on Mars to name just three, became another of my favourite soundtracks of the year. The film itself feels more like the season finale of a TV series than anything else, and while it lacks a little in drama — every obstacle is easily and swiftly overcome — I never tired of being in these people’s company.

Trailer for Hunky Dory

Berberian Sound Studio


A psychological thriller in which Toby Jones is a timid sound engineer contracted to work on an Italian horror film, gradually losing his sanity after the horror of working with Italians becomes too much. A film for those with an analogue fetish; Berberian Sound Studio is all knobs and reels of tape and switches. Jones is perfectly cast and his descent into madness is gripping and persuasive.

Trailer for Berberian Sound Studio

Love


When I saw this film about an astronaut stranded for years on a space station after an unknown catastrophe on Earth I described it as “Lovely to look at but a bit Vimeo, like if Urban Outfitters made 2001“. I stand by that; while you may occasionally feel as if you’re watching an Arcade Fire video, Love is a decent take on the importance of human connections and worth a look if you can stomach a slight blandness here and there.

Trailer for Love

Margaret


A sprawling, epic melodrama that escaped from development hell this year and saw only a limited theatrical release; as with John Carter the story behind the film’s troubled creation got more coverage than the film itself. Margaret belongs to Anna Paquin who exhausts with a primal, near-uncontainable rage, directed initially at the unfairness of the world but eventually at her friends, then her family, then herself. I saw the three-hour cut of the film and could have watched a further three hours had they been available.

Trailer for Margaret

Beyond the Black Rainbow


I can’t honestly say what the surreal Beyond the Black Rainbow is about, but, Jesus Christ, it looks amazing and sounds amazing and is almost certainly about something. An incredible ’70s/’80s sci-fi retro look and sound, and creepy, Man Who Fell to Earth-esque performances all combined to hold my attention. Repeat viewings are probably required to drink it all in.

Trailer for Beyond the Black Rainbow

Café de Flore


It’s difficult to write about Café de Flore without giving the plot away, though in all honesty the way in which the ’60s-set story of a mother defending her Down Syndrome-afflicted child and the contemporary story of a wealthy DJ having some sort of mid-life crisis is a bit weak. Regardless, this is worth watching for Vanessa Paradis’ emotionally furious performance as the mother alone. The contemporary story is less compelling but doesn’t harm the film.

Trailer for Café de Flore

Argo


Great script, lovely cinematography, a decent amount of tension and thrills and great performances from everyone involved including Ben Affleck who, with his ’70s hair and beard, for once manages to not look like a Premier League date rapist. Though the tension is milked a little towards the end — the audience knows that everyone’s going to escape, so the repeated barriers placed in their way over-eggs the pudding a little — and a particular gag is overused, Argo was, overall, a joy to watch.

Trailer for Argo

The Hunter


A Tarkovsky-esque tale of a hunter contracted by a multinational pharmaceutical company to find and kill a supposedly-extinct Tasmanian tiger for the genetic treasure trove it represents. William Dafoe is outstanding here though Sam Neill’s supporting role should be mentioned as well. My only complaint is that the film ends on a schmaltzy emotional high that feels drastically out of step with the bleak tone of the rest of the film. Otherwise, The Hunter is very nearly perfect.

Trailer for The Hunter

Ted


There’s nothing about Ted that would convert anyone who isn’t a fan of Seth MacFarlane’s work; fortunately I’m a fan, and I found Ted to be as laugh-out-loud funny as any of the better episodes of Family Guy. There’s an over-reliance on base flatulence gags but Mark Wahlberg and Seth MacFarlane are both superb, you’re almost assaulted by rapid-fire jokes, and the celebrity cameo that takes up much of the film is, like so many of the pop-culture references in MacFarlane’s work, utterly gratuitous, overlong, and completely hilarious.

Trailer for Ted

Detention


Director Joseph Kahn has had an unremarkable career mostly spent on music videos and some godawful-looking thing involving biker gangs and Ice Cube, so Detention, a slasher-horror-sci-fi-comedy-romance-drama seems like a departure for him. Seemingly parodying every genre possible yet with both affection and understanding, the film is batshit crazy and doesn’t give you a moment to pause for breath. Self-referential and fourth-wall breaking to an insane degree, Detention trumps the bloated and cynical Scary Epic Movie parodies with aplomb.

Trailer for Detention

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


Perhaps this was a highlight mostly because of the sense of relief when I realised the film wasn’t the mediocre, bloated tedium that early reviews suggested. Regardless, I enjoyed The Hobbit despite the film’s muddled opening and sagging middle. I avoided the much-hyped and much-derided 48FPS 3D screenings in favour of a traditional viewing; from the sound of things, I got the better deal.

My review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Trailers for this looked awful, but I’d enjoyed supernatural extravaganzas Nightwatch and Daywatch from Russian director Timur Bekmambetov so I gave this a go on those grounds. I was glad I did; while the conceit may be the stuff of dumb parody novels, Bekmambetov’s nutty action sequences — a chase and fight sequence between a human and a vampire in the middle of a massive horse stampede on a cliff top for instance — kept me watching, and Benjamin Walker as Lincoln himself seems like a young Liam Neeson. As moronic Friday night action film viewing goes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter turned out to be exemplary.

Trailer for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Wasted on the Young


Australian director Ben C. Lucas’s first film is reminiscent of Brick, but this high-school noir is much darker and laugh-free. Chronicle‘s Alex Russell as the pretty-boy ruler of a high-school society, enforced with the help of a hulkish sidekick, is utterly reprehensible yet totally charming as he manipulates his peers while his misfit stepbrother investigates a rape. A very modern film; social media is understood and used without irony, and the oppressive, Stalinist atmosphere of the school fumes off the screen.

Trailer for Wasted on the Young

Tales of the Night


A French film in which six fairytales are told via computer-generated silhouette animation. The stories themselves are predictable enough, basic fables with basic characterisation, but the film looks stunning and I recommend watching it on those grounds alone; it is heartbreakingly beautiful.

Trailer for Tales of the Night

Honourable mentions

Winnie the Pooh, Mr Nobody, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, My Dinner With Andre, Jar City, The Devil’s Double, The Muppets, Old Joy, Wizards, Dreams of a Life, Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Headhunters, The Cabin in the Woods, Into the Abyss, Hadewijch, We Have A Pope, TiMER, Killer Joe, In the Bleak Midwinter, Le Havre, Looper, Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, A Cat in Paris, Tetro, Cold Weather.