The discussion of whether or not the year has been ‘good or ‘bad’ for our various art forms is redundant as always; the deeper you look for art, the more you will be rewarded by the continual reinvention of its content and form. In 2012, those who made the year’s biggest cultural events from the Olympics opening ceremony to Skyfall and The Avengers, wanted to please their audiences without cynicism, without patronising them and in so doing, a truly mass appeal was achieved.
Whilst it was a great year for these blockbuster releases (Skyfall became the most financially successful film ever at the UK box office hitting £100M at time of writing) the documentary form enjoyed a great year too.
Films like The Imposter and This Is Not A Film enjoyed great critical success but it was Searching For Sugar Man that I enjoyed the most. The film tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter who played the bars and basements of Detroit and released two albums of beautiful acid folk-rock then disappearing into oblivion. After the albums were imported to South Africa however, they struck a chord with the anti-Apartheid movement and Rodriguez, and especially his Cold Fact album, became as important to the South Africans as Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones. The documentary’s strength lay in its gradual uncovering of the protagonist’s story whilst holding back enough for the viewer to be surprised throughout. When and how did he die? Is he even dead at all? Why did the success of his albums in South Africa not translate into financial reward? The documentary answers its questions and reveals a man so full of warmth and humanity that was truly inspiring.
Another rock doc worthy of a mention was Beware Of Mr Baker, an eye-opening look at the rock (or as he would like to be more known jazz) drummer Ginger Baker. Directed by Jay Bulger following up his own piece in Rolling Stone magazine about the reclusive man, Bulger is invited into Baker’s home in Tulbagh, South Africa and reveals him to be an extremely angry yet cultured individual. In a sense, Baker is the quintessential rock and roller, someone who has abused their body to the point of extinction but yet has a delicacy and absolute passion when talking about their art and profession. His clear love is jazz and is genuinely emotional when talking about being accepted by the jazz drummers Elvin Jones, Max roach and Art Blakey. The light is balanced by the dark however and Baker chain smokes his way through the interviews and reacts violently when Bulger informs him that he’ll be interviewing former band mates Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. “Keep them out of my fucking film” he shouts and so the delicate balance of Mr Baker continues. An engrossing documentary and unmissable for 60’s/70’s rock and jazz fans alike.
From an unhinged drummer to an unhinged use of a drumstick as Matthew McConaughey hams it up in fabulous style as the titular Killer Joe in William Friedkin’s hellbent crazy b-movie about a bent cop falling for a teenager caught up in a heist gone wrong. The plot is merely a vehicle for McConaughey, his prized muse Juno Temple and her fucked up family to chew the screen up against an oppressive and violent deep-southern American town. The violence is bloody and there’s very memorable scene with McConaughey, Gina Gershon and a chicken drumstick which would be laugh out loud funny if it weren’t for the horror of the situation. The best exploitation movie of the year.
Another violent comment on America came in the form of Andrew Dominik’s superb film Killing Them Softly. Set against the initial stages of the current worldwide economic crash, the film shows the impact of the recession on some of America’s gangster population. Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins star as different sides of the mob in a film that can stand with Boardwalk Empire, The Godfather and Goodfellas in works of art showing the American Dream as crime indeed paying, at least for a while. All the cast are great and Pitt delivers one of cinema’s finest closing monologues about what the American dream looks like in the wrong hands.
If Killing Them Softly was the year’s best film about America, the best American film came in the form of a family drama set in the 50th state of America, Hawaii. Alexander Payne’s The Descendents stars George Clooney as Matt King, the main trustee of his family’s portfolio of land on Hawaii that his descendents has had in their possession for decades. Whilst deciding whether or not to sell this land, his family life is falling apart after he learns of his wife’s affair just after she falls into a coma after a boating accident. Clooney plays this dual role brilliantly but his two daughters played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller support him with great skill in the difficult roles their characters find themselves in. The soundtrack of the film (traditional Hawaiian music from Gabby Pahinui among others) suits its subject matter so perfectly that it reminded me of another of Clooney’s films, O Brother Where Art Thou. The Descendents doesn’t look like it will do for Hawaiian music what O Brother Where Art thou did for bluegrass music but it is no less apt. The film has a great heart and Clooney proves once again his status as a star for the ages.
Hollywood had a fine year and that was partly down to those film franchises that were wonderfully silent in 2012. We were spared the tumultuous barrage of metal on metal with no Transformers movie and neither did we have to put up with any swashbuckling nonsense from Johnny Depp and his Pirates Of The Caribbean crew. The four best blockbusters of the year were Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers Assemble and most interestingly of all, The Hunger Games. Jenifer Lawrence starred as Katniss Everdeen, a participant in the dystopian Hunger Games. The Games format has two teens from each of the twelve social caste systems of Panem fight to the death, ironically to maintain the peace between the castes through the powerful demonstrating their superiority. The film deals with mature themes in an honest way and is an allegory of fascism and a warning of a state pacifying its inhabitants through the threat of violence. Jennifer Lawrence proved she was here to stay by starring in another excellent film, Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell.
His follow up to The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook also starred Bradley Cooper of Hangover fame and while we were aware of Lawrence’s acting chops (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games) it’s Cooper who surprises with a great performance portraying Pat Solitano. When he walks in on his wife and her lover in the shower one day and nearly beats him to death, he is incarcerated in a Baltimore penitentiary, diagnosed with bipolar disorder. On his release, he meets Lawrence’s character Tiffany whose husband has recently died. A tremendous variation of a traditional rom-com ensues. As with the Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook has a magnificent ensemble cast and a tight script but is no Play For Today and O. Russell directs with economy and skill. Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are great as Pat’s neurotic parents and the setting of Philadelohia is played as a character in itself. This film deserves plaudits and may even take with it a couple of Oscars come February time.
Other notable Hollywood films were Snow White And The Huntsman with a wonderfully over-the-top Charlize Theron as Ravenna, Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth as the hunter and Kristen Stewart as Snow White. It may be a bit lazy to say this was a fairy tale for the Twilight generation but there was a hardness to the film that surprised me and it was a job very well done by debut director Rupert Sanders. Theron was on our screens in another excellent film this year, Young Adult directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up In the Air) and written by Diablo Cody. Theron plays Mavis Gary, a relatively successful author of Young Adult fiction. While she is financially well off, she is almost as soulless as Ravenna in Snow White when she returns to her childhood home to attempt a relationship with her ex boyfriend who has recently had a baby with his wife. When she arrives, she makes an unlikely friendship with Matt Freehauf, a disabled former classmate who was bullied at school while she was the beauty queen. Initially, she forms a friendship to smoke his weed and have a drinking buddy but the relationship turns from a shallow user to something (slightly) deeper. Mavis spends the entire film trying to steer her former beau away from his family in terrifyingly cringing ways but the beauty of Mavis’ character is she’s incredibly consistent. There is no great revelation, no see-the-light moment. She is what she is, an alcoholic loner who uses her looks to get what she wants. The joy in the movie is to see how far she gets in doing so.
The year’s first big film was Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s ‘prequel’ to Alien. Despite its huge marketing campaign, I was not particularly looking forward to it. When I did see it (in the massive Sky Superscreen at the Cineworld O2) I witnessed a beautiful looking picture with strong performances from Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender. I forgave the film its ridiculous plot twists (although many Scott fans didn’t) and was completely absorbed in it from beginning to end. If Prometheus was the year’s best sci-fi film, the year’s best horror was the schizophrenic Cabin In The Woods. Written and produced by Joss Whedon (who magnificently helmed The Avengers Assemble) Cabin In The Woods stopped being a generic teen horror right around the time we realise the horrific cabin and the woods themselves are being controlled by a mysterious team of people led by Richard Jenkins (Killing Them softly, Six Feet Under) and Bradley Whitford (West Wing, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip). I loved its crazed narrative and its nods toward horror films in general and the title and end sequences were fantastic.
Another beautiful film with great performances was Paul Thomas Anderon’s The Master. Have we been witness to a more gruesomely sympathetic character in 21st Century cinema than Freddie Quell, a hooch-making sociopath played by Joaquin Phoenix, who desperately falls in with father figure Lancaster Dodd? Dodd is played with restraint by Philip Seymour-Hoffman, who takes a supporting role behind Phoenix and his on-screen wife-cum-matriarch Amy Adams. One of the year’s best scenes comes when Dodd takes Quell for his first ‘processing’ session and psychologically peels off Quell’s pshyche layer by layer until he breaks down fully and submits his truth to Dodd. Only this scene will remain with me and The Master is my least favourite of PT Anderson’s work but I’d rather see films made by him than most other directors. America’s indie output had some great films but three stood out for me.
Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom premiered at Cannes and delivered a knockout trailer promising an all-star cast featuring Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. The film had the second best soundtrack of the year (behind The Descendents) and a typically Anderson cuteness and quirkiness to its overall feel. It took me a while to properly get into it because I kept being distracted by all the sequences of the trailer that were slowly being revealed (I had seen the trailer a lot) but around halfway through I relaxed into the plot and enjoyed the movie thoroughly. The two young lead characters Sam and Suzy played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward were the coolest screen couple of the year by far and they produced a perfect portrayal of awkward but passionate first love.
The breakthrough of the year came in the form of Lena Dunham, a writer/director of short films that found immense audiences on YouTube and HBO’s Girls. She released her first feature Tiny Furniture set in the middle class New York that she’s from and knows so well. This is no Ken Loach film and so long as you can get over the fact that money is not a major worry among these characters, you can begin to enjoy all the other worries they have. They ask where their lives are going, what it’s like to have sex with random strangers and how long they can stomach a minimum wage job. It sounds a little obnoxious but why should these characters apologise for the situation they find themselves in? It’s this lack of apology that makes the film work and it has a confidence in the fact it doesn’t clearly answer any of the questions because life doesn’t truly answer any of these questions either. The third US indie that impressed me was an excellent and controversial film from director Craig Zobel.
Set in a fictional Ohio fast food chain Chickwich, Compliance tells the story of a young girl who is accused of stealing money from one of her customers. Her manager receives the alert from a policeman on the other end of the phone and proceeds to undertake an investigation under his guidance, including a strip search. It soon becomes clear that the policeman is not all he seems and the film poses the question ‘what would you do’ when faced with a similar situation. It’s a great chamber piece but provoked walkouts on its initial festival screenings, presumably a protest at the assumed exploitation of its lead Dreama Walker. Her portrayal of the victim Becky is extremely persuasive as is her all-to-pliant manager Sandra played by Ann Dowd. Compliance was a highlight of the 2012 London Film Festival for me but was only one among many.
The Taviani brothers (Padre Padrone) arrived with Caesar Must Die, a film that came to London on the back of a Golden Bear victory in Berlin and a host of other festival awards and nominations. It is set in a Rome prison among the inmates who audition and then act in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar through a rehabilitative drama program. It’s easy to predict that the tensions of the play spill out into the real lives of those acting out the characters but what is fascinating is how these tensions play out, who can deal with them and who cannot. At an extremely lean 76 minutes, the film plays its three acts out in a surprisingly slow manner but the fact that the characters in the film are so full highlight the expertise of the brothers who also wrote the screenplay.
The film I was most looking forward to at the LFF was Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux. Reygadas makes beautiful looking films with difficult subject matter (Battle In Heaven, Silent Light) and Post Tenebras Lux (which translates as Light After Darkness) deals with the spiritual and physical relationship of a Mexican family in a remote country town. Filmed in academy ratio with the edges of the frame almost always blurred, the film’s images are a revelation. Indeed, the film contains the most incredible opening scene I can remember since Touch Of Evil. A toddler runs in the foreground of an immense valley as dusk sets in while a flurry of horses gallop in the background. These images proved the greatest example of pure cinema all year and would take a greater writer than I to do justice to them with words. A lot of the rest of the film is stuff and nonsense, but like another director concerned with the spiritual world Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the ambition of the project makes up for its few shortcomings. Reygadas’ film wasn’t quite my favourite film at the festival which went to Pablo Larrain’s No.
No is Larrain’s final part of his trilogy about Chile’s dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. The film tells the story about the 1988 referendum that was enforced on Pinochet through international pressure. The elections are framed through Pinochet’s ‘Yes’ campaign to keep him in power and the ‘No’ campaign run by the leftists who suffered in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup d’etat in 1973 when many dissenters were kidnapped and killed. The campaigns are played out as advertising spots on Chilean television and the executive in charge of the No vote is Gael Garca Bernal’s Rene Saavedra, an ad man who makes fun, capitalist adverts appealing to the Chilean youth. His sunny style is opposed by the traditionalists who want to remind the country of the horror Pinochet has done to them over the last 15 years of power. Along with Pinochet’s attempts of military threat and suppression of those running the No campaign, here lies the crux of the film’s story – the dichotomy between those whose lives have been destroyed by Pinochet’s rule and want to put that point across and Saveedra’s knowledge that horror and sadness won’t win the campaign. Larrain filmed his picture on original 80’s videotape thus matching his footage with the original TV adverts from the time. But it’s the performance of the actors, the tight script and the extraordinary story that lift this into classic status.
French cinema had two standout films in 2012 and although one showed the gritty side of its capital, the other showed a glitzy side to cinema’s capital, Hollywood. The Artist was technically released on the final day of 2011 in one cinema only but I’m including it in 2012’s list. The hype surrounding it was immense with some critics claiming after its premiere in Cannes that it would prove a frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar the following year. Any film feted almost universally by the critics should be taken with a little caution as the burden of expectation weighs heavy but The Artist lived up to its reputation magnificently. The film, directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin, is set in the transition between silent and sound movies. It was a tectonic time for cinema with dozens of stars being made redundant through their inability to adapt to the dawning of a new era. The Artist tells the story of a silent star George Valentin (Dujardin) slowly being replaced in popularity by the newbie Peppy Miller (Bejo). So far so A Star Is Born and in many respects, there is nothing new about The Artist. What is new is the film contains almost no spoken dialogue although it’s rarely ‘silent’. Hazanavicius inserts some excellent gags concerning Valentin’s fear of the coming sound revolution as well as some great visual jokes the silent era perfected. John Goodman and James Cromwell are excellent in supporting roles as a movie producer and George’s right hand man and the various sub plots work well throughout the main arc of the story. The film did indeed sweep the boards at the Oscars winning Best director, Best Actor for Dujardin and most importantly of all, Best Picture.
France’s second best picture of the year was Polisse, directed by and starring Maiwenn. It tells the story of a journalist (Maiwenn herself) covering the child protection unit of an inner city police force. The narrative was an Altmanesque sprawl but was no less involving for it. The characters in the force all have their demons but their camaraderie is engaging and I thought the film had the best ensemble cast of the year. Even with the problematic ending, I forgave it its imperfections and went with its absorbing story all the way through.
The best British film of the year was Ben Wheatley’s follow up to 2011’s Kill List, Sightseers. This was a gloriously dark comedy about Tina and Chris, a couple in the initial stages of romance who go on a caravanning holiday around rural England. This would be an idyllic setting for a road movie but Chris (swiftly followed by Tina) begin to kill fellow tourists in imaginatively gruesome ways recalling the devilish Louis Mazzini in Kind Hearts And Coronets. Wheatley demonstrates his skills behind the camera with varying styles including montage editing, dramatic death sequences set to music and underlying all of it, a unique brand of humour which has to be credited to the two leads Steve Oram and Alice Lowe who play Tina and Chris who wrote the screenplay. I look forward to the next project that Lowe, Oram and Wheatley decide to undertake with or without each other. If Ben Wheatley showed in 2012 that he is becoming a director making unmissable films, an established auteur made another great picture and won first prize at Cannes.
Michael Haneke’s Amour was a sombre portrayal of old age and death starring the phenomenal Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Riva plays Anne, a retired piano teacher who has a stroke which she never recovers from. This is not a spoiler as in the first scene of the film, we see police untape a door in a house containing her clearly dead body lying on a bed surrounded by flower petals. There are a number of reasons why the film works and this enigmatic scene explaining all and nothing immediately makes the audience ask the question how did she die and why was the room deliberately closed off? The answer of course lies in Trintignant’s character Georges, Anne’s loving husband. Their relationship throughout the film has a piercing truthfulness about it and almost all their actions, motivations and reactions play out in an almost fatalistic manner. Anne refuses to be defined by her mortality and when others only see this, she reacts angrily. The casting of Trintignant and Riva is a masterstroke as we recall their youthful faces in films such as Hiroshima Mon amour, Z, The Conformist and dozens of other films they have appeared in the last 50 or so years. Their mortality is charged with an external memory in the audience of their youth in the movies but the performances are so strong that even if you’ve never seen a movie they’ve appeared in before this, you still feel pain at the decay of their lives. All these films were excellent but my favourite film came from another auteur who, like Haneke, is operating at the top of his game.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia was a slow-paced police procedural film about a dead body. The body is of course, the Hitchcockian MacGuffin in the middle of which the real action revolves. Taner Birsel plays a police prosecutor whose job it is to persuade Firat Taniz to tell him where the body of a man is buried that he is accused of murdering. Taniz takes Birsel to different areas of the Anatolian countryside while trying to remember where the body is buried. They travel in a cavalcade of police cars and forensic officers, all with specific knowledge of what information they need to do their jobs and all with a hierarchy that gets tested throughout. The search is long and slow and at night, they stop off at a remote village headed by a mayor who is pleased to invite his hosts in for food and drink. There comes a beguiling scene where the mayor’s daughter serves her guests by candlelight and she is the centre of not only the audience’s attention but those on both sides of the law. During these scenes, a story emerges of a woman who predicted the time and date of her death. The film’s narrative folds over itself and plays out unlike any other film I’ve seen. Indeed, only The Master cared less for a traditional Hollywood narrative of three acts and at over two and a half hours, Ceylan lets his movie trundle along with revelations slowly bubbling beneath its surface right to the end of the film. It’s a beautiful picture and for me, cements Ceylan’s reputation alongside Herzog, Scorsese and Haneke in the pantheon of today’s finest living directors.
Films of the year 2012
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (9)
The Descendents (9)
Searching for sugar man (9)
The Artist (9)
Silver Linings Playbook (9)
Post Tenebras lux (9)
Killing them softly (8.5)
The Cabin In The Woods (8.5)
Moonrise kingdom (8.5)
Killer Joe (8.5)
A Useful Life (8)
Young Adult (8)
Tiny Furniture (8)
Snow white and the huntsman (8)
Le Polisse (8)
Beware of mr baker (8)
The Master (8)
Caesar Must Die (8)
Hotel Terminus (Marcel Ophuls) – The Life And Times Of Klaus Barbie (10)
Le Quai De Brumes (Marcel Carne) (10)
The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (Powell & Pressburger) (10)
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer) (10)
With echoes of Glory from American Cinema to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape that European Travel brings, The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley‘ is available from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.