Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Year in Review: The Tramp's Top Ten Films of 2012

As the year that saw the Avengers finally Assemble, the Dark Knight Rise, the Sky Fall and Joseph Gordon-Levitt Loop comes to a close, it's time to look back at the best of this year's cinematic offerings. It may surprise you that, try as I might I didn't see every single film this year. I missed out on treats like Rust and Bone and The Raid, and have not yet gotten to see the Oscar-tipped Silver Linings Playbook. Similarly,  I've not seen Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained, which isn't due for release in the UK until next month. Accordingly, this will be a very subjective list of my personal favourite experiences at the cinema this year. Initially, I'd wanted to do a top five, but given that this year has furnished us with some of the most interesting and diverse offerings for some time, I'm going to present a special top ten of the year, which is in chronological, as opposed to preferential, order. Enjoy!

Michael Hazanavicius' tribute to silent cinema was released in most countries late last year, but it took me until January this year to see it, so I'm sticking it in this list. The Artist was simply one of the loveliest films I saw this year, with a fantastic conceit, lovingly executed with extraordinary craftsmanship. A tribute to the joy of film itself, The Artist was a wonderful way to start the year and offered one of the best cinema experiences I've ever had.

One of two releases by director David Cronenberg this year, Cosmopolis beats A Dangerous Method to the top ten as an often obtuse, inaccessible and frustrating work that is equally fascinating, dark and nihilistic. Robert Pattinson, best known for the risible Twilight Saga films, gives an enigmatic and engaging performance here, announcing himself, somewhat unexpectedly, as a serious and talented actor. The trailer proclaims Cosmopolis as the first film about the new millennium; I'm not sure about that, but it certainly gave me an experience like no other in 2012.

Speaking of unique experiences, Ron Fricke's dialogue-free, staggeringly beautiful documentary presented us with something that literally no other film came close to this year. Made over the course of five years, Samsara has some of the best cinematography I've ever seen in a film, let alone this year. If any film justifies the purchase of an HD television and Blu-ray player, it's this, but to fully appreciate it, it's essential to see it in a cinema.

William Friedkin, director of classics such as The Exorcist and The French Connection gave us one of this year's darkest and most twisted films in the shape of pitch-black comedy Killer Joe. The film told the story of a father and son (played by Thomas Haden Church and Emile Hirsch respectively) who hire a hitman, played by a top-form Matthew McConaughey, to kill Hirsch's estranged mother and collect on a life insurance policy. Killer Joe plays with the tropes of film noir and exhibits some of the most disturbing and nauseatingly comical scenes of violence this side of Blue Velvet, giving us one of the most absurd, unsettling and memorable climaxes of the year.

While we're on the subject of endings, Christopher Nolan's magnificent, bombastic and audacious trilogy capper marvellously concluded his seven-year long Batman saga. While lacking the narrative clarity of its predecessor, and proving more divisive amongst critics that both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises was a fantastic third chapter and great movie in its own right, and finally broke the curse of the Terrible Superhero Threequel. For me, it was one of the most enjoyable, thrilling and satisfying movie events of the year.

Andrew Dominik's follow up to The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a sprawling epic, was a much smaller affair, in both historic and geographic scope. Garnering mixed reviews, for me Killing Them Softly proved to be one of the most interesting and ambitious crime films of the year, reminding me of the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, and of the early work of Martin Scorsese. Tying the events of the film to the 2008 Obama / McCain US presidential election didn't work for some, but by the film's final, brutal last line, it damn sure worked for me.

With Looper, Rian Jonson gave us one of the best and most original science fiction outings for years, standing alongside Moon, District 9 and Inception as part of the recent resurgence of intelligent, popular sci fi for grown ups. Despite distracting prosthetics, Jospeph Gordon-Levitt gave a reliably nuanced and engaging performance of Joe, a hitman tasked with killing his future self. He and Bruce Willis, who played Gordon-Levitt's future counterpart, had great chemistry together, and in drawing on films such as Twelve Monkeys, The Terminator and Blade Runner, Johnson crafted a fully realised futurescape for his noir-inflected time travel story.   

Ah, Skyfall, let me count the ways. It's difficult to think of a Bond film that adheres to the formulas and cliches of the 007 franchise while somehow elevating them into a meditation on the series at fifty years old. A meditation with explosions, car chases, and a man in an electronically-sealed glass cage, of course. Skyfall, in the more-than-capable hands of Sam Mendes, was this year's best blockbuster, the best Craig iteration of Bond to date, and dare I say it, the best Bond film ever made (though my personal favourite remains On Her Majesty's Secret Service, your Goldfingers and You Only Live Twices be damned). After the disappointing Quantum of Solace, everything in Skyfall came together effortlessly. Welcome back to work, 007, we missed you.

In 2008, Paul Thomas Anderson gave us There Will Be Blood, a huge, menacing portrait of greed, obsession, and ambition. This year, he gave us The Master, which while lacking the scope of his last, was at least equally as menacing, and twice as unsettling. Jonny Greenwood returns too, providing one of the best scores of the year, perfectly complementing the tension between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, who, by the way, as a pair give not simply the best performances I saw this year, but amongst the best performances I've ever seen. While the film, with its lack of an eventful story, was not to everyone's tastes, its difficult to imagine a more finely crafted and expertly executed character study than The Master.

The last time I saw Mads Mikkelsen was in Casino Royale, weeping blood as he crossed wits and playing cards with Daniel Craig. Here, under the fine direction of Thomas Vinterberg, he finds himself in no more enviable circumstances, as Lucas, a nursery teacher wrongly accused of child molestation. Rather than the central premise being the question of whether or not he did it, Vinterberg makes it explicit that the warm, kind Lucas is most definitely innocent, and allows the story to play out as a sickening, unravelling nightmare as Lucas' friends and colleagues succumb to suspicion, hysteria, and ultimately violence. Very much a modern-day parallel to Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, The Hunt was one of the most intense cinematic experiences I've ever had, and one which I surely shared with the rest of the audience: throughout the film exhalations of discomfort were audible, stoked by the unbearable tension of the film. As an examination of hysteria, paranoia and people's capacity to reason themselves into madness, The Hunt is unparalleled.

So there we have it, my top ten films of the year. As I said, this was a personal list and I make no claims to this being a definitive 'Best of 2012' list. There were many other films I would have liked to have included, and so honourable mentions go to the cleverclogs Cabin in the Woods, the underrated Brave, the strange Beasts of the Southern Wild, the exhilarating Avengers Assemble, and the tender Untouchable. Happy New Year, and I'll see you all on the 1st January for a special Tramp Announcement!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

BFI Friday: In The Mood For Love

For the second BFI Friday, we're going to look at Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love at number 24 on the BFI list. Released in 2000, In the Mood for Love is one of the most recent entries into list. Telling the story of Li-Zhen and Chow, two married people who by chance strike up a friendship together, each realising that their respective spouses are having an affair. Gradually, the pair fall inextricably in love with each other, but circumstances and a misplaced sense of duty to their partners prevent them from consummating their feelings. Much like David Lean's classic tragi-romance Brief Encounter, the film is not so concerned with whether the pair will wind up together, but rather, in the almost imperceptible process of their falling in love. Moreover, it is about the way that passion, romance and infatuation don't always announce their arrival loudly - often, as In the Mood for Love has it, they sneak up on us unawares, and when we are at our most vulnerable. 

The cinematography by Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan and Ping Bin Lee is full of warm, rich greens, yellows and reds, and, coupled with its uniformly beautiful compositions, gives the film the sense of being like a painting in motion. Complementing the visuals, the soundtrack, a mixture of Yumeji's Theme from the 1991 film Yumeji, and Aquellos Ojos Verdes sung by Nat King Cole, textures the production with romance, melancholy and quiet, understated passion. The locations are so few that as Li-Zhen and Chow become gradually more familiar with each other, we too become inescapably accustomed to their surroundings; their apartments, the courtyard and the restaurant they eat at become as much a part of their relationship, and by extension, our emotional connection with them.

The inevitability of their separation is foregrounded before Chow and Li-Zhen have even become friends, with the mise en scene constantly throwing up visual barriers between them, be they door frames, windows, or, in one beautifully composed shot, the frame itself, which blocks Chow from our view altogether. Crucially, neither Li-Zhen's husband nor Chow's wife ever directly feature in the film, and are only ever referred to as being away on business. Not only does this reinforce the narrative of adultery, but also, the alienation and loneliness that both Chow and Li-Zhen must endure. Furthermore, the scene in which they realise they are being cheated on does not involve a big reveal, or a dramatic confrontation. Rather, it is the culmination of a suspicion of infidelity confirmed by the discovery, through Chow, that the present her husband bought her when should have been away on business actually came from their small town. Later, Chow becomes an impromptu counsellor for Li-Zhen, allowing her to practise a confrontation with her husband on him. Of course, the real confrontation never comes; the catharsis that we, as witness to Li-Zhen and Chow's lives, yearn for, is withheld from us. In another scene, Chow makes a pass at Li-Zhen, outside their apartment building. She rejects his advances, but throughout the film they return to that spot, as if playing out the same moment over and over, trying to figure out some way to escape their predicament. At time it's frustratingly slow, even unsatisfying. But ultimately, In the Mood for Love is beautiful, deliberate and brutal in its emotional honesty. 

Friday, 7 December 2012

BFI Friday: Singin' in the Rain

All the way back in August, the British Film Institute, through Sight and Sound, published their new list of 50 top films. You may remember that after fifty years at the top, Citizen Kane gave way to Vertigo as the BFI's greatest film ever made. You may further remember that to mark the occasion, I wrote a retrospective review on Vertigo here. Given that I've only seen eighteen out of the top fifty films, it's high time that I made an effort to get through the lot. Accordingly, from today, every other week I'm going to write a review of every film on the list.

Since we've already seen top dog Vertigo, we're going to kick off BFI Friday in style, the all singing, all talking, all dancing classic, Singin' in the Rain at number 20. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's 1952 classic tells the story of Don Lockwood, a Hollywood stuntman-turned-actor making his way to the Big Time. Set in the late 1920s, the film's characters must negotiate the challenges posed by the close of the silent era and the dawn of sound. They do this of course, by singing and dancing through elaborate routines on lavish sets, all in gloriously rich, intense technicolour. Even in the non-musical sequences, the camera is almost always in motion, swishing and zooming around the actors, and giving the whole affair a lightness of touch. The film, in short, is an unparalleled joy to watch. Where last year's The Artist, functioning as an extended and rather lovely homage to Singin' in the Rain, used black and white to depict its silent-era setting, Singin' in the Rain's cinematographer Harold Rosson saturates the picture in colour, joining films like The Wizard of Oz (also by Rosson), A Matter of Life and Death, and Vertigo as the one of the most accomplished uses of colour in cinema. The reds are deep and rich, the blues are iridescent, and the yellows glow with warmth. The visuals, like a rich chocolate cake after a meal, are sweet, profoundly satisfying and simply full of life. For a film that is about sound, it looks unspeakably gorgeous.

All singin', all dancin', pure joy

That's not to say the music is secondary to visuals, mind. All of the song and dance routines are beautifully choreographed by star Kelly, with the film's title song providing unadulterated joy, wit and charm. Other standouts include Gotta Dance, the movie's most elaborate set piece, featuring the vampish Cyd Charisse, the tongue twisting Moses Supposes and the delightful Good Morning. I could describe in depth these sequences but really, there's nothing like watching them for yourself. There are so many movies that try for what Singin' achieves, but so often fall into the categories of saccharine, overcooked, or simply irritating. But here, there's something utterly infectious about the whole affair; just as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves draws us into the tragic lives of its two main characters, or Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity invites us down a path to destruction, Singin' in the Rain perfectly lifts us up, unquestioning, into colour, music, and vibrancy. Few films, except perhaps for the aforementioned The Wizard of Oz, are capable of having such an effect. But more than that, it's a film that transcends genre; I defy anyone who says they don't like musicals not to enjoy Singin' in the Rain.

Who could resist a dance with Cyd Charisse?
The whole thing is deliriously entertaining, a gigantic sweet shop for the eyes and ears, but what elevates Singin' in the Rain further is the story and characters, who epitomising the allure of Hollywood, take us on a romantic, thrilling journey through the ups and downs of golden-era stardom. Kelly and the delightful Debbie Reynolds provide incredibly likeable leads, in a beautiful-people-doing-wonderful-things heightened reality. Jean Hagen plays Lina Lamont, a Monroe-esque dumb blonde character who turns out to have a cripplingly annoying voice when the movies become talkies. Deluded and manipulative, she convinces the studio to let her remain a star, while Reynolds' character dubs her voice over the top. Intriguingly, it was actually Hagen who dubbed her voice over for Reynolds during post production. For a film about film-making, this lends another delightful layer of subtext. And indeed, much of Singin' in the Rain is about the inherent falsity of cinema: voice over, the exaggerated performances in silent films, and the deliberately fake-looking sets all acknowledge the manufacturedness of big studio productions. And yet, out of that surface deception springs genuine, authentic emotion: it's difficult, for example, not to feel sorry for Lina when she gets her just desserts at the film's close, but you're rooting so much for Kelly and Debbie to make it through that it hardly matters. In fairness, there's never any real sense of peril: we all know where this is going, but that doesn't diminish the climax's sense of triumph or warmth one bit. Instead, Singin' in the Rain gives us Great Big Emotions, served up with astonishing technical skill and passion; a lovely, rich dessert of a movie that never slips into the saccharine. It's an overused phrase, but they really don't make pictures like this anymore. A sparkling, magnificent treat.