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!

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