The Top Films of 2012
The idea of listing, ranking and culling the films of the year is enjoyable to some, reprehensible to others. I am one of those people who finds the process enormously enjoyable (sometimes disturbingly so). If you find the idea of ranking films counter-intuitive, then ignore the numbers and simply treat this as a celebration of some of the best films of 2012.
Before diving in, here are a couple of observations about how my picks of 2012 compared with my picks of 2011. Of course, these observations merely reflect my personal tastes; they are not intended as blanket statements about what was available to viewers.
- Last year, every single film in my top 20 was in English, unless you count the documentary Senna, which features interview excerpts in multiple languages. This year, however, I was delighted to find that seven non-English-language films had made my list.
- Last year, there were no animations in my top 20, though Kung-Fu Panda 2 came close. This year, there was only one animation that I loved. This is rather sad when you think back to the animation boom that occurred a few years ago. Consider that the following films all came out in 2009: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Ponyo, Up and Waltz With Bashir. Hopefully the next few years see a resurgence in quality animation.
- Last year, there were two Australian films in my top 20 (Burning Man, Oranges and Sunshine). This year, there are none, though it wasn’t for lack of seeing local content. For the record, I quite enjoyed Not Suitable for Children, though it didn’t quite make the cut…
This list is based on Australian release dates. The following five films were released in Australia in 2012, and I loved them all, but they have not been included because they appeared on my Best Films of 2011 list:
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
- Martha Marcy May Marlene
- The Artist
20. Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard offer up a sharp horror-comedy that simultaneously pays homage to classic horror tropes and skewers them as well. The characters are well drawn, the script is filled with wit, and Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins steal the whole show. I had quibbles with the second act pacing, and the third act is something of an endearing mess, but overall it’s a much-needed dose of imagination to a frequently predictable genre. Click here for full review.
19. A Separation
At a certain point during the first half of this Iranian drama, it occurred to me that it would probably end up being my favourite film of the year. But after a key incident about halfway through, I felt the tension – and my engagement with the film – slowly waning. There’s no denying that this is a well made, absorbing story. I only wish that it had maintained the incredible tension that is present in the flawless first half of the film.
18. Safety Not Guaranteed
Sweet, low-key indie approaches potentially heavy subject matter with a light touch, and features likeable performances by Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass. It’s hardly groundbreaking, but it’s incredibly charming.
Skyfall is my favourite blockbuster of the year, and the only one to make this list. There were great moments in The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but neither felt as cohesive as the latest James Bond outing. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws; its approach to female characters is hopelessly outdated, and like most recent blockbusters, it’s about 45 minutes too long… Nevertheless, I found it to be a gripping experience, filled with exhilarating action sequences and breathtaking cinematography, courtesy the great Roger Deakins. Click here for full review.
16. The Interrupters
Absorbing documentary by director Steve James, who made the great Hoop Dreams. It follows the remarkable efforts of a group called CeaseFire, who are dedicated to preventing violence in Chicago. The film features thoughtful interviews and some nerve-wracking footage of CeaseFire members intervening during street violence, putting themselves at risk for their cause.
15. The Raid
After a slow start, this Indonesian action film kicks into gear and never lets up. Filled with brutal, superbly coreographed fight scenes and generous splashes of blood for the gore-hounds, this was one of the most exciting films of the year. Click here for full review.
It’s rare for a film to feel so messy and yet so enthralling at the same time. Famously delayed by several years, and edited down from a longer director’s cut at the insistence of distributor Fox Searchlight, Margaret is a sprawling, often disjointed affair, but it possesses an intimacy and a complexity rarely seen on-screen. Anchored by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s strong characterisation, and superb performances by Anna Paquin and J. Smith-Cameron. Click here for full review.
13. Young Adult
Writer Diablo Cody offers her most mature work yet, with this caustic, frequently uncomfortable but captivating film. It is a portrait of a narcissistic, self-destructive author who returns to her small home-town, intent on winning the affection of her high school crush… who is happily married. Charlize Theron is phenomenal in the lead role, as is Patton Oswalt as her only ally in town. Click here for full review.
I never expected to like this film. I had seen Tim Burton’s wonderful 1984 short, and felt there was nothing to add to it – it was perfect as it was. Not only that, but I had all but given up on Tim Burton as a director, and was especially wary of any projects that were adapted from pre-existing material (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows etc.) But there was one factor that made me give this film a shot – the absence of Burton’s over-used ‘muse’ Johnny Depp. And I’m so glad that I caved, because this film has restored some of my confidence in Burton. Based on a warm, charming script by John August (Go, Big Fish), this is an incredibly affecting story (I teared up at least three times), one which smartly builds upon the original idea without diluting it.
11. Searching for Sugar Man
Like last year’s Catfish, this engrossing documentary begins as a mystery film (tracking the elusive 70s musician Rodriguez) and ends up somewhere completely different. Taking several turns along the way, this well-crafted film builds to an enormously affecting and immensely satisfying conclusion.
There is little doubt now that Ben Affleck belongs behind the camera (unless he gets another jack-ass role like in Dazed and Confused or Mallrats; he seems to flourish with those characters). After one great film (Gone Baby Gone) and one good one (The Town), he brings us his strongest film yet. This is the first of his films that he didn’t write, which may or may not have helped matters. Either way, the script is well-paced and wrings maximum tension out of this fascinating true story. Occasionally, this practice undermines the story (the events seem increasingly unlikely as the film powers towards its climax), but for the most part, it serves to keep the audience in a vice-like grip. Special mention must go to the editing in the opening scene, in which the furious Iranian protesters breach the American embassy. It’s a superb start to the film, and one of the most gripping, pulse-pounding scenes of the year.
This beautifully crafted film centres on a young girl, Laure, who wants to be a boy. When her family moves to a new neighbourhood, she seizes the opportunity to live out her fantasy, and introduces herself to the other kids as a boy named Mikael. This deception ignites the film’s ‘ticking bomb under the table’, which threatening to explode at any moment when the kids get closer to discovering the truth. With a wonderful balance of harsh reality and tender warmth, this a truly moving story. Click here for full review.
Headhunters boasts what is surely the tightest script of the year. Clocking in at 100 min but feeling like 80, it has no extraneous touches; every element is important. And it’s an absolute blast. As I wrote in my full review: ‘One of the primary rules of screenwriting is to give your character a clear goal and then make things really fucking difficult for him. The Norwegian film Headhunters embraces this rule whole-heartedly, and the result is a cracking comedy-thriller.’
7. Your Sister’s Sister
Director Lynn Shelton follows up her charming film Humpday with another thoughtful character piece, which is more polished than her previous effort. The characters are richly detailed and the actors disappear into the roles, turning in amazing performances. The film boasts an incredibly naturalistic style, partly because the actors contributed to the design of their characters, and were allowed room to improvise in most scenes. This is a beautifully-crafted, often hilarious, moving film, and comes as a welcome antidote to concept-heavy Hollywood fare.
6. The Giants
Like Your Sister’s Sister, the Belgian film The Giants has a remarkably intimate focus. It revolves around three boys who have been left to their own devices over the summer while their parents are away. Brothers Zak (Zacharie Chasseriaud) and Seth (Martin Nissen) are in the care of their grandfather, who is incapable of monitoring them, while Danny (Paul Bartel) is under the care of his abusive brother. The film does an amazing job of communicating their restless energy and suppressed hurt at being abandoned by their parents. Director Bouli Lanners elicits wonderfully nuanced performances from his young actors (recalling Rob Reiner’s work on Stand By Me), while Jean-Paul De Zaeytijd’s stunning country-side cinematography provides a nice contrast to the characters’ desperation. As the story progresses, the stakes increase dramatically, and the conclusion is incredibly powerful. While the story may seem slight – it’s not as plot-driven as Stand By Mefor example – I found The Giants to be one of the most affecting films of the year.
5. Berberian Sound Studio
Peter Strickland’s debut film Katalin Varga was a dark, unsettling film in which the threat of violence hung over the entire proceedings. This tone is carried over to Strickland’s second film, Berberian Sound Studio, which also injects a dash of comedy as it follows British sound designer Gilderoy (Toby Jones, superb as usual), who is completely out of his element, working in Italy on a giallo horror film. Gilderoy is increasingly uncomfortable with the intensely violent content of the film (which is – quite hilariously – about an evil equestrian academy), and as he becomes slowly sucked into the world of the film, his reality begins to distort. This is a truly unique film, and it had me enthralled from start to finish. As expected, the sound design is superb. The full review is contained here.
NB: Berberian Sound Studio will be playing in Melbourne at ACMI from December 27 2012.
4. I Wish
Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda (Still Walking) has crafted another fantastic film, with his usual intimate focus. The characters are beautifully drawn and the performances wonderfully naturalistic. Like The Giants, it treats the concerns of the child protagonists with the utmost sincerity, and the end result is enormously affecting. The full review is contained here.
3. Kid With a Bike
Between The Giants and Kid With a Bike, 2012 proved to be a great year for Belgian coming-of-age films (although if you want to get technical, both are 2011 releases). The latest film from the Dardenne brothers is a frequently harrowing, emotionally draining story that manages to offer enough sense of hope so as to not leave you in a suicidal funk. Thomas Doret gives a heart-breaking performance as the young Cyril, who is determinedly searching for a father who abandoned him. Like the Dardenne brothers’ film The Son, this is a beautifully crafted work.
Paddy Considine’s feature directorial debut is a magnificent portrait of two characters who are deeply wounded when they meet, and it explores a connection that gradually forms between them. Featuring brilliant performances by Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan, and a nuanced, complex script, Tyrannosaur is a truly powerful film, and announces Considine as a confident director.
It was a great year for British dramas, and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend was the best of them. It traces a relationship that forms over one weekend between the outgoing, openly gay Glen (Chris New) and the quieter, less comfortable Russell (Tom Cullen). What starts as a one night stand quickly develops into something much stronger, but Glen is about to move to America, so their time together is limited. This is an astonishingly intimate film, with a remarkable sense of immediacy to each scene. I truly felt like I was there with the characters, more so than with any other film in recent memory. Given that it creates such a strong sense of identification with the characters, it is no surprise that the emotional beats hit hard. The ending was so emotionally draining that when I walked out of the cinema, I was in a daze, and couldn’t shake that feeling for days after. Weekend is not only my favourite film of the year, but one of my favourite films period. Click here for full review.