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Oliver Lyttelton’s Favorite Films Of 2012

Oliver Lyttelton's Favorite Films Of 2012

I think it was only as I sat down to write this list that I realized what a terrific year for film 2012 was. Not so much in the narrowing down of the list — I’d over-extended my Top 10 to 15 last year, and it was relatively simple to pare it down, although there’s still a few heartbreakers that didn’t make the cut. It was more the way that, as I wrote each capsule up, the films themselves seem to make the case that, actually, it was the very best film you saw in the last twelve months. So what is it doing all the way down at number 12?

As such, the order should be taken with something of a pinch of salt; I love everything here very dearly, and the final tally is more of a gut feeling made at the last minute. Also worth noting; as I’m based in the U.K, I’m at the mercy of wandering release dates, and as such, there are a few key films that might well end up being contenders — “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln” first among them — that I haven’t yet seen. Conversely, having been at Venice and the London Film Festivals this year, I’ve also seen a fair amount of films that won’t hit theaters until 2013.

As such, as with last year, and more for my own sanity than anything else, I’ve decided to just stick to (new) films I saw in a cinema in the last twelve months, regardless of its U.S, or U.K release dates. If you’re a stickler, feel free to add “Alps,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Oslo August 31st” from my Best of 2011 list last year and insert them wherever you’d like in the running order. But hopefully, it’ll encourage you to check out those that haven’t been seen more widely yet. So, with no further ado, the list is below. You can yell at me in the comments section below, or on Twitter @olilyttelton

15) “The Dark Knight Rises”/”The Avengers”
There seems to be a certain disproportionately noisy section of the internet that seem to think that picking between the hit superhero films of 2012 is like following a Glasgow football team or an American political party — you’re either with Marvel or DC, and as such, you either like “The Avengers,” or “The Dark Knight Rises,” with the other automatically becoming the worst thing in the history of mankind. The rest of us were happy to enjoy both as two sides of the super-powered coin, and as two quite different examples of a high-watermark in modern blockbuster filmmaking. “The Avengers” proved the benefits of putting a fan in charge; Joss Whedon knew those characters backwards, knew how to put a new spin on them and how to bounce them off each other, and as a result, the action-free scenes were as entertaining as the battling (he had one of the toughest screenwriting jobs of 2012, and pulled it off with aplomb). And the action, when it does come, has a from-the-pages-of-the-comics feel that’s unmatched by anything else in the genre. Meanwhile, while “The Dark Knight Rises” might lack a single invention as spectacular as Heath Ledger‘s Joker, I actually found it the most accomplished and satisfying of Nolan’s Bat-trilogy; the director’s wroking with a scope and confidence that few directors attempt, David Lean by way of “The Wire.” Again, the quieter moments were among the more memorable, thanks to the stalwart cast (including terrific new additions Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and, best of all, Anne Hathaway), the drama packs more of an emotional punch than ever before. Does it, like the Marvel film, transcend the inherent silliness of the superhero flick? Probably not. But the two, for me, sit side-by-side at the top of the pants-over-tights genre to date

14) “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”
For various reasons, I ended up reading and re-reading a fair amount of children’s literature this year, and it ended up being reflected in quite a few of my favorite movies of the year. It wasn’t a great surprise to discover after seeing “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that director Benh Zeitlin is the child of a pair of folklorists; his magic realist bildungsroman, displaying an apocalyptic New Orleans-style landscape through the eyes of young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, in a truly astonishing turn), displays a sense of myth and legend that’s a rare quality in American cinema, let alone in a first time feature. It’s a curiously literary, novelistic picture, but one that also displays that Zeitlin is a serious directorial talent, with a gift for capturing staggering performances from non-pros, and lensing (aided by cinematographer Ben Richardson) something gorgeous and distinctive in the process. Keeping the film entirely from a child’s eye view (lesser filmmakers would have broken from that perspective) helps to ground both the wonder and the deep melancholy of the film. Thanks to all of that, plus the most memorable score of the year, it seems to indicate the birth of a major filmmaking talent, one not content to make something autobiographical about the love lives of twentysomethings for his debut, and that’s something to be excited about.

13) “Sightseers”
It wasn’t really a banner year for comedy (bar the inventive and consistently funny “21 Jump Street“), but the closing weeks of 2012, in the UK at least, came to the rescue with the arrival of “Sightseers.” Anticipated by many as director Ben Wheatley‘s follow-up to the deviant and brutal “Kill List,” a smaller group (including, and possibly consisting only of, me) were looking forward to it because it was written by and starred comedic hidden gems Alice Lowe and Steve Oram; the former a veteran of the great “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” the latter a live circuit favorite I last saw performing in a pub in Clerkenwell, wearing a dress and howling like a wolf. In “Sightseers,” the pair play an oddball Midlands couple, seemingly in the first flush of love, who head out on a caravanning holiday together, only to find their respective murderous impulses unlocked by various strains of aggravating people they come across along the way. Wheatley beautifully blends the freaky sound design and unsettling atmosphere of his previous picture to a comedic sensibility that owes a little something to Julia Davis (“Nighty Night“) and Mike Leigh, but the real genius of the piece comes in the way that Lowe and Oram’s script (and the hopefully-star-making performances from the duo) is really a trojan horse; underneath the glam-free “Natural Born Killers” overtones, it’s a beautifully observed drama about a dissolving relationship — a blood-spattered “Blue Valentine,” if you will. Spectacularly shot, flawlessly performed, and possessing one of the best endings in years, U.S. audiences are in for a treat when the film opens early in 2013.

12) “Holy Motors”
Honestly, five or so months on, I’m still trying to work out what I made of “Holy Motors.” I wanted to rewatch Leos Carax‘s long-awaited comeback picture a second time, but wasn’t able to squeeze it in in time. It’s one of those films where a second viewing might have seen it shoot up this list, or plummet right off it again. But whatever happens, I’ll certainly cherish that first glimpse of Carax’s bonkers, probably-brilliant mind-fuck. The director famously hadn’t made a feature for thirteen years, but makes up for lost time here, giving regular muse Denis Lavant (in the performance[s] of a lifetime) a dozen or so alter egos to incarnate during one long Parisian day and night, from accordion-wielding band leader and performance-capture artist to alienated father and lovelorn mystery man. The level of invention and imagination is like nothing else we saw this year, and it feels like an enormously personal piece of work, not least because Carax puts himself in the decidedly Lynchian opening sequence. Is it about stories? Or audiences? Or the life of an actor? Or is the director, as suggested by the ending, complete with monkey families and talking limos, just messing with his viewers? I honestly don’t know. As dazzled as I was, I was left a little un-nourished by the final product. But that final product is so dazzling that I don’t mind too much if the parts don’t add up to a proper whole.

11) “Killing Them Softly”
As the follow-up to “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” more or less my favorite film of the last decade, I was pretty amped to see Andrew Dominik‘s “Killing Them Softly,” his adaptation of George Higgin‘s “Cogan’s Trade.” And while the film proved to be divisive to many, it fortunately landed right in my sweet spot, even if it isn’t quite up to the greatness of his 2007 Western. The film sees the Australian filmmaker uses the frame of a crime story — about two low-level criminals (Scoot McNairy & Ben Mendelsohn) who rip off a mob card game, and the enforcer (Brad Pitt) tasked with taking them out — to tackle the 2008 financial collapse and bailout, and many took issue with a perceived unsubtlety in his approach. Which would be fine, except Dominik never really makes any pretense at subtlety; it’s a blunt instrument of a movie, cynical and unashamed polemic, and it’s glorious to watch. By looking at organized crime as a business first and foremost, stripped entirely of glamor and excitement, Dominik gives the genre an approach that feels fresh (even if he’s not the first to do it), with proceedings taking on both an understated, wry humor, and a fierce, fiery anger at the rotten heart of America (one of the reasons, I suspect, that it’s not been taken to the hearts of many). And he assembled a hell of a team to do it with, both below the line (DoP Greig Fraser is fast making the case that he’s the most exciting cinematographer working) and above it — the cast, from veterans like Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini to fresher faces like Mendelsohn and McNairy, are smashing. By the time Pitt closes the film out, at only the 90 minute mark, by unleashing his terrible anger (“Pay me my fucking money”), it’s one of the few movies this year I could have done with seeing another hour of.

10) “The Hunt”
In the fourteen years since the release of his masterpiece “Festen,Thomas Vinterberg‘s follow-ups have been, to varying degrees, disappointments. So in a way, it makes sense that his storming comeback comes from a film that looks again at the subject matter of sexual abuse, albeit from a very different perspective to that of his 1998 Dogme picture. Mads Mikkelsen, in a career-best performance, plays Lucas, a teacher in a small Danish town, left lonely after a poisonous divorce, and working as a classroom assistant after his old school shuts down. Things start to look up after he strikes up a romance with his co-worker, but suddenly, his world is up-ended when Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of his pupils and the daughter of his best friend, accuses him of inappropriate behavior. It’s the thoughtless and mostly unknowing act of a little girl — we know from the start that Lucas is blameless — but like a 20th century melodrama (the film’s reminiscent of both Arthur Miller‘s “The Crucible” and Friedrich Dürrenmatt‘s “The Visit” in some respects), the townspeople can’t believe that a child would lie, and so Lucas becomes ostracized and untouchable in the community. Vinterberg makes the smart move and simply gets out of the way of the story, letting the script (co-written by Tobias Lindholm, writer-director of the equally great “A Hijacking“) and phenomenal cast do the heavy lifting. And at the center of it all is Mikkelsen, giving an absolutely titanic performance as a man so confounded by the idea that people might think he could do such a thing that he can never bring himself to deny it. It’s something that aggravated some viewers, but in Mikkelsen’s hands, it’s understandable, and deeply, deeply moving.

9) “Argo”
Some have tainted Ben Affleck’s “Argo” with the faint praise that, once upon a time, all commercial movies were as smart and well-executed as this, so really “Argo” is nothing special. Well, I’m not sure that it was ever the case that films like this arrived like they grew on trees, and if it was, it certainly isn’t the case now, so we should certainly cherish an “Argo” when it does come along. Affleck’s first two films as director, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” were promising without quite sticking the landing, but even this marks a real leap up; a thrilling, breathlessly tense picture with plenty of wit, style and feeling. Affleck surrounds himself with a cast stacked with character actor greats (Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston being particular stand-outs), putting flesh on the bones of Chris Terrio’s screenplay which is terrific, but perhaps drew the characters a little thinly. It’s just one example of the way that Affleck makes all the right choices from here, from never leaning too heavily on sentiment with his own character, to a clear, concise storytelling. And some of the filmmaking here — the way he juggles the tone from life-and-death-stakes to the Hollywood fun-and-games and back, the breathlessly tense editing of the final act — is pretty much world class. It’s absolutely a mainstream crowd-pleaser, but an impeccably executed one, and I must have missed the memo that declared that was a bad thing on either count.

8) “No”
In an especially strong year for political cinema, my favorite came from a relatively unlikely source; Chile, and rising director Pablo Larrain. I’d been a big fan of the director’s previous two pictures, “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem,” dark, but quite different pictures that both looked at his nation in the years when it was being ruled by General Pinochet’s dictatorship. To close off this trilogy, Larrain naturally looked at the final days of the regime, doing so with “No,” a film that marks both his most formally audacious, and yet his most commercially accessible, picture to date. The film follows Rene (the best performance yet from Gael Garcia Bernal), a trendy, skateboarding ad executive with a collapsing marriage, who’s asked to run the advertising campaign for those asking the people of Chile to vote ‘No’ on the upcoming referendum, and oust Pinochet from power. His boss (Alfredo Castro) is meanwhile fighting for the ‘Yes’ side, but that’s almost the least of his problems, as the previously apathetic Rene attempts to use American ad techniques to sell the idea of freedom to the people. Funny, gripping and as perceptive as anything ever made about the power and process of advertising, it was also one of the most visually bold films of the year, thanks to Larrain’s decision to shoot on bona-fide 1980s-style video. You feel like it shouldn’t work, but he finds a strange beauty in the format, and it helps him blend contemporary archive footage in with what he shot seamlessly. In short: Yes.

7) “Moonrise Kingdom”
Speaking (as we were at the start of this piece, if you’ve made it this far…) of children’s literature, “Moonrise Kingdom” makes a good claim for being Wes Anderson‘s first children’s film. His last, “Fantastic Mr Fox,” might have a more obvious claim to the title, but that was essentially an urbane, if unusually zippy early Woody Allen picture that happened to be made in stop-frame animation. “Moonrise,” however, taps more than anything else the director’s ever made into that innocence of youth (complete with nods to classic children’s literature along the way), and in the process turned out to be certainly the director’s best film since “The Royal Tenenbaums,” probably his best since “Rushmore” and maybe even his finest work ever. Obviously of a piece with the immaculate tableaux of his earlier films, Anderson feels looser and more playful here, formally at least, freed up by his fresh-faced protagonists (who are both excellent). Perhaps more importantly, the script (co-written by Roman Coppola) tones down the more arch qualities, and plays up the feeling that had often been lacking from his more recent films, thanks to beautifully drawn performances from the adults, including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. Despite the coming-of-age subject matter, and evocation of hazy endless summers and scouting adventures, it also feels like Anderson’s maturing, somehow. If nothing else, worth watching for those glorious end credits.

6) “Life Of Pi”
I have to admit, I’d been something of a “Life of Pi” grinch around the Playlist water cooler in the run up to release. I wasn’t sure that the novel could ever be adapted, I’d been unimpressed by Ang Lee‘s last few films, and the trailers had left me unmoved. But lo, when I caught up with the film just before Christmas, my heart grew two sizes too big, and I fell seriously in love with it. It’s obviously a visual marvel. Even a 3D refusenik like myself was left positively evangelical by the format after the way Lee uses it, and Richard Parker (and the other animals) are pretty much the best visual effects I’ve ever seen. And the way that the filmmaker manages to find endless and imaginative ways to lens his hero (Suraj Sharma, in perhaps the most undervalued performance of the year), his tiger, and his boat, which could easily have become repetitive after about ten minutes, further cements that he’s truly one of the greats. But it’s far from just empty spectacle either; the director, and his script (by David Magee) engages intelligently and wholeheartedly with the novel’s themes of religion, fate and storytelling, without becoming overbearing or tiresome — in fact, it’s arguably more successful than the novel in that respect. That Lee was able to make a $100 million dollar movie about these themes at 20th Century Fox was impressive enough, that he turns it into something of a Rorschach test for the audience (I felt that the film was suggesting that belief in God is a comforting fiction, religious friends took it as an affirmation of their faith) even more so. In a year full of idiotic ‘cinema is dead’ op-eds, Lee basically refuted themacross the space of two hours here.

5) “Looper”
In the cleverest volte-face of the year, Rian Johnson made everyone think they were going in for a smart, original piece of science-fiction reminiscent of “The Terminator” and “Twelve Monkeys,” among other things. Audiences got that, but in the film’s intimate, powerful second half, they also got a movie that turned out to be about parenting, about the problems of raising a troubled child, and about the consequences of trauma. And it was still a global hit. That’s a pretty great smuggling act, if you ask me. This isn’t to put down the film’s first half, which sets up a genuinely distinctive near-future world (where Johnson’s retro trappings make narrative sense, rather than feeling tacked-on), introduces two tremendous sides of the same coin in the performances from Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, plenty of intriguing philosophical dilemmas, and a grisly hall-of-fame demise for Paul Dano‘s character. But the real meat can be found in the second half, when Joe hides out on a farm with Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who may or may not grow up to be a fearsome crime lord known as the Rainmaker. Suddenly, what was an enjoyably twisty chase thriller becomes an equally-gripping, but far more effective look at the old would-you-kill-Hitler-as-a-child dilemma. Johnson movingly argues that even a child as destructive and volatile as Cid shouldn’t be written off. Anyone who’s ever worked with or known children with… particular needs will surely identify, and I can’t be the only person who thought of the film when reading this blog post a few weeks back. And all of that wrapped up in a beautifully made, fiercely original sci-fi picture that confirmed that Rian Johnson is one of our most exciting young filmmakers.

4) “Stories We Tell”
I liked Sarah Polley‘s “Take This Waltz” an awful lot, but there were enough dodgy directorial decisions (that passage-of-time sex scene, for instance) in place to keep it off this list. But I had no such issues with her follow-up, “Stories We Tell,” which played the festival circuit, and was released in her native Canada, in 2013. A documentary (at least on the surface…) that serves as something of a companion piece to both “Take This Waltz” and her debut “Away From Her,” it sees the director turn her lens on her own family, and specifically her parents, Michael and Diana (who passed away when Sarah was only eleven), who were both themselves actors when they met. Initially, it seems to be a sweet, lovingly-constructed home movie, but soon, Polley reveals there’s a much stronger narrative throughline. I won’t give it away here, but I did discuss it in my original review if you want to know more.  What unfolds, through archive footage, interviews and reconstruction, is a story as absorbing as anything in any fictional film this year. The documentary form is perfect for a subject like this, where much of what the filmmaker is discussing is about the nature of memory, and truth, and Polley is upfront about the ethical dilemmas and difficulties of delving into her own past, and the means with which she does so. But for all its meta qualities, it’s also a deeply humanistic story, in which Polley tries to get to the heart of the mother she never really knew, pay tribute to her repressed, but incredibly warm father, and work through her own identity crisis. That she does so in a film as warm, technically impressive and smart as this suggests that Polley’s career as a director is only just getting started.  

3) “Wadjda”
Given that it was made by a female director in an environment as hostile to both women and film as Saudi Arabia (where women can’t drive, and cinemas have been closed for decades), it’s genuinely staggering that “Wadjda” turned out as brilliantly as it did. Owing equal debt to Italian neo-realism and more contemporary Iranian cinema, Haifaa Al-Mansour‘s feature debut follows the title character, a rebellious 12-year-old girl who enters a Koran-recitation competition at school in order to win enough money to ride a bike, while her mother (Reem Abdullah) fights to hold on to her husband, whose wealthy mother is encouraging him to get a second wife. In many ways, Wadjda and Hushpuppy from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” feel like sisters; independent, spirited, mischievious and played without manner or precociousness (in this case, by the young Waad Mohammed). To a western audience, Riyadh might feel almost as alien as the Bathtub, and Al-Mansour shoots the city, and the world, with both the back-of-the-hand expertise of an insider, and the careful eye of an outsider (she went to film school in the U.S, and had to direct mostly from the back of a van, lest she be seen doing the job in public). Again, it’s an unashamedly political picture, but relaying its message — about the rotten lot of women in the country — through the personal and the specific, with a humanism that refuses to demonize anyone, from Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf), who loves his daughter and wife, but faces external pressures to marry again, to the stern headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd). It might tip into sentimentality in places, but it’s the kind of sentiment that’s entirely earned, and few would begrudge it in a film as warm, sweet and beautifully made as this.

2) “Tabu”
Popular conception of much of European ‘arthouse’ cinema is that it’s a form of eating your cultural vegetables; you’ll go, and have your brain stretched, and feel better for it, but may not necessarily enjoy it very much. That can be true — something like Cristian Mungiu‘s excellent, but punishing “Beyond The Hills,” which just missed my list, probably does reaffirm those stereotypes. But I don’t see how anyone could sit down to Miguel Gomes‘ “Tabu” and find it anything but one of the most enjoyable, romantic and beguiling experiences of the last year. Shot in hauntingly beautiful black-and-white, the first half, set in modern-day Lisbon, is a little more in step with some of the Portugese helmer’s contemporaries, austere and slow-paced, but with plenty of wit and emotion there too. And it pays off extraordinarily well in the second-half, which heads back to colonial Africa for an homage to F.W. Murnau‘s film of the same name, silent beyond narration, and the occasional blast of Wall of Sound pop. And it’s those Phil Spector records that feel particularly appropriate; this second half has the immediate swooning romantic qualities of a great three-minute pop song; vivid and sad and sexy as all get out. And yet there’s much more going on besides, Gomes bringing a sharp but never overcooked flavor of post-colonialism, a lovely examination of memory and regret, as well as a formal playfulness. I have to confess that I wasn’t really aware of the filmmaker before seeing “Tabu,” but I’m going to be watching him like a hawk from now on.

1) “Anna Karenina”
From Terrence Malick‘s “To The Wonder” to the aforementioned “Tabu,” the spirit of Leo Tolstoy‘s “Anna Karenina” ran through a lot of film this year, so it’s appropriate that 2012 saw a cinematic version of the original story that, while bold and cinematically inventive, manages to come close to being a definitive take on the classic, as well as being my favorite film of the year. In Tom Stoppard‘s spectacularly good script (I suspect the quality of which has been overlooked because so few film critics have actually read the book), it has a jumping off point that more than any previous take, digs into the themes of the novel — the many forms that love takes, artificial metropolitan life vs. simple pastoral life — and allows the peripheral characters their moment in the sun, while still keeping the running time at around a brisk two hours. And in Joe Wright‘s directorial decision to set the film almost entirely in a theater, it has a brilliant conceit, somewhere between Baz Luhrmann and Powell & Pressburger, both intimately theatrical and dazzlyingly, inventively cinematic. But it’s also a case of the content dictating the style, rather than the other way around, creating a world that’s beautifully created and absolutely true to the spirit of the novel. On first viewing, I mostly loved the film, but had some reservations, but a second viewing recently saw them fall away, even when it came to the biggest of them, Aaron Taylor-Johnson‘s turn (first-time round, he felt out of his depth, the second, that seemed to be the exact right approach to the part. Although his haircut’s still silly). He’s only one part of a fine ensemble that includes career-best work from Keira Knightley, a fierce turn from Jude Law that virtually reinvents the character, and lovely supporting performances from both older hands like Matthew Macfayden and Kelly Macdonald, and newer hands like Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. I can understand why the take on the material threw some, but even those who are skeptics, or who aren’t interested in the source material, should give “Anna Karenina” a try, because it was, for me, the single richest and most rewarding film of 2012.  

Honorable Mentions: Other festival favorites include “A Hijacking,” the gripping docu-drama from “The Hunt” co-writer Tobias Lindholm, which I stumbled upon semi-accidentally in Venice and proved to be one of the Lido highlights. I also (unexpectedly, given that I wasn’t a big “Tree Of LIfe” fan) fell for Terrence Malick‘s “To The Wonder,” a gorgeous and sincere look at people with great voids in their lives. And, while I didn’t find that it held together in the way that its greatest fans did, some of the scenes and performances in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “The Master” were among the best things I saw this year, while I also found Olivier Assayas‘ “Something In The Air” growing on me over time, while Harmony Korine‘s “Spring Breakers” is kind of a blast.

Otherwise, aside from the aforementioned “21 Jump Street” and “Beyond The Hills,” I also loved Steven Soderbergh‘s “Magic Mike,” his best film, in my eyes, since “Solaris,” while Peter Strickland‘s “Berberian Sound Studio” was a hugely impressive sophomore film from the British director, with Toby Jones giving one of the best performances of the year. “Cabin In The Woods” was Joss Whedon‘s second triumph of 2012, while “Jeff Who Lives At Home” was an understated treat, while I also really liked the similarly Mark Duplass-related “Safety Not Guaranteed,” and, until its hasty conclusion, “Your Sister’s Sister,” and “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” turned out to be the best surprise I had all year. Plus, as a huge LCD Soundsystem fan, “Shut Up And Play The Hits” was like manna from heaven, and only just missed the top 15. And of the 2011 films that only hit the UK in 2012, “Rampart” and “Young Adult” were the best of them, even if neither quite cracked my final list.

Worst Of 2012:Battleship” came close, but I really, really loathed “Ted.” It might have a typically game performance from Mark Wahlberg at the center, and a few fitful laughs, but the rest of it seemed aimless, lazy and offensive without being transgressive (say what you like about the mostly weak “The Dictator,” but it sets out to hit more taboo subjects than ‘Chinese people speak funny.’) That it was such a huge worldwide hit upset me more than almost anything else.

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