2012 in Review: Top Ten

Today is the final day of my series of 2012 posts reviewing the year in cinema, and today it’s the turn of the year’s top 10 films. Just to re-iterate what I have previously said, 2012 has been a brilliant year for films to the point that I could have easily picked another top 10. Add to that, there are many films I never got round to seeing that I would have liked to have: The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg), My Brother the Devil (Dir. Sally El Hosaini), How to Survive a Plague (dir. David France), Room 237 (Dir. Rodney Ascher) and 2 Days in New York (Dir. Julie Delpy), too many to detail, honestly. Essentially, it has been a cracking year for cinema, here’s hoping 2013 keeps the form running. Without further ado, here are the best 10 films of 2012 according to No Frame of Reference:

10. Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry (Dir. Alison Klayman)

Although Bart Layton’s The Imposter will undoubtedly be the documentary from 2012 that will have the longest spell in cultural discourse, the best was the directorial début from Alison Klayman in Ai Wei Wei Never Sorry. Klayman’s film has enough material to fill scores of documentaries, even going as far as including material from WeiWei’s many revolutionary films. Having all this information about the personal, professional and revolutionary presents a fascinatingly complete documentary.  She shows the public persona of the artist as the first man to speak out against the Beijing Olympics, the imaginative structural art he makes and the man behind closed doors. Above all it also offers a portrait to the political unease in China, the fight between art and public freedom and the role that Ai WeiWei and his peers play in this national agitation. Through the depiction of the state, it presents some uncomfortably suspenseful revelations. No film in 2012 inspired as soundly as Alison Klayman’s doc.

9.  Skyfall (Dir. Sam Mendes)

Expectations for Skyfall were very low, not being a Bond fan. Those expectations were blown clean out of the water in a film that took the post-Nolan Blockbuster landscape and near enough perfected it. Sam Mendes with Roger Deakins (DoP) shot and directed one of the great Bond films, up there with Casino Royale and the Living Daylights. The film acknowledged its history and the role of the new in such films, presenting a battered and broken man coming to grips with his place in the world, dealing with a villain who he could have very easily become, of which Javier Bardem glows as the grounded, eccentric Silva. Parallels can be drawn with the Joker and Nolan’s the Dark Knight, but that is what Bond does, he reflects what is great and good in action cinema, only difference is here Bond outdoes them all. For an action film to be so at ease with consequences and its own history, as well as being breezily entertaining and gorgeous through Deakins lens, it would be a crime not to put this in the top 10.

8.  Paranorman (Dir. Chris Butler & Sam Fell)

The latest film from American stop animation studio Laika drops in at number 8. Paranorman marked a new cycle of family animation that openly acknowledged horror history and iconography to present a story friendly to children (Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania, filling out the threesome). Paranorman included a severely outcast child, Norman, who is disliked by his family and bullied by everyone else, a boy who could see ghosts. In his home town there’s a centuries old curse, which Norman has to save the town from, a story which sees the issues of isolated childhood addressed with some intelligence as well as the historical and cyclical role of communal hate. That is one thing, Paranorman also referenced in a child friendly way many horror films that were part of my development into a genre fan (1980s) whilst not shying away from scaring kids. Entertaining, funny, cute, meaningful, and a perfect gateway film; Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s film is an instant hit.

7.  Tabu (Dir. Miguel Gomes)

Film Critic turned Director, Miguel Gomes comes in at number 7 with his future classic Tabu. Gomes’ film occupies a unique space even in art cinema, as it starts it seems to be a nature documentary, then from there is develops into something else, showing the final days of an elderly woman’s life, then it changes again into a period drama showing the elderly woman’s youth under Mt Tabu and the lost love of her life. Every bit is immaculately performed, but the recognition belong to Carloto Cotta and Ana Moreira. To boil Tabu down to is base elements; it is two films and a short film, within a film. A love letter to the form, sections Paradise and Paradise Lost are shot through different types of film and each recalls a different epoch of cinema. Be it the classic Hollywood era, silent film or something more contemporary. Tabu is artistically and historically ambitious, and utterly successful. As well as that the construction of the story is pitch perfect, every segment feeds into and informs one another creating one magical whole.

6.  Killing them softly (Dir. Andrew Dominik)

A deeply cynical and angry film from Andrew Dominik at number 6, if interviews are to be believed the inclusion of the 2008 American election in the backdrop is a reaction to the commercial failure of the director’s earlier film, the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford. Even if this backdrop informed the films underwhelming reception it is a cynical act in itself to neglect the film that lies beneath. Dominik’s adaptation of the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins is the kind of hard-boiled thriller that was common place in the 1970s. Its hard-nosed world view presented gangland America as a business, the politics of underworld wetworking. Its relationship with sound, its stylish and conflicted brushes with violence brought to life by a black-hearted Brad Pitt, it’s a shocking antithesis to the formal flourishes of the modern genre. Which becomes all the better thanks to Dominik’s ability to make his films streamlined and to the point.

5.  The Raid (Dir. Gareth Evans)

Is the raid (redemption) really the 5th best film of 2012? No, it isn’t. For a hardcore fan of martial arts cinema that doesn’t come out with such a negative answer. With Gareth Evan’s 3rd film, he ensures the star of Iko Uwais is born. The lead performer, while no actor, has charisma akin to all the genre greats whereby his ability to carry this film that shares notes with die hard and the taut horror lines of John Carpenter into legendary status for the martial arts genre. Traditionally martial arts has been confined to the back of [relative] video stands, between pornography and horror, it has been given little respect of late. As a genre film it’s a relentless thrill, where each punch and blow leads into something much more forceful through Joe Taslim and Uwais. Just when you think the film can go no further Uwais and Yayan Ruhian close the film with a 6 minute fight scene that outdoes itself with each blow. For a martial arts fan, the raid is tantamount to nirvana and does it through the fresh form of Pencak Silat.

4. Rust and Bone (Dir. Jacques Audiard)

I had a problem with Jacques Audiard’s last film, A Prophet; in fact I named it one of my most disappointing cinema experiences of 2010. It was an excellent short film with two hours of baggage. His latest film, Rust and Bone, made up for that immense disappointment. His ideal as a stylized realist bore a true relationship drama between the two leads, although it does turn its head into melodramatic territory in the final act, the way in which Audiard develops the friendship in a organic way, just about anything could be done with them and the pay-off would match in suit. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard are brilliant as the two leads, with the earlier giving the sort of breakout performance that’ll make him one of the next big actors in Europe. Rust and Bone has both the most stunningly realized ‘crash’ scene of the year, all shot from underwater and the most subtlety implemented use of CG with neither the pivotal whales being real nor the accident which costs Cotillard dearly. Above all else it’s one of the most effecting dramas of the year, all the more significant thanks to Rust and Bone avoiding the common tactic of exploiting the exploitation to get to its conclusion.

3. Sightseers (Dir. Ben Wheatley)

I put Kill List at my number 10 of my 2011 review, which was a conflicted decision as that film fell to pieces in the final moments, a fate that contradicted the tense build-up of the remaining 85 minutes. His follow-up based on a script and characters by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe is far more consistent an experience. Oram and Lowe are two lovers cutting a path across Yorkshire in an erotic odyssey until things get dark and the couple murder many people, between visits to the pencil and tram museums. With cinematography that paints of gorgeous image of Yorkshire and two performances that take the respected TV comedy actors to a whole new level, Sightseers is a riot. Although it’s dismissive to just say that it’s a funny film, let’s not neglect to mention just how funny Lowe and Oram are as the damaged couple. As well as being funny and fantastically shot, it’s a dark and typical Wheatley styled violent character study of these two people and their twisted nature of their love. Wheatley makes it 3 for 3.

2. The Master (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

The Master is one of those films that will not win over new fans to Paul Thomas Anderson, as such it’s one of these occasions were a title has found itself at home on both best of and worst of lists this year.  Anderson’s study of a master and his dog, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, is a complicated one. Even though it has a definable start and end point, it’s not about narrative, it’s about characters learning and changing who they are. All the common themes of Anderson’s filmography are all present in the same film, competing for space, and while it would be easy for such a gung-ho approach to intimidate the viewer with too much information, the director has constructed a masterwork of cinema that will present new things with each new viewing. It’s very much a film that can appear as if something else, each new time. That is a magnanimous and impressive thing for any creator to pull off. However this would mean naught if it wasn’t for three of the year’s best performances, Hoffman and Phoenix [should] be getting all the plaudits come award season, and Amy Adams is on fine counter-programming, playing magnificently against type. Few films match The Masters scope, ambitions or results.

1. Berberian Sound Studio (Dir. Peter Strickland)

The best film of 2012, for me, is Peter Strickland’s sophomore film, Berberian Sound Studio. In which Toby Jones becomes a sound engineer on an Italian production and descends into the unknown. What makes Berberian such a sterling example of cinema in 2012 comes from its adulation of the form and the all but lost art of the Foley artist. Strickland examines the power of sound and the imagery that the mind summons when we hear what sounds like wildly violent blows and noises. With this he stretches the premise that the best horror is made of that which is heard and not seen. In 2012 Berberian gave us the dangerous aroused goblin, which is both funny and referential to the world of Italian horror that the film within a film ‘the equestrian vortex’ lends. Jones descent into madness borrows as much from Mario Bava and Dario Argento as it does David Lynch and it can be wilfully impenetrable and oblique. Even if it’ll leave certain audiences bewildered in its final act, the sheer audacity of Peter Strickland show him as a great cinematic talent with ability far greater than his two features.  Berberian Sound Studio is 2012’s best film, an incredible exploration of sound (with additional thanks to Broadcast’s score) and vision and an excellent star turn from Toby Jones.

There we have it, there is the top 10 of 2012 and I am proud to admit that three of the top 5 were directed by Brits. It’s a grand old age for UK cinema and an even better one for cinema in general. 

Happy New Year.

4 thoughts on “2012 in Review: Top Ten”

  1. Luke says:

    I’m a long time fan of Donnie Yen so I’ll certainly get around to picking up and watching Wu Xia (Dragon) as soon as I can. I don’t usually track the premiers of very many foreign films that aren’t considered big news globally, so many film gems escape my notice until they reach a Red Box, Netflix, or my local Library. Although, I also tend to look at your anticipation for the up coming year list to get an idea of what films I should keep an eye out for down the road.

    Thanks for your recommendations and reviews.

  2. Rob Simpson says:

    Oh, and Berberian is a horror fans dream. So it was another no brainer for me. If your interested in the process of film making it’s a great film to watch. Its fascinating given certain sound conjure up certain images. Very good stuff.

  3. Rob Simpson says:

    RE: Master, its one of those films. You either embrace its complexity and get lost in the film or you have issue with the lack of story. Its a hard film to recommend, but the thematic depth and strength of the acting make it an easy #2 for me.

    RE: Tabu. Yes, it is quite a artsy-fartsy film, quite the film critics choice. Its not the sort of film that will cross over to more mainstream sensibilities.

    RE: The Raid. As a huge martial arts nerd, I pretty much had to include this. Even so, its not the best martial arts film I saw last year. That honour belongs to Wu Xia (Dragon), it stars Donnie Yen and its out in May. A stunning film – check out my review, here: http://noframeof.com/2012/08/08/wu-xia-review/ (more of my stuff over there, if you are interested)

    RE: Ai WeiWei. A fantastic year for docs, and I try to have one for the top 10 every year. To be representative like that.

    Once again, its fantastic to get these comments. The usual stuff is either from other bloggers or fanboys telling me how wrong I am. Its refreshing.

  4. Luke says:

    You list a few more films that I either haven’t seen yet or didn’t know about.

    Sightseers – Was very excited for this film and can’t wait to watch it. I was hoping you’d give a good standing for the year.

    Killing them softly – A film I had several opportunities to go see, but everyone I was going to the theater with always preferred to see another film. I’m looking forward to seeing this one and considering where you’ve rated it I believe it should be a really good one too.

    Rust and Bone – It looked pretty interesting and now given your assessment I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

    Paranorman – It was definitely going to be a movie I was going to pick-up to watch with my daughter, but since you rated it this high I’m beginning to think this will be a fantastic movie we’ll both really enjoy.

    Berberian Sound Studio – Didn’t know about this film, but considering you’ve rated it number 1, I’ll give it a watch. However, I have an suspicion that I won’t find this film as enjoyable as you have. It just doesn’t look like a film that I will greatly enjoy.

    The Master – I’ve seen the previews for this and I have to say that despite having actors and actresses that I enjoy watching the film doesn’t look like it appeals to me. I wonder if it will end up being in my worst of list instead of best of… also considering that you note it as being capable of being in many people’s worst of list as well as best of lists how can you justify it as being the number 2 film of the year?

    The Raid – Another film I have to disagree with you on the ranking you gave it. I enjoyed watching The Raid, but I can’t conceive of any way possible that this film deserves the overall number 5 spot for the year. I find it ironic that you mention that it’s undeserving of that ranking yet gave it to it anyways because of how spectacular of a film it was for its specific genre. As awesome as it was as a Martial Arts action thriller, it still doesn’t deserve the number 5 spot.

    Tabu – A film I knew nothing about, but considering your ranking, I’ll probably check it out at some point. While it’s unfair for me to comment on your ranking of it, since I haven’t seen it, I’d just like to say that looking at the trailer for the film while taking in what you wrote still doesn’t get me excited. It looks sort of boring and the interesting artsy-type of story telling doesn’t appear to be enough to change that. It doesn’t appear to be a must see film for the year.

    Skyfall – Has easily been the best film I’ve seen this year, but then again I’ve missed out on watching many, so that’s not saying much. I will say that The Raid was definitely not better than it.

    Ai WeiWei Never Sorry – I’m not huge on documentaries being considered for best of the year films, but I have to admit this one looks quite interesting. I’d probably never rank it anywhere near a top 25, but it looks like a film worth picking-up and watching.

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