Thursday, December 20, 2012

Listomania! My Favourite Films of 2012

Merry Listmas, Everyone! It’s time to unwrap my Top Eleven Films of 2012.

Compiling this list was incredibly easy. Every single one of the first ten films on this list was always going to have a spot from the minute I walked out of the cinema. And then there’s the eleventh. Which kind of snuck up on me. It’s the only film on the list that I really didn’t expect to have here at the end of the year. But here we are, and there it is. We’ll come back to that one later...

Some tedious disclaimers to nip any incipient reader pedantry in the bud: Yes, this is based on UK theatrical release dates. No, obviously I haven’t seen everything. Right. Let’s get on with it. In no particular order...It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights...

The Muppets
It is believed that the word "vaudeville" is originally derived from the expression "voix de ville" which roughly translates as "voice of the city" or "songs of the town", and the beginning of 2012 marked the triumphant return of Jim Henson’s merry band of anthropomorphic vaudevillians, replete with the finest voices and the catchiest songs. Scraping away all the barnacles that have become encrusted on their furry bottoms over the years, Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller and James Bobin distilled exactly what it was that we loved about The Muppet Show in the first place, reminding us how smart and dumb and satirical and anarchic and uplifting and downright lovable the Muppets always were at their very best. An exuberant riff on a well-worn "Let’s get the gang back together and put on a show!" story, The Muppets managed to be extremely funny, surprisingly moving and genuinely exhilarating, often all at once. We always missed them, we just never realised quite how much. All together now: Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh...

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Not all of Henson’s shaggy progeny were entertainers. Some of them were educators, and I come not to bury Kevin Clash, but to praise him. Being Elmo not only places Jim Henson’s natural successor squarely in the spotlight (which is remarkable considering how shy and modest Clash appears to be), but it also manages to tell a wider story about the history of one of television's finest achievements: Sesame Street. It would be a damn shame if this documentary now becomes a buried museum piece in the wake of allegations that have surfaced about Clash in recent months, but I’m no rumourmonger and I certainly have no intention of getting into all that mess here. On the basis of Being Elmo, however, it’s difficult to square the stories that have bubbled up from the fetid toilet bowl of gossip sites with the picture portrayed here of a man who genuinely loved Being Elmo, loved being a Muppeteer and loved putting a smile on the faces of everyone that saw the open arms, gaping smile, wide eyes and bright red fur of Sesame Street’s biggest star. If you haven’t already seen it, just watch it and judge for yourself. And as a companion piece, I highly recommend Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis.

21 Jump Street
"We're reviving a canceled undercover project from the '80s and revamping it for modern times. The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what they do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope that nobody will notice." And with that defiant statement of intent, I was sold.

On paper, this movie sounds like a horrible idea. It even has an entire sequence showing people out of their minds on drugs and, as a rule, trippy scenes like that are almost always fist-gnawingly self-indulgent. Not here, though. 21 Jump Street is a glorious, shining example of how to do it right and, as an added bonus, it introduces "Fuck You, Science!" into the lexicon of eminently quotable movie lines. Channing Tatum is a revelation - the man has some serious comedy chops. But the real star of 21 Jump Street is screenwriter / alchemist Michael Bacall who took the lead dumped in his lap and turned it into a finely-honed chunk of comedy gold.

Dark Shadows
Some people think that the lack of a defining, signature auteur style is what makes a truly great director (Steven Soderbergh, for example). But as Russ Meyer taught us over the course of his career, sometimes mining, refining and returning to certain preoccupations can also be hallmarks of a world-class filmmaker. In this particular instance I’m thinking of Tim Burton, who snags two spots in my Top Eleven.

Dark Shadows often feels as if Burton picked up a Beetlejuice-like anti-hero and dumped him into the anarchic, picaresque mess of a Mars Attacks!, and yet it is still very much it’s own thing. I’m not blind to the fact that Dark Shadows is messy and undisciplined and lacking in focus, but I almost love it more for that. It picks up, drops and sometimes just throws away storylines and plot threads, but it is based on a long-running soap opera and it’s not uncommon for soap operas to do just that. In the spirit of Dark Shadows, here are some scattershot, unrelated reasons why I loved it:

Burton doesn’t soft-peddle the darker elements of Johnny Depp’s Barnabas Collins, yet you never stop rooting for him.

It doesn’t hurt that Curtis Mayfield appears on the soundtrack - I am powerless in the face of a sliver of Superfly.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel shoots the hell out of it, nailing the grey washed out tones of daytime television circa 1972, whilst also managing to capture the deep blacks and reds of Burton’s gothic flourishes or the popping colours of the more blatantly kitsch retro sequences.

The shot of Collins cowering in the glare of McDonald’s golden arches is amongst my favourite images of the year.

It is frequently very funny indeed and if you’re still not sold after all of that unequivocal praise, check out the best thing I’ve read about Dark Shadows so far by The Film Doctor here.

Your second helping of Burton magic: A black-and-white animated valentine to old Universal and Hammer horror movies which celebrates inquisitive and creative children that play with dead things. Love, loss, friendship and mutated corpses, all wrapped up in a lush, evocative, bombastic Danny Elfman score and gorgeous visuals.

Serbuan maut (The Raid)
A moving picture that really, really moves. It always feels somehow inappropriate to try and encapsulate in words the visceral, breathless thrills of a truly great action movie. I should just be able to point you at it and tell you to see it yourself: Every vertiginous back-flip, every excruciating bone-snap, every gravity-defying physical contortion. I saw it in an auditorium where the cinema rumbled for the duration with sympathy-groans at every cracked skull and shattered kneecap. I remember the first time I saw Die Hard and Hard Boiled and Enter the Dragon. Watching The Raid for the first time was exactly the same. Extraordinary and exhilarating are only two of the inadequate superlatives that just don’t do it justice.

Killer Joe
On the junket circuit recently, Quentin Tarantino has been making a lot of noise about the importance of a filmmaker’s legacy and the sanctity of a solid filmography, arguing that directors in their later years lack the passion, potency and innovation present in their earlier work. He obviously hasn’t seen Killer Joe. Dark, playful, twisted and disarmingly funny, William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is the work of an old master refusing to go gently into that good night, with a blistering psychosexual thriller that shows he has every intention of continuing to burn and rave at close of day. It’s also worth pointing out that Friedkin and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel get some moody, bright and beautiful footage shooting digitally. (So don’t write off digital cameras just yet, Quentin).

Matthew McConaughey has always been big. It's the pictures that got small. After far too long in the multiplex wilderness, picking up pay cheques for smirks and shirt removal, McConaughey slides into the role of Killer Joe like one of those snug black leather gloves he seems so fond of, knowing that the only way to play the part is to go all the way over-the-top and into the darkness. Surrounded by incredibly strong support from Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and a particularly fearless turn from Gina Gershon, Killer Joe has the finest ensemble acting in any movie this year. My absolute favourite film of the year, and here comes my second favourite...

Berberian Sound Studio
"This is not a horror film – this is a Santini film!". Peter Strickland lingers lovingly on the obsolete audio technology of the recent past, the demolished innards of violated vegetables and the excruciating sounds of unseen giallo The Equestrian Vortex, as timid foley artist Tony Jones gets to grips (or is that loses his grip?) on the noises he has been tasked with making in the name of art. Slippery, sickly, gorgeous and with an unexpected streak of gallows humour - in particular the verbal descriptions of the action that is always just out of shot: "The dangerously aroused goblin prowls the dormitory". Very much looking forward to Strickland’s third feature The Duke of Burgundy, a dark melodrama that is currently in production with Ben Wheatley’s Rook Films.

Repeat after me: Time travel movies are not mathematical equations. They don’t have to fit together perfectly. They can’t fit together perfectly. If you spend all of your time trying to figure out how everything slots together seamlessly, you just won’t enjoy yourself. And if you don’t want to enjoy yourself, you have no business going to watch something as enjoyable, rich and multi-layered as Looper. That’s the true paradox of a time paradox film. Through his scrubby beard, Jeff Daniels warns the audience: "This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg..." You would do well to heed his words.

When Bruce Willis was 31, he was appearing in the Second Season of Moonlighting. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt was 31, he was playing a young Bruce Willis in Looper. I find this bit of trivia endlessly distracting now, especially when I look at Levitt’s prosthetic nose and wonder why he doesn’t look like David Addison...

The moment I saw that 70s-era Warner Brothers logo at the beginning of Argo, I had a feeling I was going to enjoy myself. Deliberately invoking an era of classic political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View is a ballsy, dangerous gambit, but Ben Affleck pulls it off. Argo is far pulpier than its forebears, and the final movement of the film certainly feels like it indulges in a hefty dollop of dramatic licence just to amp up the tension, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a confident, accomplished and compelling yarn about a largely unknown part of our recent secret history.

The Avengers
When I started thinking about this list, I wasn’t sure that it would make the cut. But I would be guilty of the worst kind of inverse snobbery if I didn’t find an eleventh spot on this list for The Avengers. Joss Whedon pulls together all the strands of the Marvel Universe that have been building towards this moment for years and ties it all together with spectacle, snappy banter and a handful of genuine punch-the-air crowd-pleasing moments. Unlike The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall, The Avengers is not remotely embarrassed of its source material and wholeheartedly embraces it. Colourful, epic, just the right side of silly and heaps of fun. On top of that, Whedon does what no-one has been able to do since the days when Lou Ferrigno ruled the cathode ray: He not only made the Hulk work in a movie, he made him the star. Incredible and Smashing.

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