The blockbusters may have been less dumb, but the biggest delights of the year came from the films on the margins, writes DONALD CLARKE
IT HAS become customary for Scrooge McCritic to give out about the state of commercial cinema at this time of year. Oh, for a return to the good old days. A glance at the box-office figures suggests that we may inadvertently have got what we wished for. If you asked a cinema fan in 1962 to speculate on the most successful films of 2012, he or she might be surprised to hear that the front-runner would be the 22nd sequel to a film that had just arrived in cinemas. Fifty years after Dr No, Skyfall is, indeed, the biggest film of 2012 in these territories. The Avengers, based on a strip that would emerge in 1963, currently holds the worldwide title. The only serious contender yet to open – with apologies to Tinkerbell and the Secret of Wings – is based on a fantasy novel published nearly 30 years before our imaginary cinephile began his experiments in futurology (work it out for yourself). The CG effects and internet marketing might have astonished the 1960s punter, but the themes and subject matter would have seemed wearily familiar.
Pessimists could reasonably argue that the year’s most significant cinema stories involved the relative failure of Walt Disney’s John Carter and the same company’s recent disinterment of Star Wars. Though based on an ancient series of novels, John Carter did, at least, constitute a genuine attempt to launch a new (if not exactly fresh) franchise. The return of Star Wars comes across like a fatalistic, despairing throwing up the industry’s collective hands.
And yet, as these pages demonstrate, 2012 was a pretty good year for the movies. Franchise episodes such as The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall and The Avengers were somewhat over-praised, but they still showed much evidence of creative thinking. (Sadly, as its release shrunk in the rear-view mirror, Ridley Scott’s bafflingly unfocused Prometheus seemed ever more of a lumbering disappointment.) The Hunger Games introduced us to some new friends. Looper proved that large audiences would flock to novel mainstream entertainment. The unexpectedly delightful The Muppets was better than any of the superhero or secret agent epics.
Scrooge McCritic is, however, forced to pull on his most austere nightcap and point towards the margins for evidence that contemporary film-makers can still make movies that justify leaving the house. Older gentlemen such as Michael Haneke and Béla Tarr delivered forbidding masterpieces with, respectively, Amour and The Turin Horse. Leos Carax defied his critics with the disorienting Holy Motors. Thomas Vinterberg, hitherto Johnny Awkward, directed a gripping, white-knuckle melodrama in The Hunt.
It is futile to seek any trends in a world cinema that includes Andrey Zvyagintsev’s sociological ponderings on Russia in Elena, Ann Hui’s gentle naturalism in A Simple Life and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s leisurely investigations of rural Turkey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
If, however, we are forced to come up with some sort of useless catch-all movement, let us invent and celebrate the New Weirdness. Few lists of the year’s best films have, in recent times, taken in so much rampant peculiarity.
Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio could hardly be more off-centre if it had been performed through the medium of semaphore. Is Toby Jones, an uptight Englishman adrift in an Italian film studio, actually becoming embedded in the imaginary film known as The Equestrian Vortex? We are not supposed to know.
Holy Motors featured a mad tramp who eats hair, a chap who seems to be married to a chimpanzee and – in a relatively calm moment – Kylie Minogue warbling a seductive Neil Hannon ballad.
Ben Wheatley, among the most exciting British directors of the age, combined woolly-jumpered monotony with psychopathic violence in Sightseeers and still managed to raise hearty laughs.
The anarchic energy bubbled crazily in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. As in Holy Motors and Berberian, we are never quite sure what is real and what is happening in the imagination. Happily, audiences didn’t seem to mind and this tale of chaos in the American south became something of a crossover hit.
Then there is the continuing puzzle that is The Master. On the surface, Paul Thomas Anderson’s picture is not as odd as the extravaganzas listed above. It is set in
something like our own universe. Nobody sprouts wings and flies. But, once again, the characters’ fantasies seem to seep into the real world. Motivations are obscure. Half-plots point in lunatic directions. The audience is invited to construct their own meta-film from the building blocks provided.
What does it all mean? Is the New Weirdness a reflection of the chaos and disorder that characterises contemporary western society? No. Sadly, these films remain fringe interests. Most of us are still watching James Bond. 1962 was only yesterday.
THE TURIN HORSE
The great Hungarian film-maker – a master of engrossing stasis – announces his retirement with this rigorous, monochrome study of a man, his horse, his daughter and the elements. A neat (if lengthy) summation of the distinguished director’s aesthetic.
The director of The Return and The Banishment deserved more acclaim for his bleak moral fable – shades of Dostoevsky and Gogol – concerning a working-class nurse’s complex relations with her older, much wealthier husband. A hypnotic beginning eventually leads to an appalling moral crisis.
Well, well. It seems as if it really is possible to flog a clever science-fiction film that is neither a remake nor a sequel nor even an adaptation. If you can credit that Joseph Gordon-Levitt could grow up to be Bruce Willis, then you will easily believe all the thrilling time-travel hokum.
Even those previously suspicious of Carax’s grandiose madness were won over by this wildly funny, often moving phantasmagoria concerning an obscurely defined operative who spends his days living out eccentric lives. Denis Levant excels in the central role(s).
(Paul Thomas Anderson)
It looks a lot like a study of Scientology’s origins, but Anderson’s follow-up to There Will be Blood has more universal themes at its heart: trauma, power, sublimated sexuality. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are exemplary as guru and semi-attached disciple.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
This side-swiping blast of Southern madness from a young New York director blew minds 11 months ago at Sundance and went on to become the most talked-about debut of the year. Reviews mentioned Malick and Herzog, but the film has a deranged flavour all its own. Tiny Quvenzhané Wallis is already a star.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
Featuring a clever, temporally divided structure, Durkin’s worrying film offered a chilly, indecently exciting examination of the way that cults work their dark magic on vulnerable minds. Elizabeth Olsen put blue water between herself and her sisters – those notorious twins – with a grounded central performance.
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
In a year of odd masterworks, Strickland’s study of a shy English soundman slaving on an Italian horror film might just be the strangest of the lot. Toby Jones brings all his mousy brilliance to the role of a home-counties hobbyist adrift in sleazy, low-rent glamour.
It says something about Haneke that a film concerning an older lady dying slowly in a Paris apartment has been identified (probably correctly) as his most accessible work. Almost unbearably austere, the picture features fearless performances from Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant.
Though screened to acclaim at various film festivals throughout 2009, Farhadi’s complex, moving Iranian film did not secure a release until the director’s A Separation turned heads last year. An ensemble piece, set in a resort on the Caspian Sea, the picture lived up to its successor’s mighty reputation.
NURIBILGE CEYLANOnce Upon a Time in Anatolia
ALEKSEI FEDORCHENKOSilent Souls
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSONThe Master
JOE WRIGHTAnna Karenina
ANN HUIA Simple Life
BÉLA TARRThe Turin Horse
MADS MIKKELSONThe Hunt
JOAQUIN PHOENIXThe Master
DENIS LEVANTHoly Motors
MOHAMED FELLAGMonsieur Lazhar
QUVENZHANÉ WALLISBeasts of the Southern Wild
GRETA GERWIGDamsels in Distress
THE DARK KNIGHT RISESChristopher Nolan
MARVEL AVENGERS ASSEMBLEJoss Whedon
THE HUNGER GAMESGary Ross
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 2Bill Condon
THE MUPPETSJames Bobin
BRAVEMark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
THE PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS!Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt
PARANORMANChris Butler and SamFell
MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTEDEric Darnell and Tom McGrath
TALES OF THE NIGHTMichel Ocelot
MARINA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENTMatthew Akers and Jeff Dupre
SEARCHING FOR SUGARMANMalik Bendjelloul
BOMBAY BEACHAlma Har'el
TWO YEARS AT SEABen Rivers
BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORKRichard Press
NATIVITY 2: DANGER IN THE MANGERDebbie Isitt
A FEW BEST MENStephan Elliott
SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMENLasse Hallström
THE WATCHAkiva Schaffer
ROCK OF AGESAdam Shankman