My Top 10 Pleasant Surprises of 2012
2012 has been an odd year, personally, professionally and cinematically. Personally, it’s been a year of finding my way: of testing what does work, what doesn’t work and examining what I want most out of life. Professionally, it’s been a year of constant activity entwined with -- somewhat paradoxically -- stagnation, which ultimately served as the chrysalis for a rebirth of professional goals and future projects. We started the year aiming to make two shorts, made none, instead creating a heap of trailers for various projects and purposes, before announcing to the world our big plan: Two shorts in 2013, followed by our first feature film, MENTOR, in 2014. Yeah, I’m pretty excited.
Cinematically, what promised in many ways to be an epochal year in modern cinema turned out -- for me, anyway -- to be one of cold disappointments and pleasant surprises, with only a few exceptions. It was a year where I became a radio film critic for ABC Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast FM stations in Queensland, and therefore going to more screenings and seeing more new films than ever before. Whether this contributed to my relatively ambivalent view of cinema in 2012 is something only time will tell, since I’ve now hung up my radio critical boots (after, it must be said, having a wonderful time chatting with respective morning hosts Nicole Dyer and Annie Gaffney).
It was a year where many of my favourite filmmakers released new works: Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, for starters (although the latter’s effort is excluded from this chart as it releases in Australia in 2013 -- which is a shame, as it would have made a huge impact on the list). Who of them made my list of favourite films of 2012?
Quick answer? Not as many as you would think.
So let’s dig in to it. What you will find below are my Top 10 Pleasant Surprises and Top 10 Films of 2012. As always, the rule of eligibility is this: Only feature-length narrative and documentary films that received a PUBLIC, NON-INVITATION-ONLY Cinema, DVD/Blu-Ray, Television or Video On Demand release in Australia for the first time in 2012 are able to be included. Basically, any feature film that Joe and Jane Public could buy a ticket to is in (so this includes films screened at film festivals). Got it? Okay. So, from a record 155 eligible films, here are my…
8) GET THE GRINGO
Thrilling, mildly nasty and darkly funny, Gibson & company blast a scrappy, hugely entertaining, gritty as hell crime flick against a unique backdrop. Unafraid of darkness, and a perfect comeback vehicle for Gibson, utilising his movie star charisma but refusing to make him acquiesce to the audience.
7) THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
No remake -- particularly a near-xerox of Raimi's orginal -- has any right to be this good, but no-body banked on director Marc Webb, his writers and cast actually caring about the material. While it may lack some spectacle, its perfectly cast leads, old-school-Spidey light touch and deft writing see it swing -- yes -- even higher than Raimi’s first SPIDER-MAN film.
5) MAGIC MIKE
Spunky, sun-kissed backstage comedy-drama enjoyably, accessibly critiques demands of post-Global Financial Crisis capitalism before ceding to low-key melodrama. Tatum makes for a wonderful, sensitive lead -- who’s one hell of a dancer, by the way -- but Matthew McConaughey almost steals it with a performance of raw, sinewy, nigh-psychotic intensity -- he’ll never die wondering, that’s for sure.
1) MOONRISE KINGDOM
Just when I thought myself forever estranged from Wes Anderson’s ultra-specific, ultra-arch style, THE FANTASTIC MR FOX came along and made me smile. But still, I thought: “Well, it’s the animation style that did it. And he’s still dealing with the same old ‘giant parent/under-appreciated genius kid’ dynamic, right?” So, naturally, he drops MOONRISE KINGDOM on us. While very much Wes Andersonian in theme and style, it seems a refinement of all that has come before, so much so, it feels both familiar yet so incredibly, refreshingly different. It’s an utterly adorable adventure crafted with impeccable visual flourish -- even for Wes, it’s more lush than ever -- a genuinely nostalgic, romantic sense of time and place, a real emotional gravity (something missing from Wes’ films between TENENBAUMS and FOX) and a rather sweet examination of 1950s masculinity.
Paul Anthony Nelson's Top 10 Films of 2012
15) THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
14) KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND
12) THE RAID
11) A SEPARATION
...and then, there were ten…
10) THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
The film that puts Nolan’s personal stamp on the Batman character, placing a welcome focus on his heroes' humanity and bringing the trilogy elegantly full circle, all of which surpasses any apparent alarmism over the Occupy movement -- in fact, it’s an effective study in how tyrants use genuine social ills to their devious advantage. Some logic blips aside, Nolan’s film boasted a scale like no other film this year (save for perhaps the less satisfying PROMETHEUS) and saw a filmmaker at the peak of his creative powers deliver a gloriously seismic closer.
Stunningly crafted, emotionally electric doc shows wondrous deeds of a committed few in the face of a broken US society. If the events of this film turned up in a fictional Hollywood film, you’d likely scoff, but seeing it unfold for real is just breathtaking -- and made me cry buckets.
Writer/director Rian Johnson really comes into his own with this hugely immersive sci-fi action thriller, as he skilfully distills his many influences into a thrilling concoction of classy craft and strong characters, even when his plot cheats a bit. Emily Blunt is particularly great in a terrific cast, in what may be the most purely entertaining film I saw in 2012.
6) YOUNG ADULT
Charlize Theron plays for zero sympathy but manages to win it anyway in a wry, uncomfortably honest dark comedy on reconciling with one’s adulthood and owning your life choices. Great to see Team JUNO, writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, wonderfully concocting a much blacker brew.
5) SOUND OF MY VOICE
Riveting, nimbly plotted and wonderfully performed genre-mash hurls intrigue, tonal switches and wicked ideas with perfect pitch, structured in such a novel way it can’t help but grip you hard. A shining example of what can be achieved with fresh, compelling ideas on a shoestring budget.
Characters charm and clichés crumble as Pixar's humour, smarts and primal storytelling dexterity finally rub off on Disney. Bright, pacy and subverting Disney cliches left and right, I’ve not fallen in love with a lead character in years as much as I did with Ralph. Got a little misty during this one, too. Just a big, warm-hearted blast of a film, supreme entertainment.
3) MARINA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT
No-one is more surprised than me that this is here. I’ve had little interest in performance art before, but within minutes of this film, you’re so wrapped up in Abramovic’s charisma and boundless dedication to her craft that you can’t help but go on this journey. But what really sneaks up on you is that, through the centrepiece of Marina’s exhibition -- the simple act of her sitting across from patrons and staring at them openly -- the film begins to paint an eloquent, powerfully emotional picture of humanity today, and our primal need for human connection. Utterly compelling.
Michael Haneke's sublime control reigns, exploring brutal truths of devotion and mortality. Quietly devastating, brilliantly acted portrait of a couple facing the end of their lives, as their grace and dignity wrestles with ugly reality. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are heartbreaking great in is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
1) KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Andrew Dominik’s third feature typifies the reasons I both love, and need to create, cinema: It’s an arrestingly visceral, acidic take on our failed global economy, substituting a institutionalised government with middle-level organised crime. It isn't always subtle and often feels like it’s shouting its message at you, but don’t be fooled: there are subtleties beneath the main message. It’s a gritty crime flick that’s politically angry and unafraid to say it, thrilling with career-best-level acting from all concerned (Pitt particularly is growing into one of America’s very best screen actors, period), bracing style and something powerful to say. From one of the most gut-wrenching beatings I’ve seen onscreen to one of the very best closing lines of recent decades, KILLING THEM SOFTLY is a hollow-point bullet to the head of America’s increasingly homogenised, tentpole-obsessed cinema.
Now bring on 2013!
Viva la cinema,
Paul Anthony Nelson