This is by no means an authoritative list for 2012, there are several films this year that I’ve still yet to view that almost certainly would had featured here; either due to missing them at the cinema on their original release (“Marlene, Marcy, May”, “Himizu” and “Amour”), or to arcane distribution delays (“Django Unchained”, “Evangelion 3.0” and “009 Cyborg”). Nevertheless, it’s been a really interesting year in cinema and boiling things down to a Top 10 is a hard task for anyone attempting it!
Despite my initial snobbery about this (heavily one-sided) account of 1979 Iran Hostage crisis, it’s hard to argue with “Argo’s” cinematic brilliance; it really captures the gnawing irrational terror of passing through passport control! Director Ben Affleck ratchets up the tension with artful precision, creating a fun and thrilling story that keeps you guessing throughout. Clear artistic licence has been taken with the subject material (most notably at its climax and with a dangerously flippant remark about the lack of help from Britain and New Zealand), but to the film’s credit, most of these choices were made to service the dramatic pace of the film. Such strong instincts mark Affleck out as an impressively capable director. Despite its occasionally dubious politics, “Argo ” still manages to be a highly satisfying cinematic experience, featuring impressive performances from a well balanced ensemble cast of legends and unknowns.
9. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Cinematic documentaries have become increasingly slick over the past few years but few would deny the esoteric flourishes on offer here from director Alison Klayman. Ai Weiwei is a pop artist for the 21st Century, surrounded by an entourage of eager disciples and regarded with overwhelming hype in the West. Klayman’s intelligent documentary takes on the Chinese artist’s larger than life story with gusto, recounting his turbulent upbringing, early life in New York and his later transformation into a domestic political pariah/freedom fighter, with humanity and grace. Undoubtably “Never Sorry’s” finest achievement is its stubborn refusal to descend into unconditional platitudes for its subject, instead it paints a portrait of a man torn by his innate need to fight against a system that he knows is wrong and his apparent responsibility for the many others (family, employees and friends) that deeply depend on him. Jaw-dropping scenes involving the artist’s mother, son and wife, reveal the daily toll that this dilemma has. In its layered complexity regarding nationalism, reform, artistic integrity and human rights; “Never Sorry” is an essential warning shot to all who consider themselves citizens of the world.
8. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Of all the films released this year, perhaps the one who’s critical response has surprised me the most has been “The Hobbit.” The knives have truly been brought out for this, the first of three instalments based on JRR Tolkein’s children’s novel. There’s a couple of reasons why I think that such a response is unfair; particularly the complaints about the length of not just this film but the other still unreleased instalments. For anyone who’s actually read the novel, it’s more than evident that the story has been rightfully expanded, firstly because its necessary for work to make dramatic sense (it is after all a film “adaptation” last time I checked!) and secondly because this will enable it to link in more effectively with “The Lord of The Rings” film series. Also, for people that have complained about the tone, I personally found it to be no different from the other films and in fact was surprised that children in the audience weren’t more bothered by the gritty battle scenes towards the end! Overall, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is an excellent new instalment to the franchise, bringing back iconic characters with expected quality, whilst clearly setting up new dramatic developments to be resolved in its sequels. It also doesn’t hurt that it is grounded rather beautifully by a brilliant central performance by Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (the titular Hobbit).
7. Life of Pi
“Life of Pi” adapted from the novel of the same name written by Yann Martel, is a true rarity; a film that is both glorious in its aesthetics but also unflinchingly brutal in its nature. More than any other theme, “Life of Pi” is about natural selection and the conflict this harsh reality has with concepts of spirituality. The film’s hugely enjoyable beginning scenes in India are deliberately set up as s juxtaposition with the crushing isolated struggle the central character, Pi, encounters afterwards. Whilst its up to the viewer to decide “Life of Pi’s” overall resolution to this conflict, the tale’s concluding twist acts a catalyst that complicates the need for answers further and brings you back to listen to the story again, very much in keeping with “the circle of life.” Supposedly “unfilmable”, director Ang Lee deserves huge recognition for his superb script structuring, technical wizardry and the sheer emotion that he manages to evoke despite the story’s periodically savage overtones. Not a children’s film or the sugarcoated popularist blockbuster its been curiously advertised as, but instead a mature, ponderous, modern masterpiece.
Ralph Fiennes may have made waves in 007’s “Skyfall” adventure this year but his real achievement was “Coriolanus”, a truly stunning directorial debut. Very much a personal project, Fiennes’ battle to bring Shakespeare’s controversial play (Hitler would frequently order theatrical productions of it) out of obscurity and back into relevance is commendable. The resulting adaptation resets the play in a modern “middle eastern” nation state, riffing off the Arab spring to great effect. Even greater though, is Fiennes’ unrestricted central performance, which propels what could had been potentially tedious (political machinations and chest beatings) into a visceral, well paced and taut thriller. “Coriolanus” is a complete triumph, cutting away the superfluous aspects of the play and succeeding in portraying a man at war with himself. In my mind it stands tall amongst the finest cinematic Shakespeare adaptations (“Ran” based on King Lear by Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth”).