Monthly Archives: December 2012

2012 in Film, Part 1: My Favourite Films of the Year

Yes, that’s right, part one. The traditional best-of list follows, with an upcoming collection of awards for stuff that might have escaped mention here. As always, there are films I didn’t get to see in time that will probably be on next year’s list, and films that I liked but not enough to make the cut. And now, on with the show.

Image15. Bombay Beach
Dir. Alma Har’el (USA, 2011)
80 minutes

Bombay Beach is a strange, impressionistic documentary that values aesthetics over reportage. It looks into the lives of individuals and families in a run-down lakeside community in California that we would otherwise dismiss or never even hear of, and shows them as simply people, trying to make the best of a bad situation, but all capable of connection and love. It’s impossible to watch scenes like the Parish family struggling with their ADHD son, or the old man who philosophises to the camera about the hard life he’s led, and not see them as people who deserve far more than what they’ve been given.

But the film doesn’t contend itself with “realist” documentary miserablism. There are wonderful moments where the participants dance amid the semi-rural decay of Bombay Beach while the Beirut/Bob Dylan soundtrack thrums beautifully in the background; scenes that imbue their run-down surroundings with a kind of dreamlike beauty. It’s “anti-realist” in the best possible way; it shows an ideal of a better world and lets this world’s inhabitants act it out.

Image14. Killer Joe
Dir. William Friedkin (USA, 2012)
102 minutes

This was the year that Matthew McConaughey became an actor I took seriously, and a lot of that had to do with his revelatory performance in Killer Joe; a comically heightened Southern-fried pulp/noir blowout that gradually morphs into a folkloric cautionary tale of what happens to people who invite evil into their lives. The final extended scene betrays its stage-play origins, but the go-for-broke insanity of the whole thing (McConaughey in particular) turns it into a viscerally disturbing black comedy tour-de-force.

13. Carancho
Dir. Pablo Trapero (Argentina, 2010)
107 minutes

A bracingly nasty Argentinian neo-noir, unashamed to have its protagonist plumb the depths of scumbaggery. He’s a disgraced lawyer turned ambulance chaser (the “vulture” of the title) who’s not above faking accidents with the help of homeless people to earn some extra cash. Scuttling through the endless night of Buenos Aries, he strikes up a relationship with a paramedic who’s developing an addiction to opiates.

It’s dark stuff, but there’s room for a tender love story that, as with all things in this film, shades into desperation as the couple struggle to escape the corruption all around them. Gritty, hand-held cinematography chases the characters through ever-narrowing avenues. Crunching  collisions of metal soundtrack a story about the trauma inflicted by a brutal world.

12. Looper
Dir. Rian Johnson (USA, 2012)
118 minutes

Looper starts out as a zippy, high-concept sci-fi/noir exercise but quickly goes to some pretty dark places as it asks questions about how much of other people’s futures we would sacrifice to protect our own past. There’s also a weighty element of subtext on arrogant old age meeting cocksure youth, and the blame directed to the previous generation for leaving the present a screwed-up world.

Weird facial prosthetics aside, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pretty great, Willis actually seems to be trying and there’s a great scene-stealing turn from Jeff Daniels as a hangdog crime boss. The cinematography and production design conjures some unique images from among the fields and run-down post-industrial cityscapes of 2044. The restless camera tilts and whirls during the shootouts and chases, keeping us as disoriented as the uncomfortable ambiguities in the script.

Image11. Chronicle
Dir. Josh Trank (USA, 2012)
84 minutes

Like the most effective B-movies, Chronicle takes a simple premise (teens gain superpowers, document the experience via camcorder) and makes much more out of it. As with most found-footage movies, the filmmakers have to strain a bit to stick to the gimmick (although the characters’ powers do make for an elegant way around some obstacles). It turns from a teen drama to something far bigger and more disturbing, without sacrificing the low-key presentation – which at times makes it feel almost like a horror film. It’s one of the (very) few superhero movies I’ve seen that actually puts across how weird and unsettling superpowers would actually be.

You can read it as many things: as a film about the emotional and moral consequences of living in a world of social media, where being the star of your own movie necessarily relegates others to bits parts. As a critique of the superiority complex inherent in most superhero narratives. As a questioning of why our culture’s dreams are so often ones of power, violence and rage. And none of this subtext ever overwhelms the drama.

Image10. Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai
Dir. Takahshi Miike (Japan, 2011)
126 minutes

Miike returns to historical samurai drama after 13 Assassins, toning down the delirious ultraviolence of that film to offer something more cerebral, but no less gripping. Narrative expectation is upended is the story we think we are watching becomes about something else entirely. Miike uses the conventions of stately, classical samurai films to deconstruct not only the much-romanticised historical period, but the films that portray it admiringly; the chivalry and codes of honour are a farce, as hollow as an empty suit of armour.

Image9. The Raid
Dir. Gareth Evans (Indonesia/USA, 2011)
101 minutes

All-time outstanding achievement of this year in wrecking shit. Brutal, non-stop violence as a small group of cops take on an army of crooks in a tower block turned warzone. An action movie that’s inspiring for how well it lives up to its promise, and for its utter stripped-to-the-bone commitment to mayhem. Every perfectly-choreographed storm of blades, feet and fists is a gauntlet thrown down to everyone else working in this area, saying: Raise Your Game.

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8. Haywire
Dir. Steven Soderbergh (USA, 2011)
93 minutes

Almost the opposite number to the previous entry, this is a series of bone-crunchingly realistic fight setpeices set within a classic Soderbergh “process” film about characters who are defined by their jobs, and all the little actions they perform in service of those professions. In using an actual professional fighter as lead, Soderbergh can stage lengthy, complex fights where you see the characters work out in real time the best move to make. Every grab, punch, kick and slam is just professionals doing their thing.

There are so many funny moments – the guy under the door giving the finger, Carano running into shot behind a certain character, the final line – and a pleasingly retro jazzy soundtrack, that make it obvious Soderbergh’s having great fun with this. That it refuses to take itself too seriously is a big part of the film’s charm.

Image7. Miss Bala
Dir. Gerardo Naranjo (Mexico, 2011)
113 minutes

A brutal and often viscerally uncomfortable chronicle of the violence done to innocents in Mexico’s drug war, which achieves its aim through monomaniacal focus of one of those innocents. Our protagonist Laura is rarely off screen; the camera tracks her constantly like a lover (or a stalker). The film unfolds in a series of long takes that create an unbearable claustrophobia; we are trapped in each scene with Laura as she struggles to get out of every situation alive. (A sequence where she emerges from a crashed car into a running gun battle between cops and criminals has its own surreal beauty.) It’s an unflinching exploration of how corruption chews up and spits out anyone who tries not to take a side.

Image6. Moonrise Kingdom
Dir. Wes Anderson (USA, 2012)
94 minutes

Anderson fully indulges in whimsy and building perfect diorama-like worlds even as he delivers his saddest and most honest story, about a forbidden romance and elopement between two kids leading the adults around them to assess where their lives have gone wrong. In a sly inversion of their usual personae, Ed Norton and Bruce Willis play the pair of sad sacks in charge of the search efforts, and regular Anderson players Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman make welcome appearances. but the film truly belongs to Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the lovestruck couple lighting out into the wilderness. Alternating between slapstick and poignancy, it all builds to a rousingly silly climax that still allows for a lot of heart; a perfectly constructed gem.

Image5. Killing Them Softly
Dir. Andrew Dominik (USA, 2012)
104 minutes

Grimy and despairing, this ultra-downbeat crime drama filters its narrative through the financial collapse and Presidental election campaign of 2008 to tell a story of an America where the most secure institutions and the rules they play by seem to be in slow-motion collapse.

A pair of scuzzy, none-too-bright low-level hoods (Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) rip off a mob card game in an excruciatingly tense sequence. Brad Pitt is the consummate professional brought in to clear up the mess, but continually stymied by the equivocations of his bosses and the incompetence of his peers (including James Gandolfini in a film-stealing performance as a lugubrious, alcoholic hitman).

The film takes place in a New Orleans more decaying and rain-lashed the the anonymous metropolis of Fincher’s Se7en, playing on the theme of how capitalism devours its own without knowing or caring. It’s as brutal with the ways people can manipulate others into doing their bidding as it is with the beatings and shootings. The whole sordid story builds to a black-hearted punchline that equals the ending of There Will Be Blood for sheer mordant humour.

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4. The Imposter
Dir. Bart Layton (UK, 2012)
99 minutes

A supremely unsettling documentary, which uses its anti-realist techniques (such as reconstructions often  overdubbed with the participants’ own voices) to draw the audience into the sheer bizarreness of its story and the twists encountered on the way. It owes a lot to Errol Morris (said reconstructions, the Interrotron-style presentation of interviewees speaking straight to camera), and is similarly concerned with his regular themes of the flexibility of truth and the stories people tell to conceal unpalatable facts from others and from themselves. Unfortunately, that to tell much more would spoil the effect, so I’d ask everyone to go see it with as little information as possible, and get caught up in the stomach-churning series of revelations.

Image3. Rust and Bone
Dir. Jacques Audiard (France/Belgium, 2012)
120 minutes

What could be worthy, melodramatic subject matter is given real weight by the naturalistic direction and the raw power of Cotillard and Schoenaerts’ performances. The film is unabashedly rooted in the physical; Audiard’s camera lingers on flesh and skin in all its rough beauty, variously scarred, bloodied and tanned by the sun. Vulnerability comes through at every turn, with the characters’ interactions alternating between brutality and tenderness. The coupling of physical and emotional trauma is key to this story of damaged bodies, damaged people, and what it means to heal.

Image2. The Master
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (USA, 2012)
137 minutes

A film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible; huge landscapes and the surface of individual human faces are given the same level of loving, detailed exploration. Phoenix and Hoffman are truly exceptional; every indication you’re watching an actor perform falls away as you’re lost in the fine details of these characters. It’s a thorny, paradoxical tale of two men struggling with the unspoken connection they appear to have, both too headstrong to settle into the simple prophet-and-follower pattern. Set against the dawn of 50s conformism, it shows people who yearn for something more, wrestling with their own natures, trying to make sense of their lives. But even setting the acres of subtext aside, it’s as rewarding to simply enjoy the film as a gorgeous tactile thing and luxuriate in it.

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1. Holy Motors
Dir. Leos Carax (France/Germany, 2012)
115 minutes

Leos Carax’s latest film makes no attempt to disguise its self-reflexive nature; it’s an endless hall of mirrors of film commenting on film. The tale of one day in the life of “Monsieur Oscar” (Denis Lavant), being chauffered around Paris in a limousine between different “assignments”, laboriously applying different disguises as he goes, is the framework on which Carax hangs a number of vignettes from downbeat drama to farce, with room for a musical number or two.

All of the surreal moments and Russian-doll nesting of different performances could make it very arch and distant, but there are moments of real emotional heft. Lavant’s weathered face has a kind of ruined charisma that shines through all the disguises and prostheses – whether dressed to the nines or clad in rags, he looks like a man who has seen far too much, and knows he’ll have to see much more. There’s a moment where he and Kylie Minogue (yes, really) take a walk through a derelict department store, reminiscing about the past. And while we’re unsure whether they are both actors taking a moment to acknowledge their past relationship, or whether they’re both just playing another role, it’s a truly moving bit of acting by them both.

With its irrepressible bursts of silliness and refusal to stay still, this is a film lovers’ film in the best way possible – so convinced of the possibilities of the form it’s hard not to get caught up in its enthusiasm yourself.

And as a bonus, the best non-2012 films I saw for the first time this year (please excuse my embarrassment at the number of classics I’ve somehow only just got round to watching):

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (Gondry, 2006), Blue Valentine (Cianfrance, 2010), Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011), Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977), Hard Eight (Anderson, 1996), Shaft (Parks, 1971), P.T.U. (To, 2003), Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, 1958), Targets (Bogdanovich, 1968), A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), The Driver (Hill, 1978), Rope (Hitchcock, 1948), Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993), Fat City (Huston, 1972), Certified Copy (Kiarostami, 2010), Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, 1970), The Last Detail (Ashby, 1973)

Part Two coming soon…

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My 15 Favourite Albums of 2012

15. JJ DOOM – Key To The Kuffs
The latest DOOM collaboration project features producer Jneiro Jarel creating an ever-changing sample-heavy soundscape that’s a fitting backdrop for DOOM’s brand of intricate wordplay and surreal humour.
Essential Tracks: Guv’nor, Rhymin Slang, Wash Your Hands

14. Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge
Hawley changes up his style from retro-50s crooner to wall-of-sound heavy rocker, managing to make every track on this short album an epic, elemental storm of noise.
Essential Tracks: Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Leave Your Body Behind You

13. Future Of The Left – The Plot Against Common Sense
Still furious, still filthy, still brilliantly funny, still face-meltingly loud – we need Future of the Left more than ever, and they don’t disappoint.
Essential Tracks: Failed Olympic Bid, I Am The Least of Your Problems, Notes On Achieving Orbit

12. Smoke DZA – Rugby Thompson
DZA enlists some top-notch production from Harry Fraud and hits the expansive, cinematic beats hard, contrasting ice-cold aggression with luxuriant smoothness.
Essential Tracks: Ashtray, Kenny Powers, Rivermonts

11. Action Bronson – Blue Chips
To be honest, Bronsolino’s other mixtape released this year, the Alchemist-produced Rare Chandeliers, could also be in this position. But I’ve had most of the year to listen to this one, and  Party Supplies’ heavy-on-the-funk-samples production is appropriately scuzzy backing for Bronson’s down-and-dirty rhyming about crime, food and women.
Essential Tracks: Steve Wynn, Expensive Pens, 103 and Roosy

10. Santigold – Master Of My Make Believe
Pop music in 2012 looks a lot more like Santigold than it did in 2008 when she released her debut album. But while she may be less of an outlier than before, she’s still mixing styles to great effect. Master takes elements of hip-hop, orchestral pop, electro and more, making them into propulsive dancealong numbers or melancholic ballads. Genre-hopping doesn’t usually look this easy, or this fun.
Essential Tracks: Go!, Disparate Youth, The Keepers

9. Nas – Life Is Good
Nas as elder statesman – comfortable without being lazy, unafraid to try, digging into his past without being self-indulgent. It’s the best he’s been in years.
Essential Tracks: A Queens Story, Accident Murders, Back When

8. P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here
The Doomtree crew member delivers another dose of polemical rap and hard-hitting beats, sounding like a war report from a lost generation.
Essential Tracks: Fuck Your Stuff, How We Land, They Can’t Come, All Of It

7. Bob Mould – Silver Age
Mould deploys heavy riffs and his often-overlooked gift for a hooky chorus to mine a string of pop-punk gems.
Essential Tracks: Star Machine, The Descent, Angels Rearrange

6. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
El-P and Killer Mike were always going to be an uncompromising pairing, and this album fulfills that promise. El’s bone-rattling crunchy beats give the album its shape, and offer a perfect fit for Mike’s Southern drawl. The lyrics are righteously angry and fiercely intelligent. It’s a perfect representation of the best that rap can be.
Essential Tracks: Big Beast, Reagan, Butane (Champion’s Anthem)

5. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Anointed as Compton’s next great hope, Kendrick Lamar does a lot of playful self-mythologising on his major label debut (not least on the Dr Dre-featuring closing track). After a string of excellent mixtapes and features, good kid feels like something he’s been building towards for a while; an atmospheric concept album about his younger self struggling with temptation. Lamar excels at complex rhyming and crystal-clear storytelling, and the moody, downbeat production mirrors the album’s journey through introspection, depression, darkness and recovery.
Essential Tracks: Sherane (Master Splinter’s Daughter), Money Trees, good kid, Swimming Pools (Drank)

4. Silversun Pickups – Neck Of The Woods
Like a soundtrack for an unrealised film, ominous and abstract post-rock guitar patterns build to shattering crescendos.
Essential Tracks: Busy Bees, Simmer, The Pit, Dots And Dashes

3. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
As our world gradually turns full sci-fi dystopia (Drones Over BKLYN, anyone?) El-P seems more and more in step with the times. The production is a warzone where every electronic sound is broken apart and hastily repaired, as the lyrics plumb depths of self-loathing and paranoia. It’s dark music for dark times; in other words, essential.
Essential Tracks: The Full Retard, Oh Hail No, For My Upstairs Neighbour (Mums the Word)

2. Ab-Soul – Control System
It’s been a good year for the Black Hippy crew, and Ab-Soul in particular outclassed the competition. His latest album is a stack of back-to-back classics, with a stable of producers responsible for jittery Dre-influenced beats that never let the listener get comfortable. Soul’s lyrics range from conspiracy theorising to sharp dissections of gender relations. The album closes out on The Book of Soul, a masterful, moving story of personal tragedy.
Essential Tracks: Track Two, Double Standards, Lust Demons, ILLuminate, The Book Of Soul

1. Aesop Rock – Skelethon
Trickily verbose wordplay and darkly witty lyrics stand out against beats that stutter and glitch like malfunctioning machines or corrupt digital artifacts. Every line is so densely packed with meaning that it takes a series of listens to decipher. It feels like a coded transmission, or a Rosetta Stone that will give up all its secrets with only a little more digging. It’s an album to get lost in, a soundtrack for feeling lost and trapped inside your own head. In terms of depth and staying power, it’s an epic achievement.
Essential Tracks: Leisureforce, Zero Dark Thirty, Cycles To Gehenna, Crows 1, Racing Stripes

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