From its film noir-tinged beginning straight through to its exhilaratingly open ending The Grey, Joe Carnahan’s man vs nature epic, is a compulsively watchable and tense film. Liam Neeson stars as a widower who lives in self-imposed exile in a barely settled part of Alaska, surrounded by “men unfit for mankind,” stranded along with several others after a plane crash. Relentlessly pursued by wolves, the men are picked off one by one and those that remain find their strength and resolve tested at every moment. The plot movements have a certain level of predictability, but the force of the film comes from the atmosphere that Carnahan is able to engender, which makes this one of the most haunting films of the last year.
A portrait of vanity and excess, and of financial comeuppance, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles is a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time. Originally setting out to document the building of the largest single family dwelling in America, Greenfield’s film instead became a document of the attitudes of entitlement and irresponsibility in which the financial crisis has its roots. Although she obviously has some affection for her subjects – particularly the story’s “hero,” Jackie Siegel – Greenfield does not shy away from depicting them in less than favourable light, showing a marriage slowly cracking apart beneath the pressure of economic collapse, and an extended family struggling to stay afloat. This is one of the most illuminating films of that last year, and one of the most engaging.
Lincoln is a drama of closed, stuffy rooms, of men navigating a complex web of political interests that turn rivals into presumptive allies and vice versa, and of the fundamental question of human dignity and its place in a democratic society. Anchored by an extraordinary cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln is a film about ideas and debate, about political manoeuvring, backroom deals, and the compromises that must be made in order to effect political change. In telling the story director Steven Spielberg creates an effectively claustrophobic air and scales things back considerably to make this one of the most restrained efforts of his career. Although designed to touch the audience on an emotional level, the film never becomes bogged down with sentimentality, creating a powerful picture of a nation in crisis, and the men who guided it through.
Quentin Tarantino’s exploitation/revenge western is one of the most invigorating films of the year, blasting out of the gate and then burning up the track. While Tarantino is often accused of making films that have a level of style disproportionate to their actual substance, Django most certainly has depth. The subjects of slavery and race may be explored with blunt force, but the very directness of the film’s approach is what makes it so refreshing. There’s no politically correct tiptoeing around the subject; the film shows slavery as the savage, grotesque institution that it was, but tempers the violence with a fine thread of comedy. More narratively straight forward than his previous films, but no less entertaining, Django is Tarantino at top form.
A science fiction fantasy that taps into some choice hot button issues – climate change, the wealth disparity – and creates some of the year’s most indelible images, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that is more than equal to the hype it has received over the course of the last year. Helmed by novice director Benh Zeitlin, and centering on the performance of first timer Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts has a delightfully unfettered, rough around the edges quality that nicely complements its story. Though by no means a “perfect” film, it is a spirited, imaginative and often beautiful piece of work and Wallis is a find for the ages.
It was supposed to be unfilmable, the story of a teenage boy stuck on a life boat in the middle of the Atlantic with a tiger, and yet here it is: bold, gorgeously rendered, and very moving. Ang Lee’s spectacular vision is a fully immersive experience, even when seen in traditional 2D, and expertly crafted in absolutely every respect. Although there are scenes of spectacular action – including, but not limited to, the storm at sea which begins Pi’s great adventure – it is Lee’s focus on the human aspect of the story that makes the film so affecting. Pi’s story is very specific, but this lyrical telling lends it a universality that makes it easy to connect with. Life of Pi is an unforgettable film, masterfully told.
Argo is a film with an old school feel to it. Although it plays fast and loose with history, it is so superbly constructed and executed that you’re inclined to forgive it for fudging the facts. From the opening storyboard prologue, which gives a bit of context to the situation in Iran, to the brilliant first scenes showing the taking of the American Embassy, and then straight through to the final chase scene, director Ben Affleck creates and sustains an amazing level of tension and suspense, while also mixing in a touch of lightness and comedy. Argo is a gripping, white-knuckle thriller, free of filler and light on its narrative feet. Great completely on its own terms, it also confirms Affleck as a director who is going to be a major force to be reckoned with.
One of the most talked about films of 2012, Zero Dark Thirty would be buried underneath the debate it has inspired if it weren’t so incredibly well made. Spanning the decade between the 9/11 attacks and the death of Osama bin Laden, the film explores the intense pursuit of the world’s most wanted terrorist. Uniquely, for this type of story, it is not just told from the perspective of a woman, but told in the absence of any kind of romantic subplot, allowing Jessica Chastain’s Maya to be simply a woman who does her job and does it well. Told in a clinical, journalistic style, but with the robustness of an action film, this film is riveting from start to finish and exquisitely directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man is one of the most inspiring films of the last year. Beginning as a sort of mystery story, with an enigmatic singer/songwriter named Rodriguez at its centre, and ending as a story of triumph over adversity, the film is a total delight. Blending traditional techniques such as archival footage and interviews (at least one of which is far more revealing than the interview subject would probably like) with animation and music, Bendjelloul’s storytelling is charming and very effective. What happens in this film is the kind of thing that you wouldn’t buy for a second in fiction feature, but knowing that it could happen in real life will bring a smile to your face and go a ways to affirming your belief in humanity.
Wes Anderson’s wistful tale of two misfit pre-teens in love is easily one of his best films to date. Focusing on two characters making the transition from the low stakes drama of childhood to the higher stakes drama of young adulthood, and populating the story with the kind of dry, ironic characters that he writes so well (all of whom are excellently played by their respective actors), Anderson skilfully mixes drama and comedy, creating a film that is moving, funny and resonant. While the story itself is told in a fanciful way and full of exaggerated moments and images, it is also grounded in real human emotion as it explores themes of love and growing up. Moonrise Kingdom is a brilliant little gem of a film and the best that 2012 had to offer.