On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Eleven Grey wolves
Ten Joes a-killing
Nine Lives of Pi
Eight Raiders Raiding
Seven District tributes
Six Unexpected Journeys
Five Looping Loopers
Four Argo film crews
Three Assembled Avengers
Two Dark Knights Rising
And a Skyfall from 00-Heaven.
That’s my musical version of presenting my top twelve films of 2012, and the reason I decided on a top twelve rather than a top ten. Not that 2012 featured so many astounding cinema experiences that I could not pick less than twelve – originally there were ten. But then I decided to put them into musical form, which necessitated an extra two. Ranking them was surprisingly difficult, and the factor I used to ascertain their positions was surprise. What surprised me, what met expectations, and what exceeded expectations were the deciding factors in deciding my favourites.
As I’ve written previously, expectation plays a large part in my engagement with a film, largely because I get involved in the hype and let it influence me – the cinematic experience is not only the time spent in the auditorium, but the anticipation that builds up through news, trailers, reviews and reactions of other viewers. My most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, and when I saw it I was far from disappointed. But Christopher Nolan’s EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND (sic) only met my expectations, it did not exceed them. It has divided opinion, although there seem to be fewer who thought it “sucks” than those who found it “awesome”. Similarly, while it was great to be back in Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there was an unshakeable sense of déjà vu which meant the film lacked freshness, unlike Avengers Assemble which united familiar figures in a new situation. Skyfall also divided opinion, as many thought it was superb but there were (apparently) instances of people walking out, which is baffling to me. I probably had a prejudice about Skyfall because it is a Bond film, and there is only so much I expect from the series. Happily, Skyfall gave me so much more than its franchise led me to expect, working as a great film in its own right.
When it comes to ascertaining what makes a film good, different people have different standards. For many, a crucial factor is character consistency and/or sympathy. For others, flashy action and special effects are important. Ultimately, there will never be universal agreement on what constitutes high cinematic quality, there will always be differences of opinion, and thank goodness for that because it would be very dull if we all liked and disliked the same things.
Fundamentally, I want high technical quality, such as detailed production design (Prometheus), expressive cinematography (Life of Pi), effective editing (Avengers Assemble, Argo) and direction that pulls all these elements together (The Dark Knight Rises). I also want conviction to subject, as few things frustrate me more than a film that raises a topic and then abandons it (The Iron Lady), so a film that sticks to its guns (The Grey) and has the conviction to deliver on what it sets out to do (Killer Joe) is a good one to me. Exploration of themes such as responsibility (Looper) and loyalty (Skyfall) also work, again so long as there is conviction throughout the filmic text. Detailed fictional worlds, especially science fiction (The Hunger Games) and fantasy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) work very well on me, and I like something visceral that draws me into the diegetic world and to make me feel what’s going on (The Raid). The films on this list gave me what I wanted, and the best gave me more than I expected.
I often ask people to explain their opinions and their explanations indicate the standards which they use for assessment. My standards probably seem strange and idiosyncratic, but they enable me to organise the list below.
Classic features meet contemporary panache in the year’s most surprising and satisfying film. Nobody did it better.
2. The Dark Knight Rises
An operatic conclusion to an epic saga. Sublime technical features express weighty themes in a compelling story.
3. Avengers Assemble
A marvellous assembly of sparkling characters, high stakes, wit, brio and inventive action.
A superb combination of satire, history, political commentary and nerve-shredding suspense.
An atmospheric crime thriller that uses its time travel premise to effectively explore issues of responsibility and culpability.
6. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
A warm yet thrilling return to Middle Earth.
7. The Hunger Games
A grim vision of the future with powerful comments on voyeuristic pleasure.
8. The Raid
The most intense action movie in years.
9. Life of Pi
Beautiful, spiritual and metafictional glory.
10. Killer Joe
A jet black comedy which displays fearless conviction to its macabre tale.
11. The Grey
An enthralling, existential tale of survival.
Questions of faith and science collide with suspense and shocks.
A delightfully affectionate reboot of reinvigorated old favourites.
The Woman in Black
A genuinely chilling ghost story.
Slightly undercut by its episodic structure but still an emotional journey with moments of real power.
A humorous and touching tale of a family struggling to cope with loss and betrayal, with great use of its Hawaiian backdrop.
The Cabin in the Woods
Smart, funny and scary meta-snuff film about why horror movies happen.
Turkeys of the Year
1. The Iron Lady
A mess of under-developed ideas that squanders every opportunity for compelling drama.
2. Safe House
A potentially gripping thriller undone by distracting cinematography.