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Top Twelve of 2012

2012

On the twelfth day of Christmas

The movies gave to me

Twelve engineers

PROMETHEUS

Eleven Grey wolves

The Grey

Ten Joes a-killing

Killer Joe

Nine Lives of Pi

life_of_pi_5

Eight Raiders Raiding

The Raid

Seven District tributes

The-Hunger-Games

Six Unexpected Journeys

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Five Looping Loopers

Looper

Four Argo film crews

Argo

Three Assembled Avengers

Avengers

Two Dark Knights Rising

Rises

And a Skyfall from 00-Heaven.

Skyfall Image

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.

 

Top Films of 2012

1. Skyfall

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.

4. Argo

A superb combination of satire, history, political commentary and nerve-shredding suspense.

5. Looper

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.

12. Prometheus

Questions of faith and science collide with suspense and shocks.

 

Honourable mentions

The Muppets

A delightfully affectionate reboot of reinvigorated old favourites.

The Woman in Black

A genuinely chilling ghost story.

War Horse

Slightly undercut by its episodic structure but still an emotional journey with moments of real power.

The Descendants

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.

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Review of 2012 Part Three – Great Expectations I: Marketing Malarkey

Great Expectations

2012 proved a year of great expectations in several ways – to commemorate the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the BBC as well as BBC Films, not to mention Baroque Theatre Company, produced adaptations of Great Expectations.  I saw none of them, nor have I ever read the book, but there were a number of films released in 2012 that came loaded with expectations of various sorts.

Cast your mind back and you may recall The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy.  I posted on this back in April, saying that I had wanted to avoid all prior knowledge.  I failed quite spectacularly in this regard, encountering reviews as well as an interview with star Jennifer Lawrence.  Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the visceral thrill and the ominous portents of The Hunger Games, which succeeded in presenting a very grim portrait of the future and some thrilling yet disturbing action sequences.  I was very impressed with The Hunger Games and have subsequently read the novel, which surpassed the film in some areas but not others.  The most common response to adaptations is “The book is better than the film”, which is nonsense because films and books work differently and to compare them qualitatively is like saying a boat is better than a car.  While both are vehicles, a boat is used for different purposes than a car, and while a book and a film are both media texts, they are consumed in different.

That said, the dystopia of The Hunger Games was more convincingly portrayed through Collins’ terse, urgent prose, which steadily built up the world of the book through Katniss Everdeen’s reminiscences and descriptions.  Director Gary Ross’ excessive use of shaky cam was jarring and prevented a sense of oppression or a panopticon, but his decision to feature some action away from Katniss (Lawrence) did enable the social criticism of reality television to be made more strongly.  The response of established fans of The Hunger Games was naturally influenced by their feelings towards the book, with some appreciating the adaptation and others disappointed that it did not meet their expectations (there’s that word again).  Later in the year, the release of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part Two similarly fanned the flames of fan furore.  I haven’t seen it, so no comment on the film itself (for that, see here), but The Hunger Games and Twilight serve as interesting examples of the expectations that surround adaptations.

Shortly after The Hunger Games came Marvel’s The Avengers, or Marvel’s Avengers Assemble if you’re in Britain.  Joss Whedon’s superhero ensemble was the culmination of a remarkable feat of franchise filmmaking, beginning in 2008 with Iron Man and developing through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.  As a result of those earlier films, expectations for The Avengers were very high – the combination of these four superheroes plus the supervillain and three additional heroes, not to mention the steady campaign of teasers, trailers and excerpts, raised anticipation to a high level.  I was more than satisfied with what came about: The Avengers fulfilled my expectations as a glorious, fun-filled, power flinging, well-balanced, gripping and compelling, not to mention funny, blockbuster.  It broke multiple records and has become the third highest-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation).

When I think back on The Avengers, which I saw twice at the cinema, my memories are very positive and I look forward to the Special Edition Blu-Ray which includes Whedon’s director’s commentary, since the current UK Blu-Ray does not include this special feature from the US release (not that I’m complaining; oh wait, yes, I am).  And yet, even though I loved the film and expect it to be in my Top Ten of 2012, something about it continues to niggle me.  I realise that it was a matter of having my expectations met.  I am well aware that unreasonably high expectations can frequently lead to disappointment, so I am careful to keep my expectations reasonable.  The Avengers fulfilled my expectations, but did not surpass them.  So it wasn’t disappointing per se, but nor was it exceptional.

Next up was Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-vaunted return to science fiction and a sort-of prequel to Alien.  Furthermore, it was to be Scott’s first use of stereoscopic photography and the marketing campaign was even more detailed than that of The Avengers, with trailers, teasers, an entire commercial section on Channel 4 during Homeland and various viral videos.  The viral campaign helped to create a wider universe within which Prometheus is set, continuing the expansion of the Alien franchise’s world that has progressed since 1979.  The marketing also served to create very high expectations for the film itself, and probably went too far.  A large proportion of the response to Prometheus has been negative, with critics and audiences alike deriding its plot holes, indistinguishable characters and inconsistencies with the previous films.  The rather cynical home release has done the film and its distributors financial favours but little else – if you want the seven hours worth of extra features, you need to buy the highly priced 3D Blu-Ray.  Yes, I will be doing that, even though I don’t have a 3D TV.

Personally, I liked Prometheus very much.  It was gripping, atmospheric, scary and thought-provoking.  It also provided a useful example for identifying what I like in movies and why I have fairly wide taste.  But I also think it was over-hyped and left me wanting more.  It is very likely there will be further instalments as it features a clear set-up for a sequel, but Prometheus itself has numerous flaws and did not live up to the expectations it created.

Perhaps the most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s “EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND”, according to the trailer.  This was the film that, for me, carried the greatest potential for disappointment.  Superhero trilogies, including Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men, have a record of 1. Good; 2. Better; 3. Worse.  So far, the Batman trilogy had started well and then gotten better, so there was concern that The Dark Knight Rises might follow the pattern and be worse.  Furthermore, The Dark Knight had been such an exceptional movie, perhaps the most impressive superhero film ever partly by being more than a superhero film.  For a threequel to top that seemed unlikely.  To make matters worse, Nolan had hardly rested on his laurels, following up The Dark Knight with the remarkable Inception, and setting his sights even higher for The Dark Knight Rises which was touted as epic and grand.  Nolan is the most significant Hollywood director of the 21st century, so it was reasonable to hope but perhaps not to expect that he would surpass himself.  Advertising again raised expectations even higher, with teasers, trailers, excerpts and viral marketing escalating anticipation to fever pitch.  The result was not only a very healthy box office take, but some rather bizarre screening options – 6am at the cinema, anybody?

Was The Dark Knight Rises everything I wanted it to be?  Yes.  Was it everything I expected it to be?  Yes.  And did I expect it to blow my socks off and leave me flabbergasted at its extraordinary power?  No.  I knew it was unrealistic to expect as big a surprise as The Dark Knight, so I didn’t.  I anticipated that the trilogy closer would be at least something of a comedown, despite its epic build-up, and I was right.  One review of The Dark Knight argued that if Heath Ledger were removed from the film, you would be left with a fairly standard action movie.  I disagree on this – Heath Ledger is not the only exceptional thing about The Dark Knight, but he is outstanding, both in terms of his performance and the way the Joker is written.  The Dark Knight Rises is The Dark Knight without the earlier film’s central element of anarchy, personified in but not limited to the Joker.  It is this theme which makes The Dark Knight special, a serious exploration of the anarchy inherent in costumed heroics and villainy.  The Dark Knight Rises is more conventional with Bane’s baroque schemes and, ultimately, a clash between “good” and “evil”, rather than an in-depth meditative study which pushes The Dark Knight into serious, philosophical art.  The Dark Knight Rises is by no means bad, but its ultimate purpose is to close the trilogy, and it accomplishes this with aplomb.  I expected a spectacular finale to the trilogy and I got it.  I didn’t expect any more, and I didn’t get any more.  It would therefore be unfair to call The Dark Knight Rises disappointing, but it would still have been nice to be surprised.

All of these films were marketed to within an inch of their lives, and in each case the hype may have damaged the films’ reception.  It would be unfair to criticise the films’ distributors for this hype, as studies have shown that good marketing is key to the box office success of major films, whereas bad marketing can lead to flops like Fight Club and this year’s John Carter.  Box office success is not an indicator of public enjoyment – more than $1 billion gross for The Avengers does not mean all those cinema-goers enjoyed the film – but the bottom line is movies are put into cinemas to earn money, and marketing helps that happen.  Marketing works by raising expectations, yet paradoxically it can have a negative affect on audience enjoyment as we may expect too much.  I think the seasoned movie-goer understands the effect of marketing, but that does not mean we are immune to it.  The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises had firmly established themselves in public consciousness weeks if not months before their release, and it was a rare cinema patron who saw these films with no preconceptions.  Quite often, these preconceptions can have a negative effect on our response to the film itself, but if we manage our expectations we can make them realistic, and therefore avoid disappointment.  I am carefully managing my expectations for Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Hobbit

Continued Assembly Expected

There is some lamentation over the dying art of film projection, as digital projection becomes the norm.  Recently I saw a perfectly projected old print of Thief (Michael Mann, 1981), which did highlight for me the pleasures of viewing something physical, complete with scratches and flickers.  I also recently saw Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012) twice, and each time beheld a (seemingly) pristine digital copy that was fresh, bright and clear.  There are advantages both ways, but Avengers Assemble lends itself extremely well to digital projection.  Over the past thirty odd years, superhero movies have gone from bright (Superman) to dark (Batman) to bright (Batman & Robin) to dark (Daredevil) to bright and dark (Iron Man, The Dark Knight), depending on the franchise.  While Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. take Batman to ever darker depths of derangement and depravity, Marvel has gone the other way and kept its heroic exploits light-hearted, while not skimping on the action and avoiding the dreaded pitfalls of campness that can so easily be fallen into when your arc reactor fails.

Digital projection aided the brightness of Avengers Assemble, rendering a clear, crisp image that would not benefit from a third dimension that dims the image (both of my viewings were in 2D).  Within all this brightness, there was ample visual room to admire the production design and smooth cinematography, including director Whedon’s fondness for long complex takes.  For earlier instances of this directorial signature, see the introduction of the characters in Serenity and various sequences in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (especially “The Body”).  In Avengers Assemble, a superb long take during the climactic battle features all of our heroes laying their own signature smacks down upon the invading alien army.  From Captain America’s (Chris Evans) spinning shield to Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) tech-arrows, Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) fists and feet to Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) lightning bolts, Iron Man’s (Robert Downey, Jnr.) repulsor rays and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) being, well, smashing, all are contained within a single dizzying take that dives and swerves through New York in a perfect demonstration of the visceral thrill of cinema.  Orson Welles would be proud.

Aside from the energetic style, other Whedon trademarks abound, including the intertwining of humour with the action and the plot.  Indeed the single most memorable aspect of the film may be its humour, from Tony Stark’s quips to Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) sardonic comments, Bruce Banner’s slightly bumbling jokes and Steve Rogers being at a loss in the modern world.  Best of all is Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) determination to not only conquer the world, but to do it in style and have the last laugh (reminiscent of Whedon’s earlier villains such as Spike, Angelus, Mayor Wilkins and Glory).  Grand clashes between heroes and villains can seem perfunctory or even little more than generic fulfilment (such as the anti-climactic battle in Iron Man), but Loki’s plan to lead an alien army to take over Earth, motivated by his own bitterness at being cast out of Asgard and jealousy of his brother, not to mention a divine superiority complex, provide a suitably meaty character trajectory, not to mention a cruel wit that sparks superbly with Tony Stark’s wryness and the Hulk’s bluntness.

Whedon also utilises his strength as a writer and director of ensembles, demonstrating how wise a choice he was for this potentially most unwieldy of blockbusters.  As well as the five super-powered stars, we have super-skilled spies Black Widow and Hawkeye, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Gregg Clark), and there’s even time for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard).  Despite varying screentime and limited space for character development, it never feels that anyone is just there as dressing or collateral damage – each character, sequence and plot point fits neatly into the film’s rich and engaging tapestry.  If the previous Avengers instalments were sometimes underpowered, spending too much time on the origin and/or too little on the plot, they served to build a strong foundation upon which this builds.  The scale of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is impressive yet functional – not only is it a grand display of diegetic and non-diegetic technology, it forms an impressive location for much of the drama.  One of the best scenes is an argument between the principal characters that steadily escalates, Whedon and his editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek cutting precisely between the participants to escalate the tension, yet keeping a key event hidden until the reveal; meanwhile, events outside increase the stakes for the viewer as well.  Similarly, the final sequence strikes just the right balance between superheroics, pyrotechnics, humorous comments and character interaction, from the bemused to the deeply emotional.

Despite the potential problems of amassing these different elements, Avengers Assemble never fails to engage and entertain.  It is, in many ways, a magnificent achievement to have struck the right balance and maintained pace and tone throughout.  It may lack the troubling and thought-provoking elements of The Dark Knight, or the intensity of the inter-personal battles in Spider-Man 2, but it marshals its characters, plot, style and execution into a marvellously entertaining whole.

Perhaps more interesting than the film itself, though, is its place within Hollywood production.  Avengers Assemble is the climax of four years’ preparation and development, from Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, through Iron Man 2 in 2010, to Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011.  The continued presence of the main players is in some ways quite remarkable.  Ever since Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978) featured the unknown Christopher Reeve, it has been evident that with a superhero as the star, the wattage of the actor playing them need not be blinding.  Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale were certainly not unknowns when they were cast as various men in spandex, but they were hardly at the level of Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Harrison Ford (it is worth noting that superhero movie Hancock was marketed very much as a Will Smith picture, as the character of Hancock has none of the fame or cultural capital of Marvel and DC’s characters).  Robert Downey, Jnr., Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans were also well known, but rarely were they leading men in blockbusters, as demonstrated by Evans’ previous superhero role of Marvel’s Human Torch in Fantastic Four, again as part of an ensemble.  Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth were virtually unknown prior to Thor (interestingly, an earlier Hemsworth/Whedon collaboration, The Cabin in the Woods, though produced in 2009, was not released until this year, most likely capitalising on Hemsworth’s exposure in both Avengers Assemble and Snow White and the Huntsman).  Yet all these stars lend their combined radiance to Avengers Assemble, accompanied by others of equal if not greater fame.  Samuel L. Jackson has had brief appearances in all but one of the previous instalments, and potential A-lister Scarlett Johansson fits easily into the ensemble, as does twice Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner (set to be a leading man later this year in The Bourne Legacy).  Most surprising perhaps is (Oscar winner) Gwyneth Paltrow, appearing in a paltry three scenes (only one of which is substantial) despite being able to headline a movie in her own right.  Even more striking is that this trend seems unlikely to stop, as Jackson has signed a nine-picture deal with Marvel (Variety).  Ruffalo has also signed a deal to appear in six further Marvel pictures (The Guardian), so we will hopefully see more of the Hulk in the future, while reports of Iron Man 3 appear on a seemingly weekly basis (Total Film) and Thor 2 and Captain America 2 have been greenlit (IMDb.com).

While stars have stayed, directors have come and gone.  Jon Favreau lasted two Iron Man films before being replaced with Shane Black for the third instalment, and Alan Taylor has succeeded Kenneth Branagh for helm(sworth)ing duties on Thor 2.  No reports yet on a director for Captain America 2.  Despite these different authorial presences, the Avengers films have been remarkably consistent, maintaining the bright tone mentioned earlier and the balance between the far-fetched superheroics and the relatable people who perform them (a poignant moment in Avengers Assemble features Stark and Banner discussing their respective “terrible gift[s]”).  S.H.I.E.L.D. has more advanced technology than actually exists (we assume), making the possible world of the Avengers one that is more heightened than “realistic” superhero films such as the current incarnation of Batman.  The consistency of the films despite the disparate writers and directors raises the question of authorship over the films, individually and collectively.  Avengers Assemble is regarded by some as a Joss Whedon film, which has angered comic book fans who insist it is a Marvel product (In Media Res).  While each film has had distinctive elements from its writer and director, such as Whedon’s trademarks as mentioned above, if there is a franchise auteur the most likely candidate is producer Kevin Feige.  Feige has a producer credit on Marvel movies since 2000’s X-Men (Bryan Singer), and Marvel’s “prexy of production” since 2006, so has overall supervisory responsibilities.  If it is unrealistic to assign singular responsibility for an individual film, perhaps it is easier to consider an overall steering influence on a franchise, viewing Feige as the series auteur, akin to a TV executive producer who oversees each episode to ensure consistency and continuity.

The combination of different influences and considerations (not to mention egos!) involved in the Avengers make it perhaps the ultimate franchise.  As has been written elsewhere (In Media Res), the Avengers movie franchise is not unlike comic book publication, where different titles run in parallel but with crossover.  The scale and success of the Avengers’ ambition can be traced to earlier multi-chaptered franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.  Instalments can be consumed separately or cumulatively, with the potential to expand, consolidate and maintain the market.  Viewers who missed Iron Man may see Thor, and then Avengers Assemble, and subsequently come back for Iron Man 3.  Fans of comic books, superheroes, science fiction, action films and blockbusters may watch each instalment at the cinema and then acquire every film upon its DVD/Blu-ray release (I do).  Already Avengers Assemble (or The Avengers as it is known everywhere that isn’t Britain) has collected over $1 billion at the global box office, so Marvel’s business model seems to be working.  In Hollywood, if an idea succeeds then it is worth copying, so perhaps we will see more integrated franchises in the future, parallel storylines as well as sequels that simply continue the same story.  Long-form narratives work well on television, as 24, The Wire and Mad Men (to name but a few) demonstrate.  Films have long been about contained, encapsulated narratives, but Marvel’s The Avengers has demonstrated that there is room for more experimentation.  The development of future franchises will be very interesting to observe.  Digitally projected, of course.