January 9, 2013

2012: My favourites

It feels like years have passed in the 12 months just been.

2012 was a big year for me, on a personal level. I started the year with no job and about to embark on my Masters in Scriptwriting. Would I survive the year? Could I actually write worth a damn? Would I still be able to see movies; would I have the time and the money?

Thankfully, the answer to all of those questions was "yes".

So, after a lengthy absence from the blog writing here I am, back with my Favourite Films of 2012. 
Looking back at the films I saw at the start of the year, I can scarcely believe that it was barely 11 months ago when I saw these. It's been that kind of year. 

2012 was, in some respects, the year of the big hype followed by the big disappointment: John Carter, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises all, in my estimation, failed to deliver on their promise. The Amazing Spider-Man was also something of a disaster, but I was expecting that. Thank the gods we've had a number of really great films to temper that disappointment with.

Before we get into that list of my favourite great films, I just wanted to run through the films I'm still looking forward to seeing; those films you'll be seeing on other 2012 "best of" lists but that haven't been released here in NZ yet: Lincoln, Perks of Being a Wallflower, ParaNorman, Django Unchained, Cloud Atlas, Zero Dark Thirty, Anna Karenina and The Master. All here soon (I hope) and likely to make it into the 2013 list.

As always, what follows is in no particular order and is purely my favourite films from the last calendar year - and I have attempted to be particularly brutal this year in winnowing this list down to only this films that have truly, really impacted on me.

The Avengers

Perhaps not a surprise to find this on my list. Of all of the films I saw this year, I probably enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) The Avengers the most.

As a comic-book geek from way back, The Avengers seemed like an impossible dream; a fantastical promise offered up at the end of Iron Man. Could Marvel, and their filmmakers, actually pull this off? Joss Whedon, as much as we all love him, was far from a safe bet for wrangling a big-budget "gang's all here" super-hero film. I'll admit to still having my own doubts heading in to that first midnight screening; I've been burned before.

But I guess all those years wrangling an ever-increasing ensemble cast on Buffy et al paid off in spades for the Whedon. The Avengers was everything you could want from a Hollywood blockbuster: a smart script that managed to allow just about every character a chance to shine, a stack of memorable moments, humour, a fairly incredible cast and spectacular action that never drowned out the character beats.

Seeing how Marvel pulled off this "Phase One" part of their world-wide movie domination plans, I cannot wait to see what they bring us with "Phase Two". 


Rian Johnson's third film is a deceptively small and intimate sci-fi action time-travel... thing. Dense with information and intricate at the same time, Johnson eschewed the expected pyrotechnics of studio science-fiction (though certainly didn't waste the casting of Bruce "Die Hard" Willis) to give us a film that ruminated on destiny, nature vs. nurture, mothers and sons, the choices that define you and more.

Johnson, while creating a richly textured and detailed world, never falls into the trap of explaining too much. It is a pitfall many science-fiction films, particularly time-travel ones, collapse into. Looper is not concerned with the mechanics and causal loopholes of time-travel; time-travel is merely the conceit by which Johnson explores his ideas.

I've seen Looper twice in the cinema and cannot wait to revisit it again. The film is still swimming around in my mind some months later. Killer soundtrack too. 


I mentioned Craig Zobel's deeply unsettling debut feature film back in my wrap-up of the 2012 NZIFF, where I chose it as my "pick of the Fest"; the stand-out film for me of the fortnight. And I'm quite happy to still stand by that. While it was in no way my favourite film of the festival, it was a film that I couldn't easily shake.

No film in 2012, and very few in years previous, had such an immediate and profound impact on me. Though there were no scenes that could be easily labelled stomach-churningly violent or horrendous, the film had a number of walk-outs in my screening purely down to the horrifying atmosphere and gradually building degradation that Zobel and his lead actress, Dreama Walker, built.

Compliance was a dark little gem of a film that pulled me in, fucked around with the darkest most voyeuristic and horrifying things inside us all and then spat me back out into the night. I found myself spiralling down into a very dark place, almost unable to pull myself back up. 

Young Adult

Diablo Cody's third film (and make no mistake, this is very much a Diablo Cody film, despite the Jason Reitman director credit) has, I feel, been overlooked by just about everyone. Which is maddening, as it is a flat-out incredible film. It walks a delicate tightrope, with a central character so deeply unlikeable and unredeemable as to almost alienate the audience - but Cody's script is too smart for that, and Charlize Theron too adept an actress.

There is very little sympathy to be felt for Theron's Mavis - she's an emotionally stunted woman-child who returns to her po-dunk hometown to lure away her high-school sweetheart from his happily married life - but there is a certain empathy to be felt. Perhaps it's because of my increased focus on the art and craft of script-writing this year, but I found Young Adult to be something of a remarkable achievement.

And to have got this far in my write-up without mentioning the work of Patton Oswalt as the crippled and sardonic Matt Freehauf seems criminal. Oswalt gives the character a softness, without overdoing it, that helps to take some of the tartness out of Theron's Mavis. To me, if there were any justice in the movie world, Cody and her cast would have swept the awards boards last year. It's also really freakin' hilarious.

The Raid

If you missed seeing this in a cinema packed with an excited and pumped audience, I really feel for you. The Raid is a tight, no holds barred, economical martial-arts actioner, best enjoyed with a rowdy and appreciative audience.

The second teaming of director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uweis, this was the action film from the past year. Paring everything to do with plot and character right down to the bone (but still giving us the essentials), The Raid was an almost physical experience and was an abject lesson in how to really do an action film right. Hell, I'm calling it. This is the best action film since Die Hard.

There's good guys and a whole building full of bad guys. And everyone knows martial arts. Or has a weapon. Or an exploding fridge. There's a goal. There are clear stakes. And then there's a shit-ton of amazing, brutal and very physical fight-scenes.

If you've not seen The Raid, get a bunch of friends together, the biggest, loudest TV you can, a few beers and get ready to enjoy the hell out of your night.


Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is... I don't want to say a difficult film, but it's something of a confounding film. It almost defies any sort of simplistic description or summation; being the opposite of The Raid in those respects (also, markedly less kung-fu).

It has been a long a time in arriving at cinemas in any sort of form, with Lonergan working on cut after cut after cut. There is reportedly a 5 hour version of the film out there, which is easy to believe; there are characters and story-lines in the released version that feel more like ellipses than completed arcs.

Like with Young Adult our central female protagonist is unsympathetic - a precocious, manipulative, self-absorbed, not-as-smart-as-she-thinks teenage girl - while still being empathetic. And Anna Paquin simply inhabits the skin of this character; it is a performance seemingly shorn of artifice and she simply is Lisa Cohen.

Margaret was a heady experience in the cinema; an almost free-forming, pinwheeling emotional journey that is nevertheless always moving forward. For all of its wandering and contemplative tones, nothing feels unnecessary.

Cabin in the Woods

The primary feeling I had before heading in to watch Cabin of the Woods for the first time (I ended up seeing it the three times it played at the NZIFF), was that I was very, very lucky.

If you haven't yet heard the tale of Cabin in the Woods, a quick summation: I first heard of it more than two years ago when, I think, it played the 2010 SXSW film festival. It went over like gangbusters; the film geek crowd went, understandably, apeshit over it. Then... nothing. MGM (the studio behind the film) shat the bed, financially speaking. There was talk of Cabin being post-converted to 3D in order for MGM to turn a couple more (much-needed) bucks. No dice. Then, again... nothing. Until mid-way through 2012 when it was quietly announced that Cabin would finally be released Down Under - direct to DVD. The internet went a bit batshit. Not even just here - there were a couple of big-time American entertainment writers who got involved. With all of the furore, Ant Timpson and the New Zealand International Film Festival stepped in and brought Cabin to NZ for the NZIFF. Thank the dark lords.

Cabin in the Woods is script-writer Drew Goddard's directorial debut and it is a joyous celebration and deconstruction of horror movie tropes, all done with intelligence, humour and a fair amount of actual horror. All three screenings at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington (a 700-odd seat cinema) were packed out and the audience lapped it up - laughing, whooping and hollering. As with The Raid, this is a film best enjoyed with an audience.  


Up-and-coming English filmmaker Ben Wheatley's latest film was an utter, joyful surprise for me. Before perusing the NZIFF line-up for 2012, I had no idea Wheatley had a new film out. Hell, I hadn't even seen his previous, much-lauded Kill List (I have since, and it was not anything I was expecting at all). So I was going into Sightseers just about as blind as possible.

I was cheerfully surprised at the obsidian-black humour that ran through this tale of two English weirdos who take off on a campervan trip across the verdant landscape. These two are your typical small-minded sort of English folk; quietly annoyed at others, always up for a cuppa and going about things in a pragmatic sort of way. Even, yes, becoming accidental serial-killers.

I certainly wouldn't recommend it to everyone; there is a very particular flavour to the film and Wheatley and his cast enjoy twisting things beyond your expectations. Is there some sweetness to it? More of a black bittersweetness I think. And it was that gentle defiance of convention that really tickled my fancy. 
Sightseers has just come out on general release here in NZ and I'm really looking forward to seeing it again. 

And just to wrap it all up, a quick list of those other films that didn't quite make it but that were damn fine films in their own right. I heartily recommed you give them a look-in if you haven't already: The Adventures of Tintin; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Hugo; The Descendants; The Ides of March; Shame; The Hunger Games; 21 Jump Street; We Need to Talk About Kevin; Our Idiot Brother; Damsels in Distress; The Front Line; Good for Nothing; Searching for Sugar Man; The Angel's Share; Beasts of the Southern Wild; How to Meet Girls From a Distance; Your Sister's Sister; The Hunt; Killer Joe; Magic Mike, Sound of my Voice; Holy Motors; The Sessions; Moonrise Kingdom; The Expendables 2; Pitch Perfect; Dredd; Argo

As always I'd be dead keen to hear your picks from the last year. And what films from 2012 are you still looking forward to seeing?