My Top 20 Movies of 2012 – The List: Part 1
You’ve seen Eastbound and Down, right? If not, then I’ve lost what little respect I had for you (almost none). Well, if you have, The Catechism Cataclysm could truthfully be titled The Adventures of Stevie Janowski the Priest. It’s an unashamed piece of typecasting and consequently plays like a weird spin-off, or alternative universe What If? But nobody does the repressed innocent like Steve Little, and here, he’s a spectacularly unworldly manbaby — wide-eyed and trapped in arrested development, having spent his hollow, adult life idolising the cool guy from his youth, who wrote stories, played in a rock band and briefly dated his sister. This is a man who’s positively seething with an unspoken desire to live. On meeting his idol for the first time in decades, it’s clear that life, outside of Steve’s memories, has moved on, and that older guy is now, effectively, the same age, and just a bemused trucker who’s only in it for the beer.
The set-up of a canoe trip gives a meandering pace to proceedings, and allows the two to (re)connect over a series of conversations, unfinished short stories (that we see played out), and revelations, as Little’s weird little bubble of reality gets prodded, if not completely pricked. The other lead — a gruff but likeable Robert Longstreet — stuck on a lofty pedestal of somebody’s warped perception, is trapped by both the camping trip, and the priest’s projections of who he was. There’s a realness in how the two disparate characters bounce off each other; perhaps uncomfortably so, for those who live more in the past than they do the present.
But then things take a turn. The strangest turn ever. Look, if you read my blog regularly, you’ll know I’m big on hyperbole. I’m over-excitable. Everything is the best; the worst, with not a grey area area to be seen, unless it’s the greyest area IN THE WORLD! “That’s the most awesome movie I’ve ever seen! I have the biggest penis of all time!” Trust me though, this movie goes into a really, really weird direction. You know that thing where you draw part of a picture, then fold the paper over and hand it to the next guy to doodle their bit? When you unfold it, there’s a cowboy’s head, with a huge pair of breasts, and a pair of duck legs at the bottom. Well, this is a film that got folded over with twenty minutes to go and passed across to a psychopath. But it works. It really works.
Any Dark Knight Rises review comes laden with baggage, and in writing this, I’m caught between two baying mobs. On my left, stand the Nolan fanboys, for whom anything but a perfect five-stars is grounds for tying me down and pumping sour farts straight into my veins with an IV line. To the right, those who’ve rubbed themselves sore at every tiny plot-hole, that proves to them the first group — their mortal enemies — are stupid and wrong. These were the ones gleefully yearning for Dark Knight Rises to be awful, so they could swan about with their waxed moustaches in the air, having not been fooled into being excited or enjoying themselves, sat sneering in $8 seats at the midnight opening. As it usually does, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
For the first hour, Bruce Wayne is a hobbling Howard Hughes recluse, with shelves of dated, urine-filled 7up bottles stinking out the Batcave, and it’s this intriguing notion of a broken Batman that reeled me in. But like most of the great things in this movie, it’s something that was tossed aside (twice), in a frustratingly off-hand manner. The real strength of TDKR is that it centres around something we’ve genuinely never seen in a superhero movie (or, barring oddities like Arlington Road, in few movies period), in a villain that feels like a genuine threat. As Nolan’s story headed towards its conclusion, with a crippled Batman out of the picture, there were moments where you felt like it truly could go anywhere; and Gotham’s reckoning made for a grand spectacle, riffing on things we’d seen in the news over recent years, from the Occupy movement and 1%er privilege, to Europe’s perpetual riots, where police clashed with civilians through a fog of tear gas, and there was a feeling that things might change, even though we knew they never really do. And when it got to the third act, they hadn’t.
Ultimately, this is a film which becomes messier and less impressive the more you think about it, and given another six weeks of pondering, it’d probably drop out of my top twenty altogether. For a series that prided itself on realism (as though that automatically elevates it above action movies that don’t take themselves quite so ponderously), some of the choices required such a suspension of disbelief, that a scene with a cannister of Bane Repellent being yanked out of the Bat-Belt would have slotted in just fine. That said, I was pleased to see the League of Gentlemen‘s mow-mow joke make a surprise appearance.
While it was close to a worthy end for the trilogy, many of the big moments were bungled. TDKR has the lamest, most anti-climactic bad-guy death ever — casually dispatched out of the blue by a supporting character, and dying offscreen while a zingy one-linergets delivered.This may seem like a pretty negative review for a movie that actually made it onto the list, and like I’m pandering by even having it in here, but I genuinely did enjoy it at the time. The Dark Knight Rises is deeply flawed, but due to the scale, scope and performances, one side of the catcalls just about outshouts the other, and it pushes itself into the Top 20. For now.
Iron Fists is RZA’s blood-soaked love letter to the Kung Fu movies that, I’m going to assume, he devoured on the Wu Tang tour bus, while Ol’ Dirty Bastard was having so much groupie sex on the back seat, he had to wrap his friction-burned penis in gauze like a little brown mummy. A blacksmith who makes crazy weapons for warring clans, RZA’s role is the most understated of a film, which — with a rich rapper as the director, co-writer and star — could have been a terrible vanity piece, but instead, is an intricately crafted homage, and worthy work in its own right.
There’s a huge theatricality to the brightly-coloured and joyously inventive world, and the hammy performances give the sense that the cast are having as much fun as the audience, stroking at scars and Shaw Brothers eyebrows as they speak only in threats or sparse nuggets of Eastern wisdom. In particular, Russell Crowe’s waddling, debauched Englishman is not so much chewing the scenery, as humping it like a dog that got into the shoebox of MDMA you keep under the bed. The cartoonish design has the feel of an old arcade game, with a rich set of characters replete with individual gimmicks and weapons, and a visual look — a lion clan with big manes of hair; killer prostitutes swooping silently from the ceiling like sexy crows — that trumps the laziness of bigger budget movies that don’t have to think so much.
The Kung Fu sequences themselves are as batshit as you’d hope, and bring to mind that Christopher Walken line in Man of Fire, about death as art, and painting a masterpiece. In a movie wall to wall with killing, each death is at once brutal and beautiful, with the mountain air thick with arcs of blood, severed limbs, and heads that have literally been kicked and punched straight off of the necks they once called home, all played out against a hip hop soundtrack that feels weirdly fitting and 1970s. I know Hollywood totally reads all this, so I’m going to end by throwing out a quote for the front of the DVD.
“Kung Fu? More like Kung Fun!” – Stuart Millard, hunky writer.
Incidentally, I was going to say something about Russell Crowe’s wavering “English” accent, but he’ll probably get all arsey again.
Oh, time travel, how I love thee. And not in a healthy way. I’m watching you sleep through a hidden webcam and turning all your friends against you so you’ll have to come to meeeee. Looper is the first of three time travel-fixated movies in this list, and like the other two, the high-concept stuff is mostly a nifty way of addressing some of the philosophical issues that we shitting, wanking sacks of meat and bone obsess over, as our cells deteriorate on the journey from vaginal opening to grave.
There was a point in Looper where I thought I was going to love it, rather than merely just like a lot. When JGL sits down with his older self, he reacts like we all would; with horror and contempt. It’s human nature to fear what you’ll become; the first wrinkle, the retreat of the hairline, the droop of the breast; few of us could meet that face to face across a table without turning away. Likewise, Bruce Willis, when confronted by his younger self, sees a dumb prick too stupid to appreciate his youth, with nothing in his immediate future but a bunch of mistakes. Put in the same position with the me from my teenage years, I’m sure I’d find myself reaching across, grabbing a handful of purple hair, and slapping myself right out of my Korn t-shirt. Having this existential crisis manifest itself physically was Looper‘s high point, and I’d have loved for a fucked up buddy movie, but things went in another direction.
As noted by its own director, Looper is not a film about piecing together the paradoxical rules of time travel, so unlike, say, a Primer, it won’t take a bunch of rewatches to unravel. It’s a thoughtful action movie, but it won’t give you a case of the brain-bleeds. The future design felt fresh, choosing airy, open spaces, rather than the done-to-death, rain-soaked Blade Runner nightscapes more tedious future-set films return to, and there were some fun sequences, in particular, a fantastically gruesome, realistic take on Marty McFly’s siblings vanishing from a photograph. The introduction of other sci-fi elements made it a little less interesting, but Looper was an entertaining ride that still raised some interesting points about consequences, and lives, careers and destinies that seem pre-ordained, as well as some laying-in-bed-at-4am mindfucks. For example, would we give up the great love of our past (or future), given the chance? Would we undo the experience and lose the pain, but give up the lessons and the parts of us that grew out of what happened? Given a real time machine, or just nature’s Delorean of moving up a generation, most will probably reach the same conclusion. We use the wisdom of experience to give others a chance not to make the same mistakes, and have a better life than what we did. If not, then maybe you’ll grow up to be Bruce Willis, so fuck it anyway.
My reasons for liking Piggy are the same things that make it a hard film to review. But let’s go back to the beginning. Firstly, I was hesitant to even give it a watch. British cinema and me don’t always get on, as it’s a medium that’s somehow been hijacked by thug-porn. Of course, this is a sweeping generalisation, and there’s some tremendous stuff coming out of the UK, as my end of year lists will attest, but the marketplace is crowded with potato-faced men being well ‘ard on football terraces, London skyrises or council estates. Clearly, these are movies made by people whose knowledge of cinema extends no further than the Scarface references on Grand Theft Auto IV, and are lapped up by easily-entertained, beer-breathed tossers. Lump those in with the directors intent on showing us how miserable everybody is, as with hilarious tosh like 2009’s thimble-deep Fishtank, or worst of all, the laughable Brit-garbage put out by that talentless cock, Noel Clarke, and it’s a pretty bleak picture.
The trendy thugs genre has a revolving cast of rent-a-gobs; perennially snarling and doing coke off the back of a broken brick, and when they pop up in the middle of a film, you treat these familiar faces like you would bumping into the guy from school who flushed your head down the toilet while you were still sitting on it. Piggy is a veritable parade of actors from the oeuvre of #1 example of shitty British films; Nick Love. Check out the highlights from one of his commentary tracks if you’re in any doubt as to what a fucking arse he is. And in Piggy, they’re all there, bold as brass. Look, there’s the tubby bloke from Football Factory. And Danny Dyer’s mate from The Business. And the not-Gary Oldman from the appalling remake of The Firm — a cast equivalent to opening your front door and finding every school bully from fifteen years ago splashing an early morning piss against your fence. One might have good cause to worry about Dyer himself putting in an appearance, tugging on his pearly trousers and threatening to stripe your bird with a stanley knife so nobody else will ever want her.
Well, more fool me and my preconceptions, because Piggy is one of the best British films in a long time. Essentially an urban revenge flick, there’s a grimy grittiness (and possibly the pig connection) that made me think of the PS2 game Manhunt; a down and dirty tale that sits on the brain like insomniac thoughts about hurting yourself. Paul Anderson, Piggy of the title, given some decent material for once, has an alluring quality, like those worldly older men who pull you under their spell when you’re on the cusp of adulthood, with wild, exotic tales of rucks and women, and with the vague sense they could turn nasty at the drop of a hat. The reason this makes for a hard review is that its central conceit hinges on a really brazen use of cinema’s most overplayed twist. I spent the final act mired in the fear that there may not be a deeper game at play, and that I was set to arrive at a tedious surprise party that I’d overheard being planned. Thankfully, the audience is credited with more intelligence, and it’s played very smartly throughout, and without an explicit “ta-da!” like the post-Saw, flashback-laden reveals of recent years, where relevant snippets of past dialogue are laid right out on the table. “Do you see?! Do you get it?!” Here, it’s not even a twist, just a plot device, and in two respects, though it deals with some unpleasant material, Piggy was a very pleasant surprise.
If you’re one of those shady digital pickpockets au fait with the release scene, rifling through BitTorrents and Rapidgator folders before they cart you away like Kim Dotcom, then you’ll be all too familiar with the rushed pirate film releases. Shot through a pinhole camera balanced on an asthmatics wobbling gut, these files are favoured by the kind of gurgling, artless dunces who’ve no quarrel watching a movie in a way that simulates how said film would look had they’d contracted glaucoma. Personally, just being at someone’s house while their TV’s got early Simpsons episodes stretched out to 16:9 is enough to send me screaming profanities while furiously pushing their personal effects up my bottom as means of protest. Anyway, I’m rambling. When the first seizure-o-vision copies of Indonesian-speaking The Raid came out, there were no subtitles. “It’s fine,” said comment-leavers, after about twenty of them had gotten in with “FIRST!”, “You don’t need subs. It’s easy to figure out what’s going on.” While that’s unfair on the story that is there, which is simple but well-told, The Raid: Redemption speaks the universal language.
Some would have you believe the thing that transcends the barriers of language and culture is love. Those people are sappy milquetoasts, effetely prancing tippy-toed over piles of discarded cat hair, and spending their nights spooning with their partners and tee-heeing at Michael McIntyre routines about “Ooh, you know when you turn the kettle on, but then you forget to switch it on at the wall?” In truth, the universal language is that of people kicking each other really hard in the face. Or through a window. Or just over and over, with all blood coming out all over the place. The universal language is action. Seriously, if you want to woo a beautiful, exotic French girl, but can’t speak the lingo because your teacher drank, just stroll along the Champs-Élysées, find some random stranger, and stab them through the chin with a furled umbrella. She’ll gracefully swoon into your arms. Or, just show her this movie, because holy shit, The Raid is 100 minutes of the greatest action you’ve ever seen. It’s almost exhausting. I can think of no greater romantic gesture; streaming it over Skype to a coal-eyed beauty from foreign climes; dropping it into No-Man’s Land on Christmas Day, so the Nazis and the Brits can cheer the storming of a besieged tower block, and a ratty little hard-nut called Mad Dog who won’t stay down, no matter how many Muay Thai knees he takes to the bollocks. So let us unite the nations, hand in hand; religion, creed, and sexual preference be damned. Truly, in watching The Raid: Redemption, we will all be as one.
Except for those nob-ends who can stomach films in the wrong aspect ratio, or without the subtitles. They need a kick in the fucking neck.
Killer Joe sets its stall out early, as it opens with an eye-level shot of Gina Gershon’s lustrously coiffed vagina framed in a doorway (At the time of writing, if you put her name into Google, the third auto-suggestion is “gina gershon killer joe bush”), and from there, it’s one big ol’ slide down the insanity chute on a rug made from, I dunno, something crazy. A lot’s been made of Matthew McConaughey’s 2012 resurgence, as he shifts from leaning against women’s backs on the posters of cock-awful romcoms, to charismatic, edgier material; but as great as he is here, Killer Joe belongs to Juno Temple. Temple’s broken, baby-girl, trailerpark legal-Lolita, all bandy-legs and tattered storybook innocence is the dame at the centre of the white trash noir. Equal parts ingénue in need of rescuing from her damaged family, and alluring siren who doesn’t realise she’s enticing you onto the rocks, she’s the tempest round which everything swirls; a twister picking up bales of hay, flying cows, and women with bloody faces fellating chicken drumsticks.
I really can’t overemphasise how utterly brain-jigged a movie this is. It’s like a film entirely made up of characters deemed too fucked up to be in other films; the classroom down the hall filled with the weird kids that prick themselves with a compass and distract the other pupils. Thomas Hayden Church’s slumping sad sack; Gershon’s afro-crotched wicked stepmother; Emile Hirsch as the ‘sane’ one, to whom matricide is as viable a means to a quick buck as sticking an old guitar amp on eBay. And then there’s McConaughey’s titular Joe, unbalanced, but with a frighteningly cool restraint that reins him back like an invisible leash, he’s permanently coiled and ready to strike; a two legged version of those games with the twisting copper tube that buzzes when you touch it. And when he does go off, it results in a twenty-minute sequence that’ll have many self-proclaimed cult movie nerds yelling “Fuck this mental shit” and sprinting home to watch something sane, like Inland Empire. I like to imagine Nic Cage dunking the Killer Joe script into a lion’s mouth for being too out there, then firing his agent while rolling down a hill inside a giant tractor tyre.
But don’t mistake Killer Joe for a wacky midnight movie that’s best enjoyed with the Pink Flamingos and Buckaroo Banzais of cinema, with half an ironic eye and a bong shaped like a bong. It’s a coherent piece of film-making with a real heart, and though it’s not always comfortable viewing, it’s immensely entertaining, with superb performances all round. Also, for a story so wreathed in violent sleaze, it’s pretty fucking funny. One particular visual gag that came out of nowhere absolutely floored me. And not to be patronising to older folks, but it’s thrilling to see William Friedkin, at 77, still taking risks, and putting out stuff this good.
The other day, a total stranger accused me of being a hipster. I was so outraged, I almost crashed my Penny Farthing. Now, I’m not saying you need to be a hipster to enjoy Wes Anderson’s movies, but they are of a certain stylistic bent, and a genre unto themselves. Here; I’ve concocted this simple formula to help you decide whether or not you’re going to like Moonrise Kingdom. Print off this page and circle as appropriate.
Do you enjoy Wes Anderson movies? Yes. No.
If you scrawled around the No, then this movie likely won’t be for you. If, however, you enwrapped the word Yes within a dainty, looping circle (probably more of a heart shape, but let’s not quibble), then come on in, because Moonrise Kingdom is the most Wes Anderson film of all time. Handcrafted asthetics, autumnal colours, woolly hats and dysfunctional families; it’s another corduroy-clad stride through Anderson’s head, with an exquisitely chosen soundtrack, and every frame a visual masterpiece. The Wes Anderson repertory theatre are present and correct, reading their lines through the dead-eyed detachment we’ve come to love, along with a pair of child actor newcomers who’ll probably be reigning king and queen of indie in ten years time. In particular, Kara Hayward’s old-soul performance marks her out as someone to watch for. Moonrise is Anderson at his most epic, with a intimately sprawling story that almost feels like two separate films. A standout scene of many is a pillow-talk between Bill Murray and Frances McDormand that projected a hand-animated sequence into my mind, where my black, empty heart tore in two like soggy crepe paper.
But again, this is an auteur thing. Not that I wouldn’t love someone to take a chance on a film they wouldn’t usually watch, but you know where you’re likely to stand here. Like a Tyler Perry who’s actually creative and not a horribly offensive moral-dinosaur, you know what you’re going to get from Wes Anderson, and with Moonrise Kingdom, he delivers again — a five star movie.
So much of this Top 20 is racked with misery or drowning in standing-ovation-at-Sundance pretentiousness, that half of you will probably want to hang yourselves by the time you get to the Top 5. But hold on, re-buckle that belt, raise those pantaloons, and stick with me, because Lockout was a ton of fun. Remember that? When movies were fun? Back in the day before everyone got obsessed with close-combat shakycam and people doing parkour across rooftops?
The Expendables films tried, and mostly failed, to do the 21st century 1980’s movie thing, by stacking them with the faces and machismo of that era, whereas Lockout accomplished it handily, purely by being awesome. Cynics will say “Yeah, well you’ve been obsessed with Maggie Grace since Lost. You’d probably stick a biopic of 90’s Canadian rapper Snow on your Top 10, if she was in the background dancing around to Licky Boom Boom Down in a little pair of shorts.” While that is true, if you watch Lockout for yourself, you’ll see that I’m thinking with my cinema nerd brain, and not just with my prim English genitals.
The real meat of the action is in the antagonistic relationship between Maggie and Guy Pearce, which makes you wonder where all the buddy comedies went. Lockout harks back to the days of sarcastic, wise-cracking action heroes, swapping caustic burns with the mismatched partner they’d gotten stuck with, while gussets on both sides flooded from the unspoken sexual tension that cranked up a notch every time a goon got a bullet in the face. Pearce’s character is a classic dick, a loveable bastard playing hard to get with the entire world, but with that Han Solo sense that there’s a good guy underneath all that bravado. Probable-bias aside, Maggie Grace is tremendous, and it’s a neat execution and flip of the archetypal damsel role. Any time I see her with a gun, it further fuels my fantasy/actual goal that will definitely happen, of becoming super successful, buying the rights to Garth Ennis’s Preacher, and making it as an HBO series, with Maggie as my Tulip. And eventual wife.
Don’t get me wrong, Lockout isn’t a knockabout comedy — it has its moments of darkness — but unlike most of the stuff in this list, when the credits rolled, I was wearing a smile rather than a lap full of tears. Nor is it quite the film you think it’s going to be from the trailers (no rampaging gangs of a hundred rioting space-cons), but more of a stripped-down cat and mouse; a Die Hard in space. Read that back. Die Hard in space. With Shannon from Lost. Of course it’s one of the best of the year.
Neatly, and glibly, best described as Backwoods Boardwalk Empire, Lawless is another John Hillcoat/Nick Cave fable about family that makes you grateful smell-o-vision never took off, because you’d be boking onto your thighs. It’s a sweaty, countrified 1930’s, where everybody spits as much as they talk, and when they do speak, they do so in Karl Childers-like grunts, while quaffing back jam jars of moonshine so strong you could run your car on it.
As with The Proposition, Lawless centres around a trio of brothers; moonshine runners from the hills of Virginia; whose name itself is hillbilly folklore ’round them parts. It’s this legend, centred on the antics of the elder two, that drives the story, with the youngest, Shia LaBeouf, trying to outgrow his status as patronised runt of the litter, and stretch his fingers out from under their shadows, into the light. Tales of the Bondurant Boys’ toughness are worn like a suit of armour, and Tom Hardy, who’s made a fine year out of being threateningly incoherent, gives a wonderfully off-centre performance as the most feared and revered of the group. Eye-contact half a step to the side, he’s a pragmatic timebomb who blows when he has to, swiftly and brutally, never raising his heart-rate above a dozen beats a minute.
But this is LeBouf’s story, as he morphs into the dapper bootlegger about town — pow-wowing with serious gangsters; wooing a naive Mennonite girl from the tendrilous beard of her preacher father — while falling deeper into a dangerous lifestyle that requires one to actually be the kind of crazy folk-hero the family name would suggest. Lawless contains the kind of unflinching violence you’d expect from the writer/director duo of Hillcoat and Nick Cave, but you’ll find its most visceral moments emanating from the quiet presence of Guy Pearce. A loathsome Herr Flick/Slender Man hybrid, his clinically antiseptic, psycho-sexual villain is so creepily repellent, I had to dig out that Reddit link about the guy with the flaky old “cum box” just to mentally cleanse myself. I don’t know if his look was inspired by silent movies, or by mugshots of duvet-fucking Japanese sex offenders, but it’s almost unthinkable that the guy with a severe, inch-wide parting running down the centre of his skull like the Red Sea, could possibly be the same chap so fantastic as a smirking smartass in Lockout.
Essentially a story about folk who become — and believe in their own — legends, while it’s not quite up to Proposition standards, Lawless makes for a pretty feisty little brother all the same.
Coming Friday – the Top 10.