And so, as Internet convention dictates, all of us bloggers and those dastardly paid film writers eventually have to arbitrarily rank the year's releases - more vital this year than ever since the world probably won't end, but we just need to be on the safe side. I never find this an easy task, but after some ruthless Microsoft Word editing over the last week or so I have settled on the twenty films that made all those cinema trips worthwhile. The numbers are largely meaningless, especially outside the top five or so. Whatever: all twenty films (and many more, it goes without saying) offered cinema experiences that I would have been poorer without. With one or two exceptions, the below list primarily consists of films released theatrically in Ireland in 2012 - including one which experienced its wider festival run in 2009. Links to full reviews are included where applicable. I've also kept to fiction film - the documentaries of particular note are listed in the 'honourable mentions' postscript.
Let us commence with the rankings.
20. Berberian Sound Studio
A film with as bold an audioscape as Berberian Sound Studio helps us realise how often that vital cinematic component is underexplored. A delightfully odd and atmospheric film all-in-all, complete with gleefully giallo-inspired visuals, but it’s the soundtrack that allows Peter Strickland’s film to soar.
Visually speaking, this might be the year’s finest – Guy Maddin reliably playing with our senses through bold black & white cinematography, intense surrealism and frankly insane editing. I think I need a second viewing to unpack the dense and obtuse narrative that goes along with it, but aesthetically this is an absolute triumph.
This giddily playful satire from Drew Godard and Joss Whedon more than made up for the disappointingly meek Avengers. Self-consciously silly, and yet also entertainment that provokes the audience to question their allegiance to genre through a cleverly realised meta-story. Mostly, though, it’s just a fuckload of fun.
After the disaster of his first directorial effort, I was ready to dismiss Goro Miyazaki’s second feature completely. Luckily, this nostalgic and good-natured comedy-drama was a real treat, and a worthy addition to Ghibli’s diverse filmography.
16. What Richard Did
Lenny Abrahamson delivers his most accomplished work yet with this understated and thoughtful drama. Come for the excellent lead performance from Jack Reynor, stay for the zeitgeist.
Mainstream sci-fi done right. Rian Johnson’s time-travelling thriller benefited from the director’s love of noir atmosphere and understated genre subversions. A fun, character-driven thriller that offered a surprisingly rich near-future setting to boot.
It divided audiences like few others this year, but The Dark Knight Rises was the most brave and adventurous blockbuster of the year - and, naturally, the most entertaining. Some undeniable rough edges aside, the film’s thematic complexity provided an epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s gloriously accidental trilogy.
13. Monsieur Lazhar
‘Motivational teacher’ dramas tend to be one of my least favoured sub-genres. Monsieur Lazhar, however, is a smart and compelling twist on a recognisable formula. Simply terrific.
This film chipped away at my cynical critical faculties with a full-on charm offensive. Almost impossible to dislike – a simple, oddball rom-com populated with characters I couldn’t help but root for. Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass are this year’s most charismatic screen couple.
11. The Raid
Whatever about the film itself – a thrilling kick to the arse for the action genre, by the way – for me The Raid is particularly unforgettable as it offered the most exhilarating cinema trip of the year. With a sold-out audience almost entirely at the same wavelength, the film’s Dublin premiere in February was a terrific communal viewing experience. Director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais more than earned the rapturous standing ovation they received as the lights came up.
Like Holy Motors, Tabu is a film for film lovers. But where Carax’s film wasn’t averse to embracing technology new and old, Miguel Gomes’ fascinating feature is particularly indebted to old school aesthetics. Shot in 35 and 16mm stock and presented in classical Academy Ratio, the film is intoxicatingly nostalgic while still retaining an identity of its own. The film’s stunning Africa-set second half offers 2012’s most irresistibly melodramatic tragic romance.
9. I Wish
I don't want to oversell this comparison too much because it's kind of ridiculous, but I Wish is sort of like a Japanese arthouse version of The Goonies. Of course, I Wish is much more naturalistic and reserved than the swashbuckling thrills of The Goonies, but they're both joyous celebrations of young imagination in the face of adversity. Director Hirokazu Koreeda has thread vaguely similar ground before, in the much darker, more sobering Nobody Knows. I Wish's comparative accessibility and lightheartedness, however, do not diminish the artistry and achievement of the work. Resistance is pretty much futile during the film’s most joyful and emotional moments.
A triumph of colour and charm, Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s grandest film since Rushmore – and I say that as an Anderson devotee. As deadpan and eccentrically composed as always, a strangely affecting adolescent romance at the core ensures this is an accessible and entertaining delight.
7. The Master
If Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature is indeed one of the last hurrahs for 70mm projection, it’s a fine swan song. As odd, unwieldy and divisive as The Master is, it’s undeniably the accomplished work of a fascinatingly singular director. The psychological warfare between Joquain Phoenix’s troubled military veteran and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unstable cult leader provided some of this year’s most electrifying cinema.
Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature threatened to never see the light of day due to all sort of legal and creative disputes. But we were finally gifted with his post 9/11 opus, and it didn’t disappoint. An imperfect beast, no doubt, but the scale and ambition of Margaret could not help but wow the distressingly few people lucky enough to track it down. Anna Paquin has never been better, finally delivering on the promise of her childhood Oscar.
It would be unfair to dismiss Amour as ‘straightforward’, but it certainly lacks the profound narrative deception and stylistic trickery that has defined many of Michael Haneke’s films to date. No matter – Amour is still stunning filmmaking from a master director. Intense, claustrophobic and wonderfully acted, Amour offers barely a single dull frame.
4. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Debut features as impressive as Sean Durkin’s come around very rarely indeed. Steeped in paranoia and uncertainty, this is an unnerving character study that is so much more intriguing that its ‘woman gets drawn into cult’ setup would suggest. For introducing the world to the first genuinely talented Olsen sibling, we should be forever grateful.
The frighteningly prolific Sion Sono repurposed Himizu to reflect the aftermath of 2011’s tsunami, and the results were astonishing. While Sono fans and critics will instantly recognise his trademark indulgences, Himizu is a more disquieting and emotive drama than his other recent features. After a steady assault of despair and violence, Himizu ultimately ends on a bittersweet yet surprisingly triumphant and optimistic note. Few films this year provided the same ferocity of vision and gauntlet of emotions.
2. Holy Motors
Leos Carax provided 2012’s most invigorating jolt of pure, electrifying cinema with Holy Motors. Beautiful and bold, the film encompasses a series of individual sequences (with protagonists all played by a shapeshifting Denis Lavant in this year’s best leading performance) but ultimately forms a complex, thematically provocative whole. A cinephilic treat for anyone interested in where cinema has been, where it is now, and where it might be going.
1. About Elly
After A Separation, I was unsure whether Asghar Farhadi’s long-delayed previous film could match the heights of last year’s best film. The uncertainty was foolish – this is another near-perfect masterwork. I honestly cannot find fault with this devastating and masterly put together film. Farhadi’s films have illustrated the best cinema has to offer for two years in a row now. Let’s hope he manages a hat-trick.
Notable Films I Didn't Get Around To / Aren't Released Here Yet, But I'll Probably Like: Beyond The Hills, Ace Attorney, Dredd, This Is Not A Film, Evangelion 3.0, Wolf Children
Karate-Robo Zaborgar - absolute nonsense in the nicest possible sense
The Hunt - brilliantly focused, provocative and intense
Rust & Bone - a visual & aural treat with some great performances
Kid With A Bike – another reliably compassionate drama from the Dardenne Brothers
Kid With A Bike – another reliably compassionate drama from the Dardenne Brothers
Killer Joe – demented and hilarious: a killer combo indeed
The Descendants – probably caught me in a good mood, but still
Young Adult - unexpectedly unusual and unromantic (and other words beginning with 'un')
Searching for Sugarman – a fascinating documentary with some huge emotional payoffs
Beasts of the Southern Wild – a very promising and extremely stylish debut
Planet of Snail – poignant and inspiring Korean documentary
The Imposter – a film that intriguingly and appropriately plays with documentary form
The Turin Horse – bleak, miserable and long, but don’t let that put you off!
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – beguiling, considered and atmospheric
Woodsman and the Rain – another strong comedy drama from Shûichi Okita
The Queen of Versailles – a compelling and surprisingly balanced glimpse into the 1% lifestyle
Jiro Dreams of Sushi – I was really, really hungry after watching this
Samsara – ‘non-narrative cinema’ needs to tackle some new subject matter, but this film offers truly remarkable cinematography amidst the familiar themes.