So here we are, at the end of the first year on the blog, and it's time for the inevitable Top 10 films of the year. I did a post back in October, listing my Top 10 as it then stood (read it here), and since then I've been attempting to catch up on as much stuff as possible. As and when I get round to seeing Moonrise Kingdom, Looper and a few others, I may have to do another update, like my updated 2011 list. But for now, here is my Top 10 of 2012:
10. The Woman in Black (dir. James Watkins)
Having tested the water with Wake Wood and Let Me In, Hammer is now well and truly back with this chilling and creepy adaptation of Susan Hill's much-loved Gothic novel. While it falls down in certain aspects compared to the stage show, James Watkins makes up for it with lavish production values which combine classic English horror tropes with a Scandinavian bleakness. It's a film made by people who love ghost stories and believe that they still have a power and purpose. Daniel Radcliffe gives a very good performance as Kipps and the ending is both scary and heartbreaking.
In her most personal film since Europa Europa, Agnieszka Holland returns to the Second World War and succeeds where Schindler's List ultimately came up short. The story of a group of Jews hiding in the sewers of Lvov combines washed-out cinematography with ambiguous characterisation and a number of appropriately harrowing moments. Holland's film explores the Holocaust from both Christian and humanistic perspectives, always focussing on the emotions of the characters and giving us an ending which is both joyous and understated.
Even after all the backlash, the concluding instalment of Christopher Nolan's Gotham Trilogy remains a damn fine film. Returning the Nietzschean philosophy of the first film, Nolan shows the burden that Batman has become to Bruce Wayne, and his exploration of martial law and terrorism is escalated far better than in The Dark Knight. The bleak atmosphere punctuated by superb performances from Christian Bale, Tom Hard and a career-best turn from Anne Hathaway. While it is too long and the ending is a problem, neither of these niggles are enough to blunt the film's genuine depth and emotional power.
While it's hardly the most ground-breaking film that Aardman has ever made, Peter Lord's latest effort is guaranteed to put you in a really good mood. Hugh Grant impresses in his first animated role, and Lord's marriage of stop-motion and CGI is pretty much seamless. As with all Aardman's efforts, it will require multiple viewings to spot every last joke or funny detail, but even on first watch it's hysterically funny and every bit as adept as Chicken Run when it comes to its action scenes. Throw in a surprise cameo by Brian Blessed and you have a sure-fire winner.
A Royal Affair is perhaps the biggest surprise of the year, giving us a period drama with politics, philosophy and passion coming out of its ears. In amongst the beautiful visuals, the film has a fascinating central idea, contrasting the rise of the Enlightenment in 18-century Denmark with the legends of King Arthur. The political intrigue is worthy of I, Claudius, and in its finest moments it comes close to rivalling Barry Lyndon in its blend of substance and slow-moving beauty. The film in anchored by a brilliant performance by Mads Mikkelson, whose character is undone by a catastrophic blurring of personal and political ends.
Calling this the best Joss Whedon film of 2012 is damning this film with faint praise, since even without Whedon's name on it, it's a genuinely great film. Conceived as a "loving hate letter" to horror, The Cabin in the Woods one of horror's oldest stories with ruthless intelligence, and manages to carve out its own strange identity in the process. Positioned somewhere between The Truman Show and H. P. Lovecraft, it is a fun, scary and really smart film, with great characters and a level of insight approaching that of Peeping Tom. It's worth it alone for the underground storage scene, which is both clever and incredibly unnerving.
Billed somewhat damningly as Lord of the Flies for the Twilight generation, The Hunger Games turned out to be a terrific sci-fi action blockbuster. Gary Ross understands the intelligence of teenagers, and serves up a faithful but incredibly cinematic adaptation which draws deep from the well of 1970s dystopian sci-fi and uses such tropes to great effect. Anchored by another brilliant performance by Jennifer Lawrence, the film is visually stunning and its action scenes deeply uncomfortably for all the right reasons. It's a teen blockbuster with both brains and brawn, and I am genuinely looking forward to the sequel.
3. Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)
Purely on a performance level, Martha Marcy May Marlene does for Elizabeth Olsen what Winter's Bone did for Jennifer Lawrence. But it's also one of the most compelling and unnerving films of recent times, taking us through the fractured mind of our central character and freaking us out along the way. Sean Durkin seeks to undercut both the mechanics of cults and the reason why people might join them, contrasting their intimidation and degradation of women with the materialistic lifestyle of Martha's relatives. It is every bit as terrifying as Deliverance and Repulsion, and as far as thrillers go there is no higher praise.
As great as The Cabin in the Woods is in its deconstruction of the horror genre, Berberian Sound Studio edges it out for pure and simple terror. Simultaneously a tribute to the giallo sub-genre and a dark, strange Lynchian horror, the film depicts film-making in its most visceral and ritualistic terms. The films boasts extraordinary sound design and music, both used to terrifying effect to make us imagine what is occurring in the unseen film-within-a-film. Tobey Jones is superb in the central role, and the film will start with you long after you've seen it.
Having impressed with both Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik's third film cements his status as one of the great directors of our age. Killing Me Softly is the best mob thriller since Goodfellas, being both an amazingly efficient piece of storytelling and one of the most confidently downbeat films in recent memory. Its ideas about American politics, capitalism, crime and machismo are brilliantly executed, with Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins both at the top of their respective games. It is a stunningly visceral piece of work, and the very best film of 2012.