How was 2012 for movies? Well, it was the best of times and the better of times. Here are the top 10 reasons (in no specific order) that forced me to mangle that classic Dickens’ line.
1) Tabu: A daring two-part love story from Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes, Tabu is set in modern-day Lisbon and mid-century Mozambique. Gambling, voodoo, sad crocodiles and a Portuguese version of Be My Baby blend into a monochrome poem to the past. Anchored by fantastic performances from relatively unknown but brilliant actors, this one will get under your skin and stay there.
2) The Imposter: Last year, the documentary strands gave us Senna and Project Nim. This time around it’s the UK effort from the Banged Up Abroad producer, Bart Layton, tracing the 1994 kidnapping of a 13-year-old boy and his shocking re-emergence three years later. Like its subject, French trickster Frederic Bourdin, who stole the identity of missing 16-year-old Texan Nicholas Barclay and inveigled his way into his family, Mr Layton’s film has also taken up residence in moviegoers’ minds.
3) In Another Country: South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo’s intricate new comedy is a searing portrait of broken romances. The movie revolves around Isabelle Huppert, who portrays a French woman visiting a sleepy Korean seaside resort. There she interacts with two movie directors, a sexy lifeguard, a Buddhist monk, among other bits-and-pieces characters inadvertently affected by this energetic foreigner. Mr Hong’s trademark long takes and sharp zooms blend breezily into this whimsically funny tale.
4) Killing Them Softly: Not quite The Assassination of Jesse James reunion that it was initially touted as, but still a mean thriller from Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik. Mr Pitt is Cogan, who investigates a heist while wielding a massive shotgun. Where this movie works the most is in its stinging indictment of Barack Obama’s first term, and the emerging talent known as Scoot McNairy, whose scared and audacious act as a stick-up man is other-worldly.
5) The Cabin in the Woods: This much-delayed meta-horror, starring Chris Hemsworth, about kids who spend a weekend in a cabin octopus-punched me the most this year. Joss Whedon’s wicked script is both a homage to and stark dismissal of the horror fare that has foisted on our faculties since time immemorial. The climactic 20 minutes of absolute madness include garden-variety cult symbols that metastasise into evil creatures.
6) Dredd: Mega-City One, a towering, crime-drenched metropolis sprawled across a post-apocalyptic, irradiated American East Coast, deserves some massive clean-up. In comes Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and trainee Judge/psychic sidekick Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who are fighting their way through a 200-storey block floor by floor to the penthouse suite. There awaits psychotic gang leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), the woman behind a new drug, Slo-Mo, that makes Mega-City One’s low lifes see the world in saturated colours at one per cent of the normal speed. At once faithful to the 2000 AD comics and wholly accessible to the uninitiated.
7) Ill Manors: Ben Drew, aka hip-hop artist Plan B, is one of the hottest acts in British music. He has this year made a movie that the Financial Times hailed as the “most exciting British debut in recent memory”. Set in East London, this is an authentic story of London’s hip-hop culture. Nothing screams the Bs in “Broken Britain” the way this mercilessly demanding movie does.
8) End of Watch: David Ayer’s tale of two LAPD cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) who stumble across a massive criminal network on a routine traffic stop is very immersive. End of Watch plays like a mix of The Hurt Locker, The Wire, and the latest dodgy YouTube footage uploaded from a mobile (the bulk of the movie is footage being shot by Gyllenhaal’s Taylor). It’s been mentioned as an Oscar dark horse, while William Friedkin hailed it on Twitter as “maybe the best cop film ever”. Coming from the guy who made The French Connection, that’s high praise indeed.
9) Thuppakki: An army man foils the devious plans of sleeper terrorist cells who want to wreak havoc across Mumbai. That’s the sort of story that has frippery all around it a la typical Tamil cinema. But where A R “Ghajini” Murugadoss scores points is in the intricate cat-and-mouse tale between the villain (a broodingly menacing Vidyut Jamwal) and his nemesis, Vijay (who gets to show, for once, his acting chops). It reaffirms his status as one of the most original film-makers (despite that unnecessary Memento taint) in the subcontinent.
10) Patience (After Sebald): On December 14, 2001, the blooming career of German writer W G Sebald was cut short by a car accident. This richly layered documentary on the man’s ground-breaking The Rings of Saturn was the most heartfelt 80 minutes of my movie-viewing experience in 2012. Grant Gee deftly intersperses the talking-head format with the hidden mysteries in the book. If ever you need some hand-holding while walking through coastal East Anglia, carry both the book and this beautiful documentary.