I end the year with a look back at the films I’ve watched in the last 12 months. I think this year I’ve reached over 70 ‘first-time’ viewings, plus at least another 5-10 repeats. More than in recent times I’ve seen probably 5-10 films on the big screen, not all of which were animated…
Anyway, in no specific order, my highlights…
Bronson: a tremendous tour-de-force of a performance from Tom Hardy as the eponymous career criminal, something between a sociopath and a circus ringmaster (mostly sociopath). Astonishing bravery in his acting and fearless direction from Nicolas Winding Refn. Not for the faint-hearted, but for anyone who likes either that actor or director, a must-see.
Super 8: a fine tribute to the heyday of Steven Spielberg, with lens flare and suburban streets, bike chases and kids hat home movies, this recreates a slice of 80s magic wonderfully. Much better than I had expected. Very entertaining.
The Muppets: a joy from start to finish, for both Rachel and I (who grew up with The Muppets TV show on Saturday evenings) and our daughters (who only know the Christmas Carol movie). Fabulous songs, brilliant fun performances from Jason Siegel and Amy Adams, with the best maniacal laugh of the year from Chris Cooper, showing Tom Cruise he’s not the only person to send himself up (but in a much less stagey, self-conscious way).
The Guard: how Brendan Gleeson was overlooked during Awards Season I’ll never know. He tremendously unsympathetic as the titular Guard in a small Irish backwater, and his chemistry with Don Cheadle is amazing. Just as funny as In Bruges with an even better ending.
The Raid: OUCH. When I left the cinema I genuinely felt like I’d been kicked in the ribs a dozen times and had the air sucked from my lungs. Breathtaking fight choreography and barely a moment’s respite in 90 bone-crunching minutes.
Confessions: a very strange Japanese film that starts with an astonishing 30-minute sequence where a teacher starts to confess something in front of her class. At first they’re paying no attention, she seems incapable of commanding their attention. But gradually, she does, and from there her confession leads to episodes from various pupils’ point of view, as they confess their own part in a terrible crime.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: a fantastic old-school thriller that’s as much about characters and human interaction as the fairly labyrinthine plot. The ensemble cast is uniformly fantastic, not least Gary Oldman, Toby Jones and Colin Firth. I saw this early on in the year, and can’t wait to see it again.
Benny’s Video: as a fan of Michael Haneke’s more recent work I sought out this earlier film, which (unsurprisingly) is as bleak as they come. On the one hand there’s Benny, alienated teenager who spends most of his time making or watching violent videos, with similarly violent images from news footage constantly in the background. And then, when Benny Does Something Very Bad, there are his parents.
Coraline: a wondrous stop-motion animation that seems like it’s in the tradition of Roald Dahl, as it goes to some pretty dark places and revels in the macabre. Again, I’m sure this would repay multiple viewings.
Tyrannosaur: a barnstorming directorial debut from actor Paddy Considine, with what is ostensibly a three-hander between Eddie Marsan, Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman. A truly brutal, bleak depiction of alcoholism, abuse and damaged souls. Colman is outstanding in a hugely complex and difficult role that’s light years away from her TV comedies; my performance of the year.
Badlands: a long-overdue viewing of Terence Malick’s first film, a truly beautiful depiction of disaffected youth in the heartland of middle America. Lyrical, sometimes infuriating, often breathtaking.
Drive: Nicolas Winding Refn’s second mention, featuring a brilliant turn by Ryan Gosling and even stronger support from Albert Brooks and Carey Mulligan in another 1980s throwback that oozes style and class in every frame.
Martha Marcy May Marlene: a really interesting, strong directorial debut from Sean Durkin, starring Elizabeth Olsen in an amazing role about identity and memory. Ostensibly telling the tale of a girl who somehow joins then escapes from a cult/commune lead by the very scary John Hawkes, it’s more fractured than that, with unexplained aspects throughout and a notoriously ambiguous ending. I loved it.
The Innocents: perhaps my discovery of the year, a 1961 horror classic. It opens to a pitch-black screen, and silence. Then a child’s voice starts singing; pure, angelic, and more than a bit creepy. Slowly, a pair of hands are revealed, dimly lit against the black, shaking. We can hear quiet sobbing. The child’s song ends with “then I die” repeated. With an image that surely influenced ‘that scene’ from The Blair Witch Project decades later, we close in on Deborah Kerr’s terrified, trembling face, babbling almost incoherently about ‘the children’, wanting to protect them, not destroy them…
It’s a stunning opening that utterly unsettles the viewer. What could possibly have caused all this? Immediately it cuts to Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, clearly a sane and proper young woman, meeting “The Uncle”, a wealthy bachelor who wants her to act as governess to his orphaned nephew and niece. He makes it clear that she is in sole charge as he doesn’t want anything to do with them. We hear phrases from that opening scene of terror in this conversation. It’s chilling. We know the set-up and we know that Something Very Bad happens. But what?
There are hints almost immediately… the house is a huge Gothic pile, inhabited by two children and the housekeeper, who is clearly unsettled already when Miss Giddens arrives. The previous governess died mysteriously. The girl Flora seems creepy in the extreme, and we learn that Miles (her brother) has been expelled from school, with words like “contaminates the others” involved.
Then they play Hide & Seek, and there’s a scene that reminded me of ‘the face in the boat’ moment from Jaws: truly scary and unsettling. The paranoia escalates, the sound design is fantastic in ramping up the tension (again, I feel Stanley Kubrick learned from this film for The Shining about creating tone and dread through sound and space).
While the climax felt a bit rushed, the way the film comes full circle back her trembling hands reveals the full horror of what has happened and is simply brilliant. The ending has almost no glimmer of hope for the innocent children of the title, nor indeed for their tragic governess.
This has influenced countless horror classics, if not the whole genre. It’s sense of paranoia and paedophobia must have been groundbreaking at the time. There’s almost no onscreen violence or blood. It works completely on the psychological level, with lingering images designed to unsettle, with sound that creates tension and dread, and with a tone that never lets up.
Thanks for reading my blog this year, I’ll try to be more regular in 2013! I thoroughly recommend all these films, and I hope from my descriptions you can gauge whether they’re your sort of thing (quite a few are definitely not easy viewing)…