Year in review: Best films of 2012

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Looking back at at the year in cinema, TimeOut film reviewers found it difficult to single out one title as top of the heap. Instead they offer this alphabetical list of the 30 films which left the biggest impression in 2012 and name a few genre champs ...

Batman, Ben Affleck and Gollum feature among the top films of 2012.
Batman, Ben Affleck and Gollum feature among the top films of 2012.

Best drama: Amour
Director: Michael Haneke
Austria/France/Germany

It screened only at the film festival - a general release is planned for February - but no self-respecting survey of the year could ignore the new film by the most consistently original and provocative film-maker in Europe. In this spare and quietly devastating drama, Haneke, who wrote and directed, took on a subject that has inspired a clutch of films in the past decade - the impact on a couple of the late-life infirmity of one of them. The great Jean-Louis Trintignant, now 82, was the heart of an humane, intelligent and perfectly acted drama. (PC)

The Angels' Share
Director: Ken Loach
Scotland

The veteran master of social realism maintained his rage against social disadvantage but was in an unusually sanguine mood, displaying the flashes of comic brilliance he showed in Kes and Riff-Raff. The story concerned a young man who is trying to go straight because he is about to become a father. Then he learns to love whisky and plans the audacious heist of the priciest barrel north of the border. The film strained plausibility at times but it had a good-natured charm that was utterly infectious. Loach's habit of casting off the street lent the performances a ringing authenticity - and it was a hoot. (PC)

Best thriller: Argo
Director: Ben Affleck
USA

Ben Affleck directed and starred in this take on how a true-life Hollywood-created ruse helped get six US diplomats out of Iran disguised as a Canadian film crew during the hostage crisis of the Carter era. He did both really, really well - creating a convincing spook in his portrayal of CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez as the centre of a film of cracking tension. Its bluff was to convince Tehran a Star Wars mega-movie was coming to town, but Affleck's film played like the sort of American political thriller they made in the 70s before Lucas and Spielberg invented the blockbuster business.

Best silent film: The Artist
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
France

Arriving on our screens in the run-up to its Oscar triumphs, this French film was a quirky valentine to Hollywood - well, at least the girl Hollywood once was in the era when the talkies took over from silent movies. It might have turned out a spoof of very narrow, film buff appeal - Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid-meets-A Star is Born. But care of its exuberant performances by Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and a wonder dog called Uggie, and its wry melodramatics, it was a movie about the magic of movies and quite the best best Franco-retro silent flick in many a year. (RB)

Best debut: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlin
USA

The winner of the prize for best first feature at Cannes and the most unusual film of the year had a title that suggested a natural history television documentary but was a wildly poetic thrill-ride, a giddy and fevered vision of a post-apocalyptic future, and a meticulously constructed cinematic fantasia saturated with joy and wonder. The story of a 6-year-old girl (the actress was only 5 at the time) who lives with her dad in a ragtag community "on the wrong side of the levee" on the Gulf of Mexico, it glancingly referenced Katrina and global climate change but its echoes resonated anywhere anyone ever thought about the end of days. (PC)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Director: John Madden
UK

Formulaic, predictable and utterly delightful, this India-set romcom loosely based on a Deborah Moggach 2004 novel assembled a dream cast to play seven Pommie pensioners who retired to Rajasthan because their late-life finances are a bit dodgy. Director Madden (Shakespeare in Love) delivered a mild farce rich in poignant - and pointed - moments and the veteran thespians were at the top of their game, chewing some dazzling one-liners with great relish (Maggie Smith's "If I can't pronounce it, I don't want to eat it," was the best of many). And crucially, the humour never condescended to the locals. (PC)

Best animation: Brave
Director: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
USA

This year's feature from Pixar was the first to feature a female lead in its 13 films and its feisty redhead Merida, a princess of a clan in the ancient Scottish Highlands did cause some initial worry the animation studio had strayed into Disney territory. But Brave wound up somewhere exciting, funny and hilariously Scottish, while its often otherworldly visual touches seemed to bear more influence of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki than Great Uncle Walt. And it did for mother-daughter relationships - Merida's problems with her by-the-book mother the spark of their adventures - what Finding Nemo did for fathers and sons. (RB)

Brother Number One
Director:
Annie Goldson
New Zealand

Documentary vet Goldson burnished her impressive CV with this unsensational and powerful film about one man's pilgrimage to Cambodia to bear witness for his brother murdered in 1979 by the genocidal machine of the fanatical Pol Pot. Like all the best documentaries, it had a dream lead character in champion rower Rob Hamill, a quintessential Kiwi bloke who proved a piercingly honest narrator as he went to testify at the war crimes tribunal. But the film ranged much more widely, finding participants in the country's (and perhaps his brother Kerry's) horror and remaining sensitive to the hideous truth that it's sometimes hard to tell victims apart from perpetrators. A minor masterpiece. (PC)

Best superhero movie: The Dark Knight Rises
Director:
Christopher Nolan
USA

The third and final of Nolan's Batman reboot trilogy was a madly ambitious heavy metal concept album of a movie. It was unrelenting, portentous and it didn't quite know when to stop. And sometimes you just couldn't hear the words, especially those of gas-masked villain Bane and Christian Bale's permanently hoarse Batman. But it still reached the thrill levels of its outstanding predecessor in its final act and came armed with plenty of Big Ideas - mortality, fear, despair, class warfare and revolution among them - among all the Batgadgets, to contemplate in the occasional quieter moments. (RB)

Higher Ground
Director: Vera Farmiga
USA

The debut as director by an impressive actress, gracefully sidestepped both cliche and condescension as it depicted a woman going through a crisis of faith. Instead, in examining a key element of American culture, it maintained affection for all its characters, members of a fundamentalist Christian congregation in the American heartland. In the main role, Farmiga herself delivered a warm and empathetic performance rich in ambivalence and anguish, playing a woman whose adult piety is slowly eroded by doubt. It was a smart and profoundly humane drama, alive to the moral complexities at its heart.

Best Fantasy: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director:
Peter Jackson
New Zealand

It does take a while to get going and by the end - nearly three hours later - we're only a third of the way into J.R.R. Tolkien's original story. The 48 frames per second 3D does take a bit of getting used to too. But once it gets up to speed - or is slowed to a creep around Gollum's underground lair - the first of Peter Jackson's second Middle-earth trilogy is plain exhilarating, and helped by Martin Freeman as Bilbo - the best screen embodiment of a hobbit yet - and his dwarf mates, it's possibly got more laughs in it than the entire LOTR trilogy. (RB)

How to Meet Girls from A Distance
Director:
Dean Hewison
New Zealand

This film was just an idea with a tag line in January, but after being selected as the winner of the Make My Movie feature film competition it was written, shot, edited and ready for its world premiere at the NZ International Film Festival in July. A "peeping tom rom-com", it was an impressive effort and a great example of what can be achieved when talent meets opportunity. Better still, it was a genuinely funny and smart comedy - and for a film about a shy guy who goes a little overboard stalking potential dates, it was also kind of sweet. (FR)

Best 3D: Hugo
Director:
Martin Scorsese
USA

Scorsese elevated family entertainment to a new level this year with this whimsical tale about a 12-year-old orphan living in the tunnels and walls of a 1930s Paris railway station. Visually, Scorsese created an enchanting and magical world brought to life with stunning 3D imagery. Add to that, nuanced performances and a story that drifts into the life of a groundbreaking French film-maker, and all of a sudden Scorsese's drama was about more than just friendship, it became a memorable love letter and tribute to the art of film-making. (FR)

The Hunger Games
Director:
Gary Ross
USA

Teenage vampires, wizards and werewolves suddenly seemed rather harmless after this latest literary adaptation was unleashed upon us this year. Based on the young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, this sci-fi action drama stared Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen and had you on the edge of your seat for its entire two-and-a-half-hour running time. Smart, thrilling and poignant, this slick blockbuster, about teenagers selected to fight to the death in a televised gladiator-styled competition, featured well-formed characters, a strong narrative, tense action and heartbreaking moments. Regardless of its bloodthirsty tone, it left you wanting more. (FR)

I Wish
Director:
Horokazu Koreeda
Japan

The Japanese maestro delivered another drama whose stylistic composure and meditative pace brought small-scale human worlds into sharp focus. In the tradition of the great Yasujiro Ozu, I Wish concerned family dynamics: two brothers, separated by their parents' divorce, live at opposite ends of the island of Kyushu, and wish - as all such children always do - that their parents would reunite. The opening of a new bullet-train line seems to offer a chance. Superb performances from a young cast marked a film of unerring emotional intelligence that captures that moment when children cross the boundary into young adulthood without quite realising what has happened. (PC)

The Kid With a Bike
Directors:
Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Belgium/France/Italy

The new film by the Belgian Dardenne brothers may have lacked the almost biblical moral density of their Rosetta and The Son, but it was a compact and compelling drama and a testament to the goodness of the human spirit. The title's kid, abandoned by his shiftless father, develops a relationship with a kindly village hairdresser, who restores to him his bike and a sense that, just possibly, the whole world is not against him. A frighteningly forceful central performance by a youngster, who made the hurt constantly visible just below the surface of his rage, drove another quiet triumph for two of the best European directors working today. (PC)

Le Havre
Director:
Aki Kaurismaki
Finland

The Finnish master of deadpan (and inventor of the piano-accordion supergroup) came up with an agreeably stagey feel-good fable about a shoeshine man in the port city of the title, who becomes unwittingly involved in the fortunes of a stowaway African refugee. In a ruefully comic take on the material that inspired rage in Philippe Lioret's Welcome, the shoeshiner conspires with friends and neighbours to outwit the police. The self-consciously artificial style was part of the charm of a film that trod around the edges of both sentimentality and pastiche with a surefooted grace, utterly devoid of irony or self-regard. (PC)

Best sci-fi: Looper
Director:
Rian Johnson
USA

Looper was a movie like many before it which involved Bruce Willis and some very big guns. But it still felt like an original, a time-travel thriller which made good use of Willis as a supporting act to Joseph Gordon Levitt, a hitman whose job in 2044 was to kill those his mob bosses sent back in time from 30 years in the future. Its script sure had some fun with some time-travel imponderables but it was also a movie memorable for its characters and and how it reconfigured its influences into something fresh.
(RB)

Margin Call
Director:
JC Chandor
USA

An eerie hush and chiaroscuro visual style created an almost palpable sense of menace very apt to the subject matter of this Wall St thriller. The film's inspiration was the 2008 collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers which signalled the start of the GFC but, unlike the incendiary documentary Inside Job, it treated the story as Greek tragedy-cum-chamber piece. A tight, radiantly clear script conceived the story as a bitterly instructive moral fable and the film extracted from its top-flight ensemble some of the best work of their careers, serving them well with handsome camerawork and a silky, quietly ominous score. (PC)

Monsieur Lazhar
Director:
Philippe Falardeau
Canada

No recent movie has had the same generosity of spirit and alertness to the humanity of its characters as this sublime Oscar-nominated French-Canadian drama. The title character is an Algerian immigrant who steps in to help out at an intermediate school after a teacher has taken her own life. As we come to know him and realise that he is something of an expert in matters of grief and loss, the film explores the impact of that event on the school community and in particular, the way in which adults project their anxieties on to children. Achingly authentic and riveting performances - notably from the kids - made this a very special film. (PC)

Moonrise Kingdom
Director:
Wes Anderson
USA

As with some of Anderson's previous films full of precocious kids and offbeat adults, this risked being a indulgent quirk-fest with its tale of two 12-year-olds running away together into the gentle wilds of New Penzance Island off the New England Coast in the summer of 1965. But somehow Moonrise Kingdom turned out to be both hilariously deadpan - especially among the grown-up characters played by Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand - and sweetly melancholy in its love story of young Sam and Suzy. (RB)

Safety Not Guaranteed
Director:
Colin Trevorrow
USA

This quirky low-budget indie provided one of the most unpredictable and memorable film endings of the year. An unusual mix of dry romantic comedy and DIY science fiction, this story about three cynical journalists in search of the author of a classified ad was overly ambitious, illogical and plain loopy. It was also, thanks to smart, witty performances and the gentle blurring of reality and fantasy, an utterly charming, original and heartfelt adventure that convinced you that it is better to believe in something rather than nothing at all. (FR)

Best foreign film: A Separation
Director:
Asghar Farhadi
Iran

This domestic drama, a deserving Oscar-winner, was a standard-bearer for the cinema of a country seldom seen here. The conflict between two middle-class people whose disagreement on the wisdom of emigrating - she wants a better life for their daughter; he has a senile father - set in motion a machinery of consequences that no one could possibly have imagined. Superbly shot, using walls and windows to evoke the characters' internal turmoil, it was a film without villains: all the characters tried to do their best as circumstances spiralled out of control. Extraordinarily tense but oozing a quiet compassion for the decency of ordinary people, this was a masterpiece. (PC)

The Sessions
Director:
Ben Lewin
USA

A Polish-born Australian who contracted polio at 6 wrote and directed the year's most unusual love story, based on a magazine article in which a paralysed writer documented his mission to lose his virginity with the help of a self-described sex surrogate. The film, which not only avoided prurience but positively shamed it, was eye-wateringly explicit, but its emotional honesty was even more remarkable. It was also bloody funny. Exquisitely attuned to how murky the territory is between sex and love, it featured two faultless performances by Helen Hunt and John Hawkes and able support by William H. Macy as a priest wondering whether he's bitten off more than he can chew. (PC)

Shame
Director:
Steve McQueen
UK

The Turner Prize-winning artist whose film about the fatal 1981 hunger strike by IRA prisoner Bobby Sands won the Cannes first feature prize in 2009 turned in a portrait of a sex addict which was profoundly confronting because it was so coolly clinical and played so low-key as to be almost affectless. The extraordinary Michael Fassbender conveyed with ineffable subtlety the mixture of irresistibly cool charm and self-loathing that drives his character's ceaseless predatory behaviour until the arrival of his lost-soul sister (Carey Mulligan) upsets the apple-cart. It was a challenging piece of work but an inspired one. (PC)

The Skin I Live In
Director:
Pedro Almodovar
Spain

The new film by the Spanish maestro was possibly his most straightforwardly entertaining ever: exhilarating and audacious, an existential thriller crossed with a mad-scientist horror movie, assembled with the precision of a Swiss watch. Antonio Banderas, who starred in the director's first films in the 1980s, played an esteemed plastic surgeon who has created a synthetic skin. A ferociously ingenious plot was sprinkled with tantalising clues and, as the last bit of the puzzle slotted into place you could almost hear the film-maker's cackle of delight. Positively chilly - but one hell of a ride. (PC)

Best spy flick: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Director:
Tomas Alfredson

The Swedish wunderkind behind the macabre vampire romance Let the Right One In worked with a screenplay based on John Le Carre's novel of betrayal inside MI6 that was a masterpiece of concision and precision: not a word or a glance was wasted and it all maintained a creeping sense of tension, because we were plied with just enough information to keep up. A Cold War story more than 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, it was an unlikely thriller, mostly about men talking in offices, but it was absolutely riveting from start to finish. And Gary Oldman was a fitting challenger to Alec Guinness, who has owned George Smiley for 40 years. (PC)

Best love story: Take This Waltz
Director:
Sarah Polley
Canada

The Buggles' 1979 synth-pop hit Video Killed the Radio Star was the unlikely soundtrack to a illicit affair in the new film by the writer-director of 06's Away From Her. This film was riskier, bolder and ultimately more satisfying than that one, charting the erotic dance between two neighbours. The luminous sincerity of Michelle Williams reminded us that hers is the kind of character-acting skill that comes along only a few times in a generation. Even if the film lost its way quite badly in the final reel, it underlined her status as one of the best actresses of her age now working - a dream to watch even when the material is problematic. (PC)

The Well-Digger's Daughter
Director:
Daniel Auteuil
France

In his first shot at directing, the prolific and versatile Auteuil paid tribute to writer and film-maker Marcel Pagnol, whose novels were the basis of the films that made Auteuil's name, remaking Pagnol's own 1940 film about a proud Provencal working man who will do anything to defend the honour of his family.

A handsome period piece, with a minute eye for detail, it mixed elements of melodrama and ethnography as it told a story about love across class barriers and the damage that words spoken and left unsaid, can do. Auteuil himself was superb at the hub of an excellent ensemble in a solid, deeply satisfying film. (PC)

Your Sister's Sister
Director:
Lynn Shelton
USA

Director Lynn Shelton didn't intend her drama about human relationships and sibling dynamics to be funny, but thanks to her remarkable cast of Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass, and their largely improvised natural performances, this simple talkfest turned out to be honest and poignant, and hilariously funny. The initial set-up to get the three characters to a remote island cabin was a touch forced, but once under way the story unfolded without effort, at a good pace, and with twists that kept turning everything you'd previously thought about these characters on its head. (FR)
Reviewers: Peter Calder (PC), Francesca Rudkin (FR) and Russell Baillie (RB)

What were your favourite movies of 2012? What movies should have been on the list which weren't? What movies made the list which shouldn't have? Comment below.

- NZ Herald

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