Review: The Impossible

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The ImpossibleThe Pitch: Tsunami, tsunami, came washing over me…

The Review: We live in a fairly fragile world, when it comes down to it. We like to think we live in safety, comfort and security, but actually this lump of molten rock that orbits our sun at 67,000 miles an hour is subject to all kinds of natural phenomena that put our relatively tiny, fleshy bodies at immediate risk. We suffer from the weather above and from the movement of the land below, and one of the most striking effects of this in recorded human history was an earthquake of around 9.0 on the Richter scale which occurred on the 26th December 2004. It struck 100 miles off the west coast of Sumatra, and the sudden displacement of tectonic plates underwater caused a tidal wave that reached heights of up to thirty metres and washed up as far away as Somalia and the Maldives. It took two hours to reach Thailand, but there were no early warning systems, so the wave caused by an energy release equivalent to 1,500 atomic bombs came as a total surprise to everyone, but among the 230,000 people that lost their lives in the disaster there were survivors, and The Impossible is the story of one family’s attempt to count themselves among the latter.

Given the enormity of events (as evidenced by the paragraph above), it’s a brave decision to focus purely on the fate of five individuals, but the real life traumas of one Boxing Day tsunami family have become well known in their native land, Spain. Director Juan Antonio Bayona has Anglicised the story of Maria Belon and her family, with Belon and her husband now portrayed by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. (Bayona has claimed that their nationality is irrelevant, although that would have been more believable had Watts not had to match her accent to the plummy English offspring she and McGregor are raising.) After a brief glimpse of family life in their Thai resort, with floating lanterns and Christmas presents, the wave strikes with devastating force, leaving Watts with eldest son Lucas and with Maria badly hurt, and Lucas attempting not only to help his stricken mother but anyone else they might come into contact with.

The story that unfolds sticks closely to real events, outside the nationality of its central participants, but the five family members are the only real characters. Not only the local Thai populace but the other survivors are reduced simply to interactions rather than defined people, less a facet of the unfolding tragedy and more a storytelling decision to draw focus onto the central family. The tsunami and its effects are devastating, and superbly captured, but the lack of a rounded cast makes the aftermath of the drama feel surprisingly small scale. Part of that is the cinematic language which The Impossible is fighting against; we’re so accustomed to fictional or factual disasters writ large with bulging casts to emphasise the scale of the drama, it takes time to readjust to the intimacy of the family’s story. Ultimately The Impossible isn’t the story of the tsunami on a worldwide scale but on a very personal one; the main flaw in this approach is that by clinging so closely to fact, there’s not enough narrative to sustain three acts of a film.

The other issue with that approach is the storytelling techniques employed in an attempt to contextualise the fate of the family members. The Impossible employs a different narrative device for each of its three main sections (if you count the pre-wave sequence as a prologue); when the wave hits, and the later flashback to it, rely on the staples of the horror genre, all the more startling for working so grippingly and being so difficult for the viewer to endure by the nature of their daylight setting, but not surprising given Bayona’s previous success with out-and-out horror The Orphanage. The films share a common trait in their excellent use of sound, both in design and deployment, and some sequences might take a strong stomach. The middle stretch then threatens a descent into melodrama, but is saved by the quality of the performances, from not only Watts and the ever underrated McGregor but also Tom Holland as eldest Lucas. Sadly, the final act falls back on thriller tropes in an attempt to wring tension from the remaining narrative, and it’s hard not to feel just a little manipulated. The Impossible is a reasonable stab at capturing a worldwide catastrophe still dangerously raw for many, but a wider focus may have served it better.

Why see it at the cinema? The disaster scenes are undeniably impressive visually, but it’s the sound design that’s the most compelling reason to venture out for this one. That, and the collective noise of horror that the audience made on seeing Naomi Watts’ leg injury. Sort of “sssss-ooohuuugggh.” Never quite heard anything like it in a cinema.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for natural disaster scenes, moderate injury detail and brief nudity. That’s a little bit of a surprise to me; I found it a tough watch, and I would be seriously nervous about taking anyone under 12 at all to this one.

My cinema experience: Caught late at work, then in motorway traffic on the way back from work, I arrived fairly late to the Cineworld in Cambridge. Thankfully there weren’t huge queues, but my server didn’t check which showing I was attending and sold me a ticket for the later showing. Thankfully there were still seats at my intended showing so I was allowed to simply slip in. A fairly full house saw me sat on the second row from the front, on the opposite end to a group of people who talked at full volume on and off through the entire film. It was also a bit nippy in Screen 5, judging by the people on the front of the main block sat with their coats on their laps to counteract the cold. Not sure if it was that or what was onscreen, but I did notice a couple of walkouts after about half an hour. Generally the film was enough to keep my mind off those distractions, thankfully.

The Corridor Of UncertaintyA sharp twenty minutes, short for the Cineworlds normally, left me scrabbling to my seat just as the film started. Wasn’t planning to cut it that fine, but would be the one night I was running late.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Les Misérables (2012)

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Les Miserables Jackman

The Pitch: A movie musical revolution. With a capital R.

The Review: A sweeping musical, with original music complementing classic material, a historical epic with the fate of a nation at stake through a complex love story and a seminal tale of revenge and retribution, but enough about South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut, we’re here to discuss Les Misérables. (Thank you very much, I’m here all week.) It might seem like an odd reference, but if you’ve actually seen the South Park movie you’ll know that it’s not only a musical, but it’s one that pays rather significant homage musically and also a little structurally to the musical now known simply as Les Mis. (Don’t believe me? Listen to this not-exactly-PG song about La Resistance from South Park and you’ll be convinced.) I can recall seeing the South Park movie once with a group of friends and acquaintances, one of whom wasn’t aware that it was a musical; thoroughly engaged by the jokes, but mildly entertained by the songs, by the time the aforementioned Resistance Song rolls around as the tenth song in less than an hour I felt he was on the verge of ripping his ears off in frustration. So let me make this clear right now: Les Misérables is a musical with a capital M, a capital USICAL and a large selection of other capitals, most involving anguish or suffering. The original stage musical, based on a French concept album, contains forty-nine songs, and those not counting themselves of lovers of musical theatre will be thrilled to hear that the film version adds rather than subtracting.

Since its debut in 1985, Les Mis has been dismissed by the critics but lapped up by audiences worldwide, and what you get for your money is pretty much what’s been generating that divide ever since: two and a half hours of an almost slavish similarity to the theatre production in terms of theme, structure and content, but added dimensionality in the staging without the need for 3D glasses. Tom Hooper has done what he can to expand the play for the cinema by a combination of sweeping long shots to provide a sense of grandeur and extreme close-ups to put the singers right in your face at moments of high emotion (which is effectively the entire film). It’s unfortunate, then, that the whole production looks so staged for most of its extended running time, with the barricade sequences in particular looking obviously fake but even the outdoor sequences in some major landmarks feeling too much like people in costume running around on sets than genuine nineteenth century Parisians bemoaning their fate. The other notable comparison to the South Park movie is in terms of that story structure; by paying gentle homage, but working to its own plot and structure, South Park’s movie weaves a sensible and compelling tale that places and moves key plot tools just as it needs to. Les Mis makes no attempt to address any deficiencies in its source, other than adding more music (of which there clearly wasn’t enough), and hopes to sing loud enough to distract you from the plot, based on the most fundamental contrivances and absurd coincidences imaginable.

And boy, does it sing loud. There’s a wide array of vocal talent on display, and most of the acclaim has been so far heaped on the beaten down shoulders of Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, who gets to reinvent the SuBo standard I Dreamed A Dream for cinema audiences. SuBo Who, frankly, as Hathaway’s wrenching, defiant but ultimately broken performance deserves every last bit of attention likely to be lavished on it at awards time. Freed up by the production conceit of recording singing live on set, Hathaway makes the most of her fifteen minutes of fame in the movie (putting the supporting very much into supporting actress), Hathaway’s performance is also the best vocally of the cast. The singing from the two male leads is more contrasting, with Jackman’s stage training showing through in his whispered tones on quiet passages, his vibrato underpinning his impassioned pleas of every high note, hit pretty much bang on. His Jean Valjean is the emotional core of the movie, in almost direct opposition to Russell Crowe’s inflexible, robust policeman Javert; Crowe’s rock band training gives him a voice that slides up to higher notes and is rock solid on every note without a hint of wobble. Despite the differences in approach, both singing styles fit well with their characters – although if you take that to its logical conclusion, then Amanda Seyfried is just an irritating sparrow with no character whatsoever – but Crowe’s performance will feel odd to the ears when almost everyone else in the cast is singing in a theatrical style, and from Eddie Redmayne to Samantha Barks the rest of the cast deliver valiant work. The one pair of bright notes to keep you interested through the rest of the angst are Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, able to give brighter and more subtle performances than would be possible on stage thanks to having a camera almost in their face.

So if you’re a fan of the stage show, and can overcome Russell Crowe’s grandstanding, I’d expect you to be entirely satisfied by what Tom Hooper and his cast have served up. If you’re coming to this knowing the book but not the musical, then good luck, as most of the third part is hacked out and later sequences shortened, character motivations changing occasionally to move the plot forward whenever anyone’s not standing, singing to camera. If you’re coming to this completely fresh, then prepare yourself for the equivalent of a cinematic emoticon: if you look at it head on, it seems rough, ready and somewhat incomplete, just a series of random punctuation that doesn’t even give up its full effect unless you look at it in the right way. But if you accept what it’s trying to convey and go with it, then you’ll instantly get the full effect. This is no simple smiley, but a defiant, emotional face of anger and misery with just the occasional bout of cheer, a thundering steam train that’s on track to run straight over your soul, and if you give yourself to it, I defy even the hardest of hearts not to be forcing back a tear by the end. To call it a musical seems almost to undersell it; this is a rampaging behemoth of the most emotive acting possible which just happens to be set to music, to which your resistance just might be futile.

Why see it at the cinema: If the sound of large groups of women bawling their eyes out (and a few men as well, I fancy) doesn’t put you off, then there’s a decent collective experience to be had. There are a few impressive long shots, but actually it’s the vein-popping close ups that will draw you into the experience. The main benefit, as with most films in the genre, is the ability to hear the full detail of the soundtrack on a better sound system than you’ll ever own at home.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and sex, and infrequent moderate language. Mature, sensible children in the 9 – 11 should probably be able to cope with the more extreme scenes, which amount more to implication than anything actually seen onscreen.

My cinema experience: Arrived nice and early at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds in expectations of the Sunday evening showing being packed out, and it turned out to be about a third full. Picked up the tickets and our snacks (ice cream, bag of sweets and a large drink for a reasonable £7 with the Unlimited Premium discount) and no problems getting a decent seat. Mrs Evangelist felt the sound a little loud (an observation she also made after Pitch Perfect at the same venue), but no other issues projection wise. (She also had to make not one, but two, trips to the little girls’ room after that large diet Coke, bemoaning the lack of interval in such a long film. I’m sure she won’t be along in suffering that problem.) A well behaved audience in general; one person did attempt to start a round of applause at the end which quickly petered out when they realised no-one was going with them. Didn’t hear anyone singing along; for shame, Bury, for shame.

The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Five trailers, including those for all the Best Picture nominees not yet released, plus adverts and trailers resulted in the film starting 27 minutes after the advertised time.

The Score: 8/10

Review Of 2012: Top 40 Movies Of 2012 In Pictures

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I’ve not yet had time to write all of the words for my films of 2012; typically, at somewhere around 150 words a film, this write up normally clocks in at around 5-6,000 words. But one of my favourite parts of putting together this list over the past three years (see also 2010 and 2011) has been to find the images to go with it, in each case not picking the first picture to come up in Google Search but to try to find an image which resonated with me for each film.

So for now I thought I’d just share the pictures. Maybe words will be added to this list later, maybe they’re not necessary. (Let me know your thoughts.) But, words or no words, this is the definitive list of my top 40 of 2012, out of the new films released this year.

40. Wild Bill

Wild Bill

39. Paranorman


38. Killer Joe

Killer Joe

37. Le Havre

Marcel Marx (André Wilms) and Idrissa (Blondin Miguel)

36. Sound Of My Voice

Sound Of My Voice

35. Pitch Perfect

Pitch Perfect

34. Michael


33. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene

32. Rust And Bone

Rust And Bone

31. Headhunters


30. A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair

29. Skyfall


28. About Elly

About Elly

27. The Avengers

The Avengers

26. 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street

25. Searching For Sugar Man

Searching For Sugarman

24. Shadow Dancer

Andrea Riseborough, Aiden Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson and Brid Brennan as the McVeighs in Shadow Dancer

23. Marina Abramovic – The Artist Is Present

Marina Abramovic

22. Anna Karenina

Film Five Most

21. Into The Abyss

Into The Abyss

20. The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight Rises

19. Safety Not Guaranteed


18. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, film

17. Argo


16. The Muppets

The Muppets

15. Amour


14. Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice clip - video

13. Frank


12. Holy Motors

Holy Motors

11. Chronicle


10. The Hunt

The Hunt

9. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

8. The Artist

The Artist

7. The Imposter

The Imposter

6. The Cabin In The Woods

The Cabin In The Woods

5. Life Of Pi

Life Of Pi

4. Looper


3. Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

2. The Master

The Master

1. Shame


Review Of 2012: The Top 25 Performances Of 2012

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It’s performance time again. For the second year, I’ve picked out the two dozen and a bit best performances of the year. The qualification for this list is as follows: new releases or film festival films in 2012 (excluding some of the films I saw at London film festivals that I hope will get some form of reasonable distribution next year). I also make no distinction between actor or actress, and supporting or lead performance, and only one performance per film. This means that the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams miss out for The Master (so guess who doesn’t), but I’ve tried to spread the love as widely as possible by doing this, rather than allowing a small number of films to dominate. I will try to mention other worthy performances for each film as I go, but in the quite likely event I forget, I’m sure you’ll know who they are.

These, then, are the top performances of the year in my eyes. There are a few honourable mentions: as well as Amy Adams, the likes of Richard Jenkins, Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleason, Keira Knightley, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Mark Duplass and Ralph Fiennes did sterling work across a number of different films, no single performance of theirs quite stood out enough for me to make the list. Without further ado, here’s the top bits of acting from 2012.

25. Tommy Lee Jones – Hope Springs

Tommy Lee Jones

Giving grumpy old men a slightly better name, Jones has the thankless task in Hope Springs of being the bad guy in Meryl Streep’s loveless marriage, so has to be unsympathetic enough to move the plot forward but not so much that you don’t want the pair to reconcile later. To pull this off, while still managing to be satisfyingly grouchy, is a real achievement and while the plot gears that Hope Springs works through are generally both unsurprising and somewhat unsatisfying, Tommy Lee Jones does at least help that gear change to pass with the minimum of grinding. (In every sense, thankfully.)

24. Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Quevenzhane Wallis

They say never work with children or animals, even more of a challenge when neither beast nor child in question has appeared on screen previously. Making it look easier than I’m sure it is, top Scrabble name Quevenzhané Wallis steals the film from the rest of her co-stars with a fierce performance. (Before you all write in, I know you couldn’t actually play her name in Scrabble, unless it turns out that a quvenzhané is a type of French toothbrush for fish or something.) Anyway, it will be interesting to see if Little Miss Wallis has caught the acting bug from this, as based on her performance here, there’s little she should fear to tackle.

23. Channing Tatum – 21 Jump Street

Channing Tatum

We discovered two things this year about Channing Tatum: he’s apparently quite good at comedy, as seen in 21 Jump St, and he’s also very good at stripping, as seen in Magic Mike. This may have somewhat obscured the fact that in everything he was in last year, he’s been quite good at acting (to the extent it’s rumoured he’s been written back into the GI Joe sequel after having been killed off early on originally). I’ll be totally honest, seeing him strip wasn’t really my cup of tea but any time he wants to do any more acting, I’ll be queuing up.

22. Denis Lavant – Holy Motors

Denis Lavant

It’s difficult to know whether Holy Motors is a great acting challenge or actually not much of a challenge at all. Given the almost total free rein, it would be easy to think that Denis Lavant really couldn’t go wrong, as how would you know if he did? Could all just be another comment on the artifice of performance or something. But it’s the sheer range of characters that he creates here that stands out, playing the more gentle emotions as well as the more obvious shock and humour. But everything, from fighting to accordion playing to licking a giant cyberalien’s private bits is done with the utmost conviction.

21. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Looper

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The main problem with casting a younger version of someone as familiar as Bruce Willis is that we all know what a young Bruce Willis looks like; think just slightly younger than Moonlighting and you’re about there. Sure, there’s a bit of prosthetic work that’s gone in to bridging the more obvious differences, but Gordon-Levitt does such a good job of portraying what you’d imagine the younger version of Bruce’s character to be, it almost makes you wish they’d stuck the fake nose on Bruce Willis to see if he could have done such a convincing job.

20. Mikkel Boe Folsgaard – A Royal Affair

Mikkel Boe Folsgaard

It’s another fine acting line, and the one that Mikkel Folsgaard is treading here is the one which requires him to show both madness and an angry authority. In a film where the quieter performances of Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander could be overshadowed, Folsgaard has just enough fun with the role of King Christian to keep you entertained early on, but exudes enough menace later to make him a credible threat to the other characters.

19. Darren Beaumont – Frank

Darren Beaumont

Frank picked up a Raindance nomination at the British Independent Film Awards earlier this year, and Darren Beaumont’s performance as the titular character was a fantastic character study, so much so that I hadn’t realised I was sat two seats away from him while I watched the film at the Cambridge Film Festival earlier this year. The film itself is a dark vision and an acquired taste, but Beaumont’s fearless turn at its centre is one of the key ingredients (along with Richard Heslop’s writing and direction) that makes it work so well.

18. Toby Jones – Berberian Sound Studio
Toby Jones
British? Don’t speak the lingo? Want to succeed abroad? Then there are two options: either shout everything in English, slowly, in the confident hope that you’ll be understood, or attempt to blend into the background, seemingly safe in your own insecurities. Toby Jones gets to do a little of both at points in Berberian Sound Studio, and a film so keen to subvert the conventions of its genre would be lost without an anchor; it gets that anchor in the form of Jones’ increasingly desperate turn.

17. Aksel Hennie – Headhunters

Aksel Hennie

The next acting combination to be pulled off on this list is to range from sleazy and confident (the mirror image of Nicolaj Coster-Waldau’s driven Clas) to the petrified, on the run weasel that his actions drive him to be. It’s also another combination that doesn’t easily provoke sympathy, but somehow Rennie pulls it off, despite being a thoroughly contemptible character from the start.

16. Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises

Anne Hathaway

It was Heath Ledger that previously stole all of the plaudits for The Dark Knight, for being seen to extend his range to levels not thought previously possible. While Anne Hathaway doesn’t quite undergo the same level of transformation, she absolutely nails her portrayal of Selina Kyle in a way that fits perfectly into the Nolan Bat-verse and stands comparison favourably with the other better screen Catwomen as much as Ledger did. Thankfully Halle Berry’s interpretation is now a distant memory, which I’m sure you’re already thanking me for dredging up.

15. Javier Bardem – Skyfall

Javier Bardem

Every single department of Skyfall was honed to a point where it felt like a high quality regular movie, rather than the 22nd sequel in a franchise creaking under the weight of its own history. That extended comfortably to the acting, where Judi Dench finally got the chance to show off her skills on an extended basis, but the biggest risks were taken in the bad guy department. Javier Bardem has now carved out two iconic bad guy roles, so let’s hope his natural flair for them doesn’t leave him too typecast in Hollywood-type product.

14. Brit Marling – Sound Of My Voice

Brit Marling

Following last year’s Another Earth, another high concept drama with sci-fi undertones featuring Brit Marling, and in this case she was a key reason for its success. Rather than the passive centre of Another Earth, Marling’s Maggie sits on the periphery here, only to gradually dominate proceedings and it’s the ambiguity of her performance that gives the drama much of its power.

13. Willem Dafoe – The Hunter

Willem Dafoe

This quiet Australian drama had an absolute rock in its foundations, with a riveting central character study from Willem Dafoe. Sympathetic but absolutely not warm or fluffy, Dafoe’s brusque hunter serves to keep proceedings just about interesting throughout, and while the movie can’t sustain its success on the strength of a single performance, Defoe gives it a pretty good go.

12. Charlize Theron – Young Adult

Charlize Theron

Charlize Theron had a pretty good year, although her other main performance in Snow White And The Hunstyawn was somewhat wasted on the material. Not such an issue here as Jason Reitman’s direction and Diablo Cody’s spiky script allowed Theron’s misguided misanthrope to beat a path through all the human kindness and two-faced bitching around her. It’s all the more satisfying that Theron manages to achieve humanity without her character achieving any real redemption.

11. Tom Hardy – Lawless

Tom Hardy

His most talked about – and impersonated – performance might have been behind a mask in Nolan’s summer blockbuster, but this performance in John Hillcoat’s twentieth century Western was the absolute antithesis, Hardy maintaining power and threat despite mumbling his way through most of his lines. His character’s through line in the narrative and eventual fate are also one of the highlights of a slightly underwhelming script.

10. Matthew McConaughey – Killer Joe

Matthew McConaughey

If I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s how to spell Matthew McConaughey without looking it up. He’s followed up last year’s entertaining but lightweight The Lincoln Lawyer with two turns this year, each as magnetic as the other, and while Magic Mike allowed him to show off to his fullest both physically and dramatically, it’s the understated menace that seeps from every pore, even – maybe especially – when he’s armed with nothing but a chicken drumstick that put McConaughey back on the map again. *goes to check McConaughey spelling one more time, just in case*

9. Dane De Haan – Chronicle

Dane de Haan

Also popping up and showing his range in Lawless, it’s this calling card as the disturbed Andrew in super-powered camcorder flick Chronicle that’s likely earned Dane De Haan the role of Harry Osborn in the Amazing Spider-Man sequel now in production. Let’s hope he can bring that same edginess and defiance to that role as he does to this one, as much of Chronicle’s success stems from De Haan’s willingness to push boundaries and keep it dark.

8. Andrea Riseborough – Shadow Dancer

Andrea Riseborough

I still believe Andrea Riseborough is the most undervalued actress working today, and she’s followed up fantastic work in the likes of Never Let Me Go, Resistance and Brighton Rock last year with another memorable role as the troubled IRA member forced to work as a double agent by the British. I’m intrigued to see what will come of her next role, one of the two female lead roles opposite Tom Cruise in the sci-fi blockbuster Oblivion, but I’ve no issues with her pushing her range given the talent she’s shown so far.

7. Jean-Luc Trintignant – Amour

Jean-Luc Trintignant

Emanuelle Riva’s role in Michael Haneke’s dark meditation on old age and the inevitable ravages of time might have been the more physically and technically demanding, but it’s Jean-Luc Trintignant through whom the audience experiences the full weight of pain and suffering, and it’s to Haneke’s credit that he managed to tempt Trintignant out of retirement to play the male lead here. He carries the role with incredible dignity, even when faced with extreme suffering, and it’s actually testament to what can still be achieved despite advancing years.

6. Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook

Jennifer Lawrence

As I’ve already said in other posts, I’m not a huge fan of SLP, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the continuing development as an actress of Jennifer Lawrence. Deserving of the Oscar she didn’t get for Winter’s Bone, and showing she can work in the mainstream just as effectively in X-Men: First Class, it was a toss up between this and The Hunger Games for which was the better performance this year, and while this turn just edges it, the subtlety of her work in Hunger Games shouldn’t be underestimated.

5. Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen

Another in the up-and-coming roster of great American actresses, the good Olsen sister shone on our screen both in Josh Radnor’s self-indulgent and chewy Liberal Arts, but also in yet another great movie this year about cults and their effect. Given her ability to do both charming and distant so effectively, hopefully this is just the start of a promising career. Next up for her, also showing she’s not afraid to take a few risks, is the Spike Lee Oldboy remake.

4. Michael Fassbender – Shame

Michael Fassbender

Baring his body might have gotten all the attention, but baring his soul was what really made Shame the best performance in Michael Fassbender’s career so far. He’s had one of those years when it felt like he was in everything, also cropping up in A Dangerous Method, Haywire and most memorably in Prometheus as the android in plain sight. But it was his driven, desperate turn at the beginning of the year that seared itself onto my memory.

3. Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt

Mads Mikkelsen

Another good year for former Bond villain Mikkelsen, with strong performances in both A Royal Affair and this, Thomas Vinterberg’s terrifyingly plausible chiller. Even without the social relevance that other events in this country have unwittingly brought it, The Hunt would still have been completely gripping, and it couldn’t have worked without Mikkelsen’s bewildered and ultimately angry performance as the wronged school teacher. Such a shame that acting in foreign language films is so often overlooked at awards time.

2. Joaquim Phoenix – The Master

Joaquim Phoenix

It was difficult to decide which of the performances to rate most highly in The Master, and for a film so dependent on the success of its characterisations The Master needs the highest quality of acting to succeed. Phoenix’s performance might be the most showy of the three main protagonists, but it also carries with it the biggest range and his barely controlled rage and what might be one of the most effective portrayals of inebriation on screen of inebriation I’ve seen in a long time. Let’s all try to forget about that Casey Affleck farrago now, shall we?

1. Marion Cotillard – Rust And Bone

Marion Cotillard

Anyone who’d like to claim that Marion Cotillard’s performance wasn’t the best of the year frankly hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

*waits while tumbleweed blows past*

Right, now I’ve got that out of my system, time to give due credit to Cotillard’s superb turn as Stephanie, the killer whale trainer who has to turn her life around after an unfortunate accident leaves her crippled both physically and emotionally. Cotillard makes the transition to rediscovering herself compelling, her unconventional relationship with Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) believable and reels out scene after scene of brilliance, embracing both the emotional highs and lows and possibly even winning new fans of Katy Perry in the process. Her more subdued turn as Miranda Tate in The Dark Knight Rises shows she continues to be Christopher Nolan’s muse, and when she’s capable of heights like this, it’s not hard to see why.

Last year:

The Top 25 Performances Of 2011

Review Of 2012: The 10 Worst Movies I Saw In 2012

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It’s that time of year when I feel the Christmas spirit. No, wait, it’s actually sympathy kicking in for actual film critics, who have to watch whatever is put in front of them, rather than picking and choosing. But at least they don’t then suffer a crushing disappointment when something they were hoping would turn out to be good – or at least not unspeakably awful – turn out to be as enjoyable as getting a prostate examination from Captain Hook.

So this isn’t the list of the ten worst films of the year; even though the number one on the list I scored 1/10, my lowest possible score, there must have been ten worse films released this year, I just had the common sense to avoid them. (Although there was a period of about 20 minutes when I was considering doing a double bill of The Three Stooges and Keith Lemon: The Movie, before thankfully I came to my senses.) What this is, then, is the list of the ten most disappointing films out of those I chose to see this year, and a brief word of explanation as to what possessed me. (If there’s a hyperlink on the title, then you can click through for the full review.)

This Means War10. This Means War

Reason I watched it: more in hope than expectation.

If This Means War achieves one thing from its unfortunate existence, it does manage to prove conclusively that two wrongs don’t make a right. You cannot take a sub-standard rom-com and bolt it uncomfortably to a sub-standard action movie and hope to have anything other than one giant disappointment. I would like to say I expect more of Chris Pine, but that’s pretty much based on being Captain Kirk; I absolutely feel I’m entitled to expect more of Tom Hardy at this point in his career, but they should both have known better with McG’s name attached. The saddest thing is either that Chelsea Handler is the best thing in this, or that she’s the best thing despite acting like she’s reading all of her lines off of Reese Witherspoon’s forehead.

9. Paranormal Activity 4

Reason I watched it: I have a Cineworld card and I’ve seen the first three. I know that’s more of an excuse than a reason…

The juggernaut finally runs out of steam. After a film making effectively creepy use of its single camera set-ups, then somehow repeating the trick in a sequel with multiple cameras, then growing slightly tired by the time that the third entry rolled around with only a moving camera to add to the box of tricks, the best that this unwanted fourquel can offer is some infra-red malarkey using an Xbox. Tired, scareless and witless, it’s also hamstrung by the continuing need to impose a mythology, and also the need to return somewhat to the present after travelling back in time over the course of 2 and 3. This is very much a tween entry in the film, and taking an age to get to a minimal payoff will only work so many times; which is why, of course, we’re getting Paranormal Activity 5 next year. Will someone please drag me off backwards before it gets here?

8. Battleship

Reason I watched it: It had Liam Neeson in. Nowhere near enough, as it turns out.

It’s all very loud and full of hardware, but Battleship takes itself far too seriously for the most part with only odd flashes of the joy that flood through the best blockbusters. The set pieces are underwhelming, the best members of the cast are sidelined for long stretches and the alien ships are either covered in water or shown in EXTREME CLOSE-UP. It successfully captures the feeling of watching two other people playing the board game without remembering how dull that is if you’re not participating. Also, those expecting logic or motivation should check those expectations at the door. The occasional moment of wit or invention is blown apart by long stretches of dullness or idiocy. DID I MENTION IT’S VERY LOUD?

7. The Iron Lady

Reason I watched it: It was the first film I saw this year, and just wanted to have an opinion on Meryl Streep for the Oscars. My opinion? She didn’t deserve to win.

Meryl Streep is eerily hypnotic when in full flow, but it’s just one of the film’s many failings that it spends as much time with her doddering around under the effects of dementia as it does powering through cabinet meetings and raging at the weak men populating the House Of Commons. Some spectacularly misjudged casting (Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe anyone? Thought not) and poor direction don’t help matters, and the failure to either revere or condemn its central figure leave it sitting on a dull and uninteresting fence that might teach you less than you already know.

6. Tulpa

Reason I watched it: It was part of the day I spent at FrightFest this summer. Thrillingly/ excruciatingly, members of the cast and crew were in attendance while the audience laughed themselves silly.

Well-meaning might be the best thing I can say about Tulpa, which is odd for a film looking to reinvigorate those giallo horror traditions of Italy. Unfortunately, after a reasonably creepy and sadistic opening, it then calls upon all of the worst traditions of the genre, including having all of the cast speak in English, even if it’s clearly not their first language. While this isn’t uncommon for a giallo, the relatively high production values (at least comparably) throw the other failings into much sharper focus, and the unfortunate comedy highpoint of this comes in the form of Michela Cescon’s Joanna, poorly acted and even more poorly overdubbed, so that she appears to be reacting to grave news as if she’s just seen a cute kitten video on YouTube. It’s about the worst thing I’ve seen this year in reality, but it’s heart was in the right place and it didn’t really know it was that bad, so I’ve slightly taken pity on it.

5. Electrick Children

Reason I watched it: It was distributed by Picturehouse’s distribution arm, who’d distributed Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. (They also distributed Miranda July’s The Future, which I loathed so much in 2011. Hey ho.)

An insufferable road movie that goes precisely nowhere, Electrick Children assembles an eclectic cast from the likes of Rory Culkin to Billy Zane and promptly gives them nothing interesting to do. The idea sounds intriguing on paper (girl becomes pregnant listening to a tape, then goes searching for the “father”) but the execution is shocking, meandering through contrivances and searching for a rebellious streak that, when found, would make John Major look like an ultra-radical. Devoid of any interesting characters or memorable dialogue and despairingly predictable, Electrick Children lacks spark and energy and fails to deliver on pretty much any level.

4. Dark Shadows

Reason I watched it: Because I desperately want Tim Burton to be making good live action movies. This was just desperate…

Not only the worst Burton-Depp collaboration of the eight they’ve made, but a strong contender for Tim Burton’s worst film yet, which from a man who made the Planet Of The Apes remake is especially dispiriting. The tone veers wildly from high camp to sub-gothic horror and spectacularly fails to nail either with any level of success. The characters are to a person both contemptuous and uninteresting, and it often feels as if Burton’s striving for in-jokes he’s not prepared to let anyone else in on. The Seventies setting is hackneyed and wasted, scenes with the likes of Christopher Lee add nothing while jarring terribly and the charisma vacuum engulfing the characters kills interest stone dead by about half way through; not even a convoluted final reel that throws in unconvincing plot developments can resurrect it from the grave.

3. The Wedding Video

Reason I watched it: I’d actually gone to the cinema to see a double bill of The Bourne Legacy and The Expendables 2, but having been delayed en route I missed Bourne and had nothing better to do for two hours. Turns out sitting in the car would have been preferable… (Once again, the curse of the Cineworld card.)

Why do makers of supposed romantic comedies believe that the best way to show a couple getting together is to show them arguing and bitching in a totally unfunny manner? I still have nightmares about the Vince Vaughn / Jennifer Aniston “comedy” The Break-Up, and The Wedding Video plumbs similarly excruciating depths. I feel genuinely sorry for Lucy Punch, who carries on manfully (womanfully?) while the rest of the film disintegrates around her. It’s desperately lacking in laughs for a comedy – I counted one, and that’s generous – and the acting of the male stars leaves a lot to be desired, especially Rufus Hound who has an air of really bad sixth form revue about him. Also, the stupidity of the ending beggars belief, even considering what’s gone before.

2. House At The End Of The Street

Reason I watched it: It had Jennifer Lawrence in it, and at the time it had a good rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’d been so obsessed with the Cambridge Film Festival I’d missed that this didn’t screen for critics, so that those rating were probably from the film critic for Kangaroo Weekly in Tasmania and Armond White. (Ask your mum and dad if you’re not sure who Armond White is. They’ll help you Google him.)

The acronym used in the promotional material for this film was HATES, which not only doesn’t work as an acronym but is also an unfortunate prediction for my reaction to the shameless rehash horror. Jennifer Lawrence is a fantastic actress, as she’s proven time and time again, but here you can see the desperation in her eyes, not driven by a psycho killer but instead the realisation of what she’s let herself in for, and by the mid-point she’s clearly dialling her performance in. There’s a total lack of scares, characters commit the worst kinds of horror movie stupidity to move the plot forward and it’s so poorly shot that any remaining interest goes out the window. Elizabeth Shue and Gil Bellows do enough supporting grunt work to just about keep this from the ignominy of being my worst film of the year, but it’s a close run thing.

Seven Psychopaths1. Seven Psychopaths

Reason I watched it: Two manky hookers and a racist dwarf.

Yes, Martin “In Bruges” McDonagh, who gave us one of the comedy classics of the Noughties, has managed to produce something so far at the opposite end of the spectrum they may have to get two spectrums and staple them together to allow for the drop off in quality. Where In Bruges sparkled with crisp dialogue, bristled with emotion and even managed to squeeze out some pathos, Seven Psychopaths feels lazy, but actually then attempts to justify that lack of effort through a self-reflexive journey through the mind of a movie-maker. What results is a film which feels nothing more than an active and agressive insult to the intelligence of the viewer, as every single plot development becomes predictable and trite and the whole enterprise slowly and excruciatingly disappears up its own backside. I can only hope this is a brief aberration in a fine career rather than a sign of what’s to come, but Seven Psychopaths – it genuinely pains me to say – was my worst film of 2012.

Previous years:

The 10 Worst Movies I Saw In 2011

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Various Formats)

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The HobbitThe Pitch: Middle Earth, Episode 1: The Phantom Appendices.

The Review: Yes, for the second time in blockbuster film history we have the start of a prequel trilogy to an original trilogy, and we all remember how well that turned out. So, given that the plan wasn’t originally to even make this a trilogy, the first expectation going into The Hobbit: An Unexpected First Part Of A Trilogy is that it’s going to be something of an endurance test. It’s a strange state of affairs; the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy is so beloved by many that longer versions of the first three films were welcomed when they arrived on DVD. The first three films had 30, 42 and 50 minutes respectively added in when they hit home formats, but even so the commonest complaint about The Return Of The King is that it was too long, specifically with too many endings. It’s oddly symmetrical, then, that the beginning of this Middle Earth sextet suffers from the opposite problem of too many beginnings.

I count myself as a big fan of the original films, so I share the thrill of many to be back in this world, but it seems that Peter Jackson can’t bear to leave it, so keen is he to spend as much time in it as possible. The structure could be lifted almost directly from Fellowship: we get a scene setting montage, followed by a journey to Hobbiton, where a visit from Gandalf then spurs us into action. Where this whips along in the original, here it takes almost 45 minutes to get going, with an extended framing device bringing back old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) being fundamentally unnecessary, and setting that tone. When we have another extended edition waiting for us on DVD and Blu-ray, material like this should have been saved, as a lean cut of this film (conceivably still running at around two and a quarter hours) would have brought us back to Middle Earth perfectly and still allowed us to wallow and luxuriate in a cut around an hour longer at home. It wouldn’t be so frustrating – or obvious – if so much hadn’t been added in to get the running time to this length, including further committee meetings at Rivendell with Galadriel and Saruman and an additional revenge subplot featuring Azog The Destroyer which feels like a desperate attempt to add peril to the longer running time. It may also be an attempt to recapture more of the tone of the first three films, as while this is a children’s book most of the additions are of a more serious nature and attempt to add dramatic weight, when actually a little more levity would help to ease the passage of time.

Those even more in love with Middle Earth than me may not find themselves caring too much, for this is very much the Middle Earth we know and love, with familiar areas lovingly recreated and every aspect of the production reeking of the same quality that oozed out of the original trilogy. It’s just a shame that more of the running time isn’t spent on getting to know the new characters rather than lazily revisiting old ones: Ian McKellen has perfected the passive smug look of Gandalf The Grey and gets plenty of chances to roll it out, along with a few other clichés, including an interminable number of shots of characters running over mountains and even shots of characters extending one arm while crying “Noooo!” in slow motion. This does tend to overshadow the fresher elements, and if you can identify more than four, possibly even three, of the dwarves on sight after a single viewing then you’re doing better than I am. Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt and Ken Stott all make a moderate impression on this first outing, and there are a few other well-formed appearances from the likes of Barry Humphries as the CG Goblin King, but the other problem The Hobbit Part 1 suffers from is also its greatest asset.

For anyone that knows anything about the book, they’ll know that Chapter 5 is called Riddles In The Dark, and features the one appearance in this first Middle Earth story of Gollum. The effects work might have moved on in ten years, making Andy Serkis’ performance even more believable and more successfully bringing out the pathetic nature of the character, but it’s Serkis and Martin Freeman’s performances that make this scene such a success, playing out almost unbroken but leaving viewers dreadfully in suspense while waiting for its arrival. Freeman’s performance is one of the things that helps to moderate against that, proving even more successful as a hairy-footed nexus for the plot than Wood’s Frodo did in the original trilogy, a masterclass in emotion and comic timing. Crippling pacing and lack of momentum aside, there’s a lot to like here, and while the stakes aren’t as high yet or the urgency as compelling, those content to have a more gentle wander through Middle Earth should be generally satisfied. Let’s just hope that, as well as a dragon and a Bowman, we get to know a few more dwarves and a hobbit much better in the next instalment.

Why see it at the cinema: I wasn’t originally convinced by the quality of the CGI, but ten minutes of watching The Two Towers on TV when I came home from seeing this a second time quickly convinced me that the work of Weta and their colleagues has advanced significantly in the decade since LOTR. Due to the smaller scale nature of events, the big set piece here isn’t a Helm’s Deep or a Pelennor Fields but two characters in a cave, swapping riddles. That it still has the power to grip to the extent of the big battles is testament to the power of the story telling of both Tolkien and the four scriptwriters who’ve adapted his work, and if you’re any sort of fan of the original trilogy then seeing this in a cinema is a must. Exactly how you see it is more up for debate, however…

Why see it in 3D: Your first debate will be whether or not to see it in 3D. The style of the original, featuring lots of beauty passes of people running over half of New Zealand, lends itself extremely well to the needs of 3D, giving your eyes time to focus and get the perspective. However, where other directors such as James Cameron and Ang Lee have adapted their style to account for this need for longer shots and less frantic editing, Jackson is only partially successful on this front, with goblin fights sometime shot from above in single passes and working well, but conflicts on the move often featuring quick cuts and making the 3D pointless. The style of the films is there, but Jackson needs to give himself over to it even more for the next two films to make them truly need the 3D enhancement.

Why see it in HFR: Unless you’ve been living in a hobbit hole for the last couple of years, you’ll be aware that The Hobbit trilogy has been filmed at a higher frame rate. While varying frame rates aren’t uncommon on TV, it’s pretty certain that every film you see in a cinema will be shot and exhibited at 24 frames per second. The Hobbit doubles this to 48 (still a shade short of what our eyes effectively work at, which is about 55), and the two main arguments for doing this are for additional clarity of the image and to reduce the eye strain that 3D provides.

In absolute terms, HFR is a success on both counts: the image is sharper, with everything from the pores on Martin Freeman’s face to the wisps of hair on Gollum’s head leaping out of the screen and the CGI feeling more in keeping with the live action, and the 3D image seeming to leap off the screen even more, suffering less from motion blur. In relative terms, it’s pretty much a failure: this is a fantasy film, and making it look more real unwittingly has to make you work harder to wilfully suspend your disbelief, and since Jackson hasn’t yet nailed the editing and shot composition for 3D, making it less blurry feels like a cheat to avoid moderating his techniques for the format, and consequently doesn’t work.

Factor into that the fact that HFR doesn’t do anything to address either of the other main complaints about 3D itself (and when taken together, Life Of Pi did address them, only last week): it doesn’t in any way address the loss of light, so many sequences in caves are still frustratingly dark, and it doesn’t actually add to the storytelling in any noticeable way. While I would probably watch The Hobbit Part 2 in HFR if I was seeing 3D, nothing at the moment has convinced me that it’s a better experience than 2D. These things need time to bed in, but if someone doesn’t use this tool effective and quickly, it might just turn out to be an expensive gimmick.

Why see it in IMAX: This one’s a little easier: if you like seeing big images, then IMAX does the job, and the 70mm print I saw this on at the BFI IMAX in London really brought out the detail in some of the grander scenes such as the Rivendell stop-off. It’s immersive, but as it’s not been filmed on IMAX cameras, not essential.

The Score: 7/10

Review Of 2012: The Half Dozen Special – 12 Best Trailers Of 2012

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2012 is nearly over, and so is the second full year on the blog. I generally think it’s been a pretty good year for film, but actually not a great year for trailers. It’s also not been a great year for predictions; in the corresponding post last year I correctly predicted that the Mayans had incorrectly predicted the end of the world, but then incorrectly predicted myself that we would get half of the Hobbit film this year. (If only.)

So looking back over the year, there’s not been massive amounts of originality when it comes to hacking two minutes and thirty seconds (give or take) out of your film and splicing them together, but there’s still been a decent enough batch to put together a list of my favourites. I’ve not seen all of the films, and they’re not all trailers of great movies, but that’s not the point, it’s all about what’s contained within these 150 or so seconds. These are the dozen promos that most floated my boat in 2012.

Best Trailer For A Clearly Awful Movie – Elephant White

Yes, this is the best bad trailer that we have of 2012, to paraphrase Argo. Clearly no sane person’s ever going to watch the film, unless it’s on a Friday night on DVD with a liver-threatening amount of cheap lager, but if you can’t enjoy Djimon Hounsou, big guns, Kevin Bacon with one of the most ludicrous accents in the history of anything ever, more big guns and a caption indicating that the director also made something quite well regarded (yes, really), and this is about my biggest guilty pleasure of the year. (That, and knowing how to spell Djimon Hounsou without looking it up.)

Best Trailer For A Not Clearly Awful Movie* – Seven Psychopaths

* But it is an awful movie. Even talking too much about it now will just serve to make me angry again, not least because I actively recommended this film to friends on the basis of the trailer. The total arrogance and intelligence-insulting smugness are thankfully missing from the trailer, but be warned: the experience of watching the trailer is nothing like that of the film, and where Sam Rockwell’s last line might raise a smile here, by the time I saw it in the film I wanted to run up to the screen and punch him in the face.

Best Two Minute Version Of The Whole Movie – Moonrise Kingdom

It’s basically many of the best bits of the entire film, including much of the music and a lot of the jokes; if you want to save yourself the time of watching the whole film, then you deserve a good talking to, as it’s properly brilliant, but if you want to give someone who’s not seen it an idea of what they’re in for, then go right ahead.

Best Black And White Trailer – The Turin Horse

Also best trailer for film I haven’t seen yet. (Yes, even better than Elephant White.)

Best Trailer That Sets Up The Wrong Expectation Of The Film – Killer Joe

Don’t get me wrong, any trailer that hooks in an audience and then serves up something they’ll enjoy is absolutely fine in my book, but the snappy editing and up-tempo music in this trailer suggest something of a fast paced thriller, rather than the deliberately paced chiller you’ll actually get. But no harm, no foul as far as I’m concerned.

Best Flavour Of The Movie Trailer – Berberian Sound Studio

This deconstructed horror, proving as effective at throwing up creepy atmosphere and screwed-up characters as any standard horror despite being seen through the eyes of the foley artist and the sound editor, might be a hard sell, but this brief snatch of the film absolutely nails what you’ll get from the film itself. I’d be prepared to stake a Curly Wurly on no-one loving this trailer and hating the film, or indeed the converse. (Disclaimer: 1,000 word review required to claim Curly Wurly. Allow 28 days for postage.)

Best Explanation Of High Concept Trailer – Looper

So there’s this time travel thing, right, and it’s set in the future, but actually two bits of the future, and China’s more of a world power, and we have time travel but only criminals use it, and so they have to find ways of protecting their interests, and… what do you mean, I’ve had two and a half minutes already? This Looper trailer does a cracking job of setting up the initial conceit, giving a flavour of what’s to come but not spoiling the twists and turns to come later in the film.

Best Short Form Trailer – The Master

The trailers of the Coen Brothers’ last couple of films (A Serious Man and True Grit) have been fine examples of an underlying, almost hypnotic, rhythm used to create mood and effect, and this short initial trailer for The Master uses the same bag of tricks to generate a mindworm that will burrow its way into your brain in just over 60 seconds.

Best Editing Trailer – Sightseers

How much of your film is it possible to cram into a standard length trailer? Thanks to whoever edited this Sightseers trailer, we have at least some sort of answer. I would love to know if the six people that walked out of the screening I was at saw this trailer beforehand, and if somehow their expectations of the film were wrongly set. I would also like to award this best trailer soundtrack of the year; I’d like to, but I’m torn between this and Moonrise Kingdom. Hashtag indecisive.

Best Trailer For Setting Unattainably High Expectations Of The Film – Skyfall

It was unsurprising that my most anticipated film of the year, given my participation in BlogalongaBond (for which I wrote enough words to fill a university thesis on Bond and his ongoing impact) that this trailer, emphasising the wall to wall quality that ran through everything from the acting to the cinematography and the production values, set my expectations sky high. (Ahem.) Ultimately Bond was great, but could never live up to the expectations that this trailer set. Still, it’s the biggest film of all time in the UK and the biggest Bond film of all time worldwide, even adjusting for inflation, so it seems to have kept you lot happy.

Best Trailer For A Film Not Out Until Next Year – Django Unchained

I first saw a Quentin Tarantino film at my university’s film club, Resevoir Dogs being shown on a big screen in a lecture theatre where I normally learned about linear algebra and complex analysis. Somewhere in there, a better writer than me could find a link between pure maths and the pure pleasures of a Tarantino hit, but hey, I’m a mathematician; I got a degree without writing a single essay. It’s a miracle you’re still reading this, frankly. Anyway, look over here! Tarantino!

Best Trailer Of 2012 – The Imposter

This one has it all: sharply edited, fantastic use of intertitles with quotes on praising the film (the five star reviews coming in a start at a time are a particular highlight), it makes great use of the music, it gets the obligatory “From the Academy Award person thingy of…” quote in and it also doesn’t give away too much about the film’s structure or big twists, despite having practically the last shot of the film contained within. For these and many other reasons, this UK trailer for Bart Layton’s The Imposter is my top trailer of 2012.

Previous years:

Review of 2011: The (Half) Dozen Best Trailers of 2011

Review Of The Year 2010: The Half Dozen Best Trailers of 2010

Review: Life Of Pi 3D

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Life Of PiThe Pitch: Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger.

The Review: Sometimes in life you have to put aside trivial matters and get to grips with the weightier questions of the universe. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Is there a God, or possibly Gods? And will 3D ever become a successful film making tool or forever remain a cheap gimmick? Well, the latter may not be weighing heavily on your mind, but trust me, it’s given me a few sleepless nights. You can count the number of truly successful directors in the medium on the fingers of one hand: Martin Scorcese, James Cameron, Michael Bay (and that in itself is a depressing notion), but now you can add Ang Lee to that list. Impressively, that’s not the only question on the list he’s attempted to tackle in this gorgeous and reasonably faithful adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel.

Many familiar with the novel thought it unfilmable and it had a strange structure for certain, divided broadly into two halves. Pi (played at middle age by Irfan Khan) sits down to tell a story to a writer looking for a story to tell (Rafe Spall), which starts at his childhood in India and details his adolescence and the key role his parents come to play in his development. It’s that development that then upsets the balance of Pi’s life, as the family zoo is being relocated to Canada for financial reasons, so the family and their menagerie is loaded to a cargo ship. The second half deals with the aftermath of a wild storm which sinks the ship and leaves Pi (played here by Suraj Sharma) afloat with a handful of animals, most notably an untamed tiger with the unlikely name of Richard Parker, and Pi is left to fight for his survival in more ways than one.

It’s the combination of unlikely characters, setting and material that would seem to make this a difficult film to adapt. First then to the film’s look: it’s simply stunning. The vivid colours and bold framing capture your attention from the first moment and never look like relinquishing it, but it’s the use of 3D that truly stands out. Not only does Lee understand the technical demands that a third dimension places, with constant use of fades and slow pans to keep everything in focus, but he also has fun with the toolkit, even throwing in aspect ratio shifts here and there to maximise the potential of the format, and rather than the normal 2D-plus-occasionally-poking-things-in-your-face, this truly feels like a film thought of, framed in and shot for three dimensions. More than that, Lee even uses that third dimension both to increase tension and as a narrative tool on occasion; if there’s been a more effective 3D movie in the modern era, I’ve yet to see it. The techniques used to bring the animals to life are for the most part flawless, with CG and real animals virtually indistinguishable. The soundtrack by Michael Dynna is also worth a mention, serving as an excellent backdrop for the varied emotional states the film seeks to evoke.

But no point in looking gorgeous if there’s nothing going on between your ears, and here Life Of Pi also doesn’t disappoint. It’s not to say that it’s the most sophisticated story ever told, coming over as park bench philosophising at times (a visual metaphor that the film plays out in an attempt to inject movement into its more talkative aspects). That occasional heavy-handedness is felt throughout, particularly in the last fifteen minutes – which comes perilously close to grating – but this is very much of the mythological, exploring the nature of storytelling itself through the fable that Pi takes us through but also prompting us to ask questions about what belief means and examining the possibilities of existence. It’s a tricky balancing act to maintain between story and visual and Lee manages it through never letting the story itself get too bogged down, especially tricky when you have so few characters – and even less of them with speaking parts – for such a large chunk of the running time. As well as that slight heavy storytelling hand, Life isn’t quite as profound as it thinks it is, or would like to be, its storytelling dissection being just that and falling short of the treatise on religion it initially claims. That’s balanced by a refreshing lack of sentimentality as Richard Parker’s sea-based buffet unfolds in the second half, which extends throughout most of the story.

In terms of those characters, Life Of Pi represents another step forward, as the seamless blend of green screen, CGI and other more practical techniques have reached a point where a recreation of a living creature can interact seamlessly and never be anything less than utterly convincing. That also has to stack up against a living actor, and Suraj Sharma gives a powerful portrayal of the more youthful Pi, easily matching the ferocity of his feline foe but also getting to the root of Pi’s own inner turmoil. I’m prepared to forgive pretty much every one of those flaws mentioned earlier, for what Ang Lee has crafted is very much a modern cinematic treat, a feast for the eyes that is at the cutting edge of its medium with just enough nourishment for the mind as well. It may not change your thoughts on God or the nature of existence, but it might just capture a few 3D skeptics and fans of old fashioned storytelling.

Why see it at the cinema: Whether you watch in two or three dimensions, Life Of Pi is a work of art, both visually and aurally and as with so many art works, should be seen on a suitably sized canvas.

Why see it in 3D: But if you’re still undecided on whether 3D can bring anything to the cinema experience, you should be trying this with the glasses on.

The Score: 10/10

Review: The Master

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The MasterThe Pitch: The Church of Scientology has not yet published a comprehensive official biography of [Lafayette Ron] Hubbard.” – From the Wikipedia entry for L. Ron Hubbard.

The Review: “After establishing a career as a writer, becoming best known for his science fiction and fantasy stories, he developed a self-help system called Dianetics which was first published in May 1950.”

If you look up the definition of a cult, it refers to the repetition of religious practice and the sense of care owed to the gods or shrine. In terms of those elements of the definition, the works of Paul Thomas Anderson could well be seen to fit that description, with a new work from PTA not only required viewing for his followers, but also following increasing trends and patterns. The course of his career has seen a number of unconventional character studies, ranging from the sprawling ensemble of Magnolia to the tightly wound intensity of There Will Be Blood, but always one pair of characters stands out from the others in terms of that study, to the point where TWBB was practically a two hander. So it will come as little surprise that The Master again is a study in character, and takes that trend further forward to the point where the character study is the plot, or at least what could best be regarded as one.

“The Church of Scientology describes Hubbard in hagiographic terms, and he portrayed himself as a pioneering explorer, world traveler (sic), and nuclear physicist with expertise in a wide range of disciplines, including photography, art, poetry, and philosophy.”

So The Master is what’s become known as Anderson’s Scientology film, but anyone expecting a rigorous analysis or critique of the most infamous cult religion of the 20th century should turn back now. The Master is layered with such detail or comments from the life of Scientology’s founding father, L. Ron Hubbard, but instead built largely into the life of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). What Anderson is looking to understand is the persuasive power of leadership, and Dodd’s ability or otherwise to exert that power on his followers; in the case of the film, one Freddie Quell (Joaquim Phoenix). Where TWBB saw the relationship dynamic between Paul Dano’s immovable object and Daniel Day Lewis’s irresistible force, here Dodd and Quell are both more dynamic, occasionally two forces directed explosively together but as often two objects thrown apart.

“He served briefly in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and was an officer in the United States Navy during World War II, briefly commanding two ships, the USS YP-422 and USS PC-815. He was removed both times when his superiors found him incapable of command.”

Dodd doesn’t actually appear on screen in the first half hour, the film preoccupied with Quell’s initial journey into the company of The Cause (the film’s on-screen name for its own cult). Anderson is keen to explore the how as well as the why, but the what forms components of story rather than a structured framework. What has divided audiences is that lack of structure, so it’s left to the performances to draw you in. Phoenix especially is mesmerising, never likeable or especially sympathetic but showing enough volatility to keep him interesting. Hoffman’s performance might be more understated, but carries credibility in terms of his ability to both motivate and occasionally infuriate. (It’s also worth noting that both Dodd and Quell seem to have been influenced by Hubbard’s real life back story, further playing up the duality of their relationship.) Although there’s a wide supporting cast, few others outside these two make any kind of impact.

“He has been quoted as telling a science fiction convention in 1948: ‘Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.'”

If you wanted to guarantee success in film, you’d probably be out making a series of films about teenage vampires battling alien wizards from the future, as the more unlikely it is, the more commercial it will be. But quality can also bring success, and The Master has quality running through every one of its production values, especially in Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s sumptuous cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s dangerous, provocative music. The overall effect creates a mood that will totally consume many viewers but may further alienate those looking for something definitive to latch on to. But for those willing to give themselves totally over to Anderson’s vision, there’s much to dissect and plenty to take, even if Anderson does give himself over to an occasional indulgence (and yes, I’m looking at you, naked party scene).

“At the start of March 1966, Hubbard created the Guardian’s Office (GO), a new agency within the Church of Scientology that was headed by his wife Mary Sue.”

Appearances can be deceptive, and just as there’s more going on with most cults than you’d see on the surface, there’s more to The Master than the central relationship. Key to the new dynamic here is Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who flits around on the periphery but seemingly has influence over Lancaster at key moments. Phoenix’s performance may be the most showy but Adams to elevate The Master that level further, performing that classic trick of women’s roles of doing a lot when not much is given (or, at least, initially appears to be). It’s these character moments that will likely dictate your level of appreciation for The Master; if the tangential exploration of cults in general and Scientology specifically, welded to the stunning character work and wrapped in some of the finest cinematic trappings available, is enough then you, like me, could probably watch this on a loop. If, however, the lack of narrative momentum and sympathetic characters are likely to bother you, then The Master is unlikely to recruit you to the cult of Anderson.

“He was a member of the all-male literary banqueting club the Trap Door Spiders, which served as the basis of Isaac Asimov’s fictional group of mystery solvers the Black Widowers.”

Sequel, anyone?

Why see it at the cinema: It’s impressively filmed and performed, looks and sounds incredible even in the digital version (although I do hope to revisit it in 70mm early next year), and is absolutely one of those films you need an opinion on if you have a love of film for that debate in the bar afterwards.

The Score: 10/10

Review: Amour

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AmourThe Pitch: Love is…

The Review: Michael Haneke is one of those directors from whom the label auteur clearly applies; he’s probably one of that select band that could become an adjective, and any film given that description will give the viewer a clear idea of what to expect; moral ambiguity, a desire to get the viewer to experience a strong reaction, a dissection of the art of cinema itself, with a tendency to staccato bursts of violence and often an alienating coldness. Haneke’s 2009 film, The White Ribbon, picked up the Palme D’Or at Cannes and gained more affection that most of his previous films, based in no small part on the sympathetic central characters and even more surprising bursts of tenderness. For his latest film (picking up his second award on La Croisette), Haneke again takes things to extremes, although this time it’s that most human experience that he’s keen to push to its limit.

His real master stroke here is in the casting. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva have both had long, colorful and reasonably distinguished careers but now carry the heft of their actual years (Trintignant takes his first part in about a decade at 81; Riva, while still working regularly, is now 85). Not only do they convincingly portray two lives being lived to their fullest and latest extremes, but they have a believable chemistry that makes their portrayal of a couple being driven apart by the onset of their years all the more poignant. There’s also quality in the supporting cast, not least from Isabelle Huppert as the frustrated daughter seemingly unable do anything but stand at the sidelines and watch on helplessly.

What plays out is the story of the end of this couple’s relationship, at a time when their love for each other seems to be stronger than ever, almost painfully so. Although we’re left in no doubt as to the eventual outcome by the first scene, the initial scenes of general life and affection from Trintignant and Riva make it all the more harrowing when Riva first suffers her stroke, and from then on the depiction of life’s difficulties is about as honest as you could imagine. From there, the performances diverge with Riva required more to show the ravages on the body of old age, while Trintignant must bear the burden of her afflictions mentally and spiritually. Both performances are of the highest order and between them, Anne and Georges (a regular Haneke touch) will put you through the emotional wringer.

So to the director himself, and Michael Haneke’s using a few other regular tricks here, including a wide shot in a theatre early on with the characters almost lost in the background (but for their age, they’d be completely invisible). As always, every single detail is meticulously planned and fine tuned, with even the title coming over as very deliberate (Amour, lacking the usual French definitive article of the more romantic sounding L’Amour). Generally, he keeps the direction slow and deliberate, restricting the surprises to a dream sequence and a visit from a pigeon later on. But in terms of Haneke’s achievement, Amour successfully encapsulates the devastation of the passage of time and the inevitability of old age, and it feels almost churlish to say that’s all it does, lacking slightly some of the complex insights or more deliberate provocation of Haneke’s other works. There’s certainly a purity and simplicity in terms of the insight to the human condition in comparison to the other best works of Haneke, but odd details (such as the dream sequence) jar due to the deep-seated reality of what surrounds them, and when the ending comes it doesn’t quite feel like the true gut-punch it should, drenched in the inevitability of both its own film maker and the narrative course it’s taken. Still another significant achievement in the career of Michael Haneke, and confirmation that a heart does beat within his chest after all, even if it has a darkness to it.

Why see it at the cinema: Haneke’s works are designed to be seen in the cinema, from the first shot after the credits to the intensity of the ending, so that’s where you need to be to commit yourself fully.

The Score: 9/10