Ard Vijn Wonders If His Best-Of List For 2012 Will Even Reach Ten...

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
Ard Vijn Wonders If His Best-Of List For 2012 Will Even Reach Ten...
Like many of the people here at ScreenAnarchy I love making a Top-10 list, but now that I sit down to do so and actually look back upon 2012, I notice I haven't actually seen all that many films.

Huh... what happened? Where did my year go?

Thing is, I've seen loads and loads of films, just not that many new ones. Review-wise, most of my activities were in anime series releases this year. Recent theatrical releases ... less so. Several of the Oscar-nominated films aren't out yet over here, and to my shame and chagrin I managed to miss both Looper and Cloud Atlas. Of those I did see, many were undeniably cool but underwhelming, like Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises. There are bits and pieces in both of these films that I love and will often revisit, yet neither of these two belong in a "best of" list when seen as a whole. Like Todd, I'd rather stop before I reach the number 10 instead of giving these any further endorsement. I'm more positive about John Carter, but while that movie did scratch an itch, it didn't quite scratch it hard enough. The Cabin in the Woods was a bit too smug for me, although its ambitious finale was quite awesome indeed. Both these films were very enjoyable and would probably be in my top 20, but not in my top 10.

So what I'll do is this: In chronological order as seen through the year I'll list those films that I feel comfortable as claiming to be "Top 10" material. And let's just see how far I will get.

1: Ace Attorney

Top2012Ace_Attorney.jpgHaving director Takashi Miike present during the world premiere may have helped to get everyone there in a good mood, but I had an absolute blast watching this videogame adaptation. Phoenix Wright is a young attorney who gets thrown into a series of increasingly impossible courtroom battles. These all turn out to be connected in a conspiracy involving ghosts, a local Loch Ness monster, several murders and a decades-old case.

Far more coherent and controlled than Yatterman, the Ace Attorney movie manages to contain the first game's entire convoluted story while Miike's special brand of insanity is visible as well.

It's flashy, it's childish... But its villains are truly vile, which gives the film a creepy veneer and raises the stakes for the heroes. In short: it's fun as hell. And to those who do not like it I yell "IGIARI!!!".

You can read my full review here.
You can read my interview with Takashi Miike here.

2: Black's Game

Top2012Blacks_Game.jpgThe most polished Tiger Award Nominee I've ever seen, Black's Game is Icelandic director Óskar Thór Axelsson's feature debut. The story may be described in short as Goodfellas in Iceland, but that in itself is not a bad thing and the locale truly makes a difference. It is a pulse-pounding rise and fall story, anchored with stellar performances by Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson and especially Damon Younger, who simply radiates violence, danger and evil whenever he's on-screen.

Óskar Thór pulls off the trick of taking what could have been a story of the week about thugs in a small community, and turning it into something that is almost epic. The large cast and use of many locations make Black's Game look like it cost ten times its actual budget, which never hurts. I'm looking forward to what this director and these actors will do next.

You can read my full review here.
You can read my interview with Óskar Thór Axelsson here.

3: Stories Which Only Exist When Remembered

Top2012HISTÓRIA_que_só_existem_quando_lembradas.jpgI remember being on holiday when I was a teenager, just traveling from town to town with a backpack and a few friends. For a few days we spent some time in a sleepy warm town high up in the hills somewhere in Portugal. Walking around, having a drink in the evening with locals, talking and joking, listening to some guy playing his guitar ... and just ... relax.

Documentary filmmaker Julia Murat's first narrative feature Stories Which Only Exist When Remembered (original title Histórias que Só Existem Quando Lembradas) has EXACTLY that vibe running through it. Julia's film is sedate and deliberate rather than boring and slow. She bestows every lovely visual the time to sink in, to the point where I felt soothed and refreshed afterwards.

The story is simple enough: a young student walks into a forgotten mountain village in Brazil and discovers that the people living there are immortal, in a way. What makes the movie special is the way the passage of time is shown, and what people might want from a long life spent amongst friends. The ending is both touching and haunting, with the lovely soundtrack staying in your head for days.

You can read my full review here.

4: Kotoko

Top2012Kotoko.jpgThis year saw the release of Tsukamoto Shinya's newest film Kotoko, about a woman who gets driven so mad by her hallucinations that she becomes a danger to her young son.

It's a gloomy story and Tsukamoto tries to put you in the main character's shoes by almost pushing the camera inside her head, yet he also manages to put in some wicked humor and gentleness. Tsukamoto based the script on conversations he had with popsinger Cocco, who suffers in real life from Kotoko's affliction (albeit thankfully in a much milder version). Cocco herself plays the lead and she is phenomenal, totally disappearing into her role, making us feel for Kotoko even though we increasingly fear her more as the film progresses. In the end, the sheer amount of empathy this film conjures up for her forces the viewer to root for this poor woman, even though the rational part of your mind wants to put her into an asylum as quickly as possible.

Our staff here at ScreenAnarchy is divided: some hate the film, others love it. Even though I dreaded to see it I'm staunchly in the "love" category: Tsukamoto has crafted an intelligent and often heartbreaking film and this may even be one of his best.

You can read my full review here.
You can read my interview with Tsukamoto Shinya here.

5: A Simple Life

top2012-A-Simple-Life.jpgSpeaking of films I dread to see: human interest features are included, because they are generally awfully melodramatic and fake. So it's very refreshing to see Ann Hui's film A Simple Life not containing any false sentimentality. Instead, the film shows what makes human interactions interesting to begin with: characters. A movie producer depends is cared for by his elderly housemaid who has been with the family since before he was born. Their roles suddenly get reversed when the old lady suffers a stroke. The producer does "the honorable thing" and tends to her needs, but soon it becomes clear to him how much of a true family member the maid always has been.

What could have so easily turned into a sugary piece of sentimental drivel is turned into a masterpiece by the honest, down-to-Earth approach by director Ann Hui and the powerhouse performances by well... everyone in it, especially its two leads Andy Lau and Deanie Yip who make an excellent bickering couple.

You can read my full review here.

6: The Raid: Redemption

top2012-TheRaid.jpgAnd now for something completely different: people kicking, punching and stabbing the snot out of each other. I saw The Raid at the Imagine Film Festival in Amsterdam with a very appreciative crowd, and the film went on to win the audience prize there. Not since Ong-Bak have I heard a crowd go "OOOW!" so often.
Granted, it loses a bit of that steam when you watch it at home on the television, but even then it is still a very well made piece of action entertainment.

Director Gareth Evans takes the simplest of story lines ("a police team barges into a highrise to arrest a kingpin, and gets stuck") but manages to wring a lot of suspense from it by being ruthless with, well... everyone! His crew of fighters and stunt performers make it all look wince-inducingly violent and it all adds up to one big shot of adrenaline. Looking forward to the upcoming sequels!

7: Scabbard Samurai

top2012-scabbard_samurai.jpgIn 2010 my number one film was Matsumoto Hitoshi's film Symbol, and I couldn't wait to see what he'd do next. Well, he did Scabbard Samurai and again he is in my year-end overview. The story concerns a disgraced samurai who is arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to death. His only chance for survival: if he can make the depressed son of a local lord burst out in laughter, he's free to go. The samurai gets one try a day for a full month, but unfortunately he isn't funny at all, despite the cunning plans his young daughter makes.

While the premise sounds like another absurd story for Matsumoto to show off a bucket of jokes, he does something very different: he plays it totally straight. In fact, he crafts a touching and excellent film out of it. Quite possibly he may have made one of the best films dealing with the topic of samurai honor and duty. Especially the finale is fantastic, with each emotion completely earned. Director Hitoshi Matsumoto continues to impress me with his sheer mastery of film as a medium, whether he is using it to show a gross-out joke, a view on life, or to simply pull your heartstrings. In Scabbard Samurai he manages to do all three.

You can read my full review here.

8: Game of Werewolves

top2012-Lobos-de-Arga.jpgI'm a sucker for a film with a well-made werewolf in it, and director Juan Martínez Moreno's Spanish horror comedy Game of Werewolves (original title Lobos de Arga) contains a good one. Well... this film contains loads and loads of them!

A writer returns to his childhood village for a feast in his honor, but upon his arrival he discovers that the somewhat sinister locals all suffer under a literally monstrous curse. A legend says the curse can be lifted by sacrificing someone. And guess who is the intended sacrifice?

Game of Werewolves often gets compared to Shaun of the Dead and for good reason: both films are very funny but at the same time they show their monsters as real threats instead of jokes. The horror-comedy mix here is spot-on and the film left me with a big grin on my face, both from the witty fights between the characters and the non-cgi werewolf make-up.
You can read my full review here.

9: The Avengers

top2012-Avengers.jpgFriends got me into collecting American comic books in the nineties, and that brought me to appreciate the universes Marvel and DC had built. Most of the stories were pulpy crap, but they came alive because each character carried his own history with him. Heroes and villains had met each other before, or teamed up, or were related, or were friends after having become enemies. People crossed over into each other's series and this built a consistent (if thoroughly crazy) continuity. At the time I thought the pairing of ridiculously spectacular action with this unending "soap opera" drama was unique to those long-running comic-book series. So imagine my surprise when I saw that The Avengers EXACTLY managed to capture this same spirit. Cleverly using five existing films as prequels may look good on paper, but to see it executed this well was... for lack of a better word, a marvel perhaps?

Most of the things I heard people complain about were taken straight from the comics. That's not always a valid excuse of course but for this film it applies. And most of the things I was pleasantly surprised by were the direct result of the writers using wit and common sense where you wouldn't expect it. As for spectacle: the Hulk downing his first dragon with a single smash made me guffaw in delight. I left the cinema feeling elevated and thoroughly entertained, and watching The Avengers in a 3D IMAX is one of my fondest memories of cinema in 2012.

10: Eega

top2012-Eega.jpg I'm not the biggest fan of films from India, but... no wait. Maybe I AM a big fan and I just don't now it yet. Case in point: Eega. It has all the points of my Bollywood prejudices against it: the film is long, contains silly acting and the occasional nonsensical song-and-dance routine. But once the story's lead gets killed and reincarnates as a common housefly, vowing to kill the gangster who murdered him, Eega just becomes seven shades of awesome.

Forget the fact that the fly's motivations are largely immoral, and that he (and his human girlfriend) have no qualms about getting innocent bystanders hurt. The diminutive but cocky little insect is so charming and charismatic that you cannot help but root for him. The many assassination attempts make for action sequences which are highly original, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tense, but always a thrill to watch. Helped by excellent direction, a pumping soundtrack and a great antagonist, Eega is just about the most fun I've had this year with a film.

11: Dredd 3D

top2012-dredd-3d.jpg For the second time in this list we encounter the following plot: "a police team barges into a highrise to arrest a kingpin, and gets stuck". And indeed, Dredd 3D feels a lot like The Raid, albeit with a larger special effects budget and set in the Dredd-ful universe made popular by 2000 AD magazine. Bits and pieces are remarkably similar, like when the kingpin uses the building's intercom to alert the residents of the police presence, or when a particularly cruel execution is used to show just how evil the villains are.

But all this just shows that both movies chose the same template to tell a hard R-rated action story, and where The Raid delivered its thrills through bonecrushing martial arts, Dredd 3D uses a dystopian setting full of guns and explosions. Pete Travis has crafted a fun sci-fi thriller in the spirit of the eighties' Predator and Robocop, and he uses 3D trickery the likes of which I haven't ever seen anywhere else yet. Kudos to Karl Urban for daring not to take his helmet off despite being the star, and kudos to Lena Headey and Olivia Thirlby for both being damn good in this. Dredd 3D was unsuccessful at the box office which was undeserved. I guess too many people thought it was a sequel to the Stallone film...

12: Life of Pi

top2012-Life-of-Pi.jpgAs the year drew to a close I saw Ang Lee's Life of Pi and was enchanted by it. While I may not agree with what the story tells about belief and religion, I do not mind seeing someone other's view if it is shown this splendidly. The biggest part of the film is filled with the story of how Pi is stuck on a lifeboat after the freighter he traveled on sunk with all passengers except himself. It gets worse though: he shares the lifeboat with a huge Bengal Tiger who gets increasingly hungry as the days go by. Watching Pi survive crisis after crisis is enjoyable because it all looks absolutely gorgeous. Like Pete Travis, Ang Lee had a specific goal in mind when he shot his film in 3D, and it pays off big time. Seeing the boat afloat on an ocean with visible depths underneath keeps the film visually interesting, adding a lot of flavor. This is probably the best-looking film I saw last year.

A mention must be made of the team which animated the cgi tiger, as those effects sure are an outstanding piece of work. There are many other effects and sequences which look fantastic as well, so despite some stiff competition I hope they reap an award or two for this.

And that concludes my 2012 list. Well, what do you know? I actually made it to twelve, so it wasn't that bad a year after all...

Here's hoping 2013 will bring everyone lots of cinematic delights!
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