1. Argo (Ben Affleck)
People have to stop talking about Ben Affleck “being on a hot streak” or “enjoying a purple patch” as a director and accept that perhaps he is just a really talented director. Maybe he didn’t ride Matt Damon’s coattails to that screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting all those years ago like so many joked. Argo, Affleck’s third film, is the year’s best thriller and mixes moments of extreme tension with some great laughs. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are fantastic as the CIA’s Hollywood collaborators.
2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
A few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Scorsese was going to adapt a children’s book as his next project, but with David Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret it made perfect sense. Hugo was Scorsese’s love letter to the early cinema. A visually stunning film it is also one of the few films that have been made which have convinced me there may be some merit to 3D.
3. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Of course, Hugo was not the only film in cinemas this year which celebrated the early days of cinema. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist went one step further, engaging with the long-lost art of silent storytelling. This was such an ambitious project, but it was just so endearing and charming that it won people over. It also came out at exactly the right time for me as I’d recently been watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin films and my interest in silent cinema was peaking.
4. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
With MGM’s financial troubles we were forced to wait four years to see James Bond back on our screens after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, but boy was it worth the wait. Skyfall had everything you want in a Bond film, some great action sequences, a bit of humour, a fantastic villain. But on top of that, having a real filmmaker in Sam Mendes at the helm meant that the film also had an attention character development and an emotional depth that we’d never seen in a Bond before. Skyfall is not just a great Bond film, it is a great film.
5. Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
This was not going to be everyone’s cup of tea just because of the sheer volume of singing, but Tom Hooper’s ambitious film is a cinematic achievement, successfully translating one of the West End’s most successful and most tragic musicals to the screen. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway gave two of the year’s best performances in this gut-wrenching story of poverty and injustice, rebellion and redemption.
6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
The thing that struck me about this adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel was its stillness and quietness. You feel like it is moving slowly, but when you stop and think about you realise that a lot has been happening. We are so used to seeing spy movies in the James Bond mould, that the stillness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is quite intriguing. An absolute all-star British cast led by a great performance from the chameleon-like Gary Oldman.
7. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson film through and through, which means some people will love it and others will hate it. Many of his usual collaborators are back with the key additions of Bruce Willis and Edward Norton. Anderson’s films are always deadpan and contain a touch of darkness, but this ups the ante on that. As always, the use of music, in this case Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams, is very clever. But for me, the sight of Harvey Keitel in shorts alone makes this film noteworthy.
8. The Muppets (James Bobin)
This may look like a strange pick alongside the other films on this list but The Muppets was a hard film not to love. No other film this year projected pure joy the way The Muppets did, and that should be celebrated. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay showed a real love for these classic characters and, along with Bret McKenzie’s songs, found the perfect balance between nostalgia and contemporary comedy.
9. Looper (Rian Johnson)
There is nothing better than being genuinely surprised (in a positive way) by a film, and for mine Rian Johnson’s Looper was the surprise movie of the year. I saw it on a whim, expecting it to be a reasonably run of the mill sci-fi romp but what I got was the most original and interesting science fiction movie since District 9. The story of an assassin from two different periods in time going head to head with himself also engaged with that moral conundrum “If you could go back in time to when Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot was a baby, would you kill them to save the world future suffering?”
10. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)
Martin McDonagh’s comedy isn’t going to appear on a lot of Top 10 lists but this is my list, dammit, so I’m including it. This sharply written comedy about a screenwriter who finds himself in a tough situation after his friend kidnaps the beloved dog of a local crime boss is a strong follow-up to McDonagh’s 2008 debut In Bruges. Yes there are some holes and some problems, but there are also some big laughs, with terrific comic performances from the always brilliant Sam Rockwell and the always quirky Christopher Walken carrying the film.
Not far off: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson), The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), Shame (Steve McQueen), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher), The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
The Worst Movie of the Year: Act of Valor (Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh). Not even close really. This military propaganda film in disguise (and not much of a disguise at that) proudly trumpeted the fact that all the major characters were played by real life Marines as though that were a good thing. It wasn’t.
Cinematic Highlight of the Year: Getting to see Steven Spielberg’s Jaws on the big screen as part of its high definition re-release. It was the movie which started the whole blockbuster movement, and which launched Spielberg into stardom, and it still holds up. Similarly, it was good to see Titanic on the big screen again. While the 3D transfer didn’t do much for me it was interesting to see that enough time has passed that we are all over our anti-Titanic bias and can accept that, while it has its faults, it is actually a very good film.
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis
It is fun to be back in Middle Earth and the world of The Lord of the Rings again. It is great to see Ian McKellen back as Gandalf. Andy Serkis again steals the show as Gollum. It is nice, if completely unnecessary, to see Elijah Wood as Frodo again. But be warned, Lord of the Rings this is not, which is unfortunate as it is not going to be able to avoid comparisons.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey follows the same narrative formula as The Lord of the Rings. Again we have a motley crew making their way across the countryside, encountering all manner of foe, on a journey to an ominous mountain. However, the problem for The Hobbit is that there just isn’t enough at stake in this story. In The Lord of the Rings you have these grand themes of good and evil at play, and the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of this small company on their mission. In The Hobbit we have a dozen dwarves who want their home and their gold back. It doesn’t quite compare. In The Lord of the Rings, they had no choice but to go on. In The Hobbit you feel like if things really got too hard they could just decide to give up and life would go on. The only times we get a sense of bigger themes at play are in scenes which point towards the events of the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The difference between the two is that The Lord of the Rings is a genuine epic, whereas The Hobbit is a rollicking adventure story. But in trying to maintain a consistent tone, Jackson is trying to force an epic tone on The Hobbit when he may have been better served to have a bit more fun with it. It is a children’s book after all.
As an aside, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the poster below and that of The Muppets which I hoped may have indicated an attempt to lighten it up a bit, but outside of a couple of moments, not really.
Martin Freeman is very likeable as Bilbo Baggins and the better scenes in the film, for mine, feature him prominently, in particular the scene with the three trolls deciding how they will cook up the band of dwarves they capture, and, of course, Bilbo and Gollum’s game of riddles. Richard Armitage is strong and moody as Thorin, but with the exception of a couple you will have trouble differentiating between the dozen dwarves in the band. Unlike The Lord of the Rings where each member of the fellowship had a distinct persona, in this case they are largely interchangeable.
When it was first announced that The Hobbit was going to be made as a two part film, and then later revised to three parts, eyebrows were raised. When Jackson made The Lord of the Rings, he took an enormous work, which was already a trilogy, and had to be really selective in terms of what he included and what he left out in order to fit it into a trilogy of films. With The Hobbit Jackson has taken one book, which is significantly shorter than The Lord of the Rings, and has stretched it out to three films, and unfortunately that stretching shows. At 169 minutes, the issue with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not so much that it is long, but that it feels unnecessarily long. It feels stretched out. I can’t see there being a special extended edition DVD of this film because it is hard to believe Jackson has chosen to leave anything out. Anyone who found the last half hour of Return of the King frustratingly drawn out will find themselves infuriated by how long it takes An Unexpected Journey to get started. First there is a prologue of about 20 minutes which seems to have been put in there solely to get Elijah Wood back on screen as Frodo, and that is followed by another 20 minutes of dwarves arriving at Bag End. So you are about 45 minutes into An Unexpected Journey before the unexpected journey begins. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when the trilogy is finished, a competent reader could read Tolkien’s novel in less time than it would take to watch the trilogy back to back.
I didn’t get to see the film in 48 frames per second, but have heard mixed responses to that format. Apparently it is wonderful for the landscape shots, offering beautiful clarity, but that same clarity has a negative effect on costumes and make-up.
While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has copped a bit of flak from some critics, and doesn’t reach the heights of the incredibly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is not Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace by any stretch of the imagination. It feels a little drawn out, but once the story gets going there is a lot of fun to be had.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean