Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Review of 2012

Woman of the Year: Janet Gaynor

If you would have told me this time last year that by now I would have finished directing my first movie, skydived from 3,000ft and become a father, I wouldn't have believed you. And with good reason: none of those things have happened. I have watched a lot of films, though.

In this review, you'll find the best films I happened upon all year, the five finest from 2012 itself, and a fun questionnaire that you might like to fill in yourself (feel free to nick it, but give us a mention if you do). The Ghosts of Annual Reviews Past are here: 2010 and 2011.

Are you ready? I was born ready. Sorry, relatively near Reading. I've included a couple of pleasant views later on, in case you get bored.


Premier Premieres: The best new old films of the year...

... being an excitable whizz through the finest movies I saw for the first time this year. This excellent blog calls them "discoveries", which is frankly perfect, but I don't like to steal, so I'm going to persist with my terrible title and incredibly long-winded explanation instead.

7th Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927) – An exalting, extraordinary metaphysical romance that alerted me to the peerless powers of Janet Gaynor. Headily romantic and overflowing with staggering imagery. Full review.

La vie rêvée des anges (Erick Zonca, 1998) aka The Dreamlife of Angels – A profound, poignant drama about the friendship that develops – and then unravels – between two young women who meet at a factory in Lille. Élodie Bouchez is remarkable. Full review.

Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley and Morris Engel, 1953) – An absorbing and subtly moving film – filled with quiet charm – about a seven-year-old boy who goes AWOL to Coney Island, after thinking he's killed his brother. A stunning, hyper-realistic movie, shot entirely on location, that paved the way for Les 400 Coups. Full review.

Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929) – More Gaynor-y goodness, as J-Dog and the Borzagemeister team up for one final blast of silent transcendence. Pastoral, amusing and unfailingly sweet-natured, with an utterly enchanting characterisation at its core. Full review.

A Star Is Born (William A. Wellman, 1937) – The original Hollywood heartbreaker, with two stars falling in love as one goes stratospheric and the other implodes. Lesser-known that the 1954 remake (which is also superb), but with an immediacy and insider feel that's all its own. Stars Janet Gaynor. Full review.

Street Angel (Frank Borzage, 1928) – What an ending – and the rest of it isn't too shabby either. Stars Janet Gaynor. Full review.

Reagan (Eugene Jarecki, 2011) – Simply one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen, an endlessly illuminating, virtuosic study of one of the most fascinating American figures of the 20th century. Full review.

Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray (Serge Bourguignon, 1962) aka Sundays and Cybele – An intensely moving, truly original drama – with increasingly spare comic touches – that confronts the cynicism, horror and alienation of the adult world. The three central players are terrific, and the film boasts some of the most striking black-and-white photography you’ll ever see: an endlessly creative variety of shots drawing you inexorably in to the heartbreaking story. Full review.

Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, 2002) – An authentic, immersive and charming inner-city indie about a self-proclaimed teen lothario (Victor Rasuk) who falls for a girl clearly out of his league. The film has a unique atmosphere, Sollett immersing you in a fully-realised, insular world, aided by Tim Orr’s stunning close-up photography, and uniformly fine performances from the no-name cast. Full review.

Léon Morin, prêtre (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961) – One of the best films ever made about man's relationship with God. Full review.

Les rendez-vous de Paris (Eric Rohmer, 1995) aka Rendezvous in Paris – With its endlessly tramping camera pulling you around Paris, this trio of tales brings a painter’s eye, a capricious, coquettish woman’s fancies and a hardened girl’s perspective to bear on the City of Light, creating something indelible and unforgettable from the everyday. Full review.

Young Tom Edison (Norman Taurog, 1940) – Captivating Americana based on the boyhood of the famed inventor. It's a wonderfully-mounted production, with a literate script that mixes things that actually happened, things you wish had happened and MGM staples like the family sing-along. And it climaxes with two extraordinary, unbearably tense suspense sequences. If you're a cynic, just don't bother. For everyone else, this is a rosy primer on Edison's early years and a poignant, exciting and flavourful example of MGM at its absolute best. Full review.

Los amantes del círculo polar (Julio Medem, 1998) aka Lovers of the Arctic Circle - For 70 minutes, an astonishing love story that traces, in alternate chapters, the dovetailing lives of palindromically-named Spanish stepsiblings Otto and Ana. Then the coincidences start to pile up too heavily, and Otto winds up dangling rather impotentently from a tree, a metaphor for the film’s third act struggles. For all that, it remains a remarkable achievement, armed with a tireless but revolutionary concept of the human condition, and the surefooted grasp of aggressively non-linear narrative required to sustain it most of the way. Full review.

Passenger Side (Matt Bissonette, 2009) – A very smart, punchy little indie, with Adam Scott ferrying around his ex-junkie brother for a day. Hilarious, offbeat and genuinely affecting. Full review.

The Interrupters: How to Stop a Riot (Steve James, 2011) – A haunting humanist documentary from Hoop Dreams director James, about ex-gang members trying to stop violence on the streets of Chicago. Both inspiring and utterly devastating. Full review.

Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922) – Copywright wrangles meant that The Adventures of Robin Hood - starring Errol Flynn - couldn't replicate the plot of this silent classic, and so alighted on lesser-known aspects of the story. It's ironic that the '38 film is now a staple of popular culture, and the prism through which we see the legendary Robin. Dwan's film, featuring a perfectly-cast Douglas Fairbanks in the lead, feels more authentic and grown-up, while still brimming with energy, derring-do and romance. I thought it was fantastic. Full review.


Top 5 of 2012:

1. Silver Linings Playbook

Director: David O Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro
What's it about? "Cooper is a psychiatric patient released after eight months in a hospital, following an explosive episode brought on by his wife’s infidelity. Invited to dinner by his best friend, he meets a bereaved, "slutty" depressive (Jennifer Lawrence) who offers him a deal: she can get a message to his estranged wife, if he helps her compete in a dance contest."
Why's it so good: "It’s nice to see these kinds of characters – and specifically these characters – on a movie screen. Cooper is nothing short of a revelation, and his chemistry with Lawrence – one of the finest actresses working today – is really beautiful. There’s also a nice performance from De Niro, his most interesting in years, as Cooper’s father, who may be trying to build bridges with his son – or may just be using him as a good-luck charm to win money betting on football. His sequences seem distracting early on, taking us away from a beguiling burgeoning friendship, but the film’s apparently disparate elements slot together perfectly as it progresses, leading to a wonderfully satisfying finale. I loved it to pieces."

Full review:

2. Take This Waltz
3. Damsels in Distress
4. Moonrise Kingdom
5. The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Four American indies and an Aardman animation. Yes, I am a disgrace.

Worst film of 2012: This Means War


Rick's end-of-year report:

An enduring preoccupation: the mighty John Barrymore (think John Barrowman mixed with Michael Barrymore, then the opposite of that). He's with a woman, as usual.

Crazes: Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks, Hayley Mills.
Continuing preoccupations: Wendy Hiller, Buster Keaton, John Barrymore, Frank Borzage.
Revelations: Just how good Janet Gaynor was. And that she didn't sing I Will Survive. Douglas Fairbanks' swashbucklers were even greater than I could have imagined - especially Robin Hood, which may be superior to the Flynn version. I also realised that I'd been spelling Dan Aykroyd's name wrong for my entire life. "Ackroyd", since you ask. That was the only thing I got out of Dragnet.
A few performances that stuck with me: I haven't been able to get Gaynor's performance in Lucky Star out of my head. Nor would I want to. Just beautiful. Elodie Bouchez's turn in The Dreamlife of Angels got to me too, while both the leads in Sundays and Cybele did remarkable things. Ellen Page was chilling – and brilliant – in the very nasty Hard Candy. I revisited two of my favourites: Wendy Hiller in Major Barbara and JGL in Brick. And the younger brother in The Kidnappers was very cute. He went on to produce Superman (oversee the film, not expel him from his body).
Stuff I caught up on: A lot of silent films, some documentaries, some Truffaut, some Rohmer.
Happiest surprises: Lots. 7th Heaven blew me away and set me on a very Janet Gaynor-y path for the remainder of the year (it took in other happy surprises like A Star Is Born – just as good as the Judy version – and a remarkable offbeat comedy called The Young in Heart). I hadn't heard of The Dreamlife of Angels until it turned up on Film4, but it was an extraordinary movie. Both 17 Again and Easy A were great fun, completely immersive and brightened up gloomy days. Kissing Jessica Stein, Raising Victor Vargas and The Tao of Steve proved that the classic romcom has been alive and well over the last 15 years, it's just been hiding. Jimmy the Gent couldn't touch Blessed Event (with which it rhymes) or It's Love I'm After, but it was nice to find another comedy in the same punchy Warner vein. I'm a big Melville fan, but Léon Morin is usually referred to as a lesser work. It's hardly that. Same for Nolan's The Prestige – his best film so far, for me. I'd long laboured under the misapprehension that Eric Rohmer movies would be a bit heavy, largely because I hadn't bothered to find out anything about him except his name. Rendezvous in Paris was anything but, while The Green Ray was merely making you earn that chink of light. He's one to explore further next year.

Still with me? Thanks. Enjoy this photo of Venice, then we'll continue.

Biggest disappointments: A slew of overhyped, overrated sci-fi movies: Avengers, Looper and The Dark Knight Rises. I always imagined that Cocoon would be a delight, but it bored the sexy fly-around alien orgasm spirit out of me. After spending some quality time with John Hughes' finest films, Weird Science was like a kick in the balls. And not in a nice way. I think I may have seen a different Kill List to everybody else. A rubbish one.
Oddest films: Outcast of the Islands took a sensational cast and gave them very strange things to do. It was perplexing, sometimes unsuccessful, completely batshit, but kind of brilliant. Liliom had a handful of things going for it (Lee Tracy, H. B. Warner, the train), but set a new benchmark for stilted awkwardness in early talkies. Kings Row was about 11 different kinds of films in one: most of them very enjoyable.
Worst films: A Touch of Class is a romantic comedy in which the lead characters get together after she jokes that he "can't even rape her" properly. Everything else paled beside that, really. I did watch more crap than usual this year. I better fine-tune my instincts before 2013 kicks off, or just listen to the ones I have.
Tell us about some great movies you saw that no-one's really heard of: Right, there's this film called Manhattan by this guy called Woody Al- Oh right. Matt Bissonette's movies with Adam Scott, Who Loves the Sun and Passenger Side, were a pair of very funny, emotionally satisfying indies. The first 70 minutes of Lovers of the Arctic Circle was staggering, and if the momentum wasn't necessarily maintained, it's still well worth your while – or anyone else's.
Some favourite moments: Gaynor saying bye-bye at the gate as she left Farrell's house for the first time in Lucky Star. The train arriving in Liliom was breathtaking (shame about the rest of the film). And the pony rides in Little Fugitive were a delightful, hilarious touch. I also really enjoyed having a wee at the end of Batman.
And some least favourite moments: That line from A Touch of Class made me feel ill. The little girl (played by Anne Shirley!) mythologising domestic violence in Liliom made me feel angry. Edward Herrmann going on about cock-rings in Wedding Daze made me feel sad.

In a moment, I'll be carrying on. But first: here's Paris at night.

The funniest jokes: The Other Guys still makes me laugh like a wally, especially, "We WILL have sex in your car – it WILL happen again." Marion Davies' impression of Lillian Gish in The Patsy is about as good as it gets for silent film nerds, and Fredric March's Oscar-winning John Barrymore impersonation in The Royal Family of Broadway is much the same for '30s obsessives. Frederic Lederer's "I notice she didn't leave on her own" in Midnight was amazingly funny (that was the only film I didn't review on here this year, as I lost my write-up), and so is everything else about that film and fellow screwballer Twentieth Century. Archive footage of Ronald Reagan saying, "Attaboy, Bonzo" to a chimp and then hugging it, in Reagan, was also hilarious.
2012 was... The year of hype. Or maybe I've just been on Twitter more. I saw around 25 films from this year (compared to the 39 I saw in 2011) and though some were very good, the standard seemed a little lower than last year.
Best musical numbers: Billie Holiday's songs in New Orleans were nothing short of sensational, and I liked the work of an unexpectedly vital, vibrant and energetic young Louis Armstrong in A Rhapsody in Black and Blue, a rather cool short from the early '30s. It was great reliving the fantastic numbers in Girl Crazy, while Kathryn Grayson's Daybreak (not to be confused with Lorraine Kelly and Aled Jones's Daybreak) and Alice Faye's They Met in Rio lit up a couple of mediocre musicals.
Best film I saw at the cinema: Silver Linings Playbook. My instant reaction: "I loved Silver Linings Playbook. Best film I've seen at the cinema this year. Original, screwball-y, w/beautiful chemistry between the leads".
I was bored by: The usual tedious hoopla around Bond. Also, the film Agatha, which I only finished due to my affection for Harrogate.
I wrote this pretty good review of _______________, you should read it if you have a minute (with a link): Damsels in Distress, putting that Whit Stillman buffery to use at long last ( It was nice to have him back.
Total number of films I've seen (new watches in brackets): 297 (280) - with the Christmas holiday still to come.

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