The year in film

The year's best movies explored masculinity, old age, and even geology and philosophy
November 14, 2012

Top films in 2012 included (from left) Holy Motors, The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games

In what was probably the most impressive grandstanding speech of the cinema year, at the close of the gangster film Killing Them Softly, Brad Pitt declared that America was not a country, it was a business. This portrait of failed capitalism at the dawn of the Obama era may not have been 2012’s most popular film—too on-the-nose for some critics; too esoteric for some audiences—but it was distinctive. While openly referring to mobster movies from Scorsese to Peter Yates, Andrew Dominik’s film was bold and contemporary: it didn’t murmur its message, it shouted.

But film in 2012 also looked back at its own history. There was the success of The Artist—a black and white French film with (almost) no dialogue which took five Oscars and seven BAFTA awards. It also made back its $15m budget eight times over. Then at Cannes the most heated debate surrounded Leos Carax’s gloriously deranged Holy Motors, which put one spookily gifted actor, Denis Lavant, in a series of predicaments and personae inspired by a century of film from silent comedy to the latest digital movie-making.

A degree of retrospection even dominated the blockbusters. Avengers Assemble rounded up the old Marvel superheroes to take $1.5bn, making it the third highest grossing film of all time, after Avatar and Titanic. Avengers was fitted with 3D in post-production, unlike the re-booted Amazing Spider-Man, in which the 3D was elegantly integrated. Yet for all the artistry, did it add anything to the story?

There was a mini-rebellion against the extra dimension this year. James Watkins, British director of the stylish The Woman in Black, said he would have walked away if producers had insisted on 3D. Gary Ross did not consider it appropriate for his massive box office success, The Hunger Games, a pastiche of earlier films from Rollerball to Battle Royale. Neither Christopher Nolan for his final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, nor Sam Mendes for the latest Bond, Skyfall, wanted to mess with it. At present 3D does not yet serve filmmakers or audiences properly. We may, as in the early days of colour, still be waiting for the proper technology.

Both Batman and Bond, incidentally, celebrated the middle-aged male’s powers of recuperation. And, elsewhere, even more mature figures were exceeding their usual limited share of the action. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel took $134m worldwide from a modest $10m budget, confirming what The King’s Speech had hinted at: cinema is not just for the under-25s. In fact, the generation most likely to pay for a ticket, as opposed to watching a film on a small screen from phone to laptop to TV, might well be baby-boomers. Cinema attendance by over-50s has doubled in the past 15 years. So, be prepared for more silver-haired protagonists in 2013, with the forthcoming Quartet, Hyde Park on Hudson and Song for Marion between them boasting lead performances from Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp, as well as youngster Bill Murray, 62. These grey-pound features often present a lovingly positive view of age; Michael Haneke—with Amour, his Palme d’Or-winning portrait of the inevitable conclusion of lifelong devotion, starring French New Wave octogenarians Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva —could be counted on to snuff out the candlelit glow.

Without 3D, cinema this year still proved immersive. An intense subjectivity suffused the melodramatic but magnificent Rust and Bone, with Marion Cotillard as a young woman recovering from a freak accident who develops a relationship with a taciturn young father; it was there too in the queasy Martha Marcy May Marlene, shot from the confused perspective of a girl newly escaped from a religious cult.

Masculinity was also the subject of almost-too-close scrutiny. With Shame, artist-director Steve McQueen confirmed he’s unable to compose an awkward shot, even if the theme of “sex addiction” and alienation was not quite the contemporary taboo the film’s publicity claimed (Remember the Mike Nichols film Carnal Knowledge? Or any riff on Don Juan?). Paul Thomas Anderson’s long-awaited The Master mesmerised or infuriated audiences by focusing less on the parallels between the cult at its centre and Scientology, and more on a claustrophobic evocation of charisma, patriarchy and the yearning to belong. Some critics argued that the film’s narrative was patchy or too compressed—although perhaps cinema is now unfairly compared to long-form TV drama, such as Homeland, where a character can twist on the end of a hook for weeks.

Documentaries about the quest for identity proved popular, whether biopics such as Marley or Searching for Sugar Man, or films like The Imposter, about a Frenchman who successfully convinced an American family that he was their missing son.

Cinema can still come close to nailing the ineffable: it was nowhere more ambitious than Chilean director Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, which reached simultaneously to the heavens and the earth’s core, binding together geology, astronomy, philosophy and politics. It was occasionally matched in scope by dramas like Faust from Russia, Turkey’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Hungarian Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which he declared would be his last movie.

New ways of making films emerged, whether through crowdfunding on the internet or a community project supported by money from a non-profit foundation, like Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Most poignant, though was This is Not a Film by Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Confined under house arrest in Tehran and banned from working, he employed digital camera, iPhone and a friend or two to make... what? Documentary, drama, absurdist comedy and thriller—a film for the times.