The blockbusters may have been less dumb, but the biggest delights of the year came from the films on the margins, writes Donald Clarke
IT HAS become customary for Scrooge McCritic to give out about the state of commercial cinema at this time of year. Oh, for a return to the good old days. A glance at the box-office figures suggests that we may inadvertently have got what we wished for. If you asked a cinema fan in 1962 to speculate on the most successful films of 2012, he or she might be surprised to hear that the frontrunner would be the 22nd sequel to a film that had just arrived in cinemas. Fifty years after Dr No, Skyfall is, indeed, the biggest film of 2012 in these territories. The Avengers, based on a strip that would emerge in 1963, currently holds the worldwide title. The only serious contender yet to open – with apologies to Tinkerbell and the Secret of Wings – is based on a fantasy novel published nearly 30 years before our imaginary cinephile began his experiments in futurology (work it out for yourself). The CG effects and internet marketing might have astonished the 1960s punter, but the themes and subject matter would have seemed wearily familiar.
Pessimists could reasonably argue that the year’s most significant cinema stories involved the relative failure of Walt Disney’s John Carter and the same company’s recent disinterment of Star Wars. Though based on an ancient series of novels, John Carter did, at least, constitute a genuine attempt to launch a new (if not exactly fresh) franchise. The return of Star Wars comes across like a fatalistic, despairing throwing up the industry’s collective hands.
And yet, as these pages demonstrate, 2012 was a pretty good year for the movies. Franchise episodes such as The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall and The Avengers were somewhat over-praised, but they still showed much evidence of creative thinking. (Sadly, as its release shrunk in the rear-view mirror, Ridley Scott’s bafflingly unfocused Prometheus seemed ever more of a lumbering disappointment.) The Hunger Games introduced us to some new friends. Looper proved that large audiences would flock to novel mainstream entertainment. The unexpectedly delightful The Muppets was better than any of the superhero or secret agent epics. Scrooge McCritic is, however, forced to pull on his most austere nightcap and point towards the margins for evidence that contemporary film-makers can still make movies that justify leaving the house. Older gentlemen such as Michael Haneke and Béla Tarr delivered forbidding masterpieces with, respectively, Amour and The Turin Horse. Leos Carax defied his critics with the disorienting Holy Motors. Thomas Vinterberg, hitherto Johnny Awkward, directed a gripping, white-knuckle melodrama in The Hunt.
It is futile to seek any trends in a world cinema that includes Andrey Zvyagintsev’s sociological ponderings on Russia in Elena, Ann Hui’s gentle naturalism in A Simple Life and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s leisurely investigations of rural Turkey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
If, however, we are forced to come up with some sort of useless catch-all movement, let us invent and celebrate the New Weirdness. Few lists of the year’s best films have, in recent times, taken in so much rampant peculiarity.
Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio could hardly be more off-centre if it had been performed through the medium of semaphore. Is Toby Jones, an uptight Englishman adrift in an Italian film studio, actually becoming embedded in the imaginary film known as The Equestrian Vortex? We are not supposed to know.
Holy Motors featured a mad tramp who eats hair, a chap who seems to be married to a chimpanzee and – in a relatively calm moment – Kylie Minogue warbling a seductive Neil Hannon ballad.
Ben Wheatley, among the most exciting British directors of the age, combined woollyjumpered monotony with psychopathic violence in Sightseeers and still managed to raise hearty laughs.
The anarchic energy bubbled crazily in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. As in Holy Motors and Berberian, we are never quite sure what is real and what is happening in the imagination. Happily, audiences didn’t seem to mind and this tale of chaos in the American south became something of a crossover hit.
Then there is the continuing puzzle that is The Master. On the surface, Paul Thomas Anderson’s picture is not as odd as the extravaganzas listed above. It is set in something like our own universe. Nobody sprouts wings and flies. But, once again, the characters’ fantasies seem to seep into the real world. Motivations are obscure. Half-plots point in lunatic directions. The audience is invited to construct their own meta-film from the building blocks provided.
What does it all mean? Is the New Weirdness a reflection of the chaos and disorder that characterises contemporary western society? No. Sadly, these films remain fringe interests. Most of us are still watching James Bond. 1962 was only yesterday.