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The block­busters may have been less dumb, but the big­gest de­lights of the year came from the films on the mar­gins, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM 2012 -

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.

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