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FILM: BEST OF 2012-13

By Preston Wilder

It’s still popular. Pundits keep predicting the death of Hollywood, most famously Steven Spielberg who recently told an audience at the University of Southern California that Lincoln came this close to being made for TV (some of us think TV is the best place for it) and predicted the imminent “implosion” of the film industry. Maybe the system is broken, and it surely relies far too much on sequels and blockbusters – yet I watched ‘World War Z’ with a full house some weeks ago, and I know this for a fact: the ‘popular art’ is still popular.

I’m not saying the audience went wild for World War Z, a not-great zombie flick that cries out for qualifiers (good ‘of its kind’, not bad ‘for what it is’, etc). But it felt like every one of those several dozen people was enjoying the experience of sitting in the dark, surrounded by strangers, watching Brad Pitt fight zombies on a Thursday night – certainly more than they’d have enjoyed staying home or (more importantly) downloading World War Z and watching it on their laptop. Cinema as ‘night out’ is still a powerful weapon, ditto cinema as mindless escapism. This goose may keep laying golden eggs forever, unless they slit its throat first.

Then again, maybe that’s what they’re doing – because I also had the opposite experience recently, namely Turbo, which I watched for about half an hour then fled in despair (note: I almost never walk out of movies). Admittedly it was dubbed into Greek, which didn’t help – but this seemingly innocuous kids’ cartoon about a snail who wants to be a race-car driver (and indeed a race-car) was more than I could take. How many more slick, juvenile cartoons must we watch about dreams being followed, misfits becoming accepted, kids learning that being different is OK and everyone is special in their own way? How many more slick, juvenile cartoons must we watch, full stop? In the past few weeks I’ve sat through Epic, Despicable Me 2, Monsters University and now this – and yes, I know I’m not the audience for these films, but they’re still being released, snagging marketing budgets in the tens of millions and taking up valuable space in the multiplex. At some point you look at a totally formulaic movie, made as cinematic pabulum for a totally undiscriminating audience, and the thought that any industry relying on such fluff for its bread and butter must be on the verge of implosion doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all.

Maybe it’s because I watched Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) the night before I tried to watch Turbo – not a top-tier Hollywood classic (though it won John Wayne his first Oscar nomination) but it still got me thinking. This is a WW2 flag-waver, a film 12-year-old boys must’ve enjoyed in 1949. In its way, it’s as formulaic as any summer movie, the old chestnut of the tough-as-nails sergeant whipping young Marines into shape – yet its emphasis is solidly on psychology, and the sergeant (Mr. Wayne) turns out to be a tortured soul with some unexpected edges. Above all, Sands seemed to hark back to a time when film really was a popular art, catering both to escapists and those looking for nuanced, human drama.

Have those days gone for good? Maybe so – but it’s not that simple. Something like Pacific Rim has no human nuance (its characters are cardboard ciphers), but surely there’s art in its dazzling look and creative special effects. It’s the definition of ‘art’ that’s now fragmented: the kind we associate with theatre and books – the art of plot and psychology – has migrated to TV, placing most Hollywood cinema in the same bracket as paintings and videogames as a purely visual, sensory experience. Some would say it’s a shame, and I agree; mainstream movies have diminished since 1949. Watching new films at the multiplex week after week can become depressing – then again, why do it? Unless you’re a teenager (or a paid reviewer), there’s no reason to care about what’s showing at the cinema, especially in summer. There’s a whole universe of films and TV to explore instead.

Every year around this time, when I list my Top 10 of the past 12 months (mid-summer, when the local scene is dormant, is the best time to do this), I skate over the thorny subject of illegal downloading – and it’s true, one should rent or buy DVDs as much as possible. But money is scarce, the whole country’s bankrupt, and there’s so much to keep up with – world cinema, US independent cinema, older cinema, plus the endless new TV shows your friends keep raving about (the latest must-see is apparently Hannibal), and most of it can be had at the click of a button. Downloading films you can find cheaply and legally (whether at the cinema or the DVD shop) is hard to justify – but the self-righteous view that all downloading is wrong is equally hard to stomach, when we’re in a small market like Cyprus and living at the mercy of the multiplex.

Every year, my rule is that the list must be comprised of films shown at a local cinema, even if it’s just a week at the Friends of the Cinema Society or a single festival screening – partly because any other way lies madness, partly because (as illustrated by my World War Z experience) there’s still a thrill to the big-screen experience. But it’s also undeniable that most of my keenest cinematic excitements in 2012-13 didn’t take place in a cinema but sitting on the sofa in my living room, or even sometimes staring at a downloaded .avi file on a computer screen. It’s the way of the world, and something to bear in mind as we run down the list, in reverse order – with Honourable Mention going to Killer Joe (though not for the infamous fried-chicken scene), The Bourne Legacy, In the House, and the totally exuberant Star Trek: Into Darkness.

10. I did wonder whether to include the flawed-but-fascinating Killing Them Softly on this list, but the recent tragic death of James Gandolfini tipped the balance. That said, Gandolfini’s lengthy monologue about his frayed marriage and dead-end life (he plays a once-great hitman, now addicted to booze and hookers) isn’t one of my favourite scenes in this de-glamourised crime drama – but it’s typical of the bold choices it makes, wallowing in the moral fatigue and decay that comes from a life of crime. Downbeat and nakedly (too nakedly) political, with the year’s most memorable sign-off line courtesy of Brad Pitt: “America’s not a country, it’s a business. Now f**kin’ pay me!”. Doesn’t he know that crime doesn’t pay?

9. I’ve seen Holy Motors twice now, trying to love it as much as its fans do – and I can’t make the leap (the old man segment and Kylie Minogue segment drag me down) but it is defiantly original, with Denis Lavant in nine different roles as a mystery man (actor? angel?) who rides the streets of Paris in a stretch limo – one of the titular Motors – carrying out various “appointments”. A metaphor for Cinema itself, alternately beautiful, outrageous and very sad.

8. I don’t want to talk about Time-travel, says Bruce Willis in Looper, if we start then we’ll be here all day, “making diagrams with straws” – but of course we have to talk about Time-travel, given that Bruce is from the future and teaming up with his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). In a year of oversized hobbits, G.I. Joes and other portentous franchises, this sleek, stylish slice of sci-fi stood out for its supple script, wry sense of humour, plus its unexpected second half loaded with echoes of classic science fiction, specifically Jerome Bixby’s 1953 story ‘It’s a Good Life’. Funniest line: “I’m from the future. Go to China.”

7. Tom Cruise played Jack Reacher, Jeremy Renner was the new Jason Bourne – but there was only one Bond, James Bond, Skyfall rejuvenating a tired franchise and becoming the first-ever Bond film to gross over $1 billion worldwide. An instant classic, the only caveat being that it gains most of its power by positing Bond as a has-been, a “grand warship” fighting a last great battle. Those chips have now been cashed; what can ‘Bond 24’ do for an encore?

6. News arrives that Robert Downey Jr is now the highest-paid actor in the world (he made $75 million in earnings between June 2012 and June 2013) – and you have to say he’s earned it, his smart-aleck persona (with a smidgen of vulnerability) being the obvious reason for the runaway success of Iron Man 3, but the real secret weapon is writer-director Shane Black whose sharp, snarky script easily outdoes the first two instalments of this (or any) superhero franchise. Best pseudo-villain of the year: Ben Kingsley as ‘The Mandarin’.

5. Who came second on that list of highest-paid actors? That would be Channing Tatum, who put his own money into Magic Mike and reaped the rewards of this surprise smash-hit about male strippers. Groups of women looking to ogle male flesh may have been its most conspicuous audience – but any film fan could appreciate the undertow of melancholy behind its high spirits, the “cock-rocking kings” onstage revealed as ageing, empty vessels, animated only by a blithe denial that keeps them going for as long as the women keep cheering (and paying). Best scene: a wild party in the shadow of a Florida hurricane.

4. For a month or two (February and March, mostly) adults go to the multiplex as the Oscar nominations come to town. Alas, this year’s crop (led by Zero Dark Thirty and the aforementioned Lincoln) was mostly overrated – but Argo was hugely entertaining, and it’s no surprise that it ended up winning Best Picture. Bright and cartoonish yet brimming with neat human detail, based on a true story which it blithely re-fashions (the climax is totally made-up), this Hollywood film about Hollywood films was also the best Hollywood film of the year.

3. What do Paradise: Love and Tabu have in common? Nothing really: one is a graphic Austrian drama about a middle-aged woman going to Kenya for a bit of sex tourism, the other a dreamlike, black-and-white Portuguese meditation on various deaths (including those of colonialism and Cinema). The one thing they had in common – apart from both being excellent – is that they were screened in the two major festivals organised by the Cultural Services of the Ministry of Culture (Cyprus Film Days and the ongoing Open-Air Summer Marathon, respectively) – festivals which could now disappear as the crisis bites hard and the public purse shrinks to almost nothing. Hopefully someone (EU funds? private-sector millionaires?) can somehow pick up the slack in 2014.

2. Moonrise Kingdom is my favourite film of the year – endlessly rewatchable, with its meticulously (some would say obsessively) detailed images, but also more than the pastry-chef confection it initially resembles, full of gravitas and unexpected violence as it tells the tale of two tweens in love. Also contains the year’s best soundtrack (Benjamin Britten, mostly), the year’s best use of music (‘Old Abram Brown’) and the year’s best Bruce Willis performance; though admittedly The Cold Light of Day and A Good Day to Die Hard didn’t offer much competition.

1. Blatant, unprecedented cheating, I know – but desperate times call for desperate measures and besides, as already mentioned, the real excitement wasn’t at the multiplex in 2012-13. No, the real excitement lay in having an entire world of cinema at your fingertips – so here’s a Top 10 within the Top 10, a list of terrific older films I watched for the first time last year, all of which are even better than Sands of Iwo Jima (and indeed, for the most part, even better than Moonrise Kingdom).

In chronological order: Docks of New York (1928), Le Grand Jeu (1934), The Edge of the World (1937), Scarlet Street (1945), Muriel (1963), Charulata (1964), The Sleeping Car Murders (1965), Trash (1970), Deathdream (1972) and Margaret (2011). Check them out as we head – bloodied but unbowed – into 2013-14.

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