Yeah, I Saw Some Movies. Only A Few. Matthew Lee's Favourites Of 2012

Yes. Yes, I know, you saw the picture. We'll get to that.

I didn't see anything like as many movies as most of the Twitch writers in 2012 - just crawling over 150-odd at the end of the year, and not too many of them were released in 2012. I hardly got to the cinema for anything - outside of film festivals I was waiting on DVDs, or VOD releases. One film on here I only saw at the start of 2013, but technically the DVD scraped in at the end of last year and I liked it enough I, well, cheated. So there. But there were some gems I totally wasn't expecting: enough to put this little list together, for what it's worth.

In roughly ascending order:

The Wrong House, a.k.a. House Hunting (US)

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I probably confused most of the people who actually bothered reading my review of ultra-lo fi US horror The Wrong House when I saw it at Manchester's Grimmfest earlier this year. Did I like it? Did I hate it? Well... a little from column A, a little from column B? Two families go house-hunting and end up imprisoned by mysterious forces in the same deserted forest hideaway. Eric Hurt's directorial début is in many respects shockingly bad, plagued by the lack of funds, an inept script and tone-dead performances (I don't care if you've landed Marc god damned Singer, he's still flat out terrible). But there was something about the way the film completely subverted my low expectations and turned into a slow-paced, bizarrely restrained character drama that I found haunting, even genuinely frightening (a rarity among horror movies) and it made for absolutely gripping watching, for all its ghastly flaws.

Lethal Hostage (China)

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An ultra-stylish, sickeningly violent, morally questionable thriller depicting a hapless criminal trying to go straight... from China? Think you know how this one goes? Hold that thought - Cheng Er's Lethal Hostage features a mainland criminal who suffers a crisis of conscience when he takes a little girl captive during his escape from a police raid. Years later, the kid's all grown up and they're man and wife, yet this new-found happiness threatens to bring the gangster's world down around his ears. Lethal Hostage is covering familiar territory, and it's far from perfect; shaky scripting and editing plus a godawful score bring it down a few notches, for starters. But the sun-baked visuals are a treat, the action chills, Sun Honglei brings his very best poker face in the lead and the story is, well, not quite the slavish hymn to state censors' moral codes you might expect. A few more like this out of the mainland and we'll hardly even miss Hong Kong. (I kid, I kid.)

Architecture 101 (Korea)

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A successful architect is greeted by a client wanting his services to finally finish her dream house, only to discover she's an old friend - nay, his first love, even, from back in the day in architecture class in high school. Back then he'd barely have given her the time of day, but will their romance kick off again now they're both older and (supposedly) wiser? Lee Yong-Joo's Architecture 101 has the triple-A gloss common to so many Korean blockbusters, and the bankable stars (particularly the oh-so-dreamy Uhm Tae-Woong as the architect in question) but as the story rolls on it becomes obvious as well as being terrifically well made and acted it's a far quieter, much, much more reflective film than most bubbly South Asian rom-coms, and almost achingly sad in places. The story's been done - many may guess where it's headed - but that doesn't detract from the rock-solid, deeply affecting dramatic message under the glitz.

Resolution (US)

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Describing Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's US indie horror Resolution is like trying to sum up some too-clever-by-half post-modernist novel: on the surface it's about one of two long-separated friends who goes to stage an intervention, of sorts, when he becomes aware the other man seems to be about to end it all in a fit of despair. Peter Cillela and Vinny Curran are excellent as the leads, the two directors frame America's wide-open spaces beautifully and it's a fantastic character study. Yet as Cillela goes investigating what's happening in this ordinary little stretch of back country, while Curran recovers, the mysteries he uncovers turn the movie first into a deeply unsettling psychological horror, and then even a look at the nature of reality itself, how we mould it to suit ourselves and what would happen if that all came tumbling down. Resolution has some first night jitters, but by and large it's a tremendous piece of film-making that well deserved the post-Tribeca bidding war it stirred up.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (US)

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Yes, you're god damned right Beasts of the Southern Wild has been arguably over-rated. The story of a near-future Earth ravaged by ecological catastrophe and the people who live in a ruined, often flooded out region of the American South known as the Bathtub, for all the critical gushing it provoked the film strays dangerously, dangerously close to Magical Negro pop-psychology and "po' folks be special" Hallmark wisdom. Yet it's still a gorgeous, uplifting film about the beauty in life lived on its own terms; on the flipside, yes, poverty and hardship aside people are not necessarily better off with the trappings of progress. If you've not seen it, child actress Quvenzhané Wallis is every bit as good as you've heard - few actors have done "I may not be somebody, but god damn it, I'm me" so well in the past few years - and while the celebration of togetherness and shared defiance in the face of adversity may be stood on shaky ground, it's still heartbreaking stuff.

Electrick Children (US)

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A fifteen-year-old girl in a rigid, fundamentalist US Christian sect believes she's become pregnant through a cover of Hangin' on the Telephone she overhears on an ancient tape recorder, and braves the neon-lit temptations of the big city to try and track down the father. Rebecca Thomas's Electrick Children is so freaking whimsical Wes Anderson would run screaming for the hills, but astonishingly, what could have been almost insufferably twee becomes a warm-hearted, tender and very funny meditation on human decency, the nature of faith and the pains of growing up. Thomas's début feature is technically adept, confidently shot and the script is both searching and wonderfully entertaining by turns, but it's the brilliant performance by Julia Garner that makes this one - looking painfully vulnerable, yes, but winningly, believably self-possessed as well. Electrick Children doesn't pretend to have the answers, but it knows what it's like to wrestle with the questions.

The Fortress of Sleeping Butterflies (Lithuania)

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Unlike our glorious leader I may not have seen Vanishing Waves (jealous, me?), but hey, I'm all about the Lithuanian movies - well, okay, just three films so far, but Algimantas Puipa's The Fortress of Sleeping Butterflies is another gem from a tiny domestic industry most people are barely even aware exists. Adapted from the novel, this is the story of a middle-aged woman of means whose marriage is in crisis, who retreats to a house in the countryside and takes it upon herself to try and shelter three prostitutes trying to get out of the game. While the production values go up and down and the tone wavers towards sentimentality in places, this is no Lifetime drama; despite the tentative friendships that spark up this is a grimly pragmatic film about someone who's hopelessly out of her depth, who should maybe try fixing herself before extending a hand to anyone else. And though the story's not without moments of levity, the final gorgeous images make an absolutely devastating capstone.

Helpless (Korea)

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A pair of newlyweds on the way to tell the husband's parents the good news stop off at a service station; only when he returns to the car he finds his wife has disappeared, seemingly without a trace. Time for a "cool story, bro" along with a note of smug and superior: I found George Sluizer's much-touted 1988 drama The Vanishing (Spoorloos) a gigantic letdown (rarely has a film done so little to deserve a Criterion release). But while Byun Young-Joo's brilliant Helpless starts with roughly the same premise, it absolutely demolishes Sluizer's film in pretty much every way. As the husband presses the authorities to investigate further, he starts to realise perhaps he never really knew his wife at all, perhaps wouldn't want to know the kind of person it seems she really was - but is there a reason for the way she turned out? And does it excuse the things she's done to try and cement her perfect life with him? Superb direction, white-knuckle suspense and gut-wrenching character arcs make this Korean thriller something no cineaste should miss out on.

Painted Skin: The Resurrection (China)

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It's a genre fantasy that trades on heavily implied lipstick lesbianism between two of Asia's most renowned female stars, directed by a former adman who makes everything look like a high-end perfume commercial and yes okay, that's a bonus, but there are still a whole host more (and classier) reasons Painted Skin: The Resurrection is one of the best films of 2012. The wonderful Zhou Xun returns as the demon from the first film, having broken loose from her magical prison, still searching for the man whose heart, once consumed, will lift the curse she labours under. Vicki Zhao is the warlike princess who falls under her spell, and Chang Chen the royal guardsman exiled to the sticks, still pining after the princess. It's slick, garish big screen entertainment, yes but remember - the leads number some of the finest acting talent in the region, and they elevate a surprisingly complex, nuanced script considerably. Bold, pulpy and over the top (sadly leading to one horrendously misguided piece of near-racist production design but hey, such is life) this is a story about longing, redemption, meaningful sacrifice and yes, twu wuv as well. Exquisite film-making that ranks close to, maybe even alongside Hong Kong's golden age.

And the winner is:

Holy Motors (France)

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So. Holy Motors, then.

Yes, all right, I agree, when a French arthouse darling and renowned black sheep struggles back to film-making after years in the wilderness a lot of the praise his comeback gets is probably just because. Critics, am I right? Still, screw you, doubters: nothing else released - hell, almost nothing I saw for the first time in 2012, period, rocked me back in my seat like Leos Carax's glorious, batshit unhinged portmanteau of gleeful cinematic doodles. A man travels Paris in a limousine, taking "contracts" for some unseen figure or figures where he takes on new identities and performs random acts of chaos that bear little or no relation to each other - yes, this is a film that makes no immediately discernible sense, a collection of seemingly random images strung together by a self-conscious auteur. No, it's nothing like as transgressive as many of the directors who pioneered this kind of assault on convention.

So what? Holy Motors is an unceasing parade of visual jokes, trickery and outright splendour, a funny, witty, deeply emotive and fantastically vital celebration of how cinema can delight us with showing something really, really cool, and its refusal to rub that in viewers' faces (very little outright taboo-breaking here) is potentially braver than simply aping past masters of the form. If anything I'd put it closer to someone like Lee Myung-Se (say if his regrettable misfire M had been as good as the work of flawed, enchanting genius that was Duelist). If you need your movies to mean something, to stand for something, Holy Motors is probably not for you. If you can make it through a parade of non-stop weird and appreciate the director's near-mastery of his craft, sit back and just enjoy the wonder of it all and save the debate about what it all means for later, then trust me - this is, far and away, the best new film I saw this year.

Bubbling under, a.k.a. "I Coulda Been A Contender" nominees:

Kahaani (India/Bollywood)

Great thriller with a fine central performance from Vidya Balan as a heavily pregnant wife who wanders the heaving Kolkata streets trying to discover how her husband went missing. Tense, gripping, with some wickedly sharp set pieces, if mostly fairly unoriginal.

Once Upon a Time in the North (Finland)

Quality Finnish period drama dealing with a broken family wrestling over the lines of succession, set in the era of the "knifeslingers" (a particular region around roughly the mid-1800s), wandering bravos who settled their disputes with knife fights instead of shootouts. A solid cast, particularly the nastier of the two brothers in the lead, though it can't quite live up to its ambitions to do Scorcese with more stabbing and the bizarre colour tinting drags it down a few notches.

This Life (Denmark)

Big-budget recreation of the life - and, well, death (trust me, no spoilers) of a famous resistance group in occupied Denmark. Slick, crowd-pleasing drama that's attracted online criticism for being too polished, yet despite leaning a little too hard on plot points that play like hoary cliches this is still powerful stuff.

Comedown (UK)

Rough and ready slasher that plays like The Raid turned hoodie horror. A group of kids scale an abandoned tower block to install a pirate radio transmitter, but someone else is up there with them: Comedown hits all the expected notes, the character types, the gruesome kills, the obvious twists, but it's beautifully shot, fantastically grim and despite the cliches manages some real humanity and even some pleasingly original bits of design.

Motorway (Hong Kong)

Fair enough, it's style over substance - supercop chases criminal and they drive really fast, do nifty stunts and little else - but next to big-budget misfires like the woeful The Four, director Cheang Pou-Soi's quiet emphasis on people doing really neat things with cars goes down a treat. The speed is thrilling, the slow bits are still inventive, the cast get the job done - it's a ruthlessly stripped-down film, but still highly entertaining.

Biggest disappointment, a.k.a. "You Have Got to be Kidding Me" grand prize winner:

Looper (US)

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I don't get it.

What, you want more? Okay, I'm hardly Rian Johnson's biggest fan - I thought the director's high school neo-noir Brick was largely awful, a witless piece of modish self-indulgence that was clumsy, empty and without any real lasting merit. So, yes. Still, I had high hopes for Looper, what with everyone and his/her dog hailing it as yet another example of adult, thoughtful sci-fi in the cinema, praising the subtlety, the depth, the daring storytelling choices. Horsepuckey. For all the big-budget sheen what I got was Brick's noir fixation transplanted to a poorly realised near-future setting peopled by one-dimensional archetypes, full of pointless visual gimmicks that did nothing to obscure how simplistic the overall plotline was and with a climax that was three parts ham-handed riff on Akira to two parts second-rate Jimmy Cagney. The sci-fi trappings were utterly superfluous, the plot set down on paper wouldn't have kept a five-year-old entertained and JGL's eyebrows deserved some kind of award for biggest running joke of the year.

There, that about sums it up. And I'm not even drunk!

(I could also have done Brave or The Avengers - you heard - but I couldn't really have been as nasty, and there were parts, just a few parts, of both films which I adored.)

Worst new film I saw in 2012, a.k.a. "It's Dead, Jim" reluctant winner (there's always one):

Love On-Air (Korea)

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While I managed to avoid seeing that many real stinkers during 2012, it was perversely comforting to see South Korea continue to corner the market on gimmicky romantic comedies that conceal something of a poisonous moral centre. The grating Love On-Air could have worked - a former idol singer turned radio DJ struggles to recapture a zest for life in the face of her waning career and failing relationships. Yet this is one more in a long line of fluffy popcorn movies where the lead professes to have worked out rampant materialism and generally being a jerk aren't such great things after all... but spends a suspicious amount of the running time enjoying them without a care in the world. While it doesn't sink as low as something like My Little Black Dress, this is still saccharine, utterly forgettable dross that does precious little to combat the hateful pop-culture stereotype of modern Asian women being soul-destroying harpies who live for little else beyond the trappings of success. More bland and vapid than outright bad, but still, not worth your time or your money.

And we're done! Go forth, commenters, and be enraged. Y'know. If you feel like it.
Around the Internet:
  • Justin Benson

    Matthew Lee, you remind of us of a certain mythological being known for being all-powerful, all knowing, and yet forgiving. Except you're a really good writer, as well. Good ass list!

  • benu

    A great, funny, informative read, Matthew. This is the kind of film writing that makes me want to try harder. Breezy, almost sarcastic, but the passion shines through. While I have heard of most of these (and I've seen a handful as well), it was a real pleasure to read about the ones I knew next to nothing about; really piqued my interest.

  • sitenoise

    "Architecture 101" might be my #1 film of 2012, and every time I mention it I'm compelled to mention that it is the sophomore feature from the guy who made one of 2009's best Korean films: "Bulshinjiok" (aka Possessed / Disbelief Hell / Living Death), and follow the namedrop with a "Holy Crap, what a directoral pivot that is", so Twitch people remember to keep an eye on the guy: Lee Yong-Ju (known on IMDb as Yong-Joo Lee AND Lee Yong-ju, exclamation point, wtf).

  • paratize

    Saw the film and like the actors. But I hate when it ends and you think the director just wanted to put a knife in your heart. I would have preferred a more conventional ending in this case, thank you very much.

  • valeriesoe

    Great list! A quick correction re: Painted Skin. It's Aloys Chen, not Chang Chen, as the third point of the love triangle. Aloys is much prettier than Chang Chen and at least as pretty as both Vicki Zhao and Zhou Xun. He's also not a bad actor, though he was much better in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate than in PS:TR

  • Less Lee Moore

    You had me at "po' folks be special." Great writing in this. Thanks!

  • J Hurtado

    Great list! I love that I haven't even heard of most of these, but also glad to see Kahaani make a dent.

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