January issue 2013

By | Cinema | Published 4 years ago

Cinema, that most sumptuous feast for the eyes and soul, has been a particularly filling one last year. True, there have been some disappointments along the way but, overall, 2012 has mostly been a fantastic year for cinema audiences.

The year started tepidly but picked up steam soon, with some of 2011’s foreign films finally finding international distribution to widespread acclaim. Most notable among them was Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, with its vivid imagery and deep themes lingering in the mind for weeks after.

Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film taught us what it really means to be a filmmaker in this day and age and re-defined all notions of the art form, thanks to the director’s own wit, some innovative camera skills and well…a birthday cake. Panahi made this non-film/documentary while he was under house-arrest and the USB carrying it was smuggled out of Iran in a cake.

From one end of the spectrum to the other: Fantastical, mainstream films were not really up to the mark. John Carter, The Dark Knight Rises or even The Hunger Games left a lot to be desired; these films were epics, blockbusters even, but extremely daft too. Later in the year, Sam Mendes showed us how it’s done properly with the decent Skyfall, paying homage to an already-legendary franchise (James Bond) and being a personal film wherever possible.

This year, several ‘pop-culture’ films such as The Avengers, 21 Jump Street and Chronicle won a lot of acclaim, not only within their respective fanbase, but among neutral audiences too. The Cabin in the Woods was the best horror film of 2012, while Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh’s sharply funny, cliché-busting ensemble was easily the best comedy but it was criminally underappreciated.

The latter half of 2012 first saw Steven Soderbergh humbling his contemporaries with Magic Mike – his third film in 10 months. Ridley Scott disappointed many with his quasi-profound Prometheus, and later in the year, one saw the re-release of Lawrence of Arabia – on all-time favourite that must be seen on the big screen.

Other standout films of 2012 were Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lawless and Killing Them Softly; surprisingly all three were snubbed by the Golden Globes. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Williams gave us goosebumps with her lead performance, a feat that shouldn’t go unnoticed at the Oscars. Lawless is an exciting cocktail of brotherly love and ultra-machismo, with Tom Hardy proving why he’s considered one of the best actors around. In Killing Them Softly, Brad Pitt made digs at the government, swore at the recession and served up the best, most abrupt ending of 2012.

The end of the year marks the beginning of the awards season, and the Golden Globe nominations are already out. The Best Motion Picture – Drama category is an interesting one, even if it has omitted greats like The Master. Argo has good chances of clinching the top prize, not only at the Globes on January 13, but also at the Oscars on February 24. It has several things going for it – it’s an inside look at American politics, has the authentic ’70s feel, its love for Hollywood and, sadly, cardboard cutout Iranian villains too. Argo is brilliant cinema, ably directed by Ben Affleck (Best Director Nominee), but I’m not so sure about its politics. Iran is depicted as the worst-place possible, where six American diplomats are ‘stuck’ amidst political tension, fearing for their lives and the CIA cooking up an unorthodox plan in order to save them.

With Life of Pi, Ang Lee has created a breathtaking film that will force 3D skeptics to review their
reservations about this technology. Suraj Sharma, who plays the titular character, and his performance are ironically the only natural thing in this CGI-fest. After a storm, Pi is stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger, Richard Parker (this alone should win all awards for Best Visual Effects) and the rest of the film pontificates about the importance and the power of God. The film taught me something else entirely, though – that human resilience is the actual true power and this message may have been lost in translation. Irrfan Khan, cast as the older Pi redeems himself somewhat after the sub-par The Amazing Spider-Man.

Lincoln is Steven Spielberg’s return to form, which is very welcome after the soppy War Horse and the not-for-all The Adventures of Tintin. Method actor Daniel Day-Lewis could walk away with his third Oscar for this film about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s fight to abolish slavery, but he faces strong competition from Joaquin Phoenix, the hypnotic Freddie Quell in The Master. There will be stiff competition between the two for both the Globes and the Oscars.

Everyone loves Quentin Tarantino and for many, Django Unchained is the best film of the year. And like other Tarantino films the key is the screenplay: A slave (Jamie Foxx), freed by a German bounty-hunter/dentist, turns into a bounty-hunter himself and helps the doctor track down the planatation owner who kidnapped his wife. The performances are something to watch out for: both Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio have been nominated for Supporting Actor Golden Globes.

With Life of Pi, Ang Lee has created a breathtaking film that will force 3D skeptics to review their reservations about this technology. Suraj Sharma, who plays the titular character, and his performance are ironically the only natural thing in this CGI-fest. Pi is stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger, Richard Parker (this alone should win all awards for Best Visual Effects) and the rest of the film pontificates about the importance and the power of God.

Zero Dark Thirty, with a strong screenplay and an incredibly intense finish, is another strong contender for the Best Picture Globe as well as for the Best Picture Oscar. Jessica Chastain, who seems to have been in every film for the past two years, gives a particularly strong performance here, which many are predicting will finally fetch her the Academy Award.

2012 offered just about everything – from the fascinating to the thought-provoking to trashy. The last big film of last year, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been successful in meshing together all these aspects of the cinematic calendar, providing me with a fitting metaphor for my roundup. More often than not, Peter Jackson’s film is a masterpiece, and Martin Freeman in particular gives us moments of genuine authenticity and brilliance as Bilbo Baggins.

The Globes divide the films into two categories: Drama and Comedy/Musical. Five films are nominated in the latter category: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Les Miserables, Moonrise Kingdom, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Silver Linings Playbook. There is a strong chance that Playbook will win, thanks to a quirky screenplay and career-defining performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. In it,
Anupam Kher plays an Indian doctor in a cameo, sharing screen space with Robert De Niro and getting to swear at a football game.

All ten Best Actress nominees for the Globes have given high-calibre performances. It’s hard to pick a definitive one in the Drama category, but Rachel Weisz and her carefully nuanced character in The Deep Blue Sea may well be the dark horse who wins against Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Marion Cotillard (fiercely brilliant in Rust and Bone), Helen Mirren (playing Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife in Hitchcock) and Naomi Watts (in the tsunami drama The Impossible). Jennifer Lawrence, as mentioned earlier, is brilliant in Silver Linings Playbook and she should win in the Comedy/Musical category against Emily Blunt (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Judi Dench (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Maggie Smith (Quartet) and Meryl Streep (Hope Springs). The latter, it seems, is a regular feature in this category, never mind if the film is good or bad.

In the Best Actor categories, besides Daniel Day Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix, actors John Hawkes (The Sessions), Richard Gere (Arbitrage) and Denzel Washington (Flight) are also in the running. While all five are masterly performances, Joaquin Phoenix is the true master here, with that rare ability to get into the skin of a character. Jack Black (Bernie), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables), Ewan McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson) are the nominees in the Comedy/Musical category and it’s a toss-up between Hugh Jackman as the iconic Jean Valjean in the world-known musical, and Bradley Cooper as the bipolar Pat Solitano in David O. Russell’s black comedy.

And finally, the Foreign Language Film category leaves one impressed by the high standard of the nominated films: Amour, A Royal Affair, The Intouchables, Kon-Tiki and Rust and Bone all reiterate the fact that world cinema, or European cinema in this case, is just as good, if not better, than American-centric film. Amour, a harrowing look at old age or rather, love in old age appears to be a sure-fire win in this category. It’s perhaps Michael Haneke’s most personal film and it’s a joy to see that Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva still retain such a strong command over their art.

2012 offered just about everything – from the thought-provoking to trashy. The last big film of last year, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been successful in meshing together all these aspects of the cinematic calendar, providing me with a fitting metaphor for my roundup. More often than not, Peter Jackson’s film is a masterpiece, and Martin Freeman in particular gives us moments of genuine authenticity and brilliance as Bilbo Baggins. However, there were parts – for example the High-Frame Resolution or the 3D – that made me think about the pointlessness of the technology.

Let us hope that 2013 does away with unnecessary gimmicks, unless absolutely necessary, and provides us only with genuine moments in cinema.

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany