2012: Films of the Year

Finally, after a week’s worth of distraction from the BAFTA and Oscar nominations announcements, I can reveal what everyone on the face of this planet has been waiting for – my Top 8 Films of 2012!

Eight? EIGHT YOU SAY? Well, yes. The thing is, I could have very easily filled two slots to make up the somewhat arbitrary holy ten from at least a dozen very good movies. But I thought rather than trying to name check absolutely every film I thought was pretty great this year and bulk it out, thereby rendering the rest of the selection even more meaningless (and you can check out a full rundown of my viewing habits here before you complain about your favourite missing – either I didn’t see it, or didn’t like it so much), I’d stick with the eight films that immediately sprung to mind, made the biggest impact on me, and have been hard to shake off since.

Most of my thoughts are revised and edited versions of reviews originally posted here or in my Tumblr mini-reviews (tag Film 2012), but to make up for the lack of new writing, I’ve come up with strained and somewhat flippant Definitials for each title, plus some more of my smiley pics as per last year – and given what a generally bleak affair 2012’s bunch turned out to be, they could all do with a bit of cheering up too.

#8. Shame

Steve McQueen’s directorial follow-up to Hunger, again with Michael Fassbender in the lead, proves their ongoing collaboration is one of the most exciting cinematic relationships at the moment. There was something about Shame which really resonated with me. Apart from all the sex and that (though for all the flesh on show, it’s possibly one of the least sexy films ever made). Loneliness, isolation, an inability to express emotion or connect with others – not original areas to be explored, but nothing I’ve seen before captured these feelings so effectively. The performances, the direction and the overarching tone makes for a compelling watch. Highly impressive work all round.

#7. Chronicle

It is testament to the quality of Chronicle that in the glut of mega-budget superhero blockbusters adapted from pre-existing source material with a readily installed fanbase, not to mention appearing at the tail end of this post-Blair Witch found footage cycle, it still manages to impress and feel fresh and distinctive. Simply put, it is the best original superhero film since the underappreciated Unbreakable, and in many ways feels like a companion piece – just with a dash of Akira and Carrie thrown in for good measure.

> > > Full Review

#6. Sightseers

A frequently hilarious, blackly comic, oddball road movie, and director Ben Wheatley’s most satisfying film yet. Like an updated version of Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May gone terribly wrong, Sightseers may be a bumpy ride for some, with its unforgiving outlook and downbeat desperation amid the brutality and japery. Pass on it though, and you’ll be missing out on probably the best British film this year.

> > > Full Review

#5. The Cabin in the Woods

The joy of The Cabin in the Woods is that it’s meta but never ironic or overly cynical. The gags are broad enough in their frame of reference so as not to alienate the casual cinemagoer, but with enough nods to get fanboys and gorehounds all a flutter. It is clever but never tricksy. It breaks the rules, but never breaks its own rules. Even a title as generic as The Cabin in the Woods is as much a commentary on the film as the film’s own commentary on the film itself. I think. As effective and hilarious a skewering of horror convention as Galaxy Quest was to Star Trek, or Starship Troopers was to macho jingoistic bullshit, the Evil Dead remake is going to have a very hard time seeming in any way relevant in its sizeable genre-busting wake (EDIT: The Evil Dead remake actually looks awesome).

> > > Full Review

#4. Michael

Disquieting, discomforting, disturbing, dis film (hngggh, couldn’t resist!) depicts the life of a solitary man – and the boy he keeps locked in his basement. While thankfully and wisely low on explicit detail, it is nevertheless an intense, queasy experience rooted in the hideously mundane. Perfectly calculated, measured and executed, it doesn’t browbeat or sensationalise, nor attempts to explain or justify – rather it is in its squarely matter-of-fact presentation that it truly succeeds. Exceptional.

#3. The Hunt

Though representative of the mess and hysteria that surrounds accusations of paedophilia, no-one could have predicted just how timely The Hunt’s UK release ended up being. Though more localised to community rather than media reaction, it shows the desperate extent to which an unwitting lie can spiral out of control, how helpless one can be to stem the tide, and how someone’s life can be totally destroyed through hearsay. It’s not a particularly novel premise, but Thomas Vinterberg draws out the every ounce of tension for what it’s worth, and every emotion experienced by the man at the centre of the allegation (an amazing Mads Mikkelsen) is unflinchingly shared with the audience. That’s not to say this is a simple exercise in gut-wrenching misery – everything about the film (the pacing, the length of each shot, a look between characters, a pause between words) is expertly judged. The Hunt is like having your heart gripped and lungs squeezed for two hours. In the best way possible.

#2. The Master

While not as immediate as There Will Be Blood, there is something mesmerising about The Master while watching, but confoundingly ethereal in its wake, with an unshakeable mood that continues long after. Accused of lacking a sustainable narrative (it is undoubtedly a character piece), it is one reason why summing up thoughts and feelings about it is so difficult, as there are few tangible hooks on which to hang them on. Certainly, the cinematography is beautiful, the performances exceptional, the music magnificent. Yet, there are so many issues raised and not fulfilled, avenues and tangents presented but not explored, as the film remains steadfast on examining the relationship between its three leads, through which the other themes that are teased and hinted at throughout can be greater drawn. If There Will Be Blood was a big bloody steak to sink your teeth into, The Master is more like Freddie Quell’s cocktails, booze sloshing in your belly – both leaving you satisfied and full, but with different methods and end results.

See, didn’t I say it was hard to sum up? Basically, I really liked it.

#1. Amour

Though still filmed with Michael Haneke’s customary removed fixed camera style, Amour, as the title might suggest, is not cynical or in any way dispassionate towards its central elderly couple, one of whom suffers a stroke. It is almost unbearably sad, not just because of how active they were before tragedy strikes (their life together is gradually and beautifully revealed through the unfolding events and deft hints), but also how matter-of-fact it’s played in that death awaits us all. There is no montage, no sudden grim diagnosis from a sullen-looking doctor – each time we see them comes as a shock, their condition worsened, the inevitable ever present. But there is also a positivity and hope about Amour, that if such a thing were to happen, there would be someone willing to do anything for you and care for you so resolutely.

Already winner of the Palme D’Or at 2012’s Cannes Film Festival, with two incredible performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges) and BAFTA and Oscar-nominated Emanuelle Riva (Anne), Amour deserves every conceivable relevant award that has been and hopefully will be sent its way.

2012: Soundtracks of the Year

1. Cosmopolis – Howard Shore & Metric

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Howard Shore’s 2012 output will probably be more remembered for his return to Middle Earth scoring Hobbit I, and so to Metric and their latest album, Synthetica, than for their collaboration on David Cronenberg’s latest oddity. Shore’s worked with Cronenberg many times before (his score for The Fly is a particular favourite), and so too with Metric on some other Robert Pattinson movie (Twilight: Eclipse), but here they capture Cosmopolis’ cool sheen as well as imbuing the film with all the emotion and warmth missing from the text. And the appearance of rapper K’Naan on ‘Mecca’, despite sounding initially silly and simplistic, especially in the context of the film, has been lodged in my brain ever since. Swirling, pulsing, electric, and totally awesome.

2. The Master – Jonny Greenwood

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Having made his mark with his exceptional, dark and foreboding work on There Will Be Blood, Norwegian Wood and We Need to Talk about Kevin, Greenwood’s music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest may be his lightest, most hopeful-sounding score yet. That’s not saying a lot, as there are still unsettling elements, harsh, clipped woodblocks that keep you on edge, but there is something freeing and fluid about the way the strings heave and sigh too. Another great achievement.

3. Prometheus – Marc Streitenfeld

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As flawed as Prometheus was, the one component that fully sold a sense of exploration and wonder was Marc Streitenfeld’s score. In this day and age of incessant Hans Zimmer mimicry, where big ominous blasts and the sound of an orchestra crumbling mid-recording are the blockbuster default settling, it’s nice to hear a score with a distinct theme,  that feels as grand as the themes the film itself tries to tackle. Wide-eyed and awe-inspiring, Streitenfeld’s music here is reminiscent of TV Star Trek themes at their very best, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

4. Dredd – Paul Leonard-Morgan

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A meaty gritty adaptation of everyone’s favourite law-dispenser deserves such a score as this. Crunchy beats for the action, glorious dreamy flourishes for the “slo-mo” sequences, with hollow dusty electro-industrial soundscapes adding an ambient backdrop. Combined with Anthony Dod Mantle’s impeccable cinematography, it’s a great marriage of sound and vision. Bonus points for having Matt Berry’s theme from Snuff Box make an appearance too.

5. Shame – Various Artists

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Though having the one-two punch of Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ and Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love’ is obvious soundtrack gold for me, and sure Carey Mulligan’s rendition of ‘New York, New York’ is a showstopper (in the film that is, not so much listened to separately and cold), it’s Harry Escott’s compositions amongst the assorted jazz and classical that really stand out. Like a big, brooding wave ready to crash, it’s the soul of a film focused on someone desperately looking for one (a soul, that is, not a film, ya dummy).

6. Skyfall – Thomas Newman

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Director Sam Mendes brought in regular collaborator Thomas Newman (just as well as regular Bond composer David Arnold was on Olympic duties), and while the Bond tunes is present and correct, and the action scenes are filled with fairly indistinct bluster and bombast, he adds a lot of personality elsewhere. There’s a melancholic tinge that permeates throughout the quieter moments, and it feels far more of a complete cinematic score of its own than the typical collection of themes and stings that Bond films can sometimes end up being.

7. ParaNorman – Jon Brion

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ParaNorman’s quirky charm lends itself well to Jon Brion’s sensibilities, but alongside the breezy guitar strumming, there’s also 80s-horror-inspired synth for when the dead rise from the grave. It works a treat, and there are nice unconventional appearances from The White Stripes and Dizzee Rascal too.

8. Le Voyage Dans La Lune – Air

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Air follow in the footsteps of Pet Shop Boys with Battleship Potemkin and Giorgio Moroder with Metropolis – though a bit more of the former than the latter – with their soundtrack to George Méliès’ iconic 1902 film in the restored colourised version that premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Spacey, trippy goodness.

9. Moonrise Kingdom – Various Artists

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It’s a Wes Anderson film, so you might expect, as much care and attention has been put towards the music as the visuals. Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in both diagetic and non-diagetic contexts, and neatly mirrored in Alexandre Desplat’s own compositions, sits side-by-side with Hank Williams and Françoise Hardy, but it all fits together very nicely indeed.

10. Wrong – Tahiti Boy & Mr. Oizo

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I’ve not seen Quentin Dupieux’s follow-up to Rubber – it’s played various festivals since premiering at Sundance, but not yet in the UK as far as I am aware – but being that Dupieux is also Mr. Oizo (of Flat Eric fame), his team-up with Tahiti Boy on the soundtrack to his latest film is a delightful mix of cool squelchy beats and sunshiney muzak.

 

Tracks from all 10 of my favourite soundtracks of the year can be found on the Viewing Gum Soundtracks of 2012 Spotify Playlist, alongside a few other choice selections.

 

2012: Albums of the Year

If you’ve been listening to my Viewing Gum Listening Posts or Tokyo Soundscape episodes (and if not, why not?!), you should probably already have a fair idea of my musical consumption the past twelve months. But luckily, it’s time for a good old recap, and a fully interactive one at that. So, besides a top 10 rundown, as well as a bunch of other recommendations that didn’t make the cut, I’ve also put together a Viewing Gum Music of 2012 playlist on Spotify, but for those after the bigger picture, clicking any of the covers featured in this article should also warp you straight to the full album itself on Spotify. And if you don’t have Spotify? Err…my words will have to suffice. First off, here’s my TOP 10:

As much as I have enjoyed Hot Chip’s singles and live performances, their albums have never quite clicked with me. That changed with their fifth release, In Our Heads, perhaps their poppiest record yet, but this isn’t a case of dumbing down. As much a summation of everything they have achieved thus far as it is a celebration of their influences, it also feels like a new lease of life for the Chippies. A total joy from start to finish.

#2. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

Dirty Projectors’ previous albums have been easier to admire than to actively enjoy – there’s often a lot going on, but to what end is often garbled, resulting in an uneasy listening experience. However, with Swing Lo Magellan, Dave Longstreth finds melody to match the madness, without losing the distinct quirks and tics with which he has made his name. No finer trio of opening tracks you’ll find anywhere else as here: ‘Offspring Are Blank’, ‘About to Die’, and the haunting ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ (translated into Sumerian Akkadian Cuneiform of all things by my good friend Willis!). Rest of the album’s damn fine too.

#3. Django Django - Django Django

An early frontrunner for my favourite of the year, it perhaps became a victim of ear-exhaustion on my part through heavy rotation. But that’s what Django Django does to you, providing a magical sonic backdrop to any endeavour. Still the best debut release I heard though, groovy beats with a hint of the exotic, and although the lyrics are unremarkable, they add to the overall texture. Every song sounds timeless yet completely of the time too, with rhythms so catchy it’s as if they’ve always existed.

#4. Grimes - Visions

 Like other feted electronic mood-makers The xx and James Blake, there doesn’t seem to be a lot happening on first listen to Visions, but the calm surface belies a constantly churning sound that’s otherworldly without dissolving into New Age muzak, dreamy without being indistinct. There’s a real pulse throughout, reaching peaks with ‘Genesis’, ‘Oblivion’, and ‘Nightmusic’, but the whole album ebbs and flows nicely.

#5. Field Music - Plumb

 Brothers Peter and David Brewis operate on a highly-skilled level of technical songcraft, with unconventional instrumentation and shifting time signatures, buoyed by quintessential English eccentricity and humour. There’s a classic pop-rock sensibility on show, but Plumb takes you down unpredictable paths. An absolute pleasure.

#6. Jack White - Blunderbuss

It’s fair enough how long Jack White has taken to release a solo album having kept himself occupied with two extra bands (with two albums each) alongside The White Stripes, but now that time has been called on his breakthrough duo, Blunderbuss has landed, and it’s a hoot. Though armed with a few full-on rockbusters, White more often indulges his bluesier side, but either way, there’s not a duffer to be found.

#7. Grizzly Bear - Shields

 It’s become somewhat easy to take Grizzly Bear for granted. As expected, Shields is another batch of gorgeous impeccably-crafted tracks, and while there may not be one standalone stunner as ‘Knife’ was to Yellow House or ‘Two Weeks’ to Veckatimest, it is perhaps their most consistent and complete record thus far. A grower to be sure.

#8. Adrian Younge - Something About April

 Adrian Younge builds on his work as composer (as well as editor) on cult comedy favourite and affectionate Blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite with concept album Something About April. With a rich blend of cinematic soul, it’s a warm sensuous record that’s far more than just a nostalgia exercise.

#9. The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends

 Psyche-rock mischief-makers The Flaming Lips flip through their eclectic rolodex, bringing in “fwends” old and new to contribute samples, licks, or full-blown vocals to this musical oddity. The results aren’t as mixed as one might fear, but there are some exceptional highs, notably the Cyberman-sampling ‘2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)’ and the pounding ‘This Ain’t My Trip’, as well as Neon Indian-collaboration ‘Is David Bowie Dying?’, and controversial cover ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.

#10. David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant

David Byrne teams up with St. Vincent on a funky song selection, filled with character and bolstered by its brass section. It’s a shame sometimes Annie Clark’s voice gets lost sometimes under Byrne’s, but when they are on equal footing or flying solo, it works like a charm. Bouncy bouncy bouncy bouncy fun fun fun fun fun.

So those were my total besties of 2012, but here is a selection of 20 other albums I enjoyed which are all absolutely worth your time too. Hover over the cover for the title and artist, then click to be whisked away to listen to it on Spotify!

Alt-J - An Awesome Wave Animal Collective – Centipede Hz Beach House - Bloom Best Coast – The Only Place Bo Ningen - Line The Wall Busdriver - Beaus$Eros Crystal Castles - (III) Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros – Here Electric Guest - MondoThe Gaslamp Killer - Breakthrough Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! Jesse Ruins - Dream Analysis Keaton Henson - DearNorah Jones – Little Broken Hearts Opossom - Electric Hawaii salyu x salyu – s(o)un(d)beams Sigur Rós - ValtariTame Impala - Lonerism Turntable Films - Yellow Yesterday   The xx – Coexist

And in case you just want to cut to the chase, and sample the best of the best, here again is the Viewing Gum Music of 2012 playlist embedded below.