Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive – Walt Disney

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2012 has been a bit of a mixed bag for cinema. There have been many notable disappointments, and a fair few pleasant surprises to balance it out, too. Animation wise, I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve seen this year, but I still wish there would be far more done in my preferred medium, good old hand drawn and 2D. Thankfully, two of the best animations of the year, both from Japan, are still to be given a wide release in the UK, so you can look forward to that in 2013. Here are my thoughts on 2012 in cinema. It’s quite long, but you might enjoy reading it on the toilet on your smart phone.

Best Performance: Animation

Hugh Grant – The Pirate Captain, The Pirates: In an Adventure with Scientists

The latest offering from Aardman, a lovably daft stop-motion animation chock full of their trademark visual jokes, all revolved around the irrepressibly silly and rather useless Pirate Captain at the centre of it all. Hugh Grant, erstwhile boring English rom com star and the scourge of News International, finds incredible form here in the best overall voice cast of the year. He’s wonderfully British, and his bluster and pride only makes him all the more sympathetic when his plans don’t quite go according to plan. He may not hit the heights of Peter Sallis’ immortal voice work as Wallace, but he nevertheless makes The Pirate Captain one of the most lovable, memorable animated characters of the year.

Honourable Mentions: Jude Law, Pitch, Rise of the Guardians, Alec Baldwin, North, Rise of the Guardians, Kelly Macdonald, Merida, Brave

Best Performance: Live Action 

Domnhall Gleeson – Levin, Anna Karenina

Levin

When I first saw it, my biggest problem with Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina was that the central character, Anna, was so conceited and self centred that the whole film was left a little cold. Were we supposed to root for her or hate her? Both seemed quite unpalatable options. Upon second viewing, however, it was Domnhall Gleeson’s restrained, passionate performance as Levin that truly won me over to the film. It helps that Levin is a far more sympathetic character, but it is Gleeson’s portrayal of him, as a bashful, heartfelt outsider in the aristocratic world of the city, that really lifts the film. Some may find it cloying, but I was fully won over round about the point where he declares his love for Kitty (Alicia Vikander) using a child’s spelling blocks.

Honourable Mentions: Quvenzhané Wallis, Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Elle Fanning, Ginger, Ginger and Rosa, Suraj Sharma, Pi, Life of Pi

Best Visuals: Animation

ParaNorman

Traditional animation styles are always going to win out in this category for me, but ParaNorman truly blew me away with the sheer energy they manage to achieve with stop motion models. Not only is the jerky movement usually associated with the medium is totally absent, but they are astoundingly ambitious with the action sequences. Car chases, giant storms and violent trees all make this the most astonishing piece of stop motion animation ever. When you consider the craft that goes into this, it makes it all the more impressive.

Honourable Mentions: Brave, The Pirates: In An Adventure with Scientists, A Cat in Paris, Rise of the Guardians

Best Visuals: Live Action

Vivan Las Antipodas!

vivan las antipodasIt’s unlikely that you’ve seen Vivan Las Antipodas as it is hardly likely to be hitting a multiplex near you, or any cinema for that matter, in the immediate future. I was lucky enough to catch this conceptual documentary at Edinburgh Film Festival, and I was astonished by what I saw. The idea is that documentarian Victor Kossakovsky looks at Antipodean points – that is, two places that are diametrically opposed in the world – and sees how life is different (or similar) in these worlds apart. It’s an abstract, absorbing film with very little content but somehow ends up being both moving and inspiring, and Kossakovsky captures our planet in a way unlike anything I’ve seen before. I don’t know when you’ll be able to see this, but make sure you do, as soon as you can.

Honourable Mentions: Life of Pi, The Mirror Never Lies

Best Score: Animation

Takagi Masakatsu, Wolf Children Ame and Yuki

Takagi Masakatsu does what the best film composers do – he captures the feelings of the characters on screen and expresses them through music. And as much of the film is concerned with the joys of childhood, and follows two children as they grow up, this makes for an uplifting, energetic musical accompaniment to the film. Certain scenes, when Masakatsu’s score plays a prominent role, really make Wolf Children quite an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Honourable Mentions: Patrick Doyle, Brave, Satoshi Takebe, From Up on Poppy Hill

 

Best Score: Live Action

Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

This isn’t just my favourite score of the year, it’s my favourite album of the year, too. A vibrant mixture of Cajun folk music and soaring trumpet motifs, complimented by singers from Louisiana, this feels as authentic and magical as the film itself. The music that plays over the credits (you can find it on youtube, it’s called Once There Was A Hushpuppy) is one of the most powerful pieces of music I’ve heard all year.

Honourable Mention: Johnny Greenwood, The Master

Biggest Disappointment: Animation

Hotel Transylvania

A great idea, a brilliant director (The Clone Wars’ Genndy Tartakovsky) and some really funny jokes all come to nothing when part of a bland plot with uninspired visuals and some really weak voice acting. I wanted to like this, and I stayed that way through most of the film, and then they had a singalong at the end and it lost me.

Biggest Disappointment: Live Action

The Dark Knight Rises

Christian BaleIt’s not really a bad film. I don’t think Christopher Nolan is capable of making a bad film. In fact, the first time I saw this I thought it was amazing – big on spectacle and ideas and with a great finale. And then I saw it again. Oh dear. The first act is just dull. Anne Hathaway prances around spouting some truly awful dialogue that wouldn’t look out of place in something like The Green Lantern, whilst Bruce Wayne mopes a lot then suddenly gets better because of some miracle leg brace. We never hear about any problems with his body again, for the whole film. Then the plot holes begin piling up, no one stops to question how stupid Bane’s plan is, we are treated to approximately 20 hours of back story that we don’t really care about, Robin turns up and just guesses Batman’s secret identity because of some miracle orphan connection and then Batman climbs out of a pit in Jodphur, India before making it back to Gotham in time to paint a bat signal on the side of the building and save the day. And what does he have to do to save the day? Stop the bad guy from setting off a bomb. What a wonderfully original idea. Presumably the studio then forced Christopher Nolan to have that ridiculous ending with the café in Florence. Really, this is one of the most dizzyingly stupid films of the year, but it masks it all by posing as an adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s also kind of boring.

Honourable Mentions: Almost all the blockbusters this year. The Hobbit and Prometheus were two that disappointed me on different levels. The Master was also a bit of a let down.

Biggest Surprise: Animation

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

No one really wanted another Madagascar sequel. Well, no one but critic and fellow animation fan @popcornaddict. Everyone else was kind of tired of this franchise, and far more interested in everything else that Dreamworks were up to. Then along came Madagascar 3 and suddenly it turned out to be a really funny, crazy adventure with a loose commitment to plot and a dedication to over the top slapstick. It’s not going to win any awards for script writing, but this is a bright, colourful film that just about everyone can enjoy. It almost, almost makes me want to see a Madagascar 4.

 

Biggest Surprise: Live Action

Ginger and Rosa

Ginger and friends

I’d never seen a Sally Potter film, I was under the impression that she was just a slightly experimental, weird film maker that was perhaps just a little too out there for my tastes. But I fancied a trip to one of my favourite cinemas, @Filmhouse, and the trailer kind of looked interesting. What I encountered was a gripping, emotionally charged drama about two teenagers and best friends who go their separate ways as one pursues politics where the other pursues men. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is fantastic, Elle Fanning gives one of the best performances of the year, and the period detail is superb. Unforgettable.

Honourable Mentions: Cabin in the Woods, Berberian Sound Studio, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Skyfall

What you may have missed: Animation

 A Cat in Paris

One of the token non-studio nominations for the Best Animated Feature Film, this slipped under the radars of most cinemas. It’s not an incredible animation, and is painfully hampered by one of the worst English dubs I’ve ever come across in an animation. But this has a jazzy, carefree style and some gorgeous picture book animation that makes this well worth checking out for any fans of the medium.

What you may have missed: Live Action

Grabbers

You may have missed Grabbers because the studio distributing it did that silly thing of an almost simultaneous cinema/DVD release. So it only came out on the big screen this boxing day, and on New Year’s Eve you should be able to purchase it on DVD and Blu-Ray. I heartily recommend you do so. It’s an alien invasion film set on a island off the coast of Ireland, with budget-defyingly brilliant CGI and a ballsy central conceit that makes the final act one of the most fun, outrageous pieces of cinema this year. Think The Guard meets Shaun of the Dead, although that comparison doesn’t really do this gem of a film justice. Essentially, it’s the best genre film of the year.

Honourable Mentions: Shadow Dancer and Elena are two criminally underseen films released this year. Both very thrilling, well worth your time.

Worst Film of the Year:

This Means War

Two spies fall in love with the same woman! They compete with each other to win her affections! This should be light hearted fun, right? WRONG. This Means War is the most vacuous, offensively stupid film of the year. I don’t know what I hated most: Tom Hardy’s smug, phoned in performance; the scene where the two men effectively stalk a woman with sophisticated technology so they can find out her secrets; the conversation two characters have about Hitchcock films; the fact that some people actually gave this positive reviews. Everything about this film is utterly abysmal, and what the portrayal of relationships in it is downright offensive. Awful, awful film making.

Honourable Mention: Dark Shadows

Best Film of the Year: Animation

Brave

An alternative brave poster by www.michaeldepippo.com

An alternative brave poster by http://www.michaeldepippo.com

I’ve explained my love of Brave on the site before so I won’t go into it here. Needless to say, I don’t buy in to the argument that this is a simple story that doesn’t dare to do anything different. It’s a moving, gorgeously animated film that has a beautiful relationship between a mother and daughter at its centre. The argument about which Pixar film is the best is slightly arbitrary, but I’ll say this much: I think this is the Pixar film with the biggest heart, and it is certainly my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: From Up on Poppy Hill, Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, Rise of the Guardians

 

Best Film of the Year: Live Action

Moonrise Kingdom/Beasts of the Southern Wild

Having two films as my favourite is something of a cop out, but I think, in some way, these two films are linked. They are both about America, they are both about childhood, they both celebrate imagination, they both have a big storm as a crucial plot point. These two visions of American childhood, however, take rather different approaches as one is an idealised, warm and symmetrical New England where children act like adults and vice versa. The other is a messy, poor and grainy Louisiana where children just want them and their parents to survive. Both are magnificent pieces of cinema.

Honourable Mentions: Anna Karenina, Berberian Sound Studio, Grabbers, Shadow Dancer, Elena, The Mirror Never Lies, Life of Pi, The Muppets

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This month’s award for Best Live Action Film was not that difficult to decide, even though it was a superb month for cinema in general. Sally Potter’s powerful coming of age drama Ginger and Rosa really surprised me with how involved I got, and featured one of the year’s best performances in Elle Fanning‘s portrayal of Ginger. An equally surprising, equally good coming of age story was The Perks of Being A Wallflower which was one of the most angsty films of recent memory, but actually earned the more emotional moments with good performances. Ruby Sparks was a clever, poignant indie that marked Zoe Kazan out as a name to watch. Skyfall was simply the best Bond film there’s ever been (coming from a non-Bond fan). But there was only ever one film it could have been…

Beasts of the Southern Wild has been on cinephile radars ever since Sundance film festival, where director Benh Zeitlin and lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis picked up universal plaudits. Soon a trailer was online, the Cannes film festival awarded Zeitlin with the Golden Camera for best first time director, and London Film Festival welcomed the cast, crew and film to British shores. Expectation was suitably ramped up to near hysterical proportions. It arrived on a wave of hype with an undercurrent of early backlash of people saying it wasn’t that good. As it emerges in more and more cinemas, it’s getting easier for you to discover that it really is that good. It’s a fairy tale wrapped in a post-apocalyptic survival story with a 6 year old girl and her Dad trying to make sense of it all at the centre. It’s the most remarkable debut of recent years, told with the innocence of a first time film maker but with the skill of a seasoned pro.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives in The Bathtub, a town named for the fact that it is below the levees of New Orleans, and so will be the first to know if there are floods. Alongside her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), she sticks out a storm of Hurricane Katrina proportions (although the link is never made explicit) and the following day finds a world submerged beneath still, murky water. This mismatched family then try to survive in these new conditions, staying in a single hut with other locals and trying to avoid the attention of clueless Governmental types north of the barriers. Hushpuppy’s sees this all as a world out of balance, represented by the prehistoric pig-like creatures, the Aurochs, that move ever closer to The Bathtub in their quest for food. So the young girl has to face these Beasts, as well as her father’s illness, a world underwater and a mother who is seen only as a blinking light in the distance.

Naturally, the figure of Hushpuppy is central to the entire film, appearing in almost every scene, and as such the casting had to be right for the film to work. How fortunate, then, that Zeitlin discovered the vibrant, ferocious Quvenzhané Wallis, cast when she was only five years old and filmed when she was six. Wallis’ voiceover is delivered with a mixture of naivety and wisdom beyond her years that rings of Linda Manz in Malick’s Days of Heaven. On screen, she is an electric presence; whether blowtorching her makeshift dinner or cracking open crabs with her bare hands, she is a vivacious bundle of energy that fully holds the film together. She somehow encapsulates both the resilience and the fragility of the community she is a part of. Dwight Henry, too, plays a complex, difficult part with aplomb. Previously working as a baker, Zeitlin cast him with no previous acting experience, yet he manages the tricky job of making an alcoholic, neglectful, borderline abusive father sympathetic, which is crucial for the film to work as his illness gets worse.

Together they represent an America that too often gets ignored and forgotten. However, Beasts is not a social action film, and indeed those who represent charity and activism in this are portrayed as being misguided and ignorant. The do-gooders north of the levees only pay attention to the people of The Bathtub when it directly affects their world. Until then, they are left to fend for themselves, even when all the animals and fish around them begin to die. So it is not a call to arms to fight poverty and injustice. Yet what it does do is show that this place, that most of us know so little about, is not somewhere to be pitied or patronised; instead it just treats them as humans, with compassion and respect. These are people with stories to tell, experiencing both exquisite joy and acute grief, and seen through the eyes of Hushpuppy and Zeitlin’s camera, we get a glimpse into all of these moments. As such, it may be the most human film of the year.

You may leave Beasts feeling as though you personally know some of the people in it, such is the care Zeitlin has for these characters. Yet in spite of how real they feel, this is still a film in which giant prehistoric pigs charge through a wasteland on the hunt for human food. The Aurochs are a strange feature to the film, the most overt manifestation of the ‘beasts’ of the title, and a largely unexplained presence throughout. Having learnt about them in school, Hushpuppy uses the image of them as a projection of her fears that the world is out of balance. Their inexorable progress towards The Bathtub functions as a clock, counting down the days Hushpuppy has to fix it all. It’s an imaginative touch to the film, elevating it from social realism to magic realism, and gives the film a dreamlike tone that is hard to shake, even after the credits have rolled.

This is also thanks to the Director of Photography, Ben Richardson. Using shallow focus, a fluid camera and close ups of faces to great effect, Richardson makes low budget both beautiful and hypnotic. The score, by Dan Romer and director Benh Zeitlin (can he get any more talented?), feels like the bayou-meets-Beirut, a wonderful blend of riotous Cajun bluegrass and soaring trumpet themes. In an early scene, when The Bathtub celebrates a holiday with a dangerous use of fireworks, both the visuals and soundtrack combine in one stunning party of the senses, making for one of the most uplifting scenes of the year. It also functions as a brilliant, bright calling card for Zeitlin, and lets the audience know that this is unlike anything else they’ve seen this year. It’s a vibrant, energetic start to the film, and is sure to leave you absolutely hooked.

It’s not a perfect film, and the rather haphazard structure of the film means that the pace notably lags in a couple of segments. There’s also an unsatisfying conclusion to the role of the Aurochs in the film. Yet this remains a startlingly assured debut, a passionate, accomplished piece of film making that really, truly cares for the characters it portrays. It’s got shades of the great animator Hayao Miyazaki, in theme and aesthetic, and also at times feels as beautiful as Malick, as involving as Werner Herzog, and as imaginative as Terry Gilliam. Yet at the same time, in spite of feeling tonally linked to these masters, it emerges as very much the singular vision of Zeitlin, marking him as a director who cannot be ignored. It’s a powerful, moving, funny, joyous and euphoric film, and may just be the best thing that’s been on cinema screens this year.