Film review 2012: year Hollywood reinvented itself

Kermit, Miss Piggy and the team remade the Rainbow Connection in The Muppets
Kermit, Miss Piggy and the team remade the Rainbow Connection in The Muppets
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‘WHAT’S past is prologue,” says Antonio in The Tempest. The same might apply to the year in film. 2012 was, after all, full of movies about past lives and stormy futures in which the passage, function and manipulation of time became a key component.

An increasingly ravaged James Bond, for instance, went “back in time” in the magnificent Skyfall, driving M to Scotland in an Aston Martin DB5 for a date with destiny that brought him full circle to his cinematic origins. Coming towards the end of what is now the most commercially and critically successful Bond film of all time, it was the culmination of an audacious feat of blockbuster filmmaking, with director Sam Mendes holding his nerve during the character’s 50th anniversary year to deliver a film that celebrated 007’s heritage, interrogated his relevance, and reset the template for what a Bond film could do. Even Daniel Craig seemed to be having fun – and no wonder. In the future, his Bond will stand alongside Sean Connery’s as the one to top.

Skyfall wasn’t the only film straddling the divide between past, present and future. The Muppets also made a joyous return by embracing Kermit & Co’s glorious history in order to make a delightfully silly and endearingly heartfelt case for their continued existence. The brain-frying time-travel thriller Looper, meanwhile, made such concepts thrillingly literal by pitting Bruce Willis against his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt – cheekily checking his hairline early on) in a game of cat-and-mouse that featured the intriguing sight of a protagonist actively working against himself to safeguard his divergent futures.

Christopher Nolan also had the past and future very much on his mind in The Dark Knight Rises, kicking the film off with a depressed Bruce Wayne ruminating (a little too much) on the physical and emotional toll of being Batman before a portentous warning from Catwoman alter-ego Selina Kyle – “there’s a storm coming” – forced him out of premature retirement and into an epic battle to save an under-siege Gotham city. Nolan – a master of narrative trickery – cleverly used this structure to bring the story back round to the one he started telling in Batman Begins and, along with Looper, furthered Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s status as Hollywood’s boy wonder with of a smile-inducing finale that hinted at a possible way forward for the saga while simultaneously bringing this particular iteration to a definitive end.

Time was less fluid in Wes Anderson’s brilliant Moonrise Kingdom and Andrew Dominik’s brutal, Brad Pitt-starring Killing Them Softly. Set in 1965 and culminating in an actual tempest, the former looked like a faded Polaroid – appropriate, really, given that Anderson’s melancholic tale was a snapshot of adolescence that tried to preserve the purity of first love before adulthood had a chance to destroy it. Killing Them Softly, on the other hand, used the 2008 US presidential election campaign and onset of the financial crisis as the backdrop for an allegorical tale of self-interested gangsters suddenly feeling the pinch as faceless higher-ups ruthlessly tried to restore order to their hitherto unregulated existence. With America currently heading towards the fiscal cliff, its arrival couldn’t have been more timely.

Nor could Ben Affleck’s Iranian hostage drama Argo, which literally made the past its prologue by beginning with a concise history of the West’s tempestuous relationship with Iran before going on to explore one of the more bizarre foreign policy operations of the 20th century: the Hollywood-aided CIA rescue of six foreign service workers from Tehran. The end result was a rare example of a serious movie that was fun and a fun movie that was serious. There was even a playful use of time travel courtesy of Planet of the Apes’ Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers becoming a prominent part of the true story.

If Argo got everything right in dealing with recent political history, The Iron Lady got everything wrong. The worst film of the year, Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic of Margaret Thatcher managed to turn one of the most politically important, divisive and controversial figures of the 20th century into a grotesque, puffed-up star-vehicle for Meryl Streep. The decision to frame the flashbacking story with multiple scenes of the former prime minister wandering around her town house, lost in a King Lear-like storm of senility, resulted in any meaningful exploration of her contentious political life being replaced by a series of depressingly half-baked psychoanalytical clichés, mostly homing in on her failings as a mother. It was simplistic, reactionary nonsense.

Progressive films featuring complex women did exist, however. Diablo Cody’s black-hearted, nostalgia-skewering Young Adult, the Zoe Kazan-scripted meta-romance Ruby Sparks and David O Russell’s subversive romcom Silver Linings Playbook overturned historically problematic, stereotypical treatments of gender by creating unusual and fully fledged characters that provided their respective leads – Charlize Theron, Kazan herself and Jennifer Lawrence – with the sort of rich dramatic material that’s still in frustratingly short supply. Lawrence also proved her box-office worth headlining the The Hunger Games and her warrior template as the film’s self-reliant heroine Katniss Everdeen was matched by the Kelly MacDonald-voiced Merida in Pixar’s endearingly muddled Highland adventure Brave. Between them, both films grossed over $1 billion at the global box-office, disproving the theory that there’s no audience for fantasy films with female leads. In the world of comic-book movies, Lena Headey also set some kind of precedent in Dredd. Her unhinged, vanity free, sadistic turn as Ma-Ma – peddler of a powerful hallucinogen that appears to its users to slow down time – made her one of the genres few great villainesses.

It was hard not to feel a little sorry for Dredd, though, after its plot unintentionally mirrored that of The Raid. Next to Welsh director Gareth Evans’ low-budget, Indonesian-produced fight flick, however, almost every film in 2012 looked a little puny. True, The Raid was little more than an inventively made, intensely realised, kill-crazy martial arts movie, but its gonzo energy was a reminder of the primal power that cinema has historically managed to tap into since its inception.

Speaking of which, in a year in which The Artist swept the Oscars and Berberian Sound Studio revealed the magic of movies to be a black art, Leos Carax’s wilfully weird Holy Motors triumphed as the film that truly captured the endless possibilities and wonders that filmmaking has to offer.

Lead actor Denis Lavant’s dazzling portrayal of 11 unrelated characters was strangely reflective of the personas everyone adopts on a daily basis, but Carax’s explicit reference points helped transform the film into a heady celebration of its own beautiful strangeness by drawing on the history of cinema and pointing towards its continued ability to surprise and enthrall. What’s past was indeed prologue.