2012 felt like a spotty year, during which we were left watching the further decline of a once-mighty manufacturing empire. As Disney’s wretchedly cluttered space epic John Carter crashed and burned, the Hollywood studios looked to have forgotten how to make the sure things that were once its bread-and-butter. Worse, they seemed to have forgotten how to market them: Ridley Scott’s quiet, eerie, design-rich Prometheus turned out to be more art installation than the commercial horror it was so aggressively sold as, dismaying fanboys everywhere. One sensed the mainstream struggling to manage our expectations, let alone surpass them.
The default position for 2012’s bigger releases was either nostalgia (in various shades, from Spielberg’s muted War Horse to Tim Burton’s larky Dark Shadows) or novelty (found-footage, 3D, hi-definition 48 frames-per-second). When the 70mm format was revived, for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, it helped that the film was big and mysterious enough not to need the gimmickry. There were teen-oriented hits, as ever: Avengers Assemble, Ted, The Hunger Games. Yet some old reliables (Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboots, the Twilight saga) came to an end, and the muted response to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit only left one wondering: where now?
Such a question was likely posed closer to home once Harry Potter was finally put to bed late in 2011. Yet the British industry appeared in renewed good health – a diagnosis confirmed when Skyfall overhauled Avatar in mere weeks to become the biggest ever film at the UK box office. Having Daniel Craig appear during the London 2012 opening ceremony was felicitous PR, though the Olympian spirit also empowered Julien Temple’s superbly energetic collage London: The Modern Babylon, and three films emerging from the East End: Dexter Fletcher’s overlooked Wild Bill, Sally El Hosaini’s accomplished debut My Brother the Devil and the cheeky Cockneys vs. Zombies, which sent the undead shuffling after Richard Briers.
Further afield, there were masters at work. From Turkey, there came Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s searching police procedural; from South Africa, the arresting Beauty, a queer Vertigo; from Russia, Aleksandr Sokurov’s one-of-a-kind Faust. The Hungarian great Béla Tarr bowed out with The Turin Horse, an apocalypse in slow-motion; by contrast, the insanely kinetic The Raid had the year’s best backstory, having been shot in Indonesia by a Welshman. It was a quiet year for French cinema, the much-lauded Amour and Holy Motors striking me as respectively bullying and baffling; I preferred Polisse, a messily compelling and pertinent portrait of Paris’s child protection unit, and Robert Guediguian’s compassionate, Loach-like dockside drama The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
The year’s real highlights, though, came in non-fiction. This was the best year for documentary in living memory: as the mainstream lurched towards the fantastical, these films formed a vital countermovement nudging us back in the direction of reality. Sometimes the appeal was narrative verve (Bart Layton’s The Imposter, better told than 99% of this year’s studio output), sometimes it was pure spectacle (Wagner’s Dream, illustrating Robert Lepage’s attempts to stage the Ring cycle at New York’s Metropolitan Opera). Occasionally it was downright nosiness, as with Lauren Greenfield’s standout The Queen of Versailles, which aped reality-TV in its study of America’s 1% – until the recession bit, and it became a very different story.
So strong was the documentary field that one could pick double-bills of favourites, like the summer hit Searching for Sugar Man [above] and its shadow-movie, Paul Kelly’s Lawrence of Belgravia, collectively cocking a snook at the Cowellverse in canonising music’s continued, confounding ability to evade those structures the record industry would place around it. Elsewhere, a pair of hugely moving artworld profiles – Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – showcased invention, courage and craft enough to power a thousand movies. This, at last, was the kind of heroism one longed to see more of in mainstream cinema. And it was real.