All hail 'The Master', 3-D and nostalgia trips
Our reviewers James Mottram, Yvonne Teh and Paul Fonoroff pick the highlights and talking points of the cinematic year
You can almost hear the pop of champagne corks. This was a banner year for Hollywood, with the US box office heading towards a record-breaking US$10.8 billion haul. And it's thanks, largely, to the superhero.
This western cinema year has proved to be as marvellously and profitably elastic as spandex, led by a reboot (The Amazing Spider-Man), a trilogy concluder (The Dark Knight Rises) and, top of the pile, Joss Whedon's The Avengers, assembling Marvel's numerous heroes into one super movie.
Thankfully, 2012 wasn't all comic-clad. In Europe, Michael Haneke confirmed his pre-eminent status when Amour - a searing study of old age and illness - won him Cannes' Palme d'Or, the second of his career. However, my favourite non-English language movie this year is Miguel Gomes' Tabu. A daring, dotty, two-part love story, set in modern-day Lisbon and mid-century Mozambique, it blends gambling, voodoo, sad crocodiles and a Portuguese version of Be My Baby into a breathtaking black-and-white poem to the past.
In Britain, the year was all about James Bond. The 50th anniversary since 007 first appeared on screens in Dr No was celebrated in style - with exhibitions, documentaries and, of course, Skyfall. Sam Mendes' splendid work both embraces the spy franchise's distinguished heritage and looks to the future - and has become the biggest film of all time at the British box office, eclipsing Avatar (£94.03 million). At the time of writing, Skyfall looks set to become the first film to break the £100 million barrier in Britain.
For me, however, the best British film of the year is not Bond, but Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio. Following on from his critically acclaimed Katalin Varga (2009), this tale of a mild-mannered sound engineer (Toby Jones) who travels to Italy in the late 1970s to work on a low-grade horror movie confirms Strickland as a genuine talent. More surreal than scary, it pays tribute to the dying art of analogue sound recording in an era where digital has taken precedence.
My film of the year, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, also feels like a last hurrah. Shot in 65mm, Anderson's wilful perversity in using a format last deployed by Kenneth Branagh on his 1996 Hamlet is just one of its myriad joys. Inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, this tale of two men in post-war America - spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wayward disciple, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) - saw Anderson working at a level no other director came close to this year.
There are other strong contenders from the US - many of Anderson's peers have also produced fine works, including David O. Russell (with mental health rom-com Silver Linings Playbook), Alexander Payne (The Descendants) and Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom). But The Master stretches far beyond the reach of any of these, not least because with the return of Phoenix, who hasn't made a movie since 2008's Two Lovers, it contains one of the most magnetic turns this year: watching him on screen is like observing a caged animal at times.
The Master opens in Hong Kong in February: be prepared.
The people have spoken - and 3-D is king. At least that's the impression gleaned from the box-office takings in Hong Kong for 2012: seven of the 10 top-grossing movies, including box office champ The Avengers, were 3-D productions.
But not all filmmakers and film fans are 100 per cent sold on this format, and The Dark Knight Rises director Christopher Nolan is among them. "3-D has always been an interesting technical format, a way of showing something to the audience. But you have to look at the story you're telling [and ask] is it right [for it]", he said about why he chose not to work in that format.
The makers of the sole local representative among the top five earners at the Hong Kong box office, Cold War, also eschewed 3-D. Instead of special effects, the police drama-actioner relies on good old-fashioned star power, led by Tony Leung Ka-fai and Aaron Kwok Fu-shing, and featuring cameos by the likes of Andy Lau Tak-wah.
Canto-pop singer-actor Lau also starred in the big winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards in April. Ann Hui On-wah's A Simple Life continued the trophy sweep that had begun in September 2011 with Deanie Ip Tak-han being honoured as best actress at the Venice Film Festival. The touching drama about the lifelong relationship between a film producer and the woman who had cared for several generations of his family also performed well at the local box office, coming away with total takings of HK$27.87 million. It is one of my favourite films of 2012.
In a year where Hollywood dominated the box office in Hong Kong as well as at home, it's noteworthy that a film with Frenchmen at the helm (Michel Hazanavicius) and in the lead role (Jean Dujardin) triumphed at the 2012 Academy Awards. Still, the largely dialogue-free black-and-white The Artist is not my film of the year; instead, my vote goes to the Iranian work that took the Oscar for best foreign-language film. Asghar Farhadi's A Separation is a drama about an estranged couple that derives its power from bravura storytelling and strong performances from Payman Maadi and Leila Hatami.
Farhadi is masterful in his use of the reactions of onlookers as well as interactions between the main characters to illustrate that people can mean well and have valid points of view, yet still end up on different sides of a conflict.
In a city often accused of over-focusing on money-making, it's a pleasure to point out that art house and repertory fare are regularly on offer at venues such as the Hong Kong Film Archive. Although its name may make people think it screens only local films, it was a 1957 Hollywood film that wowed me the most at the Sai Wan Ho facility this year. One of a number of "Restored Treasures" screening in 2012, Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd is a powerful, prophetic satire-drama about the media and manipulation. Foretelling not only sections of Network (1976) but also real-life political ideas and machinations, it features a breakout performance by Andy Griffith (1926-2012), one of several entertainment personalities whose talents have, thankfully, been immortalised on celluloid.
This year has offered so many opportunities to take walks down the cinematic memory lane and also enjoy some second sights along the way. A case in point: my favourite "new" release of the year, A Simple Life, which went on general release in Hong Kong on March 9 but had its world premiere on September 5, 2011, at the Venice Film Festival.
Refreshingly "simple" in its very human subject matter and equally empathetic approach devoid of cinematic pyrotechnics, the relationship between elderly servant Tao Jie and her no-longer-young ward Roger resonated not only with Hong Kong audiences but viewers around the world.
That director Ann Hui has accomplished this without sacrificing the specifically Hong Kong nature of the tale is laudable in an era in which scenarios are becoming increasingly pan-Chinese in order to tap into the enormous economic clout of the vast mainland audience.
On a purely personal level, the subject matter had an appeal beyond what transpired on screen. As a newcomer to Hong Kong 30 years ago, I was a houseguest of the real-life Roger and Tao Jie in the very flat where part of A Simple Life was shot. The film therefore presented me with a viewing - and reviewing - challenge unlike that of any previous celluloid encounter, a not-always-successful exercise in suspending disbelief to the extent of accepting the filmmakers' creative licence and the protagonists' impersonations by stars Andy Lau and Deanie Yip.
On a less positive note, my least favourite release of the year took real-life events and transformed them into an overblown celluloid epic all but devoid of genuine sentiment. In many ways the opposite of A Simple Life, mainland director Zhang Yimou's version of the 1937 Rape of Nanking, The Flowers of War, is as technically spectacular as it is lacking in heart and nuance. The trap of attempting entry into the overseas marketplace is exemplified by the casting of Hollywood star Christian Bale in a superfluous role so self-indulgently acted and seemingly ad-libbed that it's as if Zhang abdicated all responsibility once the Oscar winner sauntered onto the set.
The Flowers of War is probably the director's worst film since Operation Cougar in 1989 - without even the cheesiness that made that one something of a guilty pleasure.
Archival offerings round up this year's highlights for me. A few weeks ago, I reviewed, again, Raining in the Mountain - a film I had first watched in 1979 during its first run at the State Theatre in North Point; it was being screened as part of the ongoing "Zen and Sense in King Hu's Films" programme at the HK Film Archive. Although I thought highly of King Hu's Ming dynasty masterpiece back then, seeing it again in 2012 was a revelation.
My best "re-discovery" of 2012, Raining is, to me, the purest expression of Hu's artistic vision, a subtly trend-bucking wuxia picture that couldn't be further removed from that era's mainstream genre works. Even after the passage of 33 years, it is startlingly modern in outlook and execution, without compromise to prevailing fads or cultural homogenisation.
Earlier in the year, the Film Archive was the venue for a most instructive double-feature comprising the pairing of Ernst Lubitsch's early talkie masterpiece, The Love Parade (1929), with its 1957 Hong Kong remake, My Kingdom for a Husband. Although they shared the same basic plot, the latter wisely made no attempt to duplicate Lubitsch's sophisticated touch.
Rather, director Tso Kea transformed the palatial romance into an idiosyncratic Cantonese musical, the quirky combination of European decor and couture with Chinese operatic warbling making a delightful showcase for four of the greatest stars to ever grace the Hong Kong screen. My choice for most fun revival of 2012, My Kingdom is a vibrant reminder of a time when Hong Kong cinema held sway from Taiwan to Southeast Asia without the need for diluting the factors that made it special.
Our critics select their favourite films of 2012
The Master (US) - directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Tabu (Portugal-Germany-Brazil-France) - Miguel Gomes; starring Teresa Madruga
Berberian Sound Studio (Britain) - Peter Strickland; starring Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou
A Separation (Iran) - Asghar Farhadi; starring Payman Maadi, Leila Hatami
A Simple Life (Hong Kong) - Ann Hui On-wah; starring Andy Lau Tak-wah, Deanie Ip Tak-han
A Face in the Crowd (US) - Elia Kazan, starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal
A Simple Life (Hong Kong) - Ann Hui On-wah; starring Andy Lau, Deanie Ip
Raining in the Mountain (Hong Kong) - King Hu; starring Hsu Feng, Sun Yueh
My Kingdom for a Husband (Hong Kong) - Tso Kea; Cheung Ying, Law Yim-hing
Top films at Hong Kong's box office
HONG KONG FILMS
1. Cold War - HK$42,216,943*
2. Vulgaria - HK$30,069,986
3. Love in the Buff - HK$27,974,902
4. A Simple Life - HK$27,873,690
5. The Viral Factor - HK$22,212,450
6. Due West: Our Sex Journey - HK$19,176,717*
7. I Love Hong Kong 2012 - HK$19,127,350
8. Nightfall - HK$17,729,513
9. Motorway - HK$14,766,493
10. All's Well End's Well - HK$12,105,232
1. The Avengers - HK$96,705,670
2. The Dark Knight Rises - HK$80,269,966
3. The Amazing Spider-Man - HK$61,983,852
4. Men in Black 3 - HK$44,752,201
5. Ice Age 4: Continental Drift - HK$38,236,658
6. Skyfall - HK$37,374,277*
7. Life of Pi - HK$36,842,248*
8. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island - HK$35,217,217
9. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted - HK$32,191,416
10. Ted - HK$29,475,921
Figures from the HK Motion Picture Industry Association, including Dec 13; excludes numbers for films released on Dec 20 and later