Some films that I was really looking forward to that were solid but just missed the cut included Kim So-young's For Ellen, Chung Ji-young's National Security and Pen-ek's Headshot. I also saw a good number of excellent docos (as you can see by the top 10), some of my favs included Planet of Snail, The Reason Why I Step, Arirang and Buck. A few surprises that impressed me were Kim Ki-duk's Amen, the Canadian comedy Starbuck, the Korean indie hit Dangerously Excited, the Andy Lau starring A Simple Life and the quasi-doco The Imposter. My guilty pleasure of the year has to go to Spy Kids 4.
My favourite performances of the year have to go to Choi Min-sik in Nameless Gangster. Yoo Jun-sang in In Another Country and Ryoo Seung-ryong in All About My Wife, while I developed big crushes on Choi Yoon-yeong (As One), Kim Byul (Dangerously Excited) and Kang Soo-yeon (Hanji).
My biggest disappointment of the year has to go to The Thieves, not because of the hype but because I thought all the amazing cast were completely wasted. I also thought Yoo Ji-tae's foray into directing was an absolute disaster with the horrible Mai Ratima, a huge disappointment as I love any film about Korea-Thai relations. Maybe I just couldn't get over the fact he cast a Korean as the Thai immigrant. Other honorable mentions for being terrible films include Perfect Number, Miss Conspirator and Prometheus (may as well chuck it in too).
Read on below for mini reviews of my top 10. Agree, Disagree, comment below.
My Top 10 Films for 2012
10. "Searching for Sugarman", UK
Just scraping in at number 10 is this enchanting doco. Brought to life something to me that I knew nothing about. Kind of dropped off half way through and never let the music really stand for itself, but overall still very memorable and made me want to pick up the Rodriguez vinyl. (Of which I would have no way of even playing, but still made me want to buy it). The less you know about the film before you see it, the better.
9. "Leafie: A Hen into the Wild", Korea
The only animation in the list. A very impressive adaptation of the popular Korean children's book, with great visuals, solid voice acting and all round storytelling. A nice entry from director Oh Seung-yun which did well at KOFFIA, both for young and old. Some people brush off Korean animation when compared to the likes of Japan, but this is a point to look forward to a good future.
8. "Stateless Things", Korea
The first half of Kim Kyung-mook's great film is almost on par with The Journals of Musan, much of which it very closely resembles. It takes a bit of a twist in the 2nd half which isn't quite as effective, but there is some superb cinematography featured (even reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard) and I can't wait to see what Kim does next.
7. "Jiseul", Korea
I'll admit I took a little while to get into the film, as it is a little too fade-in fade-out for the first half hour. But after that I became completely riveted and the next hour was probably my favourite hour of Korean cinema I saw all year. The director manages to create a heavy sense of foreboding, you can just feel the tension on screen which is greatly complemented by the black and white cinematography. A riveting film. Jiseul will soon play at Sundance and I wish it all the best.
6. "Two Doors", Korea
A simple film in many ways that presents facts in a step by step basis. Footage of the raid, crossed with readings from the court, and excerpts from the public and the press. What the filmmakers manage to do is use this element to build and build to a point that will completely entrance you. An important film in many ways, and the quality of the filmmaking matched this importance.
5. "Pluto", Korea
Again, a film that didn't compel for its entire runtime, but the first hour was impressive filmmaking. I was a big fan of Shin Su-won's short Circle Line and she has continued on that storytelling talent in Pluto. A very intricate film, with a powerful story told through editing. Had me smiling constantly at the creative little elements that kept popping up. Unfortunately it does become quite simple and convoluted by the end, however I enjoyed my time with it. Nice performance by Poetry's David Lee who after also featuring in The Frontline, War of the Arrows and Romance Joe, is one of the up and coming stars of the industry.
4. "Under African Skies", USA
Looking at films no. 4, 2 and 1 on my list, I clearly have some sort of fetish for courageous white men helping out black people. But ignoring that, this is probably the feel good doco of the year. This is a film I have already watched twice over, something you cant say for a lot of docos. The characters it features, the powerful music, the entwined issues of Apartheid and the cultural boycott, makes for intriguing viewing. Overall I was opened to a new genre of music, something I had sampled elements of but not in full and now am keen to explore more. It reminded me of my time in Africa, and had me going along with all the 60 year old Paul Simon fans that watched in at Sydney Film Festival, but I didn't care as I thoroughly enjoyed what I was seeing.
3. "Barbie", Korea
One of my biggest pet peeves with Korean cinema is its poor casting of English speakers. Basically they do it cheap and easy by using any English speaker that they can find, which often includes random foreigners who are in Korea teaching English, and not necessarily actors. This has improved slightly by expanding to include people that are still not actors but at least have a relation to Korean cinema. Examples have included film critics and lecturers ranging from Darcy Paquet to Nigel D'Sa, and now that list includes Barbie's Earl Jackson. While I truly admire these people and acknowledge their contribution to Korean cinema's exposure in the West, I hope they decide to stay off the screen for future projects. If you can get past the English language performances in this, just like the opening English segments of J.S.A. Joint Security Area, you are in for a terrific film.
Lee Sang-woo manages to craft together a little film that punches well beyond it's weight, even getting great performances out of Kim Sae-ron, and her younger sister Kim Ah-ron, who manages to upstage her older sister. This is an independent filmmaker pushing the boundaries of the medium with a minuscule budget (which explains the casting), and I was massively impressed. If you can find it, give it a shot. Has some elements of Kim Ki-duk to it, but with Lee's own style. Highly Recommended.
2. "The Intouchables", France
I had heard a little bit about the film when I decided to watch it on my plane flight home from Seoul to Sydney. I had just come off a somewhat disappointing line-up at the Busan Film Festival, but that bad taste in my mouth was soon washed out with the pure joy of The Intouchables. It's not in the league of my favourite French film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but deserves the credit it has received in its own right. Great performances propels what could have been another rich white guy saves the bad black man story, instead it became a hit all around the world capturing the hearts of many. For what it's worth, its in my Top 5 Films I've Watched on a Plane.
1. "Undefeated", USA
Maybe a surprise pic, but was easily the film that most moved me all year. An inspiring story whether you like American Football or not, or even if you aren't a sports fan. Memories of Friday Night Lights came to mind, which while not the greatest show of all time, always seemed to get to my emotions. Undefeated is the same, its a remarkable story with bold characters, something you simply could not write (unless of course you are David Simon). Even the trailer below is good enough to watch over an over. Funny, moving, inspiring, remarkable, unbelievable and yet totally relatable. Undefeated is my favourite film of the year, and you should get out and watch it if you are yet to see it.
Well there you have it, my top 10 for 2012. 6 Korean films, 2 US, 1 UK and 1 French, which makes perfect sense given Korean cinema made up 65% of all the films I watched this year. 4 documentaries made the list which seems to be the genre of cinema that I most relate to these days for one reason or another. Feel free to give your list or any feedback on the above, and if you missed them here is my top 10 for 2010 and 2011.