Parvathi Nayar takes a look at the films that worked big time with Chennai audiences this year

Year-endings aren’t complete without those mandatory resolutions that look ahead, and a few lists that look back. For those of us who are mad about movies, inevitably, one of those lists deals with outings to the cinema. What movies were so satisfying that even the popcorn was a mechanical hand-to-mouth extra?

But, a familiar gripe remains. That far too many interesting films failed to find commercial release here — right across the spectrum from Steven Soderbergh’s lustily entertaining Magic Mike to opaque arthouse favourite The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson, or much-praised documentary by Iranian Jafar Panahi, This is Not a Film.

Some of the year’s most talked-about films, however, did sneak their way in, thanks to the Chennai International Film Festival. Many hurrahs to the Festival for showing such fare as Beasts of the Southern Wild or Rust and Bone or Amour, which are unlikely to make it to town otherwise.

Unless of course some strong Oscar buzz surrounds them. Then, maybe. The famously inconsistent Golden Globe nominations have already offered nods to some of these films — as well as to others such as Lincoln, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Silver Linings Playbook.

As for the anticipated end-of-year releases: if The Hobbit has made its not-unexpected journey to Chennai, we might have to wait a bit longer to see if others such as Les Miserables, Promised Land, Midnight’s Children and Quartet will make late December entries, early 2013 arrivals or fall into the “No Show” category.

But enough cribbing, let’s hear it for 2012’s movies.

Argo

In a year of franchises, sequels and prequels, I found it quite special to experience a standalone film that combines nail-biting tension with humour and history. Argo is based on a story so improbable it has to be true: Six American diplomats hiding out at the Canadian ambassador’s residence during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis need to be rescued. The plan? To pretend they are film crew, scouting for locations for a Hollywood sci-fi extravaganza. Ben Affleck continues to impress, entertain and surprise us with his directorial dexterity.

The Hunger Games

Part One of Suzanne Collins’s hit trilogy is easily the best — and its translation into celluloid turned out to be very watchable, despite the rough edges of the book being watered down. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) proves that the female-driven story can hold its own at the box office (a point underlined by Brave and yes, even the Twilight Saga’s Breaking Dawn 2).

The Dark Knight Rises

Some comic book heroes delivered — The Avengers — others were a cynical stake-out on the box-office — Amazing Spider-Man. And then there was the genre- and mind-bending The Dark Knight Rises. It turned the superhero myth on its head by laying out the Caped Crusader’s physical and emotional vulnerabilities — but also delivered the “good triumphing over evil” satisfaction we crave. A fitting finale to Christopher Nolan’s dark trilogy, assisted by Hans Zimmerman’s atmospheric music and Wally Pfister’s moody camerawork.

Prometheus

It got a mixed reception but then so did Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner when first released. Perhaps Prometheus isn’t quite in the same league, still, I found it a marvellous celebration of good, old-fashioned sci-fi: a satisfying ride that takes you to strange lands with spectacular landscapes, in the company of the very brave and the very dubious, and unabashedly asks the big questions.

Life of Pi

For now, we moviegoers are stuck with the synthetic places that digital+CGI+3D takes us — not forgetting painful by-products such as nose- and headaches. But all that technology is harnessed to good use in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Tone poem or visually stunning film? Either way, I was willing to be carried away, for a while, by the gorgeous imagery: the numinous night sky, the creepily sentient island, the sparkling waves and Richard Parker, the Royal Bengal tiger.

Skyfall

Sam Mendez and Daniel Craig created a wonderful concoction to toast 50 years of Bond — smart action, an emotional core, a villainous twist and a generous splash of sex appeal. Whether it left you shaken with nostalgia about what a great ride it’s been, or stirred by the adventure, this is one brew that went down real smooth.

Cloud Atlas

The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer have created an unusual form of cinematic storytelling — where, for example, in the opening and closing of a door, the action moves from one set of characters to another group, in an entirely different time and era. What’s more, a handful of actors — including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving — wear startling makeup and prosthetics to play up to six different personas across the narrative. Pssst… Following six distinctive storylines that begin with an 1849 sea voyage and go all the way to a post-apocalyptic future, isn’t quite as tough as it sounds.

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s thoughtful and magical tale about childhood, growing up and all the calamitous events in-between — viewed through two 12-year-old protagonists (Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman).

The Hobbit

Peter Jackson’s prequel set in Middle-earth — 60 years before The Lord of the Rings — suffers from too much slavishness to the text as well as an overlong introduction about Dwarvish fighting and Dwarvish gluttony. Eventually, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) announces “I’m going on an adventure” and the movie takes off. And willy-nilly, I was drawn back into Tolkien’s world of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Gollum, beautiful elves and outrageously ugly trolls — here reimagined via some jaw-dropping visuals.

Looper

It’s been a good year for Joseph Gordon-Levitt; apart from Looper he’s been in The Dark Knight Rises, Premium Rush, Lincoln and Django Unchained. Looper is set in a dystopian future world — is there any other kind? — where Gordon-Levitt plays a younger version of Bruce Willis. Director Rian Johnson keeps the action going at such a fine clip that I was happy to overlook the loopiness of time travel, at least while in the theatre. Taut, cleverer-than-usual futuristic thriller.