This year more than ever, I’m glad I’m not a movie critic. Don’t get me wrong, I love what they do, I care deeply for the craft of criticism, and the thought of getting paid to write about something that is my favorite leisure activity does not actively repulse me. However, my previously confessed deep-seated admiration for the leading lights of that profession is rooted in them doing something I cannot imagine finding that much pleasure in: Not simply watching an unhealthy amount of current cinema, and thus becoming a slave to the weekly release schedule – I tend to see lots and lots of these movies anyway (160+ this year), mostly for my own relative pleasure, but also, at least nominally, to prepare for making year-end lists like this one – but because they have to write about them afterward. This year in cinema brought a mind-numbing amount of execrable “efforts” (hey there, The Raven, Project X, Dark Shadows, What To Expect When You’re Expecting, Total Recall, John Carter, Battleship, Rock of Ages, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, etc, etc.), but because I am my own unpaid master, I grant myself the privilege of collectively dismissing them in a paranthesis and move on.
And however much such lazy failures may cloud my outlook on bad days and sap my cinematic curiosity of that essential if often naive belief that the very next movie to flicker before my eyes will turn out to be an unexpected pleasure, or at least beat the negative buzz by not being a complete waste of time, it has, by and large, been another relatively good year for movies. You will find a short write-up of my ten year-end favorites below, but if you want to get a more complete picture, you can find the entire list of on my MUBI profile. I have always considered myself quite hard to please cinematically, but when I took stock of the year in movies yesterday, I had to conclude that about two-thirds of the eligible movies I saw this year were at least not inexusable. The top twenty-five or so were indeed very good, and the next twenty five had many good qualities as well. From there, we slowly drift into the middling, only to end up with about fifty movies that, broadly speaking, I would not wish on my worst enemy.
As usual, I owe it to readers to caution that there are a very vast amount of potentially great movies I have not gotten around to see yet, either because they have yet to premiere in Norway (this means that late American 2012 releases like The Master, Les Miserables, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty are out of the running). or because they have somehow eluded me despite being available. My walk of shame this year includes such titles as Searching For Sugar Man, Caesar Must Die!, Argo, Skyfall, Monsieur Lazhar, Paradise: Love, End of Watch, Killing Them Softly, Barbara, ParaNorman, On Poppy Hill, and many, many more.
Following the same rules as every year, eligible movies include ones that have received either a theatrical or DVD release, first-run TV or festival screening in Norway between January 1 and December 31, 2012. Festival films whose 2013 releases are already announced, such as Leos Carax’ Holy Motors and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, are excluded. The rules mean that 2011 movies (or earlier) not released in Norway until this year, do qualify for inclusion. This mostly benefits last year’s Oscar contenders, loaded onto the Norwegian release schedule in the first quarter of the year.
While I know my lack of writerly discipline well enough to not promise anything, at the moment I am planning to supplement this post with one or two more, exploring my main theme of movie-watching this year (“the act of remembrance”) and hopefully, a post highlighting a handful of what I considered to be the most critically overrated releases of the year.
With those caveats and formalities out of the way, what follows are my ten favorite movies of 2012:
1. Polisse (Dir: Maiwenn)
A French drama about a group of investigators with the Child Protection Unit at a Paris police station, Maiwenn’s directorial debut was my biggest surprise of the year. This is the kind of movie I usually end up respecting more than love. And yet, despite the extreme emotional gut-punch, I wanted to rewatch it right away. Here’s what I wrote over at Franz’s: “Every frame of this movie vibrated with nuance in the search of these cops for a survival strategy in a world of indignity and evil. Seeing these characters desperately try to straddle the line between the cynicism necessary to do your job effectively and not get too emotionally attached to that never-ending stream of victims, and the glimmers of optimism necessary and prayer that in the end what you do can make a difference, so necessary to get up every morning and do it all over again… This movie pummeled me, from beginning to end, and I wanted to understand more. About the hopelessness, the grey areas, how absurd office politics gets out of hand when you can never turn yourself off.”
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Dir: Stephen Chbosky)
No movie moved me more this year than Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his modern classic YA novel. Proudly wearing its emotions on its sleeve, there is a refreshing lack of condescension or cynicism in the movie’s unashamed embrace of earnestness (“We accept the love we think we deserve”; “Do you think, if people knew how crazy you really were, no one would ever talk to you?”; “Let’s go be psychos together”; “Welcome to the island of misfit toys”), corresponding beautifully with my 2011 mantra of “chasing imperfections”. The all-too-often bland and miscast Logan Lerman finally shines as the insecure and darkly vulnerable freshman Charlie; Emma Watson is perfect as the girl who takes him under her wings; and Ezra Miller radiates with subversive charm as her flamboyant brother. Peppered with underrated laugh lines, Perks nonetheless is first and foremost an emotional experience, earning its eventual uplift from a painfully realized and relatable portrayal of personal struggle.
3. Take Shelter (Dir: Jeff Nichols)
An ambiguous and deeply unsettling drama about a family man (played by an absolutely exceptional Michael Shannon) who harbors apocalyptic visions pared with the knowledge of his family’s history of mental illness, Take Shelter really challenges its viewers to engage with the limits of rationality. I have always been fascinated by characters who fight bravely to protect their loved ones from harm, but the dilemma in this movie is that Curtis might in the end be a greater threat to their security than any perceived apocalypse. Shannon channels his character’s inner turmoil with bravery and nuance.
4. Moonrise Kingdom (Dir: Wes Anderson)
Continuing in the vein of Perks, I think this was the year when Wes Anderson transcended his manneristic impulses to finally be sincere again. While still recognizably Andersonian, in a good way, both visually and acting-wise, there is something about the Shakespeareian love story at Moonrise‘s heart that feels uncharacteristically heartfelt. Less aggressively quirky than organically funny, Anderson creates a set of supporting characters which bring out the best in Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Frances MacDormand and Bill Murray. I don’t think I have been this invested in an Anderson universe – granted I’ve mostly been on the outside looking in – since Rushmore.
5. The Hunger Games (Dir: Gary Ross)
Chasing imperfections again, and still surprised by how much I liked it, I rewatched The Hunger Games with a watchful eye to possible flaws; was the media satire of the Games spectacle too broad to have real bite? How about the acting, from Donald Sutherland’s demonic ruler, to Elizabeth Banks’ candy-colored scarecrow or Woody Harrelson’s intense ex-winner? If I was able to say yes to any of these questions, I would gladly have jumped at the chance to exacerbate its flaws, if only in order to avoid grappling with what made the experience of watching it so incredibly chilling and gripping.
As mentioned in the introduction, I hope to return to The Hunger Games and other films in a later post about “the act of remembrance”, so for now, let me say this: Critic Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune was right when he said on Filmspotting that “death matters in this film.” With its meticulous attention to detail and establishment of a distinctive place and time, The Hunger Games earned my emotional investment, and when I was told that the regime of the Capitol forced people to take part in a gladiatorial fight to the death in order to preserve its grip on power, I accepted it wholesale. Unlike the crater-sized cop-out that was this year’s final chapter of the Twilight saga, The Hunger Games convinced me, through showing real suffering and attention to psychological nuance, that actions have consequences, and not even our heroine gets through hell unscathed.
6. Hugo (Dir: Martin Scorsese)
Hugo is not a perfect movie, but it is perfectly suited to my preferences. With its spell-binding blend of Oliver Twist, A.I. and David Bordwell, master Marty has taken to his fiction what he has previously only done in documentaries about film history. I have confessed previously to be a sucker for movies that are able to convince me that obsessing over cinema is actually a worthwhile pursuit, and rarely, if ever, have I seen a better articulated argument for that position. With a beautifully romantic – if somewhat clumsily didactic – twist, Scorsese delivers an ode to wonder and escapism.
7. I Belong (Dir: Dag Johan Haugerud)
I don’t think I have ever recommended a Norwegian movie on this blog before, but I hereby proudly endorse the debut full-length feature of Norwegian author and screenwriter Dag Johan Haugerud. Having made a bunch of short films and one slightly longer one (the entertaining The Professor and the Origami Girl, 2005), here he is with a complex and well-observed comedy/drama. Avoiding the obvious temptation to smooth out the edges of his three stories of class, professionalism, human dignity and breakdowns in communication in order to make yet another hyperlinked movie, Haugerud instead raises questions and see what happens as they linger, uncomfortably. What seems like a small movie becomes almost existential, as Haugerud does to everyday adult life what Stephen Chbosky did to teenagehood.
8. Tomboy (Dir: Celine Sciamma)
French director Celine Sciamma’s movie about the androgynous Laure who presents herself to neighbors as Mickael, is a testament that you don’t need grand gestures to make riveting cinema. Curiosity and life experience is more than enough to infuse this tale of gender identity, self-identification and friendship with warmth and wisdom. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about it, apart from the excellent acting, is how it manages to level with its characters and avoid the trap of top-down, sociological “issue movie”-ness.
9. Play (Dir: Ruben Östlund)
The latest movie from Ruben Östlund, director of Involuntary and perhaps the greatest of an exciting generation of Swedish filmmakers which includes Fredrik Edfelt (The Girl), Jesper Ganslandt (Falkenberg, Farewell), Fredrik Wenzel (Burrowing) and Johan Kling (Darling), both is and isn’t Tomboy‘s complete opposite. With its uncompromising, observational camera lens, this fictional feature about the group dynamics of a gang of immigrants and a couple of Swedish boys, it leaves us without moral guidance, left to our own presuppositions and unconscious prejudices as we see a negotiation (of sorts) unfold. Unsettling for its passivity and moral ambiguity, much as Gus van Sant was condemned for (wrongly, in my opinion) when he made Elephant, Play marries the politically poignant with great artistic vision.
10. We Were Here (Dir: David Weissman, Bill Weber)
Earlier this month, I wrote: “We Were Here is an intimate movie about survivors telling the story of what happened when AIDS spread in San Francisco in the early 1980s. Mere years after thousands of queer people of all inclinations had migrated to this promised land of the American West Coast to trade in shame and self-doubt for the fruits of the recent sexual revolution, what came instead was an even graver threat. The personal testimonies of We Were Here describes in heartrending detail the horrifying fear and desperation in the disease’s wake. In the way that both of these movies, in their exasperated sighs of pain, historic and current; in their disclipined screams of mobilizing anger, nudge us toward tribute and remembrance; in how they let us share in hope and sadness, remorse and resilience; they instantly become important contributions to a deeper understanding of the gay rights movement in America.”