My Favorite Movies of 2012: “I need my head examined/I need my eyes excited”

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 RavenProject XDark ShadowsWhat To Expect When You’re ExpectingTotal RecallJohn CarterBattleshipRock of AgesAbraham 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 MasterLes MiserablesLincolnSilver Linings PlaybookDjango 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 ManCaesar Must Die!ArgoSkyfallMonsieur LazharParadise: LoveEnd of WatchKilling Them SoftlyBarbaraParaNormanOn 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 TwistA.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.”

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2 Responses to My Favorite Movies of 2012: “I need my head examined/I need my eyes excited”

  1. Jørgen,

    You already know how much I look forward to this post every year. Yay!!

    Hahaha! Thanks… for the flood of (terrible) memories of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” If I made a “Worst of the Year” list for 2012, that movie would make it in for sure. Why was it even made? Out of the movies from your parenthesis, though, I have a… slight affection toward “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” But maybe it’s because it’s better than “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.” It’s embarrassing and flattering that the lead actor of the latter film actually read my review. I wanted to hide in a corner.

    “Polisse” surprised me because I expected it to be clinical storytelling-wise, perhaps following a similar structure of a really good episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Instead, it offers something better. I admired–but did not enjoy–the way it barrages us with one case after another, only a few of them being “solved.” I liked how the filmmakers decided not to spell everything out for us in both the professional and personal relationships of the people in it. I think what you’ve said about the cops is spot-on. I don’t think I have the spirit or emotional capacity to do what they do.

    I’m stoked you placed “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” so highly on your list. I haven’t posted mine yet but mine is somewhere up there as well. I guess I admire it most for two things: its optimism and its tendency to ring true without feeling forced. Teen movies about feeling like an outcast is a dime a dozen but Chbosky’s first feature is a shining exception. You’re absolutely right about Logan Lerman. It’s about time!!! But may I remind you that the sequel for “Percy Jackson” is coming out in 2013? Hahaha.

    I saw “Take Shelter” in 2011 and I remember being impressed (but scared) of Michael Shannon’s performance. The ending was so bizarre!

    Oh, man! You know my sentiment toward “Moonrise Kingdom.” You’ve read people’s reactions on my review. Some of my co-workers even expressed to me, in person, that they think I’m “fucking wrong,” that I’m being “too tough” on it. It was exciting and educational to hear how others absorbed the picture. Most likely, I will give it another chance somewhere along the line but for now I remain to stand in my lonely corner. =p

    I’m surprised you managed to add “The Hunger Games” to your list. It’s one of the three movies I really wish to put on my list but ultimately couldn’t due to space reasons. It’s one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experience I had this year because people were so into it. A few seats away from me, one of the ladies, middle-aged, actually cheered at the screen during the action sequences. I could tell some people around us were annoyed but I loved that she didn’t give a damn. lol. I think that’s what it should be about. If you’re freakin’ psyched, express it! In comedies, when something is funny, nobody gets upset if someone laughs.

    I wish saw “Hugo” the way it was intended to be seen. I wanted to but no one wished to see it with me. ;( I enjoyed it but I think that little extra might have pushed me to love it. I remember watching the opening shot and it literally made me say, “Whoa…” Matrix-style.

    I’ve heard of “Tomboy” and “We Were Here” but not “I Belong” and “Play.” I will make sure to check them out when I get the chance. :)

    Thank you for this post! I look forward to its supplements. The critically overrated releases interests me a lot. I would hope “Moonrise Kingdom” was on there but it’s already on this list.

    HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

  2. queerlefty says:

    Franz,

    thanks for your continued engagement with and interest in my writing and opinions. I really look forward to seeing your best-of-the-year list, too.

    About those worst films of the year: You can see from my MUBI list which ones I considered to be (even) worse than the others, but with films like these, their relative merits vis-a-vis one another don’t much matter. They’re all basically inexcusable. I’ve read some half-hearted defenses for “John Carter”, for example, arguing it got a bad rap for being such an epic box-office failure, but to my mind it was every bit as awful as its critics initially claimed. If forced to choose between the movies I listed here, though, I suppose I would say “The Raven” or “Abraham Lincoln” were marginally less atrocious than the others. Granted, I was barely even interested enough to pay attention to the former, and the latter was laughable in every respect, but when you’re scaping the bottom of the barrel, maybe such things can make a difference. As for “What to Expect”…ugh. I’m having a hard time deciding which part I hated most. Maybe how they dropped the ball on the Chace Crawford/Anna Kendrick storyline. If you intend to include something to add a little emotional heft, then at least have the courage to follow through. What a pathetic movie that was.

    For “disappointment”, it feels a little strange to say “Dark Shadows”, considering it did not have high hopes for it, but wow did it turn out to be tired and uninspired! Eva Green appeared to be in a completely different movie from all the others, Depp phoned in his performance, and the jokes played like they were lifted from a Maureen Down column in the New York Times.

    “Polisse” is the kind of movie which, even though I wanted to understand as much as possible about the psychological motivations of its characters, I am not sure if I really want to see it again, ever. I just know that it will stay with me for a long, long time, and it feels like it has, in some small way, affected how I view police work as a form of community service. Some of the scenes in that movie, I will never forget.

    I know a lot of people were frustrated with the ending of “Take Shelter” (much like many people had problems with the closing scene in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), but I liked how ambiguous it was. You wrote with eloquence and insight about how “Take Shelter” constantly altered our perceptions of the imagined and the “real” throughout the narrative, and that unpredictable element, combined with Shannon’s explosive performance, kept me at the edge of my seat. It was one of the most intellectually stimulating movie experiences I had all year.

    Ah yes, “Moonrise Kingdom”. I remember we disagreed about that one. I will reiterate that I totally get where your coming from in your lukewarm response. Unlike you, though, I found it to be a giant step in the right direction for Anderson. His movies have never aimed for “realism” in any traditional sense, and therefore I had no problem with the supporting characters being a little underdeveloped. In a simple line delivery or facial expression, I think Willis, MacDormand and Murray managed to communicate something important about the inner lives of their characters. Not least because of the supporting cast, I think “Moonrise” must be WA’s funniest movie since “Rushmore”. Thankfully, this time he didn’t start out with a series of quirky “types” (think “Royal Tenenbaums, or, to a slightly lesser extent, “The Life Aquatic”), nearly forcing us to laugh at their quirkiness. I think the humor developed more organically here, and not from a sense that he was looking down on his characters. I appreciated that.

    I’m not sure exactly what to add about the greatness of “Perks” without sounding like a complete idiot and/or a crazy person, but it spoke to me on a very personal level. It annoys me to no end that I am unable to be as honest in my embrace of its earnestness as the movie itself is, (I end up with somewhat defensive declarations like, “I didn’t think a movie could get away with lines like these…”) but for me, it’s all there in that soaring closing monologue. “You made me not feel not feel alone.”; “I know there are people who say these things don’t happen. There are people who forget what it’s like to be 16 when they turn 17.” Maybe it’s clunky, or obvious, I don’t know, but those lines really moved me. That’s what I meant when I said that it lacked condescension or cynicism. I _want_ movies to take people’s problems seriously, even young people, and even though in the long run, they don’t necessarily seem so big. That’s what life is about. Learning from mistakes, yes. Moving on. Remembrance. But also, respecting your feelings and acknowledging that if things are hard right now, maybe that’s a legitimate feeling, as well. I’m rambling, I know. But I just love this movie so much.

    I’ll probably touch upon your Hunger Games point later, if I end up writing that piece about the remembrance theme.

    Again, thanks for your continued interest and encouragement.

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