A side effect of knowing so many film critics is that your December is inevitably filled with talk of Top Ten lists. I’ve never felt comfortable ranking art; I even hate having to score movies out of five. (Blame how terrible I was at sport when I was young. Second place is just the first loser, kids!) Stacking films against each other always makes me feel a little like I’m rating the hotness of my ex-girlfriends or something equally as creepy.
That said, reading everyone else’s Best Ofs is a great way to discover films I missed, and some were nice enough to pester me about what I enjoyed in 2012 for that same reason.
Here’s the thing, though: those who know me in what we laughingly refer to as ‘real life’ might be aware I’ve had a tough year. I wrote about what it’s meant for how I’ve absorbed art lately over at Bookslut. It means I’ve missed a lot of movies – including some that I actually saw, beginning to end. I was somewhere else.
I more easily enjoyed films that were silly, like Whit Stillman’s surprise tonal sequel to Clueless, Damsels in Distress. Or cerebral, like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s character-before-crime piece Elena. Or bombastic enough to thunder through the noise in my head: the operatic Margaret, the IMAXed and Inception-horned Dark Knight Rises, the first and last scenes of Killing Them Softly. What was between those scenes in Softly was pretty great, too.
Depression made me impervious to some films aiming for grand emotion, most notably Beasts of the Southern Wild. I appreciated its aesthetic, but anything more bounced off me and ricocheted into the dark. There were other much-loved films I found entertaining enough – Argo, The Avengers, Holy Motors – but any impression they made faded soon after. I’d need to see them a second time to know if they’re to blame for that, or if I am.
Exceptions to the above: Andrew Haigh’s lo-fi romantic drama Weekend. I interviewed him about it here. It broke my heart so gradually I almost didn’t notice it’d stopped beating. The documentary Searching for Sugar Man broke my heart early and just kept on grinding it to pieces until the credits rolled. Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights had the kind of deft, deep poetic imagery most films can only dream of. And Hugo – Scorsese’s lecture on early cinema Trojan Horsed into a kid’s fantasy – hurt me with its plea that “time hasn’t been kind to old movies”.
2012 was also, unexpectedly, the Year I Got To Hang Out With Paul Thomas Anderson For A Whole Evening. Hosting a daunting Q&A with Anderson for Melbourne’s Astor Theatre meant I was predisposed to love The Master – but was enthralled by it, anyway. It’s the single most romantic film of the year, and whatever oblique moments or meanings it contains paled against that romance for me. Offstage, I told Anderson I was surprised to see so many talking about how “difficult” The Master was. He responded, incredulous: “I know, right?”
Mostly, last year, I remembered the solace of genre; the joy of conventions as satisfying when followed as when broken. I loved Josh Trank’s Chronicle, and thought it tapped into the dark logic of superhero stories better than its blockbuster equivalents. Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai was an incredibly effective slow-burn tragedy, with one reveal that made me gasp out loud like I was guest starring in a panto.
As Rian Johnson’s Looper unspooled on the screen, it was the most unthinkingly what-will-happen-next-? I was in any film in 2012. (Once I got used to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeup, anyway.) The way Looper combined so many strands of sci-fi into something so satisfying reminded me of The Matrix, all those years ago, and seeing it a second time better opened up its melancholic core.
And how do I explain my love of poor, poor John Carter? So many people I know, with opinions I respect, could barely even make it through Andrew Stanton’s labour of love. Is it my fondness of old-fashioned pulp that let me find so much magic here where others found none? My post-Friday Night Lights crush on Taylor Kitsch? The fact it arrived already labelled as the year’s biggest fiasco? With each gleefully terrible review, I admit I found myself wanting to like it more.
Did I Tinkerbell-clap it to life? I don’t think so.
I’m wary of criticism that’s about the author first and the art a distant second, and I know the above might read that way. What 2012 taught me, however, is that while cinema opens us up to new worlds we only ever watch it with our own eyes.