In a year where the biggest blockbusters account for both the best (“Skyfall, “Hunger Games”) and worst (“Cloud Atlas”) films of the year, here is my list of the best film of 2012, in which arthouse movies held their own against box office hits.
1. “Oslo, August 31st”
Joachim Trier’s masterful “Oslo August 31st” is a melancholic ode to the city of Oslo, chronicling one day in the life of recovering drug addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) on his visit back to the city for a job interview. We watch him visit his old haunts and friends, wondering whether he’ll pull together the strength to keep going or decide to end his life. His former friends have become old acquaintances, a symptom of entering their thirties and not just his self-destructive behaviour, yet they converse with a compelling and realistic frankness. Trier’s camera follows Anders in long takes as he roams the city and slowly slips into old habits, places that were once home and now alien, and with Lie giving a stellar performance as a smart but damaged man in an existential crisis.
2. “The Hunger Games”
In “the Hunger Games”, Jennifer Lawrence gives the best performance of her career as Katniss Everdeen, the plucky, flawed, yet strong girl from District 12 who volunteers to take her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, a televised battle to the death. Although it’s a good dystopian tale, its real strength is its complex characters with adult emotions who don’t fit into conventional archetypes. Katniss is more than just a tomboy who can shoot arrows – her compassion is her superpower – and she is surrounded by men who rely on her without sacrificing their masculinity. There’s also a powerful story here about the nature of surveillance and performance, where Katniss and Peeta use their romance to work the system and play the game: it’s both an actively performed falling in love while they are also actually probably falling in real love.
With “Skyfall”, Sam Mendes has reinvented the Bond picture, and indeed the action movie, proving it can be phenomenally shot (thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins), a compelling character study, with a villain for the ages, and a serious forum of discussion for contemporary issues. Bond’s mortality is a constant source of suspense as he deals with whether or not he and MI6 are ready for the modern world and Javier Bardem’s Silva is the best Bond villain to date, deliciously evil and driven by a more realistic personal vendetta rather than world domination. But it is still every bit a Bond picture, a celebration of all things British, including the title song by Adele, with gadgets, explosions, and chase sequences, while keeping everything character-driven. In a year of excellent genre films, from “Premium Rush” to “Haywire”, Sam Mendes’s “Skyfall” was the best and most cinematic of the lot, sure to stand the test of time.
4. “Life of Pi”
“Life of Pi” joins the ranks of “Hugo” and “Pina” as a film that uses 3D well to show the vastness of the ocean and to strengthen the visual spectacle and heightened reality where everything, from the ocean life to the night sky, is teaming with life. Pi, shipwrecked on his way to Canada, finds himself in a lifeboat with just a few supplies and a tiger named Richard Parker – a constant menace – to help him survive. Considering the film takes place almost entirely on this life boat, it’s amazingly suspenseful and touching, and the larger point it makes about what religion means to Pi is a clever one, making the seemingly spiritual journey understandable to even the staunchest atheists in the audience.
5. “What Richard Did”
Richard Karlsen (Jack Raynor) is a very handsome, charismatic high school rugby player, ready to graduate and go pro when one evening’s events may become his undoing. As the title suggests “What Richard Did” is a film about the horrible thing that Richard did and how he must deal with the atrocity he has committed – its full effects were accidental but certainly Richard is still to blame on many levels. Lenny Abramson’s film is a methodical character study where we meet Richard as a new acquaintance and then watch his layers unpeel as his insecurities and self-absorption reveal themselves. Although this wonderful Irish film hasn’t achieved a release outside the festival circuit and its homeland, it is one of the very best films of the year, and sure to find its way onto Netflix where it will get the audience it deserves.
An edited version of this article will be published in the Stanford Daily