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The Criticwire Survey: The Best Film Criticism of 2012

The Criticwire Survey: The Best Film Criticism of 2012

Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of the post. But first, this week’s question:

Q: What was the best piece of film criticism you read in 2012?

The critics’ answers:

Ali ArikanDipnot TV:

Glenn Kenny’s review of ‘Cosmopolis’ was a gem. I also enjoyed Bilge Ebiri’s review of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ even though I disagreed with his conclusions. Finally, Sheila O’Malley recently published a piece on ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’ that is just lovely.”

Edwin ArnaudinAshvegas:

“Jason Bailey’s Atlantic article, ‘In Movies With Nudity, What’s the Line Between Ogling and Art?, tactfully addresses an issue that’s troubled me for a while. By examining the voyeuristic nature of ‘Killer Joe’ and ‘Compliance,’ Bailey asks viewers to confront the rationale behind onscreen skin, specifically in (though not limited to) instances when the results leave a disturbing aftertaste. In posing the question, Bailey encourages us to think deeply on a difficult topic for which there are no easy answers, and for that challenge, his piece merits recognition.”

Miriam BaleJoan’s Digest:

There are weekly pebbles of truth buried in the bombast of Nick Pinkerton’s online column of that title. He is something like our own Don Marquis. But the best writer of reviews, consistently, is Violet Lucca at Film Comment. Reading her is a reminder of what the form should be: exactly the right blend of aesthetic observations, political context, and humor, with her own distinctly no bullshit voice in every carefully considered sentences. This review of both Hitchcock biopics is one example. Another shining example of what film criticism could be is this, a review in French of ‘Damsels in Distress’ by the critic/filmmaker Pierre Leon that is, frankly, too much. (But after the puzzled reviews in the States, the film deserved this excess.)”

Adam BattyHope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second:

“As is the case with with any year in which it makes an appearance, Sight & Sound’s once-every-decade poll of the greatest films of all-time dominated my circle of discourse. For better or worse, everyone was talking about it, from the guy on the street to the national media, which is ultimately a very good thing. Honorable mentions go to Kent Jones’ Film Comment cover feature on ‘The Master,’ and Vivian Sobchack’s piece on ‘Prometheus’ for the same publication.” 

Bruce BennettWall Street Journal:

“There maybe wasn’t a single piece of writing about film that I prized above all others this year, but I enjoyed the hell out of Nick Pinkerton’s Bombast column or blog (or whatever it is) on SundanceNow (whatever that is) all year. The single worst thing I read all year was the profile of the Wachowski siblings in the New Yorker in which the writer found room to insert himself into his own reporting like a fawning Vanity Fair celeb profile, yet couldn’t wedge ‘Speed Racer’ into the Wachowskis’ filmography or its dismal box office performance into the saga of getting ‘Cloud Atlas’ green lit. Would that I could forget ‘Speed Racer’ so easily.”

Danny BowesTor.com/Movies By Bowes:

Kent Jones’ review of ‘The Master’ was some of the best film criticism I’ve ever read, never mind 2012.”

Marc CiafardiniGoSeeTalk.com:

“After months of reading/hearing festival praise and finally sitting down to view it myself, I just could not buy into the hype swirling around ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’ Afterwards I was so disconnected and unaffected that I could not compel myself to craft a review or even an editorial of why I didn’t understand the hype. Yet it wasn’t until I read this piece from Filmdrunk that made me feel that I was not alone in not ‘getting it’ or frankly not caring about it. Aside from equally well-written pieces lambasting unnecessary reboots/sequels this year, this selection is perhaps my favorite bit of criticism in 2012: ‘As an MGMT video, ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is pretty good. It’s got soaring music, pretty cinematography, fantastical imagery that borrows heavily from ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ an impossibly cute little girl, and deep south swamp locations exotic to urbanized yankees like me (‘Look, crawdaddies! Isn’t that a funny word, Brent? ‘Crawdaddies?’). But if you can see past the craft, this tale of deep south swamp hobos and feral children that eat cat food has all the depth of one of those Levis slam poetry commercials. I thought we weren’t supposed to fall for the Magic Negro and the Noble Savage anymore? Yet here it is, a whole movie full of them, plus folksy Cajuns who can’t open their mouths without homespun crypticisms aw shucksing their way out.'”

Jaime ChristleySlant Magazine:

“While I’m tempted to name a late-hour entry, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s excellent MUBI piece on ‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning’ — a film that is, for better or worse, everything its champions describe — I would have to go with a six-part conversation between B. Kite and Kent Jones for Film Comment. The subject is Robert Bresson, but the conversation casts a wide net that manages to scoop up a few other things, as well: Jack Webb, Jean Renoir, Henry James, W.C. Fields, auteurism, Christianity, reality, existence, and so on. An essential read that will expand your view of the ‘Pickpocket’ director.”

Matt CohenMeets Obsession:

“2012 was an especially excellent year in film. You need not look further than the diverse lineup of prestige films vying for Oscar nominations and other year-end awards this season for proof (as well as a cornucopia of other excellent films that I could ramble on about, but won’t). Which is why it’s so baffling that the most popular theme of think-piece criticism this year seemed to be all about the ‘Death of Cinema.’ From David Denby’s scornful argument that Hollywood is responsible for the aesthetic decline of ‘mainstream American movies’ to David Thomson’s bold declaration that the American cinema isn’t dead, but indeed dying, you would think that the Mayans were right and 2012 did, in fact, bring about a cinematic apocalypse. But this was far from the truth! And I think Richard Brody’s passionate defense, ‘The Movies Aren’t Dying (They’re Not Even Sick),’ most effectively points out why Denby and Thomson are wrong. Essentially making the case for auteur theory, he aptly outlines how the different devices and techniques at a director’s disposal — digital technology, elaborate set pieces, costumes, production design, shooting on film vs. shooting in digital, types of shots, etc. — are astonishingly used to make imagination become reality. It’s in that, he says, ‘the different, and constantly evolving, viewing experiences offered by those possibilities,’ that make the movie-watching process so exciting, and far from dead or dying.”

Jessica ElgenstiernaThe Velvet Café:

“I thought about this for the longest time. I’ve seen so many great pieces of writing during the year, from established critics as well as from completely unknown amateur bloggers. But how to decide which was the best one? I did what we all do in those situations: I consulted Google, the Oracle Who Always Has An Answer To Any Question We Have About Life The Universe And Everything. Without any hesitation it pointed me to ‘The Best Movie Blog Post of All Time.’ And yes, it’s actually very good.”

Mario Alegre Femenías, Primera Hora:

“I swear I’m not sucking-up to Criticwire’s excellent editor-in-chief (really, I swear), but looking back at all the virtual clippings I collected this year, I really took to heart the article ‘Ten lessons for film critics from J. Hoberman,’ by Matt Singer. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Hoberman, much less to be a student of his, but I think the ten lessons Matt shared from his notebook should be framed and placed on the desk of every aspiring film critic as a sort of Ten Commandments.”

Scott Foundas, Village Voice:

“Kent Jones, Battlefield America’ (review of ‘The Master’), Film Comment.”

John GholsonMovies.com:

Walter Chaw’s complete takedown of ‘Steel Magnolias,’ in light of the film’s Blu-ray release. It’s a film I’d enjoyed and never really had any strong thoughts about, but I can’t argue against any of Chaw’s criticisms. People often say that negative reviews are easier to write than positive ones, and I’ve never thought that was very true, at least not for myself. Here, Chaw’s knives are out and sharp, and he doesn’t make the act of writing a negative review look any easier. Would that I could eviscerate a film with as much sharp-toothed bite.”

William Goss, Film.com:

“I can think of few other modern critics with whose views I often disagree, yet whose writing I regularly admire, like Walter Chaw over at Film Freak Central, and his assessment of the Indiana Jones franchise was an expectedly endearing read, chock full of thematic analysis, sociological context and personal insight without succumbing to the dual perils of nostalgia and elitism.”

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com/ScreenCrush:

“I don’t know if this is the ‘best’ I read, but I was struck with a ‘how the hell did I never think of that before?!?’ moment when I read Ed Howard’s take on ‘The Great Dictator.’ He makes a number of interesting observations concerning Chaplin’s use of silent film conventions in his first talking film.”

John Keefer51Deep.com:

“My personal favorite would be Jed Mayer’s take on ‘It’s Alive.’ This, along with his articles on great horror soundtracks and midnight screenings and other horror ephemera put a finger squarely on something I’ve felt about these films but haven’t been able to put into words. But best? If we’re qualifying this stuff now then probably something Jim Emerson or Glenn Kenny or Matt Zoller Seitz wrote.”

Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies/Some Came Running:

“‘Battlefield Mankind,’ by Kent Jones, Film Comment, Sept./Oct. 2012. In a walk. In a fucking walk. Seriously. I can’t even justify my own existence whenever I look at that piece. So imagine how I think the rest of you ought to feel about it.”

Chris Klimek, Washington Post:

“The best piece of film criticism I read this year, or at least my favorite, is Dana Stevens’ re-review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master,’ which Slate published on Sept. 21. The piece ran exactly one week after Stevens’ first review of the film, which she’d written (she said) in haste immediately after watching it for the first time. Ms. Stevens’ first notice wanted for nothing; it had the keen insight and elegant prose and generosity of spirit that make her consistently one of my favorite writers-on-film. But I loved that she published a follow-up piece expounding not just on the dreamlike elements of Anderson’s film that seem to reward being revisited, but on the value of re-watching itself. It’s an unfortunate commercial reality that many critics have to compete for pageviews and try to capitalize on the intense interest that new films generate among their readers. But art is not breaking news. A film that ceases to be of interest after it’s been out for a month, or 10 years, is probably not a very good film. Desson Thompson, who reviewed movies for the Washington Post for at least 20 years, told me several years ago that he wanted to write a book about some of the worthy films he’d misjudged upon their initial release because they simply took longer to process than his deadlines allowed. I remember one film named specifically in that conversation was ‘Magnolia,’ directed by one Paul Thomas Anderson. So for taking a stand against the pressure to render an immediate verdict to stand for all time, I salute Ms. Dana Stevens.”

Gary KramerGay City News:

“Does the Hollywood Reporter’s review of ‘Liz and Dick‘ count as film criticism? I’m still laughing at that review. It made me want to watch that film, which I had no interest in before I read the review.”

Adam KuntavanishNext Projection:

“Just four particular things to celebrate this past year: Miriam Bale’s descent into yonic symbolism in Cronenberg’s films, ‘They Came from Within;’ Kent Jones’s justly-celebrated ‘Battlefield Mankind,’ an itinerary through the cultural and historical backgrounds of ‘The Master;’ Jim Emerson’s collection of images and the influences of ‘Prometheus,’ a movie that’s prompted infinitely more thoughtful and intelligent writing than it possessed; and my discovery of 2012, Jake Cole’s blog Not Just Movies, an ongoing compendium of insights I look forward to reading whenever an update appears in my RSS feed.”

Peter LabuzaLabuzaMovies.com/The Cinephiliacs:

“What is great criticism? It is the turning of beliefs into concepts — the attempt to make your subjective viewing of a film into a universal one. The best critics run with blind ambition, but back every point up with shots, dialogue, and the knowledge of film history. They might not convince me of their view point, but they convince me of their belief of their view point. Two pieces made that transcendent leap for me this year: Mike D’Angelo’s impassioned interpretation of the ending of ‘The Game’ and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s appraisal of the work of Tony Scott. While they come from different critical backgrounds and approach very different films, the passion and intelligence for their love of cinema is apparent in every sentence. D’Angelo systematically deconstructs his own emotional catharsis with wit that systematically explains the film’s subversive power. Vishnevetsky takes a director who was easily misinterpreted and presents his images in a new light, expressing each shot with not only the power of beauty but also with rich subtext. You don’t necessarily have to agree with either, but damn it if you don’t wish you could express cinema in a sentence half as good as these guys. (Honorable mentions: Kent Jones on ‘The Master,’ Jim Emerson on ‘Prometheus,’ Michael Sicinski, on ‘Compliance,’ David Bordwell on Christopher Nolan, Glenn Kenny on ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating,’ and Jones and B. Kite’s Bresson dialogue).”

Joanna LangfieldThe Movie Minute:

“I don’t always agree with Manohla Dargis and her top ten list is sure different from mine, but I did find her year-end review not only a terrific summation, but also a downright uplifting look at the state of our art.”

Andrew Lapin, The Atlantic:

“There was, for me, only one essential piece of film writing this year, and that was Anthony Lane’s ‘A Shooting In A Movie Theater,‘ published on The New Yorker’s website in the near-immediate aftermath of the Aurora mass murder this July. The killing of so many innocent people during a midnight screening, in a manner so similar to that of fictional onscreen killers, was so jarring to me that for the first time, I began to ponder the possibility that the industry we obsess over is part of the problem, that PG-13 films with assault rifles maybe really do contribute to horrific, hyper-violent real-life events. Lane published his blog not 24 hours after the fact, in the heat of the ensuing media firestorm, and he took an amazingly calm and level-headed approach to the proceedings. While reaffirming, in no uncertain terms, that ‘no film makes you kill,’ Lane also took the entertainment industry to task for, among other things, its sensationalizing of midnight screenings and box-office takes. The piece is not a defense of violence in films, nor an attempt to completely separate the killer’s actions from the actions of those onscreen. But it makes the exact distinctions between fantasy and reality that needed to be made on that day. I am grateful to Lane for helping lift me out of the darkness in some small way this July. Words don’t come easy in the immediate wake of tragedy — we learned this fact yet again this weekend — but sometimes, if you’re fortunate, the right ones find their way to the right people.”

Joey MagidsonThe Awards Circuit:

“Not to be a teacher’s pet, but I’m actually choosing an article that our very own Matt Singer wrote. In many ways Criticwire itself is the best piece of criticism this year in my eyes, but specifically I’d say his piece on so called “Poochie Sequels” was incredibly underrated, besides just managing to use an awesome pop culture reference. There have been some great articles written this year, but that one’s stayed in my head the longest.”

Calum MarshSlant Magazine:

Fernando F. Croce’s 2012 summer viewing log is a trove of stellar short-form criticism. Croce, as these nine blurbs prove, is a master of the capsule review, cramming more great prose and insight into 200 words than most critics can manage to do in 2000.”

Mike McGranaghanThe Aisle Seat:

“Despite what some bitter, borderline irrelevant old farts would have you believe, film criticism is alive and well in the hands of a new generation. Most of it is being done online, where writers have the freedom to combine elements of traditional film criticism with their own unique personalities. I read so much good film writing online in 2012 that picking the best is almost impossible. Therefore, I’ll pick one that stands out as a favorite, and that would be Eric D. Snider’s review of ‘That’s My Boy.’ In his singular voice, Eric pinpoints everything that is wrong with that movie’s crass ‘comedy’ and with star Adam Sandler’s career in general. He then caps it off with a brilliant, hilarious final paragraph. Eric is one of the critics I read most often because his analysis is always thoughtful and his ability to craft a humorous turn of phrase always makes me envious.”

Scott MeslowThe Week/The Atlantic:

“The piece that immediately jumps to mind is Steven Hyden’s ‘Loving the Most Unlikable Movie of the Year at Grantland. Like Hyden, I walked out of ‘The Comedy’ needing to talk about it — but until I found his article, I hadn’t found a way to articulate my complicated feelings about it. You’d be better off actually reading Hyden’s article than reading my summary of it, but he offers a stellar piece of criticism on a very difficult film; Hyden clearly ‘gets’ ‘The Comedy,’ but simultaneously (and correctly) acknowledges that the people who hated it enough to walk out might ‘get’ ‘The Comedy’ even more than he does. It’s an intelligent review, analysis, and defense of a movie that deserved better reviews, deeper analysis, and more defenders.”

David RoarkPaste/Christianity Today:

“Richard Brody of The New Yorker shares my adoration and enthusiasm for all things Wes Anderson, and this year he wrote two insightful posts on Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom.’ Since the film already won best picture in my book, the articles for me represent the most important and, thus, best pieces of film criticism this year. Brody, in my opinion, ‘gets’ Anderson more than any other critic, praising the spiritual substance underneath the auteur’s idiosyncratic style.”

Josh SpiegelMousterpiece Cinema/Sound on Sight:

“Though the year has had a wealth of excellent film criticism — I considered Jim Emerson’s outrageously thorough dissection of the debate A.O. Scott and David Carr of The New York Times had about the purpose of criticism in the modern age, as well as Scott’s searing and hilarious pan of ‘The Oogieloves’ — I’m going with something I was alerted to thanks to this site. It’s ‘Escaping the Overlook’ by B. Kite from a recent issue of Film Comment. The article, focused on Stanley Kubrick’s seminal horror film ‘The Shining’ and ‘Room 237,’ the theory-driven documentary inspired by it, posits that Kubrick was a so-called elephantine termite, a hybrid of auteurs as classified by Manny Farber. Kite’s analysis of ‘The Shining’ and ‘Room 237’ adds to the glut of discussion surrounding the films but stands out as a vital, unique point of view. (Fitting, as the piece acknowledges how POV-centric ‘The Shining’ is, and how those points of view shift so frequently.) As I grow to appreciate and embrace ‘The Shining’ more, I’ve probably become a bigger sucker for any new writing on the film. But Kite’s tone and central thesis here are greatly fascinating. 2012, like the years before it, was a superb year for films and film criticism, no doubt, yet this B. Kite piece is my pick for the best.”

Andreas StoehrPussy Goes Grrr:

“In the big year of ‘film is dead’ thinkpieces, my favorite piece of film criticism wasn’t a review, but a rebuttal by Richard Brody: ‘The Movies Aren’t Dying (They’re Not Even Sick).’ In his typically limpid prose, Brody runs through the fallacies underlying those thinkpieces while staying rooted in eclecticism and pleasure. It’s as ideal an articulation of why I love movies as anything I read this year.”

R. Emmet SweeneyMovie Morlocks:

“Taken as a whole, the ‘Further Research’ column that Dave Kehr writes for Film Comment is the best piece of film criticism I’ve read in 2012. Inspired by the ‘Subjects for Further Research’ section in Andrew Sarris’ seminal American Cinema book, Kehr does an intensive study of forgotten directors of the classical Hollywood era in each issue. These are all revelatory in one way or another, products of enormous amounts of research filtered into Kehr’s lucid nuts and bolts analysis of the artist’s particular style and themes. This year directors William A. Seiter, Bernard Vorhaus, John Reinhardt, William K. Howard, Roy Ward Baker and Hugo Fregonese benefited from Kehr’s pioneering work. The column proves how little we still know about film history, and how important it is to keep exploring and learning.”

Luke Y. Thompson, Nerdist:

Todd Gilchrist’s review of ‘Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie’ for Box Office. While most critics, including many who should know better, fell for the obvious outrage-bait that Tim & Eric threw out as deliberate alienation tactics, Todd actually engaged the movie, refusing to dismiss it outright simply because of the superficialities. Granted, he admits to already being a fan — but every critic ought to try to engage every movie on that same level. When it comes to comedies and genre stuff, sadly too few do.”

Anne-Katrin TitzeEye For Film:

Anthony Lane’s ‘The Kid with a Bike’ review in The New Yorker, for pointing to the most remarkable quality of the Dardenne Brothers’ work and Cécile de France’s outstanding performance: ‘It offers something changelessly rare and difficult: a credible portrait of goodness.’ In a year with so many films exploring terror, war, and more than ever, a chilling, all-encompassing human indifference, I have been looking out for other such film portraits ever since.”

Max Weiss, Baltimore Magazine:

“This piece on ‘Brave‘ by Lili Loofbourow made me rethink the movie and admire it much more.”

Andrew WelchAdventures in Cinema:

“At a certain point, everything you read throughout the year — no matter how good — starts to run together. But one writer consistently stands out to me for his personal, almost memoir-like approach to criticism: Jeffrey Overstreet. No other critic has influenced my own particular style, or my tastes, as much as he has. There’s a fair chance I wouldn’t even be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t discovered his blog, Looking Closer, almost 10 years ago, fresh out of high school. I could pick just about anything of his for my answer, but I’ve narrowed it down to two: his review of ‘Moonrise Kingdom,’ my favorite movie of the year, and his review of ‘Holy Motors,’ for the way it challenged me to re-examine my initial reaction. In both you’ll find sharp, intelligent criticism guided by a strong sense of humanity and faith.”

Alan ZilbermanBrightest Young Things/Tiny Mix Tapes:

“The best movie review I read this year was A.O. Scott’s review of ‘The Avengers.’ Not only did it start a minor controversy when Samuel L Jackson tweeted the review, but it addressed my issues with the film perfectly. When I finished reading it, I thought, ‘Man, I wish I had written that.’ A runner-up is Christopher Orr’s review of ‘The Words.’ One of the worst movies of the year inspired the year’s funniest review.”

The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on December 17, 2012:

The Most Popular Response:Holy Motors
Other Movies Receiving Multiple Votes:Lincoln,” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “Life of Pi,” “The Master.”

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