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The Criticwire Survey: The Best Film Criticism of 2012

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by Matt Singer
December 17, 2012 10:03 AM
2 Comments
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"The Master."
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)."

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2 Comments

  • Jonah Falcon | December 18, 2012 2:48 AMReply

    Personally, a recent review was golden for me: MaryAnn Johanson's appraisal of The Hobbit:

    http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2012/12/the_hobbit_an_unexpected_journ_1.html

    "Tolkien was constantly rewriting his stuff to bring it all into line with his grand vision, which he was ever developing. In the 1960s, he tried to rewrite The Hobbit, which was first published in 1937, to bring its tone in line with the heroic somberness of The Lord of the Rings. And he couldn’t do it. He found that it ruined the essential hobbitness of The Hobbit, the light adventure and the comedy and the airiness of it. Jackson is trying to do what Tolkien failed to do, and though the filmmaker makes sure there’s plenty of dwarf-belching and troll-snot and other blithe grossness in the mix, it’s plain that Tolkien was right: you cannot force grandeur onto a story about a hobbit for whom losing the buttons off his waistcoat remains a calamity even after he’s been traveling with uncouth dwarves for a while. The button-losing is here in the film, but to concentrate on it feels out of whack. That’s not how it should be."

  • jingmei | December 17, 2012 11:42 PMReply

    Thanks for the valuable stuff!

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