Films of the year

The best movies of 2012.

You didn’t ask for it, you may not even have wanted it, but it would be remiss of us not to provide it anyway: yes, it’s the New Statesman’s film awards 2012, packed with intrigue, wonder and rash or contradictory judgements. You’ve read the rest, now read… another one.

Films of the year

1. Nostalgia for the Light

Patricio Guzmán’s eloquent documentary interweaves two apparently unrelated subjects - astronomy, and the search for the remains of those “disappeared” by the Pinochet regime - so that they become mutually enriching metaphors for one another. The testimonies of astronomers and bereaved families alike create a searching philosophical reflection on the mysteries of heaven and earth. This is a film about illumination that is itself profoundly illuminating. 

2. On the Road 

There wasn’t much love around for Walter Salles’s years-in-the-making film of Jack Kerouac’s definitive Beat novel. But I maintain it’s one of the most intelligent and cinematic literary adaptations in recent years—not least for its determination to use film language to interrogate the ambiguities and elisions of the original novel while still evoking the spirit that drove the Beat generation.

3. Amour 

Some admirers of Michael Haneke’s film, about an elderly married couple staring mortality in the face, valued its power to squeeze the tear-ducts. Am I a brute for not crying? I felt the picture’s classical and sometimes disorienting storytelling style headed off at the pass any overtly emotional response. Not that it isn’t a moving film - but Haneke seems to apply an analytical framework to a traditionally emotive subject. It’s as though he’s musing aloud on the logistics of old age and dying.

4. Beauty

I hadn’t seen the previous work by the South African director Oliver Hermanus, but on the evidence of Beauty - a chilling, controlled study of a closeted man’s obsession with his daughter’s male friend—he is a master filmmaker.

5. Elena

Some of the promise of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2003 debut, The Return leaked away with its contrived follow-up, The Banishment, but he was back in full control this year with Elena, a tense story of marital discord and class tensions.

Honourable mentions

This Is Not a Film; The Myth of the American Sleepover; Tabu; Faust; The Imposter; Holy Motors;  Moonrise Kingdom; The Raid.

Comedy of the year

When I canvassed friends on the subject of this year’s truly hilarious film comedies, many of them singled out the comic reboot of the old TV high-school/cop show, 21 Jump Street, which I am informed is a fountain of merriment. I’m a promiscuous laugher, but only three films really tickled me this year: Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and the Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle, The Dictator. The latter featured a brilliant sustained monologue on the apparent wonders and liberties of America.

Actors of the year

Jérémie Renier as the singer-songwriter Claude François in Cloclo; Denis Lavant in all his various guises in Holy Motors; Kylie Minogue, in a magnificent raincoat, bringing extra class and poignancy to the same film; Greta Gerwig turning the simplest reaction shot into a showcase of comic genius in Damsels in Distress; Mads Mikkelsen as a man accused falsely of child abuse in The Hunt.

Unnecessary cosmetic work of the year

The eye-job, be it digital or prosthetic, given to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper. Look, if we can be trusted with the convoluted time travel plot, I think we can buy JG-L as a younger version of Bruce Willis’s character without the distracting makeover.

Michael Fassbender Performance of the Year

Michael Fassbender is so prolific that it would be unfair to lump him in with a run-of-the-mill Best Actor category, so this special award has been established in his honour. Am I alone in preferring him when he’s in a more comical mode? He has a gift, rare among heavyweight performers, for a dandyish lightness. That’s why the Michael Fassbender Performance of the Year award for 2013 is a tie between two elegantly amusing turns: as a dashing killer in Steven Soderbergh’s jazzy thriller Haywire and as a beautiful, as-good-as-gay robot in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his own Alien.

David Cronenberg film of the year

Fassbender also cropped up in the best David Cronenberg film of the year, A Dangerous Method, a bittersweet film about the Freud/Jung smackdown in early-20th-century Vienna. More complete and finely-textured, I felt, than the same director’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.

Most overrated film of the year

Shame. Michael Fassbender yet again. His second collaboration with the artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen (after Hunger, and ahead of 2013’s Twelve Years a Slave) has been called uncompromising. Flash forward a few years and I wager it’ll be seen for what it is: a po-faced 1950s-style public information film in chic clothing.

Opening credits sequence of the year

Berberian Sound Studio - not the film itself, though Peter Strickland’s eerie thriller about a shy sound effects maestro (Toby Jones) is accomplished in its own right, but the batty credits of the film-within-the-film, a giallo shocker called The Equestrian Vortex.

Best use of food in a movie

Berberian Sound Studio again: for the pulverised melons and the stabbed cabbages. Runner-up: fried chicken in Killer Joe.

Best use of pre-existing music

Young Adult for playing Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” over and over again as a key to the precarious mental state and arrested devlopment of its main character.

The WTF? award for repellent and extraordinary outlandishness

Headhunters: for the scene in which the hero, covered in raw sewage, drives a tractor with a dead dog as a hood ornament. Don’t ask - but do see the film. It’s a riot.

Good performance, shame about the movie

Sean Penn as a dazed Goth rock-star in This Must Be the Place.

Ending of the year

A tie between The Hunt and Shadow Dancer, which starred Andrea Riseborough as an IRA informer. Both endings pulled off the tricky combination of being genuinely surprising, emotionally open-ended but also poetically final.

Groundbreaker of the year

ParaNorman: a breathlessly inventive horror movie for children but also the first mainstream animated feature to include a gay character among its main protagonists.

Director of the year

I was thinking of giving this title to a film director, Danny Boyle, for his work outside cinema - namely, the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. I have always been slightly underwhelmed by Boyle’s films, slick entertainments with a populist component but little of that complex, lingering after-taste that comes with enduring art. His directing job on the opening ceremony, though, was both heartfelt and stimulating - the best Danny Boyle movie never made. Another contender would be Leos Carax for his equally ambitious Holy Motors. It shared with the opening ceremony a historical breadth, though in this case it was the history of cinema and performance that was being celebrated, rather than that of a nation. Boyle and Carax also impressed in their marshalling of spectacle. Both the opening ceremony and Holy Motors could have been unkempt and incoherent but both adhered more closely than you might think to their own jubilant narratives. I watched them in a state of rapture. In the final analysis, though, the title of director of the year should go to Jafar Panahi, the persecuted Iranian filmmaker, for making the extraordinary and defiant This Is Not a Film while under house arrest - with a special mention to all who played their part in smuggling the picture out of Iran and into cinemas across the world.

Stars of Holy Motors Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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