Shockingly, we are more than halfway through 2012. (It's a backloaded year: Olympics, election, total global catastrophe—all stacked up from late July on.) As always, the best, most "prestigious" movies won't be released until November or December, because the people who vote on the Oscars are senile and cannot remember anything they saw more than 20 minutes ago. But there have been plenty of outstanding movies already released. So, today, Grierson & Leitch present our favorite movies of the first half of 2012. They're in alphabetical order so we don't reveal any hints about our end-of-year top 10 lists, which will be ranked. (Obviously. What are we, monsters?) We didn't see everything that came out, but we saw most of them. So here's our top 12, six from each of us.
The Cabin in the Woods Now that just about everyone knows the twist at the heart of The Cabin in the Woods, it's easier to see this thriller as a smart satire on the conventions of horror films and why, deep down, we love them even though they're predictable. Before Cabin gets ludicrous near the end, it's a clever little meta-movie.
Elena A troubling, morally ambiguous drama, Elena concerns an older married couple, Elena and Vladimir, who disagree about what to do with her deadbeat adult son from a previous marriage. Wealthy Vladimir refuses to support him financially, which provokes Elena to take matters into her own hands. This superb Russian film presents a chilly perspective on the endless struggle between the haves and the have-nots.
Oslo, August 31st In one of the year's best performances, Anders Danielsen Lie plays a recovering addict who spends a one-day holiday away from his treatment center seeing old friends and reassessing his life. Incredibly moving, Oslo, August 31st is a snapshot of a handful of people trying—and failing—to come to grips with their unfulfilling adulthood.
Polisse This electric French thriller follows the men and women of the police Child Protection Unit as they go after child molesters. As concerned with the cops' personal lives as it is with their police work, Polisse audaciously mixes laughs, romance, action and tears. It's a mess, but an urgently captivating one.
This Is Not a Film In 2010, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was placed under house arrest by the government and forbidden to make movies. So instead, he and colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb made a documentary called This Is Not a Film, which chronicled Panahi's frustration at not being able to create. This is an inspiring act of defiance as well as a touching portrait of an artist in exile.
The Turin Horse Steven Soderbergh isn't the only filmmaker threatening to retire in his 50s. Hungarian director Béla Tarr has said that The Turin Horse will be his final film, and he ends on a particularly bleak note, telling the story of a father and daughter trying to survive in the middle of nowhere. Hypnotic and unsparing, the movie makes oblivion seem terrifying and exhilarating.
The Avengers An evolutionary leap of the comic-book movie, a funny, intelligently conceived and lovingly rendered example of how to wed nerd culture and a huge blockbuster without losing what makes both great. Compulsively entertaining, transformative, and more fun than should be allowed. In 20 years, young filmmakers, the ones seeing it now in their teens, will talk about this the way we've been talking about Star Wars and E.T..
Haywire The other Steven Soderbergh movie, the one you didn't see, is a giddy action romp that shows the filmmaker still in his "shit, let's just be silly" mode; his enthusiasm is contagious. Gina Carano isn't the most expressive actress, but great action stars rarely are; you believe her when she's kicking ass, and that's all that really matters. Her fight scene with Michael Fassbender is one of the more kinetic, thrilling action sequences I've seen in years. I bet Soderbergh secretly considers this one of his favorite films.
Jeff, Who Lives At Home An off-kilter, strange, quiet little comedy from the Duplass brothers, it features warm, extremely likable performances by Ed Helms and especially Jason Segel (perfecting his Segel Zen-stoner blankness) as estranged brothers whose day-long adventure together helps them realize how they're not really alone after all. Funny, but in a mild way, and moving, but in a sneaky way. The movie creeps up on you, and it's not until its firecracker ending that you realize just how much it made you care about these people.
The Kid With a Bike Speaking of brother filmmakers, the Dardenne brothers similarly knock you over with this small, almost plotless story of a foster kid wandering around a Belgian city after his father abandons him. The movie is so quiet that everything starts to feel heightened; the smallest motions carry great weight, and something as minor as a slammed door causes you to gasp. At the center of the film is Thomas Doret as the 12-year-old Cyril, a kid who's damn near feral and yet makes you nearly weep for him throughout. Plus his bike is kind of awesome.
Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson at his most Wes Anderson-y, this is the closest he's come to the Special Strange Boy nirvana all his films have been creeping toward. Fortunately, there's nothing removed or antiseptic about Moonrise Kingdom; Anderson loves his kid characters so much and feels for them so acutely that the typically impeccable art direction works for him rather than against him, creating a world that feels idealized but also alive. The adults aren't quite as much fun as the kids, but their stories matter too, particularly in how they react to the kids'. And it's a strange world that the best performance in a Wes Anderson movie comes from Bruce Willis.
Your Sister's Sister One of those movies you wish had no plot at all. You just want to sit and watch these three people (played by Emily Blunt, Rosemarie Dewitt and Mark Duplass) talk and talk and talk. It has that Portlandia crunchiness, but these are real people trying to talk through their problems with wit and truth. Director Lynn Shelton has a preternatural talent with actors. Even when the story line tries to wrench the characters in a certain direction, they keep returning to something real and honest. I want these people to be my friends.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.