Well hey, 2012 was a funny year for me as far as movies go. I was kind of ambivalent about the year until I started writing about it, truth be told. Just felt like it had been kind of minor. As I catalogued all the movies I saw this year, though, I realized that I wasn’t entirely correct; 2012 was, I think, sort of a minor year, but it was a year of minor pleasures. Seriously, I can hardly think of another year which competes with it for a surplus of great genre movies which were well made and fun but somehow don’t quite take that last step into true greatness. I really liked and respected a bunch of these without quite loving them the way I really wanted to. In fact, before I saw ZERO DARK THIRTY right at press time, I thought 2012 might honestly be a year without a true classic. But, Kathryn Bigelow took me there, got the job done, and now I can feel satisfied looking back on the embarrassing bounty of genuinely awesome, smart, exhilarating, and memorable films which preceded it. Any year that gives us Nick Cave singing a roots version of “White Light, White Heat,” Joseph Gordon Levitt wearing Bruce Willis’ face, John Goodman playing John Chambers, Mel Gibson making the plunge to DTV, and no fewer than two excellent movies about Honest Abe Lincoln (one of which, I’m not going to say which one, involves Vampires) is all right with me. 2012, you’ve done your country proud.
Of course, as always, there are a whole bunch that I didn’t get to see, but as with last year, you can check my progress over the year. So, not considered in this favorites list (but with a reasonable potential to be good): Chronicle, Rampart, Footnote, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,
Lockout, Chimpanzee, Marley, Kumare, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Brave, Ted, Amazing Spider Man, The Imposter, Iron Sky, the Campaign, ParaNorman, Compliance, Robot and Frank, Premium Rush, Hotel Transylvania, Silver Linings Playbook, Seven Psychopaths, Holy Motors, Cloud Atlas, Flight, Wreck-it Ralph, Life of Pi, Red Tails, Killing them Softly, Hyde Park on Hudson, This is 40, Chico and Rita, Extraterrestrial, Antiviral, Keyhole, Loneliest Planet,Turin Horse, Red Hook Summer, Life Without Principle, Once upon a Time In Anatolia, The Road, Letter from the Big Man (will I ever be able to see it? it sounds like "The Loneliest Planet with Bigfoot" which is pretty much the film I was born to watch, but it doesn't even have a DVD release date yet).
Oh yeah, somehow I managed to see none of the several apparently pretty great animated films from 2012. What the fuck, Subtlety. I may have to do a separate post about them somewhere down the line as penance. But for now, enjoy my world-famous TOP TEN TWELVE in no particular order!
The Top Ten Twelve!
ARGO: Although my enjoyment may have been heightened by the fact that I didn’t know the outcome of this (somewhat) true story, I maintain that Ben Affleck --of all fool people-- directed and starred in the best one of the best, movies this year, a perfectly built entertainment machine of drama, humor, and riveting tension. Not a minute of screen time is wasted, but the movie has a nice steady build to a nail-biting climax. Impressive enough by itself, but you also have to appreciate it’s ability to tell this particular story in a nuanced enough way that it doesn’t come across as jingoistic; little touches like Carter’s speech and the historical context at the beginning give nuance without becoming pedantic. Details like these (particularly the would-feel-rote-in-any-other-movie family subplot) demonstrate just how good Affleck is at getting mileage from small things, as well as the big setpieces.
LINCOLN: Surprisingly not the by-the-numbers stuffy historical biography we all sort of expected; instead, it’s a lively and immensely entertaining portrait of Lincoln the politician: a crafty and colorful statesman who realizes that to do the right thing sometimes you’ve got to take some shady paths. Especially in politics. Daniel Day Lewis is incredible, of course, but you’ve also got a cast of virtually everyone awesome ever, with special props going to Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader. It does have an unfortunate tendency to get occasionally sidetracked with Lincoln’s family and personal life, which is not bad in itself but weakens the gripping central narrative somewhat and dulls what could have been a classic ending. Still, a surprisingly rousing effort from Spielberg, with individual scenes of immense power and consummate filmmaking.
HEADHUNTERS: Just a lean, nasty, appealingly overbuilt thrill machine from Norway. Finds the exact perfect tone and lays it on relentlessly. See my full review here.
THE MASTER: Frankly, anyone who doesn’t have this rich, mysterious, frustrating, scary, sad, and funny tale on their best-of list confuses the hell out of me. Acting simply doesn’t get any better than you’ll see from Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams here, and although PTA’s direction is decidedly less flashy than his work in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, he effortlessly evokes the strange corners of this decidedly peculiar story which wasn’t really what anyone was expecting. It’s not really about Scientology at all, but instead about the profoundly troubled people at the film’s center. What exactly we’re intended to make of them is never explicitly clear, but as far as I’m concerned that’s one of the things that makes it so compelling. In a year as filled with great straightforward entertainment like ARGO,THE RAID, HEADHUNTERs and so forth, it’s nice to have something this well-made that doesn’t give up it’s secrets quite as easily.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION Pure adrenaline on a level you seldom get to experience at the movies. Brutal, surprising, and with a laser-like focus on kicking ass. Tiny touches of humanity ensure that it’s not the wall-to-wall mind-numbing violence it was made out to be, but you still gotta love a film this unafraid to take its action aspirations to the next level. It’s ambitious, unique and remarkable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it spawns its own genre of wannabes.
BERNIE: Richard Linklater can basically do no wrong, but you never know quite what to expect with him other than something awesome. Here, he gently massages the story of the murder of an obnoxious old Texan woman into something weird and surprising. Jack Black’s performance as the sweet, somewhat effete murderer is one of his best, and it contributes to the film’s skewed perspective that clearly seems to sympathize with a guy who shot an old lady and hid her carcass in a freezer. Why? I have no idea. Linklater’s use of real interviews with the locals (who also sometimes play themselves in the fictionalized version) skews things even further as the lines between fiction and reality, fact and opinion, blur. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly calls it a “deviously droll light-comic tabloid docudrama.” How many words is he willing to use to try to find a category for something which so steadfastly resists any labels? Whatever you call it, the end result is wryly funny, sad, and deeply odd.
CABIN IN THE WOODS: Probably the single most thoroughly FUN film I saw all year, funny and energetic enough to put a big sloppy grin on the face of geeks everywhere for a long, long time. I have some problems with the middle (when it intermittently tries to be a real horror film) but it builds to an ending which forgives all sins.
KILLER JOE: William Friedkin’s misery-porn masterpiece about a bunch of selfish, pathetic, murderous idiot rednecks in Texas. Comedy as pitch black as it’s heart, and yet weirdly poignant. Matthew McConaughey gets the showy psycho role here, but Thomas Hayden Church almost steals the show as the beer-swilling know-nothing father. For some reason, it’s more fun and compelling than it has any right to be.
TALL MAN: Punishing, expertly crafted, and surprising horror movie that has the balls to ask truly horrific questions rather than just threatening you with bodily harm. Constantly surprising and challenging, it has an incredibly tendency to slip away just as you think you’re getting a handle on it. But it’s more than conceptually interesting, because it also contains some of the best-directed sequences of the whole year. Read the full review here.
ZERO DARK THIRTY: Well, shit. Turns out this is the best movie of the year, probably. Kathryn Bigelow turns the 12-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden into a morally ambiguous, exhausting, epic CIA procedural. Jessica Chastain makes magic out of her opaque, obsessed spook character, with a performance rich in human details but also provocatively mysterious and difficult to read. It’s a perfect performance to build this particular film around, because Bigelow offers no clear commentary on the horrors she depicts -- just a clinical, haunted interest in the details. It all culminates in the amazing, disturbing, insanely tense final raid you’ve already heard about, but the film isn’t just a prelude to that: it’s about the whole messy, sick process and all the hundreds of people involved in it, from the sharp-suited bureaucrats to the gun-toting grunts. It’s a tough film, but a profoundly engrossing one that serves up a grueling, intense, and meticulously textured experience.
Lucky # 11: LAWLESS: Got booted from the list at the last minute after I saw ZERO DARK THIRTY, but I loved the shit out of this film and couldn’t bring myself to kick it into the runner-ups pool. Not very well structured, but makes up for it with fantastic characters (particularly Tom Hardy’s awesomely monosyllabic Forrest), an unusual setting, great music, and a handful of phenomenal scenes. Read the full review here.
Lucky # 12 : KILLING THEM SOFTLY: A movie as lousy as it is brilliant, this crime drama from TAOJJBTCRF director Andrew Dominick squanders the potential of it’s fantastic performances and direction on a muddled political metaphor, which somehow manages to be both too overbearing and too oblique at the same time. It’s frustrating, but on the other hand the artistry on display here is too masterful to ignore. Stunning scenes abound, even if they don’t add up to the classic they should.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN: Overly manipulative, glossy documentary can’t drag down it’s fascinating subject, whose fantastic music and enthralling personality make it impossible to resist.
GET THE GRINGO: Mel Gibson goes for broke in this sleazy, nasty little Mexican crime story which unfairly got the Direct-to-Video brushoff. It does look cheap, but Gibson’s charisma is as strong as ever (which is to say, slightly stronger than a medium-sized atom bomb), the setup is surprisingly unique, and it’s flush with great action moments and unexpected twists.
WOMAN IN BLACK: Daniel Radcliffe nicely transitions away from wizarding in this tiny miracle of a ghost story, which successfully weds classic Hammer gothy atmosphere with a more modern, aggressive horror approach.
JOHN CARTER: The most unfairly maligned film this year, a breathless space fantasy yarn with giddy delights to spare. If anything, it’s problem is that it’s overstuffed with sci-fi goodies. But who’s gonna complain about that?!
SOUND OF MY VOICE: Spare, quietly tense cult drama slowly puts you right where it wants you. Actress Brit Marling again demonstrates her considerable powers of charisma and imagination, and although the film’s ambitions are limited it’s aim is precise. (read the whole review here)
MEN IN BLACK 3: Who would have guessed that the unasked for, unnecessary 3rd sequel to an almost 20-year-old film with a disastrous behind-the-scenes clusterfuck backstory would come within a hair of my top 10? A long shot, but maybe that’s what makes this surprisingly heartfelt and clever sci-fi story so endearing. Josh Brolin’s dead-on impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones is alone worth the price of admission, but unexpectedly there’s quite a bit of charm throughout.
HAYWIRE: Perhaps overly pleased-with-itself actioner from Steven Soderbergh, but you can’t argue with it’s results. Some of the year’s best action sequences hands-down, with a stellar cast and a particularly unique protagonist in Gina Carano.
GOON: Unexpectedly moving sports tale which features a likeable Sean William Scott (?!). A few missteps, but overall an impressively well-made film with a big heart and a few belly laughs.
THE AVENGERS: Forget the predictable CG mayhem, this one is all about the joy of listening to Joss Whedon’s quippy dialogue shaped into a high art by the likes of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleson, Chris Evans, and particularly Mark Ruffalo, who finally manages a Bruce Banner we can all agree on. Whedon gets these characters, and his expert management of their relationship is a good reminder that comics are better soap operas than action movies. And I mean that as a high compliment.
MOONRISE KINGDOM: Wes Anderson’s take on a childhood adventure is still cloyingly precious, but made tolerable thanks to hugely ingratiating performances by his two young leads. The astounding cast of adults are stranded without much to do, but Anderson’s technical prowess is not to be denied, nor are the hard-won charms of this film. (read the full review here)
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: Unique and sporadically powerful, this film features great performances and a deeply textured world but gets lost in an unnecessarily busy narrative structure. The film’s disinterest in making any kind of commentary on its button-pushing scenario ultimately works against it.
LOOPER: Nifty sci-fi idea eventually buckles under it’s ever-building complexity, but still wins you over with it’s imagination, excellent performances, fun setpieces, and heart-on-it’s-sleeve drama.
DJANGO UNCHAINED: Another winner from Tarantino, though sabotaged slightly by a overly complicated structure which never builds to anything. Still a fun, occasionally deeply affecting romp with fantastic performances to spare.
THE GREY: Grim, committed love letter to manliness comes in the form of a survival (or not) tale set in the bleak Alaskan wilderness. Neeson and the cast of mostly unknowns are all fantastic, and the film’s desperate atmosphere has the ability to chill bones. Unfortunately, like it’s protagonists it never seems to quite figure out where it’s going. Deeply compelling along the way, though.
THE HOBBIT PART 1 OF 3: Jackson’s ludicrously bloated take on this simple tale will either be a joy if you’re interested in a sprawling travelogue of Middle Earth, or a grinding bore if you’re interested in focused storytelling. A fantastic cast helps matters considerably.
MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS: RZA’s hip-hop kung fu dream project feels slight and fragmented, but it’s colorful enough to stay fun, with some great gimmicks and damn fine beats.
DREDD 3D: Sci-Fi remake of THE RAID (see? I told you it’d spawn it’s own genre of imitators) is all grit and grime, and that’s a good thing. Features some gorgeous use of 3D, stunning images, and great production work.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: Overstuffed, ponderous, but well-intentioned and highly watchable attempt to make classy pulp. (see the full review here)
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER: Spectacularly silly tale told in the only possible way: dead serious. Timur Bekmambetov continues to impress with endearingly over-the-top action set pieces, and the fight in the middle of a horse stampede is one for the ages.
COSMOPOLIS: Maybe David Cronenberg’s strangest film, which puts it in the rankings of the strangest mainstream films of all time. Depending on your mood, either provocative and challenging or pretentious and opaque. Talky and episodic tale is possibly a commentary on hypercapitalism gone amok, or maybe something else. Whatever the case, you do get to see Robert Pattinson get a colonoscopy... ladies.
SKYFALL: Without question the most beautiful Bond film ever made, thanks to the assured direction of Sam Mendes and the stunning photography of Roger Deakins. The 23rd Bond does best when it’s playing a classed-up take on the outrageous hijinks of the Roger-Moore era (using a komodo dragon as a stepladder, using a train as a projectile weapon) and worst when it turns into a pseudo-intellectual drama. Still a fun time, and features a truly bizarre villainous turn by Javier Bardem.
SINISTER: Pretty dumb but occasionally legitimately chilling horror schlock is elevated exponentially by a terrific Ethan Hawke performance. (read the full review here)
PROMETHEUS: Ponderous, pretentious, nonsensical ALIEN prequel asks one big question in a bunch of obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Hubris enough for ten films, but not enough brains for one. Still, strange and bold enough to be worth your time, with a few transcendent moments. (read the full review here)
SAVAGES: Ollie Stone’s gleefully misanthropic tale of the drug trade. Just as kinetic and profane as you’d expect, with great performances from Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro and possibly just a few more brains than are immediately evident. (read the full review here)
V/ H / S: Kinda lazy but occasionally inspired anthology of found-footage clusterfucks, with special credit for giving Ti West another showcase. Also features easily my favorite vampire in a long, long time. (read the full review here)
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI: Westerner’s perspective on the fetishistic focus of one particular Japanese sushi chef is limited in scope but by turns fascinating, inspiring, and a little sad. I appreciate that the film doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of obsession, but ultimately the whole thing feels just a touch superficial. Does succeed in making you really, really want to eat some fucking sushi, possibly at the expense of family and loved ones.
Addendum 1/23: THE IMPOSTER: Engrossing crime documentary is slicker than most Hollywood thrillers and even more outrageous. What seems to be a simple small-time crime drama slowly builds into twist after literally unbelievable twist. It's pitch-perfect story construction and ever-building suspense work like a charm all the way up to the very end, when the murky vaugaries of real life necessitate a slightly unsatisfying ending.
Addendum 8/23: LOCKOUT: Guy Pearce's hilariously snarky performance raises the level of this otherwise routine Snake Plisskin knockoff from "fun genre fare" to "can't miss." Luc Besson has a spotty record of making action movies, but this one hits all the sweet spots from it's unhinged villain to it's great gimmicky premise to --most importantly-- its copious ones liners.
Addendum 8/23: PARANORMAN and WRECK-IT RALPH: Two very, very strong animated features which feature lots of hard-earned laughs, great genre concepts, and genuine emotional notes. PARANORMAN won me over with it's moving final act which takes the horror concept seriously and finds some seriously compelling imagery, while WRECK-IT RALPH wowed me with it's clever, tightly structured storytelling and it's great meta-premise which might just be this generation's answer to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?
Addendum 9/20: RED HOOK SUMMER: Interesting small-scale coming-of-age urban dramedy from Spike Lee seems minor, even a bit amateurish at first (the kids at the center of the story can sound a little awkward, their dialogue a little tin-eared). But then an out-of-the-blue twist near the 2/3 mark suddenly seems to galvanize the whole production, and we see Spike Lee do some of his best filmmaking in years. Complex, rich, at times painful; exactly the kind of thing Lee does best.
Addendum 9/30: SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS: Complicated meta crime comedy suffers slightly in comparison to the ungodly excellent IN BRUGES; it's unwieldy, cluttered, maybe a little too postmodern to get properly involved in. But its relentless cleverness is slowly augmented by its genuine heart, and things gradually come together into something funny, sad, and deeply odd. Bonus points for Tom Waits and his pet bunny.
Addendum 12/17: THE ROAD: Nicely crafted Filipino horror film starts out scary and compelling enough, then uses a series of vignettes to probe deeper and deeper into the events that led up to the opening. If learning more makes things less superficially scary, it also deepens the horror and the complex feelings of betrayal and despair that underpin all great horror movies. Good performances and production work help, but the film's real strength is the boldness and cleverness of its complex multi-generational narrative. One of the most genuinely impressive new horror films I've seen in quite some time.
NO MAN'S LAND PRIZE!
For films which did not come out in a technical sense in the year 2012, but opened too small for anyone to know about them before now. They deserve to be on some list, dammit!
THE INNKEEPERS (technically, 2011): Warm, funny co-worker comedy/ghost story from Ti West captures a delicate balance of humor, suspense, and honest humanity. Only problem is that the ghosts eventually have to show up! Full Review Here!
BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (technically, 2010): Trippy, tense maybe sorta-tribute to 70's and 80s sci-fi production design is really it's own weird thing. Nightmarish and obtuse, with an inexorable undercurrent of paranoid claustrophobia. Tapers off at the end with an abrupt tonal and narrative shift, but what a joy getting there!
ABSENTIA (technically, 2011): Slow-burn, pathos-soaked tale of Lovecraftian dread finds genuine horror in the ambiguity of loss. And in giant evil bugs. One of the most affecting films I saw this year, and they did it on a budget that came from Kickstarter. Full Review Here!