Friday, December 28, 2012

THE BEST OF 2012 - The Best MOVIES Of The Year


- 2012 was a really, really good year for movies. A lot of readers of the blog have commented to me that my reviews of late have been overwhelmingly positive - and that's true. Part of that is, as always, that I actively try to avoid watching movies that I anticipate will be crap. But a big part of it is also that, remarkably, this year, movie after movie turned out to be good. Movie quality was remarkably high this year.

A lot of films I was personally looking forward to in 2012 matched or exceeded expectations. I think the biggest big movie of the year, the one that became a sort of standard-setter, was THE AVENGERS. At the end of the day, The Avengers didn't make it into my Top 10 list, but it remains one of the most important and precedent-setting films of 2012. It was blockbuster filmmaking that finally broke away from the origin-story template we've seen ad nauseum in the last decade. It was a fun, joyous, over-the-top movie that embraced the wackiness of its comic-book universe wholeheartedly - a great counterpoint to Christopher Nolan's increasingly wearisome real-world take on Batman. Suddenly, I wanted every new big blockbuster superhero movie to be like The Avengers (and/or written and directed by Joss Whedon, who also helped write this year's great CABIN IN THE WOODS), and ultimately, many of them may go in that direction. But more than that, the success of The Avengers - creatively and financially - gave 2012 an anything-can-happen feel. Marvel had pulled off the impossible - so maybe others could as well.

There were a wide-range of satisfying surprises this year. Wes Anderson rebounded from a minor slump to do MOONRISE KINGDOM, one of his best films ever. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, and ROBOT & FRANK came out of nowhere and delivered indie awesomeness. Kathryn Bigelow continued her incredible second act career resurgence with ZERO DARK THIRTY. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was actually really good. DREDD 3D was badass as hell. Ben Affleck continued to make great movies with ARGO. An Indonesian action movie with a British director blew people away, quickly climbing up the list of best action movies of all time. Yep, THE RAID is that damn good.

What wasn't good? Two untouchable bastions of quality faltered a bit, in my opinion. BRAVE was a fine film by most measures - most, except Pixar's. This was one of the first times that an original Pixar movie didn't wow me, and it was a little disappointing. In terms of animated films, I much preferred the return-to-form for Tim Burton via FRANKENWEENIE - a movie that reminded me why I became such a fan of Burton in the first place. The other franchise that showed some chinks in the armor was Christopher Nolan's Batman. I know, I know - this is a divisive one. Some still maintain that THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was a masterpiece. For me, it just didn't work in the same way as The Dark Knight or even Batman Begins. I'm not taking anything away from what Nolan did with the franchise as a whole. But my mixed reactions to TDKR made me ready for new takes on the character and the superhero film in general. To that end, I'll again mention the uber-satisfying comic book adaptation DREDD 3D, which perfectly captured the over-the-top, darkly satirical, dystopian feel of the Judge Dredd comics.

I also had mixed emotions this year about several movies that were very thematically ambitious, but that lacked the ability to properly follow-through on the sorts of thematic and philosophical questions that they posed. This is why, as much as I admired the stellar performances and film-craft of THE MASTER, I just couldn't fully get behind it, and don't count it as one of the best movies of the year. As much as I thought about the central relationships, elements of socio-political commentary, or personal philosophy in the film, I just wasn't able to extrapolate anything meaningful from it. Sometimes, I think critics are so eager for movies that seem to tackle these sorts of grand themes that they stop short of actual critical analysis. The Master is a movie that clearly has a lot on its mind. But what is it actually saying? I was left with a similar feeling of emptiness after seeing PROMETHEUS. That movie was so visually stunning that I sort of loved it on that level alone. But it had an emptiness to it, that left it feeling like the start of a conversation that goes nowhere. I felt similarly about the commendably ambitious KILLING THEM SOFTLY. It might have worked smashingly as straight-up crime noir. But Andrew Dominik's desire to make the film a political allegory derailed it a bit. Point being: the storyteller's job isn't simply to pose questions, but to tell a story. I'm all for ambiguity and stories that are open to interpretation (and I really loved the sorts of tantalizing questions posed by the narratively ambiguous LIFE OF PI, for example). But those questions have to have a point, and you should feel like the filmmaker is guiding you towards answers. Even if answers aren't simple, or aren't there altogether, the filmmaker should be guiding you. The splatter-paint approach doesn't make for great movies.

And that is why I loved CLOUD ATLAS so much. It was a huge, messy, complex film - ambitious as hell. But some very simple thematic threads tied it all together beautifully. Cloud Atlas wasn't a question, it was a thesis statement. And it made the Wachowski's time-spanning epic feel both cosmic and personal. On the other end of the spectrum is ZERO DARK THIRTY. The movie tells the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden with pulse-pounding intensity and white-knuckle drama. It presents all sides of what happened in a relatively dispassionate, almost journalistic manner. And yet, there is an undercurrent of emotion between the lines of the movie that occasionally boils to the surface. The film doesn't tell us what to think of torture, or religious fundamentalism, or the war on terror, or patriotism. But it gives us all the tools we need to think about these big, relevant themes intelligently and make our own judgments. It's part of what makes the film so electrifying - it shows us a stark view of the world we live in, and forces us to confront the harsh realities we often allow ourselves to ignore (but that those in the film cannot).

LINCOLN, on the other hand, told its story with classic Spielbergian flair. While Spielberg's tendencies towards feel-good drama have at times limited him, his collaborations with writer Tony Kushner seem to bring out his best. And hey, sometimes there's nothing wrong with a movie that expertly sends an audience home happy. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK was one such film - mixing dark comedy with such well-earned emotional payoffs that it made you want to stand and cheer. Meanwhile, KILLER JOE made me want to cheer for altogether different reasons. Rarely have I seen a movie so gleefully twisted and depraved. Killer Joe is one of those movies that will be passed down in college dorms for years to come. By the same token, I suspect THE GREY will be one of those great movies that sort of develops its own legend and following over time. It's one of the most badass, gravitas-infused dramas I've seen - the kind that gives you chills, makes you cheer, makes your jaw drop, and that puts some hair on your chest. Like I said ... badass. Certainly, between The Grey, The Raid, and Quentin Tarantino's brutally awesome DJANGO UNCHAINED, there was no shortage of badassery in 2012. There was also no shortage of funny. Silver Linings Playbook, Killer Joe, Safety Not Guaranteed, Richard Linklater's BERNIE, and others were darkly funny. But for straight-up laughs, 2012 delivered as well, with comedies like THE DICTATOR, 21 JUMP STREET, WANDERLUST, and Danish import KLOWN all proving to be fairly hilarious.

I saw dozens of excellent movies in 2012, and very few bad ones. Movies from all-time favorite directors that hit the mark (Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Tarantino, Peter Jackson), and new voices that really sort of blew me away (Rian Johnson, director of the incredible sci-fi film LOOPER, is a guy I suspect film fans will be keeping an eye on).

So here's my list of the best movies of the year. As always, I can't see everything (only almost everything), so I'm sure there are some notable omissions. Feel free to comment and let me know what's missing.


1.) Zero Dark Thirty

- Ultra-intense, eye-opening, and directed with thunderous momentum by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty is my pick for movie of the year. The movie hit me in the same way that The Hurt Locker did - it felt like a state of the union of America over the last decade. And not just America - but the American Dream. It made me think about the things we have to do to defend our country, and about the emotional and spiritual toll that takes on those on the frontlines, and on all of us as Americans. No other movie this year felt more relevant, more necessary, more must-see. Kathryn Bigelow has done it again.

2.) Cloud Atlas

- Cloud Atlas was the most emotionally-gripping movie of the year for me. It tackled the Big Questions - "What does it all mean?" "Where are we going?" "Where have we been?" - in epic fashion. It showed what it means to be human, taking us across time and space to show the commonality of the human experience, to demonstrate our capacity for good and evil throughout time. The Wachowskis outdid themselves - blending genres and conventions so that the movie was sci-fi, fantasy, crime drama, comedy, romance, and historical epic all rolled into one. This was a movie about movies, a movie about life, a movie about human potential. Haters be damned - I loved it.

3.) The Grey

- "Once more into the fray / Into the last good fight I'll ever know / Live and die on this day / Live and die on this day." That poem at the heart of The Grey says a lot about the completely epic nature of this film. It's not so much man vs. nature as it is man vs. himself - the movie is about pushing oneself to fight, to live for something, to die for something. It's Liam Neeson in one of the best performances he's ever done - a role that he clearly put his heart and soul into. Few other movies this year left me as floored.

4.) Moonrise Kingdom

- Wes Anderson's movies used to wow me. Rushmore, The Royal Tannebaums, The Life Aquatic. Of late, the wow-factor hadn't been there ... until Moonrise Kingdom brought it back. This was Anderson in top-form - the knack for visual stylization never left him, but Moonrise had heart and characters and smarts to match. While the weakest of Anderson's work can feel almost alien, Moonrise uses the quirkiness to speak to the outsider in all of us, telling a tale of two crazy kids who find each other and are willing to do whatever it takes to stay together. This is one of Anderson's best-ever films.

5.) Django Unchained

- Tarantino's Django Unchained is, of course, badass as hell. But there's also a lot of thought put into its tale of a slave-turned-bounty hunter in the pre-Civil War American South. The movie artfully plays with genre conventions and with history. It is a tribute to Spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation, and many of Tarantino's personal movie heroes. But beneath the violence and over-the-top humor, the movie also has a lot to say about the evils of slavery, the price of that evil on the American psyche, and the way that that atrocity paved the way for the world we live in today. It's easy to dismiss Tarantino as a mere purveyor of pulp fiction, but there's always more to QT's films than meets the eye.

6.) Beasts of the Southern Wild

- I was fairly blown away by Beasts of the Southern Wild. Visually striking, powerfully acted by a cast consisting largely of non-professional actors, and thematically rich - a haunting tale of isolationism vs. encroaching civilization ... this was a cinematic shocker. The tale of Hushpuppy has stuck with me in the months since I first saw the film, and I'd encourage those who have not yet seen this one to give it a look.

7.) Lincoln

- A landmark performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. A masterful supporting turn from Tommy Lee Jones. A stacked cast of some of the finest actors working today. Wonderfully staged by Steven Spielberg, sharply written by Tony Kushner. A great portrait of one of our greatest Presidents. A classic bit of history that is also incredibly relevant to the times we live in. One of the best movies of the year.

8.) The Raid: Redemption

- The Raid is just so kickass that it hurts. I have seen many action movies, many martial arts movies, but few have left my jaw on the floor as did The Raid. The movie is quite elegant in its simplicity. The story is simple but effective. The characters are archetypal, but get the job done. That leaves plenty of room for the movie to focus on the most insane action set-pieces I've ever seen - heart-pumping gun battles, hand-to-hand combat that will leave you breathless, and mano e mano fights to the death that must be seen to be believed.

9.) Safety Not Guaranteed

- A charming, uproariously funny film, Safety Not Guaranteed totally won me over. This tale of a possibly-crazy man who purports to own a functioning time-machine is funny, quirky, and poignant. It features fantastic turns from faves like Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, and New Girl's Jake Johnson. The script is one of the year's best - weaving absurdist humor with emotionally-involving characters and genuinely interesting mystery at the movie's core. This is the perfect example of a cool indie flick that very much should be Oscar-nominated left and right, but probably won't be because it's not Oscar-y enough. That's lame - this is an awesome and hilarious movie.

10.) Silver Linings Playbook

- David O'Russell's latest is getting a bad rap as a cheesy rom-com, but I found it to be anything but. The movie impressed me by being strange, dark, and occasionally disturbing. And to me, the dark depths that it reached in its exploration of two mentally ill characters made the late-movie payoffs that much more rewarding and applause-worthy. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are both phenomenal in this one. It's great filmmaking, and for me one of the best surprises of 2012.


11.)  Looper

- A twisty time-travel yarn with great performances, standout scenes, and "whoah, where did this guy come from?" writing and direction from Rian Johnson ... Looper was one of the best sci-fi films in a long while.

12.) Robot and Frank

- This underrated and underseen gem features an incredible central performance from Frank Langella that's both hilarious and heartbreaking. The movie has some cool sci-fi elements, but at its core it's just a great character piece about an aging thief looking for one last big score.

13.) The Avengers

- The Avengers was a triumph for those of us who love superheroes in all of their tripped-out, cosmic, brightly-colored glory. Joss Whedon captured the spirit of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and infused the mighty Marvel heroes with just enough modern edge to make them feel fresh. This is the new template for all superhero movies to come.

14.) Argo

- A riveting thriller from Ben Affleck, Argo is so cool because its real-life story is so fascinating. Affleck deftly brings this slice of recent history to life by mixing political intrigue, wry humor, and action-movie thrills. The result is Affleck's best film to date, and a serious sign that this guy is the real deal.

15.) Life of Pi

- Visually, Life of Pi was one of the richest, most eye-popping movies I've ever seen - with some of the best and most you-are-there use of 3D I've experienced in a live-action flick. Ang Lee creates a film that is stunning to look at but also alternately scary, harrowing, uplifting, and serene. The film also surprised me with some of its twists - I came away from the film turning it over in my head and thinking a lot about its central mysteries.

16.) The Hobbit

- The distraction of 48 fps presentation aside, The Hobbit proved that the magic was still present in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. With stunning set-pieces, wonderful performances from returning favorites and newcomers alike, and themes that resonate and stir the soul, The Hobbit is a welcome return to the world of Tolkien from Jackson and co.

17.) The Cabin in the Woods

- One of the most purely fun movies of the year, The Cabin in the Woods is a geek-out worthy deconstruction of the horror genre that was so cool I had to see it twice. The movie starts out as a jokey riff on classic teen horror flicks, but there are hints that something else is up. When the pandora's box is eventually open, the resulting carnage is pure awesomeness, and a huge treat for fans of horror flicks.

18.) End of Watch

- One of the best cop movies I've seen, End of Watch is gritty, funny, and utterly immersive in the way it uses handheld cameras and a you-are-there visual style to put you in the shoes of its central characters. Jarring at first, the film soon becomes totally engrossing. You feel like you're hanging with your buddies during the quieter moments, which makes the intense action and carnage that comes later that much more involving.

19.) Frankenweenie

- My pick for Animated Film of the Year, Frankenweenie is Tim Burton at the top of his game (very welcome after the disappointing Dark Shadows). The film uses stop-motion animation to create a grimly gothic black-and-white world that pays homage to the great horror films of old. But what starts out as a small-scale story about a boy and his dog soon becomes a big and gleefully chaotic tribute to monster movies that recaptures the sort of heartwarming horror that Burton built his rep on.

20.) Killer Joe

- A pitch-black, morbidly funny neo-noir, Killer Joe also happens to be one of the most shocking, weird, disturbing, and just-plain-wrong movies I've ever seen. A cult classic in the making, Killer Joe features an iconic central performance from Matthew McConaughey as the titular killer, who is surrounded by a great cast. An awesomely depraved film.

21.) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

- A moving, funny, wistful ode to teenage wasteland, this is a film that captures the drama and all-or-nothing feeling of being in high school to a T. Emotions run high in this one, but it fits - the highs are high and the lows are lows. Just like high school. Superbly acted and artfully directed, this is teen-angst at its most entertaining.

22.) Cosmopolis

- Director David Cronenberg isn't known for making accessible films, but Cosmopolis might be one of the most difficult and challenging movies he's ever made. A hyper-stylized, surreal jaunt into the heart of darkness, this apocalyptic film felt like a truth-in-madness meditation on the 99% vs. the 1% politics of the past year. If you stick with it and go with it, there's a lot to like here.

23.) The Dictator

- Some were put-off by Sacha Baron Cohen's foray into scripted comedy, but man, I loved it. Incredibly funny, The Dictator also contained some absolutely biting social commentary of the same sort that made Ali G, Borat, and Bruno so great.

24.) Klown

- Who knew? I had no idea that a Danish riff on Curb Your Enthusiasm-style improvisational comedy would end up being one of the year's funniest films. Based on a Danish TV show, Klown follows two man-children as they drag their ten-year-old companion on a trip of oh-so-wrong debauchery and mayhem. There were things in this movie that positively shocked me, and that also made me laugh harder than almost anything else this year.

25.) Dredd 3D

- An ultra-badass action flick, Dredd 3D erased all lingering memory of the 90's-era Stallone flick and delivered a streamlined adaptation that captured all that is awesome about Judge Dredd and his post-apocalyptic world. Karl Urban was perfect as Judge Dredd, and the film had just the right mix of satire, action, and sci-fi to become an instant fanboy favorite.


Wreck-It Ralph
21 Jump Street
The Master
Killing Them Softly
The Amazing Spider-Man
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Rise of the Guardians
The Dark Knight Rises
Taken 2
Sound of My Voice
Safe House
The Five Year Engagement
Les Miserables



1.) Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
2.) Frank Langella - Robot & Frank
3.) Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
4.) Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
5.) Liam Neeson - The Grey


1.) Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
2.) Dwight Henry - Beasts of the Southern Wild
3.) Jason Clarke - Zero Dark Thirty
4.) Jim Broadbent - Cloud Atlas
5.) Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained


1.) Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
2.) Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
3.) Quvenzhan√© Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
4.) Halle Barry - Cloud Atlas
5.) Kara Hayward - Moonrise Kingdom


1.) Sally Field - Lincoln
2.) Doona Bae - Cloud Atlas
3.) Emma Watson - The Perks of Being a Wallflower
4.) Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
5.) Juno Temple - Killer Joe


1.) Tom Tywer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski - Cloud Atlas
2.) Kathryn Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty
3.) Ang Lee - Life of Pi
4.) David O'Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
5.) Tie: Rian Johnson - Looper, and Gareth Evans - The Raid: Redemption


1.) Zero Dark Thirty
2.) Silver Linings Playbook
3.) Django Unchained
4.) Safety Not Guaranteed
5.) Lincoln
6.) Looper
7.) Cloud Atlas
8.) Moonrise Kingdom
9.) The Avengers
10.) Argo

- And that's all she wrote - my picks for the best films of 2012. An overwhelming amount of great movies this year ... it's been a lot of fun writing about and reviewing them all. Hope you've enjoyed reading.


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