Top 100 Favorite Films of the 1980s

From time to time, my friends (several of the editors of this blog included) like to take on tasks, like assembling our top 100 favorite (or best, depending on the person) films of a certain decade list. This kicked off several years back when the aughts came to a close, and without the benefit of much hindsight, my list came together with relative ease, an occurrence that would become more and more impossible with each passing year. Time will forever be the ultimate judge of a movie’s worth, so I would be interested in revisiting that particular manifest at some point down the road.

From there we began to work our way backwards, tackling the 90s, a decade that proved more problematic since that 10 years was when my love for film really took off. As herculean as that task was, it didn’t come close to preparing me for the challenge I had in creating my 80s list. I foolishly thought this was going to be a cinch, an idiotic result of a thought process that would have been considered nebulous at best*. I had failed to think about three important factors that would influence my list of favorite 80s films:

1.       Most of my favorite films from childhood are from the decade because I came of age. While some of them aren’t what one would call a typical “kids” film, my family was cool enough to raise me right and get me started on the works of Carpenter and Hooper early on, so kudos to them.

2.       I love action films more than any other genre; they are criminally underrated and, generally speaking, not treated with the reverence they deserve by casual film fans and cineastes alike. I will resist the urge to rant and rave on this topic and just leave it alone, but suffice to say that the genre is well represented here.

3.       Over the past decade, I’ve become a considerable fan of horror, sci-fi, and, in a general sense, the low budget, totally insane films that could have only come out in the 80s. Just like the action genre, these genres hit a high water mark that, for my money, hasn’t been equaled sense.

In an effort to make an accurate list, I re-watched 80% (this guesstimate seems right, I suppose) of the movies that make an appearance below, plus a whole lot more that fell out of contention at one point or another during this highly scientific process. The last 5 cut from the list are always the hardest, so in the interest of full disclosure, I decided to list them here:

1.       Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

2.       After Hours

3.       Zelig

4.       This is Spinal Tap

5.       Unbearable Lightness of Being

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or the willpower to write up something about each movie, so this humble preamble will have to do. I have written up full reviews of some of the films on this list for the blog, so those titles will offer a hyperlink to the previous post. If you’ve never heard of or seen any film on this list, I strongly urge you to track it down and enjoy a night in. As always, voicing one’s opinions and objections to my list is welcomed.

100. Year of the Dragon (1985)

99. Road Games (1981)

98. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

97. Razorback (1984)

96. Breathless (1983)

95. Missing (1982)

94. The Hit (1985)

93. Night of the Comet (1984)

92. Mystery Train (1989)

91. Turkey Shoot (1983)

90. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

89. Death Wish 3 (1985)

88. Akira (1988)

87. Say Anything… (1989)

86. Secret Honor (1985)

85. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

84. The Blob (1988)

83. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

82. Do the Right Thing (1989)

81. Evil Dead II (1987)

80. They Live (1988)

79. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

78. Police Story 2 (1988)

77. As Tears Go By (1988)

76. Re-Animator (1985)

75. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

74. Big (1988)

73. Dead Ringers (1988)

72. Broadcast News (1987)

71. Mona Lisa (1986)

70. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

69. Fitzcarraldo (1982)

68. Near Dark (1987)

67. Police Story (1985)

66. The Mission (1986)

65. Something Wild (1986)

64. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

63. Lost in America (1985)

62. Witness (1985)

61. Paris, Texas (1984)

60. Blue Velvet (1986)

59. Better off Dead… (1985)

58. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

57. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

56. The King of Comedy (1983)

55. Top Secret! (1984)

54. Body Heat (1981)

53. Thief (1981)

52. 48 Hrs. (1982)

51. Knightriders (1981)

50. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

49. Gremlins (1984)

48. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

47. RoboCop (1987)

46. Commando (1985)

45. ¡Three Amigos! (1986)

44. The Fly (1986)

43. Platoon (1986)

42. Back to the Future (1985)

41. The Terminator (1984)

40. Blood Simple (1984)

39. Project A (1983)

38. Southern Comfort (1981)

37. Hopscotch (1980)

36. Pennies from Heaven (1981)

35. Prince of the City (1981)

34. Tampopo (1985)

33. Blade Runner (1982)

32. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

31. Bloodsport (1988)

30. Coming to America (1988)

29. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

28. Used Cars (1980)

27. Videodrome (1983)

26. The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

25. Escape from New York (1981)

24. Repo Man ( 1984)

23. The Untouchables (1987)

22. Blow Out (1981)

21. Withnail & I (1987)

20. The Goonies (1985)

19. Aliens (1986)

18. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

17. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

16. Poltergeist (1982)

15. From Beyond (1986)

14. A Christmas Story (1983)

13. Road House (1989)

12. Beetlejuice (1988)

11. Clue (1985)

10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

9. Die Hard (1988)

8. The Long Good Friday (1980)

7. Ghostbusters (1984)

6. Predator (1987)

5. Ran (1985)

4. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

3. Brazil (1985)

2. The Thing (1982)

1. Raging Bull (1980)

-David

*Just to put the difficultly of this is perspective, I was supposed to get my list out roughly two months back.

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Django Unchained (John’s #1 of 2012)

The number one pick of my top 20 list of 2012 is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Django Unchained. David wrote an amazing review just after the film’s release and I implore you to scroll down and check it out if you haven’t already. When creating my top list (which was already a bigger endeavor than I had initially planned) I found myself at a crossroads when posting a short review of Django. On the one hand, David had already written an incredible post on the film and one that mirrored many thoughts of friends and movie goers that I have encountered. On the other hand, my thoughts on the film were just too much to narrow down to a single paragraph and having 3 months to digest the film only increased my desire to discuss the film. So to properly finish off my top 20 list (which everyday followers will know has taken about 3 weeks) I offer a 2nd look at Quentin Tarantino’s controversial western.

Quentin Tarantino is my idol. In many ways I consider him to be my mentor in film; my inspiration for writing and the gateway to my favorite films in cinema. I first discovered the news of Tarantino doing an all out western in February of 2011 when co-editor David sent me a text. At the time the rumor was a Tarantino western starring the original Django: Franco Nero, Christoph Waltz and Keith Carradine. Within a week it was announced the film would be the story of a slave named Django who is freed by a German bounty hunter that mentors him and helps him free his wife from an evil plantation owner. About a week after that I had my very own copy of the script. I read bits and pieces over the next year and carried it with me in my backpack everyday. Everytime a cast member was announced I would flip through the script and read the characters introduction. I refused to read anything past the 1st half in fear of spoiling any characters inevitable demise (a lesson I learned from reading the 3rd act of Inglourious Basterds a year before it was filmed). The beauty of a Quentin Tarantino film is that, despite nearly 2 years of holding the movie in my hands, I was still unprepared for the world Tarantino projected onscreen.

To me a “perfect” movie is one that contains great scene after great scene from start to finish. Think Goodfellas – the opening with Frank Vincent in the trunk (“What the fuck?, Tommy what is that, we hit something?). The early days of Henry Hill (“Oh my god, you look like a gangster”). De Niro hijacking the truck (“You may know who I am, but we KNOW who you are”), the Lufthansa heist, taking Karen to the Copacabana, slicing up onions in prison so thin they used to melt in the pan, getting coked out and making sure little Michael is stirring the sauce. It’s just great moment after great moment.

Every Tarantino film achieves this as well. And with each project Tarantino is breaking new ground, pushing his meta-narrative further and further and challenging audiences with every new step. Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino’s films get richer with character and more meticulous with cinematography, editing and style. He treats his screenplays as if creating the next chapter of the Bible. Every page is perfected before he moves on to the next and it certainly shows. If every writer were as passionate about creating a literary piece like Quentin is, then cinema in general would be worlds better than it is.

The first thing that strikes me about Tarantino’s work is how accessible it is to mass audiences. The first time I read Aldo Raine’s speech in Inglourious Basterds about “killing Nazis” I thought “Oh my god, this is too hardcore. There is no way this is getting in.” How surprised I was when this speech became the centerpiece for the film’s marketing campaign. Also when reading the Basterds screenplay, I began to quickly notice that 2/3rds of the film would be in subtitles. I immediately thought “there’s no way this will play with today’s audiences, no one wants to read subtitles anymore”. So I was overjoyed when discussing the movie with my aunt and uncle (two people I suspect have never seen a foreign film and never had to read a majority of a film’s dialogue before) to discover that they loved the film and even made note of how delightfully comical it was when Waltz’s Hans Landa requests to shift from French to English in the film’s opening scene.

The same goes with reading Django Unchained, within in the first few pages and the rampant use of the N-word I thought “Oh man this is gonna cause a huge uproar”. Luckily audiences are smart enough to know that what Tarantino has in mind is an adventure story first and an energetic movie experience one will never forget. While working at the movie theatre I was very intuitive of what audiences felt as they left the showing. The majority of black audiences I encountered were absolutely thrilled with the final product. It’s a comic book-y tale of a black superhero. The first film about slavery that allowed black audiences to stand up and cheer for its hero instead of wince at the pain their ancestors have suffered, much in the way the Jewish community could rally around Shoshanna and the Basterds as they lay waste to the Third Reich. Even those who could take offense to the racial slurs projected from Don Johnson’s Big Daddy Bennett and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie were only that much happier to see these crude men meet their brutal demise.

I also noticed a rising hesitation to the film from white audiences, a common feeling of discomfort and a sense of “white guilt” at the brutality and harshness of slavery in the Antebellum South displayed on-screen. Now this is more accurate to what I think Tarantino hopes to achieve with this film. Rarely are white audiences challenged to view their past here in America, unlike the people of Germany who sit through endless films depicting brutal Nazis and forced to revisit their unfortunate past and heritage. Even when a film takes on the historical aspect of slavery, a lot of the cruelty and contempt felt by these white slave-owning ancestors are placed on the back burner. For example Amistad, while a sentimental portrait of the uprising on the infamous slave ship, seldom depicts its white characters as brutally as, say a film about WWII, would depict its Nazi oppressors. Personally, I do feel that white audiences should be subjected to more films that evaluate our nation’s past and all the fucked up shit that we have done. To not be sheltered and to acknowledge that yes, we did this sick shit, and it wasn’t the first time either (think about the Indians when we first arrived).

Naturally, this is quite a hot topic of discussion and one that will surely spark a bit of a debate amongst our readers. However I’d also like to point out that Django Unchained tackles many different sides and oppositions to slavery that cinema has rarely explored. For example the character of Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) is a foreigner to this country and represents an outsider’s view of America and slavery. Several times Schultz explains his disdain for slavery and his confusion as to why people are so fascinated with dictating what one man can and cannot do. Schultz also describes his feelings of responsibility for Django and his reasoning to help Django remain free long after their relationship has ended. Schultz has a true admiration for Django’s strength and ability to endure the pain that surrounds him. He also admires Django and his wife Broomhilda’s belief in the sanctity of marriage, a belief that shows that these are in fact real people and not the uneducated savages that people like Big Daddy and Calvin Candie attribute them to be.

Then there is the depiction of slave owners themselves. On one side you have Big Daddy Bennett who is the epitome of a racist slave owner, a man who seems appalled at the idea of a free black man when Django arrives on his plantation with Schultz. Then you have Calvin Candie, a character who has inherited his plantation through generations of white slave owners. Now where Big Daddy clearly gets off on slavery, Candie appears to be somewhat done with the whole slavery idea; choosing to focus his attention more on mandingo fighting than buying and selling slave workers and show ponies. Big Daddy is a proprietor of slavery, one of the original creators; Candie is the disinterested descendant whose come in at the end.

Another interesting depiction is the level of social class amongst slaves. When Django is riding along with Candie’s entourage he is a free man, a man who rides atop his horse while the slaves walk alongside. There is a huge disdain for Django from the slaves, and in order to stay in character Django is forced to look down on them as well. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen. Stephen is an elderly slave and the overseer of all of Candyland’s belongings, including both the land and the many souls who tend to it. The relationship between Calvin and Stephen is incredibly essential to the dynamic of the story. Stephen has been apart of Candyland since the beginning when Calvin’s father owned the property and has raised Calvin since birth. Stephen and Calvin have a father-son type relationship much like the bond that forms between Schultz and Django, but with one big difference…Stephen and Calvin love each other more than Schultz and Django do. This helps make the character of Stephen the darkest and most despicable villain in the film. Here is a man that stands above approach from the rest of the slaves on his plantation, a slave with power over every other slave and, in some ways, Calvin Candie as well. As Django points out in the film, there isn’t anything lower than a man in his position.

And yet, despite all this subtle analysis of the Antebellum South, what Tarantino delivers is an all-out action packed and hysterically funny American western. Its extremely difficult for me to rank Tarantino’s films because they are each perfect in their own way. When viewing Kill Bill’s two parts together I felt that Tarantino couldn’t get any better. Then when Aldo Raine delivers the final line in Inglourious Basterds “this just might be my masterpiece” I couldn’t have agreed more. Now Tarantino achieves even more with Django Unchained and another masterpiece expands his perfect canon. I simply continue to name Pulp Fiction as my number 1 favorite simply because its the one that introduced me to the man himself and to the world of movies that I would soon become obsessed with. 

Like Goodfellas, this is for me a “perfect” film. Its just great scene after great scene. “State your business or prepare to get winged”, “Can’t we just leave?”, “Treat him like you would Jerry”, “So it would be nice to see!”, “Its a German legend, there’s bound to be a mountain in there somewhere”, “We got us a fight goin’ on that’s a good bit of fun”, “I’m gonna walk in the moonlight with you”, “All the passions you inspire are completely justified”, “There have been a lotta lies told around this table tonight, but that you best believe”, “Tell Miss Laura goodbye”. Perfect is a movie I can relive moment-to-moment in my head at anytime. 

 

 

The Top Films of 2012 (Take 4)

I will defend these movies till my dying day.

20.) Safety Not Guaranteed

A surprising, uproariously off-beat indie comedy debut from the rising writing/directing team of Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. Aubrey Plaza (of Parks and Rec fame) proves her self a true movie star in the role of an intern at a Seattle magazine who accompanies a reporter (Jake Johnson) as he responds to a bizarre classified ad in hopes of a story. The ad seeks someone to accompany its author to travel back in time. Must bring own weapons, safety not guaranteed. What brews is a hilarious love story between Plaza’s intern and the oddball store clerk (Mark Duplass) who may or may not have invented a time machine, as well as Johnson’s reporter tracking down an old flame who has become an all-out milf. Star making performances from Plaza and Duplass, their relationship the epitome of on-screen chemistry, charms this movie into instant cult status.

19.) God Bless America

God Bless Bobcat Goldthwait. This follow-up to his sublime 2009 feature World’s Greatest Dad is one of the most uncomfortable black comedies in years. Wrongfully accused of sexual harassment and fired from his job, insurance salesman Frank Murdoch hates his life. With a spoiled teenage daughter, a disconnected ex-wife, screaming neighbors and a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor among his many woes, Frank decides to end it all. Upon seeing one of many absolute genius parodies of reality tv and stardom he begins to realize it is not he who needs to die; but spoiled 21st century America. With a quirky teen named Roxy in tow, Frank goes on a mass killing spree of all that he sees wicked in America. The American Idols, Bill O’Reillys, Kim Kardashians and movie theater cell phone users of the world must pay their dues. What saves this movie from being the bleakest thing you’ve ever seen is the performance of criminally underrated character actor Joel Murray. As the bodies pile up and even babies come under the barrel of his shotgun, Murray’s performance is so disarming and innocent that you can’t help but root along and let the laughs stick in your throat.

18.) Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman returns to film making for the first time in 14 years, putting Generation Y under his microscope. And boy does he hit the mark. The story of three young women at an East Coast university who take a young transfer student under their wing is the setting for another deft, literate comedy of manners from one of the greatest filmmakers of the 90s. Indie “it girl” Greta Gerwig reveals a very tender and comedic underside to the anxieties of college and adolescence. Stillman is the closest thing we’ll have to Woody Allen when he goes, this kind of comedy is unfortunately that rare.

17.) Lawless

Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat mashes up my two favorite genres, the gangster movie and the western and fills it with my favorite actors. What’s not to love? Based on the true story of the Bondurant boys, a family of bootleggers in the deep south circa the depression, Lawless is a stunningly violent and beautifully crafted instant gangster classic. Featuring wonderful performances from Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain and Gary Oldman. But the real standouts here are Guy Pearce in a career-best portrayal of a slimy, snake-like crooked Deputy and newcomers Jason Clarke and Dane Dehaan as the middle Bondurant boy and their crippled friend Cricket. This movie threw me in ways I never imagined and yet is penetrable by mass audiences, this is no easy feat.

16.) Cloud Atlas

Unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. Directed by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer from the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas is essentially six movies told simultaneously and at least 3 or 4 of which are absolutely perfect. Its impossible to go into all of them now but my favorite would have to be the Terry Gilliam-esque story of a man wrongfully imprisoned in a nursing home and he and his cohorts attempt to escape. Then Id have to go with the brilliant 70s set political thriller that follows a reporter investigating a conspiracy involving a new nuclear reactor and of course the Matrix-esque sci-fi tale of a rebellion in Korea in 2144. Highlights include Tom Hanks and Halle Berry back to great acting form after nearly 10 years of unwatchable dreck, Hugo Weaving as a Nurse Ratched type caretaker and the sight of Hugh Grant as an Asian.

15.) The Avengers

Cramming four leading superhero franchises into one big summer blockbuster that plays as both a sequel and a franchise starter should not work. The result should be a pissing contest of one-liners and over packed action scenes, something akin to The Expendables. Leave it to the talent of someone like Joss Whedon to make it work. The secret? A surprisingly polished and energetic script and a top notch cast of actors with charisma and commitment to their characters and story arcs. This is one of the best movies Marvel has produced so far and its backlash from moviegoers boggles me. Highlights include Tom Hiddletson bringing out the best nuances of Loki, a stunning long take that features each hero kicking all kinds of ass, a bouncy Scarlett Johansson, a hilarious cameo by the great Harry Dean Stanton and pretty much any scene featuring The Hulk.

14.) Lincoln

Steven Spielberg chose the best way to make this kind of riveting political drama, to just step the fuck back and let the actors do their thing. Spielberg leaves behind the sweeping dolly shots, the wide landscapes, the lighting trickery and flourishes he’s known for and delivers what feels like a stripped down, performance driven stage play. Spielberg knows this movie belongs to its actors, a cavalcade of the finest cinema has to offer. Water is wet, the sun is hot, and Daniel Day-Lewis IS acting. Its scientific fact.

13.) Prometheus

You can nitpick and laugh at it all you want fanboys but Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is fucking epic. I went in not seeking answers but hoping for a chance to revisit the world of my favorite horror movie of all time and holy shit was I fulfilled. Scott here has taken his style (from camera movement, to lighting to editing) back to his roots and created one of his freshest and most challenging films in years. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace are knockouts in their roles as they voyage to the distant moon LV-223 and uncover the origins of mankind, our creators and ultimately our destroyers. Highlights include the man himself Idris Elba, an alien c-section and Fassbender channeling Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

12.) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Stephen Chbosky adapts his own novel to cinematic form as both writer and director. Facing the challenges of adapting his own work into a workable film, Chbosky’s cinematic version of his acclaimed epistolary novel is the modern day equivalent of a John Hughes film. A beautifully crafted and often humorous look at high school life featuring stunning performances from Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. The rare great book to screen transition.

11.) Killer Joe

2011 has boasted a good number of what I call “trailer trash” films. Movies like Hick or Hit and Run are stories set in a very realistic world of Southern white trash hicks and rednecks. In a way I harken them back to the 70s good ol’ boy movies like Walking Tall or White Lightning. Of course neither of these movies holds a candle to William Friedkin’s ultimate trailer trash neo-noir thriller featuring a frightening turn by Matthew McConaughey. Few movies aside (Dazed and Confused, A Time to Kill) I used to hate Matthew McConaughey. But 2011 has fully turned me around on him and filmmakers such as Billy Friedkin and Steven Soderbergh have tapped into a layer of acting that was previously hidden from cinema. I can’t praise his performance in this masterfully taut and suspenseful thriller enough.

10.) The Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell has really found his place in cinema over the last few years. Now I’m a huge Russell fan, from Spanking the Monkey to I Heart Huckabees. But any of those films, style wise, could be mistaken for many other directors. With The Fighter and now Silver Linings, Russell has really found his own voice amongst the filmmakers of his generation. He has become a modern day cross of Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. He’s formed a real knack for telling stories of real people in real situations. As an audience we observe what feels more and more like reality. The dialogue in his films have an almost improvisational feel to them, recalling the work of John Cassavetes. Jennifer Lawrence is incredible as always and Bradley Cooper proves a surprisingly great dramatic actor. And thank god Robert De Niro has finally managed to find a movie worthy of his talent since the 90s.

9.) The Cabin in the Woods

The film that renewed my faith in horror movies. The Cabin in the Woods is a one in a million hybrid of horror movie homage and send-up. It has everything you could possibly desire, most importantly a brilliant script by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard and a totally game cast of inspired actors including Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Creepy Japanese girls, It, Pinhead, people getting impaled by unicorns? Its got em. It really is the ultimate horror movie.

8.) Looper

Rian Johnson continues to be one of the best new filmmakers in cinema. Working from a modest budget, Johnson unveils a brilliant time travel, sci-fi action film that also plays as celebration of the talent of actor Bruce Willis. Willis delivers his best performance since Unbreakable and Joseph Gordon-Levitt subtly displays a perfect amalgam of Bruce Willis’ acting range and expression. Emily Blunt is astounding in her portrayal of a shotgun toting Southern farm girl with a dark past. The film goes places that science fiction cinema rarely dares, especially in sequences involving a precocious young child played by the incredible Pierce Gagnon.

7.) The Raid: Redemption

Gareth Evan’s Indonesian action thriller is one of the greatest action movies of all time. Following a SWAT team as they infiltrate an apartment building that houses the cities most vile drug lords, they go from 1st floor to the top annihilating pushers in all directions. The twist: As they make their way to the top, officers and ammunition become of short supply and the 3rd act consists mostly of incredible hand-to-hand combat and beautifully choreographed fight sequences. Hands down the most adrenaline fueled, ass-kicking time I’ve had watching a movie all year.

6.) Frankenweenie

Finally the first Tim Burton movie in ten years that I haven’t had to totally defend. This stop-motion animated feature, based on a live-action short that Burton did for Disney in the mid-80s, feels like a lost Tim Burton film from between Batman and Edward Scissorhands. The film is a triumphant return to what we love about Tim Burton’s films. The dark humor, the surrealism and most of all the craftsmanship. A loving homage to the classic Universal monster movies and Hammer Horror films that inspired him and an emotionally charged story of youth encountering loss and tragedy. This is sincerely the best Tim Burton film since perhaps Ed Wood. Its a masterpiece.

5.) Skyfall

The best of the Daniel Craig Bonds so far. Sam Mendes has crafted the perfect reboot of the Bond franchise, allowing the imagination of Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale to finally come full circle. We now have our new Q, our new M, our new Moneypenny and a new direction for our beloved icon of 50 years to take. Its cinematography by the great Roger Deakins is the best shot action I’ve ever seen. Look no further than a fight scene in Shanghai backlit with beautiful neon lights for how to create suspense and energy with a camera. Javier Bardem creates another iconic movie villain for a new decade and one that easily ranks up there with his Anton Chugur of No Country For Old Men fame. Judi Dench gives an incredible farewell performance to her iconic role as M and the 3rd act of the film (a sort of Straw Dogs style western)  proves there is still plenty of genres for the long running franchise to play.

4.) Moonrise Kingdom

The final four of my list contains hands down the greatest filmmakers of my generation. Each director presents their first film of the new decade and with it the excitement and joy that they have quite a few more surprises up their sleeve. The wonderfully off-beat world of Wes Anderson adds Moonrise Kingdom and the residents of New Penzance to its  beloved canon. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made on young love, Kingdom follows the romantic exploits of 12 year old Khaki scout Sam Shakusky and troubled teenager Suzy Bishop as they attempt to run away from their troubled pasts and begin a new life together. In hot pursuit is an all-star assortment of goofy, oddball would-be adults including Suzy’s disconnected lawyer parents (Anderson newcomer Frances McDormand and Anderson regular Bill Murray), love lorn Police Captain Sharp (a stellar-haired Bruce Willis) and a never-more-adorable Edward Norton as the math teacher/scoutmaster (make that scoutmaster/math teacher). Easily one of Anderson’s greatest achievements to date; the film serves as both a stylish companion piece to 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox as well as a loving homage to Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (right down to Suzy’s Anna Karina-esque wardrobe and stockings). All of Anderson’s trademark cinematic flourishes are brilliantly executed, the script (co-written by Roman Coppola) is his tightest, most complete work since The Royal Tenenbaums, and the casting is simply astounding. Where Wes Anderson found newcomers Jared Gilman and Mensa member Kara Hayward we may never know, what is known is that cinema will become all-the-better for it.

3.) The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan had the most daunting challenge of any filmmaker when attempting to followup The Dark Knight and Inception, two of the most acclaimed, highest grossing and hotly debated films of the last 5 years. The bar was set so high that even the most masterful storytellers would be hard-pressed to top it. But the backlash of the final installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy borders on spoiled, undeserved, nit-picking. Anything we could possibly want in this sequel was presented to us and many are still finding reason to complain. Not that complaining is bad, or that viewers can’t favor The Dark Knight over Rises, but the upheaval of lamenting moviegoers is bordering on Spider-Man 3 proportions. As if Nolan had pulled a Godfather III or Crystal Skull and birthed a malformed, wannabe impostor of the original. Me? I couldn’t be happier with it. Everything we wanted in this sequel is provided in a way that only Nolan could reveal. Wouldn’t it be great to see Bane break Batman’s back? How cool would it be if Joseph Gordon-Levitt became Robin? What if Batman dies at the end? These are questions asked of myself and many of the fans I encountered prior to the films release. And everyone of these dreams and hopes were fulfilled in the final product. The entire cast is absolutely brilliant: from Anne Hathaway channeling Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (the ultimate companion for playing a jewel thief), to Gordon-Levitt elevating a secondary role to one of the most stand-out performances all year, and finally to Tom Hardy delivering a terrifying and nuanced performance using just his eyes and ogre like size. Despite all the films tremendous moments, intense drama, impeccably stylized action and crowd-rewarding, stand-up and cheer moments I still here the largely critical voice of the movie going public saying “what’s up with Bane’s voice, he sounds like Sean Connery”.  That kind of attitude doesn’t deserve a film like The Dark Knight Rises or a director like Christopher Nolan.

2.) The Master

If you’ve only seen The Master once then you haven’t truly seen The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson is a cinematic force to be reckoned with and each initial viewing is a shocking sucker punch to the gut. If your looking for the equivalent of There Will Be Blood you won’t find it. And what’s more, your forgetting your first experience of watching There Will Be Blood, because P.T. Anderson adheres to no one. Each project in his filmography is its own beast, serves its own destiny, fulfills its own desires. A film like There Will Be Blood is too much to fully comprehend upon first approach. It is only after repeated viewings that we were truly able to appreciate the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, the narrative of the story, the incomparable cinematography and the ability to take the film as the favored cinematic achievement that it is. So its little surprise to me to find that most audiences have no idea what to think of Anderson’s follow up project The Master and compare it unfavorably to Blood. View The Master three, four, six times and you begin to unlock its secrets. You will find that the film is not putting Scientology under the microscope in the way that Anderson put the oil industry under in Blood, but rather a passionately told expose     of two polar opposites and soul mates. The grit of the story is the relationship between sex-obsessed, alcoholic and totally insane WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and the philosophical, everyman, leader of “The Cause” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A twist of fate brings the two together and an episodic series of events causes these two personalities to push and pull at one another. Despite all the troubles that Freddie seems to bring upon Lancaster’s flawed,  religious organization; there remains a growing admiration for one’s ability “to serve” or “not to serve” a master. This is an astonishing and accomplished work of character-driven material, something more akin to Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Hard Eight than to the story arched proceedings of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood What can unanimously be agreed upon is the career best performance of Joaquin Phoenix, a sublime amalgamation of love, loss, rebellion, disillusion, passion, pain, delirium and a little anarchy. As well as topnotch performances from Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern and the breathtaking cinematography shot in 65mm. P.T. Anderson has developed into both the Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick of our generation; misunderstood, under-appreciated, ahead of their time, and if you don’t like their films then maybe they didn’t make it for you. 

1.) Django Unchained

Vernon, Florida (1981)

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I’ve been a bit of a “movie shark” recently, consistently moving from one new film to the next, knocking out both classics that have been on my must-see list for forever and a day and also consuming the cinema offered up to us in 2012 to finish off the best of list I posted last week. Hopefully, I will get out of this mode soon as there are piles of movies that I want to revisit and also show to people for the first time, which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite things to do. Since it is obviously impossible to watch a film again for the first time, the next best thing is showing a film you truly love to one of your friends or family for the first time, hopefully being able to live vicariously through them for an hour or so.

One of the plus sides of going through the “movie shark” phase like this is I get to see a lot of film in a short amount of time, and most of it is offbeat and picked up for extra cheap. Now that the DVD medium has become so damn inexpensive, I pick up most anything that catches my fancy if it’s under 5 bucks. If I don’t like it, I can trade it in at a couple of my regular movie-buying haunts for another movie, getting my wallet caught up in a particularly vicious cycle of commerce that only film buffs fully comprehend. Truly, it is a sickness; I know it, but I embrace it. One of my favorite places to pick up cheap flicks is Big Lots, where I can find long forgotten gems and an abundance of movies that I now wish I could forget. Luckily, Vernon, Florida, the second directorial effort by the legendary documentarian Errol Morris, turned out to be one of the best pickups I’ve made in quite sometime, and the fact that it was only $1.88 didn’t hurt either.

Up until I purchased the film, I had never heard of Vernon, Florida. Even my girlfriend, who spent most of her life in that particular state, didn’t know the town existed. Suspicious. Since everyone who shows up in the film ranges somewhere between charming in a mentally challenged way to full-on wackadoodle, and just to make sure Morris wasn’t trying to pull one over on me (yes, me specifically, 20+ years after he released the film. Diabolical, isn’t it?) by creating an entirely fictional town, I consulted Wikipedia and, yes, Vernon, Florida, does exist. I will provide you with these maps as evidence:

Vernon_FL

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Vernon is still a tiny town, just like it was when Morris pointed his lens at it all those years ago. According to the 2004 census the population clocked in at 757, up just 14 people from the one performed in 2000. Clearly, nobody moves to Vernon, but it appears nobody leaves either; the town seemingly exists as some type of muggy, critter-infested Florida limbo for anyone (un)lucky enough to be born there. Then there is the small matter of limb dismemberment. In the 1950s and ‘60s, this quiet, unassuming hamlet rose to prominence in the national consciousness due to the improbably high percentage of citizens who placed insurance claims on lost limbs, causing speculation that residents of the town were, in fact, dismembering themselves to collect some extra cash at an insurance company’s expense. During this stretch of time, the residents of Vernon accounted for as much as two-thirds of lost limb claims nationally, which is quite an impressive feat when your population is somewhere between 500 and 800 folks at the time, thus earning the nickname “Nub City*.”

As you could imagine, the citizens are a colorful bunch, which helps in transforming Morris’s documentary feature into a strange and utterly captivating piece of work, chronicling their obsessions with a deadpan, slight-of-hand style that doesn’t get in the way of the film becoming an involved record of the town’s colorful characters. Vernon’s memorable residents include a wildly enthusiastic group of turkey (the smartest birds in America, he enthuses!) hunters, one of whom who can recall each of his hunting achievements in such detail that could only be described as epic; the solitary local cop who seems to have learned the ins and outs of his trade by viewing cop shows, who is equipped with outdated equipment including a two-way radio that, since he has no counterparts, is used only to talk with his wife; and an elderly couple whose prize possession is a jar of sand collected from White Sands, NM, that they insist, thanks to radiation, had begun to multiply.

As with the rest of his filmography, Morris takes the simple approach of placing his subjects in their environment and only listening to the stories they wish to regale him with. This allows the residents to talk of their dreams, philosophies, superstitions, and fantasies in a surprisingly candor-filled fashion. In one of the film’s best scenes, you see and hear an old man pontificate on what a turtle he keeps in his backyard must be thinking about, and begin to realize you just got the Cliff Notes version of his life’s philosophy. This probably goes without saying, but the movie is often very funny. The aforementioned cop uses a bewildering array of law-enforcement jargon that makes it impossible to tell if he is joking or not, and in my personal favorite scene, we get to see Sunday morning church service with the local preacher, a man who appears to be in over his head (but enthusiastically so), giving an entire sermon on the significance of the word “therefore.”

Upon its release, Vernon, Florida received a fair amount of criticism, including allegations of making fun of its subjects, a charge I don’t exactly agree with as the film seems to have too much in the way of affection for the residents for that. Instead, I think Morris saw them as true American originals that’ve let their enthusiasms for wild, rabies-infested animals, worm farming, idioms, and Jesus run away with them. In truth, all they are trying to find in their eccentric obsessions is a way to make sense of their lives and the universe they find themselves in. All they want is to find a pattern in life that makes their existence worthwhile and worth living. In that way, the residents of Vernon are no different from the rest of us, it’s just the system they chose is skewed from the norm.

-David

*This was the original title chosen by Morris until several death threats from the townsfolk changed his mind.

The Top Films of 2012 (Take 3)

The Night of the Living Oscars is almost upon us, which means it’s time for film buffs everywhere to make lists and make desperate attempts to compare apples to oranges in order to decide which one goes where. My attempts are as follows:

The Top 10 Films of 2012:

10. The Raid: Redemption
This is the Tony Jaa film with no Tony Jaa, and I wish that Ong Bak 2 & 3 had been anywhere near as good as The Raid. With a similar setup to Dredd, involving a multi-storied building on lockdown while hordes of tenants fight our protagonists, The Raid has excellent fight choreography that is creative, rapid-paced, and as is essential for a martial-arts action film, in plentiful supply. The Raid doesn’t bog itself down trying to make the story any more than it needs to be; it doesn’t feel tacked on but it doesn’t overburden the rest of the film and take away from the action either. A solid piece of adrenaline-laced action filmmaking.

9. The Grey
A sobering story about a man who has nothing to live for fighting to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, The Grey isn’t just a film about the struggle against the natural world, but a personal look at a man’s conviction in the face of death, despite the pain and sadness in his past. Liam Neeson shows some real acting chops here, and seems to really delve into the role instead of going through the motions. What could have been a by-the-numbers survival story digs a little deeper and the result is powerful.

8. God Bless America
Perhaps it’s the cynical asshole in me, but throughout almost all of God Bless America I had a smile plastered across my face. With his death looming over his day-to-day suffering, Frank (Joel Murray) decides to cleanse the world of modern society’s shortcomings. Watching Joel Murray do what we have thought about once or twice in our darker moments is almost cathartic, and the entire film has a biting wit to go with the carnage that it portrays. Dark comedies, such as the work of Todd Solondz, never seem to get much exposure; perhaps because they sometimes strike a little too close to home. God Bless America fits the genre perfectly by making you want to laugh and despair at the same time.

7. Cloud Atlas
The Wachowski’s & Tom Tykwer’s brazenly ambitious Cloud Atlas is a film I kept thinking about for days. At first it was almost difficult to keep up with the many stories running concurrently, but the film quickly settles into a rhythm, and it’s an impressive sight to behold. Each arc goes through the build up and climax of their story simultaneously, with actors playing multiple characters at different points in time, all the while different key elements of one story will have an effect on another that takes place later in time. Some elements aren’t even central to the plot, but when you notice that the buttons stolen by one character are now a necklace worn by his descendant in the far-flung future, it’s a nice touch. Cloud Atlas is a multilayered epic that deserves multiple viewings.

6. Prometheus
As a long-time fan of the Alien franchise, this was easily my most-anticipated film of 2012. The original director my personal favorite, Alien (1979), returning to create a prequel that delves into the origins of the Xenomorphs? Yes, please and thank you. Prometheus, however, is quite the tease. While we get fantastic special effects, some great sci-fi storytelling and a healthy dose of horror and action, we also get plenty of questions that don’t get answered. While some may feel this detracts from the film, with a Prometheus 2 allegedly in the works, those questions may yet be resolved, and really, Prometheus stands just fine without having everything explained. Didn’t the original Alien? With that in mind, there’s plenty to love here, and Fassbender’s excellent performance as David deserves a little more attention. For Wes’s review of Prometheus, go here.

5. Frankenweenie
Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s love letter to the films of his youth, proves that Burton still has that charm that makes his older films so enthralling. It’s a shame that this and ParaNorman did somewhat poorly at the box-office, especially since stop-motion is one of my favorite methods of filmmaking; we may be seeing some of the last big-budget stop-motion films for quite some time. For a more in-depth look at Frankenweenie, check out my original review here.

4. Life of Pi
Not having read the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. From the trailers I had no doubt the film would be a visual feast (and it is), but all the visuals in the world mean nothing if there isn’t a solid core story. Fortunately, Life of Pi is a colorful and vibrant story about a young man who survives a shipwreck told in flashback, and somewhat like 2003’s Big Fish shows that the perception of a story may in fact be more honest than the basic truth. Simply put, Life of Pi is a fantastical tale that blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

3. Cabin in the Woods
As much as I love horror films, I’ll be the first to admit that the bulk of the genre is plagued by almost anything that can be bad in a film. Perhaps one of the worst is the overuse of clichéd plots that we’ve all seen a billion times over. And surprisingly, that is what makes Cabin in the Woods such a stellar film. I had expected a decent movie, I wasn’t expecting a film that poked fun at tired horror conventions while using them to construct an enthralling look at the horror movie itself. Even those who aren’t horror fans should give Cabin in the Woods a look, if only to see the jaw-dropping turns the story takes. For David’s review of Cabin in the Woods, go here.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson continually impresses with his work, Moonrise Kingdom is likely one of his best efforts. Between the amazing cast all turning in excellent performances, the camerawork so good each shot could be a piece of art, and a compelling story that captures youthful love and rebellion, it’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been carefully tuned to perfection by Mr. Anderson. This editor hopes that we can look forward to more of the same. For David’s review of Moonrise Kingdom, go here.

1. Django Unchained
While Quentin Tarantino had used elements of the Western genre in nearly every one of his films, he’d never simply made a Western. Django Unchained is that Western, and it succeeds admirably. A revenge/rescue story set in the pre-Civil War south, the oftentimes cartoonishly violent and racially charged plot sees Django (Jamie Foxx) becoming a bounty hunter as he attempts to rescue his wife. Where Tarantino’s films really shine is with character performances, enhanced with great dialogue for those performances, and Django Unchained does so through superb performances by the always-impressive Christoph Waltz and a knockout performance by DiCaprio as the villainous Calvin Candy. With yet another of Tarantino’s carefully picked soundtracks backing it, Django Unchained is a fine addition to the director’s lexicon.

Honorable Mentions:
Stuff that didn’t make the cut, but is still worth talking about.

7 Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) was easily one of my favorite films of that year, and his latest offering is nothing to sneeze at either. With some excellent performances (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits are all great) and repeated “I didn’t expect that at all” moments, 7 Psycopaths was just shy of making the list.

Argo – Ben Affleck’s film about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis is a competent film, and while I’m not sure that I’m as impressed as some are by it, there’s certainly nothing overtly wrong with it, and it’s a solid, engaging piece of work.

The Avengers – I doubt there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this film, but I’m including it here simply because when it was being made I thought that I was going to hate it. There was no way that anyone could make a superhero league film that wasn’t all over the place. But Joss Whedon managed to make a decent film that, though not flawless by any means, surprised me. Kudos to you, Mr. Whedon. Wes’s review can be found here.

The Dark Knight Rises – After The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises had some big shoes to fill. Too big, perhaps. While I still maintain that it is a good film, I can’t get past some of the suspension of disbelief that is required. It’s a shame that it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but there’s still plenty of cinematography, great acting, an impressive score and intense action sequences that make it better than just average.

Dredd – Though Stallone’s Judge Dredd (1995) does the comic book character no justice, 2012’s take on the character was much more in-line with the tone of the comics. A gritty, brutal action movie that was a pleasant surprise, especially given that didn’t expect anything from it.

Looper – While Looper might have some major plot holes, the film is done with such style and conviction that they can be set aside. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a notable performance as a young Bruce Willis, and the subtle make-up only enhances the effect. The psychic-powerhouse bit is cool too. Wes’s review can be found here.

ParaNormanParaNorman is a stop-motion film about a boy who can see the dead and must save his town from a witch’s curse. Like the aforementioned Frankenweenie, ParaNorman is visually impressive, and though the story drags sometimes, it’s worth noting for the amount of craft the Laika team put into it.

The Pirates!: Band of Misfits  – Yet another stop-motion film worth mentioning, from the amazing team at Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run). It gets a bit too juvenile for my tastes at times, but the entire film is a visual treat, and genuinely funny at times.

Sinister – Though there are issues with Sinister, it still is one of the better horror films to come out in 2012. There are moments that are truly creepy, and moments that are truly disturbing. Something about the home camera aspect makes the entire movie have an unsettling vibe, the atmosphere (aided by some great use of the band Boards of Canada) will stick with you, and that alone makes this film worth mentioning.

Skyfall – A noticeable improvement over Quantum of Solace (2008), the newest Bond film serves up some great sequences and top-notch cinematography, and one of the better Bond songs. Craig continues to impress as a no-nonsense take on the 007 character, and more of these to come is good news.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph was a strong contender for my Top 10, but Sarah Silverman’s character too often tread into annoying instead of charming. That aside, it’s a great movie that is considerably improved by the plethora of videogame character cameos. If you consider yourself an avid gamer (not you, CoD players), you’ll get a kick out of simply spotting all the references.

Worst 10 Movies of 2012
Though I wish I had descriptions for each of these films, I’m finding it hard to muster up the desire to expend any more time on them than I already have. They already stole several hours of my life, so this simple list will hopefully represent the last of such theft.

10. Step Up Revolution
9. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
8. The Cold Light of Day
7. Resident Evil: Retribution
6. Mirror Mirror
5. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
4. The Devil Inside
3. That’s My Boy
2. One for the Money
1. 3 Stooges

Disappointments:
The stuff that should have been great, but wasn’t. YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!

The Man with the Iron Fists
Despite David’s review, I still had this one on my watchlist because the trailer had looked promising. While The Man with the Iron Fists does many things well, such as the multitude of eccentric characters, it just isn’t quite what it could (and should) be. The camerawork leaves something to be desired, the CG blood / special effects look terrible and take you right out of the film, and the ending could have really used some extended fight scenes. Hopefully RZA can fix these kind of grievances and give us the 70’s kung-fu film that will do the genre justice.

Iron Sky
Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Iron Sky seemed to have tongue planted firmly in cheek from the outset. Nazis on the dark side of the moon is a delightfully ridiculous premise, and the trailer had me excited for something that played up the cheese while being thoroughly creative with that license. While Iron Sky attempts to reach this goal, it bogs itself down by going in the completely wrong direction, and while there are laughs to be had here and there, too much of what we get consists of a boring subplot and wasted potential.

Brave
Now, let’s be clear that I don’t consider Brave a bad film by any means. It’s a visually impressive movie that doesn’t have any major flaws. But Pixar has a fairly impressive track record (barring the Cars films, in this editor’s opinion), so I had very lofty expectations after seeing the first trailers. Brave’s story, however, is simply lacking that special touch that would make it stand with the other Pixar greats. In other words, Brave is a good, not great film. And that is disappointing.

Missed:
Films that weren’t seen in time to make (or not make) this list.

Amour
The Imposter
Lincoln
The Master
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Robot & Frank
The Secret World of Arrietty
Silver Linings Playbook
Shame

-Adam

The Top Films of 2012 (Take 2)

Here after the beginning of a new year it’s customary to take a look back at the year that was. Since this is a site about everything film, I suppose it would be fitting to have a retrospect regarding the best movies I saw as opposed to a ranking of all the different brands of peanut butter I ate in 2012 (youtube video forthcoming). Since I ceased working in a theater, my viewing of new movies has decreased as the price of admission has gone from free to wtf. Therefore if you see a shocking omission from my list, then I probably just haven’t seen it yet or perhaps you just rank The Oogieloves a bit too highly. I know that everyone has been waiting for my Best of 1901 list (Edison dominates), but until I finish that, here is my Top 10 (or so) of 2012.

Honorable Mention:

The Raid:Redemption – A film nearly identical to Dredd in plot structure. Nearly all of it follows law enforcement trapped in a single high-rise building run by a druglord, only here we are in the present. High on action, low on plot, The Raid is for the adrenaline challenged. The action sequences and martial arts in this film will make your head spin. I haven’t been this impressed with an action film out of southeast Asia since Tony Jaa’s Tom Yum Goong. A tough cut from my Top 10, but I felt the need to mention it, it’s just that good.

10 – PARANORMAN

Paranorman is easily my choice for best animated film of 2012. This supernatural family film created by Laika, the same film studio that brought us the amazing film Coraline, makes the undead accessible in a fun way to the youngest audience possible. Perhaps just me being a dad seeing my daughter enjoy this film so much landed this on my list, or perhaps its the fact that I enjoyed it just as much as she did. Paranorman has a fantastic collection of voice talent relaying a fun, witty script. A story that pleases both kids and adults usually falls into Pixar’s bag of tricks, but they aren’t the only magicians on the stage.

9 – EXPENDABLES 2

A lot of people laughed at Stallone when he was talking about resurrecting his action movie career while he was pushing 60 by continuing the action movie franchises that made him a household name. After solid Rocky Balboa and Rambo sequels those people weren’t laughing anymore. Stallone proved that for the most part today’s younger action stars are pussified. The old, aging action stars now rule the box office (currently Bruce Willis now reigns with his newest Die Hard installment). Having a who’s who cast of legendary action stars in one film is an easy win. In Expendables 2, Stallone actually improves on the first movie by expanding the roles of Willis and Schwarzenegger (a major gripe from fans in the first movie) and getting an infinitely better villain in Jean-Claude Van Damme. Expendables 2 has a great combination of balls-out action, one-liners and laugh out loud moments. Easily one of the best action movies of the summer.

8 – LOOPER

Continuing with my old man action star theme is Bruce Willis and Joseph-Gordon Levitt starring in Rian Johnson’s sci-fi film, Looper. The film takes a new look at time travel with its real-time consequences. Gone are the days of Marty McFly slowly disappearing as his parents don’t hook up. If a character is injured in the past the scar instantly appears on their future counterpart. Looper’s innovation to time travel logic doesn’t end there. The future counterpart also has immediate memory of the injury. No time travel movie will ever be perfectly plausible or satisfy every physics nerd on the planet, so I give credit to Johnson for coming up with a new twist. For more on Looper check out my review here.

7 – MOONRISE KINGDOM

Wes Anderson has done it again. The man makes the most consistently entertaining films of any filmmaker working today. Anderson has the directing talent and writing ability to attract A-list actors into his quirky dramedies. Moonrise Kingdom is no exception, drawing Bruce Willis and Edward Norton (in a delightfully square performance) in the fold. Even more crucial to this coming-of-age film are the performances of the two young leads, Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward, both of whom are first time actors. It is almost unfathomable to think of these two young stars holding their own with legends like Bill Murray, but they steal the show. If you’re a fan of Anderson’s work, chances are you’ve already seen this. If not, then its time to hit your nearest Redbox.

6 – PROMETHEUS

This was the film I could not wait to see in 2012. Fanboys can cream all over The Avengers all they want, for my money I’ll take Ridley Scott returning to the genre he re-invented over 30 years ago. The Alien universe had been in a relative slump having to most recently duke it out with the Predators franchise. The visual design and attention to detail in Prometheus is remarkable. Prometheus being most likely the first part of an origin story for the xenomorph species, left viewers scratching their heads with more questions than answers. If nothing else Prometheus sparked more debate than any other summer blockbuster in recent memory. To be honest, this film would probably not have made my list if not for re-watching it on blu-ray. I was drawn in all over again. With rumors of linking this series with Blade Runner, it seems that the buzz from Sir Ridley’s work has only begun. More thoughts on Prometheus can be found in my review.

5 – CLOUD ATLAS

Regardless of what they call themselves, the Wachowski Brothers or Wachowski Starship, since The Matrix trilogy ended I was beginning to wonder if they would ever resurface. I just pretend that Speed Racer didn’t happen. Cloud Atlas is as ambitious a project as any in film history with an intertwining plot spanning thousands of years. A feat that was first attempted in 1916 by pioneering filmmaker D.W. Griffith with his epic film Intolerance, and more recently and successfully by Darren Aronofsky with his masterpiece, The Fountain. Cruelly, Cloud Atlas continues the trend of these epic stories falling flat in theaters. With a reported budget of 100 million funded almost entirely by private parties, Cloud Atlas has no chance of making a profit. But this film was an experience, and I am very glad I saw it on the big screen. In my opinion, The Wachowskis come as close as anyone has to achieving a dream-like logic akin to David Lynch while still holding loosely to a three act structure. A film that attempts to portray something bigger than it’s human creators and succeeds deserves recognition. The fact that this film was nearly unrecognized by most major award committees for its score and make-up effects is a travesty.

4 – LIFE OF PI

Life Of Pi was considered to be unfilmable due to the main character’s (Pi) close interaction with a Bengal Tiger (Richard Parker) on a small life boat. The magic of visual effects has the ability to make the impossible possible. Special effects are getting so good I couldn’t even tell the real tiger from the CG one most of the time. The movie is not all about special effects, though there is no shortage in an nail biting shipwreck sequence. Life Of Pi is about storytelling at is core and how each person interprets a story changes its meaning. Even though we are told a story from another person’s point of view, we still project ourselves into it. It is this self projection that determines if we believe the tale or dismiss it as fantasy. This film glides over the line between fantasy and reality better than any I’ve ever seen. Ang Lee deftly handles the complex story, showing us just enough to make our own decisions. I see another Oscar for directing in Lee’s future.

3 – DJANGO UNCHAINED

Well what can I say, 2012 is the year of directors. Tarantino finally gets around to a genre I’m sure he’s been wanting to get to for a long time, the western. His not so subtle stylistic nods to the genre are apparent in nearly all of his films. Westerns are few and far between in theaters nowadays, but if they are all of this quality then I can handle only getting one a year. Tarantino brings his undeniable cinematic style and tweaked humor to a revenge story centered on a bounty hunter (Christophe Waltz) and a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) that he acquires in order to collect a sizable reward. Easily the best onscreen duo for Tarantino since Vincent & Jules. Leonardo DiCaprio steals every scene he’s in as a Calvin Candie, a flamboyant, southern gentleman who happens to own a plantation and Django’s wife (Kerry Washington). Oh, and Sam Jackson is a funny motherfucker. Tarantino throws a lot of racism onscreen, which judging by the media’s reaction to his “overuse” of the N-word they apparently forgot that this film was set around the Civil War-era. Still more outrage over slave “action figures” for the film. Lighten up, people. It’s a movie, and a damn good one at that.

2 – CABIN IN THE WOODS

And the Oscar for Best Bong Prop in a movie goes to…..Cabin In The Woods!! I watch more horror films than anything else it seems. So if one has climbed this far above all the others it’s something special. Cabin In The Woods is unlike every other horror film that’s being churned out into theaters. Cabin takes every cliché in the big book of horror movies and wraps it up into a smirking film that’s smarter than I ever expected. The “horror film” part of CITW with teenagers on a vacation in an isolated cabin essentially takes place in a bubble, while the “corporate” section of the film takes place in an office building of sorts. Mission control, as it were, attempts to contain the action of the horror film. Unfortunately for everyone at mission control, and unbeknownst to them, they are still in the horror movie we, the audience, are watching. It’s only a matter of time before the death and mayhem reaches everyone in the film. CITW doesn’t hold back on any level and is easily the most fun I had watching a movie last year.

1 – THE GREY

Liam Neeson gives the best performance of his career in The Grey. The range of emotion shown throughout the course of this movie by Neeson is astounding. Whoever decided to dump this movie in January is a moron. Sure it’s weather appropriate but that’s about it. Poor marketing and advertising left this buried under the 2011’s Oscar nominated films. The Grey is an emotionally exhausting film. It actually took a toll on me watching it. It is one of the most incredibly tense films I’ve seen in recent memory. Director Joe Carnahan puts the audience in the snow covered boots of seven survivors of a plane crash in Alaska. A harrowing ordeal in itself, but they are being stalked by a pack of wolves who begin picking them off one by one. One of the great things about The Grey is its portrayal of fear. There are many scenes where the men have campfire going and the wolves begin surround them. The wolves stay at the edge of the darkness with only their eyes being visible, still wary of man despite being the hunter. The men stay by the light of the fire, never daring to venture out to fight an unseen danger. The barrier of darkness between the two packs is fear, and it works both ways. The one who survives is the one who conquers the fear that surrounds them. The Grey was an unforgettable film for me. I am a fan of Carnahan’s work but I think the emotion that Liam Neeson brought to this film put it far beyond my expectations and the result is a film about survival unlike any other.

-Wes Kelly

The Top Films of 2012

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to look at the exercise of compiling a year-end list in a different light. In younger days, I found it to be a monumentally important exercise, a grand opportunity to drop my cinematic knowledge on friends and family; to take up a “movie cause,” that one film that I loved unequivocally (often times casting a blind eye to its faults, no matter how numerous or egregious) and thought others should too, hoping that my prose would sway their opinions or lead them to discovering a movie they normally would have missed. It was a process that I loved and an undertaking that was not handled lightly.

Now, I find them somewhat painful. I agonize over placement, knowing that I will never get it right and that 10 years from now I will look back on it and quite possibly wonder what I was thinking at that particular time. These year-end lists do offer the benefit of allowing me to remember where I was in my life when I created a prior list; so in that way, it provides me with an interesting historical document of how my film tastes have evolved over time. Revisiting them is akin to participating in an archeological dig, but instead of the overwhelming feeling of awesomeness one must get when uncovering a fully preserved Pterodactyl, all I get is that self-conscious feeling associated with thoughts along the lines of: “Wait. I thought A Beautiful Mind was one of the best movies of the year?” Clearly, eating my weight in ham and cheese Hot Pockets and cheesy taco pizza rolls in college had an impact on not only my cholesterol levels but my brain matter as well.

Another problem with making a year-end list at this point in my life is that I don’t get to see the amount of film that I once was able. Working in movie theaters for the better part of the decade gave me the added benefit of seeing everything for free, so I was able to stay caught up on the year in film and provide this list in a timely manner; unlike now, when it comes out several months late with an apology (I’m sorry!) and a list of movies that I have yet to see but could end up making a hypothetical revised list that we both know will never come to pass:

  • Holy Motors
  • End of Watch
  • Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • Amour
  • Life of Pi
  • Deep Blue Sea
  • The Loneliest Planet
  • Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
  • The Sessions
  • The Hobbit

The corresponding “worst of the year” list has fallen by the way side as well since I no longer have the time to waste on that new Anaconda sequel or the new movie staring the grown-up little girl from Panic Room that I thought was a boy until the end credits of Fincher’s film clued me in on my blunder. Now it is limited to a 3 movie disappointments list:

  • The Man with the Iron Fists
  • Killing Them Softly
  • This is 40

You can read my thoughts on Fists and the unfortunate use of “shaky cam” here. I have heard that the director’s cut out on Blu Ray is better, so I plan on revisiting it in the future, hopefully with better results this time. Killing Them Softly could have been an entertaining, nasty little crime movie but got weighed down with social and political commentary as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, and This is 40 made me wish that Apatow would stop straddling the fence and just go ahead and make a drama already; I would love to see it as long as there wasn’t needless comedic riffing on the size of one’s vagina for 5 minutes. But enough with the grousing, let’s get on with the list.

The Top 15:

15. The Grey

Kicking off the list is Joe Carnahan’s latest film, a good ole’ fashioned kick-ass survivor flick. Despite carrying the dubious distinction of being mismarketed as a Liam Neeson versus a pack of wolves movie, The Grey delivered the goods, featuring the actor’s best and, at times, most painfully personal performance of his career, as he lays bear the grieving process one goes through after they loose their significant other, a topic he knows too much about, unfortunately. The Grey is a brutal, unflinching, gut-punch of a film; anchored by a director working at the top of his game and cast who vividly portray men who know death is knocking at their door, yet continue to find things worth fighting for, making their insurmountable goal of living all the more harrowing.

14. Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning

Do me a favor would you? Don’t see this entry and immediately laugh, thinking I went and lost my damn mind. Instead, take a second and play the red band trailer for the latest installment of the sci-fi action series and finish reading the list once you’re done.

As you can see from the images above, Hyams’ latest franchise installment is of a different breed. By combining the action genre with elements typically found in film noir and European horror, along with loving references to widely divergent cinematic influences including Apocalypse Now and Halloween, he has created a DTV effort that stays a couple of disorienting steps ahead of its audience. As an action buff, I love that Hyams has made a balls out actioneer that veers into the art house realm, turning in an effort that contains a highly subjective look at the issue of identity in a world where cloning exists while also wrestling with the theme of what really animates a person.

13. Compliance

Craig Zobel (The Great World of Sound) continues to show serious directing chops with his sophomore effort, filming a true story so certifiably insane that the viewer can’t help but wonder what ever happened to good old-fashioned common sense. Dramatizing a story of this nature is nothing short of a Herculean endeavor, and the performance he gets out of Ann Dowd as the fast food manager who places trust in others until they prove otherwise is one of the best of the year. It’s truly a shame this longstanding character actress didn’t get more attention in awards season for her work.

12. Bernie

Richard Linklater’s Bernie is a perfect staring role for its leading man, Jack Black. So good in it is Black, one has to wonder if he should act in movies for any other director. Maybe he should just ply his trade in films that have a strong music connection for his character to exploit? Either way, this hilarious fact-based docudrama gives the actor the best role of his career, one that allows him to (for the first time) completely disappear into a role and not rely on his arsenal of ticks and spasms that have long grown tired and stale.

11. Silver Linings Playbook

You know what I’m tired of? I’m tired of people always dropping the “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” argument whenever I discuss Russell’s latest cinematic concoction, and in particular, Jennifer Lawrence’s wonderfully nuanced performance. This isn’t Natalie Portman in Garden State* here people. Lawrence brings nuance to a role a lesser actress couldn’t, transcending the material, which without her, could have turned into just another quirky rom-com. The film itself goes down smooth, and seeing Russell harnessing his considerable talents, pouring them into another fully focused movie, is a treat for any film fanatic.

10. Looper

Let’s all just agree on this up front and get it out of our systems. Time travel movies are nigh impossible to get right and by merely taking on the task, a screenwriter is opening themselves up for all types of criticism focusing on the mechanics of the whole endeavor. For my money, Rian Johnson’s script is dynamite—plot holes and all—and also gives Willis and Gordon-Levitt an amazing character arc to play with in their duel (see what I did there?) role as a Looper going through one heck of an internal struggle/awakening. Bradbury would have been proud.

9. The Master

With the The Master, Anderson has made the most intimate movie of his career without sacrificing the characterization and acting bravura his films have become known for. His latest isn’t so much a commentary on Scientology as a film that wants to explore our need as humans to find meaning in our seemingly meaningless existence. For a more in depth look at the most challenging movie of the year, see my full review here.

8. Frankenweenie

Over the past 10+ years, I’ve given Tim Burton tons of shit. When I was growing up, he was one of my favorite directors and I looked forward to each one of his new releases with a level of excitement that few directors had ever been able to unlock in me. Then he started down the remake chain (Planet of the Apes) and putting new spins on old, classic material (Alice in Wonderland) that was ugly, unneeded, and worst of all, indulgent to the point of self-parody. Frankenweenie is the first Burton film since Sleepy Hollow that I have loved unequivocally; it is a stunningly beautiful film that contains an emotionally satisfying ending as well as being a carefully crafted homage to the movies of his youth, chockfull of loving references to the characters and themes that inspired him to direct, and made him one of the top directors in the ’80s and ’90s.

7. Django Unchained

Part of me has to wonder if Tarantino has finally outgrown the film medium and would be better suited doing miniseries for HBO. He definitely has topics on his mind (rewriting the history books) that he feels deserves epic treatment, and for the most part, I agree with the type of approach he wishes to take with his latest material. The flip side of this is the pacing gets muddled in the last third when Django goes back to Candyland to exact his last measure of vengeance, and secondary characters that had been fleshed out in the script get lost in its translation to the screen (more Walton Goggins on the Blu Ray, please). The elegant editing that graced all of the master’s prior works is missing here, and I chalk most of this up to the absence of his longtime editor, Sally Menke. QT’s latest had me grappling with my thoughts and feelings on a variety of topics, certainly more than any other recent film has, and that is always a good thing. Seeing the film with a sold-out crowd that was racially split at about 50/50 made me wonder to myself if it was OK to laugh at Don Johnson’s wonderfully profane performance as Big Daddy or if I would just be seen as another white male laughing off the seriousness of slavery. And while it didn’t turn me off entirely like some people I’ve discussed the film with, the ending left me wondering if that much violence (which blasts past Corbucci levels of spray) was needed. One thing isn’t up for debate: Quentin has succeeded in making slavery into the disgusting, soul-crushing enterprise it was. After multiple viewings, I still have unresolved issues with the film that I need to iron out, but there is no doubt that Tarantino’s latest is built to stick with you.

6. Queen of Versailles

Lauren Greenfield’s documentary follows the Siegal clan in their quest to build the largest, most expensive single-family home in the United States, a replica of the Palace of Versailles. As you may have gathered, the time-share magnate’s family hubris is in equal turns jaw-dropping and infuriating. When the recession and the corresponding amount of titanic financial woes hit the Siegals, the construction of their dream home grinds to a halt, and the smug, arrogant nature of breadwinner David falls away, only to be replaced with Hughesain levels of isolation, leaving his seemingly vacuous trophy wife alone to hold the family together. While Greenfield’s work here scores some big laughs out of its subjects’ disconnect from reality (the renting of a car at a Hertz airport kiosk is a standout) and unchecked egos, it’s ultimately less interested in making them look like buffoons than making an attempt to understand them. The end result makes their struggles eminently relatable to anyone who has ever had to make do with less than they had imagined possible.

5. Skyfall

Who would have thought Sam Medes had such action chops, and on top of that, would manage to create the best Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? The continued evolution of Bond is fleshed out and after 3 films, we now have Daniel Craig’s version of 007 back to a place where audiences know the character best, a cold-blooded killer with a twisted sense of humor, flanked by Money Penny, Q, and, in my opinion, a new M that, if you’ll pardon my Anglophile expression, is “the tits.” All this plus fantastic cinematography from Roger Deakins, a killer Straw Dogs homage, a credit sequence that has some relevance to the events of the film, and the best use of an Animals track (Boom Boom, a cover of a John Lee Hooker song) in film since Scorsese used House of the Rising Sun in Casino. The next installment in the Bond franchise can’t get here quick enough.

4. The Raid: Redemption

If I could equate one film-going experience in 2012 to getting a shot of adrenaline, it would be Garth Evans’ sophomore effort. Gone are the pacing issues of Merentau, only to be replaced by bone-crushing martial arts sequences that take the genre to a whole new level. This is what I wanted out of every Tony Jaa film post Ong-bak and never got, and the fact that it was done by a Welsh-born, white-boy director makes it even more kick-ass. Based on what is on display here, Iko Uwais could easily become the next big action star and Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog) should be cast as a villain in every martial arts/action film from now to the end of time. The show-stopping brawl between those two is the Final Boss fight that dreams are made of.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson makes movies for dreamers. Movies that tell cynicism to screw off. Movies where characters and situations never feel like they are based in reality as some small something is always slightly skewed for the better. If this makes you feel that his movies are too precious, that’s your problem and your loss. I love the residents of New Penzance and will enjoy revisiting their quaint town again and again. For a more in depth look at Anderson’s masterful piece, here is my original review.

2. Cabin in the Woods

Between this and The Avengers, 2012 turned out to be the year of Joss Whedon, and until recently, this was my pick for film of the year, as it is the most original work in the horror genre for quite some time. Most of all, Cabin in the Woods gives me hope that in a genre bogged down by the act of regurgitation and where a lion’s share of the output are relegated to sequels and remakes, that originality will always endure. I hope that it will inspire future generations of horror directors to put their own stamp on a style of film I hold dear, and continue to find the darkest of humor in full-bore nihilism. For a more in-depth look at the brilliance of Cabin and Richard Jenkins, here is my original review.

1. Killer Joe

While making the rounds promoting Django Unchained, Tarantino mentioned that he couldn’t see himself directing into old age, as the films at the tail end of a director’s career often lack the bite of those at the beginning. While this is true for the most part, one has to look no further than William Friedkin—who turned 78 this year—and his latest effort, Killer Joe, for a counterargument. In his second consecutive effort with playwright Tracy Letts, Friedkin offers up a deep-fried, darker than a bull’s tookus on a moonless prairie night comedy that presents itself as the bastard child of Jim Thompson’s and Tennessee William’s literary legacies. Matthew McConaghey finally delivers on all the promise his early career contained as Joe, a corrupt police officer who is hired to do some dirty work for the sickest family to ever grace the silver screen. As the clueless, white trash patriarch, Thomas Haden Church gives the comedic performance of the year, and Gina Gershon proves to be more than game as the slutty, up to no good wife, also managing to get one of the more memorable entrances into a film since John Wayne cocked his rifle in Stagecoach. (Joking, of course. Kind of.) No punches are pulled and the NC-17 rating is earned several times over, which of course put it behind the eight ball, killing its chances of ever reaching a mass audience. Although it’s not for everyone, Killer Joe exhibits a staggering vitality and the urgency of a modern master who still has a lot of skin left in the game.

-David

*And while I’m at it, I would like for people to stop treating Portman’s performance in Garden State as the origin of this character type. The credit clearly belongs to Ruth Gordon for her role as Maude in Hal Ashby’s comedy classic, Harold and Maude.