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me to remember where I was in my life when I created a prior list; so in that way, it provides me with an interesting historical document of how my film tastes have evolved over time.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.

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