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

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