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

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.

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.

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

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



Dr. No (1962)

There are two new series of posts I’d like to do starting this week, a bit of an ode to two monumental movie celebrations this year, and luckily  they happen to be able to coincide. First up, starting tomorrow night is the 65th annual Cannes Film Festival. This is the award season I cherish the most, the time when the finest in the film industry from around the world unite to debut their latest offerings to the most hardcore of cinephiles.  Its headed by this year’s presidents, Italian director Nanni Moretti and the great Tim Roth and features new films from Wes Anderson, David Cronenberg, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, Abbias Kiarostami, Hong Sang-hoo, Leos Carax, Lee Daniels, Andrew Dominik, John Hillcoat, Jeff Nichols, Alain Resnais, Walter Salles, Bernardo Bertolucci, Philip Kaufman, Dario Argento, Takashi Miike, and Michel Gondry all lighting up the prestigious Palais. Between May 16th and May 27th I will highlight some of my favorite Cannes selects and winners from previous festivals.

Cannes recently added a new feature known as Cinema de la plage, or Cinema on the Beach, where classic films are shown for free on the beach next to the Palais. This is were the 2nd big celebration comes in. This year the beach lineup includes a retrospective of James Bond films in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film franchise.

It has been 50 years, 4 decades, 6 Bonds and billions of dollars earned since the debut of the world’s first ever action franchise (and to me the birth of the action film). This year will be filled with Bond retrospectives and promotions. Expect many a marathon on TNT or AMC. Check out the opening ceremony of this summer’s Olympic Games held in London which kicks off with a Danny Boyle-directed 007 short featuring Daniel Craig and The Queen herself, followed by a stuntman parachuting onto the crowd. November 9th marks the US release to the 23rd Bond film Skyfall featuring Daniel Craig returning as Bond in what’s sure to be a loving ode to the 60s classics courtesy of the great Sam Mendes. I’m especially looking forward to the  cross-promotion with Heineken this fall where all bottles will bare a classic Bond image.

Yeah…so obviously I’m a bit of a Bond freak. A lot of guys are. Because Ian Fleming’s literary icon is the epitome of manliness. The high priced suits tailored by the most prestige London designers. The Aston Martins and BMWs. The Walther PPK. Fine dining. Jetting to exotic locations. Bedding a new beautiful bombshell every night. Car chases. We want that. If it wasn’t for things like law and order, morals, fear of dying in a fiery plane crash or being split in half with a high-powered laser, getting slapped in the face, remembering to feed your fish, normal stuff…we’d probably get it. But thanks to the novels of Ian Fleming and the magic of the movies we get to be James Bond for 2 hours and 20 minutes. Oh and its bliss.

The first film adaptation is 1962’s Dr. No, produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli and directed by Terence Young. Though lukewarm with critics upon its release the film was a huge box-office success for the studio who had produced the film on a modest budget. Today its considered among the best of the Bond films and proudly begins the tone, customs and idiosyncrasies of the beloved franchise.

The film jump starts with a colorful title sequences that introduces the earliest form of the notorious “barrel sequence” and blasts the now iconic John Barry Orchestra score. The credits cleverly works in a Belafonte-style rendition of “Three Blind Mice” then opens the film in Jamaica where three black henchmen cross the street disguised as blind beggars and lined up like the Three Blind Mice. This is the first of many pop culture references and delightfully oddball characters to come in the film’s franchise. The henchmen take down British Agent John Strangways and Commander James Bond aka Special Agent 007 is called in to respond. Bond’s investigation of the island leads him to the half German/half Chinese/all mad scientist Dr. No and a diabolical plot to disrupt an American manned space launch using a radio beam weapon. Along the way Bond teams with beautiful beach native Honey Ryder played by Ursula Andress and her famous white bikini, CIA agent Felix Leiter and a local Cayman Islander named Quarrel.

A lot can be said about the greatness of Sean Connery in his first performance as Bond, the beautiful production design of Ken Adams and the craftsmanship of action director Terence Young. I would like to celebrate for a moment just how violent this first offering is. In one of the film’s early moments Bond interrogates a suspicious chauffeur who dodges  the questions by swallowing a cyanide capsule. A female photographer nabs Bond’s picture at a club and Bond sends Quarrell to apprehend her. He violently twists her arm about at the request of an unapologetic Bond and she breaks a bottle and slashes Quarrell across the face who just laughs it off.

There’s certainly a level of brutality that both Connery and Daniel Craig’s Bonds share. Connery may be the coolest and suavest of the Bonds but he also knows how to play dirty. Before Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan got all gadget happy Sean Connery relied on hand-to-hand combat. More over he would smash you over the head with whatever was in arm’s reach, be it a flower vase or chair leg. Connery’s 007 fights are of a Jackie Chan caliber and carry the same kind of blunt humor and earnestness.

Despite its very real world setting there are a great many fantasy elements cleverly worked in including a large poisonous tarantula and a mysterious “dragon” on the island that turns out to be a flame-throwing armored tractor. The climax in which Bond overloads a nuclear reactor and destroys Dr. No’s lair in an exploding ball of flames is perhaps the first ever true action set piece.

Fast cars, sexy girls, big explosions, disfigured henchmen, villainous masterminds, exotic locales, cheesy one-liners…Bond did it first. Bond does it best.