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

Batman Begins (2005)

When Batman & Robin was released in 1997 I was 11 years old. By the time Batman would return to screen in Batman Begins in 2005 I was 19. The wait was unbearable, especially with little teases in the 8 year gap including those On-Star commercials that advertised a walk on role in the next Batman film (upon which I would immediately search the internet and cruelly discover no Batman films were currently in development) and the ridiculously obnoxious Scooby-Doo teaser trailer in 2002 that was edited to look like a Batman film.

By the the time 2005 rolled around I was what I refer to as a “film elitist”. By this point I would ridicule anything “too mainstream”, would only watch a movie if it was either “art house” or “in black and white” and would much sooner watch Broken Flowers or Me and You and Everyone We Know before giving Fantastic Four or Serenity a moments look. Things have changed, obviously, since then and I rediscovered my roots of loving all things big and small scale from Star Wars or Switchblade Sisters to Breathless or The Artist. However, circa 2005 I was not an easy critic to impress.

Around this time I would become friends with a co-worker at the movie theater, a young lad by the name of Josh Helms, who will forever remain one of the smartest people I’ve met and an extremely talented violinist. Josh and I had many common loves like Daniel Day-Lewis performances or Danny Elfman scores, but the three passions we had most in common were Batman, Christopher Nolan and Samurai cinema. How lucky we would be to have all three come together in a time when I had given up on “mainstream cinema”.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is unlike any other movie series in the history of film. Its not solely a tongue-in-cheek action series like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, nor is it the serious melodrama that is The Godfather trilogy. Its a blend of both worlds. With the Batman films and Inception, Nolan has combined the seriousness of an art house film, the performances of an Oscar-caliber Hollywood picture, and the exploitation of a summer popcorn blockbuster into one, tight, cohesive package. A movement that has changed the Hollywood blockbuster as we see it today. Hollywood is rapidly turning to the Independent filmmakers to bring something fresh and new to the old Hollywood formula, (i.e. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Duncan Jones’ Source Code).

Now of course, Nolan isn’t the first filmmaker to do this. Spielberg and James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson have been bringing their own artistic brilliance to big Hollywood pictures for years, yet nobody has taken their source material quite as far as Christopher Nolan has. No one has taken a genre so far past the congratulatory “pat-yourself-on-the-back” special effects stage and so deep into harsh cinematic voyeurism.

Kicking off with a striking image of a swarm of bats that begin to make up the new Batman logo, Nolan’s film is a quick-fire piece of storytelling. We see the childhood Bruce Wayne fall down a well and has his first horrific encounter with bats. An edit later and were in the middle of an Asian prison where a young and bearded Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) fends off attacking inmates. The young Wayne is taken under the wing of Henri Ducard (the best mentor ever, Liam Neeson!) and practices under the tutelage of Ra’s Al Ghul (Academy Award nominee Ken Watanabe) and his League of Shadows, an organization of ninjas bent on eliminating criminality and serving “true justice”.

The brilliantly choreographed and Kurosawa evoking training sequences are intercut with the story of Bruce Wayne and the death of his parents. We see young Bruce become frightened during a theater production (the dancing figures that appear like bats are killer imagery) and his parents are soon gunned down while leaving the auditorium by average thug Joe Chill. Flash forward years later and Chill is up for parole after providing the D.A. with leverage against mob boss Carmine Falcone. Bruce is back for the hearing accompanied by childhood sweetheart and new assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and her pleas for justice are disputed by his vision of vengeance. Bruce comes face to face with Carmine Falcone (a wickedly good Tom Wilkinson) and splits town in search of something more.

Using his newly acquired skills in martial arts, deception, practicality, knowledge of the simple nature between right and wrong and a clear will to uphold justice, Bruce Wayne returns home with a mission to rid Gotham City of organized crime. With the help of his confidant Alfred Pennyworth (the great Michael Caine) and the head of the Applied Sciences department at Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox (the infallible Morgan Freeman) Wayne develops a high-tech costume and weapons arsenal and becomes the heroic symbol…Batman. Using the forces of Sergeant James Gordon (the legendary Gary Oldman) and Rachel Dawes, Batman is able to take on Falcone and the psychotic psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane aka The Scarecrow (the brilliant Cillian Murphy) who plans to disperse chemicals into Gotham’s water supply that will evaporate into a fear toxin. A nemesis of Batman’s past reemerges to share in on the fear.

As you can see the story is quite a bit more complex than any other superhero film up till that point. In fact Bruce Wayne doesn’t show up in full Batman costume until halfway through the film. The first fight sequence where Batman takes down a group of Falcone’s drug-running thugs is brilliantly shot and edited to where Batman is but a mere blur. As the attacks come from all sides, what is actually seen is the terror in the criminals faces, something more akin to a horror movie. This display puts the viewer in the dizzying point of view of a criminal being taken down by an giant unseen bat.

The performances are superb around the board. Christian Bale is the first actor to give Batman three different faces. First there’s the real Bruce Wayne, the tortured soul who wishes to fight injustice and reestablish order in Gotham City. Then there’s the persona Bruce Wayne has adopted in order to maintain anonymity as the Batman, the persona in which he is the typical millionaire playboy, douche bag with a hot foreign model on each arm. And finally there’s the performance of Batman which holds its own unique stances, movements, and a gruffer voice than any Batman since Kevin Conroy. The ability in which Bale can switch from any of these three faces to another is a credit to the power of Christian Bale’s acting. More on that in The Dark Knight review.

As much as the first film is very much Christian Bale’s movie, the supporting players are all top of the line in every endeavor. Michael Caine brings a loyal, lovable and warm father-like presence to Alfred Pennyworth. His character throughout the trilogy will become more and more the man of moral conscience in Bruce’s life and Caine delivers an Oscar worthy performance in each. Gary Oldman is powerhouse as the incorruptible James Gordon. Its a refreshing change to see Oldman portray a character so right as opposed to so wrong and any film that lets Gary Oldman drive the Batmobile is a perfect 10 in my book.

Cillian Murphy and Tom Wilkinson bring a more traditional interpretation to the proceedings. Wilkinson’s Falcone is a larger-than-life interpretation of the Italian gangster and his delivery of a monologue about the power of fear is one of the film’s many highlights. Murphy meanwhile has the delivery of a classic madcap Batman villain, his delivery of “Who? The Bat..man” has the kind of tone and subtle beats that recall Frank Gorshin’s classic portrayal of The Riddler in the 1960s series.

The always classy Morgan Freeman is the show stealing comic relief and each exchange he has with Bruce Wayne is well-written, comedy gold. Katie Holmes is surprisingly good as Rachel Dawes and pulls off the hardboiled D.A. role well. And who can forget Rutger Hauer shows up as Wayne Enterprises new CEO Willaim Earle and Memento’s very own Mark Boone Junior shows up as a sleazy, crooked cop.

Oh my god and the Tumbler. I can’t forget about the Tumbler. That thing is the bomb. A massive tank-like vehicle, The Tumbler is the new form of Batmobile. The big car chase (one of the film’s few action sequences) is the greatest action scene of that year: the images of the all-terrain roadster pancaking cop cars is one thing but the sound of the Tumbler’s engine as it roars is utterly breathtaking. The sound quality in this sequence should forever be shown in film school’s as an example on the importance of sound effect creation and editing.

Batman Begins is a phenomenal start to the new franchise. I wasn’t hundred percent blown away in 2005, I had problems with the quick editing of the sequences, the brazing over the death of Wayne’s parents, the lack of action. But in time I learned that all these were a part of Nolan’s intention. Now I can no longer fault the film for skimping on the early images of Batman (when clearly Nolan wanted audiences to salivate for the full revelation of Batman in costume) or the brazing over of the Wayne’s parents deaths (because we’ve seen it in four films already) or the lack of action (the action filled climax in Begins flows wonderfully into the intro to The Dark Knight).  What I learned was that Nolan was more interested in Bruce Wayne’s struggles than a CGI heavy showdown of Batman and The Scarecrow. That the story was more about the citizens of Gotham City, the line between good and evil and the imagery of Batman. That Bob Kane and Batman were finally getting the movie they deserved.

-John