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

Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Unbelievably, we are already in the home stretch of 2012, a majority of films have already come out, and the whittling down process of making a year-end, best films list has begun. All things considered, it’s been a decent year at the movies, and with the slate of films still unreleased it could conceivably push up to, and hopefully past, the great standard. What has made this year unique—at least for me—is that the two best films of the year were released in the early part of it, the time that is primarily known as a dumping ground for films that studios don’t know how to handle (The Grey), or, for the most part, a cinematic abomination (One for the Money). As you might well have guessed, in my somewhat humble estimation, Cabin in the Woods is, indeed, one of these films I speak of, as it successfully presents itself as THE smart horror film of the year and also the most exhilarating ride I’ve gone on at the cinema all year. I held off in posting on it upon my first viewing for two reasons:

  1. It’s a perfect movie to start off my series of posts on the horror/suspense genre and to kick off our celebration of the month of October and Halloween. Duh.
  2. I rarely respond to a film in a 100% positive nature. Therefore, I needed to view it a couple of more times (3 watches and counting) before issuing a declarative statement like the following:

 AS OF NOW, CABIN IN THE WOODS IS THE BEST FILM OF THE YEAR.

There. I said it. Commence stone throwing now, if you wish.

What is even more unbelievable is that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s meta horror/comedy took an eternity to see the light of day as MGM shelved the movie—despite a positive reception at a test screening—in the hopes of needlessly converting it into a movie sporting the THIRD DIMENSION, a move that the creative team rightly disagreed with. Then there was a pesky regime shakeup and the projects belonging to the old suits got shelved in favor for the projects of the new suits. Idiots. The end result was an excellent movie languishing in MGM’s basement until they finally saw fit to hand off the rights for distribution to Lionsgate. All we horror fans could do was wait; wait and hope that the word leaked onto the Internet about that mythical screening was true, that Goddard and Whedon had indeed crafted an intelligent horror flick, one that was superior to 99% of all the other recent genre offerings, and that they had somehow managed to enliven the horror film by introducing a few new creative twists to a type of photoplay that often gets weighed down by the inertia of a cookie-cutter thought process.

First and foremost, Cabin in the Woods is an insanely entertaining movie that enjoys playing with the audience’s collective memory of horror movie troupes, which essentially demands that you see it in a packed movie house (if you didn’t get the opportunity, cue the sad trombone noise in your head now), or, as your second-best option, with as many like-minded friends as possible, with a good sound system, some suds, and a rather large TV, the monolith of our times. Simply put, it is lively, it is thrilling, and it is intelligent. Sadly, its nigh impossible to talk about without giving away its twists, turns, and secrets, as the film starts to dole those out from the opening minutes, creating an elegant, slow drip of information, giving up its pleasures to the audience little by little.

The setup for Cabin couldn’t be more elementary. Five well-known college-kid types meet up, jump into a motorhome, and head off together for a weekend vacation in the remotely located structure that gives the film its namesake. Along for the ride are Dana, the sensitive one; her sexed-up friend Jules; her athletic, handsome boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth); the equally handsome but somewhat scholarly Holden; and everyone’s favorite character, Marty, the stoner who may not be as stupid or burnt out as he appears. With their liquor and enormous bong in tow, the vacationers set out, survive an unsettling (aren’t they always?) encounter with a redneck local, and then begin to explore their destination and all its unsettling, unusual décor, like a sadistic painting that hides an ominous 2-way mirror. Unfettered by their findings, they decide to play a round of Truth or Dare, which ultimately leads them to a basement full of worrisome objects, one of which happens to be the diary of Patience Buckner, the first resident of the cabin, whose entire family was brutally murdered by her deranged, pioneer father. By reading the words contained in the dust-covered diary, the reanimated corpses of the Buckner clan spring forth from the ground in a rather disconcerting, blood-thirsty mood, once again proving that nothing good ever comes from reading a young girl’s innermost thoughts out loud to your friends on the sly.

This is story B. Story A, which is moving along at the same time as the one above, follows Steve (Richard Jenkins) and Richard (Bradley Whitford), two guys who appear to be starting in on a fairly innocuous workday at some sort of military base or defense command center. You know, short-sleeve dress shirts and name badges, boilerplate stuff like that. These two gentlemen are boring and mundane, just like the conversations they partake in while getting their morning coffee, and we have no idea how they connect to the young, carefree, and sexed-up college students in story B. And therein lies the fun of the piece.

What Whedon and Goddard have done with Cabin in the Woods is create a world in which all the illogical and archetypal behaviors and characters inherent in offerings from the horror genre are framed in a light that begins to make real-world sense. There is always a reason for how things play out, and it’s not just because these people are obtuse. For me, this is the greatest pleasure in a film full of them, how it takes great joy in running down the checklist of horror clichés, subverting each one, much like Scream did 16 years ago but with the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, elbow to the solar plexus nature of Craven and Williamson’s work surgically removed, instead opting for a tone that is less self-conscious. If this is all the film had on its mind to do, it would still be fun, but the hard left turn it takes in the third act helps the movie go from good to utterly fantastic and provides at least 3 moments that I still can’t believe I witnessed projected onto a movie screen.

Some have argued that the ending is rather nihilistic, which is true. While I can’t claim to be the most avid of Whedon followers, I do know enough about his work to say that the ending isn’t one that seems out of place, and I would argue that in the work of his I have viewed, he’s certainly laid the groundwork for an ending of this nature. Jenkins and Whitford are outstanding (and hilarious) as they embody characters that seem to be avatars for the creative duo. They know the audience wants heaping doses of carnage in their cinematic diet—even if they don’t—and they’re here to give it to them. The fact that their film does all this with a wicked sense of humor, remain endlessly inventive while paying homage to the films that inspired it, and succeeding in coming up with a shot that somehow managed to act as a summation of all the things that brought me fits of terror at night when I was a child, is a rather impressive feat indeed, one that makes me happy on a truly pure level.

-David