Of course a "best" or "Top" list is really just a list of someone saying "hey, here's some movies I liked this past year." Of course it's subjective, and even putting numbers on each can feel as though you're diminishing all of them. But whatever, it's movies, it's a list, I like movies, I like...lists...I guess. So here's thirty movies that I really enjoyed in 2012. I saw damn near everything I could, probably a few foreign films still missing, but at least the major ones.
Honorable Mentions: Holy Motors, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, V/H/S, Hyde Park on Hudson, Amour, Dredd 3D, Your Sister's Sister, The Dark Knight Rises, Ted.
30: Ruby Sparks
Ruby Sparks was just on the edge of being a great movie, but it didn't quite pull that trigger by its end, so we're only left with a good one. It's carried by a great concept, something that has always been tried but never quite pulled off save for Strange Fiction, and with a great turn by Paul Dano who manages to create a character we feel for yet loathe at just the right moments. I think I found it appealing because it goes in to the mind of a socially awkward writer pretty nicely, then throws in that fantasy wish-fulfillment at the same time.
29: The Raid: Redemption
It's hard to do good martial arts. I know, filmmakers can make it look easy, but choreographing a scene, understanding the space you're working in, knowing how to frame it, when to cut, when not to cut, when to put in close up versus long shot...it's tough. Damn tough. Many directors aren't sure how to do it, but Gareth Evans does. It's not going to win any awards, and no doubt stuck as a cult hit, but The Raid Redemption is like a school-lesson on how to do hand-to-hand action.
Also, yes, a nice nod to Dredd here. Same premise, very different execution so not a big deal really. Dredd had more style, but Raid had better action. Plus, Judge Dredd is Judge Dredd and if I don't put at least a note here he'll punch through my face.
28: Sound of My Voice
This is one of those movies that really grew on me over time. To this day I still think about it, which means it had to have been doing something right even if my initial impression was a bit lukewarm. I think it was the slow, sinking of our characters in to this world of a cult and unsure if what they're hearing and seeing is real or if it's all part of the brainwashing the members seem to go through.
27: The Impossible
A film that nobody really talked about or even really saw, and that's too bad. This is just a classic disaster tale done in a very classical (some compare to, say, Spielberg in Empire of the Sun) way. You know this tale, you know this story, but man is the execution by the actors and director just top-notch. It's a great looking film with one of the best effects seen on screen this year in re-creating an actual Tsunami and its aftermath, and again something nobody saw. Not enough aliens and guns, I guess.
26: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Brad Bird’s live-action debut hit it out of the park. But it was the rather comedic and “light” script that made this Mission Impossible so damn good (that and actual stunts…that’s actually Cruse climbing that building). I think the tone just worked for a franchise that was looking to put some life in to itself, and with a great supporting cast and Simon Pegg stealing the show, you had, what I might have to admit, is the best out of all the Mission Impossible films.
25: The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker that is great for some, not so much for others. Yet, even fans of his seem to be a bit polarized by this one. It's a masterfully done movie, just not one of his more engaging ones. In the grand picture, it's one of the best of the year, but against the man's own work it's not entirely his strongest. Still, it's a great period piece (seriously, the attention to detail is amazing) with some great acting on part of Phoenix and Hoffman. Not a film for everyone, but not many of Anderson's movies are.
Carried by a great sense of visual storytelling by Zemeckis and some absolutely astounding performances, notably by Denzel Washington, Flight is a movie that surprises you in how focused it is on character than anything. It also has one of the most tense scenes I've seen in a film in a while. It's very unassuming about it. Sure, it's the part you're probably going to remember the most, but it's also just a minor point in the larger story.
23: The Grey
I was reading an interesting piece the other day on how The Grey is, for all sakes and purposes, a horror film and it might have redeemed the genre for a pretty "meh" showing for 2012. If you think about it, the tension, the death, the way it all structures itself, it's probably an accurate description. I mean, what else are you going to call it? It's a bit too violent for just "thriller" or "suspense" and certainly not a drama. Whatever you want to label it, though, I think just a damn good movie is fine enough.
22: The Intouchables
Sentimental and sweet, The Intouchables is full of charm, heart, warmth, comedy and sadness. The Intouchables doesn't try to re-invent the wheel, which is why I think I liked it so much. This is a movie that has a big disconnect from the audience and the critics. Critics are lukewarm, but audiences seem to love it. It just hits those right chords, I think, and the faults of the film get swept away by simply enjoying a well-done movie even if it never tries to push itself too much.
21: Take This Waltz
I haven't been fully sold on Sarah Polly as a filmmaker for a while now, then along came Take This Waltz and a very grounded drama unfolded. It's a great cast and a great script about finding that "thing" in life that gives your life meaning and purpose, but in the process you might completely neglect the great "things" you already have. It does it by simple character interaction; so nonchalantly showcasing great writing and exposition without feeling forced or tiring.
A dark comedy about a very odd little man that may have been justified in murder. Ok, probably not that latter part, but he was odd and strange and this fiction-meets-reality movie from Richard Linklater showcases a great assortment of actors highlighted by Jack Black in the role of his career. He’s so in to his character you completely lose the notion it’s an actor, and for Jack Black, one of the more bombastic and over-the-top individuals out there, to really reel himself in and get in to this character’s head was a feat. Plus, it’s a great little script on top of it all.
19: The Sessions
A movie about sex. All the awkwardness, humorous, sincerity and goofiness that comes with it. It's a comedy at heart because of that, but not without a conversational drama as well. Sure, it's sex, but also love, relationships, emotions and all the dynamics of those as well. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt have amazing chemistry, and the story of the late Mark O'Brien is one that should be shared.
18: Life of Pi
A bit ponderous and pretentious? Sure, I might agree with that. But it's also uniquely Ang Lee - a filmmaker that has made it a point to re-invent his own style again and again, thus making that his own style. It would take someone like him to pull a movie like this off and for the most part he did - an unfilmmable book that's filmed pretty spot on. But it's the visual presentation here as Life of Pi might just be the best looking film of 2012.
I have to admit, compared to other animated films out in 2012, Frankeweenie isn't necessarily the best looking (Brave) the most technically impressive (Paranorman) nor the most original in concept (Rise of the Guardians by a mile). But what it came down to for me was just good, solid storytelling about characters we care about, and Frankenweenie managed to just handle that with grace. It over-exerts itself in its third act, but it also feels fitting considering its horror-movie homage roots. Easily Tim Burton's best film in years - see what making something you're passionate about and care for does for creativity? The last time we saw Burton this good was his last passion project, Big Fish.
This is pretty much what you want a movie about Abraham Lincoln to be about. From the look to the directing to the score to the fantastic acting. It may not push itself to "wow" you, but it just sits nice and firmly and just tells its story. That's about all we can ask of it, it's not like you have President Lincoln suddenly fighting vampires. Why if you did that, you'd probably just make an awful movie.
Likely to sweep the Oscars, it's the kind of the movie those folks like, though it's not my personal favorite of the year. Still, an incredibly well-done movie.
15: The Hobbit
What can I say? I guess I don't "get" the bad reviews for the film. If you like the Lord of the Rings films, this is more of the same so you'll like it. If you were tired of the Lord of Rings films and looking for something different, then what did you expect? Martin Freeman is a revelation here, just carrying the whole movie and jumping right in to the character. Then you have that one scene. Oh, you know which one. The one right out of the book and Jackson and company absolutely nailed it. We'll see how the next two acts shape out.
14: The Cabin in the Woods
Probably the most fun I had at the movies this year. I can't say much more than that. It's not quite a horror movie as much as it is ABOUT horror movies, and somehow they pull it off with memorable characters, humor, lots of blood and the best "fuck this let's go nuts" final act you could ask for.
It's a movie I've greatly enjoyed re-watching as well, if anything to see...well, I don't want to spoil anything now do I?
13: 21 Jumpstreet
21 Jumpstreet is what films like Starsky and Hutch or any other "let's try to re-sell them their youth" movie strive to be. Most of those are horrible and completely not funny, then along came this one and it's not just a great re-invention, it's in the same timeline and universe of the original show. They refer back to it numerous times, and even have the greatest line about movies like this in this very movie: "You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas. So all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice."
12: Safety Not Guaranteed
Just a great little movie. Solid script, fantastic performances and all built on a very fun and irreverent idea. There's not a lot to say about it other than that it's well done and full of great characters and a very memorable final act. Not without some issues (a few of the characters you find yourself not caring about at all), the conversational dialogue and premise are unbelievably strong for this modest, indie movie.
11: Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow can damn sure direct a movie. While I found it poorly paced, needing a bit more exposition and overly long, it still is captivating from beginning to end so you really don't notice that. And boy, that final 20 minutes or so, let's just say it's every bit as intense as any "blockbuster giant explosion" action movie shit out by a studio. Realism can get you on the edge of your seat just as much as a car running off a ramp with Vin Diesel in it. With a great focus on the mission, the central character and fitting the pieces together, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie you may only see once but boy are you going to remember it.
10: Oslo August 31
Probably the first "great" film I saw in 2012, this was a foreign flick that came and went earlier in the year, and like a lot of films that come out early in a year, it became forgotten about despite a good 15 minutes of fame. It stuck with me, though, as we watch a slow descent of a man trying his best to overcome drug addiction (similarly, another film this year, Smashed, dealt with nearly the same issue and is also quite a good movie).
9: The Avengers
As a kid, you dreamed of a movie like this. It was never going to happen, right? Well, it did, and it hit it out of the park. The trick to this one, though, was that it kept itself pretty light and just let the characters do their thing. That's Joss Whedon for you, a man that can write conversational dialogue better than just about anyone I can think of and this cast just delivers. A lot of great set piece action sequences, a captivating villain and a good chunk of humor and sarcasm out the ass, The Avengers is going to go down in the history books and I don't just mean by the insane amount of money it made.
8: Cloud Atlas
The single most ambitious film I've seen in forever. Movies like this are rare, and though it may be on the nose with...well with everything...the dedication and passion put in to the whole thing while still having something interesting to say about the human condition AND be entertaining AND be a technical marvel, it just skyrocketed it in to my Top Ten. Yet, it's bittersweet as nobody really went out to see it, and who knows when we're going to see filmmakers do something like this again.
7: Beasts of the Southern Wild
There were a lot of unique, small films this year. A few on this very list (The Sessions, Take This Waltz) and some that didn't quite make it (Robot and Frank, The Perks of Being a Wallflower). But what made Beasts of the Southern Wild so unique is that I can, quite honestly, say I've never quite seen a film like it. Oh, I might have seen a resemblance of its story and plot in other films, but not these characters or this setting or how the film turns itself on its head towards the end. A movie that should be getting far more acclaim by the big awards shows out there, but likely won't. It'll fade in to obscurity like Winter's Bone from a few years back.
I don’t know what it is, but Ben Affleck just has a great handle on the language of filmmaking. Who would have thought? We knew Good Will Hunting was a great script, but his ability to transform himself in to one of the best directors working today, able to go and make pretty much any movie he wishes, is one of the great turns for a Hollywood career we’ve seen. Argo is highlighted by his directing, but also a great script to work out of that is a blend of comedy, self-awareness in moviemaking and a true story on top of it all.
Finally. A "great" James Bond film. How long have we been waiting now? Ten years? Fifteen? Oh, there's been some good ones, don't get me wrong. But "great" as in put up against the likes of a Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, Goldeneye and the like? Nah, it's been a solid franchise but never "great" as in "that's not just a great James Bond movie, that's just a great movie in general." Skyfall is it, and it's been a long time coming. Craig slips nicely in to the role and looks comfortable, Bardem is probably the best villain of the year (again) in a year full of great villains and Mendes just handles the whole script, written with a great understanding of what Bond is and what Bond can be, with absolute class.
4: Silver Linings Playbook
People will turn quiet about Bradley Cooper after seeing this film. I know I did. He was always the "hangover guy" and that can be hard to overcome. (Just ask Ryan Reynolds, who people still call the "van wilder" guy). Cooper here just owns this film, which is saying a lot considering the great cast put around him with Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro. It's a character study about everything from family superstitions to psychological disorders to just wanting to get over the past and move on.
I've always said, and I know other, more intelligent people have said as well so I'm probably just regurgitating it, that the trick to really good science fiction is not to focus on the concept first, focus on the human condition. Sometimes, that is lost on screenwriters and directors, but not Rian Johnson who wrote a script that isn't about Time Travel. Time Travel is just the means to the end. The story here is the acts of life we find ourselves in: the first act of your youth confronting the man you will (or won't) become. Regrets. Success. Choices. Experience. All those things we accumulate through life come to a head as one version of a man has been through it all, the other has no idea and must come to understand that. Throw in a great world build of a future and slick action used smartly (similar to Skyfall, focusing on the execution rather than just being a "set piece") and you have Looper.
2: Moonrise Kingdom
There are consistent filmmakers, then there are those that just haven't done a really bad thing yet (see this and the next entry for example). Wes Anderson has been around for a good twenty years now and we all know his style and shtick, but only until Moonrise Kingdom did I feel he finally achieved what he'd been fully working towards after all this time. It's his best movie, though not necessarily my personal favorite in his oeuvre, as its perfectly paced, has the right cast, is absolutely gorgeous to look at and is just a sweet tale about a boy and a girl.
1: Django Unchained
And here you have it, with a "bang" as they say. The last film that came out in 2012 scored it (and it's not because I recently saw it and "fresh on the mind," I saw it back in early December...three times). Look, I love Spaghetti Westerns. Hell, I had a whole week dedicated to reviewing them...three times...and one with the original Django with Franco Nero (who appears in this one as well). It's a great Spaghetti Western on its own, but then you add in that Quentin Tarantino style of conversation and dialogue, interesting characters, dark humor and, amazingly, dealing with a background subject matter that is often ignored in westerns, that being slavery, and you have what I would call a masterpiece of filmmaking. Well, maybe not that, but it's one for the books either way and another feather in Tarantino's cap.