This ended up being a great year for movies. 2012 started unusually strong, and - while it seemed to falter a bit during summer - it ended with a string of amazing movies from early fall through December. And since this is the first post of the new year for this blog, I figure I'll do a Top 10 list.
As a caveat, I still have not seen Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, or Argo, but you know what, I don't feel like waiting. I'll amend things in a couple weeks if needed, but here's what won me over the most in cinemas.
To start, the movies that didn't quite make the cut.
Honorable Mentions: THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, CHRONICLE, 21 JUMP STREET, SINISTER, BRAVE, DREDD, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY,
10. PARANORMAN / WRECK-IT RALPH
What's that, ties are cheating? Too bad, my list, my rules. This was a really good year for animation – the fact that my two favorite animated movies of 2012 are so far down on my list says less about their quality than about how great the rest of the entries are. But both ParaNormaN and Wreck-It Ralph are fantastic movies that pay homage to traditionally “nerdy” subject matter (monster movies and video games respectively) without falling into the trap of relying on said subject for the story to work. Both are films about tolerance and acceptance, both of others and of yourself. Both are movies about an outcast having to prove himself, and both feature a surprising amount of emotional depth in their supporting characters as well as in the way they approach their narrative and thematic content. And both are visually sumptuous to boot.
9. THE GREY
Joe Carnahan has been a hell of an interesting director to watch. From the low-budget Smokin' Aces to the wildly enjoyable A-Team film, it would be easy to dismiss him as a junk film-maker, a more bare-knuckle Michael Bay if you will. That seems to be a challenge he tackled head-on while making The Grey, which is both a gut-wrenchingly tense survival film and an achingly beautiful examination of love, death, and faith. A movie that personifies the moniker of “Guy Movies For Smart People,” this man vs. nature mini-epic about the survivors of a plane crash in the arctic revels is making the experience as harrowing for the audience as it is for the characters. Make no mistake, there's a lot of people doing good work, but this is Liam Neeson's film back to front. While it's easy to joke about him going from “Oscar-winning Serious Leading Man” to “Irish Bruce Willis” over the past few years, Neeson spends this film reminding you why he's got a golden statue. And when you consider the recent events in his personal life and how they mirror his character, the result is an absolutely heart-breaking performance.
When you think of “America's favorite director” making a movie about “America's favorite president” there's a picture that comes to mind as to what sort of film that's going to be. Lincoln is not that film. Playing more like an episode of “The West Wing” set in 1865 than the sprawling soft-focused biopic you might expect, Spielberg's movie is set during the final months of Lincoln's presidency and highlights the floor fight in the House of Representatives over the passing of the 13th Amendment. The script flips between intelligent and informative, insightful and dramatic, and genuinely funny with the same apparent ease that Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits – rather than acts – his role as the 16th president. And in an era of history so often romanticized, it's refreshing to see the dirty back-door politics on full display here, as the film asserts that sometimes you have to get a little dirty to do the right thing.
7. THE RAID: REDEMPTION
When it comes to action movies, you have ones that re-invent the wheel (Die Hard, The Matrix) and then you have ones that focus on making a damned amazing wheel with insanely limited resources. The Raid (subtitled “Redemption” in its American release) is the latter, a movie that is “merely” content to perfect the martial arts film. A study in economy (you learn nearly everything you need to know about the main character in the first scene, mostly visually), The Raid oscillates between masterful tension and insane action as a S.W.A.T. Team's raid of a drug lord's high rise goes catastrophically wrong. The Indonesian martial art on display – silat – is quick, brutal, and entrancing, especially because director Gareth Evans knows how to shoot it. There are scenes where this movie pushes everything to the breaking point only to gleefully top itself moments later, and that's awesome.
6. MOONRISE KINGDOM
Wes Anderson is what you call an “acquired taste” but Moonrise Kingdom may be at once the most approachable and most distinctly personal film he's made, at the same time as being one of his best. While The Fantastic Mr. Fox took his visual sensibilities to their logical extreme (the chintzy dollhouse aesthetic used as actual dollhouse-style props for a stop-motion animated film), Moonrise brings his penchant for exploring emotionally-stunted main characters (“man-children” especially) and drops it into a coming-of-age story set in 1965. The care-free-but-also-totally-serious romance between runaways Suzy and Sam encapsulates the way reality and play blur in the eyes of a child, a sensibility that bleeds liberally into the rest of the film, and Anderson's cast of oddball characters works even better when half of them are kids.
5. THE AVENGERS / SKYFALL
Another tie? Damn right. 2012 was a year of culmination for several genres and franchises, and no one hit it out of the park like these two. Both The Avengers and Skyfall succeed almost perfectly in everything they set out to accomplish, both turn in brilliant action work from traditionally smaller-scale directors, and both movies soundly prove that just because you have a seriously good script with strong characters and real emotions doesn't mean you can't also be wildly entertaining. Joss Whedon, traditionally nerd culture's best-kept secret, combines genres and tones that many questioned would ever work in separate films, and provides the best showdown in superhero movie history. Sam Mendes takes the character-focused Bond of Daniel Craig's previous two films and humanizes him even more while paying homage to 50 years of 007. And both men raise the bar for their respective franchises.
4. CLOUD ATLAS
3. DJANGO UNCHAINED
In the game of “go big or go home,” there's no film since The Return of the King that takes this rule so courageously to heart as this complex-yet-simple odyssey. Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings share writing and directing duties in adapting the novel, structured as six intertwining stories across time (past, present, and future), and the resulting movie is fearless. Cloud Atlas is almost too ambitious, and it doesn't hit every note it strives for, but because it's not afraid to fall, it reaches heights most movies can only dream of. And while the underlying message and the connected narratives are impressive, the most astounding aspect of the movie is how the central themes are woven into everything, even the very performances of the actors themselves. The cast's transformative make-up erases the man-made boundaries of race and gender even as they run an acting gauntlet through the film's multiple genres. A film that must be seen to be believed, but once you do will make you a believer.
3. DJANGO UNCHAINED
I'd probably rate this lower if Django Unchained weren't so brilliantly enjoyable and brutally personal. This movie speaks directly to Director Quentin Tarantino's influences, and it shows, even when the film feels almost like it's about to buckle. The raw and unwieldy nature apparent in the film at times is utterly appropriate given the subject matter, and the movie is a genius tightrope act between meaningful drama and gut-busting entertainment. The story follows slave-turned-bounty-hunter Django as he quests to rescue his wife with the help of his German partner. The result is the most wildly cathartic film of the year this side of The Avengers (and the most entertaining), but there's also a great sense of story and character and amazing acting on display. It's easy to call out DiCaprio, Jackson, and Waltz (and they're all in deliriously fine form), but Jamie Foxx's slow-burn performance as the title character encapsulates everything amazing about this movie. And Kerry Washington takes what could have been a throwaway character, little more than a plot device, and gives her all the personality and substance that her character's build-up warrants. I love nearly everything about Django Unchained - I love the soundtrack, I love the deliberate 5-act structure, I love the distinctly Tarantino style that oozes from every frame, and I love that the film never ones tries to pretend it's not a movie. It just concentrates on being a fantastic one.
2. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
The movie is so much more than it appears on the surface, and I won't spoil any of the delicious insanity that goes down, but The Cabin in the Woods has more laughs, gasps, and balls-out crazy moments than most summer blockbusters, while also being wickedly intelligent. This is the sort of movie that comes along only once in a great while, and it's a small miracle that this film got made at all, let alone released after MGM's financial implosion. But what a blessing to movie fans, because this is one for the books, an instant cult-classic that's sure to join entries like Big Trouble in Little China as a go-to “litmus test” for like-minded movie geeks. Writer/Producer Joss Whedon and Writer/Director Drew Goddard reportedly penned this over a weekend, and managed to make cinema magic. Cabin works as both a love letter and a throwing down of the gauntlet to horror films (as well as their audience), deftly deconstructing its own genre while at the same time being an excellent example thereof.
This movie had a LOT of competition for this spot, but in the end this is the film that both impressed and engaged me the most. In an era where movies have been increasingly throwing off the yoke of genre stigma, Looper stood out not only on the merits of its own clever sci-fi concept (a time-travel mechanic that it's intelligent enough to not try to outsmart), but also from the perspective of using film to its fullest as a storytelling medium. A rare movie that flies by but also feels “bigger” than its lean 2-hour running time, Looper follows “the rules” exceptionally well, weaving character and narrative progression through every scene, even the action beats, meticulously setting up and paying off, and bringing the hammer down on the big emotional moments. And while all the actors are great (including a deliriously fun Jeff Daniels), special mention must be made of Bruce Willis, an actor so reliably good even in junk roles that we forget just how marvelous he can be when challenged.
Parsing down this list was much harder than it usually is. If we have half as many great films in 2013 as we did in 2012, it'll be a very good year indeed.