This year has definitely not been a bad year for movies. Starting out strong with films like The Raid: Redemption, The Grey, and 21 Jump Street, there was already promise of an incredible year of film. Then in the summer we had a massive lull after The Avengers, with tons of disappointments like Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises. But what the summer disappointed with in blockbusters, it made up for in independent films that maintained a quirky attitude and had more heart than most films this year. Once awards season started picking up though, the major award contenders came out to play, and finally here we are, a couple weeks past the end of 2012. After debating with myself for a while, I managed to come up with a Top 10 list that manages to be diverse as well as a good barometer of the best films this year. First though, there were many films that didn’t make the cut, and I do want to mention them here beforehand.
Robot & Frank (Review)
Oslo, August 31st
Indie Game: The Movie (Review)
Killer Joe (Review)
Silver Linings Playbook
End of Watch
21 Jump Street
A Royal Affair (Review)
Seven Psychopaths (Review)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Review)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Top Ten Films of 2012
There are very few disaster films that do it this right. What’s most important is the performances, and The Impossible definitely has that with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor pouring their souls into their roles, but it also has an incredible performance by Tom Holland as the couple’s eldest son. This alone isn’t what makes the film great though, it’s the heartwarming nature of the film and its tense moments when you’re not quite sure things will ever work out right for the family. The film is very predictable, and after the tsunami hits, the film is left to its cast for performances as they try to survive this natural disaster. But that predictability only harms the film a tiny bit. The scope of the tsunami is grand, and the aftermath that is shown is devastating, but it’s the moments when the camera lies underwater and you see characters hit with debris that the emotion begins to swell up inside. There are very few films that have made me emotionally riled up from beginning to end this year, or ever, but The Impossible is definitely one of those films.
Audacious is a word that probably best describes the work put into Cloud Atlas. Adapting this period-spanning novel was one tricky feat, and not many movies are willing to risk as much as the Wachowskis did in developing this for the big screen. That risk didn’t pay off, and the movie wasn’t a hit commercially, nor critically, but those who love it, really love it. There’s no denying the ambition shown here, but for some the movie didn’t deliver the experience they had hoped for. For those like me, however, I got way more than I thought I would, as I expected a complete mess. Perhaps it was the simplistic storylines, but somehow they managed to keep everything nice and quaint instead of going off the rails with each of them. My one gripe that I still have is I wish this novel was adapted into several movies, each exploring the timelines given, but seeing as how Cloud Atlas didn’t even receive an Oscar nomination this year, the chances of that happening now are very slim, if not non-existent.
Ben Wheatley has quickly made a name for himself as someone to keep an eye out for in the film industry. He’s a master of dark comedy, but Kill List is an exercise in horror and building a relationship between two characters who can find humor in the despicable. There are moments that can never be unseen here, and the way the film leads up to these moments gives a lasting impact. No film this year has had a twist ending like this one which has left me in complete shock. Especially when I was laughing at perverse jokes a mere half hour ago. And that’s the accomplishment here: once the pace starts picking up, you better be ready for the worst, because the momentum only quickens and never slows down. There’s no room for a breather in this dark, grisly feature that marks Ben Wheatley as one of the most creative minds in cinema today.
Perhaps the best theatrical experience I’ve ever had, The Raid: Redemption delivers the action, with no worries about having to provide an elaborate story or crazy plot twists. There’s predictability in the screenplay, but what matters isn’t that you believe that what you’re seeing is justified, but that what you are seeing is adrenaline in its rawest form. With a nice score to accompany it, and loud sound effects, every fight scene feels raw and kinetic, with no move feeling repeated or stale. Everyone in the theater reacted passionately to each blow, and that’s something that you can’t replicate everyday. It’s not a smart action film, it’s just a call back to films that could entertain with action alone. The Raid: Redemption is one of the best action films in the last decade, and definitely one of the best films of the year, regardless of any downfalls it may have plotwise.
Leave it to Ang Lee to take a book that takes place on a boat, and turn it into a cinematic masterpiece. Never have I been more blown away by a film’s visuals than I was with Life of Pi. It starts off a little slow, and even the ending isn’t wholly entertaining, but overall, the movie has an unparalleled depth within its dazzling cinematography and special effects. So many memorable scenes occur where all you can do is marvel at what is being shown on screen, and once you piece together the significance of it all, you just want to re-watch everything again. I can’t stress how important it is to see the film in 3D as well, because though there always seems to be the one film each year that makes great use of the 3D, I think Life of Pi is the first to use it and have its own storytelling benefit. To top it all off, Suraj Sharma gives an astounding performance as Pi, and never lets up all throughout. Truly a film that must be seen on the big screen to appreciate fully, and definitely a visual feast that will not soon be forgotten.
The foreign film that does not want to be forgotten, Holy Motors is an exercise for both the viewer and its lead, Denis Lavant. Leos Carax has crafted a mesmerizing portrait of society and the direction the world seems to be going. Living for the performance, Monsieur Oscar traverses the city playing out scene after scene, giving the unseen audience that is watching his act a performance that will stay ingrained in their memories. Almost science fiction in its setting, this piece of avant-garde cinema never wants the audience to fully understand what is happening even in its last moments. Are we ever truly acting as ourselves? It’s a question that Holy Motors tries to answer, and in my opinion, it successfully explains why society can never remove the “mask” that it is constantly hiding behind. And Denis Lavant gives one of the best performances of the year, one that seems to have been completely ignored by the major awards shows.
One of the films that opened the year of 2012, The Grey, delved deep into death and how different people confront it. Starting with one of the most haunting plane crashes depicted in film, and then showing the harrowing aftermath, Joe Carnahan made death into its own character, and left the survivors of this crash to deal with it. The movie doesn’t pull any punches, but is also not the action-packed film that the trailers made it out to be, instead relying on Liam Neeson’s tortured performance to carry the film through each grisly situation as the film becomes more and more gloomy. Audio in this film is also one of the strengths here, as nothing escapes the microphone, and each crack of a twig or gust of wind immerses the viewer into the dire situation at hand. The Grey is an example of how to make death not only feel present in a film, but feel constantly threatening, and without Neeson’s abilities as an actor, this would not have been as great of a film as it is.
If horror movies have felt stale to you over the past several years, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have acknowledged and replied to your concerns. In what not only works as a great horror/monster film, but also as a criticism of those very horror films it has joined the ranks of, The Cabin in the Woods defies expectations and is one of the most thrilling and fun horror films ever. Each repeated viewing only adds to the enjoyment, and I really don’t see many horror films ever successfully replicating what Whedon and Goddard have done here. It’s hilarious, frightening, and just pure fun, plus it never lets itself be restricted by any boundaries. If there is a movie that can easily be put on and enjoyed every time, it’s The Cabin in the Woods with its unabashed sense of self.
For a long while, this was my top film of the year, and really, the top three films here could be interchangeable at any time. But Looper also works as a nice transition as we go from fun film to dramatic film. Ever since Brick, Rian Johnson has proven himself as a writer/director that should be watched out for, and this film proves to be his best one yet. Blending science fiction with an interesting character drama is just one of its many achievements. Where the film really shines is in the writing, as it never spirals out of control despite the many sci-fi elements that are incorporated and just the way the movie is structured. It shows you this dystopian future, lets you explore it for a bit, then catapults you on a farm where other elements are further developed and the character of Joe is fully realized. Looper is one of the best time travel films I’ve ever seen, if not the best one, and that is all because it doesn’t pigeonhole itself into being just a science fiction or action film.
There’s no fancy camerawork going on here, or cheap tricks to entertain the viewer. No, instead, Zero Dark Thirty wears its procedural structure on its exterior and gives Jessica Chastain a character that isn’t deep or complex, but rather stern and uncompromising in her hunt for Osama Bin Laden. What originally started out as a script about the hunt for Bin Laden, became the hunt and the eventual execution. But the film is so much more than that, as you realize by the final shot of the film. Mark Boal has written a wonderful script here that makes almost every other procedural drama pale in comparison. Then there’s Kathryn Bigelow who has made what shouldn’t be as thrilling of a story (since we already know how it ends), be the most thrilling film of the year. Chastain gives one of her finest performances yet, and is supported by an incredible cast that give their all to make this film feel even more authentic than it already is. Zero Dark Thirty really is the best film of the year, and a movie that never lets up on its thrills or intrigue.