While 2012 marked the end of many lucrative (and some interminable) franchises, including the Twilight Saga and The Dark Knight trilogy, it was also a year punctuated by a host of entertaining revivals, a handful of impressive surprises and even a few truly outrageous and original works. All in all, it’s been quite a good year in film. As I did my best to catch up on all 2012 had to offer, I unfortunately had to make a few concessions. Nevertheless, with the exception of maybe 2 or 3 films (Michael Haneke’s Amour and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master being the most glaring omissions), I’ve generally seen all the films that appealed to me and a handful that originally didn’t. Choosing only 10 films turned out to be quite the task however and a number of films were therefore pulled from the list and relegated to an Honorable Mentions list. That’s not to say they’re bad films; on the contrary, do your best to go see them if you haven’t already! Without further ado, here are my picks for 2012.
Killing Them Softly (Review)
Men in Black III
Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
Seven Psychopaths (Review)
Indie Game: The Movie (Review)
The Grey (Review)
21 Jump Street
It’s Such a Beautiful Day
The Cabin in the Woods (Review)
Life of Pi (Review)
Holy Motors (Review)
Silver Linings Playbook (Review)
Top Ten Films of 2012
10. Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas should’ve been a huge, brain-melting mess of a film, given its gargantuan aspirations and nearly 5 century spanning story arch. For very obvious reasons, no major motion picture studio would dare fund such an audacious and awe-inspiring project, so The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer did what any serious artists would do; fund the project themselves and employ independent backers. The result is a film that works much more often than it fumbles, benefiting from a huge attention to detail and top notch editing that never takes its audience for granted and yet delivers the elephant of a storyline in a manner that works tremendously well. While certainly flawed and polarizing, Cloud Atlas nonetheless achieves most of its ambitions successfully and deserves to be seen for its sheer scope alone. It’s telling that something as grandiose as Cloud Atlas turned out to be easier to follow than the quasi-Alien prequel blunder that was Prometheus, let alone actually make any form of sense.
Over the last few years, Ben Affleck has done his best to distance himself from his old self, proving to be a much better fit behind the camera than in front with two excellent crime dramas in the form of Gone Baby Gone and The Town. With Argo, Affleck has taken what is already an incredible real life story of infiltration and escape and turned it into one of the year’s best thrillers. Echoing crime-capers of yore and yet infusing even the most predictable of events with an unparalleled level of tension, the film succeeds thanks to a keen eye for visual and tonal authenticity; while sporting an authentically retro aesthetic, including recreations of real photographs, Affleck knows exactly how to balance comedy (of which there is quite a bit) with nerve-wrangling anxiety. The acting is top notch all around, with Alan Arkin and John Goodman forming a hilarious Hollywood duo and rising star Scoot McNairy providing yet another solid turn as one of the escaped Americans. Even Affleck himself, given the amount of roles he occupies here, fares fairly well in front of the camera. Whatever Argo lacks in originality or in character development (namely on the Iranian side) it more than makes up for in excellent, thrilling scenes and its spot-on sense of style.
With its impressively articulate stop-motion animation and well-meaning heart, ParaNorman is a fine example of an homage done right. Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell nail the look and feel of their influences, from zombie films to tales of witch hunts, while equally creating a lovable host of characters who fill the shoes of their stereotypical archetypes just fine. Above all, ParaNorman is a supremely charming and consistently enthralling coming of age tale punctuated by a relatable and misunderstood protagonist. Butler and Fell push their PG rating to its brink, crafting a film made up of surprisingly dark images and bleak situations, namely in the film’s finale; this is not a film aimed at kids, which feels refreshing given Pixar’s dumbed down contribution to 2012 (the lackluster Brave). All of this is accompanied by yet another heartwarming score by the great Jon Brion, lending the film a whimsical, childish quality that only contributes to the overall charm. Did I mention the film is absolutely stunning? Needless to say, ParaNorman is a touching tribute to the scary films of yore and, along with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, serves as a welcome addition to the annual Halloween playlist.
7. The Raid: Redemption
“1 minute of romance. 99 minutes of non-stop carnage.” I can’t think of a more apt tagline to represent Gareth Evans’ ruthless exercise in visceral action, The Raid: Redemption. From the film’s opening, in which a SWAT convoy is sent to a secluded and seedy apartment block, it’s immediately apparent that we’re in for an extremely good time. Featuring just enough story to link each set piece together and make enough sense, the action scenes provide the real meat here, with the impact of every punch and cracked bone resonating within. The Raid‘s insistence on practical stunts and tightly framed combats results in some of the most immersive and uncompromisingly savage fights ever put on screen; one particular corridor fight simply ends with one of the most disturbing finishers I’ve ever seen. While Mike Shinoda’s score feels a tad bombastic and out of place at times, The Raid: Redemption provides the year’s most exciting and testosterone-fueled showcase of brawn over brain, joining the ranks of the genre’s top contenders. Weak stomachs need not apply.
6. End of Watch
Given David Ayer’s fairly uninspired filmography thus far, one made up of gritty LAPD dramas, it’s surprising just how good End of Watch truly is. Essentially a culmination of everything Ayer has worked with over the past decade, the film is primarily anchored around 2 of the year’s best performances; Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, portraying 2 close LAPD officers, have such an effortlessly believable chemistry that you’d think they’ve been on the force together for years. This sense of attachment carries over the film’s entire running time, even when the film decides to take a turn towards the more formulaic, lending even those scenes a nice amount of weight. A key distinction that separates End of Watch from the host of mediocre hood films is in its varied aesthetic and uncompromisingly grim situations; utilizing a found footage mechanic and seamlessly integrating a more traditional cinematic flair, Ayer grounds the film and illustrates the true horrors of ghetto life without ever glorifying them. Here’s hoping this is just the beginning of a new era for him.
5. Moonrise Kingdom
The Quentin Tarantino of European film, Wes Anderson has worked long and hard at marrying his style and influences into a nice, warm stew of wit and charm. With each new installment, he’s worked within similar confines and essentially polished his act while also attempting a handful of new things. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has crafted a sweet, incredibly charming film for just about everyone, having finally broken the barrier that stood between his core fanbase and the most casual of moviegoers. All of his signature trademarks are hard at work here and yet, by utilizing a much more conventional premise, Anderson deftly demonstrates a formula he’s mastered while at once making what’s arguably his liveliest picture yet. While I’m weary of where Anderson will go from here and whether or not he’ll attempt to reinvent or reinvigorate himself on his next picture, I’m nonetheless extremely thankful for Moonrise Kingdom; it represents an artist reflecting on his career and celebrating it through the eyes of a child. What a celebratory gesture it is.
4. Killer Joe
Few viewing experiences this year were as joyously satisfying and equally unsettling as seeing William Friedkin’s dirty Southern Gothic, the Tracy Letts-penned Killer Joe. Centering around quite possibly the most despicable, sleazy and idiotic white trash family in Texas, this gritty dark comedy is primarily held together by a cast and crew that’s willing to go the extra mile to avoid sacrificing quality; Friedkin was adamant about releasing the film uncut and the result is shockingly nasty, especially thematically. But while Killer Joe is always crossing the line, reveling in its exploitative roots, it never once makes you sympathize with its ugly host of characters, instead revealing considerable humor through the overly pathetic nature of their actions and consequences. Perhaps most game of all is Matthew McConnaughey, whose performance eviscerates any memory of his rom-com days, replacing them with a charming yet unnerving portrait of a deeply disturbed man. While it’s definitely not for everyone, Killer Joe is more proof that Friedkin, at 77, is still as fierce as ever.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
While mired in considerable political and critical debate regarding its depiction of New Orleans and its environmental preachiness, Beasts of the Southern Wild nonetheless managed to strike a chord with me. For one, Quvenzhané Wallis gives an electrifying debut performance as Hushpuppy, a 5 year old girl growing up in a bayou known simply as The Bathtub; through her innocence and persistence to please her hot-tempered father, Wallis perfectly showcases the confusion that accompanies being thrust into grave, often dangerous situations without have the knowledge or experience necessary to comprehend it. First time director Benh Zeitlin wisely focuses the film around Hushpuppy, seemingly viewing the world through her eyes and as a source for the fantastical. Adventurous, heartfelt and especially proud, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a moving coming of age tale and one of the year’s most striking pictures. I look forward to seeing the young Quvenzhané become a star.
Time travel in film has been exploited and abused in just about every genre and often feels rather dated or uninspired; most films will attempt to cover any inconsistencies or gaping flaws in logic with an abundance of pretty special effects. Not content with simply providing senseless, detached entertainment, Riann Johnson has given us one of the year’s most refreshingly unique and yet equally familiar films in Looper. By extracting elements from some of the genre’s best and using them in new contexts, Johnson has concocted an intelligent, post-modern script that provides impressive action set pieces that become secondary to its character-based narrative. Looper is a film concerned with questions of fate, the choices leading to it and the ability to alter or significantly rewrite history as it stares you in the face, resulting in a remarkably thought-provoking thrill ride; at times, it feels like a film adaptation of an unpublished Phillip K. Dick novel. Joseph Gordon Levitt once again shines under Johnson’s direction, effectively portraying a younger Bruce Willis with ease (and the help of a few prosthetics), but it’s Willis who surprises, playing a broken man on a desperate hunt for redemption. It’s a memorable performance that showcases a side of Willis we haven’t seen in years, effectively serving as a reflective look back at the countless action-hero archetypes he’s portrayed. While Looper poses quite a few questions by the time the credits have started rolling, its aesthetic simplicity is perhaps its most striking and yet lovable aspect; few time travel films have made the act itself seem so…bland and realistic. Valuing character development and hard sci-fi themes of yore over masturbatory visuals, Looper is one of the best films of the year.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
By now, you’ve no doubt heard of the deafening controversy surrounding Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow’s latest war thriller, the factually-inspired Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicles the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. These allegations, which claim the film glorifies and over-simplifies the torturous methods used to extract information from America’s prisoners of war, are rendered completely futile and baseless mere moments into the film’s tense and gut-churning interrogations, demonstrating yet another case of damage control at the hands of politicians. Despite its touchy and rather recent subject matter, Zero Dark Thirty is very easily the year’s most important film; Bigelow and Boal effectively dramatize a string of dates and tragic events, some more familiar than others, while never ushering the audience onto a specific side. Knowing the final step in the extensive, decade-long pursuit is, as in the case of Argo, made unintrusive due to the film’s constant level of tension and its keen eye for detail. Jessica Chastain, who portrays Maya, the relentless brains behind the operation, gives a cold, calculated and ultimately involving performance, her persistence serving as both her strength and greatest downfall. By highlighting the redundancy, the plethora of frustrating dead ends as well as the general sense of fatigue and plummeting interest, Zero Dark Thirty‘s chronicle of a narrative essentially amounts to one major question; did the ends really justify the means? Bigelow and Boal have crafted a tough film, both in its brutal subject matter and its pervasive refusal to back down from the subject’s most important questions. Zero Dark Thirty is the best film of the year, effectively balancing tense thrills and thought-provoking, intricately detailed situations that serve as a powerful reflection of patriotic human nature at its most emotionally unhinged. The pair deserve to be recognized for their valiant and ballsy work.