2012 was a solid year for movies! Unlike last year, we got a full spectrum of movies, ranging from very good to truly great. 2010 was back-heavy (a horrible first half that year), but 2012 was pretty well stocked throughout the year, with great films peppered into even the doldrums of the year. Most years, I have difficulty filling the top 10 list. This year was also difficult, but only because I had too many movies that I wanted to sneak in…
The notion of finding a theme for the year in movies is perhaps unfair. It’s an attempt to condense the irreducible, but sometimes it can happen. 2010 had a clear theme of questioning reality, but 2011 was less cohesive. I am seeing something in 2012 though, and I think it could be best summarized by “the search for truth”. At least half of my top 10 fits that mold pretty well, and I could arguably include a few others, not to mention some of the honorable mentions. Some films are literally about a search (Zero Dark Thirty, Searching for Sugar Man), others feature a more metaphorical search for truth, such as the search for perfection (a word that could easily be substituted for truth) in Jiro Dreams of Sushi or the argumentative system of law in A Separation. You can come up with other forms of this theme, like objective reality versus subjective reality, or maybe science versus faith, and all would be pretty well representative of the year, even for bad movies like Prometheus (sorry, had to get in another dig)! Of course, that may just be because this is a pretty universal theme, but hey, work with me here.
As of this writing, I have seen 72 movies that would be considered a 2012 release. This is a distinct step down from the past few years, though perhaps the quality of this year’s crop means that I didn’t have to search as long and hard to fill out the below list. Is that a good thing? Who knows! In recent years, I’ve certainly been gravitating more towards making this a list of my favorite films, rather than some sort of “objective” list of “best” films (and thus that search for truth rears its head again, this time in a meta-context). I guess that’s a disclaimer of sorts, but in all honesty, my list of “favorite” films is more distinct and thus probably much more interesting than any sort of “objective” list. There were certainly films that I have a lot of respect for, but just could not connect with on a personal level, for whatever reason. They don’t appear below, though maybe I’ll reinstitute the conspicuously absent category. Anywho, that’s enough by way of introduction, let’s get this party started:
Top 10 Movies of 2012
* In roughly reverse order
- A Separation – A movie about a couple attempting divorce in Iran? This was not a movie I was expecting to like. The near universal praise this movie garnered made me think it had to be critical groupthink, and as the film slowly unfurled, I found myself initially resistant. It eventually won me over, putting me in mind of the old boiling frog anecdote. It’s like I was placed in cold water that was slowly heated, and thus I did not perceive the danger and eventually found myself cooked alive. Hurm. Maybe that’s not the most convincing metaphor for the movie, but I found myself fully invested and captivated by the story’s portrayal of the oddly personal justice system employed in Iran. Give this movie a shot, it will surprise you.
- The Raid: Redemption – There’s a notion that top 10 movies need to be deep or Important (with capital I), but sometimes a movie makes it onto my list simply by virtue of being totally badass. There is a story here, about two brothers on opposing sides of the law, but that’s all just window-dressing for the main feature of non-stop action; visceral, intense, impeccably staged action. Sometimes, that’s enough!
- Looper – This was not the movie I was expecting it to be, but taking it on its own terms, it’s a fantastic film. The time travel aspects take a back seat to the heart of the story, a metaphor-rich conflict between the selfish, short-sighted Joe and an older version of himself. Oh sure, you’ve got some frightening consequences of the whole time travel process, but that’s all just setup for a story with twisting sympathies and an odd form of redemption. It also features the best booty call of the year, for whatever that’s worth.
- Frankenweenie – A surprising return to form from Tim Burton, who has produced a loving homage to Frankenstein (amongst all the other Universal Horror monsters), tweaking and updating the story in just the right way to modernize the traditional caution against meddling themes of the original novel. There’s a stumble here or there, but the movie is ultimately very affecting and successful in its goals.
- Searching for Sugar Man – Fascinating documentary about the search for and unexpected success of folk singer Rodriguez, whose music never caught on in the US, but became an important milestone in South Africa (completely unbeknownst to him). A reminder that popularity and success work in strange ways, and that information (both the music and stories of Rodriguez’s infamous onstage suicide) can sometimes travel far beyond where we’d expect.
- Bernie – Richard Linklater’s small film based on a true story about a popular Texas mortician who befriends a wealthy widow, kills her, and covers up her murder… only to find community support once he’s caught. Not a direct search for truth movie, though it does raise some interesting ethical questions about that search for truth and the way a community will ignore said truth if it suits their needs. A really entertaining movie though, with a fantastic central performance from Jack Black of all people.
- Detention – The most criminally underseen movie of the year. Director Joseph Kahn has made a movie calibrated for the information-overloaded internet and texting generation. Referential, manic, kinetic, goofy, this thing makes Scott Pilgrim look like an Ozu film. Perhaps not for everyone, not just because of its exhausting pace, but because of its relentless references to horror and science fiction. Still, for me, this is bold, adventurous filmmaking at its best.
- The Cabin in the Woods – With this movie, writer Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard have crafted a fascinating exploration of the horror genre, as well as the relationship between the creators and consumers of art in general. Plus, it’s just plain entertaining to watch! It takes an overused premise and somehow manages to make it feel fresh, all while creeping you out and making you laugh. It doesn’t quite stick the landing at the very end, but that’s a minor complaint, and this looms just as large in my mind now as it did when I first saw it. Great stuff.
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi – I’m fascinated by those who pursue perfection, such as the titular Jiro. He has the reputation for making the best sushi in the world, owning a tiny little restaurant (located in a subway!?) that you have to reserve months in advance. Of course, perfection is unattainable, but Jiro has done his best and this movie explores his methods. I also found the exploration of how Jiro’s success has impacted his family interesting, perhaps being partly a demonstration of Japanese social mores as well.
- Django Unchained – Every time I hear about Quentin Tarantino’s latest project, I’m almost invariably disappointed by the premise. Then I actually go to see the movie, and am usually blown away. Django Unchained was no different, and I wound up enjoying this movie more than any other movie of the year. Memorable characters, terrifying villains, a brutal, unflinching depiction of a horrible time in US history, and a revenge fantasy to make up for it all.
- Zero Dark Thirty – Despite all the controversy surrounding this film, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have made a superb movie. The search for Osama Bin Laden is something that cuts a little deep for us Americans, but few movies have explored this sort of thing in such a thoughtful manner. I don’t personally see the controversy here, because I like that Bigelow and Boal have allowed us to make up our own minds about the subject instead of making the didactic polemic critics of the film apparently wanted. I found this to be a superb, difficult film that is nevertheless a compelling watch.
* In alphabetical order
- Argo – Ben Affleck’s entertaining dramatization of a daring CIA rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980 was very good, but also something that didn’t really stick with me after I saw it. In fact, I kept forgetting about it until it started making the rounds at all the awards shows, showing a surprisingly strong performance, perhaps even being a dark horse candidate for the best picture Oscar. Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back, and this is based on a true story where people were rescued by posing as a film crew, so there is that. I would totally recommend this to anyone, and I think it’s got some depth if you’re looking for it, but I never really got past its popcorny tendencies (which, as I mentioned above, isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
- The Avengers – Another extremely entertaining popcorn film that I’d totally recommend, and that I was surprised turned out as well as it did, especially given the long leadup to this movie. It narrowly missed out on a top 10 slot, and I’m grateful that this movie made comic book movies fun again. Great performances, solid dialogue, and an impressive visual flair.
- Brave – Pixar’s latest film seems to have taken a critical drubbing, but I actually really enjoyed this movie, which focuses on a Mother/Daughter relationship that you don’t see that often in films like this. It’s worth watching for the middle sections with Merida and the Bear alone, but I found the whole thing held together well enough. It’s certainly not at the very top of Pixar’s oeuvre, but it’s still a good film.
- Cloud Atlas – I have to give this movie a lot of credit for the sheer audacity of attempting to interweave six separate stories and settings, and for the masterful job of editing that made that actually work. Unfortunately, the film’s didactic tendencies get in the way, and that just held it back for me. Still, it’s a visually arresting movie, and it never drags the way you might expect. Great pacing, which is very impressive for a film of this scope. Certainly worth a watch, but a little too on the nose for me.
- The Dark Knight Rises – A fitting end to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, I didn’t find this one as transcendent as the previous entry in the series, but that’s a tough trick to pull twice in the same series, and things worked well enough here. Indeed, I saw this a second time and was shocked at how well it held up to the repeat viewing. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being disappointed by this movie, but it worked well for me.
- Dredd – One of the biggest surprises of the year, this is another underseen genre film that any comic book or science fiction movie fans should be checking out. The plot bears a similarity to the aforementioned The Raid: Redemption, but the setting is completely different, and honestly, this movie fares pretty well even in comparison to The Raid. Karl Urban puts in a pretty spectacular performance considering that he has to act with only the lower portion of his face! Lena Headey elevates a thankless villain role as well, and there’s a lot of other things to like about the movie as well. Definitely worth checking out.
- FDR: American Badass! – The most bonkers movie of the year, bar none. Even the manic insanity of Detention takes a backseat to this film’s glorious craziness. Certainly not a movie for everyone, this is an exercise in juvenile humor, but in the most ardent way possible. Just a boatload of fun.
- Girl Walk // All Day – The notion of a feature-length dance music video isn’t something that seems like it would strike a chord with me, but I’ll be damned if this film didn’t just infect me with its enthusiastic nature. Financed through a Kickstarter campaign and set to mashup artist Girl Talk’s album All Day, the film follows three dancers as they rock their way through New York City. In particular, Anne Marsen’s exuberant attitude is infectious and it’s hard to not like this movie simply because of that…
- Goon – Another small film that probably wasn’t seen by enough people, this is a hockey comedy with a heart, something that struck a nerve with me. Worth watching just for Seann William Scott’s amusing monologue (the one with E.T. in it) midway through the film. Scott actually plays this goon as such a lovable character, that it really anchors the entire film. Also, some of the funniest fist-fights of the year!
- John Dies at the End – Another tiny indie film from Kaedrin fave director Don Coscarelli, this is a very strange film. It’s a wonderfully weird film, episodic but ultimately cohesive, streamlining its non sequitur tendencies while retaining its sense of playful ideas and manic humor. It’s a really fun, interesting movie, worth watching for fans of the horror genre.
- Lincoln – This is a movie that should be right up my alley. I’m a sucker for movies that portray the excruciating details of something that seems like it should be straightforward. The devil is in the details, and this movie does hit those notes throughout, but I’m curiously soft on this movie for some reason. Perhaps it was the more biopic-like tendencies to go into Lincoln’s personal life and relationships with his wife and son, or that shmaltzy opening sequence, but even considering those, this is a film that I would expect to loom larger in my mind than it does. It’s something I’ll have to revisit at some point, and leave it as an honorable mention for now.
- Magic Mike – Steven Soderbergh and Channing Tatum, a winning combination. Not a movie I was expecting to enjoy, er, at all, but it was surprisingly effective, even if a few aspects of the story never connected with me. Still, more entertaining than I’d expect, and while certainly a “chick-flick”, it’s not entirely uninteresting for us guys (plus, you know, Olivia Munn).
- Moonrise Kingdom – Director Wes Anderson’s return to his wheelhouse of quirky cinema was actually an assured and entertaining effort. It features a surprisingly tender love story between young characters (something rarely portrayed well on screen, even if this was quirky), and some great performances, not to mention Anderson’s always keen ear for music. Certainly a contender for the top 10, but it just missed the cut.
- Sleepless Night – A French thriller that takes place mostly in a single setting (a swanky nightclub), I was surprised at how well this movie was able to wring tension out of a simple premise. An interesting, entertaining thriller, worth checking out if you’re not scared of subtitles.
- Seven Psychopaths – I remember loving this movie when I saw it in the theater, but thinking back on it, very few things are really standing out for me. I just don’t have that much to say about it, which I think says something in itself. Certainly a fast paced, interesting movie with lots of action and snappy dialogue, but perhaps not as deep as it wants to be.
- Wreck-It Ralph – I had a lot of fun with this movie, and as a video game fan, it was a lot of fun spotting the references and tropes, though fortunately the movie doesn’t rely too heavily on them, instead leaning on its own creations, which are well done. Good voice work, but one absolutely perfect casting in Jack McBrayer as Fix-It Felix.
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- The Secret World of Arrietty
- 21 Jump Street
- Safety Not Guaranteed
- The Man with the Iron Fists
- Sound of My Voice
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
- Jack Reacher
- Save the Date
Should Have Seen:
Despite the fact that I’ve seen 72 of this year’s movies (and that this post features 30+ of my favorites), there were a few that got away… mostly because I’m lazy! Or something wasn’t available yet. Take your pick. I may or may not catch up with some of these…
- Robot & Frank
- Holy Motors
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower
- Casa de mi Padre
- Life of Pi
- The Imposter
Update: Uh oh! It looks like I miscounted and put 11 movies on my top 10. Dammit, I had a hard enough time narrowing down to 11! Let’s just call two of them a tie. Or something.