Wow! 2012 was an absolutely incredible year for movies, but not in the way I expected it to be. At the end of 2011 there were a lot of big movies I was looking forward to, but as it would turn out, almost all of them ended up being at least slightly disappointing. Instead, though, 2012 surprised me with a number of excellent films that weren’t even on my radar. Films that weren’t connected with big franchises, but instead one-off projects from talented filmmakers that pushed the conventions of their genres, broke new ground for their mediums, and, most importantly told great stories. In fact, this was such a great year for film that I agonized a bit over trying to narrow this list down to only ten entries. There were a few films that it broke my heart to have to leave off this list, and even trying to put them in order felt like I was having to choose a favorite child. In the end, this is the list I narrowed it down to.
Of course, there’s the regular disclaimer that I haven’t seen all the movies I wanted to see this year (most notably 21 Jump Street, The Raid: Redemption, Holy Motors, and Life of Pi) and so this list isn’t necessarily definitive.
With all that said, here are the Top 10 Movies of 2012:
And right off the bat, I’m already cheating. I told you that I agonized over narrowing this list down to 10 entries, and when I finally got down to 11 I just couldn’t cut anymore. What’s interesting is that the two films occupying this slot couldn’t be more different. One is a superhero action movie and one of the most popular movies of all time, while the other is a very experimental film that was extremely polarizing in its reception. At the same time, though, there are some similarities. For instance, both films are ground breaking in their own way. Cloud Atlasblows the doors off of conventional narratives and the type of stories that can be told with film, intercutting between six stories that take place over the course of hundreds, if not thousands of years. On the same token, The Avengers completely rewrites the book on how to make a superhero movie. Recently the genre has been dominated by movies trying to imitate what Christopher Nolan did with The Dark Knight without really understanding the reasons it worked for that film. The Avengers isn’t afraid of its comic book legacy, it revels in it. The cross-continuity storytelling, the silly magic MacGuffins, the superhero battles, the blatant fan service; it’s all there, and audiences loved it. Director and geek icon Joss Whedon did what many would have thought impossible by bringing these four huge personalities together in the same film without losing anything in translation. Unfortunately, the film does lose a little bit when you’re watching it at home or by yourself, but when it plays to a crowd it is magic. Seeing The Avengersin a packed theater on opening night was easily the most fun I had at the movies this year.
As for Cloud Atlas, you may have noticed that this is the only film that is both on my list of near misses, and part of my Top 10. Well, I absolutely stand by what I said on the other list, I don’t think it quite works, and it misses the mark in a few important areas. However, I just can’t get the movie out of my head. What they tried to do with it is astounding, and I feel like this movie, despite its flaws will be a landmark film; one that filmmakers 10 years from now will point to and say, “this movie changed what I thought was possible with film.” Ambition really doesn’t describe it, this film is quite simply audacious. It challenges the conventions of film at just about every turn and opens up hundreds of new possibilities for storytelling in cinema. The way they connect these disparate stories is masterful. It is a tour-de-force of film editing, and the makeup effects to allow the actors to play different ages, races, and even genders was amazing. Cloud Atlas may not be the best film of the year, but it’s potentially the most important, and I think we’ll only really begin to understand its legacy years from now.
The most impressive thing about Zero Dark Thirty is the very thing that so many people did not understand about it. A lot of fuss has been made over the politics of this movie. The movie ended up being delayed after accusations from conservatives that this was an attempt to boost support for Obama before the elections, and then, ironically after the film was released liberals started decrying it for its supposed endorsement of torture tactics. What both sides fail to see here is that this is just about the most apolitical film I have ever seen. I’ve heard a few critics call it a “political Rorschach test” and that sounds about right to me. This is a film that sets out to present the events of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the most accurate and unbiased way possible; the way you interpret the film has more to do with your own personal views than it has to do with any kind of agenda the movie is trying to sell. Obviously, it’s not 100% true to life; for the sake of confidentiality the names are changed, and there is some dramatization to make it consistently engaging as a narrative, but the effect of it feels extremely honest. This isn’t a movie that’s interested in political agendas or grand action set pieces or even reveling in the catharsis of capturing the most wanted terrorist in the world. It simply tries to tell this story with as few embellishments as possible. Everything from the storytelling to the pacing to the performances is a masterpiece of restraint, and this movie is definitely worth checking out.
This one caught me a bit by surprise. A lot of these types of teenage coming of age movies end up being pretty similar. The execution varies, but the basic idea tends to be the same, howeverThe Perks of Being a Wallflower transcends the conventions of its genre to be something truly special. This is a story that is less about high school than it is about the difficulties of finding yourself, the trials we go through in life, and learning to address and move on from the hurts of our past. It smartly uses the high school experience as a metaphor rather than as the literal focus of the story. All of the players in the main cast do a really fantastic job, but the real stand out is Ezra Miller who nails both the humorous exterior and deep inner tragedy of his character. This is one of the most beautifully heartfelt movies of the year, and it’s also wonderfully made.
Steven Spielberg’s portrait of our 16th President smartly steers clear of the typical tropes of Biopics and instead chooses to focus in on the last few months of Lincoln’s life and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment. It’s a fascinating story of a man with an absolute moral conviction and the steps he took for the greater good of this country. Daniel Day-Lewis is stunning as Lincoln, crafting a performance in which he completely disappears and all that remains on screen is the living persona of the President. When the trailers for the movie started coming out people were taken aback by the more soft spoken (and purportedly more historically accurate) performance, but once you see the film it erases any memories of Royal Dano and Disney animatronics to become the definitive representation of Abraham Lincoln. Watching him is captivating, and when he starts to tell one of his little anecdotes I’m convinced I could sit there and listen to him all day. Spielberg also forgoes his typical style of grand visuals and sweeping musical compositions in order to create a film that puts the characters solely in the spotlight and draws the audience into their fantastic performances, and really everyone in this film is incredible. I’ve already mentioned Daniel Day-Lewis, but the rest of the cast from Sally Fields to Tommy Lee Jones to Joseph Gordon-Levitt do great work, and each character has their moment to shine. Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of all time and Lincoln is one of his strongest films.
How do you keep an audience on the edge of their seats when they already know the ending of the story you’re telling? Well, if you wanted to know I would ask Ben Affleck, because his ability to create and sustain tension in Argo is incredible. Argo tells the story of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and how the CIA was able to rescue six escaped members of the embassy staff by setting up a phony film production and passing them off as Canadian filmmakers. The details of this mission were only recently declassified and it’s one of those stories that’s almost too crazy to believe. The film expertly balances the tension and the extreme stakes of the situation with the almost comical absurdity of the CIA putting together a production for a fake Star Wars knockoff. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are great as Lester Siegel, a Hollywood film producer, and John Chambers, a make-up artist who created both the make-up effects for Planet of the Apes and disguises for the CIA. They get to steal the show when it comes to the lighter side of the story, but the more dramatic sides of the story is where the movie is most impressive. Despite the fact that I knew that the mission was successful (oh yeah, spoilers) I was still constantly enthralled by the suspense that the film creates. The film succeeds at being both a great spy thriller and a great historical story.
I adored this movie. There’s just so much about this film that works. The stop motion animation is gorgeous; it has a great balance of humor, heart, and scares; and it has a really fun group of characters. Norman himself is a fantastically developed character, sad without being mopey or annoying, and an excellent performance from both the animators and voice actor Kodi Smit-McPhee is the glue that holds together the more broad performances of the supporting cast. I also appreciate that this film does something that most modern zombie films don’t, namely use zombies as a metaphor for a deeper thematic purpose. In most zombie movies being released these days zombies are just zombies, nothing more and nothing less, and that’s fine, but as I said in my previous list I will always appreciate films that give you something more to chew on than what is on the surface. The arc of the story is entertaining and, by the end, surprisingly sentimental. Animation was my first cinematic love, and movies like this just make my heart melt.
I enjoy several of the James Bond films, but I’ve never really considered myself a James Bond fan. However, Skyfall, the 23rd film in Bond’s 50 year history is threatening to change that. Plain and simple Skyfall is an excellent movie. It does everything you want an action movie to do: it has some really spectacular set pieces, fun characters, and keeps you constantly engaged, but it’s not content to stop there. This film goes the extra mile by featuring some breathtaking cinematography from living legend Roger Deakins, features one of the best villains in Bond’s long cinematic history, and, most importantly, succeeds at reintroducing some of the iconic elements of the Bond series without feeling silly or forced. While I’m still somewhat partial to Casino Royale, Skyfall is the kind of film that not only makes me excited for future entries in the series, it makes me want to go back and really dig into Bond’s history.
Looper was not the movie I expected it to be, and for that I am extremely happy. From the trailer I was expecting this year’s version of In Time or Surrogates; a high-concept science fiction film released in the fall that ends up squandering its potentially interesting idea with poor execution. The thing that Looper understands, and what leads it to success while these other films failed, is that character is the most important thing. Rather than trying to constantly one-up itself by tacking more ideas onto the initial setup, Looper establishes its core idea to the audience and then leaves it alone, allowing the story to be about the characters rather than the concept itself. And the characters in the film are great; Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis playing two versions of the same character is really fantastic to see. In many ways they are so fundamentally different from each other, but you never once stop believing that they are the same person separated by 30 years of life experience. The story plays out in a way that is smart and surprising all the while dealing with themes that are emotionally resonant. This is one of the best original science fiction stories I’ve seen in a long time, and easily one of the best movies of the year.
I didn’t have enough experience with Wes Anderson to have any strong opinions one way or the other regarding his style before going into this film. I had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox which I enjoyed quite a bit, but I haven’t seen some of his other more well known films. Because of this, I went into Moonrise Kingdom without any bias and walked out absolutely in love with this movie. It’s a genuinely funny, cleverly written, and earnestly heartfelt movie that is an absolute joy to watch. There’s such a warm, inviting quality to everything in this film, from the 16mm film work, to the whimsical score, to the outstanding performances. It has the cozy feeling of sitting down to watch one of your old favorite movies while still having the joy of watching a new story unfold in front of you. It’s a movie that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I saw it, and every time I do I realize I love it even more than I thought.
Quentin Tarantino’s sort of sequel to Inglourious Basterds just works on so many levels. It’s a fun and exciting Spaghetti Western, it’s a biting dissection of one of the ugliest parts of our nation’s history, it’s a fabulously excessive grindhouse revenge story, and it’s also a heroic story of a man facing down evil to save the love of his life. Tarantino is inarguably one of the best filmmakers of our time and he pulls out all the stops with Django Unchained. As is always the case with his films, Tarantino manages to extract some career-best performances out of most of the cast, including another great performance from Christoph Waltz, a great scenery-chewing turn from Leonardo DiCaprio, and a beautifully understated performance from Jamie Foxx. My personal favorite, though, was a truly terrifying performance by Samuel L. Jackson as Calvin Candie’s house slave. Most of the time, at least recently, Sam Jackson just shows up and plays Sam Jackson in the movies he’s cast in, but here he reminds you exactly how good of an actor he really is. This movie has everything you’d expect from a Tarantino film: the eclectic music, the broad characters, the razor sharp dialogue, and the comically overblown violence. However, the film knows when it needs to get serious and it never downplays the horrific evils of slavery; it doesn’t rub your face in it, but it also makes sure the audience is disturbed by it. There’s some really well done moments of extreme tension and gut-wrenching brutality that balances well with the more excessive and comic elements of the film. There’s a tricky balancing act going on here, but Tarantino makes it look effortless. This is a nearly three hour film that flies by as if it were only 90 minutes and leaves you wanting more in the best possible way. Even after all the great movies I saw this year, and all the time I spent trying to nail down this list, when I walked out of the theater after seeing this film I knew instantly what my pick for the top movie of 2012 would be.
This year’s runners up both happen to be animated films. As I’ve mentioned, I adore animation and it broke my heart to not have room for these two on the actual Top 10 list, but I wanted to quickly mention them here. Both Wreck-It Ralph and Rise of the Guardians are beautifully made films with a whole lot of heart and a wonderful cast of great characters. Neither film is perfect, but when each film reaches its stride the results are magnificent. Definitely check them out.