Top Ten Films of 2012

I believe I set a record for myself this year, having seen 55 films released in 2012 between the theater and home. There are only three major films I wanted to see and missed; End of Watch, Smashed and Compliance will need to wait for home video releases (and there are still a few on my Netflix queue, like Oslo August 31st and Take This Waltz I still need to watch, but I have seen the films I want to see for the purposes of this list). It has been a strong year for film, though I personally still prefer the slate from 2010 (it’s tough to argue with a year that included strong films from Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher and David O. Russell, not to mention Never Let Me Go and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World). It was a challenging year in many respects; I tend to be quite opinionated, but two films this year, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths and P.T. Anderson’s The Master, defied any sort of classification in my mind, good or bad. There were, of course, many more films I wanted to see in 2012, and I’m hoping that I can use MoviePass, as well as further involvement in the online film community in general (via podcasts, forums, etc) to further broaden my horizons this year and push well past that 55 number into the stratosphere. Without further ado, below are my ten (well, eleven) favorite films of 2012.

Honorable Mention: Lincoln (Directed by Steven Spielberg)

I have not been a fan of Spielberg’s recent releases. The last Spielberg films I really enjoyed were Minority Report and Catch Me if You Can, both of which came out a decade ago. I also have a tendency to be leery of biopics, especially around this time of the year, as would probably be evidenced by the lack of quality that was both Hitchcock and Hyde Park on Hudson. These two proclivities made me concerned, but I was glad to find that Spielberg chose to take a bit of a back seat to screenwriter Tony Kushner, who wrote a barnburner of a political potboiler. It’s not all perfect; while Sally Field’s performance is strong, the domestic angle of the story did not resonate with me, and the trio of whips played by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson started to get a little tiring by the end of the film. But the film’s strength is in its back rooms and House chambers, where Spielberg simply pointed the camera at Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones and let them go to work. Day-Lewis’ skills as an actor are essentially impossible to put into words at this point; there literally was not a second you saw Daniel Day-Lewis in that role. It’s a singular performance, but not the only great performance in the film, making it better-rounded than your average monolithic biopic. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty great.

10. Chronicle (Directed by Josh Trank)

2012 was a year of excellent genre films; we have Josh Trank’s Chronicle as a fine example, arguably the strongest entry into the infamous found footage genre that has proliferated so many terrible low budget horror films since The Blair Witch Project ruined the fun for everyone. The distinction with Chronicle is twofold: the first is that it is a superhero film, and the second is that it is actually good. Starring near unknowns (Michael B. Jordan was on the last two seasons of Friday Night Lights, and Dane DeHaan has gone on to have parts in Lawless and Lincoln, and will be playing Harry Osborne in the sequel to Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man) and following the story of three high school students who receive telekinetic powers under mysterious circumstances and come to grips with their new-found powers, popularity and eventual responsibility. It’s certainly the most original superhero film, not just due to being an original property, but in the way it is shot and acted. Chronicle is surprisingly naturalistic in the way it plays out, and while the eventual villain’s turn is a bit convenient, the motivations are generally earned. The best strength of Chronicle is the overflowing feeling of joy and enthusiasm that comes from these actors as they discover more things they can do with their powers. This is easily the surprise of the year, and was impressive enough to get Josh Trank a gig directing the new Fantastic Four reboot. I agree with that choice wholeheartedly.

9. Silver Linings Playbook (Directed by David O. Russell)

I hold David O. Russell to a very high standard. Flirting With Disaster is probably my favorite screwball romantic comedy. I love I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings. The Fighter was fine, but a bit too Hollywoody and formulaic for my tastes; it’s easily Russell’s weakest film. Silver Linings Playbook essentially bridges the gap, featuring a healthy dose of Hollywood formula applied to characters that would feel more at home in Russell’s earlier films. Jennifer Lawrence is particularly spectacular in this one, and it is nice to see Bradley Cooper establishing himself as a Hollywood leading man. It’s not quite the David O. Russell film I want to see, but it’s still great.

8. The Dark Knight Rises (Directed by Christopher Nolan)

This is probably the one movie that made vast improvements for me when I revisited it outside of the theater. Much of this has to do with one of its chief flaws; the strange case of Tom Hardy’s voice as Bane. Hardy’s voice is all over the place in the sound mixing of this film, sometimes too loud, sometimes too quiet, sometimes too muffled, sometimes unearthly clear. This was a serious hassle in the theater where an expansive sound system can be overwhelming, but at home, with the help of time and patience to really take stock of everything, I discovered a hell of a performance from Tom Hardy, a man who was relegated to using his eyes as his chief emotive tool while the rest of his face is covered with a mask/breathing apparatus. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t as good as The Dark Knight, but it isn’t trying to be. It is very much a direct sequel to Batman Begins in a way; while the specter of Harvey Dent from the second film certainly looms large, the film is more concerned with going full circle within the entire Nolan Batman trilogy. It is beautifully shot and impeccably acted (Anne Hathaway is particularly great), and manages to overcome its flaws to represent the sort of vision Christopher Nolan has created over his career.

7. Moonrise Kingdom (Directed by Wes Anderson)

Moonrise Kingdom is certainly the most charming film of 2012 and might just be the perfect Wes Anderson film. It definitely feels like a culmination of his previous work, not in some sort of overarching way, but he has been able to hone his craft over the years into the perfect bundle of quirky indie joy. Moonrise Kingdom is a wonderful little story about the lengths two children will go to satisfy their baldly confused by undeniable young love. Chock full of the sort of great actors you would expect in an Anderson film, everything just works perfectly. It’s actually somewhat hard to write about. It’s just great.

6. Prometheus (Directed by Ridley Scott)

There might not have been a more embattled film than Ridley Scott’s pseudo-prequel to Alien, Prometheus. Instead of simply making the prequel to Alien everyone thought he was making, Scott (following the scripts of Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) decided to go as big as possible, providing a film that is more about the rumination of the origins of life, how science and technology interact with spirituality, and the basic human desire to feel needed. Most of the film’s decriers got caught up in the minutiae of the plot, mostly involving the contrivances of the plot that force this group of scientists to often act like a bunch of morons, and these are certainly valid complaints. For me, however, the aggressive beauty of the film, from the soaring opening scene to the desolation of the alien world, as well as Ridley Scott’s effortless mastery of psychological tension and body horror made seeing Prometheus an indelible cinematic experience for me. Yes, the last shot of the film is entirely unnecessary, but what comes before it speaks volumes.

5. Django Unchained (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

I talked about Django a little bit in my Intercession wrap-up, and really the beauty of Quentin Tarantino’s latest work lies in the way he manages to so effortlessly make us think about what’s going on. Some (such as Spike Lee) harp too much on the politics of the subject matter in relation to Tarantino’s own race, but these are silly surface arguments, as you would be hard pressed to find a more anti-slavery film than Django Unchained. All of the performances in this film are staggeringly great, especially the villains of the piece portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, who it seems might have (quietly and without particular fanfare) produced the strongest work of his career. Tarantino is certainly at home with revisionist history, and Django Unchained is a wonderful ode to the Western without getting lost in the reference of the thing as he had done with Kill Bill. It strikes the right balance, as the single funniest scene of any movie released this year, and is some of the most fun you can find in the theater in 2012.

4. Looper (Directed by Rian Johnson)

Brick was great. The Brothers Bloom was a little too precious. Luckily, Looper is a return to providence for Rian Johnson, who manages to successfully pull off the dangerous prospect of a time travel film that takes itself seriously. It’s not an easy job, and part of the reason he can pull it off is the film itself isn’t particularly about time travel. Time travel is a tool that allows Johnson to ruminate on the pressures of life, personal identity, personal responsibility and selfishness. It’s a character study of one man through two different lenses at the same time, and is consistently unpredictable. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is uncanny; he channels Bruce Willis without slipping into caricature, and he is supported by strong performances from Willis, Paul Dano, Emily Blunt and precocious youth Pierce Gagnon. Another great entry in the Year of the Genre Picture.

3. The Cabin in the Woods (Directed by Drew Goddard)

The Cabin in the Woods reigns as king in the year of the genre film. It was released after two years sitting on the shelf to little fanfare in April, humorously about two weeks before cowriter Joss Whedon’s The Avengers exploded on the scene and made over a billion dollars (it makes you wonder if the box office of Cabin in the Woods would have been juiced a bit had it been released after Avengers). Cabin is all over the place, offering perspectives upon perspectives, all of which mean different things to different people. Yes, it is a deconstruction of the horror genre, but to write it off as simply a deconstruction of the horror genre does the work Whedon and Goddard a disservice for the time they put in layering themes into what should be a silly film about some kids in a cabin. I won’t go into detail, as the less anyone knows about this film going in the better. I will say that the film is really about all of us and how we view media, which builds into a bravura final act that is shocking and unlike anything we’ve seen in quite some time. It’s a wonderful achievement and one of the most enjoyable film experiences I’ve had in a long time.

2. Zero Dark Thirty (Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s second collaboration has provided a masterful meditation on the lengths we will go to achieve our goals. The film refuses to play to the lowest common denominator or offer tidy moral generalities about the various interrogation tactics used to procure intel in wartime. It is unflinching and uncompromising, and despite some odd choices mostly involving obscure title cards, it is pretty clearly the highest quality film I’ve seen this year. The ensemble cast is on point, and Jessica Chastain gives a powerful and nuanced performance that leads us through 10 years of board rooms and black sites. The Hurt Locker was very good. Zero Dark Thirty is great.

1. Les Miserables (Directed by Tom Hooper)

The best possible films go beyond the simple act of seeing a film and turn into transformative emotional experiences. I’ve already written too much about Les Mis, but I will leave with one final thought that helps synthesize my experience seeing the film. As emotional as the musical Les Miserables is, the nature of a play creates a sense of detachment. Les Mis is huge; giant battles with giant explosions are waged on giant barricades, and even the quiet emotional moments have a sense of distance. The camera breaks that down. You can’t change your perspective in musical theater. That distance will always be there. There has never been a true recording of the musical itself as a musical; we have the 10th Anniversary Concert (which is great) and the 25th Anniversary Concert (which is not so great), and while those recordings have a moving camera, the concert is not the same as the full blown musical. That’s what this film version supplies. Hooper gets up close with the camera during solo songs because he can, and still reserves the right and ability to go wide when the film gets big. He breaks down the distance and disassociation of the musical and allows the emotion to hit home with full brunt. It was a wise choice indeed, and led to one of the more indelible film experience I’ve had in years.