As I sit at my computer about to give you my thoughts on my ten favorite films of 2012, I can’t help but reflect on how great this year has been for movies. I’ve been sharing my top ten on the World Wide Web since 2004, but this year has been particularly difficult for me in finalizing my list. Rather than just jump right into the countdown, humor me as I offer some reflections about the year in cinema.
Upon analyzing my selections the only discernable pattern I saw was that a majority of my choices dealt with bad men. Dognappers, a killer-for-hire, and a rouge spy with mommy issues to name a few. It wasn’t like last year where we had The Artist and Hugo and the prevailing theme of “everything old is new again.” This year saw some risks in the way certain subjects were portrayed. You have Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Lincoln full of pomp and circumstance, which included a cavalcade of luminaries led by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, another film about slavery but presented as a spaghetti western where its title character, Django, is driven by love, vowing to reunite with his darling Broomhilda once again.
The rules were re-written for the horror genre with the release of The Cabin in the Woods. Co-written by Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), the film was actually shot back in 2009 but a financial quagmire involving studio MGM resulted in the horror pic being shelved indefinitely after several false start-then-stop release dates in 2010 and 2011. Eventually, Lionsgate would acquire the distribution rights and release the film in theaters to healthy profits and positive reviews.
Another casualty with MGM’s financial troubles was the development of the twenty-third James Bond feature. Skyfall arrived four years after the last Bond adventure, Quantum of Solace, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. For this is the year where Bond in film turned the big five-oh. The combination of Sam Mendes as director, Javier Bardem as the villain and the addition of John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) on the writing staff helped to propel Skyfall to worldwide acclaim. Speaking like an enthusiastic eight-year-old, James Bond has always been cool, but now he’s really cool.
This was also the year where the “found feature” concept branched out of houses with paranormal activity to tell stories ranging from the most destructive house party ever captured in high-def (Project X) to a new spin on characters with superpowers with Chronicle. Regarding both: I still think Tom Cruise had the better party in Risky Business. His house was turned into a brothel for one night and later he has sex with Rebecca De Mornay on the Chicago ‘L’. Chronicle signaled an impressive new directing talent in Josh Trank, though I hope he has a more rewarding experience rebooting the stagnating Fantastic Four franchise than Gavin Hood did with X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Last year, I bestowed praise to Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain due to their versatility. Fassbender got to play everything from a sex addict to X-Men’s Magneto. Gosling had the searing performance as a nearly uncommunicative driver in Drive and also hoisted up Emma Stone Dirty Dancing-style in Crazy, Stupid, Love. As for Chastain she was great in everything that she was in. This even includes her minor role in Texas Killing Fields, a film that was largely ignored by the public. For 2012, two actors and their star-making turns dominate the year. You also had a number of notable breakthroughs plus had another actor, with a history of taking off his shirt, delivering his best performance in more than a decade.
No other actor saw his stock rise as high as Channing Tatum. Helping push The Vow, 21 Jump Street, and Magic Mike to collective earnings of more than $560 million, Tatum has rightfully earned leading man status alongside recent star makers Mark Wahlberg and Chris Hemsworth. It also helps that his performance in Jump Street showed that he has great comedic timing and also gave us that great quote, “Fuck you, Science!”
The other star-making turn is actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I’ve been a fan of his ever since his performance in Mysterious Skin, and he’s managed to deliver quality work even if the films are less than stellar (e.g., Stop-Loss, Killshot). After getting a big boost in Christopher Nolan’s Inception two years ago, this year he got to play Bruce Willis in Looper, a bicycle messenger in Premium Rush, Abraham Lincoln’s son in Lincoln, and a headstrong police officer in the final installment of the Dark Knight trilogy. Whew.
In terms of breakthroughs, we had no shortage of them in 2012. The youngest breakthrough artists of the year were Quvenzhane Wallis from Beasts of the Southern Wild and Pierce Gagnon in Looper. She was but five years old when she played Hushpuppy in Beasts, and since then she has been mesmerizing crowds at various festivals around the world. Pierce was also five years old playing the role of Cid, a kid who has unusual telekinetic abilities. Like the Hulk, you don’t want to be around him when he’s angry. Last year, The Artist won a number of accolades including Oscars for Best Picture and Lead Actor. Some forget that Artist star Jean Dujardin lost the Cesar Award (France’s equivalent to an Academy Award) to The Intouchables’ Omar Sy. Sy’s performance as a caretaker is a positive spin on a man on the wrong side of the law who learns what it means to help a life and the ability to care for someone else. Ben Whishaw, who played Q in Skyfall also stood out among the ensemble of Cloud Atlas. Up next, he’ll be working with Steven Spielberg on Robopocalypse.
Dane DeHaan and Scoot McNairy are two actors I was able to spot numerous times this year. DeHaan, who looks like he could pass for Leonardo DiCaprio’s younger brother, played a high school outcast in Chronicle and he followed that up with supporting roles in Lawless and Lincoln. Now he’s the new Harry Osborn in the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man sequel. McNairy is an actor I first noticed with the release of Monsters a few years back. Call it having a good agent or nailing some choice auditions but he was on quite a role this year appearing in Ben Affleck’s Argo, alongside Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly and sharing a few scenes with Matt Damon in Promised Land.
I would be remised if I didn’t also mention Jason Clarke (Lawless, Zero Dark Thirty), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Nate Parker (Arbitrage, Red Tails), and Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows, Not Fade Away).
As for the actor that has a history of taking off his shirt, of course I mean Matthew McConaughey. Having blasted onto the scene in 1993 with Dazed and Confused and defending Samuel L. Jackson a few years later in the John Grisham thriller A Time to Kill, McConaughey’s career stagnated due to poor choices in scripts received. For a while there he was becoming the American Hugh Grant, regulated to middling romantic comedies with (insert actress name here). But in 2012 he knocked it out of the park in a big way in the film Killer Joe. It’s easily McConaughey’s best role since starring in Bill Paxton’s Frailty.
Having seen just over 200 new releases this year it was with a great degree of difficulty that I decided on my top ten. In the end, though, I went with those films which best represented the year as I saw fit. So without further ado, here are my favorite films of 2012.
Like This is Spinal Tap, this list goes to 11. When it came to deciding the last spot on my list, I couldn’t in good faith pick just one film. However, these two releases share similar traits in how a criminal goes about his business. Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly has the best closing line of the year, and it is a line that drives home the message at what the dwindling state of capitalism has done to organized crime. Brad Pitt is once again in his element as a mob enforcer hired to take care of the men who robbed an organized poker game. In a season where features longer than 150 minutes seemed to be popping up everywhere, here was a 97-minute feature that impressed me not with its length but with its pulp dialogue and its allegorical reference to our economy and how we are about to head off the fiscal cliff and sleep with the fishes.
Seven Psychopaths, the sophomore effort from Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), deals with criminals but it is also a Hollywood meta tale involving a certain number of psychopaths, a screenwriter with writer’s block and a stolen Shih Tzu. The hipster comedy is bolstered by strong performances by Christopher Walken as a mild-mannered, carvet-wearing gentleman criminal and his bat-shit crazy dognapping partner (as played by Sam Rockwell). Along the way, McDonagh’s film offers up opinions on the objectification of women in movies as well as the difficulty that comes from trying to be original in a field where the industry is content to be unoriginal.
9. The Cabin in the Woods
My history with horror dates back to my fascination with slasher icons Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees. Imagine me as a kid with posters of a guy with a hockey mask and another with a pepperoni complexion hanging on my bedroom door. Why I was never committed I’ll never know. As I grew older my interest in horror lessened, though every once in a while a film would come out and I would find myself getting caught up in the moment and feel like a kid again. This especially holds true when it is a horror movie that offers more than the traditional genre tropes.
The Cabin in the Woods is a film with a derivative title but the execution is anything but. It is a horror movie that is respectful of the features and creatures that have come before. It also works as a satire of the genre as it plays on the stereotypical nature of horror movies: like having college jocks that are well read or having one of the females make the mistake of dyeing her hair blonde. The Cabin in the Woods is also quite funny; not all doom and gloom. Entertainment value in horror is an important characteristic that is often overlooked in favor of more gore. Joss Whedon may have gotten the key to Disney’s Magic Kingdom with the ultra-successful The Avengers, but his contribution with Cabin is better in my estimation with his attempt at pushing the limits of what one can accomplish at a singular setting. Seriously, Whedon and writer-director Drew Goddard were like a couple of kids in a candy shop when it came to outlining the story and populating it with a variety of blood-curdling villains. Fear the Merman!
8. Skyfall (reviewed theatrically)
Each year seems to be populated by more and more sequels and franchise releases than ever before. While the more hoity-toity critics may turn their nose at such, one can’t dismiss them entirely. Skyfall is the James Bond release fans have been waiting for ever since Daniel Craig parkoured his way into our hearts in Casino Royale. This time, though, the James Bond film property inches ever so close to approaching Dr. No territory. From the callbacks to Bond’s history (the classic Aston-Martin) to Q’s acknowledgment that they don’t really go for the whole “exploding pen” thing, to Bond tussling with komodo dragons in Shanghai, yeah Skyfall covered a lot of ground to complete one saga and begin another. The filmmakers were also smart to realize that a hero is only as good as its villain. And Javier Bardem plays bad so well. Not since Nicolas Cage’s last wig has an actor been so tied to hair choices. Looking like a Beatles outcast in No Country for Old Men, this time his hair is an ostentatious blonde. Bardem plays a great thorn in the side of Craig’s Bond, and his character is sustained by the mommy issues he has for MI6 director, M (Judi Dench). Brimming with explosive action and smooth direction, Skyfall is the best blockbuster of 2012 and one that can be enjoyed with or without a martini.
7. Holy Motors
Holy Motors isn’t a film that can be encapsulated with a linear review. Maybe that’s why I never made an attempt to review it once I saw it back in early December. The best summation I saw for the release was comparing Leo Carax’s film to a mix of David Lynch (Blue Velvet) and Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland). It also has a vaudevillian sensibility where the protagonist assumes the roles of eleven different characters over a one-day span. As much as I enjoyed Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, what Denis Lavant accomplishes is nothing short of extraordinary. Over the course of the day he does everything from performing a motion-capture action sequence and simulated sex to going into the bowels of a sewer system with Eva Mendes to playing in a deathbed melodrama and in a musical with pop star Kylie Minogue. As impressive as all this sounds, my small words don’t do the film justice. Holy Motors is a French fantasy that is weird and wonderful, where its vignettes boggle the mind and make for great cinema.
6. Django Unchained (reviewed theatrically)
Twenty years ago, Quentin Tarantino made his Hollywood debut with Reservoir Dogs. That was during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s where the “indie film” movement was booming. The movie business may have changed in the years since then, but so has Quentin Tarantino. As a filmmaker he has refined his style in terms of direction. And whatever block he had as a writer while in the process of writing Kill Bill seems to be a distant memory. Having done homages to chopsocky, grindhouse, and war features, with Django Unchained Tarantino puts his stamp on the spaghetti western. It is arguably his most entertaining feature that is romantic (unexpected), laugh-out-loud funny (somewhat unexpected) and over-the-top with its violence (expected). Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are strong in their performances, and Leonardo DiCaprio in a rare supporting role plays an unscrupulous villain that seems like a spoiled brat more than anything else. Some “King of the World” he turned out to be.
5. Searching for Sugar Man (reviewed theatrically)
Searching for Sugar Man is a film that took me completely by surprise when it played at SXSW this year. No, really, it was a total shocker. Sitting impatiently in a theater, I couldn’t understand why the feature I was waiting to see hadn’t started yet. Turns out I had my locations wrong and had to watch Sugar Man instead. I can’t remember what that original film was supposed to be, but after seeing this incredible documentary I’m sure it couldn’t have topped my viewing experience. Those who haven’t seen Sugar Man the best advice would be to know as little as possible before watching. It helps with the overall experience. Sixto Rodriguez was a folk singer from the 1970s that should have been as big as Bob Dylan, though his two albums were met with little fanfare. The only place where Rodriguez was recognizable was in South Africa where he was bigger than Elvis. Go figure. When a documentary filmmaker crosses paths with a longtime Rodriguez fan and the two exchange information, what happens next is a fascinating revelation about a forgotten musician.
Like a phoenix Ben Affleck has enjoyed the best rebirth in Hollywood. After a number of his star-driven vehicles fizzled out the actor stepped away from the limelight and reinvented himself as a director. Argo is Affleck’s third feature and his output as a filmmaker is still spotless. Having made of pair of Boston-area crime thrillers (Gone Baby Gone, The Town), his latest is a period drama set during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The conclusion of his film is widely known, yet his feature is thrilling regardless. It takes a good amount of skill to make an audience tense, fearful that those six Americans might not make it out of Iran alive. Adding to that unbelievable rescue is some good bits of humor about the Hollywood industry at the time (the 1970s), including one cheeky remark that can be used as a defense of the film. If you don’t like it, you can “Argo fuck yourself.”
3. Killer Joe
Here again is another film I saw at SXSW without knowing anything about it. However, this time I saw it deliberately. William Friedkin is a director who nailed some homeruns early in his career with films like The French Connection and The Exorcist. But after To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) his output has been far from memorable (he directed Blue Chips?). Then things changed in the 2000s when he went outside the studio system and adapted the Tracy Letts play Bug, starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon. That experience would then see the director adapt another Letts play, Killer Joe. It is a story about a reviling Dallas police officer that also works in a murder-for-hire capacity for the right price. Matthew McConaughey plays the title role and it is a role that he didn’t want to do at first. Throwing the script across the room upon reading its lascivious content, McConaughey would later go back to the screenplay and interpret the material differently. Thank goodness for that, as it is the actor’s greatest role in a long while. The story is chockfull of unredeemable characters and the ending is far from rosy. Its material may be upsetting to most, but that feeling of unease in the pit of your stomach may not be the result of getting hit in the gut repeatedly, it may be from swallowing a piece of chicken. Trust me, if Jaws made you afraid to go swimming, Killer Joe is likely to make you swear off the fried stuff for a while. You’re likely to have Post-Traumatic KFC Stress Disorder.
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
When it comes to high school movies it seems that they fall into two categories: John Hughes and everything else. The 1980s probably holds the record for the most memorable movies set in and around a high school environment. There was an oversaturation of teens hanging out in the breakfast club, enjoying fast times, plus you had girls making a valiant attempt to be just one of the guys. It wouldn’t be until the mid-‘90s until we got Clueless, a comedy that perfectly encapsulated the “Whatever!” mentality of high school at the time.
It’s a difficult feat to pull off – to make a film about high school and not have it be a total suckfest. Yet here we have The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a film that is honest in its representation of high school life. Stephen Chbosky occupied the role of a first-time director adapting his own book, so you know the personal investment was there from the get go. The story doesn’t need plot devices like losing one’s virginity before graduation. All that’s important is the characters and the love they feel for one another. When describing the film to others I have said that the film “bridges the John Hughes ‘80s with the Clueless ‘90s.” The time the story takes place is in that time period where ‘80s alternative rock (think The Smiths and Joy Division) was still embraced by the high school outcasts and flannel had yet to migrate out of Seattle.
Perks is a film I enjoyed on my initial viewing, but it wasn’t until I saw it again that I knew that it would find its way into my top ten. Compared to most of my list, this is probably the most endearing feature of them all. Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson play a trio of friends I wish I had known when I was in high school. We connect with their outsider status and feel for their troubles in life and at home. When it reaches its third act and a revelation is made I dare anyone to not be affected. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a film that I feel will have a healthy life on home video where it will be discovered by new generations of high schoolers and be as identifiable as the works of John Hughes.
1. Zero Dark Thirty (reviewed theatrically)
Kathryn Bigelow has some serious “lady balls.” Seriously. She must if she’s going to make a film that’s going to be scrutinized for historical accuracy. Let the pundits debate all they want about Zero Dark Thirty advocating torture or benefiting the Obama Administration, it’s still a damn good picture. It’s a towering achievement for both Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal and their ability to condense a decade’s worth of documents and material and have it be a two-hours-and-30-minutes feature that logically traces the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The film is without an agenda, which is admirable in and of itself. Even though we know how the film ends, Bigelow crafts a suspenseful docudrama that works as both an investigative procedural (think David Fincher’s Zodiac) and as a film about the war on terror.
We enter this world through the character of Maya (Jessica Chastain in one of the year’s strongest performances), and through her we share in her frustrations as she dedicates herself the cause to find bin Laden. To watch her progression from greenhorn CIA investigator to a relentless hunter of the terrorist leader is stunning, especially since her character doesn’t have the traditional arc as seen in thrillers. Still, one can’t overlook such a strong female character. She may not be Ripley-get-away-from-her-you-bitch strong, but she succeeds where most in her same shoes have failed.
Zero Dark Thirty manages to compel and spellbind, inform and impress like no other film I’ve seen this year. Everything from Boal’s tightly woven story to Bigelow’s handling of the SEAL Team Six raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound is expertly done. With the war on terror still being waged this film will serve as a cinematic time capsule about its history in the years and decades that follow.