Back in the day, back before I shared any of my ideas about film with anybody, I would always create a top 10 list. But even though it was for my eyes only I would always wait until July before doing so. The thought being that in those 7 months everything (save a Christmas movie or two) would have found its way to the video store by that time and I would have had time to consume it. Obviously that is not the case here and obviously I am only pointing this out as something of a shout out for all of those movies which I have not yet seen and will not seen for another six months or so. In any case, what follows is my official Top 10 of 2012 and if I had to take away anything from this year it would have to be the surprisingly strong showing by Hollywood and the studio system. Only two of my picks were made outside of that machine and established movie stars (Will Ferrell) and genres (Sci-Fi) that I usually beat up have found their way on to my list. I also have two summer sequels represented which could make me question my taste as I grow older but instead I will use it to say that I feel as though Hollywood may finally be feeling the pressure put on it by home and mobile entertainment. No longer is a big screen and A/C enough to lure people in off the streets and they seem to be recognizing that, so good on them. They still made a ton of cash this year, more than last year, and so hopefully the idea of putting out quality fare won’t vanish anytime soon.
10) The Campaign – Like my #1 pick this movie had suspiciously good reviews that I decided could simply not be true and so I set out to the threatre with the intention of seeing just how wrong those critics were. At once a nasty takedown of our election system in general and more specifically the Koch Brothers (who also got spanked this year on The Newsroom), The Campaign is a biting political satire that actually goes there and makes it work really against all odds. The acting is good enough but the star of this show is the the script written by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell that not only tells funny jokes (harder than you may think based on other comedies that came out this year) but also reminded us during an election cycle that the absurdity of our system really should be reaching a tipping point.
9) The Bourne Legacy – I was a fan of the first three Bourne movies so when I saw that Tony Gilroy took the best parts of Doug Liman’s Identity and Paul Greengrass’ Supremacy and Ultimatum and blended it into something that far surpassed the Matt Damon trilogy I mean it as very high praise indeed. Greengrass’ virtuoso camera tricks always distracted away from the fact that his storytelling in those two films was kind of lacking, but here Gilroy still directs with visual flair but also expertly conveys what is going on and what the stakes are. Granted Jeremy Renner is no Matt Damon but he doesn’t distract at all and Rachel Weisz turns in possibly the best performance of her career. Her scene at her house when the CIA comes to assassinate her was one of my favorite movie-going experiences of this year.
8) The Dark Knight Rises – It didn’t make the money that The Avengers did and wasn’t quite as good as Nolan’s all-time great The Dark Knight but it would be a shame to sleep on this conclusion to the trilogy just because of those two factors. No Hollywood director working today is pushing harder to get people to think about challenging ideas than Nolan, and the fact that he is able to bury them in a comic book movie should serve as a reminder that just because you are making an action flick for the masses doesn’t mean you have to turn in a brain dead script. It is worth noting that at its core this is a story of a one-percenter battling and defeating the 99-percenters, but even though I found the politics to be off I still left the theatre feeling as though I had been treated as a highly intelligent adult.
7) Looper – More of the same here as director Rian Johnson gave us a time traveling yarn that entertained for sure but also had me discussing and flow charting for days afterwards. It was an awesome movie in so many ways and really the only debate recently has been whether or not it is the greatest time travel movie of all time. For me Back to the Future II is still more fun and Primer has more intellectual muscle but neither of those are as potent a combo as Looper. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was great as always and here he is helped by Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels both of whom were also superb. Plus how can you not love the fact that the last half of this movie took place on some farm in the middle of nowhere. It is such an aggressively boring choice that it wins major points for originality.
6) Beasts of the Southern Wild – Ever since this movie debuted at Sundance the general consensus has been that director Benh Zeitlin’s tale of despair and poverty in a fictional Bayou community called The Bathtub is very reminiscent of Terrence Malick. And while I’m sure that was meant as high praise it doesn’t do nearly enough to express the greatness that is this movie, mainly because it is far better than anything in Malick’s oeuvre. It was the most immersive experience I had in a theatre this year as you are totally sucked in to Hushpuppy’s terrible world where her sole guardian is a deadbeat, dying drunk of a dad and a massive Katrina-like storm is bearing down on them. The cinematography is especially stunning and 6-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis is cruising towards a surefire Oscar nomination.
5) Chronicle – Easily my winner for biggest surprise of the year. Has there ever in the history of time been a quality science fiction movie released in the month of January? I didn’t even want to see it because the trailers made it look so terrible but I was dragged there by a friend and was shocked by how good it turned out to be. Ignore for a moment the semi-brilliant plot of bratty, self-obsessed high schoolers being granted superpowers and focus instead on how director Josh Trank created flesh and bone characters that we were able to care about despite the 83 minute running time. He also takes the found footage style and perfects it. The climax is one gigantic fireworks explosion that will conjure up memories of the last 20 minutes of The Avengers, only this one tells us so much more with the destruction and was made for far less money (Chronicle had a budget of $15 million whereas The Avengers had slightly more with $220 million).
4) End of Watch – Even though director David Ayer doesn’t nail the found footage gimmick as well as Trank did he luckily had a stronger script to work with and he manages to squeeze outstanding performances out of Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena and Anna Kendrick. Ayer has pumped out masterpieces before (Training Day, Dark Blue) and we all know he will never give up the LA cop scene but this movie is so badass who really cares? It’s brutal in it’s simplicity: Two LA cops work together every day and try to start and raise families. The brotherhood between them is palpable, the action sequences are thrilling while also keeping their feet planted on the ground and the comedy that is masterfully weaved throughout is gold.
3) Bernie – To say that anything is Richard Linklater’s best film is going to cause something of an uproar but I am going to go ahead and crown Bernie (unseating Fast Food Nation though just barely). This tale of a closeted funeral director who gets involved with an elderly, wealthy widow who showers him with gifts and unspeakable cruelty until he whacks her in a moment of weakness is, believe it or not, one of the funniest movies of the year. Linklater gets everything he can out of the mockumentary style he employs here, especially when it comes to the townspeople he interviews about the crime. Jack Black is strong in the title role as he goes for understated as opposed to in your face and it works beautifully. Linklater has created a movie that reeks of Christopher Guest but actually puts all of his work to shame by showing that often times what comedy really needs in order to shine is a little bit of tragedy.
2) Life of Pi – Another career best, this time for Ang Lee as he was finally able to bring Yann Martel’s 2001 book to the big screen and did so in such a way that he was actually able to improve upon the source material. Books can do a lot of things but they can’t replicate the cinematography here or the way your heart pounds while watching Pi try to navigate the Pacific Ocean while being stranded at sea on a tiny boat with a gigantic tiger named Richard Parker. Engrossing to the max with a wicked little twist tossed in at the end, it is hard for me to imagine a person who would not enjoy this movie.
1) The Cabin in the Woods – Yes, I am giving my #1 slot to a horror movie that really did not even provide one scare. Doesn’t matter, because no other film this year rocked my world the way this one did. From its ingenious plot that slowly unravels but never in the way you expect it to, to the creativity behind the museum of terrors that gets unleashed late in the game, to the comedic repartee of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, to the oh so clever cameo that pops up at the end, to the final shot which thumbs its nose at every known horror movie convention. There are a million ways to read it but I like to think of it as a meditation on all those things which scare us and their relationship to the things that should actually be scaring us. The bogeyman isn’t real but the man behind him is and in reality he is far, far scarier.
Tags: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, Cabin in the Woods, Dark Knight Rises, End of Watch, Life of Pi, Looper, The Campaign, Top 10