Well, here we are. No sooner have I finished ranting against the entire concept of needlessly ranking vastly different movies into inherently devaluing lists, and I’m already contradicting myself in the name of conformity. Ah well, the more things change, eh?
Fortunately, there’s still a part of me that loves making lists, in spite of my own musings. It’s fun to collect and connect things you love, and the inevitably absurd arguments over insignificant details like the numbering have their own charm within reason. I suppose I could avoid all that and make a “Top 10 Movies of 2012 in No Particular Order” list, but that would ruin the inexplicable glee I get from sorting them based on arbitrary criteria (and no, I won’t tell you what criteria).
So here we go...
Movies I Haven’t Seen Yet (mostly because I live in the middle of nowhere and can’t see limited releases): Zero Dark Thirty, Holy Motors, The Grey, This is 40, Cosmopolis, The Raid: Redemption, Bernie, Killer Joe, Safety Not Guaranteed.
Honorable Mentions: Argo, Skyfall, The Master, 21 Jump Street, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Iron Sky, Flight, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Dredd, Chronicle.
I surprised even myself with this pick. When Ted came out, I ignored it. Family Guy had only ever been okay at best to me, so I wasn’t really expecting much when I finally gave this a shot. To my amazement, it turned out to be a surprisingly well-written comedy with actual depth and emotional stakes. The characters are very basic but feel genuine, which you really need to emotionally connect with your audience and thus create compelling drama. The clever script deconstructs the archetypical imaginary friend story, mocking it as well as celebrating it, and in the context of a decade that’s in the middle of a massive nostalgia hang-up culturally, McFarlane’s overall sentiment of “yeah, that stuff from when we were kids was great... but don’t forget to live in the moment” is a welcome one.
9. Life of Pi
This is largely a personal pick for me. I’m at a point in my life where I’m figuring a lot of things out (aren’t we all?), and have yet to decide what I believe in a spiritual sense. Life of Pi spoke to me because it was about the very reason why I still can’t quite say I don’t believe in God: Because it is comforting to do so. It’s a film about the very concept of faith, and it does so in a very whimsical, childlike way, which some may find off-putting. It’s difficult to reconcile the idea of delivering such weighty subject matter with the self-assured tone of a child speaking about Santa Claus, but I think that perhaps there’s no better way to understand faith than through the mind of a child.
8. Seven Psychopaths
Martin McDonagh deserves more recognition. On the surface, he may seem to be just another wannabe Tarantino, but a closer look reveals a set of tropes, ideas, and skills utterly unique to him. Seven Psychopaths is possibly his best film yet, an utterly deranged, seemingly random musing on the mindset of screenwriters and creatives in the film industry in general. Plus, it has Christopher Walken giving his best performance in years. It’s rare he’s allowed to stretch his dramatic muscles like this.
A bit long? Maybe, towards the end a bit. Too concerned with traditional biopic trappings and acknowledgement of all related history regardless of relevance? Possibly. Or perhaps all of that is just a charade masking a surprisingly nontraditional political film about the pragmatism of dirty politics? Definitely. And of course, Daniel Day-Lewis’s equally nontraditional portrayal of the man himself deserves every bit of the recognition it’s gotten.
6. Cabin in the Woods
This really was Joss Whedon’s year, huh? Puts out two outright masterpieces, gets catapulted to A-list status, and decides to relax by retreating to his summer home with his friends... to make a Much Ado About Nothing movie. Dude accomplishes more on vacation than you and I do in our lifetimes. As for Cabin in the Woods, what can I say? If you haven’t seen it yet (seriously, shame on you), then I daren’t spoil it for you, and if you have, then you know why it’s this damn good. When you can make a thoughtful examination of the horror film industry and the plight of creativity it creates, and then mix it with possibly the most crowd-pleasing bloodbath in the history of the genre and make it work, that’s the mark of true genius.
As I’ve said many times before, I love high-concept science fiction. So much so that I may’ve overstated the awesomeness of last year’s In Time, because I was desperate for my fix. May’ve. But one cannot overstate Looper. Narratively, it’s just about perfect. Everything is foreshadowed without being too obvious, and all truly problematic plotholes are dealt with way ahead of time. In fact, it might be the closest I’ve seen any time travel story come to complete internal consistency. More than that, it’s a wonderful character piece, with transformative performances from both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis (which, in the latter’s case, is something he doesn’t get to do very often).
This is another one that snuck up on me. ParaNorman wasn’t even on my radar when it first came out. Then I went and saw it. Twice. And it made me cry both times. I dare say no other film this year made a more personal emotional connection with me this year. That’s certainly subjective praise, but it doesn’t make the plot any less bold and meaningful, nor does it diminish the animation, which is among the finest stop-motion has to offer. Bullying is very well-trodden subject matter, so it’s gratifying to see a message film for children about just that that still feels fresh, real, and never condescending. Plus, the strategically-placed classic horror references here and there are fun without ever dominating the film, a balance this year’s Frankenweenie never managed to strike.
3. Marvel’s The Avengers
I struggled to justify this one to myself. One the one hand, how could I leave out what is possibly my favorite film of the year? On the other, I realize that 90% percent of that is the comic book fan in me talking. Sure, it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made, but how much is that actually saying? But ultimately I decided this: In 10, 20, 30 years, what will 2012 be remembered for, movie-wise? What movies released this year will we still be talking about? What made the biggest splash? What did absolutely everyone go see and love? Cultural impact counts for a lot in film criticism, and while I can’t predict the future, I feel pretty confident in saying that this might be the most enduring film of 2012.
2. Cloud Atlas
I weep for us as a species. The fact that this movie bombed and was met with sneers and sarcasm is the reason why. I’ve always liked the Wachowskis, even when their movies were awful, because they always aimed high. They always tried to mix indulgent fun with high-minded ideas, and though they didn’t often succeed, the effort was always appreciated. But with all due respect to The Matrix, Cloud Atlas may very well be their masterpiece. Where some see bloated and overwrought, I see ambition that can barely contain itself. I’ve never seen such a perilous balancing act, both for the writer and the editor, work out so well. I’ve never seen so many chameleonic performances from actors I never knew had it in them. And I’ve certainly never seen such sincerity. So much build up for such a simple message, yet it never feels like a letdown. It feels like the very thing the world desperately needs to hear right now... and nobody’s listening.
1. Django Unchained
I’m not prepared to call this Quentin Tarantino’s best film; competition is too fierce to just declare that right out of the gate. But it may very well be his most perfect, or rather it may be the perfect Tarantino film. By that I mean, that more than anything else he’s made, it seems to take the desperate types of movies he tends to make and marries them in a way that never feels incongruous. Generally, when you go to see a Tarantino film, you will see either a quieter, more personal film all about build up and small bursts of violence (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, etc.), or an action-oriented exploitation flick (Death Proof, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, etc.). And while his films of late have included elements of both (Inglourious Basterds), this is his first film that somehow feels like both at the same time.