What started as a fun write-up has turned into an obsessive ranking system over the years. At the behest of a few buddies, my last list kick-started a film blog. I already watch a ton of movies, but I still managed to break my personal viewing record in 2012. The pressure is mounting, but I’m still having fun.
First, here are the Honorable Mentions:
Flight: If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, don’t. You can thank Zemeckis for the film’s early adrenaline shot. Once you realize where the story is headed, Denzel’s already taken control of the cockpit. Although Malcolm X remains his career-defining role, Whip Whitaker is Washington’s most nuanced performance yet. For those bored with his last few choices, Flight showcases the man’s range.
Headhunters: From the studio that tattooed the original Dragon Girl, this Norweigian thriller is a much more satisfying piece. A professional art thief moon, er, daylights as the country’s top job recruiter. His lap of luxury masks an insecurity, which eventually leads to desperate measures when stakes are raised. Regardless, the audience can’t help rooting for the everyman, underneath. Which leaves the Jaime Lannister dude still the asshole.
Skyfall: While Casino Royale certainly has merit as the reboot’s flagship, Skyfall is now my favorite. As Bond’s latest adversary, Javier Bardem revisits his No Country creepiness. The series’ wide-aged audience will appreciate the subtle snark between 007 and Q. Adele’s sultry voice complements a nifty title sequence.
The Hunger Games: Calling you out, Battle Royale fans. Read Lord of the Flies or Stephen King’s A Long Walk. Watch The Running Man or any movie depicting Coliseum gladiators. Battle Royale is far from the bastion of originality. Everyone steals. THG, however, had more than a few key differences to distinguish itself. According to Godard, “It’s not where you take things from. It’s where you take them to.” If you’re a Tarantino fan, you should be the last one shouting BR war cries. Without Godard, QT’s Fiction has no Pulp. Disappointed book fans, please stop with “The movie left __ out” or “The movie didn’t develop xx’s character” complaints. The book is 500 pages of small font text. A movie usually has two hours to visualize the same story. If you disregard the constraints of medium B, you aren’t meant to judge the film separately. A legitimate gripe? The cut / two seconds rule. I’m sure the editors were thrilled with that executive decision. Wow, this rec veered into a rant. THG is nonetheless a worthy effort, highlighted by outstanding costume design and competent acting.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi: The art of sushi begins with Jiro. Technique, perseverance and attention to detail create culinary nirvana. Who knew a train station could host a master chef deserving of three Michelin stars?
JGL double feature: Rian Johnson’s Looper was hailed by many as the year’s best sci-fi. Joseph Gordon-Levitt reunites with Johnson in this mind-bending twister. The first half puts a creative spin on time travel. Johnson takes a commendable risk by humanizing the second act. However, the conclusion’s emotional weight didn’t resonate. The last few lines were perfectly penned, despite the ending’s abruptness. Perhaps I was spoiled by the duo’s first collaboration, Brick. Premium Rush is a much simpler story, yet the more enjoyable JGL showcase. Think updated version of Kevin Bacon’s Quicksilver, only with a fixed-gear and the Chinese mob. Sadly, Michael Shannon’s crooked cop charisma is diluted with Jamie Chung’s terrible immigrant accent. It isn’t Breakfast at Tiffany’s bad, but still…
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Imagine Pan’s Labyrinth constructed in a bayou. Newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis shines as the year’s newest discovery. Six year-old Hushpuppy processes nature’s unforgiving destruction with the boundless imagination smiled upon youth. Grounding her fanciful flights are harsh lessons of survival taught by her father, Wink. Released from melting polar ice caps, the mythical Auroch creatures represent an ecological allegory inside Hushpuppy’s fantastical journey.
Butter: Eliciting lukewarm reception at best, this butter-carving comedy falls victim to an unsure identity. Why is it worth checking out? I had no idea Olivia Wilde could be this funny.
The Master: Watching a PT Anderson film is akin to staring at a masterpiece inside the Louvre. Between the grandiose shots, flawless composition and inventive sound design, the results are intimidating. The Master stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, no doubt inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and his unique take on spirituality. The film’s momentum is buried in the third act, eliminating Top Ten consideration. Unlike my Olivia Wilde preconception before watching Butter, I did have an idea Joaquin Phoenix could be this crazy.
Pitch Perfect: Anna Kendrick’s vocal vehicle is everything Glee ain’t- funny and not eye-gougingly annoying. John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks dispense side-splitting commentary during ear-pleasing perfection.
The horror genre: Considering the breadth of film dominating my time, some may be surprised to learn that horror is where my heart is. For the first time in seven lists, not a one lands in my Top Ten. However, feel free to use Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods as an introductory compendium to non-believers. The UK’s Hammer Films continues its return to form with the atmospheric Lady in Black. For a wide release, Sinister had some very wicked images flickering from Ethan Hawke’s projector (not to mention the year’s moodiest score). Australia exported the year’s top foreign horror, The Loved Ones. Released down under three years ago, TLO can be described as Fatal Attraction meets The Descent, written by Cameron Crowe (circa 1989). My favorite fright flick of 2012 is the quirky coming-of-age shocker, Excision. Full review here.
These four were the Heisman Hopefuls, just missing invitations to the Top Ten green room:
A powerful wake-up call to parents everywhere, this inner-city portrait paints a grim picture. We’re losing our kids to the easiest facilitator of failure- apathy. Adrian Brody gives a layered performance as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher-poet entrenched in an academic environment designed to fail. To win back the minds inside his classroom, Barthes must first choose to break free from self-imposed isolation. Unlike most teacher-saves-student films, Detachment refrains from solving systemic problems with a neat bow tie. Doing so only neglects the urgency threatening this generation.
Liam Neeson utilizes his Taken alpha skills to survive a pack of man-hunting wolves, instead of sex-trafficking Euros. Add a deadly snowstorm to the mix and death by plane crash may not be the worst fate imaginable. The survivors’ dire situation tests the extreme boundaries of human condition. The Grey marketed itself as a wolf chase through the Alaskan elements. Beneath the fangs and hypothermia breathes a meditative exercise, a rediscovering of one’s will to live.
How far will we be coerced under duress from authority? A fast food manager receives a call that one of her employees has stolen money from a customer. The accused is detained in the restaurant’s stock room and the caller’s demands stray further from civility. Overheard at my screening: “Nobody is that dumb.” “You don’t have to do what he says!” Until the viewer realizes the film is based on a true story. Social psychologists have studied these concepts before, specifically with the Milgram and Stanford experiments. While most of us share confidence in a sense of moral action, history remembers otherwise. Wholesale extermination wiped out millions while mouths remained silent.
Silver Linings Playbook
The only thing I loathe more than a rom-com is the phrase rom-com. The only thing I hate more than the phrase rom-com is typing rom-com four times in two sentences. Matthew Quick’s fiction-turned-screenplay hints at the familiar, but takes a refreshingly unexpected route to get there. Bradley Cooper nails his performance as a released mental patient adjusting to life on the outside. However, Jennifer Lawrence absorbs the screen as Cooper’s wacky equal. Scrapping Katniss heroism for flawed humanism, J-Law delivers the best female performance of the year. Don’t worry… The Academy will screw it up again (cough, Winter’s Bone, cough). And just when I thought De Niro had left the building, thespian Rob shows up for game day. *The toughest omission, by far. I agonized for days thinking of ways to slip Playbook into the Top Ten. Dropping any other finalist proved impossible and slotting #10 a tie would have been a copout.
Without further ado, my Top Ten (Most readers probably skipped down here immediately. Don’t think otherwise… Your noses are all growing.):
10. The Sessions
The main reason why Silver Linings Playbook is on the outside looking in, an essay titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” serves as inspiration for 2012′s most unlikely feel-good movie. Struck with polio as a child, Mark O’Brien is paralyzed from the neck down. When he’s not being transported on a gurney, he scribes from home with the breathing assistance of an iron lung. Determined to authenticate his poetry’s emotional foundation, the 38-year old virgin enlists the professional aid of a sex surrogate. Cheryl schedules six sessions designed to educate Mark about the sensual nature of the female (and his own) body. In a bold career move, Helen Hunt goes au naturel while providing tender assurance to Mark’s bedside vulnerability. In an industry where youth is stretched with Botox and scalpels, Hunt unflinchingly bares maturity in its unmodified beauty. With Mark’s gift of gab and an array of facial expressions, John Hawkes throws his hat into the Academy’s ballot box. The Sessions hits all the right notes and strikes more than a few chuckles. Take a bow, Mr. Hawkes. You’ve busted my Top 10 three years running.
This Danish export leads the year in laughs. Desperately trying to prove fatherhood readiness to his pregnant girlfriend, Frank “chaperones” her 12-year old nephew on a canoe trip. The only problem? Besides potential kidnapping charges, Frank’s buddy Casper planned the “Tour de P***y” without adolescent contingencies. The awkward trio descends upon Casper’s carnal objectives, despite their obliviousness to social mores. As Frank scrambles for parental intuition, his bad decisions only agitate their predicament. Just when Klown bares a little bit of heart, inappropriate humor rudely takes a bite. And it’s still okay to smile.
8. End of Watch
Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal concoct a winning formula in this buddy-cop thriller. Full review here.
7. The Imposter
In 1994, a 13-year old boy disappears in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, Nicholas has been found over 5,000 miles away in Linares, Spain. The teen’s missing years tell quite a story, but the documentary really surges post family reunion. After a relatively short time apart, their son now looks noticeably different and speaks with a heavy accent. Despite the drastic changes, the family is adamant the boy is theirs. While family members, investigators and an adult “Nicholas” spin an incredible yarn, the stomach knot gets tighter. As the film digs deeper, extraordinary details emerge in a case almost too implausible to believe.
What happens when three normal teenagers are suddenly bestowed super powers? Chronicle dodges traditional found footage constraints by incorporating creative camera work into its storyline. After exploring a mysterious crater, the enhanced high schoolers test their newfound abilities by amplifying pranks upon an unsuspecting public. The light-hearted tone takes a dramatic detour when the group’s introvert begins acquiring skills faster than the others. An interesting character study unfolds in a fable Greek in scope.
5. Zero Dark Thirty
Katherine Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is a much tauter production than her 2008 Best Picture. Accusations of American jingoism had ZDT on the defensive even before release. The CIA’s denouncement of torture scenes lobbed complaints from the opposite spectrum. Despite its inevitable conclusion, the film’s moral ambiguity deflects criticism from both sides. Hollywood darling Jessica Chastain develops Maya’s subtle changes while leading the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The skirmishes are connected by a fascinating investigation, constantly impeded by the barrage of red tape. Between the explosions, Maya’s head remains buried in documents, photographs and maps. Despite the nearly three hour run time, ZDT sears at a blistering pace. The payoff is phenomenal and the last 20 minutes will leave viewers exhausted. With a possible second BP trophy on the mantel, Mr. Cameron may start learning a few things from his ex.
4. Sound of My Voice
A pair of journalists infiltrate a cult, whose leader claims to be from the future. Quite a setup, eh? Co-writers Zat Batmaglij and Brit Marling swing the audience between belief and skepticism, challenging our collective schema in the process. The investigative couple’s subtle transformation is organized into ten chapters throughout the film. Marling also doubles as Maggie, the cult’s enigmatic leader. Several instances border on the absurd, particularly the indoctrination scenes. However, levity is quickly silenced by a single voice. The audience is completely transfixed during Maggie’s teaching moments. The ending is sure to spark discussion, yet the script’s overall brilliance can’t be fully appreciated upon initial viewing. Following last year’s Another Earth, Marling has quickly achieved the “It girl” label among indie circles. Quite a rise for a gal who turned down Goldman Sachs to pursue silver-screened dreams.
3. Holy Motors
Like most art French, writer/director Leos Carax thumbs his nose at cinematic convention with an avant garde take on technology and film. Denis Lavant is literally the actor’s chameleon, transforming into an astounding 11 different faces throughout film. Lavant is whisked to each new assignment inside a stretch limo that serves as his dressing room. From his breathtaking choreography inside a motion capture studio to an unsettling romp through the Parisian sewer system, Lavant’s day swims along with the fluidity of its innovative narrative. Intermission is announced when Lavant’s accordion leads a flash mob of musicians around town. American blues legend R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride” colors the neighborhood in the coolest scene of the year.
2. The Raid: Redemption
Harkening back to John Carpenters 1976 classic Assault on Precinct 13, a swat team is trapped inside an apartment complex inhabited by the city’s worst criminals. The cops attempt to reach the top floor, where the crime lord sets the chess pieces in motion. All hell breaks loose when the big boss offers free rent in exchange for total police extermination. Gareth Evans trims the dialogue by conducting a bloody symphony of violence. A cinematic orgy of bullets, impaled necks and broken bones replace any semblance of character development. Unbelievable fight choreography is rhythmically arranged to Mike Shinoda’s gritty electro-score. Indonesia’s top Pencak Silat fighter and his real-life teacher (starring as the boss’ badass enforcer) defy physics in the greatest action flick of the young 21st century.
1. Miss Bala
Y Tu Mamá También co-stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luno produce the Queen of 2012 cinema. Full review here.
That a wrap, folks. As always, you can lodge comments and complaints to the feedback box below. What were some of your favorites last year?