2012 was an incredible year for films. Every year has had a handful of really great films that inspire and awe, but this year was something special. Usually I post my Top 10 with a bunch of honorable mentions, but I loved so many movies this year I’m posting a Top 35. For most that is a really high number, but sadly that still only counts as my top fraction. For I’ve now seen 169 films from 2012 thanks to being a film critic for The Film Yap, working at the Heartland Film Festival and having way too much downtime while I’m in Texas.
I’ll be posting a few more lists throughout the week including Best Underseen Films, Best Performers and Best Scenes. Before I start, I do want to clarify that I have seen a lot but I haven’t seen everything. Some of the big ones that I’ll catch up with one day are Rush and Bone, In the Family, I Wish, Headhunters, The Woman in the Fifth, 2 Days in New York, The Gatekeepers, No, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, The Central Park Five, Room 237, Bill W., The Ambassador, The Forgiveness of Blood, Red Hook Summer, Detachment, Crazy Horse and Dark Horse. Also maybe one day I’ll see The Amazing Spider-Man but I still can’t bring myself to do it.
Anywho, HERE WE GO!
#35 – Compliance
Years ago I heard the story about the brutal scams being performed in fast food restaurants but they always seemed too fantastical to be real. Why would someone commit a strip search of a fellow employee just because a voice on the phone told them to do so? Compliance takes you through the hours of such a crime and the context is surprising. Logic is questioned and the more suspense is raised, the more you grow concerned for humanity. It’s a difficult movie to forget.
#34 – Indie Game: The Movie
There was a great book I read last year called Extra Lives that talked about how we need a more respected critical look at video games because they are an evolving and fascinating medium. That book did a very good job at examining the components to show artistic promise, but this movie takes it a step further and really shows the emotional depth that can be in a simple adventure story. A few independent video game designers are highlighted in this amazing look at content that doesn’t have to play by any rules.
#33 – Cosmopolis
I can recommend any film on this list to anyone…except this one. It’s not that it’s nuts because people typically like a movie that does crazy things but not when the movie itself is crazy. One man rides across town in his limo during stopped traffic because he feels he needs to get a haircut. What results is dozens of captivating post-modern rambles about business, ethics, innovation, generations and responsibility. The ridiculous nature is always apparent thanks to David Cronenberg playing fair to the words but creating an environment that is literally falling apart and the ones who notice don’t care enough to save it. It’s mad in a very fun way.
#32 – Argo
I really like most of this movie. When it is a focused adult thriller, this movie works as well as Apollo 13 where smart people will work their asses off to save a few. The last third of this movie is incredibly tense that defies all of the contrivances to make very strong entertainment. Ben Affleck continues to grow as a director and I’m very excited to see him tackle another Dennis Lehane book as his next project. One day he’s going to make an excellent movie; he’s very nearly there.
#31 – Magic Mike
There are more people in the world who have made jokes about Magic Mike than those who have actually seen Magic Mike. This is not just a movie for cougars or gay men, although I’m sure they will love it too. I think director Steven Soderbergh predicted the expectations and that’s why he started the movie with Olivia Munn walking around the house topless. The movie works because it’s not just endless stripping scenes, but a rich character study about the conflict of being who you really are and who you say you are.
#30 – Klown
The Hangover is a film where three guys go through a series of gross taboo misadventures after a weekend of madness. The difference between The Hangover and Klown is that The Hangover excuses their actions and believes the guys should be let off the hook. Klown is nothing like that. Two men and a young boy go on a canoeing trip where everything goes wrong. So gross, so vile and so awkwardly amazing.
#29 – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
I know I seem educated and worldly because I have a blog, but there are things I don’t know. I had never heard of activist and artist Ai Weiwei before this movie. He has this determination and fearlessness about reporting the injustice in modern day China. He’s an enigmatic figure who shows his anger and frustration through his art and Twitter. Through this movie it’s clear to see the impact he’s had on the world and it was incredible this movie happened at this time because the last 30 minutes are really suspenseful.
#28 – Erasing Hate
My favorite documentary at this year’s Heartland Film Festival was the very painful look at one ex-skinhead removing all of his face tattoos through the best metaphor for redemption. In most documentaries when looking at a person trying to escape from their life of crime, there is always a doubt in the filmmaker’s eyes. Here there is something profound happening with this family where you truly want the best for them despite the truly horrendous things from their past.
#27 – Les Miserables
So much has been talked about with Anne Hathaway’s brilliant portrayal and how she made everyone cry with “I Dreamed a Dream.” Yet this is a long movie and there are more scenes without her than with her. It is the strength of this movie that it never loses the emotional weight as he goes further and further into the romance and defeat of the revolution. Every scene was visually spectacular and perfectly embodied the impressive nature of the score. A treat.
#26 – Life of Pi
Like Argo, this is another mixed bag but the highs are so high. Everything on that boat with Pi and the tiger is a beautiful fight for life in an impossible world. Director Ang Lee never makes the camera stale throughout the long duration but builds to more and more awe-inspiring moments. The other flashbacks and modern day interviews are fine, but they speak too much to what the film is about. It may not make you believe in God, but it will make you believe in life.
#25 – Amour
I almost feel I can’t review this movie. As I write this, my Pa is going through a similar ordeal. He didn’t have a stroke, but his body is breaking down just the same. The film and the past few months are so similar that I became envious that certain elements of the film were a whole lot easier than this house. Director Michael Haneke makes a stellar film with great patience and performances, but I would prefer a six-hour version.
#24 – It’s Such a Beautiful Day
A third of this movie was the boldest entry we had at this year’s Heartland Film Festival. Beloved animator Don Hertzfeld completed his trilogy of loose stories concerning a stick figure named Bill as he is losing his memory and tries to focus on what are the most important things in life. The narration and dialog has a similar curious poetry to films like Before Sunrise as the articulate try to understand the hardest questions. This is a unique and brilliant achievement to an already impressive career.
#23 – Sleepwalk With Me
Mike Birbigula is one of my favorite stand-up comedians because he doesn’t feel anything like his peers. He’s not an alternative comic like so many on the rise right now, but he’s just a storyteller. His stories are intimate with a kinder use of self-depreciation. With this movie he adapted some of his best stories, which are his life, into a very strong debut as a filmmaker. The direction is strong, the moments are earned and it may be the best film ever about stand-up comedy.
#22 – Brooklyn Castle
I’m a sucker for quirky competition documentaries. Wordplay, Mad Hot Ballroom, Word Wars. They’re fun and they focus on achievement beyond the traditional sport stories. Brooklyn Castle is better than all of those films because it is more ambitious than wondering who will win the tournament. In one junior high school in New York, there is the youngest collection of chess prodigies. They take chess lessons eight times a week for classes and are internationally ranked along with the adults. They are incredible as they prepare for nationals, the economy tanks and the school is losing their funding. The focus is so well understood and everything pays off brilliantly because nothing fits into overdone narratives.
#21 – V/H/S
This was without a doubt the most fun I had in the theatres all year. I went down to Bloomington to go to a comedy show…that I ended up missing. So on a whim, I went with my crazy friend Pedro to a midnight screening of this on campus. The place sold out and nobody knew what was coming. I don’t think a trailer was out at this point. Every single segment of the anthology killed. People were screaming and freaking out and whispering nervously to their boyfriends “Oh my God, there’s a guy in the chair—look, look!”. It was such a relief to start each one of the videos and trust that I didn’t know where it was going to go. So pumped for the sequel.
#20 – The Avengers
Joss freakin’ Whedon, man. Usually the cult stays cult continuing to please the hardcore fans. Until the day Marvel handed the reigns of the most ambitious summer blockbuster ever made to the man who proved he actually knows what he’s doing. It could have been a colossal mess to have a superhero movie with too many superheroes but the balancing act was smooth and at times, glorious. I wish the villains near the end had more of a personality, but that’s just a minor to pulling off an awesome achievement. Can’t wait to see them go bolder.
#19 – Starry, Starry Night
There are plenty of films and books about shy kids who are just misunderstood but inside they are filled with quirky brilliance or they are the prophesized savior of a supernatural community. Growing up is filled with so many hardships; it’s comforting to think that you may secretly be a hero. The problem is those stories have become disingenuous as they no longer feel personal. Starry, Starry Night shows the creative brilliance of its young main character but her imagination is always tied with sadness. Her character is fully realized and very empathetic. She is trying to deal with her family falling apart, loneliness and young love. At the end, the town isn’t throwing her a parade because she is the best person in the world. She is just a young girl trying to grow up and the results are magical.
#18 – Skyfall
We are no longer satisified with supermen. Our heroes have to bleed in order to be extraordinary. James Bond has always been a symbol of the coolest spy and even if you haven’t seen all 23 films, you can name all of the tropes. Skyfall continues the path set by Casino Royale to show there is a man behind all of the martinis and puns. The results add up to possibly the best script in the franchise and definitely the best looking one. It’s a lovely tribute to the past 50 years of the movies while showing it’s still able to move forward. If they are willing to dig into Bond’s psyche and shake up what we know like having Judi Dench be the Bond Girl, James Bond will be in the pop culture lexicon for many more decades to come.
#17 – Samsara
Boy I’m glad I saw this in theatres. Like their last film, Baraka, director Ron Fricke spent years traveling the world finding the more substantial images to create a movie that doesn’t have any dialog or plot. Just like if you traveled through an art museum, you take what you want from the film. You can enjoy just the surface level as you can be in awe of the natural and artificial wonders of the world. Or you can delve deeper and discover why these images are presented in this way. To see the birth and destruction of buildings, animals and technology juxtaposed illuminates the greater coexistence we all live in. Another amazing achievement that should have been seen more on the big screen.
#16 – Damsels in Distress
Man, I love this film. It is so delightfully weird with its own voice. Whit Stillman made three films of a similar fashion in the 90s including The Last Days of Disco. While those have over-educated twentysomethings using wit to ignore their issues, Damsels has lovable idiots address their problems head on. The film tricks you into judging the characters too early because as the film goes on the ones who are the most genuine and productive often appear to be the silliest. One of the most unique films of the year.
#15 – Django Unchained
I always forget how much I enjoy Quentin Tarantino films until I watch them. He is adored amongst everyone entering film and their loud shouts of “That was so awesome when he lost his ear!” devalue why Tarantino is so good. The man knows how to craft a story. Like Martin Scorsese, his impressive film viewing history seeps through his camera to make something original. Placing some of his signature long dialog sequence and musical choices into a western was a perfect fit as he continues his revenge inspired rewriting of history. It was easy for audiences to condone the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds but as he set his pointer finger on white Americans the results are more poignant.
#14 – Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson uses the format of a children’s tale to tell his complex stories. That can be used to great effect in movies like The Royal Tenenbaums, but when he is aiming for a smaller audience then he seems even more acute. Moonrise Kingdom not only captures a beautiful moment in the lives of youngsters but shows it in a way where it impacts everyone around them without realizing it. Young love is rarely seen as envious but in this story because of how genuine the two are everyone wishes that could have something that pure. Easily one of Anderson’s best films.
#13 -- Girl Walk // All Day
I’m not hip when it comes to music so I hadn’t even heard Girl Talk’s album All Day before this movie. I knew of the acclaimed mash-up, but hearing it for the first time as The Girl breaks free from her ballet monotony to dance simply because she’s happy was a thrill. In 12 segments, she dances across New York with such joy that she inspires a whole city, some of them don’t even know they are in a movie. This is unquestionably the happiest movie of the year and you can even see it for free right HERE!
#12 – Flight
Several times during this movie, I thought to myself “This is a great American movie.” We’re a country known for its blockbusters, but I prefer the stylish and intimate stories. Robert Zemeckis is a director who has shown off the incredible feats of technology but at his heart he is a filmmaker who wants to focus on characters over anything else. This is a tight and meaningful focus on a pilot that will challenge you how much you want him to succeed. The script is so sharp and is not afraid to take its time to fully accomplish the arc.
#11 – Chicken With Plums
Here’s the best film that I don’t know anyone who saw it. It only played in Indianapolis for a week, but I knew I had to see it because it has the best trailer of the year. The movie captures all of the magic and unlimited creativity from the trailer, but took me on a story I wasn’t expecting. It begins with some really silly humor as they deal with finding a violin but as he week goes on, he grows from a one-dimensional grump to a man with a sophisticated emotional past. A true gem that I can’t wait to see again.
#10 – Oslo, August 31
A young man in rehab gets released for one day so he can go to a job interview. In that day he goes to visit a few people, he goes to a café, he goes to his interview and he finishes off his day. The level of realism is so high in this movie it is uncomfortable because his transition back to society is not an easy journey. There is so much expected sympathy because I’ve never seen a movie really accomplish this type of journey. I really liked this director’s previous film called Reprise but this is a massive jump-up in quality. It’s hard to look away from this film.
#9 – The Queen of Versailles
Every scene I seemed to change my opinion of this family. This uber-rich family was in the process of building the largest home on the planet when they went bankrupt. At first, it’s easy to laugh at them like they are dumb reality stars especially when the mother seems to be 80% plastic. Then there are moments when I really feel bad about how difficult it is for them to change their lifestyle. Then I see their garage of dozens of unused bikes and I lose sympathy again. What results is one of the most captivating and bizarre documentaries of the bitter reality of what can result from the American Dream. Endlessly watchable.
#8 – The Cabin in the Woods
A theme that is going to reoccur in the rest of my Top Ten is that I want to see something new. To say that every story has been told is lazy because when something like this comes out, I’m excited. Writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard examine why so many “cabin in the woods” horror films play out the same way with a creative new take on it that is filled with giddy excitement. The humor and plotting is spot-on as it builds to one of the best final acts I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. This isn’t a scary movie, but a movie that applauds the fun of horror.
#7 – Prometheus
2012 seemed to be the year I give up on amateur amateur film critics. I’m fine with amateur film critics because (duh) I am one and I fully trust a lot of my friends’ articulate opinions when it comes to art. I am no longer interested in the masses complaining about things like plot holes and use that as the only examination of a film. For the record, I have no problem with any of the plotting in Prometheus and honestly that’s not what I’m focusing on. Why someone enters a room is not as important as what they find in there. Since it came out this summer, I’ve loved delving into the deeper quandaries of the relationship between creator and creation and the obligation one feels that have to serve/disobey your creator. Its context in the greater Alien mythology is wonderfully chilling. I hope in a few years once the fanboys calm down, this can be seen as the great piece of science fiction that it is.
#6 – Holy Motors
There has never been a film like this because after one viewing I’m still not entirely sure what it is. I know it is a movie about art and its evolving appreciation, what it means to be an actor and an artist, the truth in entertainment and wondering what Eva Mendes’ hair tastes like. Holy Motors is mad, lovely, heartbreaking, silly, weird, poignant and nothing like anything else out there. It’s a tribute and a warning wrapped up in a gorgeous creation that has the freedom to do whatever it wishes. It’s incredible.
#5 – The Dark Knight Rises
Ditto the first half of my Prometheus paragraph. I have always had a weird relationship with superhero films because I’m disappointed they aren’t living up to their potential. They all seem to be variations on the same story of a hero rising up to stop a villain with action set pieces every thirty minutes. With this Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan turned a summer blockbuster into a critical character study. Rises isn’t as tight as The Dark Knight, but it isn’t supposed to be. This is a war film and it has to be messy. With parallels to the French Revolution, Gotham has to evolve to live in a world without a superhero because there is a point where one man can’t do it all. It lands the epic satisfaction of a conclusion and if Nolan felt the need to remake (and improve) Batman Begins, this would be one of the best trilogies in film history.
#4 – Zero Dark Thirty
There are enough movies out there with dumb protagonists because it is easier to make a dumb movie. The trick with making a smart movie is you need to be a really smart filmmaker. When that is accomplished it is a treat to sit and watch the impressive journey. Maya (Jessica Chastain) spent years tracking down Osama bin Laden with little support or appreciation. The dedication and meticulous commitment is inspiring on its own, but the movie is a tour de force in creating an understanding of the modern war on terror. There are no battlefields; the objectives seem impossible. Showing what is involved with this much skill makes this an important movie that will be seen as a definitive movie of this age.
#3 – A Simple Life
Movies rarely make me cry. Two hours isn’t enough time for me to really connect with a character on that level, unlike the dozens of hours you can with a TV show. That said, this movie DESTROYED me. Actor Andy Lau is best known for being an action star (Infernal Affairs, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) but in this movie he is taking a much quieter role as a man who cares for his maid after she has a stroke. Ah Tao has been with his family for 60 years and when she decides to put herself in a nursing home, he is the one who continues to take care of her. Their friendship is so wonderful especially since it’s based off a past where he never knew her but she’s always around. An absolutely brilliant movie that gets every beat right.
#2 – The Master
To me, this is without a doubt Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film because it’s a film he could never have made 10 years ago. There is an understated craftsmanship that is stunning. He is no longer tipping his hat to Martin Scorsese (Boogie Nights) or Robert Altman (Magnolia) but fully established as his own original voice. The unsettling nature of this friendship put me on the edge of my seat even through there wasn’t a “thrilling” nature of its plot. Nobody’s life was in danger, but I was mesmerized by them forming their own place in each other’s lives. What was real between them and what was beneficial changed with every moment. Just a stunning, stunning movie.
#1 – Looper
This is what I want to happen every time I see a movie. I don’t want to wait for the “good months” for Oscar-y movies as I wait through the “turn your brain off” movies of the summer. I want a movie that will spend its time making an incredible script, using every dollar of its budget and to create a truly unique experience. I want a logline that makes me excited, I don’t want to know where the story is going, and I want every moment to dazzle me. I want unexpected themes that enhance the story with visuals that make this something that can only fit in this medium.
I keep turning more and more towards TV because there are shows that fulfill me with that level of mastery a couple of times a week. Then a film like Looper reminds the cinema can still give me just as much excitement as HBO. Rian Johnson has yet to disappointment as he has now made three masterpieces that challenge him as a storyteller. He will never resort back to familiar patterns or genres because he understands the value in a new story. I know not every action movie will think of new ways to have a gun fight and comedies will succumb to the familiar jokes, but wouldn’t it be awesome if every movie could be Looper good?
Tomorrow I’ll post a much smaller list of really great films that more people should see…