2012 was a pretty solid year for film. There were a couple strong releases early in the year, a bit of a weak summer, and then an onslaught of great films in the fall. Strangely, this was one of my more difficult lists to make. There were a couple films I absolutely loved. There were more that I thought were good, but didn’t feel all that emotional about, not to mention a couple disappointments. I’ve narrowed it down and arbitrarily numbered them and it’s finally ready to roll. If there’s something missing, check my list1 of the things I saw this year. There’s a few I just didn’t get to. Let’s do this.
Worst film of 2012
Project X is a found footage film about some kids who throw the world’s craziest birthday party. Actually, strike that, it’s a film about how we’re doomed as a nation and have a generation of sociopaths on our hands. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that made me actively root against the protagonists this much and I’ve seen every episode of Breaking Bad.
(Dis)-Honorable Mention: Ted
Alright, let’s get to it.
Chronicle is another found footage film about high school students. Instead of throwing a party, these 3 get superpowers. This sheds an interesting light on what might happen if teenagers were given superhuman abilities. It’s the side of the X-Men that you usually don’t get to see. Teens can be unstable, irritable and irrational and might not be the best candidates for supernatural power.
The only thing that kept Chronicle from climbing farther up my list is the found footage conceit. It drags the film down at points and often leaves me wishing it was shot more conventionally. Aside from that, I really dug it, much more than I’d anticipated.
9. Safety Not Guaranteed
Safety Not Guaranteed is such an indie movie. It’s got the quirky characters down to the girl no one understands who meets the guy no one understands and they have their quirky little romance that no one else could possibly understand. It just worked for me, though. The concept is great. A man places an ad in the paper that says:
“WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. I have only done this once before.”
A writer and two interns set out to find this guy and see what his deal is. It’s a great starting point and the film never fumbles along the way. Yeah, Aubrey Plaza is playing the same part she always does and Jake Johnson is basically the same character he is on New Girl, but I don’t even care. This was a lot of fun. If you have a soul, you’ll probably feel similarly.
In 1995, Sylvester Stallone starred in an adaptation of the comic book Judge Dredd. It was horrible. So bad, in fact, it was recently the subject of an episode of Paul Scheer’s awesome podcast How Did This Get Made? When it was announced that they were rebooting the subject matter, I was bewildered. Why on earth would you make another Judge Dredd film?
Then I saw the trailer. And it… actually looked pretty good. Then reviews came in… and they were super positive. Glowing, even. So, I gave it a shot and man was I glad I did.
Karl Urban is great as Judge Dredd, humorless and rugged, the embodiment of cold justice. Olivia Thirlby, best known for calling Juno on the burger phone, is actually pretty good here. She plays a telepath on her first day as a Judge. This gives the film a reason to have her be helmetless2 so that there is emotion and character development that you can watch unfold. It has an almost video game-like setup, where our heroes must scale a large building level-by-level to take out Ma-Ma, our crime boss. Ma-Ma is played by Lena Headey who is just great here. She’s a fantastic villain on Game of Thrones and is just as good here, but is a completely different kind of baddie.
The effects are well done, the action is both visceral and coherent, this is just a great action film.
See also: The Raid: Redemption, a film which has basically the same “heroes climb floors of building one-by-one” setup, but with “realistic”, brutal kung-fu instead of sci-fi gun battles. Strangely, also has less character and story, but is completely entertaining.
7. The Avengers
Marvel spent years building up to this movie. There seemed to be no way that they were going to bring together all these stars and characters in one movie that was not going to feel like a colossal trainwreck. Enter Joss Whedon, king of the nerds. Not only did he pull it off, he actually took some of the two-dimensional wastes from the previous films and made them genuinely interesting, fleshed out characters.
The fact that this film was able to happen is impressive in its own right. More than that, it flourishes. Marvel Comics have always been a bit lighter in tone than DC’s and Whedon captures that perfectly. Our heroes crack jokes and banter back and forth while they fight evil, but when they need to buckle down, they get to business.
Yes, there are some questionable plot points3, but over all it’s a lot of fun. This is a perfect summer blockbuster. It’s funny, it’s entertaining, but it won’t insult your intelligence. There were a few solid comic films this year, but Avengers stands above them all.
6. The Cabin in the Woods
I wish I could tell you about The Cabin in the Woods, but to say practically anything about the plot would spoil the movie. It’s a horror movie… kinda. It’s very funny at times. It seems like a paint-by-numbers horror film. Kids go to cabin, monsters come, kids die. And that’s true… to an extent. There is a twist, however. It’s in the trailer, so I would suggest avoiding anything about this film until you see it.
There’s just nothing like this. Whedon and Goddard take the horror genre and tear it apart. It’s much more than simple parody. They show great respect for the genre while poking fun at it and questioning why we watch horror films at all. It’s only peers are Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and maybe Kick-Ass. It manages to send-up the genre while being an entry in that genre itself.
If you like horror, you simply must see this movie. If you are not adverse to horror, I highly recommend it. If you hate horror movies… give it a shot! This movie is fantastic!
Great direction, solid performances, incredible production design. Argo is great, it deserves all the hype that has been behind it. It has an intensity that starts right from the start and builds and builds until it’s finale. The woman next to me in the theater had her hands over her face for the last 40 minutes of the film, at least.
There does come a point where it becomes clear we’ve disassociated ourselves with reality, but it doesn’t even matter. The film makes the question of whether or not Alan Arkin and John Goodman will be able to cross a street into a genuinely dramatic moment. It’s awesome.
4. Django Unchained
I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan and Django Unchained was possibly my most anticipated film of the year. I can’t say it disappointed, but I am surprised I ended up at #4 and not #1 for me this year. A couple years ago, Inglorious Basterds was far and away my favorite movie of that year. Django is not worse than Basterds necessarily… it’s just different.
There aren’t as many of the classic long takes full of snappy dialog that Quentin is best at. There is a much better understanding of the evil our heroes are fighting. Some of the most uncomfortable scenes I’ve witnessed this year were in this film4 and it forces you to confront the historical setting in which the movie takes place.
It is not all dour, as there are plenty of bullets and jokes flying around to keep it moving. Tarantino is a master of taking settings that should be humorless and making them light in a way that feels good-natured. There’s a scene in particular involving a mob in Django that is one of my favorites all year.
3. The Grey
The Grey had everything working against it. The film came out early in the year, was marketed as being a very generic thriller, and seem to feature Liam Neeson vs wolves and little else. Somehow, the film made $29 million dollars5. How that is, I have no idea.
What the film is in reality is a search for what it means to be human, a question of why you would fight to survive and what you’re living for in the first place, and one of the better man vs himself films I’ve seen in a long time. When Neeson and his fellow laborers are stranded in the Alaskan wilderness and forced to survive both the elements and a pack of wolves hot on their trail, it is thrilling. About 90 minutes in, it transcends and becomes something so much more.
There’s some great direction, interesting effects shots and an awesome Neeson performance. If I waited any longer to make my list, it’s very possible that this could float to the top. It’s on Netflix Watch Instantly, so go do that.
2. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Everything happens for a reason. That may or may not be true, but it is the central tenet of Jeff, Who Lives at Home. The film is a modern day parable in the truest sense of the word. It has a subtext and through the narrative it builds a case for its moral. In some directors’ hands, this would be entirely heavy handed. The Duplass brothers are able to craft this subtly and have a delicate touch that never makes the film feel cheesy. With someone else behind the helm, this could’ve easily become the worst movie I saw all year.
Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon and Judy Greer are all absolutely wonderful in this film. They’re funny, heartfelt, and genuine. Not going to lie, this movie had me cracking up and breaking down, often on a dime. I cannot recommend it enough. I loved this film.
An original sci-fi film that’s smart and entertaining. What else can you describe like that anymore? If you’ve ever complained about the legion of remakes, sequels, reboots, and adaptations that have been churned out of Hollywood in the past decade, Looper was a film for you.
This may be my favorite science-fiction film of all time. The world building that director Rian Johnson does is fantastic, with lots of little touches that give you a great sense of what the world is like in this futuristic scenario. It’s well thought and fleshed out in a natural way and does so without too many flashing arrows or hand holding. It sets you in the world and lets you figure it out. It’s not overwhelming, but feels right. It respects its audience. Imagine that!
Some complained that its time travel mechanics were not fleshed out well enough, but that’s not really the point. There’s a great scene where Bruce Willis and JGL sit down and are about to have what you’d expect to be the big expository sequence where it’s all laid out and instead Bruce basically says, “Shut up. I’m not making you straw diagrams, that’s just the way it is.” You know what? I’m totally fine with that. I don’t need my time travel flicks to be “realistic”, I just need them to be internally consistent and Looper is.
Favorite film of the year? Easily.
- Bernie was a lot of fun. Tells a unique story in a unique way. Good stuff.
- Do-Deca Pentathalon was a great little indie flick. Mumblecore gem from the kings of the genre.
- End of Watch was visceral, in your face. Not as much of a solid narrative as I would’ve liked, but it was great.
- Killing Them Softly is nothing if not clear about it’s purpose. Great Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins performances and a solid little crime flick.
- 21 Jumpstreet was really, really good. I’m as shocked as you are.
- Goon was barely talked about at all, but is an awesome sports film.
- The Dark Knight Rises was not as bad as some people made it out to be. It was great. Yeah, there’s some questionable plot points and decisions, but come on, it was a great movie.
- The FP was the weirdest thing I’ve seen in a while. Instant cult classic. Can’t wait to watch this with a room full of people who will “get it”.
Argo, Bernie, Chronicle, Compliance, Django Unchained, Do-Deca Pentathalon, Dredd 3D, End of Watch, Killing them Softly, Looper, The Cabin in the Woods, The Grey, 21 Jumpstreet, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, God Bless America, Goon, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Killer Joe, Moonrise Kingdom, Project X, Safety Not Guaranteed, Seven Psychopaths, Ted, The Avengers, The Campaign, The Dark Knight Rises, The Dictator, The FP, The Raid: Redemption, The Watch ↩︎
It interferes with her powers, you see. ↩︎
Hulk’s suddenly being able to control his transformation and himself is a legitimate problem. ↩︎
And that’s counting the whole of Killer Joe and Compliance. ↩︎