Let’s keep this short and sweet. I see a lot of movies, I’m a pretty opinionated guy, and if you’ve clicked onto this page then you probably have a mild interest in what this particular film critic has chosen for his favorite films of 2012. (And for that I humbly thank you.) To be clear: this is a list of my personal favorites from 12 months of films that I’ve seen precisely once. This is not an attempt at a “definitive” list of the “finest” films of the year or anything else that requires “quotation marks” to appreciate. I hope you agree with some, disagree with others, and slap your head in disbelief at a few selections. Truth be told: if I wrote this article tomorrow the list would be slightly different. That’s how the mind of a movie geek works, I suppose.
Note: I have not seen a few of the year-end biggies, most notably Zero Dark Thirty, but I had no trouble finding 25 picks.
My 25 favorite films from 2012, a year that started out pretty weak but slowly managed to turn out a big batch of exceedingly worthwhile movies:
#25 — The Innkeepers — Character-based horror with humor and two great performances by Sara Paxton and Pat Healy. A bit less overtly creepy than director Ti West’s The House of the Devil, but this one proves that he has more than one trick up his sleeve.
#24 — The Perks of Being a Wallflower — A honest, earnest, and funny high school comedy that, at its best moments, evokes the early work of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe. Unexpectedly touching with an ensemble that has no weak link.
#23 — Wreck-It Ralph — It was a rather fine year for animated features, and this crazy little nostalgia trip through the world of video games was my second favorite of the year. It has in-jokes for adults of various generations, plus plenty of eye candy, silliness, and sweetness for the kids. Plus Alan Tudyk as the Ed Wynn-ish villain is simply priceless.
#22 — Lincoln – Anyone who still thinks that Spielberg is pure fluff needs to sit down and really focus on this fascinating, massive, and gorgeous piece of biography / history / movie magic. Daniel Day-Lewis is, of course, staggeringly good, but even when the movie slows down once in a while, up pops another great actor to hold your attention.
#21 — Silver Linings Playbook — David O. Russell doing a dramatic comedy about an emotional cripple dealing with the equally-wounded slutty girl down the street AND an overbearing gambling addict of a father? Yep, and it works like a charm, thanks mainly to a remarkable cast, all at the top of their game, and a screenplay that mixes sweet and bittersweet to fine effect.
#20 — The Impossible — Putting aside the “controversy” of casting white people as characters who were actually Hispanic, this is a heartfelt and powerful tale of survival in the face of virtually “impossible” odds. The skin colors may be different but the themes of love, loyalty, and decency certainly apply to people of all shades, shapes, and colors.
#19 — ParaNorman — There were three horror-themed animated features this year, and while Frankenweenie is adorable and Hotel Transylvania is funnier than I’d expected, the best of the lot is ParaNorman. It manages to be adorable, funny, creepy, and against all odds, oddly touching towards the end. Also it’s gorgeous to look at.
#18 — Argo — The fact that is based on a true story in recent history (fine, 1980) makes it intriguing enough, but taken just as a “simple” thriller about one American’s insane plan to get hostages out of Iran… this is a fast-paced, whip-smart and very intense film that’s packed with great performances. Ben Affleck just keeps getting better as a director.
#17 – Headhunters — The less you know about this Norwegian crime thriller / dark comedy combo before you watch it, the better. All I’ll say is that I’ve yet to meet a viewer who dislikes it.
#16 — Sound of My Voice — Like the previous film, you’re better off knowing only a little about this one. It’s about a pair of skeptics who try to infiltrate a cult, only to discover that what they’re trying to debunk might be real. (I said “might.”) Not exactly a horror movie, but it does get sort of creepy in a cerebral. Brit Marling is a particular standout.
#15 — Compliance — A movie guaranteed to make you think, yep, truth really is stranger than fiction. Firmly based on verifiable events, this is a twisted little mind-screw of a thriller about a crank call that starts out creepy, and slowly devolves into something truly twisted. The three leads (Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy) keep an outlandish premise firmly rooted in reality, which only makes sense because it actually happened.
#14 – The Master — Not as “juicy” as Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent epic of the ego (that’d be There Will Be Blood), but thanks to a fascinating screenplay and remarkable work from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman there’s a lot here for a film fan to chew on. The 1950 period design is simply amazing, the cinematography is superlative, and the plot, well, it’s about a guy who is in the early stages of starting his own religion. Whether or not The Master is about Scientology is up to you. I saw it as a character piece more than a “statement” film.
#13 — Goon — Yes, it’s the best hockey movie since Slap Shot. Vulgar yet sweet, broad but also smart, it features a fantastic lead performance from Seann William Scott, several funny folks in the background, and a tone that balances perfectly between silly satire and honest heart.
#12 — Killer Joe — Easily one of the most unapologetically twisted neo-noir crime thrillers in quite some time, William Friedkin’s rendition of Tracy Letts’ play is a sleazy ensemble piece about a hitman who is hired and then fired but refuses to go away. The entire cast is exceedingly brave here, but special mention to Juno Temple and Matthew McConaughey for going above and beyond the call of duty. Not for all tastes, clearly, but to me it felt like a refreshing bucket of lukewarm water on an ice-cold day.
#11 — Skyfall — It’s rare to see a James Bond movie that is instantly and unanimously hailed as “one of the series’ best,” but that’s what happened here — and it’s tough to argue that Skyfall doesn’t deserve all of the accolades. Director Sam Mendes found a way to A) close a sorta-trilogy down, B) lay the groundwork for future chapters, C) avoid a typical “Bond on a mission” framework, and D) give the longtime fans AND newbies something to cheer about. Also this: new additions Thomas Newman (score), Roger Deakins (cinematography), and Javier Bardem (villain) earn their paychecks in a big way.
#10 — Kill List — This dark, disturbing, and deviously amusing British mash-up of hitmen and horror is a distant cousin to The Wicker Man. Yes, the original. Yes, I realize how high a piece of praise that is. Trust me on this one.
#9 — The Avengers — All my life I’ve wanted to see a “superhero team” on the big screen, and while the X-Men movies gave me that in small doses, The Avengers proved to be a five-star popcorn mega-movie that delivers on all its promises. Marvel’s five-film “gamble” paid off with this hyper-kinetic and truly funny action masterpiece. And to say it holds up to repeat viewings is an understatement.
#8 — Cloud Atlas — This one didn’t strike any chords with the ticket-buying audience, and lots of film critics were equally unkind… but that’s one of the great things about science fiction: we all see vastly different things. Some saw an indulgent mess composed of six mini-movies mash-ups; I saw an earnest and wildly ambitious multi-chapter parable about the inextricable link between human beings and their need to tell (and hear) stories. I bet movie geeks talk about Cloud Atlas in a few years like we talk about Dark City now.
#7 — The Grey — It looks like a disaster movie. It feels like an adventure story. Sometimes it looks like a horror flick. Personally I see all of those and a whole lot more (just beneath the surface) in this somber and unforgiving tale of man vs. nature. It also has plane crashes, wolf attacks, and some seriously horrific violence. Also Liam Neeson just owning everything in sight. The man is a rock.
#6 — The Raid: Redemption — Does this seem like a crazy choice? I really don’t think it is. The action sequences in this film are pure cinematic poetry. And while, sure, the plot is skimpy, the action sequences are JUST THAT GOOD. Amazing physical talent combined with bad-ass choreography, masterful editing, and great music. It’s easily one of my favorite films of the year, and I cannot wait to see what Gareth Evans and his team come up with next.
#5 — Looper — Yes, time-travel is always a good idea for a movie, and yes, Bruce Willis is always a bad-ass and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is always fun to watch, but there’s one thing that elevates Looper beyond a simple sci-fi matinee: Rian Johnson’s excellent screenplay, which manages to find heart and humanity amidst some of the craziest sci-fi ideas of the year. A sci-fi action thriller that’s super-slick, intellectually challenging, and legitimately satisfying on an emotional level? That’s a very good movie.
#4 — The Cabin in the Woods — A mixture of comedy and horror usually means A) a monster movie with a wacky sense of humor, or B) a broad spoof that doesn’t really have that much to do with horror, but in the case of Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, well, let’s just say this movie is a special case indeed. Both an affectionate satire and a fascinating deconstruction / subversion / mash-up of endless horror clichés, tropes, and conventions… it’s a horror movie as only the meta-lovin’ Joss Whedon could (co-) create. It’s also a flick that horror fans will be coming back to for years.
#3 — Les Miserables – Next to horror films and animated features, musicals are my favorites. Probably because I saw lots of them at a young age (and also because I’ve seen actual musical theater maybe three times in total), but I dig Chicago, I love Moulin Rouge, and don’t even come near me if Popeye or Little Shop of Horrors or The Blues Brothers is on. Anyway, I took to Tom Hooper’s cinematic rendition of the world-famous stage play like a 14-year-old girl takes to the world-famous stage play. Hook, line, sinker, noticeable Dutch angles, endless close-ups, and movie-star singing voices … I really had a grand time with this epic piece of history-based mega-musical. And yes, I even liked Russell Crowe’s singing voice.
#2 — Moonrise Kingdom — I freely admit to being a massive Wes Anderson fan (I like or love all his movies, and I don’t mean just his early ones; Tenenbaums and Fox are my favorites) and he didn’t disappoint me with this weird but warm-hearted tale of pre-adolescent “love” and the hassles that inevitably arise when two young kids go missing… on a tiny island… in 1965 New England. Sound boring? It’s not. And when it’s not focused on the two very charming kids, we have folks like Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, and Tilda Swinton to keep us happy.
#1 — Django Unchained — Fine, yes, a movie geek claiming a brand-new Tarantino film as his favorite film of the year seems a bit on the “fanboy” side. But I’ve thought long and hard about this punch in the gut of a movie, and I think it’s QT’s best complete movie since Pulp Fiction. Of course it’s funny and shocking and rambling and sort of random in some spots; it’s a Tarantino! But what makes Django Unchained special is its take-no-motherfuckin’-prisoners attitude regarding the depiction of slavery in cinema. On the surface it’s an funny, intense, and frequently grotesque revenge thriller / western homage, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a movie with a strong moral center and some very noble aspirations.
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