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By Riley Webster · January 15, 2013
Another year has come and gone. 2012 was a mighty disappointing year for films, until the last, oh, 3 months; then suddenly it started kicking ass. Oddly enough, the movies I was most looking forward to almost all disappointed in some way, and the ones I thought would be disastrous (like my #2 choice) turned out great. Funny, how expectations work like that…
Anyway, what would a list like this be without a preface? I did not see all of the best films of the year; well, d'uh, most will say. But major award contenders like Les Miserables, Flight, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Silver Linings Playbook are unseen by me, and so it's possible my list will seem very different than others. Also, of course, I must re-iterate that this is just all my opinion; my #1 pick I haven't seen on any other Best Of lists, which says, if anything, that we're all mighty different.
Likewise, many films that I'm seeing on Best Of lists all over the place, like Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Amour, I considered either good, or decent, but far from great. We all have different tastes, and if lists like this serve any purpose at all, it's to both heat up movie discussions as well as point out some titles you may have missed.
And now, the ones that just barely didn't make the cut: Rise of the Guardians (best animated film of the year), Dredd (hilarious and awesome), Argo (overrated, but very enjoyable), Perfect Sense (sadly under-looked), Prometheus (way better than people said), Shame (my country didn't get the film until 2012, so it counts), Zero Dark Thirty (not as good as The Hurt Locker, but intriguing and suspenseful), Skyfall (best Bond I've ever seen, but…that's not saying much), Goon (funniest flick of the year), and 21 Jump Street (the second funniest flick of the year).
Also, special note must go to two films that I just plain didn't know what to do with. The Secret of Arrietty is the most wonderful animated film of the year, but…technically, it came out in Japan years ago, and I saw it for the first time in 2011. So I wasn't sure if I could rank it on a 2012 list…same goes with Rebelle: War Witch, the best foreign film I saw this year, but one that hasn't yet received any theatrical distribution that I'm aware of apart from film festivals. It was just nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar, but hopefully it will emerge in theatres in 2013, where it will easily make my Best Of list a year from now. It's a remarkable movie.
Ok, enough jibber-jabber. Let's do this.
15. The Avengers
The Avengersis a great example of meeting everyone's expectations, giving them a good time, then leaving. I'm a little surprised at just how much people talked up its greatness — sure, it was a very enjoyable and entertaining summer movie. But that's the extent of it. The Avengers is reminiscent of Star Trek a few years back; nothing great, but so much damned fun. I've seen it twice, and admittedly while watching it the first time, it's lack of any real surprises or thematic originality didn't exactly make me clamor to see it again. But there's no denying the enjoyment factor of The Avengers, and sometimes that's good enough.
Do you really need to hear the plot of The Avengers? We all know what happens — the biggest superheroes in the Marvel universe (except X-Men and Spidey, of course, which are owned by different studios and thus will likely never cross over into Avengers-Land) join together into a super-team to take down a bunch of super-baddies, led by Loki. It's as clean and simple a story as you can imagine; introduce each character again, show them being recruited, see them bicker and argue, watch them get their asses kicked, then form an even deeper bond and save the day.
So plot-wise, we've been there, done that (although we've rarely been there in a movie this huge). But combine the epic action with zingy dialogue and a couple awesome performances, and you've got a winner. The Avengers could've been better, true. But it also could've been waaaaay worse, so let's be happy with what we got.
14. The Dark Knight Rises
Ohhh, The Dark Knight Rises. How tangled our relationship has become. No movie was I more excited for this year, and despite Rises ultimately providing to be a solid and enjoyable film, no movie let me down with greater despair. When you watch Rises, it's relatively easy to turn off your brain and enjoy the spectacle of what's in front of you. But the more you see it, and the more you think of it, the more frustrating and sloppy Rises clearly is.
But I could talk for hours (literally — ask my beautiful and patient girlfriend) about the flaws in The Dark Knight Rises' screenplay. We all know about the endless plot holes, the bland villains, the shaky dialogue, the lack of Batman, and the editing errors (yes, there is a scene late in the film that is actually put out of order with the rest of the movie; if Michael Bay had done it, we would've crucified him, but when Nolan does it, it's somehow Ok). So if we all know the flaws, then let's just focus on the good stuff for now, and that begins by saying that The Dark Knight Rises is indeed a good conclusion to Nolan's epic trilogy, and a solid 2.5 hours of dark, intense fun.
The acting is very good across the board, except for perhaps Anne Hathaway, who probably did the best she could with a woefully underwritten Catwoman. The music by Hans Zimmer is intensely propulsive, the cinematography terrific, the action scenes (when they finally arrive, that is) among the best of the series. But to quote the earlier film's final moments — it was the movie we deserved, but not the one we wanted. We didn't want a GOOD flick, we wanted a GREAT flick, and perhaps the biggest mistake of all was following the brilliance of Ledger's Joker with Bane and Catwoman, who simply are too dull of villains to make much of an impression. Still, all trepidations aside, DKR is a helluva experience, and one of the better IMAX presentations that we've ever had.
13. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I didn't expect to like this movie, much less kinda love it. But that's the charm of Wallflower — it does nothing new, but does the old things so damn well you forgive it's lack of creativity. It's a charmer; one where high school kids really act like high school kids, one that balances out the complicated messiness of young love and sexuality, one that is funny without ever being hilarious, and one that is touching without ever being aggressively emotional. It's a sweet film.
Logan Lerman stars as Charlie (in one of the most pitch-perfect performances of the year) as a young high school kid who is unpopular, confused, and housing dark secrets. Emma Watson and Ezra Miller star as the two friends who take him under their oddball, occasionally-too-quirky-for-their-own-good wings. While Miller plays a gay 12th grader with about all the subtlety you'd expect, he's nevertheless very likeable, and Watson (who successfully sheds her Harry Potter image) does a decent job as the love interest.
The film is written and directed by Stephen Chobowski, who adapted his own novel (unread by me). It does everything exactly how you'd expect, but also does it better than you usually see. Having said this, the film's last act does take a turn I didn't see coming, and elevates the movie to another level. Other than that, though, Wallflower is a simple, enjoyable romantic dramedy; nothing more, nothing less. I liked that about it.
12. Django Unchained
I had a bad attitude going into Django Unchained, and that all stems from my dislike of Quentin Tarantino. Oh, Pulp Fiction was great, I agree. And Reservoir Dogs was a lot of fun. But….Jackie Brown? Death Proof? Kill Bill? Come on, guys, let's be honest — he's the epitome of a filmmaker who never cashes the cheques he signs for. Remember when we were all pumped for Inglorious Basterds, only to find out the titular badasses are in the film for a grand total of 30 minutes?
But finally, blessedly, Tarantino made exactly the film he said he would — a gloriously violent revenge tale set during the height of Southern American slavery. It's the exploitation flick he said Death Proof would be, except unlike that one, it's not one awesome scene stuck inside 2 hours of mind-numbing gabbing. Django is the first film in literally decades where Tarantino shut up and dropped his ego (a little), and as such, it's his strongest film since Pulp Fiction.
The movie stars several exceptional performances for a Tarantino movie, which is to mean that everyone plays a character, rather than inhabiting a character (no Daniel Day Lewis' here). The violence is shocking, sudden, and explosive. The story is Tarantino's most fast-paced in ages, despite Django being his longest running film. All in all, Django Unchained surprised me, and slightly converted an old Tarantino hater.
(Special critical note, though: the N-word is indeed used far too much. I know that's "how people talked back then", but come on, he used it all the time in Reservoir Dogs, too. He just plain likes the word. No excuses.)
11. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Perhaps the biggest shock to me as a film-goer this year was that the best Batman movie WASN'T the final installment in Christopher Nolan's trilogy, but rather the two-part animated films from WB Animation. Following more closely to the success of 2010's brilliant Under the Red Hood rather than last year's middling Year One, Returns is a stunning example of how great a character Batman really is, and why we keep returning to the dangerous world of Gotham film after film.
Dropping all sense of the operatic and plot-hole lunacy of Nolan's films, Returns is an adaptation of the much-loved and popular series of graphic novels by Frank Miller (considered by many to be the daddy of the "dark and brooding" Batman we all know today). Despite containing mutant battles, a female Robin, and even Superman in the final chapter, the films are both incredibly gritty and violent, and rarely sugar coat Gotham in order to appeal to a younger crowd.
The first movie introduces Batman's emergence from retirement (an element Nolan borrowed, with much less effect, for Rises), and shows a middle-aged Bruce Wayne trying valiantly to fight crime once again. Part 1 ends with a huge teaser (Joker was in a catatonic state for years, until he hears that Batman is back…), and the next film, to be released at the end of January, continues the saga of Batman skirting the line between hero and villain. It's up there with Under the Red Hood and Mask of the Phantasm for being one of the best Batman films ever, animated or otherwise.
10. Life of Pi
Ang Lee's Life of Pi is every bit as good as a movie based on Yann Martel's book could be, I believe. That's not to say I didn't leave the theatre with a slight sense of disappointment; the screenplay simply cannot match the visual awe and beauty that Lee presents with his camera and animators. He's a director that likes to paint in the corners, and there are moments in Pi that are as gorgeous to view (especially, gasp, in 3D) of any film of recent years. A pity the rest of the movie can't quite compare to the visual splendor.
Life of Pi is faithful to the book in that the grand majority of it is spent on a boat, in the middle of the ocean, with a young Indian man and a ferocious tiger. This portion of the film is stunning; not just because it looks terrific, but also because Lee makes the puny setting a positive rather than a detriment, and in these scenes (as well as the climactic ones where they find a hallucinatory island, and then are eventually rescued), Pi holds your attention masterfully.
Unfortunately, Lee steps away from this main story too frequently — the flash forwards to Pi as an older man recounting his tale to a reporter are not only awkwardly sewn together with the rest of the story, but are occasionally embarrassingly acted and down-right boring. Without these flash-forwards (and an ending speech in a hospital that is epic for puncturing an audience's excitement balloon), Pi would've had a much higher ranking on this list. As it stands, it is a flawed but beautiful parable.
9. The Master
Apart from maybe The Dark Knight Rises, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master was by far my most anticipated film of 2012. And like Rises, it both exceeded my expectations, and disappointed them. Certainly as a visual marvel, The Master is truly the work of a master (nyuck nyuck). Almost no one can frame a shot as well as PTA, and considering this is his first film not shot by Robert Elswitt in ages, it proves that the cinematographer is not the guy responsible for all of his films looking so amazing.
But from a storytelling perspective, The Master lacked the clarity, the urgency, and the brutal force that are so apparent in PTA's modern classics like Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and There Will Be Blood. On the scale of his oeuvre, The Master probably lies between his debut Hard Eight and his Adam Sandler dissection Punch Drunk Love. It's an easy film to admire and analyze, but an almost impossible one to love or be entertained by.
Aside from the brilliant photography, The Master also houses two of the best performances of 2012 with Jaoquin Phoenix (channeling an even more animalistic version of Daniel Day Lewis' character in TWBB) and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The two actors play so well off each other that the results are spellbinding — when the characters don't share a scene, the film wanders and wavers, and the final act is more puzzling than breath-taking. However, The Master is unlike any other film I've ever seen, especially with its bizarre mix of blunt drama and dark comedy. Love it or hate it, you won't easily forget it.
8. The We and the I
"The we and the what?", you might just be saying. I too hadn't heard of this film at all, despite it being the return of Eternal Sunshine director Michel Gondry. At the last minute, I crammed it into my all-too-brief stint at the Toronto Film Festival this past September, and it wound up being my favourite film of the whole festival. It's so charming and rough-at-the-edges good, it actually made me forgive Gondry for The Green Hornet.
We and the Iis a very simple movie, on the surface. It follows a city bus full of teenagers who just finished their last day of high school for the year. The film rarely leaves the bus, and when it does, it's usually in the quirky style we're accustomed to from Gondry (such as an imagined version of Hell, complete with fire made out of cardboard). Instead, Gondry makes us fall in love with the large rag-tag team of teens; yes, they are often total dicks, immature and ridiculous. But then, isn't that what almost all teens are like in real life, until you get to know them?
The cast is made up entirely of non-professional actors, and their lack of experience shows. But then, one of the recurring themes of the film is the performance that teenagers have to put up to survive in high school, so the lack of finesse actually grounded the film in a strange reality. I often hated the people I saw, but that endeared them to me even more by the film's conclusion. It's not a flick everyone will love, as evidenced by the surprising lack of enthusiasm shown at TIFF. But if it gets the attention it deserves, somehow, somewhere…I honestly feel it could be the next Breakfast Club. There's a lot of passion in this flick.
7. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Ahhh, The Hobbit. Funny how something that seemed like such a sure bet wound up giving every LOTR fan in the world chronic nightmares for a few months leading up to it's release. We all started hearing the bizarre hype — it was filmed in 48 fps (easily the worst movie-making decision of the year; 48 fps simply looks horrible), it was in 3D, it was now going to be three movies instead of the original two (and hell, it's such a short book, it probably could've been just one).
Well, the hype turned out unwarranted, as long as you saw the film as I did, in glorious 2D, 24fps. For me, it was simply one of the most enjoyable films of the year — yes, it's overlong, bogged down by too many characters and subplots that go nowhere, and the special effects are surprisingly less impressive than that of the Lord of the Rings films (anyone who thinks CGI is a good replacement of old-fashioned make-up should compare the realistic goblins of LOTR with the cartoon-ish ones in Hobbit).
But all flaws aside, Hobbit also did a huge number of things really well, first and foremost being an entertaining adventure that actually took to heart Tolkein's gentle writing and made it a more family-friendly, whimsical adventure than the darker LOTR films. Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo, and Ian McKellan is wonderful as always as the great wizard Gandalf. The action scenes are exciting, the environments and New Zealand photography stunning as ever, and the music by Howard Shore is just as delightful as it was 10 years ago. Even though it ran for too long (and I'm still very concerned about the sequels), Hobbit felt like a reunion of sorts, and a very satisfying prequel.
For my money, the best superhero film of 2012 didn't involve Iron Man, Batman, Spidey, or Santa Claus. It didn't have any costumes, nor any masks, and wasn't made for the same amount of money it costs to run Bolivia. No, the best of the bunch was Josh Trank's low-key Chronicle, which came out of nowhere in the beginning of the year and wound up being shockingly good. It's not just a great superhero film, but also possibly the best found-footage movie the genre has seen yet (and this is coming from someone who loved Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, and even Cloverfield).
Chroniclestars several lesser-known actors in a story about three high school friends who stumble upon an unexplained device that grants them telekentic powers. In a genre that rarely allows any honest humanity to seep in past the super abilities, Chronicle really shows us exactly what would happen if three kids could move shit around with their minds — they start by simply making awesome Lego tricks and pranking people in stores, but gradually come to realize that they can do both great things, and truly horrible things.
I've long thought that the first true and honest superhero movie will be one where the hero becomes the villain by the end, because as we all know, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whether or not this happens in Chronicle (and to whom) I'll leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say, Chronicle is one of the great popcorn achievements of 2012, and thanks to some awesome CGI, an effective and surprising storyline, and Trank's clever direction (like having them float the cameras with their powers, so that we don't have to endure 2 hours of shaky-cam), it's a film that I really think will stand the test of time.
5. The Grey
For something like, say, Cloud Atlas, there was a very large mixed reaction, with many people declaring it a masterpiece, and just as many people saying it was a horrendous film. But with something like The Grey, the response was generally muted all around — not too many people hated it, and few are labeling it the modern masterpiece that I think it is. The Grey stuck with me like almost no other film in 2012. Hours, days, even months later, it's power nags at me, and troubles me, and disturbs the crap out of me. "Lost in the woods" stories always freak me out, but The Grey is treated with so much bleak attention to detail that it's almost suffocating.
Joe Carnahan directs with a gritty, urban flair that he developed in the brilliant Narc, and forgot all about with the silly A-Team. The cinematography in The Grey is nothing short of wonderful — it's so rare to find a Hollywood film actually filmed on location in the REAL outdoors, and because I'm Canadian, I can tell when they use shitty fake snow; there ain't fake snow in The Grey. Everything is sparse, stripped down, and un-pretentious, and yet the story of these men trapped in the freezing wilderness after a horrifying plane crash still allows moments of serenity and intelligence amidst the wolf-hunting chaos. And the final scenes are, strangely, among the most poetic of the year.
For me, The Grey represented everything I want in a suspense drama, and surprised the hell out of me by being so tense, moving, and depressing. Liam Neeson gives a great performance, possibly his best in years, and the rest of the cast are stellar as well (even the obligatory "shit disturber", who actually winds up with a very eloquent end). I've heard many people bitch about the plot holes and suspension of disbelief associated with this movie, much like I do with DKR. But the difference is that the people in DKR are smart, and planned everything out meticulously, and we STILL had trouble believing everything; whereas in The Grey, I can't imagine any of us would react too rationally if put in this kind of situation. I still haven't fully shaken the movie, and probably never will.
Rian Johnson elevated himself to a whole new status as a writer/director with Looper, one of the most enjoyable mind-bending sci-fi flicks since Minority Report. Possibly the most impressive thing about Looper is how cheap it was to make, proving you don't need a massive budget to create a great film, just massive ideas. The screenplay to Looper is bubbling with excitement at it's own cleverness; you can almost see Johnson rubbing his hands with glee as he typed.
Looperstars Bruce Willis and a barely recognizable Joseph Gordon Levitt as the same hitman in different timelines; time travel is illegal in this world, but organizations have figured out to hire Loopers to kill people in the past, until eventually the "loop is closed"; this means they have to kill themselves, and then can enjoy the next 30 years supposedly worry-free. Of course, it all goes wrong when JGL can't bring himself to kill, umm, himself, and the movie becomes an intricate, bizarre, and extremely violent chase picture.
There are twists and turns I really didn't see coming, and Johnson handles each absolutely perfectly (meaning, as long as you don't think too hard about it, everything makes perfect sense). There's a wonderful scene in a coffee shop with the two actors essentially talking about how ridiculous the whole premise is, and once again I could literally see Johnson laughing himself silly at our confused faces. The action is brisk, the dialogue snappy, and the final act was often more reminiscent of a messed-up Anime than a standard Bruce Willis shoot 'em up. All told, Looper is just about as much R-rated fun as you can have.
3. Moonrise Kingdom
I'm very far from a fan of Wes Anderson. I find his style so obtuse and self-aware it's often suffocating; Roger Ebert once labeled a film of his as "forced whimsy", and I usually couldn't agree more. But then he made the stop-motion animation Fantastic Mr. Fox a few years ago, and I loved it, and now he's directed Moonrise Kingdom, and I love it even more. There is nothing forced about Moonrise — it's as charming, whimsical, and delightful a movie as you can see.
A storybook-style romance involving two precocious 12 year olds, Moonrise uses a large cast without being used by it — despite the presence of Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, and Bill Murray, no actor stands out and swamps the scenery just by being themselves. Each performance is delicate and restrained, including the two leads, played by total newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. As usual with Anderson's films, his style is evidenced in every frame (a camera that would rather slide to-and-fro than push in-and-out, dialogue that is infused with adorable quirkiness, and a soundtrack from 1965). But for once, that didn't bother me, and in fact I can't imagine this film working as effectively without those Anderson-isms.
Moonrise Kingdomjust plain surprised me the whole way through. It's cute without being too cutesy, smart without being too smartsy, fun without being too funsy (Ok, I'm done now). Visually, it's lovely. Aurally, it's lovely. In every damn way I can think of, it's lovely. Wes Anderson truly stepped up his game, and achieved something better than I possibly could've imagined.
2. Cloud Atlas
If there's one kind of film that excites me more than anything else, it's a beautiful mess. Movies like The Fountain and Watchmen and Magnolia all reside in this category — their reach often exceeds their grasp, but what reach! Cloud Atlas easily merits comparison with those masterpieces; it's a brilliant, maddening folly, one that is often as frustrating as it is near-perfect. Visually, it's stunning; story-wise, it's shocking. There has never before been a film like Cloud Atlas, and that alone makes it worthy of your time and attention.
But Cloud Atlas is more than simply being a ballsy movie that often fails as much as it succeeds. The best films are ones that accept they might possibly lose the audience's interest or attention in the desire to show us something new and wonderful, and that's exactly what Atlas dared to do. It's a wonderful science-fiction movie because it transcends explanation, or even definition — it roams genres and tones as much as it does time-lines and planets. One scene will be an epic sci-fi chase through future Tokyo, and the next will be a tense crime drama, and the next a mad-cap comedy featuring seniors escaping a retirement home. It's unbelievable how many notes Cloud Atlas hits.
The Wachowski's (Andy and now Lana) team up with Tom Tykwer, and together they made a visual marvel (Tykwer also co-composed the music with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, and it's one of the best scores of the year). The film is 3 hours long, but feels about half that length, because the story cuts back and forth from 6 different timelines so frequently. For me, critics and audiences spent too long mulling over how "deep" Cloud Atlas is, when really I don't think it's very deep at all; it's six short stories, often only barely connected, that are all about love and freedom. That's it. And it created what I long thought was the best film of 2012, until a week ago when I finally watched….
Ron Fricke's Samsara goes beyond what a film can be, and what they usually are. It's a gorgeous, sumptuous, mind-boggling, eye-popping visual treat; one of the rare times where I could almost feel the director having sex with my eyes, and I loved every second of it. Like all of his work, Samsara has no dialogue, no plot, no characters. It's Planet Earth, if Planet Earth lost the British narration, was scored by Enya on mushrooms, and was shot by David Lynch. It was all I could do but not drool, while watching something so beautiful, so epic.
Samsara is technically a sequel to Fricke's 1992 masterpiece Baraka (which is almost in my top 10 films of all time), but because of the lack of similar characters/plots, you don't need to have seen Baraka first (having said that, GO SEE BARAKA NOW). Whereas the earlier movie delved more deeply into the physical manifestations of the world, seeing so much beautiful nature photography it would make David Attenborough wet his pants, Samsara focuses more on the people inhabiting this planet, and how our cultures affect everyone and everything. Part of me was slightly disappointed with this direction, if only because the nature photography of Baraka was my favourite aspect. But the images and scenes of Samsara are so wonderful, it's impossible to complain.
Fricke travels the globe with his sweeping 70mm cameras, and spent over a decade making Samsara. We see Asian dancers that are so perfectly choreographed, they almost seem made of CGI. We see Tibetan monks who create the most gorgeous art out of coloured sand, and then quietly swipe it all away. We see a performance artist from Japan who looks like he stepped out of Andy Warhol's nightmares. Fricke shows us so much in Samsara, yet refuses to explain or describe — all we have are the visuals, the ethereal music, and our own thoughts and feelings. It's the best movie-going experience I've had all year; yes, I might be biased, since I love Baraka and these movies are clearly not for everyone. But I also truly believe that the sights and sounds of Samsara are more impressive than anything in Avengers. Take my word for it, go rent the Blu-Ray immediately, and let the magic happen.