The 10 Best Films of 2012

January 11, 2013

Okay, a quick disclaimer before I launch into my picks for the 10 best films of 2012. This category is always the hardest for me of all my end-of-the-year picks because many of the best films are held back for release at the very end of the year so that they will be fresh in the minds of voters when awards are being given–some Oscar-baiting films are on limited release until well into January of the following year each year. As such, though we always catch a big summer movie or three, my wife and I have developed the habit of cashing our rolled coin in at the end of the year and seeing a lot of movies in December. Even so, there are always ones I (or we) miss, and then it’s wait for Netflix time. This year that seemed to happen with a few big movies I had really wanted to see. I tried to see “The Master,” on three or so occasions a few months ago because everyone from director, writer, to most of the cast members are all draws for me and the story is one right in my realm of interest, yet by the time I finally got around to seeing it, it was abruptly gone from all local theaters. I also as of yet have not seen “This is 40,” and I’m a huge Judd Apatow fan; other current films which may have likely made the cut include Hitchcock and Zero Dark Thirty. Anyway, judging from what I have seen, the following are my top film picks of 2012. [One further disclaimer for any readers: I am exhausted, and have had very little time for these lists over the past week or two but wanted to get this one out b/f the first big award show this Sunday. As such, this has been reread and revised little-to-none, certainly less than anything else I typically post. So, please forgive me any bad grammar, editing, or repetitiveness. Thanks!]

fishing

10) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

I kept meaning to get to the theater and see this one back in the spring, but it disappeared before I was able; I then forgot all about it until the flurry of nominations it began picking up and quickly edged it to the top of my Netflix queue to see before the Globes. I’m glad I was reminded, because it is a great movie. Though it takes some welcome explorations through faith, culture, and the search for meaning in one’s own life it is not a high-brow arthouse-style film, just a well put-together romantic comedy that though somewhat formulaic at times manages to avoid being a cliche. It’s also an east-meets-west drama which avoids being Orientalist. There’s nothing done wrong here, and that’s saying something; so while I don’t think it should necessarily take home the big prize at the Globes this year, I can see why it got the nomination. Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt are terrific

reacher

9) Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher is not cinematic brilliance or high-art. It’s popcorn action. It’s the sort of thing Clint Eastwood or even Arnold might have starred in twenty or thirty years ago, but of the best type of said popcorn action-star vehicle. Tom Cruise carries the role of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher well and it’s highly likely a franchise could emerge from this if interest from audiences emerges to that extent. Yet there is something eerie about this movie–on the page, Jack Reacher traverses through more than a dozen novels through episodic almost Macgyver-like adventures  Translated to the big-screen, this one feels much darker than the books ever have. Maybe that just came across as timing, or as a result of the way scenes were edited, or even the particular theater I caught this one in, I’m not sure–but from the opening sniper-scene through the many intense hand-to-hand combat encounters and gun battles which follow, the movie seems somewhat “dangerous” and expressive of an America where personal combat might emerge at the drop of a hat (for intensity alone this one probably should have earned an “R” but that’s another story). Anyway, Cruise gives a great performance (as does Robert Duvall, who is great in every scene we catch him in) in breakneck action flick complete with car-chases and flashes of intelligence.

prome

8) Prometheus

Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel is not without fault and though it doesn’t live up to the original Alien (which Scott directed more than 3 decades ago), it comes closer than any of the myriad of sequels and spin-off since (not to sleight Cameron’s original military sequel). The plot of this film expands the universe of that original film and as such, any fan of “Alien” will be captivated by the way this builds such a unique mythology as prequel. Yet this works as a movie itself to any sci-fi fan who has somehow missed out on all things Alien in the past as well. There are some truly amazing shots in the movie (few films looked better on the big screen than this one in its most expansive, cosmic moments), great suspense, and excellent performances (especially by Michael Fasbender, Idris Elba, and Charlize Theron).

hobbit

7) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I have to admit, I didn’t expect to enjoy The Hobbit as much as I did, if only because the prospect of the shortest Tolkien book being stretched into three 3+ hour films seemed like a ridiculous cash-cow effort to recapture some of the Jackson Lord of the Rings magic. Yet judging only from this first installment, Jackson seems to be capable of sustaining the story that long in creative ways. This is an expansion and carefully paced retelling of the book, and Peter Jackson manages to keep the ball rolling without ever making the project bloated or wasteful. This is fantasy gold, beautiful cinematography and scenery, and amidst the full-scale action and marvel there is room for plenty of character development and heart. Not to mention that the mere glimpse of the dragon’s eye as the film ends is enough to sign me up for round two.

skyfall

6) Skyfall

Considering everything from Adele’s delivery of the best Bond theme to date to Daniel Craig’s understated and amazing performance, and not to mention the creepy villain factor, top-notch action stunts, and solid story, and it’s safe to say that “Skyfall” may be the best Bond film in a generation. Of course, “Casino Royale” was pretty great too. What these two recent Bond films have accomplished shouldn’t be any less appreciated than what Nolan has done with the film version of “Batman”–that is, provided modern audiences with a highly plausible and deeply entertaining incarnation of a great fictional character who has not always had the best creative team at the helm of their mainstream presentations in the past. Skyfall is a brooding, serious, rough around the edges vehicle for Bond, one which comes closest to nailing the type of character Ian Fleming described in the original books as has yet been seen while also updating that character for a new age.

cabin

5) The Cabin in the Woods

Kudos to Joss Whedon for delivering a fun yet smart summer popcorn movie with Marvel’s “Avengers” movie this year. But the most fun Whedon project this year, the one which let him run with everything he does well, was “Cabin in the Woods,” which was completed quite a while back but which only hit theaters this spring. Whedon and fellow Buffy writer alumni Drew Goddard wrote a fantastic script, Whedon produced, and Goddard gave his film directorial debut here with a very intelligent, fun, meta-horror film. Cabin in the Woods works as a horror film in and of itself, complete with plenty of jump-worthy moments, squeamish scenes, and dark action highlights, while simultaneously working as a horror movie critique and dissection of the genre as a whole, a social commentary, and a dystopian analysis. In short, it does everything Whedon did in the best Angel or Buffy moments, yet in a bigger, splashier way. Humor, intelligence, shock, and scares are all finely and carefully balanced in a short, effective, memorable and re-watchable film.

argo

4) Argo

Argo tells the stranger-than-fiction true story of the CIA-Canadian escape plot to liberate American hostages from Iran during Kohmeini’s revolution. The escape plan, revolving around a fake sci-fi movie and its “film crew” gives the story plenty of laughs, thrills, and tension. Ben Affleck continues to prove himself as a director, and does a solid job here as an actor as well–which is no little thing when facing off with such a stellar supporting cast, as Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman all deliver wonderful performances.

lifepi

3) Life of Pi

The stunning visuals may be what pull you in as a viewer, but its the heart and soul of the story that makes this film worth remembering. Ang Lee pulls out all the high-tech 3C wizardry the modern filmmaker can utilize and employs them to tell a sentimental yet deep story. Suraj Sharma (as young Pi) and Irrfan Khan (as adult Pi) play the same character from different stages of life and in the process give us a fully-rounded persona. Life of Pi is a movie about the importance of belief, about when myth and fable are more important than fact and history. It’s about syncretic yet fully realized spirituality and awe in the face of creation. Even with a heartbreaking twist the fully life-affirming qualities of this story and film never waver.

dark knight

2) The Dark Knight Rises

Spiderman and The Avengersamong other comic adaptations, were solid superhero outings this year. But nothing came close to the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. This last one is not the best superhero film of all time–that title belongs to its predecessor The Dark Knight. But this one comes close; and although he doesn’t quite measure up to Heath Ledger’s scary terrific Joker performance, Tom Hardy does give the scariest and best performance of a super-villain since then as Bane. And who would have guessed that Anne Hathaway would have given the best on-screen portrayal of Catwoman, the best and closest to the finest comic book moments of the character as yet seen? The entire recurrent cast here capped off tremendous performances–Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Cane, etc. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the possible heir to the mantle also worked surprisingly well. Nolan ended his trilogy by bringing all of his key themes and elements back into play and this film, though working by itself, establishes these three films as epic chapters in a fully realized vision of Batman in a real world.

lincoln

1) Lincoln

There’s an aspect of Spielberg films, much like the films of his director predecessessor Frank Capra–it’s something found in classic “Superman” comic and early Beatles music as well–it’s a streak of nostalgic optimism that those who are cynical can find overbearing. That dreamlike quality emerges maybe twice in this film, brushing right up against the edges of corniness but staying safely sentimental instead. Even for the haters and cynics, there’s plenty to love in “Lincoln,” however. Most of all, there’s the powerhouse of a performance by Daniel Day Lewis. Then there’s the utter relevance and paralles that this historical drama has to our own current politcal machines. “Lincoln” is a movie of humor, wit, and character. There were certainly edgier, artier, and boundary-pushing films at the cinema this year, but Spielberg’s Lincoln was the best overall, at least that I saw. This does what any historical drama should do–completely sums up a succinct time in the fullest way possible, fully characterizes and humanizes all key players involved, captures everything of its setting from small daily details to big-picture themes, and then subtly yet completely provokes considerations of those things which matter and pertain the the world of the modern viewer. Lincoln does all that and more.

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