My Top 20 Movies Of 2012
As usual, my list reflects my varied taste. There are action movies, prestige picks, and more art-driven pictures. It was a great year for superheroes--perhaps the best yet--and Oscar-driven movies. I tried my best to rank my picks, but it's not always easy comparing apples to oranges, so I've also tiered them into three star-rated categories.
FIVE STARS - INSTANT CLASSICS
1. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
Quite simply, the best film about adolescent friendship that I can remember. The cast is a dream come true--three of today’s best young actors who share a palpable chemistry on screen. It has a sense of emotional authenticity that most teen films struggle to find. It’s oftentimes very funny, but then sneaks up and hits you with an emotional wallop. By the end, you’ve spent time with three characters that are quite difficult to leave behind. It has that sort of intimate feel to it. Maybe it’s because I was a teenager in the 90’s (when the story’s set), or maybe it’s because I already loved the actors and the book the movie was based on, but I really connected with the film. It is, without a doubt, the Breakfast Club of this generation. Only much better.
KEY SCENE: The tunnel scene, of course, which acts as a prism through which everything in the movie filters.
To put it shortly, a childhood dream come true. What Marvel has accomplished with this film and the others before it is nothing short of staggering. To build a cinematic universe, jumping off the source material for inspiration, was a gamble that paid off big-time. No other comic book movie before this has been able to replicate that sheer wow factor that these characters deserve. Intelligent writing, amazing effects, and perfect casting make this not only the most exciting prospect of the year, but a kick-off to an even more exciting imperial phase for Marvel Studios and their vast well of characters and storylines. Infinitely rewatchable, it is undoubtedly among the top three superhero movies of all time.
KEY SCENE: That moment the camera pans around the entire team, standing in the middle of an alien invasion, assembled to fight. Like a double-page comic panel brought to life.
In many ways, I was predisposed to love this film. As an obsessive music fan, I’m keenly aware of how music is used in movies and really enjoy any film with a strong musical push. I also consider musicals themselves to be one of the purest forms of filmmaking--most often lavish and sweeping and given over to grand artistic flourishes not allowed in more traditional movies. A film whose dialogue is entirely sung is a thrilling prospect to me, and Les Mis is one of the most popular and enduring musicals in western history. With that said, it was translated beautifully to film. Epic where it needed to be and, more importantly, emotionally intimate throughout, this was a film that reminded me why I love going to the movies.
KEY SCENE: Anne Hathaway’s remarkable I Dreamed A Dream. Perhaps the most resonant single scene in all of 2012.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS - AMAZING
So smart, so many great directorial and writing choices, and really, really compelling from both a character and plot standpoint. Sadly, we don’t often get that in modern sci-fi releases. This is the standard we should be looking to in the genre.
KEY SCENE: “Years one through thirty,” where we see the future and first realize the impetus for the protagonist’s actions. Delivered in quick, incredibly intriguing snapshots.
Brutal, primal filmmaking and by far the most emotionally raw cinematic experience of the year. It’s like a sucker punch to the gut, particularly in earlier scenes. A testament, for sure, to the wrenching, awe-inspiring effects and the devastating performances, led by the young Tom Holland. Like no other “disaster movie” ever made.
KEY SCENE: The second wave, and the underwater shots of its power. Completely harrowing.
Took two popular genres (superhero and found footage) and subverted expectations to dazzling effect. More a character study than a typical action movie, this was one of the most exciting surprises of the year. What they were able to create onscreen with such a limited budget still blows my mind. Sure, it’s not the deepest movie on my list, but it’s one of the most fun.
KEY SCENE: The final freak out in Seattle. I still can’t believe how incredible this looks.
I didn’t like The Hurt Locker, and I wasn’t really expecting to like this either. And I didn’t. At first. But the gathering snowball of a plot won me over, getting better and better as it went on. By the end I was riveted, both in the real-world story and the toll it was taking on Jessica Chastain’s terrorist-hunting Maya. Not always easy to watch, but undeniably fascinating and well-made. An uneasy exercise in moral ambiguity.
KEY SCENE: The one beginning in the hotel restaurant, which instantly ups the tension and adds a palpable danger to the second half of the film.
8. Moonrise Kingdom
KEY SCENE: The quick edit of the kids’ penpal letters, overlapped like a collage. Perfectly distills the essence of their relationship.
I am no huge James Bond fan. Nothing against the character or franchise. I’m just not too familiar with it. This movie, however, made me a fan. Amazing how-did-they-do-it action sequences coupled with an emotional core that rings completely true and a flamboyantly ruthless villain, make for an excellent spy adventure. Even the title sequence was glorious.
KEY SCENE: The introduction of Javier Bardem’s villainous Silva, complete with unexpected sexual tension.
10. Django Unchained
Damn those last 20-30 minutes of wheel-spinning! This honestly would have been even higher on my list if the movie had been pared down a bit. The good bits are cinematic perfection, the writing’s uniformly brilliant, and Leonardo DiCaprio makes for the year’s slimiest villain. It just needed to be a little more taut in places and take a well-deserved bow before it started to repeat itself.
KEY SCENE: DiCaprio at the dinner table with the skull. Enough said.
11. Cloud Atlas
A true love-it-or-hate-it kind of production, I found myself completely won over by the film’s scope and vision. Even if every story didn’t quite fit together the way I hoped they would, the journey of each was more than rewarding.
FOUR STARS - REALLY SOLID
12. Premium Rush
A super-taut bicycle-chase thriller that gives as full a picture of Manhattan streets that I can remember in any recent film. Short, sweet and always gripping.
13. Amazing Spider-Man
Initially I had this down a few places, but after rewatching, I found myself more and more won over by the cast and slight variations on the origin story. The Lizard still sucks, though.
14. Dark Knight Rises
Was never going to be as perfect as The Dark Knight, and it definitely wasn’t. Messy in places, but altogether a satisfying ending to a great trilogy.
Not so much a history lesson as a character study and courtroom drama. Not what I expected, but fascinating nonetheless. Could be ranked higher upon repeat viewings.
16. Hunger Games
I always knew the source material would make a great movie, and this is pretty much all anyone could have expected.
17. The Hobbit
Wasn’t expecting much after I heard that the book had been split into three movies, but this was a pleasant surprise. Not LOTR level of success, but still fun.
18. Life of Pi
Definitely transporting and beautifully filmed/acted. I’m not sure these kinds of spiritual fables are always for me, but I can certainly appreciate it.
An enjoyable thriller based on recently declassified events. Felt a oddly lightweight at times, but certainly enjoyable.
20. Pitch Perfect
Much sharper and funnier than I expected. Even that dire Fat Amy character couldn’t completely ruin it. For me, Anna Kendrick made it all work.
Other notables (in descending order):
Cabin In The Woods
A smart and subversive “horror movie” from the same director as Avengers. It’s on a much smaller scale, of course, but it’s almost as fun.
Queen of Versailles
Fly-on-the-wall documentary managed to be funny, horrifying and heartbreaking… often at the same time.
A based-on-true-events period comedy about the origins of the vibrator! Oddly wholesome. Underwritten, but still a fun little movie.
Silver Linings Playbook
Compelling from when Jennifer Lawrence walks onscreen to about the halfway point of the movie. The rest was a big, fat meh.
Enjoyed it while it was playing, but realized afterwards that I’d just watched an incomplete, kind of pointless story. An odd one, for sure. Beautiful to look at and well-acted, but empty.
Didn’t get it. I have such respect for Paul Thomas Anderson‘s work and I will forever be in awe of him for There Will Be Blood, but I found the characters in this completely devoid of any redeeming value and the stretched-to-the-point-of-breaking plot utterly pointless.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Didn’t get it, Part II. A lot of pretty camerawork and not much else. Kind of like Tree Of Life last year. And I really don’t see the praise for the central performance. I mean, the girl was cute and all, but at six years old I’m not sure it’s really acting. It’s more like just watching a kid be herself on camera. I will admit that the first 5-10 minutes were absolutely stunning, though. After that, I just couldn’t wait for it to end.