Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Best Movies of 2012

I'm not a professional film critic, I don't have the educational background or the long-term experience to speak of film the way that some others might. But I began this project two years and eighty films ago under the proviso that one did not need to be those things in order to discuss movies rationally. And being as I've now gone through my first full year as an amateur film critic, I feel it is appropriate now, at the end of one year and the beginning of another, to consider what I saw over the last twelve months as a whole.

2012 was a strange year for movies. Last year my best film of the year was (the admittedly great) X-men First Class, a superhero movie that exceeded my middling expectations for it, and while I still consider it one of the pinnacles of superhero film-making, last year it stood out head and shoulders above all of the other great films I saw. Had X-Men First Class come out this year, it would have much steeper competition, and likely been relegated to "merely" a position within the top five. Simply put, the best films of 2012 were a crop considerably more impressive than those of 2011, and despite my switch from a top 5 list to a top 10, I still had great difficulty cutting several films I considered excellent or even award-worthy. And so, without further ado, I present to you all the best films (that I saw) from 2012:

10  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey:  Number ten is always the hardest, as you're forced to decide which excellent movie doesn't make the list. In my case, the call was between Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth and Argo, a film I expect to see on many people's lists, as well as at Oscar Time. My selection in this case was based simply on which film I enjoyed watching more, and for me, time spent in Middle Earth is hard to top. For all the fears of a disaster, for all the comparisons to the Star Wars Prequels, the first of the new Hobbit Trilogy was a return to form for Jackson and his band of magicians, and while the resulting movie was not the equal of the original masterpieces, it remains one of the better fantasy offerings of this still-young century.

9 Rock of Ages: A hilarious farcical romp through the heart of my favorite decade of music, Rock of Ages was miles better than I expected it to be. Cored around the increasingly ubiquitous Tom Cruise (who had no fewer than three movies this year), this film was a wall-to-wall riot, filled to bursting with excellent renditions of classic rock tunes from across the 80s. The acting may have been par for the course, but the awesome ensemble cast and the movie's refusal to go three minutes without a musical number elevated this one well about the likes of similar musicals, at least in my opinion.

8 The Grey: Of all the picks on this list, The Grey is probably the least defensible, yet I stand by it as one of the best of the year. Having walked in expecting Taken with Wolves, what I received was a soulful, patient, engrossing look into the nature of men and the wilderness. Deconstructing the hard-edged unstoppable monotone badasses that Neeson has been reduced to playing again and again recently, The Grey was buttressed by a superb score, a restrained pacing, and an ending I still think about to this day. Whatever you might have assumed from the trailers or subject matter, I strongly encourage you to give this film another shot.

7 The Cabin in the Woods: It's hard enough to make a Horror film that I can tolerate. Making one I actively love is an extremely rare occurrence, yet Joss Whedon did just that with this hilarious, gory, lovingly absurd, over-the-top send up to every horror movie made in the last three decades. While a couple of the main characters could have been more convincing, and the ending somewhat self-indulgent, the movie was brilliantly-written, well orchestrated from beginning to end, and maintained a gloriously-irreverent tone all throughout, giving me hope when I most needed it that Wheedon's hands were the right ones to place the Avengers in.

6 The Dark Knight Rises: Polarizing as it was, I never mistook the Dark Knight Rises for anything but a masterful film, if not the equivalent of the lightning strike that was 2008's Dark Knight. A movie whose ambitions were simply staggering, Dark Knight Rises managed, somehow, to up the stakes beyond even what the previous installment had offered, add half a dozen new main characters, and keep Batman out of Gotham for an hour of it's runtime, all without completely imploding. Though the movie did have some serious structural flaws, ultimately I enjoyed it fully as much as its predecessor, and while I would not call it the strongest of Nolan's trilogy, it certainly merits inclusion on a list such as this.

5 Lincoln: One of the greatest Biopics ever made, Tony Kushner's screenplay elevated this film into a masterpiece, forever cementing my memory with the image of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, and finally giving me a reason to praise the ultimate method actor. Packed with an all-star cast, and directed by a blessedly saccharine-free Steven Spielberg, this was a return to form in many ways, both for Spielberg and for Lewis, and should, if there is any sense to the universe, garner a small mountain of Oscar nominations and statuettes come March.

4 Searching for Sugar Man: It's hard to ask for more than a wonderful story told in an entertaining way, but if I had to be selfish, I might demand that the story be true. And believe it or not, the story of Sixto Rodriguez is just that. Over the course of a journey from Cape Town to Detroit with stops in many other places, we get to know this forgotten musical legend, his music, his times, and the movements his songs helped to spawn, all without him ever knowing. The ending of the film, really the entire last third, is a series of escalating wonders, as the story of this musician and his music enters realms I thought reserved only for fantasy. The best Documentary of the year, and a gem for any who manage to see it.

3 The Avengers: The Avengers is what it's all about, proof positive that Hollywood can still get it done when it absolutely has to. One of the most entertaining movies I've seen in years, the Avengers manages to top every one of the constituent films that led up to it, a blockbuster that proves, if there were still any lingering doubt, the incredible heights to which Comic Book films have ascended. Not merely a wonderful action/adventure romp (which it is), Avengers was an exceptionally well-characterized movie, filled with awesome moments both in and out of action sequences. If Avengers is any indication, then whatever Disney-Marvel has for us in the future from this series cannot possibly come soon enough.

2 The Intouchables: I know that everyone rolls their eyes at me when I recommend a French language film, but I will tolerate no disrespect to The Intouchables. By far the funniest movie I saw this year, Intouchables did not miss a single step from start to finish, relying on two spectacular performances from Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet to get through material that could, in a lesser film, have been intolerably maudlin. Whether you like foreign or indie cinema or not, I demand that you go see this film. You will absolutely never look at a foreign film the same way again.

1 Cloud Atlas: There are movies that are good despite their flaws. There are movies that have no flaws. And then there are movies that are so good that you forget whether or not they were flawed. Cloud Atlas is one of these films. A sweeping, fantastic epic of six separate narratives tied together into one, this is one of the most ambitious films I've ever seen, taking its audience on a journey across time and space. Though difficult to get into (it made several respected critics' worst lists), once I began to understand this film in even a slight degree, it unfolded into a masterpiece, one that I would have sat through three more hours of had there been more to see. Cloud Atlas was not merely the best film of the year, it was the best movie I have seen in a long, long time. Indeed, I would unhesitatingly put it on a list of my ten favorite films ever.

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