BLOGS

The Top Ten Movies of 2012

by Ethan Alter December 27, 2012 9:56 am
The Top Ten Movies of 2012

The Moviefile puts a bow on 2012 with our official Top Ten list, plus a bunch of honorable mentions.

10. V/H/S
In addition to collectively recalling such formative (for me, at least) omnibus horror productions as Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, individually each of the five short films that comprise this anthology find fun, creative and even thoughtful ways to employ the increasingly tired found footage aesthetic. Plus, V/H/S is just flat-out freaky, from the slow burn dread of Ti West's Second Honeymoon to the haunted house insanity of Radio Silence's 10/31/98. I can't wait until my own kids are old enough to sneak-watch this movie after lights out... and then not be able to fall asleep.
Click here to read my original review

9. Not Fade Away
Coming-of-age stories about disaffected white suburban teenagers (particularly those coming of age during the turbulent 1960s) are a dime a dozen, but David Chase's version of this familiar scenario is uncommonly perceptive and authentic in its depiction of that experience, as well as the entire era. Working with fellow '60s refugee, Steven Van Zandt, Chase crafts a soundtrack that's as vital a character as the flesh-and-blood cast in the way it presents how rock music's own maturation parallels that of the Jersey teen (John Magaro) at the movie's center. Not Fade Away's terrific final scene is on par with the infamous Sopranos conclusion in its cryptic beauty.
Click here to read my original review

8. Wuthering Heights
All too often, cinematic adaptations of classic 19th century novels arrive onscreen already feeling like museum pieces. That's not the case with Andrea Arnold's raw, stripped-down version of Emily Brontë's oft-filmed 1847 romance, which has a vitality and immediacy rare to this genre. Although Arnold's decision to cast a black actor as Heathcliff garnered the most attention, her boldest creative decision was to root the story's events so strongly in nature. Filmed on location on the windswept, desolate moors of Northern England, the movie captures how petty the characters' personal dramas seem when set against such a majestic backdrop, but also how their cruelty to each other in the name of love is, ultimately, part of the natural order of things.
Click here to read my original review

7. Bernie
Another director probably would have tried to turn this account of an odd Texas true-life crime into a wronged-man legal thriller. Fortunately for all of us, Richard Linklater got his hands on the story instead and turned it into a witty and nuanced serio-comic riff on small town values and how the public's idea of justice can deviate from the textbook definition of the term. Beyond a terrific star turn by Jack Black, Bernie represented the first step in the great 2012 Matthew McConaughey Revival (cast here as an incredulous prosecutor) that would continue to chug along with Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Eastbound & Down and... um, The Paperboy.
Click here to read my original review

6. Skyfall
Not just a great James Bond movie, but a great movie movie, the 23rd installment in the age-defying 007 series boasts some of the franchise's best-ever set-pieces, including a stunning sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper, a lively chase through the London underground and an all-out assault on Bond's ancestral home in the Scottish highlands. But beyond providing more bang for your buck than any big-budget blockbuster this year, Skyfall also has a surprisingly dramatic story that pits the normally unflappable Bond (played once again by Daniel Craig, confirming once and for all that he's the best 007 since Connery) against his mirror image -- a superspy-turned-supervillain (Javier Bardem, chewing the scenery with extra relish) who intends to drive him and all of MI6 out of the shadows and into the light. Kudos to director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan for showing that a film franchise's life really can begin (again) at 50.
Click here to read my original review

5. Amour
Michael Haneke's quietly devastating portrait of an octogenarian couple (beautifully played by iconic French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) confronting the end of their marriage -- and their lives -- is all the more heartwrenching because it doesn't beg for your sympathy. Instead, Haneke presents in clear, concise, but never cold-hearted terms what it means to love someone "in sickness and in health... as long as we both shall live." The characters' actions during the course of the film may demonstrate the mutability of love, but never fail to communicate the powerful feeling it inspires.
Click here to read my original review

4. Room 237
Although this will be a 2013 release for many (it's currently set to start appearing in theaters in March, courtesy of IFC), I've been a huge fan of Rodney Ascher's cinematic essay about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining since seeing it at the Sundance Film Festival last January and want to ensure that folks have it on their radar for when it finally arrives in their neck of the woods (or, more likely, on VOD). Ascher interviewed five self-styled Shining experts and presents their various thoughts and theories about the movie alongside well-curated clips from Kubrick's 1980 horror classic. The result isn't just an entertaining (and entertainingly loopy) extended analysis of this one film -- it also presents how a group of people can see the same movie and come away with wildly different interpretations... not to mention the way agenda-driven individuals can try to force a work of art to conform to their version of reality.
Click here to read my original Sundance review

3. Zero Dark Thirty
While the questions about the CIA's reported use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (i.e. torture) in the War on Terror that have been inspired by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's latest collaboration are worthy of further discussion, they've started to overshadow the movie itself. And that's a shame, because what the director and screenwriter have achieved here is rather remarkable -- a (lightly fictionalized) history of the past decade of American covert affairs packed into a dense, but gripping two-and-a-half hour narrative. The heated torture debate has also obscured one of the movie's chief virtues: its admirable unwillingness to take sides. If anything, Zero Dark Thirty leaves the viewer with profound sense of ambivalence about how the Agency found their man... and what they (and us as a country) sacrificed in the process.
Click here to read my original review

2. Moonrise Kingdom
I liked Wes Anderson's ode to youthful romance a whole lot after my first viewing in May and with each subsequent viewing, I've fallen in love with it just a little bit more. (Right now, it's my favorite live-action Anderson feature and my second-favorite overall Anderson feature behind Fantastic Mr. Fox.) In a trim 90 minutes, the writer/director recreates the thrill of first love and expertly mingles that sense of youthful optimism with the disappointments of middle age. And that cast! Returning Anderson champs like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are in fine form, while newcomers Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton and young stars Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward prove a joy to watch. Moonrise Kingdom remains the most purely satisfying film I saw in 2012 and the one I can see myself escaping into again and again, like one of those handsomely illustrated YA novels that Suzy lugs around.
Click here to read my original review

1. The Master
"Satisfying" isn't the first word I'd choose to describe Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth and most divisive feature, but then, it's not designed to satisfy. It's not designed to provoke any specific reaction, really, and that's precisely what's so fascinating about it. This is a fever dream of a movie, one that can and will inspire numerous different interpretations and debates about what it all means. (I, for one, would love to see Rodney Ascher give The Master the Room 237 treatment in a few years' time.) Scene for scene, no movie has given me more to chew on -- and left me so dazzled by its craft -- as PTA's latest one-of-a-kind tour-de-force.
Click here to read my original review

The Next 10:
11. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Is it a tad on the longish side? Yes, but I enjoy spending time in Peter Jackson's immersive rendering of Tolkien's Middle-earth so much, I'm perfectly okay with twenty minutes of dwarves singing and tossing plates.

12. Compliance: Based on a seemingly improbable real life incident, Craig Zobel's sophomore feature dramatizes in chilling fashion the way individuals feel compelled to comply with the voice of authority... even when that voice isn't actually as authoritative as its pretending to be.

13. Holy Motors: Denis Lavant portrays the ultimate cinematic chameleon in Léos Carax's sprawling, highly imaginative comedy/drama/allegory for the power of the movies. Any further description is moot as a film like Holy Motors is designed to be experienced rather than explained.

14. Premium Rush: Speeding along as nimbly as its bike messenger hero (played by the ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt), David Koepp's beat-the-clock thriller proved more exhilarating and just pure fun than the majority of the summer's top-heavy blockbusters. You may have given it a pass in theaters, but trust me: when you stumble upon it one night on cable, you'll kick yourself for not seeking it out sooner.

15. The Grey: Far more than just a Taken rip-off that pits star Liam Neeson against an actual wolf pack, Joe Carnahan's rugged survivalist drama is one of the year's tensest viewing experiences in which the real enemy is Mother Nature. You may reconsider those romantic dreams about leaving civilization behind for the wild after seeing what Neeson contends with here.

16. Killing Them Softly: Although it's about as subtle as a bullet to the head, Andrew Dominik's seedy crime picture is nevertheless a pleasure to watch, packed with great performances (including Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy and James Gandolfini, who was equally great in a supporting role in Not Fade Away), a great sense of place and an appropriately blunt, dark sense of humor. It also concludes with what's probably the year's single best punchline.

17. This Is Not a Film: On house arrest while waiting to find out whether his six-year prison sentence (and two-decade ban from filmmaking) still stands, Iranian director Jafar Panahi invites his colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb over to his pad and the two make... well, a film. Or do they? No matter what you choose to call this slender slice-of-life, it's a fascinating account of the way an artist's mind can roam free even when his body is confined.

18. Magic Mike: All right, all right, all right! Steven Soderbergh's biggest commercial hit in ages is a case where the marketing department's bait-and-switch worked in the filmmaker's favor. Audiences came for the promise of lots of hunky male flesh, but stayed for the movie's considerable sense of humor (major kudos to Matthew McConaughey on that front) and Soderbergh's subtle portrait of life in a cash-only economy.

19. Cloud Atlas: Certainly the year's most ambitious movie, the film version of David Mitchell's terrific, seemingly unadaptable novel falls short of the source material, but still stands as a remarkable feat of filmmaking by its trio of directors, Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski. It's the kind of grand, shoot-the-moon enterprise that too few directors are willing (or able) to attempt these days.

20. Chronicle: It may have been produced for a fraction of the budget of The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but Chronicle is 2012's best one-shot comic book movie. Director Josh Trank ably applies the found footage conceit to a new genre and his depiction of a young hero with great power and no responsibility provides a compelling dramatic hook to all the superheroic feats of strength.

Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order)
Thanks to a crack cast and a great script by Chris Terrio, Ben Affleck's Argo is his strongest directorial effort yet, hearkening back to the great '70s thrillers of yesteryear and offering a finale that manages to make standing in line at the airport seem exciting. Joss Whedon took on the seemingly impossible task of uniting some of Marvel's biggest heroes in the same movie and made it look easy in The Avengers, creating 2012's biggest box-office hit in the process. Speaking of Whedon, the long-delayed horror movie/genre deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods he concocted with former Buffy colleague Drew Goddard finally saw the light of day this year and was definitely worth the wait. On the (darker) side of the superhero spectrum, Christopher Nolan finished off his Batman trilogy in grand fashion with The Dark Knight Rises, a flawed, but still-fascinating attempt to elevate the comic book movie genre to operatic heights. A MAD Magazine spoof brought to cinematic life, Joseph Kahn's sorely underseen Detention zips merrily along, sending up everything from Scream to Donnie Darko in hilarious fashion. Documentary filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing give Detroit the city symphony treatment in their timely, insightful non-fiction portrait Detropia. While it doesn't achieve Jackie Brown levels of greatness, Django Unchained is easily my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie since the second Kill Bill and represents his finest collaboration with regular muse Samuel L. Jackson, playing the world's most repugnant slave. Denzel Washington also does career-best work in Robert Zemeckis' Flight, an accomplished adult drama that begins as a disaster movie only to morph into a compelling account of one man's addiction. I still wish that Tom Hooper had cast someone other than Russell Crowe as Javert, but I can't deny that the long-awaited film version of Les Misérables delivered the emotional goods, especially during Anne Hathaway's brief, but memorable screentime. Completing Joseph Gordon-Levitt's big year, Looper finds the actor doing an uncanny impersonation of the young Bruce Willis, although writer/director Rian Johnson's clever time-travel enhanced script is the movie's real breakout star. While it has some tonal issues, the stop-motion cartoon ParaNorman builds to a surprisingly moving finale and the artistry on display throughout is top-notch. (Let me give a bonus shout-out to the last 30 minutes of Tim Burton's stop-motion Frankenweenie, which plays like the sequel to Mars Attacks! that Burton was never allowed to make. The rest of the movie is just okay, but that final act is glorious.) Billionaire housewife Jackie Siegel probably pictured Lauren Greenfield's documentary The Queen of Versailles as being an audition tape for her own Real Housewives-type show, but the finished product is far more complex, nuanced... and damning. Spike Lee returns to the streets of Brooklyn with Red Hook Summer, a lively, enjoyable neighborhood drama boasting a powerhouse performance by The Wire's Clarke Peters as a morally flawed preacher. After a lost decade helming mostly terrible movies, Oliver Stone got his U-Turn mojo back with Savages, an overheated, overly melodramatic and hugely enjoyable crime caper that benefits from scenery-chewing bad guy turns by Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek. As an avowed Paul Simon fan, I adore Joe Berlinger's Under African Skies, a 25th anniversary account of the making and enduring legacy of the singer/songwriter's groundbreaking Graceland album. (Having the opportunity to see the movie at its Sundance premiere with Simon in attendance remains one of the highlights of my cinematic year.) Last but not least, Disney's Wreck It Ralph functions as both a loving homage to the arcade quarter-eaters of my youth and a great odd couple buddy comedy. And all you stink brains who don't like it can just go drive your candy-coated car off a cliff.

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