2012 may have been the best year for movies since I have been alive. At least it was the best cinematic year of my lifetime that I can remember well. So I had to go with a Top TWENTY this year. My top 3 all would have been number one material in most years. Enjoy!
1. Cabin the Woods
If you’re a horror movie aficionado, Cabin in the Woods has got plenty to offer you. If you’re familiar with horror movies but not really a fan of the genre, then Cabin in the Woods will still probably win you over. I cannot think of any other movie that was as successful as Cabin at completely deconstructing an entire genre. It somehow managed to include elements of every type of horror movie in a way that actually worked. Cabin also may be the hardest movie ever to talk about without spoiling. Essentially every moment plays around with expectations, right from the opening shot. So should I dare continue talking about, and give everything away? Well, for one thing, since there is so much to potentially spoil, having a few twists spoiled will not ruin the whole movie. And my year-end best-of write-ups are geared towards readers who have already seen the movie anyway. But if you haven’t seen Cabin yet, just stop reading and consider it as highly recommended as possible, and go watch it. Then come back and read this last sentence, in which I list some of my favorite aspects, such as the corporate drudgery – wittily brought to life by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford – that is responsible for carrying out the horror movie-style killings, the constant, challenging voyeuristic text and subtext, and, of course, the release of all the monsters.
Memorable Line: “Hell, I’ve been here since the war.” “Which war?” “You know damn well which war!” “Would that have been with the blue and some in grey, brother, perhaps, fighting against brother in that war?”
Rian Johnson deserves all the praise we want to give him for the audacity of setting nearly the entire second half of his sci-fi actioner on a single mother’s farmhouse. And for the skill at making that second half as consistently thrilling as the first half. Less surprisingly – but just as impressively – Looper deserves praise for making its version of time travel work, if there even is such a thing as making time travel work. If you focus on the mechanics of the time travel, then all time travel movies are confusing and “illogical.” Looper spells its own unique rules, but is wisely flexible about them (there seems to be the potential for multiple versions of the future, but the future that has already happened can be affected by the new present); as Abe (Jeff Daniels) points out, it’s best not to think about it too much, as it “just fries your brain like an egg.” Ultimately, Looper is an affecting character piece, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Pierce Gagnon going all out to make their characters as sympathetic, which is particularly meaningful since this movie illustrates the quandary of whether or not it is worth it to kill a child that you know will grow up to be a monster. I would be remiss without mentioning that Looper is also the most well-edited action film in ages, with the diner faceoff scene a perfect example of this commendable editing.
Memorable Line: “And the path was a circle… round and round. So I changed it.”
3. Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook is a fascinating portrayal of mental illness in that the character with bipolar disorder is the one spreading a gospel of positivity. Pat Solitano – brought to life with desperate verve by Bradley Cooper – is the most positive person his friends and family know. But he is also the most prone to completely breaking down. I suppose that capability for mood swings is what defines bipolarity. But that positivity – that’s Pat’s personality, that’s his philosophy about life. The bipolar disorder truly is an illness and not at all a character flaw. The fact is, everyone in this movie (and everyone everywhere) perhaps is at least a little crazy. So it is a good idea to be open about that craziness. Thus, the most cathartic moments of SLP are those in which secrets, and thus craziness, are exposed: the revelation that Dolores had been telling Tiffany where Pat would be running, Pat Sr.’s pep talk to Pat after the dance, Pat’s declaration of love to Tiffany, and just about every time Tiffany says anything to anybody.
Memorable Line: Because Silver Linings Playbook had the best screenplay around, dialogue-wise, you get THREE memorable lines!
“It can still be a date if you order Raisin Bran.”
“You might not have experienced the shit that I did — but you loved hearing about it, didn’t you? You are afraid to be alive! You’re afraid to live! You’re a conformist! You’re a hypocrite! You’re a liar! I opened up to you and you judged me! You’re an asshole! You’re an asshole!”
I know you wrote the letter. The only way you could beat my crazy was by doing something crazy yourself. Thank you. I love you. I knew it the minute I met you. I’m sorry it took so long for me to catch up. I just got stuck.
Flight kicks off with a stunning, action-packed setpiece that may be the most physiologically affecting movie scene I have ever experienced. Then … it slows down. It becomes a little demanding of its audience after initially making it so easy to pay attention. Flight is a character study; it is about one man’s arc: his descent, crash, and ultimate flight. Since it is all about Whip, it requires an excellent actor in the lead role, and who better than Denzel? The success of Flight hinges so much on Denzel’s ability to wring every last emotion out of the viewer. As Whip lingers by the minibar the night before his hearing, the tension is unrivaled. The swipe of that first drink of the night as the scene is utterly devastating. All of this self-destruction ultimately allows for a hell of a catharsis in the final scene. When Whip’s son interviews him in the prison yard, I choked up – twice.
Memorable Line: “Who are you?” “That’s a good question.”
5. Ruby Sparks
Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club has made a bit of name for himself by coining the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” to describe a currently in vogue trope in fiction of quirky love interests who inspire the male lead character to wake up to how amazing life is. And perhaps without even realizing it, Zoe Kazan wrote a nifty little screenplay that served as a perfect deconstruction of this trope. The MPDG character has been criticized for being unrealistic and merely the wish-fulfillment product of writers’ imaginations. In this film, Ruby Sparks is literally the product of a writer’s imagination. Control freak novelist Calvin (Paul Dano) is (mostly) thrilled to discover that the girl he has been writing about has come to life, but he has no idea how to handle the fact that she is able to interact with the rest of the world outside of his head. Ultimately, Ruby Sparks becomes a metaphor for the creative process and the relationship between artists and their works after they have realized those works to the public. At that point, as the release-that-which-you-love-ending of Ruby Sparks makes clear, an artistic creation is owned by the world as much as it is owned by the creator, if not more so.
Memorable Line: “They’ll think it’s fiction.”
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
When I was in high school, I was struck by how different it was so different than high school in the movies. The Perks of Being a Wallflower shows that maybe the movies actually can get it right as far the high school experience goes. A truth that Perks really gets – one which applies to high school and the rest of life – is that people are people. Cliques and labels do exist, but they are a simplification. When I try to think of why Charlie ended up with the group of friends that he did, it doesn’t seem like anything more than an accident of time and place. Also, they were nice to each other. The fact that he is a freshman hanging out with seniors may be notable, but it’s kind of beside the point. As The Perks of Being a Wallflower so accurately portrays it, it is something of a mystery who ends up being the most important people in our lives. But such an accident of life should not make those people any less meaningful to us – the fact that it can be so mysterious can make everyone even more wonderful. This at times can be a struggle – the film’s philosophical crux is that “we accept the love we think we deserve” – but when we embrace what we have, it just feels so right. And there doesn’t need to be any more to it than that.
Memorable Line: “Be aggressive! Passive aggressive!”
7. Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty is a thinker, not a fighter. Well, it is a bit of a fighter, too, and a damn good one when it needs to be. The climactic scene of the raid on bin Laden’s compound has been rightly praised as perhaps the most riveting action sequence of 2012, but the moments that lead up to that catharsis are not as easily describable. In fact, they are not as easily worth giving praise to. In the everlasting war on terror, answers are hardly ever easy, nor are they are any more so in Zero Dark Thirty. The hunt for bin Laden movie wasn’t the crowdpleaser that some people expected it to be, but neither was the real-life hunt for bin Laden. The debates over the film’s portrayal of torture – Does it support torture? Does it oppose it? Is it neutral? Is it saying it helped in locating bin Laden? – are an indicator that it succeeded. It was meant to challenge, just as the post-9/11 world and the endless war on terrorism has been continually challenging.
Memorable Moment: Maya crying at the end
The most striking thing about the true-crime stunner Bernie is the footage during the credits in which Jack Black is talking to the real Bernie Tiede. How could a man so kind-hearted have committed a crime so heinous? Writer/director Richard Linklater wisely stages much of the film in the style of a documentary, with a series of interviews with various citizens of Carthage, Texas. They all attest to how Bernie Tiede is the most loved and well-respected man in town. Ultimately, Bernie serves as the starkest of evidence that the most angelic among us are capable of the most heinous of crimes. That all the facts of the case are known and that it is all presented so matter-of-factly makes it just a little frightening.
Memorable Line: “Then down south, San Antonio – that’s where the Tex meets the Mex.”
9. The Hunger Games
Adolescence is a time of big emotions – every moment seems like the biggest. In a society in which teenagers are reaped for a fight to the death, as in The Hunger Games, then it should come as no surprise that that bigness of adolescence would be amplified. The Hunger Games succeeds mostly as a fascinating character study, with the feisty Jennifer Lawrence bringing life to the fierce Katniss Everdeen. Katniss, like many a classic hero, is initially reluctant to step forward and stand for something. But when the time comes for her to make a sacrifice, she discovers the hero that she was meant to be. In the end, she is still a member of the group that she came from, but she is also somewhat at a distance – she is the “Girl on Fire.” But somehow, she continually refuses to realize how awesome and desirable she is, making her maddening and thus all the more enjoyable to watch. She’s not a boring hero.
Memorable Line: “Thank you for your consideration.”
10. Django Unchained
The latest faux-historical from Quentin Tarantino is one in which the main characters all have a moral code, or something like it. Jamie Foxx’s Django is driven by a devoted, steadfast love to his wife Broomhilda. Christoph Waltz’s King Schultz may be dirty in his methods, but he is an agent of the law, and his actions are performed according to his duties as an agent of the law. Leo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie doesn’t exactly have a code of morality – more like a code of entertainment and hospitality. And Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen – well, he’s the crux of the whole movie. His code makes him do more than just accept his place. He isn’t just suspicious of uppity blacks, he isn’t just polite to his master – he loves his master. Actually, he’s hardly ever polite. He has not patience for anyone who doesn’t see things as he does. A warped perspective like his can only be the product of the world that Django Unchained exists in – a warped existence that can only end in a mess.
Memorable Line: “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”
11. Safety Not Guaranteed
Safety Not Guaranteed is ultimately about the power of faith. Identifying with Aubrey Plaza’s sincere lead performance, we are asked to go along with the time travel scheme despite all lack of believability. In partnership with the main story is a delightful subplot in which Jake Johnson’s character places faith in the possibility of rekindling an old relationship.
12. The Dark Knight Rises
TDKR is a fittingly circular conclusion to an epic modern masterpiece. It is an absurd fantasia that resembles something like reality in which every major philosophy of life is embodied and magnified, then stuck on an island for a world-defining clash.
What if a group of real kids suddenly gained superpowers? What if one of them was mentally unstable? There would be a struggle among allies about the proper way to wield power.
Haywire is pure, fucking action. With an actual fighter in the role of lead hitwoman, it provides action setpieces laid bare for your enjoyment.
15. Sound of My Voice
Despite seeming set on laying a critical eye on the lure of cults, Sound of My Voice actually ends up leaving open the possibility of time travel. It is ultimately an examination – colored by fascination – of the charisma required to lead a group that does not make sense.
16. Wreck-It Ralph
The best non-Pixar Disney animated film in years tells us that, yes, we can break out of the roles that have been assigned to us. There can be more to our lives than what we have been coded for.
Steven Spielberg’s historical yarn is an ultimately uplifting examination of the wheeling and dealing of politics. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln knows how to play a room, thanks to his profound conviction.
18. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s latest is a charming little play-world tucked within reality where young love can thrive and take artful expression.
Sometimes, there is a happy ending, against all odds, and it makes for a hell of a story.
20. End of Watch
A pair of basically (read: profoundly) good cops get in over their heads. These characters are so likable and so admirable that you are practically begging for them to make it out alive.
And the 21st best movie of the year was 21 Jump St.!
I didn’t see the following movies. Are they good? I hope so.
Amour, Arbitrage, Holy Motors, How to Survive a Plague, The Imposter, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Loneliest Planet, ParaNorman, The Queen of Versailles
And Now, The Biggest Stars of the Year:
-Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook)
-Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper, Premium Rush, The Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln)
-Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister, Zero Dark Thirty, co-director of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, TV’s The League)
-Chris Messina (Ruby Sparks, Argo, Celeste & Jesse Forever, TV’s The Mindy Project)
-Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Bernie, The Paperboy)
-Joss Whedon (Director of The Avengers, co-writer/producer of Cabin in the Woods, Comic-con Firefly reunion panel)