Best Movies of 2012 | Sean Lass

best2012 sqWhen it comes to movies, 2012 was a tough year to characterize. There were plenty of good movies, but not many that really got me excited in a lasting way.

 

2012 skyfall

I look back five years to 2007 and think about how many films from that year are still alive and kicking, both in my mind and in my DVD player. 2012 had several movies I loved at the time of viewing, but have kind of forgotten. If you asked me what I thought of The Cabin in the Woods right after I saw it, I would tell you that it was an instant classic, and could well become one of my favorite films. I was still enthusiastic after my second viewing, but after a third, I felt like I had seen everything there was to see in it. I still like it, but I don’t feel the need to revisit it anytime soon. 

And so, I ended up with a list of movies I liked, and one in particular that was definitely my favorite. The rest are kind of all over the place, and my ranking could change depending on my mood. I really couldn’t work up much excitement about my list. Then I saw Life of Pi, and it suddenly occurred to me that it was very similar to my favorite film of the year. Suddenly I began to think about the list that way, and started to get excited. I decided to present my top 20 films of 2012, paired by theme. This may just end up being a useless exercise, but maybe it will allow me to examine what kinds of movies were being released this year, or at least what types of movies I responded to on a personal level.

Man vs. Nature vs. Faith 

The Grey and Life of Pi

Those who saw the trailers for The Grey probably thought it was a silly movie in which Liam Neeson punches wolves. Those who saw The Grey know that it is much more than that. The year opened strong with this visceral masterpiece from director Joe Carnahan. The movie grabs you by the throat in its first scene and never lets up. By the end of the movie, I was physically exhausted, in the best way possible. This is a movie about men, and not the cartoonish, macho men of The Expendables, but real men who sit around a campfire and argue about whether or not it’s OK to admit that they are afraid. Neeson is incredible in this movie as a suicidal man suddenly forced to fight for his life. He tends to be good in everything, but I dare say he’s never been better than here. Carnahan loves the gritty look of movies from the ’70s, but he’s never actually captured the tone of that decade as well as he does here. There were many other good movies this year, but none of them impacted me the same way that this one did.

Life of Pi features a similar fight for survival, this time by director Ang Lee. Lee took a supposedly unfilmable book (which I read about a decade ago, but don’t remember very well) and turned it into a purely cinematic experience. Most of what I remember from the book are some gory details about the misfortune suffered by the protagonist (and one bit about trying to eat his own feces, which was pretty traumatizing), so I was surprised when the movie not only was made, but rated PG. And then I saw the film. First and foremost, this is a visual spectacle. Lee has been criticized for his use of CGI, and while it does not look real, it looks amazing. This is a fantastical story which moved and excited me. I also believe the fantastical elements are justified by the ending, which I won’t reveal. Life of Pi is much less cynical about nature and faith than The Grey, but both films have moments of sublime beauty and terrifying ugliness, which makes both true to life.

Movies About Movies

Seven Psychopaths and Holy Motors

If Cabin in the Woods had remained in my best-of-the-year list, it could have been paired with Seven Psychopaths. Martin McDonagh’s sophomore effort had a lot to live up to, and as far as I’m concerned, it delivered on all fronts. The dialogue is fantastic, witty, smart, and strangely believable. The performances are great. Considering how stylized and quirky the characters are, I was surprised by how much I cared about them. I think the film looks beautiful, and I like a lot of the music that is on the soundtrack. Others who may or may not write for this site were less enthusiastic, but for me, this film is as good as anything else released this year, except for The Grey. 

And where does one even begin when discussing Holy Motors? This movie is wonderfully insane in a way that could be very annoying, but ends up being compulsively watchable. Whereas Seven Psychopaths was from the perspective of a writer, this film is from the perspective of an actor. That actor is played by Denis Lavant, who puts in a number of great performances in this film. Of course, he is not a traditional actor, and this is not a traditional movie. I highly recommend that more adventurous viewers check out this film. It manages the difficult task of being a pretentious French art film while also being immensely entertaining.

How Can This Be True?: Part 1 

Argo and Searching for Sugar Man

One of those movies I mentioned earlier from 2007 was Gone Baby Gone. It’s strange to think how quickly Ben Affleck has gone from being considered something of a joke to being one of the most respected directors working. Argo is his best film, an exciting, funny, true story about a CIA operation to save hostages in Iran by pretending to be a film crew scouting locations. There’s not much to say about the movie, other than that it is great great great and everyone should love it.

Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary that tells an equally surprising story about a musical artist from the ’70s who never made any kind of mark in America, but became an icon in South America. If this movie did nothing else but introduce me to some great music, it would be worthy of consideration for my list. It does a lot more than that.

Movies I’m Still Working On

The Master and Cloud Atlas

My experiences with these movies were almost identical. Both are huge, visually striking films that defy traditional categorization. I enjoyed both of them as I was watching, and when both ended, I felt the need to see them again. In both cases, I feel as if there is so much to take in that one viewing is not sufficient. And of course, both were out of theaters before I got around to revisiting them. They are obviously different films. The Master is more of a character study, built around two fantastic performances; Cloud Atlas is more ambitious in terms of its structure and editing. Both films are fascinating and I look forward to watching them again to see what I missed the first time.

Great Franchise Entries

Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises

I’m a huge James Bond fan. I love all of the movies, even the bad ones, so any decent Bond film will probably get at least an honorable mention on my personal list. Skyfall is better than decent; it is downright fantastic. Many have called it the best Bond film ever. I wouldn’t go that far (it’s currently floating around number six on my Bond list), but it is a really great entry. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is beautiful, as usual. Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem deliver some of the best acting in the entire 50-year-old series. The action scenes are great, and the quiet scenes are better. It feels heavily influenced by Nolan’s Batman films—but hey, those were heavily influenced by early Bond movies, so it’s all good.

Speaking of Nolan’s Batman films, one of those came out this year, as well. The Dark Knight Rises ended up being one of the most surprisingly divisive films of the year. Personally, I love the scope of this film. A lot of movies try to feel big by layering on the CGI. “Our heroes will fight thousands of aliens!” “Our battleship will fire hundreds of missiles!” Then Nolan comes along with the crazy idea of doing things for real. “We are going to really hang a plane upside down in the air, and real people are going to parachute down and hang off of it! And hundreds of real people are going to fight on a real street, and we’re going to film them with the biggest film stock we can find on the planet!” Without hesitation, I would compare this film to the work of David Lean, and need I remind you, I’m talking about a Batman movie. I love Tom Hardy as Bane, and I love Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle. I love the way Nolan brings back themes from the first two movies to bring the trilogy full circle. For all these reasons, I find it very easy to overlook some relatively minor plot contrivances.

Movies about Artists and Their Art

Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

I’m not the kind of person who enjoys cooking shows or documentaries about food, but when I finally got around to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I found it completely captivating. This sounds obvious, but Jiro is not a film about sushi; rather, it is about the people who make the sushi, specifically Jiro Ono and his son, Yoshikazu. The family dynamics are fascinating and the sheer craftsmanship at work is beautiful to behold. My favorite Japanese films tend to almost sum up the Japanese culture, one I respect and love, but could never be a part of. The sheer devotion to a particular craft is admirable and intimidating.

Something from Nothing is a very personal documentary by Ice T, who spends the film interviewing some of the greatest rap artists of all time about their relationships to the music that they write and are inspired by. The film could be called self-indulgent, and doesn’t have much to say about rap’s overall impact on the culture, but it’s great to hear these guys talk, and their numerous freestyles are proof that not only is rap an art form, but these are in fact the greatest practitioners of that art form.

Movies about Slavery and People Fighting Against It

Django Unchained and Lincoln

Quentin Tarantino is an odd filmmaker to discuss. Honestly, Django Unchained is probably the film of his that I like the least, aside from Death Proof. But I like Death Proof quite a bit, and I like Django Unchained significantly more than that. Tarantino has often professed his love for the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and paid homage to them, especially in Inglorious Basterds and Kill Bill Volume 2. This is his first official western, and it is more of an homage to Sergio Corbucci. Django Unchained lacks the classiness of some of his other films, and is much more trashy. Squibs are huge and juicy. People look and sound dirty. He pulls no punches in his depiction of the horrors of slavery. The film has some very tough scenes, and yet is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen all year. First and foremost, it may be the director’s funniest film. I hate that any filmmaker who mixes violence and comedy gets compared to Tarantino, but he does do it better than anyone else. I like seeing Christoph Waltz play a good guy, and I liked seeing Leonardo DiCaprio play a bad guy. While it lacks the element of surprise that made Inglourious Basterds such a revelation for me (I think it just might be his masterpiece), there is something to be said for entertainment value, and Django Unchained has that in spades.

Needless to say, Lincoln is a much more subdued take on the subject matter, though equally long and about as entertaining. I tend to go for Spielberg’s movies even when he is in full-on manipulation mode, but this one feels different. His dramatic push-ins are still there, but he mostly lets the dialogue and the actors speak for themselves. Is it even worth mentioning how good Daniel Day-Lewis is in the titular role? I feel like it goes without saying. What I liked about him here is how quiet he is. He tends to give very showy performances, but here he leaves that to Tommy Lee Jones. Instead, he simply commands your attention, almost without even trying.

How Can This Be True: Texas Edition

The Imposter and Bernie 

This is an odd case. The Imposter is clearly defined as a documentary, whereas Bernie is clearly not. However, both tell a remarkable true story using interviews with the real participants intercut with dramatic reenactments. I usually laugh when a movie is advertised as “from the producers of…” but the marketing team was right to say that The Imposter was from the producers of Man on Wire. I loved that film, and I loved this one. It looks amazing, one of the best-looking movies I saw all year, and certainly the best-looking documentary. The story is completely riveting, and while it cheats in the way it holds back information, I was so thrilled by certain reveals that I didn’t really care. It worked in the way a great narrative works. And Bernie worked for me the way a great documentary works. I can’t ignore the performances of Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, both of whom are fun here, but the real joy of this movie was in the real-life townsfolk who recall the events of the strange story. I found the movie charming and great.

Sad Foreign Cops

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Polisse 

What is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia? This movie snuck up on me and kind of blew me away. I have to start with how amazing this movie looks. As a film snob, I love the look and feel of celluloid. Many of the movies on this list (The Grey, Seven Psychopaths, Argo, The Dark Knight Rises, The Master, and Django Unchained) have looks that are distinctly filmic. However, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan uses digital video in a way which feels unique. He does not try to make it look like film, and yet it does not look like video. The movie is beautiful, and recalls some of the best work of Sergio Leone, as does the title. There isn’t much story, but the characters more than make up for it. Two of them have an ongoing discussion about a woman who just drops dead one day, which is one of the most intriguing sequences of dialogue I have seen all year. The movie moves at a deliberate pace that will be difficult for some viewers, but if you give yourself over to the movie, it should quickly entrance you, and I found it fascinating.

Polisse is a fantastic French movie which I doubt I will ever see again. It deals specifically with child abuse cases, and it is troubling from start to finish. Again, the film features great characters who feel completely real; it always helps to see unfamiliar faces rather than Hollywood stars. Polisse has one of those wacky French endings that I don’t know how to feel about, but overall, this was one of the more riveting experiences I had in a theater all year.

Trashy Fun

Killer Joe and The Raid: Redemption

Killer Joe takes us back to Texas with another story supposedly based on true events. William Friedkin is a respectable director, but this is not a respectable film. Genre fans know that one of Matthew McConaughey’s earliest roles was in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, in which he played a creepy, backwoods psycho chasing after Renee Zellweger. They also know that his performance is the only watchable thing in that movie. There’s something inherently sinister inside of Matthew McConaughey, and when he lets that side of himself be seen, it’s kind of wonderful. Killer Joe starts like a sleazier take on a Coen Brothers movie, but ends like a Texas Chainsaw movie, with the family sitting down for a twisted time around the dinner table. Much has been said about the infamous “chicken scene.” I’d feel bad saying I liked it, but sitting in a theater surrounded by people sharing in that experience was a pretty great time.

Speaking of great audience experiences, how about The Raid? As a movie, this is not particularly good. In fact, when the filmmakers tried to insert a scene of character development later in the film, I actually got mad. As an action demo reel, this is pretty spectacular. The violence is exceptionally choreographed and performed, and it also features some of the tensest sequences I’ve seen in a long time. It is by no means the best action movie of the year, but it certainly does have the best action of any movie this year.

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You know, as I was writing this, I kind of changed my mind. Maybe it was a pretty great year. I have some honorable mentions, but I think I’ve said enough. There are a few I missed out on, most notably Zero Dark Thirty, which frustratingly doesn’t open in most places until early 2013. For some reason, this year there were quite a few articles written claiming that film as an art form was dying, or is already dead. Not only were there many good films, but many good films that called back to the cinema’s rich past and examined the power of film as a medium. Good films come out every year. You just need to be willing to track them down and watch them. | Sean Lass

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