2012 has been a great year for movies.
I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit toying with this list, struggling to get them in an order I’m ok with for more than just a few minutes. As preparation I spent a bit of time looking at my Top Ten of 2011, and in doing so I noticed that all of the films on this list surpass most of my favorites from last year. That’s a great sign, a sign that 2012 will go down in record books as one of the truly great years of cinema.
There’s also a bit of a running theme throughout all these films. It’s a good reflection of the national mood, and I think that’s one of cautious optimism. None of these films shy away from darkness, but rather than reveling in shadow these films chose to embrace and champion the light. In doing so they express a faith in humanity that’s sometimes incredibly hard to muster. The aughts were a decade of cynicism and snark, and now the pendulum seems to have swung back toward the genuine and real. In light of the recent tragedies our country has endured, it’s good to always remember that we’re a species with enormous potential rather than get wrapped up in everything we’re doing wrong, and the films of 2012 seem to celebrate that.
Ok, enough hand wringing: let’s get started.
First off, here are some Honorable Mentions. I like all of these films for various reasons and I couldn’t not mention them when it came to reflecting back on 2012. So while they don’t get a full paragraph of praise, at least they get a mention: Bernie, John Carter, Indie Game: The Movie, The Dark Knight Rises, and Magic Mike.
And now, on to the list:
In my original review of ParaNorman, I spoke of the film’s progressive themes and stunning animation. The film continues to be overlooked by audiences in favor of Brave or Frankenweenie, so I can’t help but give it further support: this is the best animated film of the year, a smart film that tackles big issues with a big heart. The genre setting is icing on the cake for horror fans, but one doesn’t have to be even slightly familiar with zombie flicks in order to appreciate ParaNorman. You don’t have to be an animation buff to recognize the talent on display here either: Laika has created a fully fleshed out world with their stop motion coming off as smooth as a Pixar film.
ParaNorman is now available on BluRay and DVD. You can order a copy right here.
#9—-Beasts of the Southern Wild
I didn’t see Beasts of the Southern Wild until just a few weeks ago. And even after all the festival hype and award circuit talk, Beasts still held up wonderfully. I expected greatness, and Beasts delivered. The film is a remarkable ink blot test when it comes to personal politics, and it seems that folks on the right and left can parse out their own message from the film. I’m not so much interested in that as I am in the world on display here, a world I barely knew existed that I find simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. Hushpuppy and Wink’s world is so fully realized that at times I forgot I was watching a work of fiction rather than a documentary. The full immersion one experiences is breathtaking.
Every year there’s that one indie movie that comes out of the woodwork and becomes a sensation, and those films rarely hold up against the passage of time. When was the last time you could watch Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, or 500 Days of Summer and not cringe at the overbearing quirk? Beasts has real world quirk, a quirk that will surely reveal itself to be timeless. That timeless quality helps Beasts rise above the rest.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is now available on BluRay and DVD. You can order a copy right here.
To be perfectly honest, Tom Hooper and Co could have just filmed a staged production of Les Miserables and the film would have probably ended up on this list. This is a case where the source material is so strong that it’s hard for anyone to mess up.
Thankfully Hooper gave it his all and made smart casting decisions and played the film as straight as possible, creating a work that blends the classic musical and Victor Hugo’s sprawling epic into one massive piece that isn’t for the light of heart. The stand outs are Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, both of whom will get strong Oscar consideration for their work here.
Les Miserables benefits most from having a smart studio behind it that seemingly made all the right choices. Oscar winning director? Check. Good actors that can actually sing? Check. A deep respect for the source material? Check. Universal should be proud of this one. They’ve made the best musical of the contemporary age.
Les Miserables is out in theaters right now.
The fact that I have a James Bond film on my top ten is a pretty big deal. I’ve never been a Bond guy, and leading up to Skyfall I was openly mocking the film’s plot description and first few images. So I guess it’s time for me to eat crow and declare Skyfall officially awesome. This is the Bond film that was promised to us after Casino Royale, and I think we can all agree now to just pretend that Quantum never happened.
Skyfall is smart, stylish, sophisticated, and above all fun. It’s everything I’ve always been told Bond was but never actually felt. I get it guys, I finally get it. And I can’t wait to see what Daniel Craig’s Bond will be up to next.
Oh, and Adele’s theme? That’s a freaking classic right there.
Skyfall is out in theaters right now.
Writer/director Rian Johnson blew me away with Brick back in 2005 and his follow up Brothers Bloom was one of my favorite films of 2009. Looper has him reuniting with Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt for his first foray into science fiction. The result is a startlingly original take on time travel that only Johnson can cook up.
Thankfully Looper has been immensely successful, and that will lead to more great things coming from Johnson. His name is now on shortlists for every major studio property currently in development, but I hope he sticks to his guns and creates more original films rather than jumping on to a franchise. We need original filmmakers, and with Looper Johnson has proved he’s one of the best.
Looper is now available on BluRay and DVD. You can order a copy right here.
Ben Affleck’s Argo is the kind of film Hollywood barely makes anymore: a smart, adult thriller that’s rooted in historical fact but unafraid to twist and turn in order to craft a tense and entertaining film. Affleck has grown immensely as a director and actor these past few years, emerging as a real Hollywood talent that refuses to buy into the big budget tentpole culture that consumes studios now. He’s proven himself to be a smart guy surrounding himself with talented character actors like John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, and Alan Arkin that don’t let their egos get in the way of delivering solid supporting performances.
The horrendous acts in the Middle East this past fall helped give Argo a potency I’m sure none of the filmmakers wanted, but that potency reminds one of the effects adult fare from the seventies such as All The Presidents Men and Dirty Harry had on our culture. Hopefully the massive financial success of Argo will remind studios that the audience for intelligent films is still there, hungry for more.
Argo is out in theaters right now.
Of all the films on this list, Django Unchained has the highest chance of growing in my favors over time. After all, I was only mildly fond of Inglourious Basterds upon first seeing it, and now it ranks as one of my all time favorites. Django shares a few traits with Basterds (a revenge plot set against a period setting) but the major difference here is that Django is above all a love story. This is an incredibly romantic film, telling tale of a man who will do anything to save his wife from brutal conditions.
Tarantino puts all his typical flourishes and fetishes into the film but it doesn’t feel overwhelmed. This is on par with Jackie Brown, a mature tale told well and smartly, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The entire cast is magnificent, from Christoph Waltz’s moral bounty hunter to Leonardo DiCaprio’s mustache twirling villain. The standout is Samuel L Jackson, who shows up as the true villain of the piece that also reminds us that Jackson can play things other than just himself. Jamie Foxx holds his own as Django, and it’s hard imagining anyone else in the role. Tarantino excels at making cool cinema, and Django might be his coolest film yet.
Django Unchained is out in theaters right now.
#3—–The Cabin In The Woods
In my original review of Cabin in the Woods, I declared it the best horror film to come along in the past fifteen years. As the year went on Cabin grew in my mind, and while everyone had a good time at Avengers and Skyfall, I’d wager that Cabin is the most crowd pleasing film of 2012. Moonrise Kingdom is the feel good movie of the year, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but Cabin is the feel smart movie of the year. Cabin‘s genius is its refusal to be exclusionary. Sure, you might have more fun if you’ve seen a few 80s slasher flicks, but even a horror noob can get in on the excitement Cabin has to share.
Writer Joss Whedon is riding high with the success of Avengers, but this is his greatest accomplishment since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fun, smart, gory, and clever, The Cabin in the Woods is Whedon’s love letter to horror that also builds upon the genre in all the right ways.
Cabin In The Woods is now available on BluRay and DVD. You can order a copy right here.
In my original review of Moonrise Kingdom I wrote at length on how I’d never quite had the love affair everyone else seems to have had with Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom hasn’t retroactively changed my opinions on Rushmore or Darjeering Limited, but the warmth on display in Kingdom makes me a bit less dismissive of those who bow at Anderson’s feet.
The set design and smart characterizations have caused me to re-watch Kingdom on multiple occasions, but each time I’m also struck by Anderson’s musings on love and compassion. This is the first time I’ve felt that Anderson actually cares about his characters, and that caring goes a long way. I doubt Anderson will ever make a finer film than Moonrise Kingdom.
Moonrise Kingdom is now available on BluRay and DVD. You can order a copy right here.
In my original review of Cloud Atlas, I wrote: “Cloud Atlas is the kind of film critics and movie lovers dream about. It is an ambitious, unapologetic exploration of what it means to be human. It’s Art with a capital A, and Film with a capital F. It is not just the best film I’ve seen this year, it is also one of the best films I’m seen in any year.”
That’s big talk, but I stand by all of it. No film this year moved me as deeply as Cloud Atlas did, and I’ll be lucky if any film moves me as deeply again. I’ve had the music for this film stuck in my head for months, and I don’t think it’ll leave anytime soon. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer crafted a tremendous piece of art with Cloud Atlas, and every time I think of that music I get a little misty eyed, still moved by their astonishing celebration of hope.
Cloud Atlas is out in theaters right now.
As we close out, I’d like to thank Wendy Shepherd for running MovieVine and giving me a place to publish reviews and articles like this one. I’d also like to thank Melissa Shannon for creating the banner image for this article. It’s been a pleasure writing for MovieVine this year, and I look forward to continue writing throughout 2013.