by Steve Habrat
I’ll be honest with you, folks, this was a difficult list to do this year. There were a ton of really great movies released in 2012. While I haven’t even come close to seeing every film released, I did try to catch all the biggest movies that made their way to the local theater. I was hoping to have this list up last week but I have fallen behind due to coming down with the a nasty case of stomach flu. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the finest films of 2012, some honorable mentions, and the five biggest stinkers I sat through. Oh, and number 10 is a tie. Please don’t hurt me.
This might be cheating but I’m sort of lumping these two together. Usually, Pixar’s animated offerings are snagging a spot on my top 10 but for the second year in a row, Pixar failed to live up to the quality of their previous films (Up, Toy Story 3, Wall-E). Plus, maybe I’m a sucker for macabre stop motion animation. After two massive duds (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows), Tim Burton finally returns to form with the black and white Frankenweenie, a touching story about a boy and his undead pooch. Maybe you have to be an animal lover and have a soft spot for the Universal Monsters, but I have a feeling that this film will gain a following in the years to come (hopefully by more than just the Hot Topic crowd). Then we have ParaNorman, the hilarious and relentlessly clever zombie romp from Laika about a misfit named Norman who can talk to the dead. It is really hard for me to pick one film over the other but if I honestly had to, I think I’d go with Burton’s big-hearted and downright adorable creature feature. I know what it is like to loose a pet that you love very much and Frankenweenie really nails that feeling. Don’t get me wrong though; both are extremely sweet movies that are infinitely better than Adam Sandler’s obnoxious Hotel Transylvania.
9.) Killing Them Softly
Some dismissed Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly as too heavy handed and about as subtle as a sledge hammer to the teeth. Who cares?! Killing Them Softly is a chilling, apocalyptic, atmospheric, and darkly hilarious gangster film that sends the viewer away more than a little freaked out. Using the 2008 presidential election and the recession as the backdrop, Dominik’s film contains little to no hope and is a grim reminder that in America, we are all on our own. No politician is coming to save us and put us back on our feet. Featuring a powerhouse performance from Brad Pitt (No Oscar love?!) and some truly disturbing sequences (Ray Liotta receives a shockingly brutal beating in a rainstorm and Pitt blows a gangster away as Ketty Lester’s haunting ‘Love Letters’ echoes on the soundtrack), Killing Them Softly is a black-as-night gangster thriller that will stick with you for the rest of your life. I think John over at The Droid You’re Looking For can back me up with this one making the list.
8.) Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s whimsical tale about young love in the last days of summer is his quirkiest and most heartwarming film yet. It is the type of film you would want to watch on a warm summer evening with someone you love. Credit should go to the two irresistible leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, the runaway tykes who have more of a grasp on true love than the warring, irresponsible adults who look after them. While Moonrise Kingdom belongs to the kids, the adults certainly do their best to match them. Bruce Willis is outstanding as a heartbroken cop hot on the trail of the runaways while Bill Murray and Frances McDormand steal every scene they are in as dysfunctional parents. And we can’t forget Edward Norton’s bumbling Scout Master Ward, who gets the film’s best line (Jiminy crickets, he flew the coop!). Brimming with innocence and adventure, Moonrise Kingdom may just be Anderson’s masterpiece.
7.) Beasts of Southern Wild
Talk about a film that could move mountains! Benh Zeitlin’s radiant fable about six-year-old Hushpuppy and her life in the Louisiana bayou called “the Bathtub” possess a grimy beauty that took the cinema world by storm earlier this year at Sundance. It went on to be the little film that could over the summer. While I was worried that Beasts of Southern Wild would become a victim of its own hype, the emotional beating the film dishes out and the stark reality of the environment left this viewer staggered. It also didn’t hurt that it contains a jaw dropping performance from the pint-sized Quvenzhané Wallis as the curious little Hushpuppy. You’ll beam as the film focuses on the complex relationship between Huspuppy and her unpredictable father, Wink, who is battling a mysterious illness, and admire the resilience of the individuals who call “the Bathtub” home. Optimistic and brave even in the face of devastation, loss, and heartbreak; Beasts of Southern Wild is a film that overflows with hope and courage. Seek this one out immediately.
6.) Silver Linings Playbook
Let’s be honest for a moment, the romantic comedy has seen better days. Most of the romantic comedies that come out of Hollywood today seem sugarcoated and downright clichéd. Well along comes David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, a gritty, hilarious, and touching story about love lost and love found. Credit should go to Russell, who presents serious character meltdowns with a stinging sense of humor, inviting us to laugh at the extreme ways love makes us behave. The film also owes a lot to the performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver, Robert DeNiro, Chris Tucker, and Bradley Cooper, an actor that I am usually not a big fan of. Bravo Silver Linings Playbook for making me a fan, at least until the next Hangover movie comes out. In addition to being a sweet love story, the film is also a delicately handled family drama that reminds us that no matter how tough life gets, we can get through it with a little help from our loved ones, even if they sometimes seem crazier than we do.
For the few people out there who still argue that Steven Spielberg is a big budget action hack, I point you towards Lincoln, one of the finest and most accomplished films of Mr. Spielberg’s career. A warts-and-all look at the final months of the 16th president’s life and his push to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln is an unflinchingly rich glimpse inside the world of politics that demands to be seen twice. Meanwhile, Daniel Day Lewis slips into the role of Abraham Lincoln and then completely disappears into his skin like you wouldn’t believe. It is the performance of the year that all but guarantees him the Best Actor Oscar. At over two hours, Spielberg consistently refuses to adhere to the normal biopic rules and smartly ignores Lincoln’s early years. Instead, he simply paints a portrait of a man with a heavy heart and in the process he managed to humanize a larger-than-life hero.
4.) Zero Dark Thirty
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s controversial look at the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been skewered by both political parties, one side claiming that it glorifies torture and the other screaming that it glorifies the Obama administration. How about you all shut up and take Bigelow’s film for what it is— a (mostly) honest if a bit fabricated-for-the-sake-of-story thriller that is essential viewing for all Americans. Zero Dark Thirty ultimately belongs Jessica Chastain’s tough-as-nails Maya, who oversees this seemingly never-ending firestorm with white-hot confidence. You’ll marvel at her no-nonsense approach to eliminating her target, the self-assured woman in a room full of skittish males who him and haw over how to attack our enemy. And I can’t forget the brilliant, white-knuckle final sequence, when the SEALs finally close in on that now famous compound in grainy night vision. While not nearly as tense as the almost flawless The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is a brooding morality tale that is left on the table for debate.
3.) The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s final installment in his Batman trilogy is just as epic as he promised and just about as bleak as comic book movies come. While I’m sure this is a controversial choice to have in my top 10 of the year, I argue that Nolan once again expertly uses Gotham City to mirror our troubled times. There are hints of the Occupy Wall Street movement here and explorations of the War on Terror there, but it is the sheer scope of the film that truly holds us. Many say it takes a back seat to 2008’s game changer The Dark Knight but I have to go with this snarling beast over the other. It isn’t without flaws and Nolan is juggling a lot of ideas here, but The Dark Knight Rises reminds us that summer blockbusters do not have to simply be candy colored fluff. It demands that the comic book movie genre be taken seriously as high art and it plays by its own rules. This is a fitting and towering climax for one of the best trilogies of recent memory.
After delivering two impressive Boston set thrillers (Gone Baby Gone and The Town), Ben Affleck goes global with Argo, which deals with the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Argo finds Affleck smoothly navigating through astonishing but true events while measuring out a pinch of nostalgia for film buffs everywhere (I loved the retro Warner Bros. logo at the beginning). Perfectly paced, funny and light when it needs to be, and nerve racking where it really counts, Argo is a film that is the true definition of a crowd pleaser. When you aren’t hanging on how well made the film is, be sure to take in the wonderful performances from Alan Arkin as a cranky movie producer, John Goodman as the wisecracking Hollywood makeup artist, and Affleck himself as CIA specialist Tony Mendez. It may all be a bit predictable but you just can’t turn away from this liberally charged plea for peaceful approaches to violent conflicts. A must see of the highest order.
1.) Django Unchained
Dare I say that Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s best film yet? Even better than Pulp Fiction? You better believe it is. Alive and gushing with the love of cinema and exploitation flicks of the 70s and 80s, Django Unchained is the most entertaining and satisfying movie of 2012. While many have complained over the unflinching use of the N-word and accused Tarantino of using slavery simply for escapist entertainment, I argue that he certainly doesn’t sugarcoat this dark chapter in American history (what we see here is pretty horrific if you ask me). At nearly three hours, this blaxploitation/spaghetti western epic is constantly witty, charismatic, and downright refreshing. It is bursting with some of the best performances of the year (Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson are all top notch) and it gets better every time you see it (I’m currently at two times and debating a third trip to the theater to see it). Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Django Unchained is Tarantino’s ultimate masterpiece, a blood-drenched valentine to the cinema of yesterday. I’m not kidding when I say that Tarantino had me smiling from beginning to end.
The Avengers is an earth-shaking superhero mash-up that beams with jingoism.
Les Misérables is a bloated but soaring musical with knockout performances from Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman.
Skyfall is one of the most exciting and playful Bond films yet.
Looper is a refreshingly original science fiction drama.
Lawless is a chilly look at Prohibition.
The Cabin in the Woods gives the horror genre the jolt it has been searching for.
21 Jump Street is a raunchy and downright hilarious action comedy.
5.) Silent House
Marketed as being one single shot and presented in real time, this cheeseball horror flick about a girl trapped in a house with what may or may not be a supernatural killer suffers from poor acting and a completely preposterous climax.
4.) Rock of Ages
This bland musical set to rocking 80s tunes is all glammed up with nowhere to go. Not even a superb Tom Cruise could wake the party up.
3.) Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
The abrasive follow up to the god-awful Ghost Rider finally gives the fans what they want and shows them what it looks like when the demonic hero urinates.
2.) That’s My Boy
Adam Sandler goes R-rated and manages to produce one of the most offensive and unfunny films you will ever see. Keep away from it at all costs.
1.) Total Recall
The remake no one was begging for, this poor excuse for a science fiction thriller is like watching someone else play the dumbest video game ever created. I may never forgive you for this, Colin Farrell. Not even the three-breasted alien prostitute could make it interesting.