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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My Top 10 (And 1 Worst) Films of 2012


           This was an interesting and strange year in cinema.  Going into 2012, the movies I was looking forward to the most were Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.  And while all three were quite good, and I really liked each one, I didn’t LOVE them as much as I thought I would (and only 1 made this list).  Meanwhile, many of the films that ended up being among my absolute favorites of the year (Cabin in the Woods, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Moonrise Kingdom, to name a few) were not even blips on my radar screen until after they came out in theaters. 

            Yes, it was certainly an interesting and often surprising year, but honestly, I think that it made it all the better.  Fortunately, I had a lot of opportunities to hit the theaters, so I was able to see a lot more movies than I normally do.  Now, having FINALLY seen the last of the major Oscar contenders, I can release my official Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2012 list.  Enjoy! 

First, the 1 “worst” movie I saw in theaters this year (for the record, Silver Linings Playbook ended up a VERY close second to this)-

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)

            I will say this- seeing The Hunger Games got me interested enough to sit down and read the entire series, which I ended up really liking.  So for that, I give the film credit.  Aside from the world being passively interesting, however, there are very few complements I can give this one.  Jennifer Lawrence is a good actress, but nearly everyone else was either poorly cast or given confusing direction, and the only performance that ever really grabbed me was President Snow, who is in the film for all of 10 minutes, if that.  Add to lackluster acting surprisingly cheap special effects (they knew this film would be a hit, so why make it on such a tight budget?) and some of the worst shaky-cam I’ve ever seen, and the result is a pretty underwhelming experience.  Certainly not a bad film, by any means, just….meh. 

Now, on to the good stuff- my 10 favorite movies of 2012. 

10.  The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

            Based on “The Borrowers,” Arrietty is a much smaller fan than Studio Ghibli fans are probably used to, but the quality of their animation has rarely been better.  Brilliantly contrasting the minuteness of the Borrower’s lives with the relative “vastness” of our “normal” world, Arrietty managed to make even the most ordinary of daily items seem immense and awe-inspiring, while telling a quiet but moving story of friendship and love.  On top of the well-done story and characters, the film also featured a beautifully sad soundtrack by French harpist Cecile Corbel, offering an interesting change from the usual Joe Hisaishi fare.  Given the growing absence of hand-drawn animation on the American film scene, I was all too happy to see this one hit general theaters. 

9.  The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

            In my opinion, The Master featured one of the most rock-solid casts of the year (and may I remind you, said year included Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, and Moonrise Kingdom).   Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams all managed to create personas that defy simple explanation- no motives, rational, or beliefs are easy to describe or discover in this movie.  What’s it all mean?  I saw the movie nearly 5 months ago and I’m still not 100% certain.  If you prefer simple stories with simple explanations, this is not the film for you. 

8.  ParaNorman (Sam Fell and Chris Butler)

            Saying that the Zombie-craze of recent years has overstayed its welcome is like saying Fox News needs to glance in a mirror every so often.  And yet, ParaNorman found ways to use its share of zombie conventions and yet put so many twists on them that, by the end, it barely feels like a zombie film.  Although it’s consistently dark and creepy, containing plenty of subtle (yet surprisingly brutal) riffs on small-town American life, ParaNorman never fails to have fun with itself and with its fairly well-balanced cast of characters.  Definitely the best animated film of the year (yes, better than Wreck-It-Ralph). 

7.  Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)

            It really is encouraging to see something great come out of a team of newcomers, and virtually the entire production team and cast of Beasts were just that.  Beasts is wrapped up so entirely in its own strange, unique world that you could make a decent argument for the film belonging to the realm of fantasy.  It’s sort of based on Hurricane Katrina, but not entirely.  There is a quiet commentary on the destruction of global warming, but only indirectly.  And although the people, both black and white, living together in this tiny community live in incredible poverty, by the end you can’t but wonder who the truly poor are; them, or us? 

6.  Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)

            Alright Tarantino, I admit it- Pulp Fiction was no fluke.  Like Pulp Fiction, Django was not only an absolute blast to watch, it also had a lot of smart commentary beneath the blood-and-profanity-soaked outer shell.  I think my favorite part of the film is still Don Johnson’s reaction to when his slave girl (in response to being told to treat Django like a free man) says, “You mean treat him like a white man?”  I went on already in my review of this film about the abundance of subtle and not-so-subtle commentary on slavery and revenge fantasies, so I won’t go on again here.  Suffice it to say that this was easily one of the most fun times I had in theaters this year. 

5.  Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

            The first of what will probably be many films about the death of Bin Laden, and I honestly don’t think another one will ever top out this one in terms of its sheer neutrality.  The film never tries to present the intelligence operatives at the center of its story as ideal American patriots, or even as traditional spy heroes, ala James Bond.  Instead, they are just regular people doing a job.  Whether or not they do a good job, whether or not their tactics, methods, and attitudes are laudable or to be condemned, whether or not it was even worth 10 years of effort just to kill one man- like with The Master, that’s up to you to decide.  Regardless of your beliefs about the War on Terror, if you were in any way affected by 9/11, this is a must-see. 

4.  Cabin In The Woods (Drew Goddard)

            Cabin In The Woods is that rare film that rises above simple genre classification.  While ostensibly just a sprawling parody/deconstruction of the horror film genre, the jabs in Cabin at stereotypes, clichés, storytelling formula, and our general cultural need for “familiarity” quickly become ideas you could apply not just to filmmaking and movies as a whole, but to literally any form of artistic medium, be it literary, auditory, visual, etc.  On top of that, like Django, the film is an absolute blast from start to finish, never letting up on its own sheer insanity, and never apologizing for it.  God bless this movie. 

3.  Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)

            Featuring another of the most impressive cast lists of the year, Moonrise also delivered what I found to be one of the most interesting and heart-warming on-screen romances of the year, in the form of two socially awkward pre-teens.  Determined that the only way they can be together is to run off, their adorably planned flight forces the adults on the island to confront the conflicts between their children, as well as those between themselves.  Despite Wes Anderson’s well-earned reputation for films stuffed with light, fluffy whimsy, there’s some pretty profound emotional depth in this film. 

2.  Cloud Atlas  (The Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer)

      I really wish I could put this next to Lincoln and declare my #1 for 2012 a tie.  But that would be cheating (technically), so consider this to be a VERY close second.  I still think Cloud Atlas it the most ambitious film of the year, no matter how schmaltzy it is at times.  Balancing 6 different storylines is a feat a lot of films try to accomplish, and few succeed in doing, and Cloud Atlas pull it off brilliantly.  This is the kind of film I dream of making someday.  For the sake of the poor souls reading this who have not yet seen this gem, I will keep the gushing to a minimum, and simply refer you to my earlier review.  As for the Academy- they didn’t nominate it, and that’s their loss. 

1.  Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)

            Perhaps it’s because I grew up 10 minutes away from the Kennesaw Mountain battlefield in Georgia, but I am a sucker for anything Civil War related, be it fiction, non-fiction, or otherwise.  Daniel Day-Lewis was spot-on as Lincoln, bringing out his intellect and innate political brilliance while also reminding viewers that, privately, Lincoln was often a very troubled and depressed man, having to fight his own personal demons (and those of this wife as well) while also having to lead an entire country through the worst crisis of its history.  I think Lincoln is one of the best films of Steven Spielberg’s already legendary career.  Here’s hoping it wins big at the Oscars this Sunday.  It is my pick for Best Film of 2012. 

-Judge Richard 

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