I did not see nearly enough movies this year for this to be anything resembling comprehensive or objective as a “BEST” list. In fact, based on reactions I’ve seen from others, I fully expect that half of this list would be knocked off if I redid it after catching up on The Master, Holy Motors, The Raid, The Grey, 21 Jump Street, Amour, Chronicle and Zero Dark Thirty (god damn it Chicago for not getting in on the limited release). This is just the best times I had in theaters this year. Make of it what you will.
10. SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS
The reason this isn’t higher probably has less to do with how much better the other 9 movies are than it does with how much better In Bruges is. Which probably isn’t completely fair, but this is my list and I didn’t promise anyone fair. Martin MacDonough’s latest is not so relentlessly entertaining and definitely not as unexpectedly moving as its predecessor, but it is still frequently hilarious and definitely much bigger and full of ideas. A lot of those ideas are treading over ground that Adaptation covered ten years ago, but I can see rewatching this a lot more than that one, since McDonough’s characters are constantly fun to spend time with, which does not seem to be a concern of Kaufman’s in his quest to eviscerate himself as thoroughly as possible on screen. Which is all by way of saying that metafiction is usually not this much fun.
2012 Trend-watching: Great performance from an aging actor prone to phoning it in (Christopher Walken). Heavily metafictional. Good movie that is disappointing as a follow-up to the director’s previous masterwork (In Bruges). Harry Dean Stanton cameo. Murder for hire.
Watch it for: The Quaker Psychopath sequence
I don’t know how to not make this sound backhanded, but Skyfall impressed me most with how much I liked it spite of it being a James Bond movie. I’ve never loved Bond, and found Casino Royale to be pretty good rather than the revelation many folks seem to have, but I love Craig’s weathered, more brutish take on the character. Throw in a supporting cast of ringers like Ralph Fiennes and Naomi Harris, a terrific villain turn from Javier Bardem, some actual meat for Dame Judi Dench to chew on her way out the door, and man-eating komodo dragons and you have an action spectacle that delivers on nearly every front. The story, due to the focus on Dench’s M, feels weighty in a way that 007's adventures rarely do, no matter how much peril the world is in. And holy mother of god, do Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins shoot the living hell out of the exotic locations and beautiful people. Whatever quibbles I might have about the on-the-nose references or awkwardness of trying to make the movie the capper to the “Bond Begins” trilogy while simultaneously examining how Craig’s incarnation is getting over-the-hill by 00 standards, a summer blockbuster this visually sumptuous is a rare treat.
2012 Trend-Watching: Lowbrow material tackled with style and intelligence. Heavily metafictional. Murder for hire. No one can make a movie under two hours anymore.
Watch It For: The jaw-droppingly gorgeous skyscraper fight.
Say this for Rian Johnson’s Looper: it’s not like anything else out there. With it’s high-and-highly-complicated concept, act breaks that seem to begin entirely new movies, and moments of legitimately chilling horror, it seems perversely, almost compulsively non-commercial. It’s a sci-fi thriller set in/around futuristic Kansas City, for crying out loud. But it’s also thoughtful and inventive on a level that most sci-fi flicks don’t even aspire to, and even if the time travel mechanics are a bit wonky or the ending works more conceptually than emotionally, there are multiple sequences here that will stick with me for years, like Paul Dano’s character drawing just an incredibly short straw, or the 30 year montage.
2012 Trend-Watching: Great performance from an aging actor prone to phoning it in (Bruce Willis). Good movie that is a disappointing follow up to the director’s previous masterwork (Brick). Murder for hire.
Watch It For: Emily Blunt stealing the show from two bona fide movie stars with half the screentime.
What’s most amazing about Lincoln is not that it’s good, it’s that it’s so frequently fun, without undermining the enormous historical import of the subject matter. It’s realistic about the compromises and messiness required to pursue even the most lofty political agenda, while still managing to present the ability to compromise as something noble. And that’s something that is hard to do in movies (our fictional heroes are heroes precisely because they make the principled stances we can’t be bothered to make ourselves), and even more so in politics, where any slight change in position is pounced upon as ideological weakness by opponents and the noisy fringe of one’s own party alike. It’s not a perfect movie, although it would be close if it weren’t for the tacked-on inclusion of the assassination, but there is so much to love from Day-Lewis and the ridiculously loaded supporting cast that I can’t imagine anyone walking out disappointed.
2012 Trend-watching: Elaborate period piece. Slavery. Great performance from an aging actor prone to phoning it in (Tommy Lee Jones). No one can make a movie under two hours anymore.
Watch It For: (arguably) the Greatest Living Director directing (arguably) the Greatest Living Actor in portraying (arguably) the Greatest American, and somehow living up to the challenge
Ben Affleck is the goods. He’s delivered three polished adult thrillers with no duds in a time when such movies are increasingly endangered by the continual encroachment of superhero and tween romance franchises on their natural studio habitats. Argo’s Hollywood satire may be rather toothless (if amusing), but as a thriller and a window into an obscure, bizarre corner of American history, it’s taut and immensely effective. I only saw one movie in 2012 (more on that later) that had the audience as effortlessly in the palm of its hand from the opening on, spending minutes on end in breathless silence before erupting in laughter or gasping in all the right places. We've come to expect so little from brain-dead blockbusters that its refreshing to see one that can manipulate our reactions without insulting our intelligence.
2012 Trend-Watching: Elaborate period piece. Heavily metafictional. No one can make a movie under two hours anymore.
Watch It For: The harrowing opening sequence
5. MOONRISE KINGDOM
I thought I might be over Wes Anderson after The Darjeeling Limited, which did nothing for me that earlier works didn’t do better. But Moonrise Kingdom somehow managed to be a refreshing return to form from a guy who has never really changed his form. Maybe it was the focus on actual children instead of manchildren, maybe it was actually setting it in the 60s instead of a hazy, old-fashioned feeling version of the present, maybe it was bringing in some fresh blood like Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis and Tilda Swinton. But for whatever reason, Moonrise Kingdom was funny and sweet and entertaining all the way through, and possibly the only movie of the year that I actually felt like ended too soon.
2012 Trend-Watching: Elaborate period piece. Great performance from aging actor prone to phoning it in (Bruce Willis, again)
Watch It For: Incredible young actors Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman inhabiting the mannered Anderson style with as much aplomb and authenticity as any adult ever has.
4. DJANGO UNCHAINED
Tarantino’s latest massive revenge-of-the-oppressed epic/pastiche lacks some of the quiet, creeping intensity of Inglorious Basterds, but it is even bloodier (Django appears to be firing something closer to RPGs than actual bullets at the slavers), funnier (the Klansman bag scene is a comedic gift that just keeps giving), more gorgeously filmed (the shot of Big Daddy getting blasted off his horse that just follows its galloping legs was a particular standout). I would rank it pretty low amongst Tarantino’s filmography, in large part because it goes on for too long after shedding its best characters, but then sitting comfortably alongside Reservoir Dogs is none too shabby a place to be.
2012 Trend-Watching: Elaborate period piece. Slavery. Murder for hire. Good movie, but disappointing as a follow up to the director’s previous masterwork (Inglorious Basterds). Great performance from an aging actor prone to phoning it in (Samuel L. Jackson). Heavily metafictional. Seriously, no one can make a movie under two hours any more.
Watch It For: Performances - Sam Jackson playing an actual character, Dicaprio rocketing miles and miles over the top, Jamie Foxx’s childlike rapture when asking Schultz to tell him the story of Siegfreid, but mostly watching Christoph Waltz own the screen like (insert tasteless reference to owning human beings as property here)
3. THE AVENGERS
The Avengers would’ve been a damn good time if it had gotten even two of its half dozen heroes right. As it is, it is absolutely the biggest, best crowd-pleaser we’ve gotten in years, with something for any blockbuster, superhero or otherwise, to learn from. If I was doing a list of my favorite moments from movies this year, this movie would dominate it to an embarrassing degree. Black Widow turning the tables on Loki. The Galaga joke. Hawkeye cheating to knock Loki off his sled. The shawarma bit. Captain America taking charge of the final battle. Every. Single. Thing. The Hulk. Does
The Avengers doesn’t just validate the long game Marvel has been playing with its various lead-in movies, it makes me like all of them a little more in retrospect, which I’m still not sure how that even works. Is it an “important” movie? Not really. But it is a fucking excellent one.
2012 Trend-Watching: Lowbrow material done with style and intelligence. Harry Dean Stanton cameo. Jesus Christ, no one can make a movie under two hours anymore.
Watch It For: The Other Guy.
2. CABIN IN THE WOODS
The biggest and best surprise of the year (I don’t doubt Whedon or Drew Goddard’s abilities, but the 2 year shelving didn’t inspire confidence), Cabin got billed by some as the “horror film that kills the horror genre”. I think that’s malarkey, though, as it’s a big, genuine love letter to the genre that flays and removes the pieces for inspection, but in a friendly way. And it does metafiction the way I prefer, with those elements as allegory/subtext to a story that never betrays its own internal logic (it’s why as much as I liked Seven Psychos, I think Inception is a better “movie about movies”). And it does have something to say about the genre and it’s cultural importance underneath the simple layers of reference and parody; the allegory here can be read as critical of audiences for being bloodthirsty slaves to convention, but ultimately the point is that we consume horrific entertainment as a way to engage with our darkest, most dangerous impulses without endangering the social contract. Horror saves the world in Cabin’s way of things; I’m not sure I buy that completely, but it’s not something that a movie interested in destroying the entire genre would put forward.
It’s also packed to the gills with terrific gags and payoffs and references for the horror fans in the audience. The whiteboard alone is worth the price of admission for those folks. And I didn't even mention Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins or the speakerphone gag! Truly this cup runneth over.
2012 Trend-Watching: Lowbrow material done with style and intelligence. Heavily metafictional. Murder for hire.
Watch It For: The merman. We should all see one eventually.
1. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
How on Earth did a first time director make this movie? Get this performance from a 5 year-old? Capture these images, this specific sense of place? Beasts is a difficult movie to describe, as there’s hardly a plot and the tone is at once dream-like and earthy. And there are some political undercurrents that some have objected to, but I do not think the world of the Bathtub is depicted as unambiguously good or bad enough to get your partisan hackles up about. This movie is not unabashedly fun like Cabin or Avengers, or expertly executed as Argo or tackling American historical atrocities head-on like Lincoln and Django, but it was the most unusual and moving time I spent in a theater this year. More than anything else I saw, this was less of a film and more of an experience.
2012 Trend-Watching: Beasts is such a singular piece of work that it does not have any of the elements I connected with the others. Here’s hoping that the Aurochs kick off a trend of more movies in 2013 featuring antediluvian beasts.
Watch It For: The performance of the year by young Quvenzhane Wallis.