After the endless, mediocre string of masturbatory movies about ~the magic of film~ in 2011, I thought 2012 was a rather good year. I feel that movies released in the same year tend to have some kind of over-arching theme to them (like the aforementioned “movie magic” theme of 2011), and I think that 2012 was all about the flawed, idiosyncratic, singular protagonist. You could make the argument that, yes, generally, movies follow a protagonist, but I think that the protagonists of 2012′s movies were about striking out on their own path, everything else be damned. (Or they were spiritual journeys about the connected-ness of the universe, or the meaning of life, or whatever. See: Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi.) This year I had the pleasure of seeing more films than I usually do, so I decided that I felt reasonably enough informed to make a top ten list of my favorite films of the year. Because I know that everyone is TERRIBLY INTERESTED in what I have to say about movies. Anyway, without further ado:
10.) Perks of Being a Wallflower
Okay, so Perks was a pretty slight film, and I can’t remember too much about it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The twist ending is really dumb, and unnecessarily changes the tone of the whole movie. Despite this, it’s a very charming film that captures coming of age and listening to the Smiths and yelling out of the tops of cars and falling in love for the first time and whatever else young, carefree teenagers do to celebrate their youth and challenge mortality.
9.) Seven Psychopaths
First off: Seven Psychopaths is a very flawed movie. This does not stop the movie from being totally awesome. The film follows Colin Farrell’s attempts to write a screenplay called “Seven Psychopaths,” and Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken’s insane attempts to help him. There are some muddled themes about the use of violence in film, but the best parts of the movie are when the meta narrative plays off the viewer’s expectations of action and violence. My favorite scene is Sam Rockwell enacting his ideal ending for Farrell’s movie; both Rockwell and Walken give amazing, off-kilter performances.
8.) Cabin in the Woods
Cabin in the Woods is not your average horror flick, which is why I liked it so much. The film is a funny and very clever send up of every horror cliche in the book, from why people make dumbass decisions (why does anyone think it’s a good idea to split up, ever??), to the weird trope of pre-marital sex leading to being horrible evisceration. I think the parts I enjoy most are actually the framing scenes in the mysterious offices orchestrating the terrible events that befall a group of co-eds in the eponymous cabin in the woods; the juxtaposition of what appears to be a pretty standard office party and the horror going on at the cabin is hilarious and, again, very clever. The film also pokes at the audience’s complicity in the events happening onscreen, and intelligently dissects the weird pleasure we get from watching terrible things happen to other people. For me, the film begins to fall apart in a third act that, admittedly, takes the story to its logical end. I think the ending’s inevitability is why it’s disappointing–for a film that often zigged when I thought it would zag, the ending feels trite and weirdly easy. But overall, the film elevates its meta-commentary on horror films to something entertaining and insightful.
7.) The Avengers
It’s no coincidence that there are two Joss Whedon films on my list (though he solely wrote on Cabin); his presence on a film ensures that what could be schlocky, empty entertainment is elevated through his smart writing and direction. The Avengers obviously isn’t a deep film by any means, but it’s fun in a way that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously (like Nolan’s Batman trilogy does). Although all of the characters are fun and sharply drawn, the standout is obviously Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, who does an awesome job as someone who seems laid back, but has more simmering under the surface.
6.) Holy Motors
This is my highbrow cred. I saw this movie on the strong recommendation of the A.V. Club, and while I don’t think it’s necessarily brilliant, I think it’s a very interesting and moving reflection on, well, I’m not totally sure. It’s a difficult film to explain, but it’s basically about a man whose job is to take on several different personas in several different scenarios. The film never reveals who he is, or why he does it, or what the ultimate goal is; the central conceit is merely presented on its own terms. The A.V. Club seems to think it’s about the death of analog film, but to me it’s actually more about the power of film to transform its audience. In some ways, Holy Motors is comparable to Cloud Atlas in that the whole is greater than its parts, and not every persona or scenario is interesting on its own. Despite this, the great parts are really, really great–from an impromptu accordion jam, to a deceptively normal exchange between a father and a daughter, to Kylie Minogue singing about lost love in an abandoned department store, the film is ultimately a life-affirming experience.
This is a film I initially resisted seeing and ended up loving. While I have little-to-no prior experience with Bond movies, and haven’t seen the previous Craig installments, I thought that this film did a good job of mixing the old and the new. Skyfall incorporates elements of the modern, gritty, antihero blockbuster while staying fun and moving quickly. It doesn’t hurt that the film was shot by Roger Deakins, which instantly upgrades the action sequences to something approaching art (the scene set in a Shanghai skyscraper is spectacular). I’m tired of the new school of action films where everything is shot handheld and cut manically, like it’s supposed to be more “urgent” or “realistic” that way. Skyfall has an elegance to it: it’s beautiful, but not too beautiful to blunt the edge of Daniel Craig’s performance and the film’s themes about the inevitability of time. In the action sequences you can see the physical effort in every movement, the protestations of Craig’s aging body. Too often action movies are all glossy and slick and “fuck yeah!” Skyfall’s power lies in showing the human toll that an excess of action eventually takes.
4.) Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is a film I had absolutely no interest in seeing–the trailer looked absurd, and most people I know hated the movie. I went in with very low expectations, and was actually pleasantly surprised. I don’t think it’s a brilliant film, or even a great film, but it’s a film that enveloped me entirely. A friend of mine wondered whether Cloud Atlas is a lesser film because the threads by themselves are trite and cliche and are given more, possibly artificial meaning through their juxtaposition. To me, the holes in the film allow it to be more emotionally affecting, a cipher upon which I can imprint my own thoughts and feelings. While this might be a bad quality in other films, I personally think it works in Cloud Atlas because it’s a film about how our lives are inextricably intertwined, and how we are all ultimately connected. While I don’t think that Cloud Atlas is particularly successful in pulling this off (the theme is often expressed in hokey, obvious ways, and the interracial make-up is terribly done), I think that the emptiness gives us space to fill the film with ourselves. We see ourselves in the stories going on onscreen, no matter how disparate or far removed these stories seem, and that’s what the whole movie is about, really.
3.) Silver Linings Playbook
It’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t treat mental illness as a figurative death sentence. I think critics of the “easy” third act are misinterpreting the film–it’s not a dramatic film about mental illness with comedic elements; it’s a romantic comedy involving two people who deal with mental illness. Both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give real, immensely charming performances as two people who, against all odds, find some kind of solace in entering a dance competition together. Like many, I never thought that Cooper could give a performance like he does in this movie. His character is brash and inappropriate, but also utterly vulnerable and guileless. His struggles with being bipolar feel human and relatable; this isn’t a martyr put onscreen for us to gawk at, or feel sorry for. Whether or not the people in the audience have dealt with mental illness, they will find something to relate to in Cooper’s character (and Lawrence’s as well). I think Silver Linings Playbook is also adept in showing how everyone has issues, even if they seem “normal” on the surface. The film goes down easy, which almost makes me want to hate it, but the uplifting themes of loving one another warts and all, and the unassuming triumph in getting by, makes Silver Linings Playbook completely irresistible.
2.) Moonrise Kingdom
Moonrise Kingdom is a triumphant return to form for Wes Anderson. This may be a somewhat controversial opinion, but I don’t think he’s made a truly great movie since Rushmore (although I do enjoy The Fantastic Mr. Fox quite a bit). Because Anderson has such a rigid personal aesthetic, both in the visuals and the writing, it’s easy for him to fall into self-parody. Luckily, Moonrise Kingdom has the perfect combination of stunning visuals, a truly moving story, and great performances. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward give completely natural performances as two troubled, lonely children who find comfort in one another. When they run away together, they are pursued by flawed adults struggling to understand their own relationships and places in the world. Every character is sympathetic, and a pervasive sense of melancholy undercuts a film that could otherwise threaten to be precious. I think my favorite scene is a montage depicting the letters that Gilman and Hayward send to each other; it explains perfectly why they connect in a world where they usually feel so alone. Moonrise Kingdom shows how, when you’re young, everything can be so simple and complicated at the same time–yet getting older is no guarantee of getting wiser.
1.) Zero Dark Thirty
I’ve already given Zero Dark Thirty its very own post, so there’s not much more for me to add. It’s awesome. Everyone should check it out.
And bonus categories:
Movies I haven’t seen this year, but plan to watch in the future: The Loneliest Planet, Safety Not Guaranteed, Prometheus, Lola Versus, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Magic Mike, The Queen of Versailles, Ruby Sparks, Paranorman, Cosmopolis, Premium RUsh, Save the Date, Anna Karenina, The Sessions, Flight, Wreck It Ralph, Lincoln, Promised Land, Rust and Bone, Amour
My least favorite film of the year: This Is 40