Top Ten 2012

My Ten Favorite Films of 2012:

"I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can't stop. Don't want to, either."
10) Premium Rush

Back in the 90s, our action stars were muscle-bound behemoths like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone.  In the 00's, our action stars were muscle-bound behemoths like Vin Diesel and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. In the 10's, action movies are getting strange. Half of Hollywood is unconvinced people like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger need to retire  The other half is turning to more unconventional actors. Some of the most popular action movies of recent years have starred Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine, and the most prominent up-and-comer in the genre, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Action movies are one of those genres that fall in and out of favor. Audiences get impatient waiting for something new, but refuse to accept anything strange and different. And when that happens, we wind up with bloated sci-fi, CGI fests that don't make any sense. When that happens, you need to look for films like Premium Rush. A film that takes the core concepts of the action genre and distills them, leaving you with pure exemplar of the concepts without any of the silt. We have chase scenes, race scenes, and ridiculous stunts. We have scenes with gunfights, car crashes, and bodily harm. It's exciting, it's captivating, the plot is paper-thin, and it clearly took more thought and effort than the last seven Jason Statham movies.

"There's nothing wrong with being scared... so long as you don't let it change who you are."

 9) Paranorman 

So it's come to this.  Zombies have become so ingrained in our culture, they made a kids movie about them. And I'm okay with this.

Laika Studios has had some terrible struggles internally, which is why they aren't producing films with the rapid frequency of other studios. This is a shame. Between Paranorman and Coraline, they clearly have great creative minds at their disposal. They're great animators, putting quality and dedication into the much under-appreciated stop-motion format. They're great storytellers, creating memorable characters, vivacious settings, and chilling stories that can entertain adults and kids alike.

Children's horror has much overlooked potential. Kids want to be scared. That's why Halloween is a billion dollar industry. You just have to cut out all the blood and gore and focus on the monsters and peril (which horror movies should be doing in the first place). Paranorman plays like a self-aware Halloween horror flick, playing off the expectations and conventions, following them at certain points and subverting them at others. While it doesn't go quite as tongue-in-cheek as another film further down on this list, it does offer entertainment for both novice and advanced horror afficianados.

 Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe this is the first kid's film with an openly homosexual character. That deserves mention.

"We're in love. We just want to be together. What's wrong with that?"
8) Moonrise Kingdom

It's a Wes Anderson flick. Nothing else needs to be said.

...Okay, nothing else should be needed, but I'm a writer and I have obligations.

Last year, I defended Super 8, claiming child actors have gotten significantly better. That was the initial claim, and this is the corroborating body of evidence.  Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward may not deliver the most natural or realistic of performances, but in the world of the film, they're wonderful. I never doubt these two characters for a minute. Not only are our two leads very convincing and very engaging, the whole cadre of child stars deliver top notch performances, further  amplified by the adult cast. The usual Wes Anderson crew; Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Jason Schwartzman once again provide whimsical performances. Joining them are surprisingly turns by Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton. It makes me wonder who else could become a Wes Anderson regular?

All of Anderson's pics feature hyper-stylization and style. They look like no other films, and look like nothing ever seen in real life. This particular excursion further emphasizes this style by oversaturating the color, giving everything a yellowed hue, making the antiquated 60's setting seem like an old magazine. It's a beautiful flick and it deserves your attention.

"This is the best bad plan we have." 

7) Argo

They say truth is stranger than fiction. This is exactly what they're talking about. If this never happened, the plot of Argo would be one of the silliest things I've ever heard. But, since it actually happened, it's number seven on my list.

Ben Affleck redeemed himself, and I want to keep emphasizing that because I feel like if I don't, the internet's going to forget and go back to Gigli jokes. Affleck furthers his filmography with another intense hyper-realism thrillers. This time around, he adds some satirical jabs at the Hollywood system. John Goodman and Alan Arkin give my favorite performances from the film, playing a pair of Hollywood insiders, adding a layer of depth and levity to the already meticulously structured story

The Iranian setting is equal parts fascinating, beautiful, strange, foreboding, and menacing. The film plays with cultural expectations and foreign discomfort. Everything is different and could possibly explode at any moment. Salvation is inches away, but full-fledged terror is only centimeters. The costuming and hair is very well-done, evoking the early 80s, but not resorting to everybody walking around with giant sideburns and leisure suits (only Bryan Cranston does that).

Argo had the potential to fail on different levels. It could be too apologetic. It could be tongue-in-cheek. It could be too violent and disturbing. It could be too controversial. People could forget that Ben Affleck redeemed himself. But everything turned out absolutely perfect. Argo was a hit, and goes into awards season a heavy favorite. If only we could make "Argo Fuck Yourself" a catch phrase.

"One may read this and think it's magic, but falling in love is an act of magic. So is writing."

6) Ruby Sparks 

Oscar Wilde said there were only two real tragedies in the world: Not getting what one wants, and getting it. Ruby Sparks is an examination of the latter. The title character, played by screenwriter Zoe Kazan, is the archetypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl; the idolized and idealized image of womanhood as seen through the eyes of writers. The bubbly, vivacious, outgoing, friendly, dreamy and beautiful girl everyone wants, and nobody can find. And for good reason; they don't exist. The film is an exploration of not only why a woman like that cannot exist, but why if she did exist, you don't deserve her.

Ruby Sparks is both hilarious and heartfelt. It paints love and romance not as abstract concepts, but definitive ideals. It seeks to break down the key components and analyze them. It's like discovering it all anew. It's also a must-watch for aspiring writers, not only championing the profession as a valid career choice, but showing what a typical day in such a profession may entail..

After doing some research, I've learned Kazan hates the term 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl,' feeling it to be sexist and derogatory. But I disagree. I feel the character itself is derogatory and diminutive, painting women not as dynamic, but MacGuffins in improbably conceived romances. And what Kazan has done is create a film exposing this unhealthy mindset, creating a one-dimensional MPDG out of necessity, gradually growing her into a normal person, then turning the concept on its head to show what kind of unhealthy male mindset would create and desire such a creation. It's Manic Pixploitation.

"The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what they do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope that nobody will notice."

5) 21 Jump Street

One of the most pleasant surprises from 2012 was 21 Jump Street, a not-so-serious adaptation of the 80's cop show. It had a lot of things going against it. Most prominent, it was an adaptation of an 80's cop show. But low and behold, with a bang-up script and a dedicated cast, it turned into one heck of a highly regarded comedy and one of the most lauded adapted-from-a-TV-show movies of all time. Not there's much competition in that subgenre, but it's still an achievement.

The original series was a straight-up crime procedural. Converting it into a comedy was a genius decision, allowing the film to laugh at the absurd premise and gloss over some of the more improbable conditions such a scenario would necessitate. Toss in some manic energy, no-holds-barred physical comedy, social satire, and a number of stunts that would make Michael Bay proud, and it's the best comedy of the year.

"There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, so when we needed them, they could fight the battles that we never could."

4) The Avengers

Earlier this year I made mention that 2012 had a very weak opening. By the end of June, I was afraid there weren't going to be any phenomenal circumstances which would unearth The Avengers from the top three. As much as I loved it, I have to admit I was wrong. Any other year, The Avengers would most certainly earn a top-three finish, but this year, it just had too much stiff competition.

The Avengers was a grand experiment by Marvel Studios, and one that paid out in spades. Have a big, interconnected universe where the various events and characters interact and affect each other, all culminating in a big battle royale that dwarfs the Nolan/Batman pictures.

Granted, not all the installments in the Marvelverse worked. The Hulk movies had problems. Iron Man 2 couldn't capture the same magic as its predecessor. Thor was just bad. But the important part is: the groundwork was laid. This diegetic movie universe now exists, and new characters can now be introduced to interact and improve upon it. For example, Hawkeye and Black Widow can't have their own movies, but they can appear in many others.

DC is using everything in its arsenal to keep its head above water, meanwhile Marvel has created its own universe. Plus, as soon as certain movie right licenses expire (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men), it can become even more so intertwined and vast. Well done Avengers. Well done.

"Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?"

3) Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln. Sixteenth President of the United States. Honest Abe. The Rail-Splitter. The Tycoon. The Great Emancipator. The Ancient One. Mister Penny Guy (unverified). Believed by many to be the greatest American citizen, and rumored at one point to be a vampire hunter. A subject of myth and legend in his own right, but also a cornerstone of American and world history. It would be no easy task to bring the mammoth man to life on the big screen, and would be even more difficult to do so well. Only a master of the craft like Steven Spielberg could do such a thing, and he knocks it out of the park. Lincoln is an honest yet glorious biopic that's not only historically accurate, but emotional, captivating and wonderful.

Lincoln (the film) focuses on Lincoln (the man) at the most tumultuous point of his career. The Civil War is raging, the nation is divided, his cabinet and fellow party members doubt his abilities to lead, his wife is emotionally wrecked, his son Robert is trying to enlist in the army, and his son Willie's death still haunts him. The only thing keeping him going is his resolve that he's doing the right thing, even if he has to beg, borrow and steal to get it done. Honest Abe indeed.

Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of his lifetimes. He gives the performance of several other lifetimes. He not only plays Lincoln, he becomes Lincoln. I am convinced somebody went back in time with a camera and taped the actual life and times of Abe Lincoln. My only question is, how long until some production company in the south commissions a retaliatory Jefferson Davis or Robert E Lee biopic?

"Fear. Belief. Love. Phenomena that determine the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue after we perish."

 2) Cloud Atlas 

A historical drama about the slave trade in the 19th century. A star-crossed romance dissecting opportunism and inspiration. A political thriller concerning the rise of nuclear power in the 1970s. A societal farce on ageism. A cyberpunk adventure touting the power of one. A post-apocalyptic examination of faith and trust in times of fear. These are the six stories of Cloud Atlas, interwoven expertly to create one fantastic story about human nature, predacity and the status quo.

The problems I have with Cloud Atlas are everything people seemingly champion about it. The editing was good, not from a technical achievement standpoint, but a storytelling necessity standpoint. The score, which is a pivotal point in the film, is actually quite underwhelming. The make-up is good at parts, but at others, it's really bad (Hugo Weaving's Korean visage is slightly more convincing than a Michael Meyers mask). Concerning this last grievance, I have heard one critic hypothesize this was possibly intentional. We're not supposed to believe the rotating cast in their various incarnations; they're not supposed to disappear into their characters, but intentionally stand out to reinforce the theme of destiny and recurrence.

The cast is near perfect. Tom Hanks is great. Halle Berry is great. Jim Broadbent is great (but when isn't he?) Years from now when Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw are A-listers, we're going to look back on their performances nostalgically. Doona Bae delivers my favorite performance of the year.

Many fear the complicated structure of the film, to that I say: don't panic. You are techincally watching six different films at once, and it does seem like that throughout. But, if you're paying attention, it's actually quite simple to follow. All the stories intertwine like individual fibers of a cord, none more important than the other, all equally represented and representative of the whole.

In case you're wondering, my favorite storyline was actually Cavendish's (Britain, present day). Aside from my inexplicable fanboyism of Jim Broadbent, the story adds much needed levity to very heavy subject matter. Also, by setting it in the present, it makes the lofty themes much more personal, forcing several moments of introspection. My least favorite was Ewing's (Chatham Islands, 1850). The story was just a little predictable, and the revisionist depiction of the slave trade seemed a touch too on the nose. The claustrophobic setting of the ship's innards also clashed with the wildly vast landscapes of the other stories. Despite all the faults, there was so much good in Cloud Atlas, I could watch it again and again. After all, as the film insists, telling a story is often the catalyst needed to begin your own. What's my story? Well, we'll just have to wait and see.

"I'm sorry I let you get attacked by a werewolf and then ended the world."

1) Cabin in the Woods

Once again, it's my id-driven predilections that determine the number one spot. Once again, it goes to the film that provided the single most enjoyable cinema-going experience. And this year, that honor goes to Cabin in the Woods, the horror movie to end all horror movies. Literally.

The brain-child of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods is a post-modern satire on the tired state of horror films. Why are they all so similar? Why do the heroes always fall into neat little archetypes? Why do they constantly make the same dumb mistakes over and over again? And most importantly, why, despite all of this, do movie-going audiences still care?

Cabin in the Woods works on three levels. The first level is the sinister operation, who unwilling offer a guiding hand, ushering forth every implausible scenario ever depicted in horror movies. Why go into the basement? Why ignore perfectly reasonable warnings? Why split up? Why have sex in strange, unfamiliar places at inopportune moments? Why? Because the operation wants you to. But who is the operation? Are they scientists? Businessmen? Government spooks? CCTV operators? Some strange combination of the above? Who are they, what are they doing, what are they controlling, and why are they so involved with five teenagers on a camping trip?

The second level is that of the experiment and its chosen participants. Teenagers do stupid things, and zombies come outta nowhere to wreck the party. Much mayhem, blood and slaughter ensue. It plays like a tired, forced horror film, because that's exactly what it is. It's nothing original, and it rushes itself, but out of plot necessity. This isn't a flaw, mind you, rather a typical example of the blase horror film they're dissecting. It's also fun to watch.

The third level. My god, that glorious third level. This is what makes the film worth seeing. When the smokescreen drops, and the second tier discovers and runs afoul of the first. The curtain is raised, the house lights are on, and you can see the magician's wires and mirrors. All hell breaks loose. Literally. No, I am not abusing the word literally. Any remotely minor horror fan: See. This. Film. The final twenty minutes of this movie cram in more sickening fun than a carnival ride which distributes complimentary motion sickness bags.

The sheer gall to call out an entire genre of movies, deconstuct it, then obliterate it entirely is a lofty goal, and Cabin in the Woods succeeds admirably. This goes beyond satire. It goes beyond spoof. It's full-on phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes. No spoilers, but I watched the "Elevator Scene" seventeen times in a row after it was made available online. I have no critical analysis of Cabin in the Woods, no interpretation on its place in culture, no observations on film as a whole. I just love the ever-loving crap out of this movie and recommend it with all my heart and soul like a jabbering fool. It will forever change the way I view horror flicks, and I want a damn coffee bong.

And now, the also-rans:
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: If you're going to do something balls-to-the-wall silly, have fun with it. Don't be so damn serious.
The Amazing Spider-Man:
Eh. Team Raimi.
Bernie: It's good to see Jack Black in a good movie, especially one that plays to his subtler strengths, but the film just needed a little more oomph.
Blue Like Jazz: A serious discussion on religion doesn't mean your film has to be as boring as dirt.
Brave: Spectacular landscapes, engaging characters, but a really uninspired story. Come back, Pixar! 
Chronicle: It was okay, but I am officially done with the found-footage style.
Crooked Arrows: A dime-a-dozen sports movie saved exclusively by an original setting.
The Dark Knight Rises: The weakest entry in the Nolan/Batman trilogy. Way too many contrivances and hand waves for me to accept.
Dark Shadows: Bad. Bad bad. It fails at horror, fails at romance, and fails at comedy. Why was Chloe Grace-Moretz a werewolf?!
Dredd: The Raid - Redemption, but sci-fi and stylized.
Django Unchained: It was Tarantino making a blaxploitation/western. It's exactly that.
The Five-Year Engagement: Started off strong, but fell into the same rut all romantic comedies fall into.
Flight: Neo-prohibitionist tripe. At least the crash scene was exciting.
Frankenweenie: See? Tim Burton's still capable of doing good... So why doesn't he?
Hitchcock:You know those dramas that promise an interesting story, then get really boring at the 40-minute mark because it derails itself with a boring romance subplot? Yeah, this is one of those.
The Hobbit Part One: I am very annoyed this was a three hour movie.
Hotel Transylvania: Adam Sandler in cartoon form is still Adam Sandler.
The Hunger Games: The film is better than the book. Terrible camera work. I want to slap whoever was responsible.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home: Ed Helms and Jason Segel finally together, and this is the script they chose? It plays out like a freshman film student's first draft.
Looper: This year's Drive. It was okay, but oh my god, shut up about it already. It wasn't the end-all, be-all of film expression.
Mansome: Zzzzzzzzzzzz (That is not my impression of an electric razor).
The Master: Stylistically fascinating, but dragged more than other Paul Thomas Anderson films.
Men in Black III: Garbage.
Mirror Mirror: The dwarfs were fun to watch, but everything else was just an exercise in patience. Why don't you make it more obvious you're filming on a soundstage?
Les Miserables: I've been waiting for a film adaptation of the musical. Thanks for delivering. I actually didn't mind Russell Crowe singing.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower: The 11th spot. It's actually pretty close to how I choose to remember my high school days. There were certain elements that seemed forcibly adapted from the book.
The Pirates! in an Adventure with International Titling Disagreements: The trailer promised me a frenetic Zucker-Abrahms-Zucker style comedy. It wasn't bad, but I was expecting much better. Mea Culpa.
Prometheus: The grand experiment to return the Alien franchise to its HR Giger origins fails miserably and laughably.
The Raid - Redemption: Like Dredd, but gritty and real.
Rock of Ages: Much better than people give it credit for, but stalls way too much in the second and third acts.
The Secret World of Arrietty: Just because the people are tiny doesn't mean the adventure needs to be.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: Such great potential, such wasted opportunity.
Seven Psychopaths: Less clever than it thinks its being.
Skyfall: Fantastic, promising much, delivering more.
Snow White and The Huntsman: The lesser of the Snow White adaptations, and that's saying something. It falls victim to my least favorite trope: All Fantasy is Tolkien. Snow White puts on a suit of armor and has a sword fight.
Wreck-It Ralph: Wildly imaginative and clever, but could have done much more with the premise than it dared. It seems like they're baiting a franchise, but I don't see it happening.