At the end of each year, when looking at the films that affected me the most, I try to think about what they say (if anything) about modern times, the culture, the world. The way we live. If there is anything that stuck out to me from watching the films of 2012, it would be this: characters.
Looking at my list I immediately noticed a very strong emphasis on characters, even in the big Hollywood blockbuster films. There were more “character moments” than I seem to remember from before. Normally, these films are all so plot-based, this-leads-to-that but even in big comic book movies like The Avengers, you had scenes that did nothing but let the characters talk and reveal more and more layers.
I don’t want to jump the gun here, but perhaps filmmakers are starting to learn that audiences want great characters involved in a great story and not just story/eye candy first and foremost. Action films also had an added depth to them, showing that the action scenes mean nothing if we do not root for the characters involved.
Here are the Top 20 Movies of 2012
20.) Sound of my Voice
This feature film debut from Zal Batmanglij was made on a very modest budget but still manages to capture your attention from beginning to end. It is a look at cults (not too dissimilar from Martha Marcy May Marlene) and cultish behavior, mostly focusing on the leader played by Brit Marling (who also co-wrote with Zal). The entire film has you wondering whether this person is real or not and plays with your mind until the very end. Very solid first entry and I know these filmmakers will go on to do great things.
19.) The Imposter
If your son went missing and was found several years later, do you think you would suspect it was actually someone else? This documentary follows the real life tale of that exact scenario of a Texas teenager who went missing and miraculously showed up in Spain years after. Of course, things are not what they seem and what follows is an insane story of a foreign con artist who gets caught in a snowball of lies.
18.) Wreck-It Ralph
Finally, a film that is a fully realized love letter to the video gaming world! This is simply a pleasure to watch, completely entertaining in its own right but tying together a million different cameos from well known video game characters. It’s Disney using its power for good and bringing something that lesser studios may not have the clout or name power to pull off.
Beneath all that, we get a solid story about the fictional title character who was made a bad guy and wants desperately to be good. It’s a film about fighting for how you want to be and not who you are designed to be, something that is explored with depth. And on top of that, it is insanely colorful and funny.
17.) The Raid: Redemption
This is definitely one of the best action movies of the entire year. It has built up a fan base all around the world and deservedly so. It has a very simple story with impossibly odds facing the main characters: they have to get to the top of a housing project that is guarded at every floor by thugs with guns and martial arts skills. It’s an adrenaline shot disguised as a movie, alternately intoxicating and nail-biting.
The martial arts choreography is pretty much unbeatable. These are guys at the top of their game and each punch, kick, and throw look absolutely authentic. You believe in the bodily carnage you see on display and this commitment helps sell the film to your senses. Simply put, it kicks major ass.
16.) Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow follows up her excellent The Hurt Locker with this film, based on the events that lead up to the capture of Osama Bin Laden. This is a lengthy, detail-filled slingshot launched from a canon towards one of the biggest true life events to have recently happened. It builds and builds towards the inevitable climax, which is just as explosive and tense as one would imagine.
15.) The Master
Although maybe not quite reaching the heights of There Will Be Blood or Magnolia, any PT Anderson is still better than most films. The Master mostly explores two main characters, that of Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays an L. Ron Hubbard-type family man who creates his own religion and the aimless wanderer of Joaquin Phoenix who has never been better than this (seriously, this is Oscar-worthy stuff here). It shows how beliefs can form people, shape them and sometimes, even break them. Most importantly, it shows how beliefs sometimes can’t do a damn thing for a person, no matter how hard they try.
It’s a moody film, beautifully shot and designed to linger in your head. Throw all conceptions of story out of the window and just enjoy the journey.
14.) 21 Jump Street
This, my friends, has to be the biggest surprise of the year. Hearing about a remake is enough to make any casual moviegoer cringe, let alone a reboot of a 1980’s TV show. Thankfully, Jonah Hill and the rest of the creative team knew that the best way into this kind of film was as a comedy instead of going the serious route (I’m looking at you, Total Recall). What we get is one of the funniest movies of the year, hands down.
Not only is the comedy on point but they line up the characters perfectly, giving them shades and arcs that are believable and hilarious all at once. It’s a tricky balance to accomplish but you will find yourself laughing at them and yet, feeling empathy for them. There is also a nice amount of police action to spice things up and Channing Tatum proves to be outrageously funny in what is probably the biggest shock of the year.
13.) Cabin in the Woods
Normally, when a film is shelved for more than two years, it means that the film is an embarrassment and the film studio is afraid to release it. However, in this case, the film was delayed due to business reasons and ended up being amazing.
Cabin in the Woods is a fun, enjoyable horror film that helps deconstruct certain horror elements while praising them at the same time. It is smart, funny, and truly unpredictable, reminding us all of why we love horror films in the first place.
12.) Shut Up and Play the Hits
April 2nd, 2011 marked the end of one of the most critically praised bands of the past decade, LCD Soundsystem, fronted by musician James Murphy. Its specialty blend of dance-rock and punk made it popular mostly with the college crowd and became indie darlings. It came as a bit of a surprise when, after releasing their 3rd album This is Happening, James decided to put an end to the band and move on.
Shut Up and Play the Hits is a documentary that captures the buildup to this final farewell concert (a 3 1/2 hour concert at that). You see James giving interviews, gearing up for the performance, seeing select songs from the performance itself, and then watching how James spends his days immediately after. It is an emotional, fun and bittersweet end to a band that could have gone on forever. Get the blu-ray so you can watch the concert in its entirety.
11.) The Grey
This one opened at the very beginning of 2012 but is great enough to be included on this list. Director Joe Carnahan (writer/director of Narc and Smokin Aces) brings us his best and most fully realized film yet. The Grey centers on a group of down-and-out workers whose planes crashes into the middle of wolf-infested winter territory. But see, these wolves aren’t simply wolves and take on a higher meaning for each person.
At times, it is brutal and devastating but remains a very human film, heavy on the existential meandering that adds to the experience. Liam Neeson is a troubled soul as are the rest of the gang in tow. You come to realize that the wolves aren’t the point, that life can be a brutal winter that you have to suck up and survive.
The follow-up to Dogtooth from writer/director Giorgos Lanthimos is just as powerful as one would expect. Once again, the story itself puts a microscope up to a particular way that humans deal with social issues, in this case being the theme of losing someone you love. Actors are paid to impersonate a recently deceased person in order for the family to better cope with their loss. As expected, lots of emotional twists and turns come with this territory. Ultimately, what makes this film powerful is how well it shows the need of emotions in us all and how we get attached not only to certain people, but how much we need to feel wanted by those people.
09.) Beyond the Black Rainbow
This film is probably the biggest mindfuck of 2012. This is a visual psychedelic mood piece through-and-through. From the very beginning, you are thrown into a candy-colored, cynical world set in the 1980’s that is drenched in bad vibes with a little paranoia thrown on top. The story is very loose and dreamy as the real focus is on the visuals and how those morph and mutate. Beyond the Black Rainbow also benefits from having the most impressive original score of 2012. This is a film for all the smokers and acid-heads. It will make you feel like you are on drugs when you view this.
I have been a Rian Johnson fan every since I saw Brick years ago and I knew that one day, he would really breakthrough; Looper is that breakthrough. It is a completely original science fiction tale revolving around hitmen who kill victims who are sent to them from the future. Naturally, complications arise when the future self of the hitman in question (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is sent back in time for him to “close the loop”. What follows in an entirely unpredictable thriller with a fully visualized original world. There are several “Oh shit!” moments that play out beautifully and it keeps you hanging on until the very end. Probably the best commercial sci-fi film since Inception.
Finally released in America in 2012, Klown is the funniest film of the year. In order to prove to his wife that he will be a good father to their unborn child, a man goes on a canoeing trip with his best friend and takes a 13-year old kid with them. The only problem is the canoeing trip is just a cover for the real reason they are going on the trip, which is to get laid by any means necessary, including a big trip to a popular whore house. What makes Klown so special is that it pulled off a feat that most comedies aspire to do: each funny moment comes from the story and pushes it forward simultaneously.
Too many comedy films have jokes for jokes sake or a character or two that is purely there for comic relief. Here, the comedy comes from the situations they find themselves in and almost always comes back to haunt them later in the story. It’s fantastic screenwriting but it would all mean nothing if none of it was hilarious. Thankfully, they delivered on that front too.
06.) Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson has been knocking them out of the park for a while now but all of his sensibilities reach their peak here in Moonrise Kingdom, my favorite film of his. It is a forbidden love story between two preteens who simply want to be free. Set in the 1960’s, it is drenched with 60’s love that now serve an even greater purpose than in his past films. The cast is exceptional, especially a highly energized Bruce Willis who seems to be really trying his best here, turning in his best performance in years.
It has a thrilling pace and a plot that is stripped of all fat and the result is pure, unfettered love.
This film is a purely visual experience that is best viewed in a movie theater. There is no dialogue whatsoever and instead opts to tell its story only through pictures, the essence of cinema itself. Samsara visits the most visually astonishing places on earth and puts the majesty of this planet on full display. It is a moving, enthralling journey that cuts to the core of the magic of being human, the magic of feeling alive. It sports what is most likely the best filmic photography in years.
04.) Django Unchained
Three long years after Inglorious Basterds, fan favorite Quentin Tarantino returns with his first full-on spaghetti western, Django Unchained. As one would expect, this film bristles with cartoonishly comical violence and whip-sharp dialogue but has a crackling heart beating beneath the surface, supplying the blood for the drama that unfolds. Cristoph Waltz once again turns in an amazingly likable performance with Jamie Foxx playing the cool, calm, and collected Django, a slave who is on a quest to find his wife.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays a villain so lovingly devilish that you wish he would play nothing but villains from now on. But the man who really steals the show is none other than Samuel L. Jackson, throwing down the gauntlet as an Uncle Tom-type character working for DiCaprio. This is Sam Jackson‘s greatest performance, blowing his much-loved Jules (from Pulp Fiction) clear out of the water. It is a long but satisfying journey that gives the audience exactly what it wants: exuberant catharsis.
Ben Affleck has been making his name as a director with films like Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Argo proves that the third time’s a charm. From start to finish, Argo is swift and incredibly tense, thanks to establishing the stakes from the very beginning so that you know exactly what kind of danger our characters are in. An entire country is looking for six individuals and it is up to Ben Affleck‘s character to get them out.
What starts is a true life tale of how they duped Iran into thinking they were a team of Canadian filmmakers looking to make a fictional film titled ‘Argo’. The suspense is through the roof and Ben Affleck directs the shit out of this picture, making the 2-hour runtime fly by in a matter of minutes. Odds are strong that this will win the Best Picture Oscar next month.
Thanks to the financial problems at MGM, Skyfall took its sweet sweet time making it to our cinemas but the wait was worth it. Skyfall sports what is arguably the best cinematography in any Bond film but that is just the tip of the iceberg. For once, James Bond is humanized in painstaking detail, making you feel that, you know, he might ACTUALLY die here. It ups the ante for the character and on top of that, the story is more personal than it has ever been.
Javier Bardem plays a now-classic Bond villain who was an ex MI-6 agent and feels that he was betrayed by the organization. Naturally, he goes after his former protector that he trusted, which is M. Bond‘s fight is a slightly conflicted one after his own betrayal and the plot ties it down to Bond‘s family roots, the first time we really get a glimpse into his past life.
Skyfall is a deeply emotional, action-packed journey and may in fact be the best Bond film of all time.
01.) The Avengers
Those of you who know me shouldn’t be surprised by this pick for number 1. As a lifelong Marvel fanboy, this is obviously a dream come true. But this isn’t simple fanboy adoration, I truly believe this is the biggest and best film of the year. It does the impossible: it ties together 6 different heroes and makes them all fit like a seamless puzzle. Marvel produced 5 separate films that led up to this one mega-blockbuster and there are a million things that could have gone wrong.
Miraculously, Joss Whedon had the perfect vision for this type of film and executed it with the confidence of a madman. The characters have depth, the plot moves swiftly and there is tons of humor to spare. When the heroes all team up together to face an alien race trying to destroy Earth, you can’t help but feel how epic it all is. It’s staggering and overwhelming in a joyous sense.
Iron Man is taken down more serious emotional paths and Mark Ruffalo nails the Bruce Banner character perfectly for the first time (finally!). Thor feels conflicted over the fact that his own brother, whom he misses very much, is trying to conquer Earth and Captain America tries to adjust to the new world as best as he can. It’s a giant-sized soap opera of the best kind.
Marvel will have a tough time making The Avengers 2 bigger and better than this one but if they can even match half of this, they will still have a great film on their hands.
Follow me on Twitter! @ryanestabrooks