I look back on 2011’s list and I notice that while feminism was a theme for the movies I liked and included, masculinity was actually a stronger and clearly more resonant (I’m a man after all) theme for the movies I placed highest. Not every year can have a theme, but I’m starting to notice that when one does, it usually comes as some kind of pair.

2012 was the year of great animated films. I’ve always seen animated films and made sure I had room for them, both in theaters and when I write. Animated films are largely an ignored category in film criticism which is a trend that I think is happily starting to change. I included two animated films in my list last year but only one this year. That said, there was simply a higher number of very good animated films this year. Not everybody can be Pixar but it’s now clear that not everybody has to be. Even Disney has competition for the #2 spot (I’d say they lost that spot, but I think I’m in the minority) with Laika or Dreamworks. The crappy thing is that not enough people saw these movies, so I wanted to take some time to mention them here more broadly than any statement that can be made by including them on my Honorable Mentions list.

It may be a bit of a stretch to say that this pairs with animated films but 2012 is also a year of great performances by children. Several of the films on my list are anchored by terrific performances by children of young ages as well as young performers in general. With The Avengers now being one of the most successful films of all time and certainly the greatest actualization of potential for the spectacle film in some years, it seems a solid bet that the energy and lightness of youth has worked its way into the collective consciousness once again. This comes as great news for the culture, I think, which can use a break from easy (if justified) cynicism, apathy, and malaise.

So maybe the theme of 2012 is that hope and optimism are still appropriate, that movies can make good on their potential, that OP can deliver. It’s been a great year for movie lovers of all kinds, with the cream of the crop saying “who give a shit about them?” to every movie that shouldn’t have broken our hearts but did, that should have been a good time but wasn’t. 2012 is the year you got over that abusive asshole you dated and met someone new, someone who restored your faith. It’s a year where the best movies were both smart and fun. It’s the year of big movies that actually kicked ass, of small movies that weren’t ignored, and the year that both the superhero and horror genres were redefined by a guy that many had counted out.

For Joss Whedon fans, 2012 is better than a great year.

With that out of the way, it’s time to plug myself. Please have a look at the 2010 and 2011 Top 15 lists as well as my Worst 10 list for 2012!

It’s also time for the usual disclaimer:

I acknowledge that this is a subjective list. Trying to objectively compare the quality of any of these movies, one to the next, is impossible. It’s apples and oranges. You can like one move more than another easily enough, but it’s far more difficult to make a case for why one is better whether you like it more or not. For me, writing film criticism has most often been about trying to get at those qualitative things that exist in spite of your preferences, it’s about trying to objective in an arena that is usually assumed to be subjective. It’s about not conflating what I like with what is good, to the fullest extent possible. My Top 15 lists are not about these things. They are about ranking my favorite movies, about summarizing the year, and about taking stock.

As always, making this list hurt.

 

15. Brave

 

Brave-Young-Merida

My review.

This is one of the most underrated movies in 2012. I can’t believe there are so many mixed reactions to Brave because to me, it’s a return to form for Pixar. With all the competition it has among other animated films this year, that Brave is so very good and so very ignored (to be fair, all but Wreck-it Ralph are being ignored) is a bit tragic. Usually there are one or two movies on my Top list that need to be championed due either to people not noticing them or because they are unfairly maligned. I never thought that I’d ever say that about a Pixar movie but here we are. Brave is not only a great film on every level aside from how it was marketed (which honestly doesn’t count), it’s an important film. It provides an alternative to the Disney Princess narrative that has been way too influential on at least one generation of young women. Pixar are some of the best for relating sophisticated messages in simple terms, terms that kids will absorb. Brave is a movie about finding or making more possibilities in situations where there seem to be few. This is as transgressive and challenging as it comes, in a cultural sense. How dare Pixar reinvent the Disney Princess blueprint? How dare they leave Merida both vindicated and *gasp* unmarried by the end? I honestly think the way this movie has been received has a lot to do with that it bucks these traditions and supplants the safe, predictable formula we’re all way too used to. All I can say to that is too bad. Welcome to the new world.

14. Moonrise Kingdom

 

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My review.

The first example of the great child performances of 2012 comes with this movie. Every kid is great, but Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are simply magic. In the way only he does, Wes Anderson wraps a brutally honest emotional story in a gaudy shell of whimsy, contrivance, and affectation. Stories are supposed to be lies that tell the truth and I can think of few better examplars of that simple aspiration than Moonrise Kingdom. While everybody will likely remember Looper more, this is the movie that has the Bruce Willis performance of the past several years. With everybody being at such top game, this is a movie as much for those who appreciate actors and their craft as it is for people who appreciate filmmakers and theirs.

13. Sound of My Voice

 

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My review.

The quintessential small movie, Sound of My Voice is a great example of the stuff I talked about to introduce this list. It’s a movie of incredible detail and subtlety, trusting the audience completely and daring us to trust it back. Brit Marling is confirmed now as being a marvel but the weight of the movie is shared by a tiny cast of extremely capable actors all making so very much out of necessarily little. I wrestled with including this one if only because it’s so hard to pin down my reaction. However, it’s a movie that gets under your skin and refuses to go away. It’s a soft voice in your head that you’re not sure is friendly. You don’t know about what it’s telling you, but you can’t shut it out. Movies that stay with you like that are always special, always worthy of recognition. To write about it is to let it in and let it win.

12. The Master

 

The-Master

My Review.

Absent giant white people posing as space gods, The Master still manages to be more convincingly about the “big questions” of human existence than any of this year’s overly-earnest science fiction films: humans, especially men, as both the animal and the mind and which part is really in control, the malleability of meaning and its function as a driving force in our lives. Every facet of this movie works on its own, compartmentalized from the others like the wrinkles beneath Joaquin Phoenix’s eyes. For some, The Master will be the great character study of 2012. For me, it’s the great philosophical film. Philosophy is best used as the subtext beneath the narrative, and here it permeates through one of the strongest and most bizarre relationships world-class actors could possibly bring to life. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is vital to the movie while paradoxically being as disposable as its relationship to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. The Master is a cinematic starfish, thriving even if you pare it down to long yearning stares, the vast blue ocean, and the great emptiness human beings will do just about anything to fill. Its exploration of human psychology and the specific focus on cults of personality also make it a terrific companion piece to Sound of My Voice.

11. Beyond the Black Rainbow

 

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My review.

This is the great find of 2012. The movie that slipped under radars, that you didn’t think was possible. It exists as triumphant defiance to the notion that movies like this just don’t get made any more. Not since Cronenberg and other weirdos stopped making them. Relatively young and demonstrably brazen, Canadian Panos Cosmatos don’t give no fucks whether films as singular, weird, and astonishing as this get made any more. Beyond the Black Rainbow is the kind of discovery that Donnie Darko was. The kind of thing you used to accidentally come across in some dark corner of the rental place, or cut to pieces and served up on some obscure cable channel. It’s the kind of movie you tell all your friends about, that you see eighty times because you have to be there to see their faces. It’s also, unfortunately, the kind of movie that the internet has eroded the specialness of. With easy access to 10,000 reviews of even the relatively obscure, the hype machine can wreck a movie like this before you ever see it. I know I’m part of that but I always hope that a bit of judicious separation of expectation and experience (possibly aided by reflection after the fact) can save even massive movies from falling victim to their own hype. I gotta hope for the reception of a movie like Beyond the Black Rainbow. I gotta hope for more like it, but only every now and then, when I’ve forgotten it was possible.

 

10. Cosmopolis

 

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My review.

Speaking of movies that shouldn’t be possible. Cosmopolis is really more of stuff I wrote about with regard to other movies. It’s deeply philosophical, surprising, and even underrated. It is maybe one of the more controversial choices I have made on this list. Not many people saw it and it’s generally a very divisive movie. People get hung up on the threads of conversation, of information and inquiry germane to topics, no two of which in a row can be expected to be familiar to any one person. Cosmopolis is next-level, a movie that is so smart that all the intellectual patter is only in service to a greater expression of a fundamentally philosophical idea: there is no order without chaos. This is a movie that doesn’t care if you get it, but that truly belong to that rare category of movies where it’s okay to dismiss certain criticisms with “you didn’t get it” because the truth is, they likely didn’t. Not getting it is part of the point Cosmopolis is making: no one can get everything. Even the smartest most successful man in the world will miss things, even if only because they exist outside his perspective. Like The Master, it is divisible in itself. While all parts work to serve the whole, each part is self-contained enough to justify the movie on its own. As a character study, as a philosophical thought experiment, as an angry missive to a greedy and corrupt paradigm, and even as a way for Robert Pattinson to say goodbye to the sparkly vampire.

9. Chronicle

 

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My review.

As a production, Chronicle is the best example of the triumph of youth in movies this year. Most of the people who made this what it is are young men, infusing their movie with a can-do attitude that allowed it to become the sleeper hit of the year. No one expected Chronicle but, in its smaller way, it has changed the landscape of what is possible with superhero movies of all sizes. It may have proven, on its own, that small budget superhero movies with convincing spectacle are even possible. For young people who love movies and/or want to make their own someday, Chronicle is a total inspiration. It is also noteworthy for making the cynical live-action version of Akira likely dead and certainly redundant. Beyond what it means in the context of its genre and budget category, Chronicle is also a sobering look at how good kids can turn bad, at how bullying and sensitivity can combine in a person to make them lash out beyond any reason. A year where young men were also responsible for great tragedy, Chronicle reminds us of the human beings inside the monsters. That may be an unpopular point of view, but I don’t really care. Any young man who comes from a broken home, who copes with sensitivity and shyness, who faces rejection and bullying, who battles trust issues that just isolate them further will have some Andrew inside them, good and bad. It’s important to see depictions in media of how this can happen, of the tragedy of it before the lashing out even begins. I doubt anyone ever expected Chronicle to be prescient, but it kind of is in a general sort of way and it’s too raw and honest a movie, about that stuff, to wave off.

8. The Raid: Redemption

 

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My review.

Movies as streamlined as this one tend to do one or two satisfying things but ultimately be forgettable. The Raid, however, gets absolutely everything right and does so in such a confident way that you sometimes forget you’re watching a movie at all. You trick yourself into thinking that some God of Immense Asskicking has beamed this vision directly into your brain so that you may go among your people and spread its crunchy gospel. Not only one of the most tremendous action movies ever made, The Raid also features a strong (if unassuming) story that is the soul of brevity. The simplicity of the movie is a great strength, letting other kinds of expression get out of the way of combat-as-storytelling. While not always aspiring to these heights, the fights in this movie are always pitch-perfect which is really enough anyway. That it’s often like watching interpretive dance brings it to the level of a religious experience for action fans.

7. Django Unchained

 

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My review.

This one being halfway down the list stings a bit, but I expect that it’s the most likely to climb higher as time goes on. Django Unchained just hasn’t had enough time to impact me as fully as the others on this list and that’s an accident of timing. That said, it’s another masterpiece from Quentin Tarantino, an artist so much of my persuasion that I feel almost guilty leaving one of his movies out of my Top 5 at least. I often call Tarantino a modern Shakespeare, a greater daemon of pop culture with such an abiding love for language that he is able to shape and transform it seemingly at will. A master of cool, of staging, of the enterprise of drama itself. If there’s any truth to that at all, Django confirms it. This is a movie so obviously the work of a master that you forget that Tarantino the Upstart is in every fiber of it. No one else in the business puts as much work into the writing, the most important part of a movie, as he does. This is why his movies are always good and this is why it often takes him a while to make them. His secret is only that he cares so much about writing, from language to structure, and it’s a secret that everybody should learn from. That way we’d get fewer movies like Prometheus.

6. The Cabin in the Woods

 

Cabin-In-The-Woods-sequel1

My review.

Horror movies just shouldn’t be the same after this. They probably will be, cesspool genre that it often is, but they shouldn’t. It’s like one of those situations where you come across someone who is aping a style that is hopelessly relegated to cultural joke status. People who emulate Jersey Shore are the people equivalent of what terrible horror movies are going to be post-The Cabin in the Woods. More than being simply deconstructive, this is a movie that reinvents and also reconstructs. You don’t need to get meta or deconstructive to make a good horror movie, that isn’t the point. What you need to do is stop thinking that stupid genre conventions somehow legitimize your bad horror movie. They don’t. They are stupid decisions someone else made that somehow mutated into touchstones. Not only that, but The Cabin in the Woods gets at the politics of youth that seem to be at the heart of the ritualistic way horror movies are made. In that sense, it’s a movie as squarely focused on the psychology of human beings as any this year. I didn’t get the chance to include any pure comedies or pure horror moviesthis year, but The Cabin in the Woods, ridiculous masterpiece that it is, manages to be enough of either of those two categories to make up for it. Many did not love this movie like I did, maybe it wasn’t detached or cynical enough for them. This reminds me that this is a movie about loving that thing you’re criticizing, and trying to save it, and only the worst kind of horror fan fails to realize that horror movies need saving. That is a better path than ironic detachment or plain old cynicism.

5. The Grey

 

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My review.

The first great film of 2012, The Grey is something every man should see at least once. This is because this movie is practically a treatise on what it is to be a proper man, especially with regard to how we treat other men. It accomplishes this by directly challenging the seemingly dominant falseness and braggadocio that has hijacked a generation. Too many of us have too much testosterone, too much fear, and too little sense. We’re too often animals, wolves, and not men. Ottway, who only Liam Neeson could have played, combines grizzle, determination, honesty, self-knowledge, compassion, and courage to pave the better way. To the extent that an ideal of masculinity matters, and it does, The Grey is like a wake-up call and a love letter all at once. It accepts the violence and the aggression that are part of us, that we are paradoxically taught by our culture to both repress and feed (always leading to imbalance). There’s a fight worth fighting, the worthy combat both internally and externally, that I think all men yearn for. The Grey is about that fight, about what that fight has to do with being a man.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild

 

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My review.

This is the banner optimistic film. Beasts of the Southern Wild is so full of vibrancy and life that it’s a whirlwind more than a movie. Little Quvenzhane Wallis is not only the stand out in a pile of great child performances, but a stand out in all performances this year. She’s both real and wonderful, a Miyazaki character brought to life, and a tiny piece of every kid that ever lived through hard days. The movie itself is a life-affirming treat, the kind of sentimental you don’t cringe at, and extraordinarily charged with hope and energy. The best points of access to this movie are entirely intuitive. Profundity so often is, and Beasts is achingly profound. There’s a fresh perspective in every atom of it, and all of it is charged with a lack of pretension, a lack of dressing things up, that it all becomes new and beautiful again.

3. The Avengers

 

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My review.

I said in my review that we are now living in a post-Avengers world. I think that will be one of the most accurate predictions I’ve made, especially with rumors swirling of the WB stepping up their plans for a Justice League project and connected movieverse of their own. Delivering on more than just the promise of almost five years of Marvel superhero movies, The Avengers also delivers on the promise of the big budget spectacle film in a way that is rarely accomplished. And this is from Joss Whedon, the TV guy, who you could always trust with the writing but who’s diehard comic sensibilities might have been a liability at the cinema. Not so, it seems, as the most rousing and satisfying of all the action involving super-powered people is in The Avengers. Whedon’s changed movies, if there’s any justice, and stands to do more of the same. He’s now in charge of Marvel’s Phase 2 film projects and will almost certainly write and direct The Avengers 2 when it hits. At a stroke, he went back to the basics of drama, character, and even comedy to pull all these characters together and make it all work as a giant alien invasion movie to boot. The Avengers is a movie that astonishes the more you think about it, about how unlikely it is, and how masterfully executed. More than any other film on this list, The Avengers revitalizes. Maybe this is because the summer blockbuster is the most bankrupt, joyless, and cynical of all the genres and subgenres this list touches on. The Avengers is the movie that will begin to redeem that.

2. Cloud Atlas

 

CLOUD ATLAS

My review.

So while we’ve been talking about optimism and restored hope, I’ve been thinking ahead to this part of the list. Cloud Atlas is almost off-puttingly positive. In fact, it is this that makes it a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people. It’s a powerful metaphor for a hard-to-observe phenomenon of human life: our connectedness. The non-religious spiritualism that the film indulges is not mean to be taken literally or seriously in itself, but to engage at the level of metaphor. To tell a sweeping saga, paint a grandiose picture, of an idea that finds its proofs in the smallest details of our interaction, in eye contact as much as romance. Like Gandalf says, it’s the little things that keep the evil at bay. Cloud Atlas is a mirror held up to us, showing us ourselves and all the goodness and badness that we are capable of. It’s easy to be cynical about it, to laugh at it, but it’s also easy to be cynical about others. To laugh at them. The harder road, but the more rewarding, is to recognize each other and absolve ourselves of our hate and fear. Cloud Atlas is about those things. It’s a story of human decency and while grander in scale than something like Beasts of the Southern Wild, this is because it’s a big old fantasy movie. The Master may feel like a more mature exploration of some of the same ideas, but it is also analytical rather than persuasive. Cloud Atlas isn’t analyzing anything, it’s expressing it in the same way a poem or a song can express subliminal, universal ideas and emotions. This is why, in spite of itself and all the undue cynicism heaped on it, it’s connecting with people.

1. Looper

 

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My review.

Looper really is, in my subjective estimation, the best movie of 2012. I don’t have to equivocate my emotional reaction like I did with Warrior and Drive last year. While I have a strong emotional relationship with this movie, my esteem for it is mostly clinical. Everything I said about writing mattering first and foremost is so true here it hurts. Every little detail in this movie is effectively thought out and written in, even if subtly. One subtlety sheds light on the next, and the whole structure works with such pristine mechanics that it looks like magic. Rian Johnson has achieved something here that is quietly astonishing, rather than flashy or loud like some of the other movies on this list. It is the perfect counterpart to Prometheus, my bid for the worst film in 2012, because it is a movie that makes more sense the more you think about it. Looper rewards attention to detail, engagement with its characters and themes, and the pleasures of language and craft in ways that few other movies can, especially movies that involve time travel and riff on The Terminator. The mistake people commonly make with this movie is in thinking that it’s about time travel. It’s not. It’s about life: the patterns, consequences, mistakes, and what we owe ourselves. It’s also about the relationship between mothers and sons, a person’s present and past, and even makes time for some witty commentary about stylization. Like some of the other movies on this list, Looper is a reinvention. This time it reinvents the time travel genre, making it viable again in a climate of armchair physicists who don’t know what a plot hole is so bad that they see them everywhere. Audiences are now so dependent on blunt exposition (see The Dark Knight Rises for many examples) that they mistake subtlety for laziness, plot devices for plot points, and fail to realize that blunt exposition and over-explanation of a movie disrespecting you, of talking down to you. Looper never talks down to its audience, and that it did so well and found such a big audience is a vindication for the type of film it is, for Rian Johnson, and for anybody who wants to make an adult science fiction film as a way to talk about life and shit.

Honorable Mentions

 

Wish I’d Seen

 

  • Rust and Bone
  • Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  • Zero Dark Thirty (will count as 2013 movie)
  • Being Flynn
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi
  • Jesus Henry Christ
  • Headhunters
  • Take this Waltz
  • The Imposter
  • Compliance
  • Anna Karenina
  • Won’t Back Down
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • Frankenweenie
  • The Paperboy
  • Smashed
  • Pusher
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Life of Pi
  • Hitchcock
  • Deadfall
  • Not Fade Away
  • Les Miserables
  • Bernie
  • Klown

*

 

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Well, thanks for reading. That took four hours to write and I only made a few last-minute adjustments to the lists this time. I’m always happy to do this, though, as it gives me a great opportunity to process the year’s movies.

See you in 2013.

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