Top 10 Films of 2012

By Michael Murphy,
The 10 movies that resonated with me most over the past 12 months

It may not be 1939 and it might not be 1977, or 1994, or 1999, but 2012 is still one for the ages, probably treading just behind those four magnificent, benchmark years for cinema. 2012 wasn’t perfect – the summer movie season was lackluster at best – but when it really tried it brought us some gems that were unmistakable. We haven’t had a film year like this in a long while and it was wholly refreshing to walk into the movie theater and walk out impressed, fulfilled, and, most of all, happy more times than not. 2011 was definitely a weak year, minus the usual year end guns that came blazing, but 2012 was consistently on point for the most part and came in extra heavy with its awards-seeking flicks in the last quarter.

For starters, we had Christopher Nolan return to Gotham for the final installment of The Dark Knight Trilogy, leaving every die-hard fan praising the heavens (In Nolan we trust, am I right?). Genuine R-rated comedy was restored back in March courtesy of 21 Jump Street – who knew that Channing Tatum could actually be, first off, funny and, second off, talented? Michael Haneke surprised us with his heartwrenching Amour, far tenderer than his previous work but horrifying nonetheless.

We returned to suburban dysfunction with the hilarious The Oranges, capitalizing on a central performance from Leighton Meester that set me a few steps back. We realized just how real love was, and how it knows no age boundaries, after Wes Anderson showed us childhood romance in the beautiful Moonrise Kingdom, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower proved that in this moment, we are infinite.

Max Landis showed an admiring eye for comic book mythos and transferred it into the real world with his imaginative Chronicle, which birthed superheroes and supervillians while also reviving the found footage genre. Rian Johnson continued his climb into the public eye after his wildly original sci-fi actioner, Looper, while Nicholas Jarecki filled Johnson’s previous label as ‘one to watch’ with his tense, Richard Gere-tentpole, Arbitrage.

Broadway visited the multiplex with marveling performances and bombastic set designs in Les Misérables; we lived through the harrowing tsunami from 2004 in J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible, and David O. Russell showed us some truly unsympathetic, albeit hilarious, mental disorders in his unique romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook.

Now those were all great films, with a whole lot to admire and to write about, but there are ten others that I could talk about for hours, but I’m going to try and limit myself to a paragraph each. These ten films defined 2012 for me and can all be acknowledged with the word ‘love.’ These are ten films that I love and I believe will all blossom into classics universally or within their specific genre, maybe even both. Here are my ten favorite films of the past 365 days:

10. The Grey - If we ever get the opportunity to look death in the eye and say ‘Not today,’ as Arya’s fencing instructor, Syrio Forel, taught her on Game of Thrones, we would certainly consider ourselves lucky. In Joe Carnahan’s fantastic The Grey, a group of seven plane crash survivors are stranded in the uninhabited Alaskan wilderness fighting off wolves, frostbite, hypoxia, and hunger. An action thriller one minute, then a stark and desolate exercise in character driven survival the next, building up to a divisive climax and resolution that makes your heart stop, The Grey is a bleak genre film that abides by zero boundaries.

It surely isn’t a film for the optimist, but as for the realist, The Grey doesn’t attempt to lighten the foreseeable grim future for these men, and over the course of two hours this film is enough to bring a grown boy to tears (it has torn me up both times I’ve seen it). In another director’s hands it would have been a very different film, but Carnahan’s intimate touch and unforgiving screenplay balances existential queries with interpersonal tension, plus Liam Neeson’s astounding performance (his best since Schindler’s List) make The Grey a beautifully brutal portrait of humans embracing the last good fight they will ever know.

9. The Sessions - Lay John Hawkes out on a stretcher, strip down the beautiful Helen Hunt and toss her a Boston accent, and tighten up the priest’s collar on William H. Macy, and you’ve got a wondrous trio of character actors that bring the uplifting tale of polio stricken Mark O’Brien to life. The virgin journalist’s desire to do the dirty deed is realized by the sure-to-be-nominated John Hawkes, who shares dynamite chemistry with the, again, sure-to-be-nominated Helen Hunt, hopefully resurrecting her wading career.

The Sessions perfectly balances its sardonic humor, full of self-deprecating wit, with genuine humanism courtesy of writer-director Ben Lewin. A focused film that left me humbled and paralyzed by its grace, The Sessions really makes you feel the plight of an innocent man whom God chose to make life extra difficult. It’s highly personal, vibrant, and successful with a poetic ending that actually brought me to tears. It’s undeniably moving and will be well-remembered thanks to Hawkes’ astonishing lead performance.

8. Seven Psychopaths - The best Charlie Kaufman movie that Charlie Kaufman never wrote; Martin McDonaugh’s In Bruges follow-up is a pitch black, self-referential Grand Slam of side-splitting proportions. The golden ensemble – Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Tom Waits – is one for the ages, with career best work from the always reliable Rockwell, while McDonaugh solidifies his expertise as a filmmaker and his mastery as a writer. It’s a sharp piece of work with definitive originality, enough to separate it from his phenomenal debut film from 2008. Psycho’s is an underappreciated meta gem that lets the blood flow and layers on the uproarious laughs, and one that will surely be resurrected via cultdom.

7. The Avengers - Marvel gambled heavy in order to properly set up the hugely ambitious Avengers film, but Joss Whedon’s light and pulpy superhero film was a fantastic success of fangasmic proportions. Huge cast, big action set pieces, witty dialogue, in-jokes for the comic book geeks in all of us, this movie put a big heart back into superhero adaptations and was a literal marvel to behold.

Whedon, known for beloved television series’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, sat in the feature film director’s chair for only the second time in his career to this heroic mash-up, and in one sweep he became the most powerful filmmaker in the business. In an era of gritty and realistic franchise installments, The Avengers made the movies fun again. Sorry, Christopher Nolan.

6. Zero Dark Thirty - Who knew CIA jargon could be so stimulating and the desperate search for universal justice so tattered and tenacious? Fact or fiction, there arguably isn’t a more important movie to have been released in 2012. Director Kathryn Bigelow turned a decade-long manhunt, meticulously researched and immaculately written by Oscar-winner Mark Boal, into cinematic newsprint. The Hurt Locker elevated the modern war movie, but Bigelow turned the bin Laden search into an engaging political thriller and a virtuosic docu-drama unlike anything seen previously.

Sensitively neutral and constantly tense, the steep Oliver Stone-like bias we’ve come to expect from political thrillers is completely absent and ZDT presents the history Dragnet-style: Just the facts. With Jessica Chastain’s controlled performance at the core, Zero Dark Thirty is the perfect culmination of a year that provided the exciting Argo and the unpredictable second season of Homeland; it enforces the saluted ideal of a powerful country looking to protect the livelihood of its citizens. We always get our man.

5. Skyfall - I’m one of the biggest James Bond fans I know, so it’s not out of the question for me to set myself up for definite disappointment – I did it four years ago with Quantum of Solace. But if there’s a place to instill your faith, it’s in the writing and directing combo that is John Logan and Sam Mendes, who took the fifty-year-old franchise and brought it to new heights.

In Skyfall, James Bond is taken in two drastically different directions simultaneously: We are brought full circle, back to the franchise’s roots, as well as to a point totally tangential from the safety of the Bond blueprint. Bond is modernized for the cyber-terrorism age of today while also being remodeled with the retro flair that defined him eons ago. It’s a personal storyline, not only in regards to Bond himself but also with the brilliant Javier Bardem’s Silva, whose ‘scheme’ puts M – a phenomenal Judi Dench – directly in the crosshairs. Breathless action, epic pacing, and Roger Deakins’ eye-widening cinematography; this is the best Bond film to date.

4. The Cabin in the Woods - Cinema is magical, but in the century-plus since movie making became prevalent, audiences have become highly attuned to the conventions and boundaries that films and all of their clicked in components retain. Audiences, myself included, have become tired of rehashes, reboots, and recyclings, putting down an astronomical amount of money to see something we saw a year ago, a few months ago, maybe even a week ago. The biggest mistake films make is treating the audiences like they’re dumber than they are, or smarter than they are, but Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods revels in both mistakes, and when two wrongs make a right he turns high concept into high quality.

With co-writer Joss Whedon, Cabin embraces every horror cliché that even the slightly knowledgably moviegoer could be aware of, and then personally slaps every viewer in the face by changing itself into something completely different halfway through. It’s self-aware, arguably the best meta film (along with the aforementioned Seven Psychopaths) since early Charlie Kaufman and it’s downright hilarious, benefitting from the unique voice percolating through the dialogue and storytelling. It’s violent, it’s whacky, it’s surprising, and it’s pretty perfect come the final few minutes. Though not a big money maker in 2012, it’s original release date in 2009 may not have serviced it any better and, besides, it deserved a fantastic film year for its release anyway…if not only to ensure that Joss Whedon had one of the best years out of anyone in Hollywood.

3. The Master - Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t make his films easy to watch. Outside of the brilliant character-driven epic, Boogie Nights, Anderson’s films over the past twelve years have been widely polarizing, admired for their originality and scope but rarely adored by every viewer. The Master is no different, combining the cold sting of detachment that was so resonant in There Will Be Blood with skillful character studying, like Boogie Nights, examining what happens to a psychologically crippled man who finds solace in a community of dangerous and demented zealots.

It’s his finest written work, loosely basing it all on the creation of Scientology, as well as his most inspired directorial outing channeling the master of epics, David Lean. As far as plot goes, I’ll be the first to say that it’s rather slim, but what it lacks in story progression it makes up for in spades with it’s cavernous dissection of character and trifecta of revelatory lead performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. To say that the three of them deserve Academy recognition is an understatement, for in a perfect world all three would win. Even if the movie proves inaccessible to future viewers, Phoenix’s captivating and highly unnerving performance should remain memorable for years to come.

2. Cloud Atlas - Zero Dark Thirty may be the most important film of 2012 because of its historical significance, but Cloud Atlas should be considered just as highly within the remote confinement of filmmaking. Visionary directors Andy and Lana Wachowksi, as well as Tom Tykwer, took David Mitchell’s one-of-a-kind novel, rightfully considered unfilmable, and turned it into an emotionally rich and unmistakably daring epic, weaving six short films into one seamless tale through time. Produced by the three directors themselves, Cloud Atlas showcases the greatest unification of directorial powers to date as well as unparalleled storytelling – the trio adapted the novel themselves, altering Mitchell’s original structure with some of the most brilliant editing I’ve seen in years.

It’s visually rich and existentially provocative with a beautiful original score and resonant catharsis on six different levels. Regardless of what side of The Tree of Life spectrum you place yourself, like or dislike, Terrence Malick wishes he could make something like Cloud Atlas, a film complete with an engaging plot (multiple at that), unique and complete character development, stimulating visuals, and an emotional presence that has you crying one minute and laughing the next, followed by surprise, then entrancement, then horror, also heartbreak and finally fulfillment. There are no pretentious whisperings, nature shots, or dinosaurs to be found here. Cloud Atlas is in a league all by itself.

1. Django Unchained - DJANGO! Movies, at the end of the day, are supposed to be fun. They’re a form of escapism that transport us to other worlds and enthrall us with great characters and unique tales of intrigue and fiction. They take what we know about the real world and view it through a cinematic lens, presenting it in a larger than life format for extended periods of time, preferably on a large screen in a dark theater. Today we’ve come to know some of the best films as dark, realistic, gritty and as grounded as possible. There is surely a lot to admire about these kinds of films, but where did all the fun go?

I love a good drama now and again, or a smile-less thriller, but sometimes I need something to raise my spirits, to engage me in a way that makes me laugh and cheer and root for the good guys and be scared by the bad guys; I need something to remind me that my role as a movie critic doesn’t always require the analytical eye searching for what makes a film good or bad, but rather what makes moviegoing fun, adventurous, and an enjoyable investment of time and suspension of disbelief.

Quentin Tarantino, movie obsessive at his core, always keeps that ideal in mind when he makes movies. He wants them to be rich and engaging with round characters and flowing plots, but he also wants them to be movies he could sit down and watch himself. There’s a lot of personality in Tarantino films, maybe more in his films than in the productions of any other filmmaker, and regardless of the genre he’s looking to embody or the story he’s trying to tell, you can see a Tarantino film coming from a hundred miles away.

Django Unchained does to the Civil War and slavery what Inglorious Basterds did to World War II and the Nazis. It’s about as historically accurate as a Seth Graham-Smith novel but contains as much tension as any great thriller, as much humor as any riotous comedy, as much adventure as any great swashbuckler, and enough cinematic value as any acclaimed classic. While Tarantino broke into Hollywood because of his unique voice, Django Unchained is his most beautiful and atmospheric film yet, one with phenomenal performances from the charismatic Jamie Foxx, the eloquent Christoph Waltz, and the gleefully evil Leonardo DiCaprio – one of his absolute best performances to date.

Back in May, Joss Whedon brought fun back to superheroes with The Avengers, but in December, Quentin Tarantino brought fun back to the movies, period. It’s silly, it’s out-of-control, it’s a balls-to-the-wall rush of adrenaline, and there was nothing else like it this year at the movies, it was the most fun I could have ever asked for. Thank you, Quentin.

See you in 2013!

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