2012 was simply one of the strongest years in cinema that I can recall. The glut of quality entertainment from both the Indies and the Studios is a bit embarrassing and I worry that we’ll pay for it in the years to come. In that sense I found it very difficult to nail down a top 10 as there are close to 20 movies that would be worthy of inclusion on any year-end Top Movies list. Now with the Oscars only days away, I have now taken the time to jot down my thoughts for what I considered to be the best in cinema from this past year. There are many honorable mentions. Joss Whedon had the Hollywood success story that he’s deserved for years with both the genre-twisting The Cabin in the Woods and one of the best superhero movies ever made with The Avengers. Both films bring a heavy dose of entertainment and lots of rewatch value. Sam Mendes fulfilled the promise of Casino Royale and gave us Skyfall – a Bond movie that was both classic and modern while discarding the Jason Bourne-envy that plagued the last installment (and most Hollywood action films these days). Liam Neeson gave one of the best performances of the year in Joe Carnahan’s very underrated The Grey, and Sam Rockwell floored me with his version of the perfect shoot-out in Seven Psychopaths (Everyone: Go see Seven Pyschopaths. Do it now!). Both The Dark Knight Rises and The Hobbit opened with giant expectations and both received a fair amount of flak for not living up to them. Both had running times and subplots that could have been streamlined, but I enjoyed both immensely. I don’t have time for nitpicking. All of these movies are ones I wish I could include in the Top 10, and in any other year they would have. 2012, however, was not any other year.
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Fantastical and raw. Visionary and intimate. Beasts is an unforgettable film about a place the rest of America has forgotten. Anchored by a remarkable performance from young Quvenzhané Wallis, Benh Zeitlin’s stunning directorial debut is a film you don’t simply watch, but experience. An excellent soundtrack only adds to the proceedings.
9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I never read the book, but I’m a sucker for a good high school coming-of-age film. What seems on the surface to be a standard high school melodrama, ends up being a moving and authentic story of first-loves, friendship, and everything else that made the John Hughes movies of the ’80’s classics. Emma Watson breaks out of her Harry Potter shell and Logan Lerman gives one of the best lead performances of the year. The real stand-out is Ezra Miller, and knowing what he did in We Need To Talk About Kevin only makes his range all the more impressive. For those that have not read the book (which I haven’t), the final 15 minutes offers up an emotional gut punch that’s difficult to shake once the end credits roll. Put this in any best high school movies list.
8. The Impossible
A very under-seen movie, but difficult to watch. The film took heat for focusing on a white family on vacation during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami instead of more local protagonists. Was this an attempt to Hollywood-ize a tragedy? Not for me, just one (true) story within many worth telling. The Impossible is an emotional rollercoaster featuring strong performances across the board (especially from the family’s eldest son played by Tom Holland). The script is lean, but the direction is exceptional. The tsunami itself is one of the most horrifying, heart-pounding, and impressive sequences I saw put on film last year. Make sure to have a box of tissue handy.
Joseph Gordon Levitt had a stellar year in 2012. He was pretty much the lead in The Dark Knight Rises and has been turning in strong leading roles year after year since 2005’s Brick (also directed by Looper‘s Rian Johnson). The most impressive thing about Looper is how rich the world Johnson created is. You come away feeling there is a wealth of stories yet to tell in its dystopian future. The film defies your expectations and turns into something very human. Bruce Willis does his best work in years. One of the most inventive sci-fi films in recent memory.
6. Cloud Atlas
An either you loved it, or you hated it type of movie. I’m in the “Love it” camp. There’s so much to be written about Cloud Atlas that any short blurb feels like a disservice to the movie. The visuals are outstanding, the production design is impeccable, the music is soaring, and the story (or stories) build to an emotional wallop. This is a movie that needs to be watched, re-watched, dissected, and discussed. It’s the kind of movie you wish Hollywood would take more chances on. It ends up being one of the most important movies to be released last year.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Need I say more? Actually there’s a lot to be said about Spielberg’s understated historical epic. It feels like it has much less of a heavy hand than most of the director’s work as he steps back and lets his actors do the heavy lifting for him. The result is outstanding as each performer (from an ensemble of over 100 speaking roles) shines. Some people call the movie quite boring, but I was hanging on every word of dialogue that came out of Day-Lewis or Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens. It’s some of Spielberg’s best work in years and Day-Lewis is worth the trip alone.
4. Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow might be the best director working in Hollywood right now. She was the only one who successfully cracked an Iraq war film with The Hurt Locker and has one-upped herself with Zero Dark Thirty. You never feel the film’s 150+ minute running time and Jessica Chastain does career-best work as Mya, the CIA agent hell-bent on tracking Bin Laden down. Although we all the know the ending, the final 20 minutes have you on the edge of your seat. The sheer sprawling nature of the story and how tightly it’s handled is impressive enough, but the fact that it makes “Homeland” (one of the best shows on TV) look like recess only goes to prove that this may be the best film made on the modern day CIA.
3. Django Unchained
Tarantino seems to be a guy that never loses his touch for delivering blasts of gleefully violent entertainment. His signature dialogue is in a league of its own and he always casts the perfect actors to make it all sing. DiCaprio has some of the most fun he’s ever had and is a fantastic inclusion in the pantheon of great Tarantino villains. Christoph Waltz proves he is the perfect muse for Tarantino’s work and Samuel L. Jackson hasn’t been this good since Pulp Fiction. The cast is what really makes this movie work and is the best ensemble of the year. Not a weak link in the bunch. I had a hell of a fun time with Django and I look forward to watching it again and again. It’s one of Tarantino’s best.
Ben Affleck is on a roll. If you told me 10 years ago that Affleck would turn out to be one of the industry’s strongest and most sought after directors, I (and everyone else) would’ve laughed in your face. Affleck successfully juggles varying tones and levels of suspense and delivers a tight and thrilling piece of work. The fact that the climax of the movie, which basically consists of people walking through an airport, is one of the most tense sequences of year speaks volumes to his skill as a director. The film is funny, moving, suspenseful, and timely. Affleck says he wanted to emulate the great suspense thrillers of the 1970’s with Argo, a time when Hollywood was more concerned about making quality entertainment for grown-ups, and he succeeds. If Affleck keeps this up, Hollywood will be all the better for it.
1. Life of Pi
Wow. That’s all I could say when the credits rolled on Ang Lee’s beautiful film. I’ve never seen anything like it. The imagery alone is breathtaking enough, but the story that Lee takes us on it unforgettable. A film about faith, storytelling, and finding the will to believe against all odds. This movie is a technical marvel. I could probably watch every making-of documentary out there on it and still have no idea how they pulled it off. The visuals are absolutely stunning and by the end you feel both exhausted and fulfilled. There are so many stand-out sequences – the ship sinking, the whale, the floating island, the flying fish – that it’s hard to pick a favorite moment. I generally loathe 3D, but I couldn’t imagine having seen this any other way. Richard Parker is the MVP of 2012.