Five months ago when I ran down the best films of 2012 up to that point, I mentioned that the list would likely look a lot different come December. And now here we are at the end of the year, and, aside from a stalwart trio of films from that list, my top ten is entirely made up of films I saw after that post. Seeing as the big guns usually come out later in the year, this isn’t too surprising, but it was still hard pushing some of the films down or off that original list. And as is the case with any list like this, I could be of a completely different mind in a few months or a few years. But, staring 2012 in the face, this is where these films rank in my mind.
First, some honorable mentions. Some of these were on my mid-year top ten, others came on strong but didn’t quite make it. But all were in the running, and they’re some damn fine viewing in their own right (in alphabetical order):
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Rise of the Guardians
Silver Linings Playbook
Next are some fixtures on other top ten lists that I didn’t get a chance to see, either due to time or availability or, in some cases, inclination. But that’s what Redbox and Netflix are for. Still, they deserve some mention (again, in alphabetical order):
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty
All right, enough with the prologue. As Casey Kasem would say, now, on with the countdown.
What I Said: ” It might not have a message to match its scope, but that scope, like its opening shot, is nothing short of the totality of our existence. So maybe it can be excused for keeping the message simple.”
I wasn’t as enamored with Cloud Atlas as some were. But the film is so packed with ambition that it was impossible for me to leave it off the list. Just managing to pull off the interweaving storylines is an achievement in itself, and there’s a scope and sweep to the film that’s undeniable, even if I didn’t think what it was trying to say was nearly as grand. Whereas the problem I had with The Matrix Reloaded was that there was too much philosophy, here I think there’s not enough, so while the individual pieces are impressive and even moving in their own ways, they never really come together as some kind of all-encompassing whole. Still, the Wachowskis remain supreme visual storytellers, and even if there’s not as much here to chew on as I’d hoped, it’s still a damn tasty meal.
What I Said: “As it is, it’s a continued expression of love from someone who’s already quite clearly made the point. You can’t help but get wrapped up in the enthusiasm, but can we talk about something else?”
Here’s another example of a film filled with great individual set pieces that never quite gelled for me. Quentin Tarantino’s talent and enthusiasm are undeniable, but, especially after re-watching Inglourious Basterds the other day, I never got any kind of cumulative effect. And, as with Cloud Atlas, those individual pieces are good enough to still land this on my top ten. Tarantino’s dialogue is as sharp as ever, and given great voice by Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. And as is usual for Tarantino, it’s unexpectedly funny, with the humor cutting through some of the more shocking moments. If it falls more towards the Kill Bill end of the Tarantino spectrum than the Pulp Fiction one, it’s just a statement that even pretty good Tarantino can be great.
What I Said: “The last scenes of Skyfall are nothing short of a second reboot, this time casting the franchise firmly back to its Connery glory days.”
My favorite thing about Skyfall isn’t so much the film itself — and make no mistake, it’s the best big budget action film of the year and the best Bond film in ages — but its promise. The film isn’t anything as much as it is the franchise exorcising Bond’s demons from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and putting him in position to start simply being the British super spy of old. Not that I minded the thematic depth of the previous Daniel Craig films, but seeing Moneypenny and M’s office at the end, I’m primed and ready to see what comes next.
What I Said: “It’s a film that deftly equates the fictional scares of ghosts and zombies with the very real scares of leaving childhood. And tells us that, with patience and understanding, neither scares have to be all that frightening after all.”
In a year when I fully expected Pixar’s Brave to be the best animated film I saw, along came ParaNorman and absolutely blew me away. By turns genuinely scary and sincerely emotional, the film is nothing less than a parable for the fears of growing up, told in a way that never belabors the point. And whereas many films of this stripe would settle for big empty spectacle for their climaxes, ParaNorman uses its conclusion to take us in unexpected directions, allowing several characters to grow and providing a solution to its central problem that’s moving and perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film.
What I Said: “Some three hours later, I walked out thinking to myself, ‘The crazy son of a bitch did it.'”
The only thing keeping this from being higher on the list is that it lacked the shock of discovery of the films above it. It’s fully of a piece with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, so in that sense it was a known commodity hardly capable of surprise. What was surprising was how Jackson made this return trip feel like such a welcome visit, like having an old friend back to tell stories in front of the fire. I’ve seen it three times now, and each time, this comfortable warmth just washes over me as the familiar titles appear. Jackson’s love of this setting is apparent, and for someone who was so opposed to the story being expanded, I’m still shocked by how much I loved this. The expansions definitely move it far afield from Tolkien’s original vision, but they somehow fit, nestling this comfortably alongside the Rings films and establishing this as its own cinematic thing. Bring on the next two parts I once wished wouldn’t exist.
What I Said: ”… this is the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras and Christmas all rolled into one. It’s both a culmination and very much its own thing.”
One of the most game-changing film of the year, even if the game it changes is the relatively insignificant one of super hero movies. But Joss Whedon’s comic book epic forever laid to rest so many of the preconceptions about the genre. You can’t have the heroes in silly costumes. You can’t have continuity. You have to keep things grounded. Whedon tossed all that out the window and have us a full-bore comic book in the Mighty Marvel Manner, proving that, if the characters and spectacle are good enough, audiences will fully buy into the super hero tropes cinema has so long shunned.
What I Said: ”… it’s one of those rare films that starts off good, veers into greatness, and then somehow finds another gear beyond that into some nether realm of complete and total joy.”
Whedon had his hand in another game-changer, this time one that threw the horror genre on its ear, reminding those who love it why they do, and those who don’t why they might. Neck and neck with The Avengers for the most pure fun I had in a theater this year, this ranks just ahead because it’s just bit more clever, a bit more subversive, and wholly of its own imagining. And never have I been more stupidly excited and pleased to see a set of elevator doors open.
What I Said: ”… heroism comes from the decision to have the fight at all.”
The oldest film on the list, from way back in January, but one that deserves to be remembered. It lures you in with the promise of an action movie filled with Liam Neeson fighting wolves, and slowly you realize what you’re really watching is a rumination on faith and choice and self-determination. Neeson does Oscar-worthy work, which probably happened too long ago to have stuck in voters’ minds, and the final scene, while upsetting to some who failed to realize what they were watching, is an uplifting end note that perfectly captures what the entire film is about. Being true to your theme is worth sacrificing a wolf fight here and there.
What I Said: “Even if the fake movie that was Argo never came to be, there was power in its promise, and the very possibility of its existence was enough to help save six people from almost certain death. Hooray for Hollywood indeed.”
One of those rare films that still manages to be tense despite the outcome being a matter of historical record, Argo is just as concerned with paying tribute to the gloriously messy process of filmmaking as it is with chronicling the rescue of U.S. diplomats from revolutionary Iran. Ben Affleck’s direction brings a sense of urgency even to some of the more outlandish Hollywood dealings, and the whole thing plays out as a love letter to the power of cinema to change things, even when that cinema is a film that doesn’t even exist.
What I Said: “We’re asked to put aside the why of what Lincoln did and embrace the enduringly American how of it. Lincoln is a tribute to a great man, yes, but also a tribute to the great nation and its people in which that man so firmly believed.”
Call me an unapologetic Steven Spielberg fanboy all you want, but for me, Lincoln towers over the cinematic year as Daniel Day-Lewis towers over the film itself. It’s a grand, eloquent statement about a sloppy, messy process, one that, like Lincoln himself, the film recognizes at outside the letter of the law, but so necessarily within its spirit. Every performance takes what could have been bland historical pageantry and invests it with passion and life, and Spielberg wisely holds back his usual bags of tricks and lets his sterling cast just do their thing. In a year where our political process seemed to be mired in pettiness and small ideas, Lincoln came along as a reminder that government can be about big ideas. That’s a good message for 2012, and a great one to take into 2013.