Last week, we discussed our favorite TV series of the last year. This week, we turn to the big screen.
PAUL: 10. DJANGO UNCHAINED (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
With Django Unchained, director Quentin Tarantino takes us once more back to a terrible moment in our history, and once again asks us to indulge him his little anachronisms and revisionist revenge fantasies. This time, instead of Nazis and baseball-bat-wielding Jews, we get slavers and bounty-hunting dentists. Set in the pre-Civil War Deep South, Unchained is Tarantino’s homage to the Spaghetti Westerns of Leone and Corbucci, which he prefers to call his Spaghetti Southern. I’ll say that the absence of editor Sally Menke is sharply felt here, though. If I, of all people, notice the nearly three-hour runtime, then there could’ve been some tightening. The cast is great across the board, including a list of hidden cameos longer than my arm (among others, original Django Franco Nero makes an appearance). Jamie Foxx is great in the title role, though I imagine what Will Smith could’ve done with the part, as was the original intent. Leo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Walton Goggins all shine in their respective roles. Kerry Washington was reduced to little more than the damsel in distress, however, which is unusual for a Tarantino picture. But the standout here is Christoph Waltz. He is every bit as charmingly heroic and admirable this time as he was charmingly repulsive and hateful in Basterds.
AJ: 10. MOONRISE KINGDOM (dir. Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson’s films often have a childlike quality about them, whether it be his colorful storybook compositions or the petulance of many of his characters. So it’s fitting that he’s finally made a film about children, one in which the kids are on the run from what’s expected of them and their adult guardians are forced to accept the roles they’ve played in their children’s abandonment of them. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, both in their first screen acting roles, give perfectly awkward performances. Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are in their element here, while Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton join the auteur’s troupe with ease. Perhaps most encouragingly, Moonrise Kingdom is the first sign of life in years from Bruce Willis–who, with a movie soon to appear on our lists, proved later in the year that he’s most definitely still kicking–and Edward Norton, two actors who really needed a movie like this.
PAUL: 9. THE GREY (dir. Joe Carnahan)
My first impression of this film, based on nothing more than marketing and trailers, was that it was another exploitative Noble Man vs. Horrible Nature, “machismo wins against dirty animals” movie. Fortunately, none of that turned out to be the case. Director Joe Carnahan and his stellar cast create a haunting, melancholy fable of survival against the cold wilderness of despair. Liam Neeson gets so much more to do here than just punch wolves, as he is forced to face his own loss of faith while helping his fellow survivors hold on to theirs. Beautiful and moving, and one of the biggest cinematic surprises for me personally this year.
AJ: 9. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Christopher Nolan brings an end to his Batman saga in massive, mythic fashion. This is a big movie in every sense of the word, from its length to its spectacle to its emotional heft. In an era where most moviegoers are content to settle for Michael Bay crash and bang, Nolan brings a little Sturm und Drang to the summer tentpole. What’s surprising is how little Batman himself actually appears, allowing Christian Bale to give one of his very best performances as a crippled Bruce Wayne who has become something of a hermit and must find it within himself to put on the cowl once more. Batman Begins was the start of the Batman’s legend, The Dark Knight solidified it, and in The Dark Knight Rises the ideal of Batman truly becomes more than just one man. Nolan’s Bat-trilogy stands as the definitive live-action incarnation of the Caped Crusader.
PAUL: 8. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (dir. Drew Goddard)
Politicians and special interest mouthpieces are constantly prattling on about how the violence we see in our pop culture is what causes the violence we create in real life. It’s a well-worn and preposterous argument. Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard understand that the violence of pop culture can just as easily be seen as catharsis and that our baser, bloodier natures need to be fed, need to be let off the leash from time to time. As with much in the Whedon catalogue, Cabin takes metaphor and makes it meat. It gives us our archetypes, retells the old rituals, and allows us to make the old and frightening sacrifices we need to make it through the banality of everyday life. Plus, it’s just damned bloody fun.
AJ: 8. MAGIC MIKE (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
I won’t lie: this movie has nearly nude beefcakes and sexy dancing galore, which is what you’ve seen in the ads. But if you know Steven Soderbergh, then you know that there’s also a lot more going on. Magic Mike is Saturday Night Fever by way of Boogie Nights, the story of a young man making his way through the male dancing scene and the family of oddballs he claims as his own. The big tweak here is that the focus isn’t on the young man, though he is ably played by Alex Pettyfer, so much as it is the (slightly) older man escorting him into this private world, portrayed semi-autobiographically by Channing Tatum as someone who realizes that the good times aren’t meant to last. Tatum, whom many had written off as a pretty face, had a big 2012, and here gives a genuine movie-star turn. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Matthew McConaughey, another former write-off who sprang to life this year, not only with Magic Mike, but with memorable roles in Bernie and Killer Joe as well.
PAUL: 7. PARANORMAN (dirs. Chris Butler and Sam Fell)
The spiritual successor to Coraline, Laika’s latest stop-motion masterpiece is ParaNorman, the surprisingly moving story of a social outcast more comfortable talking to ghosts than real people. It’s a familiar story, told in an unfamiliar way. There are plenty of laughs, and good old-fashioned B-movie zombie scares, but the film gradually builds to some genuine, no-holds-barred scares. And it will also shock you how truly, emotionally resonant it becomes by the end. With some of the finest, most breathtaking animation in recent memory, ParaNorman is an absolute delight.
AJ: 7. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (dir. Drew Goddard)
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard know from horror. Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which exploded the genre and its conventions in about a hundred different directions; Goddard wrote some of Buffy and Angel‘s best late-period episodes, as well as the found-footage monster mash Cloverfield. They’re also none too pleased with where the genre’s wound up, drowning in Saw and its torture porn brethren. So they use the standard Evil Dead set-up–kids go to a cabin, fuck with Latin, and are disemboweled–to take a look at why we’re so fascinated with watching pretty young people get butchered. It’s cutting film criticism via genre deconstruction, all delivered with Whedon and Goddard’s trademark dry wit; look no further than author stand-ins Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, stealing the show as mundane office workers in charge of the whole thing. (Originally reviewed here.)
PAUL: 6. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (dir. Christopher Nolan)
This one is kind of rough. After multiple viewings, I’m not quite as enraptured with the final Nolan Batfilm as I had been. I suspect I still place it as highly on my list as I do because of the amazing theater experience seeing it the first night and for the strength of its supporting cast, primarily Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I’ve grown less enamored of BatBale with each successive film in the franchise, though I won’t say I actively dislike him. And the villain of this film is simply laughable. But despite that, there are some powerful moments, chief among them the closing sequence as a new character rises. One of my favorite pre-credit scenes all year.
AJ: 6. LINCOLN (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Here’s the reason why Lincoln works and why Spielberg’s last prestige period picture, War Horse, didn’t: even at two-and-a-half hours, Lincoln is a small film. It’s not a grand, sweeping epic; rather, it’s a super-sized episode of The West Wing, all about how Lincoln and his colleagues–brought to life by a roster of great talent like Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Jon Hawkes, Walton Goggins, the list goes on–attempted to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln himself is, of course, absolutely brilliant, but not in the towering sense we’ve come to expect from the actor. His Lincoln looms large, but as a kind, gentle, loquacious fellow. Day-Lewis radiates warmth and sincerity, completely earning the Oscar he’s sure to win. This is Spielberg’s finest achievement since 2005’s Munich, which–perhaps not coincidentally–was also scripted by Tony Kushner.
PAUL: 5. JOHN CARTER (dir. Andrew Stanton)
I don’t think I’ve ever felt the passion to defend a film from unfair criticism as strongly as I do with Andrew Stanton’s live feature directorial debut, John Carter. As an adaptation of a century-old pulp novel property, which was itself the inspiration for virtually every other sci-fi property anyone has created since, this film was bound to be judged in comparison to its genre bastard offspring. Unfortunately, it didn’t even make it that far in the critical review process, as Disney’s questionable marketing decisions opened it up to skepticism and eventually outright animosity long before a frame of footage ever made it to screen. John Carter‘s theatrical fate was decided in advance, with negative buzz keeping many fans from ever even seeing it. A shame, since the finished product is one of the most fun, classic sci-fi serial adventures in a long, long time. Phenomenal special effects, innovative set design and production, and one of my favorite Michael Giacchino scores in years. This film deserved so much better than audiences and critics gave it.
AJ: 5. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE (dir. David France)
The best documentary of the year, How to Survive a Plague is the thorough, riveting account of early AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). There are a few modern-day talking heads, but 95% of the film consists of archival footage from 1987-1996. The moments of protest, bravery, and genuine anger the footage captures are nothing short of stunning. The film is, in a way, depressing, not just for the enormous loss of human life it chronicles; for those of us who weren’t old enough to be aware of the situation back then, it’s disheartening to know that Pat Buchanan and his ilk have always been around to spread horrible, homophobic lies. It’s encouraging to see how far we’ve come in battling the pandemic, as well as social and cultural mistruths, though we still have much further to go.
PAUL: 4. LOOPER (dir. Rian Johnson)
The most intricately constructed watchwork of a time-travel film in…well, a very long time. Looper, the third film from director Rian Johnson, creates an internally logical set of rules for temporal displacement within the universe of this film, and then proceeds to blow the audience’s minds by playing fast but fair with those rules. Included in this film is one of the most viscerally disturbing and horrific things I’ve seen on screen in 2012. It’s one of those gimmicks that all of us geeks and gamers have sat around talking about before, the whole “what if” game of time travel and such. But when captured on film, it’s chilling and nightmarish. Looper also gives us the best Bruce Willis vs. Bruce Willis scene we’re ever likely to see. And it doesn’t hurt that we also have Emily Blunt giving one of the best supporting actress performances of the entire year as well. Oh, and kids will always be creepy. Just saying.
AJ: 4. LOOPER (dir. Rian Johnson)
Hey, look at that! Paul and I agree again! For good reason, too; Looper might just be the best time travel movie, full stop. It’s not just because, as Paul rightly states, the film’s time travel logic is ingenious. It’s because the film is so genuine in its story of a man–one young, one old, but the same man–fighting for his future, whether to change or it to make damn sure it stays the same. Rian Johnson’s sci-fi noir stylings are as cool as anything I’ve seen on screen this year, but they’re not just window decoration. With Looper, Johnson has created one of the most fully-realized fictional worlds I’ve seen in a long time. And yes, Emily Blunt is fantastic.
PAUL: 3. THE AVENGERS (dir. Joss Whedon)
What more could we possibly have to say about The Avengers? Joss Whedon directed the impossible, a meta tale of heroes that have no business working together being forced into close proximity and finding a way to work together. Four different film franchises distilled together into something greater than the sum of its parts. It could easily have been bloated, convoluted, confusing, and overstuffed. Instead, it was crisp, clean, fun, and engaging. It served multiple masters and didn’t cut anyone short. Simply the best four-color superhero story to date on the big screen. And hands down the best version of the Hulk in any medium.
AJ: 3. ZERO DARK THIRTY (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Zero Dark Thirty‘s greatest strength is its “journalistic integrity,” in that it reports what happened in the manhunt for Osama bin Laden without once taking an opportunity to moralize or politicize. It’s a fictionalized version of what happened, but one that still allegedly comes from first-hand accounts; as such, there’s been much hand-wringing over whether the film glorifies torture, over what it wants you to feel. Those hand-wringers are, as usual, going about this all wrong. What they should really be doing is discussing the morality and politics of the real-life actions Zero Dark Thirty depicts. Bigelow doesn’t take a stance, allowing you to discover how the brutal torture and questionable politics make you feel. That makes the film a lot more nuanced and, at times, a hell of a lot tougher to stomach. With this and The Hurt Locker before it, Bigelow has landed one of the great one-two punches in recent history.
PAUL: 2. LIFE OF PI (dir. Ang Lee)
Director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi was, without question, the single most emotional film experience for me in 2012. On the surface (pun intended), it’s the story of an Indian boy lost at sea aboard a lifeboat, struggling to survive with his only companion, an adult Bengal tiger. But beneath that, we explore what it takes to survive more than just physically. Starvation and dehydration are not the direst threat facing young Pi Patel (an awards-worthy performance by newcomer Suraj Sharma). Lee uses the surface of the sea as a blank canvas upon which to paint the most achingly beautiful tapestry of faith, belief, and the power of the soul, both human and animal. Anyone who has ever known the love of an animal, or felt their life was saved literally or metaphorically by the grace of one of God’s “beasts,” cannot help but be moved by this film. As someone who feels his life has been saved, in both senses, by a connection with animals, no film this year came even close to moving me the way this one did.
AJ: 2. DJANGO UNCHAINED (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
With its brilliant dialogue, its unimpeachable soundtrack, and its crazily over-the-top violence, there’s no mistaking Django Unchained for anything but a Tarantino film. What’s different, though, is the simpler, more straightforward narrative, and moreover, just how raw and direct the movie feels. Tarantino has never shied away from his infatuation with black culture, and his anger over our society’s continued racism is palpable in every frame of Django. He pulls off an extremely tricky balancing act, one moment allowing us to laugh at the sheer lunacy of racism, be it in the form of Don Johnson’s Col. Sanders-a-like or a bunch of clueless proto-KKK members; the next, shoving the full horror and brutality of racism right in our faces. Paul has already mentioned how terrific the performances are–I’ll single out Leonardo DiCaprio’s deranged plantation owner as my favorite–so I’ll just say that Django Unchained may be Tarantino’s most outrageous picture yet, and certainly an absolute blast from start to finish.
PAUL: 1. CLOUD ATLAS (dirs. Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski)
The “unfilmable” novel (second one on my list, actually) that translated into my favorite theatrical experience of 2012. Six of them, in point of fact. Cloud Atlas is, in essence, six different films by three different directors, woven seamlessly together into one giant mural about…everything. Practically every genre is tapped in one way or another and used as a vehicle to explore love, trust, freedom, resistance, redemption, and the inter-connectedness of Man across every conceivable barrier. The “gimmick” of having actors play multiple roles of various sexes and ethnicities served to subtly demonstrate that we are all one, no matter our color or creed, gender or generation. All boundaries are conventions. And what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?
AJ: 1. THE AVENGERS (dir. Joss Whedon)
Please excuse Joss Whedon while he has a moment. After years of being regarded as a cult god with his work on Buffy, Angel, Firefly, etc., Whedon finally broke into the mainstream with The Avengers. Or, I should say, the mainstream finally broke into him. Despite bringing together four blockbuster franchises, this is a thoroughly Whedon production, with witty, laugh-out-loud dialogue; a dash of anti-establishment commentary; and, most importantly, the notion of found family. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk don’t belong in the same room together, let alone on a team that is the world’s only hope for survival. Except they kind of couldn’t do it without each other. The performances are perfect, the action sequences are glorious, and the tone is the most genuine kind of superhero fun. This is the movie the kid in me has been waiting for since the very moment he could read, and the one the adult in me has absolutely no shame in adoring every second of. (Originally reviewed here.)
Of course, there were more than ten movies in 2012 worth seeing. So, in the interest of spreading the love, here are some more films we felt merited a mention…
PAUL would like to give shout-outs to 21 Jump Street, The Amazing Spider-Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brave, Dredd, Katy Perry: Part of Me, Ruby Sparks, Safety Not Guaranteed, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Wreck-It Ralph.
AJ requests a round of applause for Amour, The Invisible War, The Kid with a Bike, Marley, On the Road, ParaNorman, Ruby Sparks, Rust and Bone, Take This Waltz, and V/H/S.