As 2012 came to end, the opportunity arose to reflect on our year of viewing films. Some were good. Some were great. Some were awful. Some warranted a refund.
Here, we focus on the good to great: Those films that churned something within us — in a public theater. Those films that touched us — again, in public. Those films that we just couldn’t stop thinking about.
For full reviews, please click on the blue links.
Jared Wade’s Top Five Movies of 2012
5. Sleepwalk With Me
I’m not sure 2012 was a good year for movies. I struggle to actually come up with a list of five that I can honestly say I’ll still be talking about three years from now. Sleepwalk With Me is definitely one that, if it gets brought up during a bar conversation I’m having in 2017, I’ll casually mention, “Oh yeah, I saw that. For sure check it out. Good stuff.” I don’t know that I would tell anyone “You have to see this,” and that goes for most of the other movies I saw this year.
My number five could have just as easily been a mainstream release like Ted (hilarious), Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis is the world’s best actor), Silver Linings Playbook (Bradley Cooper’s best performance), The Grey (surprisingly deep … seriously), Skyfall (good Bond), 21 Jumpstreet (rather good against all odds), The Hunger Games (expected garbage; received a good flick), Five-Year Anniversary (funny enough), Expendables 2 (BOOM) or even The Dark Knight Rises (holy muddled, Batman, but a fitting end). Really, I would probably rather recommend one of the great documentaries I saw this year. (The Other Dream Team, How to Survive a Plague, Chimpanzee and The Queen of Versailles, in particular, are all worth your time.)
But I’ll go with Sleepwalk: an entertaining, semi-autobiographical movie from Mike Birbiglia. It is refreshingly original and shows what good work can come if you just give a small budget to a talented man with a voice and let him film something personal.
This movies biggest strength is also it’s biggest weakness. The reason it is so powerful as you’re watching it is that it feels like an insider’s look at how the CIA worked during the decade after 9/11. You are taken through a very linear account of how one woman, against all odds and despite a lack of support from her superiors, found and killed Osama bin Laden. She is a very strong character, and the depictions of realistic violence and action are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in film. It is griping, and you feel as though you are watching an amazing tale.
Then you realize that’s what it is: a tale.
While senators and NGOs can debate the torture-related plot points and whatnot, that isn’t the real issue. To me. It’s just that it ultimately doesn’t pass the smell test of what could have plausibly happened. A few characters are just too convenient, and the lead role has to be an amalgam of other people — perhaps dozens of them. It may not be fabrication, but it feels so massaged, after you finish watching and really think about it, that a lot of the initial power of the movie wears off.
Stuff like that can work wonderfully when the movie’s tone is that of, say, Charlie Wilson’s War, and you ultimately know that the filmmakers are taking liberties in terms of truth to support a different, more interesting narrative. But when the best part of the film is its ability to keep you wanting to know what the next step in the time line was and when its attempt to depict an accurate account of history is dubious at best, it loses a lot.
That said, it was obviously still very good, and the experience of watching it stuck with me longer than almost any other film of 2012. Bad year for movies or not, Kathryn Bigelow made a captivating movie and created one of the best leading female characters I’ve seen on screen.
Ben Affleck didn’t dream up anything too deep here: it’s just an excellent story about what was previously a trivial foot note in history. And he expertly takes a quirky story and, most impressively, doesn’t muck it up. Instead, hedevelops rich, rounded characters who are easy to love and walks them through a tense time line of events that every American can’t help but hope works out well. It’s like Air Force One, but without all the cheesy action-movie tropes that turn that movie into a camp classic. In short, it’s just a simple, fantastic little film.
Disagree? Argo f*** yourself.
The best part of Looper is a diner chat between old Joe (John MCclane) and young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The whole discussion is excellent, but the filmmakers use one specific moment to break the fourth wall and slap every overly pedantic viewer in the face. “I don’t want to talk about time travel,” says Bruce Willis, “because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”
Time travel makes no empirical sense. If you actually think about the Terminator franchise, it eventually falls apart. Every time travel-related narrative does, simply because no filmmakers — and only a handful of viewers — have a Stephen Hawking-level understanding of string theory and the quantum universe that would have to exist for traveling in time to not just be dumb. Thus, as a viewer, you just have to accept that it works for the story but ultimately doesn’t in reality.
For Looper, that shouldn’t be a problem unless you just like hating things to hate them. Because it is ultimately less a movie about time travel and instead one that just uses that box-office-friendly contrivance to make an eloquent point about nature vs. nurture and how we — both as family units and a society — reap what we sew in terms of the decisions we make.
1) The Avengers
I have never read comic books, but I have been all in on the Iron Man universe since the first movie came out. I even enjoyed the second one quite a bit. So when they brought back Tony Stark to battle his biggest foe yet — and teamed him up with the whole gang — there was a good chance I was going to dig it no matter what.
But the fact that the filmmakers hit a grand slam here for 80 percent of the running time, while finally creating a Hulk that could steal the show, made this about as much fun as you can have going to the movie theater. Yeah, there were a few plot elements that didn’t work, some scenes that were kinda stupid and a couple of the characters that were altogether pointless (shout out to Renner and Scarlett). But it’s easy to overlook those minor flaws when Hulk is that cool. The Avengers is the best comic book movie ever made, and the flick of the year for 2012.
Tim Adkins’ Favorite Five Movies of 2012
I don’t have kids. Don’t plan to. But when I sat in the theater watching this film, I really wished my 6-year-old nephew was sitting next to me sharing a giant candy bar and shouting “Whoa!” or “Awesome!” at every scene that looked to him like the new coolest thing ever. As it were, this movie was a lot of fun and pretty well made.
In short, the best food porn of this year. Or any other. It also offered an interesting history of the global delicacy. While the story wasn’t as fully realized as I wanted it to be, Jiro did call to mind my grandfather. And I generally appreciate things that call to mind my grandfather.
3) Smashed / The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I’d like to pick just one of these, but I’m not sure I can. I really enjoyed the acting in each, and I dug that each story had balls enough to avoid most Western movie cliches. If Smashed had cast anyone other than Aaron Paul as the male lead, I’d probably give the edge to Perks for its nearly perfect use of Pittsburgh’s Fort Pitt Tunnel as both a location and a story device.
The most important film of the year. Easily. Advocacy films have become a terribly unfortunate trope. All they really achieve is bias confirmation. Despite the attachment of the George Soros Foundation as a source of funding, this film is very difficult to dismiss.
It presents a cogent argument for why the United States’ War on Drugs has failed — and why it was doomed from the start. (You cannot win a war against the dreaded “other” when most of the others are actually us.)
Paired with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, The House I Live In gives us strong evidence for finally having a grown-up conversation about our relationship with drugs and our criminal justice system. Here’s hoping it also begins the end of the exceptionally ill-thought War on Drugs.
No film released this year had more life in it. It reminded me of some of my favorite things about my favorite Giuseppe Tornatore films. Of course, it lacked the polish of Tornatore’s work. What it did have, however, was a raw beauty. And it was proud of itself for existing because it knew just how impossible it can be to exist.
Bill Coffin’s favorite Movies Watched in 2012
5) Tron Legacy
I don’t think this came out in 2012, but 2012 is when I saw it, and this movie rocked me. Yes, it’s not a great story. But as far as visual spectacles go, it was mind-blowing. Kind of like if Disney tried to do the Matrix … and I mean that as a compliment.
But what really put this one over the top for me was the Daft Punk soundtrack, which transformed this from a sequel/reboot of the 1982 classic to a CGI rock opera that managed to capture the feeling of that early 1980s fascination with a digital world we were just beginning to understand — and imagine.
Yes, this was one of the most feckless first-contact teams ever, but overall, I loved this movie, both on its own merits and for the way in which it fit into the larger Alien/Blade Runner canon. Really nice bit of continuity engineering, that. Plus, this movie gets credit for teaching every red-blooded American the four magic words that are guaranteed to get Charlize Theron to hop in the sack with you: “Are you a robot?”
This is another 2011 release, but Jack Black blew me away in this true crime story about a peculiar crime involving a peculiar man in a peculiar East Texas town. The way in which writer Skip Hollandsworth moved in and out of the fact and fiction of this fascinated me, as did Black’s immersion into his role. And Matthew McConaughey wrapping himself up in a Texas accent and slick demeanor worthy of a slow clap.
Holy chainsaw, did I love this movie. It was just a hugely entertaining and hugely clever meta-statement about the horror genre that in its way managed to explain every other horror movie ever made. With terrific sly winks at the audience while retaining a sense of control, this is that most rare movie that was playing with the rules and you loved it for it. Plus, it is the first horror movie I’ve seen in a while that appears to not be interested in a sequel.
1) The Avengers
This is the comic book movie I’ve been waiting for my entire life. It’s not just a fantastic superhero story, it’s really the perfect Marvel superhero story. You can’t overlook how fundamentally different Marvel superheroes are from, say, DC or other sources. There is a particular quality and tone to them that Marvel-philes love, and Joss Whedon and Co. just nailed it.
Steve Barker’s 2012 Movies of Note
Having already seen the 1991 documentary Marley Story a number of times I was skeptical that I wouldn’t gain any new insight on Bob Marley from the 2012 release Marley. But where Story stuck to the positive parts of Marley’s life — he was a peacemaker, a songwriter and a family man — Marley tells the whole story from the people who knew him best. The documentary doesn’t shy away from the fact that he was a womanizer and could sometimes be a control freak.
The film runs just under two and a half hours, and I found myself wanting more when the final credits rolled. It’s my vote for best documentary of the year.
For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada
This is by no means one of the top movies of the year. It’s underdeveloped, and I’m not convinced it’s historically accurate since the Knights of Columbus financed it. It seems slightly skewed in favor of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, a group of Mexican civilians who fought their government for religious freedom during the Cristero War. There is a scene where they burn 50 innocent people alive and play it up as an unfortunate accident.
I only mention the film because of the phenomenal performance by Mauricio Kuri. Kuri plays Jose, a young boy who joins up with the League. Kuri was extremely convincing as Jose and was able to hold his own on screen with Andy Garcia. The film is worth watching just to see this emerging star.
Sara Palin: You Betcha!
I love Nick Broomfield’s filmmaking style. He isn’t concerned with preparation or organization; he just grabs his camera and starts shooting, which is evident in You Betcha!, maybe even more so than some of his other films.
With this documentary, he shows what everybody has been assuming for years: Sara Palin is a huge c***, er, “vile person.” He interviews people she’s stepped on to advance her career as well as high school friends and former coworkers, who share stories of how uninformed on politics and governmental procedure she really is.
The movie is interesting as well as infuriating, as it shows that someone as terrible as Palin made it so close to the White House.
This was the movie I was most excited about for 2012. And boy was I disappointed. The positives are that it’s shot really well and Benicio Del Toro can still put on a great performance even when he’s in the middle of a movie that seems so concerned with style it forgets about plot and character development.
The story is cliché, and none of the characters are likable enough for the audience to care if they live or die. I don’t understand why a movie that is trying so hard to be hip would cast John Travolta. He was cool in Pulp Fiction and that’s it. The only scripts he should be getting are for Old Dogs 3 or something where he’s the voice of an animated pup with a Brooklyn accent.
This was another movie that seemed promising, but overall left me disappointed. It seems as though Seth Macfarlane tried to stick as many jokes as he could in the movie that he was never able to get away with on network TV. I love a good politically incorrect joke; the problem was they just weren’t that funny.
The only part of the movie I felt was well done was the scene where Marky Mark and Ted do coke. It was one of the most realistic depictions of people on coke I’ve seen in a movie. People on coke are annoying, blathering idiots and the filmmakers nailed it in this movie.
Overall, it’s good for a few cheap laughs, but I don’t see it having the re-watchability like some other raunchy comedies.
Dustin Freeley’s Top Movies of 2012
While not as tight as Inglourious Basterds in the script department, Django Unchained continues Tarantino’s revisionist history portion of his canon. Set in the antebellum South, Django investigates our obsession with violence and how it becomes acceptable when legally sanctioned. Much like Hitler in Basterds, some folks get their proper comeuppance, and its exploitatively glorious.
4) The Master
First and foremost, The Master is beautifully shot, and Phoenix – if he would just get out of his own way – is superb as the twisted, drunk Richard III-like Freddie Quell. But, Anderson’s ambitions here might be too lofty for what he presents to his audience.
Much like the churning waves that begin the film, there are a number of tangential themes weaving in and out of this film, churning in another’s wake. This tactic can be at once phenomenal and weak.
The Master makes us think – a lot – but it also feels, at times, underdeveloped and shortchanging. Regardless, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson, and it’s certainly worth a look.
Kathryn Bigelow relays the hunt for Osama bin Laden into a docudrama-style chronicle rather than an action-packed thrill ride. As the demagogues will note: there is torture in this film, but its overall discussion would best be described as “gray.” Torture exists; it existed during the search for bin Laden. This is not a secret. Whitewashing it away is indicative of a systematic problem that goes deeper than employing torture. Bigelow doesn’t shy away from it, but she doesn’t glamorize it or castigate it. If nothing else, Zero Dark Thirty is technically brilliant, specifically the last thirty minutes.
Michael Haneke is no stranger to creating tension and leaving his audience devastated. Amour is no different. It’s not Funny Games or Night of the Wolf. It doesn’t have their joyous sadism. But it proves that Haneke belongs in the pantheon of great directors.
As someone who’s not really a Wes Anderson fan (I still don’t get the appeal of The Royal Tannenbaums), I am a bit surprised that Moonrise Kingdom is number one on my list.
But it’s fantastic. The backgrounds are beautiful, the script is pithy and genuine, and the acting is superb. It at once weaves a capricious tale of young love and a deep dive into the theme of personal value and worth found in prescribed titles and position.
It is a satire like no other this year, and, overall, a fun film.