My Fifteen Favorite Films of 2012

This year, more than any other in recent memory, it was really really hard to nail down my top film list. I saw so many great films and there are many more surely great ones that I didn’t see. Even after I’d “decided” on my list and started writing up my thoughts on the films, I was shifting films around right up to the very end. And now I release my list upon the world even though I really would have liked another two months or so to continue catching up and thinking on these films more.

The Films I Didn’t Get Around ToAmour, Anna Karenina, The BayBernie, ComplianceGoon, The Invisible War, John CarterKlown, LeviathanLincoln, Rust and BoneSearching for Sugar ManSilver Linings PlaybookSleepwalk With Me

Honorable Mentions: ArgoBeasts of the Southern WildChronicle, The Dark Knight Rises, FrankenweenieHaywireHeadhuntersKill List, Killer JoeKilling Them SoftlyLife of PiPrometheusRabiesSkyfallWreck-It Ralph

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15. Sound of My Voice
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In a word: Entrancing. Brit Marling is completely captivating as the cult leader and possible time traveler, Maggie. Two journalists go undercover to infiltrate the cult and expose Maggie as a fraud but perhaps things are not really as they seem. Sound of My Voice is a small movie (much of the movie take place in a nondescript basement) but it is incredibly well crafted in both the writing and direction by Marling and Zal Batmanglij. You can’t help but be spellbound by Maggie but she can also be intimidating without even raising her voice. If she really was a cult leader, I’d probably follow her. Just sayin’.

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14. Dredd 3D
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I can hear you right now. “Surely, you must be joking. Dredd? There’s no way it can be that good. You’re just pulling a fast one are’t you?” And in response I say, “Nope. Yep. Yes there is. No I’m not.” Dredd is the kind of comic book movie that The Punisher and Ghost Rider wanted to be. Dark, gritty and bloody as hell but would you believe it, it’s also quite beautiful, exciting and fun. This is owed in part to the serious, but not grim, treatment of the character and we only need to see Karl Urban‘s mouth and chin to know that he’s playing it straight but having a blast at the same time. There are a number of fantastic sequences but none perhaps more memorable than those in which we experience the drug “slo-mo” which makes the user see time at only 1% speed. It’s a remarkable effect made even better by the film’s beautiful cinematography. How many other comic book movies can you praise for that?

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13. Django Unchained
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It may be blasphemous to say but I don’t believe Pulp Fiction to be anywhere close to being Tarantino‘s best movie. In my mind, it falls behind Jackie BrownKill BillInglorious Basterds, and now Django Unchained. It’s difficult to talk about this film without delving into the many problems that some people have with the content but at the risk of sounding like I’m avoiding a difficult subject, I’ll just say that I feel that Tarantino‘s choices were entirely justified. I consider the man to be one of the very best that American cinema has to offer and he offers more proof here. The dialogue is music to the ears and the action a rollicking feast for the eyes. Further, the cast is positively wonderful and all deliver strong performances that are among the best of year.

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12. Moonrise Kingdom
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I find Wes Anderson‘s style to be delightful. In his latest film, paired with a story of adolescent love, the quirk factor is cranked to eleven. Now, normally I hate movies about young people falling in love because it always feels disingenuous and silly. Here though, the story is told like a fairy tale where hyper-realism is the order of the day. I couldn’t help but delight in these kids’ adventure. This was almost like Anderson‘s feature-length version of the first ten minutes of Pixar’s Up and I loved it.

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11. Les Misérables
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I’ve seen the stage version of Les Misérables twice and was in the play during high school so it’s safe to say that I’m familiar with the story and it’s long been my favorite musical (Singin’ in the Rain coming in at a close second). But when I saw this new version, it brought out emotional depths that I’d never experienced before. This is largely due to the great performances from much of the cast. Each (a certain actor named Crowe being the exception) is fantastic in their role. The film is simultaneously epic and personal. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried no less than twice.

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10. Holy Motors
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What can I say about a film that features two people in motion tracking suits simulating sex, a crazed man from the sewers running through a graveyard eating flowers, and the director himself as a man with a key for a finger? Well, as you can probably tell, it’s not quite like anything you may have seen before. It’s not a film that you’ll completely understand after just one viewing or maybe even ten viewings. And yet, no matter how many times you watch it, there will always be something new to mentally toss around or unpack or question. It’s a film that defies definition and eludes explanation. It’s a film I want to see again and again.

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9. Sinister
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This film more than lives up to its title. Right from the highly disturbing opening shot, Sinister never lets up on the scares. I was seriously squirming in my seat several times. Huge props go to writers C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson for avoiding many of the fatal flaws that plague these kind of movies. The film is also helped by the great Ethan Hawke who lends much needed believability to the lead role. I’m going to be adding this one to my Halloween movie rotation.

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8. Seven Psychopaths
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I loved writer/director Martin McDonagh‘s first film, In Bruges so it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to his next film and did it ever live up to my expectations. This film has perhaps the best cast of any film this year and they are all hilarious. The script is really clever and serves as a critique of the post-Tarantino gangster film where all gangsters are cool and talk far too cleverly It also serves as a pseudo-meta film about the making of the film. Also, it features an adorable little shih-tzu and I happen to have a shih-tzu of my own so there might be some favoritism at play as well. But I’m not nearly as attached as Woody Harrelson is. Maybe just a little.

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7. The Avengers
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This is going to become the new standard for multi-superhero films for years to come. It would have been real easy to just focus on Robert Downey Jr. as the leader of the group and have the others fill in as needed but Joss Whedon masterfully balances every character so you never feel that any one person is overshadowing the others. The action is thrilling and clearly choreographed so that you always know where everybody is in relation to each other and everybody has something to do. It’s not just a great action movie though. The dialogue practically crackles and is pure Joss Whedon. If nothing else, let’s recognize that he finally made a great Hulk! I can’t wait to see what Marvel does next and DC has got a lot to live up to.

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6. The Raid
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Too much action these days is cut all to hell so that all the impact (and comprehensibility) is lost in the shuffle. The martial arts films that come out of Asia are one of the last vestiges of true kickassery when it comes to fight scenes. A few years ago, Tony Jaa was dropping jaws with Ong-Bak and The Protector and now we must pick our jaws off the floor once again for Iko Uwais in the most action packed and brutally, gloriously violent movie of the year.This film doesn’t waste any time and gets right to the good stuff. And it is really good stuff. Not only do these people use their feet and fists, but they throw in guns, knives, machetes, and other tools of destruction. By the end, you feel just as exhausted as the guys doing the fighting. Plain and simple, this film kicks ass all over town.

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5. ParaNorman
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ParaNorman came way out of left field for me. Somehow it slipped completely under my radar when it came out and it was only at the insistence of a friend that I went to see it. Good god did this knock my socks off. I was immediately taken by its design and obvious love for horror films (which I wholeheartedly share) and then the humor was really funny, the characters well written, and the story touchingly poignant. ParaNorman is not content with just being a fun kids movie but also has important and extremely relevant messages that both kids and adults need to hear. I look forward to watching this one again and again.

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4. Looper
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I still remember seeing Brick for the first time at the theater back in 2005. I was completely floored by what I saw and anxious to see what Rian Johnson would do next. He didn’t disappoint with The Brothers Bloom a few years later and now he’s really stepped up his game with Looper. The man’s scripts are so well constructed it’s embarrassing to me as a writer. Many movies that feature time travel get too bogged down by the mechanics of it all and some almost completely rely on time travel to provide the whole crux of the story. What Johnson does instead is use time travel as a tool to explore deeper themes of regret, responsibility, maturity, and ethics. But it’s not enough that his writing is so strong, he’s also got to be an amazing director. He and cinematographer Steve Yedlin come up with amazing shots that gives their projects a completely unique and unmistakable stamp. The film leaves much to chew on after it’s over and if all you can talk about is how time travel could work, you’ve missed the point.

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3. The Cabin in the Woods
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The best time I had at the theater in 2012 was watching The Cabin in the Woods for the first time (I’ve subsequently seen it at least three more times). Of course, the whole movie is fantastically scary and simultaneously hilarious, but by the end of film, I was giggling like a little school girl. The less said about the plot the better because a huge part of the fun of this film is in seeing how it all unravels. Maybe in five years or so we can freely talk. For now, I can say that the script is absolutely the most clever horror script of… well… maybe ever. It’s both a loving homage and a biting condemnation of a genre. So successful are writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon that you almost wonder how we can ever go back to the genre with a straight face. No doubt, more slashers will be made and take themselves way too seriously but in the back of my mind, I’ll think about The Cabin in the Woods and smile and maybe let out a girlish giggle.

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2. Cloud Atlas
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Cloud Atlas is among the most beautiful films I’ve yet seen in my relatively short life. It’s a bold and ambitious film that few others can equal in its scope and and complexity. The Wachowski‘s and Tom Tykwer are shooting for the moon and trusting that the audience can follow along even while the film’s cross cutting between six wildly different stories with a lot of the same actors playing entirely different parts in each. Not only do I think it works beautifully but I think it adds so much more depth and meaning. Every single cut is so obviously thought through and absolutely perfect. I applaud the filmmakers’ and their towering achievement that is Cloud Atlas. This is a special kind of film that we rarely see.

I further applaud every one of the actors in the film. Each of them gets at least one and sometimes two or three chances to shine and they all completely nail it. Ben Whishaw as Frobisher just destroyed me emotionally. Jim Broadbent plays two sides of a coin as Ayers and Cavendish and does both brilliantly. Both Tom Hanks and Halle Berry manage their roles with grace. I could go on and on about each of them. The makeup? Didn’t bother me. It’s more about the meaning behind the makeup than the execution anyway.

One of the big complaints I’ve heard leveled against Cloud Atlas is that its message is too simplistic and obvious. That the things we do can have effects that ripple throughout time, that we should treat each other kindly, that our lives are the product of the people around us. Simple and obvious, yes. But how many of us actually live this way? If our world were some Eden-esque paradise then that might be a valid criticism of the film. I think that we need these simple, positive messages because the world can be a largely cynical place and our films are all too eager to reflect that cynicism. Cynicism is easy. Cynicism is popular. Let’s embrace positivity. Let’s believe that we can be better. Cloud Atlas makes me want to be a better person. How many movies can you say that about?

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1. The Grey
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No film this year affected me more than The Grey. I walked out of the theater stunned by what I had just seen and it has stuck in my mind since then. Rarely does a film begin with it’s main character (Liam Neeson) already on the verge of suicide with a gun barrel in his mouth. A short time later, he finds himself and a handful of others to be the only survivors of a plane crash in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. And if that’s not bad enough, a vicious pack of wolves are stalking them. Now Neeson‘s had the choice to die taken away from him and must find within himself a reason to fight for the life he almost ended.

This is not a film about Liam Neeson fighting wolves, but a film about a group of men fighting their inner demons. It’s a film that asks what makes life worth fighting for even in the most dire of circumstances. It’s much more of a philosophical film than an action one although there’s plenty of nail biting, sphincter tightening tension here. The plane crash is bar none, the most intense crash sequence I’ve ever sat through. Joe Carnahan directs with such immense skill and assured vision. The cinematography and score are equally incredible and powerful.

But there is nothing more powerful in the film than Liam Neeson‘s staggering performance. In a year where Daniel-Day Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix are (rightfully so) the talk of the town, it saddens me that Neeson has been completely forgotten. It’s a damn shame because I believe that he should be mentioned in the same breath as those men. It’s a heartbreaking and very real performance of a tortured man’s search for meaning and a will to live. The film spoke to me on an incredibly personal level and I still think about this film even after many months and many many other films. The Grey is easily my favorite film of 2012.

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day

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