2012 was a great year for movies, but then again, I'd argue every year is a great year for movies. Chicago critic Richard Roeper once said saying there are no good films out is like saying there are no good books in a bookstore. Of course there are; you just need to look around sometimes.
Thus, let's take one final look at the best movies 2012 had to offer. Some of my choices took a little bit of searching; others were hiding in plain sight. But they were all incredible (except for my bottom five movies of the year, which were incredible for other, less commendable reasons). So, with no further ado, I present a year in cinematic successes, as well as a few cinematic sins.
Top 10 Films of 2012
10. "Django Unchained"
As of writing this article, it's been less than 12 hours since I walked out of my particular showing of "Django Unchained." But I don't need a ton of time to determine that Quentin Tarantino's latest historical revenge epic is one of the most entertaining, unique and strangely satisfying films of the year. It's violent (delivering not one but two blood-soaked finales), it's profane and it's indulgent. "Django Unchained" is also brilliantly performed – Christoph Waltz is the bacon of the cinematic world: He makes everything better – and beautifully photographed, featuring dialogue that sings and a finessed balance of hilarious comedy, intense drama and brutal violence. It's a brave feature that feels like a Tarantino film, which is to say it feels like nothing else you've seen.
Science fiction is like my pet genre; I love it, even when it chews up my shoes, gets into the garbage, sheds on the couch and goes to the bathroom all over the house. There's plenty of bad sci-fi, but when it goes right, nothing makes my brain happier. Enter "Looper." Writer-director Rian Johnson creates a tantalizing, twisty time-travel tale that smartly blends several genres with a human story about people coping with their pasts, their futures and themselves. "Looper" manages to be everything a viewer would want from a smart sci-fi film, plus a little extra.
8. "Moonrise Kingdom"
As a Wes Anderson skeptic, I walked into "Moonrise Kingdom" waiting to be ironically whimsy-ed to death. I walked out remarkably charmed. The ensemble of veterans (Willis, Norton, Murray) and delightful newcomers (child actors Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) mixes effortlessly with Anderson's sweet, witty script and small fantastical flourishes that don't try to upstage the rest of the film. "Moonrise Kingdom" still feels like a Wes Anderson movie, but it also feels like the first time in a long time Anderson has really sincerely cared about his characters. And, as a result, the audience cares too.
7. "The Avengers"
Is "The Avengers" the most intellectual and thought-provoking movie of 2012? Absolutely not. Is it just a cog in Disney and Marvel's massive money-making Hollywood machine? Essentially. Will I have to turn in my beret at the next Pretentious Critics Association meeting? If it existed, most likely. So do I feel bad about putting "The Avengers" on this list? Noooope! Joss Whedon took the reins of the most anticipated film of the year and somehow came through on all of the hype. Yeah, it's just popcorn movie, but it's a popcorn movie made to satisfying near perfection.
We currently live in a cinematic era in which Hollywood is trying almost every gimmick in the box in order to keep theaters relevant. They tried 3-D, but that fell on its face thanks to overexposure. Directors are now giving 70mm film a try, and that being the case, "Samsara" is to 70mm what "Avatar" was to 3-D. Director Ron Fricke's globe trekking documentary takes the viewer on a mesmerizing journey, filling the screen with beautiful and thought-provoking images that seem to capture the entire world in 102 minutes. "Samsara" boggles the mind and stirs the soul. When was the last time 3-D managed to do that?
5. "Monsieur Lazhar"
I was putting this list together when I suddenly dropped my jaw and thought "What the heck; how'd I forget 'Monsieur Lazhar?!'" The Canadian film, a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at last year's Oscars, is quiet and subtle, but its emotional impact is massive. Instead of becoming yet another movie about a saintly teacher, writer-director Philippe Falardeau tells a breathtaking tale about death, grief and how all people, young and old, struggle to cope with the mysteries it leaves behind. With great lead performances from Mohamed Fellag and a cast of amazing child actors, "Monsieur Lazhar" easily earns a spot near the head of the 2012 class.
Remember those quaint days when Ben Affleck's career was a punchline? The joke is on everyone else now, as Affleck has turned into one of Hollywood's hottest directors, with "Argo" as his crown jewel. The Iranian hostage thriller is simply smart filmmaking at its finest, with every performance, every shot and every moment perfectly on point. It's a great thriller (the airport sequence near the end is literally edge-of-your-seat good), a great showbiz comedy and a great drama about the power of the moving picture, all tied into one film. Well played, Mr. Affleck. You had us going there with that whole "Reindeer Games"/"Paycheck"/"Surviving Christmas" phase.
3. "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God"
Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney has set his sights on people who've abused power in the past, but with "Mea Maxima Culpa," Gibney directed his camera at possibly his biggest target: the Catholic Church. His investigation into the church's sex abuse scandal results, framed by the harrowing stories of four young deaf Milwaukee boys molested by a priest in the '70s, is scathing and enraging. The film, which made its American debut at the Milwaukee Film Festival and will be shown on HBO this upcoming spring, screams for justice and accountability. By the end of Gibney's unblinking, heart wrenching documentary, viewers will probably join in.
2. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth"
I saw Chad Freidrichs remarkably thorough documentary on St. Louis's infamously failed public housing project at the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival. I wanted to put "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" in my top 10 list last year, but it technically wasn't released until this past January. It's been a long road, but now I finally get to give the movie the credit it deserves. It's not as heated or as angry as something like "Mea Maxima Culpa," but Freidrichs's film is fascinating as a dense study into why the project failed and why former residents would hold the crumbling disaster so lovingly in their hearts. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" elegantly demonstrates the best attribute of a documentary: the ability to take a topic that normally sounds dry and dull, and turn to turn it into intellectually and emotionally riveting cinema.
1. "5 Broken Cameras"
No film I saw over the past 365 days shook me to my core and stunned my senses like "5 Broken Cameras." Emad Burnat's documentary about civilian life on the frontlines of the Israeli-Palestinean conflict is an amazing work of political activism, a harrowing look into a life of constant violence and a tribute to the power of cinema. The film takes the audience through the hauntingly endless cycle of violence taking place in an everyday town and the effects on Emad's young son, whose first words are "army" and "cartridge." I saw "5 Broken Cameras" several months ago at the Milwaukee Film Festival, but the impact of its shockingly, and sadly, human story still lingers.
Bottom 5 Films of 2012
5. "The Raven"
There's a lot wrong with "The Raven" (obviously, otherwise I'd be talking about "Red Tails" or "Fun Size"). There's the goofy dialogue, the absurd action, the preposterous plot that shoehorns author and poet Edgar Allen Poe into a murder mystery that plays like fan fiction and the casting of Rob Gordon himself, John Cusack, as the troubled literary genius. The thing that really kills me about "The Raven," though, is its inability to tell a halfway decent mystery. I expect better from a screenplay co-written by a Shakespeare.
4. "Hit & Run"
Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell seem like a cute couple. If it was my job to review relationships (like a marital counselor or something, I don't know), I'd probably give them a good grade. Unfortunately, I review movies, and that being the case, "Hit & Run" is a pretty abysmal one. Shepard's directorial debut (with help from co-director David Palmer) is an unpleasant mix of rape jokes, homophobic jokes, naked senior citizens and ugly action. It seems to be going for Tarantino vibe in terms of tone, but if I want to see a Tarantino movie, I'll go see "Django Unchained." This is just amateur hour.
3. "The Cold Light of Day"
The best thing I can say about "The Cold Light of Day" is that it is remarkably easy to forget. Besides that, this tedious, insanely generic discount DVD bin-bound action thriller has almost nothing to recommend. Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver and Henry Cavill all seem bored (Willis couldn't even bother to shave) playing out the dull, by-the-numbers spy story, a sensation the audience surely shares.
2. "The Devil Inside"
I'm going to save you 80 minutes and whatever amount of money it costs to rent a movie from Netflix or Redbox, and I'm going to tell you the scariest scene in "The Devil Inside." In broad daylight, while a group of people are walking down a sidewalk, a big dumb-looking dog surprisingly plops his head and front paws on a nearby fence, briefly startling the audience and the main characters. And that's it! The scariest moment in this entire, incredibly lazy movie sounds like a deleted scene from "Marmaduke."
A lot of things happen in "Branded." Almost none of them make any sense whatsoever. There's a half-baked spy subplot involving Pop-Pop from "Arrested Development." There's a 15-minute sequence based around sacrificing a cow. There's an epic battle between brand blobs and brand dragons that looks like something out of Harry Potter's peyote nightmare. And a star cow narrates it all. I wish I could say this is all a lot of fun – even of the unintentional variety – but "Branded" seems to think it has something important to say. It's the only one who thinks that.
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