As a critic and film buff, I like getting into the habit of making year end lists, but I usually don’t get to see every movie I want to see by year’s end, mostly due to monetary issues. That’s why I usually make music lists instead; because it doesn’t cost anything and listening to ten three minute songs takes less time than watching ten two hour movies. This year I was able to keep up with some of the big movies of 2012, (but I still had some catching up to do, hence why this list is coming out later than usual) which is lucky for me since this was a really good year for movies. So to celebrate this achievement (and because I wasn’t able to make Ben from Canada’s year end podcast), I’m listing my 10 favorite movies of the year.
10. Les Miserables
I’ve been a fan of the stage musical for a long time, so when I heard they were adapting this to film, needless to say I was very excited. That said this is a flawed movie, but most of its flaws stem from this being a direct adaptation of the play. This does work at times, but since stage shows have a different rhythm, pacing, and all around different way of doing things than film, some things don’t really work in translation. But considering the difficulties of adapting things to screen, I think this was the best product we could reasonably ask for. The story is comprehensive and dense, but incredibly engaging, the musical numbers are some of the best out there and the acting… okay, I’ll be honest, the acting was kind of hit and miss. The ones who nail their roles like Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine (who I’m sure will be taking home the gold at the Oscars for her big number if nothing else), and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers really hit it out of the park, but Russell Crowe as Javier, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, and Amanda Seyfreid as Cossette weren’t anything to write home about, but ultimately didn’t ruin the experience for me. It’s not a perfect movie, but was still a fine piece nonetheless, and one I’m glad turned out as good as it did.
I don’t know why I put off seeing this one for as long as I did, but I’m glad I was still able to catch it. From the people who brought you Coraline, this stop-motion horror adventure about a young misfit who can talk to the dead was fun, heartwarming, and surprisingly poignant. Aside from the thrilling zombie action and the constant throwbacks to the horror films of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, underneath it all was a well-constructed and authentically human story that understands its audience without coming off as overly sentimental. It kind of reminds me of Where the Wild Things Are in that it’s an emotionally invested story about the turmoil of childhood and gets that children are smarter than most adults give them credit for. The characters are all fleshed out, the writers know when to take its time and let the atmosphere sink in, and the animation is incredibly smooth for stop-motion, thanks in large part to its use of 3-D printing. If you haven’t seen this one, it’s well worth checking out, especially if you want to introduce your kids to horror without traumatizing them.
8. The Avengers
It’s hard to believe that Marvel Studios have done what was thought impossible only a few years ago: bringing their shared universe continuity to the page to the screen. Everyone thought that making four movies all leading to this climactic clash was a task only for mad men, but not only did they pull it off, they pulled it off spectacularly! That’s not the only good thing The Avengers achieved, though. They did to superheroes what Weezer did to rock after the fall of Nirvana: They made them fun again. In an age where everyone is trying to imitate Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies by being dark, gritty and broodingly serious, The Avengers reminded us that superhero movies are supposed to be fun, action packed adventures. And let me tell you, I don’t think I’ve had as much fun at the movies as I did watching The Avengers. The characters are fleshed out and work well off each other, the actors fit into their roles like it was second nature, the special effects are dynamite, the action scenes are some of the best in any superhero movie ever, and while the plot wasn’t really anything beyond an elite team of badasses banding together to fight the ultimate evil, it gave room for the rest of the movie’s strengths to flourish. Kind of like Les Miserables, the fact that this turned out as well as it did is nothing short of a miracle, and this seems poised to be the gold standard by which all future superhero movies will be defined. And you people thought Disney buying Marvel was going to be a bad thing.
7. Wreck-It Ralph
I already wrote a review on this so I won’t dwell on it too long. We’re living in an age where video games are finally being accepted as a legitimate art form, and while Wreck-It Ralph may come across as pandering to a whole generation that grew up on video games based solely on the dozens of old-school game characters, this is actually the first Disney movie to out-Pixar Pixar in a long time. But most these cameos only happen within the first few minutes, and the movie is as good as it is because it has a great cast well rounded, well developed characters. John C. Reilly is great as the oafish, down-on-his-luck title hero, Sarah Silverman is surprisingly endearing as an obnoxious cute character (by the way, I groaned so hard at her big reveal toward the end), and Jane Lynch as the tough-as-nails Calhoun is in the forerunning of my favorite female Disney characters. Couple that with some splendid 3D animation, terrific voice acting and loads of meta humor and video game references, and you got yourself a great family film.
6. The Hunger Games
Some people may dismiss this as an uninspired Battle Royale rip-off, but I found this adaption of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy to be thrilling, engaging, immersive, and thought provoking. Even though the ideas it aims for are have been done before, they’re still big, bold ideas that deserve exploration, especially for something largely aimed at teenage girls. This does feel like a real dystopian society that you could see becoming real in the future, especially in this age of reality TV, McCarthy-esque propaganda newscasts and conspicuous consumption. It offers a fresh take on the whole death game scenario that separates it from predecessors like Running Man, Rollerball and Battle Royale by giving us a more established world that adds to the game’s barbarism. I’ve also grown fond of the main protagonist Katniss Everdeen (played wonderfully by the lovely Jennifer Lawrence), who I think is one of the best female leads to come out of a young adult franchise since Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and is an infinitely better role model than certain other female protagonists from wildly popular franchises I can think of. (Don’t pretend you don’t know who I’m talking about.) It may not look like the most original movie out there, but come into it with an open mind and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
What happens when you mix X-Men, Akira, and Carrie together and make it a found footage film? You get Chronicle. Yet another in a long line of trending superhero deconstruction movies (see also Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Super), Chronicle gives us a more realistic view on what would happen if teenagers were bestowed with superpowers. The three teenagers in question develop telekinetic powers after discovering a strange object in an underground cave. At first they have fun with their new found abilities, but as they get stronger and tensions at home and school take their toll, one of them snaps and goes mad with power. The three main leads feel authentic and end up becoming sympathetic, even if they’re not all good people. I was a little weary that it was a found footage film at first, but they use this to its advantage, and the use of telekinetic powers made for some very creative and interesting camera work. This along with its breathtaking special effects and heart stopping third act are especially impressive considering the movie was done on a low budget. It pushes and redefines what can be done with the found footage formula, and could’ve been a big summer blockbuster contender if it hadn’t been condemned to the backwaters of the February box office. If I were to make a list of movies that every teenager should see, Chronicle would be pretty high up.
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is among my all-time favorite films, so needless to say that my expectations were high for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the prequel to JRR Tolkien’s epic masterpiece. After nine years of hype I was thoroughly pleased with the final product. Not only was it a huge treat to finally return to Middle Earth and be reunited with its characters, but it feels like it never left. The actors reprising their old roles never lost their touch, even the ones that only had cameos. Even the newcomers, particularly Martin Freeman as our reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins, play their roles as if it were second nature. The cinematography is better than ever, the costumes and make up are sublime, and the CGI is brilliant. Now the Lord of the Rings set a pretty high standard for me from a young age, but I understand that The Hobbit is supposed to be a more lighthearted adventure, but they were still able to infuse it with the grand, sweeping epicness that blew me away the first time around. At first I was a little weary over the announcement that it was going to be expanded into a trilogy, and that each movie was going to be over two and a half hours (which should be expected from Peter Jackson), but after giving it some thought and seeing what they’re using these movies to elaborate on the history of Middle Earth a bit more, I’m actually kind of confident in this decision and I’m interested in seeing where they take this. Also, scrotum chin.
3. Django Unchained
If there was a theater experience this year that topped The Avengers, it was probably this one. The common misconception about Quentin Tarantino is that he steals other people’s work, when in actuality Tarantino isn’t just paying tribute to pulp fiction, Blaxploitation, kung-fu flicks, grindhouse films and spaghetti westerns, he’s reinventing them. In the case of Django Unchained, he takes violence and wily nature of the spaghetti westerns of the late 50’s and early 60’s (particularly the Django series, after which the movie was named), and takes it to its logical extreme by setting it in the midst of one of the ugliest chapters in American history, and upping the ante even more by making the hero a runaway slave turned bounty hunter. Like all of Tarantino’s movies, Django is filled to the brim with brutal violence, excellent editing, and witty dialogue delivered by a brilliant cast. Jamie Foxx’s Django is essentially a black Man with No Name, a badass vagabond who doesn’t talk much but can dull out the harshness when he needs to. Christopher Waltz, hot off his Oscar winning performance as the villain in Inglorious Basterds, turns out to be a great good guy as Django’s smooth talking mentor. But the best performances hands down go to Leonardo Dicaprio and Samuel L. Jackson as the film’s main villains. Dicaprio hits it out of the park as Calvin Candy, a psychotic boy king plantation owner, but Jackson blows him out of the water as Stephen, the Uncle Tom-esque house slaves who’s smarter than he lets on and is revealed to be the real puppet master around Candy Land. Part western, part revenge fantasy, part social commentary and all fun from start to finish, this is easily Tarantino’s best movie in years.
2. Cabin in the Woods
When I first saw ads for Cabin in the Woods, I wasn’t impressed. It looked like an average clichéd horror movie, indistinguishable from the rest of the lot. But as time went by, signs came up that piqued my interest. First off, I saw that Joss Whedon’s name was attached to it, which was good for me since I’m a huge Firefly fan and I knew he was riding high off the success of The Avengers. Then all my friends and fellow reviewers started gushing about this movie left and right, so my curiosity got the best of me, and I broke down and checked it out. Not only was it really good, this just might be one of the best horror movies ever made. It took the classic template popularized by movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street (a bunch of teenagers representing different clichéd horror archetypes getting killed off one by one by a killer monster), flips it on its head, cuts it open to inspect its insides, then takes the whole premise to its logical extreme, all while giving a nod and a wink to the audience at every opportunity. Not only will it change the way you look at all horror films, but it will shatter your perspective on the classics as well. I won’t dare spoil the experience for you by telling you how they do this, because the best way to go into this one is completely blind. If you plan on seeing this, don’t watch any trailers, don’t read any reviews, don’t even look at the IMDB page. Just trust me on this. If you like horror movies, if you like surprises, hell, if you like fun, you owe it to yourself to see Cabin in the Woods!
1. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson is one of my favorite film makers. He’s never made a movie that I didn’t like (yes, even The Life Aquatic), his films have a very distinct and easily recognizable style to them. I get that his pension for superficial quirkiness and borderline Tim Burton levels of surrealism may turn some people off, here I think he strikes the balance of those tropes with well written and developed character and heartfelt melancholy that made The Royal Tenenbaums a runaway hit. The story is a familiar one. Two troubled kids meet each other on an island off the coast of New England (one is a native, the other is there for summer camp). They fall in love, become pen pals and make a pact to run away together. After the children go missing, the entire town flips upside down to find them. The theme of teenage love is one that Anderson already explored with Rushmore, but here he examines it with fresh eyes while maintaining all about it that makes both precious and awkward. The characters are all fleshed out and likable (particularly the main leads, who are supposed to be twelve but act more like they’re in their 30’s), and are vividly brought to life by a brilliant ensemble cast. Sure, you got Anderson’s regular stable of actors like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, but there are fabulous performances from the likes of Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keital bringing life to a strict scout troop leader, a sad but well meaning police officer, and two wedded lawyers whose marriage is on the brink. The cinematography is what you’d expect from an Anderson film; bright colors (mostly blues and yellows), long pan shots of individual rooms and meticulously crafted background details, it’s almost like a painting or even an old photograph come to life. Funny, poignant, heartwarming, well shot, well-acted, Moonrise Kingdom was a magnificent experience, and my pick for the #1 movie of 2012.