For me, 2012 was the best year for movies in a long time, probably the best year in the last decade.
As of this writing, between theaters, DVDs and cable television, I saw 88 2012 releases. I didn’t see everything, obviously, and “Amour” has yet to make it to my neck of the woods, Usually I have to struggle to come up with 10 worthwhile titles, but 2012 offered an abundance of riches. This year, I decided to put together a list of the top 20 movies. In any other year, many of the picks 11-20 would have easily made the top 10.
I’m a bit surprised I saw that many when I tallied up the list. I’m not even working full-time, so I shouldn’t be wasting money going to the movies. But it’s a lifelong habit that I can’t seem to break, though I may have to lessen my viewing in the year ahead. (I said that at the beginning of last year, and see what happened).
Seeing more than 80 movies in the theater isn’t as expensive as it may sound. I’m fortunate to live within a 15-minute drive time of three second-run theater complexes (average price $4) totaling 11 screens. Seven of those screens offer unlimited refills on any size soda and popcorn, so it’s not too much of a drain on the wallet. So if one is patient, one can see a wide variety of movies at a not unreasonable cost. And the movies are coming to the second-run theaters much quicker than they used to.
To seek respite from the multiplex fare, and for an annual membership fee of $25, the local film society I am a member of, The After Hours Film Society, screens movies twice a month for only $5 each and offers a wide range of art, foreign, independent and classic films. Like I said I didn’t see everything, and there were some titles you couldn’t pay me to go see (i.e. “The Watch”), but I think I saw a good variety of the year’s offerings.
One welcome trend I noticed this year is two of the year’s biggest hits, “The Avengers” and “Skyfall” were blessedly free of the annoying shaky-cam effects. Directors Joss Whedon and Sam Mendes, respectively, should be given honorary Oscars this year for bringing back well-staged, shot and edited action scenes to movie screens.
At the end, I will include a short list of some titles I thought were wildly overrated, as well as the worst films of the year.
Anyway, in descending order, are my picks for the best films of 2012.
20. Damsels in Distress. Director Whit Stillman’s film was a polarizing one – a lot of people hated it – but I enjoyed the good heartedness of this gentle satire on college mores and pretensions. Yes, the title does allude to the 1937 Fred Astaire musical “A Damsel in Distress” by having the leads break into a song and dance routine to “Things are Looking Up” from that film. And that’s followed by another dance number, the Sambola. It’s all part of a sorority’s scheme to create a new international dance sensation. Dance routines in movies make me very happy, and I found this movie utterly beguiling
19. To Rome With Love. Another polarizing title, but I genuinely enjoyed Woody Allen’s latest, offering big laughs and scenic, postcard views of Rome. Many complained it’s not as good as last year’s “Midnight in Paris”, and it isn’t, but for me average Woody is still miles ahead of the competition.
18. Chronicle. I loathe found footage movies, but I like being surprised, and “Chronicle” was one of the year’s biggest sleepers. Yes, it’s a found footage movie about a group of teenagers who find an alien artifact that turns them into superheroes, but the footage is augmented by Hollywood gloss and technical expertise, and watching the wish fulfillment of the characters take on ominous shades was fascinating to watch.
17. Ted. Even I, who in my middle age find myself responding less and less to coarse body function humor and language, admit to laughing uproariously through most of this. He wasn’t mentioned in any lists for the year’s best performances, but Mark Wahlberg’s performance was one of the year’s best, and the hotel fight room scene between Wahlberg and his magical teddy bear Ted offered the year’s most sustained laugh sequence. But heck, I thought the year’s Three Stooges remake was surprisingly good, so what do I know.
16. Lincoln. A film I admired more than I liked. Great acting (of course) by Daniel Day-Lewis, but for me it took a long time to get to the historic vote to end slavery. I must admit I thought I would like this one more than I did.
15. Zero Dark Thirty. Substitute Jessica Chastain for Daniel Day-Lewis, and Osama bin Laden for the 14th amendment vote, and I felt the same thing for this movie than I did for “Lincoln.” A good trim of 20 minutes or so would have helped.
14. Bernie. When they say truth is stranger than fiction, they mean stories like “Bernie”. Local mortician and good citizen Bernie Tiede, played by Jack Black in the performance of his career, is loved by everyone in the community. So much so that when he confesses to killing the town shrew (Shirley MacLaine) no one believes him and the town wants to see him acquitted. It’s too bad Black wasn’t remembered with an Oscar nomination. It’s a superb performance in a wonderful film.
13. Paranorman. The year’s best animated film was a haunting evocation of childhood fears and trauma, and offered more heart than most live-action films. Beautifully animated and voiced, this one, I think, is a cult movie in the offing.
12. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. A joyous film about the attempt to stock a lake in Yemen with salmon to increase tourism to the country. It reminded me of a 1950s film by Ealing Studios with, say, Kenneth More and Joan Greenwood. Instead we have a radiant Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor, who has become one of our most charming actors. A lovely, whimsical story with some of the most likeable characters in any movie this year.
11. The Sessions. Another fact-based story anchors a luminous performance by John Hawkes as a paraplegic living in an iron lung who wants to experience sex. Enter a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. Hawkes was also most deserving of a Best Actor nomination, far more than the (often unintentionally funny) facial contortions courtesy Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master.” Some of the biggest laughs of any move this year are found in “The Sessions.” Helen Hunt has never been better. Forget “Les Miserables”, this is the movie that delivers the emotional goods. Bring handkerchiefs.
10. The Avengers. There’s no reason why a big colorful comic book can’t be one of the year’s best movies. It rarely happens, so let’s celebrate it when it does. Director Joss Whedon does a remarkable job of juggling all those balls (read superheroes) in the air. There’s also some of the year’s most witty dialogue here. I just wish it was a tad shorter (the big battle at the end does go on a bit long). Still, it’s probably my favorite comic book movie since “Superman” (1978).
9. Seven Psychopaths. The year’s funniest movie is unbelievably profane and violent, but had more laughs than any other movie I saw last year. Some friends of mine rave over Sam Rockwell but I never got his appeal, until witnessing his brilliant comic turn here. Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson are hilariously deadpan. I think this one has all the makings of a future cult film, one that will be re-discovered on DVD and on cable.
8. Sliver Linings Playbook. Lovely movie, even though I had a few problems with it. While mental illness is not glamorized here, to me it’s still often paid here for easy laughs. People say old movies are filled with clichés, but what is more clichéd than having a man, finally realizing the woman he loves has been in front of him the whole time, run down the street surrounded by houses loaded with Christmas decorations? But the acting is so good, that I forgave some of the trite situations on display here.
7. Argo. Really can’t add too much about this terrific fact-based film that hasn’t been said already. Years ago, I remember not liking Ben Affleck at all, thanks to his smugness and smarminess in lots of star vehicles, but when he played George Reeves, a new maturity formed. I’ve been an admirer ever since, and no one is more surprised about that than I am. Director-wise, I like how he doesn’t over-inflate the material, but treats the situations as realistic as possible while amping up the dramatic levels to a quiet tension.
6. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A movie unjustly ignored at Oscar time, probably because the cast makes everything look so easy. But you won’t see better acting on the screen this year than this winning ensemble, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson. A handful of British citizens travel to India and find new dimensions about life and how it should be lived. For most of the year, this was my favorite movie of 2012. A winner on every level.
5. Moonrise Kingdom. Exceptionally melancholy comedy from director Wes Anderson regarding two precocious 12-year-olds who fall in love and run away together. A search party is formed, but the two kids turn out to be much smarter and resilient than the adults looking for them. Some people I know really hated this movie, but I thought it was pretty great. Composer Alexandre Desplat’s Benjamin Britten-inspired music for the end credits is wonderful and is probably one of my most favorite credit sequences ever. I wish his score had been Oscar nominated here, instead of his respectable, but not particularly inspired, score for “Argo.”
4. Life of Pi. I avoided this one like the plague, not really caring to see a movie about a guy trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger. Wow, was I wrong! The best use of 3-D I have ever seen anchors this wonderfully spiritual tale about man and his relationship to nature and the universe. I wasn’t bored for a minute and I was impressed with how gripped the audience was for this. I saw it in a packed auditorium with a largely family audience and you could have heard a pin drop for the whole movie. A genuine classic.
3. Skyfall. The most viscerally pleasurable experience I had at the movies all year, and a splendid way to mark 007’s 50th birthday. Daniel Craig is a Bond we haven’t seen before, questioning his superiors while given orders that go against his nature. Still, the underlying message doesn’t get in the way of a thrilling story. We also get the year’s best action sequences and the best Bond title song since Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” (1985). (A million thank yous, Adele). The last scene is an immensely satisfying one, and everything is now in place for what I hope is a memorable series of films in a franchise that won’t die. Still, the last three Bonds have been pretty small-scale in their threats, so for me, I would welcome a return to a global catastrophe threat. And, maybe, just maybe, an exploding control room?
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Wonderful coming-of-age movie about learning to be yourself , despite the challenges life throws at you. I think I became more wrapped up in these characters than any other movie this year. Never mind that the movie is set in the 1990s, I have a feeling that teenagers in any country, at any time, will relate to this story. Two of my happiest movie-watching experiences of the year came courtesy of star Logan Lerman, here and as his turn as D’Artagnan in Paul W.S. Anderson’s terrific re-telling on “The Three Musketeers” (2011), a movie I avoided in theaters due to the trailers, but caught on Blu Ray and was blown away by how entertaining it was. Looking forward to whatever this young man does next. And yes, Emma Watson was pretty wonderful too. Goodbye, Hermione.
1. Flight. The year’s most gripping film and the year’s best acting performance, courtesy Denzel Washington. (Sorry, Mr. Day-Lewis). Washington’s heroic performance while saving a disabled airplane is called into question when it is discovered he was abusing drugs and alcohol at the time. I’ve rarely seen a reluctant hero played so well by anyone. A hard film to shake and director Robert Zemeckis gave us the year’s most memorable sequence, the airplane saving sequence. Haunting, thoughtful and ultimately uplifting, this one was a winner on every level.
From the Department of the Overrated: “The Dark Knight Rises” (never so glad to see a trilogy conclude); “The Master” (psst…hey everyone…let me let you in on a secret. Amy Adams delivers a more nuanced performance in the Clint Eastwood baseball drama “Trouble with the Curve” than she does in the “The Master”); “End of Watch” (I loathed every shaky-cam frame of this film); and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (the acclaim for this film totally eludes me).
Worst films of the year, and why spend any more time necessary to talk about these turkeys: “21 Jump Street”; “This Means War”; “Wrath of the Titans”; “Battleship” “Rock of Ages”; “Les Miserables” (sheesh, 2012 was a terrible year for screen musicals); “Magic Mike”; “The Campaign”; “End of Watch” and “Total Recall”, the absolute nadir of my 2012 movie going.
Onward and upward to 2013.