I couldn’t think of any clever or interesting takes on the end of the year list, so I’m going to stick with the old standby: the top ten (or so). These aren’t necessarily intended to be the best movies of the year in an objective sense. That’s a tough case to make for many of these. Regardless, here are my favorites of the year.
Making my list for this year has been a tricky experience. 2012 has been full of movies that I really, really like, but there was nothing that just blew my hair back and left me a used up, broken, shell of a man, slumped in my theater seat until after the credits because I didn’t have the energy left to stand. So here we go, in no particular order. Be warned, there are more Channing Tatum movies than you might expect.
“Cabin in the Woods” came as close to making me feel like I described above as any movie this year. It’s best to go in not knowing anything in advance (the same can be said of most movies, but this one especially), and this Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard team up delivers the goods. The smartest, wittiest love note to the horror genre you’ll see anytime soon, watching “Cabin in the Woods” is like putting together a puzzle. You get bits and pieces, but without context they don’t mean much. However, as the spaces fill in, the bigger picture becomes clear, and each reveal becomes a real revelation. Part horror, part comedy, part deconstructionist essay on genre tropes, “Cabin in the Woods” is just what horror needs.
“The Raid: Redemption”
Bananas, absolutely bananas. What do action fans want out of action movies? Why yes, it is nonstop, bone-crunching action, and Gareth Evan’s “The Raid: Redemption” delivers that and more. There isn’t much story beyond a cop taking part in what is essentially a suicide mission to roust a gang of thugs from the high-rise housing project that serves as a criminal fortress. After that brief introduction, “The Raid: Redemption” proceeds to pummel you about the head and neck with fistfights, shootouts, machete wielding psychopaths, and more mayhem than you can shake a stick at. Along with “Cabin in the Woods”, “The Raid” came closest to blowing my mind this year.
No movie surprised me more in 2012 than “21 Jump Street”. You heard that they were rehashing this teen cop drama from the 80s, and you groaned. You heard it starred Channing Tatum, and you groaned. You saw that it co-starred the new, weirdly skinny Jonah Hill, and some of your groaned again. But somehow, some way, “21 Jump Street” is the funniest movie of the year. I’m as shocked as you are. The movie walks a tightrope of being self-aware without being obnoxious, and pokes fun at the source material, but in a warm, appreciative way, cleverly playing with the conventions and stereotypes of teen movies. The jokes are shrewd, and “21 Jump Street” is a raucous ride from beginning to end.
Big, bold, and bloody, Quentin Tarantino is back with the slavery revenge/rescue fantasy “Django Unchained”. I don’t know why it takes the moon-faced writer/director so long between movies, but whatever he’s doing, his films are always worth the wait. Once again he proves he’s a modern master of stylized dialogue, and his mixture of moments of wry humor with bursts of stunning violence has never been more on display than with his foray into spaghetti western territory.
“ParaNorman” is, hands down, the best animated movie of the year. Stunning to look at—thanks Laika—it’s funny, touching, and, best of all, scary. Ghosts, zombies, and the looming specter of death are everywhere, and “ParaNorman” does the one thing I want out of a “kids” movie, it lets the kids have their day. You feel like the characters are legitimately in danger, and instead of being saved at the last moment by the grownups, they have to fend for themselves. This gives kids credit for being smart, resourceful, and intuitive. “ParaNorman” also has something important to say about the nature of bullying, but does so with subtlety, with the message woven into the tapestry of the film, rather than clubbing you over the head with obvious, heavy-handed sermonizing.
With “The Avengers”, Joss Whedon delivers exactly what I wanted from this movie. Full of sharp banter, he found a way to give each and every character in this ensemble their moment to shine (except Hawkeye, but who really gives a crap about Hawkeye?). Fun throughout, emotional when it needs to be, and action-packed at the right moments, “The Avengers” goes down as the best superhero movie of the year. What’s even better, Whedon gives us the best Hulk in three attempts, and Mark Ruffalo’s quiet rage steals every scene he’s in.
“Pitch Perfect”/ “Magic Mike”
I may be alone in this (at least the “Pitch Perfect” part of the equation), but I didn’t have a better time at the movies this year than at these two. Both are an absolute blast. A sucker for musicals, I won’t claim that “Pitch Perfect” is a great movie—let’s call it a guilty pleasure. The story is pure cheese, but the a capella renditions of pop songs are too good to resist. “Magic Mike”, Steven Soderberg’s saga about male strippers, is ridiculous in other ways. Among other things it has going for it, there is a vomit-eating pig, and Matthew McConaughey playing the sleazy, oiled-up role he was born to play. There’s also a character named Big Dick Richie. How can you go wrong with that?
These two fall into the “weird shit I’ve seen at the movies this year” category. “King Curling” is a Norwegian comedy about the ultimate endurance test in sports, the professional curling circuit. Sharing DNA with “The Big Lebowski” and Wes Anderson, “King Curling” throws every sports cliché under the bus as it follows its hero, a former mental patient, on his slippery quest for glory. “Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings” is even more bizarre than that. When homophobic young Remington pisses off the wrong drag queen, one that just so happens to be a sort of witch doctor, he’s cursed to turn gay the first time he falls in love. And just when you think it can’t get any more absurd than that, the zombies show up. Yes, zombies. A sharp satire of close-minded intolerance, “Remington” is one that must be seen to be believed.
Drawing from various schools of horror, Ciaran Foy’s “Citadel” is the most atmospheric, spooky horror film of the year. You get pieces of the paranormal, a little religious terror thrown in for good measure, and a healthy dose of kids-gone-wrong. Part of what makes “Citadel” so affecting is that you’re never quite sure if the frights derive from the supernatural, from societal ills, or are the result of a frayed, paranoid mind. Grim, bleak, and tense, “Citadel” leaves you with an uneasy feeling that lingers.
“Cloud Atlas” and “Looper” are lumped together for one very simple reason. They’re the most ambitious science fiction films of the year, something that’s been woefully lacking in the genre. Neither is a perfect movie, both have serious flaws, and “Cloud Atlas” might have an overly simplistic morality, but few films of 2012, sci-fi or otherwise, take on stories with greater thematic density, or attempt more narrative gymnastics than this duo. They don’t always land on their feet, but you have to give them points for trying, and for being entertaining to boot.
Here are some HONORABLE MENTIONS:
“The Dark Knight Rises”: All of the criticisms leveled at the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy are spot on. The film is a mess, but a beautiful mess. All of the flaws, however, did nothing to diminish my enjoyment, and I loved watching “The Dark Knight Rises” so much that I saw it three times.
“Seven Psychopaths”: Martin McDonagh’s follow up to “In Bruges” is full of violence, intoxicants, dog stealing, and quick, self-referential dialogue. Definitely a boys club, “Seven Psychopaths” also pulls off some of 2012’s most daring narratives devices, and if there is a god, Christopher Walken will line his mantle with supporting actor trophies for his performance.
“The FP”: Set in a world where gangs settle their differences via a “Dance Dance Revolution” style videogame, “The FP” is one of those movies where you notice more and more with each additional viewing. Cheap, frantic, and bat-shit crazy, this is custom made for midnight screenings.
“Haywire”: I will watch MMA star Gina Carano beat the shit out of people for as long as someone wants to film it. With “Haywire”, Steven Soderberg created the classiest pseudo DTV action flick of the year. A gritty, 70s style badass character study, the fight scenes have a dirty realism, and this makes you hope that Carano has a long, prolific career kicking ass on screen.