2012 has come and gone, leaving behind a fairly spectacular year of film. There were so many incredible movies this year, and there were even more films that were just plain fun. Narrowing this down to a list of ten films seems almost unfair. I’m going to have to leave off a lot of movies I liked a lot simply because better films were made. I haven’t seen everything I desperately wanted to see, but I unexpectedly got to see a little more than I had otherwise planned to see, so I suppose it evens out. I am still wallowing in sadness that I have not yet had a chance to see Holy Motors, for example. It’s also hard for me to sometimes determine what should and should not be allowed on this list. In general I’m only including a film if I can, in good faith, say it had a release this year. By that I mean that it appeared in actual theaters, or in a way that was consumable by the average person. This also means a film like Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t make the cut for me, which is sad. This also means I can sneak in films that appeared on VOD in December! It also means that I could include these films again next year, if that year happens to suck for films. I don’t think it will, as I can think of five or so films without much trouble that I am very much looking forward to viewing.
Making a Top Ten list is difficult, and it’s not something that I normally do. Even something as simple as reviewing a film causes a lot of strife and bickering, especially if you are taking a look at something that is any sort of darling, be it mainstream, geek, indie, critical, or otherwise. Often, this discussion boils down to some sort of comparison of value, which we all know is subjective at best. I like discussing movies, why people like them, what they felt worked, what didn’t work, and so on, but I don’t care for the attitude that any film is necessarily of higher value than another film. I consider every movie on this list to be a great movie, regardless of the intrinsic weight of the film, the subject matter, or whether or not it will affect a cultural shift in awareness. Some of these films will do that, and others are simply great films.
Time to cut the shit, and play the hits.
10. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
A beautiful, non-judgmental look at a master craftsman. This documentary is honest, beautiful, sad, and joyous all at once. The soundtrack is a wonderful arrangement of classical pieces, making the film almost an orchestral documentary, if that is even possible. It’s a film about making sushi, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about art, artistry, and the pursuit of perfection. Even better, it illustrates how it affects those who are swept up in the wake of mastery, through the different paths taken by his two sons. It is easily one of the most moving films of 2012.
9. Kill List
Sometimes British Horror strikes the right notes with me. Even better when it’s a strong psychological thriller/mystery with elements of twisted British folklore. Kill List follows in the footsteps of Dogsoldier by not being the story that you think it is. I think this film is technically from 2011, but it didn’t see wide North American release until 2012. I battled with this one a little bit for that reason, like others on the list. Still, I couldn’t leave it off the list when it was so surprisingly, chilling, and at times horrifying.
8. John Dies at the End
When I heard this was being made into a film, I had no idea how it was going to done. It’s pretty much three short novellas bound as a single novel to begin with. Hell, it was a web serial before THAT. How does this make a film? Well, step one is getting Don Coscarelli to direct it. I loved Bubba Ho-Tep, so I was pretty excited about this. The casting choices are superb, the horror-gonzo-comedy of it all is perfect for Coscarelli, and the script is every bit as funny as the novel. Sure, this film doesn’t get a theater release until 2013, but it was on VOD this month, so suck it.
7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
As a kid from Louisiana, it’s hard not to put this film on the list. If it were 2003, Big Fish would be here for the same reason. There is just so much I recognize and identify with, that there was never a chance I wouldn’t love this film. It’s a tough film, in a lot of ways, because it is SO EASY to ascribe political or racial motivators to it if you aren’t familiar with the South. It’s not a glorification of poverty, or some sort of “noble savage” tale. Hell, it’s not even really that motivated by the events of Katrina, and it’s about a goddamn levee town. This is a Southern fairy tale, coming of age tale, and it’s beautiful.
6. The Master
While I haven’t loved everything Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made, it’s pretty close to that. The Master is no exception. It’s an enthralling look at relationships, charisma, power, and faith. It has three powerhouse acting performances in Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams. This is a movie that will eventually become one of those endlessly debated “art” films over the next decade. The film is all about personal interpretation, and it’s only a matter of time before there are college courses about it. It’s not just that it’s that good, it’s so incredibly nuanced and engaging that it is almost impossible NOT to have an opinion about it. I’m ranking it a little high here, simply because it IS so bold.
5. The Raid: Redemption
Fuck yes, genre! Goddamn this movie is amazing. It doesn’t try and do anything tricky or fancy. It’s simply a fantastic action-martial arts entry that has a controlled scope, amazing action/choreography and superb framing. It has clear stakes, tight timing, and the most intensity in an action film I have seen in a long, long time.
Yes, it’s a Jack Black/Matthew McConaughy vehicle, and it’s one of the best films of the year. What a strange movie. It’s based on real-life events, with real people, but it’s done almost like a mockumentary. It’s a dark comedy, but that’s not quite the full story. Jack Black does an amazing job in this movie, and I hope that people really take note of the restraint, subtlety, and nuance that he brings to the role. This is where he shines. He’s a big personality through little actions, instead of the bombastic approach that is normally assigned to him. It’s such a refreshing change. What’s more, you really get a sense that these events, even if they aren’t 100% fair or accurate COULD exist, and you could imagine them happening in a number of small towns across the United States. That’s what’s amazing here. It’s a real story that’s so bizarre and strangely told that it feels like a send-up, and yet the fact that it might be doesn’t detract from anything, it adds weight to the execution. It’s unlike any other film of 2012.
3. Cabin in the Woods
This was the best Whedon film of the year, sorry Avengers. This is mostly thanks to Drew Goddard, an unsung hero of collaboration. He’s managed to get the best out of both Whedon and Abrams, yet most people have no idea who this guy is, and it’s a damn shame. It executes that rarest of things, the meta-movie, without ever feeling like a parody, send-up, or even a satire. It’s a movie that’s both excellent in its own write, and has so much to say. You should make the time to listen to every fucking word.
A smart, original sci-fi film that operates on a tight set of its own logic without collapsing under the weight of its ideas. It’s a rarity in this age. I had more discussions about this film than I did any other film this year, and for good damn reason. This is easily my favorite time travel film since Primer, and it’s not a small coincidence. This film is really another small film, but it’s housed in the frame work of excellent big ideas that are executed well. It’s about realizations, and how people react to them in different ways. In fact, how even the same person can react to the same realization differently. Somehow this film takes place mostly on a farm, and it’s incredibly gripping. I know that a lot of other people don’t love this film as much as me, and I’m ok with that.
1. Django Unchained
Audacious, bold, hilarious, violent, reflexivism, politics, man this film has it all. It’s three hours long, and it doesn’t feel long enough. It has several false endings, but all of it does keep building the tension. I think this is solidly my favorite Tarantino film, even with the flaws of the film. I just reviewed it recently, so I don’t want to retread here too much, but it narrowly squeaks out Looper for the year’s best.