Not Your Average Top 10: The Best of 2012

30 12 2012

It gets harder to believe every year when this point of the year rolls around, but it never ceases to amaze me when it comes time to make end-of-year lists.  Although if I’m being honest with you all, I’m making the list all year long in my head.  But to know there’s a point of finality is always a little scary.

This is always the most opportune time to muse on trends in the year of film and perhaps even unify the most exemplary movies under a common theme.  To be honest, I thought 2012 was a bad year for the movies.  As of the publication of this post, I saw one hundred movies released in the calendar year – the majority of which could be described as cliched, stale, average, mediocre, unspectacular, color-by-numbers, tired, banal, so-so, or middling.  Or to put all that into one word: unambitious.

2012 was a year where filmmakers and financiers played it safe, resorting to the comfort and ease of the stock and formula.  That can be okay at times, but the upper limit on those types of films is being good – not great.  And when we expect greatness, what we are left with when the credits roll is a lingering sense of disappointment.

So when I sat down and decided to officially declare what I thought the ten crowning achievements of cinema in 2012 were, it was not particularly hard.  But I think that was facilitated not by how good my top ten films were, but rather by how bad the majority of my bottom 90 were.  Save my top two films of the year, I don’t think 2012 gave us any masterpieces (and even those are a stretch).

Yet these ten movies did give me a flickering feeling of hope that there are people in the industry who still have a little bit of that iconoclastic spirit left in them.  These filmmakers made bold works, ones that stood markedly above the otherwise average year … and were not your average version of whatever framework they were working inside.

21 Jump Street

#10
21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Written by Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill
Starring Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, and Ice Cube

Not Your Average High School Movie

I normally reserve a slot for a comedy in my top 10 – just because I think there are plenty of great contributions to cinema that don’t come in the form of serious, brooding drama.  This slot, however, produced a top 10 berth for “Get Him to the Greek” in 2010, a pick I now regret.  But something tells me I won’t regret including “21 Jump Street.”  It’s a movie that sets out to be an entirely different kind of high school movie, one not perched in the cliches of old.  By redefining who the popular kids can be, it provides fantastic humor and imagination to a subgenre dwelling in obsolescence.  Maybe subsequent films inspired by its greatness will do it best, but “21 Jump Street” most definitely did it first.  And darned well by 2012 standards.

Argo

#9
Argo
Directed by Ben Affleck
Written by Chris Terrio
Starring Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman

Not Your Average Escape Film

If “Toy Story 3” was any indication, no one wants to watch a serious escape movie anymore; they just want to see a tongue-in-cheek parody.  But Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” set against the background Middle East chaos in the 1970s, recalls the brilliant and classic filmmaking of that same era.  It’s a thrilling ride that takes us through three different worlds: the hilariously superficial Hollywood, the dimly-lit and smoky corridors of Washington bureaucracy, and ultimately the precarious and hostile Iran with anti-Western sentiment always palpable in the air.  With every scene, Affleck finds the perfect tone and straps us in for a thrilling ride.

Hitchcock

#8
Hitchcock
Directed by Sacha Gervasi
Written by John McLaughlin
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, and Scarlett Johansson

Not Your Average Biopic

I’m getting really tired of hagiographic biopics that act as if all people worthy of having their lives documented on film follow the same clean narrative pattern.  Sacha Gervasi’s slice-of-biography “Hitchcock,” focusing on the struggle to get the now-classic “Psycho” made, resists falling into the typical trappings.  It’s got a killer sense of humor and an even better sense of history and the shortcomings of the past.  Gervasi’s biopic is both entertaining and informative, but more importantly, it’s fair because it discards the usual illusions.

Killing Them Softly

#7
Killing Them Softly
Written for the screen and directed by Andrew Dominik
Starring Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini

Not Your Average Gangster Film

Though I had my reservations upon seeing the premiere in Cannes, “Killing Them Softly” has grown on me in a way that no other film has in 2012.  The daring style Andrew Dominik injects into his film provides such a kick that I’ve been feeling its reverberations all year long.  It’s a movie that uses the framework of a gangster film to make a statement on violence and criminality, but Dominik doesn’t blare out what that statement is.  How he figures out a way to be restrained while kicking out our teeth with his killer finale.

Looper

#6
Looper
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt

Not Your Average Sci-Fi Flick

There’s nothing strong characterization can’t fix, and Rian Johnson employs it to superb effect in “Looper.”  He finds that by taking the time to develop and invest in his characters, particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis’ Joe (at different ages), every aspect of science-fiction gets better.  It results in more investment and far greater payoff.  If this is the new direction of the genre, I am totally on board.

Bernie

#5
Bernie
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollingsworth
Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey

Not Your Average True Story

My love of “Bernie” may be partially inflated due to the story’s setting of Carthage, Texas being close to home in Houston.  But after several viewings to let the novelty wear off, and I’m still a huge fan.  Linklater’s film is a finely tuned tale of a man, Jack Black’s brilliantly played Bernie Tiede, and the spell he cast on a community.  Yet Linklater cleverly recognizes the limits of fiction and captures Carthage with a semi-documentarian angle.  As a result, the magnetism of Black’s character feels all the more authentic when placed in a real-life context.

Zero Dark Thirty

#4
Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
Starring Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, and Jason Clarke

Not Your Average Procedural

Not unlike “Looper,” Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s “Zero Dark Thirty” finds transcendence in a strong character.  Jessica Chastain’s Maya, the hero of the year on screen, is so fiercely committed to finding Osama Bin Laden that we can’t help but get all worked up alongside her.  We normally watch events unfold from a cool distance in procedurals, but that’s not the case here thanks to Bigelow’s unbelievable ability to create tension and Chastain’s tour de force.

Les Miserables

#3
Les Misérables
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by William Nicholson
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway

Not Your Average Musical

I feel like my 1400 word review said just about all I could say about the brilliance and boldness of “Les Misérables.”  Tom Hooper has literally redefined what the movie musical can be with his movie.  By trying out an entirely different visual feel, he has now opened the floodgate for less literal and more cinematic adaptations of musical theatre.  It’s made even more impressive by the fact that this technical marvel also provides the most emotionally powerful movie experience of the year.

The Master (6)

#2
The Master
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams

Not Your Average Paul Thomas Anderson Film

In 2012, I feel like I paid a lot of attention to auteurs, directors with their own personal stamp on their movies.  And this year, so many of them flopped, failing to show signs of growth or simply stalling in familiar grounds to disappointing effect.  Not Paul Thomas Anderson.  With “The Master,” he has truly come into his own as a filmmaker.  Gone are the vestiges of Scorsese and Altman, two directors he imitated successfully for a decade.  He’s now in the realm of Kubrick, not necessarily in terms of feel or style but definitely in terms of impact and originality.  Anderson dared to push the boundaries of cinema in ways we will not likely realize fully for years.  And I just can’t wait to see what revelations his meticulously crafted “The Master” holds in store in the future.

Queen of Versailles

#1
The Queen of Versailles
Directed by Lauren Greenfield
Featuring Jackie and David Siegel

Not Your Average Documentary

The dichotomy between my top two movies of the year is quite interesting.  “The Master” is a marvel of planning and method.  “The Queen of Versailles,” on the other hand, is a happy accident.  When Lauren Greenfield first fixed her lens on the Siegel family, they were on top of the world, building the biggest house in America and throwing caution to the wind.  Then the recession happened, and things got really interesting.  By having her camera in the right place at the right time, Greenfield epitomizes the ability of cinema to capture, reveal, and discover.  With fine tuning and a sharp sociological imagination, her final film is the most inquisitive and incisive work to date about what it means to be an American in the Great Recession.  It entertains us not unlike a Bravo special, yet it also asks us tough questions about the American Dream as well as our notions of success and happiness.  Greenfield captures reality like a documentary but suggests layers of depth normally only found in fiction.  It’s an important work that will undoubtedly serve as a cultural signpost while also continuing to probe our collective psyche.


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24 02 2013
Putting a bow on 2012 in film (The Top 10s) | i/nternpretation

[…] curator, to weigh in on what we thought were the best films of 2012.  You are welcome to go to my own personal blog to see a more detailed analysis of what made these movies work for me and also get a numerical […]

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