2012 was a great year for films. Sure, there were plenty of bad ones. There always are. But the good so outweighed the bad that I decided the struggle to pare the list down to 10 wasn't worth it. Choosing just 12 was a struggle, but it gave me more room, especially when guided by scores. A film needed an 8/10 or higher on the site to even be included in the discussion. here's what happened in film this year. A ton of low budget sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films got relatively wide releases and did well enough to warrant long stays in theaters. Big budget tent-poles were made with a lot of sensitivity and nuance. The streaming market allowed for faster turn arounds for under-performing films and word of mouth allowed smaller titles with name actors to expand to big healthy theatrical releases.
Prestige films came and went in the third and fourth quarter but the critics groups rallied around a wide range of titles released throughout the year. I can only hope that means the end of the "dump them in December and hope" strategy for Oscar glory.
So many great films did one weekend releases and went straight to VOD. Documentary films didn't travel as much as usual because of the new, less restrictive rules for qualifying for the Oscars. Foreign language films were a bust unless you were in a major film market.
As such, I'm opting not to include documentaries on my Top 12 list. I haven't seen enough to fairly compare the genre to the narrative films of the year. Same with a lot of the one week qualifying releases of foreign language films. The Devil's Carnival misses out solely due to running time. It got enough of a theatrical release for me to include it in other categories, but it is under an hour long, which makes it a short, albeit a very accomplished one.
So here's my list of the Top 12 Films of 2012. If I'm going to reflect on a great year for film, I'm really going to reflect on it.
12: The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games could have been just another hit book to film cash grab with no style or substance. Thankfully, it wasn't. Writer/director Gary Ross, working with original novelist Suzanne Collins and screenwriter Billy Ray, found a great conceit to take an internalized narrative of angst, fear, and survival and turn it into something wildly cinematic. Much of Katniss' internal monologue is replaced with color commentary from the Capital's telecast of the Hunger Games and, even better, scenes inside the Gamemaker's control room. It's still Katniss' story, but it provides a clever way to handle a deeply psychological novel onscreen without voice over.
The film looks and sounds great. From the extravagance of the Capital to the desolation of the outlying Districts, The Hunger Games succeeds in setting the tone for the cruel entertainment of the haves at the expense of the have nots. The costumes and makeup are as wild as necessary, no matter how much the parody hurt the feelings of the Academy voters (per Academy chatter relayed by Oscar bloggers).
The ensemble cast deliver knock-out performances in roles that were re-weighted to open up the novel onscreen. Then there's Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, who is the main reason the entire film works. Once the action in the arena kicks off, she barely has any dialogue. Yet, you can't take your eyes off of her because she is living this role. It's one thing to tell the audience they should root for a character; it's quite another for the character to speak for herself without dialogue.
11: Sound of My Voice
I think I sound like a broken record at this point. Brit Marling is one of the most exciting new voices in film, especially science fiction films. The one-two punch of her first two films, Another Earth (flawed, but very enjoyable) and Sound of My Voice, proves that. Teamed up with director Zal Batmanglij, her vision of smart sci-fi comes alive.
Sound of My Voice is a very quiet and unassuming sci-fi/suspense film about a cult. Brit Marling stars as the charismatic cult leader who claims to be from the future. Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius also star as the documentary team attempting to infiltrate Marling's cult. Each act is centered on one of the characters and the tone and stakes shift in very imaginative ways.
The grainy, low-budget look and the minimalist approach to creating a time travel story is the perfect choice to bring this story to life. There is not a spare ounce of fat to be had on this film. It's lean and disturbing in the best ways possible.
10: The Secret World of Arrietty
It really is amazing how consistent the Studio Ghibli animated features are. The Secret World of Arrietty is no exception. It's a simple fantasy story told in a clever way with excellent animation.
The difference this time around was an attempt to market the film all over the world. Each major release earned a new cast of local voice actors dubbing new vocals for the film. This type of exercise can be a total disaster, but the American cast found the right approach to the material. Bridgit Mendler (as Arrietty), David Henrie (as Shawn, originally Sho, a sick teenager who befriends Arrietty), and Carol Burnett (as Hara, the villain) hit the material just right to make it soar in the US release.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a story we've seen a lot in America. The Littles and The Borrowers are both well-known stories about miniature humans living in the walls of a house. ...Arrietty, too, comes from the same source, but it really brings out the fantasy elements in a way that stands heads above similar stories and even other animated features this year.
9: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson knows how to design a film. Say what you will about the decision to turn The Hobbit and The Silmarillion into a trilogy. The first entry, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, looks fantastic. The action provides character development and excitement. Even the much maligned 48fps has an advantage in making the fast moving action appear smooth and non-nausea inducing on the big screen.
I loved the inclusion of the story from The Silmarillion as a subplot. Like it or not, it does fit within the timeline of the story and provides a nice tonal balance to the far sillier Hobbit story. It helps that the cast is very strong and totally committed to the material. Cate Blanchett did more with a raised eyebrow in one scene than a lot of other actresses this year because she was in character with no artifice.
The small disappointment of having the ending of this chapter be a clear "To Be Continued" moment is nothing compared to how strong the story comes together on screen. From the songs (how I love Tolkien's lyrics) to the jokes to the big action set pieces, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey just works.
8: Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino is one of the bravest writer/directors working today. His willingness to embrace a ridiculous and offensive conceit is why Django Unchained comes together as a film. It is offensive, violent, and upsetting to a very specific point. We cannot ignore the uglier side of our history just to feel better about what our country has gone through to be where we are today.
Couple that with the structure of a revenge drama and you're really getting down to bottom of this. Django and Broomhilda have a strong presence onscreen, but their characters are representational. The focus is not on the attempt to rescue Broomhilda but on taking revenge for the horrors they were pushed through.
Tarantino wants you to leave the theater angry. He wants your blood to boil at the treatment of the slaves in Django Unchained because he wants you to realize how horrifying this chapter of US history is. Django is an unexpected hero in his methods and attitude because we're rooting for him take down all the slave owners by the end. This is a revenge drama within a spaghetti western based on an old myth that comes down to reflecting on how poorly people are willing to treat each other for no good reason.
7: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a romantic comedy so dry it should have snapped off the film reel during the first test screening. It is the dark story of the end of the world. There is no happily ever after because there is no way to save humanity. The first scene of the film announces that and writer/director Lorene Scafaria is confident enough to tell a story about the last three weeks of the human race.
If you go in expecting a madcap comedy about the excess of society even at the end of the world, you're going to leave disappointed. If you refuse to acknowledge that the lead characters reject such excess at every turn, you're willfully setting yourself up to hate the film. This is not what you would expect people to do at the end of the world when there is no excuse not to try something wild. What's the worst that can happen? You die a few days sooner than everyone else?
Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley are utterly compelling as the unexpected partners on a road trip to reunite with the people they love most. The film is full of darkly humorous diversions that only build up the sense of tragedy that, no matter how hard they try, these two people who have finally embraced life will never earn a happy ending. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a bold experiment in storytelling that will never please everyone. Those willing to go along for this journey will be pleasantly surprised by what Lorene Scafaria mapped out.
If David Cronenberg goes back to his sci-fi/bizarro roots and no one bothers to see the film because of dense dialogue, does it count as a return to form? Cronenberg is an auteur with huge crowd appeal that somehow managed to not grab a huge audience for Cosmopolis.
I'm convinced this film is going to be held in high regard in the next few years. It is a brilliant spin on Homer's Odyssey, filled with representational imagery, literary devices, and a brilliant cast. Robert Pattinson is perfect as the smug billionaire Eric Packer who manages to destroy his own life in one day while traveling across Manhattan to get a hair cut (which is a cover for his desire to take a haircut to stop his finances from bleeding out; layers, people, layers).
Let me put it another way. The first time you watched Videodrome, did you expect Blondie to be any good onscreen? Yet, somehow, Cronenberg took a popular figure and guided her to a strong and memorable performance. He does the same with Robert Pattinson here and the result is a thought-provoking work of art.
5: Safety Not Guaranteed
Safety Not Guaranteed is the best romantic comedy to come out in years because it's not actually a romantic comedy. It's a sci-fi film about a wannabe time traveler looking for a companion that has a little romance in it.
Screenwriter Derek Connolly crafts a really strong and surprising story here. There are many twists and turns that will leave you guessing until the final few seconds whether or not this little time traveling ad is real or not. Director Colin Trevorrow takes the screenplay and pushes his cast of comedians and actors to open up the text for the audience. These are strange, unlikable characters doing odd or downright cruel things to each other yet they're all really likable.
The biggest asset of Safety Not Guaranteed is heart. This is a film made by people who really wanted this story to come alive. It's a strange little trifle that does enough unexpected things with style and tone to become something much more than you would expect.
4: Seven Psychopaths
Not to be left out of the fun, Martin McDonagh also jumps on the revenge film bandwagon with his meta crime thriller/comedy Seven Psychopaths. A Hollywood screenwriter is writing a film about seven psychopaths, but he doesn't want it to be a violent revenge film. His friend so wants to be involved that he puts out an ad looking for real life psychopaths to sell their stories for the screenplay. It only gets stranger from there.
Seven Psychopaths is a brilliant dark comedy about refusing to play into expectations. The characters in the film (and in the film within the film) refuse to do what you expect them to do in a revenge drama. Many of them have every excuse to do terrible things to people who have wronged them, yet they know from past violent experiences that nothing good will come of shedding more blood.
Seven Psychopaths has the sharpest dialogue of any of 2012's films and a cast more than capable of making the language dance. Christopher Walken, in particular, brings out this strong sense of humanity in a role that is the meta-realization of the film within the film conceit even though his character exists outside of the film within a film. Open your mind and go for the ride.
3: Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is an epic fantasy film about the nature of life and time. Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Twyker team up to adapt and direct the six stories of this lateral anthology film. The connections between stories are emphasized with a core group of actors playing multiple roles throughout time and space. However, the actual transitions happen with thematic and visual jumps between the parallel narratives.
Cloud Atlas is a polarizing film. You get out of it what you're willing to put into it. It is long and subtle. If you don't buy the conceit within the first hour, you're not going to magically come around in the final few moments. It is a challenging film that will never please everyone because everyone is going to read whatever they want in the film. That is part of the beauty of the film but also its biggest problem.
For me, Cloud Atlas is a beautiful meditation on karma and how simple actions, good and bad, can change the future of the world. What a person does in one life directly reflects on how they are treated in the next. The villains become victims, the slaves become leaders, and the naive become guarded.
2: The Grey
Survival horror is probably the hardest sub-genre to get just right. It is presumptuous to think you have the goods to make the typical man verses nature story into something terrifying. The Grey succeeds where many others have failed.
Writer/director Joe Carnahan adapts co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers' short story "Ghost Walker" for the big screen. The film's greatest strength is that the film can be interpreted in many different ways. Once the plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, we don't know for sure what happens. Did all of the men who attempt to flee toward civilization survive? Did any of them? Is Ottway, the wolf hunter, alive? Was he ever alive? Or is it he some sort of otherworldly guide to help these men who died a shocking death in a crash find their way to the afterlife?
The Grey is survival horror where the biggest threat is man himself. There are wolves coming after them, a huge snow storm keeping them cold, and perilous terrain shifts on their journey to civilization, but the biggest threat is always human error. It doesn't matter if you are good or bad. If you make a mistake or refuse to cooperate, you're not going to survive.
1: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a triumph of ingenuity and artistry over physical limitations. It is a low-budget film shot with a cast of non-actors on ramshackle sets. Writer/director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar make a beautiful, haunting film out of nothing but a stageplay and a dream.
The story of the residents of The Bathtub fighting against the intrusion of society and the government is riveting. Even more engaging is how our investment in the story comes from young Hushpuppy, a six year old girl who has to learn to survive on her own because her daddy doesn't want her to rely on anyone else for help.
I still don't know how much of the film is Quvenzhane Wallis' performance versus how much is a really sharp screenplay and perfect editing. What I do know is that no film in 2012 moved me like Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is an experience you can't just shake off, a bold statement on community and family that will haunt you long after the credits roll.
So those are my Top 12 films of 2012. What do you think? What were your favorites? Sound off below.