I have always maintained that the greatest year (so far) for film since the Golden Age of Hollywood is 1999; Marc and I did a podcast about it, for crying out loud. But in watching movies from 2012, I think I’ve discovered a close second.
How good was 2012? Here’s just a PARTIAL list of movies I watched from that year that I’m NOT discussing in this column:
(Full reviews of “Prometheus”, “Skyfall”, “Argo”, and “Cloud Atlas” can be found elsewhere on this website.)
That’s not a bad roster. I’m still continuing my chronological journey through my collection, so if I find a year that has a better track record than this one, I’ll let you know. For now, here are eight of my favorite movies from 2012, listed in chronological order. If you haven’t seen any of them, I would highly recommend you find a way. (Why only nine? ‘Cause nine pictures look better on the homepage, silly.)
1. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, 4/13/2012 – “Scream” meets “The Truman Show.” Not only is this movie scary as hell, it’s also FUNNY as hell, as what appears to be a cookie-cutter horror story about college kids alone in the woods evolves into one of the sharpest satires of the horror genre ever created. Watch it all the way through, and then think back on how cleverly it makes its statement: the characters in the movie are at the mercy of the techs, while the techs themselves are at the mercy of the ancient forces beneath the earth. The ancient gods are today’s movie-going audience, while the techs are the filmmakers, manipulating the characters at every turn to make sure the ancient gods are appeased, lest disaster strikes (aka, failure at the box office). This movie goes far deeper than its generic title would have you believe.
2. MOONRISE KINGDOM, 6/29/2012 – I’ll admit it: Wes Anderson is an acquired taste. While I like his films overall, even I’m not a fan of “Bottle Rocket” or “Rushmore”. But his later films have a unique voice that appeals to me. “Moonrise Kingdom” is a touching story about two misfit pre-teens in the mid-1960s who bond instantly and decide to run away from home. Director Anderson fills the movie with his trademark visual style that is SO easily lampooned online, but which I believe creates an atmosphere of charm and whimsy that I don’t see in any other American directors working today. Above all, the thing I took away from this most recent viewing is the memories it stirred of the first time, the VERY first time, I fell for a girl. Eighth grade. Christine Day. Red hair and glasses. We held hands once. But at the time, I was CONVINCED this was love. And I felt then how the two kids in “Moonrise Kingdom” felt. Watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean.
3. THE POSSESSION, 8/31/2012 – Allow me to shamelessly quote Roger Ebert: “‘The Exorcist’ has influenced a lot of films, and this is one of the better ones.” Couldn’t have said it better. This hidden gem covers a lot of the same ground as “The Exorcist”, but unlike lesser imitators, “The Possession” somehow manages to still keep things scary – VERY scary – right through to the end. Perhaps one reason is the variation on the story, which this time involves a strange box with Hebrew inscriptions which, when opened, releases a malevolent parasitic specter that latches on to a young girl and…well, as you can imagine, all hell breaks loose. (Fair warning: You may never look at a cluster of moths the same way again.) The climactic exorcism is as well-crafted a finale as you’ll see in any horror film, with some truly disturbing visuals.
4. LOOPER, 9/28/2012 – Why do I love this movie so much? Upon close inspection, it doesn’t even seem to follow its own logic regarding time travel. Ultimately, I guess I have to say it just doesn’t matter. (Or, as Abe puts it in the film, “This time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg.”) The story is so good and so well told that I just roll with it every time I watch it. Writer/director Rian Johnson has created an original, mind-bending sci-fi thriller that deserves comparison with “Inception” and “Midnight Special” in just about every respect. The real joy comes in re-watching it for a second and third time to spot the clues in the background regarding true identities, hidden talents, and…I’ll just leave it at that.
5. FLIGHT, 11/2/2012 – It took a second time watching this movie for me to really “get” it. I’m ashamed to say my expectations the first time around got in the way of understanding and appreciating the real story of the film. I thought it would be a full-scale thriller about a fictional airplane crash. Instead, it’s an absorbing, captivating portrait of a man in free-fall, anchored by a powerhouse performance from Denzel Washington as an alcoholic airline pilot with a substance abuse problem…the kind of man who, after an all-night liquor bender, sniffs a couple of lines of cocaine to “get his head right” before flying a plane. Once I realized the main focus of the movie, I saw it in a whole new light. “Flight” is one of the great character studies, featuring one of the most convincing portraits of alcoholism since Nicolas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.”
6. LIFE OF PI, 11/21/2012 – “Life of Pi” is one of a handful of movies I have ever seen that I would say genuinely have the power to change someone’s mind about spirituality and the nature of God, regardless of their current beliefs. (“Breaking the Waves” is another that comes immediately to mind.) I’m not saying it WILL change your mind. But it has that power. The deceptively straightforward story – a young man is stuck on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger – carries us in completely unexpected directions, with astonishing visuals representing things both real and imagined. I actually tried writing a full review of this movie, but it fell apart in the middle…there are too many concepts at work in this film for me to be able to summarize them neatly. Seriously. If you come away from watching “The Life of Pi” without at least some discussion points for you and your friends, you may literally be clinically dead. Just sayin’.
7. ZERO DARK THIRTY, 12/19/2012 – This is one of those thrillers where you don’t get the quantity of action you might have seen in “Green Zone”, but it is nevertheless a gripping story, one that keeps me riveted every time I watch it. It’s dense, stimulating, and relies on your undivided attention while watching for it to work its magic. By the time we get to the raid on bin Laden’s compound, I’m literally on the edge of my seat. I can’t speak to the movie’s accuracy when it comes to how Osama bin Laden was actually found and targeted, but it makes for a great film. (I am also not in a position to judge the accuracy of the depictions of torture presented in this movie, so don’t even ask.) Jessica Chastain’s performance as Maya, a CIA agent who doggedly pursues a tenuous lead, is one of the great portrayals of single-minded obsession in recent years.
8. JACK REACHER, 12/21/2012 – Try to set aside the innate dislike you may or may not have for Tom Cruise in general and sit back and enjoy a straight-up mystery/thriller combining legal twists and satisfying action set pieces, culminating in a quarry shoot-out that reunites Cruise and his “Days of Thunder” co-star, Robert Duvall. This movie doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but it does dress the wheel up, give it some nice rims, and polish it to a high shine. Cruise plays one of those characters from thriller novels (“Jack Reacher” is based on a book, after all) who knows all the angles, is almost always one or two steps ahead of the bad guys, and knows his way around a fistfight. We get some stock bad guys for him to knock around, and over everything is the mystery of a random mass shooting that may or may not have been committed by a man who’s now in a coma. It’s just a ripping good thriller that satisfies in every way. Call it cinematic comfort food.
9. DJANGO UNCHAINED, 12/25/2012 – Quentin Tarantino followed up “Inglourious Basterds”, an ultra-violent revenge fantasy, with “Django Unchained” – an ultra-violent revenge fantasy. Okay…so it’s a little bit more of the same, I’ll grant you, but with Tarantino, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey, and this is one of his most eminently watchable journeys, what with his trademark dialogue, the gouts of blood erupting from gunshot wounds, the spittle-spraying performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, the occasional presence of hip-hop music in the soundtrack of a film set in 1858, and so on. And the pacing…! Over two-and-a-half hours long, but it goes by in a flash. And by George, if there were ever villains in a movie that deserved to die messily, it’s the villains in “Django Unchained.” (Other writers could probably fill TWO columns on the topic of the pervasive use of the dreaded N-words; but I will not.)
So…yeah. Twenty-twelve was a pretty bad-ass year for film. It wasn’t perfect (“The Hobbit”, “The Dark Knight Rises”), but I’d put it up there with 1999 any day.