Hey all! It’s been a while since I’ve had writing for you, but given that it’s the end of the year I wanted to chime in with my top ten list of this year. I’ve seen around 80 movies in theaters this year, so this is by no means a comprehensive look at the movies of 2012. I can only see what’s shown in my neck of the woods, and that isn’t everything. And there are plenty of critical darlings I’ve avoided (no amount of cajoling would get me to sit through Silver Linings Playbook, sorry).
But these are subjective lists anyway, so feel free to disagree. I offer these lists more as a barometer of what I’m looking at and why, and perhaps to expose people to movies they wouldn’t think about otherwise, rather than trying to create some sort of critical consensus. That just sounds boring.
Two things before we start:
1. This list goes in no particular order, because asking me to rank these would be impossible. Choosing is often hard enough.
2. There are plenty of spoilers in these, as I talk frankly about the endings about a few of these movies because that’s why they’re on this list in the first place. Consider yourself forewarned.
Outside of that, enjoy the list! Here’s hoping that 2013 brings us as many great movies as I feel 2012 did.
What can I say about The Grey that hasn’t already been said? A movie that came out in the depths of winter early in the year, this is unique among films in that it planted its flag early as my favorite movie of 2012 at that point and—shockingly—hasn’t budged from that position since. In a year where I feel like I saw a lot of great movies, The Grey is so far ahead of the rest it’s not even a contest, which is a strange thing to realize on a movie sold as Liam Neeson: Wolf Puncher.
But The Grey is so much more than that. A survivalist story that serves as a deeply bleak, Norse-tinged metaphor for mortality and humanity’s eternal fear of death, The Grey starts in a very conventional place. But soon it turns into existential horror and ends not with the promised wolf-punching, but a frank one-man exploration of what it means to believe in a God, and if that God exists (or not), what one lone human can do in the face of the crushing reality of fate. The Grey digs deep into the eternal questions, and what it digs up isn’t answers but only the challenge to find resolve.
Harrowing barely covers a movie like this, where even the warm memories of love and home are painful and heartbreaking, and death comes swiftly and decisively from all sides. The monsters in the woods, and the demons inside each person, become on in the same in Joe Carnahan’s rough and tumble crisis of faith and long stare into the abyss of the human spirit.
The laborious effort of what Seven Psychopaths doesn’t really pay off until almost halfway into the movie, when the three leads drive into the desert to try to escape the clustercuss they’ve found themselves in. It’s here that the movie, a crazy knot of twists and messy character facts, suddenly unfolds into a design so intricate it’s obvious that the hand behind it knew what they were doing all along. At that moment, two things happen: you realize that you’ve been shown a great magic trick; and the movie then takes it a step further to step outside of itself to suddenly comment not only on what you’re watching, but on the movie in general.
Meta-narrative is always a tricky thing to nail in movies, risking becoming too self-aware and serving as a winking shellac over a movie that doesn’t hold together. Seven Psychopaths deftly manages to make the self-awareness part of what the movie is, weaving what should just be a layer of jokes into the very fabric of what the movie is about. Suddenly, a darkly comic crime movie becomes a story about what it means to write one’s own narrative, an interweaving story not just of people, but of fiction itself that manages to play scenes both as jokes and as actual moments of emotion. That’s the kind of double impact I’d expect from the man what made In Bruges.
Add to that some of the more interestingly understated racial dynamics of any of the movies that I saw this year (which seemingly come from nowhere and never really resolve, but instead just add a strange textured echoing effect when they show up again and again), and you have a movie that I adore for daring to be weird, a post-Adaptation action crime film that is just as much about love and hope as it is about pet stealing and shooting dudes in ridiculous action set pieces.
Laika’s second stop motion animated feature wins the slot of ‘best horror send-up/love letter’ over both Cabin in the Woods and Frankenweenie by being the one with the most heart behind its homages to the schlock that forms my (and the filmmakers’) young cinematic obsessions. ParaNorman‘s tale of a weirdo kid manages to overcome most of the typical moralizing associated with a story like this and find a real heart in a plot that centers around concepts as complex as prejudice out of fear and deep town guilt over the persecution and murder of a child. Yes, it’s cute and funny, but the center of ParaNorman is probably the most complex Western animated film since The Iron Giant.
What sticks with me isn’t the gross out gags or the beautiful animation, but the story of Norman and the confrontation with Aggie, the young witch girl who serves as the movie’s antagonist, a strange and surprisingly dark confrontation that manages to not only serve as one of the most visually arresting things I saw in the entirety of 2012, but I continue to swear is an elaborate homage to The Fountain, both in imagery (tree among nebulous space) and in score. Which might seem like a petty thing to talk about, but if you’re going to visually or sonically reference one of my favorite movies, you’re going to get some love. ParaNorman is a better movie than it’s muted reception deserves, like all really complex animated films that come out, but I hope that like others of its ilk it will endure and be meaningful to those who grew up exposed to it at an early age, proving that it’s truly something special.
Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present
This documentary about performance artist Marina Abramović makes the cut over a half dozen other truly great documentaries not because of its incredible scope, but because how personally I reacted to the idea of her now-infamous performance. To summarize: in 2010 Abramović held a performance at MoMA where, for the entirety of the museum’s operating hours, she would simply sit in the center of a hall in a chair at a table, and one by one those who wanted to could come and sit across from her. She’d say nothing, she’d do as little as possible, and instead it would be the reaction of the crowd itself to her stillness that would provide the ‘performance.’
Which, I’ll admit, sounds a lot like pretentious art wank. And maybe it is. But I would also state that sometimes that’s a good thing, and the reality is her installation piece was wildly successful, with thousands of people travelling from all over the world to sit with her, even for just a few brief seconds. And the movie itself then becomes a catalog of emotions and reactions, not just to Abramović but to art itself. There’s something fundamental about seeing so many raw, untrained emotions laid bare, and while I wouldn’t call The Artist is Present the most substantive movie, it was for me one of the most affecting.
I’ve been stumping for John Carter for what feels like years at this point. I’m not giving up, but consider this the last gasp for a while, because I have succeeded in convincing approximately zero people to date that John Carter isn’t just an interesting mess, it’s one of the best interesting messes that mainstream film has given us in a very, very long time.
Part space opera, part swashbuckling adventure story, John Carter suffered a catastrophic marketing campaign and the whim of a fickle critical reception. But more than that, it’s a strange movie out of time. The ancient production history, dating back to the early days of Walt Disney making movies, shows in the bones of John Carter. This is a big, ambitious movie full of the kind of plot machinations and rollicking set pieces that would have been at home with Errol Flynn movies or the 1940s Thief of Baghdad. It doesn’t fit our perception of what a science fiction epic should be because it’s not trying to be that—it’s something much older, and much more forgotten, the kind of movie that you would have expected to come on the heels of Pirates of the Caribbean breathing life into the adventure/swashbuckler, but never quite materialized.
Now John Carter is here, and in its sprawling love story are great sword fights, some neat creatures, an entire world that I wish we would someday see more of on film, and one of the best supporting-characters-who-is-actually-the-lead in Lynn Collins’ Princess Dejah, the most interesting woman in action this year (and yes, that’s me throwing both Haywire and The Avengers under the bus, for those playing along at home). John Carter‘s an indulgent movie, the kind of thing that should never have cost as much as it did, and will always be some sort of failure; but it deserves championing for ambition and vision, and it deserves people to actually sit down and give it a chance.
The second collaboration of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner continues the genius of their last effort (Munich) by approaching one of the most famous figures of history with the same nuance and deft characterization, wrapped in a much more tightly focused movie. Where Munich was sprawling, Lincoln is small: the movie only covers the short time of Lincoln choosing to propose the amendment banning slavery and his efforts to push it through congress. Yet in that narrow scope comes the full breadth of who this person was: a charismatic, slightly pedantic lawyer and storyteller who struggled with the problems of his day not because he was a wildly progressive thinker, but because he had a dawning sense of inevitability to the tides of history.
In fact, the movie only touches upon the actual questions of racism and racial tension briefly, much as the politicians of the day were careful to avoid outside of their shouting matches on the floor. Instead it becomes a movie about the questions people ask themselves, and the moral grey areas, when confronted with the scary prospect of changing the status quo for reasons that (to them) often seem dubious at best. And it’s that basic idea that carries Lincoln forth not just as a piece examining the 16th President, but as a picture of the very small, surprising braveries that carried our country out of slavery despite ourselves, even as it pitched us into war.
Tarantino’s latest film, while too early to call his greatest, is certainly his most brave. Whereas Inglourious Basterds achieved World War II escapism by dancing as deftly as possible around the Holocaust, Django Unchained is unflinching from the first about the realities of slavery, the very real suffering and oppression that was engrained into the very bones of America. And into that story walks Django himself, a slave-turned-bounty-hunter who instantly joins the pantheon of iconic Western heroes as Tarantino again weaves a complicated wish-fulfillment narrative that wraps a rare look at the actuality of slavery in the sort of crowd-pleasing exploitation-light revenge plot that packs in people who would never touch a more ‘real’ film.
And that’s the genius of Tarantino. The slavery issue is front and center, presented with all its brutality, but instead of every slave-owner being some monster they’re usually just infuriatingly normal folk, often pampered and a little silly. It’s a fascinating thing to watch with a crowd, as half the audience laughs at the antics and the other half sits in increasing anger that so much terrible power was put in the hands of such stupid people for so long. Django reaches out and reminds us that the world it depicts isn’t as far from now as we’re comfortable admitting, and it’s Tarantino’s deftness that he covers so much of the problems not just of slavery, but of institutionalized racism in general, wrapped in a movie full of exaggerated gunfire and heroic Leone-inspired shots and fanfares. Django Unchained is among the director’s best work, and easily at the top of the class in discussing slavery in the modern era.
Minecraft: The Story of Mojang
It’s been a big year for video game movies (and I don’t mean Resident Evil). First Indie Game: The Movie made a critical splash, and now late in the year we have a new winner for my personal favorite movie-about-games movie. Video game culture documentarians2 Player Productions released their long-in-development, kickstarter-funded documentary just days ago about one of the most defining games of the last five (maybe even ten) years—Minecraft. If you don’t know what that is, google it. Or maybe just watch the documentary, because what you have here starts as a basic introduction to the history of the game and unfolds to encompass so much more.
Minecraft started as a one-man game, and quickly grew into an internet phenomenon. And along the way, it created a culture of its own, one of internet communities and new ways to not only create games, but a new way to think about what a game could be. And The Story of Mojang does its best to encompass all of that, from the humble beginnings to the gaming zeitgeist it became in 2010 to the fallout of these new, more creator-driven ways of thinking about media in what is maybe the most corporate, mass-market art medium on the planet. From teachers that now teach Minecraft to young children in schools to old gaming luminaries like Peter Molyneux (Black & White, Fable) and Tim Schaefer (Grim Fandango, Psychonauts) who were inspired to break free of the traditional business-driven cycle by Minecraft’s success, The Story of Mojang is less an examination of one man and one game and more an optimistic look at what connectivity and ease-of-access to technology can wrought upon the world even in small ways that spread out to have massive cultural impacts.
In some ways, The Story of Mojang flies in the face of the glamorous indie-rockstar picture of gaming released earlier this year: Indie Game: The Movie, and even subverts the internet-as-isolating-egotism of something like The Social Network to show us that the future doesn’t have to be bleak, because we’re living in a bright version of it now, in the small corners where people often overlook and take for granted the amazing things we’re presented with every day. The Story of Mojang is a story not only of the rapidly maturing culture of games, but of the potential of technology for humanity at large. Even something that is ‘merely’ about a game, when seen through that lens, becomes something so much more. This is someone documenting a nascent cultural shift as it forms, and it’s electrifying to watch.
2 Days in New York
To talk about why I love 2 Days in New York would have to include spoiling its best gag, but since I warned you at the top of this list that this is a spoiler-list, I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway. Deep into the film, struggling artist Julie (Julie Delpy, who also wrote and directed) has, as part of a nearly catastrophic gallery showing, sold her soul to an anonymous bidder. While she’s a modern person with modern sensibilities and doesn’t believe in anything as silly as a soul, the minute it’s ‘gone’ she feels its loss. Tracking down the buyer, she finds out that it’s none other than ersatz provocateur and sleezeball unicorn Vincent Gallo, who claims he keeps her soul in a leather pouch near his groin and refuses to give it back to her for any price. Fisticuffs ensue, as they are wont to do when souls are involved.
Its that kind of weirdness that pervades Delpy’s 2 Days in New York, her Woody Allen-inspired sequel to the equally weird but far less successful 2 Days in Paris. What starts as a midlife domestic-life-is-hard comedy between her and her long-term boyfriend (played by a sorely missed Chris Rock) quickly spirals out of control as it tackles Delpy’s real life feelings about the death of her mother, racial tensions and cultural borders, and the aforementioned existential madness of middle age. It’s an incredibly silly film, but within that silliness is a lot of truth and self-examination, and what comes out the other side is as sweet and smart as it is hilarious.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
This story of a father and daughter in post-Katrina Louisiana abandons the trappings of social issues and grief glamorization, and for that I’m forever thankful. Not that those things are inherently bad, but it would have been so easy to tip the story of Hushpuppy into the realm of the saccharine. Instead, the movie goes out of its way to ground the movie in the viewpoint of a child, one of deep magic and a constant yet somehow unreal danger, one where the catastrophic things are lessened because they’re as unexplainable as the day to day of the adults and animals she interacts with.
From the floating houses to the giant beasts of Hushpuppy’s nightmares that will someday come and swallow the world like mythological end times, everything in Beasts breathes with a life that is utterly unique. This is a smaller film that its subject matter and tone would suggest, but in that limited scope contains one of the best lead performances of the year. Beasts of the Southern Wild is joyous, a celebration of life and nature and the rightness of cycles of life and death, even when it’s heartbreaking in the reality that intrudes along the edges of this bayou fairy tale.