Hey, remember when I used to review movies? Honestly, that feels like half a lifetime ago, even though it was only just last year. How ridiculously removed do I feel from movies in 2012? Well, for starters, I almost completely forgot that I actually professionally reviewed anything this year. Then I went back to my old haunt at Screened, and remembered that, yes, for the first few months of 2012, I was still a paid film critic, more or less.
After the changeover, I pretty much quit going to movies on a regular basis. Not because I don't enjoy going, but after forcing yourself into a theater every Friday/late Thursday night for a solid year and a half, I needed a break. So, with this in mind, you must take this year's top ten as a bit less...comprehensive than others. I missed a lot of big, interesting movies this year, but I still managed to check out the bulk of the big awards contenders, favored indies, and major blockbusters of note. So, for instance, yes, I saw The Master. No, it did not make my list.
And with that, let's get to the list.
When all the UK folk on my twitter feed began erupting with joy over Pete Travis' film update of the popular Judge Dredd comic book series, I didn't really know what to think. Granted, the UK has always had a bigger thing for Dredd than the US (I never got into it, myself), and most Americans' only frame of reference is the genuinely execrable Stallone movie from the '90s. So, yeah, I expected little, and was perhaps overly blown away with what I received.
Yes, Dredd offers several similarities to last year's Indonesian action import The Raid, most notably the idea of law enforcement officials desperately trapped in a ghetto tower block and hopelessly outgunned by the drug dealers that run it. But whereas The Raid largely focused on dirty, nasty, up-close-and-personal hand-to-hand combat, Dredd brings out lots of absurd guns, explosives, and whatever else, while also increasing the scale to the point of absurdity. Where The Raid was often thrilling because of how intimate the violence was, Dredd succeeds on the merit of sheer ludicrous bombast.
Travis also makes shockingly decent use of 3D, a feature I all but abandoned wholesale this year. The drug of choice in this movie, "slo-mo," is essentially an embedded excuse to watch slow-motion death unfold with a kind of gauzy, twinkling beauty in three glorious dimensions, and it's really something else. Even the performances are pretty good, with Lena Headey playing one of the best bad bitches of film's last decade, Olivia Thirlby reminding you why she was someone you ever liked, and Karl Urban emoting more with the lower half of his face than most actors muster with an entire head at their disposal. This movie is pulpy, bloody ridiculousness of the highest order, and I say bring on Dredd 2 (which will never happen because the movie kind of tanked...boo.)
In my estimation, easily the best of the Daniel Craig Bond movies. I realize this may sound controversial, given many's aggressive love of Casino Royale, but where, in my opinion, that film was merely content to wear the skin of Bond, Skyfall properly embodies the spirit of the franchise better than any of the Craig films thus far.
It's not just in the nods-and-winks to yesteryear (the emergence of Moneypenny, the debut of new-Q, the callbacks to Bond's troubled past), but the tone, the vibe, the pacing, all of it. Sam Mendes, far better than the most recent Bond directors, clearly understands how to make a Bond film feel like a damn Bond film. Even when Craig is running around like a crazed asshole, trying to chase down one bad guy or another, the fact that he can do it all with a kind of Bond-ish effortlessness and style is what makes Bond Bond. Casino Royale toyed with that vibe, but never quite pulled it off for me, outside of that ludicrous poker game. Quantum of Solace? Let's just never speak of that movie again. But Skyfall has that intangible thing that you want out of a Bond movie.
Plus, who is going to argue with Javier Bardem's performance as the film's terrifyingly insane villain? His vendetta against M is only half of what makes him interesting, mostly because of just how deviously unhinged Bardem plays it. That tête–à–tête in his evil lair, where Bardem and Craig talk through their shit like only Bond and his many foes can, is one of my absolute favorite scenes of the year.
And for all you assholes who said the last third of the movie was just Home Alone with Bond, go watch Straw Dogs sometime. The Peckinpah one, not the new one. Home invasion can be some serious shit, you know.
8. Django Unchained
Most critics of Django Unchained seem especially ready for Quentin Tarantino to abandon his recent genre phase in favor of returning to his more slick, conversational fiilmmaking roots. On some level, I can understand that. While I enjoyed movies like Inglorious Basterds, Deathproof, and the Kills Bill, my three favorite Tarantino movies remain Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs, in that order.
And yet, I can't sit here and criticize a movie like Django Unchained for being largely substance-less entertainment when it's just so damn entertaining. This is not some brave commentary on America's grim history, nor is it chock full of the sometimes heady, but always smooth-talking characters Tarantino is often so adept at crafting. Instead, it's a straight-up spaghetti western, with all the trimmings and copious blood packs that entails. Like Basterds, it's a ridiculous revisionist history revenge story, but unlike Basterds, it doesn't spend a lot of time talking about all the revenging it's going to do. It just does it, again and again, until pretty much everyone is dead.
I had no issues with that, nor Jaime Foxx's somewhat monosyllabically-written lead character. There are plenty of Chatty Cathys in this movie, including the likes of Christoph Waltz as the German bounty hunter who frees Foxx's enslaved Django, and sets him on his path of revenge, as well as Leonardo DiCaprio in a wonderfully slithery performance as an effete Southern plantation owner who takes particular pleasure in setting his larger slaves against one another in gladiatorial combat. And then there is Samuel L. Jackson as Steven, the true mastermind and villain of the movie. To say it's one of Jackson's best true acting performances of the last decade maybe doesn't say a lot, since he's mostly just been playing some version of Samuel L. Jackson in every film during that period. But as Steven, Jackson pulls off an almost Keyser Soze-like transformation, albeit without the insane amount of build-up that character was afforded. And I haven't even mentioned Don Johnson's performance as something vaguely resembling Colonel Sanders as an early Klan member, nor Walton Goggins as a particularly hateful slave tracker.
Is it too long and over-stuffed? Yes, most definitely, but unlike other too-long, over-stuffed movies of the last few years, I didn't feel the time I spent watching Django Unchained achingly shuffling by. It captured my attention, and entertained me nearly from start to finish. While I might wish for Tarantino to go back to making more thoughtful, less pastiche-y movies, I can't be mad when I'm having this much fun at the movies.
7. The Avengers
This is why Joss Whedon should be allowed to do pretty much whatever he wants.
I did not watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had less than no interest in Dollhouse, and regard Firefly as one of those shows that, yes, probably didn't deserve to be canceled, but maybe gets a little more love than it actually deserves. That said, Whedon's clarity of voice and vision has always been readily apparent in his various works, and in The Avengers, a seemingly ungainly smooshing-together of blockbuster movie franchises into a single, all-encompassing marketing blitz of a movie, that very clarity not only saves it from being just another hokey hero mash-up, but turns it into something tremendously exciting to boot.
Don't get me wrong; I've actually been relatively thrilled with how the Marvel Films experiment has gone thus far. I could take or leave Thor, and Iron Man 2 maybe doesn't hold up super great on repeat viewings, but the core idea of building up all these heroes, only to unleash them all at once in a grand orgy of superheroic destruction, is one I've pretty much been on board with since the beginning, especially considering how well those piecemeal movies went.
But in Avengers, there was always the chance that the whole thing would topple over from sheer bloat, which is why Whedon's involvement makes so much sense. Whedon knows characters, and he knows how to ensure all his characters get equal (or at least thereabouts) time to shine. With Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannsen, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson all vying for limited screen time, wrangling those egos into a coherent whole became both Whedon's Herculean filmmaking task, and essentially the plot of the damn movie.
Sure, the villains were a bit more throwaway than I would have preferred (though Tom Hidddleston as Loki was again a welcome presence), but this Avengers movie was much more interested in creating that initial team dynamic than it was establishing a big baddie, and in that regard, the movie was a tremendous success. The last half-hour or so, deafeningly loud as it was, was a tremendously entertaining pay-off to all the snarky infighting and bickering of the beginning and middle, and I'm only half-joking when I say that Avengers is, by far, the best Hulk movie yet made.
6. The Queen of Versailles
Many recent documentaries have covered, in-depth, how America's economy has tanked since the waning years of the Bush presidency, and the early days of the Obama administration. It's pretty much the only thing anyone talks about anymore, really. So that The Queen of Versailles left as deep an impression on me as it did speaks volumes to how much a little luck can help drive a film from simply being interesting, to something enrapturing.
Such was the case for filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, who initially just set out to document the building of Versailles, the largest single home in America, by the Siegel family of Orlando, Florida. David Siegel, a real estate mogul most known for his palatial time-share resorts, is the celebrity hobnobbing type, a man with deep ties to the likes of Donald Trump, and the entire Bush family. How deep are those ties? Well, Siegel jokingly admits at one point that he helped get George W. Bush elected in 2000 through "not entirely legal" means. His apparent trophy wife, a small-town girl turned beauty queen named Jackie, is essentially the movie's mouthpiece. Early on, that mouth utters nothing but gleeful statements about the family's impending move into the insanely huge new home, due to the current family "bursting" out of their merely large current mansion.
To her credit, Jackie is not a woman lacking in empathy. She has many children, who she, in her own batty, detached way, tries her best to look after and love, including her brother's estranged teenage daughter. Her small-town roots and abusive previous marriage undoubtedly played no small part in her transformation into a dutiful mother (of sorts) to her children and doting wife to the generally cold and grouchy David. You almost don't hate her as she spouts off about all the antiques and other unnecessary bric-a-brac they've purchased for their new estate.
Then comes the turn. The markets crash, and suddenly David is in default with his lenders over a recently built tower in Las Vegas. Versailles is suddenly put on hold, left half-finished for the duration of the film. It is here that The Queen of Versailles gains its significance. The Siegel family begins to fall apart, as family staffers are cut down to just a couple of overworked nannies, David turns angry recluse as he desperately searches for funding to stubbornly try to save his building, and Jackie is left to tend to the family with a far more limited budget.
Those late-movie trials paint a portrait of a woman not mock-worthy, but essentially pitiable. Seeing her try to fumble her way through Walmart shelves, or asking a Hertz rent-a-car clerk where the driver for her rented vehicle is, it's easy to just poke fun at a family's hubris coming crashing back down upon them. But Greenfield refuses to portray Jackie as a villain. She presents Jackie as a person, one who came from little, suddenly gained a lot, and like just about any of us would in that situation, lost perspective. Watching as she struggles to regain some modicum of that perspective is one of The Queen of Versailles' more fascinating challenges. Can you feel sorry for a woman living so far beyond her means even after it all begins crashing down around her? To the film's credit, I most certainly did.
Rian Johnson's Brick is a film myself and Mr. Matt Rorie spent a great deal of time discussing during our tenure at Screened. It's one of those little indie movies that tends to engender a great deal of appreciation from its hardcore fanbase, of which I am a member. So yes, I am naturally I have a bit of a bias when it comes to Johnson's projects. Still, even divorced from Johnson's tight direction and scripting, the concept of Looper alone had my attention.
I do love me some good dystopian sci-fi, and time travel movies, no matter how ludicrous in logic they become, hold a special place in my heart. Johnson's dystopic, time-traveling future is a doozy, a depressed near-future America where time travel is outlawed, but mobsters have somehow clung onto the technology as a means of disposing of its victims. They are sent to an even more depressed, even nearer-future America, where they are dispatched by loopers, hitmen who kill quickly, and dump the bodies into incinerators. No, I don't know why the future-future doesn't have its own incinerators, so shut up.
That, as is the case with all time travel movies, is the sticking point with Looper. There are plot holes, the likes of which were likely inevitable to show up the second Johnson started trying to balance the repercussions of each of the film's various events. But they don't really matter, because for as much as Looper is about time travel and gangster shit, it's even more about its characters. It's about people discovering terrible truths about themselves, and attempting to right wrongs they may only be indirectly responsible for. Over the course of the movie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Joe goes from a dimwit uninterested in the consequences of his actions, to a man essentially able to change the futures of others with a single selfless act.
It's a transformation made easier by the performances of Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, who plays the older version of Joe who escapes his demise, and begins wreaking havoc on Young Joe's present. No, these two actors don't completely line up in personality, presence, or even body structure, but somehow, while sitting in a diner, facing off with one another like De Niro and Pacino in Heat, I completely bought in to their weird relationship. Even as the movie veered away from sci-fi action into a closer-quarters character piece in its final 45 minutes, my attention remained rapt, because the quality of the acting, writing, and direction kept me thoroughly in this ridiculous story. All sci-fi is at least a little ridiculous, but only the best sci-fi can make you forget how ridiculous it is. Looper is such a sci-fi movie.
4. The Grey
I should have reviewed The Grey higher. I gave it four stars when it came out very early in 2012, and the more I've thought about it in the months since, the more I fell in love with it.
Even though I don't much enjoy the works of Jack London, nor the prose of Ernest Hemingway, The Grey plays like a combination of the two, a hardscrabble, sparsely spoken tale of man's constant struggle against nature, set against the backdrop of the Alaskan wilderness. Liam Neeson gives what I honestly think is an Oscar-nod-worthy performance as Ottway, a sniper and survivalist recruited by an oil company to defend a remote outpost and its workers. On his way back to Anchorage, a plane crash strands him and several of his coworkers in the middle of a remote area currently full of territorial wolves. Survival chances are slight, but Ottway finds himself forced to guide them to what he hopes is safety.
Joe Carnahan, a director perhaps better known for his stupider works (Smokin' Aces, The A-Team) than his more contemplative pieces (the brilliant Ray Liotta cop drama Narc), manages to combine some of the more welcome elements from both ends of his filmography in The Grey. His grasp of special effects sequences helps him craft a believably inhospitable environment (and wolves that actually don't look terribly cheesy), which he combines with a screenplay that focuses heavily on the plight of its characters over rote action.
Sympathy for bit characters is something I rarely have in survival movies like this, but I felt it in The Grey. Carnahan does a deft job of unfurling the personalities and motivations of his main survivors over the course of the story, pushing them beyond mere archetypes into people you genuinely want to see survive. That they so often do not is part of why The Grey is so effective. Nothing about it is sentimental, especially not Neeson, who is as good as he's been in years here.
The ending of The Grey left many people unsatisfied, mostly because it refused to be the big, ridiculous conclusion that most film-goers have come to expect from Hollywood thrillers. Instead, it's a perfectly poignant moment that caps off everything that's come before beautifully, sadly, and breathlessly. I didn't even need the little stinger shot at the end of the credits, though I suppose I can't say I didn't appreciate it, either.
3. The Cabin in the Woods
I'll admit, it probably helped that I watched The Cabin in the Woods while in an actual cabin in the goddamned woods. Not a ton, but a bit.
I don't know how any self-proclaimed horror fan couldn't love Cabin in the Woods just a little bit. In this movie, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon have essentially created an entirely fantastic horror movie purely on the premise of explaining away why horror films exist. To explain that in too great of detail would probably spoil the fun of seeing the movie, but the one thing I will say is that by the time the final third rolls around, it should be readily apparent to anyone that these two guys understand why you love the horror genre, and dig it just as much as you do.
Before that final third, Cabin in the Woods is still a fascinating, bizarre experiment in acknowledging/tearing down the fourth wall. As we observe these teenagers do as all teenagers in horror movies do--planning a vacation at someone's family member's remote mountain cabin for the sake of uninterrupted debauchery--so to does the film's own internal audience, a pair of white-collar geeks manning a mysterious control room that appears to have something to do with all the crazy shit that starts unfolding at the cabin, which initially is limited to the zombie resurrection of an ancient redneck family that once lived, and murdered there.
Even knowing this information, you are ill-prepared for the batshit craziness that follows, not to mention the batshit reasoning behind it all. I'll leave that for you to discover on your own, and simply conclude that this is hands-down my favorite horror movie of the year. Not that there were very many of them worth lauding, sadly.
2. Magic Mike
A very late entry to this list, and one I'm glad I made time for. I've been having a conniption fit all year trying to wrap my brain around the idea of a Steven Soderbergh-directed movie about male stripping starring Channing Tatum, but after finally sitting down to watch it, I get it.
It's not hard to get, mind you. Soderbergh has been off on a weird filmmaking tangent lately, digging into genre much the way Tarantino has, albeit with a tone less celebratory than clinical. Soderbergh's recent films--the spy thriller Haywire, and the disease paranoia thriller Contagion--all have in common a vibe that comes off more like science experiments than full-fledged movies, really. These movies have mostly felt like Soderbergh challenging himself by taking scripts that would seemingly be better served being passed off to more schlocky directors, and applying his understated, peculiarly-colored approach to each of them. With those first two, the results were mixed, but in Magic Mike, suddenly the grand genre experiment of Steven Soderbergh feels like it's produced something genuinely, unexpectedly great.
The plot is as old as show business itself. A young kid (Alex Pettyfer) is directionless, looking for a way into some money, some success, anywhere he can find it. In a chance meeting, he encounters Mike (Tatum), a construction worker by day, and male stripper by night. Like much of America's non-college educated youth (and even many of those with degrees nowadays), Mike is forced to find alternative means of employment amid the American jobs crisis. It turns out his nights disrobing for throngs of cackling women is that perfect alternative. He even seemingly has a good relationship with the club's ringmaster, a self-aggrandizing MC just a few years past his prime (Matthew McConaughey). He brings the kid to work, shoves him out on the stage, and, well, you can guess where things go from there.
As the kid experiences the party-all-the-time lifestyle Mike has mostly endured unscathed, the movie turns into a strange hybrid of Coyote Ugly and Boogie Nights. Except that underneath that rather simple mash-up, there's also a pretty interesting portrayal of American entrepreneurship underneath. Watching Mike hustle his way around Tampa Bay's night life, coaxing women into the club and ultimately the bedroom, it's a perfect flipside to his day-to-day life of hustling for odd jobs and failed attempts at fixing his tattered finances.
Of course, Tatum is limited in his acting skills, as are several of the actors tasked with major roles. I assume Soderbergh's recent interest in Tatum comes from his "naturalistic" performing style--which, to many, is more like just watching someone's dopey older brother be ridiculous on camera than actual acting--but to be honest, he's a perfect fit here. Not just because of his own background in male stripping, but because of Soderbergh's pacing and approach, which is beyond merely understated. The only true flash in Magic Mike comes in the ludicrous performance sequences, which are hysterical, often intentionally so, and replete with McConaughey's unhinged energy. He, like Jackson, feels rejuvenated to the point of probably deserving some kind of major award nomination. Man, how great does the Best Supporting Actor category potentially look right now?
1. Moonrise Kingdom
Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson movie. If you have ever seen a Wes Anderson movie, you probably already know what this entails. Tightly measured performances, elaborate, consistent costuming, a story about damaged father-son relationships inside of a larger, more absurd plot, inexplicable slo-motion sequences set to rock music of probably the 1960s, and somewhere in there, Bill Murray. All of these things and more are true of Moonrise Kingdom, which I think may be Anderson's best movie behind only Rushmore.
Part of Moonrise Kingdom's charm is the confidence Anderson puts in his two preteen unknown leads. Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) are star-crossed lovers, insomuch as one can be a star-crossed lover before they properly hit puberty. On the tiny Massachusetts island on which they reside, they are separated only by the overbearingness of Suzy's parents (Murray and Frances McDormand) and the duties of the Khaki Scouts, to which Sam has pledged his allegiance for the summer. Nevertheless, Sam and Suzy eventually decide to run off on their own, to a small cove where they childishly believe they will be able to live free from adult interference, at least for a time.
Elsewhere, the island's sheriff (Bruce Willis) ends up involved after Sam's scoutmaster (Edward Norton) and Suzy's parents report them missing. The island goes off on a hunt for the pair, who are caught, separated, then escape again in a wild series of events involving flash floods, burning buildings, military-film tropes, Tilda Swinton as a not-so-much-evil-as-indifferent social worker, and Bob Balaban's narration. It's a lot of pieces, but few directors are better at constructing these elaborately designed dioramas than Anderson. His anal-retentive attention to detail can sometimes come off as obnoxiously twee, but Moonrise Kingdom is a truly sweet story at its core, propped up by strong, if perhaps knowingly clever performances by its child leads.
I can't say that Moonrise Kingdom is a runaway favorite this year, because I didn't really have one. I will say that in terms of craft, wit, and sheer enjoyment, no movie made me happier to be watching it than Moonrise Kingdom did.