Yeah, I know, it’s totally 2013 now. I should have shared my favorite movies of 2012 with you weeks ago. But then I saw the cover of the John Travolta and Olivia Newton John Christmas album, after which I was briefly hospitalized. Now that I have my basic motor skills back, I can get to blathering! So here goes nothin’. My top 10 movies of 2012 are:
In 2012, Guy Pearce continued his criminally underappreciated run as one of the most versatile actors working, including a great, wiseass turn in the delightfully ridiculous “save the president’s daughter from space jail” tale Lockout. But it was in this Prohibition gangster flick that he truly shone. As the sadistic and vain Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, Pearce pursues the Bondurant bootlegging operation with a twisted sense of justice, his eyebrowless face and a thick central part in his hair making him look as disquieting as can be. Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave aimed for a similar kind of grim morality with 2005’s very good The Proposition, but Lawless takes it to thrilling new heights – instead of cops and robbers, it’s just a whole bunch of guys with blood on their hands.
9. The Queen of Versailles
If you ever need a reminder of the chasm that separates documentary film from reality TV, take in this stark, uncompromising but ultimately sympathetic tale of Jackie and David Siegel, a billionaire couple whose time share-fueled gravy train dried up after the economic collapse of 2008 – right after they started construction on what was to be the largest, most expensive single-family home in the U.S. It’s the kind of story that seems readymade for a reality series, beaming dump trucks full of schadenfreude into our insecure brains every week. But Lauren Greenfield’s movie captures the stress, sadness and stubborn hope that’s the stuff of actual reality. The Walmart shopping binges, lingering dog turds and humiliated nannies could easily be treated like laugh-and-point moments, but when contrasted with images of David nursing his wounded pride and Jackie innocently trying to come to terms with the upper middle class life that lies ahead, it’s impossible to ignore their humanity.
8. Django Unchained
Given how prevalent themes of revenge are in Quentin Tarantino’s stories, it was only a matter of time before he gave us his own, uniquely pulpy take on a Spaghetti Western. Django Unchained is just that – a revenge fantasy/love story/buddy action movie set in the antebellum South, where snappy dialogue and cartoonish, exploding-blood-capsule-style violence is grounded in unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio are all at the peak of their powers – Foxx in the Eastwood role as the titular freed slave, natural sharpshooter and heroic husband, Waltz as a fatherly dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and DiCaprio as a monstrous Francophile plantation owner. The issue of whether slavery should be an off-limits subject for a genre picture like Django is a thorny one for sure, but to me, Tarantino has given us a reminder of the unforgivable sins our country has committed, and we can’t have too many of those. The fact that he weaves it into a dynamic, darkly funny, exceptionally entertaining midnight movie? What more would you expect from Hollywood’s own “little troublemaker”?
Time travel will always be a touchstone of science fiction, because more than anything, time makes us its bitch. But in Looper, writer and director Rian Johnson attempts to depict what might actually happen if time travel was invented. Like the war on drugs, it becomes a highly illegal practice appropriated by a criminal underworld, who send people back in time to be killed by “loopers” – men who end their careers by “closing their loop,” a.k.a. killing their older selves. The first half of the movie is spent patiently building this intricate mythology, while introducing us to Joe, the brooding looper junkie played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But once Bruce Willis appears as Joe’s future self, Looper becomes much more than your typical sci-fi shoot-em-up. The third act moves the action from Johnson’s slums-o’-the-future to a farm house, and what happens there is a poetic exploration of the nature of evil, the consequences of our mistakes, and the immeasurable impact of the things we do right.
6. Turn Me On, Dammit!
As heartwarming as it is frank, this Norwegian film explores the awkward lows and joyful highs of teenaged sexual awakening, through the prism of its main character Alma – played with believable angst by Helene Burgsholm. As Alma goes through the confusing process of growing up, she gains and loses friends, has innocent fantasies run aground by weirder, far more interesting realities, runs away from home, and bewilders her single mother until, eventually, their bond deepens. There’s no punishment or reward for Alma, no real danger or grand romance. Turn Me On, Dammit! is just trying to show how it feels to be a 15-year-old girl in a backwoods town, being picked on at school and getting caught calling phone sex lines at home. To see this kind of story told with such positivity is as refreshing as Scandinavian mountain air.
5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
I understand why Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy is called The Hobbit. But it would be more accurate to call it Middle Earth. Because while the basic plot follows that timeless children’s adventure story in all the important ways, Jackson’s first installment makes it clear that he wants to tell a grander tale, one that looks at Tolkien’s singular universe with the eye of a storyteller and historian. Hence, on top of the piles of breathtaking whiz-bang, and the skilled characterizations of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and Gollum, we get to explore the tragic, pseudo-Biblical backstory of the dwarves of Erebor, see the seeds being planted for the return of Sauron (aka The Necromancer), and meet Radagast the Brown, a birdshit-covered Jane Goodall of the Hedgehogs. Many have accused this detailed approach of being nothing more than a shameless money grab. But in the eyes of this Tolkien nut, The Hobbit is as much, if not more, a labor of love than the Lord of the Rings movies (which I kinda liked a little). The fact that hours upon hours of lovingly adapted Tolkien texts can be seen as something remotely capitalistic is a credit to Jackson’s ability to film the “unfilmable.”
4. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
On their weirdly endearing cut-and-paste cartoon Tom Goes to the Mayor, and the subsequent public access acid trip theater of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! and Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim proved themselves to be masters of disturbingly hilarious short-form comedy. Which made the potential pitfall of their Billion Dollar Movie an obvious one – would their shenanigans translate to the longer, more plot-driven confines of feature film? Well obviously, I think that they did. Billion Dollar Movie is a delightfully anarchic middle finger to mainstream comedies, taking one of their most common plot lines – protagonist must save struggling school/restaurant/shopping mall, hilarity ensues – and using it as a backdrop on which to project their obsessions with local TV commercials, father-son dynamics and diarrhea. Fantastic supporting turns from John C. Reilly, Will Forte and Zach Galifianakis are just cherries on top.
3. The Cabin In The Woods
When I first saw Scream, Wes Craven’s snappy 1996 satire of slasher movies, I enjoyed how it made fun of me and respected me at the same time. But after seeing The Cabin In The Woods, Joss Whedon’s writing credit from 2012 that wasn’t The Avengers, I felt more than entertained. As a self-aware horror fan, this movie felt like a new stage of enlightenment. Director/co-writer Drew Goddard and Whedon make the same broad point as Scream – that slasher scripts tend to be like Mad Libs; just change out the location/monster/method of death and presto, you’ve got a different movie – but they do it with an initially baffling, and eventually mindblowing, top-secret government surveillance subplot. What at first looks like just another bunch of dopey teenagers venturing out to be killed in the woods becomes a psychological study of humanity that connects the popularity of horror movies to that of ancient pagan rituals, while taking the time to make an even more salient point – if you’re ever in a bind, trust the stoner, not the hunk.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
It’s no accident that Moonrise Kingdom is set on an island. Its main characters, Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, are kids who don’t feel connected to their surroundings, be it a foster home that looks like an Army barracks or a family that’s quietly fraying around the edges. Wes Anderson’s seventh film is the story of them finding each other, the bliss they feel at finally being understood, and the hilariously low-stakes havoc that their meticulously planned elopement causes. In case your twee-dar is starting to go off, never fear, because Anderson realizes Sam and Suzy’s puppy love in an achingly sweet, thoroughly realistic way, contrasting it all the while by the loneliness of the goofy adults who form the search party (including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton and Bruce Willis, who are all wonderful). Shot in the gorgeous detail that is Anderson’s stock in trade, Moonrise Kingdom posits that while you might feel like an island from time to time, you never know who might be canoeing your way.
1. The Master
People are attracted to things that purport to define their personality, be it the signs of the zodiac or a quiz that tells you what Saved By the Bell character you are. But in the pivotal scene of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s relentless study of the underbelly of belief, this desire for enlightenment about ourselves is abused in the name of ego and profit. In it, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L.Ron Hubbard-ish leader of a philosophical movement called “The Cause,” convinces Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a volatile WWII vet, to partake in something called “Processing” – a series of quick, probing questions, in which the subject is not allowed to blink. In the performance of the year, Phoenix shows us a deeply disturbed, utterly lonely man who is intoxicated by Dodd’s attentions, through his facial expressions alone. The title of the movie most obviously refers to Dodd, but by the end, it more poignantly applies to Quell – a twisted man who lost everything we see as respectable, except for his free will.
Honorable Mentions: Bernie, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, Lincoln, Lockout, Men In Black 3, Prometheus