Before I begin, I would just like to note that when I wrote this I had not seen several of the movies that were nominated for Oscars and they probably would have found a place on this list. These include: Amore, Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo.
1. The Kid With The Bike
The Dardennes brothers specialize in making quiet human stories that eschew modern tricks of movie making. 2012 was certainly a year of spectacle, but it was also a year in which films attempted to humanize every character, to flesh out motivations and lend pathos. I’m here to tell you they failed and instead fell into the Uncanny Valley. Or maybe that’s just how the characters from every other film seem when compared to those in a Dardennes film. The titular kid with a bike exists in a world that just seems like it can’t help but be real, and his problems and emotional outbursts are earned, not just written into the margin as screen directions. For making such a small scale yet stunning film in a year of ever increasing excess and content per square inch, The Kid with A Bike is my movie of the year.
The being said, spectacle still has value and in my opinion nothing matched the sheer spectacle of Prometheus this year. Using a stunning mix of practical animatronic effects and breathtaking digital imagination Prometheus was a visual feast. Ridley Scott also used this hybrid approach to storytelling, combining the awe generating expansiveness of sci-fi with the genre schlock of horror in a way that expanded on his first effort at this, Alien. Some disagreed with the way things were mixed, for instance the horror genre clichés meant the characters were poorly developed. While it’s hard to argue with these issues I found them forgivable, and I think the elements perfectly amplified the key scenes which were among the most powerful cinema set pieces of the year. Who can forget the tension of the body-horror med-pod scene, the serene interaction of Fassbender with the star map, or the heart pounding final moments of the film? For taking spectacle to new heights, I put Prometheus at number 2.
3. Django Unchained
Django is an odd duck. On one hand, it is just another mash-up of the genre fare Tarantino knows and loves as has not veered from since Deathproof. On the other hand, like Inglorious Basterds but easily exceeding it in this regard, the subject matter of Django forces us to consider the issues of race relations and crimes of a nation. However, this time it’s personal. Django is two and a half hours of unrepentant brutality to slaves followed by the harsh settling of accounts by the excellent Christopher Waltz and Jamie Foxx, who are equal parts bounty hunters and liberators that transcend the pulp leanings of the film. They make mistakes and their bloody path is mired in ambiguity. Infact, the entire film transcends the pulp this time. Rather than rely on slavery as binary revenge fuel, the film lingers on the injustices perpetrated against black Americans for almost its entire running time. Although condensed, the injustices and prejudices are very real and Tarantino has created a dense film to force us to think about them. Since this is Tarantino though, pressure is masterfully administered in full force through excellent attention to dialogue, and then is released in explosions of almost comical violence. What we’re left with after all the heads are expounded and exploded is a very large yet tactile film to consider, which makes it one of the best of 2012.
4. The Raid: Redemption
There’s really not much to say about the Raid beyond the fact that it’s the future of action movies. The denouement might as well have been just a smash cut to credits and the title is overlong, I forget who gets Redemption and I don’t remember the name of any characters anyway. In fact, watching this movie without subtitles subtracts nothing from the experience. Instead you’ll just have more time to check out the incredibly inventive action sequences that use every weapon and every surface of the raided building as fair game. It is shot in a clever way and the actors are all more than up to the task of pummeling each other, even one suspiciously short gentleman who turns out to be surprisingly lethal. But the real star here is the steroid infused pace and intensity of each encounter, where the heroes and villains are equally vulnerable in a fight to the death.
Rian Johnson’s sci-fi day dream is pretty good it turns out. Dystopias are a dime a dozen these days, but Looper’s shows real consideration, from the new types of tech and recreational drug use to the casual violence of an economically-nuked cityscape. However it refuses to get bogged down in the details, instead using these elements to tell a story about choices and fate. Time traveling Bruce Willis and his younger self Lovitt are good natural counterpoints due to trajectory of their acting careers. Lovitt is adept at aping Willis’ mannerisms, which lends poignancy to his hard headed objection to Willis’ attempt to fix the point where it all went wrong. The very sci-fi “twist” that comes later is probably something that Rian Johnson thought was cool and it’s hinted at and handled well enough but isn’t really germaine to the subject matter. As such Looper ends up being a little too incongruous to be truly great but is still quite good. Watching this film will make you wish there were more like it.
Early in the Fall, the AV Club made a joke that the trailer for Lincoln had already won the Oscar. Well, I can say that you and everyone else probably already know what to expect from this well-acted Oscar bait deftly handled by Spielberg. The star of the show is of course Daniel Day Lewis, who disappears so completely inside of the Lincoln character that I believe the car company probably owes Day Lewis damages for infringing on the president’s life rights. Along with the great acting, Spielberg attacks Lincoln’s life from an unusual angle, focusing mostly on a single month during which Lincoln attempted to get the thirteenth amendment passed by Congress. What follows is a terrific display of political gamesmanship and moral compunction which is of course awfully relevant to today and our own gridlocked Congress. It is, of course, also a little on the nose and the last minute coda that attempts to make the movie into an official biopic and takes us up to Lincolns death diminishes the power of the proceeding victory. Above all, Day Lewis gives one of the finest performances of the year in this highly enjoyable look at our greatest president in the middle of our greatest moral struggle.
7. Moonlight Kingdom
Impossibly kitschy and hip, Wes Anderson has finally managed to distill his sensibilities into a thick sap. Viciously satirical of the trappings of adulthood and yet altogether whimsical, the biggest surprise here is the quality of the young actors over the mostly wasted adult cameos. In a complete 180 from the star studded Royal Tenebaums, here Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, and yes even Jason Schwartzmann are basically given nothing to do while the child actors run amok and steal the show. Only Edward Norton as a bizarre scout master acquits himself. Together two children with 90’s sensibilities and a 70’s fantasy island to explore embark on an adventure that is impossibly retro-sheik. Moonlight Kingdom gets high marks because it is able to kindle this sense of adventure while being quite funny.
8. The Master
The latest from Paul T Anderson is mostly grim and uneventful. Close that wiki tab on Scientology, you won’t need it, as Anderson mostly decides to avoid the trappings of current event commentary. Instead, over two and a half hours, he reveals a very complicated character study of two men floating through life who see something compelling in each other. Joaquin Phoenix plays an extremely difficult and obtuse veteran and alcoholic who is taken under the tutelage of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s affable cult leader. Both men are played as undefinable, without clear wants and desires for themselves or those around them. It’s an interesting and delicate operation that Anderson has going on here, one that probably only himself and a few other directors working today would be capable of. So it’s to his credit that he mostly pulls it off, leaving you wondering about the themes even though nothing happens. However, by leaving behind the gut punches that punctuated his earlier movies like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, he never gives the Master a chance to condense into something heavier than an airy musing. That’s why this powerhouse is at number 8.
Part of what makes Skyfall so amusing is watching for the ingenuity with which the Bond mythos is updated. American Beauty director Sam Mendes turned out capable of commanding a stylish update to the Bond canon, here extracting 007 from the bland Bourne soup that the Daniel Craig led series had fallen into after only two films. After a fairly straight forward introduction and maybe the best Bond intro credits ever, the film rockets along with tongue firmly in meta-contextual cheek. Roughly 25% of the dialogue seems to occur on our side of the 4th wall, discussing the excesses and stylistic choices of Bond movies of yore or referencing them in winking manner. This actual doesn’t get annoying though, as Skyfall is a sleek killing machine that moves along its discreet plot with an extremely deliberate pace. Yesterday’s languid seductions and bridge spanning fistfights have been pared down but there’s still plenty of room for style. This intentionally oozes out of the cinematography of this film, which was remarkable enough to delight me many times. This old dog with new tricks makes for a very good film.
10. The ABCs of Death
You probably never heard of this remarkable collection of 26 short films from 26 different directors, but if you’re interested in seeing filmmakers push the limits of creativity, humor, and the macabre this collection of short films is probably the most economical use of your time possible. Less a horror film and more a skewering of each and every genre trope, the short films run down the letters from A to Z with a different death for each letter and one you’ll almost never guess coming. H? Yeah, that’s hydro electric diffusion. In addition to the clever dispatchings, each of the directors is also free to shoot in their own style leading to some startling experimental shorts. Slow motion man vs dog fights give way to techno enhanced revenge tone poems. Since it is a short film collection limited by subject matter (also some of the shorts are obvious duds), it doesn’t really have the range to best the full scale competitors this year, but considered on pure inventiveness and variety ABCs of Death is unmatched.