Why the asterisk?
Every year I do this and every year I have a hard time picking just five. It’s the same way I feel about all my illegitimate kids. So hard to pick a favorite when you’ve got one in every port. 😉
I kid… I kid… well, about the baker’s dozen KIDS thing. As for movies – yeah, it’s real tough culling the list to five so I may have padded my numbers a little. I’ll explain when I get to it.
But first – some additional disclaimer.
Y’all know me. I’m a movie lover. LOVE LOVE LOVE the movies. Once upon a time, for a few years anyway, I was a film critic for the largest daily college newspaper at the time. It was a gig that to this day remains so near and dear to my heart and somewhere out here on this site, there is a story that recounts my clandestine conspiracy to vault the velvet rope of that esteemed establishment and get a non-paying gig watching some horrible dreck for no money just so I had the opportunity to do what I love best – marry my passion with something I’m actually somewhat passable at… the command the written word. (And I’m well aware of the irony that the previous run-on sentence and this one that began with a conjunction imparts. Hey – it’s my website. I can mold the language anyway my voice sees fit).
Of course – for a huge stretch of time, beginning when Colin was first born – I questioned whether I would ever watch TV again let alone find the best seat middle-middle on opening night of Twilight 5 – TwiCurious. Of course, that’s such a foolish, naive notion. Sure – Day One of ushering your first born forth into the world takes your abundance of free time and implodes down to almost nothing but then – from there, time expands outward – aping the big bang theory as you slowly but surely regain a little more time to yourself – with each year adding a few more hours onto the clock with ever increasing speed. They’re only young for so long.
That bittersweet fact and the rise of Netflix (and other instant On Demand sources) finally allowed me the chance to reconnect with my beloved hobby. Of course, I don’t (and can’t) see everything – and my tastes are wildly eclectic so as much as I’ll go in for the more sober-minded Oscar bait, I also chase it with escapist ‘Check Your Brain At The Door‘ entertainments. Some of this is junk food but sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
So – what you won’t find on my list are some of the late year prestige pics. Not a Lincoln to be found – neither with nor without vampires. I haven’t seen that and so many others and likely won’t until they hit my Netflix queue – meaning they could make an appearance on my list next year.
The rules for my list are simple. The movies don’t need to have been released in 2012 – they just need to have been seen by me – for the first time ever – sometime between January 1st and December 31st. That’s it.
Also – I don’t claim these are The Best Movies of the Year. Often times I’ll see a movie that I appreciate – that I hold in higher acclaim but do not call it a favorite movie. For my list, I ultimately choose those movies that connected with me in a way that should I stumble upon them again – while channel surfing – I’ll just stop what I’m doing, plop my ass down and let it sweep me away all over again. These are the movies I implore others to watch – simply because I love and live to share my joy!!!
Also, while I used to be a film critic, those days are so far gone in the rearview mirror. So, I’ll jot a few notes down about why the film made my list but I am not offering up a traditional review. We’ll save that for the professionals.
Without further adieu, here’s the full list of films I saw for the first time in 2012 and then below that – some words about My Top Five* Favorite Movies Seen in 2012.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Rise of The Planet of the Apes
The Woman in Black
Dr. Seuss The Lorax
21 Jump Street
The Hunger Games
Wrath of the Titans
The Cabin in the Woods
Men in Black 3
Snow White and the Huntsmen
The Amazing Spiderman
The Dark Knight Rises
Rise of the Guardians
Now that you know what I saw, these are my favorites.
Obviously – with young children – I see a decent amount of kid’s entertainment however my two are fortunate in that they’ve got a Dad who is not just going to drag them to every piece of trash being displayed in 3D just for a couple of hours of solace. In fact, one of my proud little parenting victories is that to this day, when I ask the kids if they want to see a particular movie – Colin (9) and Aria (7) will ask me how the reviews are. One day I had explained to them that I used to review movies – using their report cards as a metaphor – so now, they crack up whenever they see some horrible flick get an F. Take that, Smurfs. 😉 On equal measure, they feel a sense of pride when a movie connects with them and they discover that it got universe critical praise. All that said, I’m not trying to dictate what they see – just that they make informed decisions and not just choke down every morsel of junk food that Hollywood is sometimes all too willing to shovel their way.
ParaNorman is one of those flicks whose poor marketing betrayed it. When we went and saw Brave last Summer (PIXAR movies are almost ALWAYS appointment viewing in my book – Cars 2, not withstanding) – anyway, we caught the trailer for ParaNorman – which was busy and loud and just seemed like another crass, late-Summer cash-in. So, we skipped it.
A couple of weeks ago, the Blu-Ray arrived in my mailbox. Once I read some of the reviews – being careful to remain spoiler-free, I was struck by the pedigree so this went in the queue. This came from the same stop-motion wizards who conjured the creepy and sublime Coraline a few years ago – meaning I was more than willing to give it a chance.
With ParaNorman – it’s official – this group makes smart, family entertainment that doesn’t pander and also realizes that some kids like a healthy scare. Here’s a flick that doesn’t play safe – with some passages that exhibit that same sense of adventure and goosebumps the Spielberg-produced Amblin flicks stirred just right when I was growing up. ParaNorman was just a real, pleasant surprise. As a kid – I would have been OBSESSED!!!
4. The Cabin in the Woods/The Avengers
And the tie goes to Joss Whedon.
Thanks to the ongoing bankruptcy hearings that saw many of MGM’s flicks mothballed on a shelf while lawyers battled over the legendary studio’s future – the Whedon-scripted The Cabin in the Woods didn’t see official distribution until this past April – despite having been completed two years prior.
A month later, Whedon unveiled his take on The Avengers – an expert entertainment that played as massive blockbuster while retaining that same feel of light-on-its-feet playfulness that Whedon’s writing almost always imparts.
What a great one-two punch of solid entertainment.
I’d known a little bit about The Cabin in the Woods when it was in production – keying in on Whedon’s involvement as well as Drew Goddard – the director who as a writer was responsible for some of the best Buffy scripts. I knew the two wanted to play with genre conventions – similar to what Kevin Williamson did with Scream a decade prior – but I was completely unprepared for the puzzle-box they had crafted. This is one of those movies that continually surprises. It also has some HUGE laughs which is not something you would glean from the trailers (and on that note – skip the trailers as they gave away WAY too much of the end game). Again, the marketing weasels missed the point. Sensing a trend?
As for The Avengers, the same excitement I had for Whedon’s contribution to Cabin left me slightly weary for The Avengers. My worry was that Whedon was a little too small-scale (a little too TV) for such a huge, sprawling adventure and I worried that this would come across as a bloop double rather than the home run that several years of Marvel universe movies had led us to expect.
And in this case – I was pleasantly surprised. Whedon commanded a brawny adventure that gave each larger-than-life hero a reason to shine (avoiding the Robert Downey Jr. show I thought it would become). It was exciting, fun, genuinely funny – and ended on a 40-minute climax that entertained mightily – employing The Hulk to crowd-pleasing effect (something that his own stand-alone movies struggled with). In addition, there is a huge stretch of the film – featuring some massive set-pieces – that wasn’t even hinted at in the trailers. For once, the marketing weasels held something back and got it right.
I’m a big James Bond fan BUT I’m the first to admit that the series quality had been dodgy over the years. For every good flick starring the Flavor-of-the-Decade Bond – there is usually a handful of films that just fall apart – or in Roger Moore’s case – all of them. I thought Pierce Brosnan made a good first showing in Goldeneye and then started edging into self-parody after that. When Daniel Craig was unveiled in Casino Royale as a back-to-basics Bond – a true blunt instrument for Her Majesty’s Secret Service – I felt the series was back on track until the follow-up, Quantum of Solace, slipped greatly with an ill-advised detour into the shaky-cam territory of the Bourne flicks.
So, what a tremendous surprise Skyfall was. This is not just a great Bond movie – it is a legitimately awesome movie in its own right. A film that could easily exist as a stand-alone revenge thriller. Daniel Craig has never been better. Javier Bardem haunts the film for the first hour – his character unseen but exuding the same menace that Hannibal Lecter did so famously in his brief Silence of the Lambs scenes – and by the time he does arrive, the film goes from very good to great.
Late in the movie, the classic Bond theme pumps through the speakers. It’s such a great moment, it feels like you’re hearing it for the very first time. 50 years in and Bond seems like he’s just getting started.
I was left cold by writer-director Riann Johnson’s first two movies: Brick and The Brothers’ Bloom. Both seem like overly stylish but empty gimmicks with an abundance of plot, character and incident but no real soul. They felt like clinical exercises in how clever the guy could be.
Looper marks a MAJOR step forward as Johnson has refined his approach. Here he builds a world full of invention, stocked with a variety of colorful characters but has streamlined his narrative approach so it never feels too busy. We take it all in and marvel at his sleight-of-hand as he slides his plot and characters into place. By barreling through the typical questions that usually bog down time travel stories, Johnson just swept me up with the very personal tale he tells.
I knew the premise – Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a hit man charged with disposing of bodies sent back from the future. When his older self emerges and subsequently escapes, he aims to hunt himself down before things go awry. It’s in the mission his older self is on – and the hard questions and painful decisions it introduces – that takes a great chase thriller and elevates it to something so human, haunting and real.
Looper just keeps coming around and around in my head – the sign of a great film.
1. Young Adult
And here my rule is made crystal clear. Young Adult released in late 2011. I saw it in early 2012. Almost a full year later, this film sticks with me. It lingers.
I first took notice of director Jason Reitman when he directed Diablo Cody’s script, Juno. I know people like to knock that film’s too-cool-for-school lingo (which is dialed back the deeper Juno plunges into her personal dilemma). Personally, Juno came to life when the title character comes face-to-face with Jennifer Garner’s perfect suburban princess. Juno is a movie where on first blush, we thought we knew these characters. We thought we knew where they were headed. And then the layers were peeled back and we found surprising depth. In fact, thinking back upon it – I remember the feelings I had when Jason Bateman’s character makes his pass at Juno. Or the later scenes between Ellen Page and Jennifer Garner, which reveal a surprising tenderness. Or Allison Janney’s no-nonsense Mom and J.K. Freeman’s Best Dad Ever!!!
The point is – Cody wrote great characters and Reitman’s direction, coupled with the actors’ performances, brought them to vibrant life.
A year later, Reitman directed Up In the Air – a movie I saw when I was knee-deep in my own real-world bout with unemployment. At one point, Clooney is firing J.K. Simmons. He asks him: “How much did they pay you to first give up on your dreams… and when were you going to stop and come back and do what makes you happy.” I was on the treadmill at the time – running for 30 minutes, watching the movie in installments – and just taking a break from the rigors of looking for the same old job I always had in a bid to support my family. That was six months into the process. Winter time. Cold. And that line – that just chilled me to my core. I stopped running. Sat down. Rewound. Watched it again. And again. And then the tears flowed.
Cody didn’t write that scene but Reitman directed it. And again, he just exhibited – at such a young age – a knack for bringing very real characters and their very real problems, hopes and desires – to stunning, vital life.
When I heard Reitman was reconnecting with Diablo Cody for Young Adult, I perked up.
Young Adult is unflinching. Uncompromising. The beautiful Charlize Theron goes real ugly (under the surface) in breathing life to Mavis Gary – a former homecoming queen who had long ago fled her perfect little life in her perfect little Midwestern hometown to pursue a career in the big city as the author of Young Adult novels. She is a horror show. A train wreck. And someone you absolutely cannot take your eyes off of. It’s a brave, fearless performance that reveals great depth in her insecurities and failings. Some of the same slight, defeated, wistful desires that so many of us feel from time to time. The friendship that develops between Mavis and Patton Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf – her nerdy former classmate unfairly ostracized back in the day – is haunting and sad and tragic AND SOMEHOW nurturing and supportive. It’s something I’ve never seen before and I was drunk on the story-telling. The unflinching and honest depiction of these two lost souls.
Without spoiling anything, Mavis doesn’t learn her lesson by the end of the movie. She doesn’t become a better person. That said, she does learn a little more about herself. She takes a long, unflinching look in the mirror – we stare right alongside her – and the impression we take away is that she may be hard to take in, but she’s a character you’ll never forget.
I wrote two plays over the last two years. One was completed before I saw Young Adult. The other – after. There’s a very good reason I love this movie. This is the type of writing I aspire to.