Here it is: the biggest, the bestest, the baddest roundup of the year. Once again, Mr. Souther and I have worn ourselves to a frazzle — two frazzles, in fact — sifting through the excitement (and occassionally, excrement) of movie year 2012. We will please some, displease others, and probably make a few folks downright peevish.
In this the year of our bloat, 2012, it often seemed like moviegoing was something of an endurance test — of the bladder, if nothing else. So many of the year’s heavy-hitters — and would be heavy-hitters — were nothing if not long-winded. Clocking in at over 130 minutes (often significantly), we had The Dark Knight Rises (165 min.), The Avengers (143 min.), Flight (138 min.), Cloud Atlas (172 min.), Lincoln (150 min.), The Master (144 min.), Skyfall (143 min.), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (169 min.), This Is 40 (134 min.), Les Miserables (157 min.), Django Unchained (165 min.), and Zero Dark Thirty (157 min.). (I’m probably forgetting something.) Even an inconsequential actioner like Jack Reacher — a 90 minute movie if there ever was one — clocked in at 130 minutes. In all honesty, only two of those struck me as really justifying those running times. Then again, there were a few movies in the 85-95 minute range that seemed longer than many of them.
What strikes me as even more peculiar about the movie year is that there were a lot of good films, but by the time I made it to the last two slots on my list, I was stuck in a kind of “any of these will do” mindset. The top eight are solid for me. The last two — not so much. I like them, but the excitement isn’t there. They could just as easily be any of the also-rans — Being Flynn, Hysteria, The Deep Blue Sea, Silver Linings Playbook, Frankenweenie, Killer Joe, Bernie, Headhunters, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, To Rome with Love. or even Dark Shadows. Maybe I should say “especially Dark Shadows,” since I like that better every time I see it. In fact, if I don’t stop fooling around with this list, it’s apt to get there, so I’d probably better stop while I can.
1. Anna Karenina. If you had told me that my favorite film of 2012 would turn out to be an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I’d have thought you were just plain screwy. I wasn’t even looking forward to seeing it. I didn’t want to see another version of the story, and director Joe Wright had fairly consistently let me down post-Pride & Prejudice (2005). Even while I was immediately transfixed by the approach Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard were taking, I spent most of my first (of four so far) viewing waiting for it to falter. It never did. This amalgam of Josef von Sternberg, Ken Russell, and Baz Luhrmann — with its own distinct voice — is simply the most amazing filmmaking I’ve seen in a very long time. Also, the more I’ve watched it, the more I’ve realized that all the unarguable “showiness” of the film actually is part of a larger point. The image looking down on Anna in that deep red dress — making it appear she’s standing in a pool of blood — while she looks up, dazzled by the fireworks may be the single most stunning moment of the year — and one that’s as much substance as style.
2. Cloud Atlas. It’s big, it’s sprawling, it’s nearly three hours long — and it justifies its length all the way through. That’s no mean feat, especially this year. It’s very nearly as breathtaking as Anna Karenina, and even more ambitious in scope and the attempt to push the boundaries of film. Simply outstanding. Frankly, I feel that the people who attacked the film are people who don’t like movies and insist that if it’s fun, it ain’t art. (You know who you are.)
3. Moonrise Kingdom. For me, there’s really no one out there making films as consistently wonderful today as Wes Anderson. His latest is no exception. What’s fascinating is that it attracted more admirers than any of his previous films — and it did it without any evidence of Anderson listening to his detractors. Go figure. The only real difference is that it has a truly charming hand-made quality that makes it feel almost like a home movie. I know at least one dyed-in-the-wool Andersonian who was disappointed by it — though he never said why. I wonder if a subsequent viewing has altered his viewpoint.
4. Holy Motors. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is easily the most outlandish, aggressive, and strangest film of the year. It’s also one of the most wildly creative and oddly moving. Is it about the death of cinema? Is it about the rebirth of cinema as somethig else? Probably. It’s like nothing else — something more to be experienced than just seen. I’m actually a little surprised that this generated very few complaints — certainly less than I heard over Damsels in Distress. My guess is that people who were likely to hate the film realized that it probably wasn’t for them and just stayed away. Whatever the case, it’s one of those movies that has served to make me start tracking other examples of a filmmaker’s work. (The Asheville Film Society is reaping the benefits of this later this month with The Lovers on the Bridge. Whether they will thank me remains to be seen.) If nothing else, I believe that the film makes a strong case that an accordion band entr’acte would benefit most films.
5. Django Unchained. OK, Quentin Tarantino’s latest may not have a climax with quite the impact of his Inglourious Basterds (2009), but that’s a tough act to follow. All in all, though, I think this is a smoother ride — and whatever else it is, it’s probably the most sheer fun I had at the movies all year. As for its more strident detractors, I’m not sure what to make of them. To some degree, I simply think it was Tarantino’s time for a bit of fan backlash. (Fans seem to be funny that way — and I don’t mean funny ha ha.) However, I think both Tarantino and the film will weather this. I’ve seen this little drama played out in the arts far too often to get worked up about. Let’s see how the film looks in 20 — even 10 — years.
6. Safety Not Guaranteed. Boy, this little movie — all 86 minutes of it — came out of nowhere. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly here fashioned a film that delighted and moved me from first to last, managing to pack the film’s short running time with more undercurrents and meaning than most of the year’s ponderously overlong titles. Plus, it — along with Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister — made me really like Mark Duplass as an actor. (As a director…well, that’s still another matter, but since he and his brother Jay functioned as executive producers here, I don’t feel like holding a grudge. I’d still like to buy them a tripod, though.) Plus, any movie that can get me to buy a new song — “Big Machine” — has accomplished something. This ought to get a Best Song Oscar nomination — and it’s actually in the movie, not just over the end credits — but I’m betting it doesn’t.
7. Damsels in Distress. Whit Stillman’s Damsels and Distress was another sweet surprise — and one that served to polarize viewers (which baffles me). It’s witty, charming, and peculiarly good-hearted. It has also sent me into a frenzy of checking out Stillman’s other movies. So far, I’ve seen Metropolitan and Barcelona (once again, the AFS is going to share my enthusiasm — I hope). If I had to offer a quick description, I’d say Stillman is like Wes Anderson (or Anderson is like him), but with less (a lot less) visual panache. His films also remind my a good bit of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s The Extra Man.
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower Yet another surprise. Stephen Chbosky’s film of his own novel didn’t seem — on the surface at least — like it would be anything to get excited about. It was. It turned out be one of the few coming-of-age stories I’ve ever seen that managed to capture both the heartbreak and the fleeting joy of the characters. That it recognizes the beauty of that moment when you first feel a connection to a group of people, but underscores everything with the realization that this won’t last is what really makes it something out of the ordinary. If there is any justice in this wicked world, Ezra Miller will be up for a Supporting Actor Oscar. I doubt that will happen.
9. Seven Psychopaths. Here’s where my list gets tricky. Now, I really liked — maybe even loved — this latest film from Martin McDonagh. But I only got to see it once (everything else on this list except Django Unchained I’ve seen multiple times), and it hasn’t stayed with me as much as I thought it would. I don’t mean to downplay, because I know I enjoyed every minute of it, and the performances of Christopher Walken, Colin Farrell, and, especially, Sam Rockwell were very fine indeed. Plus, I like the fact that a likable character in an essentially comedic movie is no guarantee of said character being among the living by the final reel. I’m not sure how I’ll feel on subsequent viewings, but I’m anxious to find out. I’m guessing it will put me back where I was the day I saw it. I guess I’ll find out at the end of this month.
10. The Paperboy. Yes, it’s trash. In fact, I’m ready to proclaim Lee Daniels as the reigning king of trash. (For all its acclaim, leave us face it, Precious was pretty darn trashy.) But it’s trash with heart, and one of the most compellingly watchable films of the year. (I’ve seen it three times now.) I think it is perhaps the most underrated and overlooked film of the year — and with three of the most daring performances (Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, and, yes, Zac Efron). When exactly did McConaughey become someone whose name on a film generated interest instead of cold dread? And all this nonsense about Helen Hunt taking her clothes off in the overrated The Sessions being “brave?” Please. Nicole Kidman is positively fearless here — and doesn’t even actually get naked.
1. Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. This may well be the most utterly loathesome movie I’ve ever seen. It even has a good shot at being the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I confess I’m not hip enough to appreciate the idea of comedy that is supposed to be funny because it’s not funny, and, you know what? I’m cool with that. Proving that misery loves company, I dared a certain party to watch the nasty thing. He did. Amazingly, he is still speaking to me. Next, I think I’ll see if I can dare him to slam his finger in a car door for fun.
2. This Is 40. No, this is narcissistic rubbish. That is what this is. And the appalling thing is that I didn’t have to watch it. But I did — out of some warped notion of seeing everything that the studios had tagged as being award worthy. And maybe a little to see if George Harrison’s “What Is Life?” was actually in the film ot just some trap to lure unsuspecting baby boomers into watching this crap. (It was the latter.) I have to admit that I’ve mostly disliked all of Judd Apatow’s films. I find them at best obnoxious, but this one plumbed uncharted depths of self-absorbed navel-gazing. He has here firmly established himself as the male Nancy Meyers. I think that may be a capital offense.
3. Atlas Shrugged: Part II. Once more the gospel of the Free Market wandered onto movie screens — with all the aplomb of a frazzled accountant who stumbled onto the set by accident. Once more, the Free Market moviegoing public yawned and kept its distance. Even a brand new cast (no better than the Part I’s cast) and presenting Randian superman John Galt like Jesus in an old Biblical epic — a hand here, a backlit silhouette there — failed to impress the public. The burning question now is will there be a part three? No word on that that I can find. Maybe they’re trying to figure out how to squeeze two movies out of what’s left.
4. Paranormal Activity 4. My wife — who had never been subjected to a Paranormal Studity movie before — said this was probably the worst movie she’d ever seen. That seems pretty reasonable to me — especially since she didn’t see the first three movies on this list.
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know I’m going to get crap over the inclusion of this critical darling, but I seriously dislike the thing. The further I get away from it, the more I dislike it. A second attempt at sitting through it didn’t help. Apart from a large dose of “Noble Savage” gawking — “See the quaint Bathtub People in their natural setting scrap piles and trash!” — and an irresistibly cute little girl gravely tromping around in white fishhouse boots, occasionally spouting faux poetic bumpersticker philosophy (I don’t for a moment believe she understands), I don’t see much to it. Apart from a lot of pointless shaky-cam, that is — it certainly has that.
6. The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure. The title alone says it all. Still, I take a certain pride in being one of the 20 or so people who actually saw it. I can prove it, too, because there’s one of the butterfly glo-sticks (it glows no more, alas) they gave out festooning a flower bed in the backyard.
7. Chernobyl Diaries. Underexposed radiated Russian mutant cannibal hillbillies chase unlikable American touristskis around the ruins of Chernobyl. Most of it’s so dark you can’t see anything. That’s probably in its favor.
8. The Watch. Unfriendly aliens, a swearing R. Lee Ermey, a cast that thinks themselves a lot funnier than I do, and dick jokes. Lots and lots of dick jokes. Why does Vince have a career?
9. Silent House. It’s the Russian Ark of low-rent horror — only not really. It purported to be filmed in one long take in real time. Then the makers admitted they cheated and it really wasn’t. Strictly for people who like looking at Elizabeth Olsen screw-up her face and look scared. We get this crap, but we don’t get Ti West’s The Innkeepers. There’s something wrong about that.
10. Resident Evil: Retribution. “Actress” Milla Jovovich wears leather and kicks zombie ass. Again. The only scary thing about this is it grossed over $221 million. That means more leather, more Milla, more zombies, more tedium.
Justin Souther’s Lists
In the six-plus years of being that other critic at the Xpress, I’ve struggled with this Top Ten list more than any other. Sure, there were a lot of good films (2012 should be remembered — if for nothing else — as a great year for really solid mainstream entertainment), but how much of it was truly great? With that in mind — and the apparent fact that as I get older, the pickier I seem to get (though I’m sure that’s disputable to many, but I digress) — here’s what I’ve come up with, the films of 2012 that I most enjoyed, were mosted wowed by, and will remember the most fondly, and the closest to definitive I’m bound to get.
1. Cloud Atlas. When I first saw Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Twyker’s Cloud Atlas I liked it, appreciating it’s ambition and it’s desire to be nothing more than just a grand piece of moviemaking. In the intervening months it’s grown on me, and has become unequivocally my favorite film of the year. It’s not just the scope of Cloud Atlas which impresses me, but the intricate, endlessly fascinating way in which its numerous storylines are constructed, and its ability to never fear being too romantic or simply naive. Few films these days are ambitious, and when they are, even fewer pay off. With Cloud Atlas, it does, for the years most grandiose, sprawling, and magnificent piece of filmmaking, ending up with a movie impossible to ignore.
2. Seven Psychopaths. As I’ve perused the Top Ten lists of various critics and critics’ associations, I’m starting to get the feeling that I love Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths more than just about anyone else. And that’s perfectly fine with me. Coming off his debut In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths is every bit as off-color and hilarious (a comedy built around dialogue is such a rare thing), we see a director who’s become so much more assured behind the camera, while his ability as a writer should put him up there with (and in some cases, beyond) the Coens and Tarantinos of the world.. But what makes Seven Psychopaths so special is that we have a film — in between all the blood, guts, and violence — that’s really just a quaint story about friendship. That it’s the most fun I had in a theater all year is just a plus.
3.Moonrise Kingdom. Here’s the film that got the moviegoing public back on the side of Wes Anderson (ironically with the most Andersonian film he’s created to date), while the rest of us — those who loved everything he’s done post-Royal Tenenbaums — got yet another movie to fall in love with. With Moonrise Kingdom. With this tale of teenage love and the hope that comes along with youth, we get America’s most singular director (no matter how many people cop his style) working once again inside his own imagination, making his most whimsical film yet.
4. Looper. I’ve struggled with no other movie on this list more than Rian Johnson’s Looper. At one point, it was my favorite film of the year, and it’s slowly slid down. A lot of it had to do with a plot that’s quite reliant on cleverness and the fact that it’s just not Brick or The Brothers Bloom. But we can’t judge a film for what it’s not; we have to judge it for what it is. And what Looper is — below the surface bluster of its time travel storyline — is a masterful exercise in intelligent, well-acted sci-fi and neo-noir, with an almost genteel story at its center. We may never know if any of it actually makes any logical sense, but science fiction’s rarely been done better — or more fun.
5. Damsels in Distress. Through all kinds of failings of my own, I’d never encountered a Whit Stillman film before I caught Damsels in Distress.This was obviously some great failing on my end, since what I found was a man with a wonderful sense of deadpan humor and the ability to write the most memorable, quotable dialogue of 2012. Wonderfully preposterous, and beautifully kind-hearted, Damsels in Distress manages to be hilarious and uplifting in the best kind of way.
6. Django Unchained. At this point, the formula is set with Quentin Tarantino. There’s going to be a lot of absurd violence, pop music, a roughly three hour long runtime, and nearly the entire cast being killed off. But if you’re doing something right, you’re really good at it, and it’s fun, where’s the problem in repeating yourself? (let’s call it “The Law of the Ramones.”) With Django Unchained, Tarantino — while still being our most viscerally satisfying director — is slowly honing his skills as a filmmaker while creating the perfect antecedent to all the stodginess of awards season.
7. Anna Karenina. I’m a sucker for neat movies, and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is the year’s neatest movie, with its fluid sets and choreographed movements. That alone would make the film worth consideration, but here, Wright finally cashes in on the promise he showed with Pride and Prejudice with this understated tragedy — and exercise in full-throated filmmaking that’s filled to the brim with life. Perhaps the most gorgeous film of 2012, Wright manages to wedge himself inside the traditions of some of cinema’s most playful heavyweights like Ken Russell and Josef von Sternberg, proving once and for all that there’s no need for costume dramas to be stuffy.
8. To Rome With Love. When you get the point Woody Allen has in his long career, with the kinds of great films he has in his catalogue, it’s easy to overlook a film because it’s not Manhattan or a Midnight in Paris. But with that said, there’s not a lot of directors out there who can tout a To Rome With Love either, which might be a more purely funny than anything the man’s put out in years. Often surreal, consistently funny, and populated with a great cast, To Rome With Love proves that even Woody operating just below the top of his game is still better than most.
9. Killer Joe. This spot really comes down to who’s more insane, Lee Daniels or William Friedkin. In a year with one other great, overheated trash masterpiece in Daniels’ The Paperboy, I could only pick one, and Friedkin’s Killer Joe won out — but just barely. While it lacks the heart of Daniels’ film (not to mention a psychic sex scene between Nicole Kidman and John Cusack), Killer Joe is somehow the more daring. A pitch black spiral into murder, white trash, and fried chicken, Friedkin’s film is unsettling and shocking, not an easy task in this day and age. Propped up with a great performance by Matthew McConaughey that runs from nuanced to beautifully over-the-top, this is one nasty, darkly comic little number.
10. Silver Linings Playbook. By both subverting and subscribing to the same old romcom formula, David O. Russell makes one of the year’s most satisfying — but not intelligence insulting — crowd-pleasers of the year. With a cast who’ve either never been this good before (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence) or rarely are these days (Robert De Niro) and Russell’s usual sharp dialogue, Silver Linings Playbook takes its broken characters and makes them people you can — and want to — root for and relate to.
Other films that almost made it but just missed out are the aforementioned The Paperboy, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Steven Soderbergh’s duo of Haywire and Magic Mike, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. As for the movie I enjoyed way more than I should admit, there’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street, which has the added bonus — along with Magic Mike — of doing what once seemed impossible, and making Channing Tatum and really likable star.
1. Ted. Look, I know people like this movie. I know people will defend it. But if you met this movie on the sidewalk, you’d cross the street to get away with it. In between the rapid fire fart jokes, we get a movie casually trafficking in homophobia, racism, sexism, and the worst kind of ‘80s pop culture pandering, Seth MacFarlane’s Ted is a fetid sore on the face of cinema, a catalog of everything wrong with modern comedy. Make a dumb movie if you must, but Ted is a collection of the dumbest. The best way I can describe it is if you took those scenes from Ace Ventura where Jim Carrey literally talks via his ass and stretched it to a feature length you’d get this, but it’d be somehow less classy.
2. This is 40. Ted disgusted me. Judd Apatow’s This is 40 angered me with its tone deaf, out-of-touch view of the world. Would you like to know how hard Judd Apatow’s life is as a rich guy? Here’s a two hour-plus thesis on the subject. Feed it to a woodchipper.
3. End of Watch. William Friedkin apparently said that this was the best cop movie he’s ever seen. I told you he’s insane. A dumbed down found footage approach to the cop drama that claws at realism, yet is the most frustratingly, distracting unlikable and nonsensical movie of the year.
4. Man With the Iron Fists. Want to know why this movie sucks? Go watch Django Unchained. Both films pay fanboy homage to earlier films and cinematic movements, but Django is filtered through Tarantino’s worldview (even if that worldview is only other movies, it’s a worldview). Man With the Iron Fists, on the other hand, is fanfiction — a dull, listless attempt at a kung-fu epic full of bad CGI, jumbled action scenes, a boring lead (in the shape of director RZA), and one really overweight Russell Crowe.
5. Won’t Back Down. With the most manipulative opening I’ve ever seen committed to film, and a villain in the form of a teachers’ union boss who falls just short of throwing Maggie Gyllenhaal onto a railroad track whilst twirling his mustache, it’s safe to say that I don’t agree with Won’t Back Down’s anti-union politics. But the problem with the film is that it wants to have it both ways, pretending to be a fair discussion of America’s educational system, but then playing dirty pool in the most underhanded of ways. At least have the conviction to be honest with your audience because it’s intelligence insulting. And don’t be boring. That’s important, too.
6. The Savages. In Taylor Kitsch’s career meltdown of 2012, the worst of the lot (I honestly enjoyed John Carter a good bit, and Battleship more than I should admit) is Oliver Stone’s The Savages. Here, Stone wants so much to be hip again by making a bloody crime drama, but any cool he had he lost long ago. Now he’s just the late middle-aged dude in designer jeans and too much hair gel hanging out at the mall.
7. Pitch Perfect. Sometimes I hate music. Pitch Perfect was one of those times.
8. Red Tails. The Tuskegee Airmen are a worthy topic for a film. Turning them into bargain basement Star Wars isn’t the way to do it.
9. Project X. And the annual Dumbass High School Party Movie Full of Dick Jokes award goes to…
10. Parental Guidance. A week ago I reviewed this film and said it was very near the top of the worst movies I saw all year. At that time, I figured it’d end up around the number three spot. But in the intervening days, I realized that — no matter how hard Billy Crystal tries — Parental Guidance doesn’t actually transcend awfulness. It’s just lazy, cheap moviemaking. So lazy and cheap, in fact, it can’t even be bothered to be any worse than it is.