2012 was a really good year for movies. I’m not sure if it was truly great, or only great compared to the last couple of so-so years, but either way, I’ll take it.
The general public must have felt the same way because 2012 was a banner year at the box office, not only financially, but in the number of tickets purchased. It turns out if you make good movies, more people will show up. Who knew?
This was a year that wasn’t just buoyed by a few great movies but was instead really solid across the board. Things started off well with the impressive launch of “The Hunger Games” franchise and then rolled into a respectable run of summer blockbusters with “The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.” The last was a franchise reboot made for the most cynical of reasons, so Sony could retain the rights to the character. The film could have been terrible, but instead turned out to be both exciting and heartfelt.
Family movies like “Brave,” “Frankenweenie,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “ParaNorman” made it worth dragging the kids out to the theater. We also got a great Bond movie (“Skyfall”) and a more than satisfactory return to Middle Earth (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”) to boot.
There were awesome sci-fi flicks (“Looper”) and musicals (“Les Miserables”) and even shockingly good movies about male strippers (“Magic Mike”).
Even the movies that failed to fully deliver on lofty expectations, like “Prometheus” and “Cloud Atlas,” still managed to offer up some astoundingly memorable moments and at least swung and missed in new and interesting ways.
But there can be only 10 at the top of a list of arbitrary greatness and here they are, in my humble estimation:
#10 “The Cabin in the Woods” – This brilliant little deconstructionist slice of horror was also one of the funniest movies of the year. Wholly original and occasionally profound, you’re guaranteed to never look at horror movies, or mermen, the same way ever again.
#9 “The Master” – As the weightiest, heaviest, most super-serious movie on the list it is also the most inaccessible. However, for the patient, it just might also be the most rewarding. Auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson can pack quite a wallop and his cast straight-up brings it. Your processing begins now.
#8 “Moonrise Kingdom” – Director Wes Anderson has always been accused of being a little too cute and mannered, so he decided to turn into the skid and delivered a cute and mannered masterpiece. This story of young love set on a secluded New England island in the 1960s is a pure delight. Plus it features a shirtless, ax-wielding Bill Murray, which in and of itself would make virtually any movie great.
#7 “The Sessions” – A movie about sex and the physically handicapped sounds at the best exploitative and at the worst depressing, but “The Sessions” is incredibly joyous and life-affirming. Featuring two of the year’s best performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, it is the most wholesome, sexually graphic movie you will ever see.
#6 “Silver Linings Playbook” – Filmmaker David O. Russell took the romantic comedy formula and used it to dig deep into subjects like mental illness, extended family relationships, and sports fanaticism. It also makes me long for a prequel so we can find out exactly what Robert De Niro’s character did to get banned for life from Philadelphia Eagles games, which I didn’t think was possible for anything short of murder.
#5 “Life of Pi” – This film about a boy stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger is not only beautiful, stirring, and spiritual, but also one of the rare movies worth dropping the extra cash to see in 3D. Pretty much any of the movies from here on out easily could have been the best picture of the year had they come out in 2010 or 2011.
#4 “Zero Dark Thirty” – Already at the top of a lot of critics’ lists even though it hasn’t even opened in most of the country, this movie chronicles the CIA’s warts-and-all efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Take a riveting performance by Jessica Chastain and everything that makes the TV show “Homeland” great (only it’s real!) and you’ve got one pulse-racing, morally problematic thrill ride.
#3 “Argo – This movie marks Ben Affleck’s full transformation from national punch line to prestige director. Modeled after the great ’70s potboilers, Affleck takes a little-known historical footnote from the Iran Hostage Crisis and uses it to poke at the folly inherent in both international espionage and Hollywood. Somewhere Ashton Kutcher frantically tries to find the phone number of Affleck’s life coach.
#2 “Lincoln” – Talk about your cinematic heavyweights. With the creative talents of Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Tony Kushner leading the way and a supporting cast of basically every great living character actor in reserve, you would expect nothing less for taking on America’s greatest president. Sure it’s talky, procedural, and takes its share of dramatic license, but it also breathes life into a lofty historical figure and it gives us a performance for the ages. If Day-Lewis keeps this up, we might have to seriously consider putting his face on money.
#1 “Django Unchained” – Quentin Tarantino speaks English as well as anyone ever has, but his first language is that of the cinema. Here he delivers a movie as wild, bloody, and hilarious as anything he has ever done. He also does what no other filmmaker has really ever dared to do, and that is to look straight into the face of America’s deepest historical shame, slavery; and then, just because he can, he winks. This is a movie that literally no other director could have made, or likely would have had the cojones to make, and that’s enough for me to place it at the top of a very competitive list.