(This list was originally published on January 19, 2013 at Reel Film News)
2012 was a big year in film, with Christopher Nolan’s hugely anticipated Batman wrap-up “The Dark Knight Rises”, the equally long-awaited 007 installment “Skyall”, which was the first in the franchise to be directed by an Oscar Winner (Sam Mendes), and the first chapter in Peter Jackson’s technologically ambitious LOTR prequel “The Hobbit” among the highest grossing. But the year also proved to be a wildly diverse one; so much so, that while I found all three of these big budget offerings to be well-conceived and deserving of a far more intellectual tag than ‘blockbuster’, not one of them was even close to making my top ten. A lot of great original material was presented this year, covering an amazing breadth of genres, and as always it was difficult for me to compile this list without inevitably excluding more than just a few films that I loved. The bottom line is, I found each of the following picks to be somewhat of a cinematic anomaly. So here they are, the movies that moved me the most, with links to my full reviews where applicable.
#10) Jiro Dreams of Sushi – Read full review – To describe this documentary, I’ll borrow an adjective I imagine is often uttered in my mother’s book club: delightful. Director David Gelb captures an essence that others might have lost somewhere between the lens and the celluloid; in my opinion this is the most visually stunning documentary of the year, even on its microscopic scale.
#9) The Sessions – Read full review – The surprisingly upbeat true account of Mark O’Brien, a thirty-something poet who is determined to lose his virginity despite the fact that the majority of his time is spent in an iron lung. John Hawkes proves his versatility as the lead character, a brilliant and creative man who suffers from the devastating effects of polio. It’s a role that is diametrically opposed to that of his criminally insane Teardrop in “Winter’s Bone”. Helen Hunt is seriously bold as the sex surrogate that he hires, and William H. Macy is hilarious as O’Brien’s unusually down-to-earth priest.
#8) Safety Not Guaranteed – Maybe the year’s biggest sleeper, this one is a bizarre mix of genres that manages to maintain a perfectly quirky chemistry between its two leads (a dry but complex Mark Duplass and the one-of-a-kind, super-sardonic Aubrey Plaza, NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”). If you think the concept is strange – a man posting an ad in the classifieds in search of a suitable time travel partner – wait until you see what happens when it’s responded to by a fledgling journalist who’s hoping to catch a story. Funny, smart and most importantly, different from anything else in the realm of ‘relationship’ comedies, “SNG” is mumblecore meets sci-fi, though the latter (being the time travel concept) is presented more as a ‘what if’ than a component of the story. The beauty of the film is that you never know which way it’s going to go; Jake Johnson (TV’s “New Girl”) is great as Plaza’s emotional wreck of a boss who masquerades as a shallow, masculine stereotype.
#7) The Cabin in the Woods – Read full review – If for nothing other than the impact Joss Whedon’s story will have on the horror genre, this is a must-see. If you haven’t been ruined by trailers or Wikipedia, keep it that way and order it On Demand or Blu-ray immediately. Co-written and directed by Drew Goddard (“Cloverfield”).
#6) Jeff, Who Lives at Home – Read full review – You know it’s an interesting year when Mark Duplass pops up on your Top 10 radar three times (see also my full review for pick #1), something I wouldn’t have predicted from his role on FX’s crude but funny series “The League”. Here he doesn’t star, but co-directs with his brother Jay, with whom he’s best known for creating 2010‘s much darker “Cyrus”; in “Jeff”, they infuse life’s daily disasters with a bright optimism brought by the title character, played by Jason Segel (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”). It’s an unexpected treat that exudes a glass-half-full attitude from a well of family dysfunction. Also starring Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon.
#5) Les Misérables – Read full review – Particularly for someone who’s not a huge fan of musicals (and hasn’t seen the play in over twenty years), I was blown away by “Les Mis”. Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) harnesses raw emotion by having all the songs performed live; Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman dredge up raw emotion like I’ve never seen in this type of production.
#4) The Raid: Redemption – Read full review – Maybe the best straight-up action film I’ve ever seen, “The Raid” combines the best aspects of “Die Hard”, John Woo’s “Hard Boiled”, and contemporary martial arts fare like “Ong Bak”, stirring them into a frenetic cocktail that will have you shouting obscenities out of sheer disbelief. The choreography is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Indeed, this film might ruin action films for you for a while, at least until director Gareth Evans completes the sequel “Berandal” later this year. Not for the faint of heart.
#3) Looper – Read full review – Rian Johnson’s sharp, violent film explores the repercussions of time travel like I’ve never seen. Bruce Willis plays a man who’s at odds with his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a morally bankrupt assassin in the year 2044 who must kill the older incarnation of himself to avoid a major conundrum. Comparison to films like “Terminator” and “Logan’s Run” is inevitable, but Johnson’s original screenplay is so good that you’ll likely forget about anything that might have inspired it.
#2) Silver Linings Playbook – Read full review – This film is difficult to explain, but to call it ‘quirky’ would be doing it a major injustice; director David O. Russell (“Three Kings”) creates a very unusual vibe as he tells the story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), a man who moves back in with his parents after being released from a mental institution. Avoiding ‘rom-com’ type conventions, the story is kept on track by the volatile relationship between Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, “The Hunger Games”), a friend’s sister who agrees to help him communicate with his estranged wife. Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver convey just the right amount of their own insanity as Pat’s parents; a real testament to the script is that Chris Tucker has a substantial role, and isn’t once annoying. “Playbook” is an extremely well-written, often hilarious film that left me with just the right feeling.
#1) Zero Dark Thirty – Read full review – Kathryn Bigelow’s account of the ten years leading to Osama bin Laden’s execution seems like neither a glorification nor a criticism of what transpired during that decade. Engaging on every level, with an incredible cast led by Jessica Chastain (“The Debt”, “The Help”), the film jumps confidently onto the CIA rollercoaster that resulted in Seal Team Six’s infiltration of the terrorist’s compound in 2011. It’s the only film I can think of that purposefully avoids the emotional depth typically associated with extensive character development while still achieving such a sustained level of tension; perhaps because we all know the tragic back story, which is recounted as the film opens with heartbreaking audio from 9/11, Bigelow doesn’t cheapen it with Hollywood gimmicks. It’s nearly a perfect film.