The biggest reason I decided a few years back to start writing about the movies online is that I didn’t feel like my point of view was redundant: I don’t know anyone who, without disdaining highbrow sensibilities, can appreciate the well-done reprise of a familiar formula as well as I do. I tend to look at the movies from a glass half-full perspective, and I never pay for a ticket hoping to dislike a film or performer. As such, I tend to find that a lot of the movies on my annual ten best list tend to be unfashionable choices, and I think that’s truer this year than usual. But as this is my first piece original to the OFR website (my Lamar’s Movie Palace website went on a hiatus that may become permanent after issues with the hosting provider and a general feeling that my writing time was better spent on other projects), best that you know this up front. In the past, I’ve been contrary enough to select titles as diverse as The Mist, Stranger than Fiction and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as the year’s best, but this year I couldn’t be any more in lock-step with the American public… or at least the way they spent their money.
BEST MOVIE OF 2012: The Avengers-Your results, as I always say, may vary, but I was never happier with a piece of movie news than when my favorite TV auteur was selected to do the film version of the comic book that defined superheroism for me as a child. And The Avengers proved to be everything I had hoped for and more: a delightfully funny and exciting adventure filled with amazing actors bringing iconic heroes to life while delivering the zippily quotable dialogue for which Joss Whedon is a geek icon. And a movie has never felt more like a comic book come to life than when the closing scenes pan through a war zone of heroes and aliens fighting it out throughout New York City as though Whedon’s camera was literally unconstrained by the laws of physics. I felt like this movie was made just for me: imagine my delight when the rest of the world came along for the ride.
2.The Dark Knight Rises-The first time I saw Christopher Nolan’s sequel to my pick as the best movie of 2008, darkened by the shadow of an hours-old mass murder, I found it an impressive but somehow disappointing follow-up. Then I saw it again. And again. And, like Nolan’s The Prestige, I discovered a mass-market blockbuster built to unlock itself on repeated viewings thanks to the precise way information is hidden in plain sight throughout that can only be understood once you’ve always seen the entire film. The usual suspects were all predictably great, and Anne Hathaway made a rock-solid Catwoman, but what really amazed me was Tom Hardy’s stunningly original work as a Bane who is not the comic book version, but an amazing original creation who torments a city with the dark power of a special combination of selfishness and hope. I can’t begin to say how many times I’ve watched world leaders and political ideologues run “The Bane Playbook” since seeing the movie; like The Dark Knight, it’s a powerful meditation on the world in which we live wrapped in a superhero’s cowl.
3.The Lorax-The best of an excellent year for
animated films. Dr. Seuss purists were aghast at how directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda expanded Theodore Geisel’s rhyming Twilight Zone of environmental doom into a toe-tapping musical of environmental doom… and hope. But I found the finished product to be an electrifying combination of dark and light (few films are ever this willing to acknowledge that we can’t be played for suckers by our leaders if we’re not willing to be), and those songs really were great.
4.Man on a Ledge-The year’s least appreciated great movie, an action/thriller machine filled with great characters and a classic bit of villainy in Ed Harris’ ruthless diamond-hording developer. Sam Worthington takes a lot of crap for some reason, but he’s a rock-solid leading man, and Pablo F. Fenjves’ playfully clever script gave everyone from Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell and the stunning Genesis Rodriguez (my “love at first sight” movie find of the year)down to that guy credited as “Bearded Guy” (Michael Lee Laurence, for the record) delightful material to play. And, of course, a movie about a guy masterminding a heist from a ledge while the cops try to talk him down plays best to those of us with a healthy fear of heights.
5.Wreck-It Ralph-Since the original Toy Story, animators everywhere have been running the “what if there were a world of real, sentient souls behind the inanimate things you take for granted” playbook, but few of those worlds have ever been as rich or delightful as the one conceived by director/co-writer Rich Moore for Ralph. Yeah, the critters who make video games come to life in an arcade have hang-ups and rivalries and secret dreams, but they also struggle with homeless characters without a game and ruthless leaders capable of reshaping the world to fit their paranoid delusions. No movie this year could be so thoroughly enjoyed on both a fun surface level and a deeper thematic one.
6.Moonrise Kingdom-The films of Wes Anderson are the ultimate “you know who you are” proposition, and by his 7th feature, they are as much about each other as the assorted other genres they reference and riff on. But he’s never been quite as inspired as in Moonrise Kingdom’s delightful juxtaposition of decades-old WWII movie clichés and mid-60’s boy scouts on a mission to find a love-stuck pair of teenagers on the run. Again, the acting challenge for those working with Anderson is to do it “his way”, and Bruce Willis and Edward Norton proved impressively suited to the task, while Bob Balaban, the master of the small, delightful role, has never been more fun than as the film’s dry, unfazed Narrator.
7.The Cabin in the Woods-And there’s Joss Whedon again, as co-writer (with director Drew Goddard) and producer of this brilliant comic horror deconstruction of both our love of Dead Teenager movies and the way bottom-line, end-justifies-the-means thinking has corrupted our society. So funny, so satirically sharp-edged, such a bloody mess: and not since Charlton Heston declared it Doomsday at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes has a Hollywood movie been willing to go so far in its climactic misanthropy.
8.Ted-I’ve always found Family Guy to be a mixed bag: hilarious at times, at others just trying to delight people who find saying what “they” don’t want you to say to be inherently delightful. But Seth McFarlane’s feature directorial debut was the year’s funniest movie because it mainlined what’s great about his comic sensibility, managed to combine genuine heart with the poop jokes and found the perfect leading man for this brand of idiocy in Mark Wahlberg. And any movie that loves Flash Gordon this sincerely has to be great.
9.The Grey-Some (not me, but some) may mourn Liam Neeson’s late-career transformation into an ass-kicking superman of action, but Joe Carnahan’s January thriller gave us the best of both worlds as it both pivoted on our ability to believe he could take on a wolf with his bare hands and provided a deep meditation on what it means to face the end of your life. The script Carnahan co-wrote with short story writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers gave Neeson one of the best roles of his career, allowed rising star Frank Grillo to shine as a bitter ex con and provided James Badge Dale with one of the all-time death scenes. And the wolves didn’t suck either: just don’t leave before the projector stops, because the movie closed with the year’s most intriguing and indispensable post-credits moment.
10.Lincoln-The year’s best performance came from Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s never been more accessible and likable than in his eerie summoning of the 16th President, who uses every political method known to man to push the 13th Amendment through Congress before the Civil War ends and takes away his leverage. Stephen Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner made the political theater of the 19th century surprisingly potent cinema thanks to an amazing cast. But nothing here is so captivating as the sense Day-Lewis creates that you are actually seeing one of the most famous Great Men whose movements were never filmed nor voice recorded come to life.
I could easily hit you with ten more: while this was a weak art house year, it was a very good one for mainstream Hollywood, with several awards season pedigree movies still due here in Central PA next month. I’ll be dropping in here from time to time to offer my thoughts on the movies of the New Year, hopefully it’ll be even better.