I didn’t realize until very late in the year just how many great movies I saw in 2012. Here’s a list of the ones I recommend most, along with a few to stay away from.
* The Queen of Versailles – A thought-provoking look at wealth, affluence, arrogance and crushing, humiliating failure, in that order, The Queen of Versailles was the best and most compelling documentary I’ve seen in years. To describe it in any detail is almost certain to spoil some of its wonders, but believe me when I tell you that this movie answers many of your questions about the collapse of the American economy, and why it so richly had it coming.
* The Cabin in the Woods – The second-most-fun Joss Whedon-involved movie I saw this year, The Cabin in the Woods seems to get more brilliant and multi-faceted every time I watch it. It feels like a summation of everything Whedon and his colleagues had been working to up until now, but the real joy of it is that it’s whatever you want it to be – straight-up horror movie, dazzling deconstruction, amazing tribute to every other horror movie and TV series that came before it. My only disappointment, and this is a minor quibble, indeed, but the final image really should have been a tentacle, not a human hand, taking the final action seen in the film.
* End of Watch – I thought I was going to hate the two L.A. cops this movie follows around, because the initial scenes set you up to think you’re going to see the typical, corrupt L.A. police doing their typical, corrupt thing. The movie turns that expectation on its ear and draws you into the lives of these decent kids, over their heads and trying to do the right thing in an unbelievably difficult job that ultimately wreaks far more havoc on their lives than you could possibly expect. One of the most immersive and engaging movies I saw all year.
* The Avengers – No, it’s not the best movie of the year. It’s not even the best action movie of the year, and I’m not even sure it’s the best superhero movie of the year. On top of all that, I have serious ethical issues with Marvel and Disney that make it impossible for me to unreservedly love this movie, which is a fucking shame, because there was no movie at which I had a better time than at The Avengers. As a fan of these characters and the comic book since, Christ, Gerald Ford was President, Joss Whedon turned out absolutely the movie I never knew I always wanted to see. Seeing Thor, Iron Man and Captain America up there on the screen and actually believing in them, an d believing it is them? What an experience to be able to deliver to a cynical, nearly-47-year-old comic book reader like me. There’s probably no movie on this list I’ll rewatch more in years to come than The Avengers. If only Marvel and Disney would make things right with all the comics creators and their families who made it possible for the movie to exist in the first place, then I could love it even more, and it would be so very easy for them to do.
* Prometheus – This one surprised me, as I am not the biggest fan of the Alien franchise, despite my respect for Ridley Scott’s original film. But I really liked the tone and mood established throughout Prometheus, and I didn’t let the nit-picky details of how the movie joins together Alien and Blade Runner bother me a bit. By the end I was cheering for how much I enjoyed this as a movie, and I would be quite happy to see a sequel, if Scott is game to make one.
* Skyfall – My favourite action movie of the year, this is another one that, like The Cabin in the Woods, lets you experience it however you want while providing a rollicking good time at the movies. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen from beginning to end, and Javier Bardem is the best movie villain in years. I’ve only seen a handful of James Bond movies over the course of my life, but this one made me feel like I had seen and loved them all.
* Wreck-It Ralph – I never would have seen this of my own volition, but my son wanted to see it for his birthday, being a huge videogame aficionado, and I am glad he asked us to take him. I can’t say as I caught all the references and Easter eggs throughout the movie, but it was fun, and funny, and absolutely delightful to watch.
* Amazing Spider-Man – I feel like I had a good time at every one of the three previous Spider-Man movies, but this one was the first one that really felt to me like a Spider-Man comic translated to the big screen. Peter felt like Peter, Gwen felt like Gwen, and although I was dubious about the need to reboot the franchise already, I would love to see more movies following up in this style and direction.
* Man on a Ledge – This could have been your standard, almost-straight-to-DVD action thriller, but excellent casting and cinematography and good character work made this highly watchable and thoroughly enjoyable. It also zigs a couple of times when you expect it to zag, a most welcome and increasingly rare tendency in mainstream movies these days.
* John Carter – Don’t believe the anti-hype. Disney had a reason for wanting to tank this movie, but whatever the motive for the bad marketing and utter lack of faith the studio demonstrated, this was a better-than-average action movie thoughtfully adapted from the original ERB novel. I do think that the narrative mechanism by which Carter gets to Mars (and back to Earth), may have been too confusing for some studio execs to wrap their brains around, but whatever the reason this movie was allowed to fail, the fact is that it’s far more engaging and holds up far better than two-thirds of the Star Wars movies that plundered the original source material anyway.
* Killer Joe – A trailer park hillbilly nightmare, painted in vibrant blues and reds and populated by utterly convincing characters doing utterly abhorrent things to each other and to themselves, again and again. Meticulously plotted and fabulously acted, this was the best crime movie of the year, and a darkly comic exploration of the depths of human greed and indecency.
Disappointments of the Year
* Arbitrage – I’ve seen this on some best-of-2012 lists, and it holds together well enough that I can understand why, but I can’t help but feel that there was some essential element of humanity missing from the script that would have put it on my other list, instead of leaving me disappointed and dissatisfied.
* The Dark Knight Rises – Ah, God, where to even begin, and what would be the point anyway? Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” is a trilogy only in the sense that it’s three movies by the same director, with the same guy playing Batman; but they hang together as a single narrative not at all, and other than Heath Ledger’s career-redefining (and -ending, sadly) turn as The Joker, these movies represent many hours of my life I’ll never get back, and never look back fondly on. The third, this one, was the biggest and most ridiculous stinker of the bunch, but none of them deserve the acclaim or box-office receipts they snagged.
* Taken 2 – There’s almost nothing believable in this movie, and despite the fact that lots of shit blows up real good, there’s not much entertainment value to be found. I’m exhausted beyond words by Liam Neeson’s po-faced, fake-accented dramatic “acting,” and I’m pretty sure Maggie Grace, playing a college co-ed, is old enough by now that it’s not entirely impossible that she could be somebody’s grandmother. Add in the actress who played Jean Grey in the X-Men movies as a wet dishrag of an ex-wife that we’re supposed to believe Neeson is pining away for, and you’ve got a recipe for utter tedium. It’s obscene and disgraceful how much money is spent on useless, joyless crap like this by Hollywood studios, on a seemingly weekly basis.
* Looper – Yeah, I didn’t like Brick, the director’s previous and much-loved movie, either. I think the biggest problem with Looper is that, intellectually, it was too big for its britches. It required an understanding of physics and theoretical temporal mechanics, or at least a really good bluff in that direction, and instead depended on undercooked emotional beats and an inversion of the Terminator formula to try to win over audiences. In my case, it was a big bag of fail.
* This Means War – It’s probably not fair to judge this as harshly as I did, because it’s a chick flick through and through, but when the guys who played Bane and the new Captain Kirk team up in an action movie, even one with (in this case pretty icky) romantic overtones, I expect a hell of a lot more than this delivered. My wife enjoyed it, though.
* Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope - I am repulsed and disgusted by the comics culture this film maddeningly celebrates and deifies, and so I was repulsed and disgusted by this film, despite loving director Morgan Spurlock’s other works. As a cautionary tale warning deluded, untalented comics wannabes about the disregard, contempt and disinterest they are destined to experience within comics, I suppose it could have some value, but idiots like the ones on display in this movie will never accept the truth about how little they have to offer the world, just another consequence of our current “Everyone gets a ribbon!” culture. Comics: We’re all winners. Yay.
* Ted – As a latecomer to both Family Guy and American Dad, I am amazed at how little of the spark and humour of those series survived into this film by Seth McFarlane. The stock feel-good Hollywood ending was the final nail in the coffin of this disappointing, would-be comedy.
* Ruby Sparks – I really wanted to like this one, as its central conceit – a writer writes an actual human being into existence and then has to deal with the responsibilities he has once he realizes he can write and re-write her any way he wants – holds tons of potential. Furthermore, the film looks and feels like the type of independent film I usually go for. But despite some nice moments and decent casting and acting, I felt like this was taken far more seriously than it should have been by those responsible for bringing it to the screen, with not enough attention paid to the themes it carries and the questions it asks. Worst of all, the ending felt like total, unearned bullshit to me.
* The Bourne Legacy – I have come to like Jeremy Renner’s acting for some damn reason, but crucial stylistic differences between this and the three previous Bourne movies seemed to strangle it right in the crib. I liked the Matt Damon Bourne trilogy and would have loved to see a successful transition into a glorious Renner era, but this one fell flat and I’m doubtful any sequels will manage to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle feel of the three earlier outings.