Best Movies of 2012 (January Edition)

  • Moonrise Kingdom art

    The year in cinema shouldn’t really be gauged by its highs and lows, as there will always be a few terrible movies and a few great ones. The state of Hollywood is best measured by everything in between – the movies that range between pretty good and utterly forgettable.

    Thankfully for 2012, the scale tips closer to “pretty good.” While greatness remained a rarity, the year had its share of standouts.

    Out of the 103 movies I saw that were released theatrically in 2012, these were my favorites.  It doesn’t include “Zero Dark Thirty” (not screened yet) or some of the smaller films still in limited release. Even without them in contention, it wasn’t hard filling slots.

    1. Moonrise Kingdom
    Wes Anderson’s movies exist in a world slightly askew – rich with characters and details that seem trapped in a time that is simultaneously more romantic and somber than the real world.

    Anderson’s lesser movies (think “The Darjeeling Limited”) lack an emotional connection to reality, but his best movies, like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and now “Moonrise Kingdom,” mix the eccentricities with universal truth.

    “Moonrise Kingdom” isn’t particularly complicated. The central characters, two pre-teens played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, fall in love and run away together. Their relationship is pure, innocent and without the awkward mugging that more “experienced” young actors might attempt with the material. Their scenes capture a feeling of rebellious youth – something that can’t easily be recreated for those of us who are well past our grade school years.

    That the movie fills in this altered-but-impassioned world with an outstanding supporting cast (Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) is an added bonus. This is Anderson’s most assured and relatable effort to date, and the best movie of 2012.

    2. Lincoln
    Working off a dense and fascinating screenplay by Tony Kushner, director Steven Spielberg crafts a thoroughly compelling piece of historical drama out of people talking for two and a half hours.

    It helps to have the incredible Daniel Day-Lewis at the center of nearly every scene. His performance as Lincoln is one for the books. It’s an immersive and penetrating look at a man who used words to stop a nation’s bleeding.

    3. The Cabin in the Woods
    A celebration and, um, slashing critique of the horror genre from the twisted minds of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon.  The less you know about it going in, the better.

    4. The Master
    The enigmatic new film from Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”) will no doubt confound and frustrate a fair share of viewers. Still, this kind of auteur-driven mood piece commands your attention, most of all because of the mesmerizing performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

    5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
    Another audacious piece of filmmaking that has earned its share of detractors, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is most notable for the performance of young newcomer Quvenzhane’ Wallis as a young girl who lives with her ailing father in a flooded, decaying bayou community. She’s absolutely incredible, and the movie is divisive but unforgettable.

    6. Skyfall
    The best Bond in years, “Skyfall” is propelled by stirring cinematography and a formidable bad guy in the form of scenery-chewing Javier Bardem.

    7. Argo
    Tense plotting and biting humor seamlessly weaved together by… Ben Affleck? It’s true. Affleck continues to prove he’s the real deal as director and star of the fact-based thriller about American hostages posing as Canadian filmmakers in order to escape Iran.

    8. Life of Pi
    Ang Lee’s adaptation of the Yann Martel book about a young shipwreck survivor who shares a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger is a soulful and visually spectacular exploration of survival and faith.

    9. The Queen of Versailles
    The most entertaining and surprising documentary of the year, “The Queen of Versailles” begins as an examination of superfluous wealth as a real estate mogul and his wife set out to build the largest mansion in America. Then the economic crisis hits, and the movie explores deeper truths about our capitalist culture. At the center of the film is a woman who is more relatable than most of us would care to admit. Available on Netflix Instant Streaming.

    10. Django Unchained
    Provocative, funny and uncomfortably violent, Quentin Tarantino’s latest about a freed slave-turned-bounty hunter will stir debate for years to come. Not in dispute, however, are the performances of Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson reciting Tarantino’s magnetic stream of words.

    11. Cloud Atlas
    Unfairly dismissed by audiences and many critics, this sprawling and messy adaptation of the David Mitchell novel might be the most ambitious project ever committed to film. Weaving together six stories across several centuries with the likes of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry playing multiple roles, “Cloud Atlas” is a visceral moviegoing experience. This might be the unsung masterpiece in which 2012 will ultimately be remembered. Only subsequent viewings and time will tell.

    12. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
    Jason Segel plays a slacker who lives in his mom’s basement and is suddenly stirred to realize his true destiny (whatever that might be). Quiet and funny, and not nearly as “indie pretentious” as it probably sounds. Available on Netflix Instant Streaming.

    13. Silver Linings Playbook
    An energetic spin on the conventional romantic comedy, “Silver Linings Playbook” convincingly portrays the day-to-day challenges of mental illness thanks in large part to passionate turns by Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and an energized Robert De Niro. It’s got some problematic plot turns, but director David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) works hard for his feel-good ending.

    14. The Avengers
    Writer/director Joss Whedon delivers everything you want to see in a big superhero team-up movie: Laughs, thrills and (finally) a satisfying story arc for Dr. Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk.

    15. Frankenweenie
    Tim Burton made one of the worst movies of 2012 in “Dark Shadows.” Thankfully, he also made this black-and-white, stop-motion animated gem about a boy who brings his beloved dog back to life with unexpected consequences.

    16. The Invisible War
    A shocking documentary that exposes the prevalence of rape and sexual assault within the United States military. Available on Netflix Instant Streaming.

    17. Brave
    Though it never reaches the highs of Pixar masterpieces, “Brave” brings the studio back from kiddie mediocrity after last year’s “Cars 2.”

    18. End of Watch
    A realistic and thrilling portrait of police officers patrolling the streets of Los Angeles, made all the better by the chemistry between stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena.

    19. Safety Not Guaranteed
    A man places a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel, and a group of journalists answer the ad in hopes of a good story.  It’s a surprisingly earnest comedy that examines the idea living in the past. Available on Netflix Instant Streaming.

    20. Sleepwalk with Me
    Based on his own experiences, Mike Birbiglia stars as a struggling stand-up comedian who reexamines his career after the onset of a severe sleepwalking disorder. Birbiglia provides a unique perspective on the comedy scene, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the commitment-phobic. Available on Netflix Instant Streaming.

    Honorable Mention: Bernie, 21 Jump Street, Looper, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Liberal Arts, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Grey, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, The Dark Knight Rises


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