Friday, January 18, 2013

Favorites of 2012: Top 41 Movies

It's 2013, I saw stuff in 2012, here were my favorites. 

(Brevity is the soul of wit... and also laziness)

A few notes before we get into it:

- There will be no honorable mentions. If it doesn't make the cut, to mention it would hold no honor.

- I have expanded my TV list to 20 and my movie list remains 41. This is out of about 50 TV shows I watched and 160 movies this year, meaning roughly about the top 40 percent of the TV I watched and the top 25 percent of the movies I saw are included. Math, yay!

- This is for newly viewed items in the calendar year 2012.  This means the final half of last season, and first half of this season for many TV shows, and also means there will be movies that came out last year that I am just getting around to seeing.  But for me these things were new this year.

- This is a "favorites" list, not a "best of" list.  I embrace the subjectivity of art.  This is my list and it is influenced by many factors that might be unique to my perspective.  Having said that, I'm pretty sure its also completely infallible.

Here's the plan for the month:

Here are my favorite 41 movies of the year:

Even though I thought "Cloud Atlas" missed the mark in many ways, it sneaks on to the list by way of degree of difficulty. The Wachowski's tried to weave together six separate stories with actors playing across race and gender in order to make a point about the human condition and story.  The fact that they fall short isn't a surprise to me, what's a surprise is that they managed to make some of it actually work and work so well.

It's not a sequel or a prequel, it's a "simultaneous story in order to launch a new franchise"-quel. Whatever "The Bourne Legacy" is, it's sufficiently compelling and exciting enough to warrant a mention, and Renner's performance is worth another look.

"Prometheus" is a film with major flaws.  A gorgeous, thought-provoking, exciting, clever, and compelling film with major flaws.

The first of the back to back, creepy, stop motion, kids movies to find it's way on to the list, "Frankenweenie" has everything I love about Tim Burton's atmospheric choices, with a heart to boot.  Though I understand Burton's artistic choice to shoot in black and white, I think it's the wrong call and kept the movie too mired in darkness to rank any higher.

"ParaNorman" pays the same tribute that "Frankenweenie" does, but does it with a sense of humor and lightness that gives it a slight edge.  Not to mention it has some really interesting things to say about human nature and our tendency to grab pitchforks.

If you look up "chemistry" in your dictionary, and it doesn't include a reference to Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal in "End of Watch", throw away your dictionary. You should probably do that anyway, considering it's the 21st century and Google is around. Point is, these two have an incredible relationship in this movie and it's what makes the whole movie sing. Despite the gritty, tough subject matter, this is an easy movie to fall in love with.

Considering I spent my own hard earned money to make sure "Blue Like Jazz" saw the light of day AND I am a huge fan and close personal friend of the director (relationship almost certainly exaggerated) I'm likely not the best person to see straight enough to assess it's quality. But it's great, really great, like totally super great... and very meaningful too.

Though "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" has an unwieldy and annoying title, the movie itself is understandable, sweet, and features some really heart warming moments.  There is also a beautiful message here about relationships and loss.

"Bernie" is worth a watch just for Jack Black's true to life performance, but as an added bonus you will get an extremely interesting true life story.  The real life documentary feel also adds to the charm and quirk, which admittedly might be an acquired taste, but one I really enjoyed.

I thought the found footage gimmick of "Chronicle" got old and unnecessary very fast, and it was unfortunate that the film makers held to it so staunchly.  Beyond that is a very creative and poignant coming of age story, if your coming of age involved developing super powers, of course.

Speaking of coming of age stories, "Perks of Being A Wallflower" is the quintessential one.  Not only do these high-schoolers feel like legitimate characters, but they are presented in a way that you can almost place them in any era, meaning the viewer feels a real sense of nostalgia for their own days as a school aged misfit. Add to that some very compelling story lines and it's a pretty emotional journey.  

There was much I found distracting about "Looper"; Joseph Gordon Levitt's make up, the time travel inconsistencies, the silliness of the premise.  Yet somehow, the more I think about this movie the more I really want to revisit this world.  I think this is due to a very strong sense of story and emotion that permeates  the film with a vivid excitement. 

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is more than a movie about the beauty of life's sunset years, it's a story about the beauty of life itself no matter how many rotation's you've done around the sun.  It's also a grouping of some amazing performances in a beautiful story about humanity and relationships.

One of my biggest surprises of the year, "People Like Us" is a unique non-romantic love story that works on almost every level. The acting, story, emotion, and humor all work so well that the lack of bells and whistles almost don't matter.

"Silver Linings Playbook" is a great watch for the wonderful performances of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, and the sense of humor and beauty that pervade the story.  Even though I don't quite get the Oscar buzz for the movie or DeNiro's performance (which I found a bit off putting) I do get why people love it.

Sometimes an interesting performance can overshadow a film, almost like the way larger than life director Alfred Hitchcock often overshadowed his own films.  The good news in "Hitchcock" is that just like in the case of Hitch's movies the overall product is so good that the distraction only lasts for a second.  Hopkins is wonderful in this, but the movie itself has enough quirk and quality to pull its weight.

Technically a 2011 film, I didn't get around to catching "Drive" until this past year and I found everything I heard about it to be true. Ryan Gosling is incredible in it, the violence is brutal, and the movie itself is full of compelling twists and turns.

"Pitch Perfect" was my favorite pure comedy of the year.  Lots of laughs, lots of air tight harmonies, and lots of vomit (ok, the last one is a strike against, but still).  Point being, this movie is hilarious  well edited, and tons of fun, and sometimes that's enough.

Sometimes my favorite movies of the year aren't necessarily movies I would recommend.  "Attack the Block" falls easily into that category.  As much as I know I enjoyed this independent, British movie about a group of inner city hoodlums who defend their turf from vicious alien invaders, I also know you probably wouldn't. Or maybe I'm using reverse psychology on you, either way, stay away from this one. 

It was the year of the Levitt.  JGL was in 4 of my favorite movies of the year (including 2 in the the top 5) but "Premium Rush" was the one he threw on his back and carried all by himself.  This is a straight forward action piece with an interesting concept and a fun plot, but it's all Joseph Gordin Levitt's sincere performance as a beleaguered bike messenger that makes it one of my favorite films of the year.

Don't let the love it/hate it ending fool you, there is an incredible movie here before those controversial final moments that deserves some recognition.  I personally think the ending is a perfect way to close "The Grey" but even before that I fell in love with Liam Neeson's character and the against all odds story.

"Hope Springs" is an honest and frank movie about sex and marriage, and sex in marriage and what happens when a couple falls into a real life rut.  It's funny and clever enough (and Meryl Streep is, as always, incredible) but what really made this work is that it doesn't feel the need to muddy up the plot with strange plot twists or character quirks. It's simple, straight forward, and rests all its chips on the strength of it's stars. A decision I think pays off wonderfully.

Much has been made about the decision to have the actors in "Les Miserables" sing their lines live on set, and rightfully so (it's brilliant), but beyond that choice, this is a piece that succeed's on it's incredibly deep and powerful story. These actors do a wonderful job of living it on the screen and making it come alive, especially Anne Hathaway, who deserve's every ounce of accolade poured on her for her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream"

I hate horror movies.  I dig suspense, but horror just has no appeal to me.  So how is it that horror film "Cabin in the Woods" finds itself in my top 20? Well, this ain't your typical gore fest. Notice, I didn't say it's not a gore fest, it most certainly is, but the conceptual brilliance and beautiful satire of what Joss Whedon's team has done here make living through this bloody nightmare much more palatable.

"Jack Reacher" the movie may be my 17th favorite movie of the year because of it's tight story line and edge of your seat action set pieces, but Jack Reacher the character is quite possibly my number one favorite new character of 2012.  I loved Tom Cruise as this no nonsense, practically omniscient presence who had exactly the right answer for every situation. I really hope this movie doesn't go completely under the radar, if for no other reason than I would really like to see a sequel someday.

Bond movies are an institution by this point, so it's a pleasant surprise when one decides to go beyond the norm and do something new.  "Skyfall" is a gorgeous movie and Daniel Craig is at his best playing Bond as the aging flawed agent who still manages to get the girl and the bad guy (in two very different  iterations of the word "get" I should mention).

Usually there is at least one movie that I love that the rest of the world crinkles their nose at.  This year the leading candidate is "John Carter".  I can't figure out why so many disliked this heartfelt and well put together sci-fi adventure.  Was it too confusing? Was it too silly? Wait, am I convincing myself I didn't like it?  I better stop while I still think it was engaging, fun, and one of the best movies I saw all year.

To see a Wes Anderson movie on a"Best of" list is not a surprise, but to see it on mine is. I've never been much of a fan (in fact I think "Life Aquatic" is downright boring) but there is something so sweet and heartfelt about "Moonrise Kingdom" that I fell in love almost immediately. If this and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" are how Wes now makes movies, I may have to change my stance.

Sometimes a movie is just exactly what you want it to be.  "Men in Black 3" was total wish fulfillment.  It had all the fun and life of the originals and added some incredible performances by Josh Brolin and Jermaine Clement.  As far as I'm concerned Will Smith can just do "MIB" and "Hancock" sequels the rest of his career and I will be a happy man.

shhhhhhhhh, no talking

I know a lot of this has to do with having four boys in public school, but "Bully" was possibly the most emotionally draining movie I saw all year. I wept at the abusive savagery that awaits our kids at school and then again later when I talked to my boys about their responsibility to stand up for what's right.  You may think you understand how cruel kids can be, but "Bully" puts it right in your face in a way that will devastate and possibly motivate you. 

It's rare that a movie swings for the fences in both visual artistry and philosophical exploration, but "Life of Pi" takes a big sweeping swipe at both and somehow scores on both accounts. It's a visual feast that also tickles the mind and makes you ask big questions about meaning, story, and metaphor. Either one of these things would make it a movie I like, but to have both makes it a movie I love.

My love of all things Pixar is not exactly closeted, and it's also not exactly unwarranted.  Though "Cars 2" was certainly not up to the usual Luxo standards, it was still a fun enough movie to keep their record in tact. "Brave", for me, was a return to form for my favorite group of pixel pushers.  It's not a perfect film and not even my favorite animated film of the year, but it is a beautiful and emotional mother daughter story that touched me deeply, even if I only have sons.

Another movie in the category of "not as good as I had hoped but still destined to be one of my favorites of the year" is "The Hobbit".  Considering "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is my favorite film experience of all time it had quite a bit to live up to.... and it didn't.  It was too long, and a bit preoccupied with tying into LOTR rather than telling what is a pretty straight forward story based on a pretty short book. BUT... Martin Freeman is incredible, the world is still so engaging and beautiful, and seeing it in HFR was absolutely stunning. Even with the flaws, I absolutely loved my return trip to Middle Earth and I look forward to seeing what Jackson and the crew do with the final two installments.

"Wreck it Ralph" felt like more of a Pixar movie than "Brave" and it's getting harder and harder to distinguish between the two. Which makes sense, considering Lasseter is now working his magic over the entire department. I love the performances, and I love the emotion of the story, but most of all I love this fully realized world of video game characters and the lives they live.

There are some movies that just grab a hold of you by the lapel right from the start and don't let go until the credits roll.  They drag you exactly where they want to and order you to pay attention the whole way through.  Kathryn Bigelow is apparently really good at making those kind of flicks. "Zero Dark Thirty" is compelling and aggressive and despite being a bit too cold in the first two thirds finishes with one of the most incredible action set pieces I've ever seen on the big screen.  The fact that it's about an incredible piece of recent history only adds to the festivities.

This one is personal. Don't get me wrong, "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" is a great film. An amazingly beautiful metaphor about purpose and sacrifice and being misunderstood.  But I know the reason this movie ranks so high is that it hit me at exactly a point in my life when that message resonated deeply.  In that moment, sitting in the theater, weeping silently, I felt as if the movie had been made for me and me alone. It's the rarest of movie experiences, but one I hope comes your way every once in a while.

While I'm always a bit perplexed by the vocal choices people in Batman movies make, it's hard to deny Christopher Nolan knows how to make brilliant movies. For every Bane or Dark Knight growl I have trouble interpreting there are several incredible minutes of intricate plotting, beautiful mind games, and high concept action. "Dark Knight Rises" might not quite live up to  it's immediate predecessor, but it was certainly an incredible couple hours at the cinema.

Daniel Day Lewis..... There are no words that can adequately express how crazy good his performance is as "Lincoln". So instead I will use mine to say how wonderful the rest of Spielberg's historical epic is, up until about the last 10 minutes of a completely unnecessary coda.  Even with that sputtering finish, the political machinations are so beautifully drawn and the performances so wonderfully engaging, not to mention that somehow the daunting complexity of so many characters and motivations never feels confusing, and this one is well deserving of the praise it continues to receive. Oh yeah... and Daniel Day Lewis... wow.

Ben Affleck makes great movies. In fact, "Argo" is more than great, it's perfect.  From the pacing, to the acting, to the costuming, to the shot selection, to the editing, it's flawless. The audience laughs when he wants them to laugh, chews nails when he needs them to chew nails, and cheers at exactly the moment he wants them to cheer.  It's a master's class in popcorn cinema, and I can't wait to see what Affleck puts his hands to next. 

The most fun I've ever had in a movie theater, "The Avengers" is not only scene after scene of wish fulfillment  it's some of the most incredible action I've seen on the glowing giant rectangle.  I'm still not quite sure how Joss Whedon pulled off the complexities of all these characters and their individual relationships while at the same time giving us a relentless action masterpiece, but I'm glad he did. As far as I'm concerned, Whedon is a giant green monster of a director and I'm a puny humaniod being flung around like a rag doll at his behest.  At the end, I'm dazed, and maybe even a bit bruised, and I'm loving every second of it.

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