By Ezra Stead
I’ve been making these lists, in one form or another, for a dozen years now, and every year I’ve done my best to balance my own personal preferences with an objective and educated view of cinema in order to recommend not only my personal favorite films of any given year, but also those I believe to be the best. Well, no more! This year, and forever onward, I strive to give you only my own subjective favorites, the films that I have watched and am likely to watch over and over again throughout the years. When I look back over the last five years, for example, I have to admit that these have proven to be my actual favorite films, despite what I may have written at the time in an effort to recognize other worthy cinematic achievements to which I may or may not have returned even once in the years since: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); The Dark Knight (2008); Inglourious Basterds (2009); Dogtooth (2010); and Drive (2011).
Of those five, only Dogtooth actually topped my list at the time. So, with this in mind, I present my favorite films of 2012, in all their highly subjective glory. Since ranking films in order of preference is often at least somewhat arbitrary, I should admit that some of these may have made it into the top 10, rather than the runner-up category, solely because they were more fun to write about. However, my top 5 is solidly made up of films I have already seen at least twice, and feel strongly that I would be more than happy to watch again at absolutely any time.
10. THE GREY – this ultimate Liam-Neeson-being-a-badass movie is nothing but desolate Alaskan wilderness and people being brutally murdered by wolves for two hours. What’s not to love? I’m sort of kidding, but not entirely. There’s also a sense of poetry to it all, as well as the camaraderie of men in a perilous situation with no real cause for hope or faith in anything but their own stamina and wits. Above all else, though, it is about Liam Neeson being a badass and people being brutally murdered by wolves, and it has one of the most exhilarating climactic scenes I saw all year.
9. BERNIE – Richard Linklater’s dark comedy/docudrama features one of the year’s best performances (Jack Black playing to his natural strengths as the titular character) as well as a startlingly honest look at small-town life in all its self-delusion and eccentricities. Based on a true story and using non-professional actors to portray the residents of the small Texas town in which its true crime story takes place, Bernie features one of the funniest scenes of the year, in which a middle-aged Christian woman obliviously makes a very strong argument for the possibility that Jesus Christ may have been gay. The film itself makes an even more persuasive argument that shooting a little old lady in the back just may have been one man’s most noble and heroic act.
8. TAKE THIS WALTZ – Sarah Polley‘s second feature film (after 2006’s stunning debut, Away from Her) takes a wonderfully honest and unsentimental look at the attraction of the new, and the sad fact that even the most exciting things eventually become old and commonplace. Michelle Williams is stellar as always in the lead role, as a woman who finds herself torn between her husband of many years (Seth Rogen), who she still loves, and an exciting new neighbor (Luke Kirby). This film is tender, funny and sad by turns, and features a third-act montage that is some of the most exciting filmmaking I saw all year.
7. AMOUR – this is a very suitable companion piece to Take This Waltz in that it is also an unflinching, brutally honest look at long-term relationships, but it is even more similar to Polley’s first film. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and speculate that the great Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The White Ribbon) may have seen Away from Her and thought to himself, “Yes, I want to make this kind of film … but, you know, much harsher, as is my wont.” The result is a remarkably intimate portrait of two people (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva) who have grown old together and are now faced with the imminent death of one of them. Though Amour is every bit as heart-wrenching and unsentimental as you would expect a Haneke film to be, it is also his warmest film, and Trintignant and Riva both turn in stunning performances.
6. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS – the best horror film of the year is also a very clever, loving send-up of the genre. The beauty of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s monster masterpiece is that it will likely appeal to even people who are not professed horror fans, but for those of us who are, it’s truly a rare and special treat. It’s not a film that holds up quite as well on the second viewing, or on any screen smaller than the absolute largest one available, but it is so much fun the first time around that subsequent viewings are impossible to resist. The third-act climax had me jumping up and down in my seat, completely overwhelmed with geeky joy.
5. HOLY MOTORS – another gleefully meta film, this one about the entirety of filmmaking (and especially film acting) itself, Leos Carax’s first feature in over 10 years is a wonder to behold. Like The Cabin in the Woods, I’m deliberately not going to tell you what it’s about, but for completely diffferent reasons: in this case, it’s not to avoid spoiling the plot, but because the question of what it’s about is irrelevant to enjoyment of the film. Just sit back and let some of the most strikingly original imagery of the year wash over you. However, that is not to say that this funny, haunting and extremely strange film is a purely visual experience; it also features 11 of the best performances of the year, all by lead actor Denis Levant.
4. DJANGO UNCHAINED – when he’s in full control of a film, Quentin Tarantino just never, ever, ever disappoints. For me at least, he may be the single most consistently brilliant and exciting filmmaker alive. Hyperbole aside, there is no arguing that his work is distinctive as hell; literally no one else could have ever made this film. A perfect companion piece to his previous historical epic, Inglourious Basterds, this one takes on slavery instead of the Holocaust and lets Christoph Waltz be a good guy for a change. It is also Tarantino’s first all-out Western, a genre to which he has clearly been dying to contribute for quite some time, and just may be both his funniest and bloodiest film. Cheerfully excessive and unapologetic, it’s some of the most fun to be had at the movies all year, which, considering its subject matter, should be way more problematic than it ever feels while you’re watching it.
3. ROOM 237 – Rodney Ascher’s endlessly absorbing documentary is about the many meticulous conspiracy theories and interpretations of Stanley Kubrick‘s 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining, but by extension, it is really about the joys of overanalyzing a favorite film. This is a film for everyone who has ever obsessively watched a great movie over and over again, peeling back new layers each time, and/or everyone who has ever come up with an insane, far-reaching theory about that film and then found ways in which minute details of the film support this theory. It is about moving beyond the artist’s original intention and finding the reasons a work of art speaks to you as an individual. I felt like this movie was made specifically for me, and I’m sure there are a few thousand other pale, bespectacled weirdos out there who will feel the same.
2. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY – Don Hertzfeldt’s strange, wonderful, touching first feature was the most emotionally moving film I saw all year, which was totally not what I was expecting, but more than welcome all the same. Hertzfeldt is best known for his Oscar-nominated animated short, Rejected, which is one of the most absurd, hilarious things I’ve ever seen, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day also fits that bill in many of its moments, but it’s also a sincerely thoughtful meditation on life and death. Hand-drawn and animated entirely by Hertzfeldt himself over the course of over six years, this is a highly personal labor of love, and it shows. The story of Bill, an average man with a terminal illness, is told through simple stick figure animation in three distinct but seamlessly interwoven chapters, with added photographic weirdness and sound design that recall early David Lynch experiments. The result is a film that accomplishes much more in its brief 70-minute running time than most filmmakers do in their entire careers.
1. TIM & ERIC’S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE – if it isn’t already clear from the rest of this list, I prize unique, original visions over nearly everything else. The added ingredient that elevates this particular one even higher? It’s probably the funniest film I’ve seen in the past decade. This is that rarest of comedies: one that actually gets funnier and funnier every time I see it (five times so far, in case you were wondering), in ways that no one else on the planet but Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have the audacity and insanity to even attempt. Before you dismiss my recommendation of this film as merely the rantings of an obsessive fan of Adult Swim’s cult sketch comedy series, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, let me take this opportunity to admit that I still have yet to watch an entire episode from start to finish (I’m saving the series for myself, to savor over time), and that the sketches I have seen are decidedly hit or miss. Somehow, the narrative throughline of a feature film, bizarre and unconventional as this one is, brings out the best in the comedic duo, and they make the most of a plethora of great supporting players, including “Chef” Goldblum, Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Ray Wise, and Robert Loggia. Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is basically the definition of “not for everyone,” but for me, it’s absolutely the best movie of the year.
THE BEST OF THE REST (15 more movies released in 2012 that I loved, or at least really liked, in alphabetical order):
WORST FILM OF 2012 (or at least the one I hated most):
BUTTER – this is precisely the kind of movie conservatives are talking about when they rail against the “liberal media,” and for once I completely agree with them. Pandering to the lowest common denominator of Republican-bashing, Butter doesn’t offer any convincing or empathetic characters to root for on the other side, leaving the viewer with nothing to do but hate the entire movie. Jennifer Garner channels Sarah Palin and/or Michelle Bachmann in the broadest way possible as a Midwestern housewife who decides to take up the mantle of champion butter scuplture carver abandoned by husband Ty Burrell. It’s all part of her plan to take revenge on him and the hooker (Olivia Wilde) with whom he cheated on her. The hooker then (I kid you not) decides to enter the butter sculpture contest as well. Not even the always delightful Kristen Schaal can save this mess of a movie.
MOST OVERRATED MOVIE OF 2012:
MOONRISE KINGDOM – I considered Les Miserables for this category, what with its interminable running time and habit of throwing characters at the screen and asking the viewer to suddenly care deeply about them, but I have at least seen some bad reviews of that one, while everyone seems to be raving about Moonrise Kingdom. Some have even said it is writer-director Wes Anderson’s best film yet, at which Royal Tenenbaum chuckled to himself and lit a cigar with one of his adopted daughter Margot’s unfinished plays. I, however, found little to really engage me in this flat, detached and dull paen to adolescence. Perhaps one day I will revisit it and see what I was missing, but for now, I just don’t get what all the fuss is about.
MOST UNDERRATED MOVIE OF 2012:
ON THE ROAD – maybe it’s just because I happen to work at a movie theater in New York City that premiered this film on four of its five screens, only to unceremoniously close it three weeks later, or maybe it’s because I have yet to read the highly revered Jack Kerouac novel on which it is based, but I don’t understand all the hatred I’ve heard directed at this film. I’m not saying it’s great, any more than I’m trying to suggest that Moonrise Kingdom is among the very worst films of the year, but I found On the Road to be a perfectly enjoyable little slice of sex, drugs, rock n’ roll and 1950s Americana, with solid performances by its lead cast and several fun cameos, particularly Viggo Mortensen as William S. Burroughs surrogate Old Bull Lee.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT OF 2012:
PROMETHEUS – of course it’s largely because I had such astronomical expectations for this one (being a huge fan of the Alien franchise and seeing Ridley Scott finally return to that universe, how could I not?), but I just couldn’t get into this one nearly as much as I wanted to. It’s very frustrating because so much about the film is good, or at least very interesting: the visual effects, the idea of humanity being born from the same ancient species as the alien race, the self-surgery sequence, Michael Fassbender’s performance. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come together into a cohesive whole very well. I’ll almost certainly see it again at some point, now that my expectations have been sufficiently lowered, but the initial viewing was a pretty big letdown.
MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE OF 2012:
GET THE GRINGO – whatever you think of Mel Gibson at this point (and it’s hard to imagine that isn’t at least somewhat negative), this is exactly the kind of movie hat made some of us fans of his crazy ass in the first place: an all-out action thriller with just the right blend of smartass humor and tough guy bravado. It’s a testament to what a deep hole he’s managed to dig for his career that his latest comeback attempt went straight to DVD when it’s actually probably the best movie he’s starred in since Braveheart. Taking place almost entirely inside a city-sized prison south of the border, Get the Gringo is consummately entertaining and features one of the best shootout scenes in recent memory.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.