Looking Back: Ethan Picks His Own Top 20 Favorite Films of 2012
by Ethan Anderton
December 28, 2012
Just one weekend stands between us and 2013, and looking back at all the great films of 2012 has been a real treat. Myself and the rest of FirstShowing (not to mention most of our colleagues) think this was truly a year to remember for fantastic cinema. Starting all the way back at Sundance and ending with this awards season, there have been tons of stellar stories on the big screen (along with some big disappointments). And while there's plenty to look forward to in 2013, here's one more look back at some of the best films of the year with my personal picks for the 20 Best Films of 2012. Yeah, I couldn't pick just ten. Full list below!
#20. Sleepwalk with Me
After coming in second place in my list of the six best comedies of 2012, the directorial debut from comedian Mike Birbiglia charmed its way onto my Best of 2012 list. Maybe it's because it has flares of some of my favorite childhood comedies like Wayne's World and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but this film is funny, original and one of the most genuine films I've seen all year. Birbiglia's sleepwalking disorder is a real thing that actually caused him bodily harm when he jumped out a second story hotel room window, and he puts that and more on the screen for your entertainment. It's one of the best films to take place in the world of stand-up comedy, and succeeds where other film debuts from comedians have failed.
#19. Wreck-It Ralph
Disney beat Pixar this year. That should be enough to tell you just how well the House of Mouse did with their own computer animated film that takes audiences into the world of video games. Following in the footsteps of Tangled which took familiar elements of classic fairytales and turned them on their head, Wreck-It Ralph uses familiar childhood lessons and tropes for this tale that's basically Toy Story with video game characters, but packs quite a giant-fisted punch thanks to an absolutely perfect lead voice cast (John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer), and a slew of great supporting voices, most notably Alan Tudyk as King Candy. This film really pulled at my heartstrings and blew Brave and every other animated film out of the water. That's not bad for the feature directorial debut of Rich Moore.
#18. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Hearing that Summit Entertainment was adapting Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower made plenty readers feel uneasy. The book that is essential reading for any teenager struggling with growing up has more than a few passionate fans. But when you get the book's author to write the screenplay and direct the film, that changes things a bit. Stephen Chbosky packs as much of his short book into this film as possible, and does so without losing any of the harrowing drama or character development. Logan Lerman puts in a breakthrough performance, Ezra Miller (last seen in We Need to Talk About Kevin) deserves an Oscar nomination for his supporting role, and Emma Watson makes a fine American pixie dream girl. This was a surprisingly great adaptation.
#17. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master - the performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman alone make it one of the best films of the year, but it's the whole package of The Master that really makes it a puzzle worth trying to solve. Though it has been said the film is about the founding of Scientology, there are more than a few other ideas of what the film is truly about, and that makes P.T. Anderson's work all the more interesting. In fact, even some of the posters, most notably the Roarschach posters (we named the best poster of 2012) seem to imply the film is merely what audiences will make of it.
#16. 21 Jump Street
Named as my favorite comedy of the year, you can bet this movie was one of my favorite films of 2012 in general. Aside from the surprisingly great teaming of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, what makes this film truly great is the self-aware nature of falling into the trend of adapting old properties from decades past and trying to recycle them for new audiences. Thankfully, this film not only makes fun of that fact, but doesn't try to capture anything about the old series to pander to that audience. It's a fresh take on a familiar TV show, and the only element that ties to the 80s favorite is a cameo that is expected, but surprising in the way it's handled. In fact, it makes for one of the most shocking and funny moments on film in 2012.
#15. The Dark Knight Rises
I'm sorry this film wasn't good enough to be in the Top 10, but Christopher Nolan's conclusion to The Dark Knight legend was still one of the best films of the year, and better than most comic book fare. While I don't think the film is better than The Dark Knight, there's still some great writing here and some especially fantastic imagery from Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister. Perhaps the most surprising and interesting choice in the film comes from Anne Hathaway's impressive turn as Catwoman and the unconventional use of Bane, played strongly by Tom Hardy. The Dark Knight Rises might be the most satisfying and cohesive conclusions to any trilogy, or at least #2 behind Return of the King.
#14. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson hasn't really grown much as a filmmaker, but as a sucker for his quirky style and comedy and coming of age romance, this film just hits all the sweet spots. With fantastic debuts from Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman as our young romantic leads, this is just a delightful little romance helped along by hilarity from the supporting cast like Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Jason Schwartzman and more. As usual, the soundtrack just sweetens an already delicious cinematic cake, and this movie is also a pretty good one for the whole family.
An original sci-fi film is always welcome in any year, and when it comes from Brick and The Brothers Bloom writer and director Rian Johnson, that's even better. While there's plenty of plotholes and time travel paradoxes to be found, as Jeff Daniels so eloquently puts it in the film, "This time travel shit fries your brain like an egg." It's better to just get lost in the world and let this original and compelling story unfold, helped fantastically by the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts his best foot forward playing a young version of Bruce Willis. Take into account the fact that Emily Blunt makes for a great American farmer and Pierce Gagnon puts forth one of the best performances from a child actor I've ever seen, and that's a great sci-fi package.
Argo - At one time, I thought Argo would make my Top 10, but as I said, this was an absolutely remarkable year for great cinema across the board. This venture into history is both unbelievable and thrilling as Ben Affleck leads a group of stranded Americans out of Tehran by having them pose as a film crew making a sci-fi film. Affleck also directs, adding another amazing film to his growing resume as a filmmaker, and is able to deliver a film with some great laughs and plenty of suspense. And while there might not be any huge names making up the hostage ensemble, the supporting names, which include Scoot McNariy and more, all deliver noteworthy performances. Add Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston into the mix spectating and helping the scheme, and you've got a film destined for at least a Best Picture nomination.
#11. Ruby Sparks
Ruby Sparks - It's sad that this film has gone mostly overlooked throughout the year, but Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made one hell of a romance with Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan. The original film was also written by the lead actress, Kazan, who takes the titular role as the writing creation of a struggling author who suddenly appears in his real life. Some think this is just a rehash of Stranger Than Fiction, and in some ways, it's the female counterpart, but it also covers plenty of new ground, to the point that it gets a little dark towards the end. Of course, there's still some great laughs and an alluring romance that is whimsical but grounded. It's a triumph and any romantic comedy released this year can't shake a stick at it.
#10. Life of Pi
Visually stunning, full of adventure, excitement, tragedy, suspense and never predictable, Ang Lee's Life of Pi kept me captivated to the very end. Though it starts a little slow, this harrowing story of Pi Patel (more than impressively played by Suraj Sharma) needed the technology of today to be told properly. Complete with some of the best special effects work ever done with animals and a truly immersive 3D experience the likes of which haven't been seen since Avatar, this adaptation of a book that was called unfilmmable proved all the naysayers wrong, and make director Ang Lee a true visionary. And while the film looks gorgeous and has this compelling adventure, for me, the truly riveting part of this tale came at the end, when the storyteller ends his adventure, and the audience is left wondering. We won't spoil that element here, and you should see it for yourself.
#9. The Cabin in the Woods
For some reason, people who were expecting this to be a straight-up horror film were disappointed, and others just don't seem to get the appeal, but Cabin in the Woods is one of the most brilliant films that simultaneously dissects and exists within the horror genre, and with great effect and affect. The typical elements of a horror film are all put under a microscope and explained with this unique story that turns every horror film into a sacrifice to keep ancient Gods from destroying the world. From the idea of the Final Girl, characters dropping knives and making other stupid moves, the variety of monsters and killers, it's all explained in this stellar and phenomenal film that. It just doesn't seem fair that Joss Whedon can write this with director Drew Goddard (a fine feature debut) and also direct The Avengers. Oh, and did I mention that Fran Kranz is amazing in it?
#8. Cloud Atlas
This is probably the most divisive film of the year. People have either loved it or hated, and I fell into the former. This is an epic story that is on the same level as Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and Lord of the Rings, but it spans an even longer period of time and has quite a colorful cast of characters. But The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer use a smaller cast to bring them to life as Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Jim Broadbent play roughly six characters each, all vastly different from each other. This film is long and jumps around a lot, but the way each segment weaves seamlessly into the next, and all the intertwining elements make this a beautiful, ambitious film that is worthy of a Best Picture nomination.
#7. Safety Not Guaranteed
As soon as the credits rolled at Sundance 2012, I was certain it was going to be one of my favorite films of the year. After rewatching it recently, I'm happy to say that it held up enough to end up on my Top 10. It could have easily been just another do-it-yourself indie, but with the stellar cast of Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, and newcomer Kran Soni all putting forth breakthrough performances, not to mention the always great Mark Duplass, this is a "time travel film" that is completely on the other end of the spectrum as Looper. And while this is certainly a funny movie, it's not just a comedy, and has a lot to say about the human condition and the fragility of our emotions and lives in the wake of heartbreak. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly gave themselves a chance at a big future in film after this.
#6. The Avengers
Surely plenty of Batman fans will be up in arms about this film's placement on my Top 10 list, but I can't help it. Maybe it's because I took the time to sit through the Marvel Marathon in theaters, but I found this film to be a much more impressive and entertaining achievement than The Dark Knight Rises. Is it perfect? No. But, writer-director Joss Whedon pulled off something incredible by taking all of these characters, many with their own films, and throwing them into a single, action packed superhero movie without neglecting any of them. What makes this film all the more pleasing is that this kind of presentation of a team of superheroes never seemed possible until Marvel shot for the moon. Completing a trilogy with style and grace is one thing, but this was something that audiences hadn't seen happen before, and that continues to shake my head in pleased disbelief even as I write this.
#5. Sound of My Voice
Sadly, this is a film you've probably never heard of. It debuted at Sundance back in 2011, and only received a very quiet theatrical release earlier this year from Fox Searchlight. Zal Batmanglij directs and wrote this film with Brit Marling, the star and writer of indie sci-fi Another Earth (you can also see her this year in Arbitrage), and for my money, it was far superior to that 2011 Sundance selected film that somehow got considerably more indie buzz. Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius star as two journalists trying to document the happenings inside a secret cult whose leader is believed to be an ailing woman from the year 2054. It's mysterious, suspenseful, and has an ending that will stick in your mind long after the credits roll. Just waiting to see the movie again after Sundance was torture enough and upon repeat viewing over a year later, it still held up. Seek this one out.
Steven Spielberg ventured into history for a home run again with a focus on one of American history's most respected Presidents. However, rather than chronicling the life of Abraham Lincoln, this film simultaneously focuses on his life as a father and and abolitionist (and our contributing writer Tyler Wantuch dove into that rather impressively not too long ago). Any film with a Daniel Day-Lewis lead performance is going to be impressive, and this one is no different. However, the ensemble that also includes wholly extraordinary performances from David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sally Field, and especially Tommy Lee Jones is nothing to scoff at. Even the smaller roles for James Spader, Michael Stuhlbarg, Hal Holbook and more are stellar. Though the proceedings aren't much different than any good legal drama, the subject matter is what really brought a tear to my eye.
#3. Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook - It's hard to explain why a film that is so familiar and derivative is ranked so high on many critics list until you see how David O. Russell brought together Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in surprisingly good co-lead performances with mesmerizing chemistry (almost as mesmerizing as Lawrence dancing in yoga pants). Cooper never particularly impressed me, but here, as a man on his last string, trying to grasp at what he thinks is a silver lining, his desperation just pierced my heart and made me feel and cringe for the man and all his mistakes and shortcomings. Meanwhile, Lawrence seems like a cookie cutter crazy, contemporary damsel at first, but as her story unfolds, her performance becomes richer and all the more engaging, making her a perfect complement to Cooper. Plus, you have to love a film where Chris Tucker isn't completely annoying and lets Robert De Niro be great again.
#2. Zero Dark Thirty
Coming so soon after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, especially the media circus that followed, you might think the story of the hunt, capture and death of the world's most famous terrorist was happening too quickly. However, Kathryn Bigelow has crafted another suspenseful film that is both a war drama like The Hurt Locker and crime thriller in the same vein as Zodiac. Zero Dark Thirty is suspenseful almost the whole way through, and the progression of Jessica Chastain as an uneasy would-be interrogator to a ruthless, cold hunter of Bin Laden is perfection. In a way it's the representation of many Americans who might have been abject to United States military aggression until frustration after the events of 9/11 built up enough to allow for celebration when Osama was pronounced dead. The final moments of the film are easily some of the most tense scenes all year, and this will serve as a cinematic window into history for decades to come.
Skyfall? Done. This took a long time for me to figure out, and personally, I'm surprised that a blockbuster film (let alone a James Bond film), took my top stop, but I absolutely fell in love with Sam Mendes' Skyfall. It feels like it should have been the first James Bond film with Daniel Craig as 007 since so many elements wipe the slate clean and introduce signature elements of previous Bond films while stay paying homage and tribute to the long history of Bond himself. Javier Bardem as the villain is inspired and haunting, mostly because his character's defect is chiefly emotional, with his physical deformity hidden in plain sight. Just his monologue when he first appears in the film is reason enough for Bardem to get an Oscar nod.
Director Sam Mendes delivers the Bond film that audiences would want to see from a director like Christopher Nolan. It's gritty, grounded, exciting and stylish. From the opening orchestral blare and traditional long distance silhouette to the final moments when we meet a new signature Bond character and say goodbye to another, this film is a triumph, even for those who aren't big James Bond fans. Skyfall is sexy without being tacky, action-packed without being over-the-top, gorgeously shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, and just might be the best James Bond film ever.
Honorable mentions: Django Unchained, The Sessions, Celeste and Jesse Forever, End of Watch, ParaNorman, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, Smashed, Save the Date, The Imposter, The Grey, Your Sister's Sister, Seven Psychopaths.
Before anyone goes crazy, Tarantino's Django Unchained would be at #21, and it was hard for me to kick it out of the Top 20. And there are still some films I haven't seen that are getting a lot of year-end love like Michael Haneke's Amour, the documentary Queen of Versailles, Holy Motors, Compliance and Les Miserables. It's been a phenomenal year, and this is the hardest time I've ever had putting together a year-end list of my favorite films. We'll have to wait and see how the Academy receives some of these films when the Oscar nominations are announced early next year on January 10th, just before Sundance 2013.
What do you think of Ethan's Top 20 Best Films of 2012? Are there many others you think he missed or are overrated? What are your own top picks and favorite films from 2012?