Looking Back: Ethan Picks Six Surprisingly Great Movies from 2012

December 20, 2012

The Grey

Just a couple days go, I counted down the five biggest disappointments from this year (2012) in film, which included a set of blockbusters that just didn't live up to the hype generated leading up to the release, and one that was a disappointment for entirely different reasons. But today, we're looking on the positive side of the year's films in the form of six excellent movies that sort of caught audiences off guard by exceeding expectations in some form. One had quite a reputation to live up to already, but most of the other picks were just surprisingly satisfying. So let's get down to my Six Surprisingly Great Films from 2012. Read on!

#6. The Grey

The Grey

A man vs nature thriller release in January? No one was expecting much from director Joe Carnahan and star Liam Neeson with this film about a group of six oil workers trying to survive in the Arctic wilderness after a plane crash, but a pack of merciless wolves haunts their every step. And then we actually saw the film. Releasing this caliber of film in January was such a big mistake, it went back to theaters to be fresh in the minds of Academy voters when Oscar nominations roll around next month. That's how good this movie turned out to be. Not only does Neeson put in an outstanding performance, but the supporting cast was phenomenal, and the suspense rivaled most horror films. Maybe it's because we haven't seen a man vs nature film like this in awhile, but The Grey was a breath of fresh air.

#5. End of Watch

End of Watch

Sitting in the same boat as The Grey, this police drama from David Ayer (Harsh Times, Street Kings) felt like it was trying to get in on the found footage bandwagon at first. However, a return to theaters for an awards boost meant this was something to behold, and for anyone who didn't give this one a chance, you're missing out on one of the best on-screen duos of the year. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena feel like they've been partners for years and really make you believe in their characters, the relationships they have, and also the honor of the badge. Exhilarating chase sequences, powerful drama and some tension-breaking humor make this a must-see, and it's just too bad the acting pool is so competitive this year, because Gyllenhaal and Pena need some love.

#4. Looper


Even though Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks nothing like Bruce Willis, the idea of him playing a younger version of the Die Hard star in a time travel film where he has to track down and kill his older self was enough to get audiences intrigued. But add the fact that director Rian Johnson (Brick, Brothers Bloom) is one of the finest filmmakers working today and made this his first foray into blockbuster action films, and you've got a real winner. Though the movie always seemed like it would be spectacular, it's always a toss up with time travel films and movies starring Bruce Willis. Thankfully, a creative story, top notch performances from supporting cast members like Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano and especially Noah Segan and Pierce Gagnon as young Cid and a finely crafted world made Looper a fine piece of original sci-fi.

#3. 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street

If there's one duo that can rival Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal as buddy cops in End of Watch, it's Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street. The biggest question mark in this film was the recycling of an 80s TV show, a move that has become tired in today's show business. In addition, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller hadn't yet taken a dive into live-action filmmaking or R-rated humor. Finally, Channing Tatum hadn't really proven himself to be anything but a mannequin who can walk and talk. But with this film, Tatum showed off some amazing comedic chops, and for me, this film marked a turning point in his career where he becomes more than just a pretty face. Without a doubt, 21 Jump Street is one of the best comedies of the year, and we were not expecting that in the least.

#2. The Avengers

The Avengers

You might think a blockbuster comic book ensemble with five smash hit films preceding it wouldn't make this a surprise success. But what's really surprising is that director Joss Whedon was able to take four major comic book characters who all had their own films and different directors with varying storytelling styles and weave them into a much larger film with even more characters thrown into the mix. And can you believe that we actually have a comic book universe coming to life and expanding by way of multiple films? The fact that it's working so seamlessly is almost a miracle, and having Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. teaming up in this film with Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner was one of the most satisfying theatrical experiences of the year.

#1. Cabin in the Woods

Cabin in the Woods

With an initial trailer that made it look like nothing but a generic horror film (until a second trailer spoiled a little too much), this film just seemed like another tired entry in the long history of films about promiscuous and dimwitted teens just waiting to meet their gruesome end. But Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield) making his directorial debut (filmed in 2009) with the help of producer Joss Whedon made some waves and is still gaining traction by word of mouth as a film that didn't just fit into the horror genre, but turned it inside out and on its head. With a truly original story, and some amazing twists and turns, this is easily one of the most mind-bending and riveting films of the year, and we didn't expect that from a horror film.

So there you have it. This year has been full of phenomenal films, and while many more will get our praise next week when we start posting our personal Best Films from 2012 lists, these were the ones that really exceeded expectations or just caught us off guard. You'll probably see some show up in our Best of 2012. Are there any films that you were surprised to love so much or exceeded your expectations?

Find more posts: Discuss, Editorial



I would like to start a polite conversation about how The Grey is not a great movie...

earthlingdave on Dec 20, 2012


I fucking loved The Grey so bring it on! The acting was phenomenal and the dialogue was chilling, when he tells that guy he's going to die at the beginning I got chills. I loved the realism and brotherhood that evolved when a bunch of strangers were forced to come together, and using wolves as an antagonist without any other elements was perfect. Most other films would've thrown in other threats, but by leaving it to only wolves and the cold you could see the indifference in nature rather than it becoming some vengeful enemy. The sound mixing was wonderful and kept the film suspenseful because it was very easy to get lost in the beautiful landscapes. Everytime I'd hear a twig crack I was thinking a wolf was about to destroy someone and I just wanted to yell to them to turn around. This was not an easy film to make either as I'm sure these guys froze their asses off to get this story out there, no green screen or trailer, just a bunch of men acting like men. My only complaint is I wish they gave other characters more of a backstory than just Liam's.

Matt Peloquin on Dec 20, 2012


I liked everything you mentioned. My problem with it was this...story logic. The movie is so intent on being metaphorical, using the wolves as a surrogate for death, that it rushes through some serious logic problems, and creates some woefully inept characters who seem to make random decisions: leave the shelter and wreckage, run for the trees, find the most dangerous way to get off a cliff, give up and sit down to die. It just kept getting in the way for me. They needed to keep everything you said, but have the story be a smart driving engine that hammered all those more allegorical ideas home. Once you think about their collective decisions as characters, it's hard to take them seriously.

earthlingdave on Dec 20, 2012


I honestly don't think I would've made better decisions in their shoes. Pretty sure the whole point of the movie was that they were fucked from the beginning and that anything they did would be ultimately futile. Having them make logistical mistakes when they haven't eaten or slept in days is completely believable to me.

Matt Peloquin on Dec 20, 2012


I didn't have issues with any of that. People are stupid. They behave stupidly. Especially when they're frightened.

Craig on Dec 20, 2012


I think great is an over statement but it was certainly a fascinating film to behold. To me it was less of a survival story and more an exploration of the male spirit in the face of death. I loved that it was an action movie with an art house core.

clinteastwoodscloset on Dec 20, 2012


My problem with The Grey isn't so much the movie, but the way it was marketed. It was marketed as Taken but with wolves, which is what I expected, what I got was a character drama with little action. I dislike those kinds of movies and was very displeased with The Grey.

Brian Sleider on Dec 20, 2012


This was my biggest problem with The Grey as well. I went in expecting to see Liam Neeson fist-fighting an entire pack of wolves, with razor blades taped to his knuckles, and that's not at all what the movie is. I guess I need to rewatch it again, without those expectations. I have a feeling I'll like it quite a bit more. Another movie I hated because of misleading marketing was The Lovely Bones. It was marketed as a revenge movie. The trailer I saw had a voice over of Saoirse Ronan saying, "...but there was one thing my murdered didn't count on. How much a father could love his daughter," then cuts to a scene of Mark Wahlberg beating the shit out of someone with a baseball bat. And then the movie... wasn't that. Although, unlike with The Grey, I do not get the feeling that a repeat viewing of The Lovely Bones will get me to like it any better.

Craig on Dec 20, 2012


I'll enter into that. I really enjoyed the Grey. I liked how it challenged the aspect of hope in someone who looked like he had lost it. That despite the loss of his love, he still hoped to live. It inspired me. What say you?

Dubdub on Dec 20, 2012


Did anyone not think that the Avengers (Joss Whedon), Cabin in the Woods (also Joss Whedon), and Looper (Rian Johnson) were not going to be good? In addition to 21 Jump Street I think the other biggest surprise of the year was Pitch Perfect,

Nathan Giusti on Dec 20, 2012


It's not that we didn't think they were going to be good, but it was surprising to me that they turned out so well. Even better than most had anticipated, I think. I almost put Pitch Perfect on here. Loved it.

Ethan Anderton on Dec 20, 2012


You never met a movie with a talented director ruined by studio influence? (what could Happen with the Avengers) You never met a movie where a big name director producing and writing for his friend ended up pretty bad (What could happen for Cabin)? Yes the expectations were high but Whedon usually makes movies that are way more niche. I also doubt many people expected Cabin to be as good as it was.

Norbert P. Korzus on Dec 27, 2012



richard on Dec 20, 2012


The cabin in the woods just seems like evil dead rip off to me. But a few people have put it as fav's this year. Maybe I will have to try again.

frank on Dec 20, 2012


That movie didn't do much for me until they went into the underground lab. That's when I thought it really became its own film.

grimjob on Dec 20, 2012


for me its, chronicle, 21 jump street, battleship(watch it drunk you will love it), premium rush and the grey

me on Dec 20, 2012


if you have to watch a movie ''drunk'' that should tell you about the quality of the movie.. lol..

Daniel Vu Tran on Dec 20, 2012


hey man, if u know a movie isn't good, u have to find a way to make it look good, alcohol does that,lol

me on Dec 21, 2012


I was about to watch Battleship, about 6min in, Saarsgard was yelling at his brother then I pressed Stop. I will try again, need to booze up first.

masterdebater on Dec 21, 2012


Avengers was pure garbage. It's like celebrating the cheeseburger in a Happy Meal.

Geoffrey Shauger on Dec 20, 2012


You don't celebrate cheeseburgers in Happy Meals? WHAT'RE YOU UNAMURCAN?! On a more serious and less capitalized note I want to casually but meaningfully toss in Chronicle. Thought it was much better than anticipated and the found footage genre is finally not annoying again.

Verg on Dec 21, 2012


Yes yes yes. Chronicle should be very high in here.

Norbert P. Korzus on Dec 27, 2012


very good list! But i would replace jumpstreet for safety not guaranteed... The avengers was the most awesome movie of this year, Skyfall a let down but Javier Bardem needs an Oscar for it!

avi on Dec 20, 2012


I agree completely with The Grey. A totally outstanding and surprising movie. Wasn't what I thought it would be and that was a good thing.

syntaxterror on Dec 20, 2012


Same here. Loved it.

grimjob on Dec 20, 2012


For some reason I hated it. Maybe it's the marketing fooling me or maybe I just don't like men vs nature but I had real problems enjoying it.

Norbert P. Korzus on Dec 27, 2012


trailers ruin most movies because they either show way too much and ruin the surprise or they just don't market it as it should be. I think in the case of The Grey they probably thought people wouldn't want to go see a movie like that so they showed a trailer that showcased some action and superficiality.. who knows. Sometimes it's also good to go into a movie not knowing a thing about it.

syntaxterror on Dec 27, 2012


Unfortunately my job requires me to be up to date with movie info but yeah I agree. Hype or even any expectation is movies worst enemy. Though I doubt I'd have liked it as much as some. I'm just not a fan of Carnahan. Something about his movies just makes me feel like they are a rehash.

Norbert P. Korzus on Dec 28, 2012



DYV on Dec 20, 2012


The Avengers is the most overrated movie of the year, people act like it was this big surprise, in reality the movie was going to be a big success no matter what, it was always going to make a lot money, but people kept saying how grate it was, and how it was the best movie of the year, when in reality the movie was average, it was boring, there was zero tension, the villain was weak, the dialog was annoying and the characters were unlikable.The movie have a lot of the same problems that everybody complaint in other movies like Transformers and Avatar, like to much special effects and weak story. But i guest is ok in Avengers and not Transformers because Avengers is fun and Transformers is stupid, in my opinion both are stupid. And don't get me started on Cabin in the Woods, that is the worst movie of the year, is a horrible and stupid movie that i hate whit a passion. Just thinking of that movie makes me angry. I hope that somebody in this earth agrees whit me about this too movies, i cant not be the only person that feels this way. PS. Sorry for my grammar, English is not my first language.

Manny on Dec 21, 2012


I loved The Avengers, seen it three times already, and I don't really like comicbook movies.

Satu on Dec 21, 2012


I loved The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods, seen both twice already, and I don't really like your taste in movies.

Jamess on Dec 21, 2012


Great list, you're doing a nice job by making these for our delight (and yours I'm sure, it's cool to make lists) and to make us discuss them. Keep them coming. The Grey would've been higher on my list and Cabin in the Woods would not make it (just didn't impress me that much). Agreed on the rest, except End of Watch; still have to see that one.

Isildur_of_Numenor on Dec 21, 2012


21 Jump Street, definately, to me too, was a huge surprise. And to add to the Tatum momentum, The Vow (I'm a girl and watch a looooot chick flicks and most of them are not good but this one really was.). And Magic Mike was also better than I expected. Good year for Channing. I was also surprised that the newest Bond was THAT good. And I got to admit, Snow White and the Huntsman was better than I expected but that's only because it was my fill-in movie (went to see two films and there was this 2,5 hour gap between them that I needed to fill) and I didn't expect anything.

Satu on Dec 21, 2012


I thought it was going to be the 6 surprisingly good "lowkey" movies of 2012.

masterdebater on Dec 21, 2012


Argo, The Raid, Looper, Silver Linings Playbook.

BoboVision on Dec 21, 2012


What about Lawless.... great movie but lost in the shuffle

jeffries on Dec 21, 2012


These all look like safe bets to me. Ethan, what the hell?

Landfill on Dec 22, 2012


I would add Pitch Perfect and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 2 great modern teenage movies

couchkik on Dec 23, 2012

New comments are no longer allowed on this post.



Subscribe to our feed -or- daily newsletter:
Follow Alex's main account on twitter:
For the latest posts only - follow this one:

Add our updates to your Feedly - click here

Get the latest posts sent in Telegram Telegram