While I’m not sure that any of these are truly great films, they were all very good, borderline excellent and deserve your attention.
30. Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)
Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables has a few problems – it tries to be realistic and epic at the same time, and it doesn’t always work – but when it hits the right notes, few films this year were this powerful or emotionally satisfying. The two highlights are obviously Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream, truly one of the very best scenes in any movie this year, and Samantha Barks excellent rendition of On My Own, which almost matches Hathaway’s in sheer intensity and skill. The rest of the cast is also excellent – especially lead Hugh Jackman who has a great voice, and the acting chops to make Jean Valjean’s moral struggle palpable. This is grand, epic, old fashioned movie musical magic at its finest – which also tries with mixed results, to make everything more realistic – although the decision to have them sing live pays off in the movies best moments. The sum may not be quite as good as the parts, but with parts this good, it’s impossible to complain too much.
29. Looper (Rian Johnson)Rian Johnson’s Looper is his most complete film to date – and one of the best time travel films in recent memory. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hit man who kills people the mob of the future sends back in time, and Bruce Willis as his future self who he fails to kill and must chase down, Looper is an entertaining action-sci-fi hybrid. The film is extremely well acted by Gordon-Levitt, Willis, Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels (wonderful, as ever, as a gangster) and very cleverly constructed in the screenplay stage. It is also Johnson’s most mature film visually. Johnson’s first two films – Brick and The Brothers Bloom – are both fun and entertaining, but they also both felt slightly like gimmicks (Brick – high school noir with Raymond Chandler dialogue, The Brothers Bloom – Johnson aping Wes Anderson) but Looper feels like a major step forward for a promising new talent.
28. Life of Pi (Ang Lee)Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is undeniably the most beautiful film of 2012. Working with Claudio Miranda and a team of special effects wizards, Lee’s film, based on Yann Martel’s beloved book, truly is awe-inspiring to look at, pretty much from beginning to end. Having said that, I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the book (I liked it, but didn’t love it like many did) and the story both the book and movie tell doesn’t move me like it should – especially in the bookending scenes in the film, which with the exception of a wonderful performance by Irrfan Khan, aren’t handled particularly well. Still, watching Life of Pi always gives you something to marvel at. This is a film where you can simply sit back and watch the imagery flow past you. A monumental visual achievement for Ang Lee and his entire crew – just not quite the religious experience for this atheist that the filmmakers wanted it to be.
27. The Kid with the Bike (Jean-Luc & Pierre Dardenne)The Dardenne Brothers are among the most influential filmmakers of their generation – bringing neo-realism back to European cinema in a very real way over the years. At this point in their career though they are stretching – mixing their signature style with other genres. Their last film, Lorna’s Silence, was their realism mixed with film noir. And in The Kid with the Bike, it is neo-realism mixed with a fairy tale – which would seem to be completely at odds with each other, except somehow it works. The movie is about a boy with a father who dumped him off at a children’s home, promised to return, and never does. All he has in the world is his bike, which his father has sold. We see him as he tries to track down his father, and ends up with two surrogate parents, pulling him in opposite directions. A low-rent, teenage hoodlum who points him down a path that could lead to bad things. And a kind hearted woman who takes him into her home on weekends, for reasons even she does not understand. The Dardennes use their usual style of observation more than anything else in the movie. And yet, gone is the bleak, dire outlook of Rosetta, The Son or L’Enfant. The movie ends happily. Does life really work like this? Not really, but don’t you wish it did?
26. Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)For reasons that remain unclear to me – nearly a year later – audiences pretty much rejected Steven Soderbergh’s first 2012 film – this wonderful action movie that is expertly choreographed, and has a great, lean, mean script by Lem Dobbs (who wrote Soderbergh’s The Limey). MMA star Gina Carano, who Soderbergh cast in the lead role, may not be Meryl Streep – but then again, Streep can’t do what Carano can do – which is go toe-to-toe in hand-to-hand combat with any man in the cast, win, and make it look believable. Besides, the supporting cast of slimy men – Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Channing Tatum among them – more than make up for Carano’s somewhat stiff delivery. And Soderbergh, who seems to be having fun genre hopping these days, has crafted some the year’s best action scenes. Haywire is a great action movie – and a real one. No special effects here, just ass-kicking goodness.
25. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods seeks to turn the horror genre on its head – and does precisely that. In its way, the film explains every horror film ever made – and explains why they all seem so clichéd. The film has a standard issue setup of a group of young college students heading to a remote cabin, ignoring the warnings of a creepy gas station attendant, and then doing one stupid thing after another when they are up there. And yet the movies parallel scenes, set in an underground bunker, explain everything brilliantly. The film is hilarious, bloody and clever the entire way through, and has a killer ending. The only thing that would have made The Cabin in the Woods better is if it had actually been scary – which it isn’t. Other than that though, a great, original genre film.
24. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley)Sarah Polley’s first film, Away From Her, was about the end of a long marriage – and what spouses are willing to do for each other when they are truly in love. Her follow-up film is about a newer marriage – a couple who have been together since college, are now around 30, and one of them starts to wonder if there isn’t supposed to be more to marriage than what they have. The film is anchored by a brilliant performance by Michelle Williams, who plays the wife who starts considering having an affair. Seth Rogen is surprisingly good in a dramatic role as her lovable oaf of a husband. The weak spot in the film is Luke Kirby as the other man, who never quite seems believable. Still, Take This Waltz is a fascinating film about modern marriage – and what leads people to stray, and the consequences for their actions – and proves Polley is a filmmaker to watch. Combined with her excellent documentary Stories We Tell, also released this year, and Polley had a great year behind the camera.
23. Argo (Ben Affleck)Argo delivers on the promise of Ben Affleck’s first two films as a director – Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Both of those were fine crime dramas, with some stellar performances, but Argo takes things to another level. This is almost two movies in one – a Hollywood comedy and a tense CIA thriller – both of which are handled brilliantly well. Affleck has one of the best ensembles of the year – he remains the calm center of the movie, which allows people like Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy, Bryan Cranston and everyone else to pull focus away from him. Affleck is beginning to remind me of Clint Eastwood as a director – not the most daring filmmaker in the world, most of his choices are right down the middle, but one who knows how to tell a great story well. Before Affleck starting directing, he was in danger of becoming a Hollywood joke – now he’s one of the best mainstream filmmakers in Hollywood.
22. Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)Steven Soderbergh’s second film of the year was even better than his first. In many ways, Magic Mike is like one of those old Hollywood musicals – as we see Channing Tatum’s title character become a star in his limited world, but then realize how hollow and empty that world is, and gives it up for love. In the hands of Soderbergh, Magic Mike transcends its clichés. Part of it is the intimate feel of the movie – Soderbergh isn’t afraid to get down and dirty here, isn’t afraid to use some techniques that may be off-putting, to capture the proper tone. Part of it is the performances – Tatum, all charm as Mike, Cody Horn, the picture of female perfection, Olivia Munn proving women can be just as shallow as men, Alex Pettyfer who needs to grow up. And best of all Matthew McConaghey, brilliant as their fearless leader, who is all smiles and Southern charm, until you cross him – and then a flash of vicious pimp comes out. And part of it, it must be said, is the dancing itself. Watching Magic Mike, I couldn’t help but think that female strippers are phoning it in by comparison to the choreography that these men put behind their dancing. Yes there’s nudity, but it doesn’t feel sleazy – it feel fun. And so does the movie itself.
21. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been read and loved by teenagers for years now, so it was only a matter of time before it was turned into a movie. But Chbosky held his ground and insisted not only on writing but directing the adaptation himself – and it pays off. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a rare film about teenagers – one that sees their world clearly, and how screwed it can be, how lonely, how confusing, how fucked up. It sees the importance of friends and role models. Logan Lerman is excellent in the lead role – a quiet, unassuming freshman with no friends until he meets two step-siblings – Ezra Miller, great as a gay teen, comfortable in his own skin, and Emma Watson, as his inevitable crush. They make he see the world in a different way. There are those films that come along once in a while that feel like they were made solely for you – The Perks of Being a Wallflower is that kind of film for me.