In the few short years I’ve been reviewing movies, none have been more underwhelming than 2012. I reviewed around 115 movies and watched many more in preparation for voting in this year’s Washington Area Film Critics Association awards (the winners of which you can check out right here). Not a single movie I wrote about received a perfect score. There were a few that came close, but they ultimately had enough problems that I couldn’t justify it. Only the top two movies on this list would have received that score, but I, unfortunately, didn’t see them in time to give them their proper dues. But if you focus on what this year’s batch of movies did do rather than what they didn’t, there were clearly some standouts. These are the best movies of 2012.
Note: Click the title to read my full review, if applicable.
10) The Sessions—The Sessions is a special movie. It’s a deeply human story about life and love and it stars the incredible John Hawkes as a severely crippled man who looks at the world from a different perspective than we’re accustomed to, thus allowing us to see the world that way as well for a brief period of time. It’s one of those movies that is noticeably flawed, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses so much that the flaws seem negligible. Although conventional if looked at from a cynical viewpoint, The Sessions has the exact right outlook on life. In particular, society has put a strange importance on sex, as if it’s something that all men must do by a certain age, lest they remain a virgin, which is an arbitrary sexual term that bears no real weight. The Sessions looks at it from a decidedly different and refreshing viewpoint. Despite being the main protagonist’s central goal, sex isn’t treated like an immature necessity, but rather as a pleasurable experience, just one of many that we humans are able to enjoy. Mark hasn’t had many experiences like it and it’s not so much the sex he wants, but that he simply wants to feel something. He wants to feel alive for a brief (sometimes very brief) period of time. One beautiful scene shows Mark’s thoughts as he partakes in sexual activity, but they aren’t filled with lustful desire like some may expect. Instead, he’s picturing running on the beach and feeling the sand beneath his toes, the rush of a waterfall as it flows through his fingers and running his hands through a loved one’s hair. This wondrous scene simultaneously devalues the notion of sexual importance in the typical societal sense and brings to light its real importance as a special, intimate feeling that we take for granted and should cherish. When you factor in that the film is based on a true story, its appeal only increases. Despite the sad, inevitable ending, The Sessions is the feel good movie of the year. It’s funny, emotional heartfelt, warm and life affirming. It’s a must see.
9) The Impossible—It’s easy to dismiss movies these days as Oscar bait. In particular, it’s easy for critics to point out when a movie is manipulating you into feeling something rather than really earning it, but it’s not just the job of a critic to make those observations. It’s our job to realize when those manipulations work. In the case of The Impossible, they definitely do. Set during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that took the lives of more than 230,000 people, one can’t help but feel sadness for those who lost loved ones and those whose entire livelihoods were destroyed. Because there’s no tangible villain to direct your anger at, sadness is the only proper emotion to feel and the film, regardless of its manipulations, is powerful to watch. It’s also one of the scariest movies of the year. The tsunami as depicted in the film is expertly realized, beautifully rendered and it convincingly creates the illusion that you’re there experiencing the terrible event firsthand. Don’t be surprised if after watching this movie the sound of rushing water gets your heart pounding. Yet amidst the devastation—the ransacked villages, the floating corpses, the many objects being swept away under the strength of the flood—there’s a strange beauty to the proceedings. The film, after it terrifies you, warms your heart with a tale of altruism and bravery. Ultimately, The Impossible is about the triumph of the human spirit. Even when we’re battered, bruised and beaten, it’s the good in us that puts others before ourselves. With breathtaking performances from an outstanding ensemble cast, including the young and amazingly talented Tom Holland in his first ever big screen role, The Impossible is a movie that wrecks you emotionally before lifting you up into a state of euphoria by showcasing people with bravery and selflessness befitting a platoon of soldiers. Given recent tragedies, it’s understandable if you’ve lost hope for humanity, but watching this movie will restore it. If it doesn’t, nothing will.
8) ParaNorman—Many critics herald Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie as the primo animated movie of the year, which kind of astonishes me considering ParaNorman trounces it in nearly every way. With the sole exception of a small, underseen gem further up on this list, ParaNorman was by far the best animated offering of 2012. Just look at the differences. Frankenweenie was based off an old short Burton made in 1984. ParaNorman is completely original. Frankenweenie’s incredibly irresponsible message was that death is reversible, which creates an unhealthy confusion in the little ones who have yet to fully grasp the concept. ParaNorman is about acceptance and courage and (spoilers!) even goes on to deconstruct horrible stereotypes of gay men with a hilarious late movie reveal. Despite its horror elements, it’s a film of the kindest nature and its visuals are breathtaking, particularly the final confrontation that transitions from something terrifying to something so beautiful it brings a tear to the eye. On top of all this narrative and visual wonder, the film is an ode to horror past and throws in nods to tons of classic horror films. Like another movie further up on this list, it’s a love letter to the genre itself and the unique experience it delivers. It still creates a voice of its own, but it never loses its respect for the genre it obviously endears. ParaNorman is not to be missed.
7) Headhunters—Those who said Looper was the most exciting thriller of the year obviously didn’t see my next pick, Headhunters. Originality goes a long way when crafting a movie, so the love for Looper is certainly not unwarranted (I loved it myself), but for sheer nail-biting tension, you couldn’t get any better than this Norwegian film. An art thief, who steals valuable pieces of art, switches them out with fakes and sells the original for cash, finds what he’s been seeking for a long time: that one painting that is so valuable, a successful switch would mean endless riches for the rest of his life. He steals the painting, but now, for some reason, the owner of the painting is out to kill him. A master of micro transmitters and tracking, this person will stop at nothing to take him out. That’s a quick, simple synopsis for a movie that is anything but. Headhunters, admittedly, plays by genre conventions, but its script is so tight and its ideas so well implemented that it feels more like its own beast rather than a retread of everything that came prior. There are plenty of twists and turns, yet the narrative never loses itself in its own intricacies. When the end rolls around, everything is wrapped up convincingly, without a single noticeable loose thread. Headhunters is one of the most impressive thrillers to come out in any part of the world in a very long time. See it now before the inevitable Hollywood remake mucks it up.
6) The Dark Knight Rises—It was a tremendous undertaking for director Christopher Nolan to follow-up The Dark Knight. If you had to give him a pass or fail to The Dark Knight Rises on whether or not he was able to live up to it, you’d be forced to fail him. It doesn’t come close to matching The Dark Knight in storytelling, drama or tension and it was sorely missing the late Heath Ledger who gave one of the best performances ever put to screen when he donned the make-up as the Joker. Of course, many consider The Dark Knight to be not just the best superhero movie ever, but one of the best movies ever made, period, so such expectations would be unrealistic. The Dark Knight Rises is nevertheless an incredible send-off to one of the greatest trilogies Hollywood has ever offered, a disappointment only in comparison. One could argue its theme of “rising” was handled a bit too literally or that the evil plot being carried out by Bane, the film’s antagonist played by Tom Hardy, was nonsensical or even that there was too much expository dialogue, and those arguments would be valid, but the film is greater than the sum of its parts, which mostly stems from the way the script portrays its characters and their relationships with each other. Unlike too many superhero movies, Nolan doesn’t treat his hero as a god. He treats him as he is: a human being. Bruce has demons to wrestle with, first isolated to the anger felt from losing his parents all those years ago, but now combined with the heartbreak of losing his only love, Rachel, at the end of The Dark Knight. Despite the occasional witty moment, he’s not cracking jokes like Andrew Garfield in this year’s beyond disappointing The Amazing Spider-Man. There’s too much at stake for such trivialities. His desire to fight stems not just from doing what’s right, but from the pain he’s feeling, his need to restore balance to a city gone mad, a city that took the life of everyone he ever loved. The Dark Knight Rises is a dark, adult tale told by a masterful filmmaker who knows how to balance the necessary action with character development and relationships. So yeah, you could call it a disappointment, but if that’s the case, it’s one of the best disappointments you’ll ever experience.
5) The Perks of Being a Wallflower—The core problem with most movies about teenagers is that they either dramatize or romanticize them to the point of absurdity. They make attempts to capture the plight of teens, but very few have a true understanding of what it’s like to actually be one. The same can’t be said for The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It could have fallen into similar traps, though. For instance, the main character is lonely and friendless, but he never comes off as pathetic. The characters are archetypal, but they nevertheless feel real. The film is about teenage angst, but it’s never annoying like so many others. Instead, it’s a thoughtful study on what it’s like to be a teenager and all but those who coasted through their teenage years without a problem will be able to relate to it. But the film’s intent isn’t to sadden or bring back memories from your teenage years you wish you could forget. It instead leaves you in a perpetual state of happiness, with a love and appreciation for those who love and appreciate you back, and with hope for every struggling kid who may be going through similar experiences at this very moment. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is for, but not limited to, them and it takes power away from unnecessary high school labels. When viewed from a different perspective, words like “popular” and “wallflower” take on completely different meanings. That unusual perspective is what the film is all about and it’s enchanting.
4) The Cabin in the Woods—Hands down the most original movie of the year, The Cabin in the Woods is a genre masterpiece that ranks among the top tier of horror films. Like Scream or the underseen and underappreciated Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, The Cabin in the Woods is a self-aware horror film that embraces horror clichés, but upends them to form something new and satirical. When I wrote my original review, I wasn’t sure how to explain it without giving anything away—going in as cold as possible is vital to one’s appreciation of it—and even after eight and a half months of trying to figure it out, I’m still not sure. The opening involves a group of archetypal teenagers (the jock, the slut, the stoner) who venture out to a cabin in the woods (natch). It’s a typical set-up for a horror film, but that’s part of its effectiveness. It lures you into thinking it’s simple, but then surprises you with twists and turns that absolutely nobody will see coming. Granted, it utilizes many of the same tricks many other horror films do, but that’s precisely the point and in the context of the story, it makes sense. Things we may scoff at in other films are fondly used here to celebrate the horror genre while also pointing out just how stupid it can be. Part of its fun, however, comes from spotting the copious amounts of horror references, from The Evil Dead to Valve’s Xbox 360 game, Left 4 Dead. No horror fan should walk out of The Cabin in the Woods unpleased; it’s a love letter to them and the genre they love. As far as surprises go, and just plain genuine delight, nothing this year beat it.
3) The Secret World of Arrietty—If you look at this year’s awards nominations, including the upcoming Oscars and Golden Globes, very few of those lists will acknowledge what I consider to be the best animated film of the year, The Secret World of Arrietty. This could be due to the fact that the film was originally released in 2010 in Japan, which, depending on the rules of the organization, could make it ineligible as a contender for 2012. Whatever their rules may be, mine are different and I’d be remiss to not give it its due. The Secret World of Arrietty, put in as simple of terms as possible, is magical. It’s imaginative, heartfelt and all around delightful and it comes from the wonderful Studio Ghibli, who has once again proven themselves to be the masters of animated storytelling. Although pegged a “kid’s film” by some, the film is anything but. With a story revolving around a sick young boy facing an upcoming heart operation, one that, if not successful, could result in his death, the movie is so much more. Despite its G rating, the film looks at death head on, forcing us to look at our own mortality and, in a way, make peace with it. In this way and more, including the tiny race of people who live underneath the sick child’s home (where it gets its more fantastical element), the movie explores the value of life of all kinds, never devaluing it in any way, regardless of how seemingly insignificant it is. The Secret World of Arrietty is a thematically deep and complex film that is accompanied by gorgeous hand drawn animation that brings its world to vivid life. Those who consider it a kid’s film are probably the type of people who look at what’s on the surface rather than what’s underneath. Kind of like the tiny race of people living underneath the house, just because one can’t see its thematic complexity, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
2) I Wish—Some movies are just too joyous to even describe. I Wish is one of those movies. I try to not include movies on my end of the year lists that I didn’t review, but it would be simply unfair of me to deny this movie its due. Centering around two brothers who live apart from each other as a result of their parents recent divorce, one with their father and the other with their mother, the film is about the power of love and kindness, the importance of dreaming and the necessity of holding onto hope, even if that hope has a one-in-a-million shot of coming true. A new bullet train service is opening up nearby, connecting a number of towns in their areas, and after hearing that a miracle happens the first time a new set of bullet trains pass each other going opposite directions, the kids decide to travel to the spot where they will pass in a desperate attempt to reunite their family. At its core, I Wish is a coming-of-age tale where two kids, who are initially too naïve to realize that what they’re doing won’t work, grow into a realization that life isn’t perfect, things don’t always go your way and you have to be thankful for what you have. Nevertheless, the film never shies away from their youthful spirits, attitudes and beliefs. It captures them, embraces them and then matures them instead of simply throwing them away like so many other films do. Despite their more understanding worldview at the end, they are still decidedly childlike. If anything, they still have that hope that caused them to set out on such a fruitless adventure; it has simply transitioned into something more grandiose than can be written here. It’s a feeling that only those with a sibling connection will understand, especially if those siblings don’t live close to each other. I Wish is a wonderful tale anchored by two outstanding performances by real life brothers Koki and Ohshiro Maeda and unlike some of the movies on this list, it’s practically guaranteed you haven’t yet seen it. Rectify that problem as soon as you can. You won’t regret it.
1) Silver Linings Playbook—Some movies make you feel a certain way, but that feeling can’t be properly described. When one ends and someone asks whether or not you liked it, you reply with an enthusiastic yes, but when asked why, you don’t know what to say. Silver Linings Playbook is one of those movies. It just makes you feel good and captures so many true-to-life moments that no matter who you are or what background you came from, you’ll see a part of you and your family in it. Sure, the story is about a bipolar man who has just been released from a mental health facility, but the focus is so much bigger than that. In a way, it’s about the dysfunction of not just an individual or a family, but life as a whole. It’s a story about how everything happens for a reason and no matter how crazy your life may be, there’s always a silver lining. Like in real life, these characters don’t always get along—blame is unjustly placed on the main character, Pat, by his superstitious OCD father who insists he’s the reason the Philadelphia Eagles lose—but at the end of the day, they’re there for each other. There’s a love that is and forever will be unbroken. It’s a movie that spins unexpected optimism out of pain, loneliness and emotional suffering. Director David O. Russell was unanimously praised in 2010 for his based-on-a-true-story The Fighter, a film that, though good, was nevertheless a formulaic sports drama we’ve seen a thousand times before. Silver Linings Playbook, on the other hand, is completely fictional, yet it feels more real than most movies tagged with a “true story” label. It’s full of compassion, warmth and humor. I didn’t write about it, but I’m thankful the studio sent me a screener for awards consideration because it’s the single best movie of the year.