I only saw 60 new-to-theaters movies this year. That’s a lot for a normal person, but less than usual for me. There are a couple reasons for that, foremost being how much fun I’ve been having writing for Daily Grindhouse. I’ve been spending a lot of time taking the off-roads in a search for weird wonders of the recent and distant cinematic past. It’s hard to stay current when you’re also reveling in movies like PHENOMENA, MEGAFORCE, and HANNIE CAULDER.
There’s also the unfortunate truth that most movies these days are topping out at well over two hours, which is an odd complaint for a raving cinemaniac like me to have, but it’s a simple math problem: The more long movies I watch, the less movies I get to watch. Introducing a new bill to the floor: No more movies exceeding two hours, unless they contain dragons, Hulks, or exploding racists.
Anyway, that isn’t the fight I’m here to pick.
What I’m here to do today is offer up a list of ten movies worth paying attention to. These are the movies that meant the most to me in 2012, that burrowed deepest into my brain and soul, and which made me want to share them with everyone who may be interested in my two cents. A couple of these movies don’t need any help from me, but a couple deserve to be talked about more than they have been. So let’s talk about ‘em!
10. THE BAY
Best straight-up horror movie of the year. I loved THE CABIN IN THE WOODS too – believe me – I own it already and have rewatched it several times by now. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is as much fun as a movie can be, with at least one of the most exhilarating scenes in years (the “System Purge” scene, of course).
However: THE BAY is fucking brutal. It gets under your skin and into your head, the way the most disturbing horror movies do. I’m not comparing or contrasting here: The only thing the two movies have in common is a star, Kristen Connolly. She’s by far the most recognizable face in THE BAY, which is filled with a cast of excellent but little-known actors. Don’t get too used to any of them, by the way. The story is unsparing, as it details gruesomely how bureaucratic negligence results in a horrific invasion of seaborne parasites that fairly well decimates a small Maryland town.
Thrillingly, veteran director Barry Levinson takes on the found-footage craze in horror, and schools every-damn-body on how to do it. Not only does THE BAY manage to stay honest and to circumvent all of the minor cheats of which most found-footage films are guilty, but he pushes the form to its maximum effectiveness, quite possibly creating a new genre in the process. THE BAY is an ecological horror film – it engages in legitimate science and convincing pseudo-science, in order to force an audience to consider some very real environmental questions. Unlike ghosts or aliens or Satan Himself, we can prove for a fact that cymothoa exigua exist. (Do not Google them if you’re eating.) They may not be any more of a threat to us than any fictionalized horror villain, but they sure do serve as an effective metaphor for things that are.
A man calls a fast food restaurant demanding to speak to the manager. He tells her he’s a police detective and he’s investigating complaints that a pretty young employee has been stealing. What follows is an increasingly grueling ordeal that not only violates the young woman, but her boss and their co-workers and even their loved ones. It’s a little easier for the rest of us sitting out in the audience, but not much. As a heterosexual male I never would have anticipated a nude jumping-jacks scene to be such a harrowing experience.
No, I didn’t enjoy this movie at all. It was a rough watch. It’s really uncomfortable and uncompromising from start to finish, and it follows you out the theater on a trail of unquiet thoughts. But it makes you think, and about many things that are very important to have to think about. About complicity, both political and cinematic. About authority, and how it is given, and taken. About personal responsibility. About guilt, and its more lasting form, regret. And about how filmmaker Craig Zobel has made one of the most intense and underseen movies of the year. When I first wrote about COMPLIANCE, I said “Fast food restaurants are our modern domestic spiritual battleground.” This movie shows both the battle and the cost.
Poking around the internet, I gather that there are some people who were disappointed by FLIGHT and in particular, how it ended. I’m not going into spoilers, but this expression of disappointment can serve as an effective test to determine who can be trusted around fire and sharp objects. If they complain about FLIGHT’s ending, make sure they only use the plastic safety scissors. Along the same lines, I saw a piece in Entertainment Weekly where they had a professional pilot explain how what Denzel did in the movie is impossible to do in real life. That’s great, but it doesn’t have fuck-all to do with movies. These are the same people who think that FLIGHT is about the plane. They’re wrong. There’s a plane in it – good eye! – but it’s not a story about a plane. It’s a story about a man. An extraordinary flawed, extraordinary relatable man.
This is one of Denzel Washington’s greatest performances, which is no small compliment. Denzel has built a long career on playing men we can trust. It’s why his role in TRAINING DAY was such a revelation. That part flipped the script. Here Denzel subverts his persona in an entirely different way – by blowing it the fuck up. Generally, we see Denzel, we figure we’re in good hands. There are few more consistently excellent and forceful actors: He’s a hallmark of quality. You see him in a pilot’s uniform, as you do on the posters for FLIGHT and at the start of the movie, you figure – sure, I know what this is going to be. A tale of heroism. A tale of nobility. A tale of redemption, at worst.
What you get is one of the most excruciating tales of addiction and damaged personalities I’ve seen on screen in quite some time. It doesn’t reveal itself right away. It doesn’t look all that bad at first. There’s a louche beauty to the degradation in the opening scenes, the way Denzel lounges around a hotel room with a perfectly naked woman. And it’s Denzel – how bad can things get? Plus we know that FLIGHT was made by Robert Zemeckis, one of the most mainstream of directors – surely he won’t take us too far down into the cave. But those assumptions are mistaken. It gets BAD. We get taken down DEEP. And it hurts. Every wrong move made, every offer of help declined, every bridge burned – it all hurts so much to watch. That ending is the only “out” you get. Sorry it’s not a fucking Hallmark card and a pat on the head. That’s life, kid. I love and respect a movie that can stare life down both barrels and come away with some salvation, however minor that salvation may be.
Fun fact: Screenwriter John Gatins was the star of LEPRECHAUN 3: LEPRECHAUN IN LAS VEGAS. If you have the stones to stand up to Warwick Davis, you too can one day write one of the best movies of the year!
In a year where every last one of us was sick to death of politics, a movie that is concerned with the intricacies of the process becomes a major hit. How the hell does that happen? Well. A Tony Kushner script is no small thing, and when coupled with Steven Spielberg’s masterful orchestrations, forget about it: The sentences and speeches uttered in this movie, spoken by some of the world’s best actors, shoot forth and pop, cascading like fireworks.
LINCOLN is like the liveliest history lesson ever, full of inside-Constitution talk but somehow still engaging. And since it’s about the push to legislate the end of slavery, it’s something we can all, Republican or Democrat, agree on. (Except for the total shits, but we’ll get to them later on in the list.) LINCOLN is an interesting corollary to DJANGO UNCHAINED also, particularly in the form of the Tommy Lee Jones character and his all-or-nothing crusade. People are critiquing LINCOLN for its lack of black faces. I get it, but this specific movie has a very specific focus. It’s about Lincoln himself and his inner chamber and how he got the thing done – Kushner and Spielberg try to put as many black actors in there as that story can allow.
Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic as Lincoln and everyone else is equally good, but it falls to Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens to put a human face on this thing. He’s the best character in the piece. He sees what’s right and he’s impatient to get there. His aim is true, and we feel his urgency. He wants to wrap this thing up quick so he can hobble home, take off his wig, and hop into bed next to S. Epatha Merkerson.
He’s also got one of the greatest canes in screen history. Next time you watch LINCOLN, keep an eye on that cane.
6. KILLER JOE
At the last moment, this movie knocked BERNIE off my list. I only finally saw KILLER JOE for the first time on Friday, but I’ve watched it three times since then. BERNIE is a terrific film but KILLER JOE is something else entirely. What can I say? This list is a merciless thing. This movie is a merciless thing. It’s cold and mean and perverse and darkly, blackly comic. The great William Friedkin puts Tracy Letts’ play to screen with the bravery and sureness of a lifelong master. Caleb Deschanel’s photography is perfectly composed. Whoever chose to use Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’” as a musical leitmotif is a goddamn genius. And the performances… I don’t give a fuck about Oscars but if any of these actors do, they should get ‘em all. Gina Gershon, Matthew McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple, Emile Hirsch – in particular Gina Gershon though – all y’all earned all the shiny statue things you could ever want as far as I’m concerned. These people went deep down in their commitment to these roles and they came back up with some of the harshest possible portrayals of low-end humanity.
Apparently, the most misunderstood great movie of the year. I spent a lot of time in my review of KILLING THEM SOFTLY for Daily Grindhouse explaining how the film’s unconventional structure comes straight from George Higgins’ novel – maybe having read said novel first (as I highly recommend) made it easier for me to get into the movie’s unusual rhythms. Or maybe I just relished the terrific performances by the entire cast and enjoyed watching these characters bat words back and forth at each other.
More likely, it seems, what threw people (such as Roger Ebert) off was writer/ director Andrew Dominik’s choice to set the film in New Orleans in 2008 (the book was set in 1970s Boston) and to allow authentic unkept political promises to permeate the audio. Many of us get the point already, the argument goes, but are we really done thinking about how shitty George W. Bush was to America? That motherfucker is chilling on a ranch somewhere right now. And he’s not the only one who gets away with it, on a daily basis. That should make us angrier than it does. Sure, maybe the political subtext is way too on-the-surface, but think about the movie this way – where are all the cops?
To watch KILLING THEM SOFTLY, you’d get the vague sense you were watching a sci-fi movie about a city populated – and regulated – by criminals. Where are all the good guys? Maybe, crazy thought, they’re the ones metaphorically dozing, out there sitting in the dark eating popcorn. For every on-the-nose observation this movie makes, there are other, more subtle bits to consider. And even if I’m totally wrong, it’d still make for a lively debate. That’s why this movie deserves another look.
4. THE RAID
If I were an action-movie hero (and who’s to say I’m not?), I’d be on the phone to writer/director/editor Gareth Evans yesterday. He has made the best action movie of the year by a wide margin, starting from the most basic plot – a small group of cops are cornered in a high-rise packed with murderous thugs – and using only a fraction — $1 million – of the means most action movies have in the pocket. None of the guys in THE RAID look to be over five feet tall, and the lead actor looks just like Halle Berry, yet somehow they turn out to be the kind of fearsome, fearless shitkickers who make all fifty-two Expendables look like a Mad Magazine parody. That’s due to the fact that these are all incredible athletes, of course, but also due to filmmaker Gareth Evans and his ferocious camerawork.
This isn’t just the best action film of 2012 – it’s pure cinema. Great filmmaking isn’t only about storytelling and style, though THE RAID has that too. It’s about using the tools of cinema to most effectively get a story across, with style as a garnish. What Gareth Evans does here is present the kinetic ass-kicking doled out by his stars in a way that maximizes its impact. The choreography of both the battles and of the camerawork that captures them has an uncommon clarity. The violence is tactile – you can practically fucking feel it. This is also achieved by brilliantly-chosen and –rendered sound design – whether it be the sound of bullets rolling around in a wooden drawer, or that of a chambered clip, or of a machete scraping the underside of a table or the face of a stone wall. While everyone else was name-checking Bruce Lee and John Woo, I was oddly enough reminded of Martin Scorsese’s short film “The Big Shave.” That’s the level of clever, innovative, forward-thinking filmmaking on display in THE RAID. Will Gareth Evans one day make his own TAXI DRIVER or GOODFELLAS? I would be interested to see it.
3. CLOUD ATLAS
If you didn’t see this movie on the big screen, you missed out. If you missed it entirely, you fucked up. And if you were one of those who called it “the worst movie of the year” – God help you. When this movie comes to be seen as a lost classic in a few years, you may wish you weren’t so nasty.
I won’t be gloating though. I choose love. This movie encouraged me to be that way. This movie is about a lot of things I may or may not believe in – fate, true love, reincarnation of sorts – and it made me believe – strongly – in them all. That’s the power of love, son. That’s the power of cinema. I was skeptical too. I’ve always liked the Wachowskis but I’m not as high on THE MATRIX as so many are (although I liked the sequels better than most), and I haven’t seen a Tom Tykwer move that really resonated with me since RUN LOLA RUN. Most of all, not having read David Mitchell’s novel it was hard to tell in advance what the hell this movie was going to be about. Answer: It’s kinda about everything.
It’s a 19th-century nautical drama involving slavery and human cruelty.
It’s a period piece about classical music and an impossible romance.
It’s a 1970s political thriller about an intrepid reporter (co-starring Keith David as Shaft!).
It’s a whimsical farce about an attempted escape from a nursing home.
It’s a science-fiction anime action-movie love-story.
It’s a post-apocalyptic future-tropical tribal-warfare-slash-horror-movie that turns into a campfire fable.
It’s like no other movie I’ve ever seen before, which for the record is exactly why I go to the movies: To see things I haven’t seen before. The performances are surprising and exhilarating, the score is clever and moving, the cinematography is colorful and absorbing, the scope is bold and ambitious. You think I care about anybody’s stupid quibbles over some of the makeup effects? This is a movie that shoots for the moon and hits the stars. This movie didn’t just surprise me with what it is – it surprised me about ME. It’s sad that more people haven’t embraced it yet, but believe me, I’m happier loving this movie than you are disregarding or ignoring it. Feel free to come over to this side anytime!
2. DJANGO UNCHAINED
When, if, the controversy over DJANGO UNCHAINED’s use of the word “nigger” subsides, then we’ll be able to talk about how this is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie since PULP FICTION. It’s certainly my personal favorite of his since JACKIE BROWN. As refreshing as it has been to watch Quentin play with the vocabulary of cinema, splitting his films into chapters and shuffling the pieces around, it’s equally refreshing to see him, for the first time, hone a narrative into virtually consecutive order. This invites a focus on character and environment like never before. I’m not sure I have ever invested in the aims of a Tarantino lead as profoundly as I have in Django. I’m not sure I have ever loved a Tarantino woman as much as I do Broomhilda (it helps a lot that she’s played by the wonderful Kerry Washington). I wanted to see these two reunited as badly as I’ve ever wanted to see anything in a movie.
Detractors: If you’re going to go after Quentin because he enlists (historically accurate, appropriately reviled) racist language in his story, then why will you not also give him credit for making audiences of all shapes and sizes adore these two beautiful black people? The subject of race in America is complicated and near-impossible to navigate, strewn with landmines of ugliness. How can we ever confront these issues if we all keep telling each other how we’re supposed to confront them? Nobody is right. Nobody is wrong. (Well, the blatant racists are wrong. Fuck those people.)
Clearly Quentin understands this sociological impasse as well as anyone, or he wouldn’t have thought to conjure up the provocatively-named Dr. King Schultz, the well-intentioned European who is also somewhat patronizing and selfish, and the deeply troubling character of Stephen, who is likable and charismatic and deceptive and despicable and dangerous and weak and infuriating all in one. Stephen complicates a story that could otherwise be treated as a straightforward tale of revenge. It’s easy to root against Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie. It’s not quite as comfortable to root against Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen. In the midst of all this vicarious bloodletting, here’s comes a villain we’re ambivalent about. It’s a masterstroke.
At worst, Quentin has given us something to argue about and puzzle over – at least we’re honestly engaging in some generally unspoken issues. At best, he’s created one of the most notorious and enduring movies of the year, and – with respect to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS – quite possibly his masterpiece.
1. THE GREY
THE GREY marked its territory in my number one spot all the way back in January of 2012, and fiercely warded off all comers with teeth bared. I love all the movies in my top ten and there are plenty still which almost made the list, but THE GREY is the one I really took to heart. For one thing, I am ready to go to the mat on the argument that the storytelling and filmmaking in THE GREY is at least as exemplary as any of the year’s more award-friendly critical darlings.
The score by Marc Streitenfeld is gorgeous and heartbreaking. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is crisply delineated and winter-clear. The script by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers & Joe Carnahan is perfectly-paced and indelible. And Joe Carnahan’s direction is world-class. I was a huge fan of Carnahan’s movie NARC, and I think his SMOKIN’ ACES and THE A-TEAM, while surely on the cartoony side of the action-movie spectrum, show action chops on par with the best of ‘em. I have been following and enjoying his work for a long time, but THE GREY makes Carnahan a canon filmmaker in my eyes.
I was lucky enough to see THE GREY early, so I could watch with fascination as it was received by the public. Considering how thoughtful a film it is, all the “Liam Neeson punches wolves!” jokes were almost obscene. Some of the marketing did seem eager to group THE GREY alongside the Liam Neeson action-thrillers of the last few years, and obviously this is a different thing entirely. Interestingly, some religious groups embraced the movie, although I’m not sure it’s saying what they may want it to be saying. And some environmental groups were bothered by the portrayal of the wolves, which is a well-intentioned complaint but misses the point. First of all, Liam Neeson’s character views the wolves above all with a kind of respect. But more importantly: The same way FLIGHT isn’t really about a plane, THE GREY isn’t exactly about the wolves.
Think about the title. Did you look at the wolves in that movie? Didn’t look all that gray to me. They looked almost black. They blended in and out of that night with ease. These aren’t real-world wolves. These are something else. The wolves in THE GREY are an engine, relentlessly forcing the sands through the hourglass. In my reading of the title, “The Grey” refers to that space between existence and non-existence, between the white of snow and the black of death. No, this isn’t a movie about wolves. This is a movie about mortality.
Many fans of the movie have noted how THE GREY structurally resembles a typically horror movie, as the cast of characters are gradually winnowed away, and maybe that’s true, but in that case I’ve never seen a horror movie that treats the ranks of the culled with such care. Most of the characters who die in THE GREY get sent out on a moment of dignity, even grace, or at least as much as can be mustered. (There is one major exception, maybe the most upsetting death in the entire film, but that is the one that prompts the film’s most important emotional moment, so it’s not much of an exception after all.) This is a movie that shows many people dying, yet it is the rare such movie that happens to value life. That is one reason why I am struck where it matters by THE GREY.
There are also personal reasons. I’ve spent the last four years attending more funerals than I wanted to attend in a lifetime. Without any exaggeration and in a relatively short time, I’ve lost half my nearest and dearest. I’ve been living with death. This movie is what that feels like. Wolves and winter – that’s all just visual trappings meant to illustrate an idea. The point is, there may come a time in your life when everybody you know starts dropping like flies at the hands of some relentless cosmic flyswatter, and then what are you gonna do? Pray to God? Good luck there. Worth a try. Maybe He answers your prayers. Maybe He doesn’t answer. Probably he doesn’t answer. Now you’ve got a choice to make. Or maybe there isn’t a choice at all.
“Fuck it. I’ll do it myself.” That isn’t a renunciation. That is, in fact, a profoundly spiritual decision. This movie illustrates that concept so beautifully that if I had the tears to do it, I’d cry them. I thank this movie for existing in 2012, and I thank Joe Carnahan and his cast and crew for braving the cold to make it.
So that’s my list. If not for those ten movies, here are a bunch of others that might have made this list: THE AVENGERS, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, BERNIE, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, CASA DE MI PADRE, DREDD, FOOTNOTE, HAYWIRE, HEADHUNTERS, THE HOBBIT, LAWLESS, LIFE OF PI (all the parts on the boat, anyway), MOONRISE KINGDOM, PREMIUM RUSH, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS.
I didn’t see THE MASTER, HOLY MOTORS, SMASHED, or SKYFALL. I wanted to.
Finally, here are my previous four Top Tens from 2008-2011, just so you know the kind of guy you’re dealing with:
10. THE TREE OF LIFE
9. VIVA RIVA!
8. 13 ASSASSINS
5. BLACK DEATH
3. THE GUARD
10. FOUR LIONS
9. THE WOLFMAN
7. THE TOWN
6. GET LOW
1. TRUE GRIT
6. THE ROAD
4. BIG FAN
3. DISTRICT 9
8. THE WRESTLER
5. HELLBOY 2
2. GRAN TORINO
1. IN BRUGES
NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM,
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