2012 was a banner year of film exploration for me. The No-Budget Nightmares weekly column, which began in 2011, really came into its own – featuring interviews with a plethora of notable no- and low-budget directors. The No-Budget Nightmares bi-weekly podcast that I co-host with Moe Porne began to thrive, and I’ve met countless film fans and fellow podcasters through it. I was also lucky enough to attend some amazing film-related events, including catching a number of films at the Toronto International Film Festival, attending the final night of the Toronto Underground Cinema, visiting the latest of Dion Conflict’s all-night Shock & Awe Grindhouse movie marathons, and witnessing back-to-back screenings of George Romero’s original Living Dead trilogy – with Romero in attendance! I’m a blessed movie fan, and the community around genre films is a very supportive and heartening place; and I’m awfully lucky to have a website as consistently wonderful as Daily Grindhouse on which to write my various nonsense.
But my love for films extends well beyond genre films; and I’ve attempted to keep up on as many notable releases as possible throughout the year – a sometimes difficult proposition considering I don’t live in a major city. And 2012 was another quality year for film releases, where even the disappointments didn’t quite scar me like they have in the past. For every big-budget blunder like PROMETHEUS, there was a reassuringly bombastic blockbuster like THE AVENGERS. For every half-considered action nonsense like HAYWIRE, there was a provocative explosion of excitement like THE RAID: REDEMPTION. It was a year of sometimes intense conflict, where fans began to obsess over the newest delivery technologies – from the death of 35mm to the continued popularity of 3D and the mixed response to THE HOBBIT presented in 48fps. But the future of cinema remains unwritten, and the debates will continue; on social networks and message boards and in the comment section of articles like this one.
But enough with this self-congratulatory pish-posh! Let’s get down to brass tax. In my opinion, the ten best films of 2012. Admittedly, there are still some huge gaps here. I spend too much of my time watching awful twaddle, and some notable releases – ZERO DARK THIRTY, for instance – has yet to play where I live. But it was still a difficult list to compile, and one that I hope covers some of the width and breadth of quality material that was being released this year. I probably cheated a bit – but who cares? This is my list.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
10. THE IMPOSTER
Documentaries often have to face an uphill battle with their audiences, as media-savvy members of the public can easily find out many of the notable details of what is being featured before they even sit down. Much credit must be given to Bart Layton, then, for taking a subject that I was already somewhat familiar with – the 1997 case of the French con man who impersonated a 13 year-old Texas boy who had vanished in 1994 – and turning it into a tense, sometimes shocking display of illusion and delusion. A final twist in the story might stick in the throats of some audience members, but it’s all part of Layton’s deft, engaging magic trick of a documentary.
09. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
The line between cynical deconstruction and gleeful celebration can sometimes be a tricky one. Co-written by Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS manages to explore and poke fun at the usual horror tropes, while still forging an intriguing and original horror yarn – packed with violence and Whedon’s trademark witty dialogue. Ravenous horror fans were waiting for this one for a long time – it was lensed back in 2009 – but despite early trailers which revealed too much, audiences discovered there were still plenty more secrets to reveal. The final result isn’t a better-than-thou condemnation of horror, but instead a jubilant recognition of the genre from two obvious fans.
After GONE, BABY GONE and THE TOWN, I’m no longer surprised by the quality of Ben Affleck’s film-making output; though the skill with which he tells the quite bizarre story of the extraction of six American hostages from Iran is at another level entirely from his previous projects. The first half, in particular, is extraordinary. The re-creation of the rioting feels appropriately unhinged and terrifying, and even knowing the final result, the tension is sky-high. The injection of humor into the second half (thanks to wonderful performances from Alan Arkin and John Goodman) lands consistently, and it’s only Affleck’s performance that occasionally sinks things – his portrayal of Tony Mendez is simply too dry. But it’s a small complaint in a film that shows just how confident Affleck has become in his direction; deftly telling a complicated tale in a relatable and engaging way.
The best animated film of 2012 didn’t come from Studio Ghibli (whose THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY was a lovely, but ultimately empty, exercise) or Pixar (I enjoyed BRAVE more than most, but it wasn’t quite the return-to-form that anyone wanted), but instead from Laika, the creators of the equally charming CORALINE. PARANORMAN is a treat, featuring beautiful stop-motion animation and a story that is equally heartfelt and full of impressive, eye-popping action. It’s also a love-letter to the sort of Grindhouse cinema that visitors to this site should be intimately familiar with. A truly special piece of work.
06. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Look! I’m cheating! Yes, in a year that featured the impressive accomplishments of both THE AVENGERS and CABIN IN THE WOODS, the Joss Whedon project I had the most fun with was one that hasn’t yet had a proper release. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is a fairly straight adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy set in modern day and featuring familiar faces from Whedon’s previous projects; including Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg and Nathan Fillion. But you don’t need to be a Whedon (or Shakespeare) fan to appreciate the no-budget delights found in this deliriously entertaining and accessible effort, which makes great use of Whedon’s own property as its setting. Shot in black-and-white over just 12 days, the film feels comfortable and comforting, and the performances are universally excellent – particularly Acker, who brings plenty of pathos and passion to her part. I’m not a great fan of Whedon’s television work, but 2012 has proven to be HIS year – and this plays both as a recognition of him working at the top of his game, as well as a tribute to those passionate about his work. Great fun.
Rian Johnson broke a few brains with his high school neo-noir BRICK, but his follow-up THE BROTHERS BLOOM – while a lot of fun – sort of threw people off his scent. With LOOPER he’s confirmed all of his previously hinted at potential.. and then some. I’m a sucker for time travel tales, and here Johnson has created a fully fleshed out world filled with interesting characters and fascinating visuals, and then throws in a collection of terrific performances – including an amazing one from 7 year-old Pierce Gagnon – and a tight, startlingly original script. The best compliment I can pay the film is that even after it ended, I wanted to spend more time in that world. To see other stories told within it. It’s rare enough to find a smart, engaging science-fiction film, but Johnson has filled his story with a level of detail and invention rarely seen.
04. HOLY MOTORS
Speaking of invention, Leos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS feels like a dream journal brought to life – containing enough bizarre ideas and unique concepts for ten films; and a jaw-dropping lead performance from the great Denis Lavant. Occasionally impenetrable, even attempting to describe the plot can be an exercise in frustration. It involves Lavant’s Mr. Oscar traveling between lives, and occasionally stopping at his white limousine to change his “disguise” before moving on to another unusual undertaking. These lives vary wildly, but each is captivating – and all are full of unbridled imagination. A true triumph in originality, and one you’ll want to return to – if only to breathe in its array of delights.
03. MOONRISE KINGDOM
The Wes Andersoniest Wes Anderson film that ever Wes Andersoned. And somehow it’s much more. Maybe it’s the mid-60s setting. Or maybe it’s the cast. But aside from the layers of Anderson’s trademark “quirk”, there’s a level of sweetness and sincerity here that we haven’t seen from the director since RUSHMORE. It’s, of course, filled with beautiful visuals, and the supporting cast – which includes wonderful turns from Edward Norton and Bruce Willis – are impeccable, but it’s the subject matter itself which has seemed to revitalize Anderson.
02. DJANGO UNCHAINED
A racially charged, profane, controversial tribute to spaghetti westerns and (of course) exploitation films, DJANGO UNCHAINED had much to live up to after the critical and financial success of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Somehow it manages to surpass expectations, marrying Quentin Taratino’s motor-mouthed style with scenes of extreme violence, while maintaining some surprising pathos thanks to a collection of winning performances. Early casting changes had some worried, and I had reservations about Jamie Foxx in the lead, but he acquits himself wonderfully, though can’t quite compete with powerhouse performances from Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and – in particular – Samuel L. Jackson. It also looks incredible, and despite the gallons of blood onscreen – and the often insensitive language – it remains goodnatured and gripping throughout. Epic and exhausting, but thoroughly entertaining.
I hated WAR HORSE. I thought it was a pandering, saccharine mess filled with endless scenes of characters staring longingly at a mostly confused-looking horse. Considering how long it’s been in development, and Steven Spielberg’s tendency towards sentiment, I didn’t have a lot of hope for his examination of the final four months of the former president’s life. I was an idiot. LINCOLN is a masterpiece, and not just because Spielberg resisted his more sugary tendencies, but also because he fills the screen with texture and detail, and one of the finest ensemble casts in recent memory. Of course Daniel Day-Lewis is a powerhouse, but his subdued performance helps highlight an incredibly diverse supporting cast, and Spielberg (working from a screenplay) handles the potentially dull political material with enthusiasm and aplomb. It also might be the most beautiful film I’ve seen this year, with Janusz Kami?ski’s cinematography mixing magnificently with the period setting. Its hefty running time flies by, and remains the only film in 2012 that I immediately wanted to see again after the credits began to roll.
Oh, and as for my favorite film seen for the first time in 2012? It has to be 1991’s Canuxploitation gonzo classic SCIENCE CRAZED. Do yourself a favor and see it with a group. It’s an experience that must be shared with as many people as possible.
And that’s that!
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