2012 has been widely hailed as an exceptional year for film, but I’m at a loss as to where all these great films are supposed to be. (But then, if we’ve lowered our standards of “greatness” to the point that something like “Silver Linings Playbook” is being proclaimed as a masterwork ... .)
Last year brought us a lot of time-wasting dreck, with absolutely no notable wide releases for months on end. I’m still bitter. However, I will concede that the handful of great movies I saw in 2012 were really, really great, making for one of the strongest top 10 lists in years.
So even if the year as a whole got you down, here are the 10 releases that, in the end, should have made the whole ordeal worth it.
“The Cabin in the Woods”
Directed by Drew Goddard, U.S.
Guess I’m the only one who recognized the genius of producer Joss Whedon’s intricate treatise on horror movie lore, because I haven’t seen it placed on a single critic’s top 10 list. No matter — true genre fans have embraced the film, and with any luck it will prove to be one of the most influential works of recent years. Starting with the simple, familiar premise of a group of teens staying at a remote cabin in the woods, Whedon and Drew Goddard have fashioned a grand, sprawling ode to/eulogy for the entire horror genre, and in the process have thrown down the gauntlet to other filmmakers, challenging them to make better, more creative, more meaningful movies.
It may have been dismissed by mainstream audiences as “just another horror flick,” but make no mistake: This was the year’s most ambitious and thematically dense film by a mile, and also the most entertaining.
“The Raid: Redemption”
Directed by Gareth Evans, Indonesia
Would it be reactionary and unreasonable to call “The Raid” the most astounding pure action spectacle to be made in the past 25 years? Nah. This flick is the real deal: a lean, mean potboiler of a thriller that goes from zero to breakneck in the first two minutes and dares not let up until the credits roll. The setup is admirable in its simplicity (30 elite cops storm a highrise to extract a crime boss, located on the top floor and surrounded by heavily armed thugs), the execution is elegant, and the action is more visceral and involving than anything I’ve seen since John Woo’s “The Killer.” As directed by westerner Gareth Evans — who put this bad boy together for a little over $1 million — “The Raid” is more like an answered prayer than a mere movie.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino, U.S.
So a Quentin Tarantino movie made my year-end list — quite a shocker, no? Seriously, though, I’m hard-pressed to name another filmmaker as amazingly consistent as Tarantino, who over the course of 20 years and seven features has never once faltered, and has in fact improved his craft over time. “Django,” a spaghetti western riff that follows a former slave seeking to free his wife and rain down vengeance on the entire white race, may be his most technically accomplished work yet, filled with tight editing, gorgeous cinematography and an overall vibe that is at once both sophisticated and delightfully sleazy. It also offered the best dialogue of the year and some of the best performances, with Christoph Waltz standing out in an Oscar-nominated performance as a most unusual bounty hunter. Good, dirty fun.
“Zero Dark Thirty”
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, U.S.
Running over 2 1/2 hours and telling a story that spans more than a decade, “Zero Dark Thirty” should feel like a grueling history lesson, or at the very least an overly labored “insider’s view” of global politics. The fact that it is neither is a testament to the talents of writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow (the duo behind “The Hurt Locker”), who have taken the story of the extended manhunt for Osama bin Laden and turned it into the year’s most suspenseful thriller. Not a single scene is wasted, and the film is effectively anchored by Jessica Chastain in a calculated, slowly evolving performance as the CIA analyst who devoted her career to finding and killing the terrorist mastermind. The final 30 minutes, a vivid recreation of SEAL Team 6’s storming of bin Laden’s compound, may be the finest example of pure filmmaking I saw all year.
“The Dark Knight Rises”
Directed by Christopher Nolan, U.S.
A thrilling conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s instantly classic Batman trilogy, and strangely under-rated. Sure, it’s no “Dark Knight,” Bane is no match for The Joker in the villain department, and the film suffers from the worst title of the year (or any year, perhaps). But for sheer popcorn entertainment value, the film has few peers. It is epic in breadth and scale, delivering the goods in terms of action spectacle while still packing an emotional punch as Batman comes out of retirement and sacrifices everything to protect the people of Gotham from the ruthless terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy, who has no trouble chewing the scenery through that freaky mask). An appropriate end to Nolan’s story arc, though I would like to see the series continue with another, equally talented director at the helm. Darren Aronofsky, perhaps?
Directed by Ben Affleck, U.S.
It seems that more people are coming around to a truth that I’ve been shouting from the rooftops for the past five years: Ben Affleck is a born storyteller, and probably the most important film artist to emerge in the past decade. His confidence and command of style seem to be evolving with each new film, as evidenced by “Argo,” a handsome, expertly assembled political thriller that tells the true story of how the CIA smuggled six American embassy workers out of Iran during the hostage crisis. Like “Zero Dark Thirty,” the movie is almost unbearably suspenseful even if you’re familiar with the story and its resolution. It also functions as a light Hollywood satire, an approach that brings much-needed levity to the proceedings and prevents the film from becoming bogged down.
Directed by Michael Haneke, France/Germany
I’m only now starting to come around to the idea of Michael Haneke as a great filmmaker, after years of resisting what I mistakenly viewed as an overly clinical and borderline pretentious style of filmmaking. He got my curiosity with “Cache” and “The White Ribbon,” but now, with “Amour,” he has my attention. Telling the story of an elderly French couple (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) who must come to terms with the terrors of aging and death after the wife suffers a series of strokes, “Amour” functions as much as a horror film as it does a medical drama. Through the whole ordeal Haneke’s camera remains fixed and unmoving, like the uncompromising specter of death itself. And Riva and Trintignant deliver what should be considered the year’s greatest single performance — each is brilliant in their own unique ways, but both performances would be rendered meaningless without the other. A truly beautiful, heartbreaking film.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, U.S.
The biggest and best surprise of the year, Steven Soderbergh’s “male stripper movie” plays out like a modern-day “Cabaret,” with post-financial meltdown America standing in for pre-war Nazi Germany. It’s based (very) loosely on the real-life experiences of Channing Tatum, who stars as Mike, a would-be entrepreneur who has been seduced by the easy money and glamorous image embodied by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, in the role of a lifetime), the emcee-like strip club owner who oversees a stable of young studs and always has his eye on the bottom line. The characters are involving, the dialogue is sharp, and several of the stripping bits are show-stoppers, before they become progressively more degrading and dehumanizing. The crowning achievement of what turned out to be one hell of a year for Channing Tatum.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, U.S.
Is it possible for a movie to be too well-made? The question was running through my mind for the entirety of Steven Spielberg’s old-fashioned historical epic, which follows President Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery in the United States. It’s a gorgeous production, with expert editing, cinematography, set design and general mise-en-scene, yet it is this same perfection that makes the film somewhat remote — like a delicate Faberge egg that you’re terrified to handle. But it’s brought back down to earth and made accessible by a sterling cast headed by Daniel Day-Lewis (rest assured, Oscar No. 3 is on the way), and a prevailing sense of humor that prevents the film from becoming just another dreary historical epic.
Directed by Rian Johnson, U.S.
Like last year’s “Source Code,” “Looper” is a creative, involving sci-fi potboiler that didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. The plot — involving assassins who eliminate targets sent back into their time from a future in which time travel has been invented and strictly outlawed — is delightfully absurd, but still operates according to its own internal logic. But plot mechanics is hardly the issue here — “Looper” is chiefly concerned with the rivalry that emerges between “looper” hit man Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, making his third appearance on this list) and “old Joe” (Bruce Willis), the future-version of Joe who is sent back for self-assassination but escapes and goes head-to-head with his former self. Writer/director Rian Johnson sells the premise from first frame to last, and keeps everything easy enough to follow.