Welcome one and all to the only top ten list you'll ever need! Listed below are all of the films I managed to see in the Year of our Gordon-Levitt 2012. This list is incomplete in a number of respects. One, this may come as quite a shock but I am not a professional film critic. Gasp! This means that I only seek out films that I think would be interesting in the first place, and while I try to have broad range, my scope is much smaller than those who are paid to see everything. So apologies if Battleship is an unknown gem. Secondly, I still have not managed to see a handful of titles generating buzz and that happen to pique some sort of interest in me. For example, I have been planning on seeing Argo for months now but I was too busy watching Chicken Little to get around to it. Meanwhile, something like Zero Dark Thirty has not yet been released in my neck of the woods. Lastly, and this is the biggest problem with this list, I am a man of restrictions, of rules and regulations, and I decided long ago that for a film to qualify it had to have its world premiere in the year in question. If imdb says that a movie opened at a film festival in Argentina on 31 December, 2011, it cannot make the cut. There are several drawbacks to this method, one being that a disproportionate number of foreign films are ineligible for inclusion. This means that one, The Turin Horse or Once Upon a Time in Anatolia are barred from the list, and two, since I know they won't qualify, I put off watching them. Sorry rest of the world! The other problem with my method is that sometimes the best film I saw in the theatre this year, the one I have championed more than any other, also must fall by the wayside. Let it be known that had The Cabin in the Woods been an official 2012 film it would be a lock for best film of the year. It is the only movie I saw three times and the only one that I own the Blu-ray and the Official Visual Companion book on. See what I did there? I wrote a whole list of reasons why my rules suck, then I cheated and named a movie from last year as the best. On with the show!
18. The Campaign
17. John Carter
16. The Hunger Games
15. The Dark Knight Rises
12. Seven Psychopaths
11. The Queen of Versailles
10. Premium Rush
The perfect late summer drive-in movie. Premium Rush is a twenty-first century chase film set in the world of New York City bike messengers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee--don't worry, the Looney Tunes connection is acknowledged--who is hunted down by the crookedest cop this side of the bad lieutenant (played to the hilt by the great Michael Shannon). Directed by long-time blockbuster screenwriter David Koepp, the film moves at a breathless clip, starting the race in the first reel and rarely letting up until the conclusion. There are some nice cinematic touches throughout, including a method of showing Wilee's thought process as he comes to a dangerous intersection. We see him visualize weaving between two cars only to run into a baby carriage, or hook a left and get hit by a truck. Premium Rush is a breezy feature that straddles a fine line. It continually emphasizes the high stakes but it never takes itself too seriously.
9. Casa de mi Padre
What an ingeniously stupid movie Casa de mi Padre is! Will Ferrell's Spanish-language homage to the telenovela is a ridiculously thin conceit stretched out to the barest of feature film lengths. And it is hilarious. In fact, it might just be Ferrell's most consistently enjoyable film. Ferrell plays the dimwitted son of a ranch owner who must protect their land from the malevolent drug lord Onza, played with relish by Gael García Bernal. Diego Luna hams it up as Ferrell's brother Raul who has gotten himself wrapped up in some shady dealings. The film plays up its threadbare, low budget quality to ludicrous effect, at one point an establishing shot of a city street is filmed with miniatures including a Hot Wheels car. To pad out the film there are all manner of goofy shenanigans including a psychedelic dream sequence and a smorgasbord of slow motion action shots. Casa de mi Padre is a one-of-a-kind creation, a hypothetical doodle taken to its idiotic extreme.
There are a number of wonderful elements in Pixar's Brave. This princess story is a conscious attempt at rewriting the very DNA of a princess story. The headstrong Merida is a mischievous dreamer who would rather scale a mountain by herself than entertain royal visitors. There is no dashing prince and therefore no happily-ever-after romance. It is a film about the bonds between mothers and daughters, a rarity in the boy's world of Hollywood. And as usual, the animation is of a caliber that astounds. Merida's hair is quite possibly the greatest special effect of the year. However, the film is executed with a roteness that is anathema to Pixar's emphasis on engaging story. All of the elements are there but they don't feel inspired. The abundance of slapstick humor with characters running into walls and others showing off their genitals is entirely unfunny. And while the film tries to subvert the foundations of the princess story it still feels overly familiar, hitting many of the same tired beats. It is now two years running that the annual Pixar release was not the best animated film of the year. Regrettably, next year's Monsters University looks more like a hat trick-achieving third contestant than the film that rights the ship.
7. Holy Motors
If a film is made but no one is there to see it, does it still exist? This is one of the questions brought to the surface in Holy Motors, Leos Carax's return to cinema after a decade-plus absence. The film dreamily begins in a cinema full of sleeping (or possibly dead) patrons. The ambient noise of the film awakens Carax, who can't see the forest for the trees and must break through a seemingly solid wall to enter the theatre. From there, the film follows Denis Lavant, in a fantastically fearless performance, as he rides around Paris in a stretch limousine, keeping a number of "appointments". These events require him to disguise himself as, among other things: a beggar woman, a dying old man, a motion-captured sex dragon, and a homeless Munchkin. The movie deals in obfuscation, where masks are constantly worn and nothing is quite what it seems. Carax expertly teases out information, often framing a scene tightly and slowly expanding its field to reveal a new set of clues. The film is deeply referential about the history of cinema, including the director's previous work. Even the name of Lavant's character, Mr. Oscar, can be taken as a nod to the Carax's real name or the Academy Award, or both. If the main character is a surrogate for Carax then there is something to be said about the fact that Oscar dies four times throughout the movie, on three occasions by his own hand, twice in the same scene. Since the film is a series of self-contained vignettes it varies significantly in quality from piece to piece. The greatest sequence is a joyous accordion-laden march through a cathedral, while the worst sees the aforementioned Munchkin kidnapping Eva Mendes, dressing her in a burka and eating her hair. At one point in the film, Lavant is driving around the city in a beat-up hatchback and listening to the song "How Are You Getting Home?" by the band Sparks. In many respects, Holy Motors reminds me of the Mael brothers' inimitable discography. It is clever, expertly constructed, overflowing with ideas, and on occasion, excruciatingly annoying.
Director Rian Johnson pulled off quite a feat with his thoroughly original sci-fi thriller Looper. He found a fascinating new tangent for the overused theme of time travel and used the fantastical conceit as a means of dwelling on age, choices, mortality and morality. He also managed to create a fully realized, futuristic society that appears wholly organic and believeable. And he followed his storytelling muse in a series of intriguing left turns. Somehow a film that starts out with hover cycles, new wonder drugs, and shots of dystopian downtowns, ends up on a quaint little farm and it makes total sense. There are a few cracks in the armor along the way that sidetrack the film from true greatness. First of all, the second half shifts into a lower gear that jars with the fast-paced, overstuffed beginning. While the choice to move events to the farm was interesting--it also gets a little boring. The worst element, however, is the make-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, used to make him resemble a twenty-something version of Bruce Willis. Gordon-Levitt does a phenomenal job aping Willis's steely mannerisms on his own and the make-up (especially those unfortunate eyebrows) undermine him every step of the way. Looper is a promising film that doesn't quite reach the level of its abundant potential.
5. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino's companion piece to his magnificent Inglourious Basterds is another stylized revisionist revenge tale, this time taking place in the antebellum south where a bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz picks up Django, a slave played by Jamie Foxx, who can help him catch three wanted men. Once this bounty is acheived the two men team up and eventually make their way to the plantation, ingeniously named Candyland, where Django's wife now resides. The violent retribution at the heart of the picture is more emotionally overwhelming than Basterds thanks to Tarantino's unflinching depiction of the beatings and humiliations meted out on slaves by their white captors. No Tarantino film has ever brought me close to tears before. Django succeeded twice. Unfortunately, in every other respect the film is inferior to the auteur's previous film (and for my money, all of his others as well). The film plays out at an epic length but it does not possess an epic story. There are a couple of tone deaf scenes, particularly a complete piece of filler showing some proto-Klansmen arguing about the effectiveness of their hoods, and one wonders if this ungainly length and disjointed rhythm is an effect of Tarantino losing his career-long editor Sally Menke to an untimely death. Django Unchained is still a fun, exhilarating work with some phenomenal performances (Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie being one of the best) and a great shoot-out aping the fabulous climax to The Wild Bunch. However, the film has a feeling of deflation about it and the final fifteen minutes doesn't provide quite the satisfaction it is aiming for.
4. The Master
The Master is a glorious, curious, lumbering creation from one of cinema's most electrifying auteurs. It is also the first Paul Thomas Anderson film that failed to surprise me. The picture is a strange hybrid of the writer/director's two previous features, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, both of which work better as a whole than his latest. Tonally, The Master's depiction of two men circling one another under the auspices of religion recalls the push and pull between Daniel Plainview and preacher Eli Sunday in the latter picture. Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie feels like a frustrated and angry descendent of Punch-Drunk Love's wounded Barry. Both men are struggling with their inner demons and trying to make some sort of connection in a world in which they don't quite fit. Phoenix's performance is the foundation for The Master's success, his commitment to the role unwavering even when the film veers off the rails on a tangential indulgence. If he wins the Oscar over Lincoln frontrunner Daniel Day-Lewis, I would not be the least upset. The first auditing session between Freddie and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd may be the single best scene of any film this year. It is a riveting exchange, just two men engaged in a fierce battle of wills that is more exhilarating than any apocalyptic CGI-induced action spectacle. However, as a whole, my sincere appreciation for The Master comes from a distance of detachment. While I can marvel at the performances, the exquisite cinematography, the refined period detail, and superbly unnerving score, I never could quite connect with the material.
3. Wreck-It Ralph
Wreck-It Ralph is pretty awesome.
2. The Avengers
After wandering ever further into the dark abyss of Gothamic grittiness, where men in make-up and rubber suits are made to act out heavy-handed, simplified allegories of today's topical landscape, The Avengers is the first comic book film to tap into the youthful giddiness of the medium since Sam Raimi's fantastic Spider-Man 2 a decade ago. Prior to the film's release, skeptical speculation ran high on the film's ability to successfully integrate so many main characters into a 150 minute-long extravaganza. Nine months removed from its spring release, it is no wonder that writer/director Joss Whedon was able to pull it off. Having proven himself adroit at juggling the multiple storylines of a huge ensemble cast on his wonderful television shows (even Dollhouse!), tackling a super-team of superheroes with their outsized egos and inhuman strengths must have been a delightful challenge for the genius. His ability to cater to the very disparate worlds of the diehard fanboys, the completely uninitiated, and those in between (me) lead to the film's box office bonanza. The Avengers is a breezy, colorful, action-packed joy. Whedon manages to give adequate screen time to his legion of superstars, dishing out witty quips for Robert Downey, Jr., pulpy Shakespearean for Chris Hemsworth, patriotic platitudes for Chris Evans, and he even manages to coax a fine performance out of Scarlett Johannson, who fills Whedon's quota of girl power with aplomb. Her opening scene, an interrupted interrogation, is the best introduction to a superhero in the film. However, it is Mark Ruffalo's definitive portrayal of the Hulk who is responsible for the film's greatest moments. Breathlessly watching the Hulk leap off a building to catch a skyfalling Iron Man is to be a ten-year-old boy again. Incredible.
Is there a more divisive 2012 film amongst cinephiles than Steven Spielberg's Lincoln? The war among the geeks is almost as bitter as that played out onscreen in this tense, grey drama. The arguments are certainly nothing new. Spielberg is too obsessed with beauty, he is manipulative, his staging too theatrical, too calculated. These arguments are, for the most part, entirely correct but that does not detract from the fact that Spielberg is a moviemaking maestro whose films recall the grand works of cinematic titans like John Ford or Frank Capra. No one working today could make a movie about this subject matter so invigorating while remaining so accessible. Lincoln wisely narrows its focus on the President to the Herculean passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Daniel Day-Lewis subtly and gracefully plays Abraham Lincoln like a human being, not a diefied figurehead. His Lincoln is distant and driven, yet taken with folksy, meandering asides. Tony Kushner's deft screenplay manages to weave together these disparate qualities while also giving ample time to flesh out a supporting cast headed by a phenomenal performance from Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a progressive who must compromise his ideals to secure the Amendment's passage. By the second half, the film becomes less about Abraham Lincoln and more about the lesser men in his orbit who must decide what side of history they plan to exist on. The only undercooked element of the film is a subplot featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son, Robert. Spielberg is for the most part quite restrained with his direction here. He lets many a scene play out organically, without a need to cut heavily. When he does create some sort of montage it is to wonderful effect. As the Amendment passes, he splits the attention between the raucous uproar in the House and a scene of soldiers hearing the news, until resting on the President, who stands isolated by a window hearing the muted bells outside toll. Lincoln is a film that inspires pride without being cloying or overtly patriotic. It shows that democracy is a messy, arduous business but that it has the power to transform lives.