2012 has been a fantastic year for movies. I’ve been reviewing films for eight straight years now, and never has my job been so enjoyable as it has been over the past six months. Where most years don’t start churning out memorable works until June or July, 2012 has provided a consistent string of great – not good, but legitimately great – films since January.
So today, as we enter the seventh month and official halfway point of the year, it’s time to take a look at the best 2012 has had to offer so far. This is the first time in my career I’ve even felt compelled to make a mid-year top-ten list, but there was more than enough movie magic to fill these ten slots and beyond.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the Top Ten Films of 2012 So Far….
10. The Hunger Games
Several films I’d consider critically stronger than this one wrestled for the number ten slot, but in the end, I’m most impressed with The Hunger Games for delivering such a strong artistic triumph despite massive commercial pressure and social expectations. As the horrid Twilight films proved, quality has no bearing whatsoever on what young-adult audiences will pay to see, and it would have been ridiculously easy for Lionsgate to churn out absolute garbage and let the dollars roll in. Instead, they hired acclaimed director Gary Ross to helm the picture, gathered an ensemble of highly respected actors, and crafted a breathtaking film that, at its worst, still verges on great.
A massive improvement on its source material in every way imaginable, The Hunger Games is filled with gorgeous, provocative imagery, genuine suspense, hard-hitting pathos, and three-dimensional characters worth caring about. Where Collins’ novel featured half-baked ideas about social inequity and entertainment culture, Ross’ film speaks directly and profoundly to the challenges facing our modern world, and leaves the viewer with so much more to ponder than your average action blockbuster. Performances across the board are spectacular, but Jennifer Lawrence deserves special mention for turning in one of the most beautiful, nuanced star turns of the modern era. I do feel commercial restraints stopped Ross from going as far as he needed to – the Games themselves aren’t as horrific as the first hour suggests – but he comes breathtakingly close, and most importantly, respects the audience every step of the way. In today’s cinematic landscape, that’s something worth celebrating.
The Hunger Games is no longer playing in most theatres, but will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray August 18th, 2012.
9. Safety Not Guaranteed
Safety Not Guaranteed is that most wonderful kind of comedy, one where the laughs are big but the heart is even bigger. It wrestles with complex and genuine human emotions, dives deeper into the psychology behind time travel than any film I’ve ever seen, and creates warm, memorable, three-dimensional characters worth investing oneself in. In fact, the film marks one of the only times I’ve ever fallen head-over-heels in love with a character, but that’s what happens when you write Aubrey Plaza one of the year’s best characters. She’s just incredible in this movie, as is her co-lead Mark Duplass, and the journey of self-discovery they take together engages the heart and imagination in equal measure.
Safety Not Guaranteed is now playing theatrically in limited release.
8. The Amazing Spider-Man
Possibly the most underestimated film of the summer, Marc Webb’s greatest accomplishment in crafting The Amazing Spider-Man is that he a turned a completely unnecessary cash-gab project into a strong artistic statement. I’m not prepared to say whether Webb’s interpretation of Spider-Man is better or worse than Sam Raimi’s; it’s just different, focusing on other aspects of the character’s mythos and psychology, and that’s what I love about it.
Conventional logic says we don’t need another Spider-Man origin so soon, but Webb’s film is so insightful, so filled with heart, pathos, and uncompromising mediations on the emotional toils of adolescence, that I now find it difficult to imagine the pop-culture landscape without the film. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone couldn’t possibly be better as Peter and Gwen, James Horner’s score is a thing of ethereal beauty, and the cinematography and action set-pieces are breathtaking. Though some will no doubt remain cynical, I’m firmly convinced The Amazing Spider-Man is a superhero film for the ages, and one of the best films of 2012.
The Amazing Spider-Man opens in theatres everywhere July 3rd, 2012.
7. The Grey
If the Academy Awards do not recognize Liam Neeson with a Best Actor Oscar for his work in The Grey, they will have proven themselves obsolete once and for all, because performances don’t come any better than this. Intense, vulnerable, mysterious, intelligent, broken…the descriptors go on and on. Neeson’s Ottway is a profound mass of extremely human contradictions, just as The Grey is a film that revels in ambiguity. The only certain conclusion all viewers can draw is that it is a tremendous film, the first great movie of 2012.
Were it nothing more than an empty survival thriller, it would still be impressive, for co-writer/director Joe Carnahan weaves tension, dread, and bottomless fear into every frame, seemingly with ease. The film is remarkable, though, for its philosophical aspirations, its thoughtful and uncompromising mediations on masculinity, faith, and above all else, death. The thoughts and musings it conjures in the viewer’s head are far scarier than any number of wolves, and though The Grey is a harrowing experience, it is also a meaningful and unforgettable one.
The Grey is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
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6. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s latest and possibly greatest film sees the director at the absolute height of his craft, expanding his thematic ambition beyond the importance of family to explore an idea that is simultaneously more complex and simplistic than any he has yet tackled: why is it we need people in our lives? He frames this discussion through the eyes of two children (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, giving painfully honest performances), displaying a worldview where the emotions are no less valid or complex, but the answers are powerfully simple. Working with what may be the best cast he’s ever assembled – the aforementioned kids in addition to Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, and Tilda Swinton – a razor-sharp script, and the year’s most rapturous cinematography, Moonrise Kingdom is a triumph on every possible level.
Moonrise Kingdom is now playing in theatres everywhere.
5. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
There are many great films I enter deep discussions with, analyzing every last element to explain why it all came together, but my love for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is much simpler. I love Steve Carell. I love Keira Knightley. Both are at their all-time best in this film, and I especially adore watching them together. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria has given them oodles of fantastic dialogue to work through, set them against a palpable apocalyptic background, and let their relationship breathe in beautiful, organic ways. I can’t guarantee the joy I found in watching these two spectacular performers interact will affect you the same way, but I found the entire film irresistible, and I make no apologies for it. This is a great and unforgettable movie.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is now playing in theatres everywhere.
4 and 3 – TIE – The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers
I see a lot of films, and though I never question my love for the medium, sometimes even I need a reminder of just why it is I keep going to the movies. This year, Joss Whedon presided over two spectacular movies – The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers – that provided exactly the kick to the gut I thrive on, the kind that keeps me doing this job, week after week, year after year.
Groundbreaking, unexpected, and gleefully defiant of expectations in every possible way, these two films are the purest, most enthusiastic shots of unadulterated cinematic joy I’ve seen in a long, long time. I saw both with sold-out crowds, and each played the audience like a fiddle. Never have I heard so much laughter, gasps, cheers, and genuine, unquenchable excitement in a single screening. And in the span of two months, Whedon did it twice. That’s why they’ve been placed in a tie. How else am I to rank them?
With The Cabin in the Woods, writer/director Drew Goddard and co-writer Whedon set out to write a love letter to the horror genre, and wound up crafting one of the sharpest, funniest, most blisteringly insightful deconstructions of any genre in cinematic history. What’s most remarkable about The Cabin in the Woods is how completely unexpected and unpredictable it feels, even on repeat viewings. It’s hard to believe you’re actually seeing most of what Goddard puts on screen, especially in the spectacular third act, but there it is, and it’s wonderful. The funniest film of the year for its audacious and unexpected turns, and the scariest for its unsettling implications about the state of modern audiences, The Cabin in the Woods is a remarkable achievement.
You can cut and paste most of those comments over to The Avengers, which is a conventional superhero flick only in the sense that the good guys win and the music is filled with blaring horns. Marvel gave Whedon $200+ million to realize his ultimate vision for comic-book entertainment, and in turn, he delivered two straight hours of non-stop, glorious payoff, filled to burst with genuine surprises that no amount of anticipation could prepare us for.
Though the subversions don’t run quite as deep as they do in Cabin, The Avengers thrives on Whedon’s ability to turn tropes and expectations on their head (Hulk’s one-on-one with Loki, anyone?), and to give each character such a distinctive, memorable voice. Watching big personalities clash has never been this much fun. I would also highlight how brilliantly Whedon stages the action, especially in the third act, but why bother? You’ve all seen it, and you all lost your s*** for it.
The Cabin in the Woods will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray September 18th. The Avengers is now playing in theatres everywhere.
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2. A Separation*
What writer/director Asghar Farhadi accomplishes in A Separation cannot be easily described. It is a film about human emotions, and those cannot be clearly expressed through words. Nor can they be effectively bound by the confines of law, nor will they ever cease being a barrier from reason. This is the quandary at the heart of A Separation, and it is a profound one. The film observes good people struggling with morally and emotionally complex situations, situations where a million questions are asked and no answers can possibly be given.
Farhadi inhabits his film with wonderful characters, all of them as layered and nuanced as any human being alive today, and this is what makes the story so immensely powerful. It gives us the chance to fathom the communal feelings and standpoints of one complex, relatable group of people all at the same time, rendered with piercingly authentic realism. Farhadi’s script is practically Shakespearean in the way it meditates on so many interwoven themes primarily through language, and his spectacular cast commits themselves fully to every last moment, no matter how ugly or intense. A Separation is a true masterpiece and will, I believe, be cherished, discussed, and debated for as long as this art form remains relevant.
A Separation will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 21st.
(*) A Separation was released in New York and Los Angeles at the very end of December 2011, but it did not expand beyond those cities until February 2012, so for the purposes of this list, it counts as a 2012 release.
1. The Secret World of Arrietty
My favorite film of 2012, The Secret World of Arrietty is an unspeakably beautiful little film, one that connects with the heart and mind on every possible level. Having watched the films of Studio Ghibli since I was little, I should no longer be this astonished by the house Miyazaki-san built, but I cannot help myself; they are the best at what they do, and each film they release is a revelation.
Arrietty is based on Mary Norton’s classic novel The Borrowers, but writer Hayao Miyazaki (who is, without a doubt, my personal favorite filmmaker) and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi make the material their own, infusing it with unparalleled visual creativity, wonderfully endearing characters, and a poignant, underlying sense of melancholy that speaks to a special, intangible place in the hearts of every viewer.
The film forgoes a plot-driven structure in order to simply spend time with these characters, to watch the Borrowers operate in their wondrous little world and let the relationships develop organically. This is where the film’s true beauty lies. Arrietty, a Borrower, and Shō, a human boy living in the house her family borrows from, are drawn together by the sadness in their lives. Arrietty loves her parents, but they are the only other Borrowers she has ever known, and that loneliness has become hard to ignore. Shō, meanwhile, has a fatal heart condition, and has come the countryside for rest and relaxation while waiting for a surgery that has little chance of saving him. Shō’s greatest desire is to be needed, to find someone to whom he isn’t a burden, and Arrietty simply wants a friend. Together, they fulfill the empty places in the other’s soul. Their relationship develops in the subtlest, most beautifully restrained of ways, each scene they share producing smiles and tears in equal measure.
Their final exchange, in particular, is one of the greatest emotional wallops any film has ever delivered, the most beautifully sad moment any so-called ‘family’ film has ever attempted. The scene, and the film itself, leaves us with the message that while many of our most important relationships are temporary, the memories created are eternal, and if we’re strong enough to hold them dear, that’s enough to keep our hearts strong. He may not have directed the film, but you can sum up the breadth of Miyazaki-san’s work with that one sentence.
It’s a new emotional high for the makers of the world’s greatest movies, and the rest of Arrietty is equally stirring. The film fosters the heart, mind, and soul to degrees unmatched by any release of the past six months, and for that, it is my favorite film of 2012 to date.
The Secret World of Arrietty is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. You can check out the trailer below too, as I’m sure many of you aren’t familiar with the film.
What do you think? Have you seen these films? Did you enjoy them? Are there ones you loved I didn’t include? Sound off in the comments!Previous