A Year Watching Pictures: The Best Films of 2012

lincoln

The past year has been discussed as a marvelous year for cinema, one that showcased some of the finest work that’s been done since the banner year of…2007. That’s a five year gap between epic years of celluloid, with ’07 bringing forth such spectacles as No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Longest Movie Title in History, Ratatouille, Juno, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Tim Burton’s Mind…okay, so the first two were fantastic, and there were a bunch of other great movies, and something about a guy who can only blink through the entire movie, but his blinks are in French! which makes it awesome. Oh, and that was also the year that gave us Academy Award nominee Norbit.

My point being: quality is subjective, especially in terms of how we remember a given year. Just because there were a couple of reeeeeeally great films that won popular acclaim doesn’t make the entire year the best thing since sliced bread. We all remember 2007 because of Javier Bardem’s bowlcut and because Daniel Day-Lewis will most certainly drink your milkshake. True, these are two of the most iconic films of the century, and some of the greatest cinematic works of art to ever have been produced, but on the whole, 2007 was no better or no worse as a collective than any other year.

Which brings me to 2012. If we are to believe that the collective weight of artistic merit can be measured, then it was an overly fantastic year for movies. If we can assign a form of Cinematic Efficiency Rating or Value Above Replacement Movie (like PER in basketball, or WAR in baseball), then things become a bit murkier. Quantifying the relative worth of a movie is difficult because there are no set quantifiers to be found in artistic judgment; it’s all opinion. With statistics, it’s far easier to see how many wins a Mike Trout is worth, or exactly how off-the-charts a Lebron James is.

So let’s have a little fun for one second before getting into my list. Let’s say that your typical Replacement Movie is something that you’re willing to go see just to simply occupy your time for two hours or so. We’re not talking a cinematic marvel, we’re not talking a newfound means of examining the human condition, and we’re not discussing topicality in subject matter; at the same time, we’re not talking about Norbit. (My feeling is that Norbit would be a negative qualifier, something that actively makes your life worse for having seen it.) For the purpose of keeping this discussion short, let’s consider a typical two-star reviewed movie to be the standard, a completely forgettable experience that neither heightens, nor dilutes, one’s movie-going. Websites such as Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are good aggregates for such an experiment, and are far, far better at collecting judgment than I am, but they also lack the benefit of comparing cinema to sports sabermetrics. Consequently, we’ll cite our two-star movie (for this discussion) as 2012’s The Vow. Why this one? Because it was not horribly reviewed, because it reached the $100 million threshold at the box office without making a lot of noise, (calling that the equivalent of 600 plate appearances would be unfair, because that would reduce certain movies like The Master to a comparison to an EXTREMELY OVERLY QUALIFIED bench player.) and because in five year’s time, nobody will remember this movie until it shows on Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel.

We’ll set it’s value at 1.0 VARM.

Flashing back, we’ll take the five Best Picture nominees from 2007, comparing them to various sporting stars of the last year and quantifying their respective worth.

No Country for Old Men

VARM: 9.2 – Alex Rodriguez’s 2007 WAR value (2007 AL MVP)

This is the one that won Best Picture, which corresponds to A-Rod’s winning the MVP…kind of. (This is not an analogy that stands up to scrutiny, but that’s a point I’m building to. Bear with me.) NCFOM was a typical power-slugger, driving in lots of runs, playing a semi-slick third base, and launching home runs with maximum frequency off of its short West Texas rightfield porch. Also, Javier Bardem fires a mean fastball to first base with his cattle gun.

There Will Be Blood

VARM: 6.0 – C.C. Sabathia’s 2007 WAR (AL Cy Young winner)

One man elevating himself above anything he’d done before, though in my opinion, his best year would come next year when he single-handedly pitched Milwaukee into the postseason after the trade deadline. What does this have to do with TWBB? Little.

Juno

VARM: 6.8 – Carlos Pena’s 2007 WAR

Wait! How can Juno’s VARM be higher than There Will Be Blood?! This is absurd! What kind of drugs are you on? This is how I felt when I looked over the stats for that year and saw that the power-hitting Pena had a season worth 6.8 WAR. Completely and utterly shocked. This is the only way I could think of to accurately share my feeling of “WTF?”

Michael Clayton

VARM: 5.0 – Jorge Posada’s 2007 WAR

A steady hitter, doing nothing surprising, other than simply having another good season. Fairly unspectacular, yet there’s nothing terrible about it. That’s Michael Clayton in a nutshell.

Atonement

VARM: 6.6 – Jake Peavy’s 2007 WAR

He’s had a couple good years since, but for the most part, it was a one time shot. Atonement was a good movie, but in the case of big, epic period movies, we’ve seen it a billion times before: Cold Mountain, Amistad, etc. Sure, the novel was great, but in the grand scheme of things, Atonement fell by the wayside.

But wait! How can it have a higher VARM than There Will Be Blood! You can’t objectively compare movies to baseball players! There’s more factors that go into them than that! This half-assed experiment is entirely subjective! Based solely on opinion! How dare you?

Moral of the Story:

Quantifying art in terms of awards are a nice way of rewarding hard working filmmakers and artists for quality work. However, placing immense stock into a movie actually being the Best Picture of the Year is misguided; the Oscars are only a popularity contest, based upon a number of factors that go beyond whether a movie is actually any good or not. This is something that tends to get lost at this time of year, as people get swayed by hype, marketing, and how quickly they received a screener before the deadline. (Case in point: Tarantino and Bigalow not being nominated for Best Director. Is there anyone who really doesn’t feel that Katheryn Bigalow’s work wasn’t the best of the year? Does anyone really want to not call Quentin Tarantino one of the most original auteurs of the past twenty years? With a body of work that makes Tom Hooper look like a Class-A ballplayer pitching against Albert Pujols? This is a stupid discussion to have, and we’re stupid for having it.) Now, the list I’ve always enjoyed seeing is the AFI List of the Top 10 Movies of the Year. While it’s still based upon subjective conjecture, at least there’s no Top Dog or #1; this means that it’s easier to say “Yes, these movies were good”, which is a little more fair and a lot less divisive than saying “Well, I really think Les Mis was good, but it didn’t hit for power like Lincoln did” or “Skyfall had a great jump-shot, but didn’t rebound like Silver Linings Playbook”. Remember, movies are art; it’s a fun discussion to try and figure out which is going to win Best Picture at the Oscars. (Trust me, I watch them every year, fill out my ballot, and have been best friends with Alex Bean for seven years; Alex being the man who takes this obsession as seriously as I take the Baseball Hall of Fame)

All I’m really trying to do here is explain why I’m not making a ranked list, nor why I’m placing a limit on the movies I liked. Because 2012 was a great year for cinema; choosing 10, in any set order, goes against how I watch movies. I view them differently than any other members of the Recorder, and will have different opinions than most people. Valid? Possibly; I do have a film studies degree and am published in a reputable academic journal. (Once. One time. That was it.) At the same time, I also shilled out $11.50 for a ticket to The Expendables 2, so my judgment might be off.

As you read this list, please keep in mind that this is more of a viewing guide than anything else. I honestly feel that your seeing these movies will be a rewarding experience (unless you’re really opposed to either having fun or thinking; not my call to make). So, without further ado, my Best of 2012 in Cinema.

Argo

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Ben Affleck has yet to direct a bad film, and with Argo, has ascended into the ranks of directors about whom the popular collective of Hollywood absolutely has to take notice of whenever he makes a new movie. When compared directly with Zero Dark Thirty, this yarn about a CIA extraction of stranded Americans during the Iran Hostage affair with the aid of a bogus Hollywood production company suffers; ZDT deals directly with foreign affairs, while Argo romanticizes the role of the movies in the world while simultaneously being a well-crafted action thriller. At the same time, this is a direct throwback to the great thrillers of the 1970’s, such as The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, and The Conversation. Not to mention that Affleck gives his best performance in years. Winning big at the Golden Globes was a nice sign of recognition for the film, as well as a suggestion that maybe (just maybe) a few more Oscar nominations might have been deserved. Or that this was a strong year for auteurs in cinema, and somebody had to suffer. Either way, Argo wins big on my re-watchability scale, this being how I decide what movies are worth owning (anything that I’m more than likely to watch again typically ends up on my shelf; if I’ll watch it once and never pay it mind again, it’s just fine as a rental; more on this later).

The Avengers

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Speaking of re-watchability…as I write this column, I’m watching The Avengers. As a movie, it’s just a good time. Sure, it’s occasionally goofy, overblown, and the dialogue gets a little skimpy if Robert Downey Jr. is delivering the lines. I’m also not a big believer in that just because a movie simply exists, it’s automatically a great achievement. Avengers is based upon one of the most successful comic-book superhero teams of all time, and superhero movies are big at the box office; of COURSE it was going to happen. The fact that Joss Whedon made this into a fantastic movie is the real achievement. It stands on its own accord, and the final battle at the end is the best action sequence of the year (yes, that includes ZDT, Argo, and anything else on this list). In fact, I’ve just reached the big battle at the end, so I’m pausing the writing of this column to revel in the Hulk smashing Tom Hiddleston into the ground.

(thirty minutes later)Yup.Worth it.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

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A movie about survival, family, and the power of the spirit to overcome all odds. While also being about Hurricane Katrina while not actually being about Hurricane Katrina. A surrealist treasure-trove of aesthetic. A powerful debut feature from a new director, with the most captivating performance by a six-year-old in recent history. Some have criticized the film for being fairly empty, but I think that they miss the point in that the real story is about Hushpuppy being prepared for life in a hard world by her father. Hard to quantify because it’s so far removed from a normal look at American life. (which is what this is about…but not really) Quvenzhané Wallis’s ability as an actress may blossom into something wonderful or it may not (She’s eight.) However, what is committed to celluloid is a fervently original, captivating story that lingers far beyond the first screening.

Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods

It’s easy to think that 2012 was the year of Joss Whedon. However, to claim thusly is to ignore the body of work of Mr. Whedon, including Firefly, Buffy, Dr. Horrible, and a body of screenplays that includes Toy Story. With Cabin in the Woods, what we really see is how influential of a movie The Evil Dead was, while simultaneously deconstructing the horror genre to both hilarious and terrifying levels. The final sequence involving a series of elevators is pure comedy gold. Words do not do this movie justice; see it now. With friends. And beer.

Django Unchained

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In recent years, I’ve come around to Quentin Tarantino. I used to think he was an arrogant, pretentious hack. Then I saw Death Proof. And came to recognize the brilliance of Kill Bill. I enjoyed Inglorious Basterds, though not as much as others (alternate history, even as a means of exploring propaganda, never captivated me as much as others). However, I can recognize that Mr. Tarantino is simply a fantastic director who has never made a bad movie, who has a recognizable, enjoyable aesthetic, and goes places that most mere mortals in popular cinema dare to tread. Django is a fantastic western (or southern) that pays homage to all types of movies in Tarantino’s signature style while crafting a completely original tale of revenge and redemption. What I really appreciated about this movie, though, is the granting of complete agency to its titular hero, avoiding the traps of movies such as Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai, which is a lot harder than one might think. Also, I’m willing to go on record and state that this is the best performance Samuel L. Jackson has ever given. And he’s only the third or fourth best thing about the movie.

The Grey

the grey

Yada-yada-yada, Liam Neeson fights wolves, but the story is really about man’s desire for survival in the face of impossible odds, a deep and dark story about the elements that bring groups together while tearing them apart at the same time, blah blah blah. It’s a great film, vastly underrated, and a complete surprise. Also, placing this movie on mute and playing Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” on repeat as a soundtrack is far more hilarious than one would ever think.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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I’ll admit, I’m incredibly biased on this movie. I saw Fellowship of the Ring over twenty-eight times in theatres, I believe the Lord of the Rings trilogy to be the greatest franchise of the new millennium and the most influential blockbuster since Star Wars, and have already seen this one four times in theatres. I also have an incredibly personal connection to the material, as it carried me through (and continues to carry me through) some of the darkest periods of my life. There’s been a lot of outcry about the film’s length, about how it doesn’t compare to LOTR, and that this new trilogy has already been a massive disappointment. The problem I have with those statements is simple: LOTR is about the ongoing battle between good and evil, a story that lends itself to epic storytelling in the classic vein, and paints humanity’s grandest themes on a broad canvas; The Hobbit is an adventure story, pure and simple. Of course it’s not going to be as great as LOTR. The story takes place on a (relatively) smaller scale, with its own quirks and oddities. Yes, stretching one book into three movies results in a lot of bloat, no matter how much is actually going on in Middle-Earth. That doesn’t matter. When I go to see The Hobbit, all I want is to enjoy being immersed in Peter Jackson’s singular version of Middle-Earth. Mission accomplished. Can’t wait for The Desolation of Smaug.

Lincoln

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There’s been an abundance of fantastic performances this year. Which is really unfair for most of the working actors today, because Daniel Day-Lewis is simply heads and tails above everyone as far as his ability as an actor. Spielberg is back at the top of his game, and while Lincolnis not as good as Munichor Schindler’s List, it’s still the best movie of the year for me. This is a movie centered on longevity, centered around a magnificent ensemble cast, which remains incredibly captivating. I’ve already written at length about it elsewhere on the site, but remain compelled to state how utterly fantastic this film is.

Moonrise Kingdom

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I’ve also written about this elsewhere, but this is the movie that fully brought me onboard the Wes Anderson bandwagon. If nothing else, 2012 was the year in which I finally recognized the brilliance of Tarantino and Anderson. “Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!”

Perks of Being a Wallflower

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I’m a sucker for coming-of-age movies, and this is no exception. A celebration of the moment in time when the counter-culture became cool, I came into this having never read the book. Which feels fine, because the author is the one responsible for the movie. This is another one that will sit just fine on my shelf.

Promised Land

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This one slipped through most people’s cracks, which having seen it, makes a lot of sense. This is a hard movie to like, one that tries to be incredibly topical while carrying a timeless-Capraesque air about it. There are no truly likable characters in this film, until the very end, and at times, it beats you over the head with how bad fracking can be. Having said that, it’s a fascinating character study of what living in modern small-town America means, and how we bear the legacy of where we are born and how we live our lives. Matt Damon might be the modern Jimmy Stewart, disappearing into a wide variety of roles in his varied career. Reunited here with his Good Will Hunting director, Gus Van Sant, he and John Krasinski weave a finely crafted screenplay (based on a Dave Eggers story) that is another throwback to the issues-cinema popularized in the 1970’s by films such as Dog Day Afternoon. Charming, folksy, this is ultimately a movie that makes you work to appreciate what’s going on in the film.

Silver Linings Playbook

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Everything I said about Daniel Day-Lewis applies to Jennifer Lawrence, who has a long and fantastic career ahead of her. Bradley Cooper completely reinvents his career with his performance, telling the story of two fragile, scarred souls coming together in an insane world. I’ve not seen much of David O. Russell’s work before, but here he has crafted a unique environment both rooted in and out of the real world. As a romantic comedy, the story is fairly rote (coming together for mutual benefit leading to the recognition of true love) but the characters and performances make it more than that. This is a movie about broken people pulling together to not only make the best of their lives, but to exceed and go beyond the limits of the standards that others have imposed on them. It’s also the best sports movie in a long time, without actually being about sports. Robert DeNiro, like Samuel L. Jackson in Django, does the best work that I’ve seen him do in years. (When looking at DeNiro’s career, it’s one that is unfairly skewed towards his early performances, making an unfair standard for him to follow. I mean, his best work was in The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull for crying out loud. How can anybody improve and follow up on that?) SLP, for me, is the movie that Love and Other Drugs utterly failed to be, and is one of the best movies of the year.

Skyfall

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Javier Bardem can only play crazies in wigs. As mentioned before, I’ve written at length about this before, so go back and read that. Or just go see Skyfall, the best James Bond movie ever.

Sleepwalk with Me

sleepwalk with me

Ditto. Well, not the best Bond movie ever, but a fantastic debut performance.

Zero Dark Thirty

zero dark thirty

Now we come to it, the movie that many of my colleagues here at the Recorder are professing as one of the best movies of the year. Which it is. However, of all the movies I’ve seen this year, this is the one where my opinion vacillates all over the place. Yes, it’s good. Sometimes, I think it’s great. Other times, I think it’s a fairly straightforward procedural. I don’t think this is an epic story, because the obsession of Jessica Chastain’s Maya is so singular that it reduces the film’s scope. At the same time, it doesn’t, expanding it to showcase how our nation’s obsession with finding one man can be condensed to one character. I still have yet to see The Hurt Locker, so I can’t compare how this stacks up to Bigalow’s breakout movie, but I don’t need to in order to recognize how good this movie is. Now, as far as re-watchability goes, I’m not sure how this one will stack up; Bin Laden’s death is still so fresh in our memory (which increases ZDT’s relevancy in our national conscious) that only time will tell how this movie stacks up against other such movies. (One is Casablanca. Another is The Green Berets.) I felt this way about The Social Network, which seemed too topical to really make much sense to place in the canon of modern cinema, and for me, Zero Dark Thirty fits right in with that one. Yes, I loved it. I’m not bonkers about it, though. Let me come back to this one in a year, after I’ve had some more time to think about it.

(I will say that this movie also led to my worst movie-going experience and biggest face palm of the year, taking the place of the person who complained about everyone in Skyfall having British accents. SPOILER ALERT: After Bin Laden is killed (duh), Maya boards a plane, taking a seat in the rear hanger. The pilot asks what she wants to do now, causing her to break down crying because the past twelve years of her life have been spent pursuing one singular goal, leaving her to make the most of her life on her own terms now. More or less. But that’s not why we’re here. As this played out on the screen, leading to the credits, the two girls behind me (who had been TALKING THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE MOVIE) chuckled. One of them then asked the other “Why the f*#& is she crying? What is there to cry about?” I nearly turned to them to lambast them for not paying attention to the entire fucking point of the movie, but chose not to, instead…facepalming myself. Loudly. And audibly. I think they heard me, because they stopped talking and immediately left. This should be hashtagged, with proper deference to Community, #brittaforthewin.)

(By the way, this is what Maya did next.)

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(It’s actually surprisingly good! There, I’m done being a smart-ass.)

Finally, no list is complete without my Biggest Disappointment of the Year.

The Expendables 2

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This just flat out sucked. I won’t even waste my time writing about it. Avoid it.

There, NOW I’m finished.

So, there you have it. The best 15 movies of 2012, any of which would be a marvelous way to spend two to three hours of your life. Now on to 2013.

……….

My inevitable making of a Top 10 List is giving over…must fight it…can’t fight it…meh.

Honorable Mentions

  • The Avengers
  • Cabin in the Woods
  • The Grey
  • Promised Land
  • Sleepwalk with Me

10. Beasts of the Southern Wild

9. Perks of Being a Wallflower

8. Skyfall

7. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

6. Moonrise Kingdom

5. Zero Dark Thirty

4. Django Unchained

3. Silver Linings Playbook

2. Argo

1. Lincoln

Happy watching!

Travis J. Cook

Travis J. Cook

Travis J. Cook is the Editor-in-Chief and one of the original founders of the Addison Recorder. He writes about baseball, movies, and music, among other topics. He resides in a hole in the ground near Wrigley Field.

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