Welcome back, good movies! We missed you! After an utterly lackluster 2011 – fallout from the writers’ strike of a few years ago – 2012 came roaring back with solid (and pertinent) films of all varieties. Social consciousness showed up in comic book epics. Horror movies found new life in old-fashioned ideas. Even the usual band of Oscar bait looked perkier and more confident than the disastrous 2011. Here in genre-land, nerd-dom’s domination of popular culture continued unabated, and while we suffered through our share of stinkers, the highs were too high for even the worst of the lows to counter.
As the last days of 2012 tick away, let’s count down the best (and a bit of the worst) of the last twelve months. There were some tough choices here, and I’m sure y’all have your own thoughts on how to make them. Let us know what you think! There’s certainly no shortage of honorable choices out there, and we’re thankful for the bounty.
Part 3? Part 23? Who cares! Sam Mendes blends the old and the new to give the world’s greatest spy a 50th birthday present like no other. Daniel Craig cements his standing as the Bond for the new millennium, Judi Dench bows out with enough class to choke a butler’ convention, and Javier Bardem finally confirms what we all suspected about the bad guys in these things. We even get the old Aston Martin out of mothballs for a curtain call, standing at a crossroads of endings and beginnings that takes its place among the best the franchise has to offer.
Honorable Mentions: The Expendables 2, Premium Rush, Jack Reacher
The Worst: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. John Hyams condenses all that is vile and hateful about the genre into a single supremely depressing package. It feeds our predilection for violence as hard-core pornography… existing only to punish viewer and filmmaker alike.
Another solid year for animation saw Walt Disney Pictures reassert itself as a force to be reckoned with. Part of this may have to do with the transfer of Pixar’s brain trust to Burbank… which responded with a delicious valentine to video games of all varieties. John C. Reilly’s lunkhead Ralph cuts the Gordian knot of video game adaptations, capturing the spirit of gaming culture rather than slavishly adhering to its often feeble narratives. The Mouse is back, and considering the competition, that’s saying a lot.
Honorable Mentions: ParaNorman, The Secret World of Arrietty, Madagascar 3, Pirates! Band of Misfits
The Worst: The Lorax. Way to confirm Fox News’s straw-man stereotypes about Hollywood, guys! Taking a dump on Dr. Seuss’s beautiful anti-pollution fable is just icing on the cake.
The Dark Knight Rises had more ambition, but Joss Whedon’s superhero rally trumps it for sheer storytelling and entertainment value. Bringing the tone and atmosphere of Marvel’s previous movies is tough enough, but to do so with such elegance and verve takes a special kind of talent. Whedon creates a true ensemble among his disparate players (after we all feared that Robert Downey would steal the show), while revealing just how much the movies can offer us comic book fans. Ball’s in your court, DC.
Honorable Mentions: The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, Chronicle
The Worst: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. I don’t know how much the IRS is taking out of Nic Cage’s hide, but it better damn well be worth it.
Ang Lee’s adaptation of the celebrated novel straddles the line of fantasy, since it takes place in our world and could conceivably be written off as a hallucination. But it also shows the esoteric limits we can explore through fantasy: the way our imagination brings us closer to the fundaments of the universe, and how the journey changes us for better and for worse. Few films of this type develop its potential so boldly, and with such unforgettable results.
Honorable Mentions: Mirror, Mirror, The Hobbit (for ambition and respectfulness, if nothing else)
The Worst: Breaking Dawn, Part 2. Because it sure as hell isn’t horror, nor does it correspond to anything resembling reality. Mostly, it just reminds us how loathsome this saga can be… and how glad we are to be rid of it at last.
Whedon scores two movies on our list, along with director Drew Goddard who upends everything we thought we knew about horror movies. Never has a genre been criticized so insightfully. Rarely has a love of being scared found such a true expression. And Scream can officially take a back seat in the meta-commentary department to this funny, frightening, and irresistibly smart observation on why we love this genre. This was a strong year for onscreen scares, with most of the best taking a “less is more” approach to their scares. The Cabin in the Woods stands as a big exception, and it success is all the more impressive because of it.
Honorable Mentions: The Whisperer in Darkness, The Innkeepers, The Woman in Black, Sinister
The Worst: Piranha 3DD. You can appreciate The Cabin in the Woods all the more after watching this textbook example of how to screw up the Meta… and anything else you might reasonably expect from a horror picture.
It’s a tough race between this one and Prometheus but Looper wins for exceeding our expectations so completely. You have to take a big leap of faith to get there (the idea that time travel belongs solely to organized crime is a bit of a stretch), but director Rian Johnson thinks his concept through so completely that our indulgence is worth it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his penchant for unusual roles, while Bruce Willis shows us that some old dogs still have new tricks left in them.
Honorable Mentions: Prometheus, John Carter
The Worst: Battleship. Not even the hastily scribbled corporate memos that created this monstrosity can give a viable explanation for its existence. Why, Liam Neeson, why?
Not a genre picture, and not without controversy to be sure, but no other movie so impressed me with its cinematic bravery than this one. Tom Hooper uses a simple technical innovation – on-set singing – to marry film and theater in an entirely new way. The grand storyline wears its every emotion on its sleeve, moving me to tears more than once in the process. And like The Dark Knight Rises, it shows that popular filmmaking can still address pertinent social topics in a serious manner. Set your cynicism aside and save the snark for the MST boys. Les Miserables will make you glad you did.
Honorable Mentions: Argo, Lincoln, The Grey, Zero Dark Thirty, The Queen of Versailles, and several of the entries above.
The Worst: Cloud Atlas. The Wachowskis need to spend some time in their room to think about they’ve done. Why don’t we have Tom Hanks join them for good measure?