We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
In a roster of so many good films in one year, one has to narrow this list by looking closely at what really stands out. What films went above and beyond their potential, only to stay in our brains days after? In an unforgettable year, what films will stand as the most impressive?
Sure, there have been plenty of pleasing, if not very pleasing experiences from the movies of 2012: Zero Dark Thirty, The Raid: Redemption, Argo, The Master, Lincoln, Dark Horse, Magic Mike, and more. And although it feels like it is said every year, 2012 really does feel like one of the strongest movie years in a while (at least since 2007).
Most of all, 2012 was a strong time due to some special films, which collectively stand as the most triumphant amongst an impressive line-up; these films are distinctly remarkable in their greatness. Here are the top 7 best films of 2012 - the ones that made me most of all love going to the movies.
Recap: A fast food restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) is intimidated by a policeman (Pat Healy) telling her what to do over the phone. Written and directed by Craig Zobel, and co-starring Dreama Walker.
Reason: This movie, as I have exclaimed out loud to a few people when discussing films, is punk rock stuff. Made with balls of steel by writer/director Craig Zobel, Compliance takes the small concept of a phone conversation in a fast food restaurant, and uses it effectively to have the audience question their own perception of authority. Relying on the faults of imperfect human beings, Compliance is an extremely frustrating movie, and not one that anyone is guaranteed to like. But for those of whom it does work, it is a highly impressionable piece of psychological horror. Read Allen's entire "Compliance" review
Recap: After a horror movie-inspired serial killer slashes someone on their campus, a group of suspect high school seniors (Josh Hutcherson, Shanley Caswell) are put into detention during prom night. I saw this first at SXSW in 2011. When the film was released this past spring, I reviewed it fresh, and ended up enjoying the film even more.
Reason: Detention is packaged like a Hollywood teen movie, if Tinseltown productions still had cojones. With each passing scene Detention gets bigger and crazier, until its eventually talking about time travel, action movie heroes, slashers, and TV hands in the same sentence. And as it immerses audiences into these mix-and-match delights of dark comedy, horror, and science fiction, Detention displays extreme self-awareness for everything that it’s trying to do. Just as director Joseph Kahn is sure to throw in at least two personal digs to himself in the script, Detention provides great intellectual comfort because it knows itself inside and out. Even when the third act seems like a brain aneurysm waiting to happen, Detention is an immersing experience your full attention wants to be kidnapped by.
While it makes “references” to certain chapters of high school movies like The Breakfast Club and Heathers, it should be noted that Detention offers some of the most brilliant depictions of the entirely miserable, unforgettable, and completely screwed up experience of being a high schooler. The movie’s wild imagination as applied to certain back-stories of characters (Nolan, or former BFFs Ione and Riley) provides hilarious lampooning of the type of drama that becomes so exaggerated in the throes of adolescence. Many of the movie’s ridiculous events take place with this intention – to show how silly and minimal the BS is that teens can fill their lives with every day. (Instead, this movie encourages its audience to be like itself: full of ideas, and with extreme awareness as to what the hell is going on around them). Through its many, many loopy elements, the most surprising aspect of Detention is likely how meaningful it all is. This is ultimately why the movie’s sign-off, though a phrase tried and true, is such a The Raid: Redemption-style kick in the genitals: “It’s just high school. It’s not the end of the world.” Read Allen's entire "Detention" review
Recap: A middle schooler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can see ghosts must save his town from a destructive curse that involves zombies, witches, and bullies.
Reason: Like the best of zombie stories, ParaNorman stands apart from its mindless lookalikes by effectively expressing a social message that lingers with audience members long after the film’s thrills have subsided. This time, ParaNorman brilliantly uses the horror of zombies (born from a witch hunt) to discuss the concept of bullying, in an emotional manner that wonderfully surprises audiences like its witty humor and playful genre homages. In ways that are not preachy, the film shows the harm of intolerance, the cycle of bullying, and the importance of seeing everyone as equal. For all of the recent crusades towards encouraging the acceptance of those different than us, ParaNorman is the beautiful expression that something like that documentary Bully failed to be. It’s something that children need a thoughtful discussion about, especially if they walk real school halls in Norman’s real-life shoes. And in a society in which scary hate towards those of different sexual orientations, races, creeds, etc. is no shocking issue, it’s something that adults need to be reminded of as well.
This script makes wise use of its PG-rating limits to take genre expectations in different and highly entertaining directions. With affecting moments you thought you’d only see in a Pixar movie, ParaNorman is a wonderful story of a boy and his zombies as brought to life with a tender heart. Read Allen's entire "ParaNorman" review
Recap: Secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) must protect MI6 boss “M” (Judi Dench) from a rogue agent (Javier Bardem) with a personal vendetta.
Reason: On the year of Bond’s 50th anniversary, here is Skyfall — a celebration of the character’s full potential, this immortal member of mainstream fiction, in a glorious piece of entertainment that only has our respect for the “classics” keeping it from immediately being designated the secret agent’s most spectacular movie yet.
Skyfall is a James Bond movie as pure as Monty Norman’s original theme, yet as dramatic as great theater. It is a movie that proves the charismatic strength of both its main character and its actor, with a concrete script that is confident enough to rely on the powers of its cast, and passionate enough to pursue thematic territory challenging to such an ingrained character. And to spite any snarking worry that director Sam Mendes would treat this movie simply like one of his dramas, Skyfall is still an action film that continues to roar as it ventures inward, its high stakes provided by an emotional story of Shakespearean proportions. Read Allen's entire "Skyfall" review
Recap: A man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) cares for his wife (Emmanuelle Riva) after she suffers a stroke. The film is written and directed by Michael Haneke.
Reason: As still as an empty nest, Amour is one difficult movie. But like the montage in Up, which is similar to this film, it finds an honest beauty in its melancholy. The camera static, the dialogue sparse, Amour's most aggressive element is its editing, which constantly jolts the viewer with reality. Working with two excellent performances, Haneke's film is one that gently takes viewers to the end of the age cycle in a quiet home, until eventually, the sounds have faded to complete silence.
2. Take This Waltz
Recap: A bored married woman (Michelle Williams) struggles with temptation when her neighbor (Luke Kirby) takes an interest in her. Written and directed by Sarah Polley, and co-starring Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.
Reason: We love the movies that take us back to our memories of special intimacy; they win our attention and affection for being so honest. Take This Waltz, a marvelous movie that only sounds like a soapy tale of a bored wife’s temptation, goes beyond such limits with its cause to explore a deeper truth. This piercing fable about the cycle of love’s happiness speaks to the darkest levels of our cynicism about relationships, in a way that’s essentially emotionally squeamish. Though this story is told with possibly too many doses of irony, we can be thankful the bright colors (and even presence of The Buggles) are there to provide bright contrast to the crushing concepts that writer/director Polley raises so personally. In comparison to other similar-looking films, Polley is finishing what recently acclaimed relationship disaster movies like Like Crazy and Blue Valentine didn’t fully articulate.
The worst part about Take This Waltz, if you’ll forgive the irony, is that it is so beautiful. Williams is nearly perfect in a role that takes advantage of her vulnerability without having to toss her around, and her two male co-leads each provide thick – differing yet eventually similar – depictions of a partner’s complacency. A scene in which we witness in one consecutive spinning shot the evolution of a couple’s furniture layout is just one moment in which beauty and hard truth create something hauntingly impressionable. Polley so eloquently articulates her beliefs against the relationship’s basic concepts that she just has to be right. Read Allen's entire "Take This Waltz" review
Recap: A young hit man (Gordon-Levitt) who kills clients sent to him from the future must stop his older self (Willis) from changing time. This film, nominated by the Chicago Film Critics Association for Best Original Screenplay, is written and directed by Rian Johnson.
Reason: Far more sophisticated than the giddy feelings it makes me want to express on top of a mountain, Looper is a full-fledged love explosion to witness, whether it is the surprising shifts of the story’s focus, the sharp editing that wastes not a frame, or the gorgeous cinematography (oh, and the action is exciting as well). Looper is the rare movie where you find your jaw doing its not-so-literal dropping not just for what storytelling stunts the script is daring to pull off, but for the incredible aesthetic work that presents it, something that stands as its own impressive spectacle.
This is filmmaking at its most pure; before the movie is reliant on the power of its stars (specifically, worshiping Willis), the spectacle of time travel, or even about the desire to compose simply visually cool moments (of which this movie is a cache of such), Looper is all about the story, and takes on this task with grand inspiration in tact. It starts with a delicious science fiction concept that sounds like a genre geek’s dream story (mixing time travel with noir-ish hit men). Looper then consistently builds on top of this hooky base, maintaining the surprising joy that this movie has to offer, and with fantastic energy. By touching upon elements from different genres that invigorate its adrenaline, Looper heightens the craziness of such an easy-to-follow and structurally sound story, while preventing such randomness from chiming like simple winks, or even worse, wrong turns. A beautiful thing to watch its unfolding, no thirty minute segments of Looper look the same.
This ambitious science fiction film, concocted by a showman storyteller whose pure intent with movie-making is still efficiently homegrown, is a personal reminder of why cinematic storytelling can make for an overall exhilarating experience. In a long future’s time, we will still remember the movies of 2012 for Looper, one of the year’s most impressive successes. Read Allen's entire "Looper" review