Dave Henry Ranks His Favourite Movies of the Year
2012 was an interesting year for film. At first it seemed to me like it might end up being a lousy year for movies, falling far short of the previous year, despite the fact that several hidden gems slipped in during the early winter months (traditionally a dumping ground for awful films), only for me to discover them later on. By the end of the year, it was evident to me that 2012 was, in fact, a terrific year for movies. Despite some of the most anticipated blockbusters (The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus) turning out to be disappointments, a number of indie and genre films jumped up to take their place as some of the best movies of the year. This year has been especially interesting for science-fiction, with movies like Looper and Safety Not Guaranteed blowing me away with how good they were.
This leads me to my Best-of-2012 list. A slight caveat: I don’t know that all of these films are necessarily the “best,” in terms of the actual filmmaking craft: acting, directing, writing, etc., all working together to create something that’s objectively “better” than everything else. I’m not even sure if that’s possible to measure. How can you say that one example of great art is “better” than another? Especially since criticism is itself such a subjective art; one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so to speak. So this list represents my favourite films of the year; movies that impacted me on a great personal level—movies that spoke to my mind and my heart. Movies that moved me in one way or another.
There were a few films I really wanted to catch this year and never got a chance to—movies which could have possibly made it to this list had I seen them:
Movies I missed:
Cosmopolis; Silver Linings Playbook; Amour; Kid With a Bike; Not Fade Away; Zero Dark Thirty; The Secret World of Arrietty; The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Without further ado, my top 10 of 2012:
10. The Grey
An unrelenting piece of survival horror that does for wolves what Jaws did for sharks, The Grey is not only terrifying, but grapples with terrifying questions about our place in the universe. Is God really out there, or are we all alone? Like many pieces of great art, The Grey offers no easy answers, but instead invites us to wrestle with the questions ourselves. It’s a movie that deals with hopelessness in an ultimately hopeful way, but earns its ambiguous ending through blood, sweat, and frozen tears. It’s may not be for the faint of heart or the faint of belief, but it will challenge you on both levels. And like the battles that Liam Neeson’s character faces in the film, it’s a fight well worth having.
Characters watch a movie within a movie within a movie within a movie….
The term “next-level” gets thrown around a lot, but Detention is one of those films that actually earn the label. It’s so “next-level,” in fact, that the older you are, the more difficulty you’ll have relating to this film. Joseph Khan is a filmmaker who understands the teenage mind like no other, and Detention reflects the ADHD-addled, multi-tasking, collective consciousness of young Millennials in a way that never talks down to anyone and in fact challenges you to keep up. It’s almost like an abstract performance piece, gleefully switching genres with the rapidity of a hyperactive Twitter feed, yet somehow maintaining a cohesive whole that builds masterfully on itself. It’s the first (and probably the last) alien-invasion time-travel teen romance slasher meta-movie, and would be completely exhausting it not for the manic, infectious energy, leaving you wanting to high-five everyone in sight, and then immediately watch it again to make sure you saw what you think you saw.
8. Django Unchained
Django is off the chain
The eighth film from master auteur Quentin Tarantino is grand mythmaking on an epic scale, filled with both heroic and sinister archetypes that are somehow also some of the best-realized and three-dimensional characters of the year, brought to vivid life by an amazing cast, including Samuel L. Jackson in one of the best roles of his career; one that should darn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination if there is any justice in Hollywood.
Using the visual language of the Western, Tarantino uses a 35mm canvas to paint a story both old and new, connecting ancient Germanic legends to modern American race-relations, all through the prism of a rescue/revenge story set largely in the pre-Civil War American South (such as it existed in the “Realer Than Real” Tarantino movie universe). Django is inexplicably both a relatively simple, straightforward story while also being a rather complicated film; one that the seasoned director makes seem nearly effortless. A true masterpiece.
7. Les Misérables
The musical phenomenon that swept the globe has finally come to the silver screen, and the results are spectacular. Les Mis marks the return of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical to cinemas, and it’s a welcome return at that. The set pieces are awe-inspiring, the songs are heart-wrenching, and the cast is incredible—especially Anne Hathaway in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated role as the tragic Fantine. Her tear-inducing performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” may be one of the best scenes of the year. The original Les Misérables by Victor Hugo is one of the greatest novels ever written, and this film version is one of the best greatest films of 2012.
Looper is not the highest-rated science-fiction film on this list, but it may be the smartest. Looper is that rarest of science-fiction movie oddities: a time-travel movie that is internally consistent. That alone would be enough to net it a noble place in sci-fi history among intellectual heavyweights like Primer, but Looper is also tremendously entertaining, thrilling, and does a better job of world-building without stopping the narrative in its tracks than maybe any movie I’ve seen since the original Total Recall in 1990. And like every movie on this list, Looper is about something larger than itself—in this case, Rian Johnson’s film muses on themes of sacrifice and redemption, and the complicated relationship between mothers and sons. It also features compellingly sympathetic performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt, who disappear into their roles (particularly Gordon-Levitt, who is transformative as a young Willis).
The fact that this is Shakespeare gets it 75% of the way there, but first-time director Ralph Fiennes carries it across the finish line and knocks his directorial debut out of the park. By setting the action in modern day, Fiennes gives the Bard’s 500-year old words a timely relevance that is very 2012, commenting on everything from the Occupy movement, to the War on Terror, to political discourse in the 21st century. The cast is full of heavy hitters like Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox, and Fiennes himself in the title role. Coriolanus does right by the Bard of Avon, and demonstrates unquestionably why William Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer in the English language.
4. The Cabin in the Woods
(Warning! Trailer is spoiler-y-er than I would have liked!)
The best horror film of the year is a film about the making of horror films, what they say about our society, and what our society says through them. It’s also about the ugliness underneath our culture, both our drive to idolize and our willingness to sacrifice youth, and a lot of other things on top of all that. There are plenty of big ideas in Cabin in the Woods, but the movie never gets overly heady. It’s all in the incredibly entertaining subtext. The movie is a blast, and has something for almost everybody. It’s overflowing with trademark Joss Whedon wit and pathos, as well as his matchless ability to effortlessly straddle multiple genres at once. It’s also a more-than-impressive big-screen debut for director (and long-time Joss Whedon collaborator) Drew Goddard.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
One of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a heartbreakingly gorgeous success on nearly every level, from the cinematography to the music (I dare you to get that incredible main theme out of your head) to the direction to the special effects (the mythical Aurochs looked more realistic than any CGI creature to grace the screen this year) to the performance of a lifetime turned in by newcomer Quvenzhanê Wallis, in the Oscar-worthy role of Hushpuppy. As I watched Beasts, it seemed as if a documentary crew had hopped into a time machine (or through a portal into an alternate reality) to visit the community of The Bathtub; so well-realized is the quasi-fantastic environment in which the characters live their daily lives. And yet, as real as I felt everything was, by the end of the movie it was as if Hayao Miyazaki had made a live-action fantasy film set in Louisiana. As dramatic as that tonal shift sounds, it’s accomplished with a gradual grace that happens almost without your noticing it. Absolutely breathtaking.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
A wonderfully lyrical faerie tale that is both incredibly touching yet also hilarious; I think that Wes Anderson may have made his best film yet with Moonrise Kingdom (and possibly his most personal as well). This movie is a whimsical cinematic symphony in which each character contributes an essential voice to the greater whole; and yet, amazingly, each character is wonderfully developed in his or her own right. The cast is impeccable, filled with Anderson regulars, as well as actors who are new to his films, and yet fit right in as if they had always been there. Finally, it’s a delightful and heartwarming coming-of-age love story. I can’t recommend this film enough.
1. Cloud Atlas
This is a film that has not made it into too many other critics’ best-of lists this year, and in fact, has made it on to a few worst-of lists. It hasn’t done especially well during awards season, and it likely won’t be nominated for any Oscars that aren’t in the technical categories. And to be fair, it’s a sharply divisive film. Many critics, such as my esteemed friend and colleague, the honourable Jim Tudor, found the movie to be overlong, confusing, boring, tedious, pedantic…fill in the blank. But if I may be so bold, I submit that a precious few critics “got” this film, understanding what makes it so incredibly special and amazing. I count myself among those few; those happy few, which is why Cloud Atlas is my #1 film for 2012.
Where others saw it as too long, I wished it were longer. Where others were bored, I was thrilled, moved, and excited. Where others saw it as preachy and pretentious, I saw it as incredibly sincere and earnest. Where others were confused, I was never lost for a moment. Cloud Atlas is the kind of film that comes along once in a generation and the reason why is because in the cutthroat business world of Hollywood, a film like this reaches so far above the current milieu and strives to be something more. To be something important; to say something that needs to be said. Even some of the film’s staunchest champions felt that it overreached it grasp, but I think that it hit its target dead center. It is my great hope that in the future (maybe even as far away as the futures depicted in two of the film’s stories), this film will get the recognition it deserves, and come to be viewed as a classic of our time.
As 2012 was such a terrific year for film, there were many movies I would have loved to have ranked in my top ten, but were eventually crowded out into my top twenty. Here is a list of honourable mentions that almost made my best-of list this year:
Juan of the Dead: One of the best, most inventive zombie movies I’ve seen since Romero created the genre; Juan of the Dead understands the best way to utilize the subgenre is for social commentary—turning the lens towards Cuba for the first time.
Iron Sky: A biting sci-fi satire that asks the question: who are the real space Nazis?
Miami Connection: A gleeful product of cinematic alchemy that is much better than it has any right to be.
Paranorman: What is sure to be a perennial kiddie-horror classic is also a stirring parable on the need for forgiveness and not repaying evil for evil. Bravo.
Brave: A truly inspiring, magical fairy tale that for once features a strong female protagonist that isn’t defined by a man in her life.
Argo: A great, old-fashioned Hollywood movie.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth is not only a successful adaptation against all odds, but it’s also a grand experiment that mostly pays off big time.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits: A zany, hilarious, incredibly clever, animated romp.
Safety Not Guaranteed: A smart little sci-fi indie film that keeps you guessing until the very end.
Sinister: The scariest movie of the year is terrifying on a real physical level; only for the stout of heart.