EMBLIDGE INSIGHT: The Ten Best Movies of 2012

By Wesley Emblidge

You know it’s been a particularly great year when choosing a top ten is this hard. 2011 was kind of a bore. My favorite movie of that year, “50/50,” wouldn’t even make my top 10 this year. It may just be that I got to see more films this year (over 150 new releases), but regardless, this feels like a better year overall.

We got new films from Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, William Friedkin, Ridley Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, Richard Linklater-the list goes on. Were all of their films great? No. My two favorites came from directors I had never even heard of. I can go down to number 50 on my overall list and still find great films.

So with so much great stuff, this was a tough list to make. Let’s start off with some movies that didn’t make the list.

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical):

“The American Scream,” “Argo,” “The Avengers,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “How to Survive A Plague,” “Indie Game: The Movie,” “Killer Joe,” “Life of Pi,” “The Master,” “The Raid” and “Sound of Noise.”

 

#10: Tie – The Imposter & ParaNorman

This is cheating I suppose, but I couldn’t leave both of these off or find another to cut. It’s funny, because these are very different films, but similar in small ways. They both advanced their genres, and for completely separate crowds.

“The Imposter” was my favorite documentary of the year, perhaps because of how much of it wasn’t traditional. In his first feature, Bart Layton went the Errol Morris route in telling the story of a kid gone missing in Texas only to turn up years later in Spain. Through very cinematically staged re-enactments, he takes us through a mystery so compelling it could be a fictional narrative. Really, with the story and the talent behind the camera this could have been a great narrative film, but it almost needed to be a documentary in order to make you believe the strange mystery unfolding.

Meanwhile “ParaNorman” takes the medium of stop-motion animation to new heights, it’s the most lovingly crafted film of the year, so rich with detail and characters that it’s hard to believe this whole world was manufactured by these animators. There’s one scene early on that pans over the entire town and is so full of detail I wanted to stop it and pour over everything. What makes it really work though is how full of heart it is, with a third act that goes a different direction than most animated movies today. It’s the best animated movie of the year, just like “The Imposter” is the best documentary.

#9: Seven Psychopaths (review)

I would have been really happy with Martin McDonaugh’s “Seven Psychopaths” had it just been the simple story of a few dog kidnappers (Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken) that stole a dog accidentally from a mob boss (Woody Harrelson). Although that is the very basic story of “Seven Psychopaths,” McDonaugh also infuses an “Adaptation”-esque story of Farrell’s character writing a screenplay entitled “Seven Psychopaths,” drawing from the events of the film. It’s a really smart film about writing, but even more so about violence in film. It’s really violent movie, shockingly so at times, but that’s part of the point. I could go on for awhile about what the film has to say, and at points the film itself goes on too long with them, but it’s still a hilarious ride with some great supporting performances hidden in there, too. 

#8: Cloud Atlas (review)

The hate for this film is astonishing. TIME called it their worst film of 2012, which is just a sad joke, an attempt to get attention when there are clearly worse films out there. It’s really disheartening to see that not only audiences, but so many critics dismissed the film, when it’s one of the most ambitious, interesting and exciting uses of film in recent memory. The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer took on the immense task of intertwining multiple interweaving storylines that span hundreds of years, with casts members playing multiple roles throughout. It’s a messy, often silly and fairly obvious movie, sure, but it’s also an incredibly ambitious achievement that’s emotionally powerful and surely will be rediscovered in years to come, and find its true following on DVD. 

#7: Zero Dark Thirty (review)

A narrative film that functions almost as a documentary, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s film is impressive as a piece of journalism and piece of entertainment. It’s a tense, thrilling and gripping procedural that doesn’t shy away from the nastier parts of America’s counter-terrorism efforts. There’s been a lot of controversy as to how accurate the film is, and some have questioned if the film endorses torture. I can’t imagine how anyone who sees the film can really come away thinking good things about torture; most of the first act is spent primarily around “enhanced interrogations” and is horrifying. It’s not something to interpret, the film very clearly is not supporting the torture of these detainees. The accuracy is another debate, one we don’t really have the answers to, as most of that is classified information that Boal dug up. However, even if we find out the film has some large inaccuracies, it still remains an incredible film, and one of the best of the year. Bigelow and Boal blow “The Hurt Locker” out of the water with a movie that will be one of the defining representations of this period of America’s history. 

#6: Looper (review)

I love a good science fiction film, and with so many bad ones early in the year (“Total Recall” or “Battleship”) it was a breath of fresh air to see “Looper,” Rian Johnson’s time-travel hitman movie. The film is nicely divided between great action and an emotional tug that you really aren’t expecting, melded together by a kind of twisted revenge story. It’s one of the most original science fiction films since “District 9.” I can’t wait to see what Johnson does next, after loving all his films so far. 

#5: Moonrise Kingdom

I never really “got” Wes Anderson. He has a really specific style that makes all his films easily identifiable, and if you don’t click with his style, you probably won’t like his movies. That was true for me until I saw “Moonrise Kingdom,” which I think is arguably his best film, because of how accessible it makes his style. After seeing “Moonrise,” I revisited a bunch of his other films and found myself loving them. Not only is it a funny, heartfelt coming of age story, but it unlocks Anderson’s style and makes me even able to appreciate the times he went overboard in “The Life Aquatic” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” 

#4: Skyfall (review)

I’ve always liked Bond as a character, but never truly loved one of the 23 films until “Skyfall” came along. After the total disaster of “Quantum of Solace,” Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson wised up and brought on a great team to craft what ultimately, is the best of the series. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins brought a style to the film that made it feel really modern and classy, even more so than the previous two Daniel Craig outings. At the same time, the film calls back to the older Bond films as well, and dives deeper into who Bond is than ever before. Bond is far more humanized than in the past, and ultimately, I think that’s the key that really makes “Skyfall” work as well as it does. 

#3: Django Unchained (review)

Every time Tarantino makes a new film it’s something different, and yet you can tell it’s him behind the camera each time. The whip-smart dialogue, the great characters and over-the-top violence, of course. At the same time, this isn’t a parody film. This is a film about slavery, and it feels very real, and appropriately brutal. “Django Unchained” has all that in spades, but it’s more of a fun movie, rather than a big narrative experiment like some of his best works. So in a sense it’s a lesser Tarantino film, but a lesser Tarantino film is better than most films out there. 

 #2: The Cabin in the Woods

I’ve never been huge on horror. I’ve seen all the classics and enjoyed a lot of them, but I’m not the type that will watch anything that might get a jump out of me. I will however, watch anything Joss Whedon is involved in, and he and Drew Goddard made what is arguably, the ultimate horror movie without being very scary at all. It’s not a straight parody of horror films, although it’s really funny; it’s more of a movie that changes how you look at horror movies, and at the same time asks big questions about why we even enjoy being scared. 

#1: Holy Motors (review)

I went in knowing near nothing about “Holy Motors,” and got to experience one of the strangest, most original and fun movies I’ve ever seen. Months later, I’m still trying to figure it all out, and can’t wait to buy it and watch it over and over. I’m not going to pretend that I understand everything in it; I think only Leos Carax truly gets it all. It’s clearly full of references to French cinema that I don’t understand, and yet I can still enjoy it all. Just like “The Cabin in the Woods” is great for horror junkies and novices alike, “Holy Motors” is a joy for anyone who enjoy films. It’s really out there, but that’s exactly what I love about it. And hey, Daniel Day-Lewis was great as Lincoln, but he doesn’t even hold a candle to Denis Lavant’s 11 performances throughout this film.