Top 10 Movies of 2012

Part of my day job duties at the magazine I work for is to write movie reviews every Friday for our website. It turns out that combining two of my favorite things, analyzing movies and writing, is really the best thing that’s ever happened to me occupationally. It’s so much fun. I went through the list of every movie that got a theatrical release this year and I’ve seen 65 of them. Not a majority by any means, but a personal best for sure. Some of them I saw for work, some of them not; I saw many of them in the theater, I watched a few of them at home. An added bonus of my job as the SheridanRd.com movie reviewer is that I do a Top Ten of 2012 list at the end of the year. However, since Sheridan Road is a luxury lifestyle/social magazine, not all of my personal favorites belong on that list. Something about Cabin In the Woods doesn’t quite pair well with a black tie gala for a fortnight of philanthropy. So I thought this week, I’d take a break from being the guy that makes a web series—not like I’m working on it right now, anyway—to be the guy that reviews movies and give you my personal Top 10 Movies of 2012.

Before I begin, let me start by saying that I live in the Midwest. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t come to Chicago until January 11th, so I have no way of seeing it. As far as the middle of the country is concerned, it belongs on the 2013 list.

TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2012

10- The Queen of Versailles

queenBETTERFilmmaker Lauren Greenfield originally began this Sundance darling to document the extravagant lifestyle of timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife, Jackie, as they began construction on their own personal Versailles, a 90,000-square foot palace in Florida. The first 50 minutes of the picture are clearly edited with a comedically scornful regard for their gaudy, “new money” frivolity as Jackie buys everything in sight, David congratulates himself as the sole person responsible for George W. Bush’s presidency, and David’s son revs up their timeshare sales force by comparing what they do to saving lives.

The second half is a front row seat to the implosion of a lot of lives as the recession hits. We watch the business fall apart as they start by having to fire 7,000 people. When they let go of the most of their personal staff the house falls into disrepair, neglected pets start to die (not the dogs, don’t worry), and David starts clearly resenting Jackie and pushing her away as Jackie tries to step up and help run the house while telling the camera that the struggle is bringing them closer together. It is a fascinating, often funny, curiously sympathetic train wreck.

Hilarious, puzzling, shocking, and humbling. I’m not ordinarily a doc guy, but this thing packs a bigger emotional punch than a lot of scripted dramas. Really worth a watch.

9- The Words

The-WordsCritics at large are lambasting this flick as being dull and overly complicated, but I’m afraid I have to disagree. Maybe everyone is just stuck in summer blockbuster mode, because even though the characters in The Words aren’t fighting against the end of the world, I found their personal struggles for identity, priorities, and ethical responsibility to be really compelling.

This is a quiet movie. It’s about ambition, creativity, ethics, identity, relationships, and regret. It’s a wide release romantic drama from an original script, which is pretty much like finding a unicorn these days. The only explosions are emotional outbursts, the only things being fired at people are invectives during the volley of heated conversations.

Well written, well photographed, and content to not tie everything up in a neat little bow, I found The Words a wonderful opportunity to examine my personal feelings about the creative process and it’s place in regards to ambition and fulfillment as well as the power any well told story can hold. As Clay states when talking to a reporter, “One of the great things about being a writer is the ability to ask questions without having to know the answer.” If you’re interested in writing, writers, books, publishing, stories, or people, there’s no reason for this not to be an enjoyable trip to the theater.

The Words asks a lot of its audience, but it asks very quietly. I really liked it a lot.

8- Anna Karenina

anna-karenina-poster-screenshotDirected by a visual stylist (Joe Wright, Atonement) and adapted for the screen by a dialogue stylist (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), the most common complaint about Anna Karenina is that it’s an example of style over substance. However, I’d have to argue that, in this case, the style is the substance. This picture is absolutely gorgeous.

I’ve not read Tolstoy’s book and I haven’t seen any of the 11 previous film versions, so experiencing this story fresh for the first time, I loved it. Wright chooses a very specific device to keep the audience separated from the characters right from the beginning. The story is told as if on the stage, scene changes happen in front of our eyes with magnificent sets dropping from above in complexly choreographed, single-shot sequences. Deliberately staged extras move in complete synchronization and suddenly freeze into poses for elaborate visual metaphors. More than once the combination of set design, camera work, lighting, and choreography gave me chills. Everything is intricately considered and designed. Nothing feels organic, nor is it supposed to. Stoppard’s at it too. Characters speak in impossibly composed sentences full of veiled meaning and wit.

It also has to be said that the Director of Photography, Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers), who last worked with Wright on Atonement outdoes himself. From making the most of haze-filtered natural sunlight to very theatrically dramatic lighting, this is the most technically ambitious film of the year, and he nails it in every scene. It’s absolutely amazing.

Joe Wright and his team are the stars of this show; also the movie to beat for the Art Direction and Costume Design Oscars this year.

7- Looper

Metropolis - FinalI’m a big fan of writer/director Rian Johnson and of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and of Bruce Willis. Not to mention time travel. This thing had to end up on my list. I was initially conflicted as I left the theater. It wasn’t the movie I expected. I was anticipating a little more Time Cop and a little less 12 Monkeys, then you throw in all the drug culture and the psi-abilities and I didn’t know where I had ended up. It was a great ride though. Johnson doesn’t mess around. His movies are beautifully choreographed original stories while simultaneously existing as complex homages to specific film genres. Not only do they work, but they work hard.

Even though quite a few people took issue with the Bruce’ification of JGL, I thought the makeup worked and I absolutely LOVED his smirking, chuckling young Bruce Willis impression. I thought it was absolutely spot on and hysterical.

Make no mistake, Looper swings for the fences. Whether you think it’s a home run or not, you haven’t been to this game before. I don’t think you’ll ever see a Rian Johnson film that feels phoned in. Dude is hardcore. The time travel theory was whacked, but executed in beautifully graphic scenes that were absolutely integral to the specific time travel story they were telling. With every time travel movie, you have to accept the specific type of time travel that each story is using and abandon your preconceived notions, or it’s just not going to work.

Perhaps best of all, Looper is the kind of awesome genre flick that leaves you talking afterward. I didn’t exit a theater all year with a more chatty and speculative crowd. Great flick.

6- Skyfall

Skyfall-PosterThis movie is just so super cool. Ever since they rebooted James Bond with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, two movies ago, it’s been about making Bond less of a wisecracking superhero spy and more of a hard hitting, tight lipped, cynical assassin. Skyfall is the bridge between the sociopath and the ladies man.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Away We Go) is known for giving his cinematographers a lot of leeway and Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men) did not waste any opportunity to make this picture gorgeous. One of the larger themes is whether there are enough shadows left in the world for a secret service to operate in when technology seems to have made all information accessible and every government operation transparent. That theme is heavily reflected in Deakins’ frames, from the first shot where Bond steps from the shadows into perfectly sculpted light. The darkness in this movie is absolutely exquisite. In fact, the coolest movie fistfight I’ve seen in years happens in one slow tracking shot with no cuts between two backlit silhouettes and involves small startling bursts of light from the muzzle flashes of a rifle. I can’t even… That’s just… Wow.

Now there seems to be a controversial element here that people are making a lot of noise about, which I won’t say too much about, but I think people are just taking it wrong. The writers have simply found a new tact that no Bond villain has ever taken to try and get under Bond’s skin. And Bond just proves that even when tied to a chair he can be neither shaken nor stirred.

Bottom line, my favorite Bond picture.

5- Lincoln

lincoln-posterHome run, folks. There’s a lot of talk about the fact that this movie is wall to wall dialogue with a derth of action, but what else did we expect from a movie about politics? Am I right, folks? Eh? However, the dialogue is absolutely superb, Daniel Day-Lewis is just…so…amazing, and I haven’t felt as riveted by passionate speechifying from a myriad of viewpoints in film since A Few Good Men.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) worked from the book A Team of Rivals to bring this movie to life. It is absolutely some of the best screenwriting I’ve seen all year. The points of view are so vivid and impassioned, the words so eloquent and convincing, and the way events unfold is spellbinding. A really outstanding task for a flick that’s 97 percent dialogue. The audience of adults I saw it with audibly Oooh’ed after lines of intense dialogue and applauded the end of certain speeches.

Spielberg’s hand is very subtle here and takes a back seat to performance. His signature fast track/tilt up move was nowhere to be found. Instead he favors really long tracking takes with barely perceptible motion until, before you know it, you’ve gone from a wide shot to a close-up while Day-Lewis holds you in rapt attention. Spielberg’s use of light is as masterful as ever. Several times Lincoln’s very long shadow enters a room well before him and as he exits the white house a very long shadow trails behind him. Simply awesome.

4- Jack Reacher

jack reacher posterIf Ethan Hunt of the Mission Impossible series is Crusie’s James Bond, then Jack Reacher is his John McClane. Cruise is about a foot and a half too short and missing about 30 pounds of muscle to be the Jack Reacher of the book series, but his attitude is all Reacher and it’s so much fun to watch. I don’t care what kind of Scientology weirdo Tom Cruise is in real life, I’m rarely disappointed when I watch his movies. No one loves making action movies more than Tom Cruise. And, man, does he know what to do with a close-up. He can play things SO SMALL!

The film was adapted for the screen and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects) and he nails it. The action scenes are fantastic and look to be mostly shot for real instead of CG, which makes for the best car chase I’ve seen all year. Also, every action scene was about tactical advantage and trying to reason out how to get the upper hand instead of just another choreographed bit of spectacle. I thought Skyfall was the action highpoint of the year, but Reacher’s more relatable and way more brutal. McQuarrie’s trademark smartass banter makes a couple of hilarious showings, but he also styles some really nice sequences without any spoken dialogue and others that match the onscreen talk opposite cleverly juxtaposed visual scenes elsewhere. This is a really well directed picture. There are some rumblings that he’ll be directing the next Mission Impossible because of it.

Action thriller gold. If the man of the house is grumbling about holiday season hobbits and singing revolutionaries, send him to Jack Reacher. You can get the family fun or the heart wrenching pathos and he’ll get a satisfied smirk.

3- The Avengers

avengers-poster-offerWithout a doubt, the best movie theater experience I’ve EVER had was the midnight screening of The Avengers. The place was packed to the gills, everyone was excited about the movie, and people were with it the entire time. Every onscreen victory got an enormous response, every laugh line landed perfectly. It was amazing.

Joss Whedon, man. Joss ellipsis effing ellipsis Whedon exclamation point. Every cult genre fan’s ringmaster finally moved up to the bigs and blew the roof off the place. As we’ve heard from every review source since May, he took a movie that wasn’t supposed to work and somehow, miraculously, made it work beautifully. The dialogue, the characters, the action, everything just worked. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to see these characters fight each other until they were already doing it for perfectly organic reasons. And how badass is the Hulk? For real. So amazing.

I’m obviously a massive fan of Whedon, so my expectations were enormous, and it didn’t let me down. Not even a little. For most of the year this flick held the number 1 slot in my top 10, but things started shifting around and it settled at 3. Supremely watchable. An excellent gateway drug to the wonders of Whedon for anyone who was holding out.

2- Argo

argo-posterBen Affleck is an outstanding filmmaker. Hollywood realized it after Gone, Baby, Gone and it was reaffirmed with the precisely paced, wonderfully performed The Town. Maybe Argo, his THIRD critically acclaimed feature film as a director, can finally make the general public stop thinking about him as Jennifer Lopez’s ex and smirking star of 90’s action spectacles.

Argo is intense. Anyone who saw either of Affleck’s last two movies will find the same expert balance of gripping tension, diverse character perspectives, and brief moments of welcome humor.

Everything sells the late-70s/early-80s timeframe wonderfully, from the soundtrack to the mustaches, the cars to the collars; it’s like a window into the past. And every set and location they used to double Iran was fantastic. Plus, I have a soft spot for period movies that start with archival studio logos. The entire production team brought their A-game. Same with the cast, a ton of familiar faces, all doing great work alongside one-scene characters who never speak a word of English, everyone on screen pulls you into their immediate fear, anger, and hope. It all feels authentic and it all feels like life and death.

An exceptional thriller. Back when Affleck was off Pearl Harbor’ing I always gave Matt Damon the lions share of the credit for the Good Will Hunting screenplay. But Affleck just refuses to stop proving what a talented a storyteller he is. So, fine, I give in. Your move, Matt Damon.

1- Cabin in the Woods

cabin1Also the movie I’ve watched the most times this year. SPOILERS! If you haven’t seen this amazing tale of five kids ending up at the most ill fated cabin in world, but are interested in seeing it, don’t read this! Stop! Okay, I’m going to go ahead and do the spoilers now. I’ve warned you a lot. We’re about the cross the spoilers cliff. No going back. Okay. Okay. Spoilers. Okay.

The meta-movie about movies (without being about filmmaking) that also works as it’s own movie is absolutely one of my favorite things in the world. And I love horror movies. And I love director/co-writer Drew Godard and we’ve already established where I stand on co-writer/producer Joss Whedon.

The upstairs-kids in a real horror movie vs. downstairs-the work-a-day folks who are controlling everything to function as an elaborate ritual sacrifice thing is so so so so so amazing. The concept is perfection. Executed by these filmmakers and this cast—BOOM. I can’t stop thinking about this picture. Every evolution further down the rabbit hole makes Cabin in the Woods spellbinding on the first viewing and there’s always something to dig up and enjoy upon further viewings.

It’s not going to be good for anyone who can’t handle an actual horror movie though, because for all its satire and comedy and commentary, it’s not a spoof. It’s a real horror movie. Exceptional, multi-layered, genre filmmaking, exceptional writing, an exceptional time at the movies. It’s even better if you can spot all the references to horror staples and franchises at play in here.

It was shelved in my 2nd favorite movie of the year position while my mind went through the books that come with making up this annual list (kind of like a studio going through a bankruptcy proceeding) and I realized that I hadn’t spent as much time thinking about various aspects of any other movie this year. It had to be number 1.

THE TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2012
10- The Queen of Versailles
9- The Words
8- Anna Karenina
7- Looper
6- Skyfall
5- Lincoln
4- Jack Reacher
3- The Avengers
2- Argo
1- Cabin in the Woods

Thanks for reading, guys.

–Jarvi

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3 Responses to “Top 10 Movies of 2012”

  1. love it! now i have about six movies i need to watch.

  2. MOONRISE KINGDOM!!! C’MON JAKE! ALSO DJANGO UNCHAINED!!!

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