Jake’s Takes: Best films of 2012 Edition

So, I’ve finally settled on a Best of 2012 list. It took me awhile to compile this as I was scrambling to see some of the films I felt I needed to consider lately.

I made it a Top 15. Because it’s my column and I can do what I want and I don’t want to be restricted to 10. So there. Also: I really think 2012 was a great cinematic year, and there were a lot to pick from.

Of course, I didn’t see EVERYTHING, so I’m certain I’m overlooking some. But I tried to see as many as I could and this is where I ended up landing. So for your reading pleasure, here’s my picks for you to agree and/or disagree with.

THE TOP 15 FILMS OF 2012 ACCORDING TO JAKE 

15.TIE: The Grey/Hitchcock – I’m cheating. Get over it. Really, really dig The Grey. Liam Neeson fights wolves. That should be enough. But on top of that, we get a complex and hard-edged tale of survival instincts and man’s primal nature when pitted against the beasts and the elements. It’s a film about brotherhood. It’s a film about humanity’s core. Mostly, it’s just a film about life. Also, Liam Neeson is freaking amazing. And he fights wolves. Hitchcock is a beautiful film about filmmaking, and tells a helluva entertaining story on one of the medium’s most enigmatic and infamous artists. I seem to dig this film more than most have, but I don’t care. I thought it was fantastic. 

14. Lovely Molly – Hands down the best horror film I’ve seen in years. Eduardo Sanchez’s (of The Blair Witch fame) tale of a girl who moves back into the house she grew up in after getting married, only to be left alone while her husband, a trucker, is away for work starts off simple. Molly is unstable and afraid, but drawn to the house. We don’t know why. Then awful things happen. Then things really start getting bad. I don’t want to give much away, but for me, this thing packs a punch. One of the most effective tension-builders I’ve seen, and it features a harrowing performance from Gretchen Lodge as Molly. This one really sunk its teeth into my brain. 

13. Killing Them Softly This one divided a lot of audiences and critics. It’s not an easy to like film. I thought it was, for the most part, quite masterful. With elegant direction by Andrew Dominik, some absolutely gorgeous cinematography that all but makes love to your eyeballs, and a very nuanced performance from Brad Pitt (not to mention an even stronger supporting cast), this one worked for me oh so well. A complex film that takes the world of organized crime and puts it amidst a social commentary on the economic crisis (times are tough even for gangsters!), this one started higher in my Top 10 before I had the opportunity to see most of the following works of awesomeness.

12. Compliance This film got under my skin a bit. I think it’s brilliant. But it sort of gets in your mind and sticks. Based on actual accounts, the film is about a prank caller who phones a fast food restaurant and pretends to be a police officer. He claims to the manager that one of her employees, a young girl, has stolen money from a customer and that she’s part of a larger investigation. Using ingrained human responses to a fear of authority figures, he convinces them to strip search and interrogate the girl, and from there terrible, terrible things happen. All because they’re following orders of a manipulative deviant with a calling card. This apparently happened several places across the country, which is sickening. But the film is a powerhouse – lavishly shot, with fearless, gripping performances, and a haunting score, it does exactly what it sets out to do: upset you and make you think. Sometimes films hold mirrors up to society. And sometimes it’s ugly.

11. The Raid: RedemptionEasily the most badass action film I’ve seen in years. An Indonesian flick about a SWAT team trapped in a high rise apartment complex, which finds themselves at the mercy of a ruthless drug lord and have to fight their way out, floor by floor. Stellar cinematography, blisteringly creative and visceral action that’s so well staged it made me exclaim expletives at my TV several times, and a pulsing soundtrack make this a total win. 

10. LincolnSteven Spielberg’s epic biopic about Abraham Lincoln (sadly he does not fight vampires here) is breathtaking. It’s far more minimalistic than I anticipated, and honestly I think Spielberg’s current visual style is very restrained on this outing. But the film carries his sentimentality and charismatic sense of humanity in every frame. The story is a little more anticlimactic than I’d expected (it’s very smart, just a bit dry at times if I’m being honest), and Spielberg continues his ongoing trend of not knowing the right moment to end a film – there is a perfect moment to roll the credits in Lincoln, then it keeps going for about three more scenes (but this is every Spielberg movie since… well, the 90s, really). With a masterful performance from the resounding phenomenon that is Daniel Day-Lewis, and a stellar supporting cast that includes Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, James Spader, Walton Goggins, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes, and… Geez, isn’t that enough already?! Yeah, this one is great.

9. Killer Joe – A terrifyingly powerful and dangerous little film that is never afraid to get its hands dirty. Matthew McConaughey plays Killer Joe, a Texas detective who is a freelance killer on the side, hired to kill a client’s mom so that he and his father can collect the insurance money. But when the quirky Lolita-esque sister becomes a retainer for Joe till his money is paid, everything goes terribly wrong. Billed as “a totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story” (best sub genre ever!) from director William Friedkin (The Exorcist), and adapted from the play of the same name, this one is sadistic fun. Features a career best performance from McConaughey and fearless turns from both Gina Gershon and Juno Temple. 

8. The Cabin in the Woods I haven’t seen a film turn the horror genre on its head so readily and creatively since the original Scream. More of a horror film for horror film lovers than a genuinely scary film, this one is a rare treat. It’s not for everyone, but honestly people that diss this movie simply don’t get it, in my opinion. Which is fine. This is one for the fans. And we’re lucky to have it. Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard have penned one of the finest horror scripts in years here. Honestly, it’s almost too much fun. Love, love, love this film. 

7. SkyfallA Bond film made my Top 10. And how. Mendes’ 007 tryst with a genre franchise yielded a beautiful lovechild. Lush cinematography, a fierce performance from Javier Bardem as the baddie, the best work Craig has ever done, a solid script, and a ready infusion of heart and sympathy to a story which his unafraid to go quite dark make Skyfall a bit of a powerhouse. Feel free to check my review for it on this site to hear me gush more about it. 

6. Tie: The Dark Knight Rises/The AvengersI don’t equivocate these films on par with one another at all. But I wanted them both included in the list and didn’t want to kick any of the others off, so I’m cheating and grouping them as a comic/superhero entry. To clarify: the #6 slot is for The Dark Knight Rises. The Avengers technically ranks further back in the list for me, but it’s getting nudged up due to my cheat-grouping. The Avengers is a great action film. Joss Whedon did the near impossible here and made every claim Marvel has staked with their cinematic universe pay off, which is NO easy feat. He effortlessly juggles multiple lead actors/characters (who each have their own film franchise in this branching narrative), and affords everyone adequate screentime, and a welcome share of humanity and sympathy. It’s also a crap-ton of fun, with some stellar action set pieces. But, the simple fact is: The Dark Knight Rises is a far superior film. In fact, I’m aware it’s gotten a fair share of criticism (“boo-hoo, it’s not as good as The Dark Knight!” – shaddup, you’re wrong!), but sorry – Christopher Nolan’s trilogy comes to a resounding conclusion here. I loved Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. A lot. But Rises is currently (*subject to change) my favorite installment, and one of the most entertaining/rewarding superhero films I’ve ever seen. Granted, it works better as part of the Trilogy as a whole as opposed to a standalone entry (something the first two have an advantage on over this one), but the grand payoff is mesmerizing. This is my opinion. Yes, let’s fight about it. 

5. Argo – Ben Affleck somehow became one of the best directors working today. Huh. How bout that? Seriously, Argo shows the progression of a master at work. It’s gripping, engaging, and keeps you on the edge of your seat even though you know what happens in the end (it’s based on a true story, after all). One of the best directed films of the year (despite the insult of the Academy NOT nominating Affleck), this one made me want to stand up and clap. Read my review on this site for more gushing over it.

4. Zero Dark Thirty – Everything about Zero Dark Thirty works. It verges on being a modern masterpiece, and is one of the most haunting, gripping, and engaging thrillers in years. Like Argo, you already know the ending before the film starts (it’s about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden – spoiler alert: they kill him). But for the entire runtime I was on the edge of my seat, on pins and needles. Kathryn Bigelow builds the suspense to a pressure-cooker of a maelstrom (how the hell was she not nominated for an Oscar?!?!?! Seriously!). And it never lets up for two hours and forty minutes. Yet I think the film feels too abbreviated, even at that length. But if my biggest complaint is that the film left me wanting more, I suppose that’s really a compliment. Between Bigelow’s astute direction and Jessica Chastain’s inspired and fierce performance, this one is a powerhouse. Read my review on this site to hear me praise it further.

3. Silver Linings PlaybookEverything about this film. I love and adore everything about this film. My favorite kinds of love stories are the ones about people who are just so screwed up that they’re perfect for each other. And Silver Linings Playbook is that sub-genre’s swan song. Bradley Cooper is a bipolar mess just let out of the psychiatric hospital after catching his wife cheating on him, and is determined to get better to win her back. Jennifer Lawrence is a promiscuous widow who redefines damaged goods. As the two forge a friendship it becomes clear that they’re each others’ saving grace. It’s quirky, awkward, heartwarming, charming, devastating, enigmatic, and hilarious all at the same time. Bradley Cooper is the best he’s ever been (breaking away from his one-note persona I thought he was falling into). Jennifer Lawrence is mesmerizing, giving a beautifully nuanced, intricate performance that’s creatively dynamic and charming as hell (the girl blazed onto the scene for me with Winter’s Bone, which most people seemed to forget about after The Hunger Games hit – but she’s bar none one of the finest young actresses working today). Robert De Niro gives a powerful performance, as does Jacki Weaver as the parents trying to deal with their son’s mental illness. While it sort of wraps up a little too conventionally and quickly, the film just melted my heart and left me smiling. One of the best love stories I’ve ever seen. Ever.

2. Life of Pi My #2 and #3 slot have been consistently swapping places as I finalized this list. Tough to finalize. But the fact is: I adore Life of Pi. I’ll admit that my soft spot is animals, especially cats (seriously, I’m fanatical about my three furry daughters). And in the trailer the tiger, although CG, totally reminded me of one of my kitties. I could not handle seeing anything bad happen to it. But the film intrigued me too much, so I had to check it out. And I’m so glad I did. The sprawling coming-of-age survival tale about a boy whose family perishes at sea on a voyage from India and is left stranded on a lifeboat with a very hungry 450-pound Bengal tiger. The boy and tiger (named Richard Parker) must forge an understanding in order to survive the dangers of being lost at sea, and the result is one of the most touching, heartwarming (and heartbreaking) friendships I’ve ever seen committed to celluloid. This is a celebration of life, of humanity, of love, of compassion and empathy, and it’s just so damn beautiful it stings. With master class direction from Ang Lee, some of the most realistic special effects I’ve ever seen, and one of the best uses of 3D to date (seeing this thing in the theater in 3D was an experience I greatly cherish), this film is an absolute must-see. Also, not afraid to admit: I can’t remember the last time I cried this much at a film. Seriously, the 3D often got screwed up for me because I was watching this thing through water. 

1. Tie: Looper/Django UnchainedIf you’ve read my reviews, then this is no surprise. The moment I saw each of these films they locked in as a tie for my #1 slot, and it’s been unwavering. Looper is one of the most entertaining and rewarding films I’ve seen, almost ever. A time-travelling mind-bender about hitmen who take out people the Mob wants disposed of (who they send back through time), the story sneak attacks you with its heart: righting a wrong in order to save a fallen soul’s true love in the future, juxtaposed with preventing a very special child from experiencing a tragedy that will force them to grow up and become a deadly tyrant (of course these elements are directly opposed against each other). Rian Johnson stakes his claim as not just an occasionally good director, but a true force to be reckoned with on a consistent basis. Every shot, every cut, every moment is so meticulously crafted it’s awe-inspiring. Sure, the script has holes. But with every moment that begins to stumble, he creatively saves it from falling flat on its face. The best Bruce Willis we’ve gotten in years. An inspired and enigmatically chameleon-esque performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Looper is thrilling, dynamic, viscerally challenging filmmaking, and some of the best entertainment I’ve seen in a long time. Django Unchained is a powerhouse through-and-through. Quentin Tarantino (offensively snubbed for a directing Oscar nod!) proves he’s utterly incapable of making a film that’s not amazing. The gripping tale of a man (Django) who is freed from slavery and sets out with the help of his rescuer (Dr. King Schultz) to save his wife from the menacing plantation owner, Calvin Candie. This is more an expose on slavery, but infusing it with a spaghetti-western flair which gives birth to a revenge-thriller hero for the ages. Jamie Foxx gives a career best performance. Christoph Waltz continues to prove he’s brilliant. Leonardo DiCaprio is on fire. Samuel L. Jackson reminds us WHY he’s amazing. A great cast, a stellar script from Tarantino, with creative and inspired direction, Django is a flat-out phenom. Read my reviews on both Django and Looper if you want to know more. It’s a dead-tie because both of these films, quite frankly, are masterpieces. And I refuse to pick one over the other.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Anna Karenina – I was surprised by this one. A truly inventive and beautiful little film. Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Domhnall Gleeson are fantastic here. Joe Wright’s direction is fairly brilliant, and very refreshing.

Flight – This one surprised me, and is quite good. Just not top-tier for me. But a solid film that’s absolutely worth seeing.

The Master – This one was close to making the Top 15. It’s not the most easily accessible film to audiences, but the challenging aspects are what I found particularly endearing. And the acting is off the charts. Joaquin Phoenix is on another level here. Also, I’m a huge fan of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, and generally think he can do no wrong.

Detention – This one is tons of fun. One of the most entertaining films I’ve seen lately. Sort of a bizarre mashup of several genres, it’s like the lovechild of Can’t Hardly Wait, Scream, and Donnie Darko, filtered through director Joseph Kahn’s visually insane eyes. This is a film I love to force friends to watch.

The Amazing Spider-Man – I loved this one. Honestly, it’s my favorite Spider-Man film. But competition was stiff this year. Easily the third best superhero film of 2012, and featuring inspired performances from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (who have amazing chemistry), and great direction, this one impressed me (I don’t get the people that seem to hate on this one).

Silent House – Tough to cut this one out, too. A brilliant little horror film presented as if the film is a single, continuous take (no cuts/edits – it’s a visual trick as there is a single cut roundabout every 10 minutes, you just can’t detect it). It really puts you into the terror of its protagonist (played with harrowing power by Elisabeth Olsen, a truly powerhouse performance). A wondrous gem.

The Hobbit – I go back and forth on this one. I enjoyed it. Just not as much as I should have. It’s no The Lord of the Rings, but I think when we have the whole trilogy I’ll enjoy it more as part of the greater whole. Flawed, but entertaining and visually breathtaking, it’s worth mentioning on this list.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS/WORST FILMS:

Prometheus, Sinister, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Savages. All of these – Ick.

So there you have it. My rundown of  the 2012 cinematic year. Hope you enjoyed it, and feel free to fire off your picks in the comments below. Discussions are always fun when it comes to lists like these. Here’s to (hopefully) an even better 2013 year in film!

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