Until recently, comic book films have been a hit or miss affair. With comic book readership on the rise, 2012 gave us more hits in a year where even the misses had more character than their predecessors (see Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance). The Avengers was the most successful comic book film of the year, both financially and critically. The perfect blend of action, comedy and heroism in The Avengers pushed the superhero genre exactly to where it should be; a place equally accessible to 12-year-olds and 30-year-olds alike. On the darker comic spectrum, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises perfectly ended his trilogy with an epic scale meditation on heroism in response to terror. Though not specifically based on a comic book, the superpower saga of Chronicle also provided a uniquely dark twist to the hero genre with an ever-poignant spin on adolescent insecurity.
Also in the comic book realm was the unlikely reboot of Judge Dredd with Alex Garland’s surprisingly badass Dredd 3D. Not enough people saw this movie, which is a fast-triggered sci-fi actioner packed with stylistic directing, satirical wisdom, post-apocalyptic gloom and a high body count. Much of the action in Dredd resembles that of another film released in 2012, the best action film of the year; The Raid: Redemption. Gareth Evans Indonesian masterpiece is the most tense and relentless film of the year, maybe even the decade. The final bonus for the action genre this year came completely out of nowhere. Like Dredd and The Raid, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, the fourth installment of the series starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, embodied the return of the action genre with a new frenetic violence matched perfectly to its often dark wit. Speaking of wit and action, no film this year combined both more masterfully than Tarantino’s slavery redemption, spaghetti western throwback Django Unchained.
In the horror category, there were three films that rendered me memorably uneasy. Drew Goddard’s Cabin In the Woods completely flipped the horror genre on its head with the most surprising film of 2012. By utilizing every trope of the horror genre, Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon created a whiteboard of terror and hilarity. The Grey, while not necessarily a horror movie is perhaps the most terrifying film of 2012 for its gritty and ferocious telling of survival in the face of the bitter cold, wolf infested Alaskan wilderness. Just as terrifying, but for far different reasons is Craig Zobel’s Compliance. Compliance takes place during an evening shift at a fast food restaurant where a prank caller initiates a series of events that lead to the unimaginable terrorizing of a young female worker. Most unsettling of all, the film is based on a true story.
On the lighter end of things, the animated horror of ParaNorman and Frankenweenie offered a fresh edge to the sequel-heavy world of animation. Comedies like Ted and 21 Jump Street provided the greatest laughs of the year, while Drafthouse Films release of Klown gave 2012 its most uncomfortable and intelligently off-color hilarity. Of special note is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Celebrating the unique people in life, this high school coming-of-age story glows with wondrous characters we can all relate to. I think no other film in 2012 more greatly succeeds at celebrating everything that comes with being a wallflower, an outcast, a geek.
Based on a Danish sitcom, Mikkel Nørgaard’s Klown is like The Hangover if The Hangover had bigger balls. One of the more politically incorrect, sadly accurate accounts of the mid-life crisis, Klown never relents in it’s uncomfortable, often grotesque comedy gold.
9. Moonrise Kingdom
A celebration of adolescent angst like only Wes Anderson could create. Moonrise Kingdom is one of the warmest films of 2012 with a snappy ensemble whose heart I was surprised to discover was a scaled back, compassionate performance by Bruce Willis like I’ve never him in any other role.
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Like Moonrise Kingdom, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is also a film about adolescent angst, only Perks more poignantly tackles the topping-off point of growing up. Stephen Chbosky accurately and respectfully captures what it means to be on the fringe of high school life, forming bonds and coming to terms with self pride, acceptance and a mature understanding of life. Anyone who’s ever felt like an outcast will feel at home with this cast of confidently wandering wallflowers.
Amour is the film that stuck with me most in 2012. A simple, finely acted story of an older couple struggling with dying, I couldn’t help but empathize, imagining me and my wife in old age trapped in a similar struggle. I imagine those in long relationships will feel the most from this film, especially from Emmanuelle Riva’s performance, the greatest by any actress this year.
6. Cloud Atlas
Sweeping across six periods in time, where characters subtly cross paths and affect the outcomes of one another’s lives, Cloud Atlas is a gorgeously ambitious film full of questions. Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have created the grandest film in years, a film at once rich and frustrating with ambition. No other film in 2012 riveted me more from beginning to end.
5. Cabin In the Woods
With their rotating warehouse of nightmares, Goddard and Whedon put all of horror on notice. They’re all here, the meat and potatoes of the genre, every MacGuffin from zombie movies to J-Horror and all the scary stuff in between. It’s all of horror bottled up and pitted against the stereotypes in that cabin. Cabin In the Woods is horror looking itself in the eyes and not liking what it sees. Brilliant.
4. Django Unchained
Once Upon A Time In the Slave Driving South. Tarantino delivers the spaghetti western throwback like only he can. Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio are all top notch, but Christoph Waltz steals every second of screen time as the fast-talking, brutally calculated Dr. King Schultz. Where Mel Brooks delivered slapstick satire on racism and slavery with his brilliant Blazing Saddles, Tarantino delivers even more poignant satire on the subject that is at once violent, comical, and bitingly truthful.
3. The Avengers
Like I said above, The Avengers is the perfect comic book movie. It shouldn’t work with some many big characters in one film, yet it succeeds greatly. Lightheartedness is the key to the films success. There are moments of comedy here that are so perfectly timed and unexpected (especially involving the Hulk) that the audience simultaneously bursts into laughter and applause. That reaction pretty much sums up The Avengers experience.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Simply put, this is the most beautiful and rich film of 2012. Post-apocalyptic, current, innovative and fresh, Beasts is a parable for our times, and one of the most artfully crafted films to come out of American cinema in some time.
1. Holy Motors
Not since being introduced to the films of Jodorowsky or Godard’s Weekend has a surrealist film excited me as much as Leos Carax’ Holy Motors. A film about film and the facade of the everyday absurd, Holy Motors is the greatest and most original of 2012.
Honorable Mentions: Argo, The Raid: Redemption, We Have A Pope, Looper, Compliance, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Dark Knight Rises, Cosmopolis, Bernie and Linclon.