These are my favorite films that I saw from this year, not necessarily the best that this year of films had to offer. I'm not sure I will remember 2012 as a particularly strong year for movies. Compared to my favorite movies list from 2011, which has some of my top films from this decade (and perhaps some personal favorites of all time) this year feels quite weak.
Apart from Lincoln and Argo, it's a list that is filled with adolescents and adolescence, the young misfits becoming older-but-wiser misfits and finding a place of belonging. Moonrise Kingdom, The Kid with a Bike, Chronicle, Wreck-It Ralph and Beasts of the Southern Wild all directly deal with young people overcoming the obstacles placed in their way by the systemic abandonment (at best) or assailment (at worst) of the adults in their life. Perhaps an argument can be made that Lincoln is even about the young becoming old and mature, with Lincoln's boyish charms and stories colliding with the dark realities of his era. I must be a youth pastor or something. Nick Olson makes an observation that the theme of 2012 was protecting innocents and a longing for innocence. I totally agree.
Here are my ten favorite movies from 2012:
10. Sleepwalk With Me: Comedian Mike Birbiglia's debut film is a semi-autobigraphical story about the difficulties of commitment in relationships and the struggles of an emerging comic. A coming-of-age story for the adult adolescent, Sleepwalk With Me is charming and witty while offering some genuine insights into the value of self-awareness. Oh, and it has Birbiglia sleepwalking a lot.
9. Bernie: Richard Linklater's dark comedy feels like a Christopher Guest film, only its based on real-life events. Featuring Jack Black in his strongest filmic performance as the titular character, Bernie is a horror film of sorts. An assistant mortician (Black) strikes up a bizarre relationship with a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine), which takes a twisted and dark turn for the worst. Bernie is a look at our perceptions of justice, mercy, and the Christian subculture of small-town Texas. The music is also fantastic, with Jack Black belting out old gospel hymns.
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild: In the opening moments of one of the best reviewed films of the year, we are introduced to a tiny warrior. Her name is Hushpuppy, and she lives in the Bathtub with her father, Wink. The Bathtub rests at the edge of the world in the Mississippi River delta, separated by the levees and walls encircling New Orleans. Beasts of the Southern Wild is whimsical in tone, even magical. Filmed in the grainy and shaky realism of handheld cameras, it felt like a poetically quirky combination of early David Gordon Green mixed with the fantastic animated worlds of Hayao Miyazaki. The center of this remarkable little film is the performance Quvenzhané Wallis, the 5-year-old who wonderfully portrays Hushpuppy with a sincerity and maturity beyond her years. While a bit scattered and strange at times, its a quirky little film whose strengths outweigh its weaknesses.
7. Wreck-It Ralph: Wreck-It Ralph conjured up strangely similar nostalgic childhood feelings to my first viewing of the Toy Story films. What if there was life behind the pixelated screens after the "Game Over" ended the most recent escapade? The characters of my childhood obsession were presented on the big screen as real persons, with feelings and stories and conflicts and dreams. When it comes to world-building, the creators of Wreck-It Ralph are ambitious and competent. To put it plainly, this is the best video game movie I've seen. Oh, and the hand-drawn animated short, Paperman, was simply delightful, offering a striking contrast in tone and animation to Wreck-It Ralph's vibrant worlds. I haven't been that moved by a near-silent romance since the first ten minutes of Up.
6. The Dark Knight Rises: Despite its floundering and scattered first act, as well as some gaping plot holes, the final film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is a compelling blockbuster film with some of the best action sequences of the trilogy. The physical fights between Batman and Bane are brutal, and the CGI in this film surpasses its predecessors. Some of the moments where Bane attacks Gotham are stunning in their magnitude; this is an ambitious film, and Nolan doesn't pull any punches. TDKR is focuses on the theme of hope, and in a world where gunman shoot cruelly into crowds and schools, we must hope that the Light at the end of our tunnel is true.
5. Chronicle: I would argue that filmmakers Josh Trank and Max Landis managed to make the best superhero film of 2012, surpassing all of its summer blockbuster peers. If a group of teenage boys suddenly acquired super powers, what would they do? This film answers that question with authenticity and pathos. A teen-driven "found footage" superhero film, Chronicle is the Carrie for the YouTube generation, with some creative new ways to capture the "found footage" and offering a bit of a commentary on our generation's fascination with being on camera.
4. Argo: Ben Affleck became a movie star as an actor, but has proven himself as an even better director. Now with Gone Baby Gone and The Town on his resume, the filmmaker can make the claim that he hasn't made a bad feature film yet. Argo is intense and taut, even while knowing the outcome of the historical story. The opening takeover of the embassy in Iran and the rescue operation of the hostages bookend a well-crafted and engaging thriller. Argo also offers a glimpse into the unknown protagonists of our culture, the quiet heroes rarely recognized for their courage.
3. Lincoln: For a Spielberg movie, Lincoln shows incredible restraint and subtlety while also remaining deeply engaging. It's a political-historical film that has an immense amount of dialogue filled with mid-19th century jargon and governmental language, yet it is never boring. That is a feat in itself. The acting, the cinematography, the dialogue, the soundtrack, the humor, the pathos--there aren't any false steps here.
2. The Kid with a Bike: Minimalist and raw, this Belgian film about an orphan, his bicycle, and the adults in his life is an exercise in catharsis. Ordinary moments build to powerful emotional climaxes as the broken boy navigates a dark world with glimmers of hope. With redemptive riffs on filmic masterpieces Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows, the Dardennes' brothers latest film is a beautiful meditation on relentless grace. Young orphan Cyril has been abandoned by his father and adopted by both a kind hairdresser, Samantha, and a manipulative thug, Wes. As he rides around his world in a bright red blur--he is always wearing a red jacket or T-shirt--he struggles with his own sinful nature as it collides with Samantha's grace. The Kid with a Bike nearly wrecked me because I have known dozens of Cyrils. I am Samantha.
1. Moonrise Kingdom: In the summer of 2011, I found myself standing outside of a large white church in Newport, Rhode Island. The church property was blocked by yellow caution tape for the filming of a movie. Hordes of extras, film crew, props, and kids dressed like 1950s-era Cub Scouts were milling around the set. Only later did I find out that I was on the premises of Wes Anderson's latest film. Moonrise Kingdom is fantastic in the proper sense of that word--at its heart, it is a fantasy film. Whimsical and childlike, it has an overt tone of wonder and innocence. Both a coming-of-age masterpiece and an unorthodox meditation on the kingdom of God, Moonrise Kingdom is a delight. During the opening shot, the camera smoothly glides through the Bishop house like it were a vintage dollhouse, silently scanning rooms with Anderson's keen eye for symmetry. This is a child's world, a world of imagination and naivete. Yet there is also a maturity behind this innocence. Paradoxically, the characters of New Penzance feel both unreal and bizarre while remaining completely authentic and relatable. They are dryly peculiar, but with such sincerity that one never questions their validity. Moonrise Kingdom is about our human longing for a place to belong and person to belong to.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): The Avengers, Blue Like Jazz, Bully, The Cabin in the Woods, The Grey, The Hunger Games, Life of Pi, Looper, The Queen of Versailles, Skyfall
Potential great films that I haven't seen yet: Amour, Anna Karenina, Cloud Atlas, Holy Motors, The Impossible, Les Miserables, The Master, Rust & Bone, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty
What were your favorites of 2012? Share them in the comments!