Monday, December 31, 2012

My favorite movies of 2012

I've seen more movies in the theater in the past 17 years than anyone I know who isn't a professional film critic. I have every ticket stub since a Saturday afternoon show of "Pulp Fiction" in January 1995. Last time I counted all of them, which was about a year ago, I had just over 900 stubs in my collection.

But the past couple years have been different -- I don't like going to the movies as much as I used to, thanks mostly to the behavior of my fellow moviegoers. But there are other factors: I no longer live two minutes from my favorite theater, I have to be smarter with my money, and, the best reason of all, I'm not such a lonely bastard anymore. (Suddenly, spending time with my live-in girlfriend and our dog seems better than going to see "Jack Reacher," you know?)

I've kept a movie diary of sorts every year since I graduated college; a complete rundown of every movie I've seen, whether I saw it in the theater or at home, and how many stars I'd give it. In 2006, I saw 93 new movies -- that's 93 movies actually released in 2006. I saw 49 of those in a theater.

This year, I am almost embarrassed to say I saw only 28 movies (17 in the theater). In this time of year-end roundups, I keep reading things that say 2012 is the best year for movies since 1999, a magical year that gave us "Magnolia," "The Matrix," "American Beauty," "Three Kings," "Run Lola Run," "The Sixth Sense," "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" and approximately 11 billion other great, iconic and groundbreaking movies. Hopefully I'll catch up with enough movies in the next few months on Netflix and such to find out if I agree with that statement.

But for now, I can only report on the 28 films I've seen. I'd feel silly making a ranked top-ten list from such a small sample size, so I'll instead list the handful of great and almost-great movies I saw in the last 12 months, alphabetically. Here we go:


"Cloud Atlas," directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer -- Six stories set in six different time periods. The same actors appear in all six stories as different characters, and sometimes those characters are a different race or gender than the actor playing them. One story has Tom Hanks and Halle Berry speaking in broken English for its entirety. One has Hugo Weaving as an enormous female nurse. Oh, and all of these stories and characters are connected in some way. If this sounds like too much, it is -- and that's why I love this movie. Adapting David Mitchell's novel of the same name was thought to be impossible, and many viewers of "Cloud Atlas" insist that it remains to be. But if you allow it, "Cloud Atlas" will sweep you away with its audacity. It is by turns warm, cold, funny, tragic, small, large, hopeful, awe-inspiring and even confounding. It is the kind of movie I hope to see every year. (Available on Blu-ray/DVD Feb. 5)

"Looper," d. Rian Johnson -- Movies rarely surprise me anymore. "Looper" did, multiple times. (There were even some gasps involved.) Johnson wrote the ingenious screenplay built upon this basic premise: In the future, mobsters use time travel to dispose of bodies. They send a mark back 30 years, where a hitman called a 'looper' is waiting with a shotgun. One day, a looper (Joseph Gordon Levitt) hesitates to pull the trigger when his mark turns out to be the future version of himself (Bruce Willis). That's all I knew about the plot before watching "Looper" earlier today, and that's all I think you should know. I'm getting all giddy again just thinking about it. What a great year for sci-fi fans! (Available now on demand and Blu-ray/DVD)

"Moonrise Kingdom," d. Wes Anderson -- Here it is, the film Anderson's entire career has been building toward. All of his quirks and trademarks mesh in this tale of two 12-year-olds who run away together on an island in New England. Anderson's visual aesthetic -- which has always reminded me of a living illustration from a children's book -- fits this story perfectly, and the romance between the two young leads (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) is a wistful dream; it feels like something I've always dreamed of, even if I didn't know I had. And of course it's very funny, especially when Jason Schwartzman shows up near the end of the picture. (Available now on demand and Blu-ray/DVD)


"The Cabin in the Woods," d. Drew Goddard -- The less said about this movie, the better; its third act is even more surprising than "Looper," though I don't think the rest of the movie holds up quite as well upon reflection. (But maybe it doesn't have to.) Co-written and produced by Joss Whedon, "Cabin in the Woods" sat on a shelf for three years when MGM went bankrupt and was dumped into theaters in April just weeks before Whedon would conquer the world with "The Avengers." If you are a horror fan, you have to see this -- just don't bail in the first few minutes because you think you're watching the wrong movie. (Available now on demand and Blu-ray/DVD)

"The Dark Knight Rises," d. Christopher Nolan -- I don't want to hear about the plot holes. The plot holes don't matter. What matters is that Nolan injected emotion into the mythic, monumental third act of his Batman trilogy, and an ending that sent me out of the theater with a gigantic smile on my face. I could watch those last five minutes over and over again. (Available now on demand and Blu-ray/DVD)

"Django Unchained," d. Quentin Tarantino -- The most brutal film of Tarantino's career, by far. (And this is the guy that made "Kill Bill.") Gory, unsettling and provocative, "Django" shows us the true horror of slavery in graphic detail, but also revels in its ballet of bloodshed. It's almost like a feature-length extension of "Inglourious Basterds'" final sequence, in which we cheer the deaths of a theater full of people who were cheering the deaths of the people they were watching on a theater screen. (Got that?) The racial politics of and in this movie are tricky, and could probably inspire one hell of a film-school term paper -- and some heated arguments between moviegoers. While not as purely entertaining as some of QT's other works, this could, over time, prove to be his most important. We shall see. (In theaters now)

"The Grey," d. Joe Carnahan --It was advertised as "Liam Neeson Kills Wolves." It's actually a dead-serious, sometimes thoughtful, always intriguing tale of survival. Neeson does some of his career-best work as a hunter working for an Alaska oil company who attempts to lead his co-workers to salvation after their plane crashes in the wild. Not everything that happens in this movie is plausible, but the well-written characters go a long way in selling it -- there are some absolutely devastating scenes along the way to its divisive ending. (Available now on demand, streaming on Netflix, and on Blu-ray/DVD)

THE BEST OF THE REST: "Argo." "Bernie." "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." "Seven Psychopaths." "Wreck-it Ralph." And most of "Prometheus," the most baffling and frustrating movie of the year. (But that's another post for another time.)

Those are my picks. What say you?


  1. Sean- Your movie watching prowess is inspiring and a little mind boggling at times. Unfortunately, I did not get see as many movies as you this year due to unforeseen surprises, but the ones I did see, “The Cabin in the Woods" and "The Dark Knight Rises" were great movies with unexpected endings. I also did see "The Avengers", which did not make your list for probably good reasons; I enjoyed it just the same. I will continue reading your critiques of movies as I did in the DEN at EIU and form my own opinion as well. So carry on in your movie watching endeavor and I hopeful and curious to find out what movie 2000 might be.

  2. "The Avengers" was a lot of fun, for sure, but I definitely prefer the drama and gravitas of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Perhaps comparing the two films is unfair, but it's hard not to when they were the two biggest films of the same summer.

    That being said, I've been jonesing to watch "Avengers" again in the last few weeks ... perhaps that holiday pay I earned on Christmas Eve will buy me a certain Blu-ray this weekend :)