20 Best Films of 2012

I like to release my own personal film awards near the time of the Oscars in order to ensure that I can see as many films as possible before making my list. Here is my list for the top 20 films of 2012 along with why I liked them so much. Maybe soon I can write an essay of sorts of how the year turned out thematically, but for now this will have to do.

Below are a list of films I have not seen either due to lack of finances, time, resources, or enthusiasm. Pretty much everything else that was acclaimed in some manner or another I have seen (coming out to a grand total of 58 movies). Also, please view all films with discretion.

Need to see: Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, The Turin Horse, Holy Motors, Wuthering Heights, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, This is Not a Film, The Grey, Middle of Nowhere, Rust and Bone, Barbara, Elena

20. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Young, introverted boy goes to high school, worried about fitting in and being bullied, he finds a group of people to take him in, and by the end is happy. Perks certainly does feature all of these things, but does so while still avoiding many of the cliches that would fit into this type of film. Writer/director Stephen Chbosky creates this coming-of-age tale in a way that perfectly encapsulates the teenage high school experience for the person that doesn’t quite fit in. What really makes the film stand out is the charisma of Charlie’s gang, an artsy alternative bunch (played by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson among others) who invite him into the way that they get by, showing him the good, the bad, and the ugly.  By the end, not all of the problems are solved, there is still pain, people are still hurt, yet they look forward in confidence, with the will to keep fighting through life. I think that this recognition is empowering.

19. Anna Karenina 

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Having never read Leo Tolstoy’s masterwork, I cannot comment on how well Joe Wright adapts this to the big screen. After seeing the film though, I can say that I would like to read it. Joe Wright is like the Wes Anderson of period pieces, throwing together extravagant costumes, sets, and ideas for editing his films together, yet gets criticized for his stories much like Anderson is at times critiqued for a lack of realistic characters. Here, Karenina is a marvel in its unrealistic approach to the story which is used to bring out emotions and drive the story forward in absolutely brilliant ways. I wish I would have seen it on the big screen, but unfortunately was not able to. The story, like most adapted from 600 page novels, does seem to rush through or give less time to certain plot points that definitely seemed to need more development. As far as the main points though, it certainly did scratch the themes of infidelity, societal pressures, jealousy, and forgiveness in affecting manners, lead by the brilliant production that Wright put together.

18. The Loneliest Planet

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Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet is a slow, contemplative film. It features wide shots over a vast landscape, focusing on the three main characters as they travel across the wilderness of Georgia. The film is very quiet, stories are told, meals eaten, mountains walked across, but other than that very little actually happens. The camera focuses in on their journey, building tension with every step taken. In one moment, something happens that is never spoken about again for the rest of the film. A split-second decision made out of fear and self-preservation brings about questions about a couple’s relationship. What Loktev does brilliantly aside from subverting traditional gender roles, is portray how a relationship functions after an event happens in which one person knows they are completely to blame for it. What is there to be said? What can be done? How can reconciliation possibly take place? Loktev throws us in the middle of the awkwardness, showing us the good, the bad, and the ugly of relationships and the roles we play in them.

17. Amour

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I like to call Michael Haneke’s Amour sweetly terrifying. It features many charming moments about an elderly couple’s life together, showing their routines, the simple things that life and love are about. From the start Haneke let’s us know that it won’t be as sweet as this though, life and love are more complicated than this, and in the end it can be terrifying. Haneke’s tale affirms that life is sweet, but doesn’t ignore the gritty details. He seems to highlight that while love is something that certainly “makes the heart grow fonder”, it can turn selfish when we refuse to let go or move on. What do we do when the one we love no longer wants to be around? Is it wrong to keep them alive at all costs? Haneke throws us into these questions in a moving, frightening way.

16. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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This film is dark, slow, features a long shot of an apple rolling along the ground, and the main storylines are driven forward by conversations and accusations. It’s a who-dun-it that doesn’t care about telling you who did it, rather it keeps you in the dark, showing us slices of human nature as the camera slowly pans the dark, vast landscape. It is seemingly about the nature of truth, how we perceive it, and how at times the lie we tell ourselves in order to get by may in fact be okay. It is beautiful, although difficult to get through, but in the end worth the watch.

15. The Master

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It didn’t seem as if Paul Thomas Anderson could create any bigger of a production after the epic There Will Be Blood, but with The Master he certainly went larger. Unfortunately, The Master gets a bit lost in its grandness, becoming confusing in its truly strange narrative. Fortunately, Anderson is a genius at exploring the human condition and here he seems to touch on everything that affects the modern American, including religion, war, sex, and substance abuse. Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman give incredible performances, the cinematography is wonderful, and certain scenes stick in your head for long periods of time. Certainly a film to be explored for the years to come.

14. Searching For Sugar Man

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One of the most heartwarming tales of the year, a documentary about musician Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter in the early 70’s who some claimed to be as great of a talent as Bob Dylan, but never made it huge. The filmmakers do an excellent job of getting his producers to talk of his skills as a musician and their shock for him to never have been able to break it big. They establish this fact, before leading us halfway across the world to South Africa, into a place where Rodriguez is a legend. Through interviews with music writers we learn that Rodriguez had a bigger influence musically than Elvis, The Beatles, or the Rolling Stones uniting people in an underground movement to fight against apartheid. Yet, nobody knew anything about him. There were rumors that he had killed himself, but all they knew were rumors. The documentary goes on from there as several musicologists and journalists go on a search to find out what ever became of him, what they find is incredible, touching, and nearly moved me to tears.

13. 5 Broken Cameras 

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5 Broken Cameras is a documentary following Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat and his community’s struggle against Israel invading their land slowly. Emad is the main camera operator and the film follows his people’s struggle by the amount of cameras he has had broken by the Israeli army and by the age of his son who was born around the time the Israelis came. The narrative essentially follows the story of his life as outsiders come and take over everything he knew and loved, the land his ancestors have owned. The people of Bil’in are neutral actors who are being impeded upon by things outside of their control, so what they try to do is nonviolently fight back. Their struggle is a beautiful portrayal of nonviolent resistance, people fighting back against oppression, and the kind of culture that is created when a society is forced to live in a place such as this. Some have called the film one-sided and it is in a sense, but it does not actively try to dehumanize the Israelis, rather, it simply shows a community’s perspective from one man’s five cameras as they struggle for freedom and abundant life.

12. Zero Dark Thirty

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Another one of the year’s most controversial and critically acclaimed pictures, that may or may not celebrate, approve of, be balanced on, or despise torture. When I first heard about the film, it seemed like a subject that needed more time before being explored. I worried that it would be a celebration of the death of one man, something that I question whether we should be celebrating. The film does fall into this trap a little bit, by treating Maya as the sort of underdog hero who stood in the face of everyone in order to get Osama. However, I believe what director Kathryn Bigelow does here is portray what happened in a way that echoes the feelings of the public at large.

The film opens with torture, vengeance in the air, trying to get back at “our” enemies, but is never satisfied, at least in the sense that the figurehead is never got. The film goes on and the hunt continues, but at the sacrifice not only of lives, but of time, emotions, and perhaps their very soul. Time passes, a new president enters and the film shows what is a post-torture society (at least that’s what is shown). They seem to realize that what they’ve done is wrong, they slowly approach the attack on Osama, seeing that there are consequences to their actions. The attack on Osama does come, it’s successful, and you feel a sense of pleasure in his death, but this pleasure isn’t necessarily a celebratory one, but rather a sense of relief. The era is over. We can move on. Maya’s face, the closing shot of the film, echoes this. Was it worth it? It’s a hard image to read. Does it bring a sense of closure? I would say yes.

11. Skyfall

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Skyfall has probably caused the most tension for me as a viewer this year. On the outside it is a brilliantly shot, acted, written, scored, and edited film, blowing me away in so many different ways. There are so many great moments in it, from Adele’s opening song, the shadowed fight scene in Shanghai, any speech that Javier Bardem delivers, to the epic ending at Skyfall. Sam Mendes certainly put together a wonderful piece of filmmaking. However, the film seems to advocate for a return to a classic style Bond, one that objectifies women, and isn’t affected by the deaths of peers or strangers.

Set in a world that seems to have moved beyond the need for classical spies and agents to do their government’s dirty work, Bond (and boss M) feel like outsiders. Everyone from the British parliament to the new Q (played wonderfully by Ben Whishaw) to Javier Bardem’s villain seem to agree that Bond’s ways and methods are archaic. Even Bond begins to question whether he is a part of soulless work after a questionable decision is made by M at the film’s start. Yet, for seemingly no reason Bond chooses the old way; the new Bond girl is treated as nothing more than a sexual pawn, they do a throwback to Bond cars of old, and Bond makes sure they go to a place that is off the grid.

It almost feels that at the film’s core, it sees Bond as out of date and the assassination method’s inhumane (much like The Bourne Series portrayed), yet felt forced to protect the future of the series by issuing in new character’s and assuring us that the old Bond is here to stay. It is hard to judge these merits against each other, because it is a film that I loved a lot of, perhaps more viewings will push me one way or the other.

10. I Wish

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Hirokazu Koreeda is a master at presenting stories about children. He did so in Nobody KnowsStill Walking, and yet again in I Wish. Perhaps this is because he can see that a child’s thoughts, desires, emotions, and dreams are at the core of every person. I Wish follows one child dealing with having his family split apart. His brother and father live in a different city, while he lives with his mother and grandparents. With childlike logic he clings to a story he heard, a legend that will give him the ability to have wishes granted. Little by little the legend is spread and we see children and adults react to this proposition. We hear them discuss their dreams, ones that are ultimately quite mature, selfless, beautiful, and heartbreaking. As the day approaches where their wishes may come true, we see them have realizations about their lives that go beyond their dreams and lead them to make decisions that move themselves forward in a way any wish would not have.

9. Wreck-it Ralph 

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Disney’s latest cartoon venture was one of the best times I had in the theater all year. While it might not be filled with the depth of some of the others on this list, it certainly contained emotional weight, believable stakes, and a clever story in between all its laughs, references, and eye-candy. I thought Wreck-it dealt with how we treat others, particularly outcasts in a thoughtful way, showing each person to have worth aside from what we think we know about them. Aside from this, this Toy Story-esque world they created was fantastic, even for the most casual video game fan (like me). Time will tell where this ranks among Disney’s great animation films, but for now consider it among the year’s best.

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Beasts is all about a community of people that live in a world that is pretty nothing like the one that I inhabit. They are a part of what is called “the bathtub” an island just off of Louisiana that is constantly underwater due to storms and floods. However, within this deeply poor group of people, and particularly within protagonist Hush Puppy, lives a deep and imaginative hope. We see her as someone who has suffered a lot at such a young age, but we never come to pity her; in fact, she becomes someone who is inspiring, as she shares her community’s hopes, dreams, and fears. Her world in the way she knows it is soon coming to an end as her father grows sicker, the floods grow worse, and the government threatens to kick them off of their land, but she clings to something bigger than the poverty surrounds her. Perfectly scored by director Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s soundtrack, Hush Puppy shows a capability to find beauty all around her whether it be in fireworks, her dreams of her mother, or standing up to the Aurochs that we all face in life.

7. The Kid With a Bike

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The Dardenne brothers latest is one that fits in perfectly alongside the rest of their catalogue (Lorna’s Silence, L’enfant) it is a slow paced, realistic look at a portion of society. Here they follow Cyril, a rebellious young boy in an orphanage, who insists that his dad is coming back for him. On a whim he asks if he can start spending weekends with a stranger from his dad’s former apartment complex, Samantha. The story that unfolds from there is one about grace in the face of people who reject it over and over. The Dardenne’s give us a tale that frustrates the viewer’s patience, while simultaneously painting a wonderful picture of how relentless mercy is more effective than punishing justice.

6. Declaration of War

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A poignant film about a child’s horrid health problems and the couple that is trying to deal with it all. They fight back against the terrors with optimistic war cries, tears, jokes, and frustrations, something that is imaginable in a situation like this. While a young child’s battle with cancer could easily be emotionally manipulative, director Valérie Donzelli (who also wrote and acted in the film, which is a story about her) focuses on the beautiful ways that we cope with tragedy.

5. The Cabin in the Woods

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The horror-comedy-twist laden Cabin was one of the most entertaining times I had in the theaters this year. It succeeds by simultaneously building tension through typical horror tropes, with the suspense of just what is actually happening behind the scenes. It meets the audience’s expectations of a slasher movie only to quickly pull the rug out from under them. Each character seems to fit a certain role, that Hollywood loves to shove people into, but director Drew Goddard doesn’t let it remain as simple as that. The film culminates with one of the craziest scenes of the year, as Goddard (and writing partner Joss Whedon) criticize the moviegoing community with their meta-narrative.

4. Django Unchained

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Quentin Tarantino’s latest work is as controversial as they come, bringing to light racial tensions and causing a plethora of writing pieces addressing his depiction of violence. While I don’t believe that a revenge fantasy is the best way to empower minorities, Tarantino certainly seems to be giving a voice to people who experienced deep, deep tragedies. As violence goes, Tarantino does seem to love it, but at the same time, rather than making it seem awesome, he almost cartoonizes it while pushing it to a whole other level, making the viewer uncomfortable. On top of this, Tarantino has once again created a fascinating film with imaginative characters, amazing images, and sharp dialogue. Not something I would recommend to the irresponsible movie watcher (which is how most people would view him, in either a horrified or this-is-awesome manner, neither of which I would deem what he’s going for).

3. Oslo, August 31

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Oslo follows drug rehab patient Anders on his first day outside the rehab in months. With little time left in the rehab program, he is given leave in order to go to a job interview that will hopefully give him some stability when he gets out of rehab for good. The film explores the ups and downs of this day with him meeting people he hasn’t seen in ages. It ponderously follows each moment as his friends and family awkwardly try to test out just where he is at. Anders knows the pain he has caused and cannot fathom moving past it. It revels not only in this day and his story, but also in his past, his history, and the normal lives of those around him, portraying pain and lack of grace in a devastating manner.

2. Moonrise Kingdom

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Wes Anderson is known for his quirky indie dramedys, filled with indie songs, Bill Murray, and wonderful set designs. Moonrise Kingdom is all of those things and more. It is a story of two kids living on an island who find companionship and young love in one another when the rest of the world seems to have let them down. The kids (Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward) have a naive maturity within them; they long for something that they are not being shown around them, but their idealism is something that could never work. They are deeply flawed and in certain moments perhaps mentally unstable, but in each other they find something to lead them out of the darkness. As the rest of the island tries to find them, they begin to mature as well; their sins are brought to light, making them realize that their own repentance has come due.

1. Looper

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Rian Johnson’s third feature film is one of the best sci-fi films to be released in recent memory. It is the kind of film that will live long past awards season with the way that Johnson creates this unique world that is both familiar and distant. It touches notes that will satisfy geeks, cinephiles, and the casual fan. It asks the typical time travel questions similar to something that Back to the Future would do, but in a much much darker fashion. What truly elevates the film though is the complexity that exists behind each character’s motivations. The end seems to insist that we take responsibility for our actions (and even the actions of others), while questioning the notion of grace.

Honorable mentions: End of Watch, Pitch Perfect, Monsieur Lazhar, Chronicle, Ruby Sparks, Sound of Noise, The Queen of Versailles, Undefeated, Your Sister’s Sister

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