Cresci Reviews…The Top Ten Films of 2012
Our resident film critic, Michael Cresci, is transporting his (non) award-winning film review blog, “Cresci Reviews…” to its permanent new home, The Waiver Wire! You can also hear Michael Cresci and co-host Vinny Ginardi talk movies and television on their Waiver Wired podcast, “Short Commercial Break“. To read previous reviews click here!
For last year’s top 10 list click here.
2012 wasn’t, much to the chagrin of people who don’t understand ancient calendars, the end of the world. It was, however, a great year to be a film fan. Whereas 2011 felt a little thin, its sequel was chock full of great movies including a summer full of solid blockbusters and a jam-packed Oscar season. So let’s lay out some criteria for my top ten films of the year. In my reviews, I attempt to blend an analysis of a film’s artistic merits with its popcorn entertainment factor. My top ten list is in that spirit. A dense thinker of a film like The Master may have stimulated me intellectually and had a lot going on thematically but it lacked the pure movie going joy to make this list. To take an example from the same director in another year, There Will Be Blood would absolutely be on the list because it’s a brilliant work of art that also tickles my popcorn flick itch. I’m delivering a top ten plus a runner-up, mostly because I want to talk about the runner-up. With that in mind, let’s get started:
RUNNER UP- Lincoln (Or Skyfall. I’m just choosing to write about Lincoln because I have a bit more to say)
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Lincoln was an enjoyable film about a crucial moment in American history and I’m going to talk about that in a minute. There’s a reason it’s not in my top ten despite all the Oscar buzz; it’s a good movie elevated by an otherworldly performance. Daniel Day-Lewis who continues to prove he is the most talented actor of all time (not my personal favorite, but the man disappears into roles like no one else).
Let’s start with the voice. Historical record backs up that Lincoln had a high speaking voice that was often described as melodic when delivering speeches or telling one of his many stories and this small detail was a big part of what made Daniel Day-Lewis so great. He delved into the man, not the myth. His Lincoln is a sweet man who is prone to brooding and not letting anyone too close. He has a habit of telling great stories that don’t quite connect to the situation at hand and his presence is enormous. His death (history spoilers!) feels so impactful and the end of the film because Lewis successfully makes you realize the magnitude of the man who just died. On that note, it was a major mistake for Spielberg to avoid showing the assassination. Yes, the film was as much about the battle to pass a historic law as it was about the President but this could have been the definitive film about Abraham Lincoln. Instead he left out one of the most iconic moments in US history. Baffling.
The film itself functions almost like a courtroom procedural, showing the process of acquiring the votes and swaying the necessary congressman. John Hawkes and James Spader play small roles but are among the movie’s more memorable moments and Tommy Lee Jones delivers a great performance The film does a nice job of selling the moment as a real thing that happened as a the result of bribery, hard work and passion. Decent movie. Mind blowing performance.
Director: Sam Fell and Chris Butler
ParaNorman sort of snuck under the radar throughout 2012 but it’s a delightful, beautifully animated (stop motion) film with a great message and an understated tone. The film center on Norman, a lonely boy living in the town of Blithe Hollow who can see and interact with ghosts and, as a result, is considered a weirdo and outcast. No one believes Norman, of course, and it seems he’s had it all his life as he’s not afraid of the ghosts and socializes with them. He watches TV with his dead grandma, greets dead neighbors, etc. It’s a nice touch to not focus on his discovery of his gift, or his need to accept it, but rather have him already be okay with what he can see and use that as a jumping off point. It gives the film an original tilt and allows the story to focus more on Norman’s outsider status and the way we treat people who are different. That and a fun plot involving a witch’s curse and some misguided zombies. If you’re a fan of stop motion (and this is some of the best I’ve seen) then check out this sweet, funny film that’s good for families but definitely not aimed exclusively at children.
9.) 21 Jump Street
Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
What a pleasant surprise this remake of the 80′s television show was. I groaned when I first heard they were making this film but the first trailer showed promise and the result was a laugh out loud funny action/comedy that doubled as one of the better buddy movies to hit theaters in years. Channing Tatum displayed some legitimate comedy chops and is a credible action lead and Jonah Hill is a surprisingly perfect counterpart. Their chemistry is fantastic and their relationship actually grounds the movie. The conceit of the film is that two young police officers are enlisted to go undercover has high school students to find the source of a new drug. Tatum’s character was a popular jock in High School and Hill’s was an unpopular nerd but they’re surprised to find that nerd culture and sensitivity have become mainstream and being a jock stereotype gets you labeled as a jerk. Hill joins the popular crowd while, much to his chagrin, Tatum ends up befriending the school’s tech geeks. It’s an interesting dynamic that nods at the way some clichés have changed since the 80′s and it also sets up the conflict between the two leads. A lot of laugh out loud moments and fun set pieces were enough to land it at number nine.
Yeah, yeah. I’m cheating. But it’s my list so deal with it. Here we have the two biggest blockbusters of the summer, two long awaited superhero epics, and two very different films. So different, in fact, that picking between them became too hard so I decided to lump them together and let ParaNorman onto the list.
The Avengers was an insanely ambitious task. This crossover film featuring starts from previous Marvel movies works in part because of its great cast (Mark Ruffalo was a perfect addition as the Hulk), but a world’s worth of credit goes to Joss Whedon for getting this fanboy wet dream right. The action is a blast and it’s shot in a way where you can actually tell what’s happening (I’m glaring at you Michael Bay) and Whedon’s signature humor gives the mismatched team of heroes an organic feel.
The Dark Knight Rises was my most anticipated film. Ever. And while it was a step down from its predecessor, and inevitably disappointed some people, I found it to be a grand epic that wrapped up the story Nolan had set out to tell and featured a show stealing performances from Anne Hathaway. Not to mention Tom Hardy’s Bane, who was a great physical threat to Batman and had a memorable voice that was a big part of my enjoyment (it’s like Lincoln all over again). ALSO, you should check out my Every Batman Ever Marathon. It’s a good time.
Director: Ben Affleck
In my review of Argo (click on the title above) I mentioned that it was a very good film, nearly a perfect retelling of a true story, that was a bit overhyped. To say that another way, it’s a surefire Best Picture nominee but it would have no business winning the award.
Still, this is one hell of a good time at the movies. It’s perfectly paced, the period is excellently realized and the film is just plain fun. Affleck was clearly drawing inspiration from the political thrillers of the 70′s and he strikes the perfect directorial tone. John Goodman and Alan Arkin provide the comic relief, and the real life hostage crisis provides all the tension. Don’t have too much to say about Argo because it’s a pretty straightforward flick, but that doesn’t make any less enjoyable.
6.) Silver Linings Playbook
Director: David O. Russell
I struggled with the exact spot on this list where Silver Linings Playbook belonged. It’s a really good movie with a few Rom Com-ish tendencies that make it hard to place. Ultimately it makes number six for two reasons. 1.) Fantastic (recently Oscar nominated) performances from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and some guy named Robert DeNiro. 2.) It made me feel good. Sometimes our popcorn instincts are dead on and this, even when it allowed itself to get a little schmaltzy earned its happy ending with developed characters and genuine chemistry between the leads. DeNiro hasn’t been DeNiro in years and this is a nice return to form. He’s all over the place as a father desperate to reconnect with his son, struggling with clearly undiagnosed OCD, illegal book maing and a religious devotion to the Eagles. Bradley Cooper delivers a career best performance that opened my eyes to his ability as an actor and Jennifer Lawrence has never been better in her short career. On a less analytic note, this is the movie that made me realize how hot she is. Does that count for anything? I’m going to say yes.
Russell’s great script and assured direction elevate this film into something really memorable. The movie balances varying tones and accomplishes some great character work. Not a groundbreaking film, but one with a lot of good things going for it.
Director: Ridley Scott
Here comes the controversy. Some people flat-out hated Ridley Scott’s sort-of prequel to Alien about a ship (named Prometheus) filled with scientists going to an unexplored planet in search of mankind’s origins. Whether it was the build up of expectations, some of the film’s more cryptic moments, or a slew of underdeveloped characters, people (especially over excited fans of the Alien franchise) found a lot to nitpick at. While I can’t disagree with the picking of those particular nits (especially some of the underdeveloped characters) I found Prometheus to be an outstanding scifi film. It’s aesthetically original and ambitious in what it wants to accomplish. It falls short of its lofty goals more than once, but it also features one of the year’s best performances (Michael Fassbender as the android David practically steals the whole movie, hell the whole summer) and is jam-packed with big ideas that I’m still chewing on. Beyond that, once they crew actually gets to the business of discovering something they absolutely should not be discovering Scott kicks things into horror mode and reminds the audience that Alien is an all time great movie. The cesarean scene is one of the most well realized, tense moments of body horror ever captured on film and I can’t remember the last time a movie had me that on the edge of my seat. Maybe Prometheus wasn’t for you, but there’s certainly nothing else like it and it was right up my alley.
4.) Moonrise Kingdom
Director: Wes Anderson
Look, you either love Wes Anderson or you don’t. His fanciful, idiosyncratic style doesn’t lend itself to neutral opinions of his films which, depending on who you ask, are either twee driven fairy tales soaked with dry humor, or hipster garbage. As a member of the first group I found this to be Wes Anderson’s masterpiece. It’s the culmination of his style and a totally charming film. It’s the story of young love as two children (played extremely well by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) run away together on an idyllic New England island called New Penzance. Sam Shakusky (Gilman) is an orphan attending scout camp and he falls for Suzy Bishop (Hayward) a local girl and they devise a plan to run off together. Their misadventures and attempts to evade their pursuers such as Suzy’s parents (an extra dry, always funny Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the island’s police captain (Bruce Willis) or Sam’s devoted scout leader (Edward Norton). The entire cast brings it, nailing Anderson’s dry humor and warm tone. Edward Norton is a standout and provides a lot of comedy, and Bruce Willis plays his role with a quiet sadness that we’re not used to seeing from John McClane.
Ultimately it’s a story about young love, so it’s to Anderson’s credit that he gets so much out of his two young leads. He makes their odd romance funny, awkward and authentic and the moments of joy he captures are splendid. I’m a sucker for movies that give me something I can’t find anywhere else and Moonrise Kingdom delivers that experience in spades.
3.) Django Unchained
Director: Quentin Tarantino
If you’ve read any of my reviews than you probably know by now that I’m a huge Tarantino fan. Death Proof aside, I unabashedly love all of his films and Django is one of his more accomplished works. It’s Tarantino’s most linear work and the structure is about as simple as it gets: Good guy must rescue his girlfriend from bad guy. Obstacles arise. The catch of course is that the film is set in the antebellum south, and the lead, Django (a really strong performance from Jamie Foxx) is a recently freed slave who, with the aid of a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (the otherworldly Christoph Waltz) has to retrieve his wife from a lunatic’s (Leonardo DiCaprio’s rotten toothed monster in southern gentleman’s clothing, Calvin Candie) plantation.
What really makes the film work at its core, is Tarantino’s ability to take a long hard look at one of the greatest atrocities in history, in a way we’ve never really seen before, and still infuse the film with so much organic humor and entertaining dialogue. Slavery never feels diminished. In fact, it’s cinema’s first foray into displaying the realities of American slavery, but Tarantino doesn’t direct dour affairs. Christoph Waltz is the muse that Tarantino’s been waiting for his whole life, delivering every line perfectly and giving the movie a lot of its humor. The action is over the top, the actors are all bringing their A+ game (Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is one of the most complicated and well realized characters to grace the screen in a long time) and through it all, the film manages to shed light on something that’s often kept in the dark. It’s audacious, it’s offensive and it’s magnificent.
Director: Drew Goddard (Co-written with Joss Whedon)
I really struggled with the top two films on this list. I made compelling cases in my head for why each should be number one and I’m still not sure I’m satisfied with my decision-making. Ultimately, though, it speaks to the quality of the films so it feels like a win win. Especially with a film as over the top fun as The Cabin in the Woods. There’s a lot to be said for this movie’s long breakdown of horror movie tropes, good and bad. I’m tempted to end this explanation now because giving away any details about the movie, beyond its initial set up (college students are going to spend a weekend at a, you guessed it, cabin in the woods) ruins the adulterated joy of seeing this genre deconstruction. If you haven’t seen the film stop now. Don’t read the next paragraph, just know this is one of the most fun movie going experiences I’ve ever had (going in cold and experiencing the insanity with the audience) and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
For those of you who did see it, let’s get a little deeper. The film escalates from traditional slasher into meta madness and every time you think the film has reached its self-reflexive peak it does something funnier and more over the top. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are a laugh riot and help the audience digest the seemingly out of left field opening that sets up the whole film. The ending, where every movie monster trope ever is unleashed is bloody good fun (pun VERY intended) and the film as a whole, and this bares repeating, is so much FUN. Most underrated movie of the year.
Director: Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson is 3 for 3 in my book. Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and now Looper are all must see films (especially the last two) and, perhaps most impressively, are all shockingly different. Johnson is also responsible for directing one of Breaking Bad’s better episodes, “Fly.” (I once wrote this in another movie list and it caused a flame war between people who enjoy the divisive bottle episode and people who hate amazing writing and acting.)
That little troll bait aside, Johnson is a unique voice who crafts visually original films that I just plain love. Looper is the best mainstream sci-fi film since District 9 and it’s use of time travel is both fun and thought-provoking. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeup and performance give him the feel of a young Bruce Willis and the effect is really cool. The action set pieces are awesome and, while Willis is a bit bland, the diner scene where the two Joes meet is a fantastic scene. Johnson is clearly drawing from a lot of influences, the Terminator films being a clear example, but the film still feels original. It’s an original script by a singular artist who keeps surprising and delighting with each new film. If that’s not worthy of the top spot then I don’t know what is.
Honorable Mentions: Skyfall (The hardest omission, I ultimately left if off because I have little to say about it other than GREAT Bond film that effectively reboots the series and analyzes the character in a fresh way.)
Also: Chronicle, Haywire, Friends with Kids, The Master, Wreck-It Ralph
Films I’m Bummed I Missed: Wanderlust, Flight, The Innkeepers, Cloud Atlas, Frankenweenie, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Goon, Bernie, The Woman in Black, Lawless