I should preface this list by apologizing—I haven’t seen some of the most acclaimed movies of this year. So movies that could have made this list—Holy Motors, This Is 40, Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook, amongst others—are conspicuously missing.
What remains are my favorite movies of 2012. This isn’t meant to be your typical Academy hopefuls that you will see on every other list, this is all about the movies I had the most fun watching this year. Some of them are flawed, some might not be good the third or fourth time I watch them, but for better or worse I found something that stuck with me in each movie. Oh, and they’re in no particular order. So without further ado, let’s dive in.
Cabin in the Woods
Cabin in the Woods is a sly, clever commentary on modern horror masquerading as a generic “pretty teens go to a cabin and are terrorized/murdered” genre film. The film at first seems to bask in horror clichés, but eventually unwinds into a cogent, sly and fascinating look at how filmmakers manipulate their audience. It’s also wickedly funny and has one of the best third acts of any film in recent memory.
The Raid: Redemption
The best pure action movie of 2012, The Raid: Redemption is a movie that starts at a 10 and never lets up. The premise is simple: A SWAT team has to invade an apartment building filled with criminals and fight their way to the crime lord at the top. The action is unflinchingly brutal (if stabbings make you squeamish, well, probably don’t watch this movie) and realistic. Iko Uwais is fantastic as the kinetic cop in over his head who just wants to get home to his pregnant wife.
A movie ostensibly based on star Channing Tatum’s past as a male stripper—and sold on his square jaw and washboard abs— Magic Mike is actually the first examination of life after the Great Recession. The titular Mike is an aging stripper who is banking money in hopes of starting his own business. He faces roadblock after roadblock that force him to remain gyrating on stage, helplessly watching another young man (Alex Pettyfer) become ensnared in the same lifestyle. Magic Mike delivers on its premise with plenty of scenes of sexy dudes in tearaway pants making bachelorettes squeal, but Mike himself is a tragic figure whose many talents are restricted by the lack of social mobility that has become common-place in modern America. Director Stephen Soderbergh’s naturalistic, seemingly improvised approach to the material coaxes nuanced performances out of Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, but the film’s greatest success is as a snapshot of the near-impossible struggle between individuals and a society increasingly unwilling to grant them a way out.
The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film is ambitious and political. Wisely not trying to dwell on the generational performance of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Nolan instead offers a timely criticism of the Batman mythos. By introducing Bane (played excellently by Tom Hardy) as a populist villain who raises an army of the discontented and wrongly imprisoned, Nolan is able to toy with the idea that Batman (Christian Bale) is causing more harm than good; protecting corrupt officials and enforcing evil laws in a blindly idealistic crusade that causes more pain than he realizes. The interplay between Bale’s Batman and Hardy’s Bane is fascinating and lively, and contributes to an action film that isn’t afraid to address serious, timely questions.
Director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) has a penchant for taking on a high-concept and making it human and relatable. Brick, his hard-boiled noir (replete with highly stylized dialogue) set in a contemporary high school, should have been a ridiculous mess. But Johnson’s self-assured style and ability to draw excellent performances out of his actors overcame the many hurdles in that movie. In Looper, Johnson re-unites with Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a time-traveling hitman—known as a “looper”— who is tasked with killing his future self (Bruce Willis). What sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone manages to succeed because it creates a tightly-drawn world that it explains in clever, quick strokes (the impact of having two versions of the same person is brought into frightening focus in a scene where a looper slowly disintegrates as his older incarnation is violently tortured). The action is excellent, the relationships are real and engaging and—in perhaps the film’s greatest feat—Johnson manages to coax a nuanced performance out of human cardboard cutout Bruce Willis.
Listen, I’m sick of found footage movies. The success of movies like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield has led to a glut of unlikely movies that go out of their way to justify an intimate, handheld style. Despite my increasing disdain for the style, Chronicle manages to squeeze some milk from the found footage stone. Scripted by Max Landis (of the John Landis Landis’s), Chronicle tells the story of a high school loner who stumbles upon some kind of alien artifact and—along with his brother and the surprisingly genuine star quarterback—gains telekinetic powers. Unfortunately his depression and unstable relationship with his abusive father lead him down a dark path.
Chronicle works because of the genuine care it has for its characters. Even as it navigates familiar high school drama clichés it manages to make smart choices to subvert the viewers’ expectations, especially in the way it treats the mega-popular jock Steve (Michael B. Jordan), whose refreshing affability never falters. It also manages to manipulate it’s found footage conceit in a way that comes across as fresh and intimate instead of trendy and manipulative.
21 Jump Street
2012 has been a banner year for Channing Tatum. Once considered a generic straight-jawed teen idol after roles in oatmeal fare like Step Up and G.I. Joe, he broke out of his buff shell with a shockingly funny role in 21 Jump Street. Paired up with capable co-star Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum is a revelation as a brawny undercover cop fighting against his niche. The movie is well-aware of how ridiculous its plot is—30-something cops going undercover in a high school to stop a drug ring being run by James Franco’s hipster younger brother—and manages to ground its silliness with a witty script, a cast of talented comedy stars and—most importantly, the phenomenal chemistry between Tatum and Hill.
Honorable mentions: Cloud Atlas, Haywire, Goon, The Queen of Versailles.
SO Note: Shoot Micah a tweet @micahlef and complain that he omitted Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 2 from his list.