2012 was a year of countless blockbuster disappointments, a handful of sleeper gems, several overhyped critical darlings, some masterful documentaries and foreign films, loads of forgettable dreck, a couple of delightful surprises, and no genuine masterpieces, but a fair amount of solidly entertaining nights at the movies.
Which is to say that it was fairly indistinguishable from the past few years. The point is, as Top Ten lists go, you could do a lot worse than these films, several of which I had the pleasure of Smacking in previous columns. The list is alphabetical, as ranking choices this disparate would just be arbitrary and meaningless. And I’m lazy.
21 Jump Street – No familiarity with the original series is necessary to enjoy this cheerfully silly action bro-com. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum make an inspired pair of bumbling undercover cops, and if the hallucination scene doesn’t make you laugh, you have no pulse. Pure pleasure, no guilt involved. And easily the year’s best cameos, to boot.
Amour – There’s a reason this intimate French film about an elderly couple torn asunder when dementia strikes one of them got so much Oscar love: It’s beautifully acted (by screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), unflinchingly honest, and ultimately devastating. World-class writer-director Michael Haneke continues an astonishing streak with his most heartfelt, personal work yet.
Cabin in the Woods – Begins like every idiotic “teens at an isolated cabin” horror flick you’ve ever seen, but it ends like nothing you’ve ever seen. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins provide hilarious running commentary throughout this impish meta-comedy from Buffy veterans Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, the latter making a stellar directing debut.
Chico and Rita – The year’s best animated film and best romance, about a passionate but doomed affair between a talented pianist and a fiery dancer in 1950’s Cuba. Sensual, sweltering, and ultimately quite poignant, from the opening measures of its terrific Afro-Cuban jazz score, the film packs a bigger wallop than its relatively primitive drawing style lets on.
Django Unchained – This sprawling mash-up of spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation flicks is talky, overlong, erratic in tone, and historically ludicrous, but its thrilling action sequences, offbeat wit and outstanding cast led by the amazing Christoph Waltz make this Quentin Tarantino’s most purely entertaining work since Pulp Fiction.
Headhunters – Hitchcock, Norwegian-style. Terrifically twisted thriller that manages to get us rooting for an initially amoral jerk who uses his headhunting company as a cover for his sideline as an art burglar, but soon finds himself the prey of a ruthless assassin. See it before an American remake screws it up.
The Imposter – Have you heard the one about the French con artist who posed as a Texas family’s long-lost teenage son? Prepare to be floored by the year’s most riveting documentary, one you should see just for the sheer joy of telling your friends about its crazier-than-fiction story and truly unforgettable villain.
Killer Joe – Dark, dark, no, really, dark trailer-trash comedy from the demented mind of playwright Tracy Letts, nimbly directed by old pro William Friedkin, who previously teamed up with Letts quite memorably on Bug. Matthew McConaughey steals the NC-17 show as a quirky hitman, and the final scene, in which Gina Gershon proves herself a truly fearless actress, is… is just… Oh, just see it.
Looper – Clever, action-packed and surprisingly moving futuristic time travel yarn from indie wunderkind Rian Johnson. The ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt finds himself in a complex cat-and-mouse game with his future self (Bruce Willis) and becomes the unwitting protector of a young boy (the astonishing Pierce Gagnon) with unusual powers and his tough but tender widowed mother (Emily Blunt).
West of Memphis – Superb encapsulation of the infamous “West Memphis Three” case from Amy Berg, director of the equally powerful Deliver Us From Evil. Essential viewing whether or not you’ve already seen the brilliant Paradise Lost trilogy that gave this infuriating case of miscarried justice its notoriety.
I liked it, almost no one else did: Killing Them Softly
Worst Sequel That Wasn’t Prometheus: Taken 2
Stupidest Idea: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter