First off, thank you for reading this. At every year’s end (this is my 5th time but first time on this website), I put together a list of what I consider to be the best films of the year. It’s actually one of my favorite things to do all year because I get to finally share a list I’ve been making since the first day of January.
2012 was an incredible year for American films. I don’t say this every year but if you look at the last 4 years, you’ll notice there’s hasn’t been this many good films on a large theatrical release at once since 2008. In fact, this awards season will be the most contenious – arguably – in a decade. Apart from a few real visionary directors, almost every major filmmaker released a film this year – which is rare and almost every one of those films was worth seeing.
The first section contains a description of the movies (in descending order) of the top 10 films of the year. It was extremely difficult making this list. Most of these films have cycled through every 1-10 position and it was all debated endlessly. The movies that got the 2nd, 3rd, or even 5th spots could have easily changed – but I do think this list represents a wholistic perspective.
The list after the Top Ten is an “Honorable Mention” (in alphabetical order). These are the films that came really, really close to making the Top 10, but didn’t.
The same goes for the third list – “The Best of the Rest”. These are the remaining stand-out films of the year. It’s a sort of runner-up list but don’t think these movies are any worse than the ones on the main lists. Some of these films will blow your mind away. Just keep yourselves open and give them a shot.
Finally, I end with two other categories: “The Most Disappointing Films of the Year” and, to be fair, “The Films I’ve Yet To See”.
Enjoy! And I hope you continue to check this site out in 2013!
The MAD Challenge’s Top 10 Films of the Year (Among Other Lists)
10. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (d. John Madden) – The most pleasant surprise of the year comes disguised as a British movie about old people, when in reality, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is actually…well, it still is a British movie about old people – but it’s a very moving one. Most of the credit here goes to a very solid screenplay and an even better cast. Featuring the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy – Hotel tells the story of a group of senior citizens who all decide to “outsource” their retirement to the less expensive and exotic country of India (Fox Searchlight). By chance, they all end up staying at the same hotel. On paper, though a strong story, it doesn’t sound like this would be anything to write home about, but the elements all come together perfectly here. And I’m a very strong critic when it comes to foreign films that portray India. Funny and heartwarming, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a must-rent.
9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (d. Stephen Chbosky) – A film I really believe every teenager should be required to see, Perks is one of the most relevant and impactful films of the year. Treated with extreme sensitivity and honesty, Perks is really the result of the careful eye of director Stephen Chbosky. Easily surpassing the wannabe Hollywood coming-of-age stories, Perks of Being a Wallflower treats high school novelty, highs and lows, loneliness, depression, and pain the way it should be treated. Its result is an inspiring and universal tale we can all relate to.
8. The Impossible (d. J.A. Bayona) – It’s very rare that I weep during films. It’s even rarer that I admit I have. The Impossible is one of those films that really lives up to the promise of its trailer: It’s a film about the human spirit set against the most terrifying times. The Impossible chronicles the lives of 5 English family members (led by an incredible Naomi Watts, an underrated Ewan McGregor, and featuring a powerhouse debut from the young Tom Holland) vacationing in Thailand when a deadly tsunami hits the coast. This true survival story quickly overcomes a stitled beginning to become one of the most touching, breathtaking, and emotional films of the year. Grounded in strong thematic awareness, The Impossible is lensed beautifully and never lets the disaster sequences (which are terrifying) overshadow the heart of the piece.
7. Anna Karenina (d. Joe Wright) – Despite mediocre reviews and an average box office run, this fresh revisitation of the Russian tragedy is worth the price of admission. One of my favorite filmmakers of our generation, Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) and (godsend) cinematographer Seamus McGarvey infuse the world of St. Petersburg and Moscow with such rich color, movement, and interpretation, it’s very easy to be swept away by the melodrama in the piece. The story of Anna Karenina sounds like a bore – like an out-of-touch movie by a filmmaker who’s become far too emotionally irrelevant. But I promise you: the film is anything but. Relevant and moving, Anna Karenina also features a captivating performance by Keira Knightley.
6. Life of Pi (d. Ang Lee) – As a huge fan of the potential of 3D, I was impressed to find Life of Pi a beautiful symbiosis between technology and storytelling. A film that’s able to use 3D as a means to tell its story and to convey the emotional arc of the chraracter at its core, Life of Pi is a very commendable adaptation of what you’d think to be an impossible book to adapt. Life of Pi is split into two parts: the first chronicles Pi’s upbringing and his religious enlightment; the second places that newly formed character into the most dire of circumstances: survival in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Though I still think the book is better, it’s a rare feat for an adaptation to be this good and to feel this original and honest. Ang Lee’s sensitivites lend a powerful hand to a film that, despite a huge budget and massive scale, never forgets what it’s really about.
5. The Imposter (d. Bart Layton) – One of the strangest and most horrifying true crime stories is the tale of Nicholas Barclay (or Frédéric Bourdin, depending on how you’d like to look at it) captured in the chilling “documentary” The Imposter. By putting the genre of documentary in quotations, I don’t mean to insinuate the story isn’t true, but it’s one of the most unique formats a documentary has ever adopted. And in doing so, the film completely feels like fiction narrative. To give any of the plot away would really be unwise or downright unbelievable. The trailer itself will give you chills; but the experience of watching the movie was unlike anything I’ve experienced because I had nothing to relate it to. The most original film of the year, The Imposter is a must-see for any fans of thrillers, horror films or action movies. Maybe even toss in absurdist comedies, too.
4. Silver Linings Playbook (d. David O. Russell) – Russell’s strongest addition to an impressive filmography, Silver Linings Playbook is a meticulously chronicled story of recovery set against the backdrop of a very dynamic group of characters. Though it could be dismissed as a feel-good romantic comedy, Playbook is anything but that. Bradley Cooper gives his best performance to date as Pat Soltano – a man who’s lost his job, his house, his wife, and for some time, even his sanity – and Jennifer Lawrence (in what I predict to be an Oscar winning performance) is really able to capture nuances in a very troubled woman. Bolstered by an even more impressive supporting cast (and featuring the best Robert DeNiro performance in 12 years), Silver Linings Playbook is uplifting, powerful, but most of all: painfully honest.
3. Zero Dark Thirty (d. Kathryn Bigelow) – Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most intense movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. It’s ability to objectively portray not only a seriously complex issue but also a morally ambiguous one was incredible and its discerning camera never shies away from exposing a harsh reality, even if it’s about the American people (one big difference between it and Argo – another action film based on a real life political event). The film is about catching Osama bin Laden. It begins on September 11th, 2001 and ends on May 2nd, 2011 – the day after bin Laden was killed. It follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative working in the Middle East with the sole task of capturing bin Laden. The film’s timeframe perfectly captures its most basic emotion: frustration. For ten years, Maya follows lead after lead, name after name, and investigation after investigation – searching for the tiniest lead to bin Laden. But nothing works out. And for 2 and half hours, the audience is as frustrated as Maya. This is not an insult – it’s an incredible feat for Bigelow to achieve while keeping audiences as gripped as ever. I was enthralled. Every single person watching this movie knows what happens at the end, but the film is crafted so well, it doesn’t matter. We still fear for 2 whole hours. But the only thing that’s better than the first 2 hours of the film are the last 30 minutes, which showcase the true potential of American power. It felt real. It felt visceral. I had goosebumps the whole time. A gripping procedural anchored by a powerhouse and subtle performance by Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty is intense, risky, relevant, and moving.
2. Argo (d. Ben Afleck) – Argo has a lot in common with Zero Dark Thirty and it was a tough decision ranking them, but as a fan of films that balance popcorn entertainment with serious thought, I had to put this first. Argo is based on the recently declassified true story of how Hollywood and the CIA partnered together to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the height of the Iranian hostage crisis. A finely-tuned script brought to life under the careful eye of director Ben Afleck, Argo is filled to the brim with high tension, action, and even humor. And though I would have loved to see someone other than Afleck in the lead role (it always seemed like Afleck cared more about directing the film than paying attention to his character), an exciting ensemble and rich story easily subdues any qualms about the story, or its blatant pro-American stance. The most emotionally accessible film to a mainstream audience, Argo blends history with the right amount of excitement, originality, and adrenaline to produce the most enjoyable ride of the year.
1. Django Unchained (d. Quentin Tarantino) – Once a year, you watch a film in theaters that reminds you of watching movies as a kid. It reminds you of movies in which every plot twist was treated with surprise, every swear word made us flinch, every tear touched our heart, and when every gun shot quickened our heart beat. It reminds us of what movies could do. That’s what watching Django Unchalned felt like. The film tells the story of a freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter named Django (played by Jamie Foxx) as he begins a journey to rescue his enslaved wife, Bromhilda (Kerry Washington), with the help of fellow bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Part western and part blaxploitation, Django walks a fine line between reality and fiction. And much as he did with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino uses the historical setting, in this case: the pre-Civil War period, as a backdrop to explore themes of vengeance, subservience, and survival of the fittest. Django Unchained is a wholly original film – and another masterpiece (albeit a highly controversial one) from Quentin Tarantino. Much like his other films, it borrows from a hundred before it, but is still able to create something new and gripping. Django Unchained is clever, hilarious, and horrifying – often at the same time. It’s the perfect blend of high style and confident storytelling and Tarantino’s signature, and developed maturity, is inscribed deep in every frame.
Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order):
The Avengers (d. Joss Whedon), Chronicle (d. Josh Trank), End of Watch (d. David Ayer), Hope Springs (d. David Frankel), Hyde Park on Hudson (d. Roger Michell), The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson), Paranorman (d. Chris Butler, Sam Fell), Safety Not Guaranteed (d. Colin Trevorrow), Skyfall (d. Sam Mendes), Wreck-it-Ralph (d. Rich Moore)
The Best of the Rest (In Alphabetical Order):
21 Jump Street, Arbitrage, Bernie, Cabin in the Woods, The Dark Knight Rises, Flight, Goon, The Grey, Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hunger Games, The Intouchables, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Killing Them Softly, Les Misérables, Lawless, Moonrise Kingdom, Promised Land, Rust and Bone, Sound of My Voice, Your Sister’s Sister
The Most Disappointing Films of the Year (In Alphabetical Order):
Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brave, Lincoln, Magic Mike, Prometheus, Rise of the Guardians, Seven Psychopaths, This is 40
Please Note: This is not a list of the worst films of the year. This is a list of the films with actual artistic credibility that severely underwhelmed.
Movies I Have Yet to See (In Alphabetical Order):
Amour, Bully, Cloud Atlas, The Deep Blue Sea, Frankenweenie, How to Survive a Plague, Holy Motors, The Hunt, Indie Game: The Movie, Keep The Lights On, Killer Joe, Middle of Nowhere, The Paperboy, Quartet, The Raid: Redemption, Robot & Frank, Savages, Searching for Sugar Man