It took me long enough, but I finally got around to seeing 95% of the universally recognized “good” movies of the year in order to write this list. I didn’t want to pull a repeat of last year where The Artist swooped in after the fact and took the number one spot and screwed everything up.
This time around, I’ve also expanded the list to fifteen movies, as there were just too many I didn’t want to leave out and I figured you wouldn’t mind. I usually ended up doing “honorable mentions” in past lists anyway. It’s been a great year for film, and I look forward to sitting down and writing this post annually.
Assembling this list does not make use of some mathematical formula where I give weight to which films had empirically the best acting, directing, cinematography, and so on. Rather, this is a list of the fifteen movies I enjoyed the most this year, in some vague order of how much I enjoyed them. Yes, I understand that Dredd is not technically a “better” film than Django Unchained, but I did like it more, and I’ll try to explain why. List starts below:
Why it Made the List: I’m a sucker for sci-fi, and have been a fan of Rian Johnson since he first directed JGL in Brick. I was amazed by the work Gordon-Levitt did to look and act like a younger Bruce Willis, even though it was probably not entirely necessary for the story. It was slick and stylish and unique to the time travel genre. It’s more of a thinking man’s Terminator, if you want to put it that way.
Why It’s Not Higher: But it’s not exactly as fun as Terminator, and not really as smart as other time travel-ish sci-fi movies like say, Source Code. It started to lag in the middle when Gordon-Levitt met Emily Blunt on a farm, and the film kind of puts things in park from there until the end.
14. Django Unchained
Why It Made the List: Tarantino is an amazing director and consistently pumps out great movies, the majority of which at this point are centered on Revenge with a capital R. No one does over the top pulp quite like him, and his stark look at the realities of slavery makes no apologies for itself in Django. Add in phenomenal performances by Leo DiCaprio and Sam Jackson (though not Oscar worthy, for some reason) and you’ve got yourself a winner.
Why it’s Not Higher: Number fourteen probably seems rather low to some of you, but with the above said, this is probably my least favorite of Tarantino’s films outside of Jackie Brown. It’s almost TOO straight forward of a film and he doesn’t bother messing with timelines or pulling out grand twist endings like he does in his other films. You know what’s going to happen, and then it happens, and that can be a touch dull, despite all the bloodshed.
13. Zero Dark Thirty
Why It Made the List: Though some disagree with my assessment that Kathryn Bigelow does military realism better than almost anyone, I think this film was an expert way to blend both intelligence and military operations. She takes ten years of a manhunt and expertly condenses it into a few hours, and even if we know what’s going to happen, it’s still gripping.
Why It’s Not Higher: The film can lag in parts, and it’s sort of odd that it goes out of its way to be completely apolitical. It could have sparked an interesting debate about torture or surveillance or the war or terror, but takes no sides and shies away from tough questions.
Why It Made the List: Ben Affleck is fast becoming one of Hollywood’s best directors, something no one probably ever would have predicted. With Argo he showed that he can break outside the Boston crime drama and make a fantastic film about anything. He perfectly recreates the 1970s in both America and Iran to the point where it feels like you’re living in the decade, and has to star at the same time as directing. Amazing.
Why it’s Not Higher: There was just something about this movie that didn’t really stick with after the fact. It was great at the time, but I didn’t think about it once until it started winning everything in the Golden Globes. And I think Affleck may have taken too many liberties with the story, like I don’t think there was literally a car chase on the tarmac as they were escaping, and it felt a little too “Hollywood-ized” at times.
Why It Made the List: Technically speaking, this is the best James Bond movie ever made, bar none. Yes, I might have enjoyed Goldeneye more and everyone will always talk about Dr. No and Goldfinger, but Sam Mendes has made an astonishing film that truly gets to the roots of who Bond is, and deals with issues of age and a modern era of espionage that’s making secret agents look dated. The cinematography might be the best of any film on this list, and the movie is a visual masterpiece.
Why It’s Not Higher: While I appreciate the focus on age, Skyfall can be a bit heavy handed with its themes. And though the story is a good one, there are far better action thriller plotlines out there, and I think we’re being a little bit biased just because this is Bond.
10. Silver Linings Playbook
Why It Made the List: I didn’t know anything about this film until I sat down in the theater, but it was easy to see why everyone was raving about it. Bradley Cooper gives a fantastic performance almost no one thought he’d be capable of, and Jennifer Lawrence managed to charm me despite me being annoyed with her past roles. It’s heartwarming, to use a clichéd term, and very, very hard not to like.
Why It’s Not Higher: Though it’s very sweet, it can be almost too much so, and the fact that nearly everyone in the film has some sort of mental or emotional disorder can make it seem like everyone is trying a bit too hard for Oscars.
9. The Grey
Why It Made the List: God, I love this film. Usually movies released the later winter months get forgotten about come the end of the year, but The Grey has stayed with me in a way other films have not. I expected Liam Neeson being a badass fighting wolves, and I got that, but I also found a powerful film about God, death and everything in between. I was blown away by how much more there was to this film than the surface let on.
Why It’s Not Higher: It can be kind of an exhausting experience, taking place entirely in snowy woods. Outside of Neeson, there weren’t many other characters to root for, and as they were picked off one by one, it felt a bit too formulaic at times.
Why It Made the List: If there was a “Beat Expectations by a Mile” Academy Award, Dredd would take home the gold. Everyone is sick to death of reboots, but what happens when one is done right? What happens when they accidentally make a reboot better than the original? That’s what’s happened here. The camp of Stallone’s version has been stripped away, and we’re left with a brutal R-rated action flick more badass than any of its type in years. It’s a shame it’s one of the year’s biggest box office failures, as it’s in no way deserved.
Why It’s Not Higher: Dredd could feel a bit claustrophobic, taking place entirely inside one grungy high rise apartment. The world outside it looked fascinating, and it would have been fun to explore. Also the plot resembled this year’s The Raid, a little too closely for my liking.
7. Les Miserables
Why It’s On This List: I don’t know much about Les Miserables other than watching one of its variants on TV when I was a kid. But when I saw Tom Hooper’s fully realized onscreen here, it was hard not to be impressed. The sets, the costumes and most importantly the singing, recorded live on set not in a studio, was just out of this world. It’s an emotionally gripping film that nearly had me tearing up by the end, and that doesn’t happen often at all these days.
Why It’s Not Higher: It can be a bit tiresome to listen to nearly EVERY line being sung. Conversations that could have taken a few seconds are instead stretched into ten minute segments and it can make the film drag. Also Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter felt really out of place here as the comic relief.
6. Wreck-It Ralph
Why It’s On This List: It’s becoming clear that Disney doesn’t need Pixar to produce its animated hits. Rather, Wreck-It Ralph was far more enjoyable than it’s Pixar counterpart this year, Brave, though being an avid gamer may introduce some sort of bias here. But it’s hard to deny that the worlds the animators created here from the 8-bit to the hi-def were truly stunning, and the voice cast was the most perfectly assembled of any animated movie I’ve seen in years.
Why It’s Not Higher: Though it’s very, very good, it’s unclear if the movie is actually a “legend” of the animated feature scene the way we think of movies like The Lion King or Toy Story. But that said, given time, perhaps it will be.
5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Why It’s On This List: This film wasn’t playing in all that many theaters and wasn’t exactly loved by critics, but this is a textbook case of a film meaning more to me personally than it did to others. I was shocked at how well Logan Lerman was able to play…me in the film, or at least some version of me in high school, an awkward, shy guy with an impossible crush on a friend. The film moved me in many ways, and really struck a chord of authenticity throughout. This was teenage life. My own, really.
Why It’s Not Higher: Comparisons to my own life stopped when the film takes a very, very dramatic and dark turn near the end, it’s powerful, but felt out of place. I realize that’s likely the book’s issue however, not the film’s.
4. Life of Pi
Why It’s On This List: I’m a huge fan of the original book, and I was absolutely convinced that no one would ever properly be able to adapt it into a movie. Mercifully we were spared an M. Night Shyamalan version, and Ang Lee took over and created a film that can’t be described as anything other than masterful. It’s a powerful tale that touches on life and the truth (or falsity) or religion. I was amazed the film managed to make a CGI tiger such a believable cast member, as that seemed like an insurmountable task. On top of all of this, it rivals Skyfall for being one of the most visually beautiful films of the year.
Why It’s Not Higher: All this said in terms of pure entertainment, it was simply eclipsed by the next few films on this list for me.
3. Cabin in the Woods
Why It’s On the List: Call me a Whedon devotee if you like, but this was my favorite horror film in years, quite possibly ever. It’s a complete deconstruction of the genre, and is the one of the most creative concepts for a film I’ve seen in years, horror or otherwise. The final payoff is exceptionally satisfying, particularly the last half an hour or so, and that’s really all I can say without giving the whole game away.
Why It’s Not Higher: I will admit that it can take a while to spool up, because for the first 30-40 minutes it does seem like every teen slasher movie ever made. Granted that’s on purpose for the sake of the story, but it’s not always fun to watch.
2. The Avengers
Why It’s On This List: When you watch a movie with a smile on your face for the entire duration, you know it’s done something right. Here again we go to Joss Whedon who quite simply did the impossible in combining all the available Marvel franchises into one film that was easily better than its individual pieces. It’s thrilling from start to finish and unexpectedly quite hilarious, and it’s hard to remember the last time I’ve heard a theater roar and cheer and laugh the way they did both times I saw this film.
Why It’s Not #1: This was a tough call. Two movies in the same genre, yet in many ways complete opposites. But I just had to go with what I felt in the end.
1. The Dark Knight Rises
Why It’s #1: I know this puts me in stereotypical nerd fanboy land here, but I would be lying to myself and to you if I said this was not my favorite film of the year. I walked out of the IMAX theater in total shock after it was over, like a warm fuzzy glow had descended over my entire body. It took some time to wear off, but even after I was simply in awe.
This film has many detractors, and I’m one of the very few who is content to argue that yes, this film was actually better than the last, The Dark Knight. After viewing each multiple times, I found that it’s easy to get lost in Ledger’s Joker, but in reality the actual content of the film was better organized and executed in The Dark Knight Rises. I thought Tom Hardy’s Bane was phenomenal, and it’s unfortunate that he doesn’t get enough credit due to Ledger’s immortal performance. The themes of wealth and power and loss and redemption were well woven through the narrative. The twists may have been expected, but they were still well handled, and for me, this was a perfect way to end Nolan’s trilogy.
Why It Could Have Been Lower: I would be remiss to claim the film as perfect. The timelines get a bit wonky during the long “nuclear threat winter” in the middle of the film, and I will admit the very end felt a bit heavy handed. The end could have been a bit more subtle if it was cut as a smile crossed Alfred’s face in the cafe.
These were my picks, and I’m really anxious to hear yours. You can berate me for my opinion if you like (no Hobbit???), but remember, it’s just that, an opinion. I can’t wait until next year when I’ve seen another fifteen incredible films. This is why I do what I do.