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On paper, 2012 was supposed to be one of the greatest geek movie years ever. Ridley Scott back in sci-fi with Prometheus and Peter Jackson returning to Middle Earth with The Hobbit. Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton was giving us Martians in live-action (John Carter) and the Wachowskis were taking on an “unfilmable” epic novel (Cloud Atlas). Not to mention new installments in the Batman, Spider-Man and Marvel sagas.
But when the dust settled, the landscape was a little different.
This was a great year for geeks, but it wasn’t the obvious films that made our blood course faster. Many out-of-left-field surprises made it on to this list of my favorite genre/animation/sci-fi/ films of the year.
(And just to be clear: This list excludes films such as Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty, which are excellent in their own fields. And time will of course color the rankings. For example, I’m still trying to reconcile my feeling towards The Hobbit, which features the best world-buiding of the year but also is bloated like a dwarf).
But with less than a week to go in 2012, let’s chew on this:
10) Wreck-It Ralph
This Disney CG-animated movie has simple premise: a video game villain from a classic game wants to be good for once. But from something that could easily have been just a tossed away short we surprisingly got a movie that reached Pixar heights in terms of character development, humor, heart, and even a plot twist or two. Probably the best all-ages movie of the year.
9) Cloud Atlas
Andy and Lana Wachowski teamed up with German director Tom Tykwer to adapt David Mitchell’s time-sprawling epic novel, in the process making the most ambitious movie of the year. Six stories spanning from the mid-1800s to the 24th century are chopped up, re-arranged and interconnected by structure. On top of that, the same actors play the various characters, sometimes switching gender on us. The movie insists you pay attention as it tells of acts whose effects ripple through time. Some parts work better than others and some of the actors are as inconsistent as their prosthetic make-up, but when it soars, as it does in the future Korea and post-apocalyptic Hawai’i installments, among others, it really soars. The Wachowski are in fine form working with their favorite themes of anti-authority and destiny, and Tom Hanks reminds us again of his great versatility.
8) Django Unchained
It’s funny: While Django Unchained is not in the top tier of Quentin Tarantino’s impressive oeuvre (it rambles too long and often lacks tension), it may be his boldest and most thought-provoking entry. Sure it’s a spaghetti Western and Blaxploitation flick in a big budget blender, but the movie, about a slave (Jamie Foxx) freed by a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) on a quest to save his wife (Kerry Washington), forces you to examine your own inner feelings on racism. With its language and violence and strong performances, it does a better job at examining slavery in America than 95 percent of those self-important dramas made on the subject.
While we are firmly in the second decade of the 21st century, filled with cutting edge whiz-bang 3D CG animated movies, this was a banner year for stop-motion movies. The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Paranorman and Frankenweenie were all major releases in a medium that could be seen as stodgy. (Audience seem to think it is: the movies were not hits at the box office, after all.) But they are missing out on a deep well of creativity, with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie the most audacious. Think about it: a black & white…stop-motion…1930s and 50s monster movies homage. Each of those is enough to make an exec reach for the Maalox, but combined? Man! Burton’s tale of a pet dog brought back to life by his science-loving young master is the filmmaker’s most personal and most satisfying film in years.
“Some times, the old ways are the best,” says a character in this James Bond movie. What’s amazing is that after 50 years, we get a Bond movie as vital, thrilling, entertaining, and timely as this. Skyfall, like many other late-season releases, goes on for too long and wobbles in its Straw Dogs-style ending. But the movie expertly juggles great set pieces, political intrigue and winks to the Sean Connery and Roger Moore Bond eras while setting a 21st century course. And Daniel Craig captures the weariness of 007, but also his confidence and makes him a cool, sexy silver screen hero once again. It’s impossible to say if this is the best Bond ever since each 007 film is a reflection, good or bad, of its time. But it’s the Bond movie that we deserve right now.
Looper is part of the recent wave of original sci-fi movies. It’s more modest in scale than say Prometheus or Cloud Atlas but is just as ambitious in scope. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a hitman in the near future whose targets pop in, silver spoon-like, from a further future. One day his target is his future self, played by Bruce Willis. He falters, and now both hitmen are pursuing each other and their own agendas, which happen to revolve around Emily Blunt and her child. The movie needlessly goes Akira on us in the end, but even so, seeing Gordon-Levitt carry an action movie like he does, seeing Willis rise to writer-director’s Rian Johnson’s high bar, and seeing a complicated script be distilled in a simple but effective fashion, makes you feel safe knowing that while there may always be boring remakes and dutiful sequels in Hollywood, originality still blooms.
4) The Raid
The best action movie of the year. Director Gareth Evans’ tale is pretty simple – a SWAT team goes into a tenement to nap a drug lord and things so south fast – but the execution is not. The movie is filled with precisely choreographed fight sequences featuring an Indonesian form called sillat and a lot of machete mayhem and, like any great martial arts movie, is a wonder to behold.
The year’s other great superhero movie, although “hero” is what this movie seeks to define. The story of three teens who find themselves with superpowers, is tailored for our darker, more self-absorbed time, and can be seen as an antithesis of Avengers. With a breakthrough performance by Dane Dehaan, the found footage movie shows how an angst-ridden, down-trodden teen doesn’t take the path of a Peter Parker but rather, in the hands of director Josh Trank and screenwriters Max Landis, the slow road to a tragic God-like complex.
2) The Avengers
In a year of some heavy-hitting superhero movies, this one reigned supreme. Yes, it had some plot holes big enough to fly the Helicarrier through, but no other movie was more enjoyable than this Marvel team-up. Director Joss Whedon made it about the characters (if you’ve ever read an Avengers comic from the 1960s, 70s or 80s, you know this movie nailed the heroes), their moments and their one-liners. It’s also one of the most immensely re-watchable movies of the year.
If someone said a Ben Affleck-directed period political thriller would be my favorite movie of the year, I’d have banished them into the Negative Zone. But it’s true. And even me knowing how the events of 1980 ended didn’t prevent me from being on the edge of my seat in a way that few other movies did. Argo succeeds in balancing three different worlds – Tehran, Washington and Hollywood – contrasting elements of office politics, Hollywood humor and undercover heist in telling the story of how the CIA concocted a fake movie in order to rescue six American hostages during the Iran Hostage Crisis. How is this Heat Vision material? Setting aside the heist thriller aspect, there’s the backdrop of the making of a sci-fi epic, Planet of the Apes‘ Oscar-winning make up artist John Cambers (played by John Goodman) is a major supporting character, it’s filled with Star Wars references and even ends with a shot of the classic action figures. Deceased comics legend Jack Kirby even makes a fleeting appearance as a silent character, for crying out loud. Who knew that when a full-page Argo ad ran in the trades in 1980 for the fake movie that 32 years later the movie would be an awards contender?
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