2012 was tremendous year in movies. Kathryn Bigelow reached a new plateau with “Zero Dark Thirty”. Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Michael Haneke, and Ang Lee all turned in excellent work and even atrophied titan Steven Spielberg showed up with something worthwhile this year. Gareth Evans introduced a new level of rhapsodic. Christopher Nolan brought his Batman trilogy to a thunderous conclusion. As Tarantino fought to keep the film format going, Léos Carax showed how beautiful digital could be. Children’s films like “Frankenweenie” and “Paranorman” proved that American animation can flourish even when Pixar flounders.
Sam Mendes returned James Bond to his monstrous roots and showed that old school cool still had some vitality. Steven Soderbergh made two very different and very good genre films and put all the majors on notice that when you play on his level, you don’t need a $100 million budget and a two0year production period, you just need a few really good ideas. It was an astounding year in cinematography with Robert Richardson, Roger Deakins, Claudio Miranda, Janusz Kamiński, Caroline Champetier & Yves Cape, Wally Pfister, Greig Fraser, Darius Khondji, and Matthew Jensen did some of the finest work of the already incredible distinguished. William Goldberg and Dylan Tichenor showed that you could edit ten years of often fruitless searching into the most relentlessly compelling cinematic experience of the year. Below is a list of all of the things that I thought made last year an exceptional year in film.
Most Ambitious Film: Joseph Khan’s “Detention”. Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski’s had the most highest profile swing for the fences with “Cloud Atlas” but when I think back on what taking big chances meant in 2012, I think about “Detention.” Khan spent $10 million of his own money in making his genre mashing teen movie which also has elements of slasher, alien invasion, body swap, and time travel movies. While obviously owing a lot a great deal of the film’s aesthetic to Khan’s music video origins, its relentless energy and inventiveness were like nothing else this year.
Best Music Video: “Time to Dance” by The Shoes. I love everything about this Daniel Wolfe directed eight and a half-minute long music video/short film, which features Jake Gyllenhaal as a terrifying serial hipster killer. Not only is the sight of the frenzied “The Day After Tomorrow” star murdering his way through the Brooklyn Vegan readership darkly thrilling, it’s also Gyllenhaal’s best performance in years. While great in “Donnie Darko”, Gyllenhaal hadn’t done anything exciting until last year’s “End of Watch”, of which he was the worst part. Freed from the burden of carrying some limp studio disaster picture or a bland romantic drama, Gyllenhaal’s is able to accentuate all the things that make him a compelling performer; his explosive anger, his Kubrickian 1000 yard stare and his haughty disengagement, all filmed with an icy low-fi remove and scored to a blistering dance track
Best Film I Didn’t See: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”
Best Score: A split decision, Hans Zimmer’s work on “The Dark Knight Rises” and Jonny Greenwood’s work on “The Master.” Zimmer’s powerful work “Rises” almost overwhelms the rest of Christopher Nolan’s film; his score also propels the viewer through the story’s weakest and most disjointed sections, providing a more cohesive whole. It’s impossible to quibble about narrative inconsistency when being pounded into aural submission. At the time of this writing, I’ve not seen “The Master” but I’ve listened to Greenwood’s hypnotic and beautiful score, as with his work on Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”, visual accompaniment ideal but isn’t necessary. It’s a masterpiece all by itself.
Best Superhero Film: Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall.” No, James Bond doesn’t wear a spandex or leather outfit and yes, he does have lots of sex but “Skyfall” had many of the tropes of a superhero sequel; a dramatic fall, a slow climb back, an arch-enemy with a wildly over complicated revenge plot and an army full of sartorially syncopated henchmen, the death of a beloved mentor, the callous death of love interest, a few dazzling set pieces, and pyric victory ending. What sets it apart from the Dark Knights and Avengers of the past year was Daniel Craig’s performance and the cinematography by the great Roger Deakins.
Best Horror Film: Craig Zobel’s “Compliance.” With Heather McIntosh’s vertiginous score and Adam Stone’s cold, clinical cinematography, writer/director Craig Zobel made an examination of our relationship with authority with that’s more horrifying than anything in “Hostel.” From the moment Ann Dowd’s insecure fast food manager allows her engrained trust of authority figures (and subtly built up resentment) to override her judgment, you know that Dreama Walker’s cashier is doomed as any oversexed teenager camper. Instead of pitting a group of overeager idiots being against an implacable evil, “Compliance” sets a crew of overworked, underpaid and underappreciated but clear-eyed adults against themselves and they lose, badly.
Most Underrated Film: Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.” One of 2012’s most anticipated films for many reasons; Scott’s return to the genre in which he made his name, an “Alien” movie that didn’t look atrocious, and because it looked like a big budget science fiction movie about ideas cementing a fading movie star’s box office appeal. While the film had its weak points, mostly related to its wildly uneven script, it also has a bit of majesty. No Ridley Scott film this century has looked as good as “Prometheus” and few films released last year reached as far. The biggest stumbling block that the film faced wasn’t lofty expectations but years of exposition filled, pandering, and ambiguity free sci-fi pap that has become the norm.
Most Overrated Film: Benh Zeitilin’s “Beasts of the Southern” Wild. Speaking of pandering, pretty imagery and well-meaning racial condescension do not a masterpiece make.
Best Comedy Film: Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s “21 Jump Street.” Being a reimaging of old Television series and a “regular dude dropped into an action movie scenario” movie, I didn’t expect it to be particularly good but I was wrong. It was a hilarious, often surreal spit take on the ludicrous concept of the original series and the bombastic tropes of Jerry Bruckheimer produced summer blockbusters. With this film, “Magic Mike,” “Haywire,” and “The Vow” this really was Channing Tatum’s year. “21 Jump Street” also has the Best Credits Sequence of the year.
Best Directorial Debut: Josh Trank’s “Chronicle.” Trank and Max Landis’ script was the weakest part of this exhilarating mélange of “Akria”, “Carrie”, and comic book literalism. While a bit too obvious in its themes and too reliant heavily on the audience’s familiarity with teen movie stereotypes, the filmmaker’s use of their $15 million budget is nothing short of amazing. The film’s entire third act, which follows a telekinetic battle across Seattle that shows how terrifying a superhuman fight would really be, is breathtaking. Not for nothing, but “Chronicle” is also the best Best Found Footage movie since “Cloverfield.”
Best Soundtrack: Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” “100 Black Coffins”, “Who Did That To You?”, “Freedom”, the soon to be immortal mash-up “Unchained” and all of the previously recorded material used in the soundtrack for Tarantino’s latest continued the director’s streak of perfectly chosen needle drops. Tarantino remains the best DJ of our time.
Best Concert Film: Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s “Shut Up and Play the Hits.” I can’t get through “All My Friends” without tearing up.
Best Exchange: From “Moonrise Kingdom”: “I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think their lives are more special.” - Suzy
“I love you but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” – Sam
Worst Film: “Savages” and “The Campaign” were both incredible bad but Larry Charles’ “The Dictator was the film I disliked the most this year. It’s so bad it makes me regret ever liking Sacha Baron Cohen. There’s nothing worse than a failed comedy.
Best Musical Sequence: The musical performance of “This Must Be the Place” in Paolo Sorrentino’s “in “This Must Be the Place” A young woman in ‘70s casual wear pretends to read a magazine on a quaint living room set while the strains of This Must Be The Place” start. The camera pulls back to reveal a white-clad David Byrne singing one the Talking Heads greatest hits. The platform the young woman sits on rises and turns as the music soars. “This Must Be the Place” is an uneven movie but its music sequence is perfection.
Best Action Movie: Gareth Evan’s “The Raid: Redemption.” This was a really good year in action but “The Raid’s” relentless intensity and utter lack of irrelevant material put it in a class all its own.
Best Trailer: The second trailer for Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” The trailer is perfect evocative of the film’s vice grip tension and spine straightening terror. Also redacted file logotype seen at the end of the trailer was used in the Best Poster of the year.
Best Performances of the Year: Daniel Day-Lewis telling jokes in “Lincoln”, Jessica Chastain getting back to work after losing a friend in “Zero Dark Thirty”, Jaime Foxx’s smile at the end of “Django Unchained”, Michael Fassbender’s simmering hatred in “Prometheus.” Michelle Williams breaking down on the amusement park ride in “Take This Waltz,” Robert Pattinson’s smile in “Cosmopolis,’ Jason Clark’s silence in “Lawless,” Karl Urban’s “I am the law” speech in “Dredd”, Denzel Washington’s focus during the crash scene in “Flight”, Samuel L. Jackson tossing away the cane in “Django Unchained”, Brad Pitt’s speech at the end of “Killing Them Softly”, the look in Tom Cruise’ eyes whenever he hurts someone in “Jack Reaceher”, Edward Norton saying what his real job is in “Moonrise Kingdom”, Everything Denis Lavant does in “Holy Motors”, Michael Pena agreeing to go back in the house with Jake Gyllenhaal in “End of Watch”, “Nicole Kidman getting Zac Efron to dance in “The Paperboy”, Mark Duplass breaking into the lab in “Safety not Guaranteed”, James Brolin’s Tommy Lee Jones impression in “Men in Black 3”, Channing Tatum giving his opinion on science in “21 Jump Street”, Alan Arkin negotiating in “Argo”, Michael Caine’s confession in “The Dark Knight Rises”, everything Leonardo DiCaprio does in “Django Unchained”, Liam Neeson’s defiance at the end of “The Grey”, Scott Adkins bleeding out in the chair in “Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning.”
Best Miscellaneous: The silent Shanghai fight scene in “Skyfall”, The opening of “Haywire”, The hellfire infused construction equipment in “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” The girl kissing the wolf’s head in “The Cabin in the Woods”, Bane’s midair kidnapping in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the car crash at the beginning of “Deadfall, the two perfect musical sequences in “Holy Motors”, the fart scene in “Ted”, Bob Balaban’s narration in “Moonrise Kingdom”, the portraits in “Armor”, the bullet to head bit in “The Raid: Redemption”, the big kiss in “Silver Linings Playbook”, the opening chase in “End of Watch”, the bin Laden compound raid in “Zero Dark Thirty”, the disappearing appendages in “Looper”, everything in “Django Unchained” after the plan goes wrong, the first-person scene in “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.”
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at email@example.com