As is the case with most years, the best films of 2012 went mostly unseen by the general public. The real stinkers, on the other hand, consist of critically acclaimed moneymakers—take the horrendous "Magic Mike," for instance. What follows is an examination of 2012’s best and worst movies that will undoubtedly be subject to much disagreement.
Poetic and visually enchanting, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is one of those rare films that conjure up all kinds of emotions without getting too heavy-handed. Director Benh Zeitlin’s debut is carried by two powerhouse performance, courtesy of newcomers Quvenzhané Wallace and Dwight Henry. What makes "Beasts" a unique picture is that it takes a devastating subject—the effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’ most destitute slums—and examines it through a fairy tale lens. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" seamlessly blends realism and fantasy, making for one of 2012’s most engaging movies.
"Django Unchained" easily wins the award for best crowd pleaser of 2012. A flashy revenge picture spliced with commentary on American slavery, Quentin Tarantino’s newest takes the age-old spaghetti-western genre and injects it with a modern-day sensibility. While the script doesn’t match "Pulp Fiction"'s brilliance, Tarantino’s writing job on "Django" still displays his knack for juicy dialogue. Jamie Foxx is the epitome of cool in the film’s title role and Christoph Waltz mesmerizes as German bounty hunter King Schultz. Even more entertaining is Leonardo DiCaprio playing against type as "Django"’s sadistic villain, Calvin Candie. The picture also showcases an eclectic soundtrack (featuring a diverse list of singers ranging from 70s pop artist Jim Croce to rapper Rick Ross) and a slew of masterfully choreographed action sequences. With "Django Unchained," Tarantino has bolstered his status as one of cinema’s premier auteurs.
This uplifting French import grossed over 400 million overseas but failed to take off stateside. "The Intouchables" follows the relationship between a wealthy paralyzed Frenchman and his African immigrant caretaker. Whereas most comedic dramas succumb to an overly sentimental third act, "The Intouchables" strikes just the right balance between humor and pathos. The banter between actors François Cluzet and Omar Sy manages to be simultaneously hilarious and heartfelt, rendering "The Intouchables" 2012’s top feel-good flick.
William Friedkin’s NC-17 adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play is as entertaining as it is offensive. While he surely won’t be recognized by the Academy, Matthew McConaughey deserves an acting Oscar for his role as a Texas-based contract killer. In "Killer Joe," the actor forgoes his penchant for playing heartthrob romantics in favor of portraying the sleaziest of psychopaths. "Joe" is bolstered by a supporting cast that includes Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, and Thomas Hayden Church. Each of these performers does a fantastic job of bringing their redneck roles to life. If you’re craving a thriller that doesn’t play by Hollywood conventions, then "Killer Joe" is a must-see.
Despite a decent performance from Denzel Washington, "Flight" is the most over the top morality play to hit screens in a long time. From the film’s unbelievable crash sequence to its overwrought religious symbolism, Robert Zemeckis’ commentary on substance abuse is ridiculous. The fact that "Flight" received so much critical acclaim is at once puzzling and disconcerting. Had screenwriter John Gatins taken a more nuanced approach to the film’s subject matter, then Zemeckis would have actually had a half way decent picture on his hands. Avoid buying a ticket for this lousy "Flight" at all costs. Instead, rent the superior "Requiem for a Dream" for a grounded take on drug addiction.
Overrated, overacted, and overlong, Ang Lee’s "Life of Pi" fails in just about every aspect. Despite the film’s wondrous visuals, this adaptation of Yann Martel’s critically lauded novel tries hard to be compelling but ultimately falls flat. A syrupy performance from lead actor Suraj Sharma makes "Life of Pi"’s poorly constructed script all the more intolerable. Martel’s book about survival and religion has an intriguing premise, but Ang Lee’s delivery of the material amounts to bungled melodrama.
Critics and audiences alike ate up this poorly conceived excuse for a mind-bender. "Looper" begins an amusing time travel tale but ultimately devolves into an overwrought mess of clichés during its second half. Rian Johnson’s script borrows shamelessly from better movies like "The Terminator," "The Sixth Sense," and even "X-Men." To be blunt, "Looper" is a total rip-off that lacks any originality. There is no denying that Rian Johnson is a skilled filmmaker—his 2006 neo-noir "Brick" was phenomenal—but his first sci-fi feature is contrived even by the genre’s standards.
A Steven Soderbergh directed movie about male strippers sounds like an interesting idea on paper, but "Magic Mike" is surprisingly flaccid. To Channing Tatum’s credit, he showed he has comedic chops with last year’s "21 Jump Street." On the other hand, his work in "Magic Mike" isn’t even up to daytime soap opera standards. Soderbergh’s script aims to make the audience feel compassion for the film’s titular character—a Florida-based stripper trying to pursue his dream of becoming a carpenter—but the writing is so dismal and the plot so boring that one could really care less. The sole reason this movie hit big was due to its Chippendales-like appeal. Much to this critic’s dismay, a sequel is reportedly in the works.