2012 was a pretty terrific year for geek culture cinema, which is why it was so ridiculously tough to A.) whittle this list down to ten movies, and B.) actually come up with the right words to say about them. That being said, I’m fairly confident that these ten films represent the finest the sci-fi, action/adventure, fantasy, horror, and superhero genre had to offer in 2012:
Honorable mentions: Dredd, Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi, Safety Not Guaranteed. (What? It had time travel!)
Also, be sure to check out Jeff’s Worst Geek Movies of 2012 List.[divider]
Chronicle was the surprise, suckerpunch to the gut genre movie of the year. At first glance, it looked like a run-of-the-mill found footage take on superheroes that adhered to the “no flights, no tights” rules of garbage TV shows like Heroes and Smallville, populated with unlikable, grating emo teenagers. But first time director Josh Trank took all of these minuses and turned them into pluses — crafting an intense, taut, and engaging film with one of the best one-on-one superhero battle climaxes in the genre’s history.[divider]
9.) The Dark Knight Rises
There’s no question The Dark Knight Rises is a very flawed film — it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of who Batman is — but I felt Christopher Nolan and crew were able to overcome this and other issues (a slightly bloated running time, some unnecessary tertiary characters, a few plot holes), and complete a satisfying conclusion to their interpretation of the character as more of a mythic symbol than one man’s war on crime.
Nolan’s Bat trilogy kicked off with 2005’s Batman Begins, and if you’re watching The Dark Knight Rises for the first time (or thinking about revisiting it), I recommend screening Begins beforehand because so much of the movie is a mirror reflection of that first chapter. I really appreciated how scenes and moments echoed those from Begins throughout, culminating in one final grand metaphor in a hellish prison pit (which I won’t spoil).
I also found Tom Hardy’s Bane to be an effective villain (yes, even liked his trademark early 1900’s British boxer voice filtered through a muzzle, which will be the source for countless memes and parody videos from now til the end of time). And Anne Hathaway delivers the slinkiest, sexiest, and overall best iteration of Catwoman in the history of live-action Batman adaptations. It all wraps up with an exciting and tense final conflict set to that propulsive Hans Zimmer score. The best analogy I can make is that The Dark Knight Rises is the Return of the Jedi of the Nolan Bat trilogy: the weakest of the three, but still a great time at the movies.[divider]
8.) The Raid: Redemption
The Raid is hands down the best action movie of 2012. The power and brutality of this film derives from its simplicity — a SWAT squad storms a run-down high-rise apartment complex, populated with criminals, murderers, and a drug lord secure at the top. Though it’s a subtitled Indonesian film, it speaks the universal language of bone-crushing martial arts violence. No matter where you’re from, everyone understands pain, and The Raid delivers it in spades. Nothing more needs to be said, you just need to get a hold of a copy and experience it.[divider]
Here’s one that I’m going to take a lot of flak for, but I don’t care. Yes, it has a structurally flawed script. Yes, it has some poorly written characters who make impossibly stupid decisions. But what Prometheus also has are powerful mythic themes, and a monumental, utterly awe-inspiring sci-fi vision from the only director capable delivering it: Ridley Scott.
Instead of just spoon-feeding the masses the safe and familiar face-hugging and chest-bursting fare of the old Alien films, Scott, along with screenwriters Jonathan Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, went the other way and focused their attention on more existential horrors — questions raised by the eerie pale “Engineers” that mankind is probably better off not knowing. But the film also delivered on a visceral level, with plenty of creepy crawlies, gruesome deaths, and the most cringe-worthy scene in 2012 cinema, a grisly self-cesarean section that caused quite a bit of controversy.[divider]
6.) Cabin In The Woods
2012 was the year Joss Whedon finally took his rightful place as supreme ruler of the Geek Universe, first with his direction on The Avengers, and then his fiendishly clever screenwriting in Cabin in the Woods, a fun, genre-exploding carnival ride of a movie that obliterates all preconceptions about “teenage stereotypes go to a remote cabin and are stalked and butchered one-by-one” movies. I am a decidedly anti-horror movie person. I don’t enjoy them, and I never pay to see them in the theater (zombie genre aside), but I fell immediately in love with Whedon’s devilishly delicious twist (which stabs right at the heart of complacent horror audiences who demand routine), crackling dialogue, and menagerie of fun characters (both human and non-human).[divider]
5.) Django Unchained
With Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has come a long way from a bunch of guys in black suits sitting around in a diner talking about “Toby fucking Wong” and Madonna’s big dick — turning in a vivid and violent pulp western epic for the ages. Brutal, stylish, sickening, funny, unrelenting, and mesmerizing, Django runs the audience through the full gamut of emotions — you’ll be thrilled one moment and possibly even offended the next — but the sheer brilliance of the cast will keep your eyes glued to the screen for the full three-hour running time. I honestly think Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, and especially Samuel L. Jackson (as the malevolent and manipulative Uncle Tom house slave Mr. Stephen), should all get supporting Oscar nominations. Their performances are simply that damn good. The “D” may be silent, but this film is loud and in your face and I loved every second of it.[divider]
4.) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth to tell Professor Tolkien’s far less epic children’s tale, The Hobbit, is currently holding steady at 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is battling a dwarf mine full of unwarranted negativity and vitriol — most of it directed at a technical decision Jackson made in the shooting of the film and not the actual narrative itself.
Controversy over 48-frames-per-second projection aside, An Unexpected Journey is still chock full of all the things we love about the world J R.R. Tolkien created — the bucolic splendor of The Shire; the sweeping, majestic beauty of the New Zealand countryside doubling for Middle-Earth; dwarves and orcs and wizards; elvish blades and riddles in the dark…it’s all here in and presented in a way that won’t be jarring for those who loved the style of the epic Lord of the Rings films. The Hobbit is anchored by the rock solid Ian Mckellan as Gandalf the Grey, and the delightful, pitch-perfect, Britishness of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Critics may feel silly once the entire trilogy is completed and the details of Middle Earth’s history are fully woven into the grand tapestry Jackson is weaving.[divider]
Skyfall is arguably the best James Bond film ever made. Strong words, I know, but director Sam Mendes simultaneously destroys some old conventions while resetting others in a fresh, exciting way that sets things up nicely for future installments. No Bond picture in history can match the gorgeous cinematography on display in Skyfall, particularly the dazzling light and shadow games at play in the Shanghai skyscraper sequence. Add in Daniel Craig at his steely, badass best; an incredibly disturbing villain in Javier Bardem’s Silva; hard-hitting action sequences; beautiful women; exotic locations; and an unorthodox, yet pulse-pounding climax, and you’ve got a lean and mean franchise ready, able, and willing to go another 50 years.[divider]
The time travel genre is a tricky one. Compelling narratives can easily get lost in a tangled web of exposition and confounding paradoxes. But Rian Johnson’s Looper cuts through the bullshit by…well…ignoring and avoiding all of that bullshit while still retaining everything that’s awesome about the concept. As Bruce Willis “Old Joe” character sums it up bluntly while addressing the younger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt version of himself: “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” In other words, just shut up and pay attention to what this movie is really about.
Okay, so what is it about then, smart-ass? I’m not going to ruin that for you here, but I’ll simply say it involves the superb direction of one of our very finest young auteurs, Rian Johnson, who shoots action scenes beautifully in your face and visceral — without any of that stylized, slow-motion, wire-fu crap; finding true love; creepy telekinetic children; choices, consequences, and plain ol’ human desperation.[divider]
1.) The Avengers
It almost seems too easy, too cliché, to put The Avengers in the number one slot. It was the highest-grossing film of 2012, after all, as well as the third highest-grossing picture of all-time. It spawned a glut of merchandise to rival Star Wars‘ output and made household names out of everyone involved, from Joss Whedon to mark Ruffalo, and even Clark Gregg (*sniff* Coulson *sniff* NEVER FORGET). But sometimes the right answer is the most obvious one, and for me, The Avengers is the most remarkable cinematic achievement of 2012.
I have probably seen the film at least a dozen times by now, and it continues to amaze me every single time I watch it. I still laugh like an idiot when The Hulk punches Thor right out of the frame. I still get goosebumps when “Shoot to Thrill” starts playing over the comm channels in Germany, heralding Iron Man’s arrival. I still have a smile ten miles wide during Agent Coulson’s nervous jabbering and fawning over Captain America in the quinjet. And I still stare in slack-jawed awe, arm hair standing at attention, during that circular panning “money shot” of the Avengers fully assembled and ready to do battle. It’s all just glorious…bright, fun, big, bold, superhero spectacle. What blows my mind the most though, is how Joss Whedon was able to pull it all off. I still can’t get my brain around it, but I’m so thankful he did.