Top 10 Movies of 2012

10. Pitch Perfect

Movies get bonus points for coming out of nowhere and surprising me, which is exactly what Pitch Perfect did. I like Anna Kendrick and a capella singing just fine, but neither would typically be enough to get me to the theater by themselves. What I do love are movies about contests that We’ve Just Gotta Win and this one is hilarious (especially – but not only – thanks to Rebel Wilson).

9. The Dark Knight Rises

Not as great as The Dark Knight, but it’s a good finale to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. It proved once and for all that Nolan’s Batman is not the comic-book Batman, but I’m okay with that. I not only like the way Nolan finishes the series, I wish the comics would wrap up the same way.

The thing I was most excited about for this film though was seeing Catwoman and it didn’t disappoint me on that level. Anne Hathaway narrowly edges out Julie Newmar as my favorite Catwoman (only because Newmar’s version had a touch of crazy that I don’t think the character needs).

8. The Cabin in the Woods

Embraces most of what I love about horror movies while making fun of everything I hate. The ending isn’t perfect, but the rest of it sure is.

7. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I’m a sucker for elderly British people and stories about second chances. This was right in my wheelhouse on so many levels.

6. Skyfall

I haven’t actually talked to anyone who’s called Skyfall the best Bond movie ever, but I’ve heard that such people exist. If I were to meet someone with that point of view, my response would be, “Really?” Because I don’t think they’re thinking that through very well.

Skyfall is a lot of fun, it’s gorgeous, and it works both as the 50th anniversary of the Bond series and as the finale of the trilogy started in Casino Royale. I especially love it from that last perspective. Say what you want about Quantum of Solace‘s dumb story and boring villain, but one thing that film did right was continue the story of Bond’s relationship with his country as personified by M. Skyfall pays that story off in a beautiful way while also reintroducing elements from the pre-Casino Royale films that I didn’t realize how much I’d missed. It’s also got a great villain and covers its themes in interesting ways. It’s a great Bond film.

But the best ever? No way. It owes too much to the early Connery films to seriously consider letting it surpass them. I’m not even sure I like it as much as The Living Daylights or Casino Royale.

5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

My including The Hobbit this high on the list is all the evidence anyone needs to verify that this Top 10 is my personal one and not an attempt at the 10 Objectively Greatest Movies of the year. If I were being objective about it, I’d agree with the critics who point out that Peter Jackson is indulging his every whim at the expense of telling a tight story. There’s a reason that he released a Theatrical Cut of the Lord of the Rings films and then an Extended Edition for DVD. A lot of people simply don’t have the patience to sit through scenes that legitimately could have been deleted to improve the pacing.

That said, I’m solidly in the camp of people who will only ever watch the Extended Editions of Lord of the Rings. I love all that extra stuff. I love seeing Middle Earth that fleshed out. I absolutely don’t mind seeing Jackson do the same thing with The Hobbit. But I also can’t be too harsh on those who do mind it. Jackson risked alienating those folks when he chose not to release a shorter, theatrical version, so it’s fair for them to say it didn’t work for them.

Even for me, it’s not perfect. With Lord of the Rings, I love pretty much every change Jackson made to Tolkien’s novels, but I miss the Bilbo that was blustered out his front door and into adventure by Gandalf in the book. Jackson’s Bilbo begins his journey too eagerly for my taste. He’s too heroic too early. It felt right as I watching it, so maybe I’ll re-evaluate after I’ve seen all three films, but it feels like Jackson needed to speed up Bilbo’s character development in order to make him more likable in this installment of the trilogy.

That – and the fact that it is the first installment in a trilogy instead of a complete story – keeps The Hobbit from being higher on my list.

4. Mirror Mirror

I’ve already written about Mirror Mirror a couple of times, so I’ll spare us all another review. I really, really love this movie though.

3. Les Misérables

I knew I was going to have problems with this movie from the first time I saw the trailer and teared up listening to “I Dreamed a Dream.” And I was right. Through the whole film, if I wasn’t crying over the human misery, I was crying from the joy of hearing those songs again.

I’ve seen Les Misérables on stage a few times. It’s my favorite musical and the reason I think Phantom of the Opera is over-rated. So I’m very familiar with the songs, but I don’t own a cast recording and can’t listen to them any time I want. I’ve never cared about hearing the songs outside of the context of the story as presented by actors.

But because I love those songs – and the story – so much, I’ve longed for a version with actors that I could own and watch whenever I want. In other words, I’ve been wanting this movie for about twenty years. And it was everything I hoped it would be. (Even Russell Crowe, who isn’t an especially strong Javert, but has a perfectly lovely singing voice outside of that.)

The only reason Les Misérables isn’t higher on my list is because I can’t separate it from my feelings about the stage production. I don’t know how I would’ve felt about it if I wasn’t already in love with it from the moment it was announced.

2. The Avengers

Oh, wait… I mean the other Avengers movie about a red-headed spy in a black catsuit.

I seriously reconfigured my Top 3 movies I don’t know how many times right up to the point of writing this post. There was a long time this year that I couldn’t imagine any movie bumping The Avengers from first place.

A lot of my love for the movie is because it never should have worked. If I’ve learned anything from a lifetime of movie watching, it’s that movies are never as awesome as we hope they’ll be. From the moment Samuel L. Jackson appeared at the end of Iron Man, we were all thrilled by the notion of an integrated universe of Marvel superhero films all leading to an all-star Avengers movie. But admit it, you didn’t think it would deliver, did you? I certainly didn’t. It couldn’t possibly live up to the awesomeness of its premise.

Except it did. It totally did.

And, in the process, it gave us the Hulk movie we’d all been waiting for.

1. Looper

Outside of its being really stinking good, the reason Looper is number one on my list is because it’s not based on something I already loved. I had to give it bonus points for being a completely original story about characters I’d never heard of before. And what a story.

I dig a good, tightly plotted time-travel story as much as the next person, but what I really love are stories that make me think and re-evaluate my opinions about people. I can’t talk about how Looper does that without going into spoilers, but it’s so much more than just a fun, scifi movie and deserves to be Number One.

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10 Honorable Mention Films from 2012

20. The Five-Year Engagement

I lost patience toward the middle when it took some really stupid decision-making to prolong the engagement to five years, but even when it stretched credibility, the movie never stopped being funny or having Jason Segel in it. It wins points for both of those things.

19. John Carter

Nowhere near the mess that lots of people claim it was; just not as spectacular as it should have been for the talent involved. It’s a fun, scifi escape with a couple of legitimately great moments; we just all hoped for so much more.

18. The Amazing Spider-Man

“Expectations” are a recurring theme on my honorable mentions list this year. I didn’t have high ones for The Amazing Spider-Man and like most people, I questioned the fundamental existence of the project. It was made for purely cynical, We Have to Do This or Lose the License reasons.

But though it contains some highly unnecessary rehashing of the Sam Raimi material, it also found some new things to do with its tone and the central relationships. It’s worthwhile for Peter and Gwen alone.

17. ParaNorman

I love the theme in ParaNorman about being your own person and not letting other people define you. Also: the animation is amazing. I wasn’t totally in love with the character designs though, and since that’s what I was looking at for most of the film, that’s what keeps it out of my Top 10.

16. The Hunger Games

I’m disappointed that this isn’t in my Top 10 for the year, either. I totally thought it would be, but during the second viewing I found myself getting bored. I kept myself entertained by focusing on Jennifer Lawrence’s wonderful performance, which communicated very well the horror of Katniss’ situation. Without her internal monologue though, it was hard to get what I wanted from her moral struggle over how to act in the arena.

Still looking forward to Catching Fire, but I’m more detachedly curious about it than wildly enthusiastic like I was for this one.

15. Underworld: Awakening

In a year that brought a disappointing entry in the Resident Evil movies, I’m thrilled that we got a worthy film in my other favorite horror/scifi adventure series starring a woman. Awakening pretty much punts and launches a Bold New Direction for Underworld, but it’s a good direction with some likable, new characters and I enjoyed it very much.

14. 21 Jump Street

I want to say that this is so much better than a movie based on an all-but-forgotten TV show has the right to be, but even though that’s true, it’s not really fair to suggest that that’s all 21 Jump Street has going for it. It’s just a very funny movie, period. That it gets a small part of that humor from pointing out and making fun of its sordid roots is just frosting for the cake. I’d probably rate it higher if not for the skeevy romance between Jonah Hill’s character and a high school student.

13. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Listen: After the horrible piece of derivative crap that Madagascar 2 was, I’m as surprised as anyone to find Madagascar 3 on this list. In fact, I didn’t want to see it at all when it was announced. It wasn’t until it got a 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes that I had to see what the heck was going on with this thing. To my surprise, it was hilarious and – more importantly – original. It also pretty much wrapped up the saga with a nice bow on top, so I don’t expect to be interested in a Madagascar 4, but never say never.

12. Haywire

No, Gina Carano is not a great actress. And the plot of Haywire is nothing new. But the movie makes up for both of those things with heart and authenticity. I wrote a full review of it, so I’ll point you there for more thoughts, but it really was one of my favorite movie experiences of the year.

11. Moonrise Kingdom

This was my first Wes Anderson film since Rushmore, which I never quite forgave for stealing Bill Murray away from movies like Groundhog Day and The Man Who Knew Too Little. Seeing Moonrise Kingdom makes me want to find out what I’ve been missing. It’s a small movie, but a lovely one, and makes great use of its setting and awesome cast.

31 Days of Dracula | Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

When F.W. Murnau made Nosferatu in the ’20s, he had to change the characters’ names and some story details to avoid copyright infringement on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Even so, the inspiration was undeniable and Stoker’s widow succeeded in obtaining an order for all copies of Nosferatu to be destroyed.

Fortunately, some prints escaped, so by the ’60s the Dracula copyright had expired and the movie began to be circulated again. German director Werner Herzog became a huge fan of the film and decided to remake it. And since Dracula was now in the public domain, he could even use the names of Stoker’s characters.

Still, Herzog’s Nosferatu is a remake of Murnau’s film before it’s an adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Murnau’s plot changes still show up, including Renfield being Harker’s boss, as well as the awesome way that (spoiler!) Dracula is ultimately destroyed. What doesn’t make any sense is that Harker’s wife isn’t called Mina in Herzog’s film, but Lucy. It’s an odd, pointless change.

There’s also an additional twist in the last scene, but that one sounds pretty cool. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m adding it to my list.

31 Days of Dracula | Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula (1974)

Like Flesh for Frankenstein before it, the Andy Warhol-produced Blood for Dracula plays with the intersection between horror and sex. Udo Kier (who played Baron Frankenstein in Flesh for Frankenstein, and played a less well-known vampire in Blade) plays a dying Dracula who now needs virgin blood to survive. Thinking that a Catholic country might be the place to find that, he moves to Italy and meets a rich guy with four daughters. Whether they’re virgins – and how their sexual status affects their fates – is what the film is most interested in exploring.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

SPOILERS FOR THE END OF NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD BELOW

Who’s in it?: I’m kind of shocked that people like Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea didn’t go on to do other things, but they didn’t. So, no one you know unless you know them from this.

What’s it about?: A small group of people hole up in a farmhouse for safety against a ghoul attack.

How is it?: George Romero is on record as saying he was heavily inspired by Carnival of Souls when he made this and it shows. Night of the Living Dead has that same sparseness that makes everything feel lonely and surreal. It creates unease and increases the sense that anything can happen.

It spawned countless sequels, remakes, and rip-offs, but Night of the Living Dead isn’t a typical zombie movie. In fact, the walking corpses are never called zombies in the film. News reporters call them ghouls, but the main characters mostly refer to them as “those things.” There’s also surprisingly little gore in the design of the creatures themselves, something else Romero borrowed from Carnival of Souls. They get their creepiness by being pale and shambling, not by having open wounds and spilling guts. There’s gore in Night of the Living Dead, but it’s reserved mostly for scenes of the zombies’ eating people. That’s where the real shocks of the movie occur.

It’s because it’s an atypical zombie movie that I love it like I do. I don’t find gore scary, but I do shiver at the sight of soulless, dead people shuffling around. That’s why I tend to prefer voodoo zombies to the ones inspired by Romero. The cannibalism in Night of the Living Dead is gross, but it’s really just there to give a consequence to being caught by the already horrifying creatures. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time on zombie dining, because it doesn’t need to. It’s already plenty scary.

Monster movies are made or broken by their casts of victims though, and that’s another place where this one excels. There are a couple of archetypes and cannon fodder in the group, but they’re just there to give the main characters, Barbara (O’Dea) and Ben (Jones) someone to interact with. Barbara and Ben are both tough and resourceful people, which makes what happens to them all the more heart-breaking. That’s also what makes me keep revisiting the movie though, hoping each time that it’ll end differently.

Rating: Classic.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)

Who’s in it?: No one you know.

What’s it about?: A douchebag scientist kills his girlfriend in a car crash and keeps her head alive while he searches strip clubs and beauty pageants for a replacement body.

How is it?: Oh so campy. Girlfriend Jan is known as Jan in the Pan by devotees, so that tells you everything you need to know about the movie’s attraction. Jan resents her boyfriend for keeping her alive and begins to plot with another of his experiments: a hidden monster locked away in a closet. Their relationship is flaky and delightful. Best part of the movie.

Certainly better than the scientist’s search. I’d call him a mad scientist – and he technically is – but Herb Evers plays him totally straight. He doesn’t seem insane, just evil. How he’s fooled Jan however long they’ve been together is a mystery, but as soon as he gets her hooked up to his life-support equipment, he’s off to get her a body. And not just any body, either.

As long as Jan’s getting a new bod, it might as well be a stripper’s, right? Or a beauty contestant’s. Or a model’s. He has to try a few different plans because it’s impossible to get these women alone. Mostly that’s due to his being such a dreamy hunk that other women keep coming around, at which point he has to ditch them all and start over.

I wish the selfish scientist was the only thing I have to complain about with this movie, but it’s not. There are mannish strippers, a plastic surgeon who practices a little neurosurgery on the side, and the total rip-off that that one-eyed brain on the poster isn’t even in the movie. But Jan in the Pan and the Monster in the Closet almost make up for all that.

Rating: Okay.

The Killer Shrews (1959)

Who’s in it?: James Best (The Dukes of Hazzard); Ken Curtis (Gunsmoke)

What’s it about?: A pair of sailors are forced to wait out a hurricane with some scientists on an island infested with giant, poisonous shrews.

How is it?: Rosco vs. Festus!

The Killer Shrews is twenty times better than it has a right to be. It was produced by the same people who made The Giant Gila Monster and was designed to run as a double feature with that movie. I like Giant Gila Monster a lot, but The Killer Shrews is even better, thanks mostly to James Best.

Best is so very excellent as Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard, but if that’s all you know him from, you’re missing out. He was in a ton of Westerns (both movies and TV shows) in the ’50s and ’60s, but I highly recommend him in Ride Lonesome, starring Randolph Scott, Pernell Roberts (Adam from Bonanza; Trapper John M.D.), Lee Van Cleef, and James Coburn. Young James Best drips with Southern charisma and he brings all of it to The Killer Shrews as Thorne Sherman, captain of a small boat hired to supply a group of scientists on an isolated island.

Sherman’s boat arrives just ahead of a hurricane, so he and his mate make plans to stay overnight with the scientists until the storm blows past. Unfortunately, the scientists’ experiments have gotten out of control and the island is now swarming with mutant shrews. It’s a classic setup as the diverse group has to hole up in the scientists’ compound and hope that the monsters don’t dig through the adobe walls before morning. Like any good horror movie, the focus is on the characters, who have to survive not only the creatures, but also each other.

Ken Curtis (Festus from Gunsmoke) plays Jerry Farrell, a cowardly, drunken scientist who’s engaged to the boss’ daughter and feels threatened by Sherman. He’s a classic archetype, but Curtis plays him especially well and he’s hatable without being a cartoon. Farrell’s feud and mutual distrust with Sherman drives the drama as much as the monsters (played as convincingly as possible by puppets and disguised dogs). Ingrid Goude plays the daughter and has real chemistry with Best.

Curtis was also one of the producers of the film (and Giant Gila Monster) along with Gordon McLendon, who also plays an especially detached, clinically-minded scientist. McLendon owned a chain of drive-in movie theaters and network of radio stations, so it was his money that paid for the two movies. It was also his radio connections that created the DJ subplot in Giant Gila Monster.

The reason I bring that up though is to point out that this wasn’t Hollywood money. Killer Shrews is an independent film and it looks like it. But it has some great acting and drama that lift it above its budget and goofy concept. It’s not quite on the same level as Night of the Living Dead, but it’s up there.

Rating: Classic.