The Best Movies of 2012: Our Staff Picks

Kevin Carr

The Avengers
This pick might make me sound like a populace ass-hat, but I can’t remember the last time I had as much fun in the movie theater with my pants on. I’ve had my criticisms of Joss Whedon’s work in the past, but he did a brilliant job balancing all the characters from Marvel’s recent movie arsenal. Powerful, fun, and full of comic relief, this was one of those movies that made it a blast to go to the theaters this year.

I had the rare opportunity to see this movie the day after the 2012 Presidential election, which the media had called one of the most mean-spirited campaigns ever. Spielberg’s Lincoln reminds us that politics has always been cutthroat and dubious. The movie features nothing but men with facial hair talking to other men with facial hair, but the political squirming was fascinating to watch.

Sadly, this film was buried in August, presumably to not compete with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie in October. While Frankenweenie was good, ParaNorman was superior, delivering a smarter and sharper script, but also having a sweetness to it. The brilliant team behind Coraline is keeping gorgeous stop-motion animation alive, and I wish more people would have seen it.

Moonrise Kingdom
I’ll confess that I am a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and his last several films have ended up on my best-of-the-year lists. (Yes, even The Darjeeling Limited.) His latest film captures the essence of innocence that children have, but it also demonstrates how dangerous this can be as we move from childhood to adolescence, and how that innocence is lost.

How many more movies are we going to have to see before we are all convinced that Ben Affleck is a damn good director? Argo is his finest flick that mixes history (with some liberties), humor, and suspense. It’s still relevant to our international world today, and even though we should all know the outcome, that doesn’t stop the film from being a first-rate nail-biter.


Caitlin Hughes

Killer Joe
William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (based on the play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay) was far and away my favorite film of 2012. I loved everything about it, from the sweaty, pulpy Southern trailer trash landscape, to Friedkin’s unabashed use of raw violence. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the near-perfect film is Matthew McConaughey’s nomination-worthy performance as the title character, a dirty police officer who is also a killer-for-hire. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) reaches out to Joe to kill his mother so that he can collect her insurance. Though when he doesn’t he expects and can’t pay Joe, Joe looks for retribution in the form of taking Chris’ childlike sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) as his bride. With amazing supporting performances from Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon, Killer Joe strikes a brilliantly unnerving balance of dark humor and brutality. This is best evidenced in the best scene of 2012, in which Joe punches Gershon’s character, Sharla, in the nose and subsequently forces her to perform fellatio on a piece of “K Fry C” positioned on his crotch. Joe is charismatic, he is sadistic, he is so manipulative of this moronic, trashy family. The film as a whole creates such a palpable vision of the nightmarish, underbelly of the American south, and it’s at once frightening and hilarious – you can’t peel your eyes away from the screen. Oh yeah, and Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” plays the film out. Perfection.

Recipient of this year’s Robert Altman award at the Independent Spirit Awards, Sean Baker’s Starlet came as quite the pleasant surprise to me when I saw it in theaters without reading very much about it beforehand. It’s the story of a young, fresh-faced internet porn star Jane (Dree Hemingway) who buys a bunch of stuff from snippy old lady Sadie (Besedka Johnson) at a yard sale. When Jane brings the bounty home, she discovers $10,000 in cash hidden in an old thermos. She tries to return the thermos, and is subsequently turned away rather harshly by Sadie… so after a few impulse buys with the cash, Jane decides to lavish the old woman with kindness (driving her to the grocery store and to bingo games, etc) to repay her for the cash and to ease her own conscience. Baker films in an easy, unaffected style that echoes the naturalistic performances from the principle actors. Hemingway, an actress of obvious lineage, is refreshingly honest in her performance and creates a character that doesn’t take any shit and yet is very sympathetic. Johnson, who never acted before and was discovered at a local YMCA, is perfect as Sadie. Both characters form a very believable bond, and the film never once veers into cliche – no one is judged for their actions. This one is worth seeking out and is a unexpected gem.

I very seldom cry in movies. In fact, I think I can count the movies on one hand. But I had no idea how much the floodgates would open during and NYFF screening of Michael Haneke’s Amour, which just goes to emotional places that are very seldom explored in cinema. The understated story of elderly music teacher couple Anne and Georges (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose idyllic existence is disturbed by Anne’s completely debilitating series of strokes. Haneke’s work is inspired in this film, which allows him to shine without the more obvious provocations evident in his earlier work, such as Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. Here, the intensity of Anne’s decline elicits such raw, visceral emotions, which produce similar provocations, but ones routed firmly in reality, harkening to everyone’s utter fear of their loved ones growing old and dying. The camera captures Anne being bathed, being tended to in the bathroom, having her diaper changed – she is a proud, independent-minded woman and this is difficult to watch at times because her humiliation is absolutely shattering. Riva is a likely Oscar contender and it is completely deserved – nary an actress is capable of surrendering herself completely to the physicality of her performance as Riva is in this film.

Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha, is largely inspired by the French New Wave and when it first started, I was overcome with a mild fear that the film would be overly twee for my consumption – it is shot in black and white, it features some whimsical dancing, etc. Though twee it is certainly not. Co-written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who plays the title character, Frances Ha is a masterfully drawn portrait of Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and how they grow apart. Frances remains a struggling dance company apprentice while those around her, including Sophie, seem to grow up and leave her behind. The film also features another of 2012’s best scenes, in which Frances exuberantly runs though the streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” (in a scene inspired by Leos Carax’s Mauvais sang). Admittedly, perhaps a lot of the reason why this film struck such a chord was that I identify very closely with Frances’ “plight,” as do probably a lot of women in their mid-twenties, but it nevertheless very refreshing to see an honest depiction of a young woman living in New York that doesn’t revolve solely around sex. Frances is more concerned with carving out her own place in the world and maintaining her friendships, which is arguably a lot more valuable in the long run (and a lot more realistic).

Magic Mike
Was I excited about Magic Mike? Yes. Did I pollute social media sites with crazy postings about said excitement for Magic Mike? Yes. Did I see Magic Mike at midnight in Chelsea and proclaim the evening “Magic Mike Eve?” Yes. Thankfully, however, my high anticipation index was not for nothing, as Magic Mike is indeed an excellent film. Complete with the typical yellow-tinged Steven Soderbergh cinematography and inventive inverted camera angles. Bookending this list with two McConaughey movies… yes, McConaughey is mindblowingly amazing as Xquisite club owner Dallas and is completely Oscar-worthy as he creates a character that is simultaneously smarmy and alluring, somewhat of a Fagin-like figure to the younger dancers. With the exception of Cody Horn, the cast is very strong here and they all deliver very believable performances in a film that could have easily skirted by purely on the “titillation factor” of male stripping, but really transcends. That doesn’t mean I’m above enjoying real-life inspiration/Soderbergh muse Channing Tatum from busting the moves to Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Because I enjoyed that QUITE a bit. Alright alright alright!

Neil Miller is the Founder and Publisher of Film School Rejects. For almost a decade, he has been talking movies on television, the radio, and the Internet.

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