Movie Bummys 2013: Best Movies of 2012

[It’s okay to mourn- 2012 was a long time ago, and we’re well into 2013, which is not the year that 2012 was.  Indeed, 2012 was the best year for pop culture in a long time- at least since 2009.  There wasn’t a runaway favorite in the music scene like Adele’s 21 in 2011,  but that’s because there were so many great offerings from 2012.  There wasn’t a clear favorite in Hollywood like…well, there wasn’t a clear favorite in 2011 either, was there?  But that was for lack of quality, whereas in 2012 we were inundated with quality movies the entire year.  Ah, the good old days.  Excuse me while I take out my teeth and reach for my prune juice.

2012 was a banner year, and what better time to look back at it than 9 months later?  No, seriously.  You don’t think so?  That’s okay.  Honestly, if I could, I’d do these Bummys lists right at the beginning of the year, but when January rolls around, I still have so many movies to watch and so much music to listen to, I can’t make a year-end list.  So I have to settle for what in our culture of immediacy amounts to a retrospective, akin to those montages at the Oscars for the celebrities that passed away that year.  We look back in fondness on the historic year of 2012; may the entire cast of Cloud Atlas rest in peace.]

As far as movies go, I was torn in a lot of different directions here.  I wanted so many movies in the top 10, I was tempted to expand this piece and do a full top 25.  But that’s overkill, and besides, ain’t nobody got time for that.  So I must bid farewell to great moviegoing experiences like the beautiful pulp of Skyfall, the idealistic docudrama of Argo, the ambitious joy of The Avengers, the heady history of Lincoln, and the deep well of emotion that is Les Misérables.  They’re all banished to “Another Fifteen” status.  But the best ten:

Top Movies of 2012

topmovies1010. Life of Pi: I’ve never seen a movie quite like this.  You may think you know what you’re about to see when you watch the trailer, but it will take turns you’ll never expect.  Yes, it’s about an Indian boy who ends up alone on a boat with a bloodthirsty tiger, but director Ang Lee allows the story to flow in all-new directions.  By the end of the movie, as I walked out of the theatre, I found myself wondering what role God played in all of it, what the movie had to say about the nature of truth, and whether you can trust what you’ve seen or experienced.  The beauty of the cinematography goes without saying; you can see how expertly Lee captures and enriches nature’s glory just from the trailer.  What I came away with was the depth of the ideas that Lee explored.  He didn’t have to; we could have had an interesting spin on Cast Away, and that would have been great, and that would have been that.  But we got so much more, and we can be that much more grateful.

topmovies099. Holy Motors: I shouldn’t have started Life of Pi’s bit with “I’ve never seen a movie quite like this”, because the truth is that that phrase only truly applies to Holy Motors. There are probably other movies in which a man eats flowers, but how many movies have the same man then eat someone’s fingers?  Is there another movie (besides anything made by Pixar) with talking cars going to a drive-in of their own volition?  Can you think of a single movie that includes a mesmerizing Kylie Minogue musical numberHoly Motors is a head case, to be sure, but it also has surprising poignancy, hidden in scenes where the star, Denis Lavant (playing the same man who ate those fingers from before), has a telling conversation with his daughter, and a casually friendly interaction with the driver that transports him from acting gig to acting gig, an apparently long-suffering woman who seems to love him in her own way.  Holy Motors may be an entirely unique movie-going experience, but that’s definitely not at the expense of emotional weight.

topmovies088. Moonrise Kingdom: Other Wes Anderson movies have left me cold, but Moonrise Kingdom warmed my heart like few other hipster movies are capable of doing.  Maybe it’s because Anderson finally focused on a subject that truly fit his eccentric filmmaking style: childhood.  You always know you’re in an Anderson movie; the acting is deceptively blunt, the cinematography is similarly straightforward and unflashy, and the screenplay is somehow naïve and ironic at the same time.  All of this plays perfectly in Moonrise Kingdom, a movie about a Khaki Scout boy who leaves his summer camp to woo his crush in a faux mature manner.  There are awkward kid kiss scenes that would be creepy in any other movie, but in Moonrise seem to perfectly demonstrate every kid’s desire to live out adult love at an early age.  And there’s a strange Bruce Willis performance that would never work in any other movie but seems to nestle comfortably into the gaggle of odd characters that Anderson has assembled, including Frances McDormand’s cheating wife, Bill Murray’s hapless husband of said wife, and Edward Norton’s sincere scoutmaster.  I’m not promising you you’ll love it, but even if you hate other Anderson movies, you’ve got to give this one a chance; it’s the perfect vessel for his willful naïveté and the perfect movie for anyone who was ever a kid.

topmovies077. Django Unchained: This movie never should have worked, which is a statement that could probably be true about every Tarantino movie.  But this one more than any of them; a white man making a movie about slavery in which the slaves blow away white plantation owners and Samuel L. Jackson (BMF) playing the most crotchety, evil `Uncle Tom ever- there’s nothing about it that should have worked.  And the fact that Django was a huge hit isn’t really a testament to its success, because if anyone saw that movie with white people in the theatre (full disclosure: I am white), you felt uncomfortable with and unsure about when and why they were laughing.  But I feel confident in saying this, even though my perspective is admittedly limited: Django was indeed a success, and a big one.  Tarantino directed a movie that not only functions as an exposé of our insecurities and inconsistencies about race but also as a rollicking adventure tale with unforgettable characters (DiCaprio’s sadistic Candie, Waltz’s benign Dr. Schultz) and a stoic hero (Foxx’s ice cold Django).  In fact, while QT has undeniably mastered the revenge movie prior to this, he frames Django so convincingly as a hero tale that we’re unquestionably on Django’s side, even as his most heinous acts are unquestionably amoral at best.  Perhaps the only thing we can all agree on when it comes to Django though is that it’s a great litmus test for racism in our country, an effective reminder that race is still an issue.

topmovies066. Chronicle: What a great year for comic book movies.  I’ll talk about my favorite later, and it’s hard to argue anything but The Avengers for sheer pop culture significance, but Chronicle was maybe the most impressive of 2012.  While not based on any actual comic book, the medium’s influence was clear even in the trailers.  The movie follows three teenage boys that discover something in a hole in the ground that gives them superpowers, all while shooting in a found-footage style that could have become very tiresome very quickly.  But it doesn’t, mostly due to a smart script and eye-opening performances that ground the supernatural proceedings in very real-life ones.  The main protagonist, as it were, is Dane DeHaan’s Andrew, whose father is abusive, both verbally and physically, and whose mother is dying.  The other two, Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), never come across as anything less than real human beings, Matt as a teenager discovering newfound popularity and Steve as the big man on campus with a personality behind the cocky façade.  You wish that the three of them could bond over their newfound powers for the entire 84-minute running time, but the devolution of their relationships and the battle that waged between their adolescence and their impending manhood is the stuff that great art is made of- and that includes comic books.

topmovies055. Amour: I’ve never seen a movie directed by Michael Haneke that wasn’t absolutely terrifying; Amour is no different, though it’s a different kind of terror than Caché or The White Ribbon.  Haneke specializes in a slow burn intensified by sudden bursts of horror.  Amour has less of these sudden bursts, though they’re still there- the moment at the very beginning when you see a slowly rotting corpse on a bed; the instance when Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) slaps his wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) for not swallowing the water he’s feeding her; the first time we notice that Anne is literally losing it as she stares blankly at a panicking Georges at their dinner table.  In a way, Amour is the scariest movie Haneke has ever made.  Everyone gets old and everyone dies, and many people succumb to the brutalities of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.  It’s all too plausible for any and all of us that one day our love story could end like Georges’s and Anne’s.  What makes Amour so transcendent is that it manages to remain romantic in its own way.

topmovies044. Silver Linings Playbook: I find myself repeating an opening line again, but I just can’t help it: This movie shouldn’t have worked; I’m still marveling at that fact a year later.  If I had to bet on a movie with high expectations that was most likely to fall flat on its face, I would have gone all in on David O. Russell’s mashup of romantic comedies and mental illness dramas and sports movies.  I would have taken the under for sure, but lo and behold, Russell covered the spread, and I was head over heels for his story about a recently released mental patient, Pat (Bradley Cooper), falling in step with a woman, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who requires an equal amount of meds as Pat due to an apparent sex addiction after the death of her last boyfriend.   I’ll defend this movie to the death against those who accuse it of emotional pandering and exploiting mental illness for plot convenience; the performances are too sure and brave for either of those to be true.  If anything, this movie’s biggest crime is that it made me fall in love with a bunch of Philadelphia Eagles fans.

topmovies033. The Dark Knight Rises: There was a point last year where I thought The Dark Knight Rises would end up at the top of this list; I was that blown away after seeing this comic book masterpiece twice in theaters.  While The Dark Knight was a triumph in and of itself, rising above the clichés of its genre to make statements about human nature and society (with one heck of an assist in Heath Ledger’s performance), The Dark Knight Rises reaches much farther in terms of scope and emotion.  Society itself breaks down in Gotham when Bane comes to town, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) must really consider Batman’s place in the law and order of his home.  Christopher Nolan does such a stupendous job of juggling all the different pieces of the plot while delivering thrilling action set pieces that press the story along into an ending that packs an emotional wallop.  A more than fitting end to a fantastic superhero series- truly the peak of the genre.

topmovies022. The Perks of Being a Wallflower: High school is a rough time for anybody, something I didn’t expect to have to discover all over again when I began working at a high school as a speech-language pathologist.  The second I walked in I felt the insistent need to seem cooler than I really am, even though I’m six years removed from walking across the stage at my high school graduation.  The best high school movies are about the effect that upcoming walk has on the tension between your lingering immaturity and impending responsibility.  Perks is so much more than those movies.  It deals with graduation, for sure, but just like adolescence is more than just your identity in school, Perks tackles all the little nuances that make the experience of being a teenager tough and unforgettable.  It also features three luminescent performances from Logan Lerman as Charlie, the titular wallflower with heavy baggage; from Ezra Miller as Patrick, the wild child showing Charlie the ropes at his new school; and, of course, from Emma Watson as Sam, the girl that always seems bound to get away.

topmovies011. Zero Dark Thirty: Choosing this top spot was nigh impossible this year.  Several movies that didn’t even end up in the top ten were in the running for this spot at one point or another.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Silver Linings Playbook stole my heart from the moment their female leads first opened their mouths, The Dark Knight Rises blew my mind in all the right ways, and Amour rocked me at my foundations.  But I kept coming back to the way I felt after seeing Zero Dark Thirty.  Of course there was the same moral ambiguity that was left over after Kathryn Bigelow’s last great movie, The Hurt Locker, as well as the sense of fatigue from experiencing something harrowing.  But those descriptions don’t really adequately match up to my state of mind following Zero Dark Thirty.  I think I had an understanding, as I walked out of the theater with my then-fiancée, that I would never be innocent and that I had never been to begin with.  I think I saw in Jessica Chastain’s Maya some vestige of myself that knew there were no right decisions, only practical ones.  I think I was beginning to fathom the depth of my own depravity, even while I watched America’s sink to its lowest boundaries.  Of course, I believe I’m saved by faith from all of these hard truths.  But without God’s grace, things look about as bleak as they do at the end of Zero Dark Thirty.  But you can’t have hope unless you were once hopeless; Zero Dark Thirty’s ending is open-ended enough to suggest that things might get better.  Might.

Another Fifteen (in alphabetic order)

The Avengers
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The Cabin in the Woods
The Deep Blue Sea
End of Watch
How to Survive a Plague
The Hunger Games
Les Misérables
The Queen of Versailles

Top Movies of 2013 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

42: It’s not a perfect Jackie Robinson movie, but it nevertheless will stay with you and make you think.

The Great Gatsby: Probably my favorite movie of the year so far.  Is that okay?

Monsters University: Totally underrated.  The college aspects aren’t necessarily original, but Pixar handled them creatively and added their own spin to things.

No: A quietly brilliant foreign film that no one saw, but every fan of political dramas should.

Star Trek into Darkness: Some Trek fans didn’t like it, but I totally bought into the whole thing. I thought their homages to the past Trek films were canny and enhancing.  And J.J. Abrams will never be bad at action; it’s the best action movie of the year.

Most Anticipated Movies of 2013 (The Rest of the Year, in alphabetic order)

12 Years a Slave: The hype on this may have already peaked, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be anything less than great.

Anchorman: The Legend Continues: There are other more prestigious movies coming out, but this may be the movie I’m most excited for.  I never thought I’d say that about a Will Ferrell comedy, but the original Anchorman is one of the very best comedies ever made, in my humble opinion.

Captain Phillips: I won’t get tired of Tom Hanks movies, especially Tom Hanks movies made by great directors, like Paul Greengrass.

Gravity: Has there ever been a better trailer than this one?

The Wolf of Wall Street: Please. This gif can’t be shared enough.

Previous Top Movies


Take Shelter
The Tree of Life
The Artist
A Separation
Battle Royale
Super 8


127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
Winter’s Bone
The Town
The King’s Speech
Exit Through the Gift Shop
A Prophet


3 thoughts on “Movie Bummys 2013: Best Movies of 2012

  1. Emma is going to be upset you didn’t give her the top spot. But that’s okay, I’ll be there to comfort her!

    Great list and great read.

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