So, here we are. July already, with half of the year behind us. And while some of this year’s biggest summer promises (“Prometheus,” “Dark Shadows,” “Amazing Spider-man”) are thudding every five seconds, it’s easy to forget that 2012 has been a fairly strong movie year so far.
So strong, in fact, that I decided to up my 5 Best of 2012 (so far) to a 10-entry list, as I know there are a lot of films that will be forgotten about once Fall rolls along and the big awards players are released. Before I launch into the list, let me caveat that my opinions can fluctuate over time and films that aren’t on this list now could make an appearance at year’s end, and titles on this list could easily move up, down or off the list entirely. That’s the way these things work (for instance, I didn’t care much for “Drive” at all upon first viewing; after a second look, it became one of 2011’s best).
So, here they are. If I had to make a best-of list for 2012 right now—based on movies I’ve seen (there are many left to catch up on), here’s what I would pick.
1. Take This Waltz: Sarah Polley’s sophomore directorial effort haunted me for weeks. A sad, yet tender look at marriage, contentment and infidelity, it’s at turns sweet, tragic, funny and heartbreaking. Michelle Williams knocks it out of the park as Margot, a Toronto woman who contemplates leaving her sweet husband (Seth Rogen) for a rugged, handsome artist (Luke Kirby). The film sidesteps many of the clichés of similar movies and is empathetic and even-handed as it observes what might make a person want to leave, even as they realize how desperately they want to stay. There’s a dangerous erotic undercurrent beneath the film’s color and quirk, and Polley takes the film in a completely unexpected direction in the final act that is by turns surprising, brave and haunting. In the process, the director delivers some of the most beautifully photographed scenes of the year and commands complex performances out Williams, Rogen, Kirby and costar Sarah Silverman. “Take This Waltz” is not an easy film, nor is it always pleasant—I wrestled with it for several days afterward and found myself shaken by some of its ideas. And I walked away realizing one thing: it takes a great film to get under my skin the way this film did.
2. The Cabin in the Woods: Speaking of films I couldn’t shake, let’s talk about “The Cabin in the Woods.” For about a week after my second viewing, I found myself continually thinking about just what director Drew Goddard and co-writer/producer Joss Whedon got away with in their wickedly brilliant horror-comedy. The film starts as a clever riff on horror movie conventions, takes a surprising veer into office-comedy territory and then, in its final act, turns into one of the most off-the-wall, completely insane and unpredictable experiments ever. The film is brilliantly structured, letting audiences in on its main twist in the first few minutes and then continuing to layer on the surprises as it explores our culture’s fascination with watching teenagers die. And yet, it’s never pretentious. Despite all its risks and inventions, the best part about “The Cabin in the Woods” is that it’s never less than consummately scary, clever, funny and exciting until its wonderfully absurd final shot.
3. Moonrise Kingdom: I just wrote about Wes Anderson’s beautiful little ode to young love, so I’ll keep this brief. But with this film, the director perfects all of his quirks, tics and fetishes and delivers something funny, quirky and sweet. He’s got a cast that is having a ball with his deadpan dialogue and his eye for wonderful, funny visuals has never been better. A tender, heartwarming little summer treat.
4. The Avengers: I debated about whether or not I wanted Joss Whedon’s massively successful superhero team-up to be this high on the list. After all, the first 20 minutes stumbles a bit and, at the end of the day, isn’t this a lot of praise to heap on a giant comic book movie? But if films are judged based on how well they accomplish what they set out to do, then no film deserves praise more than “The Avengers,” which packs more humor, excitement, thrills and entertainment in its running time than any of the previous Marvel movies combined. Whedon doesn’t just combine all of Marvel’s previously introduced characters into an All-Star Game of a movie; he finds what makes each character so appealing and distinctive and then allows those traits to bounce off all of the others. I wasn’t surprised that the film was exciting and action-packed; that’s a bare minimum expectation for a comic book flick. What I hadn’t expected was how fully Whedon brought all these characters—including minor ones like Hawkeye, Agent Coulson and Black Widow—together, gave them depth and nuance and found unexpected levels of humor, pathos and conflict between them. More exciting than any other of this year’s summer tentpoles, funnier than most comedies and full of more character tension than some dramas, it was the rare movie to make me feel like a kid—cheering, laughing and getting caught up in pure popcorn entertainment.
5. Blue Like Jazz: Finally, the Christian Movie gets interesting. Steve Taylor’s loose adaptation of Donald Miller’s autobiographical bestseller isn’t flawless, but it manages to wrestle with questions of faith, subculture and worldly engagement with humor, heart and intelligence not usually found in faith-based films. And that’s because “Blue Like Jazz” isn’t a Christian movie at all—it’s, instead, a movie about a Christian; one who wrestles with identity, concepts of forgiveness and love, and finds that following his doubts actually strengthens his beliefs. Personally, I found a lot to identify with—from Don’s sub-cultural Christian faith to his questions about those who hold it. But what I walked away with most was a love for all the film’s characters, a sense that the film doesn’t divide its cast into Christians and non but rather loves each broken, searching person and believes that if we stop and listen to each other, maybe we can begin to find some common ground.
6. Jeff, Who Lives at Home: A minor masterpiece from Jay and Mark Duplass, the mumblecore masters who somehow manage to work with an A-list cast without sacrificing their personality and honesty. A simple story about a stoner slacker (Jason Segel, who’s never been better) who believes everything in life is connected, it’s a warm-hearted, funny and touching story about faith, fate and family. The story may seem a bit minor and shaggy, but there’s real heart and emotional honesty here, be it through Jeff’s search for meaning, his mom’s (Susan Sarandon) unexpected second chance at love or the marital crisis his brother (Ed Helms) finds himself in. Some found the ending to be contrived, but in a movie that celebrates contrivance, I don’t know that that’s a problem. Besides, I enjoyed spending time with these characters way too much to notice.
7. Brave: At first glance, I was slightly disappointed in Pixar’s latest outing because it didn’t deliver what I expected. The more I think back on “Brave,” however, the fonder I grow. While not as nuanced or thought-provoking as “WALL-E” or “Up,” it’s instead a simple fairy tale in the Disney tradition—except that instead of wasting its time on yet another girl-needs-boy love story, it’s filled with a dose of girl power and a mother-daughter relationship that is powerful and superbly sketched. “Brave” is a movie that never quite goes where you think it will—and, initially, that can be disappointing…especially for those looking for big ideas and concepts. But there’s a beautiful depth to the film’s simplicity, and the film finds its own ways to talk about the importance of tradition, obeying parents and being true to yourself. What’s more, Merida’s a wonderfully feisty change-of-pace for Disney princesses and the film’s animation may be the most gorgeous that Pixar has ever put on screen.
8. The Grey: Another movie that never quite goes where you expect, Joe Carnahan’s survival adventure was initially a joke when its trailers—featuring Liam Neeson about to engage in fisticuffs with wolves—hit screens. And while there’s plenty of Liam-on-wolf violence in the story, it’s actually a surprisingly existential meditation on survival, faith and hope. Neeson’s better than he’s been in a long time here, and I loved the way Carnahan fleshed out the men fighting for life around him in the winter wilderness. I didn’t expect the film to be much more than a guilty pleasure, but it’s still one of the most gripping and exciting movies I’ve seen in 2012.
9. Chronicle: This clever little found-footage flick is described by many as a superhero movie, and I can see why—it follows a group of high schoolers after they develop mysterious powers. But it works less as a riff on “Spiderman” and more as a modern day “Carrie,” following troubled a troubled teen (Dane DeHaan) as he begins to toy with the dark side of his powers. Josh Trank’s directorial debut is assured and skillfully told, mainly because the director has less of an interest in spectacle and spends more time with the relationships between his three main leads. One of the most pleasant surprises of the year so far.
10. Friends With Kids: Jennifer Westfeldt’s smart little romantic comedy proves that the right cast can elevate material above its genre trappings. Adam Scott finally gets a film role worthy of his talents as a cad who has a baby with his best friend—while the film predictably chugs toward the inevitable “will they/won’t they” climax, there are some great moments of insight and emotional honesty along the way. Much like this year’s very underrated “The Five-Year-Engagement,” the characters here are flawed and honestly approach their misgivings, and Westfeldt’s script gives the relationships time to breathe and grow. She and Scott have a fantastic chemistry together, and the film is further buoyed by equally great performances by Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Jon Hamm.