It time again for my annual top ten list of the movies I liked most this year. Hooray! This comes with usual caveats, I have to have seen the movie, and it had to have come out this year. I’m also not including documentaries, though I saw some that I really enjoyed.
This was also kind of a weird year — I thought — either for movies in general, or maybe just the ones I saw. This list has a lot more big-budget wide-release things than usual. Why this is I’m not sure. I guess I didn’t connect much with many of the smaller independent films I saw this year, and perhaps I also didn’t see as many.
But, when I think about last year, there was “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Arbor,” “Poetry,” “The Trip,” and “Pariah.” A whole bunch of just astonishingly good movies that didn’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and were amazing and transcendent. In all honesty, I don’t see an equivalent to those movies this year. The obvious candidate I guess would be “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” And I liked that a lot, but it just isn’t in the same league in my mind. Or maybe I’m just getting less sophisticated and turning more to big popcorn-munching affairs.
Make of all this what you will. Here is my list as it currently stands. My order of ranking is awfully sketchy and frequently arbitrary. If you like you can totally ignore it and think of this as ten movies I enjoyed equally, which is close to the truth.
It’s all about the expectations. Despite my deep and abiding love for the book “The Hobbit,” I was kind of thinking this might be awful, looking at the reviews. And it wasn’t. Sure, it’s certainly not a perfect movie. I still don’t understand why the Hobbit needs to be three movies. And there are too many CGI battles, two completely unnecessary prologues, a weird manufactured albino goblin character, and a terrible terrible moment when Saruman talks about magic mushrooms. But all this said: coming back to Middle Earth is pretty great, the acting is fantastic, especially Martin Freeman, the comic adventure tone is just right, and everything just looks stellar and beautiful. Peter Jackson uses 3D in a smart way, he doesn’t throw things out of the screen at you, and the moment when you’re flying over the Misty Mountains with the eagles and it feels like you’re actually there is astonishing and worth the price of admission. And the high-frame-rate? It worked for me. Looked bizarre and sped up like the Benny Hill show for about five minutes, then my eyes got used to it, and it made everything that much sharper and more real, especially in 3D. I want more, push it to 60 fps like Douglas Trumbull says; it’s the future. I’ve got more to say on this, and might do a full review, but time to move on.
This is a similar story of beaten expectations. “The Dark Knight Rises” is a movie I thought would be kind of ponderous, but I actually really enjoyed it. I was caught up in it from beginning to end, and I never felt like the movie had the kind of thundering pretention of, say, “Inception,” or even Nolan’s earlier Batman movies. It was a fun movie. The various interpretations I’ve read of how it alludes to the Occupy movement seem overblown to me. It was a movie about Batman. All the acting was great, including Tom Hardy, who had to act without a visible mouth and nose. He’s completely ridiculous, but it’s great. Michael Caine and Gary Oldman continue to be absurdly good, and Anne Hathaway is fun as a character who has all the qualities of Catwoman with the notable exception of the whole — you know — “cat” thing. Basically, I feared something grinding and self-serious, and got a fun, kind of stupid comic book movie with great actors. Good deal. Also my cat Splenda wants to be Bane for Halloween.
#8 — The Hunger Games
More blockbuster stuff, I know, I know. I have nothing to say except “The Hunger Games” is really good. Smart, streamlined, and hits all the right emotional notes. It’s like a master class in how to adapt something. In a lot of important ways, it’s better than the book, which I did like. The most important thing they did right is cast Jennifer Lawrence, who is brilliantly good, and an unconventional leading lady in all the right ways. (Not because some idiots think she’s fat, that’s not what I mean.) Plus, as a movie about kids killing other kids, it manages not to glamorize all the gore and death, which is not so easy. (Blah blah blah Battle Royale blah blah blah who cares.) Donald Sutherland as a villain is also always a good idea. I would literally be completely happy if he played the villain in every movie ever made. He’s awesome at it, there’s something intrinsically evil about his weird Canadian accent.
#7 — Skyfall
I think this may be the only James Bond movie I’ve ever seen which is a completely good movie entirely apart from it being about James Bond, if that makes sense. It also cements in my mind that Daniel Craig is really really good at being James Bond, even with the horrific “Quantum of Solace” under his belt. He’s funny, sly, and constantly kind of pissed off. Javier Bardem is hammy and good as a nasty former British agent, and at one point starts feeling up Bond when he’s tied up in a chair, leading to the following great interchange:
BARDEM: There’s always a first time.
BOND: What makes you think this is my first time?
I approve of this.
#6 — Prometheus
So I feel like this is one I really need to defend. Honestly I’m not totally sure I can. Let me start off with: I’m aware this movie makes no sense. Literally no sense — I can’t list the things about it that make no sense because it’s everything. I can’t really list anything about this movie and its plot that DOES make sense. Yet I enjoyed every minute of it. Basically, “Prometheus” is a loose prequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Characters do things that nobody would ever do, and you’re not sure why. Things happen, and you have no idea why. Nothing is consistent. And I don’t think this is purposeful and sophisticated and artful, that would be giving it too much credit. But I was always transfixed by everything onscreen because it was so unusual and visually inventive. The scenes and dialogue pull you in despite being as nonsensical as something from Lewis Carroll. Hey, that guy took off his space helmet in an alien ship, and there’s a robot obsessed with Peter O’Toole who dyes his hair. I don’t get it, but it’s interesting, and I want to keep watching. There are scenes from the movie I keep playing over in my head.
This was a great, weird little movie with Aubrey Plaza as a magazine intern investigating a man who claims to be planning a trip back in time. It’s very funny at the same time as being surprisingly emotional; you care a lot about the characters. This will be spoiler-free, but I can say that throughout the movie you go back and forth between thinking this guy might actually have a time machine and thinking he’s just a crazy person. And the movie is smart in that it recognizes that if he IS actually a crazy person, that’s not really funny or cute, but actually very sad and potentially dangerous. This is all a pretty tricky line to walk while still being more or less a comedy, but the movie does it perfectly. And Aubrey Plaza is hilarious.
#4 — Cloud Atlas
I have a weird feeling that I’m on the defensive for a lot of movies on this list. Here too. I really liked “Cloud Atlas,” despite its issues, which include some well-intentioned cross-racial casting which did not actually turn out well — the worst of which is a lot of white actors playing Koreans in heavy make-up. The deal is that there’s one group of actors who play all the parts as the movie spans 6 separate historical periods, including the 19th century and the far future. So people are cast across racial and gender lines. This does not always work well, but I feel the fault is one of too much ambition rather than insensitivity. I love the book “Cloud Atlas,” and it seemed to me adapting it is a nearly impossible task. I think the makers of the film did their best at this impossible task, and came up with something that doesn’t always work, but is really remarkable when it does. Better too much ambition than too little, I think. And a lot of this movie is fantastic, with an incredibly engaging story, and a willingness to tackle big ideas. I like movies that have a thesis about the meaning of life, and this one has one. It’s worth giving it a chance.
#3 — Lincoln
The brilliant thing about “Lincoln” — besides Daniel Day-Lewis, who is not human — is how limited in scope it is. It’s not some massive greatest-hits bio-pic, it’s about a very specific few months of Lincoln’s life, with a very specific goal — the passage of the 13th amendment. It’s basically a political movie, all about scaring up votes with a lot of backstage bullying and pleading. It’s like a very good episode of the West Wing. The other thing that surprised me is how funny it is. Even with the audience’s knowledge of what’s going to happen to Abe, the tone is very light. It’s wistful rather than melancholy, and there a really shocking number of laugh-out-loud moments. About DDL’s performance, I really don’t even know how to talk about it without drifting into self parody, so I won’t try.
#2 — Moonrise Kingdom
I think “Moonrise Kingdom” is now my favorite Wes Anderson movie. I like it because it takes place somewhere which is similar to the real world, but is also clearly imaginary. I also like it because you end up liking all the characters; even the closest thing it has to a villain, Tilda Swinton as a very tightly wound woman from social services (who is apparently named Social Services.) Bruce Willis and Ed Norton are both incredibly sweet in this movie, as are the strange young leads. Because of the movie’s obvious sympathy for all the people in it, it never gets too far down road to arch and twee as Anderson sometimes does, it actually is almost painfully ernest throughout.
#1 — Cabin in the Woods
Cabin in the Woods is up here on the top because it was my single most enjoyable experience at the movie theater this year. It’s a completely ridiculous horror movie written by Joss Whedon — and it starts out as the story of a group of college kids going out to a creepy cabin for vacation. But the movie very quickly takes a hairpin turn away from what’s expected and becomes a crazy meta-commentary on why we watch horror movies to begin with. It’s hard to discuss specifics, because I don’t want to ruin anything, but the cast gets bigger and the story quickly broadens to become half farce, half bloodbath. It’s hysterically funny at the same as being scary. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford have an important part I can’t really talk about. I always say I like movies that have theses, and this one has one, though it’s not about the meaning of life exactly. It’s about horror movies and the desire to punish and destroy youth in our society. That sounds very weighty though, which “Cabin in the Woods” is not. It’s just awesome.
UPDATE: Thought it might be interesting to mention some of the better regarded movies I saw this year which did NOT make the top ten for me. These include: “Chronicle,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Avengers,” “The Kid With a Bike,” “The Master,” and “Django Unchained.” I liked all of these on balance, except perhaps “Django Unchained.” Movies I did NOT see, but hope to soon, include “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Argo,” Looper,” and “Holy Motors.”