The Movies of 2012

No complaints, but I’ve a bit busy with my fun-as-hell Slate work, and haven’t blogged my not-needed-at-all movie thoughts for a while. I have being watching movies, though! My early ranking on the year’s offerings so far:

Mind-destroying Effluvia
68. The Divide – Formless, plotless, ad-libbed horseshit about a group of idiots stuck in a (actually well-stocked) apartment building basement when a nuclear attack destroys New York. The dialogue creaks, and the last serviceable scares come 20-odd minutes in, when what appear to be cybernetic Korean shock troops invade the shelter and commit a bunch of murders. Then it turns into a violent sex fantasy, starring Rosanna Arquette, who deserves better.

67. Dreams From My Real Father – The worst of the two “secret Obama bio” movies this year. That’s something.

66. 4:44: Last Day on Earth – Without doing actual research, I’m going to assume the director got scared by Al Gore’s TED talks and talked some friends into acting out his formless script about two New Yorkers puttering around before the apocalypse. (The apocalypse in question: The ozone layer breaks.) How do you take “Willem Defoe” and “mass extinction event” and make a boring movie? Here’s how.

65. 2016: Obama’s America – The well-shot, commercially successful terminator of Dinesh D’Souza’s reputation. Notable for its role in making 2012 a carbon copy of election 2004, with this choir sermon playing the role originated by “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

64. Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike – Ray Wise plays the president in this middle leg of a trilogy that will be finished whether you like it or not. That was a highlight. There aren’t many other highlights.

Perfectly Mediocre
63. Chernobyl Diaries – A solid B-movie concept works shockingly well for the first 50 minutes. Too-handsome American tourists (one of them played by Jesse McCartney, of all people) sign up on an “extreme” visit to a town evacuated after the 1986 nuclear meltdown. As long as the scares are opaque — darkness, barking dogs, paranoia — it works. Then rubbery-looking “mutants” shamble into the frame and it goes pear-shaped.
62. The Woman in Black – Stylish but totally forgettable. Good for Harry Potter, though, breaking through his typecasting cage!
61. Project X – A hit-miss mish-mash of the “found footage” genre and the “nerdy teens hold crazy party” genre. The nerds in question aren’t particularly funny or interesting. More importantly, a second act gag about a garden gnome full of ecstasy — it’s cracked open and gobbled up by revelers — moves the plot nowhere. The kids on E just seem drunk!
60. Act of Valor – How do you get audiences excited about a cliched war movie with all the exciting twists of a show trial? You cast real-life Navy SEALs, who act about as well as real-life people could be expected to.
60. Red Tails – A disappointing cliche-pile by talented people (Aaron MacGruder, Reginald Hudlin) with a solid idea: Make a black World War II movie that makes audiences fall back in love with the Tuskegee Airmen.
59. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – A misfire on many levels. Let’s start with the casting: Steve Carrell alongside Keira Knightley. Carrell is 1) a wooden leading man and 2) old enough to be Knightley’s father. Every key romantic moment plays out the same way, with Carrell staring at his co-star in a mixture of blankness and lukewarm affection. But it’s the best lovers-at-the-end-of-the-world movie of the year! That’s something.
58. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – Despite my ranking, this is pretty passable b-movie stuff with some hilarious Nick Cage dialogue. He absolutely never seems to give a shit about the apocalypse he manages to stave off, by transforming into a god-like hero whom no one can do any damage to.
57. The Watch – A good, old-fashioned, big-stars-bad-script fuck-up. Three famous actors and one cult star (Stiller! Vaughn! Hill! Ayoade!) play suburban losers of various kinds who, eventually, start tracking aliens who are killing stuff all over the place. It devolves into a series of dick jokes, as one would expect.
56. Promised Land – The would-be “China Syndrome” of the anti-fracking movement is one of the least interesting melodramas imaginable, complete with a twist that undermines the premise of the movie.
55. Snow White and the Huntsman – I’m told this was the better of the TWO “Snow White” fable “reimaginings” that cursed multiplexes last year. The special effects that shatter evil knights are fun, but you saw those in the trailer. You didn’t see a bunch of charisma-less ambling around the woods by Bella and Thor. You dodged a bullet.
54. Rock of Ages – Fans of the Los Angeles musical — later adapted for Broadway — swear that this was a hilarious piss-take on the genre. Chris Hardwick, the hyper-energetic ambassador of nerd culture, originated the role of generic rock star Stacee Jaxx, and he met a crazed comic ending involving unsolved crime and asylum in Uruguay. In the film, Stacee Jaxx is played by Tom Cruise, and he finds true love.
53. John Carter – Andrew Staunton’s legendary disaster is the worst kind of debacle: A boring one. As a movie that might come on basic cable at 3 p.m. on a Sunday, it’s tolerable.
52. Cosmopolis – David Cronenberg adapts DeLillo and makes no effort whatsoever to tune up the dialogue for cinema. Robert Pattinson, as the star, is perfectly okay, because he’s meant to come off as a sociopath, but the rest of the cast struggles with dialogue like “The yuan can’t go up, but it just did,” and “I am your director of research. You pay me for insights.” Very nice soundtrack, though, by Howard Shore and Metric.
51. Chronicle – “Akira” for American teens, with the science and big ideas about statism replaced by the deux ex machina of an alien craft that imbues superpowers.
50. Haywire – Stephen Soderbergh directs an action movie like an Altman drama, all static camera placement and a lead (Gina Carano) who can fight but not really act. You’ll see Michael Fassbender get his ass kicked! You’ll see Channing Tatum get his ass kicked! That’s pretty much it.
49. Searching for Sugar Man – The award-bestowing world fell in love with this story of a coulda-been artist who belatedly discovered that he changed hundreds of thousands  of South Africans’ lives. I liked it better when it was called “Anvil: The Story of Anvil.”
48. The Campaign – Will Ferrell and Zach Galifiniakis parody politics in the age of Super PACs and it’s maybe 10-12 percent more outre than reality.
47. Prometheus – In all seriousness, the existence of this movie is justified by my friend Julian Sanchez’s 100-megaton demolition of its plotting. Go read that. You’re back? Okay — I didn’t hate it nearly so much, because I’ll forgive a movie plenty if it gives me some good scares and set design. The opening, sweeping shots of primordial Earth are wondrous, and watching the c-section machine induces actual pain.

Flawed but Worthwhile
46. The Do-Deca Pentathalon – It’s funny that Mark Duplass, formerly a shlubby indie comedy director, is now too famous to credibly play his own shlubby characters. He casts two incredibly ordinary-looking actors to play insanely competitive brothers who never finished a 25-event physical competition when they were growing up, and restart the clock over ONE CRAZY WEEKEND. Like the Duplass movie I liked better this year (“Jeff Who Lives at Home”), it sort of ambles into nowhere in the final act.
45. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – The director of “Nightwatch” does his best with a willfully dumb premise. Less action than you’d expect, and more jokes. I was particularly fond of how Stephen Douglas was elevated from Lincoln’s political rival to the guy he stole Mary Todd (who in this telling is played by the gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from.
44. Two Days in New York – Julie Delpy does a screwball sequel to her likeable comedy about Paris. The cringe comedy works; the goofy characters grate by the second act.
43. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie – The stars of my favorite sketch show of the decade go the “Run Ronnie Run” route, telling one of those cut-and-paste stories about friendship and greed and loading it up with disturbing cock-piercing, head-exploding, child-thieving jokes. And then there’s “Shrim.”
42. Brave – A lighthearted Grimm-style fable about a rebellious girl who turns her mother into a bear by accident. At least it’s not “Cars 2.”
41. American Reunion – A million times better than it should be, thanks largely to the faded career prospects of the original cast. (Remember the time Jason Biggs was the lead in a Woody Allen movie? Remember the Rollerball remake?) Hijacks are engaged in by 28-year-olds who should know better.
40. The Dictator - Sacha Baron Cohen reimagines “The Great Dictator” as a lowbrow farce about anti-semites and genocide. Has its moments, though a setpiece fight involving a woman who can kill with her breasts is a little bit too much like a Borat re-make.
39. Killer Joe
- The writer and director of “Bug” produce another gothic horror with actors doing unusually good work with generic roles — Matthew McConaughay here, as a murderous lawman, and Gina Gershon as a scheming, fratricidal wife.
38. Wanderlust
– A surprise flop from David Wain, Paul Rudd, and Jennifer Aniston, who’ve all had hits with material of this general quality. Two likeable yuppies (Rudd and Aniston, obviously) run out of money in Manhattan, flee to live in the suburbs with a vicious, smug relative, and flee that to live on a hippie commune. That’s right — you’ve got your 90s movie problem, your 80s movie problem, and your totally anachronistic 70s movie problem, in one mega-movie! Wain et al still mine repetition and ad libs for the laffs, and it largely works.
37. The Amazing Spider-Man – Andrew Garfield is a terrific Peter Parker, better than Tobey Maguire was. Emma Stone is fun and winsome in ways that Kirsten Dunst never was. But boy howdy, nothing else about this movie improves on the Sam Raimi adaptations.
36. Your Sister’s Sister – Mark Duplass gets over a failed relationship and a family death by falling into a three-way sexual crisis with two sisters. Elevated from the norms of romantic comedy by being extraordinarily strange.
35. The Five Year Engagement – The most depressingly mature non-Apatow film from the Apatow shop — the rare romantic comedy in which everybody’s grandparents die before the wedding.
34. Jeff, Who Lives at Home – Another Duplass film, this time with three moral tales intersecting on one day in a Louisiana suburb. Rae Dawn Chong makes a triumphant return as a flirty lesbian trapped in an office job; Jason Segel plays the sort of thoughtful loser that we assumed his “Freaks and Geeks” character would grow up to be.
33. To Rome with Love – Middling Woody Allen. If you think you’d be amused at a running plot about a man who’s a world-class opera singer, but only in the shower, this is your movie.
32. Damsels in Distress – Whit Stilman’s comeback film, 14 years in the making, and it’s… merely okay, damn it. Stillman insists on filming music and dance sequences without knowing how to direct such things. (The final “Love Train” sequence in his last film worked better than the showstopper here.) Greta Gerwig, lovely as ever, is as ill-suited to WASPy banter as fellow mumblestar Ryan Gosling.
31. The Raid: Redemption – A loving tribute to the misunderstood genre of stupid martial arts films. Cops go to war with gangsters, and there’s something about brothers joining warring sides, but mostly there’s a bunch of acrobatic punch-murder.

Perfectly Good
30. Detropia – From the makers of “Jesus Camp” comes this meandering ruin porn, which founders a little when one subject (a retired auto worker who owns a bar) spends a day bemoaning Chinse innovations at the auto show. Worth watching for the excruciating sequence in which Swedish tourists ask a cafe owner where they can see the most dilapidated ruins.
29. Safety Not Guaranteed – Sci-fi magical realism about a cute girl (Aubrey Plaza) who meets a seemingly crazy person (Mark fucking Duplass again) after seeing his ad for a working time machine. A surprisingly realistic piss-take on the alt weekly industry.
28. Friends With Kids – Jennifer Westfeldt, last seen (with more facial expressions) in “Kissing Jessica Stein,” casts herself as a woman who lets a friend get her pregnant because she doesn’t want to miss out on motherhood.
27. Marley – A standard but necessary bio-doc about a musician who’s only remembered in the most cartoonish terms. It’s one of the happiest little stories imaginable about a man who fathered multiple children out of wedlock and died of cancer after refusing to get a toe amputated.
26. Jiro Dreams of Sushi – I’m nearly alone in my judgment that this was merely good: It’s beautifully shot, with lots of nice Philip Glass songs, and my favorite “twist” in any documentary this year. (We learn that the son of the world-famous chef, the man who no one expects to live up to the old man, was actually the one whose food won the Michelin.)
25. Compliance – You know that moment in the horror movie when the ingenue makes a horrible decision, and you’re both scared for what’s coming and angry that she did it? Get ready to feel that for 85 minutes. Based closely on a true, well-reported story, about a sadistic crank caller who baited the employees of a fast food restaurant into basically stripping and molesting a colleague.
24. The Comedy – Tim Heidecker, revealing surprising dramatic chops, plays an odious rich hipster, bloated and bored, falling ass backwards into other New Yorkers’ lives. Sublime cringe comedy with a rotten core — in a good way!
23. Bernie – Richard Linklater adapts a this-can’t-be-real magazine story about a closeted gay man who charmed his way into the life and will of nasty widow. Shirley MacLaine plays the widow, Jack Black plays the loveable con man, and both are fantastic.
22. Dark Horse – I’ve always liked Todd Solondz. Jesus, I was one of perhaps 12 people who saw Palindromes and liked it. So of course I liked this blacker-than-a-midnight-funeral comedy about an angry loser who seeks love, finds it, and (spoiler) dies pathetically. It’s crammed with smart touches, down to the said loser’s name, Abe (a dignified-sounding name, not a red flag to laugh at the character), and his impotent rage at a Toys R Us manager who won’t refund him for a flawed action figure. And it’s nice to see Selma Blair in a role that plays to her gift — 200-proof mopeyness.
21. The Queen of Versailles
20. God Bless America
19. The Hunger Games – A gorgeous-looking adaptation of a teen novel that starts grim and gets a little cutesy. (The novel and the movie, both.)
18. Sleepwalk With Me – Mike Birbiglia turns his monologues about a troubled relationship and the start of his comedy career into a memorable little movie. Rent it for the Ira Glass fan in your life.
17. Take This Waltz – Sarah Polley, who made a little classic when she adapted a New Yorker story into Away From Her, writes her own beautifully painful story of a happy couple ruined by a mid-twenties emotional crisis. People seem divided on the use of the Leonard Cohen song that titles the movie — it plays as Polley’s camera spins around an apartment where two lovers go through a year of doubt, then excitement, then routine, then boredom. I liked that scene.
16. The Deep Blue Sea – An adaptation of a post-war British play that looks and feels like a lost Powell/Preminger ache-fest.
15. 21 Jump Street – The best iteration of the “hit show from your childhood turned into a farce” genre since The Brady Bunch. Really, The Brady Bunch is better than you remember. Could have done without the detached penis gag.
14. Ruby Sparks – You probably enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine. I thought it was a twee endurance test, all smart-sounding gimmickry (Proust scholarship!) that wasn’t actually smart at all. But this film, by the same directors, was terrific, and about 1/10 as financially successful as LMS, which shows what I know about the movie industry/viewing public. Paul Dano plays a mopey wunderkind novelist who’s 10 years on from his only novel — an instant classic. Taking his therapist’s advice, he overcomes writer’s block by developing the story of a cute girl (Zoe Kazan) who appears in his dreams. He wakes up one day and the girl is calling from downstairs, asking what he wants for breakfast. And this is where the PR failed the film. Trailers made this look like Yet Another Manic Pixie Dream Girl comedy, Elizabethtown mashed up with Stranger Than Fiction. Nope. The script, by Kazan, parodies and punishes that cliche. Ruby eventually figures out that her self-important boyfriend is a bore, and starts to move away from him. He puts another roll of paper in the typewriter and changes her personality. In the film’s climax, Dano settles a fight by typing commands and watching his helpless muse obey them. Bark like a dog. Call him a “genius.” Strip. If these weren’t the actresses directions, it would be horrifying — and it’s pretty horrifying as is, until it’s wrapped up in a satisfying way. Nick Urata’s soundtrack is also a marvel.
13. Skyfall – Everybody’s basically right about the latest Bond film, which eschews the “five minute countdown to save the world!” ending for a drawn-out, bloody tribute to Straw Dogs.

Legitimately Great Movies
12. Pitch Perfect – Perhaps I’m rating it too high, but I thought this was the rare inspirational beat-by-beat comedy that never ever flagged.
11. Silver Linings Playbook – A worthy addition to the “crazy people find each other, and thus find love” genre. Jennifer Lawrence is that rare overhyped starlet I can’t get enough of, partly because she’s a knockout, partly because her PR is so ingenious. (Her first big role was on “The Bill Engvall Show,” and yet because she was in “Winter’s Bone” she gets to be an “indie starlet made good.”) Bradley Cooper is at his best when a role finds some direction for his mania, which was the case in “Limitless” and is doubly true here. It’s a love story that leaves you happy at the outcome, unclear that it can ever last, confident that you didn’t see something phony.
10. The Cabin in the Woods – Joss Whedon and Tim Minear parody every horror movie conceit ever, positing that all of those conceits were invented by a shadow government in order to kill enough wayward teens to satisfy angry Gods. It’s a comedy, everybody! And it has the year’s best unicorn gag, easily.
9. Argo – Have we begun to grapple with the concept of Ben Affleck, Great American Film-Maker? His third movie is almost perfect, from the re-creations of 1980 malaise and pop culture to the hair-whitening moments where American diplomats are about to get found out — again, again, and again. The opening scene, a re-creation of the 1979 Iranian takeover of the American embassy, is genuinely enraging, and the stress level kicks up from there. My only gripe: Affleck casts himself in the lead, and gives the film’s only one-note performance as the agent who, sigh, is kinda depressed but will get everybody out of this, I guess.
8. Zero Dark Thirty – Thrilling historical spy drama that I never want to watch again.
7. The Avengers – Hell, I usually can’t stand the “villain brainwashes heroes into sealing fate” plot, which defines two acts of this thing. And in this movie, the trope works. The best assortment of actors ever thrown into a popcorn movie, funny dialogue, many holy-shit action scenes.
6. Django Unchained – Give Samuel L. Jackson the Oscar.
5. The Dark Knight Rises – Looking back, my one gripe concerns the final battle between the police and the Bane thugs. The police seriously have no better tactical move than “hey let’s run at the guys with guns and overwhelm them after many of us are shot?” That’s it, though. I love the sequel to the Reign of Terror playing out in Gotham.
4. Looper – An out-of-nowhere sci-fi masterpiece by a director/writer who never struck me as a sci-fi brain.
3. Lincoln – Simply one of the best movies ever made about the art of politics. Fine, sure, perhaps there’s one too many bumbling congressmen who are ridiculously easy to convince or buy off. There’s a lot of compelling, accurate history that has been rescued from the appendices of distracted authors.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild – A gorgeous collection of imagery that we’ve never seen before, filmed (by a first time director!) in a way that makes it alien. A slightly surprising morality play plot, which works because the characters (and actors) are completely unpretentious.
1. Moonrise Kingdom – An odd, smart little boy becomes smitten with an odd, smart little girl. The affection is returned. The two of them carry on a correspondence, then run away together, then get caught, and that’s almost it. But the whole thing is put together with such care and beauty, and the sort of whimsy-with-a-point that Wes Anderson had lost sight of since Rushmore.