10. Prometheus (20th Century Fox) – This is probably where I’m going to lose some people, but I’m a long-time Ridley Scott fan and apologist and his return to sci-fi lived up to all my expectations as he created something with a bigger scale than anything he’s done in recent years. I can totally understand why some people were disappointed in this, and let’s face it, that Alien cameo at the end really ruined the experience, but just as an entry point into a new science fiction story, I was fascinated by some of the ideas presented here and can’t wait to see more.
*9. The Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate) – Joss Whedon makes a second appearance in this list with a movie he wrote and produced and was directed by Drew Goddard. The movie played with some of the classic horror film tropes of a group of kids going to a remote area and being terrorized by supernatural beings. Only this time, we got to see the men behind the scenes who were creating everything to terrorize the kids and that’s when the film gets fun and we see that this is a movie on a much bigger scale than the premise would suggest. This is the movie all horror fans should see.
*8. Les Misérables (Universal) – This wouldn’t be the first time that a musical appeared in my annual Top 25 list, but I was surprised how much I loved this adaptation of the ’80s musical hit based on Victor Hugo’s novel, because I barely remember seeing the musical on Broadway. But yeah, with nearly 2 1/2 hours of straight music and absolutely showstopping performances by Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, this was one musical that really grabbed me early on and kept me caught up in the journey of Jackman’s Valjean and his conflict with Russell Crowe’s Javert. Equally fantastic performances by younger actors like Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks and much-needed comic relief from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter proved that the movie musical genre was alive and well.
*7. Samsara (Oscilloscope Labs) – Twenty years after the groundbreaking Baraka, director/cinematographer Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson spent another five years travelling around the globe with Fricke’s 70mm camera filming things that very few people have a chance to see. I’ll freely admit that five minutes into this narrative-free film I was thinking of leaving, but I stuck with it and between the unbelievable visuals and the gorgeous score by Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard, Marcelo De Francisci and Michael Stearns, it made Samsara a truly unforgettable experience unmatched by almost any other movie this year.
*6. Skyfall (Sony) – I’ve been a James Bond fan for most of my life and a Sam Mendes fan since most of his film career, so the idea of the latter taking on the former was just too much to bear. Thankfully, the movie lived up to my expectations with a great new villain in Javier Bardem and more focus on Dame Judi Dench’s M, as well as new additions like Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw, who we hope will continue into future installations. It was quite a comeback from Quantum of Solace that stood alongside Casino Royale in terms of treading new ground, but also bringing back some old favorites.
*5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Summit) – Stephen Chbosky’s semi-autobiographical coming of age novel found many fans during the 90s and directing the movie from his own screenplay, he really created something special. Starring Logan Lerman as the shy wallflower of the title (named Charlie) and Emma Watson and Ezra Miller as half-siblings that bring Charlie out of his shell, no other recent high school movie has better captured my own high school experiences. Much of this had to do with the casting, but also the way Chbosky used songs to really create a mood.
*4. Chico and Rita (Luma Films/GKIDS) – Nominated for an animated feature Oscar last year but we only had a chance to see it this year, this beautiful and brilliant 2D animated film by Fernando Trueba, Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal follows the journey of a jazz pianist and a singer from Cuba 1948 to New York City and it’s one of those rare examples of what you can do with animation when you’re not making it just for kids. Fans of classic Disney films like Fantasia and some of Walt Disney’s films inspired by his South American travels, should greatly appreciate every frame of the visuals as well as the fantastic soundtrack.
*3. The Impossible (Summit) – Juan Bayona’s sophomore feature after the Spanish language horror film The Orphanage may have seemed like a departure, but it was also a huge step forward in terms of his filmmaking which I certainly never saw coming. It stars Naomi Watts (giving another fantastic performance) and Ewan McGregor as parents of three boys, including newcomer Tom Holland, who are separated by the devastating tsunami and I was equally impressed by the scale of recreating the tsunami and its after effects as I was with the dramatic performances that kept the story intimate and personal.
*2. The Intouchables (The Weinstein Company) – I still remember the first time I saw this movie, written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, which was as part of Lincoln Center’s “Rendezvous with French Cinema,” and I’ll admit to being fairly cynical because the Weinstein Company were in the midst of having a huge hit with the French silent film The Artist and this one had already been a huge blockbuster in Europe. Boy, was I surprised how much I enjoyed this, not just the first time I saw it but every time I watched it after that.
That brings us to this year’s two #1 movies…
*1b. Searching for Sugar Man (Sony Pictures Classics) – I rarely get a chance to see docs at film festivals, particularly Sundance, so it was a few months after hearing a lot of buzz about this doc that I finally caught it at Tribeca. Like most people who saw the movie, I never heard of ’70s folk singer Rodriguez or his two obscure records, but Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who mainly had done concert films, finds an intriguing way of unraveling the mystery of how those records became classics in South Africa, driving the country’s musical anti-Apartheid movement. I don’t want to say much more about the film, which offers a lot of really pleasant surprises so I thought it worked so much better as a comeback story than Anvil! The Story of Anvil. In fact, this was the only movie this year that I gave a 10/10, so in theory, this is the best movie of the year although like last year, I’ll graciously call it a tie.
And my #1 non-doc movie of the year is
*1a. Life of Pi (20th Century Fox)!
Anyone who read my coverage from this year’s CinemaCon when I first saw footage from Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-seller may remember my gushing about how amazing it looked. Thankfully, the rest of the movie lived up to those ten minutes. Ang Lee is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world and though I had problems with his last couple of films, he finally tackled the type of challenging material that allowed him to prove it. It’s a fairly simple story about a young ma nnamed Pi, played by newcomer Suraj Sharma, and the fact that a good hour of the movie takes place at sea on a lifeboat with just Pi and a Bengal tiger is one of the many things that just astounded me. Part of why it works is because you believe that tiger, a combination of live animals and CG, to be real, but a lot of selling that comes down to the first time actor. Lee also used 3D on a level matched by only a few movies, most notably James Cameron’s Avatar and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, to create a spectacular film.
It was really tough figuring out which movies should get into those last five slots above and frankly any of the movies below could have just as easily made it, so in no particular order, here are 10 movies that just missed the cut:
*Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Focus Features) Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut, starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as an unlikely duo on a road trip days before the end of the world, was funny and touching and some of their best work in years. (It’s a shame Focus didn’t feel strongly enough about the movie to send out awards screeners of it, though.)
*Trishna (IFC Films) Michael Winterbottom’s modern adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” transplanted into modern day India with Freida Pinto playing a young woman being chased across India by a wealthy young man was another incredibly strong feature from the eclectic filmmaker.
*John Carter (Walt Disney) – Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton’s take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vintage sci-fi character really blew me away as it was the type of sci-fi epic we rarely get to see outside the “Star Wars” franchise. I thought Taylor Kitsch really pulled off the lead and I loved Lynn Collins as sexy warrior Dejah Thoris. I was disappointed it didn’t find a bigger audience.
Brave (DisneyPixar) – I definitely felt like I was in the minority for liking DisneyPixar’s 2012 offering directed by Mark Andrews (who co-wrote John Carter oddly enough), but they beautifully captured the magic of early Disney movies and later ones like Pocahontas but with that fantastic Pixar 3D animation we love.
*Hope Springs (Sony) – Even the film’s publicist thought I was too young (God bless her) to appreciate this comedy about an elderly couple, played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, as they try to rediscover their intimacy by seeing a sex therapist (played by Steve Carell), but director David Frankel did a great job mixing the humor and drama.
*Kill List (IFC Films) – This was my co-“Chosen One” with Ti West’s The Innkeepers, which I liked just a little bit more. Ben Wheatley’s fantastic thriller, about a pair of hitmen who get caught up in something dark and sinister, really impressed and frightened me in a good way.
*Your Sister’s Sister (IFC Films) – Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to Humpday was even funnier and more poignant due to the presence of Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as estranged sisters and Mark Duplass as the guy who threatens to destroy their relationship further.
*Friends with Kids (Lionsgate) Jessica Westfeld’s ensemble comedy had her and Adam Scott playing long-time friends who decide to have a baby together with humor enhanced by the presence of Megan Fox and most of the cast of Bridesmaids.
*The Sessions (Fox Searchlight) – It’s surprising that a drama about how polio-ridden and paralyzed poet Mark O’Brien set out to lose his virginity at 38 with a sex therapist played by Helen Hunt could be as warm and crowdpleasing as this one.
*Sleepwalk with Me (IFC Films) – Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s feature debut really won me over with its tight script and Birbiglia’s amicable personality and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Top Movie by Studio:
20th Century Fox: Life of Pi
Focus Features: Promised Land
Fox Searchlight: The Sessions
IFC Films: The Central Park Five
Lionsgate: The Cabin in the Woods
Magnolia: Take This Waltz
Oscilloscope Labs: Samsara
Paramount: Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
Sony Pictures Classics: Searching for Sugar Man
Summit Entertainment: The Impossible
Universal: Les Misérables
Walt Disney Pictures: (tie) Brave or John Carter
Warner Bros.: The Dark Knight Rises or Cloud Atlas (neither which made my list)
The Weinstein Company: The Intouchables
As in past years, I’m throwing in my Top 5 Favorite Music Albums of 2012 (in alphabetical order), just for laughs:
Garbage “Not Your Kind of People”
Passion Pit “Gossamer”
Smashing Pumpkins “Oceania”
Soundgarden “King Animal”
Van Halen “A Different Kind of Truth”
Look for a much shorter piece listing our Top 15 docs tomorrow and this feature’s counterpart, the Weekend Warrior’s Terrible 25, sometime in the next couple of weeks.