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The Best and Worst of 2012: Clouds and Cabins and Speedy Hobbits, Oh My!

Cloud Atlas - Best Film of 2012
by Jason Whyte

2012 was a year of ups and downs. For the moviegoer, it was a time where seeing a movie in theaters became challenging, with much competition, advances in technology, where and how to see film and how much it would cost just for a body to get in the door. For artists, it was a time where filmmakers either embraced the idea of where the medium was taking us, or understood the power of what they had at their disposal and made the best movie possible out of what they could do. 2013 will be an interesting year to see how and where the movies take us and if things get better, or they go more 3D.

And I, as a lover of cinema in all shapes and forms, braved five major film festivals, special screenings and also saw as many films as I could in every moment of the year that I could. As always, anyone who says the year of cinema was a bad one just wasn't watching enough movies. 2012 was one of the best ones that I have attended in a long time, and I feel the following selections best represent what cinema had to offer in these twelve months.

So here we go...

The Best Films of 2012

#1. Cloud Atlas (dir. Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer)

The movie of my dreams. A grand, challenging, fearless piece of cinema that was brought to me by an unexpected screening at last fall's Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, "Cloud Atlas" is this generation's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in that its grandeur and scope will test the limits of cinema for years to come. It is brought to us by the siblings Wachowski ("The Matrix") and Tom Tykwer ("The Princess & The Warrior") in an adaptation by David Mitchell's popular novel, and both the siblings Wachowski and Tykwer all do some of their best work here. Spanning the course of three centuries, six interconnecting stories of love, hope and challenge all come to a head in a mind-spinning brace with many roles played by the same actors; the movie's three hour running time flying by as we all connect with the film's unique for storytelling and logic of how lives impact each other in past, present and future. I could go on and on about the many stories, themes and brilliant moments throughout, but it is purely a movie to experience. "Cloud Atlas'" greatness is a feeling, a transcendence that can't be explained. It is just simply there.

#2. The Cabin In The Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)

As much as I loved "Cloud Atlas", "The Cabin In The Woods" is a film I could watch on repeat and never get sick of. It's the ultimate hangout movie, but also so much more. "Cabin" sets us up on a group of college students who go spend a weekend in a spooky looking house, yet it is about so many things; the horror genre as a whole, the very cliches and plot points that we love or love to hate, and the way movies pull the rug out from under us in unexpected ways. The movie was one of the very few where the less you knew about, the better, and its result was a film lover's wet dream of endless surprises that you wanted the next person to find out so you could talk about it. In fact, the film may not even qualify as "horror cinema" but how horror plays us. The film has so many hidden gems (among the great cast, lead Kristin Connolly is a revelation for a surprisingly effective, multi-layered performance as one of the college students who simply figures everything out on her own), biting dark humour, grand moments of brilliance and a final twenty minutes that will go down as one of the craziest bits of action in movie history. After a long haul with studio difficulties, it was simply awesome to see what resulted on screen. Now let's go watch it again!

#3. Samsara (dir. Ron Fricke)

A sequel of sorts to Ron Fricke's classic film "Baraka", "Samsara" stands on its own feet as a complete out of body experience, a wordless documentary on humanity, our place in the world and where we are headed next. In a brisk 103 minutes we are treated to images that Fricke shot over the course of five years, and Like "Baraka" before it, this movie was shot entirely with 70mm film stock and the large format gives us a grand, wide view of the world that only Fricke and his creative partner Mark Magidson can provide. With all the idiotic advances in technology and exhibition these days, Fricke and his crew know how to create images for us to get lost in. There's the old saying that a picture tells a thousand words; "Samsara" has a thousand of them.

#4. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)

Both of Ben Affleck's earlier directorial efforts "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town" made spots on my Top Ten lists in 2007 and 2010, respectively, and "Argo" may be his best film yet, which begins right on a classy, old school Warner Bros logo and never lets up for a moment after. It tells the true story of a group of American citizens trapped in the Canadian ambassador's house during revolutionary Iran in the late 70's, and how the CIA tries to free them by getting them to pose as a film crew on a location scout. It's such a great idea for a movie, and what's amazing is how the movie beautifully parallels real-world events, the movie industry and a CIA agent (Affleck himself, in a strong performance) who is doing his best to do the right thing. Throughouly complex and involving like the great films of that era, the movie climaxes in a near 45 minute cat and mouse game that left me exhausted, but in a great way.

#5. The Life of Pi (dir. Ang Lee)

This year was rich with movies that had images that burned into your retinas, and Ang Lee's "The Life of Pi", one of his best, has some of the most stirring images you will ever see. The film's story is simple yet complex -- what happens when a young Indian boy is trapped on a boat with a Bengal Tiger after a shipwreck -- and yet the following action, framed with a modern day storytelling device put to great use here, asks big questions about how we would deal with being stranded and the measures we would take to survive, and also what we see and feel around us while we are lost. That the movie asks an even bigger, final metaphorical question about storytelling itself is just icing on the cake. It's a great film meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

#6. Shut Up & Play The Hits (dir. Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern)

The best music film of the year, but perhaps I am biased as I REALLY wanted to be at LCD Soundsystem's final show in New York in 2011. This telling account of lead James Murphy's final show at Madison Square Garden in New York is powerful in how it shows someone who is really questioning his place in the world and where fame has taken him in the last few years. Does Murphy want to continue down the path of fame and get grey hairs, or does he want to quit while he is ahead and enjoy his life at 41 years old? The movie intercuts with beautifully intimate interviews with Murphy and awesome, powerful concert footage as LCD Soundsystem performs with the likes of The Arcade Fire and Reggie Watts; normally this type of concert film is something I would object to but I was really impressed how filmmakers Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern handle the cause and effect of Murphy's final show. It all adds up to closing shot that stuck with me for days; the result of a decision has a total effect on someone else, even indirectly. It's something to really think about.

#7. Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

As someone who lost a family member recently, watching Michael Haneke's Palme D'or winner was one of the toughest moviegoing experiences I had all year, yet an ultimately rewarding one on how a loving married couple tries to deal when one of them falls to illness. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a happily married couple both retired and in their 80's, and Anne falls to a stroke attack. Georges ends up taking care of Anne as their relationship is put to the test as she declines in health. Haneke, as he is famous for, refuses to pull stops in his beautiful direction; long takes, wide framing, lack of music score all add to the impending doom as we see a couple strive together as one of them begins to fade away.

#8. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Not one movie this year faced more critical divide, anger and downright bickering than Christopher Nolan's last installment in the Batman trilogy. But you know what? This movie is a blast from beginning to end. It's big, loud and insane at times, yet everything about it worked in the summer movie traditions that brought me back to see it many times, both in traditional and its stunning IMAX presentations. This final chapter, which features big, bad Bane (Tom Hardy), Bruce Wayne coming back from darkness and his relationship with all his complicated characters around him, was a great way to send off the story, and I loved every grand moment of it. Sure, if you want to be the nitpicking police and bring your realistic expectations into a movie that isn't realistic, go ahead, but just leave me out of the conversation. For all of you naysayers out there, I suggest you just settle down, look into that gigantic screen and just go with it. Isn't that what movies are all about?

#9. Paranorman (dir. Sam Bell & Chris Butler)

In an era where Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios tends to thrive, the year's best animated feature came from smaller Laika studios (they also produced the small hit "Coraline"), who pride themselves on stop motion animation for storytelling. And it has never been so beautifully presented here, in a very moving story about a young boy who can talk to afterlife, and how it parallels with a little girl who was shunned for her similar power over 300 years ago. Never in a long time would I find one of the best films ever made about bullying, friendship and overcoming adversity in this form, and done this well. And like all great animated films, there really is something for all ages to connect with here. It also opens up with a great little "Feature Presentation" bumper in the spirit of the Grindhouse era, which was a fun little touch.

#10. Headhunters (dir. Morten Tydlum)

Remember grand storytelling? Remember when filmmakers would go to extreme lengths to entertain? When I saw this at Fantastic Fest in 2011, I was blown away by Morten Tydlum's never-ceasing eager to please movie, telling the story of a corporate head hunter who moonlights as a con artist to appease his expensive wife. And then things get a bit out of control when another head hunter starts hunting him. Words fail me to describe the great, adult fun that transpires over the fast two hour running time, but it's laced with dark humour, strong amounts of bloody violence all wrapped up into a satisfying finale. When the movie opened at Fantastic Fest I heard an English language remake was going to happen and thankfully it hasn't transpired as of yet. This movie was released earlier in the year to big acclaim and I'm hoping it achieves a level of cult status down the road. It's just that awesome.

Special Jury Awards:

#11. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Normally Paul Thomas Anderson movies occupy a higher position on my list, so one may believe I didn't like this as much as his other works. It's not entirely true; while Anderson's pacing and mood is a lot more ominous than "There Will Be Blood", it's still a telling account of a young, drunken WWII veteran (Joaquin Pheonix) who gets more than he bargains for when he falls under the spell of a very powerful man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) starting up a new movement. The film has a lot of lone moments, silence and introspection, and Anderson seems to be distancing himself even further from the go-for-it attitude of "Magnolia" (which I consider one of the ten greatest American films ever made) and "Boogie Nights", but Anderson has always been a director who changes his gears every couple of years. It is far from an easy watch, but a very powerful one.

#12. Ted (dir. Seth MacFarlane)

The funniest movie of the year, hands down. I have never laughed so loudly in multiple screenings, freely embarrassing myself to other theater guests around me. And I'm totally find with that. Seth MacFarlane's teddy bear comedy goes for broke and has nearly everything going for it; flawless visual effects work that made us believe a small plush bear had its place in the world, Mark Wahlberg's hilarious lead as a 35 year old man unable to leave Ted gives a performance more complex than you think, and an endless array of jokes and great writing that provided big, well earned laughs. Aside from a slightly overlong climactic sequence, the movie is breakneck in its pacing, totally free to offend and one of those iconic movies you won't be able to turn off once it comes on cable.

Other movies I also really admired this year include The Perks of Being a Wallflower which would make an odd but still doable double bill with "Paranorman" for its honest look at teen life, the Sundance hit Beasts Of The Southern Wild which was a truly original vision of poor life in the south, Joseph Kahn's awesomesauce teen horror comedy Detention which finally hit theaters after a successful festival run, Searching For Sugar Man which was a solid -- and very successful -- doc on a search for 70's rock icon Rodriguez, Scott Derrickson's super creepy Sinister featuring some of Ethan Hawke's best work in years, Rian Johnson's trippy, time-bending Looper with Joseph Gordon Levitt looking too much like Bruce Willis, Skyfall which is one of my all time favorite James Bond movies, and the ass kicking, cops-versus-baddies flick The Raid, a huge hit in Indonesia where nearly every person is beaten to a pulp. And it is awesome.

The Ten Worst Films of 2012:

#1. The "High Frame Rate" version of The Hobbit (dir. Peter Jackson)

Out of all the movies I viewed in 2012, not one grinded my teeth more, drove me to the point of drinking and downright depressed me more than a motion picture experience like no other. I viewed Peter Jackson's bizarre, confusing adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous book which in reality was only a third of a story that refused to end. There's a movie in here, somewhere, that when you view normally is a tolerable experience. What set this apart from every other movie this year was the bone-headed decision to film and exhibit the movie in a controversal projection format where the frames elapse at double the speed. For no reason. If you'll allow me to get technical for a second, I will explain. "The Hobbit" was filmed using digital capture cameras (the Red Epic) in 3D at 48 frames per second, which is double the frame rate as how we traditionally see films. Exhibitors, in return, updated their projection equipment to present the sped up format to paying customers. The on screen result is like being at a friend's house and playing a video game on his LCD monitor where the monitor is set to the 120hz refresh rate...and you have to sit there and watch your friend play the game for three hours. I viewed the film the first time in 2D projection in a "standard" cinema, without the 48 frames per second and then in the higher frame rate. The 24 frame per second version, while not perfect, exhibited a type of cinematic image that is, naturally, far more professional looking than this sped up counterpart. It is an eyesore of a movie shown this way. There is no "getting used to" this 48fps edition, as many defenders tried to claim. The resulting experience is so awful that whenever a character moves from left to right or starts running, the theme from "Benny Hill" starts playing in your head.

What's worse is that projection and exhibition formats like this set a really nasty taste in the mouth for filmgoers. Gone are the simple days of going to a cinema and watching a movie. Instead, there were so many "options" for the consumer; 2D, 3D, high frame rate and all sorts of surcharges and fees driving movie ticket costs so high that people are choosing to stay home again. This release of "The Hobbit" in high frame rate is the ultimate "fuck you" to moviegoers, to pay an obscene entry fee to watch a middling movie in an inferior format guaranteed to have you in a dizzy headache spell long before the credits roll. If you haven't seen "The Hobbit" yet, I highly recommend seeing the film in natural 2D projection and making up the 3D in your mind.

#2. Project X (dir. Nima Nourizadeh)

Getting a foolhardy projection format out of the way, here truly is the worst movie of the year; an insulting anti-movie that pretends it is trying to be about something but instead is really about nothing, and insults every audience member whether they are aware of it or not. A so-called party movie that spirals out of control sounds like a good idea for a movie, and yet this "found footage" film derails almost immediately as we are introduced to three boys who are assured by the movie that they are best friends, yet I was never convinced any of them liked each other during production. Women are treated like garbage, the film encourages characters use violence to solve a problem, nothing is learned by any of the characters and there isn't a laugh to be found in the party antics of anyone on screen. The filmmakers and actors claim that this movie connected with teenagers, but I'm sorry, only idiot teens who bully others to feel better about themselves could connect with this garbage.

#3. The Devil Inside (dir. William Brent Bell)

The first movie I viewed in 2012 was also one of the most laughably awful; like "Project X" this was a "found footage" movie with nary a fresh idea in its skull, this exorcism story "not endorsed by the Vatican" throws a lot of anti-scares, bad acting and worse pyrotechnics in its 75 minute running time. Most of this would be easily forgettable but "The Devil Inside" had a notorious ace up its sleeve that left audiences screaming AT the screen: its ending, which wasn't really an ending but rather an invitation to visit a website to continue the film's investigation. Immediate responses on social media and discussion boards were outreagous, even if it was over the ending of a January movie. Simply put, it was hearlded as a movie with an anti-ending. Despite all of this, the movie still made money at the box office, but I think a lot of refunds and admit one passes also were issued by theater management as the house lights came up.

#4. Playing For Keeps (dir. Gabriele Muccino)

The year's stupidest, idiot-plot clunker that comes from a pretty solid filmmaker (Gabriele Muccino, who made both "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Seven Pounds" in recent years), the movie stars Gerard Butler as a former soccer player who winds up teaching his son's school soccer team...and winds up getting hit on by every woman. Soccer moms, get it? It's funny because they're bored and Gerard Butler is handsome. The movie's focus is all over the map, and what follows is a series of mishaps and bizarre contrivances so inane that there should have been a "wah wah" trumpet sound at the end of each scene.

#5. This Means War (dir. McG)

It sounds like a cliche, but who thought this would be a sensible idea for a movie? Was it you, McG (of "Charlie's Angels" fame), who thought that you'd cast two leads with no chemistry (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) go head to head pursuing a woman (Reese Witherspoon) whose defining personality trait is that she dyed her hair blonde and seems to have a motion picture lighting crew with her in every scene? Oh, but it's funny, you see, as they are CIA agents who both chase after her like fraternity college students. Scene by scene we watch the movie crash and burn and long for the credits to begin. There are a lot of talented people before and behind the camera, yet everyone here looks like they're waiting for a lunch break.

#6. Les Miserables (dir. Tom Hooper)

The latest anticipated musical adaptation, lo and behold, is a stunning parade of awfulness down to its rotten core. What's even more baffling is that this feeble telling of Victor Hugo's classic novel and musical was directed by Tom Hooper, who scraped my Top 10 list two years ago with "The King's Speech". Where to begin with this monstrosity? It's as if Hooper wanted to transport MOST of the stage musical onto the big screen, but decided against bringing actual movie elements that, you know, make a watchable motion picture on screen so compelling. Its 158 minute running time ached by slowly featuring a bunch of bad talk-singing and frustrating music numbers, filtered through ugly lighting, bizarre compositions and a use of wide angle lenses that would made Stanley Kubrick turn over in his grave. This eye sore of a Les Mis made you want to look at the auditorium wall instead, and perhaps seek out a better adaptation instead. Mon dieu.

#7. The Apparation (dir. Todd Lincoln)

Like "The Devil Inside" before it, this scare free horror picture had a very troubled production and distribution history behind it. There are some films like "The Cabin in the Woods" that have a bigger and understandable reasoning behind its delay, and then there are movies like this that are quickly released by a studio in the middle of August to an uncaring audience. There really isn't much to say about this dull piffle of a horror show; supernatural scares featuring the cute-as-a-button Ashley Greene, dank cinematography and an ending in a Costco (!) had me out the exit pretty quick after its 75 minute running time.

#8. Ice Age: Continental Drift (dir. Steve Martino & Mike Thurmeier)

The fourth -- and hopefully final -- "Ice Age" movie was not only unnecessary but an utter wall of noise that is the endless continuing adventures of some very uninteresting animals facing continental divide. While the other "Ice Age" films were light-hearted with fun visuals, this "Ice Age" felt a lot darker and more depressing, with more impending doom throughout. The throughline is poor squirrel Scrat, whose adventures in the movie were already shown to us for nearly two years as short features before other Fox Studio features, which made me feel cheated as I had already seen it all before.

#9. The Dictator (dir. Sacha Baron Cohen)

After "Borat", I gave Sacha Baron Cohen a pass, barely, with his funny and controversial film "Bruno". Both of those movies had its charms as they were filmed in more in a mockumentary style approach, yet I felt Cohen could try some new material in his next movie. In "The Dictator" , he plays more out in a traditional narrative approach and the result is agonizingly unfunny. Cohen plays Alideen, dictator of fictional country Wadiya, who comes to America and wackiness ensues. Yes, wackiness ensues. We have seen countless fish out of water type stories but never this criminally unfunny, even resulting to a Megan Fox cameo that drew dead silence at the screening I attended last summer. Someone forgot to push the funny button.

#10. The Paperboy (dir. Lee Daniels)

A few years ago, there was a Campbell Scott movie called "The Dying Gaul" where his character told an aspiring filmmaker that no one wants to go to the movies to have a bad time. Lee Daniels' crazy followup to his Oscar winning film "Precious" should have listened to his advice. This convoluted story featuring news writers, a murder investigation and a bevy of depressed characters goes in about five different directions as we all sit and watch actors like Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack, Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman strain their way through near unwatchable storytelling and direction. The noir element was far better executed in the recent movie "Jack Reacher", a movie which also starred David Oyelowo in a much better performance than the question mark of an acting job he gives here.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 01/04/13 05:38:29
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