Top 10 movies of 2012

Nobody’s perfect, art involves subjectivity, and everybody has bias. That being said, Cinemagogue’s primary reviewer has seen over 60 new releases in 2012 and we thought we’d end the year with James Harleman’s top 10, as well as a few other notable mentions. Many of them have reviews attached. First we’ll look at 10 that didn’t make it, but rise above the rest:

Guilty Pleasures:

Underworld: Awakening: a refreshing alternative to banal Twilight entries and a superior vampire/werewolf feud (and it also helps when your leading lady can act). Unlike Edward and Jacob, these creatures actually have teeth; it’s Romeo and Juliet with fangs. The fourth installment plays like a video game, right down to a satisfying “boss fight” as the climax. Stunning use of 3D in the fight scenes.

The Expendables 2: as if the first flick wasn’t enough of a guilty, 80s throwback, the sequel abandons pesky things like plot and character development to supply so many aging action stars we can’t help but giggle. Even my wife was laughing riotously as Chuck Norris came strolling down the street, or when Willis and Schwarzenegger start swapping each other’s familiar taglines.

Pleasant Surprises:

Dredd: the trailer looked horrible and I braced myself for a cinematic root canal, but Pete Travis’ direction of Dredd is a lean, mean, faithful adaptation of the stark, singularly focused U.K. comic character. Karl Urban’s portrayal is superior to the old Stallone film in every way, and the “day-in-the-life” approach works well. It will become a cult classic.

21 Jump Street: I took a pass on this, but my wife saw it with a friend and laughed so hard she took me so she could see it a second time and show me Channing Tatum could do comedy. Laughed myself silly, and coupled with some very unexpected cameo appearances this mockery of a moldy television show produced surprisingly fresh laughs.

Honorable Mention:

The Grey: a bleak but compelling narrative on survival and mortality, it was Neeson’s success this year whereas Taken 2 disappointed greatly.

The Woman in Black: I love period horror (particularly Hammer) and Radcliffe showed us he could do more than Harry Potter. (Also, Sinister was a worthy horror entry this year by director Scott Derrickson.)

Rock of Ages: fun and fresh musical with what turns out to be an oddly (if confusing) lesson in morality and love.

The Life of Pi: visually sumptuous, Ang Lee provides a feast for the senses – totally justified 3D – with a curious message about narrative and truth that makes tremendous conversation.

Prometheus: while it didn’t meet my hopes and expectations, it featured fantastic performances by Fassbender and Mara and touched on fascinating ideas of mankind’s genesis.

The Amazing Spider-man: With great franchise comes great responsibility… and director Marc Webb re-spins our friendly neighborhood hero into a promising new start by focusing on relationships and avoiding usual cliches and one-liners. Peter, Ben, Gwen, and May all talk like real human beings instead of archetypes, and Denis Leary is gold as Captain Stacy. I’m excited to see where the ongoing story threads take us.

And so, without any further adieu, Cinemagogue’s top 10 in countdown order:

10. The Hunger Games

The best book I read in 2011 became a satisfying film in 2012. The cinematography and some of the direction could have been better, which is why it didn’t rise higher on the list. Still, performances by Jennifer Lawrence and others give me high hope for the continuance of this riveting tale in sequels to come, and the all-ages balance is juggled deftly.

9. Looper

Probably the most intelligent science fiction film of the year, or the last few years, with a standout performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In addition to effects and story concepts, Looper provided complex moral conundrums and mind-bending solutions that I didn’t usually see coming. Just because I see where a narrative is headed doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it, but this one – no pun intended – threw me for a loop.

8. Django Unchained

Probably Quentin Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction, this homage to blacksploitation films and spaghetti westerns of a bygone era also exposes hypocrisy and inhumanity in a romanticized era of human history (and, if we’re honest, our own). Violence and prejudice are not glorified – quite the opposite, in fact – until the ending, when the outcry against the wickedness of man reaches a crescendo where it’s hard to see it as anything but justified.

7. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Since each Lord of the Rings book could easily have been adapted as a 22-episode season or more of television, I’m on the minority side that has no problem with The Hobbit (and related Tolkien material) being adapted as three more movies. Martin Freeman anchors this story with his very small, unassuming gravity. The man can wring 10 different emotions out of a frustrated grimace, for pity’s sake. Hard to truly rate, however, until all three acts are complete.

6. Wreck-it Ralph

The most entertaining animated film I’ve enjoyed since How to Train your Dragon, and perhaps soon to have a slot on my list of favorite Disney films. The sheer amount of visual stimuli demands repeated viewings, and the commentary on identity and our place in a larger story are great conversation starters for children of all ages.

5. Skyfall

While Quantum of Solace may be flawed, or the least memorable, Skyfall wraps all three Craig films into one of the more satisfying trilogies ever made, managing to recreate James Bond while simultaneously restoring him to the classic British spy we’ve known all along. Bloody good show.

4. The Cabin in the Woods

Speaking of bloody good shows, this self-aware, genre-bending horror film has the most fun with a scary movie since Wes Craven’s first Scream film. Playing with archetypes and breaking the fourth wall of the “familiar” story to show us characters viewing the nefarious events with dark designs, we have a meta-commentary horror film that offers critiques of its own viewers. Now that’s scary.

3. Chronicle

It could have been just another ho-hum, found-footage film, but Chronicle gives us a darker look at what could happen in a real life Spider-man situation, when an oppressed teenager gains incredible powers. It’s reminiscent of what Heroes aspired to be in season one. For a fraction of The Avengers budget, we get an equally powerful tale that represents a far more sobering take on powered characters struggling together.

2. The Avengers

Speaking of Avengers, this crown on the Marvel cap represents the culmination of a truly extraordinary and unprecedented cinematic exercise, bringing so many franchises and separate tales together under Joss Whedon’s roof for the best installment of the bunch. I’m not sure I’ve loved a movie of this flavor as much since I saw The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. To quote Stan the Man: Excelsior! A year before or after it might have taken number 1, but alas…

1. The Dark Knight Rises

Take one of my favorite characters of all time, coupled with one of my favorite directors, and some narrative notes and nuance from one of my favorite films of all time (Blade Runner) and you have the undeniable ingredients for my favorite film of the year… provided Nolan didn’t screw it up. I don’t think he did. In fact, I think the only real difference between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises is the presence of the Joker, who was a catalyst – but truly not the focus – in the previous film. In other words, if you loved the previous entry but not Rises, I daresay you didn’t really like The Dark Knight at all: you simply enjoyed the presence of one particular element (Ledger’s character is “the accuser”) in a story that has consistently been a character study of both the city of man (Gotham) and one resident (Bruce Wayne). All the plot threads pressure cooking quite methodically since Batman Begins boil over in an inevitable climax to produce the finest trilogy ever made. If movies were truly my life, I could die happy.

Since they’re not, I plan to stick around for a while. See you in 2013!


  1. Ruben Cardenas

    I was thrilled with a few of your selections here, especially to see The Dark Knight Rises make your top ten (if I had to narrow my list to top two, TDKR would be one of the two). Curious to hear your thoughts on Les Misérables and Speilberg’s Lincoln. I’m planning on seeing both Lincoln and Django this week. I’m sure to have an awful lot to process!

  2. Matthew Rushing

    I really love your #1 pick! I have a few of your list on my own blog. As always, thanks for what you do, I review movies with the tools you have taught me in critical thinking.

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