Though the level of activity here on Fear of a Ghost Planet may not have always reflected it, 2012 was a particularly busy year at the theatre for me. I saw over eighty films and reviewed 50 of them, ranging from The Master to The Babymakers, Lincoln to FDR: American Badass. Despite the volume of films I’ve seen, a year end list, beyond its entirely arbitrary nature, feels somewhat empty to me: too many unseen films. There are a good many movies I haven’t seen yet that, knowing my taste/the movie in question’s reputation, may have otherwise made the list. Notable unseen movies before the ball drops include Skyfall, Cloud Atlas, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook, Holy Motors, Argo, Killing Them Softly, and a litany of documentaries and foreign and independent films that time, geography, or personal finance kept me away from. So instead of writing an ordered list, here’s the official Fear of a Ghost Planet guide to the best films of 2012, presented as a series of themed categories. At the end, you will find my three selections for the best film of 2012. With or without numbers, it’d be hard to divine a “better” film among the trio at the top.
Best Fictionalized Account of a Real Human Being
Bernie (full review)
Bernie, Richard Linklater’s dramatization of Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” is about murder, sure. Its protagonist—a kind, generous, talented assistant funeral director—is a murderer; his victim is an old lady. Unlike, say, a typical episode of Law and Order, where the killer is known to the audience but the facts are in dispute, Linklater’s off-beat procedural doesn’t obfuscate anything: Bernie’s guilty, and says as much himself. When his case reaches trial, the film’s focus becomes astonishingly clear: here is a film about the role a crime plays in the community, and the role the community plays in a trial. Jack Black, playing the titular killer, has never had a role more suited to his abilities, and Matthew McConaughey turned in one of his three great performances this year as Danny Buck, the town’s drawling publicity hound of a D.A.
Runner Up: Goon
The Queen of Versailles
It’s tough to feel sorry for the family building the largest house in America, but Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a riches-to-rags story about the dangers of hubristic free spending, succeeds in engendering sympathy on one count: if any family in America is unprepared for the reality of a recession brought about by the housing bubble’s burst, it’s the one whose empire was built upon a foundation of luxury timeshare condominiums. While David Siegel, Westgate Resorts scion, glowers and grumbles about his crumbling empire, his wife sets about the heavy business of keeping such a large, unorthodox family together. One gets the impression that Siegel is more interested in the particulars of his business than fatherhood, but Jackie, as disconnected from reality as her fabulous wealth has made her (she asks the employee at the Hertz car rental kiosk who her driver is, and her Wal-Mart shopping sprees are the definition of excess), a computer engineer turned beauty queen, is much savvier than the title “trophy wife” lets on. Listening to the couple talk about how they’d like to save their still-in-progress palatial estate grows infuriating, as does David’s inability to blame himself for his losses (it’s all the banks!), but underneath its opulent exterior, The Queen of Versailles is a portrait of the struggling American family. Though it goes without saying that the Siegel’s will be given many more chances than those who do not own gigantic properties in Las Vegas, their trials, at least here, are remarkably similar to a staggering number of families who don’t rank among the country’s richest one-percent.
Runner Up: Shut Up and Play the Hits
Best Film-Length Chase Sequence
Haywire (full review)
In an impressive year for action movies, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire stands apart from 2012’s comic book adaptations and thrillers for its sheer sense of kinetic dynamism. Beyond Premium Rush and The Raid: Redemption, no film flowed quite like this early release, which contains the most pleasing elements of those films (the chase and the fight, respectively) while stocking itself with a population of more fully fleshed out (or at least more recognizably identifiable) characters. In addition, it identifies former MMA star Gina Carano as a contender for something more than being Hollywood’s first franchise-ready female action star. Given the right roles and the right support, she has potential beyond the gender divide.
Runner Up: Premium Rush
Best Comic Book Movie
The Dark Knight Rises (full review)
Yes, The Avengers was fun; in a numbered list, it’d place fairly high. The Dark Knight Rises, quibbles about atomic weaponry and desert sojourns and home spinal surgery aside, was serious business, a morally ambiguous Big Brother parable wherein a city finds itself caught in a war between two dangerously powerful men, neither of whom qualify for the dubious honor of being the lesser evil. In 1986, on the ropes as Marvel Comics released an onslaught of tremendously popular comic books, DC Comics lured away Marvel’s own Frank Miller and handed him the keys to the kingdom. He turned in The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, character defining works that, for a brief time, propelled DC to the top of the charts for the first time in years. In 2012, awash in a sea of Marvel product that’s fun and hugely successful (if damnably carefree) and floundering in an effort to launch its own marquee franchises, its Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, largely inspired by Miller’s comics, that resonate the most with the world we live in. The Dark Knight Rises may be the least overtly entertaining third of Nolan’s saga, but it’s also his most assured effort, and the one that hits hardest.
Runner Up: The Avengers
Best Film Involving One of the Duplass Brothers
Safety Not Guaranteed (full review)
“Best Indie Comedy” may seem like more of a backhanded compliment than effusive praise, but we’re living in a world informed by Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Little Miss Sunshine. Lena Dunham is a Hollywood force, Parks and Recreation, Community, and Portlandia are the best shows on television, and the Duplass Brothers have emerged from the primordial swamp of mumblecore as actors and directors of quirky, low key comedies that aren’t laden with Manic Pixie Dream Girls or other quasi-sexist hipster male fantasies. Their directorial effort, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is also one of the year’s best movies, but Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed manages to be a sweet, inventive spin on the tired tropes of time travel and outsider romance. Considering the overall quality of most films inspired by internet memes, Trevorrow’s debut feature length film appeared damned from the start, but unlike films like Bad Ass, Smiley, or LOL, here’s a movie interested in human beings, and not merely in their sometimes profound stupidity.
Runner Up: Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Best Films About Storytelling
Beasts of the Southern Wild (full review)
Life of Pi
Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild are films about the stories children spin to cope with their harsh realities. The difference is that, at the end of Life of Pi, sixteen-year-old Pi Patel is forced into manhood by his experiences and what he has witnessed; the much younger Hushpuppy uses the story of her and her daddy’s journey in the Bathtub to hang on, however precariously, to her innocence. The two films are also among the year’s most visually powerful. Ang Lee, using 3D filming techniques in ways that put even Scorsesse’s brilliant Hugo to shame, creates a lush, vivid fantasy in the French quarters of India, on a shipwrecked boat, and on a small, ocean-tossed life vessel. Using a much smaller budget and aided immensely by the fierce performance of Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild depends on perspective, rather than special effects. In the eyes of a child, the Bathtub is not some miserable, forgotten part of flood-wrecked Louisiana, but a land as open, wild, and free as any untamed fairy tale expanse. Of course, there are threats to that sort of tranquility, but heroes are meant to rise above impossible adversity. The characters here do just that.
Runner Up: Seven Psychopaths
Best Survivalist Film
The Grey (full review)
The Hunger Games made a ton of money, as did The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but it’s a film mostly advertised as Liam Neeson vs. Wolves that’s stuck with me through the bulk of 2012. Perhaps its because Liam Neeson’s character—a gruff sniper assigned to protect oil workers from the dangers of wolves—wants so badly to die, only to reverse course when the plane he’s on crashes and he’s thrown into conflict with a pack of relentless animals who pick apart the remaining crew one by one. Since Taken, Neeson has become something of an action film staple, with each successive movie that follows being a little more soulless than the last. The Grey not only reverses that trend, but manages to bring a good deal of suspense to the barren snowscape Neeson is forced to wander, relying not on grisly scenes where wolves rip at the flesh of hapless, weary travelers, but on a healthy fear of the unknown. One of the year’s most pleasantly surprising movies.
Runner Up: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Underappreciated Science Fiction Film of the Year
Prometheus (full review)
I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the failure of Disney’s John Carter that led to their purchase of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars brand, but whereas the pleasant pulp proceedings of Andrew Stanton’s debut live action feature resulted mostly in indifferent shrugs, Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-hyped Alien prequel, inspired the kind of invective typically reserved for, well, Star Wars prequels. Yes, the vast majority of the scientists hurtling off into space after an alien beacon are unrelentingly stupid. There’s no way around that, and if you take Prometheus as a meditation on the origins of creation, perhaps the overly-curious biologist and the tremendously clumsy geologist are borderline offensive. Plenty of movies are released about gods and monsters. Few, however, are brave enough to consider god as a monster: a petulant, bored Übermensch bending its imagination towards ways of killing off one of its better creations. Portions of Prometheus come across half-baked, and I hear that in the DVD commentary, Scott claims that he had no ideas for the film for quite some time. As endless directors and final cuts of ultimately superior films show, Ridley Scott is an endless tinkerer. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Prometheus becomes something of a long-term project for him the way Blade Runner was, or if one of his future cuts wound up being superior to what wound up in the theater.
Runner Up: John Carter
Best Film Involving Joss Whedon
The Cabin in the Woods (full review)
Answer honestly, which reveal was better: the alien army that laid waste to Manhattan in The Avengers, or the promised merman of Cabin in the Woods? Heavily delayed and yet still able to get the drop on 2013’s upcoming Evil Dead reboot, The Cabin in the Woods gleefully throws everything great about cheesy Dead Teenager movies into a blender and purees that sucker until its a concoction fit for the Old Gods. Whedon’s quirks may be more self-evident in The Avengers, which he directed, but The Cabin in the Woods gives its characters a reason to make stupid decisions and speak like dumb teenagers; the superheroes of the Marvel Universe often do these things without pretense. The Cabin in the Woods manages meta-humor while delivering on its high concept premise, something few horror films have been able to do since Scream, and even if the ending could have been improved by leaving a little more to the imagination, its nerdy in-jokes and references don’t require The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe for meaning, nor did it require an elaborate series of lead-in movies to get off the ground. Not that those factors damn The Avengers (as an ex-obsessive, they’re part of the reason I enjoyed the film as much as I did), but The Cabin in the Woods squeaks by as the more impressive achievement, a sarcastic romp through a wasteland of VHS slashers populated with the rubber-suited dregs of a disregarded genre.
Runner Up: The Avengers
Best Horror Movie
Pauline dreams of being a surgeon, but she seems to realize that those dreams are unrealistic unless she takes matters into her own hands. Excision is her story, and it painstakingly paints her as a weird girl, fetishizing blood and botched surgery, failing her classes despite how smart she is, battling her oppressively Catholic mother, and choosing which boy she’d most like to lose her virginity to. It wants to see how far she’s willing to push those obsessions. Though nowhere near the off-kilter insanity of John Waters’s work, it makes a certain amount of sense that the trash director would be drafted to play a priest here: Waters happens to be the patron saint of any filmmaker who’d have their protagonist contemplate the mystery of a used tampon. Incisively funny and, at times, genuinely disturbing, Excision was the one horror movie I saw this year that branded itself as part of the genre and lived up to its expectations. It’s nice to see that some horror movies get made without zombies or exorcisms. Even better when those movies have some backbone.
Runners Up: Killer Joe and The Cabin in the Woods
Best Movie About a Quixotically Doomed Family
Moonrise Kingdom (full review)
Moonrise Kingdom isn’t exactly a tragedy; unlike, say, The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic, there’s a chance, however slight, that the kids here will turn out alright. Sam and Suzy—an orphaned boy scout and the disgruntled daughter of two incommunicative lawyers, respectively—set off on a journey to forge a utopian kingdom on the edge of the New England island where they live. However perfect their plot seems, Anderson spares no time in pointing out the futility of it all: if Suzy’s parents, Sam’s Khaki Scout compatriots, and the island’s meager police force don’t ruin everything, the impending hurricane will. This is all merely groundwork for another of Anderson’s picaresque, diorama fantasies, wherein an unlikely alliance gathers to save Sam from the clutches of state protective custody, perhaps the only thing worse than finding yourself a member of a real, maladjusted family unit.
Runner Up: Lincoln
Best Film Starring Matthew McConaughey
Killer Joe (full review)
2012 was full of films about bad, corrupt, despicable men, but none more so than “Killer” Joe Cooper, a Dallas detective who moonlights as a paid killer. McConaughey was great as Bernie‘s Danny Buck and better in Magic Mike as strip club impresario Dallas, but in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, he’s a different animal entirely, terrorizing the hick marks who hire him to kill their estranged mother, who reportedly has a huge life insurance policy, and seducing the underaged Dottie, who isn’t quite smart enough to realize what Killer Joe wants from her. It’s a terrifying, unsettling film, and it’s impossible to say what’s more uncomfortable: the scene involving Dottie’s dress, or the one where Killer Joe dishes out his unique brand of justice using a KFC drumstick. Friedkin, even with The Exorcist, Bug, and Cruising under his belt, continues to be a director who thrives when disgisting his audience. Killer Joe is one of his most difficult movies: even given how despicable Joe Cooper is, nobody beyond Dottie is worth rooting for, and the choices presented to her are equally unappetizing.
Runner Up: Magic Mike
Best Movie Taking Place in a Limousine
Cosmopolis (full review)
Another film about a despicable man, at least David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis has a protagonist that’s identifiably human. Eric Packer, as played by Robert Pattinson, is a man full of desire. He wants sex. He wants a haircut. He wants purpose, but doesn’t find it in money, business, or the expensive limousine he rides around in, which is a city unto itself. There’s a world outside his limo teeming with people who know exactly what they want, who eat and breathe and shit their desires, who threaten to spoil Packer’s day. There are people who exist to serve Packer who threaten to do that, as well. Accidentally well-timed to coincide with the Occupy Movement, few movies do as well in capturing, however briefly, the pulse of that conflict.
Runner Up: Arbitrage
Best Movie About Time Travel
Looper (full review)
Director Rian Johnson’s career thus far has been one hyper-stylized take on genre film after another, but Looper goes a step further. Its synthesis of noir and science fiction is unlike anything since the original Matrix movie, and it embraces the tropes of time travel stories in a way that’s ultimately new. Looper creates an entirely new world during its runtime, drawing on a legacy of comic book superpowers, wrong man stories, film noir, and retro-futurism, but ends up settling down in a farm house, asking its audience if its OK to kill a child if that child grows up to be a world conquering dictator. It’s the inverse of The Terminator, casting its humans as the killing machines and the eventual killer robot as the empathetic character needing a protector. The movie seems at least partly engineered to inspire fierce debate about the mechanics of time travel as employed by the loopers, much like the way dream thievery worked in Inception, but those rules, thankfully, are Johnson’s secondary ambition.
Runner Up: Safety Not Guaranteed
The Best Films of 2012
The second half of Quentin Tarantino’s 20-year career, recently celebrated with an elaborate blu-ray boxed set of his films, has largely been spent telling revenge stories. Beginning with the relatively simple Kill Bill saga, the director’s fantasias of violence, long defined by their nihilism as much as his penchant for blood spatter and pop culture diatribes, began to take on meaning. Having screwed with the conventions of crime films for so long, he began synthesizing other, grittier influences into his work, b-movie stuff that was rarely afforded effusive praise. The two part Kill Bill sees a mother reunited with her child through a blend of kung-fu and samurai violence. In Death Proof, a glamorous trio of women exact their revenge on a brutal serial killer using slasher films and road movies as a template. Inglourious Basterds had a Jewish battalion sneak deep behind enemy lines to execute the Nazi high command. It’s clear that Tarantino now fetishizes the underdog as much as he once did women’s feet, but even Basterds, with its Jewish protagonists and their Jew-hunting adversary, largely shied away the big issues simmering away beneath the director’s chosen subject matter. With Django Unchained, that is no longer the case. Now sampling from his own plots—a team of bounty hunters go under deep cover so an ex-slave can be reunited with his wife—Tarantino sends his protagonists through the cotton plantations and slave auction towns of the deep south. Avoiding the issue of race in the name of populist fun would have been impossible, but that was never Tarantino’s aim. The rest of his revenge epics feel like a lead-in to this, an exploitation filmmaker’s wet dream of charged, combustible elements.
Django Unchained is a brutal portrait of the antebellum south, and the majority of its laughs, large or small, are uncomfortable. Tarantino may romanticize spaghetti westerns and grindhouse films like The Legend of Nigger Charlie, but he holds no such torch for the patrician society built entirely on the backs of slaves. Samuel L. Jackson’s break from playing the badass has gotten plenty of press, but look closely at Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J. Candie and he’s not too far off from the modern American billionaire, a man who owns sports teams or sponsors MMA fighters, offering meager rewards to men from punishingly crushing economic backgrounds in exchange for their health. Though it’s as prone to indulgence as any other Tarantino film (his choice to cast himself as an Australian slaver is hard to defend, even if you want to spin it as recompense for his “dead nigger storage” monologue from Pulp Fiction), Django Unchained is still an expansive, important experience. As the partnership between Jaime Foxx and Christoph Waltz celebrates the post-Obama fantasy of a “post-racism” America, the country the bounty hunting duo blast their way through is shockingly not so far removed from our own.
The Master (full review)
Supposedly an allegory for the formation of Scientology, Paul Thomas Anderson’s mystifying The Master is, like so many of the director’s films, a twisted reflection of fatherhood. The Master—author-turned-cult-figurehead Lancaster Dodd, as played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman—runs a scam on America’s unsuspecting wealthy, painting himself as a father figure who has the ability to lead folks to enlightenment via the shedding of one’s animal self. The only person he’s truly a father to is Freddie Quell, a psychotic veteran prone to fits of rage who accidentally poisons those around him with the liquor he makes from the rocket fuel and paint thinner he finds laying around. In Quell, Lancaster Dodd sees somebody he can actually test his new faith on: a real animal, not the fattened, ignorant cows eager to hand him their billfolds. Naturally, he fails, but his failure to tame Freddie Quell makes The Master more determined; either Freddie will bend to his will, or he’ll crack.
Anderson’s film is sumptuous, owing to the decision to shoot in 65mm. Much of the film takes place indoors, but the larger format serves to illustrate how lost Freddie Quell is in Dodd’s crowd, encourages the audience to get lost in the canyons of Quell’s scarred anatomy as Dodd often does. Quell, an enigmatic Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of his career, so completely flummoxes Lancaster Dodd that their relationship becomes one grounded by desire and disgust. Occasionally, that desire comes to the fore: the initiation sequences where Dodd revels in his intellectual superiority, the wrestling match that takes place just after the two are released from prison. Mostly, both men do their best to bury things deep. It doesn’t work: Dodd’s wife recognizes that Quell will lead her husband to self-destruction, his followers realize the flaws in his work, and Quell himself is unwilling to submit. It’s the most intimate cults whose tendrils reach deepest.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (full review)
We Need to Talk About Kevin saw limited release early in 2012 and would have been relevant without the year’s glut of gun violence: the film, directed by Lynne Ramsay from Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel, is very much one of an America scarred by a cycle of school shootings. It makes no effort to explain why Kevin—portrayed as a deeply unhappy child at several stages of his life—turns his cruelty upon his classmates, but there’s really no need: cries against violent video games, music, and films, to list a few scapegoats, are merely salves applied to wounds that will never heal. Instead, Ramsay focuses on the relationship between Kevin and his mother; Tilda Swinton as a woman to whom the concept of motherhood is alien. They’re both entirely miserable people, but where Eva’s problem is so clearly her son, she has no real way of knowing why Kevin is the way he is.
She’s forced to play Kevin’s games, watching him make nice with his father (John C. Reilly, whose complete obliviousness to his child’s mental state is, in many ways, the most chilling thing about the film), who defends Kevin to the point that they’re close to divorce over him. Split between the time after Kevin’s massacre and the events that lead up to it, We Need to Talk About Kevin is particularly vital in documenting the aftermath of the shooting. Often, the small towns that house mass shootings are swallowed whole by the 24-hour news cycle, digested, then forgotten about until the next tragic event (unexplained by CNN during its coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting: the scroll item claiming that the day’s events had triggered a “psychic battle” for those who survived Columbine). Eva Khatchadourian, so long an unsympathetic figure even to her husband, is suddenly cast as the town’s pariah, a role she accepts because, well, what else can she do? Though it’s maybe understandable when the mother of a dead child lashes out at her in the grocery store, the violence and scorn heaped upon her is tragic considering what she, too, has lost. Those defiling her house and spitting sexual epithets at her during parties are shameless people, not unlike individuals calling for a further armed populace in the wake of so much senseless tragedy.