In the year 2012, the record for total box office receipts in a year was broken, and for good reason. The year was packed with exciting new entries in tried-and-true franchises (The Hobbit, The Dark Knight Rises), surprising originals (Looper, Django Unchained), and quality adaptations (Les Miserables, Hunger Games). In case you are interested in checking out a particular film, here’s a look back at some of my personal favorites from the year. Included: Box office grosses and the percentage of critics who gave the film a positive rating, courtesy of rottentomatoes.com.
Ben Affleck brings to life the incredible true events surrounding the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, involving an unlikely partnership between members of Hollywood and the CIA. While keeping the atmosphere thick with suspense, there is still a surprising amount of humor that keeps the narrative enjoyable even in the life-and-death circumstances. Argo is an entertaining, finely-crafted, and historically relevant thriller. Box Office: $128 million | Critics: 96%
Although not as soul-searching or scary as his previous entry in the genre The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Scott Derickson’s Sinister is nonetheless one of the smarter and more unique supernatural thrillers I have ever seen. A terrifying and well-crafted horror thriller. Box Office: $48 million | Critics: 62%
Life of Pi
This spectacular masterpiece is quite possibly the most visually dazzling movie I’ve seen. The tiger alone (yeah, that’s all digital) beats anything in Avatar hands-down. The visual magnificence is only rivaled by the beauty of the deeply spiritual themes. Life of Pi leaves the viewer in awe of both nature and the human spirit. Box Office: $112 million | Critics: 88%
Gritty. Disorienting. Electrifying. Looper is a mind-bending thriller involving time travel, but leave all preconceptions about the genre behind. Writer/Director Rian Johnson teams up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the first time since Johnson’s debut (Brick), and the result is nothing short of awesome excellence. Gordon-Levitt is tasked with playing a younger version of Bruce Willis’ character, incorporating a plethora of the film legend’s idiosyncrasies and subtle characteristics. It lacks the narrative and thematic complexity of Nolan’s work, but there are comparable elements involved. Although Looper may have only seen modest success at the box office, it is sure to maintain a profitable run via at-home viewing. Box Office: $66 million | Critics: 94%
Violent and emotional, Lawless features a star-studded cast with Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman both lighting up the screen, and Shia Lebeauf puts forth possibly his finest work to date. Guy Pearce steals the show as a bitterly arrogant and prideful Chicago detective bent on the elimination of the three brothers who run a moonshine-running criminal enterprise. Based on a true story, director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) brings to life a little-known aspect of American history. Box Office: $37 million | Critics: 67%
As awkward (honest? mature?) as the movie is, I found it to be powerful and a special kind of love story in a grown-up relationship. Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep are both brilliant, and the writing is great. I’m not sure that I can really recommend it to anybody, but it is nonetheless a good film. Box Office: $63 million | Critics: 74%
The Amazing Spider-Man
Action-packed but character-driven, this reboot is without a doubt the best of the franchise. Andrew Garfield, who is one of the most promising talents in Hollywood, displays amazing chemistry opposite Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey. As much a romantic-comedy as it is a superhero movie, The Amazing Spider-Man was the first Spider-Man movie that connected with me on an emotional level, bolstered by Andrew Garfield’s ambitious and completely engrossing portrayal of Peter Parker. Marc Webb directs the heroic web-slinger in his first film since the innovative romantic drama (500) Days of Summer. I believe he was the perfect choice to take the helm for the series. Some say it’s too soon for a reboot. I say that this movie couldn’t have arrived soon enough. Box Office: $262 million | Critics: 73%
When I first read the logline for Chronicle (“After finding a mysterious cave, three teenagers discover they have superpowers…”), I assumed it would be terrible. Then came the trailers, and I realized it looked really cool, with the found-footage gimmick, but still edgy and unique. Then I bought a ticket, and I realized that its tight script, powerful performances, effective and fun special effects, as well as the tragic psychological and philosophical themes, made it one of the best films of the year.
As a natural function of the story, the characters’ telekinesis allows them to float the camera, allowing for surprisingly epic and cinematic shots, contributing to the transcendent themes and tragic plot. Chronicle features a break-out performance from Dane DeHaan, who also received small roles in Lincoln and Lawless, and has now been cast in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as Harry Osborn. Within the hit-or-miss found-footage genre, Chronicle is a standout of originality, packed with action, gripping suspense, and a surprising amount of heart. Box Office: $65 million | Critics: 86%
After a lengthy absence, thanks to MGM’s bankruptcy and subsequent restructuring, Bond is finally back and better than ever. The follow-up to the mostly flat Quantum of Solace is full of spectacle, action, suspense, and more than few twists. Skyfall joins Casino Royale as Bond films that succeed in fleshing out the James Bond character, provoking the viewer to care about the guy, and not just the girls and guns.
The film even takes a stab at Bond’s childhood and thus the character’s psychology, tying his relationship with M to the motivations of the villain. Speaking of which, the villain is one of the strongest in the entire franchise, played masterfully by Javier Borden. Daniel Craig again brings a modern sensibility to his character, trending on the side of gritty, arrogant, and focused. Skyfall also introduces some old Bond characters. Rumor has it that the producers want to sign Craig to several more films, and why not? Skyfall was the first Bond film to gross over $1 billion worldwide.
Skyfall boasts arguably the best cinematography, action, and acting of any Bond yet, and by far the best spy thriller in years. Box Office: $304 million | Critics: 92%
8. Silver Linings Playbook
With nearly every character being a little bit mentally unstable, how could this movie not be a fun, messy, emotional, intense ride? Brilliantly written and executed with enthusiastic flair by its leads, notably Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DiNero, and Bradley Cooper (in that order), Silver Linings Playbook boldly challenges us to confront the crazy in all of us. Box Office: $103 million | Critics: 92%
7. The Grey
What looked to be a pretty straight-forward survivalist movie featuring man versus wolves is actually a deeply-philosophical and thoughtful film about death, but don’t let that scare you. The Grey has all the bone-chilling suspense and action one could possibly hope for, plus one of Liam Neeson’s better performances. Epic and intense. Not only does it have nerve and brawn, but it has heart too. Box Office: $52 million | Critics: 79%
6. Zero Dark Thirty
When I first learned that the current administration was handing over top secret documents to Hollywood producers, I cringed. Thankfully, Zero Dark Thirty stays clear of any clear political messages, and to dwell on any outside political controversies would be a dishonor to the film itself.
Zero Dark Thirty is impressive, not just for its gritty realism and fearlessness, but also for its restraint. Every frame is electric with the feeling that this, or something pretty close to this, actually happened. The reality of the War on Terror and the people fighting it, on the ground and behind the computer monitors, dedicating their minds and lives, is brought to terrifying reality.
Zero Dark Thirty is both intelligently and sensitively written, directed, edited, and acted, with plenty of violence and suspense, worthy of “the greatest manhunt in American history” (and all in impressive short order given how recently the events happened). But this film transcends all that, because it is a story about America. About us. It’s about the exhausting struggle to deliver justice to an evil we can hardly understand. It’s about the fight for meaning in the midst of death and terror. It’s about the search for our very identity as a nation and a people. Because, just like Maya, after the deed is done and the Devil is defeated, we’re left wondering so many things about both our enemy and about ourselves.
With nary a word of dialogue laced with any sort of political undertones, Zero Dark Thirty lets the audience ask and answer its own questions about this pivotal moment in American history. Box Office: $90 million | Critics: 94%
Elevated by brilliant cinematography and awe-inspiring visuals, Prometheus is a masterpiece of spectacle and terror. It is the anti-Avatar with its barren landscapes and cynical tone. It is as thought-provoking as it is horrifying. Noomi Rapace gives a completely engrossing performance as Doctor Shaw, the film’s heroine, and Michael Fassbender nearly steals the show as a devilishly enigmatic android named David. Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce lend star credence to the cast, offering haunting portrayals of their own.
But what struck me, even more than the plot of the movie and the new possibilities it opened, was the questions the film posed, as well as the mythological and spiritual undertones. Regardless of what you believe, this movie will make you think. What do you believe? Do you have your answers? Are your answers reliable? A film that poses these questions in such a powerful way is a very good film indeed. Box Office: $126 million | Critics: 73%
4. Django Unchained
I have to admit, I went into this one with high expectations, but Quentin Tarantino blew them to smithereens with this disturbing, provocative, suspenseful, and hilarious masterpiece. As you’ve probably heard, the film is an homage to old Spaghetti Westerns, injecting scenes showcasing the serious brutality of slavery in 19th century America in between the exploding heads and splattering of blood and guts.
However, what makes it a true masterpiece are the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Samuel L. Jackson, who execute Tarantino’s crafty, clever script to perfection. Jackson reminded me that he is still a great actor, and Christoph Waltz is delightfully amusing as the bounty hunter, but it is DiCaprio who lights the screen on fire, as has become his custom. As the villainous slaveowner Calvin Candie, DiCaprio’s transformation is shocking and outright genius, pivoting between grinning, Southern-accented wit, and sadistic, murderous rage with a dash of insanity. DiCaprio deserved an Oscar for creating and inhabiting such a brilliant character, once again proving that he is the best working actor in Hollywood.
Irreverent, sly, and offensive, Django Unchained is easily one of the most satisfying revenge flicks of all time. Box Office: $158 million | Critics: 89%
3. Les Miserables
Engrossing, emotional, exhilarating. Les Miserables is a musical done right; instead of jumping joltingly between spoken dialogue and song, Les Miz is almost completely musical. Much was made about the live performances of the actors, and for good reason, because film musicals are traditionally looped with pre-recorded performances from the actors; the “live” nature of the performances connects it to the theater in a way that lends it a strange degree of realism. Hugh Jackman holds the film together, and Anne Hathaway’s performance is every bit as good as the hype.
The intimate cinematography encourages the viewer to soak in every note and feel every emotion, as the power of the story envelopes. I truly felt like I had been swept up into a place that pitted the greatest forces of life against each other: justice versus mercy, legalism versus love, and the despair of past sins versus the hope of redemption. The symbolism is so powerful, that you may even be moved to tears, as I was, and perhaps even on multiple occasions.
Box Office: $146 million | Critics: 70%
Steven Spielberg has fashioned a film of tremendous historical import and timeless, masterful artistry. Lincoln envelopes the viewer in the story with its density of pertinent plot points, meaningful imagery, emotional performances, and incredible attention to detail as a legitimate period piece depicting the final months of the life President Lincoln and his political battle to both end slavery and end the Civil War.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln truly mesmerizes the viewer. Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York) is so convincing and riveting as the most beloved political figure in American history, that it is hard not to be completely enraptured by his authentic, layered, and moving portrayal of the often melancholy, introspective, self-deprecating, somewhat peculiar, thoroughly human, yet passionate and attention-commanding figure. He should be a shoo-in for Best Actor at the Oscars. Tommy Lee Jones is also outstanding as the cantankerous, sincere, and passionate abolitionist Representative Thaddeus Stevens.
Lincoln celebrates and honors a legendary and heroic man who is loved and revered, perhaps more than any other American historical figure. The film is worthy of the man it depicts. Box Office: $178 million | Critics: 91%
1. The Dark Knight Rises
Brazen, brutal, and breath-stealing, the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s genre-busting saga is as enlightening as it is electrifying. The Dark Knight Rises ties the first two parts of the trilogy to the finale in seamless fashion. Tom Hardy is ferocious and terrorizing as Bane, who has both the brains and the brawn to match Batman, pound-for-pound, and then some. As a merciless anarchist bent on Gotham’s total destruction, Bane pulls no punches and spares no one if he can help it. When he and Batman finally face off, the combat and violence are escalated to bone-rattling levels. Every scene sizzles with suspense and uncertainty.
Even if people believe that this movie isn’t as good as The Dark Knight, there is no denying that it is a truly great movie in its own right, independent of its predecessor. Its epic themes, immersive performances, and mind-bending plot turns are on the same level as The Dark Knight and, in my opinion, go beyond that movie. The Dark Knight was a crime drama, but this movie takes that to the next level as an epic, echoing the themes of A Tale of Two Cities as well as Greek and Roman mythology. Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan, (who helped write Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight), authored the first 400-page screenplay for the movie and deserves tremendous credit for the risks he takes and for the scope he brought to the table. Critics are calling it the best post-9/11 film, because of its real-world atmosphere and themes that are grounded in today’s defining issues.
Christopher Nolan said that he wanted to “honestly reflect the world we live in,” and it does just that, but it goes a step beyond that: it issues a challenge. It’s a challenge for America and perhaps the world in these times of uncertain, if not outright desperate, economic and political trends. It’s a challenge to be a hero to ourselves, to our friends and family, and to our world. A challenge to fight. To believe… To rise. Box Office: $448 million | Critics: 87%