DISCLAIMER: For personal and professional reasons too boring to recount, at this writing I have yet to see ANY of the big awards-season movies -- you know, the ones making every other movie reviewer's year-end list of favorites. This includes stuff like "Zero Dark Thirty," "Lincoln," "Amour," "Holy Motors," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Django Unchained" and WAY too many of the films on this list.
I'm catching up with those flicks as fast as I can. But I liked (and frequently loved) these. Links go to my reviews.
You could argue that Wes Anderson's entire career builds up to this masterful comedy about an island of sad adults thrown into upheaval by a runaway-tween romance. It's funny and melancholic and storybook-beautiful -- and features some of Anderson's strongest use of music and actors.
If you thought "There Will Be Blood" was too cuddly, you'll be pleased to hear Paul Thomas Anderson stares hard into the abyss in his sixth feature -- the abyss being the tortured face of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a wounded animal changed by a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in ways the cult leader didn't quite intend.
The year's most disturbing horror movie was Ben Wheatley's freaky tale of two contract killers who take on a series of hits that lead them to increasingly weird places. The dream-logic, gets-inside-your-head vibe might best be described as "The Shining" meets "The Wicker Man" meets David Lynch, but with more gunplay. (Also, the film really rewards a second viewing, during which I suggest you look for all the oddly placed King Arthur references.) "Kill List" made me feel like I was getting pithed while I was watching it -- but in a good way.
The Wachowskis boldly jumped right off the cliff adapting a supposedly unadaptable novel -- and the result is a surprisingly beautiful, densely edited, provocative and huge-hearted movie about love and tolerance across the centuries. (Had a long discussion about the movie and its attendant controversies on this podcast.)
The Avengers / The Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon gave us the genre double-feature of the year: He wrote and directed Marvel's wildly entertaining pop superhero team-up and co-wrote a low-budget horror comedy that brilliantly deconstructs horror tropes. Bring on "Much Ado About Nothing."
Damsels in Distress
Writer/director Whit Stillman returned with his first feature in 13 years, and gave us something sort of awesomely barmy: He tries to marry the deadpan comedy of manners you'd expect from the director of "Metropolitan" with dance numbers and a bunch of cartoony slapstick. I loved the attempt and how completely personal and '90s-indie-film-sloppy it felt.
Writer/director Rian Johnson ("Brick," "The Brothers Bloom") once again stuffs as many ideas as possible into an alternate-reality thriller -- this time mashing up "Terminator"-style time travel, telekinetic horror and a generational conflict involving the same self-centered guy at two different ages. Joseph Gordon-Levitt embodies a young Bruce Willis without ever resorting to caricature.
21 Jump Street
If you had told me a year ago that the breakout comedy performance of 2012 would involve Channing Tatum jumping through a gong while yelling "Fuck you Miles Davis!," I would have laughed at you. This year, I laughed at him.
Speaking of Chatum: This semiautobiographical story about his male-stripper days needed a trip to ending school, but damn, it gets so much right in its first two-thirds. There's the perfectly captured reckless tone of shouted nightclub conversations. The tiny funny human interactions between Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn and Channing Tatum and pretty much everyone. Olivia Munn's casual don't-ask-too-many-questions ruthlessness. And good Lord Matthew McConaughey, mercilessly mocking his star persona in a year full of career-reinventing character performances for him (including this, "Killer Joe" and "Bernie"). Welcome back, Wooderson.
With the help of grade-A filmmakers (including Sam Mendes and Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins) and a script with some dramatic teeth, Daniel Craig's James Bond finally gathered all the classic Connery trappings -- from Q to the gadget-laden car -- in a way that honored the 50-year film series' history while also completing the series reinvention started with "Casino Royale." The hall-of-mirrors sequence -- in which Bond stalks an assassin while sillhouetted in a neon-bathed Shanghai skyscraper -- was basically Deakins pornography.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower
Writer/director Stephen Chbosky, adapting his 1999 novel, crafts a big-hearted, delicate comedy-drama that nails the early '90s while celebrating the friends and mentors who guide you through assorted high-school traumas.
The Queen of Versailles
I went into "Queen of Versailles" thinking I was going to have a fun schaden-chuckle at the expense of buffoons living inside a bubble of obscene luxury. Not so much. Lauren Greenfield's documentary meets workaholic time-share king David Siegel and his shopaholic trophy wife Jackie as they're about to build the biggest house in America. But then the economy collapses. Siegel's business suddenly provides a metaphor for what binging on subprime mortgages did to the U.S., and you can't help but feel for the generous-but-deluded couple, their kids, and especially their employees and immigrant live-in help as everything starts to crumble. The whole thing ends up being almost unbearably poignant.
The best bleakest scene in movies this year was Liam Neeson yelling at the heavens in a freezing river and then muttering, "Fuck it, I'll do it myself" during a key moment in Joe Carnahan's expectations-subverting existential survival adventure.
The best new idea wrung out of the found-footage genre was a found-footage superhero movie. It's also probably the best riff on "Akira" we'll see committed to film. (Bonus viewing: "Chronicle" screenwriter Max Landis' drunken riff on the Death of Superman.)
Laika is now batting two-for-two with "Coraline" and this gorgeously animated zombie comedy. Loved the way the zombies were used to comment on both sides of the dangers of mass hysteria. (Full disclosure: My biological father helped build the practical sets on this flick. He did a kick-ass job.)
Gina Carano brought a stunning MMA physicality to the year's leanest-and-meanest action flick. (Bring on her and The Rock in "Fast Six," I wrote 100-percent unironically.)
The best stupid time I've had at the movies in maybe years. A lost 1987 martial-arts flick that makes every lunatic amateurish creative choice with such energy and raw enthusiasm that it becomes what film writer Jeremy "Mr. Beaks" Smith rightly called "a psychotronic masterpiece." Rediscovered and redistributed by Drafthouse Films, it destroyed the crowd at the Hollywood Theatre in late 2012 -- standing ovations, howls of enthusiasm, you name it. If it returns, make an effort. If you rent it, bring like-minded friends and a six-pack.
... goes to Red Letter Media, for utterly demolishing the year's most disappointing movie, "Prometheus," by just having one guy sit in a room and ask another guy questions for four minutes.
Mike Russell's Top 10 Movies of 2012 (The Oregonian, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012)