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The Top 15 Movies of 2012 — Part Three!

In Part One of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, I listed numbers 15 through 11, and in Part Two I listed numbers 10 through 6.  Let’s bring it home with the final installment of my Best Movies of 2012 list!

5. Django Unchained Quentin Tarantino’s fierce, fiery, take-no-prisoners assault on the institution of slavery in America is at once a very serious attempt to look this great evil of American history straight in the eye, while also being a phenomenally entertaining, funny, exciting, action-packed and blood-soaked Spaghetti Western adventure.  That Mr. Tarantino’s film succeeds so wildly on both counts is a testament to his enormous skills as a filmmaker.  Django Unchained is unquestionably the product of Mr. Tarantino’s wonderfully distinct cinematic vision.  The film is filled with astoundingly beautiful dialogue, incredible tension, various (very funny) anachronistic touches, spectacular (and very bloody) action, and a glorious musical score — all of which are Mr. Tarantino’s specialties.  Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are both absolute perfection as the twin anchors of the film, totally commanding in their roles, with each creating iconic, memorable cinematic characters.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson are both equally spectacular as the film’s abhorrent villains.  Django Unchained feels transgressive, it feels dangerous.  It is without question fiercely alive and engaging from the very first frame to the very last, and I found it to be one of the most fun, visceral, intense experiences I had in a movie theatre this year.  (Click here for my original review.)

4. Zero Dark Thirty Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have together created an astonishing cinematic document that powerfully brings to life not only the complex, often seemingly hopeless decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, but also the vast human cost (on all sides) of that pursuit.  For almost three full hours, I sat riveted by the drama on-screen as CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), assigned to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, worked — together with other operatives, interrogators, and analysts — for year after long year, trying to piece together a chain of evidence that would lead U.S. forces to discover the hiding place of Osama bin Laden.  This film revels in the details, in the minutia of Maya’s world, without dumbing anything down or over-explaining anything to audiences.  This is a film that assumes a lot of its audience: that we are decently well-versed in the historical background, and that we are capable of paying close attention to the film as it unfolds.  Jessica Chastain does magnificent, star-making work as the driven but haunted Maya.  The action sequences are phenomenal, particularly the climactic assault on bin Landen’s compound in Pakistan, painstakingly recreated by Ms. Bigelow and her team in the film’s final half-hour.  That sequence is a tour-de-force of filmmaking, gut-wrenchingly tense, a powerful culmination to an epic film.  This is a film that feels important without ever becoming boring or didactic.  It is tough to watch at times, but I found it profoundly engaging and thrilling, and hard-to-shake in the days since I saw it.  (Click here for my original review.)

3. The Avengers The culmination of Marvel’s grand experiment — to create a grand shared cinematic universe, in which they would introduce various Marvel characters through a series of solo films before bringing them all together in one big team-up film — was even better than I ever dared hope it might be.  For that, I mostly credit writer & director Joss Whedon, who has finally found the perfect fit for his vast talents.  When considered on its own, The Avengers works extremely well.  As the culmination of a years-long multi-movie crossover, it is magnificent.  Weaving together story-lines from all of the previous films while developing a new story and a new threat that warrants the assembling of this team of super-heroes, Joss Whedon and his team have created not only a wonderfully entertaining action/adventure film but also a joyous love-letter to the whole Marvel universe.  The film works because of Mr. Whedon’s careful attention to every super-hero character on the team, giving them each very distinct personalities and worldviews and allowing them to bounce off of one another.  I loved the conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, just as much as I loved the unexpected pairing of Tony and Bruce Banner.  I loved seeing The Hulk finally done right.  I couldn’t believe we got to see the Helicarrier on film.  I loved the huge scale of the alien attack on New York in the film’s third act.  I loved the movie-ending reveal of Thanos (what a geeky corner of the Marvel Universe to dip into!!) and I loved loved loved the post-credits schawarma.  This movie never should have worked.  I am so joyful that it did.  (Click here for my original review.)

2. The Cabin in the Woods This movie knocked my socks off.  I went in knowing almost nothing about it, except that it was written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (Cloverfield).  That’s the best way to watch this film.  On the surface it’s about five friends who go on a weekend getaway to a creepy cabin in the woods, but the film is about far more than that.  It’s a love letter to horror films, as well as a deconstruction of horror movie tropes and an analysis of why people love horror movies so much.  Myself, I really DON’T love horror movies, but that didn’t stop me from falling head over heels in love with this film.  The young cast are all terrific (with Dollhouse alum Fran Kranz as the stand-out, in my opinion), and I wish that Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) could get their own spin-off buddy movie because the two men absolutely steal the film.  There were few momentsb I saw on-film in 2012 that were better than the white-board of evil, except of course for the moment late in the film in which all the elevators open.  Those five seconds or so represent what was without question the best moment I had in a movie theater all year.  Genius. (Click here for my original review.)

1. Cloud Atlas Almost no one saw this film, and of the few people who did see it, many of them disliked it.  I am sad for the former, and I think the latter are crazy.  Cloud Atlas spoke to me in a deep and powerful way, and I was absolutely overcome with love and affection for his great big, ambitious film.  The movie was co-written and co-directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run).  The film tells six over-lapping stories, each set in a different time-period ranging from the 1800’s to the far-flung future.  Each story features the same six actors (Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, and Doona Bae) playing different roles (with several other actors, including Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and Hugo Weaving, also popping up in multiple roles across the different stories).  All six stories are intercut with one another throughout the film, in a fascinatingly complex way.  There is no simple pattern to how the stories are cut together.  The Wachowskis and Mr. Tykwer have woven the stories together in a manner that feels like music (like the “Cloud Atlas” symphony at the center of one of the stories), as we dance from one story to another, sometimes lingering in one time-period for a long chunk of time, other times just staying for a moment before moving on to one of the other stories.  It should all be terribly hard to follow, it should all feel choppy and head-scratchingly complex, but it isn’t and it doesn’t.  I am filled with admiration at how beautifully the stories have been woven together, and though the film is three hours long I was never for a second bored or antsy.  No, I was riveted to the screen, enraptured by the stories being told.  Cloud Atlas is funny and sad, thrilling and poignant.  It is devastatingly tragic at moments, but also heartwarmingly uplifting at others.  The film has a lot to say about the interconnectedness of human lives, about the simple kindnesses we can show to one another, and the terrible ways we can hurt one another, and about the ripple effects of both of those choices.  I don’t believe I have ever before seen a movie quite like Cloud Atlas.  I can’t wait for this film to come out on DVD/blu-ray so I can dive deep into its depths again.  This is going to be the film I make anyone who comes over to my house watch for the next several years to come, no question.  Even in this very strong year of movies, this was an easy choice for my favorite film of the year.

I hope you’ll all come back tomorrow as I begin listing my Top 15 Comic Books of 2012, and next week I will list my Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2012 and my Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2012.  See you there!

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