If the genre films I saw in 2012 had one thing in common, it’s that most subverted my expectations. The movies I most anticipated were lackluster or downright dumb (I’m looking at you Prometheus), while films I never even intended to watch took me by complete surprise.
In any event, here are my five best and one worst. Feel free to chime in with comments and picks of your own!
Here’s the thing: I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I really love Bruce Willis. And I love high-concept time travel most of all. But Looper barely matches the sum of these considerable parts, and never comes close exceeding them. And the fault lies entirely with the film’s disjointed story, tone and pacing.
Looper is three films in one. It starts out as an intriguing and original futuristic drama with an inspired time travel premise. It then veers into more conventional chase/thriller territory, occasionally standing out for some clever time travel elements. But then the film grinds to a tedious halt in an overlong third act that attempts to tie marginal plot points peppered throughout the film into an overarching conclusion that just doesn’t gel very effectively. It feels like the ending of a completely different movie.
To compound matters, the film sites that I regularly read were all having giant, sloppy orgasms over this film, so I came in with impossibly high expectations. But while I laud its ambition and originality, Looper is ultimately just an okay movie.
4) The Avengers
No deep treatise on this one. This long-awaited Marvel team-up film was great fun and had a perfect blend of character and action. I can now buy the idea that Chris Hemsworth’s Thor exists in the same universe as Robert Downey’s Iron Man.
But the real kudos for Marvel’s The Avengers goes to Scarlett Johanssen and Jeremy Renner for making the two non-powered Avengers the most interesting. I’d gladly pay to see a Hawkeye/Black Widow spinoff movie.
I hope DC and Warner Brothers are taking notes and furiously trying to lure Joss Whedon into a fat contract for writing and directing a JLA film, because The Avengers shows that it can be done right. Not that I expect it to be done right; Green Lantern and Superman Returns cured me of that delusion. But if Man of Steel is as promising as it looks, DC fans may have a fighting chance. And fuck Nolan’s relentlessly dour and self-important Batverse right in its ear.
3) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
First things first: I DID NOT see this film in HFR 3D and as a result, I don’t think I had many of the negative issues other reviewers did, who seemed hung up on the distracting presentation above all else.
The 2D/24 fps version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fits nicely within the aesthetic of Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy and Martin Freeman is enjoyable as Bilbo Baggins. McKellen plays it like he never took off the Gandalf costume, and Andy Serkis’s return as Gollum is the film’s high point (and will be the high point of the entire trilogy, I suspect). Richard Armitage’s serious portrayal of Thorin also serves to ground the somewhat manic dwarves. I look forward to seeing where he takes the character as the story progresses.
Before seeing this film I reread The Hobbit and then checked the appendices of The Lord of the Rings as well as a story in Unfinished Tales to get a sense of the events occurring in Middle Earth at the time of Bilbo’s adventures, and just why Gandalf chose the unlikely Hobbit to join Thorin’s quest to The Lonely Mountain. I’m glad I did, because this is the stuff Jackson used to give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey some of the same gravitas of his earlier Rings trilogy and I think the movie works exceedingly well at blending these elements into a broader narrative. Or at least well enough to forgive the film’s sometimes uneven tone. I look forward to the next two installments, with perhaps a little less Radagast…
2) The Hunger Games
Here’s a sample conversation I’ve had with many of my middle-aged male friends over the past year or two:
Me: “So, what are you reading?”
Him: “The Hunger Games.”
Me: “How does it feel to have the reading prowess of a 14-year-old girl?”
So, yeah, ripping on The Hunger Games has been one of my favorite pastimes. But I have to admit, the movie adaptation was an extremely pleasant surprise. This is due almost entirely to Jennifer Lawrence, whose Katniss Everdeen was the perfect blend of tough and vulnerable. It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve been half in love with her since X-Men: First Class. Woody Harrelson also helped lend some credence to the proceedings, which were more nuanced and gritty than I was expecting. All in all, it blew away my low expectations and I’ll see the sequel. But my casual mockery of the book series will persist. When you’re finished reading Hunger Games, try graduating from literary middle school and giving A Song of Ice and Fire a try. Girl.
1) The Cabin in the Woods
Game changing. Paradigm shifting. Like Looper, the advance buzz on The Cabin in the Woods set my expectations impossibly high. Only in this case, Joss Whedon easily exceeded them.
The Cabin in the Woods embraces the tried, true and tired tropes of the horror/slasher genres and turns them on their ear, creating a clever and original gem of a film. If you know anything about this film, it’s that you should go in as ignorant of its plot as possible, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one. The Cabin in the Woods is like everything and nothing you’ve ever seen before.
And though a lot has been made of Chris Hemsworth’s performance—it was shot before he made it big as Thor—the real heroes of the movie are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Jenkins especially should be in everything.
Honorable Mention: Skyfall
When Casino Royale came out, I said finally, a James Bond I can get on board with. Daniel Craig embodies the suave yet menacing spirit of Ian Fleming’s sanctioned professional killer. And I really enjoyed his third outing as James Bond. Of course Skyfall is no Casino Royale, but it’s worlds better than Quantum of Solace, and does an exceedingly good job of making the Bond mythos relevant for the 21st Century.
My only criticism is that after spending an entire film deconstructing and redefining the character, Skyfall ends exactly where Dr. No begins. It’s a neat trick for Bond devotees, but it gives me pause as to how—or if—the franchise will move forward. I mean, if this is where you end up, then what was the purpose of redefining the character in the first place? Are we veering back toward the smarmy camp that marred my formative Bond years in the 1980s? God I hope not.
Worst Film of 2012) The Amazing Spider-Man
A mopey, emo, skateboarding Peter Parker who can’t even manage to stammer out a coherent sentence? Shame on you Andrew Garfield. You’re better than this. You fought Daleks in Manhattan.
When not redefining Peter Parker as an unrelatable, unlikable weirdo, The Amazing Spider-Man’s chief occupation is cramming in as many gratuitous 3D POV and web-swinging splash panel shots as possible. And I can’t decide who was wasted more, Martin Sheen or Sally Field. Probably Sally Field. Sam! Tobey! Come back!