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The Top Ten Films of 2012

January 24, 2013



Well, here we are again. The arbitrary and inevitable year-end list. There’s no getting around it. We toil over our choices, play with the order and probably think about it way too long. After all, it’s so subjective.

For some reason, it was really hard to narrow it down to Ten this year. It typically feels like that when it comes to tackling a Top Ten list, but this time it just felt like there were some noteworthy films that filled the 11-20 spots.  Like usual, I had to consider which movies I’d seen more than once, which ones I’d recommended or championed last year, and most of all which movies still resonate with me for whatever reason. In the end, all that really mattered to me is that I will be able to confidently look back and feel good about the films on my list. And I do. At least right now I do.

2012 saw the addition of two new writers, so if you haven’t already, please welcome Matt Streets (aka The Criterion Completist) and Tim O’Brien (a voracious writer over at Just Hit Play), to Keeping It Reel. Of course, that means they have to join me in this annual duty. They’ve sweated over their own list just as I have my own and now we can see how all three match up. While there’s definitely some similarities, our own individual lists say a little something about where our tastes lie.

Alright, that’s enough yappin’. Go ahead and scour through our Top Ten and feel free to comment with your own or tell us whether or not you agree with out selections. Thanks for following Keeping It Reel. We’re all looking forward to an incredible new year at the movies. Links to previous reviews (if avail.) will be highlighted with a link in the film’s title….


Honorable Mentions

Tim – 21 Jump Street

Matt – Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Arbitrage, Looper, God Bless America, Compliance

David – The Grey, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Dark Knight Rises, Compliance, Django Unchained, Life of Pi & John Carter (to name a few)







Am I proud I liked this movie? No, not especially. Am I a little embarrassed it is making my Top 10 list? Oh, yes, that’s an affirmative. The high school party as a backdrop to a story is nothing new, but this is that party on steroids. Anything and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. The whole movie is shot from a first-person perspective as high school regular guy Thomas is having a birthday party thrown to him by his friends Costa (the a-hole) and J.B. (the nerd). Frenetic energy, surprisingly funny and featuring a techno-house heavy soundtrack. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray)


Fearless performances from Helen Hunt and John Hawkes help support a slightly limp plotline in this candid and explicitly sexual comedy drama.  The story of a man who spends 20 hours a day in an iron lung trying to lose his virginity is certainly novel (and true, it was based off of his article about the endeavor) but it’s the performances of the two leads that truly shine. (still in theaters) 


Sam Mendes, director of “American Beauty” making a James Bond film? Say what? Well, he also made “Road to Perdition”, which starred Daniel Craig, the current 007. Mendes, with screenwriter John Logan made a Bond film for the die-hard fans and one that is accessible to anyone. It’s a classic Bond film, offering a refreshing nod to its 50 year franchise history without getting too retro or over-indulgent. “Skyfall” breaks down the character to his basic elements without getting gimmicky or self-masturbatory. It’s also the best-looking Bond film in some time, lensed by the incomparable Roger Deakins and there’s enough set-up for us to anticipate greatness in more films to come. (still in theaters; wide Digital HD release on February 5th, 2013) with a DVD/Blu-ray release of February 12th, 2013 (U.S.) and February 18th, 2013 (UK)  





Athletes making the jump from the world of sports to the world of movies is typically a tricky walk through a minefield. MMA fighter Gina Carano makes that jump effortlessly, in an understated, minimalist part as Mallory Kane, a black ops specialist burned by her employer. Great supporting cast — Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Ewan MacGregor, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton — in this no frills, realistic action heavy spy thriller. Director Steven Soderbergh’s spy movie has an art house feel to it, blending the action, style and subtle, smooth score effortlessly. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray & streaming on Netflix Instant) 

Matt – BERNIE 

A nasty, darkly humorous little piece of Texas noir, this plays like early Coen brothers, but director Richard Linklater gives it more heart with his hilariously deadpan interviews of the small town citizens who all love Bernie (Jack Black).  Matthew McConaughey plays the incredulous local DA, and is much better here than his other Texas movie year “Killer Joe”. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray & streaming on Netflix Instant) 


You may think you know what you’re in store for when you learn that this is a horror movie about a group of college kids who make their way to a cabin in the woods for some good times – but you don’t. Directer Drew Goddard co-wrote the film with Joss Whedon, who both show a love for horror genre conventions which they flip it them on their head and crank it to 11. It’s a movie that could also be making fun of moviegoers who eat up the mindless modern horror remakes released each year. Fortunately, the movie’s wit and humor saves the film from being as mean-spirited and lazy as those other films. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray) 




Jack Black in “Bernie”





Tim – ARGO

Director Ben Affleck continues to make a name for himself behind the camera as much as in front of it. I thought some reviews were especially generous with this political thriller, but I liked it more the more I thought about it. Affleck delivers a solid, workmanlike performance, but it’s John Goodman and Alan Arkin that steal the show in the true story of the trickiest of plans to rescue Americans hiding in war-torn Iran. It has the tone and style of a 1970s political thriller, self-assured, well-written and featuring an amazingly intense finale. (still in theaters; coming on DVD/Blu-ray on February 19, 2013) 


Ken Burns does his best Errol Morris and shines a light on this dark piece of New York City history, the case of 5 black teenaged boys wrongly accused and convicted of raping and nearly killing a white female jogger in Central Park.  The documentary so clearly lays out the facts, and so clearly shows their innocence, that the State of New York has filed court motions to seize their research materials in a lawsuit against them, claiming that the bias of the film waives their rights as journalists.  Documentary filmmaking at it’s finest. (still in theaters)


I smile just thinking about Wes Anderson’s latest film, a coming-of-age tale that takes place in the 60s, a time period which fits perfectly with Anderson’s style. While the movie boasts the typically splendid ensemble Anderson cast, it’s the two young leads who steal it, providing us with an adorably innocent portrait of first love – the kind that adults have forgotten about. It’s probably my favorite of Anderson’s since “Rushmore”. It’s sweet while being somewhat morose, yet at times contemplative and (yes) quirky, complete with great cinematography and art direction. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray) 




Tim – TED

A foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, sex-obsessed, pop culture-quoting teddy bear. That’s all. That’s it. You need to know nothing else. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane makes the jump from TV to film, and he doesn’t disappoint. His weird, rambling sense of humor provides plenty of random, off-the-wall moments with the story of John (Mark Wahlberg), who as a boy wishes his teddy bear could come to life and…..Ta-Da, Ted is alive! But what about some 20-plus years later when Ted is still around and a handful to watch over? Up there with 21 Jump Street as the funniest movie I saw in 2012 and also featuring Mila Kunis. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray)


I guess little kids can have midlife crises too, and Wes Anderson is here to show us how and why.  This is back to form Anderson, but with a bit more whimsy, and a slightly darker edge.  I keep thinking that none of his movies will ever be set in the present day, just because it’s cool to shoot people smoking in restaurants.


Here’s the movie I’ve consistently recommended since I saw it back in June. Every year there is a film made by a director I’ve never heard of, staring an actor I’ve never seen before, that smacks me upside the head (in the best way possible). The French thriller “Sleepless Night” is directed by Frederic Jardin and stars Tomer Sisley as a corrupt cop in over his head, which might just cost his adolescent son his life. Labeled as “Die Hard at a Nightclub” by some, because the majority of the intense film takes place in the wee hours of a club. Well-executed with fantastic non-CGI action, “Sleepless Night” is the action thriller that hardly anyone saw last year – but they should. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray; now streaming on Netflix Instant) 




Samy Seghir and Tomer Sisley in “Sleepless Night”






Talk about a movie being mismarketed. This survivalist story was billed as an action thriller featuring all-around badass Liam Neeson dispatching rabid, vicious wolves left and right. The real story? A small group of survivors of a downed plane in the Canadian wilderness must fight for survival, battling the horrific elements, dwindling supplies, and a pack of wolves waiting to strike. It works far better as drama as opposed to action so know what you’re getting into, and you won’t be disappointed. Neeson is a perfect casting choice with Dermot Mulroney heading the supporting cast in a drama that is surprisingly effective and emotional. One of the most pleasant surprises I saw in 2012. (now streaming on Netflix Instant) 


Despite the title, this film is actually about ending the Civil War and passing the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.  Still, Daniel Day-Lewis puts in an astonishing performance as our beloved President, and every single supporting character is excellent, even Lena Dunham’s boyfriend in “Girls” as a telegraph officer.  Spielberg shows remarkable restraint, and almost seems to purposefully avoid overly dramatic scenes and conflicts, giving the film an overall feeling of meditative sadness and reflection. (still in theaters)

David – LOOPER

“Looper” is writer/director Rian Johnson’s third film and so far, he hasn’t disappointed. It’s not easy to create a compelling time travel movie, it’s a sci-fi subgenre that often gets tripped up by poor execution, causing confusion and frustration for the audience. That doesn’t happen with what Johnson does, mainly because the focus moreso on character than it is in tripping up the time space continuum. It helps that he has Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis (offering solid nuanced work) as Young and Old Joe to carry the film, but it’s Johnson’s solid script that they should be grateful for. “Looper” winds up being a surprisingly complicated film which stems from the behavior the two Joes exhibit, making it quite a captivating story on a moral level. It also looks awesome, uses makeup wisely and has plenty of action. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray) 





Book series turned films aimed at teenage-tweener audiences are something I typically steer clear of, giving both the books and films a wide berth. Cough Twilight cough. I loved the book series, and the film does a fine job making the jump from written word to the big screen. Jennifer Lawrence is a great lead, strong and stubborn as Katniss Everdeen, a teenager thrown into the fight to the death. The opening film does a fine job setting the stage for the series with Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Toby Jones, and Stanley Tucci rounding out an impressive cast. Looking forward to where the series heads next. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray)


I remember seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day opening night in a packed theater with my best friend when I was 14, chomping down on some Milk Duds and cheering on all the crazy action scenes.  It is movies and experiences like those that are why I still love movies today.  There’s nothing wrong with a crowd pleaser, especially when done correctly.  Watching “The Avengersin a theater full of comic fans was the most fun I’ve had in a theater in years.


It took fanboy writer/director Joss Whedon to bring the best Hulk to the big-screen and to do what many thought impossible – combine four separate, independent superhero franchises under one blockbuster. With “The Avengers”, we get a break from the typical dark and gritty comic book adaptations, which is replaced with big colorful action sequences and big egos that have to work together to save the world. The welcome addition of Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk really rounds out a cast that is clearly having a great time. It may not offer that compelling of a story, but with a team of five heroes (or anti-heroes) assembled, it doesn’t really have to, since that’s a story right there. “The Avengers” offered some of the most memorable scenes of 2012 and is the one movie on this list that I’ve seen more than three times. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray) 





The most entertaining — if not best, keep reading — superhero movie ever. Expectations were ridiculously high for this Joss Whedon-directed action epic, and it didn’t disappoint. Playing on the men on a mission premise, the Avengers are assembled to save the world. It’s hard to beat the amount of pure star power brought together from Robert Downey Jr. to Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans to Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johannson to Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth to Gwyneth Paltrow. Genuinely funny and featuring one impressive action scene after another. The definition of what a big budget blockbuster should be, best suited for a summer day with a big old tub of popcorn.


Paul Thomas Anderson seems ready to inherit that grand old title of “great American filmmaker”, bestowed upon such directors as John Ford and Stanley Kubrick, but today only maybe given to someone like Terrence Malick.  But of all the films on this list, “The Master” will probably be the only one taught in film schools decades later.  It’ll be a shame if Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t win Best Actor, it’s one of the most riveting performances I’ve ever seen.


Writer/director David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) continues to prove he knows a thing or two about bringing authentic family relationships to the big-screen.  That’s what we get with his adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel. The characters here may be troubled but we have no trouble hanging out with them because they remind us of our own family or friends, maybe even ourselves. It’s the one movie this year that I knew would be nominated for Best Picture (and other categories) after my first viewing. Even after repeated viewings I was reminded how well-written and acted it is, specifically the two lead performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (playing unhinged and damaged characters, respectively) , giving their best work to date. It’s a dramedy that covers pain, grief and mental illness in a naturalistic fashion and it even throws in ballroom dancing and football obsessing in a realistic manner. It doesn’t try to be but it does wind up becoming the best romantic dramedy of the year. (still in theaters) 




Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Master”






Quentin Tarantino is one of the few directors around who is must-see simply because his name is attached to a movie. This is a film that defies any specific description, Tarantino putting all his talent on display. His script is a gem — if a little long-winded at times, I know, I was stunned too — with great uses of other soundtracks for his musical score, an incredible visual look, and a cast that doesn’t feature a weak performance. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are perfect together as the unlikely buddy pairing, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson the villains, and a long list of actors/actresses making quick appearances help make this movie special. Darkly funny, incredibly and uncomfortably violent, the story of a pre-Civil War pairing of a bounty hunter and freed slave is a gem. Drifts a bit in the third act, but the first two hours are nearly perfect. (still in theaters) 


Basically a fresh and modern blue-collar Woody Allen film, this was the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in a decade, maybe ever.  After seeing Bradley Cooper in half a dozen films, I had managed to form exactly no opinion whatsoever of him as an actor, but he completely steals the show in this, by far his best performance ever.  Same goes for Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert DeNiro as his father.  My favorite scene in any film this year:  Cooper has a scary breakdown to the strains of Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be”.


The controversy surrounding this film is a load of hooey, but then again must of the cries of “promoting torture” come from people who haven’t seen it and/or have refused to see it. I haven’t heard from anyone that has seen it that feels it promotes or sensationalizes torture. Even if someone does, I find it laughable that they pick this movie over so many other modern Middle Eastern war movies that include torture in their stories. In covering the decade-long post-9/11 search for Osama bin Laden, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (Oscar-winners for “The Hurt Locker”) deliver a riveting procedural led by an obsessed CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain. We know how it ends, but it’s the exhausting, frustrating and agonizing journal that leaves us with and powerful and important film. (still in theaters)





I thought The Dark Knight was the perfect superhero movie, and I was worried about this one when reviews were somewhat mixed. Director Christopher Nolan wraps up his Batman trilogy in grand fashion though, my worries unfounded. The beauty of these movies was the darkness in terms of story, characters and the visual. This is one nasty world, one where Batman is needed more than ever but is nowhere to be found. Christian Bale is at his strongest of the three movies, Michael Caine a scene-stealer when he’s finally given some screentime with Tom Hardy more than holding his own in the villain department as Bane. Oh, and Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard and Anne Hathaway. The whole movie is good, but the last 60 minutes is spot-on, especially the final two scenes. Sorry to see this franchise (the Nolan ones at least) go. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray) 

Matt – LIFE OF PI 

I really really really did not want to see this movie, but was so glad that I did.  Ang Lee’s best film in years completely captured my heart and surprised me by how a simple story of a castaway trapped on a lifeboat with some zoo animals expressed such layers of complexity and interpretation.  Ignore the previews and your preconceived notions and go see this now. (still in theaters) 


There have been a handful of polarizing films in 2012, but none with such an opposing reaction than Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”. People either considered it a masterpiece or they absolutely loathed it. I’ll agree, it’s hard to tell right off the bat what PTA is getting at, but with some of the best work from Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams – who cares? Set just after WWII and loosely based off the birth of Scientology, this is an absorbing battle of the mind and soul between two powerful personalities. It’s ironic that audiences have responding in such a way, since the two men played by Phoenix and Hoffman are polar opposites constantly butting heads throughout, finding each other both attractive and repulsive. It’s another look at masculinity for PTA, examining damaged psyches and inflated egos with an elusive and unresolved ending. (coming to DVD/Blu-ray on February 26, 2013)



Christian Bale and Michael Caine in “The Dark Knight Rises”






As this 23rd James Bond film came together, all the reports were that producers/script writer/director was trying to get back to basics and did it ever. Big picture? It has the feel of what a James Bond movie should be. Daniel Craig continues to inch ever closer to Sean Connery as the best 007, bringing a human, vulnerable edge to one of literature and film’s most iconic characters. This is no longer the jokey, clichéd franchise that Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan unfortunately made it, but a pointed, extraordinarily well-written story with more depth than basically any other Bond film, even learning more about the infamous secret agent. Javier Bardem becomes one of the best villains in the franchise while Judi Dench runs with her chance to actually do something. I loved every single little thing about this movie, one that jumped to the conversation of the best Bond movies ever.


Years from now, how will America’s “war on terror” be remembered?  Will anyone remember the men and women who toiled away for almost 10 years, pouring over endless documents and photographs and transcripts to find the needle in a haystack that was Osama Bin Laden?  Fighting terrorism is dull, meticulous, thankless work, cloaked in an atmosphere of deadly violence, ethical quagmires and bureaucratic red tape.  Absolutely spellbinding from beginning to end, Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece is not only the best film ever made about the CIA, but also a startling reminder of the price we pay for our safety.


The most harrowing and emotional film I saw last year still resonates in a powerful way. Director Juan Antonio Bayona tells the true story of a vacationing family of five that survived the powerful 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. That Bayona recreated the devastating catastrophe using unrecognizable digital effects is an amazing achievement. It all seems so real and at no point is it heavy-handed, earning every heartbreak will feel. As the parents, Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts deliver emotionally raw and physically exhausting performances. Many are of the mind that wouldn’t be able to see such a film, but when they, they’ll see it’s not all doom and gloom, but actually quite uplifting. (still in theaters) 



So, there ya have it – now what about you?

What do you think were the Best Films of 2012?







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