The Best and Worst Films of 2012 – By Matthew Saliba

2012 is a wrap and as I look back on this year in film, a number of narratives come to mind when reflecting on what kind of year it has been for moviegoers.

This year marked the triumphant return of some of our favorite auteur filmmakers. Directors like Tim Burton made two of his most entertaining films in years with the double-whammy of “Dark Shadows” and “Frankenweenie.” Ridley Scott reclaimed his rightful title as the “King of Sci-Fi” with his outstanding “Prometheus.” And Paul Thomas Anderson continued to solidify his burgeoning reputation as the Stanley Kubrick of our generation with his mesmerizing art-house masterpiece, “The Master.”

We also saw several young filmmakers make some of the most stunning films I’ve seen in years. Ben Affleck’s “Argo” was a tense and gripping drama whose final act literally had me sitting on the edge of my seat. Scott Derrickson, a director whom I’ve never heard of before, completely came out of left field with “Sinister,” a genuinely terrifying horror film that while occasionally suffered from “’Ringu’ Syndrome” was otherwise one of the most harrowing experiences I’ve had at the cinema all year. And Canada certainly didn’t disappoint as a number of wonderfully funny films emerged from the “Great White North” with Andrew Bush’s deliriously funny “Roller Town” leading the pack.

We did, however, see a number of disappointing and underwhelming works from our favorite auteurs. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was every much the bloated, empty film many of us feared Peter Jackson would deliver. The fact that it was shot in HFR 3D (48fps) didn’t help matters as it made the film look like a cross between a stage play, a home movie shot on a PD-150 digital video camera and a video game. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was another disappointment. Between its one-dimensional characters, lack of emotional attachment to any of the participants involved, surprisingly weak script and unfortunate choice of a hip-hop soundtrack, Tarantino delivered his first dud. You know things are in trouble when throughout the film, you wish you were watching “Death Proof.”

Another major story to emerge from 2012 was the number of highly enjoyable, extremely well-made and mature animated films that came out of Hollywood. Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Hotel Transylvania” was a hoot and a holler and considering the cast featured the likes of Adam Sandler, David Spade and Kevin James, that’s a miracle in of itself. “ParaNorman” was another dark and surprisingly very mature animated film featuring a lot of adult-aimed humor and a gay character to boot. The aforementioned “Frankenweenie” was very entertaining and the fact that it was filmed in stop-motion animation almost guarantees a special shot in my heart as it’s my favorite kind of animation. Of course, the biggest and for my money, best animated film to emerge from 2012 was Rich Moore’s “Wreck-It Ralph.” For a film that could have been very gimmicky, the story was treated with humor, heart and the kind of emotional depth that has come to define Disney and its subsidiary, Pixar over the years.

But perhaps the biggest story to come out of 2012 for yours truly was the number of really terrible independent films. Say what you will about Hollywood, but there’s an “ironic integrity” to the films they make insofar as, by and large, the people making them don’t have any artistic pretentions to grandeur about their work. Films like “The Avengers” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” are made to make money, plain and simple. We can argue about whether that’s a good thing or not, but the fact remains that these producers make no bones about the fact that the ultimate endgame for these productions is to turn a big enough profit to justify churning out more of the same for the sheeple who consume such trite.

Independent films, on the other hand, tend to be made by filmmakers who have such artistic pretentions. Moreover, they also tend to be made by directors who scorn Hollywood and the number of clichés to be found in its output. Yet these are the same filmmakers who throughout 2012 have been creating annoying clichés of their own.

Some of my “favorites” include the “abrupt ending.” For example, in Richard Bates, Jr.’s “Excision,” rather than offer an ending that resolves the conflict of the narrative or at least offers an ambiguous scenario that has audiences discussing the fate of the characters, it simply ends with characters screaming at each other and then cutting to black. I can’t tell you how many films I saw at the Fantasia International Film Festival this year that ended with this kind of finale. It’s become the new “Deus Ex Machina” for screenwriters who’ve written themselves into a corner and can’t write their way out of it. Kevin Smith was very clever with 2011’s “Red State” where his “Deus Ex Machina” was literally a Deus Ex Machina where we heard “the horns of God.” But in the case of “Excision,” it was simply lazy writing and in an age where tickets for films can sometimes cost up to $20, there’s no excuse for lazy writing, especially if you’re an independent filmmaker desperate to get attention for your film.

And then on that note, there are indie filmmakers so desperate for attention that they write unbelievably convoluted narratives to deceive audiences into thinking they’re watching something deep and profound. Pascal Laugier’s “The Tall Man” was an excellent example of this kind of terrible filmmaking. Here was a film that wasn’t so much driven by plot as it was by plot twists. With one coming right after the other, audiences had a very difficult time deciphering the meaning behind them and furthermore felt like they couldn’t, or wouldn’t invest any emotion in the characters we’re supposed to be caring about for fear that another twist would come out of nowhere thereby further displacing these characters into a perpetual void of indefinability.

But perhaps the biggest sin indie filmmakers have committed this year is the “documentary masquerading as a narrative.” Jason Banker’s “Toad Road” was one such film. Here’s a film that combines elements of Gus Van Sant with David Lynch and would otherwise have found the top spot on my “Best of 2012.” Instead, it’s my most hated film of the year due to the sheer irresponsibility of the filmmaker in allowing these kids to consume copious amount of drugs and alcohol and engage in acts of real violence while he rolled camera on them. Furthermore, as a filmmaker and an artist myself, I found the unmitigated audacity of the director to call his work “art” to be the most offensive thing of all. An artist creates art by simulating reality. If “Toad Road” were presented as an experimental documentary, I may have been able to tolerate it. But filming real life events and calling it a narrative just doesn’t cut the mustard in my book. You didn’t create that. Circumstance and chance did.

So with all that being said, here is a list of my “Top 10 Films of 2012” and my “Worst 10 Films of 2012.”

I’d like to remind readers that my selections are highly subjective and while that may go without saying; I’ve sometimes been accused in the past of being “pretentious” with my selections and somehow insinuating that my tastes reflect the “objective truth of quality cinema.” How listing Joe Dante’s “The Burbs” as one of my top 20 favorite films of all-time makes me pretentious I have no idea but nevertheless I must state and I will do so explicitly, that these choices are simply my favorite and least favorite films of the year. Criteria were based primarily on entertainment value than anything else. Of course, being a filmmaker I’m also able to appreciate a lot of what goes into making a film and therefore also took things like story structure, cinematography and editing, acting, etc. into consideration.

My Top 10 of 2012

10. “Wreck-It Ralph” (Rich Moore)

As alluded to in my introduction, “Wreck-It Ralph” was the real standout of the year as far as animated films go. A true love story to the glory days of 8-bit video games that could have been very gimmicky, what with having characters from “Super Mario Bros.,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Street Fighter II” all in the same movie. But instead, director Rich Moore basically took the model from “Toy Story” and applied it to the world of video games and the result was one of the most endearing films of the year.

9. “Ted” (Seth MacFarlane)

I will never understand the sheer hatred some people have for Seth MacFarlane. Then again, I will never understand how we continue to live in a world where there are people who believe that “The Simpsons” is still culturally relevant or funny. In any case, MacFarlane’s leap to the big screen resulted in one of the funniest films of the year. While the film was very much rooted in the political incorrect humor of “Family Guy,” it also had a lot of heart proving that even MacFarlane isn’t above writing a little “schmaltz” into his work.

8. “The Dark Knight Rises” (Christopher Nolan)

“The Dark Knight Rises” is a film that caught a lot of flak as far as the number of glaring plot-holes and logic lapses that were peppered throughout the picture. Now I’ll be the first to admit that these inconsistencies are troubling, especially for a filmmaker as meticulous as Nolan, but let me offer a rebuttal to these criticisms. Ever heard of a film called “Citizen Kane?” Remember the opening sequence in which Charles Foster Kane utters his last words on his deathbed? Rosebud? Well, guess what, nobody was in the room when he said that and yet the entire premise of the film is based on people trying to decipher what he meant by that. Now how could anyone have known he said, “Rosebud” when there was nobody in the room to hear it? That has to be the biggest plot-hole in the history of film and yet “Citizen Kane” is heralded as the greatest film of all-time. The point being that the difference between a bad film and a good film is the ability for a film to rise above its shortcomings and offer audiences an engaging work of art that can be appreciated as a whole rather than judged by its individual faults. By that definition, “Citizen Kane” is rightfully heralded as the greatest film of all time and “The Dark Knight Rises” is one of the best films of 2012.

7. “Prometheus” (Ridley Scott)

Take whatever I said about “The Dark Knight Rises” and apply it to “Prometheus.” I gave Ridley Scott’s film the extra bump because it doesn’t have as many inconsistencies as Nolan’s picture. With “Prometheus,” Ridley Scott has completed his trilogy of sci-fi masterpieces, which also includes “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” As a matter of fact, Scott combines the best elements of these films to create “Prometheus.” On one hand, this film works as a rip-roaring piece of sensationalist cinema. Yet on the other hand, it also works as a philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and where we come from. It also did a very admirable job of setting up the mythology for the “Alien” films and I anxiously await “Paradise,” the tentative title of the “Prometheus” sequel.

6. “Roller Town” (Andrew Bush)

Now here’s a film I’m sure very few of you saw this year. But for those of you who caught it at the Fantasia International Film Festival, you’ll know exactly why it’s listed fairly high on my top 10. Made by the appropriately named Andrew Bush, “Roller Town” is a look back on the ‘70s disco scene with a sense of humor very much rooted in the theatre of the absurd. A non-stop laugh-fest that had both English and French audiences crying from having laughed so hard. Check out this Canadian gem!

5. “Sinister” (Scott Derrickson)

I’m very fortunate in that I often get free passes to movie premieres here in Montreal. One of the advantages of this is that I often get to see films that I’ve never heard of or probably would have completely disregarded for one reason or another. “Sinister” was one such film where I had zero expectations going into it because quite frankly, I had read nothing about the film. What I got, however, was one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen and a contemporary horror masterpiece. Granted, there are some moments that suffer from “’Ringu’ Syndrome.” But these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a massive accomplishment in using mood and atmosphere rather than gratuitous blood and guts to evoke a feeling of dread from audiences. Bonus points to the awesome experimental/noise soundtrack that only fuel the fires of suspense that director Derrickson so expertly sets throughout the piece.

4. “Life of Pi” (Ang Lee)

Having never read or even heard of the novel, I went into “Life of Pi” with no expectations whatsoever. I left the theatre, however feeling overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the picture. Ang Lee has created a film that moves you physically, emotionally and spiritually and coming from the perspective of an Atheist, that’s saying something. The ambiguity of the narrative is what really sealed the deal for me. By the end of the film, you don’t know if the story you’ve just been told is true. But what you do know is that regardless of what path you choose to take in life, all roads lead to the same destination making you wonder whether choosing a path is even worth the stress of it all. The VFX are simply magnificent and need to be seen on the biggest and brightest screen possible.

3. “The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson)

I’m going to say it right here and now – Paul Thomas Anderson is the Stanley Kubrick of our generation. Like Kubrick, Anderson is an auteur working in a number of different genres but is also something of an art-house rock-star. People greatly anticipate his next film and when they’re released you get the feeling that you’re buying a ticket for a genuinely special event that transcends any preconceived notion of what going to the movies is all about. “The Master” is another one of his masterpieces that will haunt you for months after seeing it. There’s been a lot of talk about what the film is really all about. I found it to be a metaphor of how people discover religion, why they continue to believe in it despite evidence pointing to how ridiculous it is and then eventually abandoning it once their own suspicions of its validity is confirmed by another member of the faithful. I wasn’t able to see this on 70mm, but I did catch it on one of the largest screens in Montreal and it was worth every penny.

2. “Argo” (Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck is a God among filmmakers. His understanding of what makes great dramatic filmmaking is simply astounding, especially when you consider that “Argo” is only his third feature film. If you ever wanted proof of this, watch the final act of this film. Given that this film is based on a true story, we know how the film is going to end, but the way Affleck crafts the final scene is like watching one of Hitchcock’s finest works of suspense. Compare that to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” that features a similar suspenseful final scene. We know how that’s going to end, but because Spielberg is such a mawkish filmmaker and his characterization borders on parody, there’s no real sense of mystery or danger. Affleck on the other hand infuses his film with a perpetual feeling of danger that there are moments when we genuinely get lost in the drama of it all and think that our heroes will not escape their fate.

1. “Cloud Atlas” (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski)

“Cloud Atlas” is many things, but above all, it serves as a testament to the power of narrative. Film is an art-form defined by storytelling. There are many ways to tell a story, but cause and effect is at the root of any successful film and the best films are made by filmmakers who understand this. “Cloud Atlas” manages to not just tell one story, but six stories in six different timeframes in six distinct genres and does so magnificently. Each story presents characters that we care about, a world we wish we could explore in its own feature-length format and a resolution that is emotionally and dramatically fulfilling. Aside from the stellar script, the film also excels in creating six different genres of film ranging from the period piece to the ‘70s police thriller to a “Blade Runner” dystopian future to the post-apocalyptic film and does so flawlessly. Like “Life of Pi,” I went into this film having never read or even heard of the novel and came out absolutely blown away and inspired to get back into making movies of my own.

My Worst 10 Films of 2012

10. “Piranha 3DD” (John Gulager)

Unlike its predecessor, “Piranha 3DD” doesn’t completely embrace the absurdity of its premise and as a result we get a wildly uneven film. When David Hasselhoff is the best thing about your picture, you know you’re scratching the bottom of the barrel.

9. “The Tall Man” (Pascal Laugier)

Somebody’s been watching “The Sixth Sense” and “Fight Club” too many times without understanding why the plot twists in those films worked.

8. “Under the Bed” (Steven C. Miller)

A film that takes itself way too seriously especially given the goofy premise of the piece.

7. “Excision” (Richard Bates, Jr.)

One of the most overhyped films at the Fantasia International Film Festival that failed on every level. Terrible writing, a story ripped off from one of the best indie films of all-time, “May,” and a deux ex machina ending that’s all too typical of indie films nowadays.

6. “For Love’s Sake” (Takashi Miike)

I love musicals, but I hate Takashi Miike. Can I reconcile the two in order to appreciate this film? Apparently not.

5. “Then Again” (Ayan Pratap)

I reviewed this indie film in last month’s issue of Rogue Cinema. This film could have been a wonderfully over-the-top parody of the sentimentality of Steven Spielberg’s filmography. Instead it tries to mirror it and does so miserably.

4. “Resident Evil: Retribution” (Paul W.S. Anderson)

Has Paul W.S. Anderson ever played “Resident Evil” or did he just watch “The Matrix” and think all that film needed was zombies and his untalented wife, Mila Jovovich?

3. “The Man with the Iron Fists” (The RZA)

Can someone remind me why we continue to tolerate the RZA? Granted, he’s a formidable producer of music but just because he samples Shaw Brothers films in his tracks doesn’t mean he can make a film inspired by them.

2. “Blood-C: The Last Dark” (Naoyoshi Shiotani)

Cold, pretentious and full of CGI. In other words, your typical contemporary anime.

1. “Toad Road” (Jason Banker)

The “Cannibal Holocaust” of our generation. And that’s not a compliment.