While many of 2012's blockbusters were lackluster and disappointing, the year still gave us some amazing works of art. As always, the latter part of the year is chock full of awards contenders, but there are a few films on my list that were released much earlier and stuck with me through the whole year. Keep in mind this is a list of my personal favorite movies of the year, and that when I create these kinds of lists, "having fun" factors into my decision more than many critics you'll probably read as the year comes to an end. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in the comments. (This list was originally published at FirstShowing, but I wanted to preserve it here as well.)
10. The Cabin in the Woods
Cloverfield writer Drew Goddard teamed with Joss Whedon to write this impeccable deconstruction of horror movies, and I haven't been able to watch a movie in this genre the same way since. Goddard's directorial debut sat on a shelf for a few years, but I'm so glad we were able to finally see it this year. It's a meta-commentary about the way we watch horror movies, adding a huge dose of humor and some bleak moments in a story that totally subverts expectations. The free-for-all climax features some great shout-outs to horror films of old, and it's giant "eff you" ending is one of the most interesting conclusions to a film on screen this year.
9. Room 237
I don't think Rodney Ascher's documentary had a full release this year, but trust me: if you're a fan of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, or a fan of film criticism, keep your eyes peeled for Room 237 because it is an absolute must-see. The movie is told in nine segments and highlights a ton of intricate fan theories about what the film is really trying to say. Many of these are totally crazy, but every once in a while, someone says something that actually makes sense, and even listening to the oftentimes crazy nonsense made for a wildly entertaining time at the movies. I can't wait to see this one again.
8. Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow won a few Oscars for The Hurt Locker, and it looks like she might be heading down that path again with Zero Dark Thirty, a much more accessible and personal war film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain gives one of the strongest performances of the year, and the movie manages to inform and inspire in equal measure as it brings to light the story of how one woman's dedication brought down the world's most dangerous man. With a killer cast and a suspenseful, tight screenplay based on true events, ZDT is compelling and spellbinding and definitely one of the year's best movies.
7. The Raid: Redemption
Writer/director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais crafted some of the most thrilling and intense action this side of a Tony Jaa film for The Raid: Redemption, the first in a planned trilogy of Indonesian action films. Like Die Hard on speed, the bone-crunching choreography mixed with the "trapped in a building" storyline proved to be a perfect combination, and I'm really looking forward to what Evans and his team come up with for the sequel.
6. Wreck-It Ralph
Though many complained that too much of the film took place in the Candyland-inspired Sugar Rush,Wreck-It Ralph was still my favorite animated film of the year and one of the best animated Disney movies in recent memory. Tons of fun cameos, loads of great voice work, brilliant animation, and terrific character moments made this one a great time at the movies, and the short film Paperman that played in front of it was even more magical.
5. The Avengers
Joss Whedon was perhaps the only man capable of bearing the weight of three separate franchises on his shoulders, crafting a crowd-pleasing superhero opus that not only worked, but worked like gangbusters. Rocketing to become the third highest grossing film of all time, The Avengers combined everything we loved about the Marvel cinematic universe into a fast-talking, action-heavy, pop culture stew of awesomeness that was impressive on a visual level but also connected emotionally. The ensemble of A-list talent worked wonders with Whedon's witty dialogue, and each member of the team - including fan favorite The Hulk - had multiple moments to shine.
4. Safety Not Guaranteed
The feel-good movie of Sundance 2012 was unveiled on a larger audience this summer with its theatrical release, but most people ignored this indie movie. That's a real shame, because the heartfelt performances of Mark Duplass (who does career-best work) and Aubrey Plaza (who is much more than her droll April Ludgate character from "Parks and Recreation") combined with a tinge of science fiction made this one of the best films of the year. It gave me chills both times I saw it, and with solid comedic work by Jake Johnson ("New Girl") and Karan Soni, Safety Not Guaranteed is one of this year's underlooked gems that really deserves some more love.
Two time travel movies back to back? Yep. Rian Johnson's science fiction film was one of my most anticipated movies of the year, and it absolutely lived up to the hype. Johnson took a fantastic concept that we hadn't seen before and infused it with a palpable energy, cementing him as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis were great, but Emily Blunt (with a flawless American accent) and five-year-old actor Pierce Gagnon practically stole the film as a family that becomes entwined in the saga of gangsters on the run. This one had me talking about the ending with my friends more than any other movie in 2012.
2. Django Unchained
Tarantino's first true western, Django Unchained mixes violence and humor as only QT can, exploring the very real horrors of slavery filtered through the lens of a folk hero origin story. He's been on a tear with revisionist history lately, and there's something very gratifying about watching this iconic filmmaker's vision of how history should have been. Christoph Waltz gave an instantly iconic performance as Dr. King Schultz, Jamie Foxx does some of the best work of his career, and with excellent supporting characters, a fantastic script, and the bloodiest gun battle captured on film this year, Tarantino has outdone himself yet again.
1. Cloud Atlas
A jaw-droppingly ambitious effort from the Wachowskis and co-director Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas was far from a box office hit. But though the story didn't connect for general audiences, I was totally captivated throughout its entire runtime, mesmerized by the masterful editing and crosscutting over thousands of years as the story of a few connected individuals was woven on screen. The music, performances, and narrative culminated in the year's most emotional moviegoing experience for me, and as the credits rolled, I sat stunned at the sheer scope and magnitude of what these filmmakers accomplished. Cloud Atlas might not have made a large mark this year, but I'm betting this will be one we're still talking about years into the future.
Honorable Mentions: Argo, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Grey, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, People Like Us, Lawless, The Master, Holy Motors, Rise of the Guardians, Moonrise Kingdom, 21 Jump Street, Silver Linings Playbook