We're halfway through 2012, which is headspinning - I feel like I still have Sundance reviews to catch up on. As we enter the back half of the year a number of people have been sharing their favorite movies so far, and I thought that was a great idea. Every year end I find myself scrambling to remember what should be on my top ten list, and having something marking the halfway point will be great for me to refer back to.
And I think it's a nice discussion point. Summer 2012 is kind of the pits, but the rest of the year has been strong. I've seen a couple of movies coming your way later this year (Looper, some others I cannot reveal) and it's safe to say that the year will end strong. But it's also been going quite nicely so far, and I had no problem compiling a list of 10 great movies released in the United States between January 1st and June 30th.
A quick note: I am only including films that have been released, not festival films that will open later this year or next year. I am including festival films I saw last year that only opened in the United States this year. And a caveat: I am slightly behind on some of the latest indie/foreign films, so there may be a couple of movies I kick myself for not having seen before compiling this list.
What a surprise. I almost skipped Chronicle completely, as the found footage aspect looked tedious and none of the marketing clicked for me at all. Thankfully I saw it, and what I got was one of the better directed, most interesting films of its kind. A movie that straddles the line between The Fury and modern superhero films, Chronicle is the sort of strong entry from a studio that feels like the director snuck one by them. Josh Trank, the first time director responsible for elevating Chronicle into a unique and smart movie, has rightfully become a hot commodity in Hollywood.
I like movies that play with tone. Headhunters is one of those, a film that keeps changing gears on you. What begins as a serious crime film soon takes bizarre and unexpected twists into oddball territory that is both hilarious and gory. The guy you'll recognize in this film is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the Kingslayer Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones; here he's a killer stalking a corporate headhunter who sidelines as an art thief. Like Elmore Leonard mashed with the Coen Bros, this Norwegian thriller keeps you guessing and squirming.
8. The Avengers
Taken on paper, Joss Whedon's The Avengers doesn't work. But the clinical calculations of analysis fall apart when seated in the theater and faced with the charisma of Marvel's greatest superheroes and a rousing second half that overcomes any faults and flaws. This is the superhero movie true comic book fans have been waiting their whole lives for - big, colorful, imaginative, fun. How much does The Avengers work? The tracking shot of the team standing together during the alien invasion still gave me chills on third viewing, even after having seen it in every single bit of marketing. This is an example of how cinema can transcend criticism and become pure joy.
7. Sleepless Night
This French thriller wants to be a single location action movie, but it cheats. The single location is the world's most diverse nightclub, which includes a bar, a dance floor, a restaraunt or two, a pool room, a speakeasy, a casino and more hidden hallways than you can shake an Uzi at. But none of that matters; Sleepless Night makes excellent use of this unusually large nightclub, staging wonderful shoot outs, chases and fight scenes everywhere. The film has an undercover cop forced to confront a gangster on his home turf, but that is an excuse for a taut, muscular action film the likes of which rarely come out of Hollywood anymore.
6. 21 Jump Street
Like Chronicle, 21 Jump Street feels like it was smuggled past clueless studio gatekeepers. How else could a comedy based on a not-that-great 80s TV series end up being so funny, so stupidly smart and - in the most unexpected twist of all - so emotionally engaging? 2012 is going down as the year of Channing Tatum, and Jump Street is when people began wising up to the guy's talent and charisma. In a lot of ways this is his film. Writer Michael Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller made a movie that feels legitimately subversive, that balances absurdity with strong character work and somehow manages to be a canonical conclusion to the saga of Penhall and Hanson.
5. The Raid: Redemption
It doesn't matter what sort of stupid subtitle had to be added to this movie, The Raid: Redemption is one of the most exhilirating action films ever made. Brutally non-stop, endlessly inventive, watching The Raid is like watching a martial arts legend be born. What's most exciting about the movie is seeing the growth between Merantau, the first film to team director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais, and this film. The difference is staggering and phenomenal. I wish that theatrical exhibition was different today, because The Raid is an ultimate audience picture, a movie where everyone reacts to every punch, kick and slice of the knife. And there is an awful lot of all of those.
4. Sound of My Voice
Some critics gave the fundamentally brain damaged Prometheus a pass because it engaged in big ideas while most science fiction movies engage in laser fights and exploding robots. Too bad these critics haven't been paying attention to the groundswell of indie scifi over the last few years. A number of bona fide brilliant films have been part of this new Golden Age of Indie Scifi, and Sound of My Voice is among them. Written by its beautiful lead, Brit Marling along with director Zal Batmanglij, this low budget film explores a cult whose leader may be a fraud or may be a time traveler from a dystopian future. The movie examines the nature of belief while also weaving an incredible mystery about the origins of the strange and ethereal Maggie. In a few years we're all going to agree this is a great one.
3. The Cabin in the Woods
Long delayed, Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods is maybe a masterpiece of genre deconstruction and reconstruction. One part fun ride, one part meta commentary, one part film student thesis, The Cabin in the Woods is the ultimate movie for horror fans. It's the kind of film filled with details designed to be obsessed over, and it has performances and dialogue well outside the usual zone of horror movies. To say that I loved this movie is an understatement; every time I think about the film I am filled with the exact same thrill I had when I first saw it. It's so rare that a movie retains its kick over time and repeated viewings, but nothing has dulled The Cabin in the Woods' awesome edge.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
Is this the best Wes Anderson film? I don't know, but it feels like the purest. Moonrise Kingdom contains everything you'd expect from a Wes Anderson film, but it presents all of these things in a way that can get past even the most cynical heart. It's a movie filled with sweetness and joy, an unjaundiced look back at the pivotal transitional moments of childhood. It's gentle and it makes you feel happy in a way that is totally earned and without sentimentality. It's also a gorgeous film, buttery and smooth and consuming your vision. Anderson gets perfect performances out of both old standbys - Bill Murray - and newcomers to his troupe - Bruce Willis. And at the heart are two delightful child actors bringing convincing humanity to the year's best love story.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
All too rarely a movie comes along that knocks you square on your ass. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those movies. A first time director with a cast of non-actors shooting a low budget movie with ambition far beyond its means - everything about Beasts of the Southern Wild screams bullshit to me. Everything except the movie itself, which is a startling and explosive piece of filmmaking. Anchored by a remarkable, all-time performance by six year old Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts is fairy tale meets social realism with the collision causing sparks of absolute cinematic purity. It's an overwhelming movie, one that grabs you by the guts and holds on tight. Young director Benh Zeitlin has made a fierce statement with his feature debut and set the bar incredibly high for himself. And, really, for everybody else making movies today.