10. 21 Jump Street
I cackled more than once during 21 Jump Street. I’m embarrassed – the sound I make when cackling is quite ugly and off-putting. I couldn’t help it, though. 21 Jump Street is a very, very funny film. I’m as surprised as you are. I would have never guessed that a big-screen adaptation of the ‘80s TV drama would be one of my favorite films of the year – yet there it is. The film's success comes down, in large part, to the chemistry between Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. As a comedic duo, they just work really well together. Of course, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s bat-shit direction of the movie had a little something to do with it too. The movie does not shy away from the extreme and – at times – even dares audiences to accept its filth. That said, the movie has a strong heart – born from the chemistry of its leads – that manages to make it lovable even as it’s wallowing in nasty.
Much like The Avengers, also on this list, Skyfall succeeded where so many other action blockbusters failed this year due to one very simple strategy – it shucked off the shackles of grim and gritty and wasn’t afraid to get a little weird. Spurred on by the fiftieth anniversary of the James Bond film franchise, Skyfall found inspiration in the very reason audiences fell in love with James Bond in the first place: this is a spy who tussles with komodo dragons! After decades of James Bond movies without a memorable villain, Skyfall realized that a hero is only as good as his nemesis. The result was this year’s best villain. For Javier Bardem’s introduction scene (and the little rat noises he makes) alone, Skyfall would be a good film. Thankfully, the movie had amazing action sequences, great direction and a lot of over-the-top derring-do to push it over the edge and make it a great film.
8. The Imposter
I’m a sucker for a good true crime story (and this year was full of really great ones including Bernie, which almost made my list). The Imposter is a documentary that knows the importance of good storytelling. As the movie reveals its story – a French man steals the identity of a San Antonio boy in order to prey upon a grieving family’s trust – it carefully plays its cards in a way that will keep audiences consistently shocked. The story is absolutely unbelievable at times and it is through candid interviews, slick reenactments and some stylish editing choices that The Imposter becomes a movie more exciting than the majority of the thrillers Hollywood churned out this past year. Nobody will ever accuse The Imposter of being a fair movie (heroes and villains are clearly and entertainingly established through very deliberate editing) but overall the documentary knows that sometimes it’s okay when the truth takes a backseat to really great storytelling.
7. The Cabin in the Woods
You don’t have to be a horror fan to love The Cabin in the Woods, but it sure helps. The long-delayed movie is a love letter to horror fans from horror fans. Horror, as a genre, always seems to be a second-class citizen in the film world. So many obnoxiously close-minded cinema buffs would gladly strap a soft helmet on the horror genre and condemn it to ride the short bus. Sure, a ton of bad horror movies are regularly released but there are also a lot of really great ones and besides, it’s not really like any other genre sees a particularly stronger ratio of bad movies-to-good movies in a given year. The Cabin in the Woods not only treats the horror genre with respect and thoughtful analysis, but also remembers that keeping the audience entertained is equally important. The movie is a smart study on why audiences watch (and, really, need) scary stories. By using the same familiar trappings horror nerds love to obsess over, the movie manages to become the evolutionary equivalent of a fish growing feet. Cabin has mapped the DNA of horror and it’s only by examining the DNA of an organism that you can begin experimenting with genetic manipulation and maturation. The Cabin in the Woods is the opening shot of what will hopefully be a glorious new era of smart, thoughtful horror movies. Well, one can hope.
6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is, to put it simply, a beautiful film. From the music (I’ve listened to “Particles of the Universe” non-stop since I purchased the soundtrack this summer) to the raw performances to the story itself, I fell heartbreakingly in love with Beasts of the Southern Wild for what it represents – a movie that is uniquely American. Beasts is an expressive piece of artwork that could have only come from our country – warts and all. It is vibrant, proud, a bit adrift in the chaos of life and absolutely in love with firecrackers. What’s more American than that?
5. The Avengers
Growing up I was a Marvel kid. Today I’m a Marvel kid. I spend more money in a given month on Marvel Comics than I do on my own healthcare and upkeep. Of course, I fell head over heels in love with The Avengers, the movie that represents a nearly half-decade mission from Marvel Studios to put fun back into superhero movies. The film has pacing issues, sure, and not all of the performances quite stick the landing, but overall there was not a more entertaining crowd pleaser released this year. Watching the movie with a packed audience of fellow Marvel fans was the most rewarding theatrical experience of the last year – and I work for the Alamo Drafthouse, a place where we welcome real-life alligators into the theater to watch a movie! The movie hit every beat it needed to hit and then some. More importantly, it stood as a reminder that not every memory of our childhood needs to be dark, gritty and overbearingly self-serious.
4. Cloud Atlas
The balls on this movie… Cloud Atlas is a film that respects its audience – even if not every audience member respected the movie right back. Never underestimating one’s ability to keep pace with interlinking storylines and chronological shifts or shifting dialects and tones, Cloud Atlas is exactly the type of movie it wanted to be and for that alone I have immense respect for it. The movie is a sprawling, sweeping story of love and redemption and it was told with the type of second-level intellect that will ensure that it will be another twenty years before Cloud Atlas gets the respect it is due. In the meantime, though, we can all sit back and appreciate the fact we got to see Korean Keith David on the big screen this year.
It takes real skill to make audiences grow tense with anticipation during a historical film – especially when the ending is widely known. In a world where people are all too ready to pounce upon struggling talent, it takes even greater skill to rise from the inky shadows of career missteps and completely reshape your place in Hollywood. With Argo, Ben Affleck ably continues his winning streak as a director with a movie that mixes insider Hollywood cynical humor with an unbelievably tense story grounded in blue-collar heroism. Argo is just the latest reason that Ben Affleck has become one of my cinematic heroes.
2. Django Unchained
Over the last twenty years Quentin Tarantino has developed into one of the greatest living filmmakers of his generation. He’s fine-tuned his writing, his sense of tension and pace and his ability to assemble truly impressive casts, and he’s consistently produced great film after great film. With Django Unchained, Tarantino’s take on the spaghetti western, the director has produced his most entertaining movie yet – without numbing his penchant for rabblerousing. Django is funny, endearing, provocative and a loving tribute to why Tarantino fell in love with cinema in the first place.
1. Killer Joe
It’s a great experience to walk into a movie without knowing anything about it. It’s an even better experience when that movie knocks you over the head, ties you to a bedpost and makes sweet, sweet love to your sensory glands. Killer Joe is a powerful film, like a punch to the ear. It does not blink in the face of ugliness – instead treating violence and even worse moral misdeeds as the mundane. It is a film without redeemable characters and without a happy ending. It is a movie that knows perfectly well how to unsettle and, using that knowledge, picks away at that loose thread in your mind like a cat at play. It’s a powerful film but it is an essential film for true lovers of the medium.