The Top Ten Films of 2012: Lon’s Picks


By Lon Harris

Continuing our series of posts featuring the BEST of 2012. contributor Lon Harris shares his TOP TEN FILMS OF 2012.
…in no particular order
Bachelorette, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Jeff Who Lives at Home, The Cabin in the Woods, The Queen of Versailles, Wreck-It Ralph, Skyfall

Bear in mind, I may at some future point knock something off the list in favor of The Life of Pi, Amour, The Turin Horse, Paranorman or some other brilliant 2012 film I didn’t get around to during the year proper.

…IN 2012
film title: kill list (2011)....Neil Maskell as Jay in KILL LIST
Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kill List would both be on here if they were 2012 films instead of 2011.


#10: End of Watch

directed by DAVID AYER
David Ayer’s police thriller is the best use of the “found footage” conceit to date, making expert use of documentary-style “you are there” visuals without being manacled to them.

As with “Training Day,” he unfortunately gives in to the temptation to pump up the action towards the end, and what starts off as a tense, character-driven thriller kind of loses its way in the transition to a Hollywood cop movie formula. But unlike “Training Day,” which skips the rails pretty early on, “End of Watch” only gets big and shootout-y and over-the-top late in the game, after it has had time to really make you care about these characters and fully explore their world.

The handheld/documentary style gives the relationship between partners Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena an intimacy that most “guy” movies would be afraid to give male relationships PLUS it makes all the “cop” scenes immediate and intense. Ayer even does a good job scripting a “mystery” for the cops to solve that nevertheless builds in a way that feels logical and natural. These aren’t regular joes who one day wake up and decide to become Michael Bay “Bad Boys”-style heroes. They just keep taking calls and situations just sort of unfold. It’s pretty damn involving.


This is 40



#9: This Is 40

directed by JUDD APATOW
I’ve always been lukewarm on Judd Apatow’s films as a director. (As a producer, too, but let’s stay on topic.) His movies always have funny characters and moments, but also tend to be overlong, self-indulgent and somewhat relentlessly, single-mindedly, repetitively focused on the protagonist’s tiresome neuroses. By the end, I’ve given up on caring whether Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler figure it all out and get the girl. I’m sick of them and their shallow, narcissistic problems.

But in “This is 40,” Apatow finally broadens his gaze and takes on a larger and more emotionally resonant topic than his usual “stoner guy who’s afraid to commit.” It’s a sort-of sequel to “Knocked Up,” but it’s really more reminiscent (though maybe not quite as accomplished) as Woody Allen’s great ensemble relationship dramedies – “Hannah and Her Sisters” comes immediately to mind. Rather than zeroing in on Paul Rudd’s mid-life crisis, we also get the perspective of his wife (played brilliantly by Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann, in one of my favorite 2012 performances) and their two daughters. Plus we get some insight into Rudd’s father (Albert Brooks) and Mann’s father (John Lithgow, who really should be used like this in more film comedies.)

Maybe because the central idea behind “This is 40” is not particularly high-concept and kind of lean (“a married couple turns 40 at around the same time”), Apatow feels more free to spend time getting to explore what’s happening with the secondary characters. Or maybe it’s because this is already a spin-off of another movie, so he has a vested interest in growing out this particular universe of people. But the whole ensemble feels more rich and fleshed out, and the movie feels less self-congratulatory and navel-gazing as a result. It’s still probably a few scenes too long, but that’s basically his style at this point.


Moonrise Kingdom



#8: Moonrise Kingdom

directed by WES ANDERSON
Wes Anderson’s best since “Royal Tenenbaums,” and likely to be one of the movies that – looking back on the entirety of his career – defines his style and voice. It also feels like a bit of a bookend film with “Rushmore.” That was a movie about a brilliant, rebellious, lonely kid who fixates on an unattainable older woman. “Moonrise” instead is about a similar kid actually connecting with someone else his own age. Both movies are about the implications this sort of pure, innocent young love has on the lonely, frustrated adults who are witnesses to it.

The film is constantly being described as “very Wes Anderson-y,” and it is, with all the expected trappings. It’s funny, it’s dark, there are slow-motion sequences set to classic songs, there are scenes with kids in exquisitely appointed bedrooms listening to classical music on tiny toy record players. But it’s also a big step into fantasy/fairy tale territory as well. All his Anderson’s have an element of whimsy to them – the Tenenbaums house was certainly unlike most NYC homes – but “Moonrise” takes place in an entirely parallel reality. I very much appreciated Anderson’s apparent decision to do away with rules and just completely untether himself from realism in favor of comic invention.

That’s on top of amazing cinematography, a really fun weird unexpected role for Bob Balaban, the best role Bruce Willis has had in years, an as-expected great soundtrack, a metric shit-ton of great child performances… I’d totally see it again right now.




#7: Safety Not Guaranteed

Most time travel films (including this year’s staggeringly overrated “Looper“) look at the mind-twisting implications of the act itself. What would it be like to meet your future self? Would small changes in the past dissolve the space-time continuum? “Safety Not Guaranteed” may be the first time travel film solely focus on the WHY? question. What is it about visiting the past that fascinates us so? What would it take to drive someone to risk everything and jump into a time machine?

Even calling it a “time travel film” implies some element of heady sci-fi trippiness that isn’t really there. Instead, director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly have turned out a rather ingenious, very funny indie comedy with some sci-fi elements sneaking around in the margins. They’ve also crafted perhaps the best possible use of actress Aubrey Plaza, who gets the chance to explore and expand on the blasé, snarky persona she has honed over 5 seasons on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” Plaza has not one but two great foils in “Safety”: brash journalist Jeff (Jake Johnson) and eccentric possible-time-machine-creator Kenneth (Mark Duplass), whom she and Jeff are investigating for a story.

What surprised me most about “Safety Not Guaranteed” is how Trevorrow and Connolly take such a ludicrous premise, that in other hands would have been a bundle of twee cutesy indie quirk, and found an underlying story that’s so heartfelt and sincere. (The script is based on a jokey classified ad looking for a time travel companion that appeared in a 1997 issue of “Backwoods Home Magazine. Imagine turning THAT into a movie that has genuine emotional heft. No easy task.)


the-hobbit Best of


#6: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

directed by PETER JACKSON
First off, I’m ranking “The Hobbit” as a movie, not a treatise on the future of how many frames we want to see projected each second. I saw it in HFR 3D and enjoyed it – noticing some peculiarities along the way, but generally adjusting to the picture after about 10 minutes – but will surely also enjoy subsequent 2D viewings at a more traditional frame rate.

OK, so now on to the film, which I found to be a largely-delightful return to Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth, reminiscent in many ways of his terrific Lord of the Rings trilogy opener, “Fellowship of the Ring.”

But what I found so surprising and charming about “The Hobbit” is the shift in tone, from melancholy to exuberance. The Lord of the Rings films are (rightfully) obsessed with the fading away of the old world, of Middle-Earth itself, along with a constant sense of impending doom. “The Hobbit,” taking place 60 years earlier, when only the faintest signs of the coming disaster visible, is more lighthearted and whimsical. You feel like you’re seeing the same world brought to life but with a different sensibility, and it has seemingly brought out Jackson’s more skewed, wacky side, which is a real relief after the stifling, airless “Lovely Bones” and “King Kong.”

Once again, Middle-Earth has been realized gorgeously, the action sequences are intense and exciting, and the animation on Gollum keeps improving with every new film. I’m now significantly more excited for Parts 2 and 3 than I was a few weeks ago.




#5: Seven Psychopaths

The year’s most underrated film, and one I’d wager will live on in the memories of film fans long after a lot of 2012’s ‘prestige’ titles have become half-recalled footnotes. (“Silver Linings What-book?”) As he did in 2008’s wonderful “In Bruges,” writer/director Martin McDonagh uses funny banter and genre trappings to kind of lure you in before switching everything around and getting thoughtful. But this new film is less character-driven and more heady, even surreal, than “In Bruges,” and arguably is even better for it.

Without spoiling too much, I’ll say “Seven Psychopaths” is both a canny examination of how smart people think about movies, and a deconstruction of the violent, hyper-stylized B-movie explosion kicked off by guys like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie 2 decades ago. I feel like a lot of movies now do crazy things – and get super-meta and self-aware – to try to subvert audience expectations, but very few of them are as daring and audacious, and ultimately successful, as this film.

To say too much more would be mean-spirited and unfair, but I can say that lot of the success of “Seven Psychopaths” is the ridiculously extensive and impeccable cast. Not only the main trio of Colin Farrell (who is at his best in McDonagh’s movies), Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, and their nemesis Woody Harrelson, but also guys like Harry Dean Stanton, Željko Ivanek, Tom Waits and Michael Stuhlbarg showing up in small roles.





#4: Holy Motors

directed by LEOS CARAX
In “Holy Motors,” a man named Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) is driven around in a limousine all day, stopping for ‘appointments’ in which he dressed up as a variety of characters and then plays out dramatic scenarios with other people. Many of these scenarios take the form of familiar movie genres. For example, in one appointment, he dresses up as a gangster and attacks a fellow gangster. In another, he plays a dying man being comforted by a beloved niece. In another, he puts on a motion-capture suit and acts out both an action sequence and a love scene. And on and on, through numerous appointments in the course of a single day.

It would be easy to get obsessed with “what it all means,” and it’s impossible not to try to put together the pieces of Monsieur Oscar’s day in the hopes of arriving at The Point. Is it a commentary on the life of an actor, endlessly putting on and taking off different disguises, giving away little pieces of ones self each time? Is it about life itself as a kind of performance, that each of us is really ‘playing roles’ depending on who we’re around and our circumstances? Is it about the universality of experience, that we all see ourselves as individuals but really are playing out the same interpersonal dramas and crises that people all over the world have experienced for hundreds of years? Maybe all of these things?

But it’s worth stepping back from this discussion for a moment and realizing how DIFFICULT it is to make a movie this entertaining over the course of 2 hours that makes so little “sense.” Writer/director Leos Carax masterfully makes each sequence and assignment compelling – even exhilarating – on its own terms. Even when it’s near-impossible to wrap your head around what’s happening, you can’t stop watching and wondering what’s coming next.




#3: Django Unchained

Django” is another tremendous achievement for Quentin Tarantino, who at this point is on a par with the Coens as the contemporary American filmmaker with the strongest overall track record. I’m tempted to say it’s not quite as good as “Inglourious Basterds” and “Pulp Fiction.” In particular, I felt like the movie has a huge, dramatic, near-perfect climax… and then goes on for about 3-4 extraneous sequences that aren’t really as clever or exhilarating as what has come before.

But this is a minor quibble. The bulk of the film is a marvel – brutal, funny, unpredictable, exciting and, as always with Tarantino, utterly faithful to its predecessors (Westerns in general, but specifically spaghetti westerns, as well as the Italian pseudo-documentary “Addio Zio Tom”) while remaining fresh and modern.

And HOLY SHIT, the main three performances! Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio are basically perfect. I can’t think of a single false moment from any of them. Giving Foxx almost no dialogue turns out to be a pretty brilliant maneuver – he’s usually so reliant on his comic delivery, even in dramatic fare like Collateral or Ray – and here there’s none of that. It’s all glares, glances and body language. Plus, DiCaprio’s delight in getting to play against type, and be a colorful villain, is palpable every moment he’s on screen. He disappears into this role in a way he’s never done for me in anything I’ve seen him in.


the-master-Best of

#2: The Master

I can’t help but think that a lot of the problems and issues people had with PT Anderson’s sprawling post-war travelogue/drama is that it was sold as an alternate history of Scientology. That’s such a tantalizing prospect, it was maybe hard to accept that the movie wasn’t so much interested in L. Ron Hubbard’s life or the inner workings of cults or just what happens in that “Celebrity Center” off Franklin. When you go in thinking you’re going to blow the lid off of Xenu, and instead get a sprawling-yet-oddly-intimate look at an off-kilter friendship between two broken people… well, maybe Buyer’s Remorse sets in.

But what PTA accomplishes here is no small feat. Freddie Quell (a superlative Joquin Phoenix). Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Peggy Dodd (an underrated Amy Adams) are fascinating, idiosyncratic and genuinely original creations, and though a lot of their motives and inner demons remain ambiguous at the end of the film, we do develop a sense of kinship and camaraderie – of shared experience – with all of them. As he did in the similarly-divisive “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson holds up individuals on the fringe of mainstream, polite society, individuals who occasionally behave like deviants, and demands that his audience come to know them, sympathize with them and even accept them.

We don’t get to know Scientology any better than when we started, and we don’t get to follow anyone on a traditional narrative arc. There’s no beginning, middle and end of Freddie’s strange journey inward. Instead, we’re simply spending 2.5 hours seeing the world from his perspective, and then it’s up to us to decide what – if anything – it all means. That’s what it feels like when a movie treats you like an adult, an experience that was far too rare in 2012 cinema, or American movies from any year, really.



Lincoln Best of

#1: Lincoln

Once every decade or so, Steven Spielberg will make an impeccable, detailed, thoughtful look back at a specific historical event or period in history, and just put every other contemporary American filmmaker to shame. Then he goes back to his usual styles: above-average sci-fi and schmaltz. “Lincoln” is arguably his best-ever historical drama – there’s less emotional weight than something like “Schindler’s List,” but then again, this is the leaner and arguably smarter effort, and one of the most effective and entertaining inside looks at the American political process I can recall.

The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is, of course, transformative and completely stellar and has stolen most of the headlines, but this is really an ensemble effort, with Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn and James Spader also giving standout, career-highlight performances. It’s also a home run for oft-maligned cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose obsession with backlighting in this case lends an iconic quality to these characters, even when the on-screen action might be otherwise mundane.

Perhaps most surprising about “Lincoln,” considering its pedigree, is how matter-of-fact and forthright it is about the passage of the 13th Amendment. You go in expecting a lot of soaring rhetoric about the chains of bondage and the natural state of human freedom, but instead we follow the actual legislative action of passing the amendment with an almost journalistic, play-by-play zeal.

A lot of the credit here must go to screenwriter Tony Kushner, who takes the day-to-day bureaucratic work of these 19th Century politicians in Washington and finds the humanity lurking underneath. (Aaron Sorkin did a similarly mesmerizing job of this in “The Social Network” a few years back.) In fact, the political wheelings and dealings are so compelling and dramatic – even funny! – it’s almost disappointing when we step away from the sphere of government and check in with Lincoln’s personal life and family drama (though Sally Field does nice work as Mary Todd.)



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  • EvanTheGamer

    Wow, that’s a very solid list, Lon! Nice!

    However, I don’t entirely agree with Lincoln’s spot on your list though. Haha. I love period films, but I just felt that Lincoln wasn’t as great as it could have been. With that said, Daniel-Day Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln was still fantastic. Just my two cents. 😉