It is with no false modesty that I say that any end-of-the-year "best of" list should be taken with a grain of salt. Opinions on any art form, but especially movies, vary wildly from person to person. One may think that arthouse films are the epitome of filmmaking, while another only makes time for the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
I have always found myself in the middle of that divide, able to love mainstream and independent films equally. 2012 tested that resolve, however, as the summer months seemed especially bereft of satisfying entertainment despite the presence of highly anticipated films like The Avengers, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises.
And so the following list consists entirely of films that came out in either the first or last four months of the year. You'll notice that there are only nine movies on the list; Zero Dark Thirty has yet to come out in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but I'm saving a spot for it, fully anticipating that it will impress me as much as it has others.
9. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino will always have a soft spot in my heart, as Pulp Fiction was the first film that made me realize what great filmmaking actually looked like. Django Unchained doesn't live up to that lofty standard, mostly because Tarantino was unable to rein in his more outlandish instincts this time around. But even slightly substandard Tarantino is a sight to behold; no other current filmmaker would've even attempted as bold a risk as Tarantino took with this film.
8. The Pirates! Band of Misfits
The wizards from Aardman Animations (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run) enchanted yet again by combining their trademark stop-motion animation with subtle CGI to make a rollicking adventure on the high seas. The film contains so many jokes, both spoken and visual, that it'll likely take multiple viewings just to catch them all.
7. The Cabin in the Woods
What at first sounds like another bland attempt to capitalize on the public's undying thirst for generic horror films is actually a sly send-up of all things related to the genre. The movie's central theme is too good to give away, but suffice it to say that it flips all expectations upside down, making for one of the funniest and most inventive movies of the year. It's also the best movie in which Joss Whedon had a hand this year, despite the praise heaped upon The Avengers.
Ben Affleck has had the ultimate up-and-down career, going from the high of winning an Oscar to the lows of Daredevil and Gigli. But he's reinvented himself as a top-notch director, and it's difficult to imagine him ever being thought of poorly again. Argo, a well-paced and tense look at one aspect of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, showed that Affleck knows how to do more than just Boston-related stories and solidified his A-list status for years to come.
5. Life of Pi
3D movies have not always been worth the effort since they've become ultra-popular in the last few years, but Ang Lee's adaptation of the story of a boy and Bengal tiger stuck on the same life boat is one of the few that is. The film's multiple excursions into dreamlike imagery make amazing use of the technology, and even smaller, more intimate scenes are seemingly improved as well. The story is just as compelling, with its deep dive into spirituality and faith.
4. The Hunger Games
The makers of The Hunger Games deserve credit for turning a slightly unsavory idea — a vengeful future government pits a group of teenagers against each other in a fight to the death — into a film that did justice to its source material, made the subject matter palatable for its target audience and created tons of suspense in the process. Jennifer Lawrence's performance as Katniss established her as a force, both physically and as an actor.
Man, did Steven Spielberg need this. It had been seven years since the director had put out a truly great movie, and Lincoln delivered on nearly every level. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you have Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably the preeminent actor working today, portraying the man whom many consider to be America's greatest president. But Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner also made a story that's essentially all about politics into something as riveting as any good thriller.
The James Bond franchise had been held hostage the last couple of years by the financial difficulties of MGM, but it turns out that just gave the filmmakers more time to craft what could be the best Bond film of all time. Skyfall is many things: an homage to the series' past, a reestablishing of just what a compelling character Bond can be and a bold step into the future. Daniel Craig proved once and for all that he belongs in the Bond pantheon.
My No. 1 movie of 2012 is one that perfectly blends together both mainstream and independent styles, making for an experience that's as pleasurable on an intellectual level as it is on a visceral one. Writer/director Rian Johnson's take on time travel is a blast from beginning to end, thanks in no small part to the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and some truly trippy sequences. In one fell swoop, it wiped away all the disappointment of the summer films and set up what proved to be a great end of the year for movies.