My Personal Top 10 Movies of 2012

I managed to see 47 movies released in 2012, not counting a couple of re-releases or the dozens of other movies I watched. Of the 47 I saw, 44 were in the theater. I estimate that my total number of movies watched in 2012 is somewhere between 150 and 200. While that’s nothing compared to what I’m sure others were able to see and review, it’s a personal record for me.

It was an amazing year for US movies. I wish I had seen more new international films, but since I taught a class on the history of film in the first half of 2012, most of my time with foreign cinema was older stuff. Therefore, this list is definitely US-centric.

Note that I have a separate list on Facebook with my ratings of all the 2012 movies I saw that may differ slightly from this (meaning that some movies with higher ratings in my other post may be lower than other movies on here. The reason for this is that those ratings were usually given within a day or two of watching the movie and are more of a gut reaction than I hope this list to be. That being said, there are no movies on this list that received lower than an 8/10 from me originally.

10 Holy Motors (Leos Carax)

The one foreign-language movie on my list comes in on the tail end. Holy Motors is a trip of a film. It shows us the day in the life of Mr. Oscar, an actor of sorts who has several appointments throughout the day to play characters not in movies but in actual situations. The episodic nature of the movie will leave viewers with their favorite and least favorite scenarios since some are stronger or more striking than others. The performance by Denis Lavant is the best of the year, and he deserves all the praise he is getting for it.


9 Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore)

Disney managed to not only meet the criteria of “a video game movie that’s not horrible and doesn’t insult its intended audience” but exceeded all expectations when they released a good movie that happens to be about video games. It’s visually stunning, has a great mix of action and humor, and it really deserves its place in the Disney animation pantheon as probably the best non-Pixar 3D animated movie of all time. See my much longer review/summary of the movie here.

8 Chronicle (Josh Trank)

The first half of this movie is my favorite movie of 2012. It’s what I think would really happen if a few dumb teenagers somehow got super powers. The “found footage” style of filmmaking helps this quite a bit as it’s sort of like the characters are documenting themselves as they grow and develop their gifts and use them for the same sorts of stuff that you’d expect a bunch of teenagers to use them for. The second half isn’t as strong as it becomes a bit more superhero vs supervillain, but as a whole it still deserves its spot on my top 10 and was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me since I watched it without thinking it would be too great.

7 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson)

Specifically, this spot is for the 48fps version of the movie, which is the one I saw. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and was among the most visually stunning film going experiences I have ever had. As a casual fan of Tolkien’s works and Jackson’s previous movies, I knew what I was getting myself into as far as the story and characters were concerned, and there were no surprises there. I’d call them adequate. However, I really hope that high frame rate movies take off and gain the same kind of popularity that 3D has in recent years.  

6 Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)

Who would have thought that a movie based on an Internet meme would be anything besides terrible? Safety Not Guaranteed is, in fact, the former but is anything but the latter. It’s the best comedy of the year, but it’s not the kind of comedy you’d think given the subject matter. The characters are believable and genuine, and the plot of a group of journalists trying to find and write a story about a weird guy who believes he can time travel is handled wryly without being silly.

5 The Avengers (Joss Whedon)

The other two superhero movies released this year were both a bit of a letdown. The Dark Knight Rises was okay, but had some serious faults and couldn’t live up to its predecessor. The Amazing Spider-Man was made for no other reason than Sony was contractually obligated to do so, and the film was an empty shell of what a good Spider-Man story could be. The Avengers, on the other hand, got everything right, and it was clear that Whedon and everyone working on the movie had a lot of love for the story and the characters. The action, humor, and visual experience captured the feel of comics in a way I haven’t seen since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

4 Life of Pi (Ang Lee)

Full disclosure: I have not not read the book and do not plan to. The story of Life of Pi is not why it is on this list. It’s the most beautiful movie I have ever seen, with some of the greatest shots in cinema history. The Hobbit may have been a more exciting experience due to the higher frame rate and my familiarity with the story and previous Lord of the Rings films, but Life of Pi is a movie I’ll probably use to show off new TVs in the future. It’s the only movie that uses color better than Speed Racer, which is what I used to use as my Blu Ray of choice.

3 Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)

I’m not usually a big fan of musicals, but Hooper’s version of Les Mis hit all the right notes (pun intended) for me. I liked that most of the movie was done in a sing-song way and that (with the exception of Russell Crowe) the singing was well integrated into the story. It’s an emotional movie that gets even more powerful after the famous song in the trailer, and it’s definitely the best filmed version of the play to date.

2 Cloud Atlas (The Wachowskis)

 Cloud Atlas has some of the most impressive interwoven storytelling I have ever seen in a movie, and I am a huge fan of complicated and overlapping plots. The constant shift in visual style and tone was jarring to some but refreshing to me. I’m one of the few who enjoyed The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, which was a visual masterpiece. Now, I can firmly say that they have made a complete masterpiece in every way. The ambition of Cloud Atlas will be hard to match by future filmmakers.

1 Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)

Really, Josh? You’re probably asking. A movie about dognappers with Christopher Walken is your number one of the year? Yes, that’s right. Seven Psychopaths is a movie that is essentially being made as you watch it. A struggling screenwriter starts the movie with nothing but a title (“Seven Psychopaths” of course) and begins to both write and experience the rest of the movie as it happens. It’s very hard to explain, but the movie is hilarious and is a great example of metacinema that isn’t trying too hard to be 8 ½ like some others that have tried similar ideas in the past. The performances are all top notch, with Colin Farrell as the lead backed by Walken, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson. McDonagh is better known for In Bruges, but I find Seven Psychopaths to be the more interesting film The reason it’s my number one is simply that I am a sucker for clever storytelling and this movie ranks right up there with some of my favorites of all time in that aspect.


Wreck-It Ralph Review/Summary

WARNING: This is full of spoilers. MV5BNzMxNTExOTkyMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzEyNDc0OA@@._V1_SX214_

There are three games that have dominated American arcades in each of the past three decades, respectively. In the 1980s, there was Pac Man, which helped to bring gaming to mainstream audiences and basically ushered in the Golden Age of Video Games. The 1990s gave us Street Fighter II, which by many counts is the most influential video game of all time and which popularized head-to-head competition. Dance Dance Revolution, although first release in 1997, really didn’t hit its stride in the states until DDRMAX2 came out in 2003. Arcades that hadn’t seen crowds in years suddenly had to deal with sweaty, smelly teenagers trying to show off their skills to an audience of other players who would line up to take their turn and stay from open to close just to play this one game.

All three of these games have two things in common: they are fantastically well-designed, and they are still played competitively and casually to this day. The creators of Wreck-It Ralph were wise to directly reference all three of them in the first five minutes of the movie with images of the actual arcade machines and by having speaking characters from each. This small nod to arcade-goers shows an understanding of its audience that few movies supposedly about video games ever get right. The video game references are more present in the first half of the movie than the second, but they really set the stage for a movie that takes place entirely inside a modern American arcade.

We’re soon introduced to Ralph, the bad guy in a fictional arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. (although as part of the marketing for the movie, there is an official Flash and IOS version that you can play), which I would call a mashup of Donkey Kong and Rampage. He’s not happy with his station in life, which includes being thrown off a building into the mud every time someone plays the game and having to live in a garbage dump while watching Felix and the people who live in the apartment building that he constantly wrecks living comfortably in a pent house to await a quarter being put into the machine all day long while the arcade is open. After it closes every day, the game characters are free to move about from game to game through the surge protector, which is called Game Central Station. Ralph goes to Tapper to drink at night and visits a ghost from Pac Man who hosts an Alcoholics Anonymous-type meeting for bad guys who are trying to cope with their unfortunate jobs.

There are four major governing rules in the arcade: first, if you die outside of your game, then you don’t regenerate; second, you must be back in your own game when the arcade opens in the morning, which reminded me of how the Toy Story characters always had to scramble back to where they belong whenever Andy came home; third, glitches cannot leave their own game, which I think is because they are not connected properly; and fourth, if your game gets unplugged, you die with it if you’re stuck inside or are homeless if you’re stuck in Game Central Station, so you really don’t want your game to go out of order for any extended period of time. All of these four rules play a major part in the story.

The story takes place on the 30th anniversary of Fix-It Felix Jr.’s release, making it one of the oldest games in the arcade. Felix is invited to a party to celebrate, but Ralph isn’t because most game characters are afraid of the bad guys and treat them like second-class citizens. Ralph crashes the party, and the only character to treat him with any sort of kindness is Felix himself, being programmed as a quintessential good guy. This sets up the awkwardness that is a guy who is only good at wrecking things being at a party mostly full of characters who have their home wrecked by him on a daily basis. The leader of the Nicelanders, as they are called, and Ralph get into an argument that ends with a mess. Ralph tries to apologize but isn’t very good at it, and he explains that he’s tired of living in the dump and just wants to someday be able to receive a hero’s medal, which is what Felix receives whenever someone completes a level in the game. The Nicelander leader tells Ralph that, if he can earn a hero’s medal, he can move from the dump to the penthouse. Of course, he’s certain that Ralph, being a bad guy, would never be able to do so.

Later, Ralph learns from a drunken space marine that Hero’s Duty, an on-rails first person shooter akin to Time Crisis or Terminator Salvation, but with the aesthetics of Halo and a bossy no-nonsense commander named Calhoun who shouts orders at the player and the other characters, gives out medals to whoever can climb the building and crush some bugs. Well, Ralph spends every single day climbing buildings and crushing stuff, so he sets out on his big quest. Of course, when he gets into the game, it’s nothing like he imagined, being far more dangerous. Remember that if a character dies outside his own game, then he is gone for good. After the kid who is playing gets a game over, the giant alien bugs and the space marines return to their starting points to wait for the next quarter alert, but Ralph sneaks off and finds his way to the top of the tower, which holds the prize he seeks. He actually succeeds in finding the medal but wakes up the bugs due to his clumsiness.

He escapes Hero’s Duty in an out-of-control space ship and ends up in Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart Arcade clone that takes place entirely in a Candyland-like environment, complete with soda hot springs and karts made by a baking minigame. Unfortunately, one of the bugs found its way into the ship and escapes into the world of Sugar Rush as well. In the meantime, Fix-It Felix Jr. is labeled as out-of-order when a girl tries to play but Ralph is nowhere to be found, thus making the game glitch out. Felix is afraid that Ralph has “gone Turbo” and is game-jumping. Turbo is the name of the main character of an old racing game who snuck into a newer one years ago when his became less popular, thus causing both games to get unplugged. So, Felix sets out on his quest, which is to find Ralph and get him to come back to the game. He ends up in Hero’s Duty, but is too late since Ralph is already gone, so he and Calhoun team up to find him and destroy the bug that got out of the game, since the bugs, for some unexplained reason, are unintelligent creatures who don’t know that they are game characters and could totally destroy the world of Sugar Rush.

Ralph spots his medal that was flung out when when he crashed the space ship but runs into a little girl named Vanellope von Schweets who happens to be a glitch in the game of Sugar Rush. She needs a gold coin the same size as Ralph’s medal to be able to race in the game. If she makes it into the top 9 spots in the race that takes place after the arcade closes each night, then she’ll finally be unlocked as a playable character, so she steals the medal and uses it as her fee to enter the race. King Candy, who is in charge of the world of Sugar Rush, and the other racers treat Vanellope like the Nicelanders treat Ralph. The girls are downright mean to her and end up destroying her homemade kart, but King Candy has a more practical reason for not wanting her to race. He’s afraid that, if the players see the game glitching out after picking her as their playable character, Sugar Rush might get unplugged.


Vanellope promises Ralph that she’ll pay him back with another medal when she wins the race, so he reluctantly agrees to help her build a new kart. It turns out, though, that neither she nor he knows how to drive, so we get a montage of scenes in an unfinished level of the game where she lives showing her learning to do so, which she claims she should be good at since she’s coded as a racer in the game. In a matter of just a couple minutes, she of course learns not only how to drive but to do it so well that they actually think she may have a chance at winning. Vanellope and Ralph begin a friendship which culminates in her giving him a hero’s “medal” made out of a cookie, just in case she doesn’t win the race. However, King Candy secretly also gives back Ralph’s original medal if he will promise to make sure Vanellope can’t race, for her own good and for the good of Sugar Rush. Ralph, despite how much he wants Vanellope to be happy, cares more about her safety and wrecks the kart they made together so that she can’t race.

Felix gets captured by the king’s assistant after having getting abandoned by Calhoun because he brought up some bad memories from her programmed backstory even though it seemed like there might have been a chance at romance between the two of them. He’s put into the “Fungeon”, a fun dungeon, of course, and is stuck there. So, when Ralph goes back to his own game, he finds that Felix is missing and the Nicelanders are abandoning the game because they are sure that it will be unplugged the next day without its hero. At this point, the tables have turned, and now Ralph has to set off to find Felix.

Feeling terrible about what he did to Vanellope, Ralph gathers up the bits of her broken kart once he returns to Sugar Rush, and finds Felix in prison. He uses his wrecking power to break down the door so that Felix can escape, and Felix uses his fixing power to restore Vanellope’s kart back to its former glory. The two of them find her, and she is able to race at last. However, Felix and Ralph have totally forgotten about the bug from Hero’s Duty that’s still missing and might be multiplying at this point. Calhoun, however, is still on the hunt for it and blames Ralph for everything that has gone wrong, which is actually fair since everything is actually his fault. During the race, the bugs, who were laying dormant underground, attack Sugar Rush. Since there’s no beacon to call them back after attacking, they start destroying everything.

By this point, we have learned that King Candy is really Turbo himself and has been probably taking over every new racing game that has come to the arcade for decades. He messed with the game’s code to replace Vanellope as a playable character and erased the other characters’ memory of her, which Ralph figures out when he sees that Vanellope’s picture is actually featured on the arcade cabinet itself. If she is able to cross the finish line, then the game will hopefully reset back to what it was like before Turbo messed with things. Calhoun, Felix, and Ralph try to help the Sugar Rush characters evacuate the game during the bug attack, but Vanellope, being a glitch, is unable to leave. Additionally, for some reason, Turbo has fused with a bug at this point, turning him into some kind of final boss type character. Ralph remembers that there is a Diet Coke and Mentos hot spring where Vanellope lives and thinks that maybe it can serve as a beacon to get rid of the bugs. So, he makes his way there while Vanellope tries to get back to her kart so that she can pass the finish line.

Both, of course, end up succeeding, which leads to the Disney ending that everyone suspected would come from the very beginning, which includes everything from a princess and a kiss between romantic partners to the main characters getting the respect they wanted all along and the main villain getting killed outside of his own game. For some reason, Vanellope is still a glitch, though, but she can use her glitch powers to help the player cheat at the game, so the players love picking her.

While I would have wanted a movie that dealt more with the games I know and love than one that takes place primarily in fictional games made just for the movie, overall it works. Even though it has a stereotypical Disney ending, it’s still very clear the whole time that the movie is about video games and video game characters. Sometimes, in movies like Lion King or Shark Tale, a story is told using anthropomorphic animals, fish, or whatever that could have easily been told using a different group of characters or even just regular humans. Wreck-It Ralph never falls into that trap.

The visual presentation, plethora of video game references, amusing plot, interesting characters, and love and respect for its audience make Wreck-It Ralph a movie definitely worth seeing whether your first video game was Pac Man, Street Fighter II, or Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade, Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog on a home console, or even if it’s Fix-It Felix Jr. on your mom’s iPhone.

Samurai Shakespeare

Here’s an old essay I wrote for one of my film history courses in college. It’s one of the few pieces of writing about film that I am actually somewhat proud of:

William Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted into the film medium countless times. Some of these film adaptations attempt to preserve the original setting and feel of the plays, some of them place the characters into the modern world, and others are slightly more liberal with their creative license. Akira Kurosawa, Japan’s most prominent film director of the 20th century, directed two adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. “Throne of Blood,” a version of “Macbeth” set in feudal Japan and “Ran,” a slightly looser re-imagining of “King Lear,” set in the Sengoku period, were successful interpretive adaptations of the plays, despite their significant differences in time and place. While many argue that Shakespeare’s plays are above this kind of adaptation, that they should only be performed as they were written, what Kurosawa did in his samurai films is no different than what Shakespeare himself did to parts of Holinshed’s Chronicles and the legend of Leir of Britain, the original sources of “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” respectively. That is, both men took stories known to their modern audiences and created versions of them with familiar settings that were adaptatative, interpretive, and, of course, entertaining, with respect paid to the previous works that inspired them.

“King Lear” and “Macbeth” are two of Shakespeare’s tragic masterpieces. Both, in essence, tell the story of a king’s fall and the resulting aftermath. Lear’s fall is the result of perceived disloyalty on the part of Cordelia, and misplaced trust in Goneril and Regan. Duncan’s death is the result of Macbeth’s ambitions for power. It could be said that Goneril, Regan, and Macbeth have some similarities. All three were given a portion of power, which they used to oust, in one way or another, the king who gave it to them. In both plays, there are also characters acting slightly more behind the scenes, such as Edmund or Lady Macbeth – characters that know how to play off the weaknesses of the supposedly stronger leads. These similarities must have been noticed by Kurosawa when he chose which of Shakespeare’s plays to adapt to the screen, even if the two films were made with almost 30 years between them.

Often, readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare have the wrong idea about his plays. Because of their lack of knowledge, they tend to view him as a writer who created all these wonderful stories. While there is no denying that he was an absolutely brilliant writer and master of storytelling and language crafting, his plays were inspired by historical tradition, well-known myths and other stories, and even other plays. Shakespeare used his plays to bring these other works to life in a way his audience at the time would appreciate. This often resulted in him changing minor (or major) details, adding or removing characters, or placing the characters into a contemporary or other setting.

“King Lear” is based on the story of Leir of Britain, an early English king whose story was told by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Leir divided his kingdom between his two eldest daughters because his youngest denied him assurance of her love. Shakespeare’s version does not change any of these aspects of the story. However, in the original legend, Leir, after being treated poorly by the two elder daughters, finds his youngest and they eventually take back the kingdom. The tragic figure that is King Lear comes to no such happy ending. In addition to changing the ending and, obviously, fleshing out the characters, Shakespeare also added a parallel storyline with Gloucester and his two sons. The tragic ending itself may have been the result of Shakespeare changing his own original play, as there is another version probably written by him as well, which was used in many productions until as recently as the mid-20th century.

While the changes in “King Lear” from its inspirational texts were mostly for the sake of the story’s theme and plot, sometimes Shakespeare made changes that were the result of other issues. “Macbeth” has one of these changes, in addition to a few more, from the popular story in Holinshed’s Chronicles, on which it is based. This change takes place in regards to Banquo. In the original story, he was an accomplice of Macbeth’s in the murder of the king. At the time of Shakespeare’s writing, most people believed that Banquo was an ancestor of James I, so making him out to be a murderer was something Shakespeare probably did not want to do. In addition to political reasons, Banquo’s changes could have been for dramatic purposes as well.

Akira Kurosawa is most known for his epic films “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai.” Including those two, he directed 30 movies in all, most of which were Sengoku period samurai films. The Sengoku period is considered the time in Japan from the 15th to the 17th century in which the nation was in constant social upheaval and during which military conflict was the norm. Many historical figures from the period are fictionalized in Kurosawa’s films, including Mori Motonari, one of the inspirations (alongside King Lear) for Hidetora Ichimonji in “Ran.” Kurosawa is one of the best known Japanese directors in the West, having won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy Awards in 1989, and in Japan, he has gone from being considered a genius, to a has-been, to a legend, throughout his 50 year career and beyond his death in 1993. At two points during his long career, he chose to adapt Shakespeare plays into samurai films. The first of these was “Throne of Blood,” a “Macbeth” adaptation, released in 1957.

As has already been discussed, Shakespeare took some liberties when adapting “Macbeth” from his sources. Kurosawa took the ideas presented in “Macbeth” and changed the names of characters, the setting, the time period, some of the plot, and all of the dialogue (which was necessary considering he was working in Japanese rather than English). Aside from the Sengoku setting and traditional Japanese samurai characters, one of the first changes noticeable to a viewer familiar with “Macbeth” is related to the the Weird Sisters, or Three Witches. In Kurosawa’s version, there is only one witch – an old lady who lives in a hut in the forest, working on spinning some thread. This is probably a reference to the mythological idea of a thread being someone’s life or destiny. Also, the single “witch” could be a representation of an Amanjaku, a Japanese mythological demon who can see into a person’s heart and provoke their darkest desires. To a Japanese audience, the imagery would have been immediately evident. Another major difference is that there is no character that corresponds well with Macduff, so Washizu, the Macbeth character, has no rival once Miki (Banquo) is killed. Instead of being killed in a duel, Washizu’s own men turn on him in the end and shoot him in the back with arrows. All throughout the film, Lady Washizu is portrayed as emotionless while she murders her guests and continually goads on her husband’s aspirations to the throne. That is, until she completely breaks down and commits suicide in the end.

“Throne of Blood” was made during a time in Japan when the fall of the emperor and the defeat of the country during World War II was still fresh in the minds of the people. Kurosawa’s films are considered by some to be a nostalgic look at a time in which emperors warred with each other, and samurai were noble warriors, but “Throne of Blood” depicts a very different look at these issues. Washizu is a great warrior, but he is by no means a noble man, and the emperor who preceded him is only in power because he took it by force when he killed the previous ruler – something Lady Washizu is quick to point out when Washizu is having doubts about killing him. The warrior mentality in Japan after World War II was quickly diminishing, as was the loyalty to emperors that sent men to battle for honor and glory. “Throne of Blood” is both an examination of these Japanese ideas and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s great play at the same time.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1985, Kurosawa decided to direct one more Shakespeare adaptation, “Ran,” which is loosely based on “King Lear.” The meaning of “ran” in Japanese translates to “chaos,” which is a major theme throughout the movie, especially after Hidetora , the Lear figure, is banished. Again, in his version, there are quite a few changes. The most obvious change is that the king does not have three daughters, but rather three sons – Taro (Goneril), Jiro (Regan), and Saburo (Cordelia). This is because Kurosawa’s original idea when making the film was to create a story based on Motonari, a famous historical ruler in Japan who divided his kingdom amongst his three talented sons. The twist is that Motonari’s sons were all loyal to him, whilst Lear and Hidetora were not so lucky. Another interesting omission in “Ran” is the entire plot involving Edmund, Edgar, and Gloucester. Some of what happens in that plot is transposed onto the main plot, such as with Tango, who fills the role of Kent and Edgar when disguised. Hidetora himself ends up blinded for part of the film, which is a reference to Gloucester. However, Edmund is missing completely. A role that is much more prominent in “Throne of Blood” is that of the fool. He is present with Hidetora from the very first scene and is shown to be probably his most loyal servant.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the sons are the focus of the film, just as in “Throne of Blood,” their wives act in the background with emotionless ambition, egging on their husbands to fight against each other, against their father, and against Seguro. Unlike Lady Washizu, though, the women have more spelled out reasons for their actions. While King Lear is presented as an out of touch old man, prone to anger but otherwise who gains the audience’s sympathy, Hidetora was a ruthless conqueror. His armies plundered the lands run by the castles he gives to his sons, and he killed the families of the women who he forced to marry his sons. Nobody in the film is innocent, except possibly Seguro himself.

By 1985, Akira Kurosawa was considered in Japan to be a director steeped in tradition, but ultimately his films were undesirable by then. To get financing for “Ran,” Kurosawa actually had to go outside of the country and eventually found funding from a French company. In addition to these problems, he was going blind in his old age. “Ran” was his last epic, and while it was moderately well-received at the time, it was not until much later that it was looked at as one of his best. He said at one point that the film was somewhat about himself. Obviously he was not a ruthless killer like Hidetora, but he was the “king” of Japanese cinema for a very long time and had reached the end of his prime.

By 1985, World War II and the Japanese emperors were quite a bit more removed from public thought, so it is probable that Kurosawa had a different mindset when choosing how to portray a king. Hidetora eventually goes mad, as does Lear, but it is not until after he is blind and has given up. It has even been recorded that Kurosawa attempted suicide at one point before making “Ran.” His last few films were not about Samurai or kings at all. Their time had come and gone, just as his did.