Cabin in the Woods – There’s a great deal of fun potentially to be had when the movie industry starts to self-deconstruct, and Joss Whedon shows himself a masterful wielder of both the bludgeon and the scalpel in this over-the-top send-up of the tropes of the teen slasher horror subgenre. Cabin in the Woods starts off by retracing very familiar ground; but don’t be deterred, even if you think that you absolutely loathe this sort of movie. The last half-hour is a hilariously wild ride that turns the genre entirely on its head – a more exhilarating action sequence than any of 2012’s comic-book-based blockbusters had to offer, without making you feel like you checked your brain at the door.
Life of Pi – Some movies need to be seen just because they’re so stunningly beautiful to look at, maximizing the potential of this most visual of media. Ang Lee’s gorgeous screen realization of Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” best-selling novel Life of Pi is 2012’s outstanding example. Newcomer Suraj Sharma as young Pi and an utterly convincing, mostly-CGI-generated Bengal tiger known as Richard Parker as almost as mesmerizing centerstage in a drifting lifeboat as the wonders of sea and sky that surround them. By all means, see it in 3-D; it’s exactly why the modern revival and refinement of this technology is most welcome.
Quartet – I was lucky enough to catch Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, which is just about to hit the theatres now, at the Woodstock Film Festival. If Quvenzhané Wallis doesn’t take Best Actress honors for Beasts of the Southern Wild, I wouldn’t feel too disappointed if Maggie Smith picks up her third Oscar for her delectable turn as a vain, acid-tongued former opera diva in Quartet. Like Marigold Hotel, it uses a retirement home as an excuse to pull together the cream of Britain’s older acting royalty for a warm, funny and touching romp. Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins are all surpassingly wonderful as the rest of the retired quartet, as is Michael Gambon in a supporting role.
Cloud Atlas – Close behind Life of Pi in the needs-to-be-seen-for-sheer-visual-impact-alone category is another attempt at filming an unfilmable novel, this time the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer’s ambitious rendering of the six spirally structured narratives of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. With its multiple casting of an interesting mix of actors in wildly disparate parts, the movie version is inevitably flawed in several ways; and it sometimes misses the philosophical drift of the novel, which is about how karmic debt can be paid down over multiple lifetimes and the ways in which one small action for good or ill can reverberate throughout times and civilizations. Nevertheless, it succeeds well enough to be deeply moving at the last.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – Like the few years preceding, 2012 has not been the best of years for rom/coms; there’s an awful lot of drivel out there that makes me long for the great screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The exception staving off despair was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a sweet, cheeky yarn about two apparently mismatched Brits hired by a visionary Yemeni sheikh who wants to build a dam in the desert to support his fly-fishing hobby. Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt exude the individual charm and the collective chemistry to convince us that they’re an inevitable pair.
Skyfall – The half-century-old James Bond franchise got a tonic infusion this year, thanks in large part to director Sam Mendes’ willingness to emphasize character over gadgetry. Daniel Craig gives us a more rounded 007 who’s capable of human attachment; Javier Bardem serves up a juicy, funny super-hacker villain who seems rather more colossally annoyed with the world than merely megalomaniacal; and Judi Dench delivers a stirring swan song for her M. You get the adrenaline-charged action, the exotic locales, the sly humor and the sophisticated style that generations have come to expect from a Bond movie – plus a bit of humanity besides.
Some runners-up worthy of mention: Argo, Brave, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Hope Springs, The Master, ParaNorman and The Pirates! Band of Misfits.