Thursday, January 10, 2013

Top Ten Science Fiction & Fantasy Films of 2012

We don't need an extensive preamble for this, right? Let me just note that this is the first year in some time that there were enough good (or at least decent) fantasy and science fiction films to make a good Top Ten list from (without checking, I'd guess you'd have to look back at least a decade to when the Lord of the Rings trilogy was coming out, if not longer -- the 80s, maybe?). Anyway...

Honorable Mentions: 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Chronicle, The Hunger Games

10. Prometheus - While it was perhaps inevitable that Ridley Scott's proud return to the Alien universe would fail to live up to the hype, we at least got an interesting (if somewhat confused) sci-fi epic filled with monsters and fascinating alien worlds (well, one world) and Michael Fassbender. Maybe he can make a sequel to it that could properly use his full talents...

9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - This movie had a lot going against it from the start, so I suppose it's a credit to the film that it made the list at all, despite being based on the least eventful and interesting of Tolkien's books (at least excepting the Silmarillion, which Jackson decided to cram chunks of into here), being split into three films for seemingly no reason beyond a blatant cash grab, and being used to test drive new digital cameras that apparently make the film look like a soap opera (I didn't see the 48 fps version, so I can't comment on that). Despite itself, once it finally gets going it winds up being a pretty entertaining adventure, with an epilogue that all but promises that the second and third film will be better.

8. Snow White & the Huntsman - No, I can't say that I would have ever been expecting to say that a film starring Kristen Stewart would wind up being really good, and yet here we are. First-time director Rupert Sanders (who is now apparently using his success to do a remake of Van Helsing with Tom Cruise, because why not?) managed to update the Snow White tale into one that's visually lush and suprisingly epic-feeling, despite being based on a short story. There's only one glaring flaw to the whole thing, and I'll leave it to you clever sleuths to try to deduce what that could possibly be.

7. Holy Motors - I somewhat dreaded trying to describe this, as the film is so deliriously weird and plot-free that I'm worried I'm just going to make it sound dreadful. Basically, we spend a day with Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he is chauffered around the city, playing various roles for various people. He is, at various points, a business leader, a madman, a virtual reality lover, a murderer, a murder victim, and more, for reasons that are never fully explained, and are visibly artificial (not only does he at one point bite some woman's fingers off and then kidnap a model without anyone acting particularly disturbed, but he is straight up killed twice and just keeps going). It's an utterly absorbing film, one that you're just going to have to let wash over you.

6. Seeking a Friend For the End of the World - Of the two "end of the world" films released in 2012, this was easily the more moving effort. Steve Carell really shows off his melancholy side in this film, completely stripping away all of the comedic trappings he is most known for as he lives trapped in his own depression as a humanity-ending meteor is three weeks away from hitting Earth. This is also a directorial debut by Lorene Scafaria, whose previous film effort was as the screenwriter for Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist. This is a much superior film, in large part due to Steve Carell and Keira Knightley being just slightly more capable of detailing depression and ennui than Michael Cera and Kat Dennings could.

5. Mirror Mirror - There were two major releases in 2012 based around the Snow White legend (and also some straight to DVD nonsense and one or two European productions that I don't recall the names of), and both of them were much better than the old Disney film. This one, directed by Tarsem Singh, is every bit as visually impressive (and more inventive) and trades the epic fantasy adventure tale for a more comedic and light-hearted effort. In that regard, I imagine that which film you prefer is going to depend on whether you'd rather watch a comedy or an adventure.

4. Men in Black 3 - I can't say I had very high hopes for this, the first Men in Black film in ten years, and the follow-up to the disastrous-yet-appropriately-named Men in Black 2. I certainly wasn't expecting this to be the best film in the series, but thanks to a loopy time travel plot and Josh Brolin doing a dead-on impersonation of a young Tommy Lee Jones, we've got both the funniest and the most surprisingly heartfelt effort director Barry Sonnenfield has yet managed.

3. Moonrise Kingdom - If this isn't my favorite Wes Anderson film, that's mainly a testament to just how damn high he's set the bar for himself. It's an effortlessly charming tale about a young boy and girl that fall in love on an island and decide to make a break for it. As with any of Anderson's films, the plot isn't as important on its own merits as it is a chance to create some weird alternate reality populated by goofy, whimsical individuals, and while that means that his movies frequently feel a lot alike, it's not something that has yet gotten old for me, nor do I expect it to anytime soon.

2. Looper - Until all of the positive reviews came out, I hadn't been planning on watching this at all, which I guess shows how much of a sucker I am for a bad ad campaign. This is one of those films that we used to get once every year or two until the rise of the superhero movie: a clever, thoughtful action-based science fiction story of the sort that we all perhaps needed a bit of a breather from after the third Matrix film. As long as you don't get hung up on the various time travel issues, this ranks up there with some of the best sci-fi action movies.

1. Cloud Atlas - Oh, and speaking of the Matrix films, here we have the Wachowskis greatest film, and at an estimated budget of $100 million, the most expensive independent movie ever made. You can largely ignore the ad campaign promising how you'll get to see how it all interconnects, because for the most part it doesn't. What it does is present us with six epic (or less than epic, a couple of them) stories from the past, present, and future, complete with the rather curious stylistic choice to have the same actors play the main roles in all six stories. Seriously, I loved just about every minute of this movie, but just try watching Hugo Weaving as a Nurse Ratched clone and tell me there's a god.

Next week: Animation!

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