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The Best Films Of 2012...So Far

by The Playlist Staff
June 21, 2012 9:58 AM
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"This Is Not a Film"
When Iranian new-wave top dog Jafar Panahi was silenced by his country’s government (essentially barring him from continuing his film career), it was assumed that, save some renegade attempt to escape the country, we probably wouldn’t hear from the auteur for some time. Color us surprised when “This Is Not a Film” surfaced at Cannes -- smuggled out of Iran, hidden in a birthday cake -- a documentary done in video-diary style that deals with the filmmaker’s house arrest and aborted movie project. But what we got wasn’t simply the confessions of a muted artist: in conversation with fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who is also listed as a director), Panahi is encouraged to describe and act out scenes from his terminated script in great detail, an undertaking he commits to until becoming forlorn during the process, recognizing the futility of the endeavor and yearning for his rightful canvas. And yet, within the film, we can’t help but think that certain moments are too convenient to be unstaged. Take, for example, the young garbage collector he runs into in the hallway -- as he joins him on the elevator, they engage in a great conversation about this teen’s life and future while stopping at every floor to collect residents’ trash. It’s all done in a single shot, focused on this kid, with the chat interrupted every so often by his duties on each floor. Panahi keeps the camera rolling, waiting patiently for his subject to return and the dialogue to resume. Sounds like something he might direct, no? There are numerous instances like this, such as the insistent neighbor in need of a dog-sitter that feels like a subplot or the fact that film conveniently takes place on Chahārshanbe-Sūri/Wednesday Feast, a holiday dating back a few centuries that both celebrates the oncoming of Spring and is a ritual that promises warmth and good health. Normally this kind of documentary manipulation would raise flags for some, but given Panahi’s current predicament and subsequent longing for the medium (and additionally the film’s unmanufactured feeling), it comes off as an intensely personal, resonant rebellion, an incredibly beautiful movie and one of his best films to date (read our review).

"Safety Not Guaranteed"
It's hard not to be a little wary when a buzzy, quirky indie comedy becomes a crowd-pleasing hit at Sundance -- we've suffered through too many films like "Happy Texas" and "Hamlet 2" in the past to walk in without being a little cautious. But we found ourselves utterly charmed by Colin Trevorrow's "Safety Not Guaranteed," a very funny time-travel comedy (or is it?) with a great big beating heart. The story follows stuck-in-a-rut intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza), who accompanies cynical magazine reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow work-experience-seeking kid Arnau (Karan Soni) to investigate a man who's placed a classified ad looking for a companion to go time traveling with him. Using a real life incident as a loose jumping off point, Derek Connolly's script is consistently sharp and amusing, but there's a rich vein of sadness running throughout, principally thanks to a committed performance from Mark Duplass that's one of the year's best -- mistrustful, a little angry and seemingly a little away with the fairies, but gradually warming as he lets Darius into his scheme. And Plaza and Johnson -- principally known for their TV work on "Parks and Recreation" and "New Girl" -- suggest that they should be getting a lot more big-screen work down the line with firmly winning performances. Some of the star cameos (that we won't spoil here) are a touch distracting, and the ending feels a little rushed (it's telling that it was submitted to Sundance with a different conclusion), but for the most part, Trevorrow handles the tricky mix of tones beautifully, and displays an excellent sense for the visuals. An accomplished and surprising debut that takes the premise in unexpected places, Trevorrow and Connolly have marked themselves a filmmaking team to watch (read our review).

"21 Jump Street"
It shouldn't have worked – yet another tired reinvention of a preexisting property (in this case a beloved but marginal eighties television series), gussied up with of-the-moment stars and a more comedic bent (something found, time and time again, in the television-series-adaptation subgenre -- see also: "The Addams Family," "The Brady Bunch," and "Charlie's Angels"), shepherded by a pair of directors making the shaky transition from animation to the much woollier world of live action. And yet it exceeded all expectations. A tremendously funny, heartfelt, razor-sharp deconstruction of cop movie clichés (the best, probably, since "Hot Fuzz"), a wondrous celebration of the awkwardness of high school, and a fucking funny studio comedy, it was sprightly and warm and all the more powerful because it was so unexpected. You loved "21 Jump Street" in spite of the material, not because of it. It showed us that Jonah Hill could still be funny after his more dramatic turn in "Moneyball," but more importantly that Channing Tatum, heretofore an unknown comedic quantity but always exceedingly handsome, could make you giggle with the best of them. And those animation dudes ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller)? They totally nailed it too, adding an additional layer of zingy vibrancy to an already electric script, and proving that Brad Bird wasn't the only animation-to-live action success story in the past few months. The movie comes out on home video this summer and, quite frankly, we can't wait to see it again (read our review).

"The Cabin in the Woods"
Things weren't looking good for Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's genre deconstruction/celebration "The Cabin in the Woods." It was shelved for an epic amount of time (only Kenneth Lonergan would probably find it "brief") while the studio worked out financing issues and, for a spell at least, it was a candidate for muddy post-production 3D conversion or, at the very worst, a hasty direct-to-video release (a fate that will befall it in many countries overseas). But then people actually started seeing it and got really excited. This truly was some next-level shit – a canny exploration of what makes horror films so powerful (and why we keep showing up to them) and a bold rejection/condemnation of the torture porn tropes and found footage aesthetics that have come to dominate modern scary movies. Oh, and it was fucking funny. When the film got its public debut at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival, people went bananas (reports claiming that the Paramount Theater levitated off its foundation are probably exaggerated, but not by much). Although the film didn't connect as strongly with mass audiences (although it's considered a "sleeper hit," you have to wonder what it could have done if it had been released after Whedon's little art house film "The Avengers") and more than a few critics found it befuddling and arch (it's neither), "The Cabin in the Woods" is the kind of movie that will ultimately live on as a deserved cult classic, perfect for drunken film studies students and bored kids at slumber parties alike. Boo! (read our review)

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  • Jeff | August 1, 2012 2:24 PMReply

    I just saw "Take This Waltz" last night and oh my god was it atrocious. It was convoluted, disjointed, and meandering. My friends and I described it as "if David Lynch were to do a rom com/dramedy", using his usual Lynchian trademarks, but failed miserably on every level. I want my money back. That aside, most of this list is pretty solid. I like how the Playlist equally balances commercial, indie, and foreign films. Although "21 Jump Street" was one of if not THE worst film I've seen this year. I'm glad they brought up "Kill List", as that was one of the most diabolically clever movies I've seen of that genre in as far back as I can remember.

  • Richardo | June 26, 2012 1:15 AMReply

    Have never seen anything about Ava Duverney's Middle of Nowhere on here. Won Sundance Best Director and I finally saw at LAFF last week and it kinda knocked my socks off. That and All is Well and Sunkissed were really quite excellent. Saw all at LAFF.

  • bohmer | June 24, 2012 8:58 PMReply

    I'd put THE GREY and LAURENCE ANYWAYS in that list, both films are a bit flawed but so much refreshing and surprising.

  • Leonardo | June 23, 2012 4:57 PMReply

    Damn i have to wait till some of these get to my country, and other ones were arlready here but i dind't have money to go to the cinemas.

  • Alan | June 22, 2012 3:32 AMReply

    Thomas Doret should played Aaron Cross in 'The Bourne Legacy'. The CIA would never be able to catch this kid.

  • basilbeast | June 21, 2012 4:49 PMReply

    If you're going to stick Avengers in with this eclectic selection of visual fare, I'd add John Carter ( of Mars ).

  • basilbeast | June 21, 2012 8:43 PM

    Interesting, I had the same reaction to Avengers sharing space with your 20 best list. A glitzy cgi remake of "Master of the World" ( Vincent Price starring, in case you were unaware of it ) with a plot-line to answer my Top Question of the Cinematic Year, "Whatever are they gonna do with the Hulk?"

    But still, I'm happy that I made you happy, even for a brief fleeting moment.

  • Katie Walsh | June 21, 2012 7:26 PM


  • Tim | June 21, 2012 1:23 PMReply

    The best films out so far this year was "The Deep Blue Sea" (Rachel Weisz's performance was amazing) and "Moolight Kingtom". The rest of the year so far has been mediocre at best.

  • Lady in Waiting | June 21, 2012 1:52 PM

    Loved Rachel Weisz in Deep Blue Sea, her performance was actually better than the film itself but she kept you interested in it till the end. A Oscar worthy turn by her.

    P.S. I think you mean Moonrise Kingdom;)

  • ben | June 21, 2012 12:50 PMReply

    Hey, I loved the list. You got some really great films there. But in terms of documentaries, I thought "Indie Game" definitely should be mentioned. I found it to be one of the most fascinating and entertaining documentaries I have seen in quite sometime. I know it played in limited release but I really think it should be searched out for those who love documentaries.

  • gerty | June 21, 2012 12:36 PMReply

    for me the best was jeff who lives at home so far, i did enjoy some others as well but they didnt exactly stood out. cant wait to see monrise kingdom and pretty much anything else from my most anticipated list. personally i think 2012 has been pretty bad for movies so far but the second half will probably make it one of the best years in recent history.

  • AS | June 21, 2012 12:04 PMReply

    At this point in the year there isn't much to choose from but The Deep Blue Sea is by far the best so far.

  • Brian | June 21, 2012 11:45 AMReply

    Out of curiosity, what are we considering 'Kill List' at this juncture? 2011 or 2012?

  • Brian | June 21, 2012 12:04 PM

    Thanks. I'm working on my own list and it's one of those border oddities.

  • The Playlist | June 21, 2012 11:52 AM

    Yeah, Kill List is technically 2012 so technically should be on this list somewhere. We'll likely amend soon. thanks for this Brian. Most of us saw it in 2011 and I guess we unfortunately forgot about it.

  • Oogle monster | June 21, 2012 11:29 AMReply

    Moonrise Kingdom ftw! Also, Take this Waltz- while I can defend it to a certain degree (the cinematography and score are splendid and Rogen gives a commendable performance)- Michelle Williams is essentially playing Cindy from Blue Valentine with an awful wig, chubbier face, and hipster meets farmers market clothing. I say this as a big big big fan of Williams, Polley and especially Blue Valentine. It’s an extension of her character in BV… transplanted to Canada. I’d say go see it to watch Rogen play the straight-laced guy (and he has a few funny zingers as well) but there isn’t much to it other than the fact that you want to slap Williams’ character in the face for being sullen ALL THE TIME.

  • Cribbster | June 21, 2012 11:25 AMReply

    I would have included "Goon" and HBO's "Game Change" over "The Deep Blue Sea" and "Safety Not Guaranteed."

    I might need to see "Deep Blue Sea" again (I was really disappointed), but I'm positive "Safety Not Guaranteed" is only slightly better than mediocre. It's not terribly funny, and the film really only becomes about whether the guy can travel through time. The filmmakers try to distract you from that with a bunch of shallow character stuff, but it's an aggressively mediocre movie, I think.

  • bonzob | June 21, 2012 11:50 AM

    On the one hand, I really liked Goon, and agree it could have received a mention here. Sweet, funny, strong performances, hugely entertaining.

    On the other hand, I completely disagree on Safety Not Guaranteed. I found it very funny, I don't think it's ever really about "whether the guy can travel through time," and the character work was solid for a movie of this sort -- far from shallow.

  • matt | June 21, 2012 10:26 AMReply

    no love for Oslo, August 31?

  • Mike | June 21, 2012 8:53 PM

    Totally agree on this one.

  • Rodrigo | June 21, 2012 10:54 AM

    Yeah, personally I have yet to see it, but I'm a huge fan of "Reprise" so it's possible it could end up on my year-end list.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | June 21, 2012 10:30 AM

    Oh, shit, good point. It was in my Top 10 last year, I'd forgotten it finally got a U.S. release. Not sure how many others on staff saw it: I know Kevin did, but was a bit cooler on it than me.

  • Monica | June 21, 2012 10:09 AMReply

    Great list, except forThe Avengers was a stupid blockbuster. Script full of holes and horrible performances.

  • Andy | June 21, 2012 12:05 PM

    And the critics that gave it 93 percent positive in Rotten Tomatoes are stupid, too. In that case, you should replace them, man. Or you could make a movie with the performances less "horrible" than the performances of The Avengers. If you can, I'll watch your movie and enjoy it!
    Hope you're not a Batman's fan that hates everything about Marvel.

  • bonzob2000 | June 21, 2012 10:44 AM

    Wrong. Horrible performances, seriously?

    Also, did I miss it, or is there no mention of Headhunters? And I think I liked it more than most of the Playlist, but I thought Bullhead deserved a mention.

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