*Editor’s note: The inspiration for this list came from the blog “At The Back”.
2012 has come and gone, and it’s at this time of the year that film critics look back on the year that was. While I do plan on doing movie awards, I still have yet to see certain high profile 2012 releases. Still, I wanted to do something. Through sheer chance, I stumbled across the idea of ranking the non-2012 films I saw from last year for the first time. I thought it be fun, so I present to you the top twenty non-2012 films I saw for the first time in 2012. This is not a definitive order and ranking some of these films proved challenging.
20. House of Games (Watched on 12/01/12)
Opening my list is a little known film from 1987 called House of Games. Written and directed by David Mamet, the film follows a psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) who becomes involved with con men in her efforts to help a patient suffering from gambling addiction. What makes the film so special is Mamet’s wonderful screenplay which tells a tight story full of interesting characters and sublime dialogue. Though Mamet had yet to develop his skill as a director, House of Games still stands strong thanks to great acting and writing.
19. When Harry Met Sally… (Watched on 07/27/12)
When Harry Met Sally… is a film that is many ways very predictable and follows the standard tropes of the romantic comedy genre. And yet, the film works so well. Most of the film’s success can be attributed to Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan who are both very charismatic in the lead roles. The audience likes these characters and wants to see them be happy. Nora Ephron’s script also packs a lot of humour and Rob Reiner’s direction helps the film feel real. It’s a film with a lot of heart, one that rises beyond its limitations.
18. Malcolm X (Watched on 12/11/12)
Easily one of the best biopics I’ve seen, Malcolm X covers the life of its title character from birth to death in a way that is constantly informative and entertaining. Spike Lee clearly has a lot of respect for the man and this comes through in his directing. Lee tones some of his more energetic tendencies down and has Malcolm’s story unfold in epic fashion. Denzel Washington delivers a power-house performance, a real challenge considering Malcolm X does not have one arc in the film, but several. Granted, I wasn’t quite as blown away by the film as I expected to be, but Malcolm X is still a great film and one I highly recommend.
17. Akira (Watched on 02/28/12)
Set in Japan during the year 2019, Akira follows a teenage gang who stumble across a government secret. Akira is one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen, in part because my exposure to Japanese animation is severely limited. The film features breath taking visuals, cutting edge animation, a bizarre story, and several underlying themes. Though at times the story feels a little rushed (it was adapted from six volumes of manga), Akira is so fascinating, entertaining, and unlike anything else I’ve seen that I don’t care too much.
16. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Watched on 09/20/12)
The film follows Joan of Arc’s imprisonment and trial at the hands of the British. Silent films can be a daunting task, but The Passion of Joan of Arc doesn’t feel like work at all. Instead, the film is extremely powerful and moving. The story moves along at a brisk pace and director Carl Theodor Dryer fills the frame with striking visuals. Maria Falconetti delivers an incredible performance as Joan and in many ways carries the film. Also, while the music wasn’t recorded until years after, I loved the score provided by Richard Einhorn.
15. Hunger (Watched on 09/20/12)
The directorial debut of British auteur Steve McQueen, Hunger follows the hunger strike of real life IRA leader Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender. Hunger is one of the most assured and confident films from any first time filmmaker. McQueen’s style is very relaxed; he allows the action to play out with a blunt honesty. A very bleak tone is set by his choices. Michael Fassbender delivers an amazing performance despite saying little. His physical work is especially impressive. This film also means a great deal to me personally after researching Bobby Sands on my own.
14. Platoon (Watched on 02/20/12)
I don’t love Platoon quite as much as I did on my initial viewing, but make no mistake, this is a powerful film and one of the best made about the Vietnam war. Oliver Stone’s script raises several questions and moral ambiguities while his direction fully sucks the viewer in. Despite Charlie Sheen playing the lead role, the best performances come from Tom Berenger as Willem Dafoe. Berenger plays an obsessed soldier who is starting to lose his sanity, while Dafoe plays a soldier desperately trying to maintain order amidst the chaos.
13. Requiem for a Dream (Watched on 02/14/20)
Any small interest I may have had in drugs was completely destroyed when I saw Requiem for a Dream. The film is a dark and visceral experience, at times unpleasant but always unforgettable. Darren Aronofsky’s style is on fire with quick cuts and an intense score from Clint Mansell. There’s also some great performances, especially Ellen Burstyn who even received an Oscar nomination for her work. This is a hard film to recommend, and an even harder one to watch, but it’s also extremely well-made and deserves to be seen.
12. Strangers on a Train (Watched on 07/25/12)
Two men meet on a train, each with someone they hate in their lives, and one of them purposes they both kill the other person’s hated individual. That’s the hook to Strangers on a Train, and what a hook it is. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train is a great film and one of Hitchcock’s finest. A high level of suspense is felt and Hitchcock employs some chilling visuals, my favourite is a shot where an audience of a tennis game continuously turn their heads to follow a match, while a killer stays still, his eyes fixed on his target. The film also has one of the best murders ever put to screen and I love Robert Walker’s performance as the crazed killer.
11. Shame (Watched on 11/06/12)
Like Requiem, Shame handles the topic of addiction. However the lead character Brandon (Michael Fassbender) does not suffer from an addiction to drugs. Instead, he suffers from an addiction to sex. The common attitude regarding sex addiction is that it’s just an excuse for promiscuous behaviour. But with Shame, writer/director Steve McQuen (Hunger) handles the issue with respect and maturity, showing sex addiction to be just as miserable as any other form of addiction. To treat the issue with such maturity must have taken courage and I respect McQueen for that. The film is also very well constructed and features another knockout performance from Michael Fassbender.
10. Traffic (Watched on 02/01/12)
Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling film depicts drug trafficking and the many different people it effects. From the dealers, to the pushers, to the addicts, to the makers, to the cops, to the drug czars, everyone is looked at. Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan are careful never to turn the characters into stereotypes whom only exist to represent the various groups of people depicted. Instead, all of the characters feel very real, thanks in no small part to great performances from the likes of Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, and especially Benecio del Toro. Soderbergh also employs some great visual flourishes and the questions the film raises are certainly worthy of discussion.
9. Boogie Nights (Watched on 05/29/12)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sophomore effort Boogie Nights can best be described as Goodfellas meets the porn industry. Borrowing the plot structure of Goodfellas, Boogie Nights follows Dirk Diggler’s (Mark Wahlberg) rise and fall in the porn industry. The film manages to be a lot of things including: funny, dramatic, tense, poignant, moving, dark, vibrant, and a slew of other adjectives. Ultimately, it’s a film with life and energy. Boogie Nights also features some fantastic performances and while it may not be as refined as other Anderson films like Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, the film is still a well-crafted and engaging one.
8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Watched on 09/22/12)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tells the story of two Western outlaws who robbed banks and trains. The film could easily be compared to Bonnie and Clyde, but while that film depicted their characters as horrid people, Butch Cassidy has a very likable cast and the strength of the actors really sell it. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are especially awesome. They have great chemistry and create two outlaws that the audience really roots for. There’s also some very well executed scenes and a tone of pure fun is maintainted throughout. The ending is also fairly touching and a bit sad. Great film, and one of my favourite Westerns too.
7. Groundhog Day (Watched on 12/10/12)
I did not expect much from Groundhog Day. At best, I thought I’d get a solid comedy elevated greatly by Bill Murray. I had no idea the film would end up being one of the best I’d see all year. Bill Murray plays Phil, a weatherman who has to continuously relive the worst day of his life. Though he may change his actions, everyday is the same and no one can remember the others like it except Phil. It’s a brilliant idea and the film takes full advantage of it. Bill Murray’s humour comes off strong and there’s some great comedy throughout. More importantly though is the exploration of the central idea and the themes it brings foreword. Phil’s character arc is, while simple, extremely rewarding to see and the film is constantly entertaining. Groundhog Day; it works as light entertainment and so much more.
6. Ran (Watched on 11/15/12)
In high school, “King Lear” was probably my least favourite Shakespeare play, which is why I find it amusing that Ran (an adaptation of “King Lear” would become my favourite Shakespeare film adaptation. To summarize the plot would be too complicated, so I’ll just say that it involves an elderly Japanese man who forfeits his empire due to poor decision making. The film is a true epic; Akira Kurosawa brings a tremendous sense of scope to the story, particularly through his visuals. Kurosawa’s reserved style is very effective. He doesn’t use any fancy editing or tricks, he just allows the story to play out naturally. There’s also a lot of fascinating thematic ideas running through the film.
5. Do The Right Thing (Watched on 12/03/12)
A look at racial tension in New York circa the late 1980′s, Do The Right Thing is a smart and powerful film made brilliantly by Spike Lee. Do The Right Thing doesn’t really follow a plot. Instead, the film just shows one hot summer day in New York City neighborhood. Despite the lack of a formal plot, Lee is able to build a tremendous amount of tension through various events as well as Lee’s technique. There’s a lot of really stylish touches here, particularly in how the film is shot and edited. The film also has a great soundtrack which is used to excellent effect. Bold, stylish, and ambitious, Do The Right Thing is a must see.
4. The Royal Tenenbaums (Watched on 07/13/12)
The Royal Tenenbaums follows the Tenenbaum family and how their lives are affected by one specific member; Royal (Gene Hackman). The film succeeds in many different areas. The script, penned by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, creates some fascinating characters and scenarios while also being very funny. The cast is also exceptionally good. No one is miscast and everyone is excellent, with Gene Hackman really standing out. Director Wes Anderson uses some amazing soundtrack decisions and the visuals are also unusually well-constructed for a comedy. I don’t know if I could point to one element as most important, but I do know that all of these elements came together to form one of my favourite films.
3. Rashomon (Watched on 06/30/12)
A bandit, a samurai, and the samurai’s wife have something happen to them in the forest. “What happened in the forest?” you may ask. Well, that’s what Rashomon is all about. Everyone has their own version of what happened and each story contradicts the others. The point of the film isn’t which story is right, the point is that people are inherent liars and will say anything as long as it serves their own purposes. Each of the stories are interesting in their own right and there’s some really strong acting, especially from the great Toshiro Mifune. The film also utilizes some subtle but very effective and intelligent visuals. Overall, the film is a brilliant examination of human nature.
2. Seven Samurai (Watched on 07/24/12)
My last Kurosawa entry, I promise. I had a year of anticipation leading into Seven Samurai. Given that, it’s amazing how well the film lived up to the hype. The story is relatively straight-foreword; a group of samurai protect a village from bandits. There are however a number of underlying themes with permeate the film, such as the nature of tradition, honour, and the price of heroism. Kurosawa brings a huge sense of scale to the film but never forgets about the intimate feelings of the characters. Speaking of which, the characters are all very good, and I especially liked the master swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), group leader Kambei (Takashi Shimura), and the eccentric Kikuchiyo (the amazing Toshiro Mifune). The film also has a very moving and powerful ending, along with one of the greatest climaxes in film history. Overall, Seven Samurai is a total masterpiece which could have easily topped my list.
1. Aliens (Watched on 01/11/12)
I fucking love Aliens. I’m almost tempted to leave it there, but I suppose I should elaborate a bit. Aliens follows returning protagonist Ellen Ripley, who has been released from her cryo-pod 57 years after the events from the first film. She finds herself returning to LV-426 so she can overcome her demons by eliminating the xenomorph threat. The results? A badass action film with Ripley and a bunch of marines fighting aliens. The film is endlessly entertaining, constantly awesome, and extremely badass. The action scenes are nothing short of incredible, and James Cameron does a great job making the sci-fi elements feel real. Beneath its surface of action, there’s a great story to Aliens with interesting themes and allegories. These include themes of motherhood, overcoming issues, and even the Vietnam war. The film is also full of great characters. Not just Ripley, but the marines are awesome too. Aliens is great filmmaking through and through, a movie I can watch again and again and still love.