My favorite films of 2012

Thanks to my new duties last year as awards editor at Variety, I saw by far the most films I’ve ever seen in a year. Including documentaries and a smidgen of 2013 films that I got a sneak preview of, I took in 84 in all. And it was a good year to take a deep dive, with lots of interesting, quality offerings.

So here is my annual ranking of the films, using the system I designed long ago. (Important clarifications, for work purposes: I am obviously not a professional critic, and these rankings are my own and completely unaffiliated with Variety.)

As I’ve said before, it’s a system that is decidedly personal, because film is decidedly personal.  I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “best” film, but only a “favorite” film, because what we bring to a film and what we desire from it is so idiosyncratic.  Here’s the boilerplate explanation:

Ambition (1-7): How much the film is taking on, in subject matter and in filming challenges? For example, is it offering both a romantic story and social commentary at once? How difficult was the film to make technically? This allows one to distinguish between two equally well-made films when one is Casablanca and the other is Animal House. Ambition isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it allows some extra credit to be given where it is due.

Quality (1-10): This is essentially how most films are graded – simply, how good are they. As objective as I can be, how well do I think the film succeeds in achieving its ambitions?

Emotional resonance (1-13): How much did the film affect me personally. This category gets the most weight because it’s the most important – I’d rather see a flawed film that touches me than a technically perfect but emotionally stultifying picture.

Just to give you a quick idea of how this works, here are the scores of my favorite films of all time.

The Misfits: Ambition 5, Quality 9.5, Resonance 13, Total 27.5
Casablanca: Ambition 6, Quality 10, Resonance 11.5, Total 27.5

Both are great movies in my mind, with Casablanca being objectively better and The Misfits being the most powerful to me emotionally. Now, there probably aren’t 10 people in the world who would consider these films equals, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? This system helps us rank our favorites without trying to say that they’re definitively the best.

And, for comparison, down near the bottom of the scale …

The Bad News Bears Go To Japan: Ambition 1.5, Quality 2, Resonance 2, Total 5.5.

Two last quick points: I wouldn’t get caught up in single-point distinctions – those don’t amount to a significant difference between films. In fact, each time I look at the list, I feel like tinkering with some of the grades.

That last point is so true – I really find myself wanting to change the point totals again and again, and finally told myself I just had to stop.

If you want to look back, here are three past charts: my favorite films of 2011, of 2010 and of 2006.

Here we go …

A O ER T Comment
A Late Quartet 4.0 9.5 11.0 24.5 This movie has everything (that I need, anyway).
Beasts of the Southern Wild 4.5 9.0 10.0 23.5 Stunning. Unlike anything I’ve seen, but so much more than that.
Seven Psychopaths 3.5 9.5 10.0 23.0 Loved this. Funny, clever, meta, and also thoughtful and sensitive.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower 4.0 9.0 10.0 23.0 They should make more movies like this about adults. A few quibbles but really well done.
Zero Dark Thirty 4.0 9.0 10.0 23.0 Like United 93, doesn’t mess around – and grips on multiple levels.
Argo 4.0 9.0 9.5 22.5 Riveting entertainment and great mix of humor and terror.
Django Unchained 4.0 9.0 9.5 22.5 Features style and substance, earns being provocative, and fun on top of it all.
Dangerous Liaisons 3.5 9.0 9.5 22.0 Spot-on adaptation, luminous and enjoyable and with no wasted moments.
Ginger & Rosa 4.0 9.0 9.0 22.0 Very believable mix of political and personal in a coming-of-age story; Fanning’s perf peaks in amazing ways.
Les Miserables 4.5 8.0 9.5 22.0 Bit of a bumpy journey for the otherwise transcendent material. Hathaway soars, Crowe sinks.
Mea Maxima Culpa 3.0 9.5 9.5 22.0 Thorough, impactful indictment of the blindness to horror.
Moonrise Kingdom 3.0 9.0 10.0 22.0 Sincerity of the story undermines any potential problems with preciousness.
No 4.0 9.0 9.0 22.0 Really interesting, sincere and important storytelling.
Looper 4.0 8.5 9.0 21.5 Cool mix of Terminator, Logan’s Run and Inception. Felt a little long but still strong.
Quartet 3.5 8.5 9.5 21.5 A bit of a sluggish start but ultimately a lovely journey in performance and aging.
Rust and Bone 3.5 8.5 9.5 21.5 Strong story with rough edges – plot gets forced a bit toward ending, but very compelling.
The Secret World of Arrietty 3.5 9.0 9.0 21.5 Lovely, earnest film – slow-paced but completely justified in being so
Wreck-It Ralph 3.5 8.5 9.5 21.5 Great ride and really inventive, even as it was grounded in familiar.
Any Day Now 4.0 8.5 8.5 21.0 Significant yet unpretentious, with key perf from actor with Downs Syndrome.
Brave 3.5 8.5 9.0 21.0 The mother-daughter relationship evolves in a way I’ve never seen in an animated film.
End of Watch 3.5 8.5 9.0 21.0 Gritty police drama in the absolute best sense – not cliché. Gyllenhaal shines.
Searching for Sugar Man 3.5 9.0 8.5 21.0 Modest start yields great rewards – earns its smiles.
How To Survive a Plague 3.0 9.0 8.5 20.5 Some amazing historical footage highlights thorough history of HIV treatment battles.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen 3.5 8.0 9.0 20.5 Cuts some corners but knows where its bread is buttered. Charming.
The Intouchables 3.0 8.5 9.0 20.5 A really entertaining and warm film, even as it risks relying on the conceit of the magical black healer.
Amour 3.0 8.5 8.5 20.0 Tender, well-told story but takes you exactly where you’d think it would, in a very insular world.
Central Park Five 3.0 9.0 8.0 20.0 Utterly persuasive and compelling, ranks with the best work of the Burns family.
Life of Pi 4.0 8.0 8.0 20.0 Powerful visually and the narrative mostly matches up. Not sure it achieves all it set out to, but worth seeing.
Ruby Sparks 3.5 7.5 9.0 20.0 Some contrivance early on is mitigated by really strong and thought-provoking finish.
Smashed 3.0 8.5 8.5 20.0 Really strong, human-yet-unsentimental portrayal of dealing with alcoholism
The Grey 3.5 8.5 8.0 20.0 As harsh and beautiful as the world around it, with one of the best-written endings of the year.
The Iceman 3.0 9.0 8.0 20.0 Rock solid, with Michael Shannon giving dominant performance.
Lincoln 4.0 8.0 8.0 20.0 Solid but not quite moving or natural. Day-Lewis great but almost not in same world as others.
War Witch 4.0 8.5 7.5 20.0 Can’t argue with intense story in this dark companion to “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
Bully 3.0 7.5 9.0 19.5 Indispensable message but with some frustration at lack of insight into the causes.
Flight 4.0 7.5 8.0 19.5 Some Hollywood elements but otherwise pretty unflinching, plane stuff was good.
Promised Land 3.5 8.0 8.0 19.5 You wonder how Damon’s character ever got ahead in the business, otherwise fine.
Safety Not Guaranteed 3.0 7.5 9.0 19.5 A couple of loose plot issues don’t undermine the overall sincerity and charm.
Silver Linings Playbook 3.5 8.0 8.0 19.5 Appropriately manic, I suppose, and energetic – good but storytelling had its hiccups.
Chimpanzee 3.0 8.0 8.0 19.0 Satisfying journey into the chimps’ world.
Frankenweenie 3.0 8.0 8.0 19.0 Good, atmospheric, but doesn’t really deal with its central theme.
Head Games 3.0 8.0 8.0 19.0 Straightforward and convincing.
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted 3.0 7.5 8.5 19.0 Defies logic but it was fun.
Middle of Nowhere 3.0 8.0 8.0 19.0 Solid story about love and life on hold with a mesmerizing lead.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 3.5 7.0 8.5 19.0 A little tidy in the storytelling but very warm and enjoyable.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 3.5 7.5 8.0 19.0 Entertaining but long, 48 fps is cool even though it gives it a Teletubbies feel.
The Impossible 3.5 7.5 8.0 19.0 Incredible story, epic tsunami but simplistic outside of action.
The Sessions 3.5 7.5 8.0 19.0 Saccharine to a large extent, with a distracting outing by Helen Hunt, but strong finish.
To Rome with Love 3.5 7.5 8.0 19.0 Silly and a little padded but fun.
West of Memphis 3.0 8.5 7.5 19.0 Powerful stuff, of course, but troubled by the partisan production team.
Your Sister’s Sister 3.0 7.5 8.5 19.0 Sweet, sincere, meaningful if a bit light on what made characters the way they are.
Peace, Love and Misunderstanding 3.5 7.0 8.0 18.5 Servicable movie; I enjoyed Fonda, Olson and Keener.
This Is 40 3.5 7.0 8.0 18.5 A good amount of hardcore reality and some fun, interrupted by phony moments.
Bernie 3.0 7.5 7.5 18.0 Fun, if a bit slight. Role was simply made for Jack Black.
Killing Them Softly 3.0 7.5 7.5 18.0 Ending makes sense of it all. Solid with good performances but not transcendent in any way.
Rise of the Guardians 3.5 7.5 7.0 18.0 Actually a fun story, though it doesn’t really make its theme of defeating fear anything more than a fantasy.
Skyfall 4.0 6.5 7.5 18.0 Bardem wonderful, rest of the movie uneven – good moments and turgid ones.
The Gatekeepers 3.0 8.0 7.0 18.0 Enlightening. Didn’t give much reason for optimism on Israel.
To the Wonder 3.5 6.5 8.0 18.0 Eloquent, beautiful love story sandbagged by inexplicable lack of attention to Affleck’s character.
Holy Motors 4.0 7.0 6.5 17.5 The most unique movie of the year by a factor of 1,000, but it didn’t affect me.
Paranorman 3.5 7.0 7.0 17.5 Felt that I should have liked it more than I did. Story just never grabbed me. “Coraline” superior.
The Master 3.5 6.5 7.5 17.5 Impressive performances and visuals but a story that doesn’t take you anywhere.
The Waiting Room 2.5 8.0 7.0 17.5 Visceral window into ER nightmares and heroic health-care pros, but was there much insight?
Damsels in Distress 3.0 6.0 8.0 17.0 If you don’t like Stillman’s style, this film has no chance with you. Hard one to buy into.
Ethel 3.0 7.0 7.0 17.0 Completely adequate but seemed mistitled and unsure of its purpose.
Hitchcock 3.5 6.5 7.0 17.0 Has good moments but left me shrugging. Narrow.
Samsara 3.0 7.0 7.0 17.0 No shortage of interesting images, but don’t know what else to say about it.
The Company You Keep 3.0 7.0 7.0 17.0 Kind of fine, kind of fun (always with Julie Christie), but nothing standout.
Trouble with the Curve 3.5 6.5 7.0 17.0 Terrible start and a horrible baseball movie, but nice father-daughter stuff.
Not Fade Away 3.5 6.0 7.0 16.5 Some good elements but doesn’t come together in a useful way.
The Lorax 3.5 6.0 7.0 16.5 Fine for kids but definitely felt the adaptation was a bit brash and strained.
The Deep Blue Sea 3.0 6.5 6.5 16.0 Weisz strong but the film seemed thin and the ending forced. What was special about her heartbreak?
The Five-Year Engagement 3.0 6.5 6.5 16.0 Several funny moments but overall just long and kind of slow. Just inconsistent.
Arbitrage 3.0 6.0 6.0 15.0 Rich, handsome lout gets away with stuff. Well-acted but pretty pointless.
The Dark Knight Rises 4.0 6.5 4.0 14.5 I’m sure it’s very good despite its flaws, but mostly bored me to virtual tears.
Celeste and Jesse Forever 3.0 5.0 6.0 14.0 Some redemption but mostly misfires in its attempt to be instructive about relationships
On the Road 3.5 5.0 5.5 14.0 Craziness does not equal insight. Whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Anna Karenina 3.5 5.0 5.0 13.5 Outside-the-box approach spottily executed, and key character utterly useless. A long haul.
Compliance 3.0 5.5 5.0 13.5 For all its true-story basis, the film never convinces you to buy in to its outlandish reality.
Magic Mike 3.0 5.5 5.0 13.5 Harmless but almost fascinatingly dull outside the dancing. Character arcs like anthills.
Cloud Atlas 4.0 4.5 4.0 12.5 Trite, corny, doesn’t justify its expanse.
The Paperboy 4.0 4.5 4.0 12.5 Tries stuff, but really never feels anything but silly.
Hyde Park on Hudson 3.0 5.0 4.0 12.0 Pointless, with Laura Linney’s weird desperation disguised as meaningful emotion.
Cosmopolis 4.0 3.0 3.0 10.0 Sound and fury, signifying nothing new.
  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/CM5OO4NXX2QQJHGFCPJUXSZOPM Phil

    Thanks Jon, quite a list. Nice to see two of my favorite movies of the year made your top three. Have not seen Late Quartet yet. Among the movies I did see I’d have moved Looper and Moonrise kingdom higher. Guess I didn’t miss anything by not checking out Cloud Atlas.
    Was Avengers so bad for you it did not make the list?

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    Moonrise Kingdom is tied for eighth and a point from the top 5 – again, it becomes a splitting hairs issue with those kind of margins. I did love that movie and consider it a top-10 film of the year.

    I rated everything I saw – I never made it to Avengers, unfortunately. 

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    I probably should have given Moonrise more on ambition – that would move it up. 

  • Anonymous

    I’ve only seen Argo, but liked it very much. I am looking forward to the documentary of the Dodgers’ 2013 World Series championship, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Hitchcock/1676059435 Jim Hitchcock

    Thanks, Jon! Now I’ll start hectoring Hollywood Joe for a book list and my year will be set.

  • Anonymous

    That’s a lot of popcorn!  From those that I have seen, the comments are great and mostly ring true for me except for the second part of that for Lincoln.  Pehaps I don’t understand, but I enjoyed most of the performances by the the supporting cast as well.

  • Anonymous

    I think I enjoyed Wreck-it-Ralph even more than the kids :)

  • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

    I can’t wait until wreck it ralph comes out on Blue Ray since my sense of smell prohibits me from going to the movie theaters.

    off topic:

    Got in the car today to gas it up for tomorrows trip to Glendale Az and the Dodgers spring training facility and the check engine light came on…It’s now in the shop but will be ready tonight, so we still get to enjoy the weekend and try to vastly increase our autograph collection

  • Preston Bannard

    One thing I noticed – you have only 3 out of 84 films for which the ambition score is not 3, 3.5, or 4 (one 2.5, two 4.5).  That suggests two things to me: 1) the overwhelming majority of movies that come out today are fairly safe and/or 2) your scoring within this category seems to have become so narrow that it has lost a fair amount of its meaning (very much in contrast with the other two categories, which range from 3 to 9.5 and 3 to 11).  I’d be curious to hear why you think you haven’t given any film from the last three years a 5 in this category, let alone a 6 or a 7.  On the low side, Somewhere was the only film from the last three years to get a 2 rating, and The Waiting Room the only one with a 2.5 – though I think that’s more understandable, as you’re unlikely to attend many movies that have such low ambition.

    I should say that I don’t mean to be critical of your judgment (I tend to watch about two movies in the theaters in a given year); it was just an interesting statistical pattern, and I was wondering what it might stem from.

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

      It is narrow. I wouldn’t say the category has lost its meaning, but I just think that it’s just a symptom of me having an ongoing opinion that ambition isn’t that important. But it is a bit problematic and I have thought about loosening up. 

  • Anonymous

    Wow.  I have not seen a single film on this list, and I’ve never even heard of at least 75% of them.  I guess this doesn’t surprise me.  I do watch movies, but I haven’t been in a theater since Senna, and I imagine that most of these are not yet available via Netflix, etc.  And while I watch a lot of TV (too much really) I never ever watch commercials, so I don’t see ads for movies except on billboards. 

    I do expect to see some of these eventually, so I do appreciate thoughtful reviews.  Guys like Jon do the hard work, and I get to cherry pick the gems.

  • Logan

    Wow, why should anyone give a rip what your favorite movies are???  It’s Spring Training and this nonsense is all you can do????  I’ll just go ahead and remove you from my Bookmarks so I don’t waste my time anymore.

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

      I said in September that I was suspending regular coverage of the Dodgers here, something that anyone who has been to the site since can see. So I understand if you don’t want to bookmark the page, but I sure don’t understand the anger. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/dane.pereslete Dane Pereslete

    I am looking forward to “42″.  Will you get the chance to review it?

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

       Look forward to seeing it, will offer my take on it when I can.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    NPUT

  • Andrew Shimmin

    Two of the eighty-four were funny. Even that seems high.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t see the need for a rating system to have so many numbers.  The standard 1 to 5 star system gets the job done efficiently…and more importantly, understandably.  I’ve always felt that 1 to 10 systems have a lot of superfluous numbers.  On a 10 point system, is there a real difference between a 4 and 3?  Or between a 1 and 2, etc?   If the reader has to keep referring back to your rating key to know what your final numbers mean, then that’s a problem.  

    5 – great / 4 – very good / 3 – good / 2 – fair / 1 – poor

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

      Ultimately, there’s just one number, the one at the end.  I’m just using the three categories to show you how I arrive at that number.  Certainly, if all you want is a 1-5 scale, that’s fine, but I’m personally interested in more distinctions. 

      • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

        After all, we could just rate baseball players on a 1-5 scale, too.  But most of us are happy that there are more numbers.