Jason Coffman’s Top 20 Films of 2012

| January 19, 2013

Here they are, folks, in excruciatingly overthought order. My 20 favorite films of 2012, with intermittent commentary. May God have mercy on my soul.

20. Manborg (dir. Steven Kostanski, Canada, 60 minutes):

This was, all things considered, a pretty great year for Canadian comedy collective Astron-6. They released two feature films– Manborg and Father’s Day– which helped raise their profile beyond a tiny, dedicated cult. The reason for their popularity is obvious to anyone who has watched their short films, often as unsettling and bizarre as they are hilarious. Manborg is a tribute to 80s and 90s straight-to-video sci-fi/action films made on a reported budget of about $1,000 by Astron-6 special effects genius Steven Kostanski. Shot almost entirely against green screens, the world of Manborg looks like a cut scene from a Sega CD game. It’s not as funny as Father’s Day, but that’s not the aim of Manborg, which is a gleeful sugar rush of no-budget action: anime fight choreography, claymation monsters, the inexplicably Australian guy, etc. etc. Still, Manborg manages to be one of the funniest films of the year based almost entirely on the strength of a seriously amazing, perfectly-timed punchline near the end of the film.

19. Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin, USA, 102 minutes):

Hands-down the funniest movie about an idiot redneck trading his brain-damaged sister to a hired assassin as payment for killing his own mother made this year, probably any other year as well. There’s a lot of very unpleasant stuff in Killer Joe, but there’s also a lot of really damned funny stuff, and Matthew McConaughey is brilliant here.

18. The Sword Identity (dir. Haofeng Xu, China, 108 minutes):

The setup is familiar: a roaming martial arts master arrives in a town to defeat the heads of its four schools to establish his art as one worth teaching. After that, The Sword Identity veers off in a completely unexpected direction, playing almost like the Coen Brothers remaking the Shaw Brothers. After the opening fight scenes, there’s not much action in The Sword Identity; the focus here is on the interplay between characters. It’s an odd approach to take to a period “martial arts” film, and it pays off. There’s nothing out there remotely like The Sword Identity, and that alone would make it worth a watch. The fact that it’s also uniquely charming and often very funny seals the deal.

17. Headhunters (dir. Morten Tyldum, Norway, 100 minutes):

Daaaaaamn Norway! A slick, noirish thriller about a rich headhunter for a major corporation who has a side gig of stealing and reselling paintings, until a series of very bad circumstances threatens to bring his whole life down around his ears? Nicely done. There are twists and surprises aplenty throughout Headhunters, but its neatest trick may be making its obscenely rich criminal protagonist a genuinely sympathetic character. Part of that is the fact that he pretty thoroughly gets put through the wringer and keeps coming up with ways to prolong his misery just long enough to maybe find a way out of it. I would not be surprised if a U.S. remake was in the works, but it’s going to be impossible to recapture the particular brand of magic on display here.

16. Cloud Atlas (dir. Tom Tykwer, Andy & Lana Wachowski, Germany/USA/Hong Kong/Singapore, 172 minutes):

You have to give it to the Wachowskis: they never half-ass anything. They committed to three lumbering beasts of Matrix movies, tried their damnedest to drag sci-fi out of its dreary gray rut with the vibrant, goofy Speed Racer, and now they’ve teamed up with another director to make one of the most ridiculously ambitious films in recent memory. They’ve done a pretty fantastic job of condensing David Mitchell’s fantastic novel down to three hours, and the conceit of having different actors playing different characters throughout time was a stroke of genius, suggesting interesting and unexpected ways that the characters’ fates tie in with each other. It’s huge, unwieldy, and kind of a mess, but it’s also beautiful, stirring, and poignant.

15. Rowdy Rathore (dir. Prabhu Deva, India, 140 minutes) / Khiladi 786 (dir. Ashish R. Mohan, India, 141 minutes):

This was a pretty good year for actor Akshay Kumar, who starred in 4 or 5 films, including these two. I’ve lumped them together for a few reasons: first, they’re both really, really fun, but in different ways. Rowdy Rathore is more consistently entertaining through its entire running time, whereas Khiladi 786 starts to drag a little in the middle but then rallies with a seriously hysterical, jaw-dropping final 30 minutes. Secondly, Kumar may as well be playing the same character in both films. In Rowdy Rathore, he pulls double duty as badass ex-cop Vikram Rathore and a slick grifter who looks exactly like Vikram (only without the moustache), while in Khiladi 786 he plays a badass fake cop who has problems finding a wife. Both films feature lengthy scenes of Kumar beating the hell out of tons of goons in Bekmambetov-style slow motion, as well as the requisite song and dance numbers and plenty of comedic relief. Kumar looks like he’s having a great time in both films, willing to look absolutely ridiculous but also putting forth a commanding physical presence when necessary– like Michael Jai White in Black Dynamite, he really seems to be a credible physical threat to anyone who comes his way, although it’s still tough to buy that he could blow up a car just by pointing at it. Regardless, these are hugely entertaining and charming in a way that American blockbusters never are.

14. Paul Williams Still Alive (dir. Stephen Kessler, USA, 87 minutes):

My favorite documentary of the year, not least because it packs in a ton of Paul Williams songs, which is always a good thing. In addition, director Stephen Kessler is willing to put himself forward as an example of a fan who gets a little too close to one of his favorite artists, and Paul Williams deals with it all with surprising grace and hilarious openness.

13. Klown (dir. Mikkel Nørgaard, Denmark, 90 minutes):

Absolutely hilarious. The American remake is going to be so terrible.

12. Berberian Sound Studio (dir. Peter Strickland, UK, 92 minutes):

The best film about making films, recording sound, and going insane because you’re recording sound possibly ever. Obsessed with the minutiae of sound recording and design, Berberian Sound Studio is bound to frustrate and infuriate horror fans waiting for something to happen and anyone not particularly interested in spending a lot of time looking at the inside of a dark recording studio. If these are things that appeal to you, however, Berberian Sound Studio is going to blow your mind.

11. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson, USA, 94 minutes):

Had the pleasure of seeing an actual film print of this and nearly wept at its shot-on-16mm/blown-up-to-35mm beauty. This is Anderson’s A Serious Man or Inland Empire, a complete summation of the themes and obsessions; in other words, the film he’s been working toward his entire career.

10. Extraterrestrial (dir. Nacho Vigalando, Spain, 95 minutes):

Nacho Vigalando drops a small cast of characters into a romantic comedy situation set against the backdrop of an alien invasion. A lot of people found the film frustrating because there wasn’t enough sci-fi action (read: little to none), but that’s obviously not what Vigalando was aiming for. If romantic comedies rely on people acting insane anyway, where could the limit possibly be in this kind of situation? The tiny cast is excellent across the board, giving the audience real characters to engage with. The ending is heartbreaking perfection.

9. Detention (dir. Joseph Kahn, USA, 93 minutes):

Joseph Kahn has said in interviews about Detention that he believes the internet has put us in a post-genre world, and to prove it he created this insane Frankenstein monster that stitches together slasher movies, Saw-style modern horror, teen comedy, romantic comedy, sci-fi, prom movies, and just about anything else you can think of in one manic, exhausting, glorious package. Detention demands careful attention even while its structure seems to reject the very idea– you’re going to need to see this one at least twice just to start processing everything going on here. Some audiences will doubtlessly be put off by the film’s dialogue and tone before the opening credits even roll, but anyone willing to stick it out will come out the other end with a new (and possibly terrifying) idea of where filmmaking is headed.

8. Sound of Noise (dir. Ola Simonsson & Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, Sweden, 102 minutes):

Just watch the trailer and realize that the film is a full 102 minutes of that. Seriously. Anyone who loves music or is in any way musically inclined owes it to themselves to track down this film immediately. Despite its dour color scheme, Sound of Noise explodes with the sheer joy of making weird sounds into music and the giddy fun of making art of any kind.

7. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 144 minutes):

Very possibly the weirdest film released by a major film studio since the 1970s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s astonishing follow-up to There Will Be Blood is this beautiful, confounding beast. Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman both turn in career-best performances, and Amy Adams proves herself every bit their equal. What the hell is going on here is never quite clear in The Master, and its maddening ambiguity is either going to hook you and draw you in or have you heading for the exits before the 30-minute mark. I’m anxious to see the film in 70mm.

6. The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard, USA, 95 minutes):

Dear horror filmmakers: If you’re ever going to use the word “woods” in your titles ever again, you better be doing something spectacular, because if you’re not you’re just embarrassing yourself. The Cabin in the Woods takes the meta-horror of Scream and takes it from simple “horror films are goofy and we totally know it” to “horror films are goofy and we totally know it and here’s why they still scare people and it’s time to stop making the same damn thing over and over again.” It also works as a slasher film and an office comedy, thanks to typically great work by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford.

5. Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax, France, 115 minutes):

Seriously, did you see this? You should see this. It’s pretty amazing, and then Kylie Minogue shows up for a musical number and it officially becomes ridiculously amazing. This film would have made my list for the accordion scene alone; the fact that it seems to offer endless avenues of analysis and interpretation cemented its spot as my top “art film” of the year (previous #5s: The Tree of Life, Enter the Void). Unquestionably the best “guy riding around in a white limo” film of the year.

4. Keyhole (dir. Guy Maddin, Canada, 94 minutes):

Maddin finally dives head-first into film noir with Keyhole, which also marks the first time he shot in high definition digital video. Or at least the first time we can tell he shot in high definition digital video. While I was initially skeptical about the switch, Keyhole proves right away there was nothing to be concerned about– the sharp picture quality actually enhances the weirdness on display. Jason Patric is, surprisingly, a perfect fit for Maddin’s surreal noir universe.

3. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson, USA, 119 minutes):

Rian Johnson expands upon Shane Carruth’s concept of time travel being “the last revision is the one that counts” in his brilliant Looper, a film so self-assured that its director has no problem derailing its action-movie momentum halfway through to more or less change the film into something entirely different. As great as Joseph Gordon-Levitt is here (and he is great, no mistake), the real find in this cast is Pierce Gagnon as Cid, a small boy with terrifying powers that he doesn’t fully understand. This kid should have been nominated for an Academy Award, too.

2. Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino, USA, 165 minutes):

I’m not going to be shy about being a Tarantino fan, and with Django Unchained we finally get the real stuff. Completely unable to rely on any sort of pop cultural references in his dialogue (if not in style and content), Tarantino proves that he still writes insanely compelling characters defined thoroughly by the words that come out of their mouths. Christoph Waltz literally seems as if he was born for the specific purpose of delivering this dialogue, but everyone here has moments to shine. Massively entertaining, Django Unchained serves as a powerful reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place, and why we go to Tarantino movies in particular.

1. Father’s Day (dir. Astron-6, Canada, 99 minutes):

Unquestionably the funniest and most ambitious film of the year, Father’s Day is an exhilarating blast. It’s the only film of this year that I watched seven times, and I’m still excited to see it again. Father’s Day effortlessly runs the gamut from gloriously goofy to seriously creepy, all the while pushing its sex and gore to ludicrous extremes that make even Hobo with a Shotgun look like a Merchant Ivory production by comparison.If Troma specialized in jaw-dropping offense at the height of its VHS-era popularity, Father’s Day represents an updated version of this same sensibility that originally put them on the map, colored by Astron-6’s jet-black, anarchic sense of humor and unpredictability. That sensibility is most pronounced in a surreal third act that goes beyond any “grindhouse” inspirations and is sure to sharply divide audiences looking for a quick and dirty fix of sex & violence and those willing to follow Astron-6 down their hilariously macabre rabbit hole.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
Filed in: Best of 2012

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