We like to think that it’s a nerds’ world at the movies, and certainly there’s been a lot of press in the last few years to back that up, but in 2012 it seemed especially true.
Developing a Top 10 List of the best of the nerdiest films this year was no easy feat, even with high-profile disappointments like Prometheus, John Carter, and The Amazing Spider-Man, but we were still able to do it. Some of these titles maybe obvious, but they all have one thing in common, they prove that in the genres of sci-fi, horror, fantasy and action, the year 2012 was far from the end of the world. Cinematically speaking, at least.
Here’s the Top 10 Nerdy Films of 2012.
1. The Avengers
Can we take a minute and appreciate the mere fact that this film even managed to exist, let alone be as good as it is? First of all there’s the logistical feat of getting all these characters and actors co-ordinated onto a single soundstage. Then there was the Hail Mary hiring of Joss Whedon, a man known more for his TV work and his one movie based on one of his TV shows than for blockbuster filmmaking. And finally, there was the shattering weight of expectations; billions of dollars and a decade of work all riding on The Avengers not just being done, but being done well and then doing well at the box office. The result was not just the third biggest box office hit of all time, but the closest thing a major summer tentpole flick can get to being an auteur work. Every inch of this film had Whedon’s fingerprints on it, and his voice never gets lost amongst the action and effects. So complete was Whedon’s influence on the film that Marvel bucked its own trend and hired him immediately, not just for the sequel, but to be the overseer of the entire Marvel Movie Universe on the Disney end. Forget the Whedonites! Hollywood, Joss is your master now.
It was a long time waiting for the latest Bond movie, and while I’m not sure I’d stamp Skyfall as the best Bond movie of all time, I think we can all agree that it sufficiently washed the taste of Quantum of Solace out of our collective mouths. On the occasion of the character’s 50th anniversary of his big screen adventures, the franchise’s producers, and director Sam Mendes, managed to put together a Bond flick that was strangely familiar while continuing down the bold path set by Casino Royale. Bond himself is treated to a complex arc that questions his abilities and his dedication, and M becomes the most unusual Bond girl as Her Majesty’s finest tries to keep his boss’ sins from coming back to kill her. A charismatic villain in the person of Silva played by Javier Bardem, as well as the addition of new supporting players like Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw as the stalwart new Q, and you have the rare Bond movie where you’re just as engrossed by the non-action scenes as you are by the action. Even the fact that film’s climax bears a little resemblance to a more lethal Home Alone scenario does nothing to diminish the greatness of the Skyfall.
3. The Cabin in the Woods
Finally freed from bankruptcy purgatory, The Cabin in the Woods came out this past spring and gave us a new cult classic from director Drew Goddard and officially kicked-off what was to be the year of Whedon. More than that though, The Cabin in the Woods is perhaps the most effective deconstruction of the horror genre since the first Scream, and if it had been more successful at the box office, it would have been just as significant a game changer. Instead, Cabin will have to stand as a bizarre, though effective, reboot of The Evil Dead. Five pretty young people go into the woods where they awaken an ancient evil from beneath their dilapidated cabin. But the gag is there’s a second story running concurrently, a secretive group of some kind of instigators both controlling and observing the action and fate that befalls our young heroes. Or are they the heroes? Really the stars of the film are the Statler and Waldorf-esque Hadley and Sitterson played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, and where as in different hands these two would definitely be played for villains, in Whedon and Goddard’s script they’re the unsung, under-appreciated heroes of the story. Ultimately though, Cabin may have been undone by marketing; if you went into the film cold it was a joy, but the trailers and the ads gave a lot away. And you scoff at J.J. Abrams for his secrecy…
4. Django Unchained
Yes, I will cross Spike Lee – who’s films I enjoy immensely – in order to include Django Unchained on this list, after all, if it’s a year with a Quentin Tarantino movie, it’s probably going to end up on a couple of lists like this. Continuing to cut a bloody swath of revenge and historical revisionism across cinema, Tarantino takes us to the final years of slavery in the American South prior to the Civil War, and like his previous film, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino cares not for meandering asides, or anachronistic music selections, but is instead focused on getting us to the blood curdling – and blood spilling – finale. Of course, he makes us earn that visceral violent thrill by navigating a slew of quirky characters and silver-tongued dialogue scenes, which is all part of that QT-charm. Tarantino veterans like Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson hold up their end, while Tarantino rookies Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio look like they’re having a ball, DiCaprio in particular seems to be relishing the role of the villainous Calvin Candie. And like most of Tarantino’s past endeavours, Django is an Easter Egg filled treasure trove of call backs, homages and cameos that require more than one viewing in order to catch them all. But of course you’re going to see this again and again because it’s Tarantino and you wish you were half the movie nerd he is.
5. Indie Game The Movie
Much has been said – and written – about independent musicians and filmmakers, but what about independent game makers. This documentary focuses on three different stories, each offering some kind of insight into the struggles, creativity and commitment of these bold few who shirk the big gaming houses to strike out on their own. One surprising aspect of the film is the way it peels back an industry that the mainstream still doesn’t really understand. The average guy on the street has at least a basic knowledge of the Hollywood studio system and the functioning of big record companies, but gaming? Well it turns out the difficulties translate across media. The other thing that translates is the passion. Even if you’re not the world’s biggest gamer, the subjects speak the language or art, whether it’s trying to maintain some semblance of artistic license, battling your former d-bag partner to be allowed to preview your game at a trade show, or simply working 16 hour days and apologizing to your wife with a promise that when you’re done it will all be worth it. It’s an inspiring tale of creative pursuit and the incredible effort to beat the competition and get your game in front of the most eyes. And they say there’s nothing artistic about video games.
It’s strange that in a year with so many big budget superhero movies in theatres that one of the best should be a low budget job starring a bunch of unknowns in a 90 minute film stylized to look like a home movies and CCTV footage. But there it is, and there is was. Chronicle, although late to the whole “food footage” trend, which this year alone included The Devil Inside, Project X, The Chernobyl Diaries, V/H/S, and Paranormal Activity 4, had the benefit of being one of the few none-horror offerings in the genre. On top of it all, it offered compelling character drama, a realistic spin on superhero archetypes, and blockbuster action on an art house budget. So complete was Chronicle’s impact on the genre that star Dane DeHaan was recently cast to play Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man sequel, and director Josh Trank was hired to direct Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot. But none of that would matter if Chronicle didn’t click on a basic level. It comes down to a question that’s plagued fanboys since the dawn of super-powers, would you use your powers for your own ends like Andrew, or would you use them to help others like Matt?
7. The Dark Knight Rises
I’ve heard a lot of people call this movie the Return of the Jedi of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and I think they meant it as an insult. I know a lot of people were disappointed that despite the hype, Rises didn’t change their world forever, but following the unprecedented heights of The Dark Knight how could it? Of course It couldn’t, and also not helping the situation is this false, Highlander-ish beef between Rises and The Avengers, as if there can only be one film to rule the nerds for all time. If you read Drew McWeeny’s two-part analysis of the film, I think it’s pretty much spot-on. What Christopher Nolan did, and I think fantastically to his credit, is take the Batman mythos and re-purpose it to be a realistic and human three-act epic. Sure, Bane and Talia’s revenge plot disguised as class warfare was perhaps overly complicated, but how often do movie crime plots revel in simplicity? Have none of you seen The Usual Suspects? So let’s focus on the positive: the film’s compelling emotional beats, all the comic book Easter Eggs worked in by the Nolans, and honestly, wasn’t Anne Hathaway the Catwoman of your dreams? In the end, what we got with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was a competent, compelling, and artful cinematic telling of the Batman story with a thoroughly well-thought out beginning, middle and end. Besides, don’t we all know the alternative?
8. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
What was really unexpected about The Hobbit was the split between critics and fans; the former appraising the film with a collective sense of ennui (and serving it a 65 per cent “fresh” Rotten Tomato rating) and the later eagerly enjoying the return to Middle Earth after a long, 11-year wait. I concede I found myself somewhere in between while watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Any point that deviates from the main thrust of J.R.R. Tolkien’s first book is difficult to wade through, but whenever the story focuses on Bilbo and the dwarves’ journey to the Lonely Mountain is golden. So much so that I was disappointed by the time we get to the end and realizing I’d have to wait another year for part two. Technically, the film is brilliant. The photography, the effects, and the score are all amazing, and how awesome was it to have Gandalf back in grey mode (and essayed perfectly by Ian McKellen)? New players like Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo and Richard Armitage as would-be dwarf king Thorin are fine additions, and Andy Serkis owned as Gollum once again. In a case of the good far outweighing the bad, The Hobbit definitely leaves you wanting more, and Peter Jackson’s command of Middle Earth lore is indeed unquestionable. I think though there’s still a question of whether or not three movies is too much of a good thing. I guess we’ll see next Christmas.
9. Dredd 3-D and The Raid: Redemption
For me, it’s hard to separate these two movies, so they make the list together (which technically makes this a Top 11 list, and I know that, don’t bother pointing that out). Both are about cops who enter a building to bust a drug kingpin only to have it turn into a multilevel battle royale for survival. In Dredd, the cop just happens to be Judge Dredd, and in a feat of resurrection nearly impossible, director Pete Travis washed away the memory of Sylvester Stallone’s ill-fated attempt to turn the comic into a film back in 1995. As for The Raid, the Indonesia/US co-production was hardcore in a way that Hong Kong used to do best. The visceral bone-crunching fight scenes plus the various personal stakes amongst the cops and gangsters make this a bloody, claustrophobic and an all-too satisfying action flick that U.S. filmmakers are rarely capable of. As for Dredd, the 3-D makes this look like a big Hollywood effort, but it can be as rough and raw as any indie action effort. Like Chronicle, Dredd proved there’s a lot that can be done on a small budget, and certainly you don’t need a big budget to make the ultra-dystopia Mega City One a reality. Sometimes, when it comes to action movies, getting more bang for your buck gets you more bang for your buck.
Time travel is hard to pull off, but in director Rian Johnson’s first foray into genre filmmaking, he proves that he can cram a lot of ideas and inspiration into a single, two-hour film to create what maybe the best time travel thriller since 12 Monkeys. Now I’ve been a big fan of Johnson’s work for a while now, from the high school-noir Brick to the fanciful con-comedy Brothers Bloom, so maybe I can see past the logical fallacies because the filmmaker knows how to spin a good yarn. But I prefer to think it’s because Looper is a brainy, twisty and fun sci-fi film that, granted, isn’t as concerned with the snake eating its own tail minutiae of time travel as it is being a compelling character piece. For instance, some found the Bruce Willis-ish make-up worn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt to be kind of creepy, but I choose to believe that’s a compliment, like, “It’s creepy how much Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks like Bruce Willis.” But JGL’s spot on impression of Willis is just one aspect of one great performance that includes good work by Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan, Garret Dillahunt, newcomer Pierce Gagnon and Willis himself. If you sat there counting the paradoxes you’re missing the point because Looper is The Terminator masquerading as Goodfellas. Or vice versa.