Jan 172013
  January 17, 2013

2012 was an excellent year for fantasy, science fiction, and horror films…at the top…but it didn’t have a lot of depth. I’ll ignore mediocrity for now and focus on the winners.

#5 Upside Down

I’m starting with a cheat. I can’t say that Upside Down is the 5th best genre film of the year, even if I can type it. But nothing in the bundle of gore-feasts, animated horror comedies, and action dramedies that could take its place stand out. They just aren’t special. Upside Down may not truly be better than all the second tier offerings, but it is spectacular.

It creates a universe new to film, where two worlds hang within spitting distance of each other, and both have the strange property that their gravity only effects objects from that world. People from “up top” are upside down to those “down below,” which leads to some fascinating office furniture layouts. Of course this isn’t science fiction (the science doesn’t hold up, nor is it meant to), but a romantic fairytale set in an incredible dystopia. OK, the story wobbles around, the narration should have been cut, and the romance is not believable (though Kirsten Dunst is charming enough that I wanted it to be believable), but the world(s) is so brilliantly conceived and breath-takingly realized that the rest can be forgiven. If it was slated to win the Oscar for Art Direction and been nominated for cinematography, I’d have let it be, but as it won’t be getting the honors it deserves, it will have to settle for my #5.

#4 The Man With the Iron Fists

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino solidified the Nouveau Grindhouse movement with Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn, Machete, and of course Grindhouse, a group of playful, self-aware films that honor the ’70s “grindhouse” and drive-in era.  The Man With the Iron Fists is the newest entry in the movement and the best not made by Rodriguez or Tarantino (though Tarantino does have a finger in as “presenter”). If you long for old school Hong Kong chopsocky, but with the addition of greater racial diversity and Hollywood A-listers, your dreams have come true. Rapper RZA takes the director’s chair, as well as the role of the titular character, giving the feature a 2012 vibe, with a nod and a wink. Hands get lopped off, bodies get ground up, blood sprays across rooms, and it is all good fun. Russell Crowe hasn’t displayed this much life in years, and Lucy Liu shines with all the strength and  mesmerizing beauty that she lacks in her weekly TV show.

I would have found the movie more rewarding with a change in who won (it was a given that the bad guys would lose, but that doesn’t mean all the good guys win), but it does nicely as is.

#3 Prometheus

Call it a flawed jem. Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction is the most beautiful film of the year, and the most confounding. It gives us the year’s best character (the android David), the coolest spaceship, the greatest mysteries, the tensest moment, and the only self applied human/squid abortion. The last might not be a plus for everyone, but it was for me.

A semi-prequel to the highly influential Alien, Prometheus often is overly familiar, and then it leaps into no man’s land. It answers far fewer questions than it asks and can be a frustrating ride for anyone not wanting to put in an hour after viewing figuring out what it all meant. But if you love to swim in seas of symbolism, Prometheus is your ocean.

I wrote an article on the character issues in the film (Geek-Out: Let’s Save Prometheus). Since, a sequel is planned, there is still a chance that Scott will deal with those issues, in which case I’ll raise Prometheus to #2.

#2 The Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard manage to close out the horror genre in grand style. Really. It’s all done. There is nowhere to go after The Cabin in the Woods. Pack it up because any fright fests are just going to look silly now. I’ve tried it, following it with Sinister and The Apparition and I was left giggling. OK, there might be another explanation for that…

Going meta on the meta films, the pair turned all previous horror films into weak prequels to this final installment, and along the way managed to make hundreds of terrible monster movies watchable as they now make sense. This is a real horror film, not a parody, with all the scares and two times the gore that anyone could ask for. But it is also jammed with humor. If you haven’t watched a few hundred horror movies, you’ll laugh at the clever dialog and twisted characters. If you have, you’ll bathe in the in-jokes and homages. This is smart horror, and that is a very rare beast. Sure, it killed the genre, but what a way to go.

Whedon would have had a good year if all he’d done was write and produce The Cabin in the Woods, but he had another project:

#1 The Avengers

I can’t recall having a better time at the movies. The Avengers is perfectly crafted entertainment and perhaps the most satisfying picture of the decade. Filled with charismatic actors playing appealing characters in a big colorful action-fueled epic, it has invoked cheers at every screening I’ve attended.

Marvel bet big, and won. Four stand-alone superhero films, and one sequel all acting as prequels to this massive mash up; it could have gone wrong in so many ways. How many multi-character superhero films have toppled over the cliff?  Somehow they’d pulled off those prequels, but they weren’t over-stuffed with gadgets, plot threads, and stars. Enter Writer/director Joss Whedon, master of the ensemble. Every character has a moment, none dominate, and all feel necessary. It is the ultimate feat of juggling. And character is the key. The action scenes in The Avengers are as good as any in 2012, but they aren’t the draw. It is the dialog. The joy comes from listening to Tony Stark banter with Bruce Banner. Captain America trade jabs with Thor. Nick Fury speechifying (look it up) to everyone. If they happen to be blowing things up at the same time, all the better. No film in 2012, of any kind, had better dialog, and with those spoken words, The Avengers earns its #1 spot.