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December 30, 2012

2012 in review: 10 movies to see — or see again

Posted in: Movies

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Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison in a scene from "The Cabin in the Woods." (Lionsgate)

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Inside a cave, Matt (Alex Russell, left), Steve (Michael B. Jordan) and Andrew (Dane DeHaan) make a discovery that will change their lives in the movie "Chronicle." (Fox)

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Surprise visitors arrive at Bilbo Baggins' home in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (Warner Bros.)

For fans of fantastic entertainment, it was a bountiful year at the box office. The highest-grossing movies of 2012 starred a collection of superheroes, two strong young woman with mean archery skills (Katniss Everdeen and Merida from “Brave”), a suit-sporting super spy and a mild-mannered hobbit who embarks on an unexpected adventure — not to mention a coven of sparkly vampires and a talking stoner teddy bear.

With so many movies to choose from, it’s easy to see how audiences might have overlooked a few gems. So as the year draws to a close, we’ve assembled our top picks for films to belatedly check out — as well as a few that no doubt warrant repeat viewings.

“Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” Yeah, yeah, so it didn’t take the box office by storm, and critics griped that the movie wasn’t funny. Well, it wasn’t supposed to be, even if the premise sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Adapting Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling mashup novel, director Timur Bekmambetov brought his singular visual vernacular to the historical-horror-action-adventure-revenge-vampire tale, beautifully photographed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Actor Benjamin Walker did an admirable job as the young, strapping incarnation of the president — it can’t be easy to deliver the Gettysburg Address and  dispatch vampires with an axe in the same movie. That’s what we call range.

“The Avengers” Given that writer-director Joss Whedon’s superhero blockbuster has raked in upwards of $1.5 billion at the box office, you probably already have seen “The Avengers” more than once. Fortunately, the mammoth Marvel Comics movie stands up to repeat viewings. Which is saying something — it was no small feat to cram all those heroes, with their egos and their faults and their backstories, into a saga that made any kind of sense, but somehow bringing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk and all the rest together to rescue Earth from the designs of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki worked like a charm. Now, let’s go grab some shawarma and ponder the ways in which Whedon can outdo himself for “Avengers 2.”

“The Cabin in the Woods” Speaking of Whedon, he and collaborator Drew Goddard brought a whirligig of screenwriting chops to the traditional horny-kids-on-holiday horror movie premise and hinged the very fate of mankind on its outcome (sounds about right) with “The Cabin in the Woods,” which was finally released after years in movie business limbo. Our collective nightmares are portrayed as not just the stuff of fantasy — they’re made real, even a little mundane, in this goofball celebration of imagination. Goddard’s feature directorial debut, “Cabin in the Woods” isn’t a perfect movie, but its irrepressible spirit and love of movies and genre is impossible to deny.

“Chronicle” On paper, it sounded like a hodge-podge of overly-familiar tropes – found footage, superhero origin story, teenage coming-of-age tale – but in practice, “Chronicle” was a fresh, unexpected blend of all those elements, well more than the sum of its parts. Written by Max Landis and directed by Josh Trank, the story of a bullied loner (Dane DeHaan) who, along with his cousin and a popular classmate, inadvertently acquire superhuman gifts is a surprise delight with a wild sense of invention. Trank has since been announced as the director who will next attempt to bring “The Fantastic Four” to the big screen — with luck, he’ll be able to channel the same sense of wonder for the Marvel reboot.

Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in "The Dark Knight Rises." (Warner Bros.)

Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises.” (Warner Bros.)

“The Dark Knight Rises” With the release of “Les Miserables,” Anne Hathaway has been the subject of deafening Oscar buzz for her portrayal of the tuberculous-stricken Fantine in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the beloved musical. What pundits seem to have forgotten is how mesmerizing Hathaway was earlier this year as Selina Kyle in the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s brooding, brilliant Gotham City trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Her (we’ll use the moniker even if the film didn’t) Catwoman added an irresistible sizzle to the moody intense thriller, executed with typical precision and panache by the notoriously exacting filmmaker. In the end, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne might meet his physical match in Tom Hardy’s intimidating Bane, but it’s Hathaway’s Kyle who best understands his wounded soul. Nolan’s vision is what made each of the Batman films so remarkable — and a cast of Academy Award winners and nominees only elevated the already stellar material, proving that even a so-called comic book movie can become high art.

Victor, voiced by Charlie Tahan, and his pet Sparky in a scene from "Frankenweenie." (Disney)

Victor, voiced by Charlie Tahan, and Sparky in a scene from “Frankenweenie.” (Disney)

“Frankenweenie” Telling a boy-and-dog story as only he could, Tim Burton fused his passion for stop-motion animation and atomic age horror with honest, emotional reflections on childhood for “Frankenweenie.” The full-length feature update of the 1984 short film he made with the same title, the black-and-white tale follows the efforts of young Victor Frankenstein to resurrect his best friend Sparky after the pet is killed in a car accident. Naturally, things take a turn for the strange. “Frankenweenie” features plenty of Burton’s hallmarks — high-contrast imagery, oddball characters, a misunderstood loner with a pure heart, a Christopher Lee cameo — but it’s arguably his best film in recent years. In fact, we’re betting it wins him a (well-deserved) Oscar.

Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

“The Hobbit” Peter Jackson’s return trip to Middle-earth already has earned upwards of $686 million worldwide, leaving no doubt that fans were clamoring to see the filmmaker’s take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s landmark 1937 children’s novel. Set 60 years prior to the events in “The Lord of the Rings,” the story sees a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) strike out with a band of dwarfs looking to reclaim the land and the fortune that is their birthright, a quest that puts them on a course to meet up with trolls, goblins, giant eagles, a zany forest wizard and, of course, Gollum. Jackson’s use of the groundbreaking 48 frames per second wasn’t immediately embraced by every moviegoer, but there’s no question that the writer-director is devoted to the hyper-realistic format, which brings the landscapes and underground chambers of a fantasy world to vividly rendered life. The journey continues with the second installment in the planned trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” next year.

PHOTOS: 60 images from ‘The Hobbit’

“The Hunger Games” Some of the larger themes in Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” books — in a dystopian future, teenagers are plucked from their homes to battle to the death in a televised sporting event for the amusement of a wealthy, cynical populace — have certainly been explored in fantastic film and literature before. But Gary Ross’ adaptation of the first novel in Collins’ trilogy still has its own kind of raw power, thanks in no small part to a dynamic performance from Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (with apologies to another fantasy favorite, you might call Katniss “the girl who lived”). To save her sister, archer Katniss volunteers to participate in the grim games and finds herself an unlikely media sensation. It’s a position that will certainly evolve as the planned four-part film series moves toward its conclusion; the sequel, “Catching Fire,” from director Francis Lawrence, is due in theaters Nov. 22.

"Kill List." (IFC Midnight)

“Kill List.” (IFC Midnight)

“Kill List” British writer-director Ben Wheatley’s second feature fully announced him as someone capable of working within the boundaries of genre filmmaking and at the same time exploding its conventions. “Kill List” is ostensibly the story of a hitman with a botched job in his past who accepts a new assignment with the promise of a big payday, but the movie takes a hard left turn from a violent mercenary/buddy picture, descending into a cult ritual nightmare that defies description. The narrative’s rug-pulling disorientations leave viewers grasping to keep up. Following the U.S. theatrical release of “Kill List” earlier in 2012, Wheatley has since premiered another film, the sickly holiday comedy “Sightseers,” and is at work on a period English Civil War picture, “A Field in England,” proving himself a rare and versatile talent.

Writer-director Rian Johnson, left, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the set of "Looper." (TriStar Pictures)

Writer-director Rian Johnson, left, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the set of “Looper.” (TriStar Pictures)

“Looper” An ambitious, smart, emotional sci-fi action film that is both immediately fun and more lastingly rewarding, Rian Johnson’s “Looper” has all the makings of a future classic. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a low-level hitman whose targets are sent back in time; one day, his older self (Bruce Willis) turns up as his intended victim. The movie creates a plausible near-future world, with duct-taped technology and a retro-dustbowl dress code. Opening with a bold and catchy concept that transitions to something deeper and more resonant — an examination of what makes us each who we are — “Looper” lingers.

— Gina McIntyre and Mark Olsen

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


frankenweenie 12011 2012 in review: 10 movies to see    or see again

‘Frankenweenie’ schooled by Burton’s life

VIDEO: Looking back on Tim Burton’s films

‘Abraham Lincoln’: Fake history, honest Abe

‘Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ delivers ‘violent ballet’

‘The Hobbit’ collected: Complete coverage

‘Avengers’: Whedon’s heroes and humor

‘Dark Knight Rises’ reviewed by Neal Adams

‘Looper’: Gordon-Levitt and Johnson are a tight team

Return to: 2012 in review: 10 movies to see — or see again