I’m not doing a Top Ten Movies list this year, because everyone does them and mine won’t be much different. Instead, I’d like to share the individual scenes that made being a critic worthwhile for me in 2012. This list doesn’t cover every great movie I saw – I loved Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, several documentaries, even (gods help me, I can’t believe I’m saying this) Les Misérables, but I can’t name a specific scene from any of them that plugged into my brain the way the ones below did.
So here’s my very personal list, in alphabetical order. There are probably spoilers, but you should see these movies, anyway:
1. Hushpuppy faces down the monsters in Beasts of the Southern Wild – When the title creatures finally appear in Benh Zeitlin’s apocalyptic fable, we can’t be sure if they’re real or a projection of 6-year-old Hushpuppy’s fears. One thing is absolutely certain, though – this child, played by the extraordinary Quvenzhané Wallis, is more powerful than anything her harsh world can throw at her. Monsters included.
2. Man vs. unicorn in The Cabin in the Woods – Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard made this movie. A guy gets impaled by a unicorn. That is all you need to know.
3. Schultz and Django meet in Django Unchained – Any Quentin Tarantino movie will have countless memorable scenes, and his blaxploitation spaghetti western is no exception. My favorite comes early on, when bounty hunter Schultz (Christoph Waltz) encounters slave traders and their captives in the woods. He wants to have a word with one of the shackled men, who happens to be our titular hero (Jamie Foxx). Hence the “unchained” part.
4. The giant mutant zombie turtle attacks in Frankenweenie – Only Tim Burton could make a black-and-white animated homage to Frankenstein that also sets up a marvelously elaborate shout-out to the Gamera series. When the supersized former pet rampages through a small-town carnival, Burton creates a moment of pure geek transcendence.
5. Bilbo finds a shiny trinket in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - In case anyone has forgotten, Gollum is a terrifying character, despite Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson’s successful efforts to make him sympathetic. In what is technically his introduction in The Hobbit, Gollum is creepier than ever, and his life-or-death “game” with Bilbo is remarkably suspenseful for a scene whose outcome we already know.
6. Maria emerges from the water – and into hell – in The Impossible - In a movie about a family’s survival of the 2004 tsunami, you’d expect the initial catastrophe to have the biggest visceral impact. But it’s what happens next that really brings the anxiety, as Maria (Naomi Watts) comes up for air and is immediately swept into a torrent of death and debris. Then she sees one of her kids, and things get really exciting.
7. The universe comes alive in Life of Pi - Ang Lee’s stunning adaptation of the Yann Martel bestseller is enhanced mightily by the 3D format, something too few films can claim. This is most true in a sequence involving a book of Hindu legends. Suddenly, the audience is pulled inside the book’s images of the universe, and gets an enchanting lesson in magic realism.
8. Freddie is “processed” in The Master –
This entire movie is an actor’s showcase, especially when Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman team up as a brain-scrambled veteran and the Hubbard-esque guru who takes an interest in him. Their first big scene consists of these two complicated men facing each other for a therapeutic “processing” session, and it should be required viewing for acting students everywhere.
9. The Shanghai skyscraper fight in Skyfall –
There are so many great action scenes in the latest James Bond entry, it should be difficult to pick a favorite. It should be, but it’s not. When Bond confronts a bad guy in an empty skyscraper, while enormous neon advertisements blaze in the background, no other movie showdown could hope to compare.
10. The bin Laden raid in Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow’s take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden is not a documentary, but it has the straightforward, no-nonsense approach of a great one. Everything leads directly to the climactic raid on the compound in Pakistan, a nerve-wracking sequence that gets viewers as close to being Navy SEALS as any of us would likely want to get.