The Cabin in the Woods (Dir: Drew Goddard, Lionsgate Films)

Alternately hilarious and cruel, Cabin in the Woods is the kid-tested, nihilist-approved antidote to every rotten, boring, soulless, by-the-numbers horror flick to clog up the genre over the past few decades. Taking obligatory classic horror flick references to an illogical extreme, Cabin in the Woods skewers the modern audience as much as the creators of such fare. Writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon manage a nice balance between harsh criticism and loving homage while they seek to destroy a genre they see as tapped out in an attempt to rebuild and renew. It’s also notable that the duo felt qualified to take well established horror films and essentially create new backstories for them, suggesting that the undercover operation going down in Cabin in the Woods may have been the behind-the-scenes cause of everything from The Evil Dead to Scream, we just didn’t know it until Cabin told us. If Whedon and Goddard feel a little too attached to their own horror creations, indulging in a few ill-timed jokes that ruin tension, this hypocrisy is part of what makes the film so damn fun: their jabs at us, the audience, are tempered because we can jab right back.

Through it all, the film is one of the funniest of 2012. The humor is well crafted; one need not know all the horror movie references to appreciate the humor. Exceptional performances from Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, stand-ins for the film’s writers or perhaps even for the audience, anchor the entire glorious mess of a finale. One man’s failure to create the Great American Merman Movie has never been so hilariously poignant. – Stacia Kissick Jones

The Color Wheel (Dir: Alex Ross Perry, Independent Pictures)

The first joke in Alex Ross Perry’s brutally hilarious film The Color Wheel is that it’s not in color. Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams shot in gorgeous, anachronistic black-and-white 16mm, in defiance of contemporary standards both macro- and microbudget, creating a visual texture to match the specificity of its characters’ verbal sparring.

And that sparring – ceaseless, exquisitely written, performed with convincing contempt by Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman as siblings locked into bonds of misery, delusion and loneliness – is the heart of this singular achievement in American independent cinema, a heart diseased and Grinch-sized but very much beating. When Altman expresses an idle whim to become a teacher, Perry replies: “You’re not qualified to teach. You’re barely qualified to learn.” He’s not really joking. And that’s one of the milder jabs. As a depiction of brother-sister relations, this film makes Kenneth Lonergan’s beloved sibling drama You Can Count On Me look like Pollyanna claptrap.

The humor escalates throughout a smartly structured road trip, with strings pulled by a director who knows (rare these days) how to use the tools of cinema to enhance comedy rather than merely document it. A lengthy episode set at an endlessly awful house party might be one of the all-time great comic set-pieces, perfectly capturing the nightmare feeling of being stuck in a place you desperately want to leave. But in the final 10 minutes, Perry risks a bold, long-take plunge into tragicomedy. Not everyone will buy this climactic surprise, but it suggests a painful truth about the fine line between antipathy and intimacy. We have only each other, even when we can’t stand each other. – Brian Wolowitz

Cosmopolis (Dir: David Cronenberg, Entertainment One)

David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis follows naturally from his more interior, reflective psychological works of the last decade even as it marks a clear return to the body horrors of earlier years. The chief difference between this and his other tech-driven films, such as Videodrome and eXistenZ, is that here, the body horror is sublimated entirely into the camera, which warps the dimensions of characters and objects past all point of recognizability. It makes for a vision of a technological run in which even Moore’s Law seems antiquated: everything changes by the nanosecond, not every 18 months. Even billionaire Eric Packer, put forward through Robert Pattinson’s mid-20s body, feels woefully obsolete. The arch dialogue, a great deal of it ported over verbatim from Don DeLillo’s novel, communicates a further distance of the “1%” from the world outside its cork-lined limo doors. And yet, Cosmopolis is more than a mere account of postmodern alienation. It is, by turns, a psychological evaluation of Packer’s ilk, a call for humanity to evolve with its self-perpetuating machines and, surprisingly, as much an ode to the possibilities of digital as a garish visualization of its limitations. Like Michael Mann and Jean-Luc Godard, Cronenberg undermines the perception of digital video as a shorthand for “truth” compared to the filmic “fiction,” even as the blatantly artificial image communicates more truths than have ever been seen in a Where We Are As a Society movie. – Jake Cole

The Dark Knight Rises (dir: Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros.)

Simply put, The Dark Knight Rises is the culmination of one of the greatest cinematic trilogies in recent memory. Whereas the preceding two installments, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, could more or less stand on their own as stories, the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga is strongest when considered as a culmination of what’s come before, everything that led up to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a housebound recluse and Gotham City a complacent, self-satisfied metropolis. As Wayne explains, Batman was always intended to be a symbol rather than an individual.

Even without the added depth from the leading plot developments that instigate the movie’s plotlines, including the resurgence of the League of Shadows and the fallout of Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) turn to darkness, Dark Knight Rises is a complex, gripping film. Tom Hardy’s brilliant turn as Bane, the film’s primary villain, is outstanding, a combination physical intimidation and chilling articulacy. Likewise, the reduction of Bale’s consistently underrated portrayal of Batman to a self-loathing, broken man is a fascinating new angle on an iconic character. The Dark Knight Rises reaches for epic scope in many ways: as a social parable, as a meditation on personal guilt and a spectacle of violence. It succeeds in all of them. – Nathan Kamal

Moonrise Kingdom (Dir: Wes Anderson, Focus Features)

Just as Wes Anderson’s detailed dollhouse approach to filmmaking threatened to lapse into claustrophobic self-parody – the herky-jerky stop-motion animation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox increasingly seeming like the only sensible creative path he had left – the director surprised with his most heartfelt, fully-realized offering since the masterful Rushmore, made about fifteen years earlier. It’s perhaps no coincidence that both films involve youthful romantic infatuation, precisely the heightened emotion that can transform the painfully precious into endearing innocence. Set in a quaint New England island community in 1965, the film follows the fugitive romance of tweens Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward). The orphaned Sam flies the coop from his scout troop and Suzy slips away from her stultifying family, and the pair seeks liberation through chaste seaside kisses and Benjamin Britten records. Anderson (working with co-screenwriter Roman Coppola) finds plenty of comedy in the confused efforts of the adults to hunt down the runaways, but what really resounds is the poignancy of two sad, lonely kids who’ve given up on finding solace in a hard world and instead decided to forge it themselves, one gentle gesture aspiring towards adulthood at a time. The film may be filled with stylized characters and settings, but those trappings of comic fantasy don’t cause Anderson to abandon interest in building emotional truth into the film. If this year had a more pointedly, heartbreakingly honest line of dialogue than Sam’s refutation of Suzy, thanks to her immersion in children’s literature, romanticizing a parentless existence – “I love you but you don’t know what you’re talking about” – I never came across it. – Dan Seeger

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