If the modern-day prophets who swear by the Mayan calendar are correct, then we only have a few days remaining on this wonderful paradise of a planet called Earth. Sad I know, but you couldn’t have asked for a better year from a pop culture perspective to bring things to a close. Every aspect of the arts – from music, to theater, to film, to gaming – was firing on all cylinders throughout the year.
2012 is more of a story of what didn’t go wrong rather than what did go right. Media companies and their employed entertainers took some big risks over the last 365 days that could have ended in disaster. Fortunately, catastrophes were side-stepped, and audiences enjoyed both the fresh takes and the old dogs that learned new tricks.
And here’s the cream-of-the-crop for your pre-apocalyptic analysis. Look at it this way: if humanity’s story comes to an end later this week, you’ll never have to endure the fanboy war online sure to come next year on whether or not ‘Man of Steel’ is any good. Always take a negative and make it a positive.
12. ‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’
Doing a film on high school these days is tough. Really tough. It feels as if we’ve seen every possible avenue of story-telling taken in the genre of awkward, coming-of-age youth. Imagine my surprise when ‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’ came on the scene and felt remarkably modern. Stripped away was the stereotypical feel and left in its place was a profoundly personal engagement rarely witnessed.
Raves can easily be heard by the cast headed up by Logan Lerman and the brilliant script, but ‘Perks’ is more powerful when it’s attempting to capture youth in a bottle. Learning what love is, how to make friends and how to adapt to the difficult transition between high school and college are all themes the film pulls off flawlessly and does so in an intoxicating fashion. It’s truly one of the best films of the year for those young and young at heart.
11. ‘Assassin’s Creed III,’ Ubisoft
Those wimps in Hollywood complain about having to put out a big blockbuster every few years. Just imagine the belly-aching they’d do if they had to produce a major sequel every 12 months. Yet, since 2007, that’s exactly what gaming publisher and developer Ubisoft has done with its lucrative ‘Assassin’s Creed’ franchise. Yearly installments have focused on multiple characters and points in time from the medieval days of Europe’s past.
Gamers were shocked when they learned the company’s third installment was announced to be taking place in the U.S. during colonial times. The latest entry focuses on the complex relationship between Native American tribes, immigrants fighting for freedom and a new country and their British enemy counterparts. The graphics are breathtaking, the gameplay is as solid as ever and the story is sublime, especially for a series that should be running short on ideas by now. Could a sequel pertaining to the Civil War be in the cards? We can only hope.
10. ‘Homeland,’ Showtime
To say 2012 has been a big year for Showtime’s young series would be an understatement. ‘Homeland’ started off the year by racking up every TV award possible, from being ushered in gold at the Golden Globes to easily walking away with a boatload of Emmys. The arrival of the second season was met with some of the strongest ratings any show on the network has enjoyed in years.
Critically and commercially a hit, ‘Homeland’ benefits from a strong following and a stamp of authenticity rarely seen in C.I.A. dramas. It eliminates the melodramatic for the more intense, personal connection we long for from a TV series. No wonder most major U.S. publications and even President Obama have praised the show as being one of the best things to happen to TV in years. In the often congested world of cable TV series, ‘Homeland’ easily stands out as one of the star pupils in the televised classroom.
9. Nicole Kidman in ‘The Paperboy’
If you come across anything as cinematically sexually charged as Nicole Kidman’s interrogation sequence in ‘The Paperboy,’ please let me know because I would love to see it. I’m betting you won’t, as this is one of the dirtiest rolls in the hay we’ve ever seen by an Oscar-winning actress. Despite languishing in mixed reviews, Lee Daniels’ ‘The Paperboy’ enjoyed a surge of popularity this year for its brashness, a quality that helped Kidman earn both Golden Globe and SAG nominations.
Watching the film, it’s easy to see why. Kidman’s Charlotte Bless is raw and unhinged, throwing conventions to the wayside and displaying Southern trashiness in all of its glory. Sure, we can make fun of the scene where she pees on an unconscious Zac Efron, but the very fact the hilarious bit works is a major tribute to her acting ability. Almost locked to get an Oscar nomination, Kidman continues to prove out of the current pack of talented middle-aged ladies working in Hollywood, she may in fact be the queen.
8. ‘The Death of a Salesman’ on Broadway
It feels like every year some highly anticipated Broadway production is letting us down. The formula is so easy by now: a big-name cast is announced for some famous play that everyone’s just sure will be the best thing to ever grace the New York stage. Then, the reviews come in and complain about the entire production being lackluster. With the stakes being so high on Mike Nichols’ 2012 revival of ‘The Death of a Salesman,’ how could anyone expect anything less than major disappointment?
Think again. The latest version of Arthur Miller’s classic tale was a massive hit, playing to strong reviews and sold-out crowds. The play was anchored by the brilliant leading performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the tragic role of Willy Loman and supported by Andrew Garfield as the underachieving son. In the crippling economy that has plagued the world in recent years, the play seemed to become even more relevant, and thanks to its cast and the team behind them, ‘Death of a Salesman’ picked up top honors at the Tony Awards this year.
Everyone was celebrating being 50-years-old in 2012. Many prominent acts debuted in 1962, from the Rolling Stones to Spider-man. None of those entities enjoyed quite the half-century celebration that James Bond did, though. In his latest outing, ‘Skyfall,’ the British-based agent reminded us why he is still the coolest character in cinema. Thanks to Sam Mendes’ direction and a dynamite villain performance by Javier Bardem, this newest installment may be Bond’s best moment yet.
It all goes back to the perfect mixture ‘Skyfall’ achieves. With the recent Daniel Craig entries, filmmakers have attempted to cash in on the action sequences and fast-paced thrills that worked for more modern heroes like Jason Bourne. This style, very present in ‘Quantum of Solace’ just didn’t fit the character. How great it was to see this film achieve that delicate balance, playing into the Bond traditions while developing a more modern touch. If ‘Skyfall’ gives us an idea of where James Bond is headed in the next 50 years, then by all means, bring on the shaken drinks and lovely women.
6. ‘The Walking Dead’ Franchise
No franchise has enjoyed quite the same type of year ‘The Walking Dead’ has in 2012. It’s rare for one media entity to gain such strong acclaim across multiple platforms in a one-year span, but somehow, some way, this franchise did it. Amazingly, the love began not with the hit TV series, but with a video game adapted from the same comic. ‘The Walking Dead’ point-and-click episodic titles enjoyed phenomenal reviews and sales, ultimately culminating in Game of the Year honors at the Spike TV Video Game Awards.
The TV side isn’t doing poorly, either. The AMC series had its third season debut to the largest ratings ever for a cable drama, with over 10 million viewers tuning in on the first night alone. The quality of the show continues to be strong, and those high standards are reflected in its ability to continue to gather new viewers. More episodes and games are set to release in 2013, but the bar has been set so high, it’s hard to imagine the franchise topping itself this time around.
5. The Ensemble of ‘Django Unchained’
When writing this list, I originally thought of including this spot with simply Leonardo DiCaprio for his villainous work on the set of Quentin Tarantino’s latest bloody western. Then, I thought about taking him out and including the always professional, well-spoken Christoph Waltz. And then, I thought about saying to hell with it and scratching both men’s’ names off in favor of the hysterical work of Samuel L. Jackson.
See where I’m going with this? It’s hard to pick one role that sticks out from crowd in ‘Django Unchained’ because they’re all so excellent. This is a cast where everyone is looking to out-stage one another, and the results are jaw-droppingly good. Tarantino’s latest is a Western epic that works because its cast sells the whole outlandish thing so well. This cast is so good, they’ll make you want to forgive yourself for seeing such a violent, blood-and-guts thriller when it hits theaters on Christmas Day.
4. Nexus 7
Was 2012 the year Apple finally began to lose its luster? Perhaps. The tech giant is still easily one of the most valuable companies in the world and has sold more than 100 million iPads worldwide. However, this year proved there were some chinks in their armor, especially in the area of tablet competition. Google’s 7-inch dream of a tablet, the Nexus 7, proved to not only be the best $200 device on the market, but one of the best tablets period.
No, it’s not as powerful as the latest iPad, but the android-based experience provides users with a beautiful HD display, a powerful processor and dozens of famous apps for a fraction of the cost. Nexus 7 proved to be so popular it sold out almost immediately and was difficult to find for months. Original estimates called for 3 million to be moved by year’s end, but now the company is thinking over 5 million could be sold. No wonder the disdained house behind Apple Maps is shipping out iPad Minis as quickly as possible; they know this tablet is a serious contender and easily the best new gadget of the year.
3. Joaquin Phoenix in ‘The Master’
Joaquin Phoenix, you weird man, you. You’ve spent years playing up this creepy, bearded persona no one liked and then you decide to reemerge in film with the finest performance you’ve ever given. Make no mistake about it: ‘The Master’s is Phoenix’s finest hour, playing as the confused protégé of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Director P.T. Anderson always seems to drive the best out of his actors, and such is certainly the cast here.
The role works so well because of the complexity Phoenix brings to it. Sometimes shy, sometimes delusion and sometimes just down-right disgusting, he shows up just like a raw nerve, constantly pulsing with strange energy. It remains to be seen if the role can find the attention it deserves with Oscar voters, who were more than likely turned off by his recent comments on the awards season. Still, we can only hold out hope Phoenix will find some gold for this role, because he deserves it.
2. ‘Life of Pi’
Do I think ‘Life of Pi’ is the best film of 2012? Probably not. There were other films I liked more and perhaps found more engaging. However, if you ask me what one film from this past year I would recommend to everyone to see, it would be this one. Simply put, ‘Life of Pi’ is a beauty. The visual effects are some of the finest I’ve ever seen and a credit to the CGI guys behind them who made the look feel so authentic.
Also genuine is the story, which director Ang Lee films with in a rather exotic way. He transports us into a world where spirituality is discovered, questioned and realized with such clarity. The art behind ‘Life of Pi’ is something to behold, as it full engages the senses and submerges you in the barren, breathtaking ocean world it presents. And the 3D? Well, let’s just say you can forget ‘Avatar’; this is its finest moment. From all angles of design and execution, ‘Life of Pi’ is the reason we love the movies.
1. ‘Locked Out of Heaven,’ Bruno Mars
Surprised? I’ll admit, as a cinephile, it’s difficult for me to give anything but a film the top spot. 2012 in particular was a great year for film, much more so than for music, gaming or theater. And yet, if I had to pick one flawless piece of media that kept me enthralled during its duration and never let me go, it would have to be the latest number one record from Bruno Mars. The singer had a landmark year, performing at basically every music show under the sun and enjoying a hit performance on Saturday Night Live. It was his latest single that really put a crown on the phenomenal year this pop king has had.
What makes ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ work is the perfect harmony it achieves. It’s rock-inspired, but not too aggressive. It’s pop, but it’s not dance-designed or lacking in substance. It’s soulful, but not overly powerful to the point of being excessive. It’s just a damn good record, hitting all the right notes and achieving that sing-in-the-shower-till-your-lungs-explode status the best ballads of all time enjoy.
No wonder the single, and the album that accompanied it, have enjoyed such strong reviews and sales. Pop music is a high school these days. There are plenty of popular kids, kids that you could be. You could dress outlandishly like Lady Gaga, form a hip group like Fun. or just be a complete slut like Ke$ha, but you can’t just wake up out of bed and be those things. Bruno Mars can because his persona is natural. He’s the coolest kid in the pop culture school. ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ simply secures his seat at the front of the class.