Russ Fischer's 10 Most Anticipated Films Of 2012

Enough about 2011; let's look ahead to 2012. This past year was good about offering a diverse set of films that catered to many tastes, especially crowds that wanted something out of the range of standard multiplex fare. But 2012 looks like a much stronger year. We can almost always look ahead to a new year and say that there is a great batch of new films from established favorite filmmakers, movies with wonderful casts,  giant event movies and promising indies. But 2012 looks like it has more of those than usual. It's going to be a good year for movie watchers.

After some deliberation (which no doubt has still allowed me to overlook something for which I'll facepalm later) here is a list of ten films that I'm very excited to see in 2012, followed by a full page of discussion about a whole bunch of other movies that didn't make my personal cut but are still bright spots on the 2012 calendar for various reasons. This list could change a lot in the next couple weeks, as Sundance (and then Cannes in May) could reveal a good many new films that will be bright spots on the calendar in '12.

I've also exercised a certain hopefulness here, as there are a few films that don't yet have official 2012 release dates. Let's hope they don't slip.

To some extent, I've assumed when writing the blurbs that follow that readers have been following along as we've covered news of these films over the past year. To make things easier for those who haven't, I've linked trailers where possible, and pointed to our news coverage of films for which trailers don't yet exist.

10. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)

I like Christopher Nolan's Batman films, though they don't inspire the degree of fervor in me that they do in others. But The Dark Knight Rises can't be denied as a movie of serious interest, in part because it represents Nolan having his final say with the character. (Graph the spectrum of popular movies, and you've got Michael Bay's Transformers on one end and Nolan's Batman on the other. This is the way to do it, Mr. Bay.)

As a bonus, Nolan is presenting a good chunk of the movie in native 70mm IMAX. After the spectacle of Mission: Impossible, that IMAX footage would be enough to get me in the theater even if I hated Nolan's Batman. I'd be lying if I said the intelligibility of Bane's dialogue in the prologue didn't bump this down a couple spots on my list. On the other hand, there is the presence of Tom Hardy as a real positive factor. If this film gives me anything as weirdly and giddy fun as the hospital conversation and subsequent explosion from The Dark Knight, I'll go home happy.

(July 20 — trailer)

9. Seven Psychopaths (dir. Martin McDonagh)

Martin McDonagh and Colin Farrell made In Bruges, and while promoting that film McDonagh talked about a script with this name; now the two have worked together once more to make it a reality. That's all I need to know. You may want to know that the cast also features Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits, and Kevin Corrigan, and that the story is about dogs and gangsters and, yeah, psychopaths. But I look to McDonagh's skill with plot and dialogue, and the cast's ability in making those elements seem vital, and my ass is in a seat and ready to stay there until the credits roll.

(Release TBD — news recap)

8. Wettest County (dir. John Hillcoat)

John Hillcoat's work is essentially a pure pulp storytelling with an identity derived from an active social awareness. The Wettest County is based on the mostly-true story of three bootlegging brothers, and I can easily see how Hillcoat's general worldview and character sets, in which regular people are pushed to strange and sometimes extraordinary action, could take root in that narrative soil. Add a Nick Cave script, a score by Cave and frequent collaborator Warren Ellis, and a cast that includes Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain, and the ingredients are there for a story that is thrilling and entertaining but also just relevant enough to get a little extra boost.

(April 20 — news recap)

7. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

We seem to be hitting a point where studios and financiers are willing to gamble on original sci-fi properties, so long as there is some commercial hook. This list has three films that might not have been made at a different nexus point, but we're lucky enough to get at least three in '12 and a fourth, Elysium, in '13. The hook here is that Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón is creating a film that is nearly a one-woman show in which Sandra Bullock has to navigate her way to safety after an orbital mission goes wrong. His methodology seems to be an expansion of the approach that led to the long takes and famous car shot from Children of Men. Gravity may end up looking like it is built from only a handful of very long takes. Even without that element of technical spectacle, Cuarón is an impressive director, and after six long years I'm happy he's back.

(November 12 — news recap)

6. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)

When we ran the first official still from Argo I promised the movie had a spot on this list, and here we go. Affleck has quickly established himself as a director who might fit the Clint Eastwood mold: solid in coaxing performance, restrained in style and focused on narrative to great effect. But Argo is something a bit different from his first two films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Based on a true story about a CIA crew posing as the production staff for a sci-fi film while trying to extract diplomatic hostages from Iran in 1979, this one seems like it could easily have a vibe similar to The Men Who Stare at Goats. (George Clooney and Goats director Grant Heslov are producing.) If so, I hope it balances the politics and comedy a bit better, and Affleck's skill in creating a persuasive, grounded reality in his first two films should be a major asset here. If nothing else, there are scenes featuring John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Alan Arkin and Adrienne Barbeau to look forward to.

(September 14 — news recap)

5. Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

I don't often read scripts before a film is released, but had to make an exception for Quentin Tarantino's latest. You could say that means there are no surprises left for me here. But Tarantino's greatest strength is the way he works with actors, and there is so much meat in the Django script for his cast (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and many more) to dig into that I think there are plenty of surprises in store. The basic fact of Leo playing a slave-owning villain is enough to rank this high on a list of anticipated films.

The core concept — a German dentist turned bounty hunter (Waltz) frees a slave, Django (Foxx), and the two end up looking for Django's wife (Kerry Washington) — has great opportunity for Tarantino to craft the moments that make his movies pop even for audiences who recognize all the cinema history he has recombined. I'm very excited to see how Tarantino shoots the finale of this one, which could end up ranking alongside Inglourious Basterds as one of his most memorable endings. Finally, Tarantino's not so secret weapon has always been editor Sally Menke. Now that she has tragically passed, I have a focused, slightly concerned curiosity about how his work will feel going forward, and this film will be the first indication of his future.

(December 25 — news recap)

4. Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

I've been a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn since I saw the Pusher trilogy in 2005, and this movie sees him reuniting with his Drive star Ryan Gosling to make a western set in Thailand. We don't know much more about the movie than that, but those details are all I need. I'm eager to see what Refn can do with a big studio budget, but that can wait for his and Gosling's Logan's Run remake. In the meantime, lets see what happens when they go off the grid for this violent revenge tale.

(Release TBD — news recap)

3. Cloud Atlas (dir. Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski)

I don't know if this is going to be a disaster of epic proportion or a thing of wonder. (Or something in between, which is much more likely.) I do know that no other movie in 2012 matches Cloud Atlas in terms of ambition. You've got three directors, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, working with two parallel film units to shoot six vaguely interconnected stories that span centuries and narrative genres. Oh, and most of the cast (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Bae Doona) play multiple roles, and in some cases actors are playing other races and genders. If you told me the Wachowskis were filming just one of the tales in Cloud Atlas — the dystopian future story set in a corporation-dominated South Korea — I'd be eager to see it. Add five other stories and all those other elements, and I don't quite know what to expect, but I can't wait to see it.

(Release TBD — news recap)

2. Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott has earned his master tag, but that doesn't change certain truths. Do I really want to watch Body of Lies or Robin Hood ever again? Nope. But Alien, Scott's 1979 fusion of sci-fi, horror and working class characters, is one of my most-watched movies. So Prometheus, conceived and then executed to some extent as a prequel to Alien, has a big advantage from stage one. I look at things in more practical terms, however: when was the last time Ridley Scott made a movie I was really, truly wild about? It has been a long time.

So Prometheus doesn't place on pitch alone. But the Comic Con footage, which is echoed in the recently-released trailer, convinced me that there are visual ideas going on here that are wildly attention-getting. In the long run, will that be enough? No, but take the images, add the basic story of terraformers reshaping a planet and the themes implied by the title (man taking power that he's not ready for), then mix in the cast (Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender) and there could be a lot going on. The images in the footage we've seen do combine with the pitch to suggest that Scott (with screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) might have tapped into something deep here, once again. And there is the 3D factor to consider. Martin Scorsese made this well-established 3D naysayer admit that the tech is useful when used well, so let's see it applied to this universe.

(June 8 — trailer)

1. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)

This one is an easy pick. I've watched Rian Johnson's first film, Brick, more times than I can count, and I quite like his follow-up, The Brothers Bloom. He's a smart guy with a slightly off-kilter sense of humor and a real talent for working with actors. Put him in charge of a film in which time travel is used as an assassination tool, leading to a situation where a young man has to kill his older self, and I'm sold.

Early screening reports have pegged the film as a success, but even without those reports this would probably be number one on my list. Rian Johnson is one of the crop of young directors who straddles mainstream and arthouse filmmaking, and to see him working with an original sci-fi concept is tremendously exciting. And not to diminish Johnson, but the fact that he roped in Primer director Shane Carruth to work on the film in some capacity is a major draw for me as well.

(Sept. 28 — news recap)

Hit the next page for the films that didn't make my primary 'most anticipated for 2012' list. There are quite a few honorable mentions.

The stuff that didn't make the list.

There are a great many other 2012 releases that could end up being better than anything I've listed above. For various reasons, however, they didn't make my personal cut.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (TBD) might look like a big omission, and the idea of Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln is madly appealing. But Spielberg's two films in 2011 were both efforts that I could only admire in part; neither moved me as I think he wanted them to. And the biopic, even one constrained in scope, is a frequent delivery system for broad, bland storytelling. I hope for better from Lincoln, but I'm feeling cautious about it now.

Another big omission for many will be Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (TBD). I'm eager to see what he does with the story of a guy who creates his own sort of religion, but PTA's movies don't excite me on a deep level the way some others do. I admire his work — he has a precision balanced with an odd, icy empathy that I find very intriguing, if not deeply moving — but I don't get a wild William Castle buzz of excitement when I think about a PTA movie. That said, The Master still stands as a movie of tremendous interest in 2012.

I didn't pick The Hobbit (Dec 14), The Avengers (May 4) or The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3) because, while I guess those movies will be entertaining, they also feel like known quantities. I don't expect to be surprised by them, and so they fall down the list. Of the three, Marc Webb's Spider-Man is the one I most want to see, because I think it has the most to lose, and consequently might end up feeling like the biggest success if it works.

I don't expect to love either movie, but when it comes to literary adaptations, there are two other objects of serious curiosity for me: Ang Lee's Life of Pi (Dec 21), because I want to see what he can do with a boy in a boat with a handful of animals, and a lot of subtext about religion and faith. In 3D, no less. And the adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (Oct) is simply a 'how the hell is that going to work' sort of movie.

Additional honorable literary-related mentions go to David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis (TBD), and Baz Luhrmann's 3D version of The Great Gatsby (Dec 25). Cosmopolis could be Robert Pattinson's chance to really prove himself, and a chance for Cronenberg to find liveliness in a story that is mostly constrained to a very small space. And Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights (TBD) is certainly on my radar, based on the degree to which I've liked her previous films.

For action, there are two big picks that just missed the list: Skyfall (Nov. 9) and The Bourne Legacy (Aug. 3). I'm not a Sam Mendes fan at all and generally find the Bond films to be interminably dull. But Casino Royale was a big fun kick in the ass, and I hope to see Daniel Craig's third Bond outing pick up where that left off in terms of getting my pulse racing. And that cast (Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Albert Finney, Berenice Malohe and Naomie Harris) is tough to beat. The Bourne Legacy, meanwhile, might build on what Jeremy Renner did in Mission: Impossible. I like the guy a lot as a slightly different action star, and he's also got an incredible supporting cast (Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Albert Finney, and Oscar Isaac) under the direction of Tony Gilroy, who was one of the prime architects of the existing Bourne films.

On the more genre-oriented front, I really want Walter Hill's return to action, Bullet to the Head (April 13), to be loads of fun, even though I have my deep concerns. And Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods (April 13) looks like it could be a great ride. They face off against one another in April, so that's a good genre weekend, if nothing else.

Off to the side, there is 7 Days in Havana (TBD), featuring seven short stories about Havana from different directors, which is appealing just for the segment directed by Gaspar Noe. Omnibus films are rarely truly good, but I want to see anything Noe makes. There is also The ABCs of Death (TBD), the horror omnibus with 26 short films by established and upcoming horror talents.

Finally, I'd love to have picked the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis (TBD), but I left it off the list because I don't see that making even a Toronto debut unless they race like hell to get it finished. But you never know.