#4. 'Looper'

Looper is my pick for movie of the year, not because it was great (it was), or because it was brutal (it was), or because it featured the best chin prosthetic in history (it did), but because it was the first science fiction movie to address its audience honestly. We've all become so pop culture savvy lately that we spend most of a movie's runtime just pulling on the loose threads until it comes apart in our hands. Looper had the self-awareness and the balls to literally sit its audience down halfway through the film and tell us all to knock it the hell off.

At their first pivotal meeting, the past and future versions of the main character, Joe, sit down together at a diner. Young Joe is confused: He wants to know the mechanics of this time-travel device they're playing with, how it holds together, what the inconsistencies and internal logic are. Old Joe, played by the world's foremost shut-the-fuck-up specialist, Bruce Willis, unsurprisingly tells his younger self to stop thinking, shut the fuck up and just deal with the situation at hand. If they get into the minutiae of time travel, he explains, they're "gonna be here all day, drawing diagrams with straws."

"Listen up, because I'll only explain this once. Time travel works like this: Go fuck yourself."

Just like the audience of nerds surely would, if they couldn't manage to shut off the analytical part of their brains for a second and simply enjoy watching Bruce Willis punch time in the throat until it starts coughing up hours. Looper knew it had a logically unsound, laughably flimsy concept of time travel. And it didn't give one hot God damn; it was going to tell a bitchin' story regardless. Looper had a good point, and it's one we should take to heart sometimes: If you want to play with straws, that's fine, but you can't do that and fire futuristic blunderbusses at one another from atop malfunctioning jet-bikes.

Explosions beat out technobabble every day of the week.

I don't know about you, but the latter sounds like way more fun to me.

#3. 'ParaNorman'

So many of the stories we tell our kids these days seem to be carefully constructed to impart as bland a moral as possible, sure to avoid offending any major demographic. There's an unspoken rule that your kids' movie should teach something, so we end up with a thousand variations on lessons like "Love is good" or "Friends are good" or "Love your friends" or "Purchase things shaped like these things, please."

That's why it's so refreshing when a movie like Up comes along and says "Hey, kids, confront the reality of death and loss, because you're going to have to eventually." In 2012, Pixar continued the recent trend of coming in a few clicks below my impossible expectations, but those expectations were probably the reason that so many of the most artistically challenging and successful films of the year were big-budget animated movies for children. For instance, I liked ParaNorman so much that I picked it as my movie of the year, even though my own movie, Kill Me Now, premiered December 5 and will be available for purchase online shortly. I bring this up only because they're both horror/comedies and I would like to one day be a movie tycoon and own a mating pair of ocelots, so it seemed like an illuminating area of discussion.

ParaNorman is beautiful. As the first stop-motion movie shot entirely at a hundred frames a second or some such carpal-tunnel-syndrome-inducing nonsense, it feels like a wonderful hybrid of the hand-crafted look of claymation and the smoothness of modern CG. It's stuffed with jokes foreground to background (with plenty for the adults present), the retro horror vibe is pitch perfect, the cast is flawless (special consideration goes to the kid they got to play the dumb buddy character), the cinematography takes full advantage of the control stop-motion gives, and some of the sequences involve things done with bunched taffeta as spectacular-looking as anything Pixar's put out.

But ultimately, it really was the message, and the bravery of that message, that stuck with me. ParaNorman tackles things like mob mentality, fear-engendered violence, gay characters, dead loved ones, distant fathers, the absolution of sin and straight-up child murder with such grace and tact, you never realize that this is all shit you'd never be able to explain properly to your kid in 90 minutes. In fact, come to think of it, a ParaNorman DVD is probably a more fit parent than a lot of people I know. That's more than I can say for Looper.

Above: critical life lesson.

#2. 'The Avengers'

To understand why The Avengers is my pick for film of the year, you need to know just how impossible this movie would have seemed just a few years ago. Let's take a look and see which studios own which major franchises:

Click here to see that ridiculous thing full-size.

As you can see, just about every major studio owns the distribution rights to at least one superhero property currently in development. They don't just have the rights to these franchises; these movies are essential (assuming that the goal of the studios is to make money). You see this and you probably think "Uh, no DOY, of course everyone's developing a superhero movie; they're the only things that make money." It must seem so obvious to you.

"When did George Clooney make a Batman porn parody?"

That's probably because you, like a lot of our readers, are younger than me. You didn't have to live through a time when the idea of taking a superhero movie seriously was ridiculous. Sure, I had Burton's Batman growing up, but even that went to shit almost immediately, and not until 2000's X-Men would people even consider putting lots of money and competent directors behind a superhero flick again.

When I was a kid, I would have been foolish to hope for a decent Captain America movie, because we had one, and it was this piece of shit:

I grew up in a time when "superheroes = money" wasn't tattooed on the lower back of every producer in Hollywood. Nerds like me had to accept that we'd never get superheroes handled seriously. We gave up.

But now it's the future! The Avengers was an Avengers movie. Was it perfect? No. But I got to see Thor, Captain America and Iron Man all on the same screen fighting alongside each other, looking how they were supposed to look and saying what they were supposed to say. Joss Whedon didn't make a flawless movie, but he made an Avengers movie, and that is goddamned impossible.

"That building is blocking our view. Destroy it in the name of justice!"

Also? It was fun as hell. In a summer full of movies that were too caught up with being dark and saying something to be entertaining, it was really refreshing to see that at least Whedon knows that going to the movies is supposed to be fun. I don't care what anyone says: The Dark Knight Rises kind of blew. It was so preoccupied with arcs and symbolism and the real cost of being a Batman that it lost all sense of fun and ended up being an overly serious puckered asshole of a movie.

Whatever this is, it isn't taking itself too seriously.

Wanting an Avengers movie that incorporated a bunch of other big-budget superhero movies 10 years ago would have been a certifiably insane idea. Joss Whedon pulled it right the hell off.

#1. Christopher Nolan's 'Skyfall'

James Bond films have always had a privileged relationship to other movie franchises, almost like a legendary older sibling that gets away with shit the younger franchises would never even try. This year, the new Amazing Spider-Man caught hell for humping the still warm corpse of Sam Raimi's franchise after only five years, even though the Bond franchise only waits an average of three years when replacing the actor playing its superhero. The Bourne franchise was so nervous about switching the actor playing their super spy that they changed his name to Aaron Cross, kept Jason Bourne's name in the title of their reboot and set the whole thing in the background of the Matt Damon movies. But what did you expect them to do? Just ask us to believe that Jason Bourne looks totally different now?

Oh, right.

Bond has been switching everything from directors to faces for 50 years without anybody complaining. We don't expect Bond to respect franchise etiquette, just like we don't expect him to mourn the lady he'd been boning when she inevitably gets murdered. For whatever reason, Bond exists in separate buckets from other blockbuster franchises. Unlike previous Bond movies, the makers of Skyfall seemed to be thinking about Bond's relationship to other franchises and actively used that disconnect to their advantage.

That's not speculation. Skyfall screenwriter John Logan said that he and director Sam Mendes "talked a lot about why a Bond movie is a Bond movie and not a Bourne" and ultimately decided that "it has to do with that intense seriousness and a pain that hurts." First of all, it's worth admiring the balls it takes to say that your central concern was differentiating your movie from the Bourne franchise when your movie opens with Bond floating face down and presumed dead after being shot due to a callous order from a reckless supervisor.

"Take the shot!"

The claim that Bond is about "intense seriousness and a pain that hurts" is even more baffling (unless you find sex to be excruciatingly painful, and also never watched a Bond movie). Of course, he's actually describing what differentiates the Dark Knight trilogy from other reboots, which makes sense, since Skyfall resembles that franchise as much as any previous Bond movie.

The explosion of MI6's headquarters and underground setting are straight out of The Dark Knight Rises. The villain's rampage through London is like a greatest hits of the Joker's hell-raising in The Dark Knight (in one five-minute stretch, he crashes a perfectly timed runaway vehicle through a wall and then tries to murder the film's central authority figure as part of a team of henchmen disguised as cops). Meanwhile, Batman Begins is mashed into every nook and cranny of the movie, from the stripped down Bond gadgets, to the training sequences, to the psych evaluation that reveals that Bond is motivated by the unresolved death of his parents in childhood, to the movie's decision to give Bond a Wayne Manor with a secret Batcave underneath it, and even an Alfred.

"Some men just like to see the marsh burn, Master ... Bond."

Bond movies have always reflected whatever was considered cool at the time. Bond girls tell you what type of woman was hottest, his cars and suits track the heights in luxury fashion and his villains tell you how millionaires were secretly making their money. But Skyfall is the first Bond film that also seems to be sampling from the coolest blockbuster franchises of the moment, trying on their looks and themes like finely tailored suits.

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