The Best Fictional Moments of 2012

Ah, the new year. Of course you just know that means it’s time to look back at 2012 and arbitrarily list our favorite media. BUT WAIT! After an absolutely exhaustive 2011 Facebook note ranking the movies and everything else I’d seen, I decided that this time I wanted to mix it up. So while I’m sure to collaborate on a best/favorite films list on my podcast sometime in the coming weeks, for now I’m going to do something a bit more unique and discuss all of my favorite moments from movies, television, video games, and books that were released in 2012.

Naturally there was plenty that I missed out on, but if I watched, read, or played it in the past twelve months and it had a moment of brilliance that left an especially strong impression on me, then I’ll discuss it here. I’m not ordering them by quality, only by the general sequence I came upon them.

As an arbitrary rule, only one moment from each property (film, TV series, etc.) is allowed.

Oh, and **SPOILERS FOR THINGS FOLLOW** Don’t worry though, I won’t blatantly ruin anything in the titles.

So with that, let’s begin.

The Grey: “Once more into the fray…”

I was a far bigger fan of the “Liam Neeson vs. Wolves” movie than just about anyone that I know. I expected complete nonsense, but instead found a deeply affecting story of survival (and lack thereof) in the face of impossible and admittedly unrealistic odds. Wolves aren’t like this, silly movie. That said, I’m sure it’ll always hold a special place in my heart as the first film I ever reviewed, something I really enjoyed doing this year.

Its closing scene was spoiled by the trailer, but that didn’t stop it from being a ridiculously cool, glass-knuckled tribute to the human spirit, with lone survivor Ottway taping shattered bottles to one fist and a knife in the other for his final showdown with a vicious pack of canines. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day…

Kill List: Hammer Time

This movie came out of nowhere. I didn’t have a clue what it would be going in, and whenever I thought I had a grasp on things it completely redefined itself. I guess it’s a horror film, but there’s so much going on that I’m uncomfortable even confining it to a genre. It might be the most disturbing thing I’ve watched all year, especially at the halfway point when a man is gruesomely murdered with a hammer. Everything I’ve implicitly learned about film led me to believe the camera would cut away right before metal met skull. I’m pretty sure everyone in the theater jumped when it didn’t. If brutality isn’t a turn off, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Journey: Sand Surfing in the Sunset

For anyone who thinks video games are filled with nothing but zombies and people shooting each other in the face, this downloadable title from That Game Company might be the ultimate counterexample. A simple game about a hooded figure trying to reach a distant mountain, it happens to be one of the most beautiful things the medium has ever produced. No combat, no spoken words, no bonus missions or explicit instruction. Just a creature with a magical scarf and a random online companion walking, jumping, and flying to their destination through a series of gorgeous environments.

While the ending was amazing, no sequence had quite as strong an effect on me as the part where you glide across an ocean of sand as it shimmers in the setting sun. Simple, elegant, and totally jaw-dropping.

The Raid Redemption: The Final Fight

Nonstop insanity from start to finish, this Indonesian martial arts film was almost immediately hailed as one of the gold standards for what an action movie can be. What it lacks in a complex or thoughtful narrative it more than makes up for with some of the most incredible fight scenes ever put to film.

The last battle between the two brothers and “Mad Dog” is just relentless, going on well past the point of reason. I saw this movie in a stuffy room full of film critics, but even that couldn’t really stifle the energy of the scene. Once the final blow was struck, I’m pretty sure everyone would have clapped and cheered if I’d only started them off. Still kind of regret it.

The Cabin in the Woods: “Let’s get this party started.”

The first hour of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s deconstruction of the horror genre is good, solid stuff. It’s what I was expecting from the movie, but admittedly not quite everything that I wanted. While undeniably funny and well-put-together, I spent most my first viewing hoping it would manage to somehow attain that extra level of brilliance that I knew its creators were capable of reaching.

And boy, did they ever. Dana and Marty’s infiltration of the facility and subsequent unleashing of the nightmare army escalated the stakes to exactly the insane degree that I was craving. It’s ten minutes of beautifully orchestrated mayhem with so many monsters shoved onscreen at once that it demands repeat viewings just to fully appreciate how much is going on. From the terrifying (psychopathic masked arsonists) to the hilarious (death by unicorn) it was everything the movie was building towards from moment one. Easily the second-best thing Joss Whedon put his name on this year, because after all what could beat…

The Avengers: Puny God

I’m not ranking this list except for the following exception: The Avengers was my favorite thing this year. I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun watching a movie than I did this long-awaited superhero team-up. Its existence is an anomaly, its quality a miracle, and make no mistake there are about thirty moments from this masterpiece that I consider as good as anything else in this post, so picking one isn’t exactly easy…but that said there’s no way I can really go with anything other than the Hulk cutting off Loki’s speech to smash the ever-loving hell out of him.

It’s such an astonishing, unexpected, flawless moment of crowd-pleasing ecstasy that not until my third viewing could anyone in the theater actually hear Hulk’s line over the sound of their own cheering. No other moment of 2012 validated the things I love quite like that.

Game of Thrones: The Battle of the Blackwater

If there was one thing from A Clash of Kings—the second book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—that HBO absolutely needed to get right with their adaptation, it was this. They’d already avoided showing major battles a couple of times before, but budget restrictions be damned there’d be no excusing the exclusion of the most pivotal conflict in the war that the entire second season was built upon.

Lucky for everyone they stepped up to the challenge and depicted the Baratheon assault on King’s Landing in a way that not only lived up to the text, but may have actually managed to transcend it. Thanks to the legions of extras, Peter Dinklage’s awesome speechifying as Tyrion, the stomach-churning violence, Cersei’s drunken breakdown, and the Hound promising he’d rape the corpses of any man who died with a clean sword, this may have been the year’s best episode of television. Focusing on a singular event was a huge departure for this show, and it couldn’t possibly have worked better. No surprise George Martin himself penned the script.

The Legend of Korra: Amon a Boat

The sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender might not be the flawless work of genius I had hoped for based upon my devotion to the original, but it still had a lot to love. I found its greatest triumph in the antagonist Amon, a forceful revolutionary who unified the disenfranchised nonbenders of Republic City behind his Equalist movement.

I was sure his storyline would be resolved by the end of the season, but I wasn’t sure how. Just when it appears he’s going to escape towards the end of the finale, his brother Tarrlok blows up the both of them after a hauntingly beautiful scene that suggested the possibility for redemption. But no, instead this Nickelodeon series went with a murder-suicide. After dozens of pilots parachuted to safety from their exploded planes over the previous couple of episodes, I was unprepared for so bleak a turn. The scene’s music really sold it.

Killer Joe: K Fry C

While I missed out on Magic Mike and The Paperboy, I can state based on this film alone that Matthew McConaughey had an excellent year. The totally amoral hitman might not be the most original trope, but here he proves that there’s still so much fun that can be had with compelling killers who will do anything for what they’re owed.

Take the last fifteen or so minutes of this movie, in which the titular murderer forces the woman who double crossed him to suck on a fried chicken drumstick like it’s his penis. He certainly acts as if it is, in what makes for one of the most disturbing “can’t look away” scenes I’ve ever borne witness to. And the violent aftermath was superb. This film is rated NC-17, by the way.

Breaking Bad: “You’re Goddamn Right.”

I’m fairly certain that if most people were asked to pick the standout moment from the eight episodes making up the first half of the greatest show on television’s fifth and final season, they would pick either the train heist, its terrible and immediate consequences, or perhaps something from the installment that Rian Johnson directed—say, Skyler wading into the pool.

Yet I can’t help but choose Walt’s cocky as all hell “negotiating” that opens the seventh episode. To me it’s the apex of his journey, the moment where he so fully embodies an intimidating drug lord that it’s almost impossible to remember the sad little man he was at the start of this story. In some ways it’s everything the series had been building towards. Now all that’s left is for Walt to fall.

The Master: Processing

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were both incredible in the latest work of genius from Paul Thomas Anderson, and never more so than in the early scene where cult leader Lancaster Dodd subjects budding disciple Freddie to an intense question and answer session as a way of forcing him to confront his past. Hypnotic stuff.

Looper: Temporal Mutilation

Rian Johnson’s third feature film wasn’t quite the mind-fucking cat and mouse game I was hoping for, but as a totally original science fiction story with grit and personality reminiscent of a bygone era of high concept filmmaking, it’s still one of the year’s highlights. Its most memorable contribution to the time travel mythos is the scene in which Paul Dano’s older self tries to flee from the mob after the younger version is captured. A faded scar on his arm appears telling him where to go, and then parts of his body start disappearing as the bad guys cut them off in the present day.

It’s something that’s never really been done before (outside of an episode of Invader Zim, technically) and though of course it suffers the logical flaws of any fourth dimensional narrative, it’s so chilling and memorable that I couldn’t have cared less. Perhaps I would have preferred the latter half of this movie to go in a different direction, but there’s still so much here to admire.

Seven Psychopaths: The Insane Climax That Wasn’t

I found very few things this year more delightful than Martin McDonagh’s second feature film. Perhaps not as resonant as In Bruges, it was nevertheless a crazy ton of fun with some of the year’s best performances from Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell.

The latter really shined, especially when he described/acted out a hypothetical shootout between all of the movie’s characters. By showing us an over-the-top conclusion as a deranged fantasy, McDonagh got to give us our cake without any of the calories. Some might see it as a cop out, but I thought it worked perfectly. I just wish that dog had fired the flare gun in the actual showdown.

The Walking Dead: Postpartum Depression

Still a little shocked at how impressively this show turned things around this year. If you told me a scene involving the horribly unlikable Lori would almost make me cry I never would have believed you, but then I also didn’t think they would actually be bold enough to kill her off.

And she doesn’t just get eaten by some zombie, oh no. She undergoes an emergency c-section with no anesthesia or medical resources of any kind, 100% sure that it’s going to kill her. And her son watched. Brutal stuff, even if you find Carl a worthless, annoying character. I say they’ve improved him a lot this season, but even if they hadn’t, watching him perform a coup de grace on his own mother so that she wouldn’t come back as a walker wouldn’t have been easy.

And then she gets eaten by a zombie, as Rick discovers when he tries to find her corpse. Now that’s what they mean by adding insult to injury.

Boardwalk Empire: Van Alden Irons Out Some Problems at Work

Though it’s never been the most talked about series, for me Boardwalk Empire was the one I most enjoyed following on a week-to-week basis this fall. Maybe that’s because it was the show I always watched with friends on the night it aired, but I still think it’s not as appreciated as it should be.

This year they were telling a very specific story with a great antagonist in Gyp Rosetti, but the highlight of the entire season had almost nothing to do with that. The show’s greatest resource might very well be actor Michael Shannon, who was sidelined for much of this season to the point where it felt like he was only in about half of the episodes. Maybe that was because he was busy filming Man of Steel or something, but it’s still unfortunate considering how he can utterly bring the house down when he needs to. Case in point: The scene where he’s finally had enough of his asshole coworkers and presses a hot iron into one of their faces, then freaks out and destroys the office as they all scream and cower in terror. His hideous grin is what really brings it all together. I want to see a new version of Frankenstein just because of how obvious it is that Shannon was born to play the monster.

Flight: The Crash

One of the most unifying theater experiences of the year was the palpable, edge of your-seat tension the entire audience shared during the harrowing catastrophe that kicks off Robert Zemeckis’s surprisingly explicit exploration of a man who will do (almost) anything to avoid confronting his addiction. Though the film is all character drama after the plane goes down, Denzel Washington’s performance manages to hold it together. I admit I found it less impressive on a second viewing, but for those first few minutes I was spellbound.

Red Country: Cosca Tells it Like He Sees it

EVERYONE GO READ EVERYTHING BY JOE ABERCROMBIE RIGHT NOW STARTING WITH THE BLADE ITSELF HERE’S A LINK. And with my requisite attempt to get more people to discover the genius of the greatest fantasy author working today, I can say that his latest—a fantasy western—does indeed continue in the incredibly good vein I’ve come to expect. It may be my least favorite of his in a while, but understand that of those words I’m still very much emphasizing the “favorite.”

The passage I reread twice immediately after I’d finished it is a beautiful piece of cynicism from infamous soldier of fortune Nicomo Cosca, who lays out a world-weary philosophy on the inevitability of change that’s as heartbreaking as it is true. It’s a cruel world Abercrombie has crafted, and I may never get enough of it.

Homeland: The Interrogation

The second season of this series was completely insane. Put six former showrunners in a writer’s room together and the result is that they all try to stave off boredom by burning through four seasons of potential plot development in about as many episodes. I was excited just to see what Homeland would be with each new week. By no means did it always succeed, but when it did it was astonishing.

The highlight was the confrontation that the entire show had been leading up to, a face off between Carrie and a captive Brody with everything more or less on the table. Claire Danes and Damien Lewis already got Emmys for their first season performances, but this one scene was good enough to warrant another for each of them. Just flat out amazing work.

Django Unchained: The Shootout at Candie Land

In a year mostly defined by the way my expectations were exceeded, subverted, or all-too-often disappointed, I was just thankful that this Western (well, actually a Southern) from Tarantino was precisely what I thought it would be: Two hours and forty-five minutes of luxurious dialogue, bloody action, and badass movie-going glee from the undisputed master of…whatever the hell it is that Tarantino does.

The whole thing was great, but I knew I would walk out satisfied once the two biggest supporting players’ deaths lead seamlessly to one of the goriest gun battles I’d ever seen. Curiosity, attention, devotion, adoration…as far as I’m concerned Tarantino can have it all.

Zero Dark Thirty: SEAL Team Six Goes to Work

This movie was an experience. In the spirit of the war it portrays, it left me shaken and awed on a more profound level than Bigelow’s similar Hurt Locker from three years back, and I loved The Hurt Locker.

Yet by focusing on true events and presenting them with an unflinching matter-of-factness, this film rose even higher. It’s a testament to the talent of all involved that the raid at the end—in which I knew everything that would happen ahead of time—was the most nerve-wracking, suspenseful twenty-five minutes I spent in a theater this year. Impressive, especially considering how weird it was to see Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation in such a stark environment.

The Walking Dead (video game): The Final Farewell

Perhaps the most affecting video game I’ve ever played, I don’t hesitate one instant to say that it’s a better story of survival horror than the television show. Over its five episodes players are taken through the wringer as they make incredibly tough choices affecting their place within the linear narrative. You may not always be able to affect who lives and who dies (in fact most of the time you can’t), but your choices surrounding these events—how you react and make other people feel—all matter. The way it tells you how your decisions compared to all other players after each episode is a fantastic touch.

SPOILERS HERE, Seriously I’d feel bad about ruining this one

And this game doesn’t compromise. No matter what happens,  the main character Lee will die. It’s inevitable, and the fact that he’s bitten at the end of the fourth episode fills the final chapter with incredible purpose. Whatever happens, it’s the last thing you’re ever going to do. And it ends as emotionally as it could, with a heartfelt and tearful goodbye to Clementine—the adorable little girl who you’ve watched over and protected for the entire game. Your final choice is whether or not she shoots you in the head to keep you from coming back. I didn’t make her. But what mattered more to me was what you choose as your last words. I told that poor child not to be afraid.

This is what games are capable of, people.

Well, that would be that. A pretty good year, I’d say. Here’s to the next one. Now everybody go party.

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