In addition to not bringing the end of the world, 2012 did not bring a lot of great films; although, it brought a lot of good ones. And so, making this list of the Top 10 Films of 2012 was not much of a challenge. There weren’t as many obvious standouts for a film critic’s “best” list this year, unlike 2011, where The Artist and Hugo seemed to dominate everyone’s lists, including my own. Nevertheless, the films I loved most form what I find to be an ideal balance between art and entertainment.
Runners Up: The Avengers, Bernie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Brave, Cosmopolis, Dredd, Flight, God Bless America, The Grey, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Killing Them Softly, Lincoln, ParaNorman, Premium Rush, The Secret World of Arrietty, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Seven Psychopaths, and Skyfall
No moviegoers were more involved or reactive to what was happening onscreen than those in my screening of Argo, Ben Affleck’s third turn as director and certainly his most celebrated thus far. Based on a true story of the CIA’s outlandish attempt to exfiltrate a group of six Americans hiding out during the Iranian revolt in 1979 by using a fake science-fiction movie production cover, the film combines a political powder keg environment with behind-the-scenes Hollywood knowhow to create an ingenious comic potboiler. The tension he creates is unbearable, which is strange, given that we know the outcome; the comic relief (courtesy of Alan Arkin and John Goodman) is wonderfully balanced. Affleck delivers a stylish, thoughtfully made, and entertaining picture that will no doubt remain an audience favorite for 2012. Also, “Argo-fuck-yourself” may be forever ingrained into our pop-culture vocabulary.
10. Ruby Sparks
Dr. Frankenstein creates the love of his life in Ruby Sparks, the second film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife directing team of Little Miss Sunshine. Paul Dano plays a J.D. Salinger-type writer whose ability to write believable characters does something magical and brings to life Zoe Kazan’s titular character (Kazan also wrote the film’s screenplay), someone Dano’s author has written to be his perfect match. Without explaining how it happens or relying on mystical fairy dust, the magic in this picture is actually how dark the otherwise romantic narrative is willing to go. One scene in particular has lingered with me since I first watched the film, and it’s what elevates this romantic comedy into something more of a rarity. Not as widely seen as the duo’s first film, audiences should seek this title out if they missed it. It’s funny, heartening, and an overall joy.
9. Killer Joe
After teaming once on the paranoid thriller Bug, director William Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts have unleashed Killer Joe unto the world, exposing us to a Southern Gothic nightmare in which every sweaty, deplorable character reaches incredible lows as the film goes on. Despite the NC-17 rating, this “trailer park noir” is less sexually graphic than just plain morbid in every way. In the finale, a notorious display involving a chicken drumstick earns the picture a most horrific reputation. But there’s skilled direction and brilliant acting at work here too. Friedkin orchestrates an incredible roster of performances, including Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, and Thomas Haden Church. Of course, Matthew McConaughey steals the show as the cop who moonlights as a killer for hire. This film is the crown jewel in a stellar year for McConaughey, who delivered top-notch performances in Bernie and Magic Mike as well. Although the NC-17 rating has been removed for video distribution, the current “Unrated Director’s Cut” on Blu-ray and DVD is the original theatrical cut.
8. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino’s controversial and wildly entertaining “Southern” has been criticized for its ultra-violence after its ill-timed release in a year tarnished by two tragic shootings, but more so for how daringly it walks the line between racial exploitation and exploration. His treatment of slavery brings to light a chapter in America’s history the country would rather forget, but his approach—containing no end of humor, bloody shootouts, and the kind of post-modern stylization only Tarantino can bring—has been criticized as insensitive. Would Tarantino be the great filmmaker he is today if he avoided taking risks? Thankfully, he refuses to pull punches in Django Unchained, what is part Spaghetti Western, part blacksploitation, and part gritty revenge flick. His cast (including Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Leonardo DiCaprio) give outstanding performances across the board, with Waltz and DiCaprio both deserving Oscar noms for their memorable roles. On the whole, Tarantino rewrites history in the vein of Inglourious Basterds, and his risks pay off in a big way.
7. The Master
Those who followed the making of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master no doubt expected something more straightforward by way of an investigation and critique of religion, specifically Scientology. But Anderson’s film proved to be more elusive, if not impressionistic, requiring audiences read characters and interpret the film’s meanings for themselves. Channeling Stanley Kubrick’s rich but impenetrable style, Anderson gave us a sumptuous production loaded with metaphor, featuring two outstanding performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman plays the charlatan leader of a religious cult called The Cause, while Phoenix remains the film’s centerpiece, being a broken wanderer dependent on drink and base activities, who clings to the cult-leader like a hopeless dog. What comes of Anderson’s visual majesty, unconventional storytelling, and his two central performances is a film not easily understood but also not easily forgotten. Mihai Malaimare’s work offers the best cinematography of 2012, while Anderson’s work delivers the year’s most challenging film.
6. Life of Pi
Ang Lee sets a bold new standard for the implementation of 3D in Life of Pi, a film that amounts to more than a mere spectacle. A spiritual motion picture whose sense of understanding inspires, the story involves an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck only to share a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. By the time his journey ends, we have a greater sense of tolerance and acceptance toward all religious beliefs, which may be the film’s real miracle. Then again, the effects on display are miraculous too. There’s an incredible marriage between content and presentation, as Lee balances visual wonders with a message that overwhelms the viewer and transcends the amazing sights on display. Using expert CGI to create an ocean of sea life and countless zoo animals, Lee’s use of special FX integrates his fantastic sights and the narrative in an unprecedented way. That the film is more than just mindless entertainment renders the effects all the more powerful. This is beautiful, inspiring filmmaking.
5. Cloud Atlas
When I talk to people about Cloud Atlas, some say they were afraid to see it—that the concept alone was confusing enough. Reformatting David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, a trifecta of directors (Andy and Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer) tell six stories within a nearly 3-hour film in which an ensemble cast (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, Ben Whishaw, and others) each play a different role within each of the six stories. The prospect of keeping track of everyone seems like a nightmare, but the filmmakers have somehow made the film such an effortless, captivating experience out of this high-concept setup. Filled with matchless vision and scope, this ambitious production embraces the history of storytelling by interconnecting several genres and styles in a procession that must be felt more than understood. What a bold and exciting experiment this is, teeming with themes of reincarnation, love, class struggles, slavery, elitism, and revolution abound. I can say with some certainty that I’ve never seen anything like it and will probably never see anything like it again.
4. Silver Linings Playbook
Blame poor marketing or the long-drawn-out schedule for wider distribution, but David O. Russell’s hilarious crowd-pleaser Silver Linings Playbook hasn’t caught on the way it should have, but no doubt will once more people discover it. This is the kind of film whose plot summary doesn’t do it justice: Bradley Cooper plays a disturbed former teacher who tries to get his life in order after a bout at a mental institution, and then finds himself drawn to Jennifer Lawrence, a widow with issues of her own. Russell’s style of frenzied overlapping dialogue and frenetic camerawork make for manic joy through nonstop laughter and dramatic accents, while an ensemble of brilliant, screw-loose performances (including Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker) are hilarious and affecting. Resoundingly sentimental yet never once as cliché as the story could have been, this funny, tear-jerking ride was one of my best cinematic experiences of 2012.
3. Moonrise Kingdom
The consistency, yet enduring knack to still surprise his audience is what I adore about Wes Anderson and his ongoing body of work. Take Moonrise Kingdom, a film in which the director’s recurrent themes appear once more, namely his exploration of characters in desperate need to escape their regimented lives. Youngsters Sam and Suzy (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) fall in love and run off together in 1965, exploring their notions of romance and adventure, while their parents and New England townsfolk try to locate them. Anderson’s penchant for ensembles doesn’t waver: Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, and Jason Schwartzman are all outstanding, with talk for a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Willis. Anderson proves without a doubt that he’s one of today’s finest filmmakers, and one of comedy’s most original voices. This is an inspired, deeply touching story formed with the unique edge brought by Anderson’s signature visual and mannered eccentricities.
2. The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s final chapter in his trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises challenged audiences to see Bruce Wayne as a human being and view Batman as a mere symbol. Audiences expecting an escapist Batman movie were no doubt disappointed, as Nolan’s epic story is political, thoughtful, and grandly symbolic. Behind the myth-making are Nolan’s incredible craftsmanship, visual and narrative clarity, and sheer technical mastery that inspire awe and deep emotional involvement. In coming full circle back to themes established in Batman Begins, Nolan’s exploration of what it means to be a superhero lost many, as it plays against Hollywood tradition by allowing Bruce Wayne to have an opinion about his fate. But there’s a larger purpose behind this film by connecting all three in his trilogy into a superior whole. Such revisions on the standard Batman story are what have made Nolan’s trilogy the archetypal interpretation of the Batman legend, and they’re why I love this series more than any other in the superhero genre.
Rian Johnson’s Looper was by far my favorite film of 2012. Like Minority Report or Inception before, it contains complicated ideas rendered with clarity and wonder in their grandiosity, but behind every major turn is a dramatic motivation. Following Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitman, who must contend with his future self (Bruce Willis) to protect a young mother’s (Emily Blunt) son from being executed for his future crimes, this twisting narrative shifts our sympathies from one character to the next with ingenious orchestration. The tight scripting and inspired notions behind the science-fiction itself set a new standard for every subsequent time-travel related motion picture. Given prejudices against its chosen genre, the film may not appear on many “Top 10” lists this year, but it’s also the kind of film people will revisit in a few years and reassess as a masterpiece.
I said it best in my original review: “Looper is the kind of film that only comes along every so often. It’s cerebral yet filled with substantial dramatic pull, exploring both brainy scientific theory and multidimensional characters with equal levels of inspection and inventiveness. Johnson’s treatment contains a maturity and energy that displays the trappings of a confident filmmaker pouring his talent into every subtle science fiction detail, every sharply deliberate camera movement, and every emotional progression for his characters. The high degree of verisimilitude on display is counteracted by Johnson’s refusal to get caught up in meaningless sci-fi flourishes, resulting in a film whose drive is as singular as its compelling narrative. This is all compounded by the story’s surprising humanism, which binds us to the material and engages us in unexpected ways. Finally, in every respect, it’s an exciting and rewarding motion picture experience, one that will leave its audience buzzing long afterward and desperate to see it again. In short, Looper is a visionary film and an instant classic.”