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The Ten Best Films of 2012

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2012 was a really interesting year in film. Many are singing its praises. “2012 is the new 1999,” they say. I’m not going that far. In fact, I’m reserving judgment for a few months more. Too much still needs to be taken in. Too many need a second look.

Here’s what I will say: This year was strong. It wasn’t top-heavy. I “really liked” a lot more than I “loved.” I also saw more theatrical releases before the end of the year than ever, and my must-watch list is much longer than usual. In the past, I’ve struggled to come up with an even 100 for a given year; In 2012, my list could reach 150.

The competition for the last few spots on the list was intense, and I toyed with breaking tradition and going with a Top 15 or Top 20. Instead, I’m just giving an inordinate number of films an honorable mention citation:

Flight was a minor miracle of a film and a wonderful return to form for director Robert Zemeckis. Lawless was a bloody good (emphasis on bloody) time at the movies. The whole of Lincoln doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts, though Daniel Day-Lewis’ staggering performance alone gets it a mention here. And The Master, despite leaving me rather cold not once but twice, was the source of the year’s best film-related discussion. None of these film’s earned serious top ten consideration, but damn if I don’t appreciate them.

I admired a host of blockbusters this year—a few of which will be on the countdown proper. Wreck-It Ralph, The Hunger Games, and Men in Black 3 are great films that didn’t make the list. The latter, it should be noted, was nowhere close, but it was such a pleasant and welcome surprise.

Non-fiction filmmakers came out in force, and though I haven’t seen many of the year’s biggest and most-acclaimed documentary titles (How to Survive a Plague, The House I Live In, The Gatekeepers, etc.), others like The Invisible War and The Queen of Versailles were nearly on my top ten.

Other narrative films that just missed out:

Argo director Ben Affleck makes the craft of filmmaking look so easy. His story is a borderline surreal tall tale of bravery and patriotism, and he turns it into something that’s thrilling and remarkably satisfying.

End of Watch will frustrate many both for employing a shaky-cam style and for not sticking to its own rules, but beneath all that surface nonsense is a terrific cop thriller. It’s oddly plotless, but Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal smolder.

The Grey is Joe Carnahan’s best and most adult film to date. It’s both a man vs. wild story and a meditation on life and what it means to be alive—like Hemingway meets Bergman but with Neeson at his most badass.

Life of Pi is Ang Lee on top of his game, and you simply can’t beat those visual effects, cinematography.

The Loneliest Planet is glacially paced, but it says and does more with silence than even The Artist did last year. Julia Loktev’s sound design and editing style (among many other things) make her a filmmaker to watch.

Safety Not Guaranteed is as unpredictable as anything this year—not an easy thing for what’s essentially a romantic comedy. Aspiring film writers ought to study Derek Connolly’s exceptional screenplay if they want to know how to get viewers to connect equally and totally to a film’s characters and story.

Skyfall might not the most “entertaining” James Bond film, but it’s without question the best made. It’s also Sam Mendes’ finest hour in the director’s chair. And Javier Bardem and Judi Dench give performances worthy of Oscar nominations—seriously.

And if I had one more spot on the list below, it’d go to Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st. “This isn’t about your addiction,” remarked a minor character to the film’s lead, a recovering addict. No single line this year stuck with me more. Because the film isn’t about this young man or his addiction. It’s about life and the way even the luckiest among us can sometimes feel hopeless. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

Now, the top ten:

10.) Moonrise Kingdom (review)
It’s a typical Wes Anderson movie in a lot of respects—the production design, the use of music, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman—but there’s an emotional component to Moonrise Kingdom that makes it one of the director’s very best efforts. Young love, it seems, has rarely been conveyed in such a satisfyingly cinematic way.

9.) The Perks of Being a Wallflower (review)
Logan Lerman gives the surprise performance of the year in Stephen Chbosky’s touching coming-of-age drama. Adapted from Chbosky’s own best-seller, the film overcomes the trappings of its genre with genuine character moments and just the right amount of humor.

8.) The Dark Knight Rises (review)
Boy, this one proved to be much more divisive than I ever would have guessed, but watching the film again (and again, and again), it’s not hard to see why. It’s all story, and considering how unwieldy and lumbering that story sometimes feels, the entire film becomes an exercise in going with the flow. If you can’t, this film might feel like torture. But give yourself over to The Dark Knight Rises, and you’ll find it extremely rewarding on so many levels. I might not have the same high opinion of it now as I did when I saw it in theaters, but it’s still one of my ten favorites. No question about it.

7.) Sleepwalk with Me (review)
Mike Birbiglia’s unique voice in his debut feature—a semi-autobiographical film—is one of 2012′s sweetest cinematic treats. What’s great about the film (beyond some truly hilarious episodes) is how Birbiglia gets at truths that extend beyond his own life. In fact, it’s arguably the best, most honest film about the work-life balance in a long time.

6.) Take This Waltz (review)
Michelle Williams gives the female performance of the year in Sarah Polley’s sophomore effort, which mercifully treats adultery as a serious thing. Yes, the film is swirling and colorful and grandly romantic, but our lead character turns into a puddle of mush over the thought of cheating. Her pain is palpable. It’s a film I felt more than almost any other this year.

5.) Django Unchained
Maybe not Tarantino’s most audacious film. Nor his most emotionally affecting, technically accomplished, or novel. But this is arguably the most complete package of the year. Tarantino’s direction is as confident as ever. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is stunning. The writing is brilliant. DiCaprio has never been better. And Christoph Waltz (once again) steals the show.

4.) Seven Psychopaths (review)
Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to In Bruges is a giant leap forward in terms of clever writing. It creates some of the year’s wildest characters and moments, and every individual element builds toward something inexplicably coherent and undeniably unique. And Sam Rockwell, man. Sam Rockwell.

3.) Sleepless Night (review)
Think of this as the cinematic equivalent of a 24 episode, but instead of playing with time, writer-director Frederic Jardin toys with space. This entire French action flick is set within the confines of a massive nightclub, and while thousands of oblivious partiers dance the night away, one corrupt cop must rescue his kidnapped son from drug lords. No film this year was quite as intense as this one. Seek it out.

2.) Looper (review)
It wasn’t until his third effort—this film—that I hopped on the Rian Johnson train, but it’s so nice to finally be aboard. Johnson one-ups Brick and The Brothers Bloom in terms of style, but as far as compelling and original storytelling goes, this one can’t be touched. It’s an absolute masterclass.

1.) Beasts of the Southern Wild (review)
But as much as I loved Looper, my heart was stolen this year by a little girl named Hushpuppy. She lives in the Bathtub with her Daddy. She talks to animals, and over 90 minutes in Benh Zeitlin’s remarkable film, she survives a hurricane, learns a thing or two about death, and defends her world against a pack of stampeding prehistoric beasts.

Beasts moved me more than Take This Waltz or Moonrise Kingdom. It thrilled me more than Looper or Sleepless Night. It’s more personal than The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Oslo, August 31st. Its words crackled more than those of Seven Psychopaths or Sleepwalk with Me. And its scope is more awe-inspiring than that of Django Unchained or The Dark Knight Rises.

From where I sit, it’s both the best and my favorite movie of 2012, and the decision to place it atop this list was an uncharacteristically easy one. And as I continue to consume the fine films of this splendid year (include ones I missed before the turn of the calendar like Zero Dark Thirty and Amour), I’d be floored of Beasts was surpassed. I doubt it’ll even find a credible rival. It’s that damn good. I love it that damn much.

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