If you'd asked me six weeks ago, I'd have told you 2012 was a mediocre year for movies. This is, of course, partially the fault of the studios—which save all of their best movies for the last few weeks of the year, so they can be fresh in the minds of award-voters (and idiots like me who write "Best of the Year" lists)—but it's mostly my own fault. In my secret identity I have the kind of job that gets really busy when things like presidential elections happen, and so for much of the year I had to let a lot of really good stuff pass me by, unviewed and unreviewed. (If you're wondering why there are so many films on this list that I didn't even bother to review when they came out: that's why.) In the past six weeks I've gone on a binge of make-up movie-watching, catching up with as many goodies as I could. I haven't seen everything, but I've now seen over 80 films from 2012, and at this point I'm prepared to say it was a very good year indeed.
To my mind, it was a great year for unconventional narratives and thwarting audience expectations; a surprising number of my favorite films of the year were stories in which nothing happens, in which very little happens, or in which we are left to argue about just what the hell is happening. Those sorts of stories, of course, are not everyone's cup of tea, so fortunately it was also a great year for popcorn movies. I was shocked when I realized that five out of the 10 highest grossing films of the year were also on my short-list for Best of the Year, and three of these made the final cut. (The other two—Brave and The Dark Knight Rises—just missed.) One could argue that this says something about my low-brow taste, but I prefer to believe that—while a few are still getting it wrong—this was the year when Hollywood figured out how to do big genre movies right.
Looking over my list below (and my honorable mentions), I'd say it was a good year for indy and foreign films, and a good year for blockbusters: it was the mainstream pictures in between—the Hollywood "prestige" pictures—that failed to impress me this year. If you're wondering about any of the awards fodder and critical darlings that are missing from this inventory below, you'll find a few of them on this other list, while there were others (Argo, Flight, Moonrise Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty) that I genuinely admired but didn't love. If you prefer, call it a matter of taste more than a judgement of quality.
Finally, I'll explain—as I did last year—the arbitrary and completely subjective manner in which I approach these things. I tend to judge every movie based on two things: 1) whether it moves me, transports me, or otherwise provides a powerful filmgoing experience; and 2) whether it achieves what it set out to do. This last criterion is why I never considered the ambitious but muddled The Master for this list, but I did seriously consider—it probably would have been somewhere in my top 20—the almost perfectly executed The Raid: Redemption. The first aims for high-art, and—to my mind—fails miserably; the second aims to be the best martial-arts movie you've ever seen, and pretty much succeeds.
So, without further ado, addendum, or disclaimer, my 15 best film experiences of 2012:
Bringing Suzanne Collins's best-selling series of young-adult novels to life—and managing to please die-hard fans and new initiates alike—was never going to be easy, and Gary Ross's The Hunger Games is not a perfect movie. But it's so much better than it could have been—and so much better than most comparable franchise movies—that it deserves recognition as one of the best films of the year. This first adaptation of the trilogy takes its source material seriously, makes excellent choices in transferring the book's story to film, and trickily balances the limited point of view of the protagonist with the need to provide audience members a larger sense of this dystopian world. Mostly—thanks to Jennifer Lawrence's performance and Ross's sensitive direction—it succeeds in giving us a fully rounded hero we can care about, root for, and admire. The Hunger Games is what all such franchise blockbusters should aspire to be, but what so few ever are: a real, proper movie, with brains, heart, and soul. Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.
Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet is a film as likely to frustrate as impress, but it casts a spell that is unique and mesmerizing. The story of a young couple (Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenburg) backpacking through the Caucasus Mountains with a local guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), The Loneliest Planet is a film with only one real incident—a blink-and-you-miss-it moment that I won't spoil here—and then spends the rest of its running time studying these people whose relationship has been changed forever. Loktev's visual aesthetic is nothing short of amazing: she takes full advantage of the gorgeous scenery, but the real genius here is the way she composes her shots to tell a complicated interpersonal narrative through subtle observation and basic spatial relations: never has a film said so much just by lingering on the way three people walk, or how they stand relative to one another. With sparse dialogue and even less plot, The Loneliest Planet isn't for everyone, but those with the patience to give it their full attention will be rewarded with stunning visuals and subtle insights about relationships and gender dynamics. It's an original, confident, strangely haunting film.
Much of the discussion about the relative merits of Skyfall seems to center around the question of whether it is a good James Bond film—or the best James Bond film—and certainly part of what I admire about director Sam Mendes's approach is the way he manages to pay homage to the fun of the venerable franchise's past while updating its formulae and tropes for the 21st century. Above and beyond that conversation, however, is the fact that Skyfall is just incredibly well-made: even if it featured a completely new character, it would still have a clever script, excellent performances, brilliant action sequences, and some of the best cinematography I saw all year. Mendes didn't set out to make a "Bond movie," he just made a good movie—which, yes, also happens to be the best Bond film of all time. Read my full review of Skyfall here.
This has been an excellent year for documentaries, with The Queen of Versailles, The Invisible War, How to Survive a Plague, and The Central Park Five all making my short-list. (To say nothing of some critically acclaimed docs I haven't seen yet, but look forward to, like Bully, The Waiting Room, The Imposter, and The Gatekeepers.) However, my favorite straight-forward documentary—I'm excluding from that category my choice for #9, below—is Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man. The film focuses on the strange case of Rodriguez, an obscure American folk musician from the '70s who achieved—without his ever knowing it—superstar status in South Africa. Bendjelloul's film documents the efforts of two South African men to find out more about the legend (and disappearance) of Rodriguez, leading to a fascinating mystery, an implausible chain of circumstances, and a moving profile of an artist who becomes more enigmatic and elusive the more we learn about him. Bendjelloul takes us on a strange, unlikely, and uplifting journey, and tells the best true story of the year.
Anyone who genuinely remembers what it was really like to navigate the world as a child—including the confusion, frustration, poor decision-making, and heartache—will relate to the fierce, resilient young hero of The Kid with a Bike; anyone who doesn't remember will find it all flooding back to them as they watch this simple, near-perfect film from the Dardenne Brothers. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival—an award it shared with #3 on my list, below—The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) is the story of Cyril (played by a flawlessly natural Thomas Doret), an abandoned young boy who—in a random act of kindness—is taken in by a hairdresser (Cecile De France, also wonderful here). In the hands of lesser filmmakers this story would make for a TV movie or an after-school special at best, but directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne strip away everything sentimental, maudlin, or melodramatic, leaving a crystal clear gem of realist cinema with real emotional truth.
Easily the most impressive and promising debut of the year, director Benh Zeitlan's Beasts of the Southern Wild is a raw, audacious triumph. I've heard the film described as "magical realism," but I think that's a misnomer: rather, what we see is the fluid, flexible, wonder- and terror-filled reality that exists in the eyes of a child. In this case, the child is a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (the astonishing Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives with her single father in a poor, ramshackle community called The Bathtub off the coast of Louisiana. Beasts is a film that challenges all of our views and assumptions: at one moment we are despairing over the environment of abject poverty and neglect in which Hushpuppy lives, and at the next we are seeing her world the way she sees it, as a lush wonderland of marvels and mythology. Visually and emotionally powerful, and at turns horrifying and rapturous, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a coming of age story like no other.
Like Magritte's famous painting of a pipe, the title of Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's This is Not a Film is a provocative riddle filled with self-referential meaning. First of all, it refers to the fact that Iranian filmmaker Panahi is not allowed to make films: arrested in 2010 and charged with creating anti-government propaganda, Panahi received a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban from any kind of filmmaking. So This is Not a Film finds Panahi under house arrest while his case is appealed, while his friend Mirtahmasb films him talking about his life, and talking through the movie he would like to making now, if he were only free to do so. (In the most poignant sequence of This is Not a Film—and one that lends the title another layer of meaning—Panahi painstakingly lays out a scene from his unproduced movie with masking tape on the floor, and starts to read through the script, only to give up after a few minutes out of sheer frustration. "If we could tell a film," Panahi asks, "then why make a film?") But Panahi can't help himself, and can't help but pursue his art, even in these restrictive circumstances: soon he is trying out the video capture on his iPhone, and picking up Mirtahmasb's cheap camera to shoot an impromptu interview with the building's janitor in a cramped elevator. Whether all of this is staged, or as raw as it appears, is a delightfully open-ended question. But there's no doubt that This is Not a Film—which was smuggled inside a cake into France, where it was a last-minute surprise entry at Cannes—is a moving condemnation of censorship, and a slyly subversive celebration of the power and madness of cinema. This is Not a Film is a film, of course, and one of the best movies about movies ever made.
Filmmakers have been trying to realize superheroes on-screen since at least 1941, when Republic Pictures released The Adventures of Captain Marvel. (If you count Flash Gordon as a superhero, it goes back further than that.) In the 70+ years since, there have been very few successes, a lot of failures, and—especially in the 21st century—truly absurd amounts of money made from comic book characters, but Joss Whedon's The Avengers is the first movie to really get an adaptation right. Where other on-screen versions have felt the need to change the content, tone, or even the genre of their source material in order to make superheroes palatable to a wider audience, writer-director Whedon proved that the most faithful comic book movie of all time could also be one of the most successful motion pictures of all time. It helps that Whedon gave as much attention to his storytelling and characters as to his stunts and special-effects, and that he and his excellent ensemble cast found the right formula for making The Avengers fun—and funny—without reducing it to silliness or camp. Since it's currently the third highest-grossing movie of all time, I think it's safe to say The Avengers tapped into a huge mainstream audience, but it did so by being the film that comic book fanboys have been waiting for all their lives. Read my full review of The Avengers here.
It's a classic formula for a movie: two damaged people who come together and help make each other whole. David O. Russell tackled the same theme in the more conventional, more deeply flawed Silver Linings Playbook this year, but if you want to see an exploration of the theme that has startling originality, painfully human characters, and a more believable (and hotter) romance, I highly recommend Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone. Marion Cotillard plays Stéphanie, a marine-animal trainer who loses her legs in a terrible accident; withdrawn from the world, Stéphanie finds comfort in the company of Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a single-father and bare-knuckle street fighter whose very insensitivity and lack of pity is exactly what she's looking for. At turns brutal, tender, and sensual, Rust and Bone flirts with both melodrama and cliché, but deftly avoids every pitfall through an intelligent, expectation-thwarting screenplay, gorgeous filmmaking, and simply stunning performances from both leads—particularly Marion Cotillard, who is just breathtakingly good in what was my favorite performance by an actress this year.
One of the most divisive movies of the year, Leos Carax's Holy Motors is—to me, at least—a surreal exploration of art, and life, and the blurry line between the two. Denis Lavant is brilliant as one-man acting troupe Oscar, a mysterious figure who is chauffeured to a series of appointments in which he assumes, in each, a new identity, becoming in turns a businessman, a beggar, a hitman, a monster, a family man, and others. Throughout it all we see Oscar, playing to an unseen audience, searching in weary vain for a moment of pure beauty and authenticity. I see Holy Motors as an exploration of the vanishing distinction between reality and performance, as we all increasingly live digital lives and play to unseen cameras. But however you interpret its larger meaning—and Carax provides no easy answers—Holy Motors is a fantastic celebration of cinema: even viewed as a series of thinly linked shorts starring the same actor, it is a provocative and beautiful piece of filmmaking with unparalleled wit, creativity, and poignancy.
In a fair and just world, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's clever, funny, genre-exploding script for The Cabin in the Woods could expect to be nominated for Best Original Screenplay at this year's Oscars. That won't happen, but rarely has the word "original" been so appropriate. Beginning with the time-honored horror-movie set-up of attractive young people set upon by monsters in an isolated location, director Goddard and co-writer Whedon create a smart and surprising delight, a postmodern exploration of horror that defines and then redefines the very memes and tropes of the genre. A scary movie that guarantees we'll never look at scary movies the same way again, The Cabin in the Woods is one of the smartest, funniest, most wildly entertaining movies of the year. Read my full, spoiler-free review of The Cabin in the Woods here.
Leo Tolstoy's epic novel of love, adultery, and scandal in the Russian aristocracy has been filmed dozens of times, but never like this. The most inventive costume drama in years—and one of the smartest and most sensitive literary adaptations ever—Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is a daring, dazzling triumph. Keira Knightley gives a wonderful, bravely unsympathetic performance in the title role of a woman who throws caution and propriety to the winds in pursuit of passion, and Jude Law is nearly as good as her dull, staid, long-suffering husband. But the real stars here are production designer Sarah Greenwood—whose clever, creative work makes an empire out of a dilapidated theater—and director Wright, who uses this self-conscious artifice to deepen, not distract from, the very personal story he is telling. Anna Karenina is an epic novel about human emotions, and Wright's brilliant, bravura adaptation balances the lavish grandeur and the intimate insights of this story perfectly. Read my full review of Anna Karenina here.
A nearly three-hour Turkish film in which virtually nothing happens? I confess, that didn't sound appealing to me either, and—despite hearing almost universal critical acclaim for it—I resisted seeing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia for most of the year. When I did finally catch up with it recently on Netflix, I realized my mistake: writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylon's slow, understated film is a masterpiece. The film centers around a group of men—several cops, a prosecutor, a doctor, and two confessed murderers—searching for a body that has been buried somewhere in the Turkish countryside. However, calling Once Upon a Time in Anatolia a police-procedural is like calling Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov a murder-mystery: over the course of this long, plodding, frustrating night, Ceylon brings out the personalities of the men in quiet hints and subtle shades, and raises almost imperceptible mysteries and sub-plots to the surface. The film's pace is so patient, its writing so precise, and its visual composition so gorgeously painterly, that you almost don't notice as it's happening, but by the end of Anatolia you feel as though you've read a long and profound existential novel about the search for, and limitations of, truth.
One of the ways I approach this completely subjective process is to ask myself what it is I look for from a great movie. A good story? An exploration of ideas? A vehicle for great acting? A visual feast? Do I value spectacle over emotion? Accuracy over invention? Is it more impressive to perfectly capture the human condition as we know it, or to show us something fantastic that we've never seen before? Fortunately, a good year at the movies can provide all of the above and more, and when we're very lucky, we get a single movie that hits on several of these cylinders at once. Ang Lee's (literally) fabulous Life of Pi does just about everything we could ask for from a motion picture. Based on Yann Martel's novel about an Indian boy stuck in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, Life of Pi has it all: a thrilling adventure yarn; a philosophical exploration of faith and the power of stories; a showcase for an impressive one-man performance from newcomer Suraj Sharma; and the most inventive and awe-inspiring visuals of the year. Ang Lee has taken a story that was widely considered unfilmable, and used it to demonstrate, celebrate, and advance the very possibilities of storytelling on film. Read my full review of Life of Pi here.
And yet—seemingly as far as we can go from the epic, CGI-enhanced glory of Life of Pi—we have my choice for the best movie of 2012: Michael Haneke's Amour. The quiet, intimate, harrowing story of an elderly husband caring for his dying wife, Amour mostly takes place in a single set with only two characters—but, when a story is executed this well, by an artist of Haneke's skill, that's all we need. With a spare, ruthlessly precise screenplay, powerful and devastating performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, and a rigorous, uncompromising directorial eye, Amour is the perfect marriage of flawless craft and profound emotional insight. In a year of great blockbusters, fabulous entertainments, and compelling stories, no other film moved me more, haunted me longer, or reminded me as strongly that cinema has the power to produce great and lasting works of art. Read my full review of Amour here.
Honorable Mentions (or, The Best of the Rest)
And now, a few random categories of excellent films from the remainder of my short-list:
Best Foreign Films: A Royal Affair; Oslo, August 31; Monsieur Lazhar
Best Films in a Genre I Don't Particularly Enjoy: Argo and Zero Dark Thirty
Best Performance in a Film I Didn't See in Time to Include in My "Best Performances" List: Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Best Wes Anderson Movie that Almost, but Not Quite, Made Me Like Wes Anderson Movies: Moonrise Kingdom
Best Documentaries Guaranteed to Piss You the Hell Off: The Central Park Five; How to Survive a Plague; and The Invisible War
Most Entertaining Documentary (That Will Also Piss You Off): The Queen of Versailles
Best Movie that I Would Have Loved as a Teen-Ager: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Best Indy Films About Characters Who Make Dubious Claims About Time-Travel: The Sound of My Voice and Safety Not Guaranteed
Best Movie that is Better and More Interesting than it Looks: Take This Waltz
Best Movie if You Just Want to Watch 90 Minutes of Brilliant Action Sequences and Dudes Kicking Other Dudes in the Face: The Raid: Redemption
Best Movie I'm Already Second-Guessing Myself for Not Including in My Top Fifteen: Brave
Where Can You Watch All These Awesome Movies?
Finally, a public-service announcement about the availability of films mentioned above:
In Theaters Now: Amour, Anna Karenina, Argo, The Central Park Five, Holy Motors, Life of Pi, Rust and Bone, Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty
Available on DVD or On Demand: The Avengers, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brave, The Cabin in the Woods, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Moonrise Kingdom, The Raid: Redemption, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Sound of My Voice
Available via Netflix Streaming or Amazon Prime: The Invisible War; How to Survive a Plague; The Kid with a Bike; The Loneliest Planet; Monsieur Lazhar; Once Upon a Time in Anatolia; Oslo, August 31; The Queen of Versailles, Take This Waltz