Thankfully we all survived the apocalypse so that we can create our personal year-end lists and Google everyone else’s. “Personal” should be a keyword when it comes to such obligatory and ultimately arbitrary rankings. “Best” and “worst” are labels in the eye of the beholder. It really boils down to what any given critic, blogger, or Joe Schmo likes or dislikes. For me, the best storytelling of any year occupies the middle grounds between intellectual ambition and simple entertainment, technical filmmaking craft and plot, and a sense of heavy importance and light re-watch-ability. So keeping in mind individual taste, pretensions, and the pool of films from this year that I didn’t see, here is my personal list of the best films released in 2012.
(NOTE: This list was comprised before the wide release of Amour, a Best Picture nominee and a film that’s already racking up various other awards, nominations, and making the majority of critics’ Top 10 lists.)
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild
I had the privilege of seeing the world premiere of Beasts of the Southern Wild at the Sundance Film Festival last January. Executed by a first-time filmmaker with a non-professional cast, I knew it was something special when I got the chills during its opening credit sequence. But I didn’t fully appreciate it as a whole until a second viewing when it opened in wide release. The film exists in a surreal magical realism whirlpool of present/past, timeliness/timelessness, and profoundness/naiveté. It follows the post-Katrina experiences of a little girl named Hushpuppy, who lives in a portion of the bayou dubbed “The Bathtub” with her rough around the edges father. Through cinema verite style accounts of her interactions with her dad, others around her, giant beasts she imagines, and her strangely insightful childish voiceover musings, we come to share a bit of her worldview, complete with melting polar ice caps and the belief that “in a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” Who among us doesn’t secretly want such a thing?
9. The Avengers
There isn’t much left to be said about The Avengers. If you’ve seen the movie, its success speaks for itself, and one would be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn’t seen it. (It may even be difficult to find someone who hasn’t seen it more than once.) We got fan service in the jokes, the fights, and the references, but the whole thing worked well enough as a movie in general that anyone could get on board and have a good time. A deft balancing act in action, story, dialogue, humor, and overall nerdgasmic ambition, it was about as good as we could have been given.
In stark contrast to The Avengers, Footnote is a small-scale, character-driven Israeli film that received a foreign language Oscar nomination in 2011, but wasn’t released until last year. It focuses on the conflict between father and son scholars who resent one another for their varying degrees of esteem in the academic community. The film takes on a visual style and tone that matches its characters’ idiosyncratic personalities, vamping up a somewhat simple narrative’s dramatic and emotional resonance. In a single scene that takes place in a cramped conference room with way too many people, we understand everything the film is trying to say about not only academia politics, but the general socially constructed hierarchies and bureaucracies in which we all find ourselves.
7. Moonrise Kingdom
You don’t have to love Wes Anderson to love Moonrise Kingdom, but I don’t see how any fan could not adore it. It’s a no shag movie that achieves Anderson’s precise technical dexterity while still mustering up enough emotional presence to make it richer than something like The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited. Its primary focus is on the nature of community and how it can both make us conform and fulfill us as individuals at the same time. Look no further than the description of an orchestra in the film’s introductory sequence to take in this theme. Adults act like kids, kids act like adults, and a bunch of surreal business abounds, ultimately amounting to the humble sentiment that wherever we find ourselves—even if it’s not the best—is probably a better place than being lost and alone.
This movie year offered an abundance of squirm-inducing moments, ranging from torture, to beatings, to catastrophic disasters, to drug abuse, but Compliance may be the most persistently hard to watch of all. This may seem ironic, given that the entire narrative takes place amongst a handful of minimum-waged ordinary people in the back room of a fast food restaurant. Based on a true story, it reenacts the startling events that would have made Stanley Milgram giggle with glee, while leaving us flabbergasted and resistant to the idea that they’re based on fact. In a deft opening segment of no more than 15 minutes, we’re introduced to the setting, the atmosphere, and the restaurant’s staff, led by a worn-down, middle-aged manager played by Ann Dowd in one of the best performances of the year. A mysterious man calls the restaurant claiming to be a cop and stating that he has reason to believe one of the female employees has stolen from a customer’s purse. Things spiral out of control as he spends the remainder of the day handing out completely ludicrous and unreasonable orders that the staff unquestionably comply with, believing he is a voice of authority. You won’t want to watch what these subservient characters are capable of, but you won’t be able to look away either. It will leave you with a bitter aftertaste that will have you condescendingly shaking your head while timidly wondering how much of it you would have done differently, had it been you.
James Bond seemed to be reinvented yet again this year, even if Daniel Craig was still the man in the tux. With the capable Sam Mendes at the directorial helm, we got a stylish thriller that stripped itself down to franchise basics while feeling strikingly relevant and fresh—something that the film itself addresses through numerous cynical characters questioning the contemporary merits of MI6. Bond mainstays were played up—including the musical theme, returning characters, and a memorable maniacal villain—but we also got to see some interesting new aspects of the 007 universe in the form of a vulnerable aging Bond (he even gets shot for the first time!), the mother-son relationship between him and M, and a plot that favored character backstory over save-the-entire-world heroics.
4. Zero Dark Thirty
All political controversy aside, Zero Dark Thirty should be assessed as a film—and it’s a damn good one. Even better than director Kathryn Bigelow’s last film, the Best Picture winning The Hurt Locker, it dramatizes America’s hunt for and assassination of Osama bin Laden. Through the lens of our protagonist, CIA agent Maya (Best Actress frontrunner, Jessica Chastain), the procedural-loving film takes us through the last decade of paranoia, bloodlust, and pain that America has undergone since 9/11. Opening on a black screen to the sounds of September 11th distress calls, and punctuated throughout by the various terrorist attacks of the last 10 years, the narrative concludes on the infamous raid of bin Laden’s compound. There isn’t a false beat to be found in the film, while Bigelow and writer Mark Boal expertly manage to somehow work-in character development and drama in an otherwise clinical picture. The final shot of the film single-handedly sums up not only the picture, but the collective consciousness of the entire post-9/11 era. Like Maya in that final moment, we neither want to stand up and cheer, nor hang our heads in desperation. Torture scenes and all, the film is a perfect reflection of our nation’s moral, political, and emotional ambiguity.
3. Holy Motors
With Hugo, The Artist, and My Week with Marilyn, 2011 wasn’t unfamiliar with movies about Movies, but 2012’s Holy Motors outshines them all. It’s French writer/director Leos Carax’s ode to cinema’s power, and a general lamentation over what the movies have become and where they are headed. Denis Lavant plays the craftily-named Oscar, a man whose apparent profession is to be driven around in a limo, changing costumes and inhabiting different personas as he acts out “scenes” in different locations around town. We soon come to realize that Oscar is a stand-in for various types of movie characters in different genres, and with each vignette he takes part in, we gain a deeper understanding of what Carax may be getting at. Whether it is action, melodrama, musical, motion capture-produced fantasy, or a bizarre concluding love story between Oscar and a chimpanzee, the film seems to be hypothesizing that cinema manifests itself through many faces and forms, and rather than dying, it will continually be reborn.
2. The Master
P.T. Anderson’s latest is 2012’s best example of the kind of film you know is great and admirable without fully comprehending why. It’s a tricky and complex masterpiece that you can’t quite decipher, but will remain with you long after you’ve seen it. I’m not sure even Anderson could unpack all of its layered meanings, but I don’t think I’d want him to since, like a great novel, retroactively interpreting its symbolic ambiguities is half the fun. Loosely based on the creation of scientology, its primary focus is on the relationship between a pseudo-cult’s leader, Lancaster Dodd, and a mentally unstable drifter, Freddie Quell, each played with awe-inspiring adroitness by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively. Like Anderson’s other films, The Master feels thematically weighty without being pretentious, and showcases his peerless aesthetic craftsmanship. The hands down best scene of the year comes in the form of a technically simplistic dialogue exchange between Hoffman and Phoenix, as they sit down to undergo a “processing” interview in the lower deck of Dodd’s yacht.
1. Django Unchained
It’s difficult to pinpoint why Django is the favorite of the year. Like nearly all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, many people read it as a shallow exercise in style with limited moral weight and nothing much to say. Others have reduced it to Inglorious Basterds 2.0. While there are degrees of truth to each of these assessments, this story of a German bounty hunter who exchanges a slave’s assistance for a reunion with his wife, presents a complex revisionist fantasy that genre-mashes blaxploitation, spaghetti western, period piece, and the revenge narrative that Tarantino never seems to tire of. With a menagerie of talented cast members (Leo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson) giving top notch performances, the pithy and lively script is brought to life with not only naturalism, but a sense of authenticity and enthusiasm. It’s tough to know when we’re supposed to be cheering, laughing, or wincing at the onscreen goings on. White and black audiences are likely to process the film in very different ways, but it teeters just on the favorable sides of the contemporary borders surrounding both racism and apologist guilt. From a storytelling standpoint, the film loses its footing a little in its final act, slipping into some conventional violence-for-violence’s-sake territory, but it doesn’t destroy the preceding glory of the movie’s character-driven dramatic conflict, study in race relation, and the unsettling general enjoyment that’s to be found in this least of expected places.
20. Oslo, August 31st
This scruffy film is foreign, bleak, and not the slightest bit uplifting, but I urge you to watch it. It follows a recovering drug addict through his experiences on August 31st in Oslo. You don’t have to be a user or addict of any kind to identify with this complex protagonist.
19. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
I didn’t get around to many documentaries in 2012, so I may be biased, but I’m still upset this one didn’t get an Oscar nom. Jiro is a cantankerous, neurotic old chef who runs the most renowned sushi shop in the world. People come from far and wide to his little subway station restaurant to sample his perfect sushi meals. The film explores his profession, his sons, and the beauty of his craft.
It was a disappointing year for Pixar with Brave, and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph was abnormally good, but ParaNorman is the best animated film of 2012. Don’t listen to those Ice Age and Madagascar-loving morons.
17. Take This Waltz
Michelle Williams, a tourist destination pamphlet writer, is married to Seth Rogen, a boring chicken cookbook writer. She meets Luke Kirby, a handsome rickshaw driver, and falls in love. Sound annoyingly twee enough? It kind of is, but it works.
16. Magic Mike
A personal biggest surprise of the year, this movie is about way more than male strippers. Steven Soderbergh crafts a story of economic turmoil, male identity, and occupational passion versus financial security. For the dudes out there who are uncomfortable with seeing Channing Tatum strip, take solace in a topless Olivia Munn (queen of the nerds) in the opening scene.
Likely to win multiple Oscars next month, including a probable Best Picture statue, Lincoln’s true achievement is in its adept script and Daniel Day-Lewis’s masterful performance.
14. Killer Joe
A self-proclaimed “twisted, redneck trailer-park murder story” that showcases Matthew McConaughey in yet another strong supporting role of late (see Bernie and Magic Mike). You’ll never look at a KFC drumstick the same way again.
With the exception of his dry performance, Ben Affleck hits the nail squarely on the head this time around. A tense, entertaining popcorn flick that’s based on true events but enhanced by old fashioned Hollywood flare.
Writer/director Rian Johnson reunites with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for his clever take on time travel sci-fi. Were all the narrative loops closed? Not exactly, but we’ll cut it some slack due to its overall awesomeness.
11. The Cabin in the Woods
An incredibly smart piece of horror movie satire. Through its meta perspective on the genre, filmmaking, and us—the passive audience—The Cabin in the Woods is an extremely enjoyable and funny send up of the predictable horror clichés we all hate to love and love to hate.
Simple and/or Guilty Pleasures
10. Pitch Perfect—campy good fun that transcends chick-flick trappings
9. Goon—a messy, throwaway hockey movie that’s enjoyable throughout
8. The Raid: Redemption—a bloody, Korean, video game-esque action piece
7. Chronicle—not the best, but the most unique superhero movie of the year
6. Ted—as funny as Family Guy with much more heart
5. The Grey—Liam Neeson fighting off wolves and pondering God’s existence
4. Jeff, Who Lives at Home—the Duplass brothers’ latest small-but-big indie
3. Prometheus—narratively dreadful, but ambitiously juicy
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey—familiar, but in a good way
1. The Dark Knight Rises—endless plot holes, but still Nolan’s glorious trilogy capper