I watched 439 new-to-me films in 2012 (so far), and the majority of them were new releases. So, it is with no small measure that I say that this has been a spectacular year for movies, both domestic and foreign made, and anyone who claims otherwise is a dipshit. Narrowing the great ones down to just twelve was predictably difficult… so I’ve included twenty honorable mentions. There are still a few high profile films I need to see, most notably Zero Dark Thirty, and I’ve caught the vast majority of the big titles, but stay tuned through to the end of the piece for all the necessary sidenotes.
And this should go without saying, but any film critic’s best-of list is essentially nothing more than a list of his or her objectively preferred movies, and what follows below is mine for 2012.
That said, the movies listed below are in fact the twelve (correct) best films of the year. In alphabetical order.
The Iran hostage drama in 1979 was a mainstay on the nightly news for well over a year, but a small part of the story wasn’t revealed until nearly twenty years later. A small group of Americans were rescued, and their story is a particularly amazing slice of movie magic. Some of us stopped viewing Ben Affleck as a punchline after the release of his first film as director, Gone Baby Gone, and his second film (The Town) converted even more fans. His latest film seems to have sealed the deal with its simple execution, incredible suspense, fantastic entertainment and near perfect cast. There’s a bit of a backlash now due to the film’s relatively lightweight nature, but that’s an empty complaint for a film this terrifically crafted. [Available on Blu-ray/DVD on February 19, 2013]
Marvel’s greatest superhero team come together to stave off an alien invasion led my an intergalactic god named Loki, but can personalities as diverse as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk learn to work together? This is the kind of film that really shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, but writer/director Joss Whedon corrals these egos (both on and off screen) into what may be the most purely entertaining comic book film ever made. All four leads are given time to please their fans and win new ones with some exciting action and big laughs, and Whedon manages to show off some of the smaller characters too. [Available on Blu-ray/DVD now]
The Cabin in the Woods
A group of young adults head to a cabin in the woods for a night of partying, but they soon awaken an evil hungry for their tender flesh. They also discover something else when they stumble upon the secret behind things that go bump in the night. Director Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon (again!) deliver an amalgamation of horror, comedy and genius with this incredibly smart, funny and bloody love letter to genre films. It’s so confident in itself that what some people see as its biggest twist is essentially revealed in the first few minutes, but there’s so much more to this thrill-filled feature than any single twist could contain. [Available on Blu-ray/DVD now]
A substitute teacher (Adrien Brody) used to a rotating series of jobs without personal connections arrives at a new school where everything changes. The pressure and loneliness combine to beat him down as he develops platonic relationships with three women (a teenage student, a young prostitute, a fellow teacher), and over the next few weeks he’ll either be re-engaged or broken forever. Director Tony Kaye (American History X) delivers a powerful, harrowing and difficult watch that leaves viewers in the same predicament as Brody’s teacher. This is easily the lowest profile American film on this list, but it’s also one of the most important and one that will stay with you long after viewing. [Available on DVD now]
A plane filled with Alaskan oil field workers heading for the States crash lands somewhere in the frozen wilderness, but as if the crash, starvation and frostbite aren’t worries enough they’ve also found themselves the target of a hungry pack of wolves. Liam Neeson leads the survivors in a desperate bid to reach civilization before becoming prey to their lupine stalkers. This was advertised as an action-packed, man vs wolf thriller, and while there’s some exciting action to be found here what makes the film a contender eleven long months after its release is its heart and humanity. It’s both masculine and tender, and while director Joe Carnahan has shown himself to be an entertaining-enough director before this introspective and yes, beautiful, film is a pleasant and powerful surprise. [Available on Blu-ray/DVD now]
A boy and a girl run away from their respective homes to start a new life together. Sure they don’t go very far, they don’t even leave the island where they reside, but it’s a grand childhood adventure all the same. Writer/director Wes Anderson returns to form (after two good but somewhat flawed films) with this visual and tonal gem that highlights all of his strengths with beauty, wit and charm. The supporting cast is as good as it gets (and would win a three way tie with Argo and Lincoln) including Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Bruce Willis. It’s a stylized look at childhood to be sure, but Anderson and his two leads still manage to make it recognizable and potent. [Available on Blu-ray/DVD now]
An easily corrupted customs official (Choi Min-sik) climbs the ranks of the Korean crime syndicates through some unexpected methods, but even if he reaches the top will he be able to hold onto it? The answer seems to be a resounding no in this blackly comic mob film from South Korea. Choi has been somewhat absent from cinema the past few years, but his return here shows he’s still at the top of his game as he delivers a performance that deftly moves from bumbling fool to ruthless bastard with the flick of his eyes. Yun Jong-bin’s film is funny and violent, but it’s also a history lesson of sorts about the country’s relatively recent past and an exploration of identity through ambition and accident. Fans of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas will find much to enjoy here.
Oslo, August 31st
A young man leaves an institution ostensibly cured of the depression and addiction that put him there, but his next twenty four hours (and a failed suicide attempt hours before leaving) hint that his greatest struggle is still to come. Director Joachim Trier has crafted an incredibly heartbreaking yet undeniably beautiful film about one man’s battle with an overwhelming sadness, and Anders Danielsen Lie delivers a performance filled with pain and angst. His genius though is in the brief glimpses of hope and happiness fighting to reach the surface. It will leave you broken. This list is alphabetical, but if it was ranked there’s no doubt that this film would be at number one. No other film has stuck with me as strongly, [Available on DVD now]
A scientist (Eva Green) and a chef (Ewan McGregor) meet and start the first fumblings of a relationship just as an odd epidemic begins to spread. People have a brief but intense emotional reaction then lose their sense of smell completely. Another overwhelming sense of emotion, another loss of a sense. It’s an end of the world where the world itself escapes unscathed. This little film from the UK was quickly forgotten during its almost non-existent theatrical run here in the States, but it packs an emotional punch as big as any film this year. It’s tragic, romantic and apocalyptic, and it’s anchored by two stirring lead performances that bring humanity and heart to the chaos around them. [Available on Blu-ray/DVD now]
Silver Linings Playbook
Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just gotten out of an institution determined to get his life on track and win back his estranged wife, but reality, his condition and an attractive but equally wacky brunette (Jennifer Lawrence) get in his way. There may also be a dance competition involved. Writer/director David O. Russell loves exploring eccentric and dysfunctional families, and he’s never done a finer job than he does here. Pat’s mental condition gets glossed over a little, but it doesn’t lessen the emotional impact the two leads earn through their banter, outbursts and silence. One of the rules on great filmmaking is that you should never feature an important dance competition in the third act, but when Russell and friends break that rule you’ll be too busy smiling to care.
Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) and his sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) live at the base of a Swiss mountain that houses a popular ski resort during the winter months. Their parents are not around so while she spends much of her days and nights with any man who will have her he “works” up at the resort stealing skis, gloves, visors and more to keep food on the table for the two of them. Their world and relationship begin to fracture, and viewers’ hearts begin to crack. Director/co-writer Ursula Meier’s film is a spiritual (but less hopeful) sibling to the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike (itself on of the best films of 2011) in its tale of a child essentially abandoned and forced to grow up too fast. Seydoux reminds that she’s not just a pretty face, and Klein reminds that some child actors are actually damn good at what they do.
Take This Waltz
Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) are a happy enough married couple who live lives of routine and simplicity. But all of that is called into question when she finds herself falling for a new neighbor (Luke Kirby) who promises greener grass on the other side of the fence. Writer/director Sarah Polley continues to mine the layers of emotion inherent in relationships for all the melancholy they can muster, but this time her focus widens to include the painful subject of infidelity. It hurts to watch a supposedly committed heart wander, but like Mike Nichol’s sharply brilliant Closer it’s impossible to turn away (especially if you yourself have been on either side of the experience). Williams gives a wonderful but difficult performance even as our understanding of her behavior doesn’t make us hate her any less. [Available on Blu-ray/DVD now]
Honorable Mentions: Amour, Black Out, Cloud Atlas, Django Unchained, I Declare War, I Wish, The Imposter, Indie Game: The Movie, The Innkeepers, Intouchables, Lincoln, Looper, Michael, The Raid: Redemption, Safety Not Guaranteed, Seven Psychopaths, Sightseers, A Simple Life, Sound of My Voice, Your Sister’s Sister
Notable films I haven’t seen yet: Compliance, Les Miserables, Wuthering Heights, Zero Dark Thirty
Notable films I have seen that are okay/interesting at best: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, The Master
Notable foreign films that hit US theaters this year but were were actually on my best of 2011 or 2010 lists: Headhunters, Kid With a Bike, Kill List, A Separation, Sleep Tight, Sound of Noise