2012 was, in the end, a very good year for movies–or a a good half-year, more accurately. With the studios continuing to load their best efforts into the festival- and awards-heavy fall and winter part of the calendar, not a single one of the Top 10 below opened before July, and only 3 before September. The wait was worth it, however, as the late releases provided almost an embarrassment of riches.
There was no overwhelming theme uniting the Top 10, although two of them concerned the Civil War, and two more times of French revolution. They were, for the most part, dark (even the two comedies delved into madness and emotional pain), and a surprising number–7 of 10–were set in at least the recent past. A few have just arrived in theatres, but 5 of the 10 are already financially successful, and a couple of more have a good chance of getting there. As with any year, though, the best films were alike mostly in their clear, fulfilled artistic vision and their refusal to compromise.
Without further ado, my year’s 10 Best Films.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This links to the best of lists from FinalDasa and Matthew Marko. I will be posting soon and hope this gives a broader look at the different tastes of our contributors.
|1. Zero Dark Thirty|
In a pop culture moment replete with spy stories, this was the best. A convincingly authentic, riveting account of the hunt for Osama bin-Laden, complete with an ambivalent record of the US torture that was certainly used in the process, whether or not (recollections differ strongly) it was effective. The ensemble cast was uniformly excellent (with Jason Clarke especially notable), but the movie was held together by the remarkable Jessica Chastain, an actress hardly anyone even knew existed two years ago who’s swiftly become something very like her generation’s Meryl Streep.
|2. The Master|
The year’s most daring, extraordinary, aggravating work of screen art, a drama both about and not about Scientology and also about and not about human symbiosis, psychic pain, the attraction of power and many other subjects. Anderson’s journey away from mainstream, narrative filmmaking isn’t going to make his path an easy one–The Master flopped–but his ability to make an often almost abstract film riveting is unmatched. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams gave performances for the ages. (Note: The Master was the film this year most deserving of a second viewing, but The Weinstein Company, having put its Oscar eggs entirely in the Silver Linings and Django baskets, has made no effort to keep it in even a token few theatres–and the video won’t be out until late February.)
|3. The Dark Knight Rises|
Tragically, this movie can never be mentioned without the words “Aurora, Colorado” coming soon after, and that taint has seemingly affected its regard during awards season. The film itself, though, is the masterful conclusion of the best franchise in a movie era crammed with franchises, an epic that combined action and excitement with genuine vision. Rises wasn’t quite the equal of Dark Knight, which featured Heath Ledger’s legendary Joker, but it was still a pop masterpiece. (It also gave Anne Hathaway one of her two spectacular supporting performances of the year, as a surprisingly compelling Catwoman.)
Affleck sealed his comeback with a terrifically entertaining comedy-thriller that combined Hollywood satire (“Ar-go fuck yourself” may have been the best line of the whole year) with hair-raising suspense in its (mostly) real-life story about the escape of US captives from Khomeini-era Iran. It became a little too Die Hard toward the end, but most of the way it was a perfectly assured, expertly crafted entertainment.
No major film was more destined for failure than this one, according to the conventional wisdom, supposedly doomed to be far too “Spielbergian” for its subject. (The dismal War Horse made this a not unreasonable point of view.) But inspired by the brilliant Kushner script and a typically magisterial performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg kept his stylistic quirks under control, and Lincoln calmly, superbly told one of the most inspiring tales in American history, the one where one implacable President almost singlehandedly brought slavery to an end.
|6. Les Miserables|
Hooper gave us the Les Miz fans had been dreaming of, giant in scale and emotion, and his insistence on live, on-set singing probably guaranteed Anne Hathaway an Oscar for her stupendous “I Dreamed A Dream”. Russell Crowe’s misplaced presence kept it from perfection, but it came remarkably close.
|7. Django Unchained|
Tarantino’s fearless combination of spaghetti western, blaxploitation, hip-hop and pre-Civil War history was 2 hours and 45 minutes of ultraviolent triumph, an epic that mostly turned “self-indulgent” into a compliment. It’s sad that Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio can’t share the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
|8. The Silver Linings Playbook|
Russell’s oddball comedy-drama of recovery and romance, family and football, probably shouldn’t have worked, but it did. Bradley Cooper gave the best performance of his career, but he–and everyone else–was put in the shade by the giant wattage of Jennifer Lawrence’s star power, in a performance that made no sense (she’s at least 10 years too young for the part–for the love of god, she played teenagers in her other two movies this year!) except when you were watching it.
|9. Farewell, My Queen|
The mostly undiscovered gem of 2012, without a major studio or star to stir public attention. Jacquot’s film did a better job of recreating actual life in a palace (Marie Antoinette’s) than perhaps any historical film ever has, and Lea Seydoux did a superb job of registering the various gradations of power that existed even below-stairs as the revolution approached.
|10. Ruby Sparks|
Why didn’t Ruby Sparks find an audience? Kazan’s script (she also winningly played the titular Ruby), about a writer who unwittingly creates a flesh-and-blood character, smartly recalled Woody Allen’s great romantic fantasies of the 1980s, and the movie delivered laughs and constant surprise. Perhaps Paul Dano and Kazan just didn’t have the star power needed, or Searchlight should have opened it some time other than during the first week of Dark Knight Rises. In any case, it’s a movie that calls for rediscovery–or rather, discovery.