I tend to do this list just before the Oscars, but I'm a little late, as you can see. There can't be too much harm in doing a best of 2012 list towards the end of February, right? The reason why I wait so long to do this list every year is that a lot of the major prestige releases for awards seasons do not get a widespread release until January, long after everyone else has submitted their lists. Since my access to film festivals and screenings are limited, I have to wait just like everyone else. The extra time does allow me to play catch up, which I think always tends to benefit my lists.
1. Cloud Atlas
Upon the first viewing, Cloud Atlas can be a lot to take in. As if the near three-hour runtime wasn't a clue as to how loaded this movie is, there are six different interlocking stories to follow spanning from 1849 to the 24th century with many of the same motifs and A-list actors. Add to that a philosophical underlining throughout and for some, watching Cloud Atlas may feel like homework trying to keep up with what it all means. Regardless, it was still my favorite film of 2012 and I don't think anyone should be afraid of a little hard work when it comes to watching a movie. I'll be the first to admit that a second viewing might be required to fully grasp Cloud Atlas, which I'm anxiously looking forward to, but there was plenty to enjoy the first time around. With directing duties split between the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, the movie has more than its fair share of terrifically executed action sequences and visual flair, along with some of the most impressive makeup work I've seen over the past few years. Cloud Atlas is quite unlike many high wire acts ever attempted before in cinema, working constantly to balance a jumble of threads and far-reaching ideas. The level of ambition shown here is admirable and enough to cause some initial intrigue, which makes Cloud Atlas one of those rare big-budget films that you can both marvel at and be enriched by.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
I'll never forget the trailer for Where The Wild Things Are and how it made me feel after I first saw it. There was the promise of an authentic, emotional look at the wonder, fascination and fright of a child that pictures themselves in a world they feel is solitary. I was on the verge of welling up after those two minutes were done. Ultimately, I thought the movie fell short in some regards, but what hasn't been far from my mind is how Beasts of the Southern Wild was able to capture the feel of that trailer and extend it to feature length. Both movies share some of the same themes, but what distinguishes Beasts and made it one of the best films of the year was the mixture of gritty realism and fantasy that kept the movie rooted and the superb performance by Quvenzhané Wallis. From the second Wallis appeared on the screen, I was in awe of her poise and how mature and natural she came off. With some child actors, you're aware that they're giving a performance, so it was a treat to come across one as strong and effortless and Wallis'.
When I describe the experience of Argo to friends, I often refer to it as a movie's movie. It provided just about everything you hope for when you go to the theater to be entertained. The level of suspense throughout the film was carried out with near perfection by director Ben Affleck and unabashed in its intention to have you gripping the armrest on your seat. Argo is based on the true story of how a CIA operative was sent into Iran during the Revolution to sneak escaped U.S. embassy workers out of the country under the guise that they were a Canadian sci-fi film crew. It's heavy material turned popcorn fare in a respectable way. Given the real life circumstances, I almost felt a little guilty enjoying the movie so much, but respect has to be given for coming up with a final product that's so pleasing.
Michael Haneke is one of the most uncompromising directors in the world. His films are often bleak and unflinching in their portrayal of human nature without any overt explanations as to why. Amour is no different, which I'm thankful for since I highly cherish Haneke's approach. The film is about an elderly couple where the husband shows his devotion to the wife after a stroke leaves her health in decline. Things do indeed get ugly and uncomfortable as the wife's condition worsens while still trying to maintain some of the dignity she once held as a proud music teacher. To call a Amour a tearjerker would be a disservice due to the connotation associated with the subgenre, but it managed to naturally do so well what others manipulatively try to. If your heart breaks a little while watching this, it won't be because of a music cue or a dramatic monologue, but because of the cold silence that brings with it the realization that a human life is withering away. To capture moments like those realistically, whether heartwarming or uncomfortable, is part of what makes cinema beautiful to me.
5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
In this adaptation of the novel—directed also by its author, Stephen Chbosky—the setting remains the same as we're taken back to an early '90's world where a depressed teen copes with trying to fit in at his new high school. In addition to boasting one of the year's best soundtracks, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was not like your typical teen movie. The main characters are seen as outsiders from the normal school culture and they're happy with that. There is no need to take a stand against the cheerleaders and jocks because everyone has their own issues to deal with. No one's goal here is to be the talk of the school dance, but to embrace their friends and life. These are fully formed, intelligent kids who are still discovering things about themselves and the way that it unfolded was with an honesty that made me fall in love with them and provided awkward reminders of what it was like growing up.
6. The Imposter
A boy goes missing from Texas in 1994. He somehow resurfaces three years later in Spain. The only thing is that it's an impersonator who manages to get the family to accept him without question, despite still speaking with a Spanish accent and being in his early 20s. While that may sound like fiction, it actually did happen and it made for one of the strangest stories depicted on the screen in 2012. The Imposter is a documentary that portrays its reenactments with a highly capable and polished approach—so much that it could probably be its own movie—and its own charismatic star in the impostor himself, Frédéric Bourdin. One might say that its inconceivable for a family to not be able to recognize one of their own, but by interviewing Bourdin and everyone else involved, we're able to see just how clever and convincing the man is. Watching this movie was both fascinating and infuriating.
A hedge fund manager, played with ruthless desperation by Richard Gere, finds himself in hot water when he has to cover his tracks or risk facing charges for fraud and manslaughter. Gere's character lies, manipulates and whatever else it takes to make sure that he doesn't go to jail, which are not usually among some of the redeeming qualities we typically find in a protagonist. What I loved about Arbitrage, aside from it being a sharply constructed, tension-filled drama, is how it looked past the notion that we need someone to root for whenever we go to the movies. Sure, it's fun to be able to relate to someone, but life is often filled with grey areas that can leave some of the most well-intentioned people morally conflicted. Art has a responsibility to show us that person's perspective as well.
The best performance so far of Jack Black's career came with surprisingly few uproarious moments. The manic energy that was found in roles such as School of Rock and High Fidelity had been tuned down in favor of something more gentle and charming, and ultimately compelling. Bernie is based on a true story that took place in a small Texas town where an endlessly polite man befriended a cantankerous, rich widow—played with delightful spite by Shirley MacLaineand—then murdered, which is hard to believe since he is the nicest person that anyone has ever met. It's told as a dark comedy, which is where Black's strengths came into play. He's shown a likable man-child quality throughout his films and that wide-eyed wonderment was essential into helping make a murderer so amiable. We also get to hear from the actual townspeople themselves who knew the real Bernie in a psuedo-documentary style where they are interviewed and also a part of the setting. Once you see how animated and opinionated they all are, you could almost feel how director Richard Linklater felt he had no choice but to include them in the film. It's just one more twist in an amusingly offbeat story.
Following 2009's Coraline, which also placed in my top ten that year, Laika Studios released another horror-influenced stop-motion animation film in ParaNorman, the story of a young boy who sees and talks to ghosts, which makes him an outcast at school and at home. It seems now that stop-motion is the place to go for ambitious storytelling in animation, with a recent history that includes Frankenweenie, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Corpse Bride. Given the painstaking process, the story should be able to measure up as well. The B-movie references are fun, but ParaNorman hit its emotional peak when it delved into the world of pre-adolescent isolation, providing the sort of depth that American audiences can usually find in Pixar films. Its grotesque, yet witty nature made me feel like this would have been the greatest movie in the world to me as a kid, which isn't a bad barometer for comparison since I believe we tend to be most honest with ourselves as children.
As a 007 film, Skyfall is shockingly small-scale. Aside from a few superb action sequences and some exotic locations, there is not much in common with the franchise's DNA. The world isn't in peril, we don't get as many gadgets and it doesn't matter once that more time is spent focused on Bond's personal life. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Reservation Road) might have felt like an odd choice to helm this type of big-budget action film, but he brought with him an intelligence and sensitivity we don't get too many times in the genre and by narrowing the focus, he was still able to enhance the characters within his comfort zone while satisfying the masses. Skyfall also featured topnotch performances from classy talents such as Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes and the scene-stealing Javier Bardem as the villain Silva, who has already earned his place in the pantheon of Bond baddies with a scarily subdued flamboyance. When you take into account the success that other action movies have had with unlikely directors (Brad Bird in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Joe Wright with Hanna, Duncan Jones in Source Code), it's a wonder that more auteurs don't get a shot.
12. End of Watch
13. Zero Dark Thirty
14. Silver Linings Playbook
15. Django Unchained
16. The Dark Knight Rises
18. We Need To Talk About Kevin
20. Marvel's The Avengers
21. Life Of Pi
22. Moonrise Kingdom
23. The Impossible
24. The Master
26. The Sessions
27. The Queen of Versailles
28. Miss Bala
30. The House I Live In
31. Chico & Rita
32. Les Misérables
34. The Campaign
35. The Deep Blue Sea
36. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
38. The Snowtown Murders
39. Oslo, August 31
40. The Cabin in The Woods
42. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
43. Killer Joe
44. Holy Motors
45. The Hunger Games
49. Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap
51. The Raid: Redemption
53. Ruby Sparks
54. Jeff Who Lives At Home
56. Take This Waltz
57. A Cat In Paris
58. Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie
59. The Secret World of Arrietty