I've always felt that compiling year-end best-of lists are the best part of a critic's job. It's a great way to reminisce about one's film experiences from the year, and a good way to tally great films as we go along. It's great to lay around in oak-lined salons, drink large mugs of potent tea, and think back to the glory days of 2012, sharing the halcyon memories of the wonderful cinematic experiences we had.
The real bitch comes in ranking the films. 2012, as it turns out, was a rather strong year for film, and I can easily rattle off 15 or 20 titles that were all excellent and are all worthy of scrutiny, but when asked to actually whittle that list down to a mere ten – and then, on top of it all, to rank them – I find myself sputtering and grasping at straws. On certain years in the past, it was pretty clear in my mind which films were the best of the year; I will still argue that The Tree of Life was the best film of 2011. But if we were to go to another banner year for cinema – 2007 leaps to mind – then I'll be sputtering, and making my standard calm-voiced (and completely non-committal) statements like “They're all good movies!” 2012 was also a boffo year at the box office, as we saw the release of big hits like the fifth Twilight movie, a particularly notable James Bond film, The Hunger Games, and three high-profile superhero flicks (Marvel's The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man) that, collectively, made over $1.3 billion domestically. By contrast, we were also presented with cinema's lowest per-screen average of any movie ever with The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, which I saw in theaters. Banner year in many respects.
For the list below, I would like to state right up front that these are indeed all good movies, and I recommend that you track each one of them down, even if they're not in the top three. I could shuffle the list around a bit, even replacing the coveted number one spot, and still be perfectly satisfied. I could easily expand the list to include more great titles without having to make dubious excuses or exceptions for films I recognize as bad, but I still enjoyed. I think, just to give myself some wiggle room, I'll expand the list to include eleven titles. But that's it. Eleven.
A few important notes before I begin. Here is a list of movies that I suspect were potentially great, and may have made this top ten list, had I managed to actually see them: The Master, Amour, Damsels in Distress, The Impossible, Les Misérables, and I Kissed a Vampire. I really regret that last one. I'm also a big fan of the dour and painful portraits painted by famed German filmmaker Michael Haneke, and I reserve the right to amend this list once I see Amour, should it prove to be as insightful, heartbreaking, and painful as his previous films.
Also, I'd like to begin the list with some runners-up. These movies were all excellent, but, for one reason or another, didn't quite make the cut. Cloud Atlas should be admired for its scope and ambition alone. Flight contained some excellent acting from Denzel Washington, and was a very real addiction drama to boot. I very much loved the showbiz/terrorism drama of Ben Affleck's Argo. Life of Pi was a sweet and utterly gorgeous (not to mention tragic) parable. Silver Linings Playbook had nothing wrong with it, and was a sweet romance about damaged people teetering on the brink of redemption. When taken as a single unit, the two stop-motion children's horror films ParaNorman and Frankenweenie were excellent, and will likely both be beloved by weird little kids everywhere. There were also two low-budget but effective and spooky horror films that came out in 2012 that I implore you to see. One is Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact, which is a haunted house picture done well for once, and the other is Joe Dante's woefully underseen The Hole, which nails childhood better than most films about children. The best documentary film I saw this year was Frederick Wiseman's Crazy Horse, a lovely and fascinating look at the backstage shenanigans of the famed Parisian strip club.
Those many films out of the way, let us to the best films of 2012. To warn you, I tend to skew odd.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
A frustratingly slow and arty sci-fi freakout, Beyond the Black Rainbow closely resembles mind-expanding oddities of previous eras; it falls in the same matrix as films like Phase IV, The Andromeda Strain, Zardoz, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film is arch and pseudo-intellectual, contains little dialogue, and is rife with scenes that don't seem to add up to much. All we know is an evil scientist of some sort is keeping a young female psychic imprisoned within some sort of plastic, angular underground enclave, and he keeps her Scanners-like powers in check with bizarre sexual innuendo and a glowing crystal kept somewhere in the building. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a stylistic homage to the sci-fi films of the early 1970s, but also feels like one of them. The film may anger you with how opaque it is. That's my kind of movie.
Premium Rush (dir. David Koepp)
I almost feel bad listing this film so low on this list. It really deserves to be higher. Of all the films I saw in 2012, I can't think of one that was more fun than Premium Rush, a brief, upbeat, and taut little thriller about bicycle messengers in New York City. Here is the way, I feel, most action flicks should be done. Practical effects, fun concept, and ultra-cool characters who are good at what they do. It wasn't a tentpole or an event. It was just a fun movie. It is aesthetically challenging or groundbreaking? No. Is the script excellent? It's actually just good enough. Did it make me squeal like a five-year-old girl in a kiddie pool full of live kittens? Yes it did. Premium Rush did poorly at the box office, and that's a shame. If you ride a bike in the city, you'll love it. If you don't, you'll love it all the same.
Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott) &
The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Two big-budget, high-profile studio releases. Two excellent action movies. Two movies that are moody. Two movies that are exquisitely photographed and amazing to behold. Two movies that try to explore aesthetic boundaries within a sci-fi framework. Two movies that take previous, well-known fantasy franchises, and attempt to thoughtfully analyze the spirit of them. Prometheus was the sort-of prequel to Scott's own 1979 classic Alien, and not only had a good deal of fun creature mayhem, but, more than that, was a contemplative and thoughtful look at man's place in the universe, and the function of humanity's quest for knowledge. The Dark Knight Rises, the third (and final?) film in Nolan's well-received Batman series took the idea of superhero-dom, and made it an Occupy film by questioning the efficiency of – not to mention the wealth required – to be a vigilante; it even asks whether Batman could have done the world a better service by not being Batman at all. I love both these movies and could watch them anytime. Of the big summer blockbusters, these two were my favorites.
The Kid with a Bike (dirs. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
This Belgian drama follows a 10-year-old boy – a bundle of inexpressible rage – as he tries to find his father who has, rather callously, abandoned him at an orphanage. The boy is in denial, and often escapes his guardians to find his father. We hate that the kid is so violent and mean, and feel his foul behavior is beyond redemption. At the same time, we feel sorry for him, as his father – shiftless and insensitive – has left him behind for no other reason than he just didn't want a kid anymore. Driven by God knows what impulse of compassion, Cécile De France steps in as the boy's ersatz guardian, who starts to care for him partly out of genuine pity, and partly as a defiant dare to herself that she will not fail this boy. It's a raw and hurtful drama of compelling power, and looks at compassion anger, and at-risk childhood with a realist's eye. The Dardenne's are known for this sort of painful child-rearing drama, and the relationships kids have with adults. The Kid with a Bike is a great entry into their canon.
End of Watch (dir. David Ayer)
I was dreading this one, as director Ayer is better known for corny, forgettable, and over-the-top cop tragedies like Harsh Times and Street Kings. With End of Watch, though, he got the formula just right. I saw this film twice, and liked it better the second time. The more I think about it, the more it expands in my mind. The film is an often-funny slice-of-life cop drama, supposedly filmed in the now-ubiquitous “found footage” style, following a pair of L.A. cops as they go about their daily business, bicker, gossip, tell jokes, and occasionally bust bad guys. The two central characters, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, seem like natural friends, and it helps the film immensely that they are not corrupt cops or super-righteous superheroes. These are just average working stiffs, often not very good at their jobs, who just happen to have a fascinating line of work. Few dramas are this engaging and personable.
Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg, in his inimitable style, gives a sterile and near-alien analysis of the financial crisis as seen through the eyes of an embarrassingly wealthy and completely soulless New York billionaire (played by Robert Pattinson) who spends his day driving around in his custom limo, no leaving it for too many reasons. This is an occupy film about how the world is deteriorating, and how the ultra-rich have become so wealthy, they may not even be entirely human anymore. They're certainly not connected to reality, even as it riots just outside their car window. Bleak, brave, and subversive in a way that I long for, Cosmopolis plays like They Live as told from the invading aliens' perspective. It invokes subversive punk-rock satires from the Reagan era, but all within Cronenberg's very deliberate aesthetic. The film's final ten minutes are kind of a wash, but up until then, I was enthralled.
Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson is well-known for being mannered and twee, and his films can sometimes be a bit alienating as a result; some of his lesser films play less like dramas, and more like hipster fetish fantasies. It wasn't until Fantastic Mr. Fox that he seemed to really nail what he was trying to do aesthetically (using, as his did with that film, animated puppets), but with Moonrise Kingdom, I feel that Anderson finally did what he's always wanted to do, only using real human beings. His trademark antiseptic hipster aesthetic is still in place, and that streak of ineffable shabbiness has still wormed its way in, but this time it's all done in the service of an utterly sweet and rather funny romance. An outsider rich girl who looks like Lana Del Rey falls in love with an outsider Boy Scout who looks like Mark Mothersbaugh, and the two of them, armed only with the knowledge of 12-year-olds, take to the lam on a small New York island. I feel there is something pure in this film, and the extreme affect only serves to make the film sweeter.
Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)
I was embarrassed to admit how good this film was, as it clearly has “awards bait” written all over it. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln? Spielberg directs? It's about politics and the abolition of slavery? It's 2 ½ hours long? Get out the Oscar polish. Luckily, when I sat to watch it, I found it to actually be a great film. It goes a long way to humanize Lincoln, while never forgetting the far-reaching grandeur of his actions. The excellent screenplay chooses to focus not on a rote biopic approach, but presents instead a compelling microcosm of Lincoln's career, and exactly what he had to go through to have the famous thirteenth amendment to the constitution passed in congress. It's a film about politicking, deal-making, and strength of character. And it depicts Lincoln as simultaneously an oblivious hayseed, and a sharp-minded political genius of redoubtable moral character. It really is excellent.
Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty would make an excellent companion piece to her equally excellent The Hurt Locker, which I once named the second best film of 2009. Only whereas The Hurt Locker attempts to dissect the psychology and spiritual toll that wartime has on hard-working soldiers, Zero Dark Thirty is a more direct procedural about the real-life attempt to locate and apprehend Osama Bin Laden. Jessica Chastain, excellent, plays a fresh-out-of-school spook who is assigned to the real-life task force assigned to specifically apprehend the criminal. The process takes years and years, and we see how hard it is to stay on the trail of a crook in an ever-changing chaos like the Middle East during wartime. The film, like the main character, is constantly trying to find order through the surrounding miasma of chaotic violence, only to be blocked at every turn. Resolve is the only way to stay alive. This is not a chest-thumping America polemic; this is not an episode of "24." This is about how our jobs can consume us, and morals are often unusually absent in wartime situations. And it's an amazingly taut thriller on tip of it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)
A childhood fantasy in a hellish world of decay, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of the adorable Hushpuppy (six-year-old QuvenzhanéWallis), and her life in a remote area of Louisiana that has been ravaged and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, or some other notable environmental disaster. The people who live in Hushpuppy's area are resolute to stay, even in though their lives now resembles a Harmony Korine movie. But it's not about the moral decay that does along with suburban destruction like a Korine movie. Beasts of the Southern Wild is, instead, about the love, character, toughness, and survival instincts that a young girl develops – some taught, some correct, some detrimental – in order to live for the only one things she knows: her home and her father. We all know something is amiss (is there a world of cleanliness and wealth anywhere in the world anymore?), and Hushpuppy seems to know too, especially when her father disappears for days at a time, and reappears in a hospital gown with new medicines he doesn't trust. This is a harrowing and fantastical tale of love and survival.
Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax)
The best film of the year is Leos Carax's Holy Motors, a surreal and comic film just as much about film itself as it is about humanity in general. The film follows an odd-looking actor of some sort (played by Denis Lavant) as he treks around Paris in the back of his limo, constantly changing costumes and makeup, emerging to enact miniature dramas with people. Is he an actor for hire? Is he a spiritual constant in the lives of many people? Why is he a beggar woman one hour, a violent horny leprechaun the next, and an old man dying on his death bed in the evening? To whom does he answer? Carax is clearly making a comment on the glorious artificiality of film, and how the holy motors of filmmaking are designed to make our hearts beat fast, even as the motors become less visible, and the function of art is ineffable and ephemeral. He's also lamenting the loss of old-world film technologies, and how most people don't even want the engines anymore; they just want the cheap drama fast and quick. Holy Motors may offer a clever theological musing on the holy motors that run the universe, and how the people we encounter are all tied into it, however bizarre life may be. Funny, baffling, weird, and wonderful, it's rare that a film like Holy Motors comes along.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film Schooland The Series Project, and follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.