It was clear from the outset of 2012 that it was going to be a really good year for film. There were just too many great filmmakers on deck for the last 12 months for it not to have been something special. And while it may seem like a foregone conclusion that my two most anticipated films of the year ended up taking the top two spots on my list, it was really anything but. Of the 20 films I was looking forward to at this time last year, only 3 ended up ranking, which means that even my favorite filmmakers are not above a misstep. But instead of counting on those big names, I searched everywhere looking for gems this year — seeing a record 106 films in the theatre — and found them on trips to Sundance, SXSW and TIFF and beyond. I actually saw way too many good films to be included here which is why you should definitely check out my Overlooked Films of 2012 for more under-the-radar selections. But these ten films, though not perfect, represented the best of what cinema had to offer last year. These are my favorite films from 2012.
1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) In a year where other filmmakers of his generation were celebrated for staying in their comfort zones and giving audiences essentially more of the same, the best film of the year was made by an auteur who has spent his career constantly evolving as a storyteller and utterly refusing to repeat himself. After reaching a critical and commercial zenith with “There Will Be Blood,” there was almost no way Paul Thomas Anderson could meet the expectations placed on “The Master.” I had been following the film for 2 1/2 years and it was still nothing like I expected. But as multiple viewings have began to peel back the layers (I’ve seen it 7 times and counting), its clear that this will be one of the films (if not the film) that 2012 will be remembered for. Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of the great all-time transformative performances here (his work is on par with what Daniel Day-Lewis did in ‘Blood’ which is really saying something) and his scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman will be on acting reels for years to come. And while critics are still working out what it all means, I’ve had a much more fluid relationship with the film: confounding, enjoyable, heartbreaking, hilarious, no viewing has been quite the same. This is what ultimately what makes Anderson the most exciting director of his generation. He will always be pushing forward and waiting for the audience to catch up.
2. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan) The most underappreciated blockbuster of the year. But wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s epic final Batman film released to mostly positive reviews, you say? Well, yes. But in the months following the film’s release it seems like public opinion really began to turn on it. From Bane’s voice to the (perceived) plot holes to the lack of screentime for the title character, there was no issue too small for fanboys not to groan about. The anti-’TDKR’ sentiment grew so loud that I started to question my own admiration for the film. But months after Aurora, the hype and the backlash, I caught one of the film’s final showings in a nearly empty IMAX theatre and quite simply, loved the shit out of it. The little things that had bothered me on first viewing barely registered now and I wondered how I’d ever doubted it in the first place. It was never going to be possible for ‘Rises’ to top “The Dark Knight” — Ledger’s Joker was lightning in a bottle — but it’s not for lack of trying. While it’s typical for sequels to go big, this one is a true epic reaching almost operatic heights scene-after-scene. What I still can’t understand is how the film became a punching bag to begin with (being held to a standard of “realism” that Nolan never subscribed to anyway) while another superhero blockbuster gets a pass because its more “fun.” ‘TDKR’ may not have been the film most audiences wanted this summer but Nolan gave them the one they deserved. And it was one for the history books.
3. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) Walking out of my first viewing of “Zero Dark Thirty” I couldn’t help but shake the feeling I had just seen an important film. While debate continues to rage on concerning the film’s authenticity and its supposed politics (which is good in theory, a film like this should provoke conversation), the only thing that matters to me is that it feels completely authentic, which is really all that should matter. It is, after all, a fictionalized account but damn if it doesn’t manage to feel bracingly, urgently real. That the filmmakers found a way to follow the 10-year manhunt to catch Osama Bin Laden without sinking into oversimplification or Hollywood-isms is something of a miracle. This miracle was of course expertly planned and executed by “The Hurt Locker” collaborators writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow making a huge step forward here and setting the bar for movies based on true events for some time to come. Many have compared the film favorably to “Zodiac,” another obsessive, detail-oriented, decade long manhunt, a comparison that would’ve been even more apt had a new ending not arrived before production began (causing the whole film to be subsequently reconceived from the ground up). The final 40 minutes are a masterclass in tension, where despite knowing how it will end, you may still have to remind yourself to breathe.
4. The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans) Structured like an old school video game (think “Streets of Rage”), the story of could not be more spare: our hero fights endless scores of bad guys on his way to the big boss. And yet for 100 blistering minutes, “The Raid” will pin you to your seat and leave your jaw on the floor. One of the most insane, balls-to-the-wall action films I’ve ever seen, this film brought the house down when I first caught it at SXSW. Nearly the entire film consists of nonstop fight sequences which you might think would be exhausting, or worse boring (see the neverending brawls in “The Matrix Reloaded”) but instead it’s exhilarating. The fights are masterfully choreographed and strung together brilliantly in 10 minute segments that allow you to catch your breath before raising the stakes again. I wondered how the threadbare plot — a SWAT team is sent into a fortress-like apartment building to retrieve a ruthless druglord — might sustain itself for the entire running time without some B plot to cut away to but it does. Because ‘The Raid’ doesn’t bother with love interests, exposition or any of the bullshit clogging up the majority of action films. Here is a film that has the balls to be just as simple as it needs to be and still manages to be completely thrilling. It just goes to prove that it doesn’t matter how many times a story has been told, only how that story is told.
5. Shut Up And Play The Hits (Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern) Appreciation of a concert documentary often depends on one’s interest in the band at the center of that doc. So take with perhaps the necessary grain of salt that I loved “Shut Up And Play The Hits,” that focuses on the final days of LCD Soundsystem highlighting their epic last show at Madison Square Garden. The film follows LCD frontman James Murphy during the final days of the band that he has willfully split up because he feels that now in his 40’s he’s become too old to rock. The doc follows a quiet/LOUD/quiet contrast of Murphy getting out of bed to walk his dog in Williamsburg with clips of him leading a crowd of thousands at MSG going absolutely nuts. The film is about 2/3rds performance so if you’re not already familiar with the band, ‘Shut Up’ doesn’t give you a big rundown of the band’s history, instead threading in bits here and there from an interview between Murphy and writer Chuck Klosterman. But the good news is the performance footage is electric. When I saw it at SXSW, the venue had been transformed by Nike into a ‘2001’-like black void with speakers that were literally rattling our insides. If you weren’t at the show, this will make you feel like you were there. The non-performance footage is equally as compelling and seeing Murphy break down when facing a huge storage space full of his band’s equipment he’s chosen to sell off is gripping stuff. If you’re not a fan, chances are you will be by the end.
6. Rust And Bone (Jacques Audiard) There wasn’t really an easy way to explain what “Rust And Bone” is about without making it sound like a sad TV movie-of-the-week. Absent dad/club bouncer Ali meets whale trainer/party girl Stephanie and after a bumpy start, the two form a friendship after Stephanie is involved in a horrible accident. That accident involves her losing the use of her legs so you can already fill in the blanks for where it goes from there from countless other saccharine learning to live again tales. And yet, this film is nothing like you’d expect. It’s an unusual tale of friendship, it’s a love story, it’s about the feeling of being alive. The film is anchored by two excellent, (practically invisible) performances by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard and the soundtrack features some of the most memorable musical moments of the year including Bon Iver, Lykke Li and the showstopping centerpiece: Katy Perry’s “Firework.” (Yes, seriously.) Jacques Audiard made a splash with 2009’s “A Prophet,” another seemingly simple tale infused with unexpected humanity, but with this film he’s really catapulted himself into the top echelon of filmmakers to follow. This is one of the few films on this list I have only seen once and also the one I’m most excited to revisit.
7. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik) As blunt as a hammer to the skull and just about as subtle, “Killing Them Softly” was mostly dismissed by audiences looking for a Brad Pitt shoot-em-up and instead treated to an angry screed that compares the workings of the U.S. government to that of organized criminals. But I’ll take a film this ballsy and bold any day of the week, especially when its cast is as good as this one. Perpetual supporting players Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn and (2012 MVP) Scoot McNairy anchor superstar Pitt who is ironically, the only actor who doesn’t register quite as strongly. Adapted from a pulp novel from the 70s (and infused with modern day relevance) by director Andrew Dominik, the film is almost entirely made up of two-handers with each scene featuring two players facing off through dialogue. I could imagine it very easily being adapted for the stage were it not for the occasional punctuations of brutality. It’s a far cry from his dreamy Malick-inspired previous effort “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” but no less impressive. The closing line alone will send a chill up your spine and put a smile on your face.
8. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) Mental illness is not the subject most filmmakers would choose to set a romantic dramedy but most filmmakers are not David O. Russell. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a crowd-pleaser that only O. Russell could have made: abrasive, dramatic, hilarious, unexpected and romantic. Audiences have been conditioned for so long by the Heigl’s and Hudson’s that they’ve probably forgotten what real onscreen chemistry looks like, so credit a career best Bradley Cooper and feisty Jennifer Lawrence for creating sparks onscreen. There are countless romantic comedies released every year where a once volatile pair eventually warm to each other but so very few that truly earn it. The dance sequence set to "Girl From The North Country" is a true high point. Of all the films I revisited before finalizing my end of year list, this is the only one that was better than I had initially given it credit for, leapfrogging into the Top 10 deservedly. With “The Fighter” and this film it’s gratifying to see a great filmmaker reminding us of how well these familiar genres (sports drama, rom-com) can work when they’re employed properly. O. Russell made really interesting films as an auteur but now he’s making really great ones that can connect with a much larger audience. Hollywood needs him.
9. Argo (Ben Affleck) In an ideal world, we would see smart, well crafted, adult entertainment like “Argo” every few weeks at the multiplex. Unfortunately that’s not the case so when one comes along once or twice a year, it becomes cause for a celebration. Thankfully filmmakers like Ben Affleck (or George Clooney who’s been working in a similar key with his directorial efforts) remember when Hollywood used to routinely make these kinds of films and have become dependable for making them. Not to minimize what Affleck has done here because it’s an insanely tricky balancing act to shift from the inside-Hollywood heavy comedy of the first half to the more suspenseful final act but he nails both effortlessly. As a leading man, Affleck is solid (atoning for the years of appearing in less-than-stellar films) but his real strength continues to be behind the camera. He shows a real eye for period detail here, perfectly capturing the (mostly-awful) looking nexus between the 70s and 80s and making sure every supporting role is occupied by a top-notch actor. Between his last two films, he’s now cast the three best leading men on television (Kyle Chandler and Bryan Cranston both turn in fine performances here as did Jon Hamm in “The Town.”) Funny, intense, and highly entertaining, “Argo” is another big victory for the actor-turned-filmmaker.
10. Life Of Pi (Ang Lee) Though I was skeptical going into “Life Of Pi,” I walked out a convert. While not without its problems (mainly pertaining to a clunky storytelling device), the film captures some of the most striking imagery I’ve ever seen onscreen. In recent years I’ve been bothered by filmmakers using CGI as a storytelling crutch for creativity but Ang Lee utilizes the technology like a master, painting the water and sky differently for each day spent on the raft — some days its hued pink, others a billion shades of beautiful blue — and sequences set at night take on a surreal quality. My jaw was on the floor for pretty much the entire time Pi was out at sea. “Filmed” on digital cameras in quite possibly the best ever live-action use of 3D (up there with “Prometheus” or “Hugo”), the effect is mesmerizing and is one that could have only been achieved digitally. But unlike some other landmark visual effects pictures, ‘Pi’ keeps the focus on its central character. The storytelling bookends are a bit clumsy and the third act reveal doesn’t land with the emotional punch it needs to, but overlook these problems and what you’re left with is a film that takes you to places few films ever do. Emotional without being treacly, spiritual without being preachy and at times truly awe-inspiring, “Life Of Pi” is one of the rare pictures that makes you rethink films and how they should be made.