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, the year’s 10 Best Films:
ZERO DARK THIRTY (Sony – December – written by Mark Boal – directed by Kathryn Bigelow): 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.
THE MASTER (Weinstein – September – written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson): 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.)
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Warners – July – written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Boyer – directed by Christopher Nolan): 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.)
ARGO (Warners – October – written by Chris Terrio – directed by Ben Affleck): 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.
LINCOLN (Disney/DreamWorks/20th – November – written by Tony Kushner – directed by Steven Spielberg): 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.
LES MISERABLES (Universal – December – written by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boubil, Herbert Kretzmer and William Nicholson – directed by Tom Hooper): 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.
DJANGO UNCHAINED (Weinstein – December – written and directed by Quentin Tarantino): 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.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Weinstein – November – written and directed by David O. Russell): 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.
FAREWELL MY QUEEN (Cohen Media Group – July – written by Benoit Jacquot and Gilles Taurand – directed by Benoir Jacquot) 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.
RUBY SPARKS (Fox Searchlight – July – written by Zoe Kazan – directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris): 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.
There are other movies worthy of note from 2012. For the year’s Honorable Mentions and some more films memorable for other reasons, see here. And for the other side of the coin, the year’s Worst 10 are here.