by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
Back in June, I wasn't sure 2012 was going to be that great a year for cinema. Sure, there were some terrific and ballsy flicks that I liked a lot (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Kill List, Moonrise Kingdom, Safety Not Guaranteed, and a handful of others) but there weren't many that I was completely over the moon about. I loved The Hunger Games. I enjoyed John Carter more than most. But other than some intriguing foreign titles, and the emergence of Channing Tatum, of all people, as a bona fide superstar with legitimate talent to burn, I wasn't crowing about much, and I was starting to think that coming up with 10 titles to list as the year's best was going to be impossible.
Fast-forward six months, and how things have changed. By my count there are 52 films worthy of discussion and debate in regard to being among the year's top efforts. Moreover, at any given moment there are 15 or so titles that could easily enter in my own best-of countdown. For my money, that doesn't make 2012 a great year - it makes it a borderline spectacular one, and I'm more or less positive that we're going to be talking about a number of these releases for many years to come.
With that in mind, here are my picks (always subject to change) for the best movies to hit theaters in 2012.
THE TOP TEN OF 2012
1. Zero Dark Thirty
For me, picking director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal's Zero Dark Thirty as the year's best film was a no-brainer. I knew the instant it was over that I'd just watched something close to an absolute masterpiece, their emotionally complex, morally ambiguous thriller chronicling the hunt and eventual killing of Osama bin Laden one of the most harrowing experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. They fact that they dare to bring up touchy subject matter and make you think about it in detail, the way they do not beat around the bush but instead show you the murky minefield of international intelligence and terror in absolute minutia, all of it adds up to something beyond extraordinary. Anchoring it all is the quiet, driven, confidently self-assured grace of Jessica Chastain, her blistering, unsentimental performance one for the ages.
Michael Haneke does not make easy movies - anyone who has ever watched the auteur's The White Ribbon or Funny Games could tell you that - but that doesn't mean he can't elicit sympathy or wax poetic about complex emotions with the best of them when he sets his mind to it. His latest more than lives up to its title, its chronicling of a married couple in their eighties (the superb Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) dealing with a sudden illness and the effect it has on their relationship as startling as it is profound.
3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
No movie spoke to me on a more personal level than writer/director Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own novel. I knew these Pittsburgh kids, could relate to just about everything they were going through, understood their day-to-day lives on about as intimate a level that there is. Chbosky raises the bar by never pushing the innate melodrama hidden within his coming-of-age narrative, instead letting the characters and the actors portraying them (Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller in three of 2012's best performances) speak for themselves. As close to an instant classic as anything I've seen this year.
4. Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell's adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel is constantly on the verge of teetering out of control - which is perfect, considering its main character, bipolar former high-school substitute American history teacher with anger management issues Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), is constantly on the precipice of doing the very same thing. It's a startling high-wire act that is as beautiful and invigorating as it is honest and profound, the movie having a confident lived-in esthetic that's close to perfection. Add in Jennifer Lawrence's amazing, free-spirited, and emotionally centered performance as the woman who might just win Pat's heart if he gives her half a chance, and you have not just the best romantic comedy of the past year, but maybe the best one in over a decade.
5. How to Survive a Plague
Journalist David France's breathtaking documentary about the early days of the AIDS crisis and the rise of activist organizations with a mission to fight it plays more like All the President's Men than it does your typical retrospective think piece. The filmmaker digs right into the marrow of this story, never flinching and never wavering, easily crafting one of the more entertaining, yet still informative, nonfiction narratives I've had the privilege to see in quite some time.
6. The Master
Getting a handle on Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is purposely difficult, the filmmaker weaving a tale of abuse, addiction, friendship, and seduction that is as ephemeral and as obtuse as they come. But the level of filmmaking on display is of such a staggeringly high caliber, while the performances of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are so monumentally extraordinary, one dismisses The Master at one's own peril. This is a movie we are surely going to be discussing and debating for many years to come, its treatise on discourse key to deciphering a great deal many of its cryptic, labyrinthine layers.
Ben Affleck comes into his own as a director with Argo, as giddily entertaining a historical suspense procedural as any a viewer ever could have hoped for. While Zero Dark Thirty has (understandably) stolen some of its thunder, that doesn't make this examination of the rescue of six Americans from Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis any less wonderful. Filled with strong character turns from a crackerjack cast (including Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Scoot McNairy), the movie moves with a tense, all-encompassing energy that lingers long afterward. A triumph.
8. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson's beguiling triumph of the romance between two 12-year-olds on a secluded New England island is one of the more honest and invigorating examinations of young love to see the light of day in quite some time. While packed with a superstar cast, including Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton, it's the fresh faces of Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward who resonate the most here, their refined, delicately nuanced performances a sunny sojourn through complex emotions that held me completely, and happily, spellbound.
Can you handle the truth? That's what writer/director Craig Zobel's Compliance is asking. Unsettling, uncompromising, engineered to make the viewer to feel as uncomfortable in his or her own skin as humanly possible, this movie is an unflinching exercise in control that is as disgusting and despicable as it is essential.
10. Wuthering Heights
Much to my immense surprise, Andrea Arnold's bleak, barren, and emotionally obtuse adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has latched hold of my psyche in a way I cannot entirely comprehend. Filled with unforgettable images, moving with a hardened grace difficult to embrace, let alone find captivating, the movie is nonetheless a staggering meditative romantic drama I couldn't forget even if I wanted to. Not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for those who prefer their Brontë gussied up in a classic BBC shine, this Wuthering Heights is a work of striking resonance made for the here-and-now. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.
11. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World - Lorene Scafaria's intimate and seductively layered comedic romantic drama involving an apocalypse was easily one of the year's most unjustly maligned and forgotten gems.
12. Lincoln - Daniel Day-Lewis is as brilliant as you've heard portraying America's most revered president, director Steven Spielberg delivering easily his most subtly self-assured drama in what feels like forever.
13. Killing Them Softly - Eviscerating satire of American consumerism and greed that's as smart as it is emotionally inflexible. A triumph for all involved.
14. Safety Not Guaranteed - Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly's sarcastically hysterical and rapturously romantic debut is the time-travel experience of the year. The fact that Aubrey Plaza isn't getting talked up for a Best Supporting Actress nomination is a colossal shame.
15. Kill List - Is it a horror film? Is it a hit-man thriller? Is it a relationship drama? Discovering what Ben Wheatley's Kill List is ends up being the name of the game, the movie building to a devastatingly brutal coda that is as disturbing as it is unexpected.
16. The Deep Blue Sea - Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston sizzle in Terence Davies' emotionally disemboweling adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play. Calling it awesome is an understatement.
17. The Hunger Games - Jennifer Lawrence commands the screen in director Gary Ross' stupendous take on the first volume of author Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy. Magnificent.
18. Cloud Atlas - Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Lana Wachowski's adaptation of the surreal David Mitchell novel was one of the more audaciously ambitious projects of the entire year, filled with highs and lows so spectacular they simply must be seen, and experienced, to be believed.
19. Holy Motors - There was nothing else in 2012 quite like Leos Carax's Holy Motors, the freewheeling, devil-may-care drama pirouetting threw genres with spectacular abandon.
20. Sound of Noise - Sonic terrorists produce percussion-fueled mayhem against an unsuspecting city helping craft a movie that's a joyous cacophony of sound, fury, silence, ingenuity, and inspiration that is as original as it is entertaining.
21. The Secret World of Arrietty - Studio Ghibli's reworking of Mary Horton's The Borrowers is a beautiful animated treasure trove of imagination and emotion that stirred my heart and made me want to do joyful backflips as I exited the theater.
22. A Royal Affair - Nikolaj Arcel's stupendous costume drama chronicling the affair between a Norwegian queen (Alicia Vikander) and her mentally ill husband's (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) conscientious doctor (Mads Mikkelsen) a delectable, emotionally fragile treat signifying the arrival of a major directorial talent.
23. The Cabin in the Woods - Director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon's invigorating horror deconstruction is a divine mix of the terrifying and the absurd, everything building to the type of apocalyptic climax John Carpenter would have been proud to have called his own.
24. Looper - Filmmaker Rian Johnson takes sci-fi time-travel thriller conventions and then believably spins them on their head, building to a brutal, emotionally satisfying climax that's as good as it gets.
25. Haywire - Steven Soderbergh's star-studded '70s-style revenge opus is a snarky, adrenaline-filled reminder that you don't need computer-generated trickery to engineer thrills and chills.
26. The Sessions - John Hawkes and Helen Hunt shine in this based-on-fact drama of a 38-year-old poet and writer living in an iron lung attempting to have sex for the very first time.
27. Sound of My Voice - Director Zal Batmanglij and actor/writer Brit Marling join forces to craft a surreal and disturbing drama involving cults and cultists. It's never what you think it is going to be, and that's a good thing.
28. Barbara - Nina Hoss commands the screen in Christian Petzold's multifaceted Cold War thriller about an East German doctor who must decide if freedom can come at the expense of her patients' well-being.
29. Skyfall - Sam Mendes takes James Bond and makes him his own while still paying homage to the 50 years of history preceding his taking over the directorial reigns. Awesomely entertaining.
30. John Carter - The year's most unjustly libeled spectacle, Disney's lavish take on the highly influential Edgar Rice Burroughs character a thrilling, eye-popping epic that deserved better both from critics and audiences.
Bernie, The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best, The Central Park Five, Chasing Ice, The Dark Knight Rises, Django Unchained, Flight, The Grey, The Innkeepers, The Intouchables, Jeff Who Lives at Home, The Kid With a Bike, Lawless, Life of Pi, Magic Mike, On the Road, ParaNorman, Rise of the Guardians, Smashed, Tonight You're Mine, 21 Jump Street, Wreck-It Ralph
THE BOTTOM TEN OF 2012
1. Alex Cross - A misbegotten abomination that takes author James Patterson's character and subsequently does little of note or merit with him. An extended Chrysler commercial masquerading as a major motion picture.
2. Project X - A rancid high-school comedy that's as awful as it is in bad taste. Close to unwatchable.
3. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - Visual ingenuity aside, Timur Bekmambetov's adaptation of the revered Seth Grahame-Smith graphic novel is an unfocused, undisciplined nonsensical mess impossible to enjoy.
4. Lockout - Guy Pearce does his best, but this Escape from New York variation set in space is an incoherent hodgepodge of concepts and ideas that never gels into anything remotely substantive.
5. This Means War - Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, and Tom Hardy anchor this insipid, action-heavy romantic comedy from director McG that is as idiotic as it is juvenile. A waste of talent and time.
6. Red Dawn - Misbegotten remake of the cult 1984 John Milius favorite that hasn't the first clue as to what it wants to do, what its themes are, or what to make of itself. A lost cause right from the word 'Wolverine!'
7. The Apparition - Idiotic, badly written horror yarn that was delayed by its studio for almost two years before getting a perfunctory release. It should have stayed on the shelf.
8. Total Recall - Another remake of a popular favorite, this failed reboot is an action-heavy mess that goes through the motions of aping everything from The Bourne Identity to Minority Report, showing little to now imagination of its own. Philip K. Dick is surely rolling over in his grave.
9. Act of Valor - Real-life Navy SEALs prove that just because you look the part (and, in all fairness, really are the part) doesn't mean you can act it out in this silly, horribly written potpourri of action clichés that would make Chuck Norris blush.
10. Won't Back Down - Gifted actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter are left stranded in a monstrously didactic melodrama purportedly about the educational system but is really nothing more than a union-bashing commercial for charter schools.
American Reunion, Battleship, The Cup, Darling Companion, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, Fun Size, House at the End of the Street, Lay the Favorite, One for the Money, Playing for Keeps, The Raven, Resident Evil: Resurrection, Sparkle, Tai Chi Zero, Taken 2, Trouble with the Curve, Vamps, The Watch, What to Expect When You're Expecting, The Woman in the Fifth, The Words
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