THE BEST OF THE BEST
The definitive best. All could probably be considered for the #1 spot depending on my mood.
Beautifully told, stupendously acted and so overwhelmingly heartbreaking, Michael Haneke's Amour is a story about facing mortality. Through the harrowing tale of Georges and Anne (an incredible, Oscar-deserving Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), Haneke navigates the evolution of there decades-long marriage after a stroke slowly and surely begins to strip Anne of her health and later, of her most basic physical and cognitive functions. Being a director so obsessed with manipulating and affecting the viewer's experience, this may be the very first movie by Michael Haneke that I've actually enjoyed, and I must say that when he works for me, he really works. This film is stark in its portrayal, unflinching in the details, yet still manages a warmth because the love these two people have for each other. This isn't a love story, per se, but a story about the strength and power of true love.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
"Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in The Bathtub", so says the infectiously watchable main character - Hushpuppy (an otherworldy performance from the six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis) - at the beginning and the end of the year's most wonderful spectacle. When you watch this movie for the first time, it's hard to tell where it takes place, what takes place in reality and what's in the imagination of a five-year-old girl. But you never feel off-balance, the basic plot holding strong: Hushpuppy and her abrasive but loving father Wink (Dwight Henry) fight to survive a hurricane in their impoverished neighborhood. But even after the storm, they must still fight to keep their scavenger society alive. A film about facing fears - whether it be the loss of your father or the emergence of pre-historic beasts - and the importance of heritage and society, Beasts of the Southern Wild holds two very different but very effective performances from Wallis and Henry that make this unlike any movie that I've ever seen.
THE HOLY CRAP SUPERAWESOME
The phenomenal movie experiences. Never really considered for THE best, but never doubted for a Ten Best slot.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Silver Linings Playbook
Feel-good, almost to an unfair, obscene level, Silver Linings Playbook is very much the Juno of 2012. It's screenplay takes the easy way out of most difficult situations, its characters are overwhelmingly affected and cute, and the director's camera calls more attention to itself more than it ever should in a film like this. Yet, I loved every second of it. Charting the often troubling subject matter of mental illness, David O. Russell's latest movie has the audacity (how dare they!?) to be a comedy, evolving quickly into a screwball romance between two unstable but lovable individuals (two career-best performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) as circumstances force them together. Interlocking several other themes that also deal with friendship, family and sports fandom, Silver Linings defies most film purists and has already survived a particularly harsh backlash (again, like Juno) to arise as an astonishing achievement. And of course, having Robert DeNiro's best performance in decades (as Cooper's sweet but temperamental father) doesn't hurt either.
THE IMPERFECT ONES THAT COULD NOT BE LEFT OFF THE LIST
The fantastic non-masterpieces that were just that much better to nudge out the other beloved non-masterpieces and round out the ten.
The most bizarre spectacle I saw in 2012, Holy Motors has a bit of it all: violence, sex, laughs, chimpanzees, talking limousines and even a musical interlude involving a half dozen accordions. Holy Motors defies most explanations, but is still one of the most fascinating movies I got to see this year. It deals with Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he spends his days occupying various lives in and around Paris, France. Directed by Leos Carax, the images we're presented are extreme, sometimes they're funny and other times they can be tragic, but as Oscar navigates these lives one thing you can never call them is predictable. Holy Motors is in many ways part cinematic satire, part cynical society display, but I don't believe Carax was as interested in interpreting that as he was presenting us with so many contrasting images. How else do you explain the appearances of beauties Eva Mendes and Kylie Monogue in the same movie with a dirty homeless man's erect penis? Equal parts enthralling and grotesque, Holy Motors is a total enigma, but an entertaining one at that. Plus, best movie name of 2012, hands down.
Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty is not much focused on plot and structures a narrative around the character of Maya (Jessica Chastain) seemingly out of obligation. Instead, it focuses on the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden in a very sterile, straightforward way that it only makes sense that the film's screenwriter - Oscar winning Mark Boal - used to be a journalist. But its scenes are tense with the anxiety of the post 9/11 obsession with eradicating Al Queda. Kathryn Bigelow, fully shifted from schlock action director to Oscar winning filmmaker, directs with shaky handheld shots and shadowy lighting which doesn't do the actors any favors, but gives the movie an eerie off-balance feeling that fits the tone perfectly (special shoutout to cinematographer Greig Fraser for brilliance in making lighting look simple). Bigelow's sharp instincts combined with a dedicated ensemble performance, led by Chastain, make Zero Dark Thirty a slick action thriller about one of the most important (and disturbingly celebrated) assassinations in American history.
Tied for eleventh place...
Skyfall, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises proved that you can make franchise action films that aren't totally devoid of substance and have fascinating characters; Moonrise Kingdom was a welcome hit for Wes Anderson and a terrific film about trying to grow up when all the adults around you are children; Wreck-It-Ralph was a delightful children's films with several entertaining references and great voice performances; Life of Pi was a great use of 3-D filmmaking and another great movie in the increasingly eclectic career of Ang Lee; Celeste and Jesse Forever contained a performance from Rashida Jones that was so good that it buoys a film that may not be the best directed or written, but still manages to stay stuck in my head months after viewing it; Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated Lincoln probably met most's expectations and has a slew of wonderful performances led, of course, by the seemingly immortal Daniel Day-Lewis.
Check in later this week to see superlative categories (Best Director, Best Actor, etc.). And, finally, to make up for last year where I skipped all of this fun, here's my top 10 list from 2011:
4. The Descendents
5. Young Adult
6. Take Shelter
7. The Artist
8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
10. The Help