There’s a bit of silliness to a “Top 10” list. It’s similar to giving letter grades to movies. We’re grading art, and trying to standardize a subjective appraisal. But perhaps the grade can be instructive. I always hope that my grade will guide you to read the full review, and then to the movie whether I liked it or not. I think people should see as many movies as possible, but I know that’s not realistic. Tickets cost too much, audiences are increasingly rude (I can’t remember the last time I went to a non-press or non-Drafthouse screening, and someone didn’t take out his or her cell phone), and the amount of entertainment options can be overwhelming. That’s where I think a Top 10 list matters. If you see only ten movies this year, these are the ones you should check out. I found them moving, funny, thoughtful, and enduring. I hope you’ll feel the same way.
Hit the jump for my Top 10 films of 2012. Please note that to make the list, the film had to receive a theatrical release in 2012. Click on the respective links for my Best of 2012, Top 10 Trailers, Dave’s Top 10 Films, and Adam’s Top 10 Films.
When fans are arguing if you’ve made the best film in a franchise’s 50-year history, you’ve done something right. Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan broke James Bond down to his basic elements, and then rebuilt him for modern times, while still retaining what was essential. Skyfall was a throwback without being retro, cheeky without being a parody, and knowing without being self-indulgent. It accomplished these feats by always putting the characters, story, and action first. This wasn’t plug-and-play Bond. Skyfall was about James Bond, both the character and the franchise, and it set a high bar for future films in the series.
Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty is willing to go to the dark places only documentaries previously dared to go. Far from a glorification of America’s “War on Terror”, it shows how deeply twisted our values have become. It is not a celebration of our methods, but a reckoning. Rather than preach or condemn, Zero Dark Thirty takes a mature and hard look at the doubts and convictions of our actions. At the center of the film is a powerhouse performance from Jessica Chastain that humanizes the story. Coupled with Bigelow’s intense direction and Mark Boal‘s incisive script, Zero Dark Thirty will forever serve as one of the essential films chronicling the early 21st century.
8. HOLY MOTORS
Writer-director Leos Carax conjured a brilliantly mad picture with Holy Motors. It is mad in its structure, plot, and characters, and it is brilliant in showing the madness we’re already willing to accept. At turns irreverent, bizarre, and deeply moving, Holy Motors always keeps us on our toes, and forces us to consider the sanity of our pre-conceived notions while still appreciating the lunacy of the creative impulse. Of course, the film would have made my Top 10 based on the accordion interlude alone.
There are two kinds of Wes Anderson movies: the ones where his style overpowers the narrative; and the ones where the narrative flows through his style. The latter makes for the better movie, and Moonrise Kingdom is easily among Anderson’s best. The movie works because while the style lends the film its personality and tone, it’s the story of first love that makes Moonrise Kingdom an absolutely winning picture. We’re instantly transported back to a time of innocence that’s not puritanical but pure. There’s plenty of fun stuff at the fringes—the militaristic khaki scouts, a character with the name “Social Services”, Bill Murray’s glum performance—but it all comes back around to a love story that’s sweet but never sappy.
I have never visited a world like the one director Behn Zeitlin took me to in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Instead of trying to explain its mechanics or its functions, he showed me its spirit. I don’t know need to know how the economy of the bathtub works or if there’s any political body. I only need to know that it’s a place of vivacity and perseverance. It is life and community on their own terms that encapsulate the notion of freedom at its most raw and uplifting. It may not be the real world, but through the eyes of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), we’re all a small and beautiful part of a big and glorious universe.
5. CLOUD ATLAS
I get a smile on my face just thinking about Cloud Atlas. I love its ambition and spectacle, but more than that, I adore its humanism. It’s a rousing, triumphant feature that eschews notions of karma for the simple act of striving not only for ourselves, but for others. While each of the film’s plotlines may have a protagonist, the story is about how these protagonists break the barriers of space, time, gender, and race to touch the lives of others. The movie acknowledges there will always be subjugation and evil, but Good triumphs when we challenge the status quo. Both the story of Cloud Atlas and the film itself defy conventions, and while many viewers rejected the movie, I couldn’t help but happily embrace the deeply moving picture the Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer created.
Watching The Cabin in the Woods, it’s clear that director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon love the horror genre, and they hate what it’s become. Their movie isn’t one of appreciation but of salvation. The horror genre has become so transparent that audiences can see all the moving parts. Whedon and Goddard wisely note that if we can see the mechanics of a horror movie, why not make the engineers a part of the story? There’s also a charge of complicity leveled at not only lazy filmmakers, but lazy audiences who have embraced what should be a terrifying experience and allowed it to be as comforting as a warm bath and a tub of Häagen-Dazs. The whole picture would come off as downright angry if it weren’t so damn funny and bitingly clever.
I cannot stop quoting this movie. I saw 21 Jump Street in March, I’ve seen it five times this year, and I still can’t stop quoting it. There are simply too many great lines, moments, and flourishes that make Phil Lord and Chris Miller‘s comedy work on multiple levels. The film constantly and effortlessly plays against expectations. A hilarious flick based off a cheesy 80s TV series? Done. Giving Ice Cube the most memorable lines in the movie and having him crush it? No problem (“Leave Korean Jesus alone! He’s busy! With Korean shit!”). Convincing those who had no love for Channing Tatum that he possessed comic genius? FUCK YOU, SCIENCE.
2. RUBY SPARKS
There are two stories at work in Ruby Sparks. One is a love story where we constantly strive for a dream girl rather than a person, and how deeply sad it can be when we realize that we’re not striving to be in love, but to be loved. The other is a story of artistic creation where we can experience the magic of our work, but discover the painful limitations of our creativity. What makes both these stories work is how Ruby Sparks always plays to the honesty of its fantastical premise. While protagonist Calvin (Paul Dano) desperately strives to bend the story to his will, screenwriter/star Zoe Kazan and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris follow the plot to its logical, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting conclusion.
1. THE GREY
If you just read my #1 choice and thought, “Wait. The movie with Liam Neeson wrasslin’ wolves? Are you serious?” then you never saw The Grey, so I don’t know how you can have a problem with my selection. I saw The Grey back in Janaury, and throughout the year my mind kept coming back to it. Joe Carnahan‘s tale of survival is steeped in death and an affirmation of life. I see the universe as a chaotic and unforgiving place where death isn’t choosy. It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad; if you believe in a higher power or not; if you’re stronger, smarter, or think yourself in any way superior. Ultimately, nothing will save you. The wolves are always at the door, but you fight anyway.
Look at all the horror in the world, and then look at how, somehow, we fight anyway. It isn’t about winning or losing the fight. One day, we’ll all lose the fight. What’s important is that no matter how tiny we are, even though we’re just tiny specs on a white, cold, empty landscape with death all around us, we fight anyway. The Grey is a thoughtful, moving, and powerful film where the randomness and immediacy of death make life feel even more precious and worth fighting for.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
The Avengers – Not only was it the most audacious superhero movie in history, but it also pulled away from the grim-and-gritty, and made superheroes fun again.
Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino is a can’t-miss filmmaker (I think Death Proof is terrific), and he once again remixed a variety of genres into an exciting, fun, and thoughtful flick. His style is pop, but never disposable.
The Imposter – The best documentary I saw in 2012 depicted a truth stranger than fiction, wrapped in one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in years. Director Bart Layton made a movie about how easily we can be fooled to the point where we start to wonder if he’s deceiving us with Frédéric Bourdin‘s incredible tale.
Seven Psychopaths – Sometimes the best stories come out of writer’s block. Writer-director Michael McDonagh smashed through the wall with razor-sharp dialogue, terrific pacing, and outstanding performances from his cast, especially Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell.
Room 237 – I don’t know how non-film nerds would react to Room 237, but I adore it. The film goes far beyond dissecting The Shining, and shows how film criticism can spin wildly out of control as analysts are willing to believe a room key is proof that Stanley Kubrick helped fake the moon landing.