It became clear around September that putting together a Top 10 list this year was going to be incredibly difficult. We’ve been provided with an embarrassment of riches throughout the year, and so the prospect of whittling it down to a list of my ten favorites proved daunting. 2012 seems destined to go down in history as “one of those years” like 1999, 1994, or 1977, where a large number of the year’s offerings will stand the test of time. Though this list expresses what films I connected with most out of the past 12 months, there are at least 10 or 15 other movies that I also really enjoyed waiting just outside the wings. If forced to pick my ten favorites from 2012, though, this is what I’ve come up with. Hit the jump to take a look.
Note: My list comes with a major caveat, which is that I haven’t been able to see Zero Dark Thirty yet.
Director Richard Linklater’s docudrama execution in Bernie certainly makes for one of the more interesting moviewatching experiences of the year, but it’s Jack Black’s career-best performance as the titular character that really elevates this comedy to something special. It’s like Black was born to play this role, as his embodies Bernie with a sweetness and sincerity that makes the outlandish real-life story of a good-natured and universally-loved assistant funeral director who murdered a Texas town’s crabby old widower all the more hard to believe. On top of that, the movie is really, really funny.
9. MAGIC MIKE
Yes, that male stripper movie. Honestly I’m a bit surprised at how quickly director Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike was written off as a piece of pure commercial entertainment. Obviously the dance sequences are extremely well executed and a lot of fun, but beneath the surface, Magic Mike is really a brutally honest story about the pursuit of the American Dream and whether that “ultimate goal” is actually attainable. We see the Hollywoodized version of it all the time, but Soderbergh isn’t afraid to show the reality of the situation: not everyone is destined for big things. What happens when life gets in the way?
The most solemn film on my list is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, but when you set out to capture the essence of one of the greatest men in our nation’s history, things are going to get a little heavy. What surprised me most about Lincoln, though, was how deftly Spielberg balances the headiness of the issues at hand with some well-placed humor. James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson light up the screen every time they pop up, and it’s hard not to be wholly and completely sucked into one of Lincoln’s stories when Daniel Day-Lewis starts spouting off an amusing anecdote. At the end of the day, though, Lincoln feels like more than a biopic of a famous president; it’s a snapshot of both the best and worst of what America has to offer, and it’s a story about how, with a lot of hard work and conviction and a healthy amount of passion and duty, a few good men did something truly remarkable.
One of the reasons that 2012 was such a good year in film was that a promisingly large number of the year’s movies were wholly original stories. One of the best executed of the bunch is director Drew Goddard’s brilliant “horror” film The Cabin in the Woods. Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon crafted an entirely unique horror pic that simultaneously manages to critique the horror genre as a whole and also be so much fun, as we’re treated to a movie that’s literally unlike anything else. Dear Hollywood: More of this, please.
6. LIFE OF PI
Director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is not only the most visually arresting film of the year, but it’s also one of the most stirring. Immediately after my first viewing I liked the movie well enough, but as the days went on, I found myself simply incapable of getting the pic out of my mind. Lee raises some tough questions with the adaptation, but thanks to two swell performances from Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan, the issues are matched with genuine and raw emotion. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but when it connects, it really connects. Lee’s masterful visual storytelling paired with the film’s spiritual themes makes for a profoundly introspective viewing experience that’s tough to shake.
In a year filled with superhero movies and action pics galore, the best “blockbuster” film of 2012 turned out to be a James Bond movie. With Skyfall, director Sam Mendes expertly fashioned a James Bond that felt at once familiar and relevant, as the film is sprinkled with enough nods and sly references to the Bond films of old to make longtime fans happy, but Skyfall is also infused with something lacking from many of franchise’s previous entries: character development. Throw in a chilling and flamboyant villain (brought to life by a fantastically fun performance from Javier Bardem), smartly crafted action sequences, and real stakes, and you’ve got yourself one of the best Bond films ever made.
America’s history with slavery is an issue that this country likes to conveniently gloss over, but leave it to Quentin Tarantino to tackle the subject head-on. What strikes me most about Django Unchained is that, yes it’s violent and showy and fun and at times hilarious, but it’s also emotionally affecting. Slavery is a thing that happened, it’s not some scary story or plot point, and as much fun as it might be to see Jamie Foxx’s Django rise up and have his revenge, Tarantino always reminds us of the brutality with which these atrocities were carried out. The emotional weight hits hard thanks not only to Tarantino’s skill as a writer and director, but also to passionate performances from the whole cast. At its heart, Django Unchained is a love story, and watching Django set out to rescue his wife is one wild—and brutal—ride.
This one surprised quite a few people this year, but fans of Stephen Chbosky’s swell book knew that The Perks of Being a Wallflower had the potential to be an equally powerful film. Eschewing the clichés found in most teen coming-of-age dramas, Chbosky wrote and directed this stellar adaptation of his own novel. Buoyed by standout performances from Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is more than a story about what it’s like to be in high school (though it is an excellent snapshot of high school life). It’s a story about friendship, love, potential, and uncertainty. It manages to be earnest without ever veering into cheesy, and much of this is thanks to the strong yet understated performances from the entire cast. These characters feel like real people. These were your friends in high school. This was you.
Time travel is a tricky filmmaking device, and more often than not it becomes an albatross that gets in the way of the storytelling. Once in a blue moon, though, time travel is done right, and this year Rian Johnson gave us quite possibly one of the best time travel movies ever made with Looper. The secret to Looper is that it’s not really about time travel at all. Sure, the plot hinges on time travel as a story device, but Johnson’s focus is always on character. Young Joe and Old Joe feel at once like the same person and two different people thanks to Johnson’s incredibly strong script and a couple of skillfully nuanced performances from Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. What I might like most about Looper, though, is that Johnson doesn’t offer up any easy, clear-cut answers to the problems and issues raised in the film. The motivations and decisions behind the characters are complex and difficult, and that makes Looper all the more intriguing.
Though the second half of 2012 was filled with fantastic films, Wes Anderson’s gorgeous portrait of young love never veered too far out of my mind following its release this past summer. Moonrise Kingdom is the result of the perfect marriage between director and material; Anderson’s signature aesthetic fits hand in hand with his exploration of what it feels like to be 12 years old and completely, utterly, head-over-heels in love. Anchored by two fantastic lead performances by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, the pic speaks to that universal memory of pre-teen infatuation to hilarious and touching effect.
It’s not just the romantic aspect of Moonrise Kingdom that makes it a great film, though, as Anderson adeptly juxtaposes the relationship between Sam and Suzy with the adult characters in the film (portrayed by an absolutely stellar ensemble line-up of actors at the top of their game). The line between “grown ups” and “kids” is blurred, and in a world filled with children’s plays, adorable kittens, and surprise khaki scout inspections, Anderson also provides the viewer with some weightier material to chew on.
At its core, though, Moonrise Kingdom is just a delightful moviegoing experience. The magnificent camera work, the rat-a-tat Anderson-esque dialogue, the pinpoint performances, the vibrant colors—everything comes together to create this perfect blend of poetic nostalgia and humor that hits home in the best way, and it’s for all these reasons and more that Moonrise Kingdom is my favorite film of 2012.
21 Jump Street – The funniest film of the year. Bless you, Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
The Grey – Director Joe Carnahan’s latest drama is more a philosophical look at survival and mortality than a “Liam Neeson kills wolves” thriller, and that’s exactly why I love it.
Les Miserables – A rousing and emotional rendition of the stage musical, with a jaw-dropping performance from Anne Hathaway and a career-best turn from Hugh Jackman.
ParaNorman – A true evolutionary step forward in the world of animation that tackles big ideas like social inequality and our instinctive hatred of all things “different,” while also drawing on classic horror tropes.
Pitch Perfect – I’ll be honest, the most fun I had in a theater this year was probably watching this movie.
Movies I’m Sorry I Missed: Holy Motors, Amour, Seven Psychopaths