Note: I have yet to see Zero Dark Thirty and Amour, both of which could’ve shown up on the top 20 list. I apologize in advance for the possible exclusions, but take that into consideration when I post those reviews in the coming weeks.
Most end-of-year lists include ten films. I like that idea, the way it limits our scope and emphasizes the films we truly loved over the year’s span. But last year I did twenty, and this year I saw even more movies, so I figured I’d stick with twenty. After all, I believe these films deserve arguably more attention than they have received, and ten would just be too few. So, without further adieu, here is part two of the twenty best films of 2012, according to yours truly:
1. Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece, one of the most definitive to emerge in years, for it’s daringly ambitious, brilliant in scope, and wondrous in character development. A film should present us with ideas and make us ponder their meaning, and we should feel something we haven’t felt with any other movie before. And this film’s vision is unprecedented, a 172-minute magnum opus to humanity about the emotions we all feel, utilizing six different storylines spanning hundreds of years; it’s sprawling, it’s dense, but above all it’s grounded in human emotion. It also challenges gender, race, and sex roles in modern film, something worthy of recognition. I was swept away more so than any other release this year, and the performances from Hanks, Berry, and Sturgess only heighten our feeling. Everything is connected, and this film reminds me of the magic of moviemaking.
2. The Master
The Master defies easy interpretation, is at times frustrating to watch, but continues to remain endlessly fascinating months after viewing. It’s a story of a man searching for purpose in a world without meaning for him, and he finds a man who’s doing much the same, although with false intentions. These characters are so complex that we often reinvent them in our own heads as the film progresses; only when the story concludes do we realize that this has been a tragedy all along. I think this is one of the most sharp, assured character studies ever made. Phoenix is outstanding, remarkably so, reinventing himself, and Hoffman commands in an equally important role. This is a dense, deliberate, abstract film, but it’s also a great one.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is beautiful, poetic, strong, and above all optimistic about this world we inhabit. It also has the most uniquely created setting of the year with the Bathtub, a post-Katrina New Orleans-type that Hushpuppy and her father inhabit. They have a sense of culture, an understanding of what they value, and they begin to find meaning when their lives are threatened. Quvenzhané Wallis is a revelation, delivering the strongest female performance this year; she was six when this movie was filmed. This is a coming-of-age tale in the most complex way, for there are revelations here that no storyteller can match. Zeitlin is a strong voice emerging, and this film is a masterpiece.
4. Django Unchained
Django Unchained is Tarantino’s brilliant ode to the Western, and it also contains some of the most elaborate characters I’ve seen all year. He has a style that many love, but quite a few hate; I think he’s a genius at writing dialogue, crafting situations that arise from the character’s eccentricities, sometimes at the dispense of the plot. But here, he’s made a spaghetti Western that acts as a commentary on slavery so few films have achieved. He also has some incredible flair in style, and DiCaprio and Waltz are both scene-stealers. Then again, everyone else is just as tremendous, and the film runs close to 170 minutes. When I feel the running time could’ve been a bit longer, you’re doing something right; he’s made another great film, simple as that.
5. Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook should’ve been a trivial, dismissed dramedy in the late parts of the year, but instead it’s a genuine crowd-pleaser, and rightfully so. There are three incredible performances here, and Russell’s assured writing and directing work wonders on a clichéd idea. A man with a possible mental disorder is obsessed with winning his wife back, but he meets another woman, a widow, and they just don’t get along all that well. These characters are fully formed, interact so naturally, and belong in the film they inhabit. Lawrence is outstanding, so confident at such a young age, and Cooper proves that he truly can act; his performance is one of the finest this year. De Niro finally gets the role he deserves, too. This is a kind-hearted, lovely film, one of the year’s true triumphs.
6. Moonrise Kingdom
Moonrise Kingdom is a visionary’s wild dream, a movie only Wes Anderson could’ve made so poignant and hilarious. The ensemble is amongst the finest of the year, with Bill Murray and Bruce Willis being the true standouts, yet Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman are joys to watch; they feel organic and natural, but our unfamiliarity to them probably attributes to that. The film’s progressions work wonders for a viewer, and the second viewing only heightens the things that work here: her novels that she loves dearly, the dog that gets wounded in an arrow fight, and all the other little eccentricities that make Anderson’s films so unique. I don’t find many quirky comedies this compelling, but I love close to every little thing about this beautiful film.
7. The Cabin in the Woods
The Cabin in the Woods is a sly, narratively whacked horror-comedy gem. I’ve seen the film three times now, and every viewing only emphasizes the brilliance of these twists and turns that Whedon and Goddard have put on these clichés. Characters fill these stereotypes, but for reasons that become more and more apparent as this movie goes, well, apeshit. The film is best left to view without a single idea of what it’s about; the less you know, surprisingly, the better. I can’t remember the last time a horror film was this much fun. Teens go to a cabin in the woods all the time, but this film embraces the elements of the genre we love so much, and make us question all that we enjoy about them.
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Perks of Being a Wallflower plays like The Breakfast Club of our generation, but more refined and less conventional. These characters are types that are enhanced by their actors: Logan Lerman’s one of the strongest lead performances I’ve seen this year, a fragile boy who finds his way through a freshman year in high school; Emma Watson is beautiful and does wonders in her supporting role, bringing nuance when it wasn’t needed; and Ezra Miller finally gets the spotlight he deserves, delivering one of the strongest supporting performances of the year as a gay teen struggling with finding love. The film’s focused, devastatingly emotionally true, and resonant throughout. It affected me in ways I still haven’t been able to pinpoint, and for that reason it’s a revelation, one of the year’s best.
9. Life of Pi
Life of Pi is Ang Lee’s, and the American audience’s, discovery of 3D. It’s the most elaborate, respectable use of the technology I’ve ever seen, having it emerge as a cohesive part of the messy art that is film. His tale of a young Indian boy struggling with his faith as he’s stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger is a remarkable character study, one of true ambition and unrelenting commentary. The visuals here are stupendous, wondrous in both their lush colors and escapism. The film is also one marked by a surprising amount of sincerity and heart, especially in the film’s final act that is drenched in optimism only found in movies or some religions. Thankfully, Life of Pi uses both to remind us that Lee is one of the strongest directorial voices out there, and that his film is a markedly beautiful one.
10. The Impossible
The Impossible is one of the most startlingly brutal depictions of a natural disaster I’ve ever seen. It’s a film that emotionally floored me, providing not only one of the most devastating stories ever captured on film, but putting it in a human context with grand meaning. Here, we’re given the tale of a family separated: Naomi Watts playing the mother with her son, played outstandingly by the newcomer Tom Holland, and Ewan McGregor as the father with their other two children. This is a visceral, emotionally draining experience, and it contains two of the strongest performances this year. It moved me immensely; it’s maybe a bit manipulative, but that doesn’t stop it from being any less effective. This is one of those films that won’t be easy to watch again, but it’s sincerely driven and beautifully rendered. It’s a great film.