This was the best year for movies since 2010? 2007? 1999? 1997? Whatever the answer, 2012 was a damn good year. Ahead, a countdown of my favorites.
10. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" ...
... and "This Is 40," "21 Jump Street," "Looper," "Life of Pi," "Sleepwalk With Me," "The Master," "Cloud Atlas," "Promised Land," "The Cabin In The Woods," "Ruby Sparks," "Wreck-It Ralph," "Magic Mike," "The Five-Year Engagement," "Argo," "Celeste & Jesse Forever," "The Hunger Games," "Bachelorette," "Les Miserables," "Haywire," "Side by Side"
Is it a cheat to tie 21 movies at the bottom of a top-10 list? Of course! It's my list, however, and trying to pick one of these films for 10th place felt impossible. (As did leaving off "The Impossible"; sorry, Naomi Watts.) From ambitious-and-flawed epics ("Life of Pi," "Cloud Atlas," "Les Miserables" and "The Master") to R-rated comedies ("This Is 40," "21 Jump Street," "The Five-Year Engagement" and "Bachelorette"), from studio-released adult dramas ("Argo," "Promised Land," "Magic Mike") to Sundance favorites ("Sleepwalk With Me" and "Celeste & Jesse Forever"), from genre-busting game-changers ("The Cabin In The Woods" and "Looper") to blockbusters with brains ("Wreck-It Ralph" and "The Hunger Games"), this year was a smorgasbord of delightful filmmaking. In fact, any one of these films would have made it into the top five of my 2011 list. (If you're a keeping score-type, however, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" can be considered No. 10; it's the best movie about growing up since "Almost Famous.")
9. "The Dark Knight Rises"
One of the biggest bummers of 2012 was watching film nitpicking replace film criticism. With no movie was that more evident than "The Dark Knight Rises," which sparked a rash of online plot-hole debunking rather than online celebration. No one does these comic book movies better than Christopher Nolan. To wit: The difference between ticking-clock, nuke-fueled third acts of "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Marvel's The Avengers"? In Nolan's film, there are stakes; in Joss Whedon's, there are more Marvel sequels with the key protagonists. The idea that Nolan could have killed Bruce Wayne off in "The Dark Knight Rises," even while keeping Batman alive, allowed for one of the more ingenious comic-book plots of the last decade. Even the fanfic, cake-and-eat-it-too ending is ambiguous. Did Bruce die in the nuclear explosion? Does it actually matter? "The Dark Knight Rises" is more than we deserve, but exactly what we need.
Now, now, now: "Lincoln" is both a timely history lesson and stirring entertainment. (There are jokes in this one, people!) Star Daniel Day-Lewis and writer Tony Kushner should have their Oscar acceptance speeches expertly honed by now, but it's director Steven Spielberg who might deserve the most credit. It's hard to imagine another director balancing the film's wonky sentimentality with such ease, while also procuring excellent performances from nearly everyone in the eclectic cast (Day-Lewis, of course, but also James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Walton Goggins and David Strathairn, among many others).
R.A. Dickey is baseball's version of Andy Dufrense. The journeyman knuckleball pitcher crawled through the sports equivalent of 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness throughout his career, only to wind up starting -- and succeeding -- for the New York Mets. Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg ("Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"), "Knuckleball" picks up Dickey's story during spring training of 2011, dovetailing his rise with the final season of Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. The film is about baseball in the same way "Friday Night Lights" was about football: It's the venue for the story, but not the point. Bittersweet bonus points for the fact that, after the events of "Knuckleball," Dickey went on to win the Cy Young award in 2012. He was later traded away to the Toronto Blue Jays, ending his Mets career.
6. "Pitch Perfect"
There were certainly better movies released in 2012, but none were as aca-amazing as "Pitch Perfect." An intoxicating amalgam of "Bring It On," "Glee" and "Mean Girls," "Pitch Perfect" made Rebel Wilson a star, gave "Bright Lights Bigger City" a permanent place on any Spotify playlist (just me?) and included two stand-up-and-cheer moments: Wilson's rendition of "Turn the Beat Around" and the rousing, John Hughesian finale. (Portions of this blurb previously published here.)
5. "Moonrise Kingdom"
"Moonrise Kingdom" marries Wes Anderson's meticulously designed retro-sensibilities with what Don Draper would have described as the pain from an old wound. (You might describe it as nostalgia.) The result is like a perfect summer cocktail: light and fizzy with a sneaky amount of depth that lingers on long after it's finished. Kudos to Anderson for getting great performances out of the two teens at the center of the film (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman), but veterans like Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Frances McDormand hold things together by being appropriately deadpan and melancholy. (Portions of this blurb previously published here.)
4. "Django Unchained"
Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is an embarrassment of riches. It's the kind of 165-minute epic that could add another 30 minutes to its running time and still be too short. (Lo, to watch these characters sit around and spout some more of Tarantino's dialogue.) It's also a kind of oxymoron: It's one of Tarantino's silliest works -- people literally explode like they're in a Looney Tunes episode -- but also his most mature and world-weary. There are scenes in "Django Unchained" of such unspeakable horror that they'll stick with you long after you leave the theater. For a guy who, 20 years ago, turned cutting someone's ear off into a punchline, this is growing up.
3. "Silver Linings Playbook"
"Silver Linings Playbook" actually ends with a dance competition, so go ahead and call this one the "feel good movie of the year" with a straight face and an exclamation point. Written and directed by David O. Russell, "Silver Linings Playbook" feels like a movie Billy Wilder would have made were he still alive, complete with Jennifer Lawrence as a modern-day Fran Kubelik. If that makes Bradley Cooper the nouveau Jack Lemmon, then so be it: Cooper is a revelation in "Silver Linings Playbook."
2. "Safety Not Guaranteed"
Or, every pot has a lid. Based, in part, on an internet meme, "Safety Not Guaranteed" tells the story of a misfit (Mark Duplass) in search of a time-travel companion, who finds love and understanding with a tough-but-damaged young woman (Aubrey Plaza). Equal parts heartbreak and heart-burst, "Safety Not Guaranteed" is not just one of 2012's best movies, but also its sweetest. Also, if anyone wants to give Jake Johnson an Oscar for playing the best misanthrope with a heart of gold since Bill Murray in "Rushmore," that would be totally cool.
1. "Zero Dark Thirty"
"Zero Dark Thirty," Bigelow's globe- and decade-spanning docudrama about the search for Osama bin Laden, mixes the obsessive nature of David Fincher's "Zodiac" with the no-frills action and suspense of Michael Mann's "Heat." The result is a feature that will be studied for years to come, not just for Bigelow's filmmaking prowess (the third-act raid on bin Laden's compound in particular), but because what the film says about the effectiveness -- or ineffectiveness -- of torture. It's impossible to separate "Zero Dark Thirty" from the debate surrounding the veracity of some of its claims, but why would anyone want to? "Zero Dark Thirty" is art masquerading as journalism. It asks tough questions of the audience and doesn't provide easy answers. It's the motherfucker that found this place; what happens next is up to you. (Portions of this blurb previously published here.)
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