2012 was an exceptionally strong year in film, both in quality and at the box office.
In terms of box office dollars, 2012 was the highest grossing year of all time. Part of that has to do with increasing ticket prices and a greater prevalence of 3D/IMAX ticket premiums. But after a weak 2011 box office, it's still a good sign.
In terms of quality, 2012 was equally strong. And with more than a handful of well received festival releases that couldn't find distribution, we already have a lot to look forward to in 2013.
Whittling down the sixty plus movies that I saw in theaters last year, plus the other 2012 releases that I ended up seeing on video, to a list of ten proved incredibly difficult. I was sure of my top eight, but I wavered on the final two slots. This is my list right now - ask me again in a week and I might have changed my mind.
I didn't see everything I would have liked to in 2012, but such is the way of the world. Obviously, just because a movie doesn't appear here doesn't mean I didn't like it. There are excellent movies that I greatly enjoyed (like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook just to name a couple) that I simply couldn't find room for. It's also worth noting that two of my least favorite films of 2012, The Paperboy and Take This Waltz, are both highly regarded by many (especially the latter). Maybe that's not worth noting, but I find it interesting nonetheless.
The list ...
Honorable Mentions (in no order): Argo, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Dark Knight Rises, Magic Mike
10: Life of Pi - I read the book years ago. I remembered little by way of specifics, and went into Ang Lee's adaptation with very minimal expectations. I left the theater having just seen a prime example of the power of cinema as a visual medium. The story of a shipwrecked teenage boy who finds himself alone in a rescue boat with a massive Bengal tiger named Richard Parker is worth inclusion on this list for its stunning visuals, seamless use of 3D, and amazing incorporation of CGI (the tiger is infrequently real). But the story, adapted from Yann Martel's novel by David Magee, carries sufficient emotional weight thanks to a noteworthy debut performance by Suraj Sharma. The ambiguous nature of the "twist" ending plays really well with the film's religious elements, and will likely leave viewers questioning the interplay of faith and reality.
9: Killing Them Softly - I said a couple weeks ago that Killing Them Softly was the most misunderstood film of the year, and I'd stand by that statement. Andrew Dominik's followup to The Assassination of Jesse James is basically art house fare masquerading as a mainstream actioner behind the star power of Brad Pitt. Now, Pitt's performance as a cynical hit man is filled with the actor's typical bravado. But Pitt is arguably not even the main character. And the brutal yet infrequent violence separated by long stretches of incredibly well written dialogue was, in my opinion, far from what audiences were expecting. It's a shame because, despite it's intentional lack of subtlety, Killing Them Softly's exploration of failed American promises and recession era economics seen through the eyes of seedy criminals was one of the more unique offerings of 2012.
8: Amour - Michael Haneke's second Palm d'Or winner over the past four years shows us love in a way rarely if ever depicted on film. Make no mistake, Amour is not a pleasant film. At times it's incredibly difficult to watch due to the unflinching nature with which Haneke films his subjects. For those who are unfamiliar, Amour is about Anne and Georges, an elderly couple dealing with Anne's recent stroke. With each static, lingering shot, Haneke shows us how Georges cares for Anne as she gradually deteriorates, and as the end becomes more and more inevitable. It's love in the face of mortality. Legendary actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are so convincing as the pair that it's easy to forget we're actually watching a fictional narrative. Amour is an emotionally draining experience - a film with the power to remain with viewers long after the credits roll.
7: West of Memphis - How can someone be convicted of murder when no shred of physical evidence ties them to the crime? Documentary filmmaker Amy Berg's follow up to her devastating 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil tells the story of the West Memphis Three, three teenagers who spent over eighteen years in prison from 1994 to 2011 for three murders that they did not commit. This is a case that I've followed personally for years. It is the quintessential example of everything that can go wrong with the criminal justice system - a mob-like rush to judgment, a coerced confession, investigatory and prosecutorial misconduct, and a constant refusal to properly right an obvious wrong. The amazing thing about Berg's documentary is that it manages to bring new information to a case that has already been the subject of multiple documentaries (works likely responsible for the semi-positive outcome). Its finger pointing is not meant to be equivocal, but rather to point out the numerous errors contained within the original investigation and trial. Justice? Hardly.
6: Skyfall - For someone who would not identify as a continual fan of the James Bond series, Skyfall exceeded all expectations. Daniel Craig's Bond continues to develop as almost the anti-Bond: rather than the two-dimensional cut outs we're used to seeing, Craig's Bond is a layered, well developed character concerned more with introspection than with finding his next sexual conquest, or using any number of perfectly crafted gadgets to escape his latest problem. Believe it or not, there is actual peril here. A lot of this has to do with a conscious a deliberate effort on the part first time Bond director Sam Mendes to make Skyfall less action film and more drama. His choice paid off. Add in some of the most gorgeous visuals of the year, and a ridiculously good turn by Javier Bardem, and Skyfall was without question the best blockbuster of 2012.
5: Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson's seventh film was the first great film of 2012. Having just seen it again recently, it more than holds up on subsequent viewings.Moonrise Kingdom might just be the most Wes Anderson - Wes Anderson film of the directors career, and anyone familiar with his body of work will understand what I'm saying. All of the director's calling cards reached new highs here - his signature shooting style, his use of primary colors, his meticulously designed costumes and sets, and his quirky humor that masks what is ultimately a very heartfelt story about damaged characters. The additions of names like Bruce Willis and Edward Norton to Anderson's ever growing troupe proved to be a perfect choice, and mainstays like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman didn't disappoint either. It's amazing that as Anderson becomes more and more forcefully himself, if you will, he manages to keep churning out such likable films. Maybe the time will come when it feels as if he's parodying himself, but this isn't it.
4: Django Unchained - Any year that contains a new film from Quentin Tarantino is bound to be a good year. The writer/director has yet to disappoint, and Django Unchained is no different. Tarantino has never shied away from criticism, and it should come as no surprise that he pushes the envelope even further here. The fact that his spaghetti western homage incorporates blaxploitation elements and is set around slavery plantations in the late 1850's should tell you all you need to know about where we're headed. If that doesn't bother you, Django was one of the most consistently entertaining films of the year thanks in large part to Tarantino's writing (this might actually be his funniest film yet) and a cast of excellent actors who're all in fine form. Leonardo Dicaprio shines as the ultimate villain, and Christoph Waltz challenges his own Hans Landa character from Inglourious Basterds as the best character Tarantino has ever created. Oh, and the last hour must be seen to be believed.
3: Looper - The less you know here, the better, so I'll be brief. It's amazing that Looper can borrow so much from previous films, yet dissect in reassemble them in a way that feels so unique. That's a testament to writer/director Rian Johnson's genre-blending screenplay. Believe me when I say that where we begin is no indication of where we'll end up. Part of the appeal comes in how briefly Looper's time-traveling mechanism is explicitly detailed. We're given enough to create a coherent understanding, but gray areas are purposely left gray. Johnson actually shows us how it works more than he tells us. This is, after all, a story revolving around time travel. As such, there are bound to be unexplainable plot holes, so you'll have to suspend disbelief and accept what this world gives you. Oh, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is actually convincing as a young Bruce Willis.
2: Zero Dark Thirty - I'll be writing a full review of Zero Dark Thirty when the movie opens in wide release in about a week. For now, I'll say that Kathryn Bigelow's followup to 2008's terrific The Hurt Locker far exceeds the previous film in terms of overall scope. Jessica Chastain might have given the strongest female performance of the year as Maya, a CIA agent obsessed with locating and eliminating Osama Bin Laden. The film opens on sequences of brutal torture, and the intensity never lets up. Don't be fooled by criticisms levied at Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal by politicians either. Zero Dark Thirty is in no way a film that advocates torture. Nor does it depict torture as the be-all and end-all of American intelligence gathering. Some people clearly went into this film with preconceptions, and thus misinterpreted everything that followed. This is, after all, a movie, and not a documentary.
1: The Master - No other movie in 2012 was as fascinating as Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. In my opinion, the gap between The Master and everything else released this past year is not a particularly tight one. Joaquin Phoenix's on-screen volatility is frightening, and the relationship that develops between Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a man very set in his ways, and Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), an enigmatic cult leader whose existence revolves around setting people on the right path gave audiences the most well acted film of 2012. The cryptic subject matter shrouds what is a deceptively simple narrative, but I wouldn't pretend to understand all of the nuances after only one viewing. Nonetheless, Anderson's direction is as assured as ever, and Jonny Greenwood's unorthodox score gives The Master a very unsettling tone. While this might be Anderson's least accessible film to date, if you're a fan of the director's work, particularly his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood, there's no reason to believe that you'll be anything less than taken by The Master.