The Year in Film: The 25 Best Movies of 2012

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Let’s begin by just saying it, in plain and simple terms: It was a remarkable year for movies. After a rather dry period where we had to chase down the corridors of our memories to summon up even a handful of picture worth remembering at year’s end, this year’s cinema offered an embarrassment of riches — so many that we had to forgo the normal Top 10 List for a top 15, and then another list of the year’s best documentaries. It was that kind of year.

What was so right this time? Was it mere luck, chance, coincidence that found so many filmmakers challenging us, thrilling us, and reminding us of what movies can be? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was digital cinema’s democratization of the form; in a world where “amateur” filmmakers are increasingly capable of making films that look and feel “professional,” those lines have blurred, and the marketplace reflects it. Sure, there is more product out there, and individual films can have a harder time breaking through. But the cream tends to rise to the top, and the freedom of form and expression of independent film, as well as its immediacy and energy, worked its way into mainstream filmmaking as well.

2012’s finest films reflected ambition, risk, and advocacy. They asked provocative questions, challenged traditional assumptions, tested the boundaries of autobiography, and introduced characters we’d never met. They boldly redrew the maps of genre, freshly examined the creative process, and dared us to contemplate our own mortality. And, in more traditional terms, they made us laugh, and cry, and feel alive. These are the best films of 2012.

THE TOP 10 DOCUMENTARIES

10. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

The great Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Casino Jack and the United States of Money) takes on the Catholic Church’s legacy of molestation and cover-up with his customary investigative zeal, exposing horrifying malfeasance up to and including the current Pope. His control of the material is remarkable, as is his tone — simultaneously clear-eyed and utterly infuriated. (In theaters)

9. The Zen of Bennett

Three of this year’s most enchanting documentaries merged our love of film and music; this one was the most under-the-radar, but is ripe for discovery. Director Unjoo Moon shot this profile of the great Tony Bennett during the recording of his most recent album of duets, but it’s nothing so drab as a “making-of” doc; the filmmaker approaches his subject as an objet d’art, intoxicated by his swoony style and effortless cool. (Streaming on Netflix)

8. Searching for Sugar Man

Malik Bendjellou’s crowd-pleaser tells the bewitching tale of Rodriguez, the greatest singer/songwriter you’ve never heard of, who made two acclaimed but ignored albums in the early 1970s and then disappeared, only to reemerge as an international cult hero decades later. In tracking down Rodriguez and tracing his cultural influence, Bendejellou creates both a compelling portrait and a moving testament to the power of music. (In theaters)

7. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Director Alison Klayman spent months in the company of Chinese artist, activist, and government bête noire Ai Weiwei, who comes off looking not only like a warrior but a movie star; it’s a little shocking it took someone this long to make one out of him. By turns funny, upsetting, daring, and intimate, Klayman’s film is a gutsy examination of not just the man, but the persona — and how both became such a threat to a world power. (Streaming on Netflix)

6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Like Zen of Bennett, David Gelb’s sublime film is less about a man — in this case, renowned Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono — than it is about a philosophy, of finding one’s life work and taking pleasure in the quest to accomplish it with perfection, even if such a goal is unattainable. The manner in which Gelb unpeels that idea is concise yet restrained, thoughtful yet organic, and the film’s more tactile pleasures (the beauty shots of Jiro’s handiwork are mouth-watering) cannot be overstated. (Streaming on Netflix)

5. Undefeated

“Non-fiction Friday Night Lights” became the go-to shorthand for last year’s Best Documentary Oscar winner (which didn’t receive a conventional release until February), but if the shoe fits, wear it — and have a good, long cry at this absorbing, intelligent, and achingly moving snapshot of a Tennessee high school football team’s triumphs and failures, and the coach and players who are swept up in them. (Currently between theaters and DVD)

4. Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story

Some of this year’s best non-fiction filmmaking took on pressing questions of race in America’s past and present; no film addressed the former with more terse force than Raymond de Felitta’s picture, which begins as a personal journey (he investigates the consequences of an NBC news documentary his father shot in Mississippi back in 1965) and becomes an evocative portrait of a time and place that’s not as distant as we’d like to think. (Streaming on Amazon)

3. Bad 25

Bad has always ranked near the bottom of Michael Jackson’s albums, as far as we’re concerned — a fact we mention only to emphasize the skill and persuasiveness of Spike Lee’s bouncy, ebullient anniversary doc on that album, which heaps infectious enthusiasm and painstaking attention on the particulars of creating one of the most eagerly-anticipated musical works of all time. It’s the most sheer fun we had with any documentary this year. (On Hulu, but in a badly truncated, hour-long form.)

2. The House I Live In

For much of its running time, this essay film from director Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) seems to take a Bowling for Columbine approach to the war and drugs — compelling but scattershot, following personal interests, footnotes, and sidebars without much discipline. Joke’s on us; in the film’s astonishing third act, Jarecki pulls together every strand into a piercing, biting, and highly persuasive thesis that causes the viewer to rethink their entire approach to this contentious issue. This is thought-provoking, bracing viewing. (Currently between theaters and DVD)

1. The Central Park Five

The year’s best documentary, from (no surprise) Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and David McMahon, addresses a two-part injustice: that of the New York law and order apparatus, which erroneously sent five young men to prison for the rape and attempted murder of a jogger in Central Park, in spite of a case that relied exclusively on unreliable “confessions”; and that of the national media, which condemned the teens immediately and could barely be bothered to report their exoneration a decade a half later. The Central Park Five is, in the grand tradition of The Thin Blue Line, one of the great “miscarriage of justice” documentaries, but it’s no historical curio — there’s plenty of relevant subject matter here on race, class, police, and how they’re all twisted and consumed by an increasingly tabloid-styled media apparatus. (In theaters)

THE TOP 15 FILMS

15. Sleepwalk with Me

Mike Birbiglia spun his story of a near-death sleepwalking experience at a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington into a This American Life story, a one-man show, a book, and an album, so imagine our surprise when his feature filmmaking debut turned out to be one of the year’s freshest and more disarming pictures — a painfully honest yet giddily enjoyable work that recalls the best of fellow stand-up-turned-director Woody Allen. (Streaming on Netflix)

14. This is 40

Less impatient — and less indulgent — critics have slammed Judd Apatow’s latest for its meandering style and undisciplined storytelling, but there’s something much more interesting happening here: a kind of nakedly candid autobiographical filmmaking that’s as intensely personal (and as patently disinterested in such conventional concerns) as Cassavetes in his prime. And then it’s explosively funny, on top of that, filled with sneakily uproarious and off-the-cuff vignettes (for what it’s worth, we could watch a feature-length version of Albert Brooks and John Lithgow’s “awkward small talk” scene). (In theaters)

13. Girl Walk // All Day

At the top, it must be said, this experimental feature seems awfully goofy: in drab black and white, a bored ballet dancer shakes off her colorless class and proceeds to dance her way across New York City. Your smirking hesitancy lasts about five minutes, and then you just surrender to Girl Walk // All Day’s raucous spirit and playful enthusiasm. The soundtrack is heavy on mash-ups that merge current hip-hop with classic rock and R&B, and that’s appropriate; Jacob Krupnick’s film melds movie and music video — and, as is the case with better mash-ups, it comes out a combination of the best of both forms. There’s more pure joy in this delightful film than anything we saw this year. (Streaming on their website, in chapters)

12. Safety Not Guaranteed

One of the joys of this awards season is watching people discover Colin Trevorrow’s beguiling time-travel comedy and make room for it in their year-end discussions — it’s an absolute charmer, and a rare film that grows rather than diminishes on repeat viewings. And its classification as “time-travel comedy” is, we’ll admit, awfully reductive; that’s a good hook, but the film is ultimately more concerned with the perils of nostalgia, the notion of self-discovery, and the utter bravery of choosing (often against good common sense) to believe in another. (Available for rental)

11. The Grey

With its January release date and Liam-Neeson-vs-the-wolves ad campaign, Joe Carnahan’s latest looked like forgettable, and quite possibly silly, escapist fare. In one of the year’s nicest surprises, The Grey turned out to be not only a thoroughly gripping adventure yarn, but a direct, lucid, and thoughtful mediation on mortality and bravery. (Streaming on Netflix)

10. The Dark Knight Rises

It was probably impossible for Christopher Nolan to match the towering achievement of The Dark Knight, much less top it — and he did not. But he did follow his Gotham City chronicle to an admirably, and honestly, difficult conclusion, at risk of alienating and upsetting viewers: facing the notion of pure, inexplicable evil for evil’s sake, and examining the implications of taking on such an unfortunately relevant notion. The imagery was often troubling and the political subtext up for grabs, but the filmmaker’s merging of the real and the fantastical was as searing and invigorating as ever. (Available for rental)

9. Amour

The very question of life and death is weighed thoughtfully, carefully, and somewhat unforgivably in Michael Haneke’s ruminative, elegiac portrait of a married couple’s final months together. As is expected with the filmmaker, it is nothing resembling escapist entertainment; the weight and anguish of the events onscreen are often hard to bear. As has become less frequent in his work, that weight and anguish is accompanied by overwhelming emotion — first from the characters, and then from the audience. (In theaters)

8. Holy Motors

There’s a lot that can be — and has been — said about Leos Carax’s exuberant, befuddling, swoony cinematic candy box, but we still haven’t seen it summed up as cleanly as it was on Twitter by our own Judy Berman: “Not totally sure what Holy Motors was, but it still might be my new religion.” (In theaters)

7. The Master

Some audiences found Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest to be utterly impenetrable, exhausting even, and don’t get it twisted: this is a prickly, difficult picture. But Anderson’s uncompromising style and refusal to do an audience’s thinking only heightens The Master’s dreamlike hold — that, and bravura, take-no-prisoners performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. (In theaters)

6. Take This Waltz

Sarah Polley’s heart-wrenching sophomore feature looks at marital fidelity with a complexity usually discouraged by Hollywood’s simple-minded, melodramatic examinations of such affairs: what happens when a wife is unfaithful, and it cannot be explained away by the easy answers with which we’re usually furnished? Michelle Williams continues her remarkable run of complicated women; Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman prove surprisingly adept in semi-serious turns. It’s a film that will make you weep, in none of the expected ways. (Streaming on Netflix)

5. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s latest is his first explicitly “period” film, but his works have always been situated in a time and place of their own, and that world has rarely been as clearly drawn as this. Anderson wrangles a large ensemble to tell several concurrent and colliding stories of heartbreak and loneliness, but with his customary stylish vitality and narrative eccentricities. It’s a film that remembers what it is to fall in love for the first time — and to spend the rest of your life longing to have that feeling again. (Available for rental)

4. Looper

Its logline aside, Rian Johnson’s third film is much more than a sci-fi-infused action shoot-‘em-up — though it includes all of those elements, and makes the most of them. But beyond that, Johnson explores the limitless possibilities of popcorn cinema: narratively, emotionally, and viscerally, Looper is a film where anything seems possible, and the skill with which its creator manipulates those elements is intoxicating. (In theaters)

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Benh Zeitlin’s stunning debut feature sneaks up on you — what seems at first a lovingly-photographed by slightly disjointed tone poem accumulates into an unexpectedly pointed and poignant conclusion, leaving the viewer wrung out but exhilarated, weeping yet swooning. “Millions of years from now,” its protagonist informs us in an early voice-over, “when kids go to school, they’ll know that once there was a girl called Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” You got that right, Hushpuppy. (Available for rental)

2. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s latest epic of revisionist history and B-movie worship is such a terrifying highwire act, such a potentially disastrous mix of disturbing historical fact, Western mythology, and blaxpoitation swagger that it’s a miracle he pulls it off at all — much less that he weaves such disparate elements into such a fully satisfying motion picture. Simultaneously horrifying, rambunctious, and uproarious, it marks another high watermark for one of our most inventive and confident filmmakers. (In theaters)

1. Zero Dark Thirty

No film this year made more pressing the concern of what it is to be an American, of how we feel about who we are and what we’ve become, than Kathryn Bigelow’s taut, forceful, gripping account of the nine-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The picture’s matter-of-fact, procedural approach has earned it the ire of those who want art — and make no mistake, ZD30 is a work of art — to tell them what to think and how to feel; Bigelow will have none of it, forcing us to look unblinkingly at the dark places we’ve allowed ourselves to go in the name of God and country. To do our thinking for us is to let us off the hook; she forces her audience to consider the implications of what happens on-screen with an urgency that surpasses any of the “action” resulting from it. (In theaters)

RUNNERS-UP: The Raid: Redemption, God Bless America, Killer Joe, Compliance, The Cabin in the Woods, Chicken with Plums, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Jeff Who Lives at Home, ParaNorman, Robot & Frank, Middle of Nowhere, Haywire, Barbara, Life of Pi, Argo, Cloud Atlas, Rust and Bone, Lincoln, Killing Them Softly, Silver Linings Playbook, Miss Bala, Sound of Noise, Oslo August 31, and Turn Me On, Dammit! In another year, any of these fine films would have placed; it’s a testament to the quality of this year’s offerings that they didn’t.