Too often, avid filmgoers have been let down by a particular year’s offerings. 2012 has not been one of those years. In the past 12 months, we’ve enjoyed a deluge of quality documentaries, rich foreign films and high-quality big-budget titles. When the most popular films of the year are smarter or more enjoyable than usual (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games), that’s a great sign.
Now, at the turn of the year, here are my Top Ten films of 2012. Included after each summary are links to help you find each movie, which we hope are especially helpful for some of the smaller movies, or for those titles you may have missed in theaters. Please enjoy!
10. Zero Dark Thirty
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal could have made a hell of a mess blending the tedium of intelligence-gathering with the traditional thrills of a spy movie. But they created quite the opposite, a carefully structured mini-epic that mixes conventional movie moments with tense, reality-based action, in detailing the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. As the lead intel agent, Jessica Chastain plays valiantly through the clichés—sure, she’s plucky and overworked–only to step aside in the final act, when a group of nameless soldiers carry out her assault, a sequence that feels so authentic, you’d swear it was a documentary. Currently playing in NY and LA, opening wider January 11.
If you were waiting for Ridley Scott’s long-anticipated Alien follow-up to be, well, another Alien, you missed out on an intelligent, fantastically fun science fiction film. A band of scientists, guns for hire and crew members (with a superb Michael Fassbender as the artificial captain) enter the great unknown to search for what could be the origins and meaning of human life. Scott, working from a screenplay co-written by Lost’s Damon Lindelof, still works a set-piece like an old pro, including a terrifying sequence involving Noomi Rapace and a very advanced medical device. We’ll leave it there. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming now.
8. The Master
Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman give the finest, most complicated performances of any duo in a 2012 film, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s lush, bizarrely paced study of a grass-roots cult leader (Hoffman) and his potential protégé (Phoenix). Examining themes of freedom (both spiritual and physical) and trust, Anderson’s screenplay is one of the most impressive of the year: It’s dangerous, spontaneous and oddly masculine, a vibe that recalls Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara mixing it up in the early 70s. Coming to Blu-ray, DVD and streaming on February 26, 2013.
7. Sound of My Voice
Like The Master, this puzzling, grossly overlooked drama questions blind faith in a leader, but with a time travel theme that’s decidedly un-sci-fi. Two investigative reporters infiltrate a small cadre of followers who put their hopes in a mysterious blond woman claiming to have come from the future. Brit Marling (who co-wrote the script) is perfectly cast as Maggie, the pale, soft-spoken leader who’s both hypnotic and new-age annoying. Is she an opportunistic freak? A schizophrenic? The real deal? We’re kept guessing. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming now.
6. This Is Not a Film
While awaiting a jail sentence from the Iranian government for participating in the film community, acclaimed director Jafar Panahi created one of the year’s most daring movies by shooting this documentary in his apartment. Panahi reviews his career and reads a banned screenplay on camera, not only challenging the rules of his arrest (no filmmaking, of course) but also the very idea of what defines a film. This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive hidden inside a cake, and screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. If you’re interested in the expression and joys of film, you have to see this. Coming to DVD on February 26, 2013.
5. Cloud Atlas
The word “ambitious” has been overused in describing this mega-movie from Andy and Lana Wachoswki, and Tom Tykwer; it’s accurate, sure, but it’s also not the point. In bringing David Mitchell’s giant, centuries-spanning novel to the screen, the trio of filmmakers has a hell of a great time connecting the universe, sharing their joy of movies by spanning a half-dozen genres and using the same actors in every story, encouraging plenty of heavy makeup and giddy scenery-chewing. And in a move that shows guts and maturity, they confine Cloud Atlas’ cosmic continuity to small, quickly forgotten details rather than some predictable over-arching, revelation. (The latter is how, say, M. Night Shyamalan would direct it.) This movie’s smart. And a blast. Home video and DVD date not yet announced, you can sign up for notification on Amazon.
4. Dark Horse
The much-maligned Todd Solondz delivers one of his most emotionally generous, character-focused films—while still thumbing his nose at general convention. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a loud, perpetual teenager who lives with and works for his parents; Miranda (Selma Blair) is a droopy, sad sack without much of a future. With Solondz’s forced perspective on the realities of romance, the pair rushes into an odd, awkward relationship, first confused by Abe’s fantasies, then Solondz’s. Perfectly tuned performances by Gelber, Christopher Walken and Donna Murphy contribute to the uncomfortable humor and unexpected heartbreak. Available now on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming.
If the classic Hollywood thriller of decades past enjoys a comeback, we can all thank Ben Affleck. The actor-director’s telling of a top-secret rescue during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis is a wonderful co-mingling of art and commerce, an exceptional film that’s agreeable to just about everybody; it’s a history lesson, a quickly paced espionage tale, an inside chuckle at Hollywood, and a proud example of American humor and ingenuity. While some of our finer films today are extracting longer takes and longer scenes (the ‘slow burn’ approach, as it’s been called), Affleck is going the other way with great adeptness, ensuring that every scene and word are carefully crafted and expertly delivered. Coming to Blu-ray, DVD and streaming February 19, 2013.
2. Oslo, August 31st
One of the most insightful directors working today is Joachim Trier, and his second feature is a beauty. Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie, star of Trier’s first film, Reprise) has a 24-hour leave from the room he inhabits at a rehab center, back out to the temptations and colors of the city for a job interview. Through Trier’s lens and Anders’ eyes, we see that life moves on, full of love, confusion, destruction, peace, parties, family… and Anders is just treading water along the edges. As the day progresses, we become aware that it’s one to mark on the calendar, offering both wide-open clarity and tragic resignation. Trier’s opening and closing sequences are absolute treasures. I’ll be seeing this one again. Now available on DVD, as well as Netflix streaming.
1. The Imposter
With his bold, frightening, horror show of a documentary, director Bart Layton has created the best film of 2012. A French sociopath named Frédéric Bourdin tells Spanish police he is the missing child of a Texas family, whose son disappeared years earlier. The family believes him and takes him in—and that’s just scratching the surface of the story’s strange sickness, which Layton slowly and effectively ratchets up with the skills of a practiced suspense storyteller. Artistically, The Imposter is more, a reflection of our current obsessions with titillating tales and reality TV, a study of David Lynch-ian darkness and Errol Morris-style investigation. The Imposter grabs us right away—Bourdin tells his story directly to the camera, Layton playing with sound effects and mysterious re-creations—and never lets go. Available now on DVD and streaming.