10. Seven Psychopaths/The Cabin in the Woods
I had to find room for an out-of-left-field cult choice here, and these two genre subversions fit the bill. Enormously entertaining and liberated from the shackles of Hollywood conformity, these uproarious meta-comedies offer fresh takes on horror and action-cinema satire, invigorated and alive to the possibilities of moviemaking.
9. Farewell, My Queen
French director Benoit Jacquot gave us this fresh take on subjects familiar to moviegoers – Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. The unrequited love, hot-blooded same-sex repression apparent in so many Rainer Werner Fassbinder films rears itself in a cloistered vision of a city in turmoil. Jacquot films the storming of Bastille as a chamber drama, shooting in close-up where other directors might aspire to a long view of history, thus finding the personal in the political.
David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s prophetic novel is a difficult, caustic rebound from the static misfire of “A Dangerous Method.” The idea of a billionaire shielded in his luxury limousine while the world outside him crumbles makes for a revelatory polemic on the state of capitalism and income inequality in a globalized market. It’s surprisingly funny, too.
7. The Deep Blue Sea
British auteur Terence Davies’ first film in 11 years is a plaintive and devastating study of the human condition, a ravishing experience characterized by the director’s immaculately composed, almost slow-motion approach to storytelling. The most poetic film I saw all year, “The Deep Blue Sea” intoxicates us with the sinuous smoke of cigarettes and the haunting melodies of barroom sing-a-longs, performed by people as if they were posing for paintings.
6. Zero Dark Thirty
Say what you will about the film’s presentation of the efficacy of torture – no matter what it’s saying, it’s re-igniting a debate about the policy and will likely walk away with numerous Oscars and the title of Most Important Film of 2012. Beyond that, just appreciate the superb, painstaking verisimilitude, the riveting insider jargon, and the overriding feminist message in its presentation of the one of the strongest, most muscular female leads the movies have given us since the days of “Johnny Guitar” and “Forty Guns.”
5. The Sessions
A miraculous movie, small in scale but large in inspiration, “The Sessions” is funny, fearless and accepting, and I can think of few instances of sex being depicted onscreen with such frankness and beauty. Daniel Day-Lewis will inevitably win the Best Actor Oscar, but John Hawkes’ masterful lead performance needs to be seen to be believed.
4. The Kid With a Bike
This is the latest moral quagmire from Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers, the cinema’s great humanists of our time. Delving beyond the deceptive, childlike simplicity of its title, the Dardennes explore, once again, the sins of the father and their impact on his offspring, culminating in heartbreaking tragedy and, hopefully, the possibility for redemption.
This uncategorizable genre hybrid from Richard Linklater is as innovative as it is entertaining, merging pseudo-documentary with re-enacted docudrama to create funny, bizarre and elusive results that break with cinematic convention. The film presents Texas as a repository for weird truth and believable quirk, and Jack Black’s extraordinary performance actually makes us feel sympathy toward a cold-blooded murderer.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
A flash of brilliance from the middle of nowhere, Benh Zetilin’s magical realist drama has the allure of great outsider art, a film unlike any before it and presumably any to follow it. Yet in some ways I thought of “Winter’s Bone,” a film, like this one, in which atmosphere is vital as narrative, context is as important as story, and ethnography blurs with fiction.
I’m as surprised as anyone to see a Steven Spielberg movie topping my list, but in this case, none of the director’s obnoxious trappings – slow dollies toward awestruck faces, a manipulative John Williams score – are present in the final product. The director had the wisdom to hand over the reigns to his extraordinary screenwriter, Tony Kushner, who wrote a political movie for the ages – yesterday’s, tomorrow’s and certainly today’s – that is both appropriately cynical and humane, with some of the best acting of this or any year.
Honorable mentions: "Damsels in Distress," “Oslo, August 31,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Take This Waltz,” “Argo”
- The Impossible
- Hit and Run
- The Three Stooges
- John Carter
- Red Lights
- Peace, Love & Misunderstanding
- Lola Versus
- The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel