I didn’t fall in love with a lot of movies this year, but there were quite a few that I liked an awful lot. Strong, significant infatuations, maybe. The films that ended up in the bottom few spots on this list could have been swapped with a half-dozen other equally good titles if I’d made the list on a different day or in a different mood. But that’s why they invented honorable mentions.
The mix of films on this list is probably a good representation of my tastes. There’s studio blockbuster stuff, independent fare, a couple foreign films, comedy, horror, drama, and some genre deconstruction. Also of note: six of the 10 are wholly original properties; one grew out of a workshopped play; one is an author’s film version of his own book; one is based on a true story; and only one is part of a franchise. I noticed a similar trend last year, too. Let’s hear it for originality!
THE BEST MOVIES OF 2012
Other movies on this list are more innovative than Ben Affleck’s superlatively entertaining drama about an attempt to rescue six American hostages from Iran in 1980. But the movie’s adherence to classic Hollywood formula is part of why I love it so much: it’s a sign that there’s still life in the old system, that movies can be smart and crowd-pleasing at the same time, not to mention patriotic without being jingoistic. Appropriately, “Argo” itself is a story about the Hollywood dream factory’s resilience and usefulness, recounting an incident where the movies — and people’s perception of them — literally meant the difference between life and death. We’re laughing, gasping, and cheering at Chris Terrio’s efficient screenplay and the many engaging performances, but we’re also being reminded of the significant role that movies play in our lives.
2. “Holy Motors”
Like “Argo,” “Holy Motors” is a movie about movies. Unlike “Argo,” “Holy Motors” is _______. (Anything you can put in that blank will be true.) Leo Carax’s unabashedly bizarre, metaphorical love letter to cinema is open to interpretation in some of its details, immune to interpretation in others, and transfixing from start to finish. I realize that my love for this movie might be similar to a mathematician’s love for a particularly elegant equation, based more on admiration than emotional response. But “Holy Motors” is incredibly fun (and funny), too, an exhilarating example of the medium’s potential.
3. “The Cabin in the Woods”
The ideal audience for Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s ingenious deconstruction of horror movies is people who have seen a lot of them, and who have thought about their tropes and cliches. That’s probably why it was a flop at the box office: on date night, most people would rather see a straightforward horror flick than an analysis of horror flicks. But for those of us who are into this sort of thing, “Cabin in the Woods” is the most exciting shake-up in the horror world since “Scream.”
4. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
A little girl named Hushpuppy, played by 6-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis with astonishing lack of artifice, lives happily but squalidly with her daddy in a particularly wet part of the Louisiana bayou known as the Bathtub. With intoxicating lyricism and poetry, director Benh Zeitlin — who also co-wrote the screenplay and musical score — presents a film that’s part fairy tale and part Dickensian adventure, a unique view of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances whose loveliness has lingered with me ever since I saw it in January.
5. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
On first viewing, I found Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own 1999 coming-of-age novel vividly effective but a little bumpy. On second viewing, my reaction was much more emotional, which is to say I wept like a kitten. Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, and Emma Watson all play memorable, relatable teenagers learning that it’s OK to be screwed up, and the film captures the exuberance and angst of adolescence better than anything has in a while.
6. “Kill List”
This movie about a pair of murder-for-hire blokes will jack you up — in part because of the occasional bursts of shocking violence, but more because of the profoundly unsettling eeriness of the whole thing. The film’s last 20 minutes combine real and surreal into an insane climax of dizzying, what-the-hell-am-I-watching nightmares. Like I said: it will jack you up.
In a year where most of the sci-fi was in the form of disappointing sequels, prequels, and remakes, Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller felt all the more original. Like most great science-fiction, it emphasized the human element over gadgets, gimmicks, and twists. The well-wrought performances by Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (playing a young Bruce Willis) didn’t hurt, either.
In this, the 23rd entry of the 50-year-old movie series, James Bond’s superiors wondered if he was still relevant. “Skyfall” asked us the same thing: does 007 make sense in the modern world, or is he a relic? The answer that both MI6 and the audience came up with was a resounding yes, thanks to this savvy, introspective adventure that mixed the old ways with the new ways. After reintroducing the character in “Casino Royale” and continuing his development in “Quantum of Solace,” “Skyfall” ends with all the pieces in place for a new, rebooted, 21st-century Bond.
9. “Oslo, August 31st”
The date in the title of this haunting, sympathetic Norwegian drama is the proverbial first day in the rest of a certain man’s life. Clean-cut, optimistic 34-year-old Anders (played so earnestly by Anders Danielsen Lie) has just emerged from a rehab facility after several months of being clean and sober. Can he build a new life from the ashes of his old one? Writer-director Joachim Trier makes us root for him all the way.
10. “Moonrise Kingdom”
As dry, droll, and sweet as ever, Wes Anderson scored another solid entry with this wryly heartfelt story of young love between a camping Boy Scout and a local girl on a New England island in 1965. Setting it in the past gives it a more wistful quality, and Anderson’s playful yet formalized style doesn’t keep us at arm’s length. “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about” might be, in context, the year’s best line of dialogue.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): “The Avengers,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Friends with Kids,” “Goon,” “The Grey,” “Haywire,” “Headhunters,” “Lincoln,” “The Master,” “Rust and Bone,” “Sinister,” “Sound of My Voice,” “Zero Dark Thirty”
Films I didn’t see that have appeared on many other critics’ top 10 lists: “How to Survive a Plague,” “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” “Take This Waltz”
THE WORST MOVIES OF 2012
(A more thorough discussion is at Film.com, but here’s the list.)
MISCELLANEOUS DATA (originally published at Pajiba)
Shortest movie: “A Cat in Paris,” 64 minutes
Longest movie: “Cloud Atlas,” 172 minutes
Shortest title: (tie) “Ted,” “360,” “ATM”
Longest title: “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez”
Least enjoyable good movie: “Amour”
Most enjoyable bad movie: “Lockout”
Movies in which Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes” makes an appearance: “Wanderlust,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”
Movies in which a man puts his fingers in another’s man mouth: “21 Jump Street,” “American Reunion,” “The Three Stooges,” “Holy Motors”
Movies in which a girl’s record collection is very important to her: Rock of Ages, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Movies in which archery is prominent: The Avengers, Brave, The Hunger Games, Moonrise Kingdom
R-rated comedies set in the Boston area about raunchy, pot-smoking losers who were famous in the ’80s and who disrupt their closest associates’ lives, and in which there are numerous celebrity cameos and jokes about the washed-up cast of Diff’rent Strokes: That’s My Boy, Ted
Movies about male dancers set in south Florida: Magic Mike, Step Up Revolution
Movies in which a woman is unaware that her nipple is sticking out of her shirt: The Campaign, 2 Days in New York, The Impossible
Movies in which the size of a young boy’s penis is discussed: Klown, 2 Days in New York
Movies with supernatural elements in which key scenes take place in a Costco: The Watch, The Apparition
Movies in which someone vomits during a public performance, and then sees video of the incident go viral on YouTube: Pitch Perfect, Here Comes the Boom
Movies in which someone falls through the ice on a frozen pond: Rust and Bone, Rise of the Guardians, Skyfall
Movies in which slavery is depicted and decried: Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Cloud Atlas, Django Unchained
Movies in which human teeth are sold, collected, or otherwise harvested: Les Miserables, Cloud Atlas, Rise of the Guardians
Movies with confusing and possibly interchangeable subtitles: The Raid: Redemption, Resident Evil: Retribution, Silent Hill: Revelation, Underworld: Awakening
Movies whose titles are homages or references to past horror films: Hitchcock, Frankenweenie, Hotel Transylvania
Killer movies: Kill List, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly
Sleepy movies: Sleepwalk with Me, Sleep Tight, Sleepless Night
Home movies: House at the End of the Street, Safe House, The Cabin in the Woods, Silent House, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, The House I Live In, Casa de Mi Padre
Colorful movies: Red Tails, Red Dawn, Red Lights, Red Hook Summer, The Grey, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, The Woman in Black, Snow White and the Huntsman, Blue Like Jazz, The Oranges
Movies whose titles are complete sentences: Here Comes the Boom, The Dark Knight Rises, God Bless America, Sleepwalk with Me, That’s My Boy, Think Like a Man, This Is 40, This Means War, This Must Be the Place
Movies that sound like they are about baseball: Pitch Perfect, Playing for Keeps, Trouble with the Curve
Movies whose titles are just somebody’s name: Alex Cross, Jack Reacher, John Carter, Anna Karenina, Ruby Sparks, Bernie, Hitchcock, Lincoln, Marley, Ted
This and that movies: Robot & Frank, Chico & Rita, Rust and Bone, Wagner & Me, Jack and Diane, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
Counting movies: One for the Money, 2 Days in New York, The Three Stooges, Paranormal Activity 4, The Five-Year Engagement, 6 Month Rule, Seven Psychopaths
Movies on the rise: The Dark Knight Rises, Rise of the Guardians, Moonrise Kingdom
Manly movies: Think Like a Man, Man on a Ledge, Searching for Sugar Man, Mansome, The Man with the Iron Fists, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, The Amazing Spider-Man
Movies in which actor Irrfan Khan says the name “Richard Parker,” who is another character in the movie: The Amazing Spider-Man, Life of Pi
Movies in which the villain was born in a prison and now pursues a relentless course against a pillar-of-the-community protagonist: The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables
Movies in which John Goodman swept through the place, did a couple scenes, and instantly improved the film by at least 20%: Argo, Trouble with the Curve, Flight
Movies in which a man receives an HJ from a lady: Hyde Park on Hudson, The Master, On the Road
Best threats from generally non-intimidating actors: “If you insult me again, I will cut your face off and wear it over my own.” — Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe; “Touch my friends again and I’ll blind you.” — Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower; “I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot.” — Tom Cruise, Jack Reacher