Requisite disclaimers: I obviously haven't seen every film this year, although I did my best. And I only today received a screener for Holy Motors (which I missed at Fantastic Fest due to the fact that I never get to actually see movies at Fantastic Fest since I'm always working it), so I'll probably scream and curse that I wasn't able to include it in the next couple of days when I finally have time to see it.
And my final disclaimer is that I am an ornery, cheating scoundrel, because I simply refused to whittle down this list any further. I whittled and whittled until I could whittle no more, and so my number ten is a tie (between two films that couldn't be more different). Loving too many films this year is a really great problem to have. It's maybe my favorite problem ever.
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Raid: Redemption (tie)
Strange, powerful, dangerous, beautiful, scary, sad: Beasts of the Southern Wild is no more or less than life shown in the candid colors of childhood. Quvenzhané Wallis gives a fierce and guileless performance that elevates the entire film, already great, to something amazing.
The Raid affected me on a physical level, socking me in the gut, forcing me to the edge of my seat, bringing me to gasp and cheer and hold my breath and gnaw my fingernails in the space of minutes. No bloat, no chaos cinema, no superfluity – just clear stakes and clean, thrilling action.
9. Perks of Being a Wallflower
This one caught me unawares, but if ever a film captured the often painful and sometimes beautiful experience of being an outsider in high school, it’s Perks. Peculiar, poignant and often hilarious, Perks reminds us that we can endure the most treacherous roads of life if we allow our friendships to sustain us.
8. Zero Dark Thirty
I’ve never seen a film like Zero Dark Thirty. This sharp, straightforward, subtle film demands more of its audience than we’re accustomed to from Hollywood. It relies only on storytelling and performance, leaving the usual directorial maneuvering and musical cue persuasion to the rest of the films on this list. Instead, Zero Dark Thirty tells a riveting story plainly, with no exposition or manipulation. A story like this, breathtaking and mesmeric, doesn’t need manipulating.
A fascinating look at the political acrobatics our 16th President undertook in order to pass the 13th amendment. Lincoln is a quiet, assured film by one of the greatest directors of our time, a director who knows when to stand back and let a brilliant performance speak for itself. Daniel Day-Lewis took what we know of Lincoln from history and faded photographs and translated the myth into a warm, lively, memorable man. A man I kinda want to be my uncle.
A hustler cool time travel film that’s really about consequence and character, Looper cartwheels down the blade-fine line of smart and fun, action-packed yet cerebral. A small, contained, completely original film with terrific performances and a whip-smart script, Looper reminds us that there’s an alternative to the overstuffed and extravagant stupidity of sci-fi films like Prometheus.
5. The Master
The Master is spellbinding in the most definitive sense of the word. I spent hours, days, transfixed by this film, captivated by the images and tone, the sound and the remarkable performances. This is a provoking film, a challenging one, an occasionally infuriating one – but it is also an impossibly beautiful film. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are matched in their fury and their charisma, two men made more by Paul Thomas Anderson’s sure-handed direction.
4. Moonrise Kingdom
How many of us related to Suzy or Sam while watching Wes Anderson’s appealing tribute to oddballs? Anderson is sometimes censured for having such a recognizable style, but that style - meticulous, quaint, colorful, fogyish – serves the story of two fastidious little weirdos in love better than any of his previous entries. Moonrise Kingdom is funny and sweet and charming and strange, and it reminds us that there’s nothing wrong with being uncommon.
3. The Cabin in the Woods
The extraordinary thing about The Cabin in the Woods is that it’s a movie for anyone who loves horror films – but it’s also a movie for those who don’t. I’m constantly trying to push horror on my horror-disdaining pals, and there’s never been an easier sell than Cabin. It’s hilarious, witty, one hell of a lot of fun, but it’s also gory and shocking and sometimes quite scary. But the scariest thing about Cabin is that, after MGM’s financial difficulties left it on the shelf for two years, we almost never got to see what I now believe will one day become a classic in my favorite genre.
2. Django Unchained
Dammit, what else can I say? Tarantino knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing is entertaining me to the ends of the earth. Django is powerful cinema, triumphant and prodigious, bloodier than life and as lasting as time. Every performance in this film (well, except Tarantino’s) is perfect: Christoph Waltz is a revelation, Leonardo DiCaprio is deliciously detestable, Samuel L. Jackson is transformed. But Jamie Foxx as Django is the whole movie for me. He lives in this role, makes it, shapes it into something legendary. Django Unchained is Tarantino’s movie, to be sure, but it’s also Jamie Foxx’s.
1. Cloud Atlas
Overwhelming, heart-pummeling, astonishing cinema. That one of the most technically ambitious films I’ve ever seen should knock the wind out of me with its sheer emotional force is a marvel unto itself – that the film should be wildly entertaining, too, is miraculous. Three hours lapsed as if mere moments, and when that gorgeous score played out over the end credits, I knew I had seen my favorite film of the year.
And honorable mentions in no particular order, because I'm not done cheating yet:
Bernie, John Dies at the End, 21 Jump Street, Under African Skies, Magic Mike, Klown, Save the Date, Detention, Killer Joe, Anna Karenina, Argo, Headhunters, Juan of the Dead and even more because 2012 was one monster of a year for movies.