The Top 10 Movies of 2012


Yes, we're two weeks in to January and still looking backward to last year. You can thank director Kathryn Bigelow and the late nationwide release of Zero Dark Thirty for that. Screening Room's final look back at 2012 couldn't really be completed without a long look at her follow-up to 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. On buzz and reputation alone, it had a good chance of cracking my top 10 films of the past year. Whether it actually did? Well, you'll just have to read on to find out. But before I unveil the complete list a few notes about how it was comprised. Over the course of 2012, I saw some 70-plus films released in that year. Any of those films were eligible for my list, so long as they opened somewhere in the United States sometime during the year. There were some films I didn't get around to seeing just yet, mostly thanks to the hellish November and December release schedule which makes it impossible for someone with a full-time job unrelated to film criticism to chase all the Oscar bait on offer during that period.

With that in mind, all apologies to the likes of Killing Them Softly, Hitchcock, Cloud Atlas, Flight, Life of Pi, The Sessions, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Holy Motors and End of Watch. I heard good things about all of these films. If they crack my top 10 retroactively once I finally get around to seeing them, I'll be sure to make it up to them and you however I can.

And now, on to the list!

10. Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis' turn as Abraham Lincoln was so damn good that, true story, I actually got annoyed when I saw another actor playing America's 16th president on a History Channel special. Even for the greatest actor of this generation, it's quite a feat to turn one of the most famous Americans into his role. Such is the brilliance of Day-Lewis. Most great performances transform a performer into his signature character wherever else we see them. Michael K. Williams will always be The Wire's Omar even if you put him in a gaudy purple suit and send him back to the 1920s. Day-Lewis, though, is able to swallow roles -- many of them -- whole. He is and always will be Bill the Butcher and Daniel Plainview. And now, he is even Abraham Lincoln.
9. The Queen of Versailles
Almost five years on, the movie industry continues to get plenty of grist from the near complete collapse of America's financial system. Most of that grist has been gleaned from the criminal defrauding of the American people. What makes The Queen of Versailles so compelling is that it instead focuses on the riches-to-rags story of one of the collapse's architects. The Siegels begin the documentary in the midst of construction of what is expected to be the United States' single largest home. By its end, they are completely humbled. I've never seen a greater indictment of the concept of trickle-down economics -- of giving more and more and more to "job creators" -- than Jackie Siegel's compulsive collection of lizards, puppies, every good imaginable and, yes, even children.
8. The Cabin in the Woods
I don't think I had more pure, unadulterated fun at the theater this year than when I saw this film, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's almost painfully clever send-up of the horror genre. The gang of five college kids, led by Kristen Connolly and Chris Hemsworth, who head off to their doom at a secluded cabin play their part in making it so memorable, but it's Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins -- the architects of their doom -- who steal the show. Goddard and Whedon display equal parts reverence for the genre and disdain for its lazy tropes, meaning there's something for pretty much everyone except the most squeamish here. If you adore slasher films, though, you'll probably get the most mileage out of the film as you try to trace every reference back to its roots.
7. Silver Linings Playbook
It's 2012, so any film that can simultaneously remind us why Robert De Niro is an acting icon and how a non-Apatowian romantic comedy can be more than a vessel for Katherine Heigl's dull sneers belongs on a best-of list. David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook did precisely that, and yet by waiting until this point to mention Jennifer Lawrence I feel as if I have shortchanged her somehow. Speaking of dull sneers, I think Lawrence's portrayal of The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen made me temporarily forget all about the limitless potential she showed in Winter's Bone. Thanks be to Russell, then, for putting Lawrence in role that shook us from our amnesia and reminded us why she remains a burgeoning star even among the non-YA fiction crowd.
6. The Dark Knight Rises
This, I have little doubt, will be my most controversial selection. The general consensus around the conclusion to director Christopher Nolan's transcendent Dark Knight trilogy is that it was greatly overshadowed by its immediate predecessor. The Dark Knight Rises, so the narrative goes, was not exactly terrible, but it buckled under the weight of exceedingly high expectations and an overly complex plot. Suffice to say, I don't agree with that line of thinking. I found TDKR to be a fitting conclusion to one of the greatest trilogies in movie history. Nolan created a more elaborate vision of Bruce Wayne's world than almost anyone could have imagined, and I wasn't angry that it took almost three hours to close all those loops. I wasn't disappointed at the end. Rather, I was drained and satisfied to have gone on Nolan's journey. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
5. Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to her 2009 Best Picture winning film The Hurt Locker bills itself as a second-hand account of the CIA's decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden. It's not a documentary, but it's not far off. Personally, I found it to be more of a decade-long philosophical and spiritual record of America's attempts to come to terms with its all-new vulnerability, viewed through the prism of the intelligence sector. In the latter regard, at least, it is a stunning triumph, Jessica Chastain's Maya channeling a mix of anger, fear and frustration in to a dogged pursuit of the orchestrator of the 9/11 attacks. Much like Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Chastain's unforgettable performance almost completely overshadows a star-studded ensemble cast.
4. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
I don't consider myself sentimental and I am certainly not a believer in fate, but the charms of Jeff, Who Lives at Home were considerable enough that I was able to set aside those two facts aside and just revel. Jason Segel and Ed Helms star as misguided brothers on the cusp of middle age who are thrown together for a precise purpose, or more accurately several purposes. The latest from the Duplass brothers might lack a bit of polish and production value, but surprisingly poignant performances from Segel, Helms and Susan Sarandon give this film enough soul to paper over any minor imperfections.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
There once was a girl named Hushpuppy, and it's a true cinematic miracle that more than a few hundred people know about her. Benh Zeitlin hadn't directed a darn thing before his indie-film-that-could burst on to the national scene this summer, sporting a cast of unknowns and a soaring score. Now here he and Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) are, ready to take the Academy Awards by storm. Beasts is a visually remarkable fable that both encapsulates the spirit of New Orleans and is a subtle parable about climate change. It is preachy about neither of those things, which is precisely what makes it such a great film.
2. Django Unchained
When I first saw Pulp Fiction almost two decades ago, I didn't imagine Quentin Tarantino would ever set out deal directly with America's original sin of slavery. I'm utterly gobsmacked, then, that he was able to do so thoughtfully, even if it was draped in his usual surrealism and splattered thoroughly with blood. Given Tarantino's considerable talents as a director, perhaps I deserve to be chided for my surprise, but it's there nonetheless. Not as surprising were the performances of Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, all three of whom were deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for their roles in Django.
1. Argo
Doubt Ben Affleck the director at your peril. Once relegated to lotioning up J-Lo in "Jenny From the Block," Affleck has just about completed his roundabout journey to Hollywood royalty. Argo is his crowning achievement, a taut, tense, humorous thriller about a CIA plot to extricate six Americans from revolutionary Iran using a fake movie as the cover story. That it is humorous is a relief. That it is gut-wrenchingly suspenseful is quite the accomplishment, considering that the ending is a matter of historical record. I'm not sure if I liked Argo more than Django, but then I'm a sucker for Tarantino and for Westerns. Argo is a film you can recommend to almost anyone and be assured that they'll enjoy it immensely. If that's not the description of a movie of the year, I'm not sure what is.