Going into the fall, I was worried that 2012 would be a disappointing year for movies but the abundance of good films that started hitting the theaters in the last few months led to an ultimately strong year for cinema. Below are my favorite movies of the year:
10) Perks of Being a Wallflower
10) Perks of Being a Wallflower
Steven Chbosky's debut film, based on his young adult novel of the same name, tries to do too much -- it's filled to the brim with troubled characters, each haunted by past traumas -- but succeeds at capturing the high points of adolescence, especially the heightened kinship among teen friends, the power of music and books in shaping young minds, and the oversize importance of every small moment, from a first kiss to a last class.
Rian Jonson's exhilarating time travel thriller starts off with all the convoluted twists and stylized sequences we've come to expect of time travel narratives before slowing things down and taking a turn towards the profound by asking questions about the origin of evil and the self-perpetuating nature of violence. As he demonstrated in his excellent noir film Brick, Johnson knows how to take a well-worn genre and transform it into something entirely new and exciting.
As crackerjack political thrillers go it's tough to find a better one than Argo, Ben Affleck's third film. Based on the incredible true story of the rescue of American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis, Argo's weighty subject matter masks the fact that it's actually pretty shallow entertainment. But Affleck has become an expert director of suspense and he compellingly manages to wring a good deal of fun out of the Hollywood meets the CIA story.
7) Moonrise Kingdom
I keep expecting to get tired of Wes Anderson's twee aesthetic, but in each new film he matures just enough to keep the magic alive. In Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson tells a lovely story of pint-size love and creates a universe that, while filled with his trademark shoebox stagings and precious curlicues, still leaves room for well-rounded characters who exude heartfelt emotion.
6) Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell follows The Fighter with another perfectly observed, off-kilter domestic story about a bunch of obsessed characters struggling to make sense of their place in the world. As he demonstrated in Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees, Russell knows how to find off-key humor in the most unusual of settings, and here he finds wonderful romantic comedy in the relationship between Bradley Cooper's recently released mental patient and Jennifer Lawrence's confused, sex-addicted widower. It's an unconventional, passionate comedy that, unlike most recent romantic comedies, truly earns its happy ending.
5) Beasts of the Southern Wild
The year's most original film and its most impressive debut, Benh Zeitlin's utterly unique Beasts of the Southern Wild is about the survivalist instincts of a group of residents in a forgotten part of the Louisiana bayou known as "the bathtub" soldiering on in the face of a Katrina-like storm. The film's politics are kind of nutty -- it essentially glorifies those who stubbornly reject outside assistance in favor of steadfastly living by their own laws and customs -- but that shouldn't detract from its achievement as a magical piece of storytelling with dazzling performances. Quvenzhane Wallis, as the young girl at the movie's heart, gives an enchanting performance that hopefully heralds greater things to come for both her and Zeitlin.
4) The Master
Each new Paul Thomas Anderson film seems to be getting more impenetrable than the last, and The Master is not a particularly accessible piece of art. But pay close attention and you'll appreciate how Anderson once again indelibly creates a group of characters who expertly capture the American time in which they exist. Set in the post-war 40s and 50s, The Master showcases a captivating pas de deux between Joaquin Phoenix's Freddy, a volatile, traumatized veteran of unvarnished id, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, a polished pseudo-intellectual huckster who relishes the challenge of taming his wannabe disciple. Shot in beautiful 70mm, The Master is an exquisite character study of two men struggling to bend the other to their own, compromised wills.
Michael Haneke's heartwrenching film about an elderly couple coping with illness and aging is the most touching and disturbing movie of the year. Set almost entirely in a Parisian apartment, Amour is unflinching in its depiction of physical deterioration and the consequences it has on those who must witness it. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, as the couple at the movie's center, give brave, compassionate performances that suggest the actors have aged with the kind of grace their characters are unfairly deprived.
Of all the stories to be told about Abraham Lincoln, I wouldn't have expected such a stirring tale to be made about his efforts to pass the 13th amendment. But Steven Spielberg eschews (for the most part) his sentimental impulses and, working with an expert script by Tony Kushner, makes a masterful film about the dirty work of politics, the vote-trading, influence-peddling, and grand bargains that drive American democracy. Led by an incredible performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, Lincoln further mythologizes our greatest politician by bringing him down from the monuments and making him human.
1) Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal follow The Hurt Locker with another story about the obsessions of war, this time focusing on a CIA analyst's single-minded hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Once again, Bigelow shows that she is the best action director in the business -- the raid on Abbottabad is a masterpiece of clear-eyed direction -- and Boal's script is a remarkable feat of journalistic storytelling. Yes, the film features some brutal scenes that suggest torture helped in the capture of Bin Laden, but those scenes are of a piece with the film's desire to show all the methods, successful and unsuccessful, that were used to capture the world's most infamous terrorist. Bigelow's films demonstrate that war is messy, but as long as she and Boal are there to document both its triumphs and costs, we might yet be able to make sense of it.