Another year, another list. While the industry is in the midst of pricey marketing campaigns for awards contenders — dominated this time by studios with the wherewithal to position their smart fall season product as the definitive movies of the year — critics get to play a different game. Despite several critics groups already bestowing major awards on movies released during this serendipitous window when Academy voters are paying attention, the list-making process provides a different opportunity to evaluate the past 12 months of cinema. While I have no statistics to prove it, one can assume that no two critics see the exact same movies each year, but most see a lot.
A cursory glance through the not-quite-accurate listing of 2012 releases on Wikipedia tells me I've seen around 120 new movies this year, not counting a handful of titles that actually received limited award-qualifying openings in late 2011. A more complex list might be derived from Indiewire's A-Z film library and counting new movies that screened in 2012 at various festivals but have yet to arrive in theaters or VOD. Many of my preferences can be found on my Criticwire page, and not all of them will fit into the 10-movie limitation here. But the nice thing about lists is that despite their inherent limitations, you can make a lot of them. Expect to find a rundown of the best undistributed 2012 films in these parts later in the week, along with top performances, a list committed to documentary achievements and other breakdowns of the year in moving images.
The following group represent the top 10 movies that delivered entertained, shocked, innovated or amused me more than anything else. Several of them played at festivals last year and opened in theaters months ago, with the lasting impact they've left on me since then contributing to their placement here. Only one entry hasn't screened publicly yet, and its quality shocked me to such a degree that it warranted last-minute placement here and nearly toppled my top choice. The art of list-making also encourages a representational approach: No two entries hail from the same genre or aesthetic; instead, the finalist each struck me as paragons of those aspects.
In another year, the "Zero Dark Thirty" slot might go to "Miss Bala," another lively attempt to render dangerous underground operations in close-up, visceral terms. Without Lynn Shelton's wonderfully awkward romantic comedy "Your Sister's Sister," the witty crowdpleaser of the year might be the wild Danish sex romp "Klown," with "Silver Linings Playbook" landing the runner-up spot. No filmmaker has ever appeared more legitimately frustrated than Jafar Panahi in the breathtaking "This Is Not a Film," but the hopelessly neurotic, lonesome auteur at the center of Hong Sang-soo's delightfully odd "The Day He Arrives" faces plenty of engaging hurdles. And it surprises me still that the fourth "Universal Soldier" movie delivers such a spectacular action ride that, I still believe after several viewings, outdoes the latest James Bond entry. But if I had room for another absurd spectacle, the honor would go to Joss Whedon's "The Avengers," the best cinematic realization of comic books' pop culture appeal ever made. (Sorry, Batman.)
The possibilities of an entirely different list replacing this one points to the subjective nature of year-end analysis, the need to push away from consensus choices in order to broaden the overview of new movies, and why any given list only represents one access point to current cinema. Read the list and share your own in the comments if you feel you've seen enough to weigh in. If not, you know what to do: Watch the movies and decide for yourself.
The best movies released in 2012, at least according to this critic, can be found on the next page.
With few exceptions, franchises aren't known for increasing their quality as they move along. The "Universal Soldier" series, which began with Roland Emmerich's 1992 blockbuster that starred Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, stands out from the norm. Rather than riffing on the same appeal each time out, as the current spate of "Fast and Furious" continuations have done with continuing success, director John Hyams has dismantled the array of direct-to-video "Universal Soldier" sequels as well as an ill-received theatrical follow-up by reinventing the entire attitude of the series. Upping his ambition after the decent reception for 2009's "Universal Soldier: Regeneration," with "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning," Hyams delivers a remarkably satisfying action-thriller hybrid that constantly pushes ahead. It's one of the best action movies of the year simply because it keeps hitting the right beats.
A slow-burn study of investigatory obsession and police bureaucracy, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's mesmerizing "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" plays like "Zodiac" meets "Police, Adjective." That's a tough combination to pull off: Neither David Fincher's epic tale of the infamous decade-spanning serial killer hunt nor Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu's minimalist cop drama come with easy answers. But Ceylan has made a similarly analytical brain teaser, rendered in patient and sharply philosophical terms. While "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" has a certain kinship with Ceylan's other works, it also bears a uniquely protracted rhythm that's alternately frustrating and immersive. As a procedural, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" implicates the audience along with its characters and the mental workout continues long after the credits roll.
8. "The Loneliest Planet"
In "Day Night Day Night," Julia Loktev told the quietly experimental tale of a young would-be suicide bomber nervously wandering through the crowd of Times Square, impressing some critics if not much of an audience beyond that. Her long-awaited follow-up, "The Loneliest Planet," deals with noticeably broader terrain and even includes a mid-size star (Gael Garcia Bernal). Both of those factors yield something closer to a conventional viewing experience than the intentionally prosaic momentum of her previous outing. It's a smart, mesmerizing and provocative expansion of her talents.
However, Loktev remains a devout minimalist whose latest work will surely alienate anyone on the opposing side of the fence when it comes to debates concerning "slow cinema," that broadly defined format for certain films with an extremely casual pace. To those naysayers, I would argue that "The Loneliest Planet" at least qualifies as an exemplary version of that vague category, but also that it earns its unhurried approach in spades. Hardly an indolent director, Loktev has much to say about a couple suffering from the inability to say much of anything.
A head-scratchingly lyrical immersion into colonialist metaphor and historical memory, Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' third feature "Tabu" reaches for the dreamlike experiences of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's oeuvre with a bold structure that defies genre specifics. At the same time, for all its confusing and erratic qualities, Gomes ("Our Beloved Month of August") has made a decisively cinematic work, tapping into classic film traditions while subverting them with consistent narrative invention.
6. "Your Sister's Sister"
Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" made waves for its impressive combination of improvised dialogue and keen insight into human relationships, a tricky balance achieved while also seamlessly drifting between comedy and drama. Her follow-up doesn't expand her range but applies it differently. "Your Sister's Sister" is another highly enjoyable relationship comedy, but a far quieter and contained work. Fortunately, Shelton stays within the boundaries of the material without overextending it, reaffirming the effectiveness of her homegrown approach.
Few directors focus on dark, existentially dreadful scenarios with the consistency of the great Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. Less consistent in terms of style than theme, in movies like "Funny Games," "Caché" and the Palme d'Or-winning "The White Ribbon," Haneke lingers in situations that find people trapped by circumstance and mystery. His latest, "Amour," is an incredibly focused and emotionally charged look at an elderly woman's gradual demise and her husband's attempts to cope with it. Although not exactly heartwarming, "Amour" has a more contained vision of human relationships than Haneke's previous films, without sacrificing its bleak foundation. A far cry from the dreary black-and-white photography of "The White Ribbon" or the meta narrative in "Caché," Haneke's new movie displays extreme restraint: There's no soundtrack, a generally static camera, and the action exclusively takes place within the confines the apartment (with the exception of a fleeting early shot). Haneke's sterile reality develops a haunting tone that imbues the characters' crushing fear of their diminished mortality with palpable dread.
4. "This is Not a Film"
Jafar Panahi has taken risky circumstances and turned them into art. "This is Not a Film" delivers a sharp, measured critique of the conditions that now find him on his way to jail. A first-person account of the Iranian filmmaker at home awaiting news of his upcoming prison sentencing, it puts a human face on Iranian censorship. Aided by his friend, documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Panahi muses on the state of affairs that led to his six-year prison sentencing and 20-year ban on making movies. Miraculously smuggled into Cannes just before the festival began, "This is Not a Film" is a moving expression of frustration, as well as an eloquent indictment of Iranian society.
3. "The Master"
A marvelously enigmatic period drama about the roots of Scientology, "The Master" may not demand 70mm projection, but it does contain a vast scope. The experiences of disgruntled WWII Navy man Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who drunkenly stumbles onto the cult-infested ship commanded by Lancester Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a dead ringer for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, mostly unfolds as a series of mysterious encounters rendered in varying exploratory notes by Jonny Greenwood's wondrous score. The movie brilliantly explores the vulnerability required to give oneself over to irrational conceits.
Read the full review here. Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:
2. "Zero Dark Thirty"
Given the chance to give her story a happy ending, Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal smartly blanket it in shades of ambiguity. "Zero Dark Thirty" tracks a full range of emotions associated with the proverbial war on terror, from the naivete of its earliest stirrings to the spirit of vengeance that gave its apparent victory such a vital quality in the Western world. At the same time, the movie questions the certitude of the transition from despair to triumph, enabling "Zero Dark Thirty" to realize the power of its immediacy while giving the proceedings a lasting value. With ambitious young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) embodying the mixture of thrill and fury driving the hunt for bin Laden, Bigelow's engaging nail-biter avoids the pratfalls of "spiking the football," as the President described the danger of celebrating bin Laden's death. Instead, it's an opportunity to sober up.
1. "Holy Motors"
Balls-to-the-wall crazy, beautiful and unbelievably strange. Director Leos Carax has always been a bit nutty, but here he finally flies off the rails with supremely perplexing, occasionally miraculous, always memorable results. This is a movie about movies, life, death, the human condition, monkeys, music, chaos, suicide, whatever. It's something else.