While Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" took the top spot in Indiewire's recent 2012 poll of more than 200 critics, journalists and tastemakers of the film world, this smaller grouping of picks from Indiewire staffers and bloggers highlights a wide range of movies large and small (but mostly small) from this year's release calendar. "Holy Motors," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Moonrise Kingdom," "The Master" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" received plenty of expected mentions, but there are a slew of solo votes below equally worth consideration.
Participants were invited to include films released theatrically this year, but each person devised his or her own criteria. Indiewire thanks those who took part and were brave enough to share their choices.
Please share your own Top 10 list for 2012 in the comments section at the end of this article (and don't forget to include your name).
Senior Editor and Head Critic, Indiewire
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 by 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.
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 finalists 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, it 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 choices 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:
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.
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 pitfalls of "spiking the football," as the President described the danger of celebrating bin Laden's death. Instead, it's an opportunity to sober up.
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 unfold 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.
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.
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 of 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.
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.
A head-scratchingly lyrical immersion in 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 the film's 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.
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.
9. "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia"
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.
10. "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning"
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 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.
Senior Editor, Indiewire
It's an obvious disclaimer that film is a highly subjective medium and that the onslaught of Top Ten lists we're all in the midst of clearly reflects that. How one views and potentially enjoys a film is largely based on one's own personality, taste or even frame of mind upon seeing it. I would never suggest the top 10 I've listed here are the best films of 2012. They're just my best.
1. "Zero Dark Thirty"
3. "Holy Motors"
4. "Magic Mike"
5. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
6. "The Master"
7. "Your Sister's Sister"
8. "How To Survive a Plague"
9. "Moonrise Kingdom"
10. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
Very Honorable Mentions (in order of preference): "Take This Waltz," "This is Not a Film," "Django Unchained," "The Invisible War," "Bachelorette," "Keep The Lights On," "Lincoln," "Only The Young," "Bernie" and "The Dark Knight Rises."
Technically a 2011 release but I saw it in 2012 and it would be very high on this list (probably #3 or #4) if it was eligible: Patrick Wang's "In The Family."
Jay A. Fernandez
Senior Writer and News Editor, Indiewire
I find these kinds of lists both unabashedly meaningless and impossible to resist. Since no concrete measure exists for determining the best of an art form, I compile my year-end assessments from work that falls into one of two buckets: Either the film’s comprehensive directorial composition is so superb that it should be recognized for its technical mastery, or its storytelling, performances and/or entertainment value lodged in my memory for an unusually prolonged period of time as I mulled its ethical implications or marveled at its invention.
These are the only movies (and one TV show) that fit those criteria for me in 2012:
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Benh Zeitlin’s debut has the enduring weight of a modern myth and is the rare example of a film that truly shows a cinematic world never seen before.
“Breaking Bad” Season Five
Vince Gilligan’s grim serial remains as cinematic, engaging and shocking as any of the best films released this year.
In its astounding pacing and performances, this real-life story from Craig Zobel is filled with an existential dread I still carry around a year after seeing it at Sundance.
For a film with a few obvious problems, Tarantino’s latest includes wonders of suspense, dialogue and framing, as well as sublimely unpredictable performances, that match his best work.
This film cannot be categorized or described in any way, and for that I will forever be grateful to filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Plus, Joaquin Phoenix proves yet again that he is the most inventive, riveting, transformative, committed actor of the last 25 years.
Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” in “Les Miserables”
She’s breathtaking throughout the film, but her one-take acting/songcraft in this sequence destroyed me. I still see the rawness of her despair when I close my eyes.
“People Like Us”
Yes, this film from blockbuster stylists Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci is a conventional family drama in many respects, but the final, earned reveal had me bursting into tears.
I saw this messy, melodramatic, fact-based drama about the lives of French policemen assigned to the juvenile division at Cannes in 2011, but it wasn’t released in the States until this year and it’s stuck with me just as long. There’s just something stirring about looking long and hard at the personal effects on flawed people who keep fighting the good fight even as they lose more battles than they win.
“Silver Linings Playbook”
Like Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell always surprises and nearly as often delivers. With “Playbook,” Russell takes the hoary conventions of the romantic comedy and makes them resolutely his to tell a delightful story that is immediately recognizable, full of believable drama and borderline crazy.
“West of Memphis”
Like many people, I’ve followed the story of the West Memphis Three with horrified fascination since Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s first “Paradise Lost” documentary in 1996, and Amy Berg here gives the whole tragic story both a definitive telling and a (mostly) satisfying ending.
Nigel M. Smith
Features Editor, Indiewire
1. "Zero Dark Thirty"
Following “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow is back with her best film yet, a harrowing and ultimately solemn study of one woman’s obsessive mission to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Bigelow, re-teaming with her “Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal, isn’t out to prove that torture works despite what many want you believe — they're in it to relay the enormous amount of effort that went into the manhunt, and the toll it took on those involved. I saw it a month ago and I still can't shake the experience off. Nor do I want to.
2. "Silver Linings Playbook"
David O. Russell's latest might be manic and unpredictable, but one thing it's not? Boring. No film left me on a high more than "Silver Linings Playbook." Every joke landed. Not one performance rang false. Every tear was earned. This coming from a guy who didn't even know who the Philadelphia Eagles were before seeing this movie.
3. "Holy Motors"
More a series of strung-together beguiling shorts than a feature film, Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" out-'Lynched' Lynch — it perplexed me, disturbed me, wowed me and made me laugh, all in equal measure.
Playwright-turned-filmmaker Leslye Headland mines laughs out of date rape, liberal cocaine use and fat slurs in her debut feature "Bachelorette." And guess what — it's fucking hilarious. Kirsten Dunst has never been meaner, and I love her for it.
5. "The Master"
The most confounding of Paul Thomas Anderson's films is also his most beautiful (in glorious 70mm) and provoking. Joaquin Phoenix floored me with a performance that rivals the best work of Marlon Brando. He's that good.
6. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
There are a slew of reasons why Behn Zeitlin's debut moved me more than any film this year, but chief among them is the fact that it was made at all. Working with a then-six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis as his lead star and under the constraints of a shoestring budget, Zeitlin managed to craft a deeply felt epic that transported me.
7. "Cloud Atlas"
For a film that runs close to three hours long and spans from the nineteenth century to a post-apocalyptic future, "Cloud Atlas" is remarkably easy to follow and supremely entertaining. I've never read David Mitchell's book, so I can't gauge whether it does its source material justice. But as a film, it works.
8. "How to Survive a Plague"
David France does a tremendous job of distilling the work of AIDS activists during the worst of the plague years in the 1980s and '90s into a stirring, upsetting and ultimately inspiring documentary.
9. "On the Road"
Watching this Walter Salles-Jose Rivera adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat bible “On The Road” was akin to sitting in on a drawn-out jazz riff played by one of the greats. It’s loose, limber, sexy as hell and runs on for a bit too long, but the energy Salles conjures up is infectious.
10. "Life of Pi"
Sure, the book-ended structure is flawed, but the meat of the story that takes place at sea with Pi and Richard Parker the tiger left my jaw on the floor. I haven't been this awestruck since James Cameron took me to Pandora.
Bryce J. Renninger
1. "Moonrise Kingdom"
Ah, to be young again. Anderson's masterpiece takes you to another realm.
2. "Only the Young"
In their first feature film, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims expertly challenge age-old documentary conventions and craft a mind-blowing exploration of the suburban California quotidian life of three cool Christian teenagers.
3. "The Waiting Room"
Wonderfully captivating and dignified human beings struggle for emergency room care in a film that shows how complicated the American health care system is for so many of its citizens.
4. "Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present"
A complete surprise: a moving, frank portrait of one of the art world's most popular and divisive stars. This film is genius at showing us its subject.
5. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Absolutely unbelievable first film. Benh Zeitlin should be incredibly proud… and energized to work more!
Apparently, I'm a true champion of a good Pixar underdog. My favorite so far is "Monsters, Inc.," and I think "Brave" did not get the respect it deserves. It's touching with artful storytelling.
Ah, Haneke. There aren't words. Though Emanuelle Riva's performance is incredibly strong and challenging, Jean-Louis Trintignant carries this movie and makes its unbelievably believable plot points as tragically beautiful as they need to be.
The filmmaking in "Tchoupitoulas" seems effortless, though when you contemplate it afterwards it is clear that this atmospheric, dreamy trip through New Orleans was expertly — and painstakingly — crafted. I defy you not to be swept away into these boys' journey.
9. "Keep the Lights On"
Ira Sachs has provided an absolutely stunning film documenting a caring but tumultuous relationship with ellipses to crowd out all the parts when this on-again-off-again couple was back at it. It is absolutely stunning, heartbreaking, tragic, lovely to see this relationship unfold.
10. "How to Survive a Plague"
One of the most affecting cinema experiences of the year. This film is a powerful, powerful testament to the power of direct action and what can happen when caring people get together to make change.
Assistant Editor, Criticwire
1. The Imposter
3. Searching for Sugar Man
4. Moonrise Kingdom
5. Killing Them Softly
6. Holy Motors
7. Café de Flore
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
10. Magic Mike
Thompson on Hollywood
1. "Life of Pi"
Taiwan-born Ang Lee, more than any director working today, is a filmmaker for the world. His three great love stories — martial arts romance "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," gay tragedy "Brokeback Mountain" and Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" — were accessible to multiple cultures. With "Life of Pi" Lee has fashioned, with screenwriter David Magee ("Finding Neverland") adapting Yann Martel's global bestseller, another love story that transcends borders. In this case, it's between a 17-year-old young man (non-pro Suraj Sharma) from India and a Bengal tiger. But it is also a stunning technological triumph, as the VFX required were impossible until now. Conceived four years ago before the arrival of the 3-D "Avatar," this movie is a live-action/animation hybrid, as major characters such as the threatening tiger and sublime phosphorescent Pacific seascapes could only be created by artists in the digital realm.
2. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
When he won the grand jury and cinematography prizes at Sundance, director Benh Zeitlin, who shot "Beasts" with his ragtag film collective on a constantly flooding delta island below the New Orleans levees with a cast of non-actors, said: "We had more freedom to make this film than any filmmakers in America ever." Zeitlin was able to control the chaos: the end result is a constantly surprising and deeply moving fantastical portrait of where we are, right now.
3. "Zero Dark Thirty"
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's incredibly timely movie about the CIA's ten-year pursuit of Osama bin Laden is as relentless as its heroine (Jessica Chastain), laying out the hard facts and details without flinching from its purpose, which is to make real the daily headlines. Bigelow deploys 120 speaking parts from all over the world and three to four roving cameras to catch the unfolding action in wide-ranging locations from India, Egypt and Jordan to London and Washington, D.C. As Bigelow avoids Hollywood narrative conventions, she also gives us the toughest motherfuckin' woman lead since Ripley.
4. "Silver Linings Playbook"
This delicately edited family relationship comedy is both funny and moving. The film's two romantic leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, are two lost, emotionally damaged yet attractive people who draw comfort and kinship from each other. Writer-director David O. Russell has, dare I say it, Billy Wilder's tough unsentimental approach to romance. Even in this cynical age, we root for these two characters in pain to heal each other, make their families happy, win their dance contest and find true love.
The thing that hits you on first viewing "Lincoln" is how unconventional it is. It's organic, grown from the seeds in Doris Kearns Goodwin's 800-page Lincoln tome "Team of Rivals," nurtured over five years by playwright Tony Kushner, and shaped by Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis into something we've never seen before. This alchemy of a torrent of words, well-researched history, and the powerful personality of the world's most popular American president has yielded a magical biopic that is the current front-runner in the Oscar race.
6. "End of Watch"
David Ayer celebrates the work ethic and bravery of two cops, partners on the beat in East Los Angeles, who face an unforgiving world with humor and verbal acuity. Shot on the run, the movie was choreographed with no room for waste or error: Ayer shot 135 hours of footage in 22 days. Jack Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena were primed and ready and give the best performances of their respective careers.
Ben Affleck directs this taut and commercial thriller, his third behind the camera, with screw-tightening efficiency that would make Michael Mann proud. Think "The Insider" on steroids. Affleck gives a solid, naturalistic performance as Tony Mendez, a smart and experienced CIA operative who specializes in pulling people out of tight situations. Affleck, like other actor-directors Clooney and Clint Eastwood, sees the value of staying hands-on with a modest budget. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Oscar-nominated for "Brokeback Mountain") does outstanding work on location in Turkey, Los Angeles and the Ontario airport, while composer Alexandre Desplat ("The King's Speech") could land a fifth Oscar nomination — unless his "Zero Dark Thirty" score cancels himself out.
8. "The Sessions"
"The Sessions" starts with a script from Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin, who suffered polio as a youth and still limps with a cane. Helen Hunt and John Hawkes saw rich material in this story about the late great intellectual Mark O'Brien, who wanted more from life than lying immobile in an iron lung. He found a sex surrogate to help him find love in his life. The surrogate came to care deeply for O'Brien — within the confines of a professional relationship — and was able to teach him how to make another woman happy. Audiences are often uncomfortable with sex in cinema, and this movie embraces moments that are awkward and embarrassing, even humiliating. This intimate sexual souffle is so delicate and sensitive — both actors are literally naked — that it could easily have gone flat. Instead it is uplifting.
9. "Moonrise Kingdom"
This coming-of-age romance takes place inside an artificial fantasy based on the children's books writer-director Wes Anderson still loves. He builds the movie on the shoulders of two young kids in love. "I love artifice and very emotional movies," he told me in Cannes. The art direction, tone and acting — one standout is Bruce Willis's sweet buffoonish cop — are all perfectly in tune with Anderson's precise imagination.
10. "Anna Karenina"
The decision not to shoot "Anna Karenina" on location in Russia liberated director Joe Wright. Without changing the Tom Stoppard adaptation of Tolstoy's classic, Wright used an old London theater as a way to free himself completely from the constrictions of period costume drama. "Anna Karenina" is a swirling, mad, exuberant, joyful, passionate celebration of the novel. Anna (Keira Knightley of Wright's "Atonement" and "Pride & Prejudice") is far from your ordinary romantic heroine. She's doomed to meet that train. But there's more to this story than adultery. Tolstoy's counterpart, Levin (Domhall Gleeson), balances out the drama. And Jude Law gives one of his best performances as Anna's cuckolded husband.
BEST FOREIGN FILM
"Barbara," Germany's Oscar entry, is Christian Petzold's fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss. She plays an intrepid East Berlin doctor in 1980 who has been sent to the boonies as punishment for wanting to leave the country. Like everyone around her, she lies to survive; she sneaks around in the night to meet her West German lover in the woods. But she cares for her patients; that bonds her with her fellow doctor (up-and-comer Ronald Zehrfeld). Even though she's surrounded by fear and suspicion and paranoia, she comes to trust him.
Eugene Jarecki's incisive and incendiary "The House I Live In," which won the U.S. documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and is shortlisted for next year's doc Oscar, will blow your mind. That's because it tackles a subject that you think you know a little about — America's war on drugs — and in excruciating detail shows you how the whole system is broken and dysfunctional.
BEST ANIMATED FILM
With "Frankenweenie," Tim Burton filmed his most personal movie since "Edward Scissorhands" in black and white and stop motion. He returns to the Burbank suburbs he has loved to show us ever since the 1984 Disney short on which the movie is based. Not a box office success, this feature serves as an inspiring reminder of what an artist can do when he's not playing to the marketplace.
Contributor, Thompson on Hollywood and Indiewire
Choosing a top ten was hard enough, so I am listing my films alphabetically. Some of these are imperfect and leave a lot of responsibility with the audience; they also assert a kind of creative audacity that is increasingly hard to find. With each of the films listed below, the director's voice is clear and uncompromising, the craft is impeccable and there is (in most cases) little regard for commercial obligation. They take risks, ask questions, cause arguments and present stories that truly made me feel something.
BEST FILMS (Listed alphabetically)
"Amour" – Michael Haneke
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" – Benh Zeitlin
"The Master" – Paul Thomas Anderson
"No" – Pablo Larrain
"Oslo, August 31st" – Joachim Trier
"Rust and Bone" – Jacques Audiard
"Silver Linings Playbook" – David O. Russell
"Sister" – Ursula Meier
"Wuthering Heights" – Andrea Arnold
"Zero Dark Thirty" – Kathryn Bigelow
"The Hunt" – Thomas Vinterberg
"The Loneliest Planet" – Julia Loktev
"Our Children" – Joachim Lafosse
"Polisse" – Maïwenn
"The Snowtown Murders" – Justin Kurzel
BEST FILM I MISSED IN 2011:
"L'Apollonide" ("House of Pleasures"), Bertrand Bonello
"The Hunger Games," "Magic Mike"
Editor, Criticwire Blog
In spite of doomsday proclamations from the Mayans and David Denby, it was hard to be cynical about the state of cinema this year. You could gripe in the abstract about formats or frame rates or film culture, but the movies themselves were so goddamn good. Comparing one year of films to another is an utterly arbitrary pursuit; that said, from that utterly arbitrary perspective, 2012 was an amazing year at the movies. Maybe one of the best of my lifetime.
I've certainly never had such a hard time putting together a top ten list. Throughout the year, I keep a running tally of all the films I consider 'best-of' contenders. In 2012, that shortlist ran an overwhelming fifty titles. Winnowing down to just ten final favorites was agonizing work, and a lot of great movies got excluded. At times, I nearly resorted to coin flips to decide what was in or out, and what went where. If Bruce Willis traveled back in time and got into a fight with his past self, and their conflict butterfly effected all ten films on my best-of list out of existence, I could still draft a totally respectable top ten out of my runners-up. It was that kind of year.
Finally, I decided on these ten movies. If you disagree, I don't blame you. There were so many incredible films this year, I kind of disagree with myself. How did I not find room for the haunting "Oslo, August 31st?" Where the hell is the endlessly charming "Jeff, Who Lives at Home?" Why couldn't I squeeze in the wildly ambitious "Cloud Atlas?" Shouldn't "Not Fade Away" be in there somewhere?
It should. They all should. If the Mayans and David Denby had been proved right, at least we would have gone out on a cinematic high note. It would be tough for anything to top this year at the movies, particularly these ten outstanding films.
Editor, ReelPolitik Blog
As an election year, 2012 was particularly rife with political filmmaking. Capitalizing on the highly energized, contentious race for the White House — and a body politic particularly attuned to issues of economic inequality and foreign instability — Hollywood definitely got into the act: Even "The Dark Knight Rises" presented muddled perspectives on the super-rich and the less fortunate, hero-izing and condemning both elite and revolutionaries, alike. I don't think the film is one of the best political movies of the year — can anyone clearly identify its political stance, after all? — nor will I take this space to herald "Argo" — which I've written about elsewhere, and find to be deeply problematic in its depiction of Iran's Islamic Revolution — or "Zero Dark Thirty," which, likewise, confirms my suspicions about any movie that has CIA agents or American men with guns vanquishing an enemy.
Here, instead, is an alphabetical list of the top political movies of the year that don't need any excuses.