Nothing makes you want to embrace the Vishnevetsky Method of pulling names from a hat more than trying to come up with a Top Ten list the old-fashioned way. The tough, two-way pull of any year-end list is to try to pick films that will simultaneously be an accurate capsule of a moviegoing year and a group of selections that will have personal staying power. I second Matt's sentiments in saying that I'd be completely content with a list of ten taken solely from my Honorable Mentions (where "Take This Waltz," "The Color Wheel," "Cloud Atlas," "Tabu," "Room 237" and, yes, "The Avengers" comfortably reside).
Looking back on the specific dates I saw these, I noticed a curious pattern: there wasn't a single month of 2012 when I saw more than one of these for the first time. Save for February and April, each month of the year brought another film that ended up below. If that's not the definition of a great year for movies, I don't know what is.
My favorite part of this exercise is realizing that there's always a few left on the queue, always at least one more discovery among the endless list of recommendations that any giant end-of-year collection may bring. With 2013 firmly in our sights, here are ten films that made me happy to be a movie fan over the last twelve months:
10. Magic Mike
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Criticwire Average: B+
In terms of pure stylistic control, Soderbergh has few peers. Watching Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey get to play best to their strengths was one of the year's biggest treats. The dance sequences are infectious (I'm sensing a new 4th of July tradition that will be starting in 2013) and have entertainment value far beyond any personal or physical attraction. The vertical pan showing Mike and Adam's simultaneous conquests shows in a single camera movement how the two young men's lives are dovetailing. The unsuccessful loan application sequence doesn't get bogged down by jargon or the appearance of a sudden astute businessman side of Mike. A casual beachside conversation at a typical Floridian sandbar party becomes a gorgeous, sunlit stroll. This narrowly edges out "Argo" for the coveted "Best 2012 Film That Brought Back the Old Warner Bros. Logo" prize.
Not all movies about writers have a built-in pathway to my heart, but ones that delve into the minutiae of language certainly have an easier road. Joseph Cedar's film follows an elderly Talmudic scholar erroneously awarded one of Israel's highest civilian honors and the rift it eventually causes in an already-uneasy relationship with the true intended recipient, his son. The film is a testament to the idea that academia, regardless of language or nationality, is not immune to petty and human differences. A late-film light-bulb moment is straight from the Tyler-Durden-reveal playbook, but is a manic, energetic release of tension that ties together all the self-contained drama that preceded it. Throw in a fine score from Amit Poznansky and you have a fully-engaging comedy of an error that shirks a simple, tidy resolution.
Like "Life of Pi," this was one of 2012's releases that started out with the immediate double-edged sword of a devoted fanbase. (Until "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" makes its way onto screens, this might be the most momentous novel-to-film adaptations among my former high-school peers.) But where having the author's hand in the filmmaking process would have hampered lesser films, Stephen Chbosky avoids treating his characters with too much preciousness. Each of the central cast members is impressive in the face of each role's main challenges, but "Perks" doesn't make a single Top Ten list if Logan Lerman isn't darn near perfect as our guide and narrator, Charlie. The result is a high school tale that utilizes the familiar outsider-to-acceptance trajectory to its advantage, complete with a late-film discovery that adds depth and understanding without being condescending.
7. Café de Flore
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Criticwire Average: B
One of the first movies I saw in 2012, it nagged at my subconscious for the entire year. Jean-Marc Vallée's film offers plenty of clues at how the seemingly disparate timelines of 1960s Paris and modern-day Montreal eventually intermingle. But even on a rewatch, the real reward is how those connections evolve, of seeing characters deal with the relationships they've already realized have been initiated, sustained or ended by fate. The superb soundtrack (I'm never hearing that Sigur Rós the same way again) is made all the more sublime by how it's woven into the fabric of the story. It's a hypnotic blend of two eras, all done without letting the supernatural overshadow the sincere.
Normally, with a film like this getting so much overwhelming, flabbergasted adulation from critics and audiences alike, I would resort to the fallback explanation that "there's nothing left to say about this film that hasn't already be said." But "Holy Motors" is — in so many other ways — the exception. We're left to determine its intent as either a parody or celebration of all things film and for that, it will far outlive its current wild fascination. Everything you need to know about this film is wrapped up in three simple shouted words: "Trois, douze, merde!" (If that intermission is the greatest thing to ever happen to accordions, I think they'd be fine with that.) "Holy Motors" is the cinematic version of an interrobang, a blend of an exclamation point and question mark with no real clue as to which is the real one on top.
A stellar ensemble in a year with plenty to choose from, all anchored by the suddenly-ubiquitous Scoot McNairy as our audience surrogate and another fine entry in Mr. Pitt's recent hot streak. If Lt. Aldo Raine and Jackie Cogan both cornered me in a public place, not only would I be more fearful of the latter, I'd probably be more persuaded to do his dirty work for him. That my answer wouldn't change knowing how Dominik's version of the story ends resonates far more with me than any inescapable campaign poster will. Much was made of the film's overbearing political message, but when taken on the level of a sharp, engaging crime drama, there's little to disappoint.
In the fairy tale of Sam and Suzy, Wes Anderson finally found the perfect story to match his whimsical, detail-obsessed style of filmmaking. In one of the most impressive directing efforts of the year, he manages to give what could have been a simple puppy-love fairytale some real heft. Handling Anderson's dialogue would be a challenge for established actors with decades of experience under their belts, but Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward give the audience a reason to stay invested in their escape, even knowing what havoc their disappearance leaves behind. A trio of other Anderson troupe newcomers (Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton) handle their charges with the perfect blend of snappiness and sincerity, keeping a natural flavor to a film that could easily have been bogged down by theatricality.
As the "What qualifies as a spoiler?" debate featured prominently in 2012, Malik Bendjelloul managed to draw suspense and intrigue out of a story that could easily have diminished with a quick Wikipedia search. Even for those who were familiar with the eventual fate of '70s folk rock enigma Rodriguez, there's something endlessly fascinating about the way that his music became the soundtrack to the South African anti-apartheid movement half a planet away. Nested within the search for the true Rodriguez is a record-sales-paper-trail subplot that epitomizes just how fickle fame in the music industry can be (and has been for at least four decades). Even if you're not a fan of how his story is told, there's a timelessness to Rodriguez's music that makes those songs a reward unto themselves.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Criticwire Average: B+
Not just a generic tale of political machinations transposed onto the iconic president's administration, "Lincoln" recalls the past without overemphasizing its era. Rather than treat 1865 as a time of uniform emotions and sensibilities, we see visions of Abe Lincoln in moments of levity, marital struggle, and quiet observance. While Tony Kushner didn't have the audaciousness to set all of the amendment-related drama on a stage in an abandoned theater, his ability to distill a 900-page tome to its essence is no less impressive. And how's this for a curveball: it might just be the funniest "prestige" film of the year.
Numbers 2 through 10 on the list could be reshuffled in any order, but this has held my top spot ever since I saw it in the beginning of March. After the drive home from the screening, my fists were still sore from being clenched for most of the 99 minute runtime. Like countless other gripping mysteries, the true tension in the curious case of Nicholas Barclay comes not from the final piece of the puzzle, but from what the search does to those who refuse to acknowledge that there isn't one. This film could end at a handful of different points before its eventual conclusion and it would be clear where Bart Layton places the blame for the events that transpire. But he and his cast of characters (both real-life and re-enacted) leave us with a literal hole in the ground, the ultimate representation of the idea that there are no "real answers." If I could pinpoint what exactly it was that prompted my visceral reaction, I would quit all my other pursuits, become a documentary filmmaker and try to recapture that same elusive energy. In the meantime, singing the praises of great films like "The Imposter" will have to suffice.