2012 was all about escape. Not only in terms of the big-budget movies that offered us escape from the increasingly ugly real world (how many superheroes or swoony vampires can we stomach?), but by the content of the more adult movies. Characters wanted an escape – from slavery, from a futuristic Korea, from time-travel gangsters, from a burdensome lover – and in these stories we were afforded tremendous freedom. They transported us, for sure, while reminding us of the very real hardships 2012 afforded us all. Below are my very favorite movies of the year, all of which I will be escaping to, again and again, for years to come.
10. "Looper" (Rian Johnson)
Rian Johnson is one of those directors whose previous movies (the high school-set film noir "Brick" and the con-man what's-it "The Brothers Bloom") were always more "clever" than they were "good." There was a feeling, with "Looper," a twisty-turny sci-fi thriller about futuristic hit-men, time travel, and neckties, that this was Johnson's last shot as a director – if he didn't stick this, then he would be relegated to infrequently directing episodes of "Breaking Bad" while fanboys everywhere wondered what else he was up to. Thankfully, he knocked it out of the fucking park. What makes "Looper" such a kick isn't its collection of interlocking narrative curlicues (although those are pretty great), or the fact that Johnson has two actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) as different versions of the same character, and made one the villain and the other the hero, or the Verhoeven levels of satire and violence, but rather its unprecedented emotional core. For a movie with flying motorcycles and time travel and god knows what else, its best special effect is what it makes you feel. There were a lot of kick-ass genre contraptions released this year (among them: "Dredd" and "Cabin in the Woods"), movies that effortlessly wove their influences alongside brand new ideas, but "Looper" was the only one that broke your heart and made you cheer at the same damn time.
09. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (Behn Zeitlin)
Who would have thought that the year's best fantasy film wouldn't involve hobbits at all, but rather a small black child named Hushpuppy who lives in a bayou called The Bathtub? Me neither. But "Beasts of the Southern Wild" presented itself as a bold new piece of American folk art, creating an utterly gritty and spectacularly fantastical version of post-Katrina Louisiana where giant monsters (unleashed from melted blocks of ice – we're all part of the same stew, after all) are a genuine threat and people get around in boats made up of old pick-up trucks. There was nothing else really like "Beasts of the Southern Wild" that came out all year – and the fact that I saw it so long ago and it still leaves a set of vivid impressions is a testament to its power. We hope it continues triumphantly through the awards season, if only because I really want to see Quvenzhane Wallis at the Oscars, clutching a chick to her ear to listen to its heartbeat.
08. "Cloud Atlas" (The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer)
Well, they did it. A complicated, international, three-way directorial partnership wrangled David Mitchell's Russian-nesting-doll of a novel "Cloud Atlas" into a big-time feature film, with movie stars (Tom Hanks! Halle Berry! Q from "Skyfall"!). Both cosmically profound and achingly silly, "Cloud Atlas" attempted to tell the story of the human experience through a half-dozen different stories that take place in a variety of locations (San Francisco in the seventies, a futuristic Seoul, a far-flung Hawaii), using a small collection of actors who each played a variety of roles, oftentimes switching gender and ethnicity. It's mind-bogglingly complicated and yet never feels like it's trying to outright impress you. It's clever without ever being clever-in-quotes. For all its oversized weirdness, there's an earnestness and optimism in "Cloud Atlas" that is utterly infectious; every frame borders on being romantically swoony. Fundamentally more experimental (and existential) than things that were more openly applauded for being such (I'm looking at you, Paul Thomas Anderson), "Cloud Atlas" is a bizarro would-be blockbuster; a 3-hour, $150-million doodle about reincarnation and love and slavery and escape. We should be thankful that a piece of large-scale filmmaking as bold as "Cloud Atlas" exists at all, and we should be doubly thankful that it turned out so well.
07. "Anna Karenina" (Joe Wright)
Director Joe Wright is a filmmaker incapable of doing anything that isn't an overwhelming visual spectacle, but what's so remarkable about his ingenious take on Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is that its synthesized strangeness (the whole thing takes place on the stage inside a crumbling theater) never sabotages its emotional impact. Keira Knightley stars as the titular character, torn between her uptight husband (Jude Law, continuing his climb back to the top) and a dashing young soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Wright continues his very literal fascination with rhythm forwarding narrative by having almost every sequence play out like an extended musical number, with the camera swirling around the actors like another dancer. It's ornate and opulent and theatrical in a manner that emphasizes the melodrama of the source material in new and vital ways. This was a huge creative gamble that ended up paying off; instead of working against the humanity and emotion of the piece, the all-the-world's-a-stage embellishment ends up enhancing it. It's utterly spellbinding, in every sense of the word.
06. "Killing Them Softly" (Andrew Dominik)
One of the lowest-grossing movies of Brad Pitt's career is also one of his best. Reteaming with his "Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" director Andrew Dominik, Pitt starred as a hit man employed by the mafia to clean up after a mob-run card game is robbed. That's about all there is, plot-wise; instead the movie chugs along with the kicky swiftness of a pulp novel (and, indeed, the film was based on a novel by the author of "The Friends Of Eddie Coyle") – it's nothing but kiss kiss bang bang. From a relatively skeletal narrative, Dominik chooses to openly critique the American monetary system and (more specifically) the Wall Street bailout, setting the movie in 2008 and using a series of speeches by Obama and McCain to serve as a kind of alternate score. (This was apparently "too much" for a lot of people, who just wanted to see Brad Pitt kick people's asses.) As a showcase for stellar character actors (among them: Ben Mendelhson, Sam Shepherd, James Gandolfini, and Richard Jenkins), "Killing Them Softly" can't be topped. It very much feels like a new crime-movie classic.
05. "Magic Mike" (Steven Soderbergh)
Going into "Magic Mike," it was hard not to feel giddy with the possibility of a new cult classic, one in which the male body was (finally) commodified and exploited in the same luxuriously leery ways that the female body has been (in things like "Showgirls" and "Striptease"). What was so unexpected was just how great the movie was, how about-to-retire director Steven Soderbergh used the subject of male stripping to make one of the only great movies about the worldwide economic crisis, while at the same time creating a crafty look at a very specific subculture a la "Saturday Night Fever" or "American Gigolo." Oh, and it's one of the most amazing-looking digitally-shot movies ever made (see also: Soderbergh's thoughts on the digital revolution in the thoroughly undervalued, wholly brilliant film world documentary "Side by Side") that had the pleasure of announcing a major new movie star in the form of Channing Tatum, who had done solid (if workmanlike) roles in the past, but with "Magic Mike" cemented his place in the handsome-and-talented pantheon. "Magic Mike"'s best trick, though, is that all of this heady stuff (its themes, subtext, and Tatum's abs) is crammed into one of the most relentlessly entertaining movies of the year. It impressed me so much that I almost threw a wad of crumpled-up five dollar bills at the screen.
04. "Django Unchained" (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino's splatter-western is arguably his most uneven and editorially wonky movie to date, feeling both overlong and tragically underdeveloped, but it's still one of the most blisteringly alive movies to be released all year. You may mourn for what didn't make the cut (like the extended Broomhilda sequence and all that Samuel L. Jackson stuff in the last act), but what remains is nothing short of spectacular. Tarantino tackles slavery and all its historically appropriate nastiness with more gusto than Steven Spielberg did in his stately, drab "Lincoln," crafting a relentlessly entertaining revenge tale out of one of the more depressing American institutions. As a freed slave hellbent on recovering his lost wife, Jamie Foxx lends more emotional resonance than you'd expect, especially since this is a film largely defined by the amount of exploding heads that blossom like time-lapse flowers onscreen, and Kerry Washington is so angelic that you can easily see why it's worth killing a small army of rednecks to win her back. Every performance is peerless, but Leonardo DiCaprio's villainous Calvin Candie, an evil plantation owner with a twisted sense of right and wrong, stands out. Amazingly, in a movie filled with characters and situations ripped from comic books and seventies movie posters, DiCaprio stands out as genuinely colorful. Sure, it's easy to hate him, but you also kind of love him too.
03. "Room 237" (Rodney Ascher)
This haunting documentary might not open wide until this spring, but there was an awards-qualifying run (for a week) in New York and LA, so it's on the list, baby! Like "Zero Dark Thirty," "Room 237" is a tale of obsession, except this time it's the hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick's horror movie "The Shining" that propel five people into what can charitably described as single-minded monomania. You never see these people, who range from writers to academics to internet amateurs, you just hear their voices, and Ascher assembles a series of images that become so mesmerizing that they border on the hypnotic – scenes from not just "The Shining" but other Kubrick movies (like "Eyes Wide Shut") and eighties horror movies from the period – that are meant to enhance and elaborate on the various theories. Everything from the film being a metaphor for the Holocaust to it being a very public confession from Kubrick designed to expose his involvement in the faking of the moon landing are examined here, in painstaking detail. (One of my favorite bits is the woman who virtually mapped out the Overlook Hotel, showing that the young son in the film was skipping between hallways and floors as he pedaled his tricycle around the hotel.) It's brilliant filmmaking, through and through. "Room 237's" biggest accomplishment might actually be that it causes you to rethink how you watch "The Shining," which after thirty years and countless viewings, is a huge feat indeed. It's a cult classic in the making.
02. "Zero Dark Thirty" (Kathryn Bigelow)
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a lot of things – it's a tale of revenge, it's a character study of a woman who becomes obsessed at all costs, it's a historical document, it's a procedural, it's a seventies-style thriller, and it's totally fucking brilliant. Bigelow, continuing the historical action-movie trajectory that began with the outrageously underrated "K-19: The Widowmaker" and continued with her Oscar-winning heart-stopper "The Hurt Locker," reaches its natural conclusion here: a movie that has immediacy built into its DNA (the film's climax happened something like 18 months ago — in real life). In the performance of the year, Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA operative who is determined to bring down Osama bin Laden, chief architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Her performance is largely internal, but Maya certainly goes on a journey, to the point where the movie reaches its conclusion and you find yourself choking up, emotionally synched up with a character you know very little about. Chastain is surrounded by a satellite of amazing character actors (Edgar Ramirez, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, and Jennifer Ehle among them), who invisibly slip into the roles of the various agents, operatives, and wonks that helped facilitate the largest manhunt in human history, which ultimately ended up spanning ten years and two wars. Yes, "Zero Dark Thirty" is morally thorny, but the film treats torture with a just-the-facts-ma'am frankness. If it happened, it's in "Zero Dark Thirty." Rarely are thrillers this cathartic.
01. "Holy Motors" (Leos Carax)
It's been over a dozen years since the world was blessed with a new Leos Carax feature film, but "Holy Motors" makes it very clear that the wait was worth it. Ostensibly a love letter to actors (and, in a larger sense, movies themselves), "Holy Motors" tells the story of a man named Oscar (frequent Carax collaborator Denis Lavant), who, on a single day, is driven around in a stretch limo and goes on a series of "appointments," in which he transforms into a number of characters for a variety of reasons. In one, he's performing actions for some kind of pornographic variation of "Avatar's" motion capture system; in another he reenacts a scene lifted wholesale from "Portrait of a Lady;" or he's been changed into a leprechaun-like goblin who kidnaps a model (played sportingly by a selfless Eva Mendes) and terrorizes the propriety of futuristic Paris. (That last section should be at least passably familiar to those of us who saw the anthology film "Tokyo;" where Carax contributed a story involving this same gnome-like man-beast.) In the margins, Oscar engages in not one but two incredible musical numbers more jaw-dropping than anything in "Les Miserables;" an accordion jam session variation of R.L. Burnside's "Let My Baby Ride" and an original musical number with Kylie Minogue that takes place inside an abandoned department store and is unequivocally one of the more hauntingly beautiful moments in cinema this year. Is "Holy Motors" weird? Yes. Sometimes impenetrably so. (Honestly, I wanted my explanation for placing "Holy Motors" atop my list to consist of one word: "Because." Then I thought better of it.) But that's kind of beside the point, considering it's one of the more galvanic, moving movies I have seen in the past few years, utterly transformative and surreal and very, very silly. Fuck the hoopla over 48 frames-per-second; "Holy Motors" was unlike anything I had ever seen before in movies. If anyone needs me, I'll be in my limo, wearing the weird white mask from "Eyes Without a Face."
Best Animated Movie: "ParaNorman" (Chris Butler and Sam Fell)
Stop-motion animation had a huge resurgence in 2012, with three major animated features released that utilized the painstaking process (the others were Sony and Aardman's somewhat disappointing "Pirates! A Band of Misfits" and Disney's brilliant black-and-white Tim Burton freak-out "Frankenweenie"). The best of them, though, was "ParaNorman," a lovingly crafted coming-of-age tale about a young boy named Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who has the ability to talk to ghosts. Ostensibly a parable about bullying (and how the bullied can actually prove quite useful to society, especially when it's threatened by zombies and witches), "ParaNorman" was more emotionally satisfying than any animated movie this year, along with the most eye-popping design work. It's also really, really funny. The John Hughes-meets-John Carpenter vibe that the filmmakers were going for is consistent throughout, which might have been the problem – it's probably a little too intense for most super-young kids, which is why the similarly themed but way more candy-colored "Hotel Transylvania" walked away with so much more of the box office. Time will out on "ParaNorman," though; it's a new classic.
Runner-up: "Wreck-It Ralph." For the first time in a long time Disney beat its studiomates Pixar in terms of sheer wonderment. A dizzying ode to old-school videogames, "Wreck-It Ralph" was an exhilarating, oddly sweet blast, from uncanny "Futurama" director Rich Moore. We would definitely insert more quarters.
Best Foreign Movie: "Rust & Bone" (Jacques Audiard)
When you describe "Rust & Bone" it sounds hopelessly depressing – a woman (played by the stunning Marion Cotillard), who works at a SeaWorld-esque aqua park, is injured in a stage accident, and one of the killer whales she desperately loves swims by and chomps off her legs. She then falls in love (sort of) with a small-time thug (Matthias Schoenaerts). At the screening we attended at the Hamptons Film Festival, some stuffy white dude stood up in the middle of the movie, said, "What kind of movie is this?" and stormed out in a huff. His loss. "Rust & Bone" is beautiful and profound and, yes, uplifting, filmed beautifully by "A Prophet" auteur Jacques Audiard with a fine attention to detail and emotional realism (it was adapted from a collection of short stories by Craig Davidson). There are a number of sequences that are absolutely heartbreaking (including a couple set to Katy Perry's sugary single "Fireworks"). Thanks to visual effects wizardry, Cotillard's legs are magically removed, although no matter how hard they may have tried to make her otherwise, she still looked beyond stunning.
Runner-up: "Doomsday Book," a Korean sci-fi anthology, anchored by "Heavenly Creature," about a robot that reaches spiritual enlightenment while in the company of Buddhist monks. As directed by Kim Ji-woon, who directs the upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle "The Last Stand," it might be my favorite 30 minutes of 2012.
Best Movie That Hasn't Been Picked Up Yet: "Sparrows Dance" (Noah Buschel)
When I heard about what "Sparrows Dance" was about, I honestly thought it was going to be the most boring movie ever made by humankind. An agoraphobic woman (Marin Ireland from "Homeland") who never leaves her apartment, falls in love with the plumber (Paul Sparks from "Boardwalk Empire") who is sent to repair her pipes. Weirdness and romance ensue. But from that unappealing logline, which sounds like something that Lena Dunham wrote in the margins of a second season episode of "Girls," comes one of the most outrageously amazing films I saw all year. Buschel is an impish stylist, casting gobs of brightly colored light to illuminate sequences, framing the movie in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, and at one point opening up the scene to show that the apartment is a set (brilliant), never getting bogged down in the haggard "naturalism" of the mumblecore genre. The performances are brilliant, too, it should be noted. And the closing credits feature my favorite music moment of the year. If this thing doesn't get picked up I'm going to tour with it, city to city. Mark my words.
Runner-up: "Sin Bin." It's a charming little high school movie, equal parts Wes Anderson and John Hughes, and deserves to be seen by people who are actually in high school. Pick it up like that seventh period French class!