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The Other Best Films of 2012

The Other Best Films of 2012

I've never written a second top ten for my honorable mentions before — I typically just throw them in, without comment, at the end of my list — but In a year as good as 2012, ten best films just isn't enough. In my best of 2012 list, I joked (honestly) that with so many amazing movies to choose from, you could disqualify my top ten and force me to hand in my next ten favorites, and I would be totally content. And the more I thought about that, the more I wanted one more chance to write about these terrific movies.

So here's our last year-end list at Criticwire, the "other" best films of 2012. If you missed any of the previous lists — The Best Worst Films of 2012, The Best Flops of 2012, and My Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 — then I just provided you with links to all of them. Onward to 2013; let's hope in twelve months we're all faced with equally tough listmaking choices, and with a year of movies so good that titles as exceptional as the ten that follow count only as "honorable mentions:"

20. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
Directed by John Hyams
Read my review on ScreenCrush
Criticwire Grade: B+

A prime example of the sort of experimental artistry that can be achieved in the world of VOD and DTV (though this movie did get a small theatrical release). Like his amoral scientists who bring battlefield dead back to life as brainless killing machines, director John Hyams revived the "Universal Soldier" mythos and made it more ruthlessly effective than ever before. Abandoning most of its earlier (and goofier) sci-fi premise for psychological horror, this installment follows an amnesiac (rising martial artist Scott Adkins) as he investigates his family's murder at the hands of former good-guy UniSol Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, channelling Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now" to genuinely unsettling effect). Most of the requisite action is backloaded to a brilliantly fluid and frenetic finale; the first hour is a truly audacious mindfuck, tripping on hypnotically lysergic imagery. The result: the most delightfully weird Dolph Lundgren movie in history.

19. Magic Mike
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Criticwire Grade: B+

2012's winner of The "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" Award for the Best Onscreen Use of a Penis Pump. "Magic Mike" was the better of Steven Soderbergh's two 2012 films, but not by much (the other, "Haywire," just missed this list). This unlikely blockbuster (which made $167 million worldwide on a $7 million budget) was full of surprises: an impressively soulful lead performance — not to mention some truly impressive exotic dancing — from hunky Channing Tatum, and a insanely magnetic supporting turn from Man of the Year Matthew McConaughey. Sold (rather wisely) as a bawdy romp, "Magic Mike" was actually something a bit more complicated. Beneath the spray tans and G-strings, this was one of the most perceptive recent movies about America's economic downturn, with the nuanced character work and bleak plot twists of a vintage New Hollywood dramedy.

18. Moonrise Kingdom
Directed by Wes Anderson
Criticwire Grade: B+

My favorite Wes Anderson film since "Rushmore." I've wondered why I liked this one, but found so many of his works in the interim frustrating or downright infuriating. Eventually, I came to the realization that both "Rushmore" and "Moonrise Kingdom" have teen protagonists whose idealistic worldviews fit more effectively into Anderson's aesthetic of childlike wonder. That said, this movie might have Anderson's all-time greatest adult cast too: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, and, of course, Bill Murray. Over the years, I've become like a heroin addict when it comes to Anderson's movies: I've built up a tolerance, and the same fix doesn't get me as high as it once did. "Moonrise Kingdom," though, was like undiluted movie opium. Pure bliss.

17. Life of Pi
Directed by Ang Lee
Read my review on ScreenCrush
Criticwire Grade: B+

A dubious philosophical achievement, but a profound technical one, including some of the most convincing CGI characters ever created and the best 3D cinematography I've ever seen (at least in 24fps). It's yet another visual triumph for Ang Lee who may be the most underrated visual stylist on the planet; the man simply knows how to tell stories with images (and iconic ones at that). That's no easy feat when your setting is a tiny lifeboat lost in the Pacific Ocean, and your cast totals just one actual human being and an assortment of digital animals, including the unforgettable Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. I don't know that "Pi"'s ending works, but if it does, it's only because Lee brought those 200 days at sea to such impossibly vivid life. 

16. Sleepless Night
Directed by Frédéric Jardin
Read my review on IFC
Criticwire Grade: B+

Like "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning," this is another superb, unconventional action film that lived primarily on VOD rather than in theaters. This one is French, and follows a cop of questionable ethics (Tomer Sisley) as he infiltrates a drug dealer's posh Parisian nightclub in order to rescue his kidnapped son. Largely contained to that single location, "Sleepless Night" is an exercise in pure, claustrophobic tension, as the cop chases his son as he's chased by the drug dealers and by cops who might be even dirtier than he is. When you see three hundred movies in a year, you find yourself in the position of understanding and predicting where most of them will take you before they get there. With twist upon twist and Sisley's ingeniously resourceful detective, you were always struggling to keep up with "Sleepless Night."

15. ParaNorman
Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler
Criticwire Grade: B+

2012's winner of The "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" Award for the Most Potentially Traumatic Kids Film. Some of that has to do with the film's nominal subject — a zombie invasion of a suburban town — but more of it has to do with the film's powerful messages about the dangers of bullying, scapegoating, and mob mentality. "ParaNorman" was beautifully animated by the stop-motion artists of Laika Studio, and shamefully ignored by the public, a sin that will hopefully be rectified with time; as "ParaNorman" proves, mistakes rarely stay buried forever.

14. Oslo, August 31st
Directed by Joachim Trier
Read my capsule on Criticwire
Criticwire Grade: B+

In a year of movies with great opening scenes, including "Flight," "Holy Motors," "Skyfall," and more, "Oslo, August 31st" may have had the very best. Recovering drug addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) awakens in a hotel room with a woman. He silently gathers his things and walks to a nearby forest, where he finds a lake, fills his pockets with rocks, and walks into the water, ready to kill himself. Agonizing seconds tick by as Joachim's Trier's camera passively observes the surface of the lake, and a faint trickle of air bubbles. Finally, Anders swims back to the surface, gasping for air. But if he's cast off the literal weight that was weighing him down, he's still burdened by metaphorical baggage. He heads into Oslo for a job interview and the chance at a fresh start, but as he bumps into old acquaintances and makes a few new ones, he keeps returning to the thought that pushed him into that lake: What if it's too late to fix things?

13. Not Fade Away
Directed by David Chase
Read my review on ScreenCrush
Criticwire Grade: B+

The title of "The Sopranos" creator David Chase's directorial debut already feels like a cruel joke — in its second week of limited release, "Not Fade Away" ranked 17th in per-screen average, earning just over $54,000 at the box office ("Zero Dark Thirty," by way of comparison, earned more from just one of its five screens, than "Not Fade Away" did on all of its nineteen). With time most certainly not on its side, obscurity seems a sad, foregone conclusion at this point; an ironic end for a movie about a talented band that struggles for years to secure a big break that never comes. Something tells me, though, that"Sopranos" fans will eventually find this deeply personal and superbly told film, and revel in Chase's storytelling chops, his pitch perfect ear for dialogue, and his ingenious use of popular music to evoke time and place. Dead-end New Jersey ennui hasn't looked this good since, well, "The Sopranos."

12. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Directed by the Duplass Brothers
Criticwire Grade: B+

“Everyone and everything is interconnected in this universe. Stay pure of heart and you will see the signs. Follow the signs, and you will uncover your destiny.” — Jeff. Inspiring words, even if they come from a pothead (Jason Segel) who lives in his mother's basement and who can barely scrape himself off his couch and away from his bong to fulfill her one birthday wish: to go buy some wood glue in order to fix a broken kitchen cabinet. Jeff's odyssey to the store will lead him along an unexpectedly enlightening journey; following his personal credo (cribbed, obviously while high, from M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs") he discovers that everything really is connected: the wood glue, the name "Kevin," Jeff's brother Pat (Ed Helms) and his troubled marriage to Linda (Judy Greer), and the brothers' still-festering grief over their father's death. They all add up to the best and most mature film to date from Mark and Jay Duplass.

11. Cloud Atlas
Directed by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer
Read my review on ScreenCrush
Criticwire Grade: B+

A bitterly divisive and toweringly ambitious movie: six stories set in six time periods, but just one cast, with actors taking on multiple roles in multiple races and genders. The Wachowskis and Tykwer sometimes wear their themes a little too heavily on their sleeves, and the stunt casting probably works about as often (Halle Berry playing a white woman in 1936 Scotland) as it doesn't (Tom Hanks as a Cockney gangster in 2012 London). Still, even with the filmmakers' blunt handiwork, I found this movie compulsively watchable and surprisingly inspiring. Here is an challenging, uncommercial three hour treatise on why it's important to make challenging, uncommercial art; to speak when others want to silence you. That the characters occasionally talk in new age slogans is irrelevant — what's important in the Wachowskis and Tykwer's view is the bravery of the act of speaking, not the words themselves.

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