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.