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.
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.