This year’s best films were epic in scope and length. Five of my top 10 films clocked in around the two-and-a-half hour margin.
Two of my favorite films of 2012 were procedurals—one for a murder and the other chronicling recent history’s most famous manhunt. Another two pictures tackled slavery, but greatly differed in tone and style, while one of the year’s most memorizing selections used a controversial religion as a backdrop.
Middle East politics was in the forefront of two of this year’s best movies, while another of 2012’s finest films was a haunting meditation on the process of death. And at least one film was completely uncategorizable.
But let’s get the year’s worst films out of the way first. The good news is that there were very few mega-budget duds in 2012. The bad news is that the year’s blockbusters were mostly ho hum. The latest entries in the Batman and “Lord of the Rings” series were good enough, but paled in comparison to their predecessors.
My least favorite films of the year included the frantic and annoying genre-jumping “Detention,” the completely unnecessary “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” and “Paranormal Activity 4,” horror dud “The Apparition,” the uncomfortable Danish comedy “Klown,” the faux provocation “Compliance,” the awful found footage film “The Devil Inside,” the absurd “Red Dawn” remake, the unpleasant teenage bacchanal “Project X” and “That’s My Boy,” which is the worst film Adam Sandler has made to date.
It’s always difficult to narrow down my favorites of the year into a top 10 list, so my ten runners up list (numbers 11-20) include Ang Lee’s visually stunning adaptation of “Life of Pi,” David O. Russell’s crowd pleasing “Silver Linings Playbook,” Andrew Dominik’s underrated crime thriller “Killing Them Softly,” Steven Soderbergh’s wild and witty stripper comedy “Magic Mike,” Ridley Scott’s neglected sci-fi saga “Prometheus,” Terrence Davies’ haunting “The Deep Blue Sea,” Andrea Arnold’s gritty adaptation of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” Josh Radnor’s charming college drama “Liberal Arts,” Bela Tarr’s gloomy Hungarian apocalypse drama “The Turin Horse” and Gus Van Sant’s hydrofracking drama “Promised Land.”
And here are my top 10 films of 2012:
10. Holy Motors - Leos Carax’s Cannes Film Festival sensation is the most unclassifiable film of the year. The picture follows the travails of Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant), who travels from scene to scene in a variety of costumes throughout the course of a day. Is the picture a commentary on the nature of performance, a love letter to the dying notion of cinema or, perhaps, a meditation on the various roles one inhabits during the course of a lifetime? Regardless of your take, I can guarantee you won’t be bored by this outrageously inventive movie.
9. Argo - Ben Affleck took a gigantic step forward as a filmmaker with his taut thriller centered around the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 1970s. The entire cast is superb and the script manages to subtly draw parallels to the troubles the U.S. faces in the Middle East today.
8. Lincoln - Steven Spielberg’s film was not so much a bio picture of the 16th president of the United States, but more of a detailed look of the inner workings of the political process. It just so happens that the president is Abraham Lincoln and the matter at hand is the abolishment of slavery. Daniel Day Lewis and the entire supporting cast are revelatory.
7. Once Upon A Time in Anatolia - Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan has made his finest film to date with this haunting police procedural during which a detective, prosecutor, doctor and criminal take a long day’s journey into night as they search for a corpse in the countryside. The film deftly explores the limitations of knowledge and the nature of truth.
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Teenagers tend to serve two purposes in movies: to be picked off by a deranged madman or act as the object of ridicule in a raunchy sex comedy. So, it’s a relief to find that thoughtful films about youth are also being made. Stephen Chbosky adapted his own cult classic novel into this lovely paean to the joys and heartaches of growing up.
5. Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino’s raucous and extremely bloody new film is both an epic western and a searing look at America’s greatest blight – slavery. Filled with the type of brilliant writing and memorable characters we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, “Django Unchained” is a bold historical rewrite and genre reimagining.
4. Amour - Michael Haneke’s harrowing Palm d’Or winner is about nothing less than that which we all face – death. The picture portrays the final months in a Parisian couple's relationship after one of them falls ill and slowly declines. This is a powerful and unflinching film.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild - Director Benh Zeitlin and young actress Quvenzhane Wallis burst onto the scene this year with this remarkable tale of perseverance and survival. Both narratively and visually, this bayou-set drama about a little girl who must contend with her father’s ailing health and a massive storm is a true original.
2. Zero Dark Thirty - Kathryn Bigelow’s fascinating film follows the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden by an obsessed female agent, who is played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain. The movie has drawn some controversy over its depiction of torture, but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal portray the film’s events as a procedural, rather than a political commentary. It’s a testament to both the director and writer’s abilities that the film remains so intense during its two-and-a-half hours, considering that we know how it’s all going to end.
1. The Master - Paul Thomas Andersons’s brilliant and mysterious new film is not the expose of Scientology you may have been expecting. Instead, the director portrays a movement similar to that religion as a jumping off point for a story about the struggle between a lost World War II veteran and the charlatan who takes him under his wing. At the film’s core is the question of whether it is possible – or even advisable – to try to change a person’s true nature.