From now on, I've decided that at the end of each year, I'll post a top 10 or top 12. Then at the end of January, post my top 20/25. See, I still have a few movies to get through before I'm 100% finished with 2012. But, I have seen pretty much everything I wanted to see at this point so I feel comfortable making a well-informed list. So, without further ado...
Honorable mentions: 21 Jump Street, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Silver Linings Playbook, Seven Psychopaths, The Deep Blue Sea, Skyfall
12. The Avengers
Looking back at The Avengers now that's it been out for half a year, the film definitely isn't without its problems. It's still very much top notch entertainment in nearly every facet. We waited years for this film to come together and expectations were sky high. Thanks to Joss Whedon and a cast that didn't phone it in, we got just what we paid for and then some.
11. Your Sister's Sister
Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister is a little indie gem. I expected a quirky low budget indie when I went to see it back in the summer, but there's more here than what meets the eye. The way Your Sister's Sister casually unfolds keeps you hooked and engaged all throughout. The cast also helps out plenty: Rosemary Dewitt, Mark Duplass, and Emily Blunt all work well off each other and the film manages to be a perfect blend of comedy and drama without falling into safe territory. If it wasn't for its rather weak ending, it'd be even higher on the list.
10. Rust & Bone
Turning in what was easily one of the best performances of this year was Marion Cotillard in the French-language film "Rust & Bone," directed by Jacques Audiard. After making "A Prophet" back in 2009 (if you haven't seen "A Prophet" yet, stop everything and netflix it now), Audiard comes back with a worthy follow up that explores the relationship between a street fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a whale trainer (Cotillard). Both leads give great performances which are both physically and mentally demanding. But Marion Cotillard is really the one to watch here in this film that examines people that are broken both physically and emotionally, while finding a real connection between each other. Jacques Audiard's film is a healthy blend of melodrama and realism, there's rarely a false moment here.
9. The Dark Knight Rises
A fitting conclusion to a great, epic trilogy. Christopher Nolan really outdid himself with each film in the Batman trilogy. It's debatable whether or not The Dark Knight Rises is the best of the bunch, but for me, the idea that the third film of this trilogy manages to be this good is an achievement in itself. Nobody could have imagined that a follow-up to The Dark Knight could have wound up this good. Nobody thought any villain could follow what Heath Ledger did as the Joker. Tom Hardy may not be as fun of a villain but he's perfect in that Batman finally has a antagonist that can challenge him on both a physical and mental level. I prefer The Joker's psychological head games, but watching Bane go at it with Batman was definitely fun to watch. The third act may not play out as beautifully or as perfectly as we would have hoped, but you know what? I really don't think there could have been a conclusion that would've fully satisfied all of us. Cheers to Christopher Nolan for thrilling us and doing the caped crusader justice with three excellent films.
Slow, deliberate, calculating... Lincoln is all those things. It plods on for 150 minutes, I can admit that. But I like that Steven Spielberg forces us to live and breathe in Lincoln's world for a little while. We watch as he debates with Senators, Representatives, cabinet members. We finally get to see what the man is like, or at least an idea of what he could have been like, thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis's larger than life performance. On the big screen, it's simply remarkable to see how closely DDL resembles Honest Abe. He manages to perfectly embody the man without stealing the show. Nope, instead, veteran actors such as Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field are each given a chance to show that they've still got it. Tommy Lee Jones with his most emotionally revealing performance as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field is just as fun to watch as the slightly insane and misunderstood First Lady. This just might also be Steven Spielberg's best directorial effort because he really steps outside himself and lets the performers and the writing do their thing. It's still a visual delight, but never before has a Spielberg film contained such powerhouse performances.
7. Moonrise Kingdom
I consider Moonrise Kingdom to be Wes Anderson's best film. The fact that it's number 7 on this list just goes to show you how strong 2012 has been. Yes, it's still Wes Anderson being Wes Anderson, but finally he manages to utilize his quirky style to create a beautiful, emotionally involving, human film. This isn't simply an exercise in style. Moonrise Kingdom is also an exercise in great storytelling. It also might be Wes Anderson's funniest film. It manages to be a lot of things all at once and yet it's only 90 minutes long. That's an achievement in itself.
6. Django Unchained
By contrast, Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino's longest film. It's QT at his most indulgent and perhaps at his most self-serving. It's topped off by what's perhaps his most laughable and embarrassing cameo appearance yet. All of this can easily be forgiven when he can create such a great story here. Nearly every actor gets their moment to shine whether it's Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Dicaprio, or Samuel L. Jackson. There's also memorable turns from Don Johnson, Walter Goggins, Michael Parks, and even Jonah Hill. There's parts of the film that are flat out hilarious, and there are parts of the film that are brutally violent. Sometimes the film is both brutally violent and hilarious. What Django Unchained never fails to be is entertaining and enjoyable. When we finally get to meet Calvin Candie and watch Leo, Christoph, and Jamie Foxx play off each other for a good hour and a half, it's just beautiful to watch. Even with all of its minor flaws here and there, Quentin Tarantino has succeeded in making the Spaghetti Western epic that he's always wanted to make.
The originality alone is what cements Looper into my top 5 of 2012. It's not just that it's original, it's gleefully inventive and manages to avoid all the pratfalls that a lot of other sci-fi films fall victim to: it never explain why the time travel works, it just works. Rian Johnson is more concerned with creating a futuristic world feasible enough for time travel to exist. He's more concerned with what would happen if your 55 year old self went back in time and met up with your 25 year old self. You normally don't think about the screenplay after watching a great science fiction film, but Rian Johnson has to be commended for creating such a great sci-fi film from scratch. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are fun to watch as well. What's most impressive is how smoothly Rian Johnson handles the action elements of the film. It's been a long time since I'd been excited to watch Bruce Willis pick up a machine gun and start killing bad guys. Looper manages to be a lot of fun and yet also has time to make us think about our place in the world and whether or not we could really go back and change ourselves if we had the power to do so.
Perhaps the most tightly constructed film of the bunch, Argo can be compared to the great political thrillers of the '70s such as Three Days of the Condor. Riding high after the critical and financial success of The Town, Ben Affleck follows it up with a film that officially cements his status as a great filmmaker. Not a single frame is wasted here. Watching the US hostages just barely escape Iran as the plane lifts off is as thrilling as anything you'll see all year. Ben Affleck, the performer, is also solid as Tony Mendez, a CIA specialist who comes to Iran to get the job done of getting the hostages out of the country.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
The most stunning indie debut I've seen in a long time, what Beasts of the Southern Wild manages to do with such a small budget and a group of unknowns is simply amazing. There really is something special about this film. Sometimes a film's secret weapon is for the film to not have a single recognizable face. This helps Beasts be even more other-worldly and out there than it already is. The film has the perfect mix of magical realism and great naturalistic performers which helps to sell it all. But ultimately, at the heart of all of Beasts's magic, is the relationship between Hushpuppy and her father Wink. Wink's health is deteriorating more and more every day and all Hushpuppy can do is watch. We don't know what'll become of Hushpuppy in the end. She could be stuck in that little community forever, in fact, she probably will. For me, it's just fascinating to watch a community of people who live on the fringes of civilized society, making it on their own terms, living on their own accord. There's something poetic and beautiful about the way writer/director Benh Zeitlin portrays this world. It's never patronizing, it never tries to be overly sentimental, it's just real.
2. The Master
I wish I didn't love this film as much as I do because otherwise I wouldn't feel the need to defend it all the time. This is the most misunderstood film of the year. Misunderstood by people who expected more, who can't handle a little ambiguity. This film is as perfect as it gets for me. Paul Thomas Anderson once again raises the bar for himself and while it's just as artistically bold and daring as There Will Be Blood, it's perhaps even more daring since it refuses to have the answers. It's defiantly curious. PT Anderson simply wants to examine the ins and outs of a cult, to understand it better, not to simply criticize it. Thing is, I think The Master is a very critical film of cults like Scientology, it's just not that direct about it. What the film boils down to is a broken man, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), he's confused and in need of love. He's spent his entire post-WWII days drinking, fighting, and getting into trouble. He's lost. He meets Lancaster Dodd, the leader of The Cause, who thinks he can help Freddie. But by his methods, he can't. At the same time, Lancaster and Freddie develop a close relationship between each other. Lancaster loves and is secretly intrigued by Freddie's animalistic nature; Freddie loves Lancaster because he's the first person since the war who has been willing to take care of him, to give him work, a purpose. But this is a relationship that cannot last because Freddie is a person Lancaster can never fix and to be unable to fix Freddie would mean that Lancaster's methods would be illegitimate. All Freddie wants is to be loved and to be taken care of. He'll work for you, he'll defend you, but he needs motherly care. Here's a man who is desperately in need for a woman to take care of him and satisfy all of his needs. He has no use for pseudo-science. When you look at it that way, The Master is absolutely a criticism of cults like Scientology and quite frankly, I'm surprised so many people don't get that.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
I'm not sure if The Master is better than Zero Dark Thirty or if Zero Dark Thirty is better than The Master, but Zero Dark Thirty is my number one because of just how ballsy and how well Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal pull this off. It's not only a very thorough, careful, and intense examination of the War on Terror and most specifically the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Maya is really a combination of a number of different characters, but her presence in this film is a lot more important than people may think. She represents the relentless that it took in order to finally capture Osama Bin Laden, her one and only job in the CIA was to gather as much intelligence as possible in order to find him. And after all that time, after all the constant dead ends, she finally finds him. He's finally dead. Yet, she feels even emptier than she did before. This film so perfectly captures the mood and feel of a nation that became confused, that wanted answers, that took action without really thinking of its repercussions. We all wanted to find the culprit. But it took so damn long and at a certain point it seemed pointless. It never was. It had to be done. When we finally found him, our initial reaction was to celebrate. But we all knew that it didn't really fix anything, that the horror of the past ten years can never be erased. Zero Dark Thirty perfectly captures all of that and it also is a very thrilling and compelling watch from start to finish. It's truly a masterpiece and will be a film worth re-examining again and again for years to come.