There’s always that one person — whether an ignorant friend or snarky online commenter — who bemoans what a weak year it’s been for film. To those naysayers I reply, “Well, you just haven’t seen enough movies.”
Although some years are certainly feebler than others, I’d be surprised to find anyone who genuinely believes that 2012 was anything but outstanding.
While I found some critical darlings to be slightly overrated (such as “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), there are no major awards-contenders that I flat-out disliked. In fact, there are probably at least seven or eight films that I would feel perfectly content walking away with the Best Picture statuette come Feb. 24. Factor in some incredible art house fare (“The Loneliest Planet”) and first-rate documentaries (“How To Survive a Plague”), and I was hard-pressed to narrow down this year’s stellar potpourri to a mere 10 spots.
Alas, here are my picks for the best films made in 2012.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Unlike many films that are tarnished by repeat viewings, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” only becomes more compelling, more beautiful and more electrifying with age. A labor of love by a truly inspiring jack-of-all-trades — director, co-writer and co-composer Benh Zeitlin — it enchantingly tells the tale of a fictional community along the Louisiana coast that refuses to leave their homes when faced with a debilitating storm.
The film’s beating heart is Hushpuppy, a spunky, headstrong girl played with surprising complexity and sincerity by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. The tough-love relationship she shares with her ailing father grounds the story, and Wallis’ ability to carry the film with the amount of pathos and tenacity she possesses is unparalleled for a child only 6 years old at the time the film was made.
A bayou fairytale that inspires you with wonder, “Beasts” delivers an emotional sucker-punch in its last 20 minutes — during which I admittedly have shed more than a couple tears. Its simple narrative brimming with soul and vivid imagination is one of the many reasons to love “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” or rather, the epitome of why we go to the movies. (Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
2. Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar-sweeping “The Hurt Locker” is a slow-burning but exhilarating thriller. Anchored by a subtle yet scorching performance from Jessica Chastain, this sprawling CIA drama about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden hits all the right notes. “Zero Dark Thirty” leans neither one way or another, but allows the audience to pass judgment on the spellbinding but often controversial actions leading up to the film’s gripping climax. A filmmaking masterclass in every respect, Bigelow deserves yet another Best Picture win for her phenomenal work. (In theaters Jan. 4, 2013.)
3. Holy Motors
A bizarre, indescribable masterpiece, “Holy Motors” is unlike any film you’re bound to see this or any year. In a tour-de-force performance, Denis Lavant effortlessly shifts from one persona to the next, as we are whisked across Paris on an eccentric ride tinged with melancholy. Profound and unexpected, French visionary Leos Carax has crafted a stimulating treat that cinephiles will devour for years to come. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 26, 2013.)
From world-renowned director Michael Haneke, “Amour” is the haunting, gut-wrenching story of an elderly man as he is forced to cope with his wife’s rapidly deteriorating health and imminent death. Starring the heartbreaking Emmanuelle Riva as a woman losing the will to live, this powerful French-language drama is an emotional roller coaster that will leave you teary-eyed and shaken long after the theater lights come up. (In theaters Jan. 11, 2013.)
5. The Sessions
A fresh and insightful spin on your standard disability flick, “The Sessions” tells the true story of a middle-aged paraplegic who chose to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate. With heartfelt performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, this moving dramedy examines two individuals in their most vulnerable states and will undoubtedly leave you with renewed faith in humanity. (Now in theaters; on DVD and Blu-ray Feb. 12, 2013.)
The greatest action movie of the year by a British kilometer, this latest installment of the 007 franchise is a stellar combination of exceptional narrative, staggering stunts and dry humor. Featuring a chilling turn from Javier Bardem as a deranged cyber terrorist, “Skyfall” taps into our everyday fears while still keeping a playful distance, becoming one of the most satisfying James Bond films yet. (Now in theaters; available on DVD and Blu-ray March 12, 2013.)
7. Moonrise Kingdom
Arguably Wes Anderson’s best film to date, this indie summer smash is one of the quirkiest, most charming movies of the year. Led by a dynamic set of youngsters with droll supporting turns from Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, “Moonrise” is a refreshing glimpse into the innocence of youth set against the lush and impeccably shot backdrop of 1960s New England. (Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
A heart-pounding thriller and love letter to filmmaking, “Argo” confirms that Ben Affleck is no longer a burgeoning actor-turned-director, but a first-rate, bankable storyteller. Loosely based on a CIA operation that saved six U.S. diplomats from revolution-rattled Iran in 1979, this mesmerizing drama keeps you glued to the edge of your seat and sets a gold standard for the intelligent Hollywood blockbuster. (Now in theaters; available on DVD and Blu-ray Feb. 19, 2013.)
9. The Imposter
Suspenseful, peculiar and morally ambiguous, “The Imposter” chronicles the head-scratching true story of a French con man that fooled a Texas family into believing he was their missing son of three years. Using a variety of reenactments and interviews, director Bart Layton masterfully proves that there is more to every story than initially meets the eye. (Now available on iTunes; available on DVD and Blu-ray Jan. 22, 2013.)
10. Sleepwalk with Me
Mike Birbiglia burst onto the indie scene in a marvelous way in 2012: directing, co-writing and starring in this semiautobiographical tale of a struggling standup comic with a severe sleepwalking disorder. Chockfull of understated humor and raw honesty, “Sleepwalk” is a tender, light-hearted look at what we sacrifice to be with the ones we love and the difficulties of putting our own dreams on hold. (Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Chasing Ice, Chicken with Plums, Compliance, Flight, Headhunters, Robot and Frank, Side By Side, Sister, Starlet, Your Sister’s Sister