Top Ten Films of 2012: Ensembles upon ensembles

This list is accurate as of post-date. So many films and not enough time to see them all—142 seen is this year’s number—the potential for future change is inevitable, but as of today here are the best …

Many have been saying 2012 was a great year for movies. I’m not sure I fully agree. There were a ton of solid 7/10s and 8/10s, yes, but how does that compare with previous years when the amount of 10/10s were also drastically reduced?

It took until September for me to give a film four stars and the two I did laud with such a distinction that month were the only ones. Rather than a showcase of masterpiece cinema, 2012 was instead a year of the performance. And I mean men and women since so many are also quick to say female standouts were hard to find. When you see the age range for Best Actress at the Oscars go from 9 to 85 you can’t help but appreciate the variety of stellar work being done in front of the cameras.

Yes, sequels and big budget schlock appear to have taken over the industry to the point where it’s almost unnecessary to buy tickets for anything but art house independents, but even the blockbusters have found a way to tap Hollywood’s immense talent pool. When The Avengers can cajole a cast of Oscar nominees you know the level of artistry and quality of story have improved tenfold in genre work previous assumed to be nothing more than “low art”. Hopefully 2013 finds that talent continuing to thrive. Maybe great parts can sometimes compensate for a less than perfect whole.

Films not seen yet that have potential of creeping into the top 10:
Berberian Sound Studio; Dupa dealuri [Beyond the Hills]; Detropia; 5 Broken Cameras; Frankenweenie; The Gatekeepers; Girl Walk // All Day; The Invisible War; Liberal Arts; En kongelig affære [A Royal Affair]; Samsara; Searching for Sugar Man; The Imposter; The Queen of Versailles; Your Sister’s Sister;

Honorable Mention:

15. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, review: Probably my biggest surprise of the year, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a dramedy treat. A who’s who cast of senior Brits dealing with the struggles age brings as friends and family begin to succumb to their mortality amidst the gloriously colorful landscape of India, its mix of heart, humor, and pathos proves to be completely authentic. My darkhorse pick to possibly get an Oscar nomination, it’s also one I can’t wait to revisit.

14. Venuto al mondo [Twice Born], review: A movie I admit to possibly be overrating, I simply cannot underestimate its ability to make me feel. Dramatically powerful in its twists and turns, Twice Born will ravage your soul by its end. The past raises its many demons for Penélope Cruz‘s Gemma as the secrets she kept and were kept from her are slowly revealed against a backdrop of civil war, love, and ultimate sacrifice. No other film last year had me so emotionally drained once the lights came up.

13. Silver Linings Playbook, review: A feel good romantic comedy that’s much more than “chick flick” preconceptions earn, Silver Linings Playbook has the acting chops to let the issue of mental illness elicit laughter without being marginalized or mocked. Jennifer Lawrence once again shows an immense wealth of talent that is scary when you think she is only 22, Bradley Cooper finally breaks out of the “handsome jerk” mold to show what he’s made of, and an amazing group of supporting players help root what could easily have become farce into reality. David O. Russell knows quirky characters and always treats them with the utmost repsect.

12. Frances Ha, review: I can’t wait to see Noah Baumbach‘s Frances Ha land on critics’ lists next year. I’m just sad many will have to wait until May to see it. A brilliant gem shot in black and white, Baumbach’s usual egotistical offsprings of affluence and social standing have once more been molded as the flawed and endearing creatures we need them to be. Where Margot at the Wedding and to a lesser extent Greenburg found them off-putting and mean, Frances (the luminescent Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) are accessible extensions of everyone who ever strived for more in life and love. This is the auteur I remember from The Squid and the Whale.

11. God Bless America, review: A biting satire on our world’s celebrity fetish and inability to live real lives with real connections when living vicariously through other no-talent, wannabe stars is a better option, God Bless America is so completely in tune with my feelings on the subject. Bobcat Goldthwait is unrelenting in his drive to show society’s failings and the media’s willful manipulations, filming every frustrated citizen’s violent daydreams of taking on the mantle of judge, jury, and executioner to heart. It’s wordy, preachy, and at times overly absurd but the laughs come easy and with purpose from the first frame. This is Natural Born Killers for the 21st century.

The Top Ten of 2011:

10. De rouille et d’os [Rust and Bone], review: A deeply affecting film inundated with tragedy upon tragedy in the hopes its broken souls will learn their lessons and accept responsibility for their unfortunate lives, Jacques Audiard‘s Rust and Bone is as good or better than his universally-lauded A Prophet. To me it is in fact more accessible through its beautiful depictions of human struggle by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard, selfishly using each other until discovering the cautious love they covet.

9. Holy Motors, review: An out-there, sensationalized science fiction fantasy about an actor living between reality and fiction as a hired star inside the lives of each person on Earth, Leos Carax mixes genres in a series of short vignettes connected by our desire for escapism. We love to wear masks and become people we are not if unable to live vicariously through strangers, oftentimes forgetting who exactly it is we are. An exercise in the grotesque, the sensual, the musical, and the beautiful, Holy Motors must be seen to be believed.

8. Sound of My Voice, review: Tautly wound dramatics shown through a filter of sci-fi appear to be writer/actress Brit Marling‘s calling card. Sound of My Voice will have you guessing about its truth from the opening frame, steadily progressing in a sequence of chapters moving towards answers about cult lifestyle, faith, and the power of love. Nothing is quite as it seems whether you believe the words of the prophet Maggie or not.

7. Inch’Allah, review: A powerful look at a war-torn Middle East full of Israeli and Palestinian hostilities, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette‘s Inch’Allah shows us how naïve idealism can be flipped on its head once a people’s suffering can no longer able to be held at arm’s length. Evelyne Brochu‘s performance as Chloé will shatter you once her juggling of two worlds collapses in on itself and bigoted hatred forces her to make a decision that will reverberate through her soul for perpetuity.

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild, review: Benh Zeitlin‘s Beasts of the Southern Wild has been one of the year’s most talked about films with good reason. A unique vision made more intriguing by the fact it is American, this dark fantasy set in the Louisiana bayou amidst an environmental apocalypse for its citizens uninterested in the outside world will literally transport you there through its stunning visuals, water-logged and mud-streaked sets, and gorgeous score. The discovery of young Quvenzhané Wallis is but one of its highlights, the metaphorical parable seen through her imaginative mind grabbing hold until the final frame.

5. ParaNorman, review: The fact Hotel Transylvania and Rise of the Guardians—two surprisingly adequate animated films—beat out Laika House’s ParaNorman for a Golden Globe nomination is nothing less than highway robbery. A poignant tale dealing with issues of bullying, being yourself, and familial bonds, there is something to love for children and adults alike. The borderline frightening finale and visually ostentatious conclusion only show the level of creativity and intelligence possessed by a studio fearlessly refusing to pander to its audience.

4. Cloud Atlas, review: Possibly the most ambitious film to hit theatres this year, Wachowski Starship and Tom Tykwer did what many believed impossible with David Mitchell‘s sprawling novel Cloud Atlas. A genre-bending mash-up of stories set against a spiritual backdrop throughout time and dealing in good vs evil/slave vs oppressor, the end result is an emotional hurricane of sumptuous visuals and assured performances from actors tackling up to six different roles. Too blockbuster to be an indie darling and way too cerebral for box office success, it’s still nothing short of spectacular.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, review: Coming out of nowhere and knocking me to the floor with its authentic humor and pathos, Stephen Chbosky‘s adaptation of his own book excels at getting everything right. The Perks of Being a Wallflower may not contain standout moments to be talked about for years to come as unique cinematic achievements, but there isn’t one false note either. Logan Lerman shows us his talent, Emma Watson sheds Hermione Granger, and Ezra Miller entertains in a role far removed from his breakout in We Need to Talk About Kevin. This is adolescent tumult in a nutshell and you’ll be projecting your own past onto it before the end.

2. Looper, review: The less you know about it the better, Rian Johnson may have outdone his brilliant debut Brick with his science fiction masterpiece Looper. Quite possibly airtight despite its genre’s penchant for easy plotholes, the time travel premise is merely an atmospheric element providing the impetus for its look at the human soul inside a world not so different than ours. In fact, the gangster-fueled looping through the decades isn’t even its most important or exciting tropes. Johnson retains more than a few hidden tricks up his sleeve, only unleashing them when the perfect moment presents itself.

1. The Master, review: It may not be plot-heavy or contain an overflowing ensemble cast, but Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master is still very much his. Looking to share an intimate portrait of his conflicted leads, this not-so-thinly-veiled interpretation of Scientology is a hotbed of mesmerizing performances. In a perfect world Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman would each receive an Oscar as the poetic story structure floating through an unspecified period of time provides them a playground to be as dangerous, insecure, and powerful as necessary. Definitely not for everyone, you cannot deny it’s gut-punch impact or refusal to let you back on your feet.

Top Ten

Foreign Films:

1. Inch’Allah, review
2. Holy Motors, review
3. De rouille et d’os [Rust and Bone], review
4. Venuto al mondo [Twice Born], review
5. Amour, review
6. No, review
7. Lamma Shoftak [When I Saw You], review
8. Blancanieves, review
9. Belyy tigr [White Tiger], review
10. Dodookdeul [The Thieves], review

Top Five

Documentaries:

1. How to Survive a Plague, review
2. Brooklyn Castle, review
3. The House I Live In, review
4. Shut Up and Play the Hits, review
5. Room 237, review

Top Five

Animated Films:

1. ParaNorman, review
2. Wreck-It Ralph, review
3. Brave, review
4. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, review
5. Rise of the Guardians, review

Top Five

Directors:

1. Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas
2. Rian Johnson, Looper
3. Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
4. Joe Wright, Anna Karenina
5. David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Top Five

Supporting Actresses:

1. Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
2. Sally Field, Lincoln
3. Ann Dowd, Compliance
4. Helen Hunt, The Sessions
5. Amy Adams, The Master

Top Five

Supporting Actors:

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
2. Scoot McNairy, Killing Them Softly
3. Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
4. Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi
5. Christophe Waltz, Django Unchained

Top Five

Lead Actresses:

1. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
2. Naomi Watts, The Impossible
3. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
4. Marion Cotillard, De rouille et d’os [Rust and Bone]
5. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha

Top Five

Lead Actors:

1. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
2. Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
3. Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
4. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
5. Jack Black, Bernie

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