Movies. They’re a big part of my life. My personal DVD and BluRay collection contains more than 2,000 titles. Very few of them, however, were made in the last decade. This isn’t because I don’t want to love everything I see. It’s because I can’t. Frankly, most of the films I’ve seen in the last 10 years bore me to tears. There are always exceptions—six or seven films that genuinely excite me each year.
2012 was different. The best year in cinema since 1999. Some will undoubtedly disagree, and that’s cool. But I didn’t hallucinate my enjoyment of the following films, and it’s my hope you’ll dig the spirit of this list.
Full disclosure: I am not, nor do I wish to be, a film critic. I don’t discuss film by way of synopsis. Sometimes I have a lot to say and other times I find it hard to articulate how and why art moves me. I’m not interested in analyzing what I love. I just know it when I see it.
#1 – CLOUD ATLAS
I love creation, and that’s what Cloud Atlas is. Though this film hasn’t received the wide acclaim it deserves, I believe it will stand the test of time. Any blemish here is the product of ambition. This is art reaching far. And connecting! Visually stunning. Emotionally moving. And transformative. The century’s best film thus far.
#2 – ARGO
Ben Affleck. Damn, that man can direct! I saw Argo on its second day at a small theater in the Midwest. When it ended, people applauded. We’re not talking about an audience of fanboys who'd just watched their favorite comic book hero set to live action; rather, they came to see a film about the US government’s odd (but true) mission to rescue six Americans from Iran in 1979. Did I mention that everyone applauded?!? In my experience, that just doesn’t happen as a matter of routine. But Argo isn't the norm. It's a masterpiece. In just about any other year this would have been my favorite. In fact, Argo isn’t just my second favorite film of 2012, it’s my second favorite of the last decade. It manages to be suspenseful though we know what’s going to happen, and the Hollywood stuff is hilarious.
#3 – SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
My general distaste for romantic comedies isn’t rooted in cynicism. I love to love and I love to laugh. But most rom-coms are lame as hell, neither funny nor believable. Here we have David O. Russell’s brilliant Silver Linings Playbook, a film with a rare internal awareness about mental illness and the hard fought road to a second chance. What you won’t find are a series of pratfalls resulting inexplicably in happily ever after, though you will find a film that’s incredibly cognizant when it comes to clichés. Rather than avoid them, Russell does something more interesting—he plows through them with unbelievable grace, placing the focus where it belongs: the characters. You’ll hear everyone praise Jennifer Lawrence for her performance, and for good reason, but Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, and Anupam Kher are all outstanding. I truly loved every frame of this perfect film.
#4 – DJANGO UNCHAINED
It could be said that Quentin Tarantino has been telling the same story since the first Kill Bill, trying like hell to make the perfect revenge film. I, for one, hope he does something new next time, but that doesn't mean I don't love Django Unchained. Reservoir Dogs is QT's paciest film and Pulp Fiction is his coolest and Jackie Brown is his most mature. But what we have here, in my humble estimation, is his best film. Some have knocked the violence, others have criticized the film's unflinching and direct approach to exposing racism, and a few have cited problems with the motivations of characters (particularly Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz). Go figure, QT didn't make this film in the vacuum of political correctness, and he didn’t feel the need to spell out a complex character’s thought process when he could show us the man’s odd internal logic through action. Why are some so shocked? Are they just now tuning in? Fact is, most people get it, and Django Unchained has done very well. Now QT can do something new? Again, hope so.
#5 – ZERO DARK THIRTY
Zero Dark Thirty is a challenging and exhausting film. It’s also a major achievement, despite the controversy surrounding its accuracy. Jessica Chastain’s performance is the finest of the year, and it’s the best thing about an enterprise that clearly isn’t seeking to entertain. That aside, Zero Dark Thirty is a compelling and indispensable government/military procedural that examines obsessive determination in the face of bureaucratic incompetence and indifference. Does the film justify torture? Not in my mind. Most of us have no firsthand experience when it comes to the horrors and politics of war. This is a glimpse into that dark abyss, and it’s also a mirror. This is who we are, it says. This is what we do. Even if Bigelow (director) and Boal (screenwriter) are guilty of connecting dots erroneously, they nailed the tone and mood. And they made a great film.
#6 – SKYFALL
I’m a Bond nut. I grew up with 007 and have watched all of the Bond films (with few exceptions) hundreds of times. I disliked 2008’s Quantum of Solace (one of the worst in the series), but I love Skyfall. ‘Nuff said.
#7 – LOOPER
Simply put, Looper is cool. But it has plot holes, you say. Fair enough. Now show me a time travel thriller without a few plot problems and I’ll introduce you to Santa Claus. The focus here is on the characters, which is probably why I didn’t see the logic gaps on first viewing. That’s right, plot isn’t king in Looper. How utterly refreshing for a sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian future where the mob uses time travel to dump bodies. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis turn in terrific performances, but child actor Pierce Gagnon, who plays Cid, steals the show.
#8 – MOONRISE KINGDOM
Sometimes I love Wes Anderson’s films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), other times not (Bottle Rocket, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Moonrise Kingdom fits somewhere in the better half of Anderson’s oeuvre. What we have here is a charming and funny fairytale that's beautifully rendered. I loved it.
#9 – KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Killing Them Softly is a smart anti-thriller that explores the modern economic collapse through the lens of organized crime. The snappy dialogue is worthy of William Goldman in his prime. The film’s sole flaw is its heavy-handed use of radio and television footage to clarify its point. That aside, Killing Them Softly is a profound work of art.
#10 – KILLER JOE
Killer Joe is a sick, depraved flick. It’s also William Friedkin’s best since 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. I’ll never look at “K Fried C” the same way again. Or the song “Strokin’.”
Honorable Mentions: The Master, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Seven Psychopaths, Lincoln, The Avengers