2012 will be remembered as a year of masterpieces (see the top half of this list), diverse gems from across the globe, and pleasing, if flawed, middlebrow Hollywood award-seekers, all in all making for an eclectic and exciting year for cinema.
The year’s offerings did have their shortcomings, however, especially in the American Independent world. In addition, a number of promising-seeming movies by big-name Anglo-American filmmakers fell completely flat (see ‘Biggest Disappointments’ below).
And, as with every year, there were plenty of well-regarded films, which I did not see in time for this list, especially a number of impressive-looking documentaries. With special apologies to films like Magic Mike, Red Hook Summer, How to Survive a Plague, Holy Motors, and many others, here is the 2012 list:
1. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) – This elusive, visually stunning, modernist film wears its mystery plot light and its philosophical weight heavy; Ceylan takes a giant leap forward, entering the very upper echelon of world filmmakers.
2. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) – Anderson wisely avoids a trite Scientology biopic, instead using his melancholic, drifting film to capture the post-war experience of a PTSD-plagued vet via Phoenix and to shine a light on low-grade demagoguery through Hoffman; Anderson now has two of the best American films of the last 25 years with The Master and There Will Be Blood.
3. Amour (Michael Haneke) – The Austrian master turns his rigorous camera toward the subject of love and still manages to plumb the depths of human violence; every image feels essential.
4. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) – Another strong child-centered film by the inimitable Belgian fraternal duo unafraid to take on the most wholesome of virtues – in this case goodness and devotion – in the most gritty of manners.
5. Oslo, August 31 (Joachim Trier) – This pitch-perfect story of addiction, compressed into 24 hours of the protagonist’s life, once again confirms Trier as the poet laureate of bohemian-bourgeois Scandinavia.
6. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi) – One of the world’s preeminent filmmakers copes with life in Tehran under house arrest by frenetically plotting out scenes on his floor, screening clips of his own films and palling around with his pet iguana; both the most bizarre and the most authentic film of the year.
7. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendoca Filho) – A finely wrought social drama set on one block in Recife, which may also be read as an allegory of the history of violence in northeast Brazil.
8. The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-Soo) – A playful cinematic experience of shifting identities, overlapping angles and wistful dreams; a film that trusts the power of the moment.
9. Argo (Ben Affleck) – Stellar semi-historical thriller in which Affleck nicely balances tension-fraught high-stakes hostage smuggling and a humorous look at Hollywood absurdity.
10. Bernie (Richard Linklater) – This Harold-and-Maude gone wrong tale vividly set in small-town Texas is constantly inventive, grimly humorous, and expertly performed.
HONORABLE MENTION (in no particular order): Bonsai (Cristián Jiménez); Life of Pi (Ang Lee); Barbara (Christian Petzold); Lincoln (Steven Spielberg); Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo); Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin); Silver Linings Playbook (David O Russell)
1. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) – By far the most disappointing film of the year; in fact, the most disturbing; a technically brilliant movie that glosses over the horrors of the war on terror and avoids the real facts concerning torture and evidence-gathering.
2. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg) – A wretched adaptation of Don DeLillo, an almost comically bad movie, which reconfirms Cronenberg as one of our most overrated directors.
3. To Rome With Love (Woody Allen) – A solid section with Roberto Benigni and some expert shower-sung opera don’t save this meandering clunker.
4. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan) – The flaws here are legion, but I’ll highlight two: (1) an all-too unfaithful Alfred cries his way through the picture dreaming of Italy; and (2) arch-villain Bane – an at first convincing-seeming foe – is given a ridiculous, humanizing backstory.
5. Skyfall (Sam Mendes) – A bloated, feckless attempt to round out Bond’s biography; moreover, why play the James Bond-is-getting-old card so soon with first-rate 007 Daniel Craig only three films deep into the franchise?”