2012 was a year of more doubles and triples than home runs — a lot of very solid films, few instant classics. But that leaves room on the list for some quirky oddballs that may not have made it in other years, giving us a very fun but interesting rundown of films.
3. 10. “The Imposter” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”
The bottom spot goes to two fascinating documentaries about two extraordinary people who spend their lives developing unbelievable skills; one to convey joy and civilization, the other to prey upon the unsuspecting.
Jiro is a heartbreaking look at a tradition of craftsmanship all but lost to our world. The Imposter is one of the most unbelievable true crime stories you’ll see on the screen, though to say one word more would risk giving something away. But the real-life contrast of powers used for good and evil makes both sides of the equation unforgettable. —R.R.
4. 9. “The Queen of Versailles”
Ugh, these poor people. Specifically, I’m referring to Jackie Siegel, the many children, and the domestic help featured in Lauren Greenfield’s sickening, this-is-why-the-terrorists-hate-us documentary, The Queen of Versailles. (David Siegel, the family patriarch, I have no sympathy for.) This movie put me in a depressed state about the economy, American values, and parenting for several days — and I mean that as a compliment! There were some shenanigans with how Greenfield laid out the business aspects of the story (the near-collapse of David Siegel’s time-share company as he and his wife are trying to build the largest house in the country) that were entertainingly investigated in The New York Times: I loved that NYT story, but any trickery on Greenfield’s part didn’t turn me against the movie. Debt addicts like Jackie Siegel and most of the Real Housewives are regularly dismissed by high culture, but if we want to avoid another economic collapse, we must learn from and about them. —K.A.
5. 8. “Anna Karenina”
The only thing worse than a slavishly faithful film adaptation of a great novel is a brazenly disrespectful adaptation of a great novel. In this version of the Tolstoy classic, however, director Joe Wright finds the perfect middle way: a film that is wonderfully inventive but that uses its liberties to enhance the central story, not just string cinematic baubles around it. Anna has always been a tough case for directors. In the book, going into Anna’s mind, Tolstoy sweeps one away with the fever that leads her to abandon her perfectly nice husband and children for an ineffectual fop. But seeing all that play out on the screen in scene after scene has the potential to be tiresome. What’s taking that damn train so long anyway?
But shooting the film as a jewel box fable, presented on the stage of a little 19th century theater, Wright is able to capture beautifully the claustrophobia of Russian society, the stifling air, and the sensual whirlwinds that sweep the romance along to its tragic, inevitable conclusion. The story feels as timeless as a fairy tale and as real and vital as a music video. —R.R.
6. 7. “Haywire”
I sent a few people to this movie after thinking it was so fun, and that didn’t go well — so maybe it’s not for everyone. Mixed martial arts ass-kicker Gina Carano, she of the monotone voice, is an unlikely leading lady, but everything in this movie worked for me, from its amazing action sequences (the one in the streets and roofs of Dublin in particular) to its paranoiac sensibilities. I don’t understand how Steven Soderbergh picks his projects these days, but extreme eclecticism seems to be the guiding principle — and I especially like the ones he does that are like Haywire, where he seems simply to be having fun. Everyone is good in this movie, and there are a lot of recognizable people in it, perhaps to surround Carano the rookie: Michael Angarano and Channing Tatum were standouts. —K.A.
7. 6. “Zero Dark Thirty”
Knowing exactly how this movie ends amazingly does not make it one ounce less exciting. Like the best episode of Law and Order you’ve ever seen, this CIA procedural played out across the War on Terror holds you on the edge of your seat through bureaucratic infighting, slow-motion electronic chases across crowded bazaars, Lamborghini bribes, and the cafeteria-based social lives of modern-day spies. The greatest screen thriller in years couldn’t have been more exciting if they made it all up. —R.R.
8. 5. “Pitch Perfect”
For the second year in a row, the funniest film is a female-driven comedy. In fact, the vast majority of the decent comedies this year have been female-driven: Bachelorette, For a Good Time Call, Your Sister’s Sister, and Safety Not Guaranteed, to name a few.
This zany a cappella tale manages to always stay just off-kilter enough to float above its formulaic outlines, and it’s impossible not to laugh at every damn line from Rebel Wilson as the demented, supernaturally self-possessed exchange student. The Glee train may be running out of steam, but in Pitch Perfect, it’s clear that the “comedy with stage-musical numbers” genre still has legs. —R.R.
9. 4. “End of Watch”
I can’t tell whether I feel that End of Watch was the best movie of the year — nor do I know what that means, anyway — but it was definitely my favorite. I went in having no idea what to expect, but dreading a Training Day–like assault (David Ayer, the screenwriter of Training Day, wrote and directed End of
Watch). Instead of cynical thrills, though, the audience is treated to a story about humanity and friendship in the guise of an exciting cop story. (I wrote about Jake Gyllenhaal’s and Michael Pena’s characters here in our “Most Unforgettable Characters of 2012” story.) This movie didn’t get the love it deserved; it’s not too late, though! —K.A.
10. 3. “Silver Linings Playbook”
He’s manic! She’s depressive! And together they’re in for the roller-coaster ride of their lives! The pitch for Silver Linings Playbook sounds like a bad attempt at high-concept rom-com gone indie. The dialogue grates like someone yelling at you for two straight hours. The notion of pairing the abrasive and frequently cretinous Bradley Cooper with the light-years younger and more appealing Jennifer Lawrence is, at first glance, the stuff of nightmares. Everything about this film should be a train wreck!
And yet, through some magic of cinema alchemy, it all works. Not only works, but is a delight. No, it’s not the edgy alternative cinema exploration into mental illness one might expect. It’s just a great romantic comedy starring one incredible breakout star in Jennifer Lawrence. —R.R.
11. 2. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
The most original film this year. The work of Behn Zeitlin, a ridiculously young (29-year-old) first-time director, starring a cast of newcomers to the screen, Beasts presents a lyrical vision of a world falling to pieces as seen through the eyes of a semi-feral 6-year-old. If that’s impossible to picture, that’s because it is almost impossible to explain, but its beauty will haunt. Its baby star will enchant as Zeitlin manages to turn a dying impoverished little corner of the Bayou into a real-life fairyland. —R.R.
12. 1. “The Dark Knight Rises”
Since the modern superhero era debuted with 1978’s Superman, the genre has careened from bloated and bland — heavy on effects, light on memorable characters — to campy, tongue-in-cheek satires. Nerds had all but given up on the dream of ever seeing a superhero film that came close to the dark and cerebral tone of contemporary graphic novels.
When the history of film is written, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy will occupy a completely unique place: a series of massive budget films that were as intelligent and thoughtful as any self-conscious indie movie, creating a giant spectacle but always staying grounded in very real characters and a genuine human experience. The final chapter went out with a burst of humor and warmth after what many found a chilly second installment.
The films are not always perfect — part two is too long, the themes too transparent — but despite their flaws, they are an experience of pure cinematic excitement and intelligence that puts the disposable thrills of the Marvel films to shame. —R.R.