I would guess I didnt see the best movie of 2012. Maybe no American critic did.
We catch only a fraction of the films made in this country and a much smaller fraction of those flooding in from around the world or never imported to our shores. Maybe the best film this year was some yet-unknown classic about a monastery in India, a noodle shop in Thailand, bicycle riders in Luxembourg or cattle farmers in Kenya.
So forgive the unwieldy title, but my choices should be called Best Movies Ive Seen So Far That Were Released in 2012. The top 10 are listed by preference; honorable mentions are alphabetic, so consider them all tied for 11th. In fact, only the first five are distinctly ordered in my mind.
1. 'Lincoln' I expected platitudes and hero-worship from director Steven Spielberg. Instead, I got a nuanced title character and a fascinating look at the dealings and double-dealings needed to pass an anti-slavery amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I attribute the subtlety mostly to Tony Kushners thoughtful script, which gave us a blunt, funny look at the legislative sausage-making process.
2. 'Argo' On the strength of three films this, Gone Baby Gone and The Town Ben Affleck has proven himself a director whose work I now always want to see. He also stars capably as a CIA man running an operation to get American diplomatic staff out of Iran during the Khomeini revolution in 1979, under the pretext of shooting a science fiction film there.
3. 'The Master' Hollywood seldom wants to explore broken people who cant be redeemed or made happy. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson does, and Joaquin Phoenix gives a riveting performance as just such a man, a sailor who clings to a mesmeric philosopher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) after World War II in hopes of giving his empty life meaning.
4. 'The House I Live In' Eugene Jareckis documentary about the vast amount of time and money spent locking up nonviolent drug offenders should appeal to liberals and conservatives alike: Current federal policies destroy families (and lead to more crime) while wasting millions of tax dollars. Jarecki makes a persuasive case.
5. 'ParaNorman' The best animated film I saw this year: quirkily drawn, emotionally powerful, well-cast, cleverly plotted, funny in the ways it riffs on comic stereotypes and then destroys them. The title character, who sees dead people and animals, begins as the outcast butt of jokes and ends as the savior of his town.
6. 'Searching for Sugar Man' Im partial to documentaries that right wrongs, and this one does. A Dylanesque singer in Detroit freakishly and unknowingly became a megastar in South Africa in the 1970s. Four decades later, a journalist checked out the rumor that hed killed himself, found him living humbly and brought him to belated glory.
7. 'A Royal Affair' Denmark submitted this film as its Oscar nominee this year. Its a romantic triangle and a political thriller of sorts set around the time of the American Revolution, when a Danish king who seems to be mentally ill makes an unwise marriage with a British princess and a wise political bond with a German adviser who then falls for the neglected queen.
8. 'The Cabin in the Woods' Every year seems to yield one movie in the first few months that sticks in memory all year long, and this was it. Writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard brilliantly tease, exploit and explode horror conventions, as the fate of the world depends on college students stuck in a mountain retreat.
9. 'Zero Dark Thirty' The film has virtually no emotional content, but its intelligence and narrative tension never fail. Its like a police procedural, but the criminal is Osama Bin Laden; the cops seeking him are CIA agents, led by an indefatigable woman who has spent her whole adult life in this hunt (Jessica Chastain).
'Zero Dark Thirty' opens nationwide on January 11, 2013. It opened earlier in limited release.
10. 'Skyfall' The James Bond saga, elevated in Casino Royale and lowered in Quantum of Solace, now attains a level it hasnt seen since Sean Connerys heyday. Javier Bardem stands out as the eerily quiet computer genius who launches a terrorist attack on M and, by extension, MI6 and London itself.
Honorable mention: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' 'Flight,' 'Life of Pi,' 'Looper,' 'Silver Linings Playbook.'
Lawrence Toppman: 704-358-5232.
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