2012 was my first year as a working film critic. I watched more movies than I would have thought possible and thought about them more than I ever had before. So it’s impossible for me to judge 2012 objectively as a movie year. I did like many more films than I thought I would, even when I couldn’t justify their existence (ahem, Total Recall). There was plenty I missed (Holy Motors), didn’t have time for (The Story of Film), or was too scared to watch (I’ll get to Compliance soon). Of everything I did see, here is my top ten of 2012 in no particular order, except the first:
1. Take This Waltz – No other film this year made me feel as much as Sarah Polley’s hipster love triangle. I hated Michelle Williams’ trendy onesies (they were designed to conceal diapers, ladies), but no other actress breaks my heart so reliably in just under two hours. Williams just makes me feel love. And want love. And fear love.
Sister – Switzerland’s nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is a compassionate but disturbing portrait of an older sister and a younger brother who live on the fringes of society below a ski resort. The AV Club summed it up best in their review: ”Sister is about the condition of being poor and its corrosive effect on human relationships.” The film’s not as depressing as that sounds, but it is way more twisted.
21 Jump Street - Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum make a comedy dream team in this very loose remake of the 80s cop show. Hill and Tatum go undercover at a high school as the world’s least convincing teenagers to stop the spread of a new street drug. There’s little veering from the buddy-cop formula, but with perfectly timed gags, Tatum’s self-parody, and one very special cameo, who cares?
Amour - It really is as good (and depressing) as everyone says it is.
Seven Psychopaths - Martin McDonagh’s second film is not as tightly structured as In Bruges (his debut), but it’s still endlessly clever and funny, not to mention very often heart-wrenching. Supporting players Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Tom Waits (yes, that Tom Waits) give their best creep, while dopey screenwriter Colin Farrell runs circles trying to write them all into a movie and avoid being killed by his psycho-characters.
Cabin in the Woods - I’m a Buffy/Angel/Firefly/even Dollhouse fan, so perhaps my love for Cabin should be taken with a grain of salt. But I found Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s meta-horror film about five attractive college kids being gruesomely murdered in a [title of the movie] exceedingly smart, deliriously funny, and perversely, stubbornly hopeful.
The Invisible War - The statistics and testimonies in documentarian Kirby Dick’s exposé on rape in the military aren’t just harrowing — they’re fucking mind-boggling. The short-sightedness and nonchalant cruelty with which the armed forces deals with (i.e., ignores and/or covers up) violent sexual assault within its ranks almost beggar belief. The Invisible War gives voice to the service-members (mostly female, one male; all veterans) who now battle against the status quo of rape as an “occupational hazard” in the military.
The Queen of Versailles - A glimpse into obscene, grotesque wealth is what Lauren Greenfield offers in the hilarious, heart-breaking Queen of Versailles. That it isn’t eligible for a Best Documentary Oscar is a joke, since no other film this year, or any other year, comes close to explaining and humanizing the Great Recession, while also taking full delight in its destructive force.
Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin’s Hurricane Katrina fantasy-melodrama never quite comes together, but that sense of fractured reality is what gives Beasts of the Southern Wild its magic. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) loses her moorings when a tropical storm injures her single father (an astounding Dwight Henry) and washes away her dilapidated town. It’s not at all clear how she’ll survive, or what the Arctic papier-mache rhinos unfrozen by climate change have to do with her personal tragedy, but survive she will, because she’s got to.
End of Watch - Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña star as police partners and platonic soul mates in this criminally ignored procedural. The two beat-cops cruise around South Central L.A., busting petty crooks and small-time gangsters, until they stumble onto a Mexican cartel operation. That makes them targets for assassination — a fact they don’t realize until it’s too late. Gyllenhaal and Peña have a run at Bromance of the Year, while the always charming Anna Kendrick sparkles in a supporting role.
Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a riotously fun revenge fantasy, with brilliant cinematography and a devastating villain. Give Christoph Waltz all the awards.
Chico and Rita - Rendered with exquisite (French/Cuban) animation and music, this love story between a jazz singer and a pianist set in mid-century Cuba is a surprisingly sexy delight.
See also: My Five Favorite Documentaries of 2012.