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For the first time that I can recall, the year came to a close without unveiling a clear-cut, hands-down, no-questions-asked choice for the coveted title of “Best Film.” Plenty of films screened throughout the year amazed and entertained for various reasons. But no movie – in my humble opinion – managed to distance itself from the pack, meaning that the order of this Top 10 (at least, the films in the top five slots) could change order from week to week without altering what I feel about them or how highly I hold them in certain regard.
As always, all lists are subjective, and this compilation reflects my personal tastes. Because of that, it’s closer to my “10 Favorite Films” than “10 Best Films,” but the former, I believe, has more value. If you haven’t seen them yet, Katey Rich and Eric Eisenberg singled out their Top 10 films as well. Here are mine:
10. Safety Not Guaranteed
Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson and Aubrey Plaza all enjoyed a breakout year … though not because of Safety, which basically no one saw. Here’s hoping fans of New Girl, Parks and Rec and The League take a chance on Colin Trevorrow’s charming, romantic and ultimately wondrous sci-fi dramedy now that it’s on DVD, because they’ll be surprised by Derek Connolly’s moving, funny and flat-out original screenplay. I know I was. Masquerading as a time-travel movie, Safety ultimately explores why people would bother to time travel instead of getting bogged down by the science of it all. Plaza and Duplass weave a tender chemistry playing misunderstood loners, and Johnson steals every scene he’s in. Plus, the final sequence counts as my most enjoyable and uproarious experience in a movie theater in 2012, as a rowdy South By Southwest crowd cheered and clapped Trevorrow’s unexpected ending. There’s a reason his name is/was on the short list to direct the next Star Wars.
Best Moment: It has to be the finale, when the mysterious and possibly dangerous Kenneth (Duplass) finally puts his plan into action, and Darius (Plaza) has to decide whether she trusts him enough to join him.
9. Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas ends up being the one movie on this list that I admire more than adore. Because it’s undeniably impressive in so many facets, though, it merits inclusion. This is epic storytelling, with a dazzling ensemble of willing day players (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Keith David and Doona Bae) daring to connect multiple narratives that span generations, yet all speak to the unifying fibers of destiny, hope and love. A gorgeous and ambitious tour-de-force, Cloud Atlas may be a lot to process in one sitting. But in their hulking tome, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have bestowed invaluable life lessons that can be culled and cherished for generations.
Best Moment: Duh. Any fookin’ scene with Tom Hanks laying on a thick cockney accent to play a brutish, British thug in 2012 London. Oy!
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Years from now, audiences will view Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age drama with the same heartfelt reverence currently reserved for top-shelf John Hughes films like Some Kind of Wonderful and The Breakfast Club. Deadly accurate song selections, painfully truthful dialogue, the beating heart breaking through the screen – for so many reasons, Chbosky’s adaptation of his own novel redefines the high-school-outcasts genre while also embracing a litany of pertinent teen issues. Plus, the cast excels from top to bottom, with Ezra Miller and Logan Lerman delivering fragile lead performances that continue to build on their impressive resumes. For teenagers – and those of us who were teenagers once -- Perks is about as good as it gets.
Best Moment: Encouraged by Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick’s (Miller) goofily choreographed dance to “Come On Eileen” at the school mixer, the painfully shy Charlie (Lerman) musters enough strength to push off the wall from which he leans and test the waters of the dance floor. His moves are slight and awkward. But instead of ridicule, Charlie is met with enthusiasm by his new, offbeat friends … instantly changing his life for the better.
7. The Imposter
A story so unbelievable, it’s can’t be true. And yet, documentarian Bart Layton employs the investigative flair of a crime-noir novelist to lay out the harrowing account of a deceitful, 23-year-old French con artist who pretends to be a San Antonio teenager reported missing by his concerned family years prior. That’s only part of the story, though, and it’s remarkable how many times The Imposter shifts gears, both narratively and thematically, before Layton arrives at his open-ended but highly suggestive conclusion. We were blessed with an array of powerful documentaries this year, and The Imposter was the unforgettable cream of the crop.
Best Moment: The extent of the lies being told by professional imposter Frederic Bourdin are revealed to the FBI as his lengthy criminal record is spit out of a fax machine. Yet by that point, we don’t know whether we should feel sorry for the Texas family he is deceiving … or for the slimy criminal, who might have bitten off more than he can chew.
6. Anna Karenina
No, I didn’t believe we needed another Keira Knightley costume drama – let alone another adaptation of Tolstoy’s timeless novel – either. But Joe Wright breathes such creative fire into his enthralling interpretation of Anna Karenina that we’re inspired to view Russian aristocracy, tyrannical class structures and forbidden romances in new lights … namely, those that point at a stage. Much has been written about Wright’s decision to playfully skewer the limitations of live theater in his Anna. But that’s only a clever device opening a portal to two devastating performances by Knightley (as Anna) and Jude Law (as her husband, who no longer is the man of her choosing). Karenina is graceful, beautiful, stylish, bold and unconventional filmmaking that helps make several old things feel very new again.
Best Moment: During a horse race, the handsome Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is thrown from his beast and his lover, the married Anna (Knightley), shocks the world by screaming in fear … betraying her true feelings for her forbidden flame and condemning her in the eyes of the judgmental society that would never let her in their good graces again.
5. The Impossible
J.A. Bayona might be the new Spielberg. If so, The Impossible is his Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park rolled into one remarkable movie. The breathtaking special effects used to recreate the devastating tsunami that rocked South East Asia could have been the whole story. But passionate performances by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor – playing parents who face impossible odds to reunite their family – ground Bayona’s wizardry in a sympathetic ball of melodrama, heartache and, eventually, joy. If you’re human, you’ll find it impossible not to cry.
Best Moment: The easy answer is Maria (Watts) fighting against rushing waters to grab her oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), as debris batters them from all sides. But as a parent, I have to go with the moment the three brothers reunite outside a dilapidated hospital … a four-tissue event I won’t soon forget.
Growing old sucks. Amour does not. Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Cache) crafts a deliberate, meticulous and soul-crushing examination of death, with a dedicated Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) committing to the care of his beloved wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), as her body and mind disintegrate in her final weeks. The year’s toughest sit, Amour also boasts the two most powerful – and powerfully subdued – performances you’ll see in 2012. Though it is Haneke’s unexpectedly upbeat dénouement (if I’m interpreting the director’s finale properly) that elevates Amour to masterpiece status. Watch it with someone you love … then pray you never have to go through a similar experience.
Best Moment: Georges wakes from a nap, and hears the familiar sound of water running in the kitchen sink. Anne’s doing the dishes. Georges puts on his shoes, then helps Anne into her coat. The couple leaves their apartment.
3. Silver Linings Playbook
When I watch Silver Linings Playbook, I think of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. And when I watch Jennifer Lawrence in SLP, I think of a young Shirley MacLaine. The movie’s just that good. Admittedly, time and patience help you acclimate to David O. Russell’s pacing. I get more out of Playbook each time I revisit it, because the damn thing just made me feel so agitated on the first pass. But the brutally honest language in Russell’s pitch-black, dysfunctional comedy is invigorating. The cast radiates warmth, even as they guard their true feelings behind cautious shields. And Lawrence – dear Lawrence – wraps this disjointed, frenetic, emotionally sincere comedy in her firm grip, and carries it across the finish line.
Best Moment: After a costly loss by the Philadelphia Eagles, Tiffany (Lawrence) finally cuts through the bullshit being shoveled by Pat’s (Cooper) family, spouting a series of sporting results for Philadelphia’s beloved teams to prove that she’s no jinx and, in fact, might be the good luck charm the obsessive-compulsive Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) wishes he had.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Great movies transport us to wondrous lands that we might never experience if not for the courage and fortitude of a gifted filmmaker. It amazes me that The Bathtub – the waterlogged Bayou community at the heart of Beasts – exists in our country. Director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t just introduce us to the incomparable denizens of this surreal (yet wholly recognizable) land … he also convinces us why these Southern folk would fight to the death for the ability to stay in the place they proudly call home. Beasts bursts with valuable lessons about family, survival, human strength and paternal love. But the jaw-dropping performances, emotional score and sheer originality of Zeitlin’s storytelling make it my No. 2 pick for the year.
Best Moment: The Bathtub’s mangy residents hold a festive funeral for friends and neighbors they couldn’t find after the storm. When prideful father Wink sees another man teaching Hushpuppy how to open a crab shell with a knife, the overprotective patriarch demands his daughter “beast it” open, knowing that she’ll have to toughen up to fend for herself after he is gone.
1. The Cabin in the Woods
Logic dictates that a year-end Top 10 list leads with an “Important” movie, something that speaks to the trials and tribulations of the human condition in the year 2012. I hope you think I found room for such compelling commentary in slots 2 through 10. Because I’d be lying to myself – and, by extension, to you – if I called anything but Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods my favorite movie of the year. A bone-deep incision into the tired clichés of the horror genre, Cabin insightfully explains why Hollywood – nay, the world -- needs traditional “archetypes-versus-terrors” campfire tales. Cabin, in its own demented way, speaks to the power of storytelling, passed down from generation to generation. Plus, every time the bells ding on the elevator doors, a fresh set of madness spills onto the screen, turning the final act of Cabin into a stunning display of pure horror artistry. Oh, and a guy gets stabbed by a unicorn.
Best Moment: All hell is breaking loose after Marty (Fran Kranz) and Dana (Kristen Connolly) hit the “System Purge” button. As horrific monsters feast on not-so-innocent government agents, Hadley (Bradley Whitford) stares into the smoke created by a hand grenade and finally sees a mer-man slithering in his direction.
Great Movies That Didn’t Make The Cut: Arbitrage, Argo, The Avengers, Chronicle, Flight, Haywire, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Master, Skyfall, and The Waiting Room.