Rewinding 2012 - The Top 10

December 31, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

Another year, another Top 10.

A few notes/curiosities… First, 2012 was one of the best movie years of the young century, although I might not have held that opinion on November 1. This year was incredibly back-loaded, far more so than usual. It's expected that the best movies will be released in the October/November/December period, but a surprising seven of the entries on this list opened during the final eight weeks of the year (with two not going wide until January 2013). Also, somewhat remarkably, only one of the movies on my Halftime Top 10 survived to place on my end-of-the-year Top 10. That has never happened before. Generally speaking, two or three of the Halftime Top 10 titles make the final cut.

There are eleven titles on this year's Top 10 list. Some might call that cheating, but there is a rationale. One of the movies that made the 2012 final cut is actually a 2011 film. All things being equal, it should have been on the 2011 list (where, for the record, it would have placed #2). However, Sony Classics, exhibiting a NY/LA-bias, failed to screen the film for local critics until mid-January 2012, so my choices were to (1) ignore it [unfair], (2) go back and change the 2011 list [logistically difficult], or (3) put the movie on the 2012 list. I opted for #3. By including eleven titles on the Top 10, I was able to include the "orphaned" 2011 movie in addition to my true Top 10 of 2012. Plus, the two titles at #10 were legitimately tied. I went back and forth many times about which one to drop before deciding on the tie.

I decided to release the Top 10 in five parts over five days (December 27-31), adding on a few titles each day. If you're reading this after December 31, 2012, that won't have any meaning. But if you're reading it before then, there's nothing wrong with your browser - the entire list isn't yet available. Now, on to the list, which is presented in reverse order.

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical):

The Avengers:


End of Watch:

Moonrise Kingdom:

Ruby Sparks:

10 (tie) - The Dark Knight Rises: A black cloud still hangs over The Dark Knight Rises. Through no fault of its own, this movie bears a taint. Over time, it will diminish and a future generation won't give a thought to what happened at a midnight showing when anticipation turned to horror. I was fortunate enough to see the movie before it opened so my initial impressions were unaffected by the real-life tragedy. The Dark Knight Rises represents a solid, gratifying conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman saga. It doesn't soar to the heights achieved by The Dark Knight, but it's still a damn fine motion picture, and the best superhero movie of 2012 (beating The Avengers by a whisker). This is no Return of the Jedi. It closes the trilogy with a little ambiguity and a lot of satisfaction.

10 (tie) - Les Miserables: Fans of the musical have waited and waited and waited to see this. Few except the most anal and demanding will be displeased. Les Miserables is probably the best cinematic adaptation of the stage musical one could hope for. It's big and bold. The songs are impressively presented and the settings have been "opened up." Big screen spectacle replaces stage intimacy; the movie is familiar yet doesn't feel tired or derivative. Hard-core devotees of Victor Hugo's novel who hated the musical in its stage incarnation won't have a born-again reaction to this iteration, but everyone else should be pleased.

9 - Argo: When I first saw it, I thought for sure Argo would find a spot nestled among my Top 3 or 4 of the year. How things have changed since then. I still believe this to be a strong motion picture (one of the 2012's Best Picture nomination candidates); at its best, it crackles with tension and continues Ben Affleck's bid to attain A-list director status (if he's not there already). Yes, there are some historical inaccuracies (mostly related to the downplaying of the Canadian ambassador's role in securing the refugees' freedom), but I don't demand slavish factual accuracy in a feature film. Argo plays like a classic thriller with all the attendant rhythms. It feels like something out of the '70s (an intentional stylistic decision made by Affleck) and that imbues it with a freshness absent from many of its contemporaries.

8 - Skyfall: It's a beautiful thing to be able to put a James Bond movie in my Top 10. Of all the movies tickling my expectations coming into 2012, Skyfall is the only one to have exceeded them. Not since 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service has 007 been this alive. Audiences around the world have responded to Bond like they haven't since the Golden Age of Connery. Its worldwide box office of about $1B ranks third for the year and its domestic box office places it at #4 (only one of six 2012 films to cross the "blockbuster threshold" of $250K, although The Hobbit may make it seven). Never at their peaks were Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan this vital. With Casino Royale, there were indications that Eon was ready to do some interesting and inventive things with Bond; Skyfall fulfills this promise. Suddenly, 007 isn't just some action dinosaur that gets trotted out every few years for a new adventure. Now, he's as big as he was back in the swinging '60s. He's hip. He's exciting. And, best of all, his latest movie isn't just "good" and "fun," it's "great."

7 - Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell doesn't have the greatest reputation. He's said to be curt, unsociable, short-tempered, and a bully. I know a few critics who have experienced bad interviews with him. Then there are the well-publicized rows he has had with various actors over the years. More than a handful of notables have vowed never again to work with him. But that's all behind-the-scenes stuff. What matters to movie-goers is what's on the screen and there's no doubt that Russell delivers with Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic comedy that works not only in all the ways romantic comedies should work but in a few other ways as well. It's easy to like this film, which features a tremendous performance by Jennifer Lawrence and top-notch chemistry between her and co-star Bradley Cooper. If you're looking for a feel-good title on the Top 10, this is it. Not too tart, not too sweet, it hits the right spot. It's an easy film to love.

6 - Django Unchained: The release of a Quentin Tarantino movie is a little like the release of a Martin Scorsese movie - an event for a select group of movie-goers. Tarantino doesn't make a lot of films; he takes his time in between and doesn’t allow anyone or anything to rush him. He tends to play within familiar genres but often goes off in unexpected directions and/or twists conventions. I'm waiting to see what he does with the romantic comedy. Django Unchained is Tarantino's take on the Western. And, while it's readily identifiable as a Western, it's not like any Western I've seen. In fact, it's more of a revenge fantasy and, believe it or not, a romance. However one decides to classify Django Unchained, one thing's for sure: it offers nearly three hours of scintillating cinema. Of course, the usual caveat applies with Tarantino: the violence is over-the-top. But for those who don't mind that sort of thing, Django Unchained represents a great way to close out the year.

5 - Amour: For a while, I thought Amour was going to end up slipping onto my 2013 roster but I managed to catch a showing of it shortly before the end-of-the-year deadline. Most people with a nearby art house will get a chance to see it starting in January, and it's clearly the front-runner for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It's a tough movie that deals with what it means to be in love at the end of one's life. "Love" is a common enough motion picture theme but, when it's presented, it's almost always about youth and beginnings. Amour is about love in the face or mortality. It's about the "sickness" and "till death" parts of the marriage vow. In a much different context, Star Trek tells us that "how we face death is at least as important as how we face life." Amour illustrates this perfectly by dispelling romantic illusions and replacing them with a touching real-world toughness that many will relate to.

4 - A Separation: As many have guessed, this is the 2011 "holdover." Sony Classics, in their wisdom, hid this movie from all but a select few in 2011. If you attended a major film festival or lived in New York or Los Angeles, you got a chance to see this last year. If not, you did what I did and waited for a local opportunity. Since that didn't happen until mid-January 2012, A Separation ended up "orphaned." But it's too good a movie not to find its way onto some year's Top 10 list. As noted in my introduction above, it would have been #2 if I had revised my 2011 Top 10. For 2012, it falls into slot #4. It's a bold, provocative production that deals with issues of equality and basic human dignity. But there's also a thriller/mystery element to the story that energizes everything. A Separation is engaging not only because it's about something but because it has a strong narrative trajectory. It won the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and has been available on DVD/Blu-Ray for some time.

3 - Lincoln: With the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis towering above that of any potential contender this year, Lincoln would have been worthwhile even had the story and direction been pedestrian. Fortunately, neither is the case. Spielberg, if not in top form, is somewhere close and the movie culls drama and suspense from an event that is an established portion of history. The film wisely elects not to be an all-encompassing bio-pic; by confining events to a one-month period, it allows us to "get to know" the man and come to understand his personal philosophies and governmental genius without being burdened by a charge through a half-century of history. The film stumbles a little at the end, trying to balance historical fact with cinematic closure, but it's a small misstep. Lincoln isn't as rousing as Spielberg's previous anti-slavery drama, Amistad, but it's a close second and it brings the 16th President to life as no previous movie about him has.

2 - Zero Dark Thirty: Let's deal with the controversy first: I never perceived this as a film that "promotes torture." Yes, the movie depicts "extreme interrogation" methods in graphic detail, but there's a reason for them. Their inclusion provides strong character information about how the movie's lead grows and hardens. As for the historical veracity of those scenes - I'm not bothered that they're used as a "shorthand" for uncovering the location of bin Laden's courier; this is a movie, not a documentary. Its obligation to factual accuracy is not the same. Similar charges of "historical reinvention" have been leveled against Argo, but neither that film nor this one should be evaluated based on whether it would pass muster as a moment-by-moment recreation of the factual record. Zero Dark Thirty provides a reasonably accurate chronology of the events leading up to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden; it offers a behind-the-curtain view into the murky world of counter-terrorism. It's a taut thriller and a compelling character study. There's a reason why this film has won a slew of major year-end awards: it's deserving.

1 - Looper: Neither a safe nor a conventional choice for the year's #1 movie, Looper is my lone four-star 2012 feature. It worked on three important levels: intellectual, visceral, and emotional. I was engaged by the twisty, unpredictable narrative, which reached a hard-hitting, logical conclusion. I cared about the characters and the dilemma presented. And I was fascinated by some of the choices made with respect to how time travel is presented. Looper didn't fare too well at the box office, although some of that had to do with the release date. It's not a tremendous "actors' movie," although this provided Joseph Gordon-Levitt with one of many memorable 2012 roles and gave Bruce Willis his best part in years. If I was so inclined, I could come up with a list of quibbles about the film, but they're minor and in no way diminished my enjoyment of it. 2012 offered a lot of very good-to-great motion pictures, but none satisfied as completely as Looper.