When I think of 2012 in terms of cinema I think of a year in which artists were able to truly define their own visions. Regardless of genre of generation it seemed as if almost every great filmmaker of our age came out in full force this year to craft a movie of stunning craftsmanship and endless impact. Whether it was stories that shook the world or intimate tales of individuality, everything was striking a similar level of excellence. Best of all is that even amid the endless stream of masterful veteran filmmakers reminding us why we loved them, we were also treated to several newcomers whose work loudly announced their arrival on the scene. As ever though, before I get to the ten best movies of the year I have some honourable mentions to name.
David Cronenberg may be a master of body horror but his disturbing dramas have proved to be, if anything, even more visceral. Some may find ‘Cosmopolis’ somewhat distant but personally I was enthralled by its psychological complexity and brilliant lead performance by Robert Pattinson. But if we are speaking of great lead performances we have to acknowledge the tour de force that is Daniel Day Lewis in ‘Lincoln’. Under the skilled direction of Steven Spielberg it comes as little surprise that this portrait of a great man and his struggles is stunning to behold. Ben Affleck also further enforced his talents as a director with ‘Argo’.
It was also a very strong year for science fiction, with two very different but equally involving movies from the genre emerging and providing an excellent platform for their filmmakers to go far (maybe even direct a ‘Star Wars’ film….). Colin Treverrow’s ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ and Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper’. In fact for genres films in general it was a strong year, with ‘Skyfall’ being one of the best films in the history of the Bond franchise and ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ being a brilliantly inventive horror film. ’21 Jump Street’ was also a terrific comedy. There were also a number of very impressive documentaries like ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and ‘Indie Game: The Movie’.
All of this goes without mentioning superb movies like ‘End of Watch’, ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ and ‘The Impossible’. All brilliant films crafted with such a distinct style but dealing with such broad and grandiose themes it was difficult to imagine that they would be relegated to here rather than on the actual list itself.
10: The Sessions
How John Hawkes did not get an Oscar nomination for his role here as a man paralysed from the neck down is beyond me. His performance here is the highlight of an already wonderful movie that is so much more light hearted and endearing than the premise would suggest. It is a comedy of sorts but it never fails to treat its characters with dignity, allowing us to be fully invested within the struggles of those characters without ever undermining them. Hawkes performance is endlessly empathetic, with his fragile physical stance being contrasted by his larger than life charisma, not only that but with a strong supporting cast consisting of Helen Hunt and William H Macy the movie contains such joyous message of life and loss. It may not be the most complex movie of the year but you will struggle to find a more uplifting one.
9: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
A coming of age fable that stands alongside the best work of John Hughes, one assembled of complex characters, great emotional weight and that great balance of tone that captures that moment of someone’s life. For all the pain and struggle there’s a sense of endearment and joy that permeates every scene. In adapting his own novel to the big screen, director Stephen Chbosky adds an extra dimension to his story and utilises a supremely talented cast to do so. The central trio of the story played by Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller have such a terrific group dynamic but also shine so well as individuals that it almost defies belief. It renders high school as a warzone of insecurity and isolation, brings forward repressed trauma and captures the indelible pain of growing up but none of that stops the moments of euphoria feel infinite. Also, it has the best use of a David Bowie song in movie history.
8: Marvel’s The Avengers
When it comes to pure cinematic escapism I defy you to think of something more outright entertaining than the ultimate superhero extravaganza. Seeing these heroes rendered on the big screen in all their glory felt like the fulfilment of a million childhood dreams. But anyone can make something like this look cool, where Joss Whedon distinguishes himself and his movie is by making it a more personal affair than we could have imagined. His heroes all have distinct arcs and personalities, making their eventual unification all the more gratifying when we witness these larger than life superpowers joining together. Its ensemble cast never put a foot wrong with Robert Downey Junior, Chris Evans, Tom Hiddlestone and Mark Ruffalo being particularly brilliant and that’s just to name a few (we haven’t even got to Samuel L Jackson yet). ‘The Avengers’ is more than just a showcase of Marvel’s properties, it’s heartfelt, smartly written, gorgeously cinematic and a great sense of humour. Basically everything a modern blockbuster should be.
7: Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson continues to establish himself as not only one of the most distinctive but one of the finest auteurs in modern cinema. His entire filmmaking persona is so wonderfully unique but finely crafted that when he brings forth an emotionally resonant script like ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ it is only elevated even further by his terrific directing sensibilities, excellent set design, flawless composition and rich cinematography. Described by its writers as an "eccentric, pubescent love story", Anderson never lets that eccentricity dominate the film so as to make it feel like nothing more than a collection of oddities, he injects it with a great sense of emotion and variation of tone that makes it accessible but also brilliantly whimsical. It features wonderful performances from the likes of Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand as well as an array of talented young performers. In works as a comedy, a love story and an exercise in eccentricity.
6: Killing Them Softly
If I had to name the most underrated but secretly brilliant director working today, it would be Andrew Dominik. His 2007 revisionist western ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ was exceptional, but dare I say his latest directorial outing in the form of this neo-noir film is even better. In a story about two hitmen (Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini) sent by the Mob to deal with a group of small time criminals who have robbed a Mob-protected gambling operation, Dominik uses his skills as a director to elevate his already excellent screenplay to new levels of brilliance. He gives the movie a visceral and satirical feel that is as committed to its intricate crime story as it is being a commentary on the dark side of capitalism all the while balancing these two sides perfectly. At times darkly comical and at other brutally forceful, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is a masterfully crafted crime tale.
5: Django Unchained
By this point I think you can divide Quentin Tarantino’s career into two phases. The first is his gritty, postmodern crime films of the 1990s consisting of ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Jackie Brown’. The second is the more ambitions, genre subversion phase in which QT classic styles of filmmaking and injects them with his own unique sensibilities. ‘Kill Bill’, ‘Inglourious Basterds’ and now, ‘Django Unchained’. Not only does Tarantino revel in the western tropes he so obviously adores but he forges his own distinct identity in the process, while saying a great deal about the ugliness of prejudice in the process. But for all of its emotional resonance, meta homages and social commentary, ‘Django Unchained’ is pure and unfiltered entertainment from start to finish. In what amounts to one spectacularly crafted set piece after another, connected by two immensely watchable leading men in the form of Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz whose dynamic alone is enough to sell the movie. But then we find ourselves face to face with the gloriously despicable Leonard DiCaprio as the film’s villain who turns in one of the finest performances of his career. What else is there to say?
4: Zero Dark Thirty
To tackle a global manhunt of this scale that had already been covered by the media more than most events this century would take a masterful filmmaker. That brings us to Kathryn Bigalow, who as well as adding superb craftsmanship, terrific suspense and flawlessly staged set pieces also adds a human element to the story. Despite this global manhunt being a gargantuan affair, Bigalow turns it into a character study, one of obsession and compromise that all leads to a non-triumphant finale. You see, despite what we know about this story and how it concludes, Bigalow forces to ask that with all the suffering and toil to get to this stage, was Bin Laden’s death really worth it. She pushes no political agenda but instead relays events in a bold but intimate manner with Jessica Chastain’s stunning performance at the centre. Every technical detail is without error and despite its great length the movie is always engaging, provocative and empathetic.
3: The Hunt
I have to admire a film that can tackle a subject most people are afraid to even talk about and if you have already seen Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘The Hunt’ then you will know exactly why it is here on my list. In the film Mads Mikkelson plays a school teacher falsely accused of sexually abusing a child, leading to mass him being completely isolated from and scrutinized by the community around him. Of course, the fact that the movie itself is exquisitely made help as well, but Vinterberg’s direction is bold and provocative enough to be as terrifying as it is relevant, as well being grounded enough to make it feel all the more realistic. The film has a lot to say about group mentality and mass hysteria as well as the power of accusation. Mikkelson’s performance is simply phenomenal, being haunting in terms of how sympathetic and desperate he is. Despite being set in a lush suburbia Vintergerb stages his film like a psychological thriller which in many ways it is as the protagonists life slowly falls apart under the strain of one poisonous rumour.
You would be hard pressed to find a more emotionally engaging film from this decade, let alone this year. Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’ is a story of endless compassion, told in such an insightful and intelligent manner that you will feel every second of the film as it ticks by. Haneke is a patient filmmaker who wants to portray the suffering in his stories in the most brutally honest way he can which he does through the subtlest of techniques. But rather than take a clinical approach Hanake’s style feels full of humanity and personal attachment. A film about the trials of old age was always going to be tough to watch, but by utilising the acting talent of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva ‘Amour’ becomes soul shatteringly devastating, to say it is harrowing is an understatement. The fact that it’s a movie with Isabelle Huppert and she isn’t the first thing I rave about is a testament to the mastery of Haneke.
1: The Master
I’ve held the idea for a while now that Paul Thomas Anderson is seeking to make the great American film, and after he has already done so with ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’ I believe he has done it again in ‘The Master’. It confirms Anderson’s place as one of the finest filmmaking talents of this generation, balancing grandiose statements on religion, devotion and identity with the intimate character studies that make his movies so endearing. Boasting a truly phenomenal performance by Joaquin Phoenix whose ability to completely transform himself never ceases to amaze me, alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tour de force and Amy Adams impeccable role. The cinematography is beyond beautiful, flawlessly composed by Anderson’s direction and captured on glorious 70mm film. Its ambition is profound and it’s no surprise that numerous people have tried to interpret it. Is it statement on religion, an examination of an entire culture or a story of two men searching for identity? Whether it’s all of them or none of them, it’s simply masterful.