My top three films of 2012 were easy to name, if not to order. Each is amazing, each wildly different from the other two, but they form a trio of incomparable experiences. There’s a deep dropoff from those three to the others, all fantastic -- though more flawed. I didn’t reach for ten movies (you do remember that I’m math-challenged?) because lists are arbitary enough. But every one of these eight films is worth your time, over and over again.
Michael Haneke’s film about an aging, long-married couple facing her last debilitating illness is piercingly beautiful, emotional and eloquent, human-sized in an age of explosive blockbusters. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are perfection in a film that is inexorably sad, but also the most perfectly-realized of the year.
2. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Benh Zeitlin’s magical-realist story of a small girl, her dying father and their flooded enclave is the year’s most audacious film, as it gracefully blends its fantasy (mythical beasts, the kind that storm a child’s imagination) with the grounded, naturalistic emotions of family and community.
Little Quvenzhane Wallis' performance is magic in itself, but even apart from that Beasts is an astonishing first film, one that seems even more eloquent on a second or even third view.
3. ZERO DARK THIRTY
Can we please stop thinking of Bigelow as a woman director now and just call her one of the best directors around?
4. DJANGO UNCHAINED
A brilliant mess, and I mean that in a good way. The first hour, with Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx as bounty hunters, is flawless. As they hunt for Django's enslaved wife, though, the film becomes unaccountably flabby, even though Kerry Washington as the wife and Leonardo DiCaprio as her owner are terrific.
Quentin Tarantino needed to lose a half hour from the 2:45 running time for the film to work, but there’s no denying its power, originality and artistry as it blends genre homage, social commentary about race, and off-the-wall humor.
5. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
David O. Russell’s modest film about family dysfunction is very funny and edgy enough to feel harrowing.
Bradley Cooper and Jenifer Lawrence may be the romantically-paired misfits barely clinging to sanity, but Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver, as his loving, troubled and troubling parents, are the film’s true wonders.
Ben Affleck’s slick political thriller about the rescue of Americans hiding out in Iran is more interested in thrills than politics, fleshed out with a great satirical subplot about the movie business. But it shows us something rare: a really smart Hollywood entertainment.
7. YOUR SISTER’S SISTER
A pure delight from Lynn Shelton. Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass, in an offbeat triangle of a relationship, redefine romantic comedy as something witty, small-scale, complex and literate.
8. HOLY MOTORS
I have trouble with the simplistic premise -- all of life’s a performance -- beneath Leos Carax’ playful, colorful film.
But the distinct set-pieces as a man travels by limo through a single day in Paris, taking on roles both close and far from any authentic self, are dazzling enough to sustain this fresh and bracing visual confection.
. . . AND WHAT”S NOT INCLUDED
I did not accidentally forget these knee-jerk awards-bait films; I just don’t think they’re very good.
Daniel Day Lewis is a genius as Lincoln; he can and should win every award (the way Philip Seymour Hoffman did the year of Capote). But the screenplay is full of weak spots and Steven Spielberg never misses an opportunity to go for the sentimental and the hokey.
A total mess, from the unconvincing CGI’d Paris to Tom Hooper’s overwrought and hackneyed style, to the unintentionally hilarious presence of a French street urchin with a Cockney accent. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway’s fine voices aren’t nearly enough to make this almost-three-hour long, wall-to-wall musical muck worth watching. The trailer, which makes the film look very good, is a masterpiece of spin.