Looking back on the specific dates I saw these, I noticed a curious pattern: there wasn't a single month of 2012 when I saw more than one of these for the first time. Save for February and April, each month of the year brought another film that ended up below. If that's not the definition of a great year for movies, I don't know what is.
My favorite part of this exercise is realizing that there's always a few left on the queue, always at least one more discovery among the endless list of recommendations that any giant end-of-year collection may bring. With 2013 firmly in our sights, here are ten films that made me happy to be a movie fan over the last twelve months:
10. Magic Mike
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Criticwire Average: B+
In terms of pure stylistic control, Soderbergh has few peers. Watching Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey get to play best to their strengths was one of the year's biggest treats. The dance sequences are infectious (I'm sensing a new 4th of July tradition that will be starting in 2013) and have entertainment value far beyond any personal or physical attraction. The vertical pan showing Mike and Adam's simultaneous conquests shows in a single camera movement how the two young men's lives are dovetailing. The unsuccessful loan application sequence doesn't get bogged down by jargon or the appearance of a sudden astute businessman side of Mike. A casual beachside conversation at a typical Floridian sandbar party becomes a gorgeous, sunlit stroll. This narrowly edges out "Argo" for the coveted "Best 2012 Film That Brought Back the Old Warner Bros. Logo" prize.
Directed by Joseph Cedar
Criticwire Average: B+
Not all movies about writers have a built-in pathway to my heart, but ones that delve into the minutiae of language certainly have an easier road. Joseph Cedar's film follows an elderly Talmudic scholar erroneously awarded one of Israel's highest civilian honors and the rift it eventually causes in an already-uneasy relationship with the true intended recipient, his son. The film is a testament to the idea that academia, regardless of language or nationality, is not immune to petty and human differences. A late-film light-bulb moment is straight from the Tyler-Durden-reveal playbook, but is a manic, energetic release of tension that ties together all the self-contained drama that preceded it. Throw in a fine score from Amit Poznansky and you have a fully-engaging comedy of an error that shirks a simple, tidy resolution.
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Criticwire Average: B+
Like "Life of Pi," this was one of 2012's releases that started out with the immediate double-edged sword of a devoted fanbase. (Until "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" makes its way onto screens, this might be the most momentous novel-to-film adaptations among my former high-school peers.) But where having the author's hand in the filmmaking process would have hampered lesser films, Stephen Chbosky avoids treating his characters with too much preciousness. Each of the central cast members is impressive in the face of each role's main challenges, but "Perks" doesn't make a single Top Ten list if Logan Lerman isn't darn near perfect as our guide and narrator, Charlie. The result is a high school tale that utilizes the familiar outsider-to-acceptance trajectory to its advantage, complete with a late-film discovery that adds depth and understanding without being condescending.
7. Café de Flore
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Criticwire Average: B
One of the first movies I saw in 2012, it nagged at my subconscious for the entire year. Jean-Marc Vallée's film offers plenty of clues at how the seemingly disparate timelines of 1960s Paris and modern-day Montreal eventually intermingle. But even on a rewatch, the real reward is how those connections evolve, of seeing characters deal with the relationships they've already realized have been initiated, sustained or ended by fate. The superb soundtrack (I'm never hearing that Sigur Rós the same way again) is made all the more sublime by how it's woven into the fabric of the story. It's a hypnotic blend of two eras, all done without letting the supernatural overshadow the sincere.
6. Holy Motors
Directed by Leos Carax
Criticwire Average: A-
Normally, with a film like this getting so much overwhelming, flabbergasted adulation from critics and audiences alike, I would resort to the fallback explanation that "there's nothing left to say about this film that hasn't already be said." But "Holy Motors" is -- in so many other ways -- the exception. We're left to determine its intent as either a parody or celebration of all things film and for that, it will far outlive its current wild fascination. Everything you need to know about this film is wrapped up in three simple shouted words: "Trois, douze, merde!" (If that intermission is the greatest thing to ever happen to accordions, I think they'd be fine with that.) "Holy Motors" is the cinematic version of an interrobang, a blend of an exclamation point and question mark with no real clue as to which is the real one on top.