04. "Django Unchained" (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino's splatter-western is arguably his most uneven and editorially wonky movie to date, feeling both overlong and tragically underdeveloped, but it's still one of the most blisteringly alive movies to be released all year. You may mourn for what didn't make the cut (like the extended Broomhilda sequence and all that Samuel L. Jackson stuff in the last act), but what remains is nothing short of spectacular. Tarantino tackles slavery and all its historically appropriate nastiness with more gusto than Steven Spielberg did in his stately, drab "Lincoln," crafting a relentlessly entertaining revenge tale out of one of the more depressing American institutions. As a freed slave hellbent on recovering his lost wife, Jamie Foxx lends more emotional resonance than you'd expect, especially since this is a film largely defined by the amount of exploding heads that blossom like time-lapse flowers onscreen, and Kerry Washington is so angelic that you can easily see why it's worth killing a small army of rednecks to win her back. Every performance is peerless, but Leonardo DiCaprio's villainous Calvin Candie, an evil plantation owner with a twisted sense of right and wrong, stands out. Amazingly, in a movie filled with characters and situations ripped from comic books and seventies movie posters, DiCaprio stands out as genuinely colorful. Sure, it's easy to hate him, but you also kind of love him too.
02. "Zero Dark Thirty" (Kathryn Bigelow)
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a lot of things – it's a tale of revenge, it's a character study of a woman who becomes obsessed at all costs, it's a historical document, it's a procedural, it's a seventies-style thriller, and it's totally fucking brilliant. Bigelow, continuing the historical action-movie trajectory that began with the outrageously underrated "K-19: The Widowmaker" and continued with her Oscar-winning heart-stopper "The Hurt Locker," reaches its natural conclusion here: a movie that has immediacy built into its DNA (the film's climax happened something like 18 months ago -- in real life). In the performance of the year, Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA operative who is determined to bring down Osama bin Laden, chief architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Her performance is largely internal, but Maya certainly goes on a journey, to the point where the movie reaches its conclusion and you find yourself choking up, emotionally synched up with a character you know very little about. Chastain is surrounded by a satellite of amazing character actors (Edgar Ramirez, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, and Jennifer Ehle among them), who invisibly slip into the roles of the various agents, operatives, and wonks that helped facilitate the largest manhunt in human history, which ultimately ended up spanning ten years and two wars. Yes, "Zero Dark Thirty" is morally thorny, but the film treats torture with a just-the-facts-ma'am frankness. If it happened, it's in "Zero Dark Thirty." Rarely are thrillers this cathartic.
Stop-motion animation had a huge resurgence in 2012, with three major animated features released that utilized the painstaking process (the others were Sony and Aardman's somewhat disappointing "Pirates! A Band of Misfits" and Disney's brilliant black-and-white Tim Burton freak-out "Frankenweenie"). The best of them, though, was "ParaNorman," a lovingly crafted coming-of-age tale about a young boy named Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who has the ability to talk to ghosts. Ostensibly a parable about bullying (and how the bullied can actually prove quite useful to society, especially when it's threatened by zombies and witches), "ParaNorman" was more emotionally satisfying than any animated movie this year, along with the most eye-popping design work. It's also really, really funny. The John Hughes-meets-John Carpenter vibe that the filmmakers were going for is consistent throughout, which might have been the problem – it's probably a little too intense for most super-young kids, which is why the similarly themed but way more candy-colored "Hotel Transylvania" walked away with so much more of the box office. Time will out on "ParaNorman," though; it's a new classic.
Runner-up: "Wreck-It Ralph." For the first time in a long time Disney beat its studiomates Pixar in terms of sheer wonderment. A dizzying ode to old-school videogames, "Wreck-It Ralph" was an exhilarating, oddly sweet blast, from uncanny "Futurama" director Rich Moore. We would definitely insert more quarters.
When you describe "Rust & Bone" it sounds hopelessly depressing – a woman (played by the stunning Marion Cotillard), who works at a SeaWorld-esque aqua park, is injured in a stage accident, and one of the killer whales she desperately loves swims by and chomps off her legs. She then falls in love (sort of) with a small-time thug (Matthias Schoenaerts). At the screening we attended at the Hamptons Film Festival, some stuffy white dude stood up in the middle of the movie, said, "What kind of movie is this?" and stormed out in a huff. His loss. "Rust & Bone" is beautiful and profound and, yes, uplifting, filmed beautifully by "A Prophet" auteur Jacques Audiard with a fine attention to detail and emotional realism (it was adapted from a collection of short stories by Craig Davidson). There are a number of sequences that are absolutely heartbreaking (including a couple set to Katy Perry's sugary single "Fireworks"). Thanks to visual effects wizardry, Cotillard's legs are magically removed, although no matter how hard they may have tried to make her otherwise, she still looked beyond stunning.
Runner-up: "Doomsday Book," a Korean sci-fi anthology, anchored by "Heavenly Creature," about a robot that reaches spiritual enlightenment while in the company of Buddhist monks. As directed by Kim Ji-woon, who directs the upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle "The Last Stand," it might be my favorite 30 minutes of 2012.
When I heard about what "Sparrows Dance" was about, I honestly thought it was going to be the most boring movie ever made by humankind. An agoraphobic woman (Marin Ireland from "Homeland") who never leaves her apartment, falls in love with the plumber (Paul Sparks from "Boardwalk Empire") who is sent to repair her pipes. Weirdness and romance ensue. But from that unappealing logline, which sounds like something that Lena Dunham wrote in the margins of a second season episode of "Girls," comes one of the most outrageously amazing films I saw all year. Buschel is an impish stylist, casting gobs of brightly colored light to illuminate sequences, framing the movie in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, and at one point opening up the scene to show that the apartment is a set (brilliant), never getting bogged down in the haggard "naturalism" of the mumblecore genre. The performances are brilliant, too, it should be noted. And the closing credits feature my favorite music moment of the year. If this thing doesn't get picked up I'm going to tour with it, city to city. Mark my words.
Runner-up: "Sin Bin." It's a charming little high school movie, equal parts Wes Anderson and John Hughes, and deserves to be seen by people who are actually in high school. Pick it up like that seventh period French class!