2012 was all about escape. Not only in terms of the big-budget movies that offered us escape from the increasingly ugly real world (how many superheroes or swoony vampires can we stomach?), but by the content of the more adult movies. Characters wanted an escape – from slavery, from a futuristic Korea, from time-travel gangsters, from a burdensome lover – and in these stories we were afforded tremendous freedom. They transported us, for sure, while reminding us of the very real hardships 2012 afforded us all. Below are my very favorite movies of the year, all of which I will be escaping to, again and again, for years to come.
10. "Looper" (Rian Johnson)
Rian Johnson is one of those directors whose previous movies (the high school-set film noir "Brick" and the con-man what's-it "The Brothers Bloom") were always more "clever" than they were "good." There was a feeling, with "Looper," a twisty-turny sci-fi thriller about futuristic hit-men, time travel, and neckties, that this was Johnson's last shot as a director – if he didn't stick this, then he would be relegated to infrequently directing episodes of "Breaking Bad" while fanboys everywhere wondered what else he was up to. Thankfully, he knocked it out of the fucking park. What makes "Looper" such a kick isn't its collection of interlocking narrative curlicues (although those are pretty great), or the fact that Johnson has two actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) as different versions of the same character, and made one the villain and the other the hero, or the Verhoeven levels of satire and violence, but rather its unprecedented emotional core. For a movie with flying motorcycles and time travel and god knows what else, its best special effect is what it makes you feel. There were a lot of kick-ass genre contraptions released this year (among them: "Dredd" and "Cabin in the Woods"), movies that effortlessly wove their influences alongside brand new ideas, but "Looper" was the only one that broke your heart and made you cheer at the same damn time.
09. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (Behn Zeitlin)
Who would have thought that the year's best fantasy film wouldn't involve hobbits at all, but rather a small black child named Hushpuppy who lives in a bayou called The Bathtub? Me neither. But "Beasts of the Southern Wild" presented itself as a bold new piece of American folk art, creating an utterly gritty and spectacularly fantastical version of post-Katrina Louisiana where giant monsters (unleashed from melted blocks of ice – we're all part of the same stew, after all) are a genuine threat and people get around in boats made up of old pick-up trucks. There was nothing else really like "Beasts of the Southern Wild" that came out all year – and the fact that I saw it so long ago and it still leaves a set of vivid impressions is a testament to its power. We hope it continues triumphantly through the awards season, if only because I really want to see Quvenzhane Wallis at the Oscars, clutching a chick to her ear to listen to its heartbeat.
08. "Cloud Atlas" (The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer)
Well, they did it. A complicated, international, three-way directorial partnership wrangled David Mitchell's Russian-nesting-doll of a novel "Cloud Atlas" into a big-time feature film, with movie stars (Tom Hanks! Halle Berry! Q from "Skyfall"!). Both cosmically profound and achingly silly, "Cloud Atlas" attempted to tell the story of the human experience through a half-dozen different stories that take place in a variety of locations (San Francisco in the seventies, a futuristic Seoul, a far-flung Hawaii), using a small collection of actors who each played a variety of roles, oftentimes switching gender and ethnicity. It's mind-bogglingly complicated and yet never feels like it's trying to outright impress you. It's clever without ever being clever-in-quotes. For all its oversized weirdness, there's an earnestness and optimism in "Cloud Atlas" that is utterly infectious; every frame borders on being romantically swoony. Fundamentally more experimental (and existential) than things that were more openly applauded for being such (I'm looking at you, Paul Thomas Anderson), "Cloud Atlas" is a bizarro would-be blockbuster; a 3-hour, $150-million doodle about reincarnation and love and slavery and escape. We should be thankful that a piece of large-scale filmmaking as bold as "Cloud Atlas" exists at all, and we should be doubly thankful that it turned out so well.
07. "Anna Karenina" (Joe Wright)
Director Joe Wright is a filmmaker incapable of doing anything that isn't an overwhelming visual spectacle, but what's so remarkable about his ingenious take on Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is that its synthesized strangeness (the whole thing takes place on the stage inside a crumbling theater) never sabotages its emotional impact. Keira Knightley stars as the titular character, torn between her uptight husband (Jude Law, continuing his climb back to the top) and a dashing young soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Wright continues his very literal fascination with rhythm forwarding narrative by having almost every sequence play out like an extended musical number, with the camera swirling around the actors like another dancer. It's ornate and opulent and theatrical in a manner that emphasizes the melodrama of the source material in new and vital ways. This was a huge creative gamble that ended up paying off; instead of working against the humanity and emotion of the piece, the all-the-world's-a-stage embellishment ends up enhancing it. It's utterly spellbinding, in every sense of the word.
06. "Killing Them Softly" (Andrew Dominik)
One of the lowest-grossing movies of Brad Pitt's career is also one of his best. Reteaming with his "Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" director Andrew Dominik, Pitt starred as a hit man employed by the mafia to clean up after a mob-run card game is robbed. That's about all there is, plot-wise; instead the movie chugs along with the kicky swiftness of a pulp novel (and, indeed, the film was based on a novel by the author of "The Friends Of Eddie Coyle") – it's nothing but kiss kiss bang bang. From a relatively skeletal narrative, Dominik chooses to openly critique the American monetary system and (more specifically) the Wall Street bailout, setting the movie in 2008 and using a series of speeches by Obama and McCain to serve as a kind of alternate score. (This was apparently "too much" for a lot of people, who just wanted to see Brad Pitt kick people's asses.) As a showcase for stellar character actors (among them: Ben Mendelhson, Sam Shepherd, James Gandolfini, and Richard Jenkins), "Killing Them Softly" can't be topped. It very much feels like a new crime-movie classic.